Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
He shook his head.
“Why?” Carlo asked.
“Tell us one.”
The soldier stood there. Carlo opened his mouth but Serafina grabbed his arm and shook her head. She waited.
“The night before the big battle, I was late getting back to camp because of a woman. You know how it is.”
“But Ugo had guard duty, so I wasn’t worried. Face it, King Bumma could thunder right past his nose and the flat-faced oaf would nod all polite like and let him pass. So I hid behind a prickly pear, waiting for my chance to sneak in. I’m waiting for Ugo’s back to turn, see, since the wind is blowing right at him and hoping pretty soon he’d have to take a leak or something. And while I’m waiting, what do I see? Two three guys, one after the other walk right past him. One guy even waved to him. So I decide to take my chance. But instead of walking in—’cause I know Ugo, he don’t like me—I snuck, quiet like, until I’m about up to the guard shack. Just as I’m about to pass it, I see him turn his back, hunker down on his knees. He’s got his pistol in his hand and what does he do? He turns his face away from his body, contorted like, a bandana between his teeth—to stop his own screams, the lousy bugger. He looks away and shoots himself in the foot. BAM! I see him writhing on the ground, his eyes, wild and he’s whimpering like a woman.”
Abatti wiped his mouth and adjusted himself. “Now there’s no guard. Makes it easy for me to walk inside as if it were noon. But guess what, I’m not the only one waiting to sneak in. Those cockroach spies of King Bumma must have slipped in, too.” He shook his head. “Went right past him.”
“So instead of surprising the Bourbons,” Carlo said, “eight-hundred Redshirts died the next day. The Battle of Milazzo was a slaughter. Oh, yes, Garibaldi won, but at a great price.”
“You know about the battle?”
“My two brothers died because of that cur. And Palermo pinned on him the Marsala? Should die eight hundred deaths.”
Abatti stopped. His shoulders sagged.
Serafina motioned for Carlo to wait.
The soldier looked around, as if seeing his surroundings in a new light. “Deep shadows now. I’ll take you to your cart.”
Serafina and Carlo kept a few paces behind the soldier. She glanced at the stiletto gleaming from the side of his belt. Somewhere in a far tree, a bird called to its mate. She listened to it as their guide crushed leaves and branches ahead. “If Abatti didn’t kill Ugo, he knows who did,” she whispered. “We must take him in for questioning. He won’t come willingly, but I’ve got a plan. Make no move until I tell you.”
“Are you crazy? He’s armed. If he’s killed before, he’ll kill us in a second, quicker than you can blink.”
“Nonsense. You misjudge Abatti.”
“I forgot. You know him from someplace.”
“Trust your mother just this once.”
Carlo threw up his hands.
When their cart came into view, Abatti lifted his arm in farewell. His rings caught the late afternoon light.
Suddenly Serafina doubled over, holding her stomach. “Oh
, the pain. Help!”
The soldier ran to her side and bent to help.
Bracing her hands on his shoulders, she began a wobbly rise.
Blurred, fast movement.
Her knee shot up, planted a hard jab to his groin.
Hunching over, he screamed.
“Hit him with your club.”
One blow to the back of the head and Abatti slumped to the ground.
While Carlo tied his feet and hands with the rope, Serafina slipped the stiletto out of his belt and picked up his rifle. Together they lifted him into the cart and covered him with the blanket.
ou drive. I’ll watch Abatti,” Carlo said. “If he stirs, I’ll knock him out again. We’ve got to get him to the Municipal Building. I want to find out the poisoner’s identity.”
“He’ll never tell.” Serafina snapped the reins and Largo moved. She heard the crunch of tall grass beneath the cart’s wheels, saw dust motes in streams of dying light. “What about Gloria?”
“Poor girl, forgotten already.”
The cart’s wheels dug into the earth. Slowly they climbed onto the gravel of the main road.
“Is Abatti left-handed?”
“Not sure, but this afternoon he used his left hand to wave goodbye. His stiletto was wedged into the right side of his belt, I suppose, for a quick cross draw.”
“He’s left-handed. And last night when you met him in the piazza?”
Hiding her surprise, she rubbed her forehead. “Carlo, I—”
“I saw you with someone at the fountain when I was coming home from Gloria’s. Didn’t know it was Abatti. No need to explain.”
“But I want to. I’d had…a disturbing afternoon. I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk, sat near the fountain. Out of the blue, Abatti found me. He offered to walk me home.” That’s all she’d tell him, nothing about Loffredo. He must never know that.
“You’re lucky you weren’t killed. If Papa were alive, he’d be upset, you know that.”
They were silent. She listened to the clop of Largo’s hooves.
Presently she straightened her cape. “And the reason Ugo’s house seemed so violated? No medal above the mantelpiece.”
“So they drank together, Ugo and his poisoner. Then the poisoner left,” Carlo said, “but returned for the medal, gave it to Abatti as payment for killing Ugo. No broken locks or windows because Ugo trusted his killer with the key.”
“Any squirms coming from the back?” Serafina asked.
Carlo lifted a corner of the blanket covering Abatti. “He sleeps.”
“We know Ugo met Abatti: ‘Midnight, m’dni, ea’ is ‘Midnight, Madonie, Ezzo Abatti.’ Ugo’s ledger bears the same script as the note, and I saw ‘ea’ scrawled in several places, so Abatti must have been one of Ugo’s suppliers.”
They were silent.
Carlo turned to Serafina. “Or… Abatti played both roles.”
“Could be, but I don’t think so. I think he was hired to do the job.”
“And the one who hired him?”
Serafina said nothing.
“That look on your face: you know his identity.”
She visored her hand against the setting sun.
Wednesday, February 13, 1867
erafina felt a stiffness in her body as she strode across the piazza with Maria. No more riding all day in a wooden cart. She smelled citrus and fresh laundry. Sidestepping a clump of women gathered around the onion seller, she rushed to keep up with her daughter.
“Hurry, we’ll be late,” Maria said.
“Slow down. The maestro will still be there.”
“Yes, but today I start a new piece.”
“The one I’ve heard you practicing? Don’t tell me: it’s a Brahms something or other.”
“How did you know?”
Maria skipped ahead.
“His sonata for cello,” she called over her shoulder.
“But you play the piano.”
She dashed a look to Serafina. “He wrote it for cello and piano. I’m accompanying the maestro. Next time we go to see Aunt Giuseppina, I want to surprise her.”
Serafina was half listening to her daughter when a shock of red hair blocked their way.
Don Tigro flashed his magnificent teeth. “I missed your visit last week.” He nodded to Maria.
Serafina whispered in her ear. “Run to your lesson. I’ll meet you there.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I came to see Elisabetta, not you. She’s big and uncomfortable, I’m afraid, but that’s to be expected in the final month. I don’t doubt you’ve followed my instructions and released her from her obligations to help you entertain all your criminal friends.”
“Most of us mellow in middle age, but that tongue of yours just gets sharper.”
She tried to suppress a smile. “You’ll need to move here soon so that I may manage the birth.”
“Arrived yesterday, Betta and I. And now we are neighbors, at least for a while, and I can keep a watch on Maria’s progress. That’s why I’m here—to listen to her exquisite playing.”
“Progressing nicely without your help.”
“When will you learn to think of your children first? I’m willing to be Maria’s patron.”
“She’d have the finest teachers, become world-renowned, but not if you don’t accept patronage. You barely manage now. The crops failed last year. Families are falling apart. Women are doing their own birthing. Soon you’ll lose your stipend.”
“No matter. We have the shop.”
“Won’t last. You’ll be ruined, your family spread to the four corners. I owe it to our mother to help you.”
Serafina’s temples throbbed. “Stay away from Maria. I’m Elisabetta’s midwife because she’s my friend, not because of you.”
“As you wish.” He shrugged and disappeared inside Lorenzo’s music shop.
he scrubbed her forehead and stood for a moment.
A burden you’ve given me, Mama.
Consulting her watch, Serafina decided to circle the piazza until Maria’s lesson finished. The usual hive of shoppers buzzed around vendors’ carts. Ahead she saw a group of boys huddled near the fountain. She recognized one, the shoemaker’s son, smaller than the others. The older boys began shouting at him. Teo pointed at one of them and backed up slowly.
Serafina hurried toward them.
One of the boys shoved Teo’s shoulder with the flat of his hand. “Get out of here, kid.”
Teo shoved him back. “Fake knucklebones, that’s what you got, I saw you reach for one when you thought I didn’t see you, you fat dummies!”
“Do too. All of you. Show ’em to me, I dare you! Got those extra bones in your pockets and use them when you think I’m not looking. Saw you do it. You, too!” Hot tears ran down his cheeks.
“Look at him, the cry baby.”
“Let’s get him,” someone said.
Teo stood his ground, arms folded across his chest.
Another boy punched Teo while the first held him in an arm lock.
Teo spit and kicked back, but their blows were relentless.
Dust obscured the fighters.
Serafina plunged her way into the knot and grabbed one of the boys by the ear and she wasn’t about to let go. Just then, a carabiniere blew his whistle. There was a momentary hush. The older boys vanished into the Via Serpentina.
She gestured toward Teo who stood with his head lowered. “I saw it, Officer. I know this boy. The others were taking advantage.”
“Troublemakers, the lot of them and scrappy fighters, too. The other day I caught them stealing bread from a begging derelict and that’s not all. How old are you?”
He dug his fists into his pockets. “My coins! They’re gone!” He stomped a foot and crossed his arms.
“Good lesson you’ve had today, then.” The carabiniere brushed his sleeves and looked at Serafina. “You’re the new detective, aren’t you?”
“I’ll be off, then.” The carabiniere tipped his hat and disappeared.
Serafina chewed her cheek, hiding a smile. “How much is missing?”
“All of them.”
“Three or four
“They picked you clean during the fight.”
The toe of his boot kicked the dust.
She, however, could not stand to see his distress. “Or if you’re lucky, they fell on the ground. Let’s have a look.” She reached into her reticule and palmed some coins. On her hands and knees, Serafina made a show of searching. Scratching between the cobbles, she retrieved one, two, three, finally four coins.
Teo blew air from his cheeks. “A thousand thanks, Dona Fina. No need to tell Mama?”
She crossed her arms. “I won’t ask what you were doing here in the piazza playing knucklebones with those characters. Twice your size and up to no good. No, I’ll not ask. And no need to say anything to anyone. Your mama has troubles enough.”
They walked toward Teo’s home. “But you can help me with some information.”
“Have you ever seen an old woman sitting near the public gardens? She chants some gibberish.”
“The gypsy queen?”
“She’s a queen?”
He shrugged. “That’s what Calo calls her. He said she has marvels. Once he saw her gazing into magic crystals and once, when a man passed by her and Calo was watching and the man was old and snarly just then as he was passing right in front of the gypsy queen she hummed at him and his arm turned into a pillar of fire and flamed with thick smoke and broke off and fell and shattered BAH-BOOM! like that, onto the cobbles right in front of Calo’s eyes and melted into the ground so Calo, he ran away real fast, faster than the train to Bagheria, and ran down the Serpentina to the water and covered his arms with the sea. That’s what he told us to do and he said you need to hold your nose whenever you pass by her, just pinch it like this with two fingers and run away fast before she sees, you especially if your arms feel cold.”
She smiled. She didn’t know that Teo had so many words locked inside his mouth. “Can you describe her for me?”
“Wears an old black dress with patches on it and a witch’s veil over her head so’s you can hardly see her hair which Calo says is made from the skin of slimy snakes and she takes up almost the whole bench but who’d want to sit next to her, not me, not with those spidery eyes of hers. That’s the one?”
Serafina nodded. “Exactly.”
“Used to be spooked by her and run when I saw her like the other kids because when I got close to her one time my arms started to cool up one arm then down the other.”
“When was that?”
“Two, three years ago.”
“When you see her now, do you run away?”
“Not anymore. I need to be grown up now, that’s what Papa says.”
“And are you?”
He nodded. “Our family, we got secrets and I know them, but I can’t tell them otherwise I’d be a child.”
“And are the secrets good?”
He put a hand on his stomach. “They’re all right, I guess.”