Carnivia Book Two – Extract
It was their biggest night of the year, although you would have been hard pushed to find it advertised anywhere – anywhere, that is, apart from certain obscure internet bulletin boards and special-interest websites, where previous years’ efforts were still talked about in the kind of ecstatic tones usually devoted to successful rock festivals or operas. It certainly wasn’t listed in the official programme of Venice’s annual Carnevale, although it was inextricably linked to that event, in spirit as well as timing. Many of its attendees had flown in specially; for them, this night was as close to the official celebrations as they would come.
At midnight, the club’s two thousand square feet of interlinked dance floors – and, even more importantly, the warren of dimly lit rooms that lay behind them – were almost deserted. By half past, the queue of people waiting to use the lockers thoughtfully provided by the management stretched out almost to the parking lot, where security personnel in tuxedos and bow ties were checking names against the list of ticket-holders. By one a.m., the main dance floor was full. To anyone unfamiliar with these events, it made an incongruous sight. Every participant wore a carnival mask, ranging from a plain white bauta, topped with the traditional black tricorn hat, to more elaborate affairs modelled on the rays of the sun, the diamond-patterned robes of a harlequin, or the heavily-jewelled visage of an eighteenth-century courtesan. But in almost every case, these costumes ended at the shoulders. From the neck down the partygoers were dressed more conventionally; the men in smart trousers and expensive loose shirts, the women in short dresses, in accordance with the club’s strict dress code.
By two, the reason for this had become clear. The dresses and shirts were being discarded. Around a third of the women now danced topless except for their masks. The men tended to keep their trousers on – at least, until they joined the throng of couples making their way to or from the smaller rooms. Some were headed for the bars, to strike up conversations with other strangers before they made their choice; others went directly to the playrooms, where the dim lighting was colour-coded to signify when a particular room was dedicated to a particular pleasure. In some, knots of naked bodies joined and rejoined with their masks still in place. In others, the masks themselves were an impediment to the enjoyments being sought, and were discarded.
In every playroom discreet stacks of towels, and bowls of flavoured condoms and mints, fulfilled the club’s promise on their website to provide an impeccable standard of hygiene as well as the best music, lighting and atmosphere in Europe.
The slim female figure wearing the gold columbina mask decorated with grey feathers paused at the door of one of the playrooms. Inside, a woman was being pleasured by six or seven men, the whole scene illuminated only by the intermittent jerky flashes of a strobe. Behind the feathered mask the girl’s eyes were wide as she took it in.
A voice in her ear said, amused, “Shall we join them?”
Without turning round she said, “You can if you want. I’m just going to watch.”
The man reached for the hem of her T-shirt. “Let’s take this off, at least,” he murmured.
“No,” she said, putting her own hand on his to stop him. “You can have fun, if you want. Just not with me. That was the deal, remember?”
Slipping away from him without a backward glance, she made her way through the crush to the next room. In the lemon-coloured light, two women knelt in the middle of a small circle of naked men. The women had removed their masks; the men had not. The girl watched for a while, then moved on.
Another room was almost completely dark: a notice by the door invited those who entered to take off their clothes and use their sense of touch. Almost regretfully, the girl turned away. In a small bar she stopped to look at a long-legged, attractive blonde woman who was lying on her back across a low table, a man at either end. Half a dozen couples stood around, also watching, drinks in hand.
“Hey, beautiful,” a man with a thick body-builder’s torso, his face improbably tanned for the time of year, said to her in heavily-accented English. “My wife thinks you’re hot.”
Shaking her head with a quick, regretful smile, she headed back to the dance floor. There was a platform at one end where professional dancers, two of either sex, performed non-stop, their bodies gleaming with oil and sweat. The male dancer on the left had a hairless chest, thin as a rock star’s but rippled with muscle. She watched him for a while.
“Hiya.” A girl a few years older than her smiled a greeting over the pounding music. “Having a good time?”
The girl leaned in closer. “You need anything sorted out? Hash, some botta, pills…?”
“What have you got?”
“Not me. Him.” The girl pointed to where a young man with blond dreadlocks wearing a trifecca mask stood slightly apart. “Whatever you need. He’s cool.”
Nodding her thanks, the girl in the feathered columbina made her way over to the young man. “Hey,” she said casually.
Looking round quickly, the man pushed open a fire door without a word and motioned for her to step outside. She did so, shivering as the cold air hit her. “I hear,” she began, but the words were hardly out of her mouth when she felt strong arms pinning her from behind. The carnival mask was plucked from her face, and some kind of bag or hood made of heavy felt fell over her head in its place. More hands fastened round her calves, the two-man team lifting her as effortlessly as if she were a shop mannequin being moved to a different window. She felt herself propelled forwards, then fell roughly onto a hard surface that gave slightly beneath her assailants’ weight as they clambered in after her, rapidly securing her legs and arms with what felt like plastic strips. I’m in a van, she thought. They’ve put me in a van. It must be the police. And then, moments later, came the realisation that the Italian police would never hood her like this. “Dad?” she said hesitantly, just before a thick strip of tape wound round her mouth, hood and all, muffling even the scream that belatedly escaped her. Terror flooded her limbs, but though she jerked and bucked frantically, like a fish out of water, she was too tightly secured to free herself.
She heard doors slam, felt the van move off. The whole thing had taken less than thirty seconds.
A hand held her down, and a male voice spoke close to her ear. He was breathing heavily, panting with the exertion of restraining her. He crooned some words in Italian under his breath, nothing she understood, then switched to heavily-accented English.
“Stay still, Madalyn. Stay still and I promise you’ll be all right.”
He knows my name, she thought, and the realisation was even more terrifying than anything else that had happened so far. She felt her bowels clench and unclench, and struggled without success to keep control of her bladder. Then a sweet-smelling liquid soaked the hood around her nose, and she felt darkness racing towards her.
Colonel Aldo Piola of the Venice Carabinieri came awake with a start, unable at first to remember where he was. Nearby in the darkness a white screen flashed, and a tinny speaker played a pop song. He recognised the tune as one his son had been listening to recently, and felt a twinge of annoyance. Claudio must have changed his ringtone as a joke, or – more likely, he thought, the annoyance replaced by a sudden surge of guilt – in the hope of getting his father’s attention when he was at work.
There was no light by the sofa, so he answered by feel. “Pronto?”
“Colonel, it’s Zito. Apologies for waking you at this unfortunate hour.”
Piola had no idea what the hour was, but if something was serious enough to require a call from his generale di brigata the time was hardly relevant, so he said only, “No problem.”
“We’ve been asked to oversee an investigation at Vicenza – the Polizia are saying it’s not their jurisdiction, although I suspect they simply don’t want to get involved. Some human remains have been found at the American military base, the big new one they’re building.”
Piola noticed the use of ‘human remains’ instead of ‘body’, but chose not to question it. “Who found them?”
“A local boy, engaged in some kind of protest. Hence the ungodly hour.”
“Shouldn’t the Vicenza commando handle it?”
“Possibly, but there’s no one of your rank available. Sabbatini’s on a training course, and Lombardo’s assigned elsewhere.” Zito hesitated. “There’s a sense it should be someone from outside the immediate area, someone senior, so that it’s clear we’re taking it seriously.”
Ah, so it was a matter of politics. If it involved Americans, that wasn’t so very surprising. “Speaking of other commitments, you’re probably aware I have some internal matters that are taking up my own time just now.” Piola crossed to the door and flicked the light switch as he spoke. The sofa, covered with one of his son’s cast-off AC Milan duvets, sprang into view, along with a clock, almost obscured by files and papers. The time was 3.28 a.m. He reached for his trousers, the phone still clamped between his shoulder and his ear.
“Indeed. To be honest, that’s why I thought of you. A quick and professional investigation, delicately handled by an experienced officer, is all that’s required here. It shouldn’t be too time-consuming. And it won’t do you any harm with Internal Affairs to have the Americans putting in a good word.”
“I understand. Thank you.” Through the open door Piola caught a movement, the edge of a nightgown ducking back behind a doorframe across the corridor. It was Gilda, trying to hear who he was talking to. “Sir,” he added, to make it clear that it was work. The nightgown disappeared.
“Thanks. A car’s on its way. Keep me informed, won’t you?”
By the time Piola had hung up, his wife had gone back to bed, her door shut against him. He knocked softly. “I have to go out,” he said through the wood. “I’ll see you tonight.” There was no reply.
So he wouldn’t disturb his family any more than he had to, he went and waited in the street, hoping the driver would have the sense not to use his siren. He zipped up his jacket against the cold of the caìgo, the thick fog which at this time of year blanketed Venice and the surrounding countryside almost every night. Normally he wore plain clothes for investigations, but since this involved the Americans he’d opted for the working Carabinieri uniform of dark blue windcheater, dark pleated trousers and well-polished black shoes. The lapels of his windcheater bore three silver stars above a three-turreted castle. Not that the Americans would necessarily be impressed by the fact that he was a colonel, but it would do no harm to remind them that the Carabinieri, like the US army, was first and foremost a military organisation. He carried his colonel’s hat under his arm, making a mental note not to forget it when he put it down, as he usually did.
He was in luck; the car had its blue light on but no siren. The driver, Roberto, had also thought to bring coffee. Tipping the contents of the tiny carton down his throat in one movement, Piola was even more pleased to discover that his espresso was liberally laced not only with sugar, but with a generous corretto of grappa.
“Who’s there so far?” he asked as they set off.
“Dottore Hapardi – he was on call. As for the rest, I think they’re Vicenza boys.”
“Do you know anything about it?”
Roberto shrugged. “Not much. A skeleton, I heard. But it was on the construction site, and it was protestors who found it, so….”
Piola nodded his understanding. Anything to do with the military base would have to be investigated by the book, especially if there were protestors involved. The construction site at the old Dal Molin airfield, a few miles from the existing US military garrison at Caserma Ederle, was one of the biggest building projects in northern Italy, dwarfed only by the flood defences in the Venetian lagoon. Both schemes were mired in controversy, but in the case of Dal Molin, the controversy had quickly turned to something more. When news of the proposed new base had seeped out in 2010, thousands of local people had marched to express their opposition. Even those who might not have objected on ideological grounds were outraged by the way the US had been exempted from the usual planning laws, their presence sanctioned by classified treaties and secret agreements that dated back to the Second World War. A ragged alliance of hippies, activists, residents and students had even established a permanent ‘peace camp’ on land adjacent to the site. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever to the construction, which had been going on for over a year now: Piola thought he recalled a recent announcement in the local paper to the effect that it would all be completed in record time.
If it was a skeleton, of course, that implied the body was of a certain age, and no criminal investigation would be required. That certainly explained General Zito’s reference to ‘human remains’. But Piola knew that a body buried without a coffin could be reduced to bare bones in a matter of months. It was best to make no assumptions until the evidence was clear.
The drive from Piola’s home in Noale to Vicenza took just over half an hour, with Roberto taking it easier than normal because of the fog. It lifted a little as they went inland, so that Piola was able to get a partial look at the scene as they approached.
The huge construction site had been fenced off from the surrounding roads with wooden boards – why did they do that, he found himself wondering: what was it about building work that meant it must be hidden from view? The boards, however, had proved an irresistible temptation to the graffiti writers and bill-posters. Slogans denouncing the new base were in turn covered by posters showing black and white photographs of smiling, suited men with perfect teeth and wide smiles. There were elections coming up for the regional assembly, and these identikit faces – most of whom looked to Piola like game show hosts – were the candidates.
Here and there, access gates or stretches of chainlink allowed a glimpse of what lay within. A few years ago, this had been a crumbling, little-used Italian military airfield, surrounded by open parkland. Now, shapes of buildings and construction vehicles loomed out of the fog. Great jagged spills of mud at every access point, like frozen dark waves, hinted at the pace of progress, and metal cranes climbed into the sky like fairytale beanstalks. But what caught the eye most were the great corkscrews of coloured smoke – green, white and red – that fizzed up into the fog, turning the air itself into a giant Italian flag. The glow of bright arc lights further punctuated the scene, and over to one corner the air pulsed blue.
“I heard the protestors let off smoke flares,” Roberto said. He pointed to the blue pulse. “That’ll be us.”
Sure enough, once they were closer they found two Carabinieri vehicles, their lights still flashing, drawn up by a gap in the boarding that proclaimed itself to be Gate G. A uniformed appuntato saluted Piola as he got out of the car, but it was a wiry man in American grey-green combat fatigues who hurried forward.
“Colonel Piola?” From the way the man pronounced his name, Piola could tell he spoke some Italian. “This way, sir.” Piola reached back into his car for the hat he’d nearly forgotten, then followed the American to a waiting Jeep.
When they were under way, bumping and sliding over the rough ground, the man spoke again. “Mike Shapiro, Master Sergeant, Military Police. Nothing’s been moved or disturbed. Your medical people got here twenty minutes ago.”
“What time were the remains discovered?” Piola spoke in English, as the American had done.
“Approximately oh-one-thirty. We had a major security ingress – a bunch of protestors cut through one of the padlocks and forced open the gate. Every entry point is alarmed, of course, and our cameras have night vision capability, so we were onto them pretty swiftly. They let off these flares you can see, sprayed some graffiti around, then split up and made for different parts of the site. Two chained themselves to the cranes – those are my biggest headache; we’ve had to call in specialists with abseiling equipment to cut them loose. My men followed another to a 319D – that is, one of the big bucket-loaders. By the time they tackled him, he was already on the phone to the police, saying he’d seen a skeleton in the tipper. The guards didn’t believe him at first. But when one of them went to check, it turned out the information was correct – at least, there was a skeleton.”
Piola noted the implication. “You don’t believe the rest of his story?”
“Well sir, I don’t want to pre-empt your investigation. But on the cameras, he was observed to be carrying a duffel bag when he broke in. It seems possible he brought the skeleton with him, threw it into the loader, then reported it, in the hope of holding up construction.” Shapiro glanced at Piola. “No offence, Colonel, but Italian bureaucracy can be notoriously slow, and it wouldn’t be the first time the antis have tried to get us tangled up in red tape. That’s why we made sure we got the Carabinieri, rather than the state police. At least you people get that this is a military schedule we’re dealing with here.”
Piola chose not to respond directly to that. “Do the protestors break in often?”
“Negative – this would be the first time since Transformation began. Why?”
The directness of the question took Piola by surprise. “No particular reason.”
They drove in silence for a while. Even at ground level, tattered fronds of mist greyed the Jeep’s headlights, and every light along the way was surrounded with a fine, hazy aura, like a dandelion-clock. Piola thought he glimpsed a group of earthmovers just ahead through the mist, but appearances were deceptive: it was another three minutes before the Jeep drew up beside them.
“You should wear these,” Shapiro said, handing Piola a sleeveless fluorescent jacket and a yellow hard hat. “This too.” He passed over a small laminated card on a loop of ribbon. Piola glanced at it: it said VISITOR in big letters. Underneath, in smaller type, were the words TEMPORARY PASS – NOT FOR RE-USE. He put it all on without comment.
As he approached the earthmovers, stepping gingerly through the squelching mud in an effort to preserve at least some of the shine on his shoes, he realised why he’d become confused about the distance. The machines were huge – at least three times normal size, the tyres alone almost the height of a man. On the cabin door of the nearest, which was reached by a series of metal steps, was some graffiti similar to that he’d seen by the gate – a big round circle with an A in it, like the anarchist symbol, except that the circle also contained a smaller D and M between the feet of the A. The graffiti was clearly recent, the paint still running in the moisture-laden air.
The truck was so big that to see inside the bucket he had to climb a ladder that had been placed next to it. He did so, going more slowly as he felt the ladder shift a little in the mud under his weight, and peered over the rim.
Inside, two white-suited figures wearing goggles and white masks crouched under the glare of a portable arc light, their focus a tangled pile of bones nestled amongst the debris. Piola made out a skull, brown with age, and below it the unmistakeable hoops of a ribcage. A little to one side was what looked like a femur.
“Good morning, dotorre,” he greeted them. One of the figures looked up.
“Ah, Colonel. I was beginning to think we wouldn’t see you until breakfast.” Hapardi’s voice was muffled by the mask.
“I’m not sure why I’m here at all,” Piola said. “As opposed to someone more local, I mean.”
“Who’s local? We’re in America now,” Hapardi said drily.
“What can you tell me?”
The medical examiner stood up, stretching to ease the stiffness in his back from crouching. “Well, I’d say it’s a man – the pelvis and jawbone are more angular than a female’s, although that isn’t infallible. DNA will confirm it – we’ll have to use mitochondrial, there isn’t enough adipose for conventional techniques.” Piola nodded, although he barely understood. “He was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, to judge from the fusion of the small bones.”
“When does it date from?”
They both knew this was the crucial question. Anything over a hundred years old would be considered a historical artefact, and thus of no interest to the police services.
“It’s not medieval. But I’d say neither is it very recent – although soft tissue would decay after a few years in this ground, the discoloration is too evenly spread for that. There are some fragments of clothing fibres that might be of help, and he has an interesting distortion of the left wrist that may indicate poliomyelitis. But to be honest, dating skeletons is specialist work. I’ll have to find someone who’s more familiar with the correct tests than I am.”
“Any thoughts on how it got here?”
“Almost certainly, it was tossed in from outside the tipper,” Hapardi said. “The force of the impact is what caused the femur and pelvis to come apart. And it’s clearly positioned on top of the rest of the rubble, not amongst it.”
“So it could have been thrown in just an hour or so ago?”
“Possibly. I’m aware that’s what’s being hypothesised.”
Catching the note of caution in the doctor’s voice, Piola said, “The Americans have told you what they think happened?”
“Indeed. They were very insistent that I understood how they saw the sequence of events.”
“You don’t agree with them?”
“Let’s just say they might be jumping to conclusions – or perhaps it would be fairer to say, marching to them. But you’ll be able to prove or disprove their theory easily enough.”
Hapardi crouched down again. He had been using a small trowel and a brush to probe the surrounding soil; now he used the end of the brush as a pointer, to indicate the skeleton’s pelvis. “See here, how soil has filled the pelvic cavity? If someone carried it here, clumps would have been falling out along the way. Your skeleton will have left a trail of crumbs, Colonel, like Hansel and Gretel.”
“Thank you, dotorre. That’s very useful.”
As Piola started back down the ladder, Hapardi added, “You didn’t ask about cause of death.”
Piola stopped. “That’s because I didn’t think you’d be able to tell me anything.”
“Normally, perhaps. But when it’s like this it’s not difficult.” Hapardi lifted the skull in white-gloved hands, rotating it so that Piola could see the two neat circles just behind where the left ear would have been. “That’s how I know it isn’t medieval. They didn’t make holes like this back in those days, because they didn’t have bullets.”