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."
Excerpted from The Sacred Cut by David Hewson Copyright © 2005 by David Hewson. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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