Dexter Cathcart, the urbane ever-confident private detective, heads to Italy to investigate a mysterious executor who appears to have made off with much of the deceased’s estate. Italy holds promise for this former diplomat: a simple case to solve and then a leisurely holiday, returning to old haunts. Three days after arriving, however, Cathcart disappears. In the wrong city.
What to do when your detective goes missing at the beginning of the case? Drew Hackett decides to go looking for him.
Reunited in a moment of peril, Hackett and Cathcart clash over the role of the detective while the evidence mounts up: a suspicious house fire, fatal car accidents on lonely country roads, political assassinations, the intrigues of Italian far-right politics, and the mysterious Medecini, who everyone has heard of but who no-one claims to know. Will the answers be found there, or are they buried somewhere in the texts? A journal, a memoir, a classic novel: one that can’t be read, one that can’t be found, one that’s been forgotten. Writing between the lines.
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Extracts from chapters 1, 2, 8, 10 & 12
Violet Hughes ushers her guest onto the balcony. She points out the sites: Julian Rocks, the Lighthouse, Mt Warning dominant in the north. A bit like she owns them. It is excess, but educated excess, carefully chosen excess, excess done with impressive flair. The stuff of envy, though, best kept hidden from the disgruntled voter. Back inside, Cathcart spies a gleaming baby grand in the adjoining room, and eyes off the bespoke furniture. He is drawn towards the one — but only one — antique present: an Edwardian sideboard that looks either completely out-of-place, or perhaps perfectly at home, its rich-grained mahogany backlit by the slick contemporary design.
A bottle of wine chills in an ice bucket on the table; Cathcart does not say no. They sit down with their backs to the view. She seems determined that there will be no distractions.
‘A month ago I received a letter from Italy informing me that an old friend of mine had left me a legacy in his will. It came as quite a shock. I hadn’t heard about his death, I hadn’t even known he’d been ill. He didn’t leave me money, he left me an objet d’art. Priceless, probably.’
‘The letter did not say. But I can imagine what it was, knowing Claudio, something of considerable historical value. I wrote back to the executor. I wanted to know how Claudio had died, whether there had been some mishap, some tragedy. I wanted to know what was happening with his papers. He was a very educated man. I mean ‘educated’ in that rather old-world sense of the word. Claudio didn’t have a Ph.D., his education went well beyond that. The answer that came back from the executor was extraordinary. There had been a terrible disaster, he wrote. Before he had been able to distribute any of the estate to the beneficiaries, the house and everything in it had been destroyed! The house, Claudio’s collections, his papers, and whatever precious objet d’art he had left me — had all gone up in flames. Nothing survived. I am offered monetary compensation once the insurance claims have been settled.’
‘You don’t believe this.’
‘How can I? It’s not credible. Suddenly the house burns down! Just like that! I write back, but I am more demanding this time. I want to see some verification, I want know about the fire. How did happen? Why was nothing saved? Why nothing at all…!’
‘No answer. Not to that letter nor to the next one. So I search online but I cannot find anything about this person, there is no record of him at all.’ She opens one of the letters lying on the table. ‘Rafaello Medicini.’
‘A post office box in Verona.’
‘Rafaello Medicini.’ Odd, that name seems to ring a distant bell for Cathcart, he just can’t think from where at the moment.
‘Of course I wouldn’t expect to know this Medicini. He would be some friend of Claudio’s that I never met. But he is the executor. That often suggests a close relationship, doesn’t it?’
‘At least one of trust. Tell me about your old friend.’
‘Claudio Cattaneo was an extraordinary man, Dexter. He had inherited a lot of money, but it’s what you do with money that matters, not how much of it you have. Claudio was not one to waste it, no. He used that money to lead a life devoted almost entirely to pleasure. He was an expert at pleasure.’
‘Forgive me if I am being indiscreet, Violet, but what exactly was the nature of the relationship with your…friend?’
Violet bursts into laughter, and, without asking, takes the glass from Cathcart’s hand and expertly refills it. Suddenly he can see her as a young woman.
‘I am sure you have already guessed that, Dexter! Of course, Claudio and I were lovers.’
‘The thought did cross my mind.’ Three times, at least. What else was a beautiful young woman doing with an older rich Italian? ‘It wouldn’t be unusual, Violet.’
‘Oh, there was nothing “usual” about my relationship with Claudio. Far from it! It was an affair of unrestrained sexual passion. I’ve never known it since, and I never expected to. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced a lover like Claudio, the likes of which most women could not even begin to imagine. He took passion to another level! He was Adonis and Don Juan rolled into one! He knew everything, and he knew it to perfection!… But I’m embarrassing you, Dexter!’ And she laughs again, flirtatiously this time, which adds to his embarrassment.
‘Not at all,Violet. We are not a nun.’ But he is anxious to change subject. ‘Did Claudio Cattaneo have enemies?’
‘For sure. Jealousy is a powerful emotion. Small people. First, they’re jealous of your wealth, then they are jealous of the pleasure you take from life. There are also the men Claudio slighted, of course: men whose wives ended up in his bed for their own brief experience of paradise. They probably all went back to their husbands later, but he had made his point: their men were inferior. Would you ever forgive another man for that?’
‘To tell you the truth, it’s rather outside my direct experience. Fortunately. What did he die of?’
‘The letter didn’t say, but reading between the lines, I think perhaps he had a heart attack. That bit, at least, would come as no surprise. Because that’s how Claudio lived. If I cautioned him, he’d laugh. We will all wake up dead one day, he would say, but how many of us will have lived our lives to the full beforehand?’
‘Quite the philosopher!’
‘He wrote at length about life, about beauty, about desire, about politics. My Italian was never good enough to appreciate it, I’m sorry to say.’
‘What is it that you want me to do, Violet?’
‘This isn’t just about the objet d’art, that I now won’t get, it’s much bigger than that. You see, Dexter, Claudio Cattaneo was an extremely important person in my young life, and I couldn’t live with myself now, if I were to just stand by while this…this outrage is being perpetrated against his generosity, against his memory, and against, I suspect, the other beneficiaries of his will. The executor is not just stealing a simple antique object, highly valuable as it no doubt is, he is most likely stealing whole parts of the estate from the rightful heirs.’
‘What are you suggesting…?’
‘I am suggesting that when Claudio’s house burnt down, it was already empty.’
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Dexter Cathcart collects his olive-green suitcase from the carousel at the Malpensa airport and heads out to the bus rank, already sorting through strategies to combat the inevitable jet-lag. Not falling asleep on the bus is the first one. He achieves this with some determination, by trying to identity the languages and accents erupting around him. There’s an unhappy Scottish accent, an American one, (Bostonian, perhaps), the familiar staccato of clear-as-a-bell middle-class German, and then it is all blotted out by an Italian in the adjacent seat, frantically negotiating with someone on the phone. Sounds like his mother. It works; the cacophony prevents him from dozing off all the way to the city.
He remembers the stazione centrale in Milan from only one previous occasion, changing trains on his way to Zurich, after a diplomatic task that came to nothing. On entering the grand hall, the huge out-of-scale proportions of the building grab your attention; one is stopped in one’s tracks by the sheer preposterousness of it all. A product of fascism, the proportions ludicrous to the human scale, the pomposity of the faux-classical architecture in the true spirit of Mussolini theatrics; that jutting jaw and glassy eyes, the operatic costumes and staged speeches in the Piazza Venezia, the black-shirt marches. The comic opera dictator, par excellence. A buffoon? No, that would be seriously underestimating him.
For all the money and effort that went into the building, it is crowded, uncomfortably so at this hour. There is hardly anywhere to sit, and nowhere, it seems, to relieve oneself. He will have to hold till on the train. The interval calls for exercise, anyway, walking around, taking photographs. He will send some to Sofia. ‘You could’ve been here, too’, they’ll say. For what it’s worth.
He survives an hour like this, then thankfully, the train for Verona arrives. On time. His luck holds; the seat beside him is free. Time for the second strategy: ask yourself what you are going to do there. The case of the missing legacy, of the stolen legacy, of the gutted house of the deceased, and of the rich aspiring politician. There is only one lead to go on so far, a post office box address in Verona. It’s not much; but it’s not nothing, either. Someone has to empty that post office box, and when they do, they will find a letter from a person they’ve never heard of, requesting a meeting, a person who will be there watching them read it, who will then follow them home. So that is the task for the journey: composing a clever letter to a possible truffatore. Cathcart opens a notepad and unscrews the silver-tipped top of the fountain pen as the Frecciagento pulls out of the station.
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The house in Via Giuseppe Maggi is more modest than Cathcart expected, given the stories of Cattaneo’s inherited wealth. He had expected something grander than the other properties in the street, but this one is slightly smaller, and gives no hint, certainly not now at any rate, of the flamboyance and boastfulness of Cattaneo that all of the stories suggest. It is burnt out completely, the walls still standing, but nothing much of the roof timber remains. Weeds push up in what was once a small formal garden.
The wire barrier with its Tenere fuori! sign is easily pushed aside, and Cathcart steps gingerly into the shell of Cattaneo’s house. The staircase has gone, and just a few of the burnt floor joists remain tenuously in place. The intruding sky gives a false idea of the spaciousness of the house. The rooms were not so big. What is he looking for? The remains of incinerated furniture, a charred bookcase or two, some hint of what had covered the walls. Whether those things have since been removed, or were never there in the first place, there is no sign of their presence now.
Nothing adds up: the mystery executor, the car accident in Calabria, the library’s ignorance of Cattaneo’s death. Violet Hughes’ suspicion that the estate has been stolen by Medicini is only one possible part of the answer. One might steal antiques; antiques are worth money, but why burn a house down to hide that? And why steal Cattaneo’s papers? Unless, the papers themselves were not so important, except for one in particular: Cattaneo’s ‘tell-all’ memoir. Telling all about what, though, telling all about whom? Stealing it would be a way of suppressing any revelations, but that would only work if the author were also dead. It is a just a short leap from the burnt-out house and the destroyed memoir to the idea that the plot might yet involve murder. (As it should!) Was it really an accident in Calabria? It was not an accident in the hills outside Vicenza…
‘Quando avete l’intenzione di fare qualcosa? Sono passati mesi!’
Cathcart is accosted as he steps back into the street, and it is all he can do with his tourist Italian to explain than he is neither the owner of the building nor some local official. He doesn’t have enough language to explain what he is doing there, even if he wanted to. La signora is not mollified, as far as he can tell, but she dismisses him with a wave of her hand and continues her lament as she moves on.
He is quickly after her. ‘Scusi, Signora, scusi! Il fuoco — quando?’
‘Mesi fa! In novembre! Non fanno niente! Non mai!’
There is more that she has to say, but he shrugs to show his lack of language, and another wave of her imperious hand suggests that discretion lies in retreat.
‘Grazie, signora, grazie.’
So, the house burnt down in November, months ago. But it was in November that Cattaneo was killed in the car accident, and it was in February, according to Rafaelo Medicini, that the house burnt down. Supposed to have burnt down. And the lawyer confirmed the executor’s story, that the house burnt down in February. Back inside the ruin, the hollowed out windows are now like vacant eyes in the blackened façade. What do they know? What had they seen at the time? Cathcart looks up to where the roof had once been, now just remnant burnt sticks, and he sees in their blackened skeletal state a symbol of mortality. None of the plots are holding up.
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Truscott is no more than a few hundred metres from the bar on his way home when he suspects he’s being followed. He changes direction then, taking a left turn into the first side alley, then a right turn and another right that brings him back onto the main street. He is being followed. The shadow keeps a discrete distance, slows down when he does, peers in shop windows when he does. When they cross the piazza, he pretends to be looking for a cab. In the winding Piazzetta Serego, Truscott hurries out of sight and disappears into a crowded restaurant, reappearing immediately the tail has passed.
Positions reversed, Truscott keeps his distance, close enough to form a description, far enough back to avoid suspicion. He is wearing jeans, this one, which suggests youth, but otherwise there is nothing particular about him. And then he is gone. When Truscott turns the next corner a minute later, his suspect is nowhere to be seen. He loiters at the corner for a full five minutes, half-expectantly, but no-one appears. Was he imagining it?
Back in the hotel, Cathcart cleans his teeth twice and drinks a whole bottle of mineral water, but still feels sick from the cigarettes. Truscott overdid it. Perhaps he can develop some reluctance next time. My doctor tells me I should give up. Either way, the cloth cap is put back on the rack and the Englishman is given the rest of the day off. Cathcart reflects on his progeny. Over-the-top? It easy to do with Truscott; he almost sounds more natural when he is shamelessly exaggerating. And the Italians were quite convinced. Now the temptation is there to let Truscott have his head.
What did he learn? Cattaneo was known to the Movimento Nuovo Risvegli, but was not a member, and neither, it seems, was Medicini. That was it. Cathcart didn’t get the Italians’ joke, either. It sounded like dialect. What had they found so amusing about the idea of meeting Cattaneo? Something revealing? He thinks not. They are rather innocent, really, these two Italians. Ironically, he wants to think, their naivety is in conflict with their far-right politics. But probably it’s not. More likely, naivety is a pre-condition.
There is no mention of Cattaneo on the Movimento Nuovo Risvegli website, either as a member, or as an honoured guest speaker. But there is something interesting there: Giuseppe Marinetti, the party’s leader, was born in Cremona, probably about the same time that Cattaneo was. They could have known each other, could have been at school together, perhaps played sport. It isn’t much to go on, but it’s not nothing. They both start off in Cremona, they both end up in Verona. And that’s another unanswered question: what was it exactly that made Cattaneo move to Verona?
Was it una donna? Because there is one, right here in Verona, who is a great fan of Italianismo, and is also the leader of a far-right party. It seems ironic that the Fratelli d’Italia should be lead by a woman, but ‘fratelli’, Cathcart understands, also has a broader meaning. Silvia Peschetta is the current torch-bearer for Mussolini’s political legacy. She has taken over the role from an ageing neo-fascist, which might explain the Fratelli’s youthful following. Is it too much to imagine that Cattaneo and Peschetta once had una storia d’amore?
Cathcart examines the carefully framed image of Peschetta on the Fratelli website. He can’t rule it out. She is blonde and blue-eyed, not so young, but not too old either. The stance of the party is more than just anti-immigrant and anti-EU, the Fratelli hold what can only be described as staunchly conservative catholic views about the sanctity of marriage and the family. How could playboy Cattaneo have possibly negotiated his way around that world view? But what if he had? What if that was the explosive revelation in his ‘tell-all’ memoir? Silvia Peschetta’s hypocritical infidelity: she just couldn’t help herself! Neither could Mussolini, of course, but the rules are different for men.
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It is a circuitous route home for Truscott. He has to avoid going anywhere near the Piazza Brà, but his hotel is on the other side of it. The crowds are still swarming away from the rally. Sirens and the sound of exploding tear gas grenades increase the tension. Victor Truscott did what he could, but he was outdone by circumstance. Or was it fate? No, Cathcart doesn’t want to think that. It was sheer bad luck that Mario Graziani didn’t get the chance to speak. It’s not as though there won’t be other opportunities, though. The Soldati della libertà have to keep campaigning, the European elections are still a month away. But who will hold a rally after this?
In Via San Nicolò, the crowd has thinned out, and suddenly he senses it happening again. A moment’s perusal in the window of a jeweller’s shop locates the shadowy figure a few doors back, lingering rather obviously while the crowds from the rally push past. Playing the window shopper this time, a dark puffer jacket and the purple cap of the Movimento Nuovo Risvegli part of his cover. Cat-and-mouse: they pretend not to see each other, but both know. Two weeks of this, and Cathcart hasn’t been able to corner the tail. He would’ve once. He would’ve set a trap, and the enthusiastic shadow would have fallen into it before he could guess what was happening. But this tail is the ultimate professional: rarely dresses the same, always keeps a certain distance, always knows the right moment to melt into the background. He just seems to disappear.
The ultimate professional…He hadn’t thought this before, but could his shadow actually be Medicini himself? The backstage Medicini doing what he does best: in the background, almost invisible, but always effective. What an irony that would be! The mystery executor he has been searching for this last month, under his nose all the time! Truscott turns into Via Tre Marchetti and the tail keeps a measured distance behind him. A hundred metres further on, an opportunity presents itself.
A group of school children approach, enough to occupy the narrow street, enough to suddenly cause confusion. They push their way past Truscott and immediately…confusion! They fall to their knees shouting in disbelief and clambering over each other for the coins and notes that the Englishman has surreptitiously scattered. Into the nearest shop then, a farmacia, where, from behind the door, he can watch as the tail lets forth with a torrent of abuse at the uncontrollable kids, and then, disentangling himself from their arms and legs, he disappears into the bookshop opposite, still cursing.
Truscott slips in behind him, unobserved. The dark figure, the cap now in hand, is engaged at the counter. A quick look around. There is just the one exit; the ruse has worked, the positions are now reversed, the tail is being tailed. He strains to hear what is being said at the counter, but can barely make out the voices. It is not an argument then. Truscott’s obvious Englishness might pose a problem, so he moves along the shelves, mimicking the indecisive customer, keeping one eye on his prey, while browsing through the fiction, and then searching for (and why not?) Cattaneo’s historical fantasy novels. There is just one, Il principe nudo, but it is the book next to it that immediately grabs his attention: Cavalletti’s classic, C’era una volta. And suddenly everything makes sense.
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