Read Death in Autumn Online

Authors: Magdalen Nabb

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Death in Autumn

Death in Autumn

Also by the Author

Death of an Englishman

Death of a Dutchman

Death in Springtime

The Marshal and the Murderer

The Marshal and the Madwoman

The Marshals Own Case

The Marshal Makes His Report

The Marshal at the Villa Torrini

The Monster of Florence

Property of Blood

with Paolo Vagheggi

The Prosecutor

Death in Autumn

Magdalen Nabb

First published in Great Britain in 1984

First published in the United States in 1985

Copyright © 1984 by Magdelen Nabb and © 1999 by
Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich

This edition published in the United States in 2002 by
Soho Press, Inc.
853 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Nabb, Magdalen, 1947-2007
Death in autumn / Magdalen Nabb.
p. cm.
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-296-5

1. Guarnaccia, Marshal (Ficticious character)—Fiction.
2. Police—Italy—Florence—Fiction. 3. Florence (Italy)—Fiction. I. Tide.

PR6064.A18 D36 2002

823'.914—dc21       2001049787

10 9 8 7 6 5


Dawn still hadn't broken and the river water lapping the sides of the black rubber dinghy was of the same darkness as the sky except for a path of moving light coming from a lamp attached to the dinghy's side. A torch flashed a brief signal from the left and when the man in the dinghy answered it the truck parked on the bank was visible for an instant and then vanished in the blackness again. There was no point in trying to shout above the roaring of the weir below the next bridge. The man in the dinghy resumed his watch over the dark water. Things wouldn't get that much easier when dawn did come. The thick mist that hung over the river would take hours to disperse even if the mild autumn sun made an appearance, and the water level was still low so that every movement churned up mud. There were lights across the bridges and along the embankment, yellow and white points each surrounded by a little halo of mist. To the right, the centre of Florence was still shrouded in sleep and darkness. Nevertheless, there was an early morning feeling in the air, perhaps because of the few trucks that had trundled overhead towards the flower market, leaving their exhaust fumes to mingle with the muddy smells of the river.

The surface of the water broke suddenly at two points a few yards apart and two black shapes bobbed towards the path of light, where they became visible as two heads encased in black rubber. The divers had come up empty-handed for the fourth time. One of them lifted a hand to make a negative sign and then pointed down river to the next bridge. The two divers disappeared again and the man in the dinghy flashed another signal towards the bank and started up the outboard motor. It was true that they often came up there where small trees and rubbish, washed down to the city from the countryside, piled up under the arch on the left. The lights of the truck came on and began moving slowly forward, lighting up the gravelled track below the embankment wall, keeping pace with the dinghy. Even so, if the body had gone over the weir there would be nothing for it but to wait three days until it came up and was spotted by some passer-by in one of the small towns through which the Arno wound its way towards Pisa.

Unless, of course, the whole thing was a sick joke. It happened now and then. One of the divers, reluctant to go out in the dark, had said as much and suggested they wait till daylight but someone else who knew where the call had come from had soon put him right:

'I'd like to meet the person who could pull one over on Guarnaccia.'

'Never heard of him.'

'You have now. Marshal of Carabinieri over at Palazzo Pitti. Looks as dumb as an ox, southerner, but you'd have to be up early to catch him napping.'

'Well, that's just what somebody did, isn't it?'

And they had piled their equipment on to the truck in the dark, still grumbling.

In fact, it hadn't been someone up early who had claimed to have seen the body in the water but two young tourists who hadn't gone to bed, and the Marshal, his big, slightly protruding eyes red and puffy with sleep and his paunch more than usually evident beneath a half-buttoned jacket, had had a very hard time of it indeed.

In the first place they were foreigners, and after a long sweaty summer dealing with lost cameras, stolen handbags, missing children and almost-missing cars—all those narrow streets look alike but the name began with an F or maybe it was G, a street with a stone arch across and a cobbler's shop, or was that where we parked it yesterday—the Marshal and his men had had enough. Now here it was almost October and tourists still ringing the bell at Stazione Pitti in the middle of the night. 'All right,' the Marshal had said wearily, sitting down at his desk, 'bring them in.' And he picked up the passports that the two boys on duty had brought to him. Swedish.

They were brought in. A tall bearded young man and a girl. As they came through the door the Marshal could see that their rucksacks and plastic bags almost filled the little waiting-room beyond. He motioned them to sit down and the young man said a few incomprehensible words.

'Can't you speak any Italian?'

The young man looked at his girlfriend and she took out a phrasebook.

After almost half an hour the Marshal gave up and the carabiniere who had sat down at the typewriter got up again without having written a word.

'You see how it is, Marshal,' he said. 'We kept telling them to go to Borgo Ognissanti but they kept on ringing the bell and shouting things through the speaker. They don't understand a word. I didn't want to wake you, but what could we do?'

'I'll ring Borgo Ognissanti myself.' At Headquarters there was always somebody who could cope in most languages. He would get them to tell their story over the phone and if it turned out to be anything serious the Company Captain would have to be woken.

He dialled the number, muttering to himself the way he did all through the summer, 'I don't know what they come here for, they'd do better to stay at home . . .'

It was serious. At least, it was if the story they told was true. When they had finished the Marshal got on the line again and had it repeated to him in Italian. Afterwards the Lieutenant on the other end said:

'Do you want me to call the Captain for you?'

The Marshal hesitated a moment and then said, 'Yes,' and rang off. To the two boys on duty he said, 'A body in the river. The Captain's coming over.' Then he added: 'One of you make some coffee. We're going to be all night sorting this lot out.'

It was to take longer than one night to sort out. If you counted the death of a man in New York which marked the real end of the story, it was to take almost two years.

'What time was this?'

'Between half past eleven and midnight, I think. We'd given up looking for accommodation by then. It was getting too late to be ringing doorbells and we can't really afford the sort of hotels that have night porters. We always carry sleeping-bags for emergencies so we weren't too worried.'

'You never book accommodation in advance?'

'That's not the way we travel. We'd heard of a hostel in Via Santa Monica but it turned out to be full. We tried one or two other places nearby and then started back towards the river, thinking that in the centre we'd find a bar or something that stayed open late. In fact we found one before we reached the river, just near here in Piazza Pitti. We stayed there until it closed.'

'I see. Just a moment. . .' The Captain stopped to translate so that the Marshal's boy could take down the statement. The young carabiniere typed very rapidly with two fingers. The conversation had been in English, a little stilted on both sides but adequate. Each time the typing stopped they carried on. The Captain was unshaven and not too happy at having been got out of bed at three in the morning, but although he didn't approve of foreigners rambling around the country with rucksacks and too little money, he was impressed by the seriousness and obvious intelligence of the two Swedes and more or less inclined to believe their story after some initial doubts as to whether they weren't just looking for a warm place to pass the rest of the night.

'You decided to sleep out?'

'At that point it was necessary.'

'Why the Ponte Vecchio?'

'It's a popular place to sleep for young people.'

That was true, and as a rule they slept late so that people had to pick their way through the huddled grimy sleeping-bags to get across the bridge on their way to work in the morning.

'What time did you see the body?'

'Almost directly we got there. We were leaning over the parapet, in the middle where there are no shops.'



'Why were you leaning over the parapet?'

The young man seemed surprised. 'Looking at the view, the lights on the water. It's very beautiful.'

'Was there anyone else on the bridge?'

'No, nobody.'

'You still haven't told me what time it was.'

'I didn't look at my watch, I didn't think ofit, I'm sorry. But once we were sure, we came here immediately and I should think it can only be a five minute walk, so . . .'

The Captain looked beyond him at the Marshal, who was standing watching the proceedings with an expressionless face.

'Three-twenty-seven when they got here, sir.'

'Thank you. Go on, please.'

'Well, we weren't sure at first what it was. We could just make out a dark shape, under the bridge up against one of the arches. There were some boulders there and it was slapping against them gently. Then it must have worked loose. Anyway it sort of rolled over and began drifting out from under the arch so that the lights from the bridge made it more visible. It was dragging along slowly as if it were scraping the river bed, so I suppose the water was low there. We saw the face and hair. Only for a few seconds because then it floated away from the light, rolled over again and sank. At least, we think it sank. We couldn't see it any more but of course it may just have been the darkness.'

Again they stopped so that the Captain could translate and the typewriter began clacking again. The Marshal's other boy brought in more coffee. Having to go through everything twice was making it a long business.

'What made you come here?'

'What... well, to report what we'd seen, I mean ...'

'But why here, to this station? You could have phoned the police emergency number from the nearest telephone-box.'

'I see what you mean, but no, we couldn't. We had no telephone tokens, we only arrived here today, and you see, we'd seen this place earlier when we were here in the Piazza. We were having a look at the Pitti Palace and we saw your sign and the bell, so naturally we thought of coming back.'

'I see. Can you give an account of your movements for the whole of the day?'

'You surely don't think that we had anything to do with this?'

'I didn't say so. Nevertheless, I need an account of your movements. Would you mind going back into the waiting-room for a moment? You can organize your thoughts on that while I make a telephone call.'

When they had been taken out the Captain looked at the Marshal and said: 'What do you think?' He had learned over the years that it was always worth asking Guarnaccia what he thought even if you didn't get an answer for three days. This time he didn't have to wait so long.

'I think they're telling the truth.'

'In that case we'd better give the order for the river to be dragged.'

'Would you like me to call, sir?'

'If you would. I'll go on dictating the statement.'

And the Marshal had telephoned.

They found the body just as dawn was breaking. There were few people about but two or three had collected on the bridge to watch as the divers went down with a rope and hooks. A great swirl of mud came to the surface first, then the two divers, then a limp and slimy form that seemed more like a thick-pelted animal than a human being. But when they got it to the bank and heaved it on to the gravel path it rolled sideways and a thin white limb protruded.

'Christ . . .' muttered one of the divers, ripping off his mask. 'Looks like a suicide but she must have been some sort of loony.'

The dead woman was perhaps fifty years old. She had on a lot of rings, a large bracelet and heavy pendant earrings, all thick with mud. But underneath the sopping fur coat she was quite naked.


'Have you seen this?'

'Not in the paper but I saw the official report.'

'What a turn up, and to think it happened so long ago and it's only just come out.'

'Somebody's been clever.'

'You can say that again.'

The Marshal's boys were all agog and so was the rest of the city. Nobody had ever heard of a case quite like it. The
gave the story almost a full page with a big photograph of the unfortunate jeweller. It seemed that a man had come into his shop and asked to see a large diamond which he intended to have set in Florence for his wife on their anniversary. He made his choice and then said he would return after a few days with his wife to decide on the setting. When he came back, accompanied by a woman, he handled the stone for a few seconds in the jeweller's presence. They made their decision and then left to go to the bank and arrange for the payment. They never came back and it was only yesterday that another customer, something of an expert, took a look at the diamond and suspected it was a fake. It was. 'All he did was look at the stone that first time,' the astonished jeweller was quoted as saying. 'And yet he had made a perfect copy and must have substituted it for the real one right under my nose. He was a cool one all right. Of course we're insured . . .'

The police had little hope of ever solving the case. The Marshal's boys, who rarely got to deal with anything more exciting than stolen handbags and smalltime drug pushers, were fascinated. None of them so much as glanced at the four lines reporting that a body had been fished out of the river, presumed to be a suicide.

The Marshal noticed it, but apart from regretting the loss of his night's sleep, he didn't give it much thought.

The Captain over at Headquarters in Borgo Ognissanti was obliged to give it a great deal of thought, though he, too, would have liked to have a go at that jewel robbery which was being dealt with by the police and Interpol. Reluctantly he put the newspaper aside and turned back to the thin file which had no name on it. They were going to have to identify the wretched woman, if only to bury her. The red tape involved in burying people was considerable and a woman had to be buried in her maiden name. He could see that body lying in its refrigerated compartment for quite some time once the post mortem was finished. After some moments' thought the Captain picked up the phone and made a call to the
There was a reporter with whom he was on good terms who might help him out.


'Galli? Captain Maestrangelo here. I need your help.'

'What can I do for you?'

'That woman we fished out of the Arno. I need to identify her. You couldn't manage to write something a bit longer and publish a picture, could you? I'm hoping somebody might recognize her.'

'Difficult. I don't know whether the editor would wear it unless you've got something new to tell me.'

'Nothing at all, that's the trouble.'

'Then I don't see what I could write. Somebody's already reported the thing. If you get me the picture, I'll see if I can get that in, asking anybody to come forward, etcetera.'

'I need more than that. Too many people don't even buy the newspaper. I want something people will talk about, that way there's more chance that they'll pick the paper up in a bar and take a look.'

'I don't see how I can manage that if there's no story to start with. What's the problem, anyway? I thought it was just a suicide—is there some story behind it that you're not telling?'

'No. Just a red tape problem for now. The sooner we identify her, the sooner she can be buried. But as a matter of fact there's a possibility it might not be a suicide if that's any help.'

'It is. Can I say you suspect murder?'

'You can say what you like as long as you don't quote me. In any case you can surely make something of her wearing nothing but a fur coat. It's bizarre enough.'

'Not if she was just nuts, but if you suspect murder that puts it in a different light—how old was she?'


'Not likely to have been a tart?'

'No, though I've got a man checking that out just in case.' 'Well, I'll do my best. Makes a change you telling me to write what I want.'

'Don't you always?'

The journalist laughed and rang off.

The article came out the next day. The photographer had done his best to give some semblance of life and normality to the dead face and the journalist had made what he could of the thin story, but it was all too small.

A week passed but nobody came forward to identify the woman. The Captain's man had established that her face wasn't known among the prostitutes in the city. The fur coat she was wearing hadn't been bought in Florence, at least not from any furrier still in business, but it was rather old-fashioned anyway. The label had long since come off. The woman's matching bracelet and earrings were worthless and bore no hallmark, so were unlikely to be of any help in the identification. A house-to-house check
buildings overlooking the river upstream from the Ponte Vecchio had, as yet, produced no witness to the dumping of the body, as was only to be expected since everyone was sure to have had their shutters closed at that hour. That left the post mortem report. The Captain didn't get to read it as soon as it arrived because he was too busy. Some new faces had appeared on the drug scene and there had been two deaths, both young people, one after the other. There was little doubt that a new gang was at work, probably pushing dirty stuff. The Captain had spent all morning briefing the young plainclothes men who would mingle with the various groups of addicts until the new source was tracked down. Sooner or later an informer would talk in exchange for the price of his next fix. In the end he read the autopsy report during his lunch hour, sending down for a sandwich and a glass of wine.

He was looking for confirmation of what both he and the Substitute Prosecutor had suspected that chilly early morning on the river bank when the doctor had made his first examination. They had seen bruises on the neck and a laceration round one side.


The undersigned Dr Maurizio Forli was, on 29th September, called by the Procura of Florence to examine the body of an unidentified corpse recovered from the river Arno. Following the external examination of the body at the point of recovery a request was made for dissection and forensic examination for the purpose of supplying information on the time and cause of death and the identification of the corpse.

In answer to specific queries received in relation to the aforementioned request:

1. Death occurred six hours before recovery of the corpse.

2. Cause of death was throttling.

3. The body is that of a female of approximately fifty years of age.

There followed an account of the external examination of the body, beginning with clothing and jewellery and noting that according to the presentation of hypostasis the victim had been naked at the time of death and had been left in a supine position for 3-4 hours after death occurred. Excoriations on the forehead and hands containing clay and grit had been caused by the rolling of the body on the river bed, the major part of the corpse being protected by the fur coat. The signs of throttling were dealt with at greater length.

. . . pronounced cyanosis of the face . . . asymmetrical bruising accompanied by half-moon lesions, the bruising being more extensive and the lesion deeper on the left side of the neck, indicating that the aggressor was right-handed.

But it was the next paragraph which interested the Captain.

Laceration surrounded by extensive bruising on the left side of the neck suggesting the removal by violence of a heavy necklace. It should be noted:

a) The form of the laceration suggests a necklace matching the bracelet worn by the deceased.

b) The extensive bruising surrounding the laceration indicates that it occurred before death.

c) The position of the laceration indicates that it was made by a left to right movement while the victim was supine.

The Captain read the paragraph through again but still it made no sense. If the motive was robbery the attacker would have taken all the jewellery, not just one piece, and the same thing applied if robbery was a simulated motive. And if the attacker had for some reason wanted only the necklace it would have been easier to remove it after the woman's death. That only left a violent quarrel as the reason for ripping the necklace off, but it hadn't been found..The attacker had taken it with him and either kept it
thrown it in the river.

'Or maybe,' murmured the Captain to himself, 'he ripped it off because it was simply in his way.' Gradually, he was building up in his mind a picture of an exceptionally cool-headed murderer who acted quickly and calculatedly so that the victim had no warning and no chance to react, and who had calmly dressed the body in the fur coat and taken it, possibly in the passenger seat of a car, to the river. He read through the rest of the autopsy report without much hope of finding anything helpful.

The woman had had a slightly enlarged heart, probably congenital, which would have helped her attacker in that she had probably lost consciousness very quickly after he had begun throttling her.

Stomach contained approximately 200 grammes of milk partially coagulated . . . kidneys and pancreas normal . . . reproductive organs normal . . . scar dating back fifteen to twenty years probably connected with a difficult birth ... It should be noted:

a) that the lungs contained no water.

b) that the stomach contents carried no odour of alcohol. . .

She hadn't been too drunk to react, then. Had she been asleep? There were no marks on the body to suggest that there had been a struggle with her attacker, but if she was asleep it made no sense to rip off the necklace instead of unfastening it. The Captain sat alone, struggling to make sense of such information as he had on the unknown woman. Then he reached for the telephone.

'Get me Stazione Pitti.'

But it was Brigadier Lorenzini who answered. 'I'm sorry, sir, the Marshal's out on his hotel round.'

'Ask him to ring me when he gets in.'

'Yes, sir. He should be back any minute . . . But he was late getting off with it being Monday morning.'

'I understand.'

Monday morning was always the same. People returning late on Sunday night after a day out or a weekend away would find the house broken into or the car or the dog missing, and first thing Monday morning they would be queueing up with sheets of government-stamped paper to report the theft. It had been after eleven-thirty when the Marshal had finally managed to get away, determined to check on two boarding-houses that he kept a particular eye on. Afterwards he decided to make a brief call at a more luxurious hotel which he had to pass anyway on his way back.

The Riverside Hotel was quiet when the Marshal arrived. Lunch was being served in the main dining-room, and the blue-carpeted breakfast lounge to the right of the reception hall was empty apart from one elderly couple who were probably waiting for a taxi. Some matching luggage was stacked near the door. The receptionist, a smooth young man wearing a black silk bow tie, handed the blue register over with no other comment than a prim 'good morning'. The Marshal was on first name terms with the receptionists, proprietors and porters who received him in more modest hotels, and conducted open warfare with those of some particularly seedy ones, but here he was regarded as a necessary evil and kept at a distance. On the whole he preferred open warfare to chilly politeness. Nevertheless, the fact that he was none too welcome didn't perturb him in the least and he took his time just as he always did, reading each registration carefully with his protruding eyes that noticed everything and betrayed nothing. When he had finished he handed back the register without a word since that was the way they did things here. A little white dog had come out from the open door behind the desk, but the minute the receptionist spotted it, it gave a nervous start and disappeared again.

The Marshal made for the door where a porter in a red and white striped jacket was loading the luggage into a taxi, while a queue of honking cars waited impatiently behind it. The elderly couple came out behind him.

'Just a moment!'

The Marshal went on his way assuming that someone was calling to the departing couple, but the receptionist had followed him out and caught up with him. He seemed slightly embarrassed. 'Perhaps you could help with a small problem . . .' Sooner or later people always did want help with some problem, whether small or large, and they didn't think twice about asking, no matter how unhelpful they had always been themselves.

The Marshal turned and followed him back in. He gave the man no encouragement but stood there, his face expressionless, waiting. 'It's about this dog . . .' The animal had reappeared and was now standing with his front paws on the lower rungs of the receptionist's stool, quivering nervously. The Marshal looked down at it and then back at the receptionist.


'Something will have to be done about it. It can't stay here and I thought perhaps you ... It belongs to one of our guests—not that we normally allow animals but she's been here years so we felt obliged to make an exception. Nevertheless . . .'

'What do you want me to do? Arrest it?' The Marshal's tone was dangerous. As if he had nothing else to do but worry about a half-pint dog!

'You don't understand. Normally she takes it with her when she goes on a trip but this time she's left it and without so much as a by-your-leave! We really can't be expected—'

'Have it put down or send it to the RCPCA.' The Marshal turned to leave again.

'Wait! That's what I want to know, if we have the right. If not, then when she comes back . . .'

'Leave it alone, then, it's doing you no harm.' He had reached the door but the other followed him, thoroughly agitated now.

'That's what you think! It hangs around the reception desk the whole time because the night porter's always made a pet of it. In a hotel of this class that sort of thing can't be tolerated, surely you can understand that.' He didn't add 'even though you're never likely to set foot in one as a guest' but he might as well have done. 'The manager insists I do something but I can hardly shut the animal up in her room, there's no knowing what damage . . . AH I want to know is what our legal position is.'

Other books

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Scored by Lily Harlem
Hills End by Ivan Southall
The Burning Wire by Jeffery Deaver
To Love and Submit by Katy Swann
If Dying Was All by Ron Goulart
World and Town by Gish Jen
Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina