Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“More than one person wanted him dead?”
A left-handed killer with a stiletto and help. But why so many wounds? The killer was inexperienced? Enraged? Probably both.
She watched the thin, wet line of shore as morning clouds massed in the distance. Awake, now, the wind. It slid across her vision, churned up bits of seaweed, molding the water into small waves as it had done, she imagined, on the first day of creation. For a moment, she listened to the ebb and flow of the sea.
Carlo pulled at the sack. The rest of the body slipped out. “Only one boot.”
“Take it off. I’ll put it in my bag.” Serafina brushed sand from her skirt.
He shrugged but removed the boot. After fishing in Ugo’s pockets, he found a scribbled note and handed it to Serafina.
She read aloud. “’Midnight, m’dni, ea.’ An assignation?”
“Who knows?” Carlo made a face.
“Better cover him up again.”
While Carlo retied the gunnysack, Serafina stuffed Ugo’s boot into her bag, along with the note and a few of the leaves.
In the distance, Serafina saw Beppe approaching with Inspector Colonna. Black-hooded stretcher bearers followed in a cart and, behind them, uniformed men.
“Look! Colonna’s holding a bandana over his mouth and nose already,” Serafina said. “Waddles like a goose, no?” The air, now blowing, snapped at her skirts.
rawing closer, Colonna said, “Here before me, I see.”
“I didn’t ask for this. Early this morning my factotum informed me he’d seen a strange-looking sack on the beach. He led me here. I told him to run for you and Dr. Loffredo, but since I planned to stay here out of respect for the dead, I asked him to fetch my son first so that I would not wait alone.”
Serafina introduced Carlo to Colonna. “My oldest, home for two weeks.”
Carlo inclined his head to the inspector.
“You’ve been here for how long?” Colonna asked.
“A while. You took your time getting here. Carlo came shortly after I arrived. We’ve seen no one else.”
Colonna opened the sack. “Do you know this man? His family?”
“I delivered his brother’s child last night.” She pictured Graziella in her final groaning; candles guttering, helper women crowded around a chipped statue of the Virgin. Last night, birth. This morning, death.
“And last night, did you see anything unusual?”
“I was directing a birth. I had no time to see or hear anything else.”
“Ah, but here’s the examiner now. Been waiting for you, Loffredo. Make room for him, dear lady.”
“Stay where you are.” Dr. Loffredo tipped his hat to Serafina. His eyes did not leave hers while he shook hands with Carlo and Inspector Colonna. He was tall with not a hint of paunch, his clothes from the best tailors in Palermo.
The doctor shook hands with Carlo. “I could use your assistance. Make room for us, please, Colonna.”
While the doctor and Carlo bent to examine the dead man, Colonna shuffled over to speak with the black cloaks waiting to prepare the body for its trip to the morgue.
When they finished, Loffredo addressed Serafina. “The wound to the heart killed him. Bruising suggests he’s been moved, but any fool can see that. Lividity’s well established, so he’s been dead for some time—at least twelve hours, I’d say, but I’ll be able to give you a better estimate of the time of death after the autopsy.” He peered out to sea. “A mess they’ve made of it. Looks like he was poisoned beforehand, stabbed more often than I care to count, then stuffed into a sack and dragged here—an ignominious end.”
She shuddered. “Why the poison?”
Loffredo shrugged. “I see it often in a murder like this one.”
“What do you mean, ‘like this one?’”
“A revenge killing, I’d say. Killer had assistance, someone who fed the victim just enough substance to weaken the man.”
“I agree,” Carlo said. “Softened him up for the kill.”
She was silent a moment.
Carlo asked, “When’s the autopsy?”
“Probably next week. Busy these days with bodies.” He faced Serafina. “You investigate?”
“Be careful, my dear.” He kissed her hand and left.
Colonna held onto his fedora, pushing toward them on splayed feet. “Three small uprisings in the province yesterday. We’re spread thin. No doubt the commissioner will assign this case to you, but I can spare an hour this morning to give you a few pointers while you search the home of the deceased. Of course, I’ll wait outside for you to finish up with the spouse.”
“’Finish up?’ His wife died. No children.” Serafina gave Colonna directions to Ugo’s home. “I’ll meet you there after I’ve talked to his brother.”
ou? Investigate?” Carlo asked, helping Serafina navigate the rocky ascent to the center of town.
She told him of her meeting with the commissioner last month, the increase in her stipend if she agreed to help the department investigate. “Only temporary, you understand.”
He smirked. “Don’t waste too much time on this case. Looks like the work of Don Tigro’s thugs to me. Messy enough. The don’s style, too—body dumped on shore for all to see. ‘Look what happens when you tangle with Don Tigro,’ that’s what he’s saying with this roaring stink.”
Serafina winced. Each time she heard the don’s name, she thought of her mother’s deathbed confession—Tigro was Serafina’s half-brother, born out of wedlock, given up for adoption. A horror, Maddalena’s admission, revealed only in her final agony and shared only with her daughter. If it were true, Don Tigro was the uncle of Serafina’s children. She shuddered when she imagined the burden that knowledge would give them, then quickly chided herself for believing a dying woman’s hallucinations. No matter, no one must ever discover the secret. Beneath a veneer of culture, Don Tigro ran a deadly organization, demanding the last drop of blood from those who sought his friendship. How could he be her mother’s child?
“You’re far away, again, not listening.”
“Brilliant, dear. Please continue.”
“What’s more, you underestimate Colonna. He’s overworked, but he knows how to investigate.”
“And your mother doesn’t?” She stopped to catch her breath and gazed at the glistening sea far below.
“You grabbed the town’s attention when you captured the Ambrosi killer—only took you a week in contrast with the police who searched a little, scratched a lot, and discovered nothing. After that, you primped on stage for a while and enjoyed it. Now you want the limelight again. You know what? I think you’re jealous.”
“A bit too smug this morning, aren’t we, Mr. Smarts? I wonder what Gloria gave you last night to uncork such wit.”
She stumbled on a stone. Reaching down to scrub dust off her boot, Serafina leaned on her son.
“Take Colonna’s help if he offers it. And with Loffredo as the examiner, the police can’t sweep away this murder.”
Serafina’s cheeks flamed at the sound of Loffredo’s name. Utter nonsense—no one could replace her husband. Besides, she was still wearing black. “True. And Ugo’s death will have a big following. Popular here and he’ll need to be buried with military honors.”
They continued on their way through the narrow streets of an artisan neighborhood. One-room houses stood next to windowless apartment buildings. She heard shouting in the distance.
“Honors? That guy?”
“Ugo fought with Garibaldi. He received the Marsala Medal. Rodolfo told me he kept it on a hook above the mantelpiece, but I saw it pinned to his chest at some
“Men kill for that medal and he wears it to a
!” Carlo brushed dust off his lapels. “Unafraid of pickpockets, I guess, or just plain stupid.”
At last they reached the piazza. Serafina could see their villa through the trees of the public gardens. Gulls keened overhead as they rounded the fountain.
“After the burial, another brutality will make us forget this one. Ugo’s killer will be free. Unsolved murders suffocate us.”
“Spare me, Mama. Sicily flirts with anarchy. Police and soldiers are too busy quelling riots. The officials are desperate. Why else would the commissioner ask for help from a woman? Anyway, you’re dying to stick your nose into it.”
She patted Carlo’s sleeve. “Do me a favor. Go to Ugo’s and watch Colonna for me. I’ll be there in ten, fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t trust him, do you?”
“Maybe not. But I need your eyes and ears. You see what I don’t and you’re not afraid to tell me.” She pecked his cheek and turned toward the shoemaker’s.
alfway across the piazza, Serafina was arrested by the sight of a veiled woman seated on a stone bench near the public gardens. Drawing closer, she heard the figure droning something unintelligible in guttural tones through slightly parted lips. The sound seemed to come from within, almost like the purr of a cat. Winged creatures flew around her form. The woman wore black garments faded into green and stretched across her massive middle. Her sightless eyes were like ravens churning around a dead sky.
Scylla with her own Charybdis
Serafina stood before her. She smelled the dung of diseased sheep. Reaching into her bag, she thrust a coin into the woman’s outstretched palm. The crone did not move or nod or otherwise acknowledge Serafina’s presence. She shook herself free of the hag’s mesmerizing presence and continued on her way to the shoemaker’s.
he shoemaker’s young son, Teo, was unbolting the shop’s front door when Serafina arrived.
“Is your father here or am I too early?”
The boy gave her a solemn nod, then disappeared.
Presently Rodolfo came in looking dapper, clothed for the day’s work in striped pants, starched shirt and leather apron. He was a slight man with a round, flat face, shorter than Serafina. Like many of Oltramari’s shopkeepers these days, he had a hungry look. For a second she stared at him, losing her words. Why did she hesitate? This was not the first time she’d delivered news of death.
“I need to speak with you.”
“Something’s wrong with the little one?”
“No, the baby’s fine. A spectacular set of lungs, I might add.” She thought she heard Teo scuffing about somewhere near the entrance. “Another matter entirely. Let’s sit, shall we?”
Teo appeared, carrying his books. “See you, Papa,” he called over his shoulder, carefully closing the door behind him.
Rodolfo followed Serafina and stumbled into a seat.
“We found your brother’s body this morning. Murdered, it appears. My deep sorrow for your loss.”
He laid a hand on his chest. “Murdered?” His eyes widened. “How?”
Color drained from his face. “Where did you…” The shoemaker loosened his collar. He stared straight ahead.
“In the lower village, on the shore.”
His eyes darted from side to side. “On the shore? But that’s not…”
She said nothing for a long minute.
“Not close, Ugo and I, but my brother, all the same. Stabbed?”
She nodded. “When was the last time you saw him?”
He seemed not to hear, but sat rubbing the palms of his hands on his knees. Without warning, he stood, ran a handkerchief over his forehead. “You must excuse me. I need some time.” He struggled out of his apron, staggered a bit, sat down again, and looked at the floor. His face was mottled.
“You are his closest living relative, I take it?”
“May I get you something? A cup of water?”
He shook his head.
“Take your time. Collect yourself. Hug Graziella. Kiss your baby. I’ll return soon. I’ve some questions.”
uniformed man stood by the gate of Ugo’s home. Pots of wisteria and lavender withered near the stoop. Paint peeled on the door.
Inside, Serafina smiled at her son. A minor light seeped through the cracks and the air smelled sour. She opened the shutters. She looked above the mantel for Ugo’s Marsala Medal, but it was missing.
A cat meowed. Carlo picked up the thin tabby and spilled it into Serafina’s arms. It purred and kneaded her cape. They began walking around the room, Serafina touching the rim of a vase, swiping dust off a shelf, straightening the glass of a lamp. A tattered oilcloth covered the kitchen table. On it stood an empty bottle, two wine-stained glasses, crumpled table linen, and a nearly spent candle, its wick captured in a pool of cold wax. No crumbs, no dirty dishes.
“Looks like Ugo had a visitor before he died,” she said.
When Serafina turned over one of the napkins, she saw traces of the same yellowish residue she’d seen around Ugo’s mouth. The cat jumped from her arms and disappeared as she slipped the napkin and two glasses into her satchel.
Colonna swayed from side to side around the room. He peered up at the ceiling, down at the floor, ran his hand over an armrest and underneath cushions. Stopping in front of the fireplace, he said to his men, “See that loose stone? Lift it. Something’s underneath.”
While the police worked at the stone, Serafina groped her way down a dingy hall and into the bedroom.
Bare mattress, sour smell, crumpled bedding, dust everywhere—a man’s room.
She saw a large cabinet on the opposite wall and opened it. Instead of clothes, tarnished pieces of silver crammed the shelves. Elaborate candelabra, pitchers, serving bowls, trays, goblets, silver-encased cruets, jewel-encrusted chalices. Lifting a silver vase, she looked on the bottom and studied the hallmark, a vulture and the date, 1653, above some letters she could not read. Wedged in the back on the bottom shelf was a ledger.
Then she remembered Loffredo’s words: Ugo fenced silver for the nobility. He had contacts on the continent, no doubt, where he sold the goods. “The aristocrats of Sicily sit on balding velvet and pretend Unification never happened. They’d rather sell their heirlooms than soil their hands with trade,” Loffredo told her.