Franco Marks shares an extract from his latest novel, Blood in the Snow.
Now that the gas was draining from the apartment, Marzio realised that he was dealing with a catastrophe. He took the red kerchief off his hand and tied it around his head. A wounded apache. He tried to observe the situation as though it was nothing to do with him. It was essential to pull out his investigative tools, rusty after all these years spent in Valdiluce.
As a detective, Marzio had an illustrious past. As a lad he had joined the police sports team. With success: he’d won many trophies, especially in downhill and slalom skiing, and at twenty-three he had decided to remain in public security. At police academy he had worked hard and profitably, a long apprenticeship with the flying squads of many cities where he had worked on increasingly complex cases.
Police officer Marzio Santoni practiced an unusual style of investigation: he used laboratory instruments as little as possible, little or no DNA and autopsies, and spent plenty of time walking around inside his own mind – long walks, with boots on, assessing every detail. A procedure that gave the same results both on level ground and uphill: always accurate, never approximate, and carried out with mathematical precision. Inexorable, right up to the peak.
He was a bio-detective, and didn’t spoil the crime scene: he advanced carefully, politely, always finding the solution to the case. He perceived smells with the sensitivity of a wild animal. Wary and mysterious, he had more foxholes than an actual fox. Nobody knew about his private life. Even his colleagues called him White Wolf, the nickname he had borne since he was a child.
But one day, all of a sudden, the clock by which he regulated his existence lost its compass. Marzio realised that in the city he was trapped inside a square inch of sky. The clouds piled up above the rooftops crept up on him, the sun didn’t rise or fall in a specific place. It was then that the call of the wild came. He had to return to his mountains, take back the infinite space, regain the temperament of the wolf. And give up a brilliant career. Thanks to the support of Soprani, the big police boss, he managed to get himself appointed to the unimportant position of Inspector for Public Security of Valdiluce. He had established a close relationship with Soprani. They had often gone skiing together. The big boss had organised the transfer so as to keep Marzio, who was the best ski instructor in the force, close at hand.
At thirty-three he had seen awful things, known rottenness, violence and gunfights, but he would never, ever have imagined finding himself dealing with such a shocking case.
Four dead women. Together. In Valdiluce. There was absolute silence in Bucaneve apartment twelve, as though death had absorbed all sound. Wrapped in the cotton wool of gas and emotional intoxication, Marzio began to study the scene, It looked as though the heat had made Elisabetta restless during the night. The blankets were in disarray, a naked breast emerged from under the sheets. She wore the socks that White Wolf had given her. Her pink sweater lay abandoned on the floor. Another failure.
Death had not respected her obsessive perfectionism over details. A misplaced fold could turn Elisabetta’s mind upside down: she was a hardcore housewife. Marzio had tried to stop her, but she had taken possession of his house, had rearranged all the drawers and washed and ironed his shirts. And now he found her devoid of life, helpless, useless, in that little child’s bed. Her hands without strength, wilted like white flowers. Marzio approached, touched her on the neck. A different kind of cold, worse than an illness. An imagination interrupted. Forever.
The other three women, Flaminia, Angela, Stefania, were dead too. At first sight it looked like a suicide – if it had somehow happened by accident, he wouldn’t have found all three girls stretched out in bed, lying down as though waiting. Only Elisabetta looked less resigned – perhaps she had tried to do something. To not die. The idea that someone had used the methane gas in the kitchen to murder them wasn’t plausible: someone would have noticed the powerful smell, and someone would surely have turned off the gas tap or raised the alarm.
Delicate footsteps announced the arrival of Kristal, Marzio’s closest colleague. Dressed immaculately, with his black loafers, he looked more like an undertaker than a policeman.
“What do we do, Inspector?”
He was very pale. He was trembling with fear. It was as if it was the first time he had seen a dead person.
“Get a hold of yourself, Kristal. Get yourself organised for our colleagues arriving and stop anyone else from coming in.”
Soon there would be intolerable chaos – TV, the curious, other investigators, forensics, the big boss, Soprani.
Smelling of the paint and turpentine that his hobby of painting created, Dr Lanzetti, the medical officer for Valdiluce, entered hesitantly. Who wouldn’t be upset by the sight of four dead women?
“It can’t be… So young and beautiful…” Dismayed, he made the sign of the cross and, moving impetuously from one body to another, was unable to use his stethoscope.
He was sweating. His hairy hands raced to find some clue, a breath, an eye still veiled with life. He stared at Marzio with dull eyes.
“They’re all dead, Inspector. The evidence suggests that it was the methane gas. Their extremities are cyanotic. Asphyxia due to lack of tissue oxygenation. There are no traces of violence, except on the blonde girl.”
“Her name was Elisabetta.”
“She has a haematoma on her left wrist.”
What could have happened? That afternoon they had made love – passionately, but they hadn’t gone wild. At half past six in the evening, Elisabetta had left Marzio’s house in one piece, with no obvious marks on her body. Something must have happened to her on her way from his house to the Pino Rosso, the bar where she had an appointment with her friends to celebrate the end of their week in the mountains. That blue stripe around her wrist complicated the situation. It could be the consequence of an altercation, an argument with Angela, Stefania or Flaminia.
The evening had become chaotic, as often happens – one word follows another until a quarrel breaks out. A fight? That was strange, though, given they were close friends. Angela, Stefania and Flaminia, surprised by death in their sleep, while Elisabetta seemed not to have resigned herself, aware that something tragic was happening to her. The wide eyes, the dishevelled hair, the body lying in a contracted position, the mark on her arm. Lanzetti was carefully examining the left wrist, abandoned, helpless, like the branch of a tree fallen under the weight of the snow.
“At first glance it looks like a bruise caused by a hand that violently squeezed Elisabetta’s wrist. It’s like a blue bracelet. Somebody grabbed her hard, but didn’t break anything, just caused this bruising.”
“A man or a woman’s hand?”
“Probably a man’s. A big hand, in any case.”
“How is it possible that three women died calmly but Elisabetta shows signs of having resisted? What do you think, Doctor? Did they commit suicide?”
“I couldn’t say. Perhaps Elisabetta struggled more than the others against the gas, woke up and tried to get up, but it was too late. She fell back onto the bed in this strange position.”
“And the bruise on her wrist?”
Dr Lanzetti wasn’t used to following the footsteps of a clue. Sorry that he didn’t know how to make himself useful the way he’d seen in detective movies, he didn’t feel comfortable being a coroner.
“I hope you can clear up all your doubts, I can’t help you any more. The only certainty is that all four died, that I can guarantee. That and the haematoma on the left wrist. It’s certain. Ante mortem.”
In the apartment, the gas had now dissipated and another smell was appearing, just as precise and pungent. Marzio went over to Elisabetta’s body. Respectfully, he inhaled the air around her. She smelled of Ginpin mixed with red wine. Vomit and drunkenness.
“Doctor, smell this.”
Lanzetti approached the woman’s body, then sniffed Angela, Stefania, Flaminia.
“Alcohol! Blind drunk, completely wasted.”
“Maybe that’s why they did something stupid.”
A perfect town set against the picturesque Alps. Four girls dead. One man willing to untangle a web of deceit and lies…
Marzio Santoni left behind the brutal crimes of the big city long ago. Valdiluce is a quiet ski resort, where all he needs is the peace, quiet and his trusty vespa.
At first glance, the town inhabitants are as perfect as their postcard scenery. But under the surface, nothing is as it seems…
So when four women are discovered dead, seemingly by their own hand, Marzio can sense that something isn’t right. Fighting against his police chief, his own emotions and the evidence stacked against him, Marzio is caught up in a race against time to discover what truly happened.
Franco Marks is a writer and television director who lives and works in Rome. His books have been translated in several countries.