He was woken up by a persistent ringing. He looked bleary-eyed at the watch he had put on the night table - it was seven am. And it was the telephone. He jumped out of bed, ran to the corridor and grabbed the receiver.
"Sorry, but... who's on the line?" a male voice asked at the other end.
"Who are you! You called." Osvaldo answered, irritated. He had always been annoyed with the people calling and asking who was on the line.
The voice at the other end said, hesitantly, "Forgive me, I am Cronati. I was looking for miss Letizia Solaro..."
"Ah. Yes, this is Letizia's home."
"Is she back?" the voice at the other end asked, shrill.
"No, she's not back. I'm her brother..."
"Yes, Osvaldo. But, sorry, who are you?"
"I'm Giulio Cronati, a friend of Letizia..."
"Ah, Giulio. Her boyfriend."
"Well... er... yes... I didn't think she told you about me. Yes, it's me..."
"No, she didn't tell me about you. I'm here to search for Letizia and found your letters..."
"To search for? But, wasn't she at the village with you?"
"No, we were waiting for her, but she didn't come. We don't know where she is. And you neither do, I presume."
"No... but it's strange..."
"Very strange. Excuse me, Giulio, mister Cronati, but I would like to meet you, to talk with you..."
"Yes, sure, I would like to do so as well. But just now I'm leaving for work... I mean, I just woke up and have to dress... I don't have much time, now... but at 4:45 I'll be free. Can't we meet at that time? Is it alright with you?"
"Yes, alright, thank you. Do you want to come here or can we meet elsewhere?"
"I can come, I've got a car. Let's say that I can be there around 5:20."
"Very good. This morning I was planning to go to the hospital to see if they know why she resigned."
"Did she resign? I didn't know. When did she resign?"
"A little more than two weeks ago. I don't know the precise day. I will tell you this afternoon."
"Yes... yes, alright. Thank you. See you later, Osvaldo."
"See you later, Giulio." the boy answered and hung up.
At least he had found Letizia's boyfriend. It seemed that Giulio had even less news than him, but he could possibly give him some useful clues...
He went to the bathroom. Smiling, he saw in the wall unit dozens and dozens of small bottles. He found some toothpaste and brushed his teeth, then took his electric shaver, shaved carefully and then went under the shower. He washed for a long time, and dried himself thoroughly. Naked, went to the kitchen to fix his breakfast. After eating, he returned to the bedroom to dress. Again he saw the two pictures on the night table and asked himself if that guy was Giulio or if there was another man in Letizia's life. He would know in the afternoon. He dressed and picked up the guide to Florence, put it in his sheepskin jacket, checked that he had his wallet, his documents and his keys, and went out.
In the bar on the ground floor of the house he asked how he could reach the hospital by public transport; took a bus and went there and with help from the driver, he got off at the right stop. He entered the hospital and asked the attendant where he could find the human resources bureau. There, after showing his identity paper, he asked for information about his sister. The clerk went to bring a dossier and opened it.
"Here is written that she resigned on April seventh, without notice. In fact we have to deduct the missed notice time from her severance pay."
"Did you already give her the severance pay?"
"No, we are calculating it."
"And did she give you an address to send the money to?"
"No, she said she would phone to know when it is available and that she would come and fetch it."
"Forgive me, madam, my questions can seem odd, but the fact is that my sister disappeared without telling us anything. Our parents are worried. I'm trying to trace her, to understand what has happened to her. Did she give any reason for her resignation, where she intended to go or what she planned to do?"
"I'm sorry, I'm not able to help you. But possibly... you could ask her ward sister or her colleagues..."
Osvaldo thanked her. He had already thought of doing that so he made his way to the ward where Letizia had worked and went to see the ward sister. She received him with a warm manner.
"Letizia? I've really no idea why she gave her resignation. She worked here, and she was serene, peaceful. I didn't get the impression she had any problems, on the contrary... She never hinted she intended to change work or to move elsewhere. She had won the competition and she was a good nurse. On April six she carried out her regular duties. On morning of the seventh she didn't come and I thought she could be ill, but then I received a call from the human resources bureau who told me she had resigned... I was really taken aback, believe me. I really can't understand why she acted in such a way. She had always been very correct in her duties, it was not like her to behave in such a way, with no warning. And it is very strange that she told you and her family nothing ... I really don't know what to tell you."
"On the sixth, you said, she was on duty?"
"Yes. Wait a moment... here, look, these are the shifts for this month. Do you see? She was on duty in the morning, that week, and on April sixth morning she was here. She should have come again the seventh, but instead..."
"May I know who was on duty with her, during that week?"
"Sure. Here, look here. In the ward with her were on duty Rosetta, Isa, Marina, Lina and Frederica."
"May I talk with them too?"
"Of course. But just now only Marina is on duty. Do you want me to call her?"
"I would be grateful. And the other nurses?"
"You can find Rosetta and Federica here in the afternoon, and Lina and Isa on the night shift, after supper time."
"Can I come back to talk with them too?"
"I will leave a note for the other ward sisters. You can try and come again. But to enter after the supper, as it is after the visiting time, you'll have to ask for a special pass. I'll send you Marina, now. You can wait for her here, in my office. But if I can ask you a kindness, don't keep her too long time, she's on duty. You can possibly fix a meeting for later, outside."
"Of curse, I understand. Thank you very much."
"Oh, when one can be of help..." the woman said and went out.
After a while a rather nice young nurse arrived.
"You are Letizia's brother? How do you do, I'm Marina."
"How do you do, Marina. Sorry to bother you in duty time, but I need to talk with you about my sister. Do you know that she has disappeared?"
"Disappeared?" the girl asked, widening her eyes.
"Yes. I don't want to keep you now in your duty time, but I would be really grateful if you could give me some of your time later on."
"Oh, yes, no problem. Disappeared! But how did she disappear?"
"That's what I want to understand. Can we meet at the end of your shift?"
"Yes, yes. I will knock off at 12:30 and I usually stop to have lunch at the hospital canteen. Can we meet there? You know, the price is low and the food is rather good. Oh, well, not as good as in a restaurant, but anyway better than what I can cook..." the girl said with a giggle.
"Well, thank you. I'll wait for you at 12:30 in front of the canteen entrance."
"Do you know where it is?"
"No, but I'll ask..."
"Good, then at 12:30. Oh my god, she disappeared..." the girl repeated in a shrill voice, leaving the room.
Osvaldo looked at his watch. It was just 10:30. He could do nothing in those two hours, therefore he went out of the hospital and went to sit in a nearby coffee shop. He ordered a coffee. He saw a newspaper on the ice-cream freezer and took it. He slowly leafed through it, reading here and there.
After a while he noticed a boy sitting at another table. He could be twenty, twenty-five years old. He was handsome - a thick mane of light brown hair, waved and soft, bright brown eyes marked by long eyelashes and eyebrows, a nice and proportioned nose and he had a saucy way with him; his lips were soft and smiling. He was not handsome like the guy of the photos, he thought, but was nice anyway. His slightly triangular face gave him the air of an urchin. He was wearing a short leather jacket opening onto a water-green shirt; tight jeans wrapped beautiful legs. Osvaldo's eyes ran to check between the boy's legs and noticed a nice basket, full but not cheeky, though agreeably visible.
He looked at his face again. The boy was looking at him. Osvaldo moved his eyes away, asking himself if the boy could have noticed where his glance had been lingering a moment or so before. But after a short time, he looked again at that boy who was again, or maybe still, looking at him, and this time he had his hand under his leather jacket and was lightly moving it almost in a caress.
"Shit!" Osvaldo thought, "He's teasing me... caressing his chest... he must have understood I like him..."
Osvaldo again moved his eyes away and resumed reading the newspaper. But his attention was really still focussed on that boy. A nice boy. He would hook him willingly... But when, and how? Not now - he had to go to meet that nurse, then to meet Giulio, then the other nurses...
He looked again at that boy. He was still looking at him, and slowly caressing his chest, and he threw Osvaldo a light, fleeting smile... Osvaldo looked at his watch - 11:20. As he didn't know what to do, he stood up, paid for his coffee, went out and stopped for a moment on the pavement. It was too early to go back to the hospital. He would have done better to have stayed longer in the coffee shop...
"Hi. Do you have a light?" a voice asked behind him.
He turned and found that he was in front of the coffee shop boy.
"Yes, here..." Osvaldo said and gave him his lighter.
The boy took it brushing his hand and looking at him with a smile flickering in his eyes. He lit his cigarette. Then, giving Osvaldo back the lighter, he asked, "May I offer you a cigarette?"
"No, thank you."
"I noticed you, in the shop. Are you waiting for somebody?"
"No, I've a meeting at 12:30."
"Ah, still more than one hour. Are you waiting for a friend?"
"No, I've to meet a nurse in the hospital canteen."
"You know... I meant, a handsome boy like you, I thought you must have a girlfriend."
"No, no girlfriends. I'm not interested in girls." Osvaldo said, looking at him right in the eyes.
"I can understand you, I'm not interested either... You're not from Florence, are you?"
"No, just passing by. And you?"
"I live here, nearby."
"With your family?"
"Oh no, happily not. Thus I can ask whoever I like to my home. As you have still one more hour to wait, wouldn't you like coming to my place? Just to kill the time... we can have a drink..."
"I don't have much time but... I'd like to come. When one is alone, time never passes..."
"Good. It's close by. My name is Leopoldo, but Leo will be good. And you?"
"Osvaldo. But please, not Aldo..." he answered with a smile.
They went. Just turning the street corner Leo opened a door. They climbed upstairs to the mezzanine where the boy opened another door. They entered a wide bed-sitting room.
"Here we are. It's all here." the boy said merrily, closing the door behind them.
"It's nice, your place. And what a wide bed! Do you sleep alone on it?"
"Usually I do, but not always, thank heavens!" the other answered with a light laugh, then asked him, "Are you staying in a hotel?"
"No, at my sister's place."
"Ah, you're her guest..."
"More or less."
"Are you stopping in Florence for some time?"
"I still don't know. A few days, I think."
"What a pity... I like you very much."
"I like you as well."
"Yes, I realise that. I hoped that you and I..."
"Unhappily I've just a handful of minutes left."
"Well, Osvaldo, as we have broken the ice... we could meet again, couldn't we? This evening?"
"Yes, possibly... but I don't know when. After supper I've to go to the hospital again, and..."
"Do you have health problems?"
"No, Leo, I'm as fit as a fiddle. I've to meet some of my sister's colleagues. She worked at the hospital."
"Well, I have no plans for tonight, so if you feel like it, after you have met them you can come up here to my place."
"More than willingly, Leo. But I'm not able to tell you at what time I shall be free."
"I told you. I'll have my meal at home then I'll wait for you. Perhaps I'll wait for you watching a movie on the video-deck..."
"So when I get here, you will no longer be interested in me." Osvaldo jokingly said.
"No, on the contrary. I'll wait for you with more... longing." Leo answered. Then drew near him, hugged and kissed him.
"If you do that, Leo, I'll not be able to leave here, now..."
"If only you couldn't! Hey, feel what effect you have on me?" the boy answered guiding Osvaldo's hand between his legs.
"Leo, unhappily I've got to go, but... I'm really longing to come back here."
The boy kissed him again and fondled him on his fly, "Yes, come back here. I'm already dying of desire. Wait... I'll write you down my address and telephone number, in case... Here, Osvaldo. Don't make me wait too long..."
"No, Leo. I would really like having time to stop now..."
The boy saw him to the door but before opening it pushed Osvaldo against it, brushing his body on him and kissed him again. Osvaldo put his hands on the boy's buttocks and pulled him against himself to feel his erection through their clothes and make him feel his.
"Tonight, Leo, we'll have all the time we want, I promise. Tonight you'll not be alone on that nice bed."
"I'm counting on it, Osvaldo."
When he was on the street he checked his watch and went hurriedly to the hospital. Marina was already in front of the canteen door.
"Oh, I was afraid you weren't coming."
"Sorry, miss Marina, I've just had an unforeseen event."
"Nothing bad, I hope..." the girl mewed.
"No, in fact it was something rather ... sweet."
"Oh, you like sweets too, do you? Unhappily I can eat but a little bit, you know, the figure..."
They went in, chose their dishes and with the trays moved to a free table, in a quiet corner.
"Excuse me, miss Marina, did you know my sister very well?"
"Who, Letizia? We were practically as thick as thieves. And... why not to drop the 'miss', after all?"
"Yes, thank you, Marina. Did Letizia tell you she intended to leave her job?"
"Oh, no, never!" the girl said, widening her eyes.
Oswaldo was somewhat disturbed by her 'kitten' attitude.
"Did you know, Marina, about my sister's boyfriend?"
"Oh, yes! She dated with a hunk who seemed he came out of a movie. His name is Giulio, and he works in computer graphics... whatever that could mean."
"Did they get along well together?"
"And how! They were so nice together. He... just to look at him I felt like dying. But he didn't even notice me, you know? He had eyes only for Letizia. Eh, what a lucky girl!"
"But... did Letizia like working as a nurse?"
"Oh yes, and she was so skilled. Well, you know, at times we told each other that we would have liked becoming actresses, but they were just speeches... how can I say... just for the sake of chit-chatting, nothing more."
"Did she talk often about that?"
"No, no, I was the one talking about it more, to tell the truth. She always said - yes, it could be nice, but would you then be ready to... you know, the directors want that little thing, or else you don't star... And then also the actors want it... All the men, in that ambience, want just... that! Well, I answered her, possibly I wouldn't give it to everybody, oh no, but to a handsome actor... you know, a Richard Gere, possibly, why not."
"Did she tell you she wanted to go on a journey?"
"No... Well, yes, she wanted to go home for Easter. Yes, yes, she told me so when she came back from Rome."
"Ah, she went to Rome? When?"
"I remember it very well, it was our free day, and it was April the first. And she told me - I'm going to Rome and will be back this evening. I thought it was an April fool, of course, but she really went."
"From morning to evening?"
"Yes, right. She said - I'm going to meet the Pope. You see why I thought of an April fool, don't you?"
"Did she also go to Rome before that day?"
"Oh yes, two, three... or four times, I think. In January... then twice in February and once in March, yes. But not from morning to evening. She stopped there a couple of nights, if I'm right."
"Why did she go to Rome?"
"To do some shopping, I think."
"Yes, she always came back with bags of fashion clothes, very beautiful things."
They chatted some more but Osvaldo had the impression that he wasn't getting any more useful information. He saw the girl to the bus stop, then went back to the hospital and went to the ward. He asked about Federica and Rosetta, explained them who he was, what was his problem, and fixed a meeting with those two nurses as well.
Then he went back to his sister's home. In the mailbox there was nothing. He went upstairs. Waiting for Giulio he decided to sweep and dust the apartment, as it hadn't been cleaned for almost three weeks. He had just finished when the door bell rang. He went to answer it and in front of him stood the young man of the two pictures.
"Yes, it's me. You are mister Osvaldo..."
"Yes. Come in, please. Excuse me, but we can be less formal... after all we are of the same age."
"Yes, of course." Giulio said
The young man went straight to the living room - he evidently knew the place well. Giulio, in person, was even more beautiful than on the photographs, Osvaldo thought, feeling a pang in his heart. They sat on two armchairs. Osvaldo offered him a cigarette.
"Did you get any news?" the young man asked, looking at him with a worried expression.
"I met one of her colleagues, at the hospital. And later today I have a meeting with two more..." Osvaldo said and told him all the details of what he came to know at the hospital.
"Rome... She never told me she went to Rome. And to do shopping, then..." Giulio said.
"But when she went, you didn't know where she was going?"
"Well, we didn't meet every day. Almost every day, it's true, but... You said she went once in January, twice in February and once in March. And then again on April first, right?" Giulio said pensive.
"Yes, that's right." Osvaldo said admiring the boy's memory.
Giulio thought for a moment, then said, "Did she never go to see your parents in January, February and March?"
"Not that I know of. I live and work in Milan, so I don't know if she went to our village or not. But from what I know, after Christmas she didn't see our parents any more. I'm not a hundred per cent sure, but it would be odd if my mother didn't tell me having seen her again. I can check it... Did she tell you she was going to see our parents?"
"Yes, sure. And instead she was going to Rome. But why lie to me?"
"Forgive me, Giulio, but... how was your relationship?"
"Beautiful. Serene. We have always got on well together. And we always told each other everything. And needless to say, I can't see why she had to hide from me that she was going to Rome."
"Are you... jealous, Giulio?"
"Jealous? No, absolutely not. I've always had a total trust in her, there was no reason to be jealous. Rather, at times she reproached me not being jealous. She said that whoever really loves cannot but to be jealous."
"What bullshit! Whoever really loves, on the contrary, cannot but trust the other!" Osvaldo exclaimed.
"Yes, I totally agree with you." Giulio said with a smile.
"But, was she jealous of you?"
"Yes she was. But not in an obsessive way. And anyway I never gave her a reason to be jealous."
"Forgive me, Giulio, the question I'm asking you can possibly seem somewhat too intimate, but I'm trying to understand, to find some clues..."
"No, no, I fully understand you. You can ask me whatever you want."
"If you don't feel like answering, I would understand..."
"Well... you and Letizia... were you making love together?"
"And... was she happy with that?"
"Yes, she was. The first time, it was her asking me. And also afterwards, it was more often she who... who asked me, more than I."
"Why? Didn't you feel attracted to her?"
"Oh yes, a lot. But you know how it is... it seems that we boys think only of having a good fuck and I didn't want her to think I was also like that, therefore... I mostly preferred her to make the first move."
"Is it possible that... that she became pregnant and that now she's gone away for an abortion?" Osvaldo asked hesitantly.
Giulio looked at him, astounded, then shook his head with a smile. "No, she didn't want to get pregnant, and neither did I. Not before marriage, anyway. Therefore she took the pill and I always wore a condom with spermicide... therefore I think it is absolutely not the case. Anyway, as I know that one can never be certain one hundred per cent, I told her that if by chance it happened all the same, she had to tell me. And she promised me she would. No, I can absolutely exclude it."
"I apologize, Giulio, for asking you such questions, but..."
"No, no, in your place I would ask the same questions. And in any case, between men we can talk abut these matters... especially as there is a serious reason."
"I was asking myself why she never told us about you, Giulio. And mainly never to me. We always confided in each other, Letizia and I. And you seem to be a good, nice guy, someone to be proud of, not to keep hidden. And you also seem a clever boy..."
"I would have liked her to talk about me with you, because I have serious intentions towards her. But she insisted she wanted first to be certain..."
"Certain about you, or about herself?"
"At first about me, I think. She possibly wanted to get to know me better. But then... I don't know. She seemed so self-assured; she has always been very self-assured."
"Yes, Letizia is a strong-willed girl."
"Yes, but every time I hinted to her about marriage, she always said - sure, darling, but not yet. It's a serious matter, we need to consider it carefully."
"Yes, alright. But not to consider it for a whole life!" Osvaldo exclaimed.
Giulio smiled, "Almost exactly the words I told her. Anyway I was ready to wait because I love her, Osvaldo. And I can't understand what can have happened, where she could have gone."
"Neither can I. But I'm determined to find out. Will you help me, Giulio?"
"Of course I will. And further, I was thinking... I can ask for a week's leave at work, or an advance holiday, so we can try to look for her together. With two it could probably be easier. A detail that can perhaps escape one of us, would not go unnoticed by the other..."
"I would really be grateful if you could. And you know Florence better than I do, and you've a car... Would you come with me later to meet... what's their names... ah, yes, Rosetta and Federica?"
"Yes, I know them by sight. We can surely go and meet them together. Then tomorrow morning I'll go to work, ask for a week's leave, then come here."
"Will you get it without problems?"
"Yes, I've a right to it. Moreover, this isn't a period of super-busy work..."
"Marina told me, today during lunch, that you work on computer graphics. What do you do exactly?"
"Animation. Short advertising spots."
"It seems interesting."
"Yes, it's amusing. And what do you do?"
"I draw comic strips."
"Wow! That's a really amusing job!"
"That's so, and I like it a lot. By the way, in your opinion, did Letizia like her job?"
"Well... I would say she did. Or at least I never heard her complain about it, and she was always keen to be on time and to do everything in the best way... But she didn't talk about it very often..."
"Ha, I probably talk too much about my job, and I would like the person I love to talk to me about her's..." Osvaldo said.
"Yes, it's really so for me too. I too would have liked Letizia to tell me more about her work. But she seemed not to feel like doing so, therefore I didn't ask her very often. And also my job didn't seem to interest her so much."
"What a pity. But how can one not be interested in the job of one's lover?"