The two plainclothes cops huddled in the doorway of a closed farmacia
in Via del Corso, shivering, teeth chattering, watching Mauro Sandri,
the fat little photographer from Milan, fumble with the two big Nikon
SLRs dangling round his neck. It was five days before Christmas and for
once Rome was enjoying snow, real snow, deep and crisp and even, the
kind you normally only saw on the TV when some surprise blizzard
engulfed those poor miserable bastards living in the north.
It fell from the black sky as a perfect, silky cloud. Thick flakes
curled around the gaudy coloured lights of the street decorations in a
soft, white embrace. The pavements were already blanketed in a crunchy,
shoe-deep covering in spite of the milling crowds who had pounded the
Corso's black stones a few hours earlier, searching for last-minute
Christmas presents in the stores.
Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni had read the met briefing before they went
on duty that evening. They'd looked at the words "severe weather
warning" and tried to remember what that meant. Floods maybe. Gales that
brought down some of the ancient tiles which sat so unsteadily on the
rooftops of the centro storico, the warren of streets and alleys
in the city's Renaissance quarter where the two men spent most of their
working lives. But this was different. The met men said it would snow
and snow and snow. Snow in a way it hadn't for almost twenty years,
since the last big freeze in 1985. Only for longer this time, a week or
more. And the temperatures would hit new lows too. Maybe it was global
warming. Maybe it was just a trick throw of the meteorological dice.
Whatever the reason, the world was about to become seriously out of sync
for a little while and that knowledge, shared among the two and a half
million or more individuals who lived within the boundaries of the
Comune di Roma, was both scary and tantalizing. The city was braced for
its first white Christmas in living memory and already the consequences
of this were beginning to seep into the Roman consciousness. People were
preparing to bunk off work for any number of sound and incontrovertible
reasons. They'd picked up the nasty virus that was creeping through the
city. They couldn't take the buses in from the suburbs because, even if
they made it through the dangerous, icy streets, who knew if they'd get
back in the evening? Life was, for once, just too perilous to do
anything but stay at home, or maybe wander down to the local bar and
talk about nothing except the weather.
And they were all, librarian and shop assistant, waiter and tour guide,
priest and shivering cop, thinking secretly: This is wonderful.
Because for once Christmas would be a holiday. For once the city would
step off the constantly moving escalator of modern life, remember to
take a deep breath, close its eyes and sleep a little, all under that
gorgeous ermine coverlet that kept falling in a constant white cloud,
turning the black stones of the empty streets the colour of icing sugar.
Peroni glanced at his partner, an expression Costa now recognized, one
that said: Watch this. Then the big cop walked over and threw an
arm around Sandri, squeezing him hard.
"Hey, Mauro," Peroni growled, and crushed the photographer one more time
before letting go. "Your fingers are frozen stiff. It's pitch dark here
with nothing to look at but snow. Why don't you quit taking photos for a
while? You must've done a couple of hundred today already. Relax. We
could go some place warm. Come on. Even you clever guys could handle a
caffè corretto on a night like this."
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