'No. What?'

'The Battestini woman, the one across from you. You haven't heard?'

She thought of the shutters, suppressing the hope that sprang up inside her. 'No. Nothing. What?' She placed the newspaper on the counter and leaned towards him.

'She's dead. Murdered,' he said, caressing the word.

Signora Gismondi gasped her surprise, then demanded, 'No. What happened? When?'

'About three weeks ago. The doctor found her; you know, that one who goes in to see the old people. Someone'd beaten in her head.' He paused to see the effect of his news, judged her to be satisfactorily stunned, so went on, 'My cousin knows one of the cops who found her, and he said whoever did it must really have hated her. At least that's what my cousin said he said’

He looked at his audience. 'But I guess she did, huh? Hate her, I mean.'

'What?' Gismondi said, confused by the unexpected news and then by this inexplicable remark. 'Who? I don't know who you're talking about’

'The Romanian woman. That's who killed her.' He saw her surprise and launched himself into the second, and better, act of his drama. 'Yeah, she tried to get out of the country, but they found her on the train, the one that goes to Romania.'

Signora Gismondi looked suddenly pale, but that only increased his relish. 'They stopped her up there at the border. Villa Opicina, I think. On the train, just sitting there cool as ice, after killing that old woman. She hit one of the policemen and tried to push him under a train, but he got away, and it was her who got hit.' He saw the Signora's mounting confusion and, out of respect for his sources, if for nothing else, he added, 'Well, that's what the papers say and what I've heard from people.'

'Who got hit? Flori?'

'The Romanian? Was that her name?' he asked, suspicious that she should know it.

'Yes,' Signora Gismondi said. 'What happened to her?'

He seemed puzzled by her question. What else could happen to a person who got hit by a train? ‘I told you, Signora’ he said with strained patience. 'The train hit her. Up there. In Villa Opicina or wherever it was.' He was not an intelligent man and lacked imagination, so these words meant next to nothing to him. That is, in saying them, he conjured up no image of the steel wheels, the rolling point of contact they made with the metal rails under them, was incapable of summoning up the image of what would happen to something, anything, caught inexorably between those two things.

She placed a hand on the newspapers as if to steady herself. 'She's dead?' she asked, as if the man had not spoken.

'Of course,' he answered, impatient at her slowness in understanding things. 'But so's that poor old woman.' His indignation was audible, and the sound of it seeped into Assunta Gismondi's mind.

'Of course,' she said softly. 'Terrible, terrible.' She took out some money and set it on the counter, forgot to pick up her paper, and left the shop, vowing never to go there again. Poor old woman. Poor old woman.

She went back to her apartment and, doing something she'd never done and wasn't even sure could be done, she went on to the Internet and called up the Gazzettino from the day after she had left for London. She regretted her decision to immerse herself in English during the time she had been there: no papers and no news from home, no seeking out of other Italians. It was as though the last three weeks had never taken place. Though, the Gazzettino rapidly informed her, they surely had.

She read only the stories that had to do with Signora Battestini's murder, and as the days and the editions passed, she followed the tale as it had evolved. The substance was much as the newsagent had said: old woman found dead by her doctor, Romanian servant missing, train stopped at the border, attempt to flee, death. False papers, no woman of that name, family devastated by murder of favourite aunt, quiet funeral of victim.

Assunta Gismondi switched off the computer and stared at the blank screen. When she tired of that, she turned her attention to the books that lined one wall of her studio and read through the names of the authors on the top shelf: Aristotle, Plato, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plutarch, Homer. Then she looked out the window, across the canal at the closed shutters.

She reached to the right of her computer and picked up the phone. She dialled 113 and asked to speak to a policeman.

As she walked through the door of the Questura half an hour later, she chided herself for her foolishness in having assumed that they would have sent someone to talk to her. She was a citizen, doing her civic duty, volunteering information that was of great importance, so of course a bored policeman, who refused to give his name, told her that she was obliged to come down to the Questura to talk to them. As soon as she heard his officious voice, she regretted having given her name when she called: had she not, she would have been tempted to forget the whole thing and let them worry about it. Only she knew they would not worry, knew that the last thing on their minds, assuming that they had minds, would be any desire to change their assumptions and then go to the trouble of working out new ones.

She turned to the right, to a window behind which sat a uniformed officer. ‘I called half an hour ago’ she began, 'and said I had to talk to someone about a crime. They told me I had to come in here to do it, so here I am.' He remained unmoved, so she added, 'I'd like to speak to someone about the murder that happened a few weeks ago.'

He considered this for a moment, as though this were Dodge City and he had to work out which one she might be referring to. 'The Battestini woman?' he finally asked.


'That would be Lieutenant Scarpa’ the officer said.

'May I speak to him?'

'I'll call and see if he's here’ the man said, reaching for his phone. He turned his back to her and spoke softly into the receiver, making Signora Gismondi wonder if he and Lieutenant Scarpa were planning a strategy that would get her to confess to involvement in the murder. After what seemed a long time, he came out of the small cubicle. Pointing towards the back of the building, he said, 'Down that corridor there, Signora. Turn right and it's the second door on your left. The lieutenant is expecting you’ He went back into the cubicle, closing the door behind him.

She started down the corridor, surprised that she should be allowed to walk around in the Questura so freely. Hadn't they ever heard of the Red Brigades?

She found the door, knocked, and was told to enter. A man of about her own age was seated behind a metal desk in a room hardly bigger than the cubicle downstairs. If he stood, he would be much taller than she. He had dark hair, and eyes that looked as though they would limit their work to seeing the surface of things. There was the uniformed man, his chair, the desk, and two armless chairs placed in front of it.

'Lieutenant Scarpa?' she asked.

He looked up at her and nodded, then looked down at the papers on his desk.

She gave her name and her address, then asked, 'Are you in charge of the investigation of the murder of Signora Battestini?'

'I was’ he said, again raising his eyes. He pointed to one of the chairs and said, 'Please sit down.'

One step brought her to the chair, and she sat, then, realizing that it was placed so that the sun from the small window shone into her face, she got up and moved to the other, angling it away from both his desk and the window before she sat down again.

Signora Gismondi had no direct experience of the police, but she had for six years been married to a very lazy and equally violent man, and she simply put herself back into that time and situation and acted accordingly. 'You said you were in charge, Lieutenant,' she said softly. 'Does that mean the investigation is being handled by someone else?' If so, she wondered, then why had she been sent to talk to this man?

He made a point of finishing whatever it was he was reading and setting it aside before he looked up at her. 'No.'

She waited for an explanation, and when none was forthcoming, she repeated, 'Does that mean the investigation is closed?'

He paused a long time before repeating, 'No.'

Giving no sign of impatience or exasperation, she asked, 'May I ask what it does mean?'

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