Numero zero

  “So follow carefully, and no questions. Pack a bag with enough for a few days at Orta, then get your car. Behind where I live, in Via Quarto dei Mille, I’m not sure what number, there’ll be an entranceway, more or less the same distance up the road as my place. It could be open, because I think it goes into a courtyard where there’s a workshop of some kind. Either go in, or you can wait outside. Synchronize your watch with mine, you should be able to get there in fifteen minutes, let’s say we’ll meet in exactly an hour. If the entrance gate is closed, I’ll be waiting for you outside, but get there on time, I don’t want to hang around in the street. Please, don’t ask any questions. Take your bag, get in the car, make sure you have the timing right, and come. Then I’ll tell you everything. Check the rearview mirror every now and then, and if you think someone’s tailing you, use your imagination, do some crazy turns to throw them off. It’s not so easy along the canals, but after that, lots of ways to give them the slip, jump the lights on red. I trust you, my love.”

  Maia could have had a promising career in armed robbery. She did things to perfection, and within the agreed hour, there she was in the entranceway, tense but happy.

  I jumped into the car, told her where to turn to reach Viale Certosa as quickly as possible, and from there she knew her way to the highway for Novara, and then the turnoff for Orta, better than I did.

  We hardly spoke during the entire trip. Once we’d reached the house, I told her it might be risky for her to know all that I knew. Would she prefer to rely on me and remain in the dark? But I should have guessed, there was no question. “Excuse me,” she said, “I still don’t know who or what you’re frightened of, but either no one knows we’re together, in which case I’m in no danger, or they’ll find out and be convinced I know. So spit it out, otherwise how will I ever think what you think?”

  Undaunted. I had to tell her everything—after all, she was now flesh of my flesh, as the Good Book says.


  Thursday, June 11

  For several days I barricaded myself in the house, afraid to go out. “Come on,” said Maia, “no one in this place knows you, and those you’re scared of, whoever they are, have no idea you’re here.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “you can never be too sure.”

  Maia began treating me like an invalid. She gave me tranquilizers, stroked the back of my neck as I sat at the window gazing out at the lake.

  On Sunday morning she went off early to buy the papers. The killing of Braggadocio was reported on an inside page, without much prominence: journalist murdered, may have been investigating a prostitution ring, attacked by pimp.

  It seemed the police had accepted the idea, following what I had said, and perhaps after hints from Simei. They were clearly not thinking about us journalists, nor did they appear to have noticed that Simei and I had gone missing. If they’d returned to the office, they would have found it empty, and besides, the inspector hadn’t bothered to take down our addresses. A fine Maigret he’d have been. But I don’t imagine he’s worrying about us. Prostitution was the more convenient lead, routine stuff. Costanza could have told him, of course, that it was he who was investigating those women, but he may also have thought Braggadocio’s death had something to do with that story, and he might have begun to fear for his life and kept quiet as a mouse.

  Next day Braggadocio had even vanished from the inside pages. The police must have had plenty of cases like his and, after all, the dead man was no more than a fourth-rate hack. Round up the usual suspects, and be done with it.

  At dusk I watched as the lake darkened. The island of San Giulio, so radiant under the sun, rose from the water like Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

  Maia decided to try to put me back on my feet, so she took me for a walk on the Sacro Monte. I’d never been there before. It’s a series of chapels on the top of a hill with mystical dioramas of polychrome statues in natural settings, smiling angels but above all scenes from the life of Saint Francis. In the scene of a mother hugging a suffering child, I saw, alas, the victims of some remote terrorist attack. In a solemn meeting with a pope, various cardinals, and somber Capuchin friars, I saw a council meeting at the Vatican Bank planning my capture. Nor were all those colors and other pious terracottas enough to make me think of the Kingdom of Heaven: everything seemed a perfidiously disguised allegory of infernal forces plotting in the shadows. I went as far as imagining that those figures at night would become skeletons (what, after all, is the pink body of an angel if not a deceptive integument that cloaks a skeleton, even if it’s a celestial one?) and join in the danse macabre in the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa.

  Indeed, I never believed I could have been quite so faint-hearted, and felt ashamed to let Maia see me in such a state (there, I thought, she too is going to ditch me), but the image of Braggadocio lying face-down in Via Bagnera remained before my eyes.

  From time to time I hoped it might have been Boggia, the killer from a hundred years ago, who had materialized at night in Via Bagnera, through a sudden rent in time and space (what did Vonnegut call it? a chrono-synclastic infundibulum), and disposed of the intruder. But this didn’t explain the telephone call to Vimercate, the point I used with Maia when she suggested that perhaps it was a two-bit crime, that you could see right away that Braggadocio was a dirty old man, God rest his soul, that perhaps he’d been trying to take advantage of one of those women, hence the vendetta by the pimp looking after her, a simple matter, where de minimis non curat praetor—the law doesn’t concern itself with trifles. “Yes,” I repeated, “but a pimp doesn’t telephone a publisher to get him to close down a newspaper!”

  “But who says Vimercate actually received the call? Maybe he’d changed his mind about the whole enterprise, it was costing him too much. And as soon as he found out about the death of one of his reporters, he used it as a pretext to close down Domani, paying two months’ instead of a year’s salary. Or maybe . . . you told me he wanted Domani so that someone would say, Put an end to it and I’ll let you into the inner sanctum. Well then, suppose that someone like Lucidi passed on news to the inner sanctum that Domani was about to publish an embarrassing series of articles. They telephone Vimercate and say, All right, give up this gutter rag and we’ll let you into the club. Then, quite independently, Braggadocio gets killed, perhaps by the usual nutcase, and you’ve eliminated the problem of the telephone call to Vimercate.”

  “But I haven’t eliminated the nutcase. Who crept into my house at night?”

  “You’ve told me that story. How can you be sure someone came in?”

  “So who turned off the water?”

  “But listen to me. You have a woman who comes in to clean?”

  “Only once a week.”

  “When was she last there?”

  “She always comes Friday afternoons. And, as it happens, that was the day we found out about Braggadocio.”

  “So? Couldn’t she have turned off the water because of the drip from the shower?”

  “But on that Friday evening I had a glass of water to swallow down a sleeping pill . . .”

  “You’d have had half a glass, that was all you needed. Even with the water turned off there’s always some in the pipe, and you simply hadn’t noticed. Did you drink any more water that evening?”

  “No, I didn’t even have supper, I just finished off half a bottle of whiskey.”

  “You see? I’m not saying you’re paranoid, but with Braggadocio killed and what Simei had told you, you jumped to the conclusion that someone had broken into your house that night. In fact, no, it was the cleaning lady, that afternoon.”

  “They made short work of killing Braggadocio!”

  “That’s another matter. So it’s quite possible no one’s interested in you.”

  We have spent the past four days pondering, constructing, and ruling out possibilities, I getting gloomier, Maia ever more obliging, moving untiringly back and forth between house and town to buy fresh food and bottles
of malt whiskey, of which I have drained three. We made love twice, though I did it with anger, as if to get something out of my system, with no feeling of pleasure. Even so, I felt more in love with that creature who, from a sheltered sparrow, had transformed into a faithful she-wolf, ready to bite whoever might want to harm me.

  That was until this evening, when we switched on the TV and found ourselves, almost by chance, watching a program about a British documentary called Operation Gladio, just broadcast by the BBC.

  We watched in amazement, speechless.

  It seemed like a film by Braggadocio. It included everything that Braggadocio had imagined and then some, but the words were backed up by photographs and other documentation, and were those of well-known personalities. It began with the activities of the Belgian stay-behind and confirmed, yes, that the existence of Gladio had been revealed to heads of government, but only to those the CIA trusted, so Moro and Fanfani were kept in the dark. Appearing over the screen were declarations by leading spies, such as, “Deception is a state of mind, and the mind of the state.” Vincenzo Vinciguerra appeared throughout the two-and-a-half-hour program, revealing all. He even said that before the end of the war the Allied secret services had gotten Borghese and his men of the Decima Mas commando unit to sign an undertaking for future collaboration in opposing a Soviet invasion, and the various witnesses confirmed openly that for an operation like Gladio it was only natural that the enlisted had to be ex-Fascists—in Germany the American secret services had even guaranteed immunity to a butcher like Klaus Barbie.

  Licio Gelli appeared several times, declaring that he had collaborated with the Allied secret services, though Vinciguerra described him as a good Fascist, and Gelli spoke about his exploits, his contacts, his sources of information, not worrying about what was patently obvious—that he had always played a double game.

  Cossiga told how in 1948, as a young Catholic militant, he had been provided with a Sten gun and grenades, ready to go into action if the Communist Party had not accepted the election results. Vinciguerra calmly restated how the whole of the Far Right was devoted to a strategy of increasing tension to psychologically prepare the public for a state of emergency, but he emphasized that Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale were working together with senior officials from the various ministries. Senators at the parliamentary inquiry stated in no uncertain terms that the secret services and police had fiddled with the paperwork for each bomb attack to paralyze the judicial investigations. Vinciguerra explained that those responsible for the bomb attack at Piazza Fontana were not just Franco Freda and Giovanni Ventura, whom everyone considered to be the masterminds; the entire operation had been directed by the Special Affairs Office of the Ministry of the Interior. Then the program looked at the ways in which Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale had infiltrated left-wing groups to incite them to commit acts of terrorism. Colonel Oswald Lee Winter, a CIA man, stated that the Red Brigades had not only been infiltrated, but took their orders from General Santovito, head of the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service.

  In a mind-boggling interview, one of the founders of the Red Brigades, Alberto Franceschini, among the very first to have been arrested, was appalled at the thought that, acting in good faith, he had been spurred on by someone else for other motives. And Vinciguerra stated that Avanguardia Nazionale had been given the task of distributing Maoist manifestoes to increase fear about pro-Chinese activities.

  One of the commanders of Gladio, General Inzerilli, had no hesitation in saying that arms deposits were kept at police stations and that members of Gladio could help themselves by showing half of a one-thousand-lire note as a sign of recognition, like in a cheap spy story. It ended, of course, with the killing of Aldo Moro, and secret service agents were spotted in Via Fani at the time of the kidnapping, one of them claiming he was in that area for lunch with a friend, though it was nine in the morning.

  William Colby, the former head of the CIA, denied everything, but other CIA agents, appearing full face, spoke of documents that gave details about payments made by the organization to people involved in terrorist attacks—five thousand dollars a month, for example, to General Miceli.

  As the television documentary outlined, all was hearsay, on the basis of which no one could be convicted, but it was quite enough to trouble public opinion.

  Maia and I were bewildered. The revelations went far beyond Braggadocio’s wildest fantasies. “Of course,” said Maia, “he himself told you that all this news had been circulating for some time, it had just been wiped from the collective memory. All that needed to be done was go through the newspaper archives and put the pieces of the mosaic back together. I too read the newspapers, not just when I was a student but when I was working on celebrity romance stories, and, as you might guess, I discussed these things, except that I would also forget them, as if one new revelation canceled out the other. All you have to do is bring it out. Braggadocio did it, and the BBC has done it.”

  “Yes, but Braggadocio probably added something of his own, like the story about Mussolini, or the killing of John Paul I.”

  “All right, he was a crank, he saw conspiracies everywhere, but the problem remains the same.”

  “God in heaven!” I said. “A few days ago someone killed Braggadocio for fear that this news would get out, and now, with the documentary, millions of people will know about it!”

  “My love,” said Maia, “lucky for you! Let’s assume there really was someone, whether the phantom ‘they’ or the reclusive nutcase, afraid that people might once again remember those events, or that some minor detail might reemerge that perhaps even we who watched the program had failed to notice, something that might still cause trouble for some group or individual . . . Well, after this program, neither ‘they’ nor the nutcase have any reason whatever for getting rid of you or Simei. If you two decided tomorrow to go and tip off the newspapers about what Braggadocio had confided in you, they’d look at you as if you were two cranks, repeating what you’ve seen on TV.”

  “But perhaps someone fears we might talk about what the BBC didn’t say, about Mussolini, about John Paul I.”

  “Fine. Imagine telling them the story about Mussolini. It was fairly improbable when Braggadocio spun it, no proof, just off-the-wall conjectures. They’d say you were overexcited, carried away by the BBC program, let your personal fantasies run wild. In fact, you’d be playing their game. See, they’ll say, from now on every schemer is going to come up with something new. And the spreading of these revelations will lead to the suspicion that even those told by the BBC were the result of journalistic speculation, or of delirium, like the conspiracy theories that the Americans didn’t really go to the Moon or that the Pentagon is trying to hush up the existence of UFOs. This television program makes all other revelations entirely pointless and ridiculous, because, as you know, la réalité dépasse la fiction, and so, now, no one’s able to invent anything.”

  “So I’m free?”

  “Who was it said the truth shall set you free? This truth will make every other revelation seem like a lie. In the end, the BBC has done a great service. As of tomorrow, you can go around saying that the pope slits the throats of babies and eats them, or that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the one who put the bomb on the Munich train, and people will say, ‘Oh, really? Interesting,’ and they’ll turn around and get on with what they were doing. I’ll bet you anything that tomorrow’s newspapers won’t even mention this program. Nothing can upset us any longer in this country. We’ve seen the barbarian invasions, the sack of Rome, the slaughter of Senigallia, six hundred thousand killed in the Great War and the inferno of the Second, so no one’s going to care about a few hundred people it’s taken forty years to blow up. Corruption in the secret services? That’s a joke compared with the Borgia family. We’ve always been a people of daggers and poison. We’re immune: whenever they tell us some new story or other, we say we’ve heard worse, and claim it’s false. If the United States, half of
Europe’s secret services, and our government and the newspapers have all lied, why shouldn’t the BBC have also lied? The only serious concern for decent citizens is how to avoid paying taxes, and those in charge can do what they like—they always have their snouts in the same trough. Amen. See, two months with Simei and I’ve become just as sly as everyone else.”

  “So what are we going to do?”

  “First, calm down. Tomorrow I’ll go to the bank and quietly cash Vimercate’s check, and you can draw out whatever you have, if you’ve got any.”

  “I’ve been saving since April, so I also have two months’ salary, around ten million lire, plus the twelve that Simei gave me the other day. I’m rich.”

  “Wonderful. I’ve also put something aside. We’ll take the lot and run.”

  “Run? Aren’t we now saying we can wander around with nothing to fear?”

  “Yes, but do you really want to live in this country, where everything will continue as it always has, where you go to a pizzeria and worry whether the person at the next table might be a secret agent, or might be about to murder another magistrate, setting off the bomb as you’re walking past?”

  “But where do we go? You’ve seen, heard how the same things were happening throughout Europe, from Sweden to Portugal. Do you want to end up in Turkey among the Grey Wolves, or in America, if they let you in, where they kill presidents and where maybe the Mafia has infiltrated the CIA? The world’s a nightmare, my love. I’d like to get off, but they tell me we can’t, we’re on an express train.”

  “Darling, we’ll look for a country with no secrets and where everything is done in the open. In Central and South America you’ll find plenty. Nothing’s hidden, you know who belongs to which drug cartel, who runs the bands of revolutionaries. You sit in a restaurant, a group of friends passes and introduces you to the man in charge of arms smuggling, all neatly shaved and perfumed, dressed in a starched white shirt that hangs loose from his trousers, the waiters address him reverently with señor here and señor there, and the chief of the Guardia Civil goes across to pay his respects. They are countries that hold no mysteries, everything is done in the open, the police demand to be bribed as a matter of right, the government and the underworld coexist by constitutional decree, the banks make their living through money laundering, and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t have other money of doubtful provenance, they’ll cancel your residency permit. And they kill, but only each other, they leave tourists in peace. We could find work on a newspaper or in a publishing house. I have friends who work down there in the celebrity romance magazines—a good, honest job, now I come to think of it, the articles are trash but everyone knows it, and they find them amusing. And those celebrities whose intimate secrets you’re about to reveal have already revealed them the day before on television. It takes only a week to learn Spanish, and then we can find our South Sea island, my Tusitala.”

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