The Rome Prophecy(2)
Author:Sam Christer


    ‘Sorry to disturb you so late on a Friday night,’ he says, not sounding sorry at all. ‘Control has just had a case called in that I’d like you to supervise.’ He pauses, covers the mouthpiece and says something as an aside. ‘It’s a potential homicide, with … how shall we put it … an unusual twist. Lieutenant Assante will give you a hand; he’s already at the barracks.’

    Valentina thinks she hears muffled laughter in the background. She doesn’t yet know her new boss well enough to be sure that someone isn’t imitating him and playing a prank on her. ‘Sir, forgive me, but is this some kind of joke?’

    Caesario clears his throat. ‘No, no, not at all. Please forgive us. I’m here with the colonel and he has something of a dark sense of humour. If you call Assante, he’ll give you the full details and then you’ll understand. Good night.’

    Valentina thinks the call’s genuine. She could all but smell the cigar smoke in the officers’ club as they swilled brandies in big glasses. She was hoping for an early night. Maybe a glass of red wine before a good long sleep.

    She knows she’s not going to get either. She calls Homicide and holds the receiver between ear and shoulder while pulling her uniform back on. As soon as the details come out, she understands the black humour, and why the case has been batted her way.

    The new girl is being taught a lesson.

    She’s being given a heads-up by those who think her promotion is purely political, a token gesture of equality.

    She’s heard it all before.

    Morassi must have slept her way to the top. Screwed the examiner in charge of promotions. Blown the boss to get the easy cases. And those are just the things female officers say. Those of course who haven’t made the rank she has. Granted, twenty-nine is unspeakably young for anyone to make captain, but she deserves it. Her last case had made her, and the man she’s going to have dinner with tomorrow, the talk of Italy.

    Valentina shuts the front door and heads for her three-year-old white Fiat Punto. It doesn’t go nearly as fast as she’d like, but in the Eternal City, where parking is an eternal problem, the tiny Fiat is king.

    By the time she’s in fourth and has finished cursing its sluggishness, her mind is back on the new case she’s just been given.

    It’s certainly a strange one.

    A cleaner at the Chiesa Santa Maria in Cosmedin has discovered a highly unwelcome gift in the portico. The severed hand of a woman.





    2



    Paris

    Tom Shaman is staring at the clear wintry night sky, playing join the dots. He wonders whether he’s spotted the Great Bear or the Little Bear. From what little he can remember of childhood astronomy, on a night as clear as this you should be able to see more than two thousand stars. Given his unique viewpoint, it might just be possible.

    Tom is at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

    He’s on a wind-blown workers’ platform, way above the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant. The man who brought him here is Jean-Paul Marty, his best friend in France and the head of one of the many construction companies employed to do near-constant maintenance on the giant structure. Tom and JP have completely different lives but share the same basement gym and passion for boxing. They’ve even sparred together. A mistake the Frenchman won’t make again. The thirty-three-year-old American is as big as an oak and throws a punch that could derail a freight train.

    JP puts his hands on the cold steel of the workers’ cradle and stares proudly out over the city of his birth. ‘I cannot believe that you spend a year in Paris and have never seen the magic of the City of Light from the Tower.’

    ‘C’est la vie.’ Tom sits on the rough boards and dangles his legs over the edge. He enjoys the childish thrill of knowing there’s more than three hundred metres of air between him and the ground. ‘I guess that’s what happens when you spend half your time working as a grunt at Eurodisney and a dishwasher at Robuchon.’

    JP laughs. ‘The restaurant I know about, but you were one of Mickey’s mouses? This you keep a secret.’

    ‘No, not at all. I was proud to be a mouse. It was how I learned my Mickey Mouse French. It was how I kept alive for the first six months.’ He ticks points off on his fingers. ‘First a garbage guy, sweeping Main Street, morning, noon and night. Then acting. I was Disney’s best-ever Goofy and I didn’t have to speak, so that was kind of perfect too. Then I worked both Planet Hollywood and the Rainforest Café as a kitchen porter.’

    ‘All of France is grateful for your cultured contribution to our society; we will miss you so much. And Robuchon?’

    ‘When I was moused-out, I blagged a cleaning job at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and lived on the best leftovers in the world. Not much got tossed, I can tell you.’ Tom looks up at the final shining zenith of the tower. ‘Thanks for fixing this; it’s a good way to go out.’

    JP runs a finger down the steelwork. ‘You are welcome, mon ami. It is my pleasure to show you around, but don’t tell anyone.’

    ‘I won’t.’

    The Frenchman turns his back to the wind and tries to light a cigarette. ‘I’d get you to swear to that on the Bible, but I’m not sure such an oath counts if it comes from an ex-priest.’

    ‘It counts.’ Tom points off into the darkness and the wind flaps the sleeve of his black cotton jacket. ‘What’s that?’

    His friend glances, unlit cigarette still in mouth. ‘The Champ de Mars. You know the Champ de Mars?’

    ‘The big park where they do the military stuff?’

    JP laughs and abandons his tobacco for a moment. ‘Aah, oui, the military stuff. Tom, the Field of Mars is the largest open space in Paris and perhaps the most respected. It is almost sacred. Much food has been eaten on this land and much blood drunk by its earth. During the Revolution, the Fête de la Fédération was held there, and two years after the storming of the Bastille, many people were massacred.’

    Tom senses his friend’s passion. ‘I’m sorry.’

    JP finally succeeds in lighting his cigarette. He takes a couple of deep draws and holds it out for Tom to see. ‘War and military stuff, as you call it, are engrained in our nation. Like my father – and his father – I smoke Gauloises. We do it because it is patriotic. Marketers will tell you Gauloises are forever linked with the French infantrymen – the poilu. Even the brand slogan is “Freedom Forever”.’

    ‘Good slogan, bad place to put it.’

    ‘Oui.’ He blows grey smoke into the night sky. ‘My mother says if the cigarettes do not kill you then the slogan will.’

    Tom smiles and looks out over the twinkling lights of the city below. His thoughts drift to his flight tomorrow, his meeting with Valentina and the circumstances that first brought them together. Painful memories surface of how he left his job as a priest in Los Angeles. A very public end to his vocation. His name plastered across every newspaper and news channel in the country. Every person in his parish pointing him out on the sidewalk. Venice seemed the perfect place to run to. A picture postcard of a city to hide in. Somewhere time seemed to have stood still.

    Only it hadn’t.

    Journalists and news crews turned out to be every bit as cruel there as they had been in America. Tom’s dark secret didn’t stay secret for very long. He’d misjudged Valentina at first and she’d probably done the same with him. Only over the course of the case that they worked together did they find common respect and affection, and by then Tom wrongly thought his future lay with someone else. It all seems so long ago now. Like another lifetime.

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