The secret world of a murder victim leads detective Sandro Cellini to uncover the hidden life of a woman consumed by a deadly obsession.
When the driven, charismatic leader of a Florentine political movement collapses at a rally, his young party immediately comes under threat. And when it emerges that his wife, Flavia, has disappeared, leaving behind not only a devastated husband but their newborn son, the political becomes dangerously personaland Detective Inspector Sandro Cellini is summoned to investigate. The trail leads to a somber seaside town, where Flavia chose to end her life. But Cellini isn't satisfiedwhy would one so young and with so much to live for walk away from all she loves? As he digs into Flavia's secret world, however, Sandro uncovers the hidden life of a woman consumed with private passions and a dark, deadly obsessiona stark reminder that life in modern Italy has a perilous edge, fueled as much by rage as desire.
About the Author
Christobel Kent's previous books include The Dead Season, A Darkness Descending, A Party in San Niccolo, Late Season, and A Florentine Revenge. She lives near Cambridge with her family.
Read an Excerpt
A Darkness Descending
A Mystery in Florence
By Christobel Kent
PEGASUS CRIMECopyright © 2013 Christobel Kent
All rights reserved.
She came in past the journalist, a big man taking notes, handsome if you liked that kind of thing. Giuli didn't. She'd seen him before; he smelled of cigarettes and good aftershave.
The meeting room was stuffy and crowded. Giuli – Giulietta Sarto, trainee private investigator, clinic receptionist and dogsbody, it sometimes seemed to her, to one and all – staggered a little as still more people jostled in. Among them she glimpsed a familiar face: Chiara, looking around for someone. They were already standing. The few chairs had been first ignored and then shoved aside.
On tiptoe Giuli strained to find Chiara again, to see if she was alone or if, like Giuli, she was with someone. Daughter of a policeman, fresh-faced, eager, nineteen years old: what was she doing here? Just the kind of new recruit they needed, actually. But she didn't reappear. Perhaps, Guili thought, I was mistaken.
A window would have been a blessing; the evening air had been soft and just warm as she and her boyfriend Enzo had walked here, hand in hand. Instead, the overhead strip lighting and absence of any natural light were combining to give Giuli a headache. She didn't suffer from claustrophobia, and she was resolutely disinclined to panic in any given situation, which was one reason why Sandro – Sandro Cellini, policeman turned private investigator and, as it happened, old friend and former colleague in the force of Chiara's father Pietro – had decided to trust her with more work. Yet as the crowd once again shifted her on her feet, Giuli felt her gut tighten all the same and she groped for Enzo at her side. Looked for emergency exit signs, of which there were none.
Enzo took her hand firmly in his and she turned her head towards him. His broad, homely face framed by the old-fashioned haircut looked back at her, absolutely reassuring.
'Not your idea of a romantic evening?' He ducked his head shyly under her gaze, looking at her sideways. She squeezed his hand.
It was not an attractive venue, but then the Frazione Verde – its membership an eclectic, impoverished assortment of intellectuals, ex-communists, fervent greens, peaceniks and all the considerable variety of those, like Enzo and Guili, disillusioned with mainstream politics – couldn't afford anything better. Access was via a passage that, if the smell was anything to go by, was used as a latrine by the local rough sleepers and ran behind a deconsecrated church on the Via Sant'Agostino, a hundred metres from the Piazza Santo Spirito. Constructed as a makeshift dispensary for charity following the war, it was crammed between two other buildings; it might have been above ground, but being inside the place felt like being buried.
At the back someone began to stamp and holler. Other feet and voices joined in a ragged chant, which then petered out. The strip lighting flickered briefly and Giuli felt a sweat break out on her forehead: she'd worn a jacket, thinking September could be treacherous, and she pulled it off with sudden violence. Enzo lifted a hand to her bared arm, to calm her. 'It's fine,' she mouthed, trying to make her smile reassuring. Was she turning squeamish? Was Giulietta Sarto, ex-offender, ex-addict, dragged up on the Via Senese by a whore, turning bourgeois? Never.
And it was fine. She believed. She believed in this place, however suffocating and crowded and ugly. She believed in the chants raised behind her. For to her surprise, Guili had found the first time Enzo had brought her to one of these meetings that she believed in protest. This was her voice, the voice she'd been waiting to hear come from her own mouth.
Heads were turning now, and the sound had changed, a kind of jeering applause, angry and approving at the same time. Movement set up again in the crowd, then almost magically it calmed of its own accord, a hush fell over them, an attentiveness, as though St Francis had come among the beasts.
Giuli frowned at the comparison that had suggested itself to her despite a godless upbringing, despite the fervently anti-religious stance of the Frazione Verde. But there was something of the saint about him. About the man whose arrival in the meeting room – absolutely punctual as always, the harshly ticking clock over the door showing eight o'clock to the very second – had turned heads and quieted the fray. Craning her neck, across the room Giuli could only see his narrow temples, the hair just turning grey, the deepset, dark eyes behind thick glasses, his head turning this way and that as he made his way towards the stage. Hands from the crowd went out to touch him as he passed.
Niccolò Rosselli: the Frazione's leader and figurehead, thrust unwillingly into the limelight, humble, unassuming, but once on that podium a different man. Once on that podium, you believed he could do anything. He would be a deputy, he would take his place in the seat of government, he would battle for them.
At the front of the crowd now, Rosselli bent his head to climb the three steps to the stage, and at the sight of the vulnerable back of his neck, at the head bowed as if in humility, the narrow shoulders in the dusty jacket, they quieted.
Another man waited for him, at the edge of the stage. Rosselli moved across the bare scuffed boards – no lectern, no props – he turned, he raised his hands, and they were absolutely silent. Behind the glasses his eyes burned. The planes of his face, it seemed to Giuli, were sharper than before. His voice, when he spoke, was deep and cracked and fierce.
'Do you think it will be easy?' A murmur, as though he was frightening them, that died away as quickly as it had come.
'It won't be easy.' His hands came down, as if in a blessing, and the upturned faces were rapt and still: he spoke to them and silently they gave him back their faith.
'There are forces ranged against us, we know that. You must be ready for a fight, but you must be ready to fight fairly. Because if once we falter in that determination then we are become what we are here to sweep away. Once we take a bribe, once we give preferment, once we dig dirt or pass false information. Instead we pay our fines, we deliver our taxes, we work as hard as we are capable of working and we fight to protect those who need our protection.'
Giuli held her breath: she couldn't move her eyes from him but she listened to the room around her, her heart in her mouth.
He raised his chin, and in the small movement issued a challenge. 'So we do not falter. We fight without resting. That is our understanding.'
And, pausing, Rosselli watched, his narrow shoulders very still and only his eyes behind the glasses moved, counting them all in, and they were with him. Every heart in the overheated room was lifted; they rode a magic carpet with him. But there was something else. Giuli felt with a palpable prickle of dread that as he held their attention, while they were all looking his way, something else had crept into the room.
Niccolò Rosselli held up his hands, palms out. 'You do this with me,' he said, 'and I will bring you your reward.' And as it began, the response he demanded, the growling of approval that might at this early stage have been mistaken for dissent, it was then that Giuli saw it coming, saw as if in an instant of foresight. Because something happened.
A hand came out, from the big man beside him, and touched him on the elbow. Was it a warning? Or the anticipation of what was to come? And in response Giuli could not have said what it was in Rosselli – a slip, a faltering, or just a moment's hesitation – but his whole stance changed, for a fraction of a second, the set of his shoulders, the turn of his head, as if he were bewildered by where he found himself, as if he were at a loss as to what to do next. And she was not the only one to see it: the roar the crowd wanted to deliver shifted like a wind, dying in their throats.
And then, as if he heard the warning note, because he knew the crowd better than he knew himself, Rosselli stiffened, stood straight. The hand on his elbow drew back. And the voices went up, the noise was suddenly deafening, a stamping and catcalling that must have been heard out in the piazza. Giuli gave in to it, eyes closed in relief for a moment before she opened them again.
Before them, swaying, on his face that habitual expression of fierce distress, of anguish, partly on behalf of his people, partly personal discomfort at the nakedness of their approbation and the loudness of their praise, Rosselli waited for quiet. And quiet came: they waited in turn. On tiptoe Giuli gazed at his face, willing him to speak, unable to breathe because she knew that the something wrong that she had seen, was still wrong. Behind the glasses his eyes looked to one side then another; his mouth moved, but no sound came out.
And then he fell.CHAPTER 2
At his kitchen table, Sandro Cellini pushed the, newspaper aside with a sound of exasperation. There was a fuzzy photograph on the front page of people grouped beside a swimming pool; inset was a studio glamour shot of a seventeen-year-old girl – a dancer was what they called her. The story was about a man who allegedly arranged for women to entertain their prime minister, some of them under-age, all of them described as 'beautiful'. He glanced over at his wife. Not a prude, nor a man of the world either, married thirty-five years and faithful – though there'd been moments of temptation, more than one – Sandro would have found it difficult to describe his response to the news story. 'Bunga bunga' was how the sex was described.
Unease, Sandro supposed, would be his predominant emotion, if emotion it was, closely followed by weary despondency: it went deep, this stuff. When the lawyers went after the head of state, ranks closed. The last time they'd spoken, even Pietro, Sandro's old partner in the Polizia di Stato, had been tight-lipped on the subject. 'He's not the only one,' had been all he would say. 'There are ramifications.'
Something was happening, over his head, behind his back, in the force where once Sandro had been a brother-in-arms. Now he was exiled and it seemed that there really were no-go areas. Could he no longer talk politics with his old friend? He folded the newspaper so he could not see the photograph or the headline – 'NEW ALLEGATIONS! LARIO SPEAKS!' – then pulled the paperwork on his latest job towards him.
Gloomily Sandro stared at the typed page, details of a traffic accident from a medium-sized local insurance brokers. An ex-colleague had given them his name, a man neither he nor Pietro had ever had any time for, a not-very-bright police commissario who'd told Sandro about the recommendation with a gleam in his eye that said, You owe me one. So this was what Sandro had to look forward to as his main source of income; it seemed to him as he stared at the page to be all of a piece with the newspaper reports of men in high office booking prostitutes. There was something profoundly depressing about spying on claimants faking injury in car accidents: the insight into his fellow man, his brother Italian, the unease at representing the big company against the little guy. Even if the little guy was, in plain language, fraudulent.
It was eight in the morning, the sky was blue and the September air fresh through the open window; the gust of it that had come in with his wife Luisa from her dash to the market smelled of fallen leaves. She'd set a bag of bread and a butcher's packet of something, stained pink, on the table. A small box of mushrooms, the yellow trumpet-shaped ones, with shreds of moss still clinging to them, and a plastic carton of green figs, the last of them, oozing sweeter than honey.
Now Sandro sat back in his chair, closed his eyes and allowed September to soothe him. August was over, that was something to celebrate in itself. They'd had a holiday this year: after last year's terrible, suffocating month in the city, they'd made an unspoken agreement, never again. So this year they'd borrowed someone's mother's place in Castiglioncello, an old lady's house smelling of mothballs and damp, and gone there for three weeks. Not an unalloyed success – neither Sandro nor Luisa was good at idle holiday pursuits, she would rather cook than be served at table, whiling away the hours playing cards seemed nothing but a waste of time – but five or six days into their confinement something had come over them, something almost like the holiday spirit had taken them by surprise.
They had found themselves going out for an aperitivo together at six, first one night, then the next, then every night as if it were the most natural thing in the world, rather than something they'd last managed more than a year before. They had gone to the little outdoor cinema tucked away in the old town between whitewashed walls, with weeds growing up through the cracked paving, and watched an ancient Fellini film with half a dozen other couples. They had walked along the beach in the cool early morning, watching the sun come up, not hand in hand because it wasn't their way, Luisa a little in front and holding her hem out of the water.
Three old women in flowered housecoats had walked ahead of them in the pale dawn doing the same, slow, apparently aimless, talking around in circles about grandchildren and church and the baker's wife's affair. Apparently aimless but actually restoring order to the world this was the revelation that had come to Sandro as he found himself slowing his pace, realizing that as he wasn't actually heading anywhere, there was no point in going there fast. Holidays: perhaps there was something to them, after all.
They hadn't worried about Giuli either, minding the office for them in the city after taking her own two weeks at the end of July, because she had someone of her own, now.
A neglected child, an abused adolescent, Giuli had ended up in prison for taking a violent revenge on her abuser. It had brought her into Sandro's life – he'd been her arresting officer – and had indirectly led to his premature departure from the police force. Not disgraced, no one thought that any more, not for passing information on the abuser to a bereaved father, but rules were rules, always had been. Giuli had been released from prison more or less into Sandro and Luisa's care. All parties being adults, no one had had to ask anyone's permission or sign any papers, but it had been an unorthodox arrangement for the couple, childless and now too old to have children, to decide to love and protect Giuli, in so far as they were capable of doing so. And now after forty years and more of having to fight her own corner, Giuli had Enzo, too.
Reading her husband's mind, Luisa called over her shoulder from the fridge where she was putting the meat: involtini stuffed with sage and ham, four sausages, only the two of them to feed.
'You know we're supposed to be eating with them Saturday night?'
Today was Tuesday. She hadn't even needed to say who they were. Brushing herself down in an unconscious and familiar gesture that made Sandro smile and want to take hold of her, she ran her hands under the tap and sat down at the table with him.
'Yes,' he said mildly. God only knew what Giuli would cook: it wasn't her forte. Her mother would never have made housewife of the year even if she'd lived to see Giuli hit fourteen. The girl had been fed on packet cakes and fizzy drinks then her mother had died and she'd stopped eating anything at all.
'I said I'd bring something,' Luisa said. Mind-reading again.
And he looked down once more at the letter from the insurance company. Fraudulent: it was a nasty word for something everyone did. 'Who isn't fraudulent?' he said out loud.
'Me,' Luisa said. 'I'm not fraudulent. Never took a piece of stock home, nor even a paperclip, never cheated my taxes.'
'No,' Sandro said. 'Why is that?' And she'd turned her back on him with the ghost of a smile.
'He's claiming post-traumatic stress stopped him working,' Sandro added. Luisa made a sound of deep cynicism and he raised his head to monitor his wife, his infallible moral compass. Sometimes it was tricky, living with a moral compass that accurate.
Excerpted from A Darkness Descending by Christobel Kent. Copyright © 2013 Christobel Kent. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS CRIME.
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