The eighth entry in Maurizio de Giovanni's internationally bestselling Commissario Ricciardi series.
In the abyss of a profound personal crisis, Commissario Ricciardi feels unable to open himself up to life. He has refused the love of both Enrica and Livia and the friendship of his partner, Maione. Contentment for Ricciardi proves as elusive as clues to the latest crime he has been asked to investigate.
The beautiful, haughty Bianca, countess of Roccaspina, pleads with Ricciardi to investigate a homicide that was officially closed months ago. In the tense, charged atmosphere of 1930s Italy, where Benito Mussolini and his fascist thugs monitor the police closely, an unauthorized investigation is grounds for immediate dismissal and possible criminal charges. But Ricciardi's thirst for justice cannot be sated.
A tightly plotted historical noir novel, this eighth installment in the Commissario Ricciardi series is a gripping meditation on revenge and justice in which each character's soul reveals itself to be made of glass.
"The construction of Glass Souls is remarkable. It's like a very sophisticated mosaic in which each protagonist occupies precisely the right amount of space. The powerful rhythm with which the plot develops will surprise readers at every turn." —La Repubblica
** This extract is from Glass Souls published by Europa Editions. To purchase, move your curser mid-lower page and click on the link to a retailer.
Sitting looking out at the September night, Ricciardi contemplated his new solitude.
This solitude was a different companion from the solitude he had always known. The solitude that had gone before was his awareness that he existed along a borderline; a place of madness and despair, filled with screams of the dying and the living, screams that go on echoing, but only to his unfortunate senses. The solitude that he had known from his earliest childhood was a subtle, all-pervading malaise, a reminder of sorrow that continually surfaced to break the skin of an existence that had no way of being normal.
Through the half-open window came a breath of wind that tossed the curtains in the darkness. Far away, but enhanced by the silence, a voice was singing who knew what song, carrying all the way to his ear incomprehensible sounds that distance stripped of any harmony. September. The memory of warmth,
the promise of coolness. Windows open, windows closed.
And yet, thought Ricciardi, this new companion, compared to the old one, is like the sea compared to a lake.
These days, he no longer slept more than a few hours every night. He, who had always found in deep, untroubled sleep his refuge and comfort from the muted cries that echoed in his head as he walked through the dead and the living, cries that maliciously and insistently befuddled his senses. He, who had never taken more than a few minutes to fall asleep, turning off all sensory perceptions as if he’d flipped a switch in search of peace, at least during the nighttime.
With his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, he hoped that he was just caught in some nightmare, that he still had a chance to awaken into that world that might have once been hellish, but which he now understood could become a far more horrible inferno than it had ever been before.
Rosa as she smiles at him while singing an incomprehensible lullaby, in a dialect so old that it’s long since been forgotten.
Rosa as she checks his temperature by pressing her lips to his forehead, and then hurries off to make him an infusion of wood sorrel, chervil, and lettuce that is far worse than any sore throat.
Rosa as she moves around the house muttering under her breath, until you don’t even hear her anymore because she turns into an agreeable background noise.
Rosa as she keeps shaking salt into the water she washes the linen in, to make sure it doesn’t freeze stiff when she hangs it out to dry, pretending she doesn’t know perfectly well that here in the city the temperature never drops below freezing, even in the middle of winter.
Rosa as she begs him, enjoins him, supplicates and threatens him to find a woman who can take care of him once she’s no longer around to do so.
Ricciardi was now discovering, to his immense regret, that he had never believed her. He had never really been able to imagine that his tata, the only real flesh-and-blood and blankets-and-food mother that he’d ever had, would actually leave this life on a July night, during that same summer that now seemed to gasp along, determined not to die the way it normally did every year in September.
Why didn’t you ever tell me that you really would be gone someday? Why didn’t you make me understand that all those threats concealed some deeper malaise, something that went much deeper than the petty, pointless aches and pains you complained about from dawn to dusk, though you did it so that you would be told: No, you weren’t old at all.
And I can’t even see you, now, sitting on the bed beside me. Obsessively repeating your message of farewell, like so many other dead souls I meet on the street, in the parks, in rooms, and in alleys, screaming and whispering the half thoughts that death had interrupted, singing their song of sorrow. An immense chorus for just one solitary spectator: my madness.
You just left us, and that was that.
The wound torn open in his life by Rosa’s death, Ricciardi thought, would never heal. It would leave an unmended scar, ready to bleed again every time that a word, a sound, or a glance brought back his childhood and youth to the eyes of memory. A dull, pulsating grief, ready to renew itself over and over again. He understood only now, he who had become acquainted with suffering ever since he was a child, just how terrible it was to suffer a loss like that one.
He was helped a little by the presence of Rosa’s niece Nelide, who so closely resembled her. Rosa had just had the time to prepare her; one last, extraordinary gift to soften a bit the pang of missing her. Sometimes, with a sidelong glance, when he was rather distracted, Ricciardi almost thought he could perceive the presence of his old tata, because of how strongly the young woman echoed Rosa’s physical appearance and ways; and in fact everything at home remained unchanged, as if home economics were a single, well known piece of sheet music and Nelide were simply continuing to play the same tune.
But there was more, Ricciardi reflected as he watched the September night slide toward dawn. Now he was alone. Even in his most absurd dreams, the ones he allowed himself in the most tightly closed room of his tormented soul.
Through the darkness, and without seeing it, his eyes wandered in search of the window in the palazzo across the alley.
That window was only a few yards away, and half a floor down. The window opened into a kitchen, as far as he could tell; a large kitchen where a sizable family gathered to eat and where, after washing up, a tall, bespectacled young woman with an enchanting smile that flowered when least expected would sit and embroider, left-handed.
He had watched for months and months those slow, methodical motions; season after season, through the rain that pounded on the windowpanes, in the baking summer nights, the movement of that hand, the tilt of that head, the gleam of light on those lenses had entranced and captivated him. Certain he was unseen, in the shelter of darkness, he had fallen in love with the life he knew he could never hope to have. And he had gradually identified with that serene and sweet-natured young woman the absurd hope of his own happiness.
The green shoot of that dream had slowly sunk roots.
Who knows, perhaps someday he’d find the strength to share his terrible condition of mental illness. Or perhaps love, and the need to take care of someone, would muffle the howls of the dead that he met on every street corner. And the desert in which he forced himself to live might stop being an unappealable sentence.
Rosa’s impending death had driven him to commit a desperate act. He had gone to see Enrica, who had run away in search of some sense of equilibrium outside of that impossible love story. He had been able to track her down because Enrica’s father, encouraged by the love he felt for his daughter to break the bonds of privacy that his own upbringing and personality imposed upon him, had finally told him where she was and what she felt in her heart.
But now the night had progressed to that instant of absolute hovering suspension that comes just before the light. This was the moment when Ricciardi, wide-awake and tormented, knew that he would have to face up, defenseless, to his own loneliness. The moment in which he would have to level with himself. Through the window came that faraway song, made clearer by the wind that tugged its sound along. He was able to make out a few words, it was a man’s voice: in dialect, but comprehensible. Get out of here! Get away, silly thing! Go, little butterfly, and go back go back into this air so cool and clear!
He had managed to find Enrica. He had seen her in the moonlight, beneath the stars. He had glimpsed her, dressed in white, lovelier and happier than he remembered her. If she had been alone, he would have told her that Rosa was at death’s door. He’d have told her how sorry he was, for everything. And that he wished he could find a common acquaintance to introduce them properly. And write her ever more impassioned letters, and request of her father the honor and permission to take her to the cinema, or out to dance. If only she’d been alone, he would have taken her hand and, perhaps with tears in his eyes, he could have told her about his perennial sorrow.
But she hadn’t been alone.
Through the darkness, his ravenous green eyes had glimpsed a man’s blond hair, broad shoulders, and chiseled profile as he’d leaned closer to her. For a kiss.
You see that I, too, am slowly being dazzled, said the distant song, and that I’m burning my hand as I try to shoo you away?
Alone, thought Ricciardi. Alone without so much as a crazy dream to keep me company. But at least you’ll be happy, my love. You’ll have a husband who’ll love you completely, by the light of day, without visions of cadavers whispering mysterious words and vomiting blood out of their twisted mouths. And you’ll have limpid, serene children, so different from what mine would have been like.
He realized that he was starting to be able to make out the shapes of things around him. The night had lost its battle.
Silently, he got to his feet, to face once again that cruel enemy that was life.
They’re singing. What they have to sing about, I couldn’t say. Maybe they just sing to keep from going crazy, and in so doing, they drive everyone else crazy.
And this air, the same air as outside. It seems impossible. I remember this weather, September, when we’d return from the holidays and Papa would console me because I wasn’t going to see my pony, Bianchino, until we returned again next year. Damned Bianchino. Damn you, Bianchino, because you’re the one who gave me my passion for horses.
Night, sweet air, and songs. Once those were enough to make me happy. No, that’s not true, they weren’t enough: I needed that gleeful anxiety, that instant of dolorous anticipation. Because that’s what gambling is all about: the moment of anticipation. It’s better than wine, better than opium, better than two whores at the same time. When four racehorses round the curve and come galloping down the straightaway, head to head, frothing at the mouth, foam on their coats. Or when the dice tumble irregularly, leaping and tilting: on one face is good fortune, on the other, catastrophe. When the roulette ball hops along, searching for the right number only to miss it by a hair and land in the wrong slot. When the dealer gives you a pair of cards and you lift a corner, your heart in your mouth.
Four paces by two, and how high can the ceiling be? Ten feet, if that. And this tiny window, with a wall right outside and a bit of sky without stars. Even the stars are ashamed to show their faces. Even they are afraid of losing their minds, if they look in here. And this guy sings and sings, and no one shouts for him to shut up.
My love, my love. My great, sweet love. Who knows if you’re awake, right now. Who knows if you’re thinking of me, if you even understand what I did for you. Who knows if the moon caresses your profile, if it laps at your skin.
I did wrong, and now I’m paying. That’s how it works, right? I’ve paid every penny that I owed. Every time I lost, I paid. With money, real estate, fortunes. I paid servants, carriage, automobile. I paid respect, honor. I even paid my name. I caused suffering, and I’m causing it now, and I’ll go on causing more. My mother died of shame. And yet I know that, if I had the opportunity, I’d stop again to watch the dice tumble, and I’d make a bet, and I’d win ten for every thousand I lost.
Night, September night. When will you be over? And when will that wretched man stop singing?
Bars. Bars on the window, bars at the door. Bars that let air through, but not people. Bars to keep freedom at a distance.
Sleep, that’s what I ought to do. I should sleep without dreaming. If I’d had the strength, I’d have died then, when I understood there was no way back. Instead of causing death. Damn you, I hate you still. Even now, I’d still yearn to see you dead, another hundred times, and another hundred times I’d tell you that I thirsted to see you dead, you cowardly beast, you ill-born bastard risen up from the slime. But it would have been far better if I’d died in your place, and long before you.
Because people like me, you know, are unfit for life. We’re people unprepared for utter ruin. Whereas you, cursed wretch, would have known very well how to move out of the mud from which you came, you who are the son and the grandson of no one, whereas I can count back ten generations prior to myself. And this night I see them all, my ancestors, who’ve been waiting for me, to tell me to my face what they think of me for selling their name. Tonight, when I have nothing to drink in this place, when I can’t get myself drunk to get to sleep and stop thinking, or even just to stop having to listen to this cursed song.
I, Count Romualdo Palmieri di Roccaspina. I, who owned the lands of a king. I, who received an unbroken procession of visitors for three days when I was born, and more gifts of silver and gold than any prince, and now I’ve gambled it all away, right down to the last gram, without pity.
It would have been better if I’d died in that baby bunting. Died before you, you cursed shitty cowardly loan shark, you who have never tempted fate because instead you forced fate to do just as you pleased. And yet, even tonight, as this starless sky turns from black to milky white, before day dawns again upon my disgrace, I still can’t wholeheartedly wish I had never met you.
God, when will this song come to an end? This love song that’s devastating me.
The last night. She has decided that this is the last night she’ll spend wide awake, awaiting the dawn. The last night, though she doesn’t know why.
She’s asked herself a thousand times, maybe ten thousand times, over the past three months. Why did he do it? What motive could he have had?
Fine, agreed, he’s sick; he’s unstable, unbalanced. She’s spent dozens of nights wandering around in sordid alleys, searching for him at addresses scrawled on the backs of lottery tickets, with the ink blurred by tears and rain. Dozens of nights standing in the shadows, hiding from filthy, slobbery individuals, to make sure that he didn’t meet his death with a knife in his belly, caught up in some drunken brawl. Terrible nights, which even now leave her with a trembling fit of fever and fear, though even those nights weren’t as atrocious as these, with their torment and their doubt.
Because she knows that he is innocent.
She knows that that night he was asleep in his bed, in the other room, just a dozen feet away from her. The usual, restless sleep, besieged by ghosts and wine, tossing and turning in the throes of who knows what monsters generated by a guilty conscience and the fear of the sun he knew would rise tomorrow.
She knows that if blood was shed that night, it wasn’t his hand that spilled it.
She knows that a man, however mad, however sick, however cowardly and false he might be, still isn’t the devil in the flesh and cannot simultaneously be in two places at the same time.
And so she has decided that this is the last night she’ll spend without taking concrete steps to discover the truth. To find out why he claimed to have done it.
She turns once again toward the half-open balcony door. The curtains are tossing to the last gust of night wind. By now, day is dawning.
She knows very well what she needs to do. She decided it days ago, weeks ago. It was just a matter of finding a bit of courage, and this last night without sleep brought it to her.
She clearly remembers the man’s name. Odd, because she usually doesn’t have much of a memory for names. And yet she remembers his name clearly, even though his face is bound up with another moment of fear and fury.
But in particular, what she remembers about that man is his gaze.
And the pity that she had read in the depths of those incredible green eyes.