Dos Gardenias

David J. L'Hoste

            by Giorgio Ballario  

Santiago, Chile, December 17, 1976

“Damned Pisco Sour,” he thought, tugging the sheet up to shield his face from the sun that filtered through the window. “And damned all that cocaine that I did all night long”.
His head was killing him, and he felt his heart pump madly, while the hotel room was spinning like a carnival merry-go-round. With his eyes closed he felt the other side of the bed, but he found nothing. Malusardi jumped up: Isabelita was gone.
He opened the drawer of the side table and exhaled a sigh of relief. His wallet was still there, and also the false passport with which he had entered Chile two months ago. The gun was there too. It was the .380 Walther PPK that Raffaele Mannucci had given him. He closed the drawer and let himself drop on the mattress, humid with sweat. The headache was relentless, and he couldn’t even understand if it was morning or afternoon. He crawled to the side table on other side of the bed, where he was sure he had left his watch; but instead of his dad’s old Longines he found two white flowers. Two gardenias.
Immediately, the notes of the song bounced back into his head. He had danced to them the night before with Isabelita, in a club on the Calle Simón Bolivar, not too far from the country club. The band alternated tangos and boleros to old jazz standards; and when they started Dos Gardenias, the girl had practically dragged him on the dance floor.
“I can’t dance, please forget it.”
“It doesn’t matter, Andrea. Let yourself go…This song is too beautiful not to dance!”
He had let go. And for a few minutes he had forgotten everything. Who he was, where he came from and what he was about to do. For a few minutes he even had felt almost in love with Isabelita. And with life.

Dos gardenias para ti
Con ellas quiero decir
Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida
Ponles toda tu atención
Que serán tu corazón y el mio. 

Malusardi masticated enough Spanish to understand the romantic lyrics, similar to all old Latin American songs. He had let himself rock by the sweet words, at the same time being very careful though that the piece in the pocket of his jacket didn’t hit the body of his mate, who was holding him tighter and tighter.

        Pero si un atardecer
Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
Es porque han adivinado
Que tu amor me ha traicionado
Porque existe otro querer

Besides the too many cocktails and the lines of cocaine he also cursed himself. What an idiot! He had fallen for the beautiful dark eyes of that Chilean whore. And truth be told also for her magnificent ass that he had found in his hands while they danced the bolero. And that whore had left with his dad’s Longines…It wasn’t worth that much; but it was dear to him. It was, like nice people say, an heirloom of his father, who was gone.
The young man struggled down form the bed, and leaning against the wall reached the bathroom. “Maybe a cold shower will help to get me back up on my feet,” he thought. He looked in the mirror, and he saw himself ten years older, with a jaundiced face, the stubble and the ringed eyes. He heard a soft ticking, and saw his watch beside the sink, over a piece of paper that read “ADIÓS” and with the lipstick mark of Isabelita’s lips on it. He almost felt sorry for having insulted her a short time before. After all, for only one hundred pesos, he had had a nice evening and an unforgettable night. In Milan, for that price one couldn’t even get a quickie.
The cold shower restored him, but he still felt tired and his headache wasn’t thoroughly gone. He dressed calmly and fastened around his neck the golden rune as he had done for many years, and stuffed the semiautomatic pistol in the inside pocket of his coat.
        He went out wearing his old mirror Ray Ban’s, and was once more amazed by how warm it was in December, while probably at home there was snow already.
        He thought about Isabelita again, when she had demanded that he stole the two gardenias for her from the vase in the restaurant, forcing him to perform a diversion to distract the waiter. Leaving the hotel room, he had pinned one flower to the button hole of his jacket, who knows why. He thought it was a…nice touch. That’s it, nice was the right word. Or, maybe, graceful. As long as people weren’t mistaking him for queer.
        Maybe, one of these nights, he would have seen the girl again. He knew where to find her. She herself had told him that t go back any time to the lounge bar of the Sheraton hotel, where she “worked.”
        Malusardi got a cab and asked to go to the Parque O’Higgins, where he meant to grab a bite and relax in the natural setting. He still had a couple of hours, before he had to go to the Estadio Nacional, for the appointment that Mannucci had talked about. At the metro stop he bought a copy of “El Mercurio,” the most important Chilean newspaper, and the news were front page. After all, the entire country had talked about anything else for a week: the final Davis Cup match between Italy and Chile.
        Malusardi had left Italy months ago: first the escape to Spain, then the few weeks he had spent in Buenos Aires from where he had then reached Chile. But he knew that, back home, the decision of the Italian sport authority CONI and of the Tennis Federation to go play for the Davis Cup against the weak Chilean team had opened a can of worms. “Don’t go play a volée with the killer Pinochet,” or “Panatta makes the millions, Pinochet spills blood by gallons” were the most tender slogans heard in the Italian street protests unleashed by the Left. As usual, politicians and sport authorities had pretended not to hear; and the government, led by Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, had washed his hands of it, in pure Christian-Democratic fashion. “This is a sport matter that does not concern the government. Italy is strongly opposed to the Pinochet regime; and she will remain so, even if our tennis players go to play in Santiago.”  
        “And come they did, those chicken-shits,” thought the young Italian, laughing to himself. He had sat in a cervecería near the Caupolicán theatre and ordered a grilled fillet of beef with a salad of potatoes and peppers, though passing on the great Chilean wine: “I have to stay lucid. A Coke would be better.”
        While he ate he felt a strange sense of agitation grow inside of him, almost of anxiety. The words of Mannucci came back to mind, when three days ago he had entrusted Andrea Malusardi with task he had been talking about for weeks.
        “The time has come Andrea. You must take care of that business.”
        “That’s fine Raffaele; what it is about?”
        “It is not a difficult task; but it requires some attributes.”
        “You know me; I’ve never said no.”
        “I know you, I know you…”
        He hadn’t added anything else. He had only placed on the desk a leather case, and he extracted from it the .380 caliber Walther PPK/S. He had held it for a moment, almost caressing it; then he had put it on the desk and pushed it toward Malusardi.
        “What’s this?” had asked the young man, manifesting a bit of nervousness.
        “It’s a .380 Walther PPK: a very good German-made semiautomatic pistol.”
        “I can see that; what should I do with it?”
        Mannucci had smiled and lit a cheroot; then he had extracted from the drawer a bottle of scotch and poured himself a glass. He had filled another one, giving it to Malusardi.
        “My friend, usually with a gun one does not go to church.”
        Andrea chewed the very tasty fillet with care, sipping the carbonated drink. He had to admit to himself that that day he hadn’t looked very good. Maybe he had even turned pale; and he had surely shown indecisiveness in the eyes of Mannucci. Not to say fear. And Raffaele Mannucci was not just anybody. He had been the idol of Andrea’s youth. He remembered like it was yesterday when Mannucci had shown up, by himself, distributing fliers in front of the Berchet high school. He was not a giant, but when the Reds had attacked him he had decked a couple with his bare hands, without much effort. Then he had pulled out that Asian weapon, the nunchaku, and sent three others to the hospital with a cracked head. Without even taking his Ray Ban’s off.
        What strength, Mannucci! Like that other time, when he had led that punitive expedition against the headquarter of Lotta Continua, to avenge a friend that had been beaten at the university. With a touch of class, he had made the incendiary bombs with champagne bottles, and he had been the first to launch one against the communist windows, wearing a jacket, tie and trench coat. “Style before everything else,” he always said. Then he had been framed too for that business of the bomb in Brescia, and he had to escape abroad. First in Spain, then in Chile. And there he had formed all the right friendships.
        Malusardi ordered a coffee and lit a cigarette. He really bothered him he had looked bad in front of Mannucci, who had helped him to find refuge in Spain when those filthy communist prosecutors had framed him for that homicide story.
        After giving Malusardi the gun, Mannucci had also given him the picture of a guy. “He’s that reporter who keeps feeding the D.A.’s his bull. The one who got the Police and the Carabineers onto us for that attempt on the life of that judge.”
        “What is he doing here in Santiago?”
        “Officially he’s here to follow the final match of the Davis Cup; but in reality he wants to stick his nose in our business. And in General Gutierrez’s, our friend in the secret police.”
The Chilean secret police — the infamous DINA, Dirección de Inteligencia Naciónal — the very powerful organization that was behind all the dirty operations of the regime: kidnaps, torture, political assassinations. In just a couple of months Malusardi had realized that it was a separate body within the state, that enjoyed totally immunity.
It was a DINA agent who had procured him a false Chilean passport when he was in Buenos Aires. And the secret police had also given him a place to stay and a cover occupation, so he could reside in the Latin American country without a problem.
Andrea had hesitated, when faced with the picture of the reporter. He had understood perfectly what was expected from him; but before he could even open his mouth, Mannucci himself had been very explicit:
“He has to be eliminated.”
“Raffaele, I don’t know if I can do that.”
“I’ve told you already, it is not a difficult task.”
“But I’ve never done anything like that! One thing is a fist fight at the university, a punitive expedition, throwing Molotov cocktails; another is killing a man in cold blood.”
“You will have the highest level of cooperation and cover from the DINA. It’s just a question of five minutes.”
“But why me?”
“Because certain favors must be repaid. Our friends gave you a hand to get out of trouble, otherwise now you’d be in an Italian jail, charged with the murder of that judge.”
“But it wasn’t me! I wasn’t even in Rome at the time.”
“Do you think that the police and the communist prosecutors care about that? You and I, the movement, we are the perfect scapegoats. We are Fascists, therefore guilty by definition.”
Andrea Malusardi left the cervecería and lit another cigarette. While he was walking to the stadium the smell of the burning tobacco covered for an instant the smell of the gardenia. When he reached the facility, he shivered at the thought that, just a few years before, thousands of people had been corralled in there like beasts for weeks. And many of them had never returned home.
From Italy, he had formed another impression of the Chilean coup and of the military regime. He thought the soldiers had saved Chile from communism, re-established order and prevented a civil war. Maybe that was the case, but now that he had seen up close he didn’t like that government much anymore.
Mannucci had explained to him the plan. Actually, a very simple one. Outside the tennis club there was a little square, with a couple of cafés with outside tables. The man to be eliminated would have sat in the café on the right, at the outermost table of the dehors. A blonde woman would be sitting with him, and in any case Malusardi would have recognized him easily from the picture. At a chosen moment the woman, who was obviously working for DINA, would get up and leave; and that was the moment to act.
Malusardi should approach the man up to a distance of about four feet and shoot the reporter in the head. It was going to be just a matter of seconds. It would be impossible to miss.
At the corner Malusardi would find a man, dressed in dark clothes, a Panama hat and dark glasses, who would point him to a getaway car with its engine on.
“Leave the car in front of the Banco Central,” Mannucci had told him, “and take the metro to go home. It is an extra precaution, but don’t worry; nobody will follow you.”
        Around the stadium there was a blaze of Chilean flags, red, white and blue with the distinctive white star; but there were also a few Italian tricolors, which had been simply raised by Chileans in homage to the guests, because just a few Italians fans had arrived from Italy.
The sight of the Italian flags caused Malusardi’s heart to skip a beat. How wonderful would had been to approach the arena as a normal Italian tennis fan of the Azzurri! To mix with the joyful crowd, find a seat in the bleachers and cheer the volleys of Panatta and the prodigious recoveries of Barazzutti. Not to mention the tennis double match of the following day, that fielded the Chilean Cornejo and Fillol against the tricolor team of Panatta and Bertolucci.
        One, Panatta, handsome and elegant, endowed with supreme class; the other, Bertolucci, an ugly duckling, squat and ungraceful, but oh so effective close to the net. The forecast of all the experts was a clear one: The Chileans did not have a chance, and the Italian were going to take home, for the first time, the prestigious “salad bowl,” that traditionally was awarded to the winners.
        It was warm, even though of the Chilean capital city was at an elevation of 1500 feet, and Malusardi was thirsty. He would have liked an ice cold beer, but he did not want to risk losing his sharpness in any way; therefore, he opted for an orange juice that a street vendor squeezed for him on the spot. He checked the time. There were still forty-five minutes left to his appointment with fate; and he wished instinctively that everything had already passed.
        He took the picture of the journalist he was going to kill out of his pocket, and it stared at it for a long time. The man was about forty-five, with an anonymous face, hairline slightly receding and a pair of showy sideburns that were already graying. The picture, that had certainly been taken from some distance and unbeknownst to him, portrayed him in the act of taking an unlit cigarette to his mouth. Andrea was even able to make out the brand: it was the same brand he smoked. That man, a little older than he was, with the same bad habit of smoking, will be dead in less than an hour. And he himself will be the killer: Malusardi, who didn’t even know him. Of course, in a sense he hated him. But it was an abstract, nominal, hate; addressed not to the man in flesh and blood but to him a symbol of a system to destroy. After all, the reporter hated Malusardi and all the ones like him; and he wrote it every day in the columns of his newspaper, distilling false and venomous articles.

       End of part one. I hope you enjoyed it. And this is part two . Thank you.

   Giorgio Ballario was born in Turin in 1964. He's a journalist who worked for the news agency Agi. He has been a correspondent for several Italian newspapers (Il Messaggero, Il Giorno, L'Indipendente). He was the editor of the weekly Il Borghese. Since 1999 he has worked for the daily La Stampa as a crime and judicial reporter. 
   In June 2008 he published his first novel, Morire è un attimo (Dying is just an instant) (Edizioni Angolo Manzoni), which was very well received by the critics and the public and was reissued in December of the same year. 
   In January 2009 he published the short story My Generation, in the online magazine, in the section devoted to the period of Italian political violence of the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The story was later published in the collection entitled "Crimini di piombo" (Lead Crimes), published by Laurum Editore in the Fall of the same year. 
   In October 2009, Giorgio Ballario released the second novel of the "colonial" cycle of Major Morosini, "Una donna di troppo" (A woman too many), also published by Edizioni Angolo Manzoni. The novels of this cycle are set in Italian Eastern Africa. The book was among the five finalists of the 2010 Premio Acqui in the Historical Novels Section. 
   In November 2010, Ballario published his new crime novel "Il volo della cicala," (The Flight of the Cicada), which is set in our time and in which the Italian-Argentine detective Hector Perazzo appears for the first time
   Giorgio Ballario is one of the founders and president of the association of Italian mystery writers Torinoir, and now he channels Latin-American authors through his blog Latin Noir.   

Your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you very much.
L. Pavese




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