Excerpt from Turning to Stone

“We should go, Alessandro,” Gennaro said.

            “Just a minute, Boss. I’m waiting to see what the financial analysts have to say.”

            “We can listen to the news in the car.”

            “I know, but why wait when we can get the forecast now.”

            Alessandro, standing near the office’s flat-screen television, clicker in hand, spiked the volume. Gennaro DiBello resigned himself to staring out of the high-rise window, overlooking the Bay of Naples. He saw a U.S. destroyer in the distance en route to Bagnoli.

            Dante was putting his papers away before leaving for lunch. He put the stack into his desk drawer, locked it, and began the ritual of backing up his electronic files to a jump key and powering down his monitor. Living with Bianca was showing in his daily work habits. Silvio was at his desk, in his own world, with his own mound of paperwork, his Italian-English dictionary closed but ready.

            “Here they are,” Alessandro pointed the remote at the screen and stepped up the volume again. He was a defiant kid who had to get the last word, Gennaro thought.

            Gennaro saw their boss, Pio Piersanti, approaching. “Incoming.”

            “What is it?” Alessandro said and, seeing Piersanti through the glass, shut off the television.

            “What’s the word, DiBello?” asked the man entering the room.

            “The word is nothing.”

            “Monotti,” Piersanti gestured toward Alessandro, “turn that back on. I want to see what they have to say.”

            The television screen crackled to life. A scrolling marquee on the bottom of the screen repeated Moody’s judgment: Downgrade on Italian bonds.

            Piersanti’s face soured. “Shit. There goes the bond auction tomorrow.” He turned from the screen to Gennaro and said, “Shouldn’t you be on your way to meet with Giurlani, DiBello?”

            “I am. We are. I’m waiting for them.”

            “Late lunch,” Piersanti said, confirming the time on his wristwatch.

            “Yes, and then we’re back here to give our reports to you and Giurlani.”

            “Excellent. Giurlani has a lot faith in you and your group here. He pulled some serious strings to get your team transferred from Milan to Naples, including Isidore Farrugia. The Brooks murder was a PR nightmare. I don’t know how he did it.” 

            “I thought the answer was simple: Aldo Giurlani is the regional commissioner, and when Milan talks, Naples and Rome listen. If you’ll excuse me, we should get going.”

            “I won’t delay you. You and this crew of yours have healthy appetites so please don’t kill me on the expense report. My boss might think I’m in bed with the System.” System was local slang for the Camorra, the infamous Naples crime syndicate.

            Pio Piersanti, Gennaro’s new boss, was a decent man, with an alliterative and triplet of holy names. Unlike Pinolo, Gennaro’s former boss in Rome, he wasn’t a penny-pincher or a ball-breaker. Perego, their boss in Milan, was supposed to come to Naples, but was called away to another investigation.

            “Dottore?” It was Enzo, the mail clerk.        

            “Something for me?”

            “Yes. I have a package. You’ll have to sign for it.”

            “What is it?”

            “Books in English. All the same title and author,” the young man answered.

            Gennaro’s name and address were typed out. No name in the sender space. All rather peculiar, Gennaro mumbled. He hadn’t forgotten the heightened security measures. The postmark was days old because the Neapolitan Guardia di Finanza Security downstairs used canine units for sniffing out suspicious parcels for chemicals and explosives. Security was not victim to Italy’s latest austerity measures.

            Gennaro signed and handed over the clipboard. Enzo left and Alessandro, Dante, and Silvio gathered around him as he examined the contents. The enclosed books were rubber-banded together. Five copies.

            “What is it, Chief? Looks like a thin volume. Poetry?”

            “You’re just like a kid, Sandro. You know that?”

            Dante looked at the cardboard mailer and noticed the postmark. “Better for a package to be late than have someone go to pieces. Literally. Security probably dusted this for prints.”

            “C’mon, Boss. What is the title?” Alessandro pestered.

            “The Man of Smoke. Aldo Palazzeschi, a dead writer,” Gennaro answered.

            “Why five copies, Chief? And why in English?” Alessandro asked.

            “How the hell should I know?” Gennaro said, as his eyebrows lifted. “There are four of us here. One for each of us, I guess, but that leaves one extra copy.”

            Dante took his copy and then another. They all looked at him.

            “One for Bianca since she is part of the team. Now, let’s go meet the commissioner for lunch. The elevator is waiting. Shall we?”

            Alessandro said to Gennaro when the bell chimed, “Palazzeschi was the pen name for Aldo Giurlani.”

            “I know, Sandro. He was an anti-Fascist.”

 

Commissioner Aldo Giurlani, who had worked with them in Milan, insisted on meeting the group in the city center for lunch. A public place was best, he had said, but had kept his travel itinerary secret. All Gennaro knew was the name of the restaurant, the appointed hour, and that the commissioner was arriving by car with a modest security detail. The commissioner, who had been receiving death threats, was fast becoming a worthy successor of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone for his innovative strategies against organized crime.

            Gennaro, at the wheel, was stalled in a stagnant sea of cars on Via San Biagio. They heard them in the distance, but could not see any emergency vehicles in the side-view mirror. Nee-nah. Nee-nah.

            “What the hell is going on?” Alessandro said in the backseat.

            “No idea,” Gennaro answered, peering in his side-view mirror.

            People were running on foot between cars, around them, like water over rocks. The flood of flesh was fleeing like hordes of humanity in a science-fiction film. Gennaro gripped the wheel, seeking some escape with his small Fiat Punto. He had navigated the construction site near the Greek and Roman ruins, passed remnants of colonial rule, ignored the Fascist architecture of Banca di Napoli on Via Toledo. Yet there he sat, stranded, adrift, among motionless cars, surrounded by people on foot. As he surveyed the congestion as far as the eye could see, he realized he could get out of his Punto, walk over to the Banca Commerciale Italiana, visit the Caravaggio on the second floor, and light a votive before any car began to move again.

            Sandro’s finger tapped his shoulder. “There’s a lollipop.” One of the carabinieri, a blue-suited policeman with a Stop-and-Go paddle, had come out to direct traffic.

            Gennaro rolled the window down. The policeman’s torso neared his window. Gennaro showed his identification before he asked for an explanation. There was the intimation of smoke in the summer air: Gennaro could smell it. The policeman held up his lollipop and peered down and surveyed the group inside the car. The policeman tipped his hat.

            “There’s been a car bombing in the Spanish Quarter on Via San Gregorio Armeno.”

            “Camorra?”

            The officer shrugged. “Perhaps. I can use my whistle to move you to the curb.”

            “We’re supposed to meet someone for lunch.”

            “I’m afraid that you’re not going anywhere, unless you can fly.  I will direct you to the side of the road.  Park there and call your party on your cell phone. You will be at least half an hour late. They still have to cordon off the scene.”

            “Damn,” Gennaro said. He slapped the steering wheel hard. He decided to admit defeat. He said to the cop, “That’ll do, thank you.”

            After several loud whistle blows and slow, painful cuts of the wheel and hostile stares from other drivers, Gennaro managed to squeeze his Punto near the curb. His parallel parking would have failed a driver’s exam. Giurlani was going to be pissed off, but what could he do?

            “Let’s get out and see what we can make of the scene,” he told his passengers. Dante exited from the passenger side, Alessandro and Silvio maneuvered out of the backseat. Once he was on the sidewalk, Gennaro flipped open the cell phone and speed-dialed Giurlani. Without saying a word they started walking uphill in the direction of the acrid stench until they saw wisps of black and grey smoke.

            “No luck getting through to Giurlani?” Dante asked.

            “I’m trying, but he’s not picking up.”

            Dante’s own cell phone began to ring. He fished it out of his jacket pocket. “Pronto . . . Isidò? Where are you?” Dante stood still and the rest waited for him to say something. Dante cupped the receiver. “Farrugia heard about the car bombing. He’s at the restaurant. I’ll tell him that we’ll be late.” A few words later Dante closed his phone.

            They traversed the cobblestones together. Farrugia had been working undercover to track the Camorra’s trade in steroids and recreational drugs. Narcotics work was where he had started his career until he became an anti-mafia expert. Illicit drugs in Naples were yet another hothouse of endless euros for the System.

            “It smells nasty,” Alessandro said, squinting his eyes and coughing.

            “Burnt rubber and melting plastic are the worst,” Dante said while Gennaro tried Giurlani again on his cell phone. Dante noticed but didn’t say a word.

            “No answer,” Gennaro said, snapping the cell phone shut.

            The stench and smoke worsened as they crested the hill. They saw the car and several policemen across the street. Firemen had yet to arrive. The car and its contents were nothing now but crackling flames and twisted steel. The top of the car had been sheared off at a jagged angle. A torso in what was the driver’s seat was still visible, smoldering, as well as the shape of an arm and a hand faithful to the wheel. The passenger in the backseat was nothing more than a charcoal stump of charred flesh. Gennaro thought of the late Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, and fried jumbo grasshoppers.

            Alessandro, flashing his badge, called over to one of the cops, who began walking toward them. “What happened?” Alessandro asked.

            “Witnesses said the car was coming down the street when three motorcyclists ambushed it. One motorcyclist came out in front to block the car. The driver jammed on his brakes. Two gunmen with Kalashnikovs on the other motorcycles sprayed the car while the one in front took out a bazooka or an RPG and fired it into the car.”

            The young policeman pointed to the ejected shell casings and shattered glass on the stony street.

            “A bazooka, an RPG?” Alessandro asked. “I wouldn’t expect witnesses to know the difference between a bazooka and a rocket-propelled grenade.” Alessandro wiped his tearing eyes. “Did any of the witnesses have anything to say about the gunmen or the victims?”

            “Not really. The motorcyclists wore helmets, visors down. Three men were in the car. We’ll know more once we trace the plates.”

            “Camorristi with AK-47s. Typical,” Dante said.     

            Gennaro, like the rest of them, looked at the license plate. Milan.

            Dante said, “Maybe you should call Giurlani again, Chief?”

            “That won’t be necessary.”

            “Why not?”

            “Still have that book?”

            “It’s in the car. Why?”

            “Because the books were a message.” Gennaro stared at the car wreck. His eyes seemed distant and immune to the smoke.

            A confused Alessandro asked, “What is he talking about?”

            “Aldo Palazzeschi was a pen name. You said so yourself, Sandro.”

            “For Aldo Giurlani, why?”

            Gennaro nudged his chin at the wreckage. “Dante’s book might be in my car, but Giurlani is in that one.”

            Alessandro stared at Gennaro for an explanation.

            “That’s the message. Our Commissioner Giurlani is now a man of smoke.”

            Gennaro started the descent back to his car.

            Nee-nah. Nee-nah. The sirens had arrived.

 

Turning to Stone

COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Gabriel Valjan

Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing