Vipers, p.1

Vipers, page 1



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  Europa Editions

  214 West 29th St., Suite 1003

  New York NY 10001

  This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2012 by Giulio Einaudi Editore SpA, Torino

  This edition published in arrangement with Thesis Contents srl and book@ literary agency

  First publication 2015 by Europa Editions

  Translation by Antony Shugaar

  Original Title: Vipera

  Translation copyright © 2015 by Europa Editions

  All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

  Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco

  Cover photo © Dm_Cherry/Shutterstock

  ISBN 9781609452612

  Maurizio de Giovanni




  Translated from the Italian

  by Antony Shugaar


  Every single heartbeat.

  So tell me: do you know what love is?

  You, who sell love for two lire a go, the privilege of panting on you for five minutes, not even the time to look you in the eyes, to whisper your name: do you think you know what love is? What do you know about endless waiting, anxious silences in hopes of a single word, of a smile?

  With this smooth soft body that I can now feel moving frantically beneath me, with these long white legs clamped tight around my hips, do you think this is love?

  I’ve seen love, you know. I’ve known it, I’ve experienced it. It’s made of pain and sorrow, of anxiety and relapses. It doesn’t burn itself out in a flash; it isn’t born and it doesn’t die in places like this, the sound of a piano downstairs, and everywhere the smell of disinfectant. Love is made of fresh air and flowers, tears and laughter.

  You, dragging your nails down my back and thrusting your pelvis against me, you think you know love, but you don’t.

  You’re always faking, you even fake the pleasure you don’t feel. You pretend, with your black mascaraed eyes, with your mouth lipsticked into the shape of a heart, with the beauty mark inked on your cheek. All fake. Just like your expensive clothes, made of organdy, crêpe, and printed voile, fabrics that you alone, in this so-called house of love, can afford, like the French perfume that pollutes the air in this room.

  I know what real love is: it wakes you up at night, your heart full of hope and despair, full of thoughts that become dreams and dreams that become thoughts. It doesn’t need music played by negroes, to make the blood pump faster through your veins, nor does it need perfume to muddle your senses.

  What would you say to me if I asked you what love is, as you moan in my arms, as you press your breasts against me?

  Perhaps you’d laugh, the way you laughed just a short while ago, with your white teeth and your dark eyes, one hand perched on your silken hip; and you’d tell me that this is love, a room in a whorehouse, lace bras, candles, satin, ostrich feather boas. You’d say that love is luxury, well-being, not having to think about how to get enough to eat. Or maybe you’d tell me that love doesn’t last long, no longer than a hooker does: and that the rest of life must be spent living as comfortably as you can.

  Don’t be afraid, I won’t ask you what love is. I won’t wait to hear more lies from your painted lips. I’ll settle for feeling what I feel right now: your warm body moving beneath my flesh, in time to your breathing. More and more slowly. More and more slowly.

  I’ll settle for not hearing any more of your muffled cries, under the pillow I’m pressing down over your face.


  It was a few hundred yards from police headquarters to Il Paradiso—the final stretch of Via Toledo and a section of Via Chiaia. But it was a bad time of day: the sidewalks were crowded, the shops were open, and the sweet spring air beckoned people out for a stroll. Ricciardi and Maione shouldered their way laboriously through the crowd, doing their best not to lose sight of the old woman hobbling on her bent legs with surprising agility; behind them were officers Cesarano and Camarda, who kept exchanging conspiratorial glances. They’d started it when Maione told them the address, and they hadn’t stopped smirking since.

  Ricciardi didn’t trust the spring. There was nothing worse than the mild breeze, than the scent of pine needles or salt water that blew down from Capodimonte or up from the harbor, than the apartment windows opening. After a winter of silence, of icy streets swept by winds out of the north, of chilblains and of cold rain, people’s brooding passions have built up so much of that destructive energy that they can hardly wait to erupt, to sow chaos.

  As he approached the corner where the street opened out into Piazza Trieste e Trento and the crush began to thin, the commissario let his gaze sweep over the dozens of heads crowded in the area in front of the Caffè Gambrinus: young men dressed in light colors, thumbs thrust into the pockets of their vests and hair brushed back, were talking in small groups, trying to catch the eyes of women that strolled past in pairs, well aware of the approbation they had so sorely lacked in the previous dreary months. Some of the men turned to the young women serving at the tables that had finally been set out along the sidewalks, drinking in the curves that could be glimpsed under their aprons. Strolling vendors hawked their magnificent wares, shouting and whistling. Children tugged on their mothers’ skirts, demanding nuts or balloons. There were convertibles, carriages, and accordions.

  Welcome to springtime, thought Ricciardi. Nothing is more dangerous than all this apparent innocence.

  Right around the corner was the elderly man who had killed himself. The commissario almost walked straight into him; he dodged to one side and bumped into a nanny pushing a perambulator; she glared at him, straightened her bonnet, and then resumed her brisk pace toward the Villa Nazionale. The commissario remembered the report, from a couple of days earlier: a retired high school teacher whose wife had died that winter. One day he woke up, dressed himself nicely, said goodbye to his daughter with a kiss on the forehead, then set out for his usual morning constitutional. When he reached the piazza, he turned to face the café, pulled out the pistol that he still kept from his military service in the Great War, and shot himself in the temple. The case had quickly been filed away; there was even a suicide note on the kitchen cabinet at home. But the grief of his departure lingered on, suspended in midair, perfectly visible to Ricciardi, in the form of a short, slender man dressed in dignified but threadbare garb: a jacket that was too big for him, the sleeves hanging so low that only his fingertips, and a pistol, could be seen. The bullet went in through his right temple and emerged from his forehead, opening up his head like a watermelon. The terror of imminent death had prompted a stream of urine, leaving a wet stain on the front of his grey trousers. Beneath the blood and brains that were oozing down his face, his mouth repeated the same phrase over and over: Our café, my love, our café, my love. Ricciardi instinctively turned toward Caffé Gambrinus, across the crowded street: the tables buzzed with people and life. He would feel his grief and pain for days: the old man who couldn’t bear to face the first season of fine weather without the companion who’d shared his life. The sudden stab of pain in his head made him reach his hand back to the scar, now healing, on the back of his head. If only the scar on my soul could heal as nicely, he thought to himself, the scar that attracts the whisperings of the dead, the awareness of their sorrow.

  He made a mental note to avoid that corner and to cross over to the far side of the street in the next few days. At least until the echo of the old man’s
suffering had finally dissolved into the cool air of the dawning spring.

  Brigadier Raffaele Maione pushed through the crowd with some difficulty: his bulk kept him from moving quickly through all those people, and the unexpected warmth of the day had caught him off guard in his heavy winter uniform, thanks to which he felt sticky and sweaty. The old woman, on the other hand, seemed a ballerina, the way she dodged oncoming feet and perambulators, vanishing now and again from his sight, only to reappear a few yards further on.

  Not that Maione needed directions to find Il Paradiso. It was Naples’ most famous brothel, strictly for the rich, and its blacked-out windows overlooked a street busy with strollers and lined with the city’s most expensive shops; from the darkened windows came the sound of a piano playing and the laughter of the clients, and the passersby either looked scandalized or amused, but in either case, a little envious.

  The old woman had been out of breath when she got to police headquarters. She was the bouncer at the high-end bordello, herself an institution, known in the neighborhood for the powerful arms which contrasted with her petite appearance, allowing her to function as a reliable one-woman security detail: she would easily give drunken and troublesome clients the bum’s rush if they refused to leave when their time was up. Her name was Maria Fusco, and she was known as Marietta’ a Guardaporte—Marietta the Doorkeeper—and she had refused to speak to the lowly police private manning the front desk, demanding an audience with the brigadier to report “the calamity that had befallen,” as she said in thick dialect; Maione had met her once or twice and had won the woman’s coarse respect. When she appeared before him, he had immediately understood that she was truly upset: her cheeks were red, she was short of breath, her face twisted with despair.

  “Brigadie’, come, hurry, right now. Something terrible has happened.”

  Maione had only managed to squeeze out of Marietta that there had been a murder, so he had sent for Ricciardi, motioned Camarda and Cesarano over, and headed off after the old woman.

  As he strode along briskly, he pulled his watch out of his jacket pocket. Four in the afternoon. The bordello must be open for business by now. Who could say how many people would be there, in Il Paradiso’s handsome drawing room, listening to music and watching the procession of scantily clad young ladies on the balcony, waiting to be chosen.

  Suddenly the busy street was as empty as if a sinkhole had opened up, and the four policemen found themselves outside the entrance to the place. Marietta stood on the threshold, impatient. On the other side of the street, the inevitable crowd of rubberneckers, their heads inclined toward the windows, locked tight and covered by curtains; a subdued murmur of comments and speculation, some elbowing as the police appeared on the scene. Maione heard a woman laugh, but the laughter fell suddenly silent when he scowled in her direction. Death was death: it demanded respect, wherever and however it appeared.


  Ricciardi didn’t like bordellos.

  Now, to be clear, it wasn’t a moral issue. It was his opinion that anything that went on between consenting adults was their business, and people were free to spend their time and money however they saw fit, and this was certainly a better way than many others. But he’d had plenty of opportunities in the past to see how the passion that swirled around sex could be a very difficult tool to handle, one that all too often caused only harm. He remembered the faces of men stabbed to death, despairing suicides, fathers who’d hanged themselves over the affections of one of those young signorinas who were in the business of selling pleasure; on the other hand, he knew all too well that love vied with hunger for the dubious distinction of first place in the contest of what could cause the most death and destruction.

  But he knew equally well, he thought to himself as he climbed the stairs leading up to the front room of Il Paradiso, that love was a disease bound up in the very essence of the human race and that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could hope to remain immune. Not even him.

  When she reached the landing at the top of the steps, the old doorkeeper stopped, turned to look down at the four men, and announced in a hollow voice:

  “Enter. Someone murdered Viper.”

  When he first joined the force, he’d often found himself rushing with his fellow officers to one house of ill repute or another, which were regularly the site of brawls, serious injuries, or cases of aggravated assault.

  It was normal practice for every bordello to arrange for its own security force, usually consisting of one or two ex-cons who were willing, in return for a hot meal and a few bills, to shove their battered features and their tattoos into the faces of would-be troublemakers; that was usually enough to restore calm in a place made for pleasure not bloodshed.

  Still, pleasure is a passion, and one passion tends to trigger others. Sometimes the hired guard wasn’t enough and, in fact, when the custodians of law and order had to be summoned, this guard would frequently be among the injured parties, punished for his belief that he could talk reason into someone holding a knife.

  Those bordellos, at least the ones that Ricciardi remembered, were tucked away behind the crumbling facades of old buildings; the way in was up a steep dark staircase, at the top of which was a room with a woman seated at a small table, with a padlocked strongbox where the money was kept. Along the walls were wooden benches, where factory workers, soldiers, and students sat waiting silently—staring into the middle distance, uninterested in conversation.

  Another set of stairs led to the rooms, and in the rooms were the girls, who were often anything but. Ricciardi remembered one woman with a bloody gash on one cheek who was fifty if she was a day, and had no more than ten teeth: she’d inspired some eighteen-year-old customer to pull out his knife when she asked for more money than she was strictly due. In those poor, cheap whorehouses, the customers lined up on the steps in single file, letting those who were raring to go cut ahead because there was a time limit on every trick, and if you went past the few minutes allotted there was a surcharge.

  The place that met Ricciardi’s eyes, once the old woman had made her dramatic announcement and stepped aside, was quite another matter. First they made their way down a hallway furnished with chairs, their seats upholstered in satin, their backrests gilded, a large, elaborately-framed mirror, and red silk wallpaper. A sign invited guests to leave their umbrellas and walking sticks on a rack. At the far end there was another door, and as she neared it Marietta came to an abrupt halt: clearly, this was the far boundary of the territory under her jurisdiction.

  The drawing room was large, the size of a ballroom, and it was cloaked in shadows. Heavy curtains hung over the windows and the enormous crystal chandelier was dark, as were most of the dozen or so sconces lining the walls. A tapestry on which naked nymphs and satyrs chased one another gleefully through the woods dominated the room.

  But the atmosphere was anything but cheerful. The sofas and armchairs sat empty, the grand piano had fallen silent; the wall hangings and the thick carpet muffled the murmers emanating from the small knot of people at the far end of the room; a woman broke away and came toward them.

  This was no ordinary individual. Her imposing stature and physique were only enhanced by a black plume that rose above a sort of tiara in her hair; her dark dress fluttered delicately, a yard-long train rustling behind her over the carpet. Before the policemen, she stopped demurely: her heavy makeup could not conceal the grief-stricken expression and the bloodshot eyes.

  She turned to Maione:

  “Brigadie’, you’re here. How sorry I am to meet you again on this sad occasion.”

  Camarda and Cesarano exchanged a smirk that eluded neither Ricciardi’s nor Maione’s notice. The brigadier glared at them, and both policemen immediately bowed their heads.

  “Signora Yvonne, the proprietor of this establishment; Signora, Commissario Ricciardi. We came as soon as Marietta summoned us, but you could have telephone
d and we’d have saved a little time.”

  The woman waved one hand distractedly in the air, and a dozen or so rings sparkled.

  “That didn’t occur to me, my first thought was to send Marietta. What happened seemed so ridiculous to me, and it still does. This misfortune. This terrible thing.”

  Ricciardi had the impression that the woman was playing a part. Her exaggerated gestures, the artificial voice, the way she’d crossed the center of the room, as stately as an ocean liner sailing into port: everything about her seemed theatrical, designed to impress and intimidate.

  “Buongiorno, Signora. Your real name, if you please?”

  He took it for granted that the name she’d given Maione was a professional pseudonym, and he wanted to invite the woman to be more forthcoming. The self-proclaimed Yvonne took his point. She fluttered her eyelashes, heaved a sigh, and focused her attention on Ricciardi.

  “Lidia Fiorino, at your service. But everyone knows me as Madame Yvonne; I doubt anyone will be able to give you any information about me if you use my maiden name.”

  Ricciardi hadn’t stopped staring at the woman.

  “I like to know the name of the people I met, that’s all. The legal name. Now, tell us exactly what happened.”

  Madame Yvonne shot a guick glance over her shoulder, toward the group of people by the piano. In the half-light, it was just possible to glimpse women in dressing gowns and one could hear muffled sobs.

  “One of my girls . . . my dearest girl, she was like a daughter to me . . . the prettiest one, the sweetest one . . .”

  She loudly blew her nose into a handkerchief pulled from the sleeve of her dress. Ricciardi waited, Maione sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling.

  “One of my girls is . . . Virgin Mary, Mother of God, I can’t bring myself to believe it, right here, in my own home . . . where love, peace, and pleasure reign supreme . . .”

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