I stood over her body like I was waiting for her to awake. I knew she wouldn’t naturally, but the mind doesn’t register death that quickly. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t. I finally knelt down beside her. I didn’t see any blood, and her face was completely concealed by her long black hair, as if someone had wrapped her face with it, like a butcher wraps a lean cut of beef.
I’m not a doctor, but I felt for a pulse anyway. Even if she had one I don’t know if I would have felt it. I held my breath as I turned her head, removing the hair from her face. Her eyes stared up at me, and a tiny dribble of blood hung in the corner of her mouth. It was then that I noticed the red burn across her throat. Like from a rope, or scarf. It was like a horror picture. A real bad one.
“We got all that,” the inspector said. “What we want to know is if you didn’t kill her then what the hell were you doing there?”
“We planned to meet at eleven in the Piazza del Popolo. After thirty minutes, I started looking for her. I was worried. Then I found her, alone, lying as you found her.”
“Yes, but she was not alone, you were with her, and she was outside the Foreign Ministry. What would a woman like that be doing outside the Ministry?”
I didn’t like his tone, the way he pursed his lips when he said ‘a woman like that.’ Still, I kept my mouth shut and just shook my head.
“She is your lover, this woman?”
“Some might say that.”
“What would you say?”
“I don’t talk about who I spend my time with.”
“Insolent American.” He muttered, while taking an extended drag of his cigarette. “What are you doing in Italy again?”
“I’m a journalist, newspaperman, you know.” I searched my pockets looking for my smokes. I knew I smoked my last one waiting for her. One of the Italian’s gave me a look like,looking for a smoke? I’ve got lots of those, but you ain’t getting any. I wanted to tell him a thing or two, but decided against it. I’d just hit thirty a few months ago and didn’t want to spend the next thirty holed up in an Italian prison. “Look, I’ve told you all I know. That’s it.”
“You say you didn’t kill her, yet we found her in your arms…dead.”
“Like I said…”
“We know, someone else killed her, right in front of the Ministry, and you just happened to find her. Idiota.”
I didn’t have to speak Italian to know what that meant. The thing was I thought he was a bigger idiota for not looking for the guy who killed her. Instead they were sitting around, puffing on their smokes, grilling me. Sure, she was my girl, but the truth was she was that kind of woman. I’m not saying the walk the street, get more bang for your buck kinda girl, but she wasn’t the type to wait around for the phone to ring, if you know what I mean. Oh, I never paid for anything. Sure I bought her things, took her out, but only because I wanted to, not because she asked. I knew she went out with one or two Italians cats when we met, but she hadn’t seen them since we took up. She went out with some German guy now and then, a real big shot, but didn’t say much about him. I think he made her nervous. Germans made me nervous. Not just now, before the war. They had that affect on you. The truth was she spent more time with me than anyone else. When I wanted to see her, she’d be there. I didn’t ask about her life away from me, and she didn’t ask about mine, in America. That’s just the way it was with us.
We met in a bar in the Piazza. I watched her all night, talking to a bunch of guys who looked just like the guy beside him, and the one next to him. I was alone. I’d been in Italybarely a week, before that it was France, and then England. I’d been away from home for almost three months.
I noticed she didn’t leave the bar with any of them. Instead, she left alone. I sat there nursing my third bourbon. A few minutes later, I noticed her walk back in, alone.
She walked over to my table. Her legs went up to her chin, and her dark hair was pulled back like one of those Spanish dancers, with a red flower. I think it was red, I can’t be sure,I couldn’t tear myself away from her eyes, those dark eyes gazing at me under long black lashes.
She glanced down at my smoke in the ashtray. Without a word, she slipped it between her fingers and brought it to her red (this time I’m sure of the color) lips and inhaled. She blew the stream right into my face.
“You British?” She said in heavy accented English.
“Why you here?”
“War correspondent. You know, newspaper.”
We talked for an hour, maybe two. She was interested in my job, and I told her what she wanted to know. She didn’t ask about much else, so I didn’t tell her. After all, she wouldn’t be the first woman I’d talked to since I left America. When a man’s away from home, so far away, he forgets his old life, he has to, or he might just go crazy. Besides, I didn’t want to think about my wife right then. I was too preoccupied with the Italian dish across from me.
I took her to the apartment I was renting. That was the beginning of our three weeks together. Three weeks, four days, and a few hours. I remember details like that. It’s the newspaperman in me.
She wore this watch like a necklace. I’d never seen a watch necklace before, but she had one. I thought it was strange to have a watch necklace. Whenever you check the time, you’re looking at it upside down. It made me dizzy just watching her.
She told me she lived with her mother, who was ill. I’d never seen her place, and she never stayed all night with me because she said she didn’t want to leave her mother alone. I had no reason not to believe her. I trusted her as much as I trusted anyone. She was good to me, and I was good to her. I didn’t love her, and I don’t think she loved me. Oh, sure there were moments of tenderness, devotion, even jealousies, which meant I cared for her more than I intended. But I knew I’d never leave my wife, and I don’t think she expected anything too spectacular from me. If she did, she never said.
“I forgot to mention her mother.” I said to the inspector. “The girl lived with her, and took care of her. Someone’s got to go over there and check on the old woman.”
He stared at me. “There is no mother.”
“She lived with her,” I persisted. “She mentioned her.”
“The woman died.”
“Are you sure? She said…”
“I spoke with her brother. The mother died over a week ago. They blame the girl, saying her association with the German killed her own mother. They called her a traitor. He doesn’t want her buried with the family. Says she disgraced them.”
“Have you spoken to the German? Don’t you think he killed her when he found out she was seeing me? I was with her all the time. At least four, five times a week. Where did he think she was? He probably followed her that night and killed her.”
“You Americans think everything’s about you. From what I understand, the German loved her. Says he’s never heard of you, didn’t know anything about you until I mentioned you. He says they were planning to get married.”
“And you believe him?”
“I’m no fool. I asked myself, Bruno, why would a man like this, a big powerful German, want to marry an Italian whore? See, we Italians are not as easily fooled as everyone thinks. The truth is, I don’t trust anyone, not even you.”
“Another thing,” I said, ignoring his trust comment, “her watch necklace was missing. She always wore it. It was the craziest thing, a watch necklace, upside down and all that, but she never took it off. It was matted with her hair, and I teased her about that crazy necklace, or watch, whatever you want to call it. But it’s gone.” I sighed. “It’s the German, it’s got to be.”
“I can’t go around accusing someone like that until I’m absolutely sure, and I’m not. I’ll have Mussolini breathing down my neck if I’m not careful.”
“I might drop by later if I have more questions, so don’t think about going too far. You got yourself mixed up with one, what do you Americans say? Crazy broad. Americans always do. You go for the legs and don’t care about anything else. You should’ve stayed home with your wife in Connecticut.”
I didn’t want to ask where he learned about my wife and Connecticut. I just figured he dug around a bit. It wasn’t too hard to find out about an American journalist in Italy during war.
I was just about to pour myself a stiff drink when I heard a knock at my door. It was a friend of the girl’s. I’d met her a few times.
She fell into my arms in tears. When we parted, I finished pouring my drink and poured a glass for her.
“Do you think it was him?” She asked. “Do you think it was the German?”
“I don’t know. I think they’d rather pin it on me than him. Better an American than a German, especially that German, for the time being at least.”
“You? You’re not the guilty one. You didn’t even know.”
“Know? Know what?”
“She was a spy.”
“A spy. This whole time with the German was a farce. She was working with the British, and meeting with them secretly. Her mother died because she found out she was seeing a German. It killed her mother. If only her mother would have known.”
“She should’ve told me. I’m American for God’s sake.”
“She wanted to, but she knew it would put you in danger. Look at her now. You could be in danger already. We both could be. The German might think you were involved. Perhaps you ought to leave Italy.”
“Why,” I repeated. “Why didn’t she tell me?”
We finished our drinks and the girl left. I knew then that the German hadn’t killed her after all. I had.
I was a jealous fool. I told you before I didn’t love her, but because of my jealousies I knew I cared enough about her to want to own her, have her to myself. I was out with some companions that night. Friends, some might say, but I wouldn’t go that far. One was a radio bum, a real know-it-all, and the other was a commander in the British Army, a fellow you couldn’t help but like.
We were at this little place, sitting inside. You know how everyone eats outside in Italy? Well, most everyone. We were inside, eating a little, drinking a lot.
As you know by now, I like my bourbon. Straight up. The way God intended. If I can’t have a dry martini in New York, it’s got to be bourbon in Rome. Anyway, I’d had a few drinks and was feeling it. I hadn’t eaten all day. I would have killed for a steak, medium rare, but God knows they would have thrown some linguini on it and smothered it with marinara. The commander and the know-it-all were talking about Churchill when I noticed my girl walk into the joint alone. I wasn’t expecting to see her, but was grateful for coincidences. She looked in my direction, then stopped. After a few seconds she finally came over to the table. She had met the commander and the know-it-all once before, so I assumed they wouldn’t mind if she joined us. I noticed she was acting a little strange, but didn’t think much of it. I wish I would’ve looked at the commander just to see what his face looked like when I called her over. He must have been as tense as my girl.
She sat beside me, and I ordered her a drink. She seemed restless, and excused herself to the powder room.
A moment later, the commander excused himself. The effects of the bourbon were running through me literally, therefore, I was the third person to excuse myself for this reason, leaving the know-it-all alone.
I teetered toward the men’s room. The bourbon affected me worse that night than any other. I wondered for a second if I had been poisoned by the lousy commie bartender.
I did my business, and as I was leaving the men’s room I heard some rustling sounds coming from behind a closed door beside me, like a storeroom, where the Italians kept their crummy booze and noodles. I heard voices whispering. I reached for the knob, but stopped myself, then quickly ducked around the corner to see if my assumptions were correct.
As you can imagine, they were. A moment later she came out of the room, followed by the commander. I was shocked. The commander didn’t seem like the kind of guy who did that sort of thing. Besides, he spent his time with a blonde, a real dish. What did I know anyway? I’d always been a lousy judge of character. All I knew was that I was jealous, more than I’d ever been. It was raging through me like the plague. My first thought was to kill the limey bastard, but I just wasn’t the killing kind. Instead, I returned to the table, finished my drink and left with the girl on my arm.
We had a fight on our way back to my apartment. I accused her of what I knew to be so.
“You don’t understand,” she said, “it’s not like that.”
“I heard you two. What were you doing in there? Why did you even come home with me? Why not go with him?”
“Please,” she said as she looked around, “let’s not discuss this now, it’s not…”
“Right in front of me. Like I’m a damned fool. Did you make a date with him?”
“We’ll talk later, in private.”
“In private?” I repeated loudly. “You’re sneaking off with some British commander and you want to talk in private.”
It was then I noticed a dark figure lurking in the shadows. She glanced at the figure and back at me. Her eyes were wide, and when I see her face in my mind now I realize she was scared to death. But at that moment I was too damned tight from the bourbon to see anything but my own jealousies.
“I’ve been looking for you?” The voice boomed in a heavy German accent.
She leaned toward me and whispered in my ear. “I’ll see you at eleven in the Piazza.”
I can still feel her chilled breath. It was like death.
Lying on my bed, I stare up at the ceiling; my heart pounding like crazy. I turn on my side, and feel something press into my hipbone. I sit up and look under the sheet, and there it is. The watch necklace. It must have fallen off the last time we were together. I wonder how I could have missed it. How I could be so blind. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then it comes rushing back, like a motion picture playing before my eyes. I remember running into the commander’s blonde on the way home. Like I said, I was tight, tighter than I’d been in years, and said things I shouldn’t have, that her fellow and my girl were messing around. She was upset. We both were. But dames take that sort of thing harder than us men. She was sobbing and saying how much she loved the commander, and how they talked of marriage. I made things worse, so much worse. I could’ve made it better, but I didn’t. I thought of making the moves on her, but decided instead to get her as angry with him as I could. Oh, I gave it to her good, laid it on real thick, and fed her all the garbage I could think of. I told her what a bum he was, fooling around on such a classy dame like herself with some, how did I put it? Italian trash. It didn’t take much to get her all worked up. She was crazy in love with him.
Afterwards, I came home and slept off the bourbon, well some of it. I suppose she must have walked for hours, trying to get the dirty thought out of her mind. But she couldn’t shake it. She just wanted to talk to her. Sure, just talk. She wasn’t the kind of girl to do anything else. But she had done something else, hadn’t she? Something just came over her. She didn’t mean it. I put the thought in her head. Oh, I didn’t tell her to take one of those Hermes scarves she always wore and wrap it around my girl’s neck, but God knows I said enough. Poor girl.The thought of him with someone else was just too much.
Connecticut seems a lifetime away. I wonder when I’ll see it next. For now, I’ll just sit with that damned watch necklace that couldn’t keep time if life depended on it, and wait. Wait until they come. And when they do I’ll tell them. I’m the guilty one.