The Paper Moon

Andrea Camilleri | 12 mins


The alarm rang, as it had done every morning for the past year, at seven thirty. But he had woken up a fraction of a second before the bell; the release of the spring that set off the ringing had sufficed. He therefore had time, before jumping out of bed, to look at the window and realize, from the light, that the day promised to be a fine one, without clouds. Afterwards he just barely had time to make coffee, drink a cup, do what he needed to do, shave and shower, drink another cup, fire up a cigarette, get dressed, go outside, get into his car and pull up at the station at nine – all at the slapstick speed of Larry Semon or Charlie Chaplin.

Until a year earlier, his morning wake-up routine had followed different rules and, most of all, there was no rush, no hundred-yard dashes.

First, no alarm clock.

Montalbano was in the habit of opening his eyes naturally after a night’s sleep, with no need of external stimuli. He did have an alarm clock of sorts, but it was inside him, buried somewhere in his brain. He merely had to set it before falling asleep, telling himself, ‘Don’t forget you have to get up tomorrow at six,’ and the next morning his eyes would pop open at six o’clock sharp. He’d always considered the alarm clock, the metal kind, a sort of instrument of torture. The three or four times he’d had to use that drill-like noise to wake up – because Livia, who had to leave the next morning, didn’t trust his inner alarm – he’d spent the rest of the day with a headache. Then Livia, after a squabble, had bought a plastic alarm clock that instead of ringing made an electronic sound, a kind of unending beeeeeep, rather like a little fly that had found its way into your ear and got stuck inside. Enough to drive you crazy. He’d ended up throwing it out of the window, which had set off another memorable spat.

Second, he would wake himself up, intentionally, a bit earlier than necessary, some ten minutes earlier at the very least.

These were the best ten minutes of the day ahead. Ah, how wonderful it was to lie in bed, under the covers, thinking of idiocies! Should I buy that book everybody’s calling a masterpiece or not? Should I eat out today, or come home and bolt down what Adelina’s prepared for me? Should I or shouldn’t I tell Livia that I can’t wear the shoes she bought me because they’re too tight? That sort of thing. Poking about with the mind. While carefully avoiding any thought of sex or women. That could be dangerous terrain at such an hour, unless Livia was there sleeping beside him, ready and happy to face the consequences.

One morning a year earlier, however, things had suddenly changed. He had barely opened his eyes, calculating that he had a scant fifteen minutes to devote to his mental dawdlings, when a thought – not a whole one, but the start of one – came into his mind, and it began with these exact words: When your dying day comes . . .

What was this thought doing there with the others? How gutless! It was like suddenly remembering, while making love, that he hadn’t paid the phone bill. Not that he was inordinately frightened by the idea of dying; the problem was that six thirty in the morning was hardly the proper time and place for it. If one started thinking about death at the crack of dawn, certainly by five in the afternoon one would either shoot oneself or jump into the sea with a rock round one’s neck. He managed to prevent that phrase proceeding any further, blocking its path by counting very fast from one to five thousand, with eyes shut and fists clenched. Then he realized that the only solution was to set about doing the things he needed to do, concentrating on them as though it were a matter of life or death. The following morning was even more treacherous. The first thought that entered his mind was that the fish soup he’d eaten the night before had lacked some seasoning. But which? And at that exact moment the same ghastly thought came back to him: When your dying day comes . . .

As of then, he had understood that the thought would never go away. It might very well lie buried deep inside some curlicue in his brain for a day or two only to pop back out into the open when he least expected it. For no reason, he became convinced that his very survival depended on preventing that sentence ever completing itself. For if it did, he would die when the last word came.

Hence the alarm clock. To leave not even the slightest fissure in time for that accursed thought to slip through.

When she came to spend three days in Vigàta, Livia, as she was unpacking, pointed at the bedside table and asked: ‘What’s that alarm doing there?’

He answered with a lie. ‘Well, a week ago I had to get up really early and—’

‘And a week later it’s still set?’

When she put her mind to it, Livia was worse than Sherlock Holmes. Embarrassed, he told her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Livia burst out: ‘You’re demented!’ And she buried the alarm clock in a drawer inside the armoire.

The following morning it was Livia, not the alarm, who woke Montalbano. And it was a beautiful awakening, full of thoughts of life, not death. But as soon as she had left, the clock was back on the bedside table.


‘Aah, Chief, Chief!’

‘What is it, Cat?’

‘There’s a lady waiting for you.’

‘For me?’

‘She din’t say what it was f’you poissonally in poisson. She just said she wanted a talk to somebody from the police.’

‘So why couldn’t she talk to you?’

‘Chief, she said she wanted a talk somebody superior to me.’

‘Isn’t Inspector Augello here?’

‘No, sir. He called to say he was comin’ in late ’cause he’s runnin’ late.’

‘And why’s that?’

‘He says last night the baby got sick and so today the medical doctor’s gonna come.’

‘Cat, you don’t have to say “medical doctor”, just “doctor” is more than enough.’

‘Iss not enough, Chief. Iss confusing. Take you, f’rinstance. You’s a doctor but not o’ the medical variety.’

‘What about the mother – Beba? Can’t she wait for the med – the doctor herself?’

‘Yessir, Miss Beba’s there, Chief, but she says she wants him to be there too.’

‘What about Fazio?’

‘Fazio’s with some kid.’

‘What did this kid do?’

‘Didn’t do nothin, Chief. He’s dead.’

‘How’d he die?’


‘OK, tell you what. I’m going into my office now. You wait about ten minutes, then send in the lady.’

The inspector was furious with Augello. Ever since the baby was born, Mimì had hovered over it as much as he’d hovered over women previously. He was head over heels in love with his young son, Salvo. That’s right: not only had he called upon the inspector to baptize the kid, he’d also given him the wonderful surprise of naming him after him.

‘Can’t you give him your father’s name, Mimì?’

‘Right! Imagine that – my father’s called Eusebio.’

‘So name him after Beba’s father.’

‘That’d be even worse. His name’s Adelchi.’

‘So the real reason you’re naming him after me is because all the other available names seem too bizarre to you?’

‘Come on, Salvo! First of all, I’m very fond of you, you’re like a father to—’

A father? With a son like Mimì?

‘Oh, fuck off!’

Livia, upon learning that the newborn would be called Salvo, had burst into tears. Certain special circumstances moved her deeply. ‘Mimì loves you so much! Whereas you—’

‘Oh, he loves me, does he? Do the names Eusebio and Adelchi mean anything to you?’

And ever since the kid was born, Mimì had appeared at the station and disappeared just as fast: one minute Salvo (junior, of course) had the runs, the next minute he had red spots on his bottom or he was throwing up, the next he didn’t want to suckle . . .

He’d complained about it, over the phone, to Livia.

‘Oh, yeah? You’ve got a problem with Mimì? All that means is he’s a loving, conscientious father! I’m not so sure that you, in his position—’

He’d hung up on her.

He looked at the morning mail, which Catarella had left on his desk. By prior agreement with the post office, anything addressed to his house in Marinella was being forwarded to the station because sometimes he went a couple of days without returning home. Today there were only official letters, which he set aside, not feeling like reading them. He would hand them over to Fazio as soon as he got back.

The telephone rang.

‘Chief, it’s Dr Latte wit’ an S at the end.’

Lattes, that was, chief of the commissioner’s cabinet. To his horror, Montalbano had discovered a while back that Lattes had a clone in a government spokesman who appeared frequently on TV: the same air of the sacristy, the same porky-pink, beardless skin, the same little arselike mouth, the same unctuousness. An exact replica.

‘My dear Montalbano, how’s it going?’

‘Very well, Doctor.’

‘And the family? The children? Everything all right?’

He’d told him a million times he neither was married nor had any children, legitimate or illegitimate. But it was hopeless. The man was obsessed. ‘Everything’s fine.’

‘Good, thank the Lord. Listen, Montalbano, the commissioner would like to talk to you at five o’clock this afternoon.’

Why did he want to talk to him? Usually Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi carefully avoided him, preferring to summon Mimì instead. It must be some colossal pain in the neck.

The door flew open violently, crashed against the wall, and Montalbano jumped out of his chair. Catarella appeared.

‘Beck y’pardon, Chief, my ’and slipped. The ten minutes passed just now, just like you said.’

‘Oh, yeah? Ten minutes have passed? What the hell do I care?’

‘The lady, Chief.’

He’d completely forgotten. ‘Is Fazio back?’

‘Not yet so far, Chief.’

‘Send her in.’

A woman just under forty, who looked, at first glance, like a former Sister of Mercy: downcast eyes behind her glasses, hair in a bun, hands clenching her bag, the whole wrapped up in a broad grey frock that made it impossible to tell what lay beneath. Her legs, however – despite thick stockings and flat shoes – were long and beautiful. She stood hesitantly in the doorway, staring at the strip of white marble separating the floor tiles of the corridor from those in Montalbano’s office.

‘Come in, come in. Please close the door and make yourself comfortable.’

She obeyed, sitting on the very edge of one of the two chairs in front of his desk.

‘What can I do for you, Signora?’

‘Signorina. Michela Pardo. You’re Inspector Montalbano, yes?’

‘Have we met?’

‘No, but I’ve seen you on television.’

‘I’m listening.’

She seemed even more embarrassed. Settling her buttocks more comfortably into the chair, she stared at the toe of one of her shoes, swallowed twice, opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. ‘It’s about my brother, Angelo.’

And she stopped, as though the inspector needed only to know the name of her brother to grasp the whole problem in a flash.

‘Signorina Michela, surely you realize—’

‘I know, I know. Angelo has . . . he’s disappeared. It’s been two days. I’m sorry, I’m just very worried and confused and—’

‘How old is your brother?’


‘Does he live with you?’

‘No, he lives by himself. I live with Mamma.’

‘Is your brother married?’


‘Does he have a girlfriend?’


‘What makes you think he’s disappeared?’

‘Because he never lets a day go by without coming to see Mamma. And when he can’t come, he telephones. And if he has to go away, he lets us know. We haven’t heard from him for two days.’

‘Have you tried calling him?’

‘Yes, I’ve tried his home phone and his mobile. There’s no answer. I even went to his house. I rang and rang the doorbell, then decided to go in.’

‘You have the key to your brother’s place?’


‘And what did you find there?’

‘Everything was in perfect order. I was scared.’

‘Does your brother suffer from any illness?’


‘What does he do for a living?’

‘He’s an informer.’

Montalbano balked. Had ratting on others become an established profession, with a year-end bonus and paid holidays, like Mafia turncoats, who had fixed salaries? He would clear this up in a minute.

‘Is he often on the move?’

‘Yes, but he works within a limited area. Basically he doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the province.’

‘So, do you want to declare him a missing person?’

‘No . . . I don’t know.’

‘I should warn you that we can’t get moving on it straight away.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because your brother is an independent adult, healthy in body and mind. He might have decided to go away for a few days of his own accord. Understand? And, in the end, we don’t know whether—’

‘I understand. What do you suggest I do?’

As she was asking this, she finally looked at him. Montalbano felt a sort of heatwave run through his body. Those eyes were exactly like a deep, violet lake that any man would gladly dive into and drown. It was a good thing Signorina Michela almost always kept them lowered. In his mind, Montalbano took two strokes and swam back to shore.

‘Well, I would suggest you go back to your brother’s place and have another look.’

‘I did, yesterday. I didn’t go inside, but I rang the doorbell for a long time.’

‘All right – but maybe he’s in no condition to come to the door.’

‘Why would that be?’

‘I dunno. Maybe he slipped in the bath and can’t walk, or has a high fever—’

‘Inspector, I didn’t just ring the doorbell. I called to him. If he’d slipped in the bath, he would have answered. Angelo’s apartment isn’t very big.’

‘I’m afraid I must insist you go back there.’

‘I won’t go alone. Would you come with me?’ She looked at him again.

This time Montalbano found himself sinking, the water coming up to his neck. He thought about it for a moment, then decided. ‘Listen, I’ll tell you what. If you still haven’t heard from your brother by seven o’clock this evening, come back to the station, and I’ll accompany you.’

‘Thank you.’

She stood up and held out her hand. Montalbano took it but couldn’t bring himself to shake it. It felt like a piece of lifeless flesh.


Ten minutes later Fazio turned up. ‘A seventeen-year-old kid. Went up to the terrace of his building and shot himself up with an overdose. There was nothing we could do, poor guy. When we got there he was already dead. The second in three days.’

Montalbano looked at him, dumbfounded. ‘The second? You mean there was a first? Why wasn’t I told about it?’

‘Fasulo, the engineer, but with him it was cocaine,’ said Fazio.

‘Cocaine? What are you saying? Fasulo died of a heart-attack!’

‘Well, that’s what the death certificate says. It’s what his friends say, too. But everybody in town knows it was drugs.’

‘Badly cut?’

‘That I can’t say, Chief.’

‘Listen, do you know some guy named Angelo Pardo, forty-two years old and an informer?’

Fazio didn’t seem surprised by Angelo Pardo’s profession. Maybe he hadn’t fully understood. ‘No, sir. Why do you ask?’

‘Seems he disappeared two days ago and his sister’s getting worried.’

‘You want me to—’

‘No, but later, if there’s still no news, we’ll see.’


‘Inspector Montalbano? This is Lattes.’

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Family all right?’

‘I think we discussed them a couple of hours ago.’

‘Of course. Listen, I’m supposed to tell you that the commissioner can’t see you today, as you’d requested.’

‘Doctor, it was the commissioner who asked to see me.’

‘Really? Well, it makes no difference. Could you come tomorrow at eleven?’


Upon learning that he wouldn’t be seeing the commissioner, his lungs filled with air and he felt suddenly ravenous. Enzo’s trattoria was the only solution.

He stepped outside the police station. The day had the colours of summer, without the extreme heat. He walked slowly, taking his time, already tasting what he was about to eat. When he arrived in front of the trattoria, his heart fell to his feet. The restaurant was closed. Locked. What the hell had happened? In rage, he gave the door a swift kick, turned and started to walk away, cursing the saints. He’d taken barely two steps when he heard someone calling him.

‘Inspector! Did you forget we’re closed today?’

Damn! He had!

‘But if you want to eat with me and my wife . . .’

He dashed back. And ate so much that, as he was eating, he felt embarrassed, ashamed, but couldn’t help himself. When he’d finished, Enzo nearly congratulated him. ‘To your health, Inspector!’

The walk along the jetty was necessarily a long one. He spent the rest of the afternoon with eyelids drooping and head nodding, overcome by sleepiness. When this happened he would get up and go to wash his face.

At seven o’clock, Catarella told him the lady from the morning had returned.

As soon as she walked in, Michela Pardo said only one word: ‘Nothing.’

She did not sit down. She was anxious to get to her brother’s place as quickly as possible, and tried to communicate this to the inspector.

‘All right,’ said Montalbano. ‘Let’s go.’

Passing Catarella’s cubby-hole, he told him: ‘I’m going out with the lady. If you need me for anything, I’ll be at home later.’

‘Will you be coming in my car?’ asked Michela Pardo, gesturing towards a blue Polo.

‘Perhaps it would be best if I take my own and follow you. Where does your brother live?’

‘It’s a bit of a way, in the new district. Do you know Vigàta Two?’

He knew Vigàta Two. A nightmare dreamed up by some property speculator under the influence of the worst sort of hallucinogen. He wouldn’t live there if he were dead.