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Involuntary Witness


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1

The first book in the Guido Guerrieri series, 2005

Translated from Italian by Patrick Creagh

What the caterpillar thinks is the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly

Lao-tzu, The Way of Virtue


Part One

1

I well remember the day – or rather the afternoon – before it all began.

I’d been in the office for a quarter of an hour and had absolutely no wish to work. I had already checked my e-mails and the post, straightened a few stray papers, made a couple of pointless telephone calls. In short, I had run out of pretexts, so I’d lit a cigarette.

I would just quietly enjoy this cigarette and then start work.

After the cigarette I’d have found some other excuse. Maybe I’d go out, remembering a book I had to get from Feltrinelli’s that, one way or another, I’d too often put off buying.

While I was smoking, the telephone rang. It was the internal line, my secretary ringing from the waiting room.

She had a gentleman there who had no appointment but said it was urgent.

Practically no one ever has an appointment. People go to a criminal lawyer when they have serious, urgent problems, or at least are convinced they do. Which comes to the same thing of course.

In any case, in my office the routine went as follows: my secretary called me, in the presence of the person who urgently needed to see a lawyer. If I was busy – for example, with another client – I made them wait until I was finished.

If I was not busy, as on that afternoon, I made them wait all the same.

I wanted them to know that this office is for working in, and that I receive clients only if the matter is urgent.

I told Maria Teresa to inform the gentleman that I could see him in ten minutes, but couldn’t spare him much time because I had an important meeting.

People think that lawyers often have important meetings.

Ten minutes later the gentleman entered. He had long black hair, a long black beard and goggling eyes. He sat down and leaned towards me, with his elbows on the desk.

For a moment I was certain that he would say, “I have just killed my wife and mother-in-law. They’re downstairs in the back of the car. Luckily I have an estate car. What are we going to do about it, Avvocato?”

Nothing of the sort. He had a van from which he sold grilled frankfurters and hamburgers. The health inspectors had confiscated it because hygienic conditions inside it were pretty much those of the sewers of Benares.

This bearded character wanted his van back. He knew that I was a smart lawyer because he had been told so by one of his mates, a client of mine. With a kind of sickening conspiratorial smirk, he gave me the name of a drug pusher for whom I had managed to negotiate a disgracefully light sentence.

I demanded an exorbitant advance, and from his trouser pocket he produced a roll of 50,000- and 100,000- lire notes.

Please don’t give me the ones with mayonnaise stains, I prayed resignedly.

He thumbed out the sum I had asked for, and left me the confiscation document and all the other documents. No, he didn’t want a receipt: what would I do with it, Avvocato? Another conspiratorial smirk. We tax evaders understand one another, don’t we?

Years before, I had quite enjoyed my work. Now, on the contrary, it made me feel slightly sick. And when I came across people like this hamburger merchant I felt sicker still.

I felt I deserved a meal of frankfurters served by this Rasputin and to land up in Casualty. In wait for me there I would find Dr Carrassi.

Dr Carrassi, second-in-command in the Casualty Department, had killed off a 21-year-old girl with peritonitis by misdiagnosing it as period pains.

His lawyer-yours truly – got him off without the loss of a day’s work or a penny of his salary. It wasn’t a difficult case. The public prosecutor was an idiot and counsel for the family a terminal illiterate.

When he was acquitted, Carrassi gave me a hug. He had bad breath, he was sweating and he was under the impression that justice had been done.

Leaving the courtroom I avoided the eyes of the girl’s parents.


The bearded character left and I, choking down nausea, prepared the appeal against the confiscation of his precious meals-on-wheels.

Then I went home.

On Friday evenings we usually went to the cinema, followed by dinner in a restaurant, always with the same bunch of friends.

I never took any part in choosing the cinema or the restaurant. I did whatever Sara and the others decided and spent the evening in a state of suspended animation, waiting for it to end. Unless it turned out to be a film I really liked, but that happened increasingly rarely.

When I got home that evening Sara was already dressed to go out. I said I needed at least a quarter of an hour, just time for a shower and change of clothes.

Ah, she was going out with her own friends, was she? Which friends? The ones from the photography course. She might have told me earlier, and I’d have got myself organized. She’d told me the day before and it wasn’t her fault if I didn’t listen to what she said. Oh, all right, there’s no need to get in a huff. I’d have tried to arrange something for myself, if I’d had time. No, I had no intention of making her feel guilty, I only wanted to say just exactly what I had said. Very well, let’s just stop bickering.

She went out and I stayed at home. I thought of calling the usual friends and going out with them. Then it seemed to me absurdly difficult to explain why Sara wasn’t there and where she had gone, and I thought they would give me funny looks, so I dropped the idea.

I tried calling up a girl who at that time I sometimes used to see on the sly, but she, almost whispering into her mobile, told me she was with her boyfriend. What did I expect on a Friday? I felt at a loose end, but then I thought I’d rent a good thriller, get out a frozen pizza and a big bottle of cold beer and, one way or another, that Friday evening would pass.

I chose Black Rain, even though I’d already seen it twice. I saw it a third time and still liked it. I ate the pizza and drank all the beer. On top of that I had a whisky and smoked several cigarettes. I flipped between television channels, discovering that the local stations had taken to showing hard porn again. This made me realize that it was one in the morning, so I went to bed.

I don’t know when I got to sleep and I don’t know when Sara came in, because I didn’t hear her.

When I woke next morning she was already up. I took my sleepy face into the kitchen and she, without a word, poured me a cup of American coffee. Both of us have always liked American coffee, really weak.

I took two sips and was just about to ask her what time she had got back the night before when she told me she wanted a separation.

She said it just like that: “Guido, I want a separation.”

After a long, deafening silence I was forced to ask the most banal of questions.

Why?

She told me why. She was perfectly calm and implacable. Maybe I thought she hadn’t noticed how my life had been in the last… let’s say two years. She, on the other hand, had noticed and she hadn’t liked it. What had humiliated her most was not my infidelity – and the word struck me in the face like spittle – but the fact that I had shown real disrespect by treating her like a fool. She didn’t know if I had always been like this or had become so. She didn’t know which alternative she preferred and perhaps she didn’t even care.

She was telling me that I had become a mediocrity and may have been one all along. And she had no wish to live with a mediocrity. Not any longer.

Like a real mediocrity, I found nothing better to do than ask her if there was someone else. She simply said no and that in any case, from that moment on, it was no business of mine.

Quite.

This conversation didn’t last long after that, and ten days later I was out of the house.

2

So, I was – politely – given the push, and my life changed. Not for the better either, though I didn’t realize this at once.

On the contrary, for the first few months I had a feeling of relief and, towards Sara, one that almost amounted to gratitude. For the courage that she had shown and I had always lacked.

In short, she had pulled my chestnuts out of the fire, as the saying goes.

I had so often thought that we couldn’t go on in that situation, that I ought to do something. I ought to take the initiative, find a solution, speak out honestly. Do something.

However, being a coward, I had done nothing, apart from grasping whatever clandestine chances had come my way.

Thinking it over, of course, the things she had said that morning stung me badly. She had treated me as a mediocrity and, like a little coward, I had taken it all lying down.

Actually, in the days that followed that Saturday, and in fact when I had already gone to live in my new home, I thought more than once of what I might have answered, just to keep some shred of dignity.

I thought of things such as “I don’t wish to deny my responsibility, but remember that the blame is never all on one side.” Things like that.

Luckily this happened only, as I say, some days later. That Saturday morning I kept my mouth shut and at least avoided making myself ridiculous.

In any case, after a while I dropped all that and was left only with a few pangs, inside. Whenever I wondered where Sara might be at that moment, what she was doing and with whom she was doing it.

I was very good at anaesthetizing these pangs, quelling them quickly. I forced them back inside where they had come from, pushing them down, hiding them deeper.

3

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