The dead man parked his car at the edge of the town, beside a crumbling wall marking the bounds of a rock-gashed wasteland of crippled oaks and dusty scrub whose ownership had been the subject of litigation for over three decades, and which had gradually turned into an unofficial rubbish tip for the local population. The arrival of the gleaming, silver-grey Lancia was noted by several pairs of eyes, and soon known to everyone in the town, but despite the fact that the luxury saloon was left unguarded and unlocked, no attempt was made to interfere with it, because the driver was a dead man.
The only ones to see him close to were three boys, aged between five and ten, who had been acting out a boar hunt in the dense shrubbery under the cliff face. The five-year-old, who was the prey, had just been captured and was about to be dispatched when a man appeared on the path just a few metres away. He was in his fifties or early sixties, of medium stature, with pale skin and a shock of hair that was profuse and solidly black. He wore a black suit of some cheap synthetic fabric, and a wide collar, almost clerical, but matte and black, encircled his neck. From it, beneath the throat, hung a large metal crucifix. The man's chest and feet were bare. He trudged silently up the steep path towards the old town, looking down at the ground in front of him, and showed no sign of having seen the trio of onlookers.
As soon as he was out of sight the two younger boys were all for following him, scared but daring each other not to be. Sabatino, the eldest, put paid to that idea with a single jerk of the head. No one had confided in him about this event, but the community in which they all lived was a plangent sounding board when it came to news that might affect its members. Sabatino hadn't heard the primary note that must have been struck somewhere, but he had unconsciously absorbed the secondary vibrations resonating in other parts of that complex instrument. 'Danger!' they had whispered. 'Lie low, keep away, know nothing.' Discarding his role as the renowned and fearless hunter of wild boar for that of the responsible senior child, he rounded up his friend Francesco and the other boy and led them down a side path back to the safety of the town.
The sole witness to what happened next was a figure surveyingthe scene through binoculars from a ridge about a kilometre away on the other side of the valley. The dead man followed the track until it rose above the last remaining trees and ceased to be a rough line of beaten earth and scruffy grass, to become a stony ramp hewn out of the cliff face and deeply rutted by the abrasive force of ancient iron-rimmed cart wheels. By now il morto
was clearly suffering, but he struggled on, pausing frequently to gasp for breath before tackling another stretch of the scorched rock on which the soles of his feet left bloody imprints. Above his bare head, the sun hovered like a hawk in the cloudless sky.
The isolated hill he was climbing was almost circular and had been eroded down to the underlying volcanic core and then quarried for building materials, so that in appearance it was almost flat, as though sheared off with a saw. When the dead man finally reached level ground, he collapsed and remained still for some time. The scene around him was one of utter desolation. The vestiges of a fortified gateway, whose blocks of stone had been too large and stubborn to remove, survived at the brink of the precipice where the crude thoroughfare had entered the former town, but looking towards the centre the only structures remaining above ground level were the ruins of houses, a small church, and opposite it an imposing fragment of walling framing an ornate doorway approached by five marble steps. All around lay heaps of rubble with weeds and small bushes growing out of them. The rounded paving stones of the main street were still clearly visible, however, and the dead man followed them, moaning with pain, until the cobbles opened out into a small piazza.
He then proceeded to the church, bowing his head and crossing himself on the threshold. Ten minutes passed before he emerged. He stopped for a moment to stare up at the massive remnants of stone frontage which dominated the square, then crossed over to the set of steps leading up to the gaping doorway, knelt down and slowly crawled up the steps on his knees, one by one, until he reached the uppermost. A wild fig tree had established itself in the charred wasteland within the former dwelling, feeding on some hidden source of water far below. The dead man bent over it and kissed one of its leaves, then bowed down until his forehead touched the slightly elevated doorstep.
The man watching from the ridge opposite put down his binoculars,lifted what looked like a bulky mobile phone off the dashboard of the Jeep Grand Cherokee beside him, extended the long recessed antenna and then pressed a button on the fascia. The resulting sound echoed about the walls of the valley for some time, but might easily have been mistaken for distant thunder. A forkful of food stilled between the plate and his mouth, Zen sat watching the man at the next table. His gaunt, angular head looked as though it had been sculpted with a chainsaw from a knot-ridden baulk of lumber, but Zen was waiting for it to explode. Both men had ordered the trattoria
's dish of the day, but Zen's neighbour had then demanded pepe
. This duly arrived, in the form of three fresh chilli peppers the size of rifle cartridges. He proceeded to chop them roughly and scatter the chunks over his pasta, seeds and all, before stirring the mass together and tucking in.
As so often since his transfer to Cosenza, Zen felt seriously foreign. He knew that if he had eaten even the smallest fragment of one of those peppers, he would have suffered not merely scorched taste-buds but also sweaty palpitations like those preceding a cardiac arrest, leaving him unable to eat, drink, talk or even think for at least fifteen minutes. His neighbour, on the other hand, chomped them down without the slightest change of expression. That grim countenance would never betray any emotion, but he appeared content with his lunch.
Zen toyed with his own food a bit longer, then pushed the plate away. Knobs of mutton knuckle protruded from the gloggy local pasta smothered in tomato sauce. Not for the first time, he asked himself how this bland yet cloying fruit had come to stand as the symbol of Italian cuisine worldwide, despite the fact that until a century or so ago very few Italians had even seen a tomato, never mind regarded them as a staple ingredient in every meal. As recently as his own childhood in Venice, they remained a rarity. His mother had never cooked them in her life. 'Roba del sud
,' she would have said dismissively, 'southern stuff.'
Which, of course, was the answer to Zen's question. The Spanish had introduced the tomato from their American empire to their dominions in southern Italy, where it grew like a weed. The historic waves of Italian emigrants from the south had virtually subsisted on this cheap and abundant foodstuff, whose appearance conveniently recalled the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which hung on their walls, and on the bottled sauce that could be made from it to last year round. They had adopted it as a symbol of their cultural heritage and identity and then sold it to the credulous foreigners among whom they lived as the very essence of Italian cuisine.
Zen signalled the waiter. Obsession was an occupational hazard in Calabria, but obsessing about tomatoes was absurd. He paid over the agreed fee and responded with a brief nod to the waiter's thanks, nicely pitched as always in the grey area between grudging respect and overt truculence. The moment he emerged from the air-conditioned dining room into the sullen, stacked heat of the street, he felt his pores gaping open like the mouth of the goldfish he had kept as a child. He lit a cigarette and surveyed the visible slice of sky, an incandescent azure enlivened by puffy, faintly bruised clouds trailing translucent spumes of virga. The door behind him opened and Nicodemo, the owner of the restaurant, appeared and also lit up.
'You didn't like your meal?' he asked with a solicitous expression.
Zen chose his words carefully.
'It was very authentic.'
Nicodemo beamed. He had already told Zen, at some length, that he was un immigrante
. Having spent almost thirty years as a construction worker in a Canadian city called Tronno, he had now retired to his native Calabria and opened a restaurant dedicated to preserving and reviving the genuine cuisine of his youth.
'My mother used to make that dish on very special occasions, starting at dawn,' he confided to Zen in reverential tones. 'The sauce takes hours to prepare, but the flavour of sheep from the bone and the fat is incomparable.'
'There is certainly very little to which it can be compared. I just don't have much appetite today.'
'You're not unwell, dottore
'No, no. Overwork, I expect.'
Nicodemo nodded sagely. He wouldn't of course dream of prying further - one didn't interrogate the local police chief - but a sympathetic word never went amiss.
'Ah, this terrible business.'
A silence fell, which the restaurateur perhaps broke to avoid the appearance of any possible indiscretion on his part.
'And to think that he came here once to eat!'
'Did he like the food?' Zen replied, with a trace of sarcasm that was entirely lost on the other man.
'But of course! He too was rediscovering his heritage, just like me when I first returned.'
Zen hurled his cigarette into the gutter.
'I'm sorry, I thought you were referring to the American lawyer.'
'I am! As soon as I saw the picture on television I recognized him.'
'Signor Newman ate here?'
He sounded no more than politely interested.
'Only once. It had come on to rain suddenly. He sheltered in the doorway for a while, then came inside when it didn't stop. He asked my advice about what to order and after he'd eaten we got chatting. First in Italian, then in dialect. The rough stuff, from up in the Sila mountains. He hadn't spoken that for years, but it gradually came back to him. Like discovering that you can still ride a bicycle, he said.'
Nicodemo shook his head.
'He seemed delighted to be home again, just like me. And now this happens! Calabria can be harsh to her sons.'
He grasped Zen's arm lightly. Zen did not care to be touched by strangers, but had come to recognise this as an accepted rhetorical gesture in the south and managed to control his instinct to recoil.
'I really shouldn't ask this, dottore
, but do you think he'll be all right?'
Zen freed his arm by making another of the rhetorical gestures used to punctuate lengthy discourses between men in the street, an activity as normal, frequent and essential to civic life in Cosenza as it had been in the Athenian agora.
'In such matters, nothing is certain. But the victim's son is due to arrive shortly, so with any luck we should be able to begin serious negotiations soon.'
Nicodemo nodded obsequiously and seized Zen's hand.
'Thank you, thank you! Perhaps I shouldn't have asked, but even though we only met briefly, I liked the man. Besides, he is a fellow immigrant.'
Zen turned away.
'You're coming tomorrow?' the restaurateur called after him. 'I'm serving spaghetti with clams.'
Zen paused, struck by the innocent recipe like a familiar face sighted in a crowd. This was a dish he had grown up with, the soft clitoral gristle of the clams in their gaping porcelain shells, the hard, clean pasta soaked in the subtle juice, a nudge of garlic, a dab of oil, a splash of wine . . .
'I'm going to the coast to buy the clams fresh off the boats first thing tomorrow,' Nicodemo added encouragingly.
'Will they be cooked in tomato sauce?' queried Zen.
Just like my mamma used to make.'
Zen inclined his head respectfully.
'May she rest in peace.'
At the corner of the block, he stopped in a café to erase the lingering taste of tomatoes stewed in mutton grease by drinking two coffees and crunching down half a tub of Tic Tacs. He was just starting his second espresso when everything became strange. The light dimmed as in an eclipse of the sun, a wind entered through the open doorway, the pages of a newspaper lying abandoned on a table turned over one by one, as though by the hand of an invisible reader. Outside in the street, someone cried out jaggedly above the seething sound that had insinuated itself into the laden silence. A fusillade of ice pellets erupted upwards from the pavement and then the sky broke, dropping waves of sound that shook the ground and made the water in Zen's glass ripple lightly. Next the initial fusillade of hail turned to a hard rain and within moments the sewers were gorged. The water backed up, deluging the street where people caught in the storm held up briefcases or newspapers to protect their heads and gazed across at the lights of the café on the other bank of the impassable torrent, while those safe inside cackled and jeered, savouring their sanctuary.
And then it was all over. The rain ceased, the flood subsided and the sun came out. By the time Zen had paid and left, the streets were already steaming themselves dry. The accumulated odours from the clogged drains combined with the water vapour to create a pale miasmal veil through which he made his way back up the hill to the Questura.
Excerpted from End Games by Michael Dibdin. Copyright © 2008 by Michael Dibdin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.