Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
arlo barged into the kitchen just as Rosa’s cook was about to serve Serafina a late breakfast. “Colonna said Abatti talked after we left last night. He confessed to Ugo’s murder. Said he did the job himself.”
Serafina looked up from her paper.
“Why are you frowning?”
“I don’t believe it. He confessed? Must have been coerced.”
“Well, believe it. I read his signed confession. Abatti told Colonna he acted alone. Doesn’t know the brother. Said he met Ugo at Boffo’s, poisoned his wine to soften him up, lured him to the Madonie by the promise of stolen goods hidden in the hollow of a tree. As Ugo reached for the loot, Abatti grabbed him, stabbed him once for each of his comrades killed in the Battle of Milazzo.”
Serafina shook her head.
“Wait. There’s more. Abatti said he took Ugo’s keys after he killed him, stuffed his body into a sack, and dumped it on shore. Then he returned to Ugo’s house and lifted the Marsala Medal from its hook above the mantel.”
“And Colonna believes Abatti, of course. How convenient. What about the wine glasses, the stained napkin in Ugo’s home?”
“Leave it, Mama. The town talks of nothing else—another killer caught by Donna Fina, the midwife of Oltramari.”
“And forget we have a poisoner on the loose?”
Carlo struck his forehead.
Serafina rose. “Ugo’s gold and silver?”
“Didn’t ask.” He looked at her. “Where are you going?”
“Abatti said he met Ugo at Boffo’s, did he? We’ll just see about that.”
offo was a short man with a friendly smile and no teeth. He owned a café on the piazza. Afternoons, he served sweets and coffee to a mixed clientele—a few tourists, but mostly townspeople out shopping. Evenings, Boffo’s catered to a rougher crowd.
As Serafina entered, late morning sun swam on the walls and menus. Too early for customers, but Boffo sat, running his finger down the front page of
Giornale di Sicilia
, shaking his head, and enjoying what Serafina figured was his only quiet time of the day.
She got straight down to business. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“Not a bit of it. Always a pleasure, Donna Fina.”
“I need to talk something over with you. Only for your ears, and concerns the murder of Ugo Pandolfina. You know about it?”
“Course, I know about it. Whole town knows about Ugo. Poor, old Ugo. Heard you caught the varmint what did him in and single-handed, too. Hit him where he lived, so to speak. Lucky we have you around.”
“I have a few questions about his death. Not a word to anyone, you must promise me.”
“You can rely on me. How did he take it, might I ask?”
“I mean, how did Ugo die? They say his entrails was hanging out. Bloody mess.”
“Autopsy’s not been performed and it wouldn’t do for me to speak out of turn. I
tell you that it wasn’t pleasant.”
His eyes widened.
“But his killer said he was in here with Ugo the night before he murdered him.”
“Ugo? In here?”
“Was he a customer?”
“One of my regulars. Most nights, Ugo was here. Known him for years. Need more like him. Pays his bills, I tell you. Hardly keeps a tab. Generous type. Buys for the house when he’s feeling flush. Known him since forever, him and the brother, although, come to hear it told, the two aren’t on good terms.”
Boffo sucked on his gums and continued. “Good bloke, I don’t care what they say about him.”
“What do they say about him?”
He puffed on his cheeks. “Don’t like to speak ill of the dead—I’ll have the specters flying wild at me. But…some said he’d wind up no good.” He leaned closer to her and his voice took on a heavy rasp. “Didn’t wet the don’s beak. Not surprising that he left this world, quick-like.” He tapped a finger on the side of his nose. “Like I say, Ugo was a good customer. If I had more like him, I wouldn’t be in trouble with the bank. Bar’s been in my family for generations. Now I’m hanging by my nails, you might say. Don’t know how much longer I can hold on. Father kept it good. His father before him. Prospered. Now I’m the one what’s losing it.”
She sympathized with his troubles. “When was the last time you saw Ugo in here?”
“Can’t recall the date. Mind getting fuzzy. Late last week, might have been. Don’t know for sure. Gets crowded at night and one day runs into the other, you might say. Always here Saturdays.”
“We found his body Monday morning. Did you see him Sunday evening?”
He shook his head. “Not Sunday, that I know for sure.”
“Closed on Sundays.”
tand aside,” she said to the guards blocking the commissioner’s door. Serafina felt her cheeks flush.
In acknowledgement, the guards clicked their heels, halberds at the ready. They didn’t move away from the door. She gazed up at the frescoed angels banding the ceiling, looked down at a pile of dust sitting in the near corner.
The commissioner’s secretary waddled up. “You can’t go in there, not without an appointment. Have a seat in the waiting room and I’ll tell him you—”
The door opened and the commissioner stood before her. “That’ll do, Tacelli. Next time she comes here to see me, usher Donna Fina in right away.”
“But if you’re in a meeting?”
“Use your head, man!” He brushed the sleeves of his frock coat as he led Serafina into his office.
After she praised the view of the piazza from his windows, Serafina began. “Commissioner, I—”
“Took you a day to capture Ugo’s killer. Congratulations on a fine piece of work.”
“Was it? I’m not so sure.”
He straightened his sash and said nothing.
“I believe Abatti may have been hired to kill Ugo. I believe he was hired by Ugo’s brother, the shoemaker.” She shared the details of her interview with Rodolfo, her impressions of his financial straits, and his abstraction. She told him about the gold found in Ugo’s home. “Abatti said he acted alone, that he met Ugo in Boffo’s and poisoned his wine. That would have been this past Sunday. I’ve just checked with Boffo: he is closed on Sundays.”
The commissioner furrowed his brows. “You took Abatti’s confession?”
“No, Colonna did after I left the building last night.”
“I see.” The commissioner gave her a lopsided smile. “But you’ve read it for yourself?”
“Yes,” she lied and continued, hoping he wouldn’t notice the burning crimson of her cheeks. “I believe the shoemaker himself poisoned Ugo’s wine to soften his brother for the kill.” She told him about finding a glass and napkin in Ugo’s kitchen, both tainted with arsenic.
He scribbled something on a sheet of foolscap. “I need to read Abatti’s confession myself.” He rang the bell, directing his secretary to retrieve the document.
“We claim to have the killer behind bars. He had motive, means, opportunity, and he confessed.” He pressed his fingertips to his forehead. “The town rejoices in our quick capture of Ugo’s murderer. We need to mark the passing of a military hero and do it quickly.”
His arguments were persuasive. She thought for a moment. “So we condone fratricide?”
The commissioner straightened the papers on his desk. He spoke, half to himself. “Let’s keep it simple. Ugo Pandolfina died of a knife wound to the heart. The one who wielded the weapon is behind bars and has confessed. Said he murdered for retribution, did it himself. What more is there?” He looked at Serafina and she knew he would brook no argument. “I’ve appealed to the judge to release the body for burial.”
The secretary returned with Abatti’s confession and left.
The commissioner began reading slowly to himself while she sat there, listening to the crackle of thin parchment, and willed herself to remain perfectly still.
When he finished, he tossed it on the desk. “All here, as you say. Signed by the prisoner, dated yesterday. I can only imagine what Colonna promised Abatti.”
“And later, when the thrill of Abatti’s capture fades and the whispers begin about bad blood between the brothers, what happens then? If it’s discovered that there are holes in Abatti’s confession, that the shoemaker arranged for Ugo’s murder—even helped his hired man by poisoning Ugo’s wine—it will look like our investigative techniques are expedient and slapdash. Journalists will crucify us. The public will feel duped and rightfully so.”
He rubbed his forehead. “Your arguments are sound.” For a moment, he gazed at nothing, nodding his head up and down. “Then, my dear, you must continue your investigation. Be quiet. Be discreet. Be quick—faster than those inky fingers can fan the flames of public sentiment. Our reputation is at stake.”
“To say nothing of justice.”
“I’ll talk to Colonna.”
He sighed. “Colonna is a trusted investigator, but he’s a straightforward man. Doesn’t believe in hunches or in a wizard’s canny leap. Doesn’t do well with digging. One day, I want to see you both working together, but not just yet, and certainly not now.”
“But I could use the help.”
She bit her lower lip.
As he spoke, he took a letter from his middle drawer, folded it, and affixed his seal. “Killing by using the hands of another is hard to prove, but it happens more often than we like to admit—a favorite with the new bandits. In this case, when Abatti takes all the credit for the killing and his motive is so strong—it might be impossible to support. Unless, of course, the shoemaker confesses.”
Handing her the vellum, he continued. “This identifies you as my special agent. You’ve earned it. If Abatti were to recant his confession, or if you find enough evidence implicating the brother, take the shoemaker in for questioning, and we’ll give the town something to talk about. In the meantime, let the people mourn their loss. Let me see…” He riffled through the papers on his desk. “The funeral is Tuesday the 19
Straightening his sash, he turned from her and considered the scene out his window.
film of water covered the skins of things down here, Serafina thought. It beaded on her upper lip and in her armpits as she followed a guard down the circular staircase of Oltramari’s jail. Moisture dampened the flame on her torch so that she could see no more than a few centimeters ahead. It was like being wrapped in a foul-smelling dream. She saw a dark form scurry past, perhaps Ugo’s shade, here to exact its revenge.
When Serafina entered the room, the guards said in unison, “Rise, please.” A shackled Abatti stood with difficulty, eyed Serafina, said nothing. She breathed in audibly. The pity she felt for him was unexpected and strong. His face was haggard. His shirt was torn, yet he looked like a man unafraid of death.
She handed her torch to a guard and sat down, motioning for Abatti to take his seat. Her eyes studied his face, looking for an involuntary grimace, a tremble in his hands, a sidelong glance. She found no signs of fear.
“You confessed to the murder of Ugo Pandolfina.”
“Proud of it. I’d murder Ugo a hundred times over, that bastard.”
“You had help.”
He shook his head.
“Was there another who wanted his death?”
He didn’t answer. She waited.
“To my comrades who survived Milazzo, I’m a hero.”
She knew it was hopeless, yet something perverse made her persist. “What was his name, the one who poisoned Ugo’s wine?”
A long moment passed. They seemed like hours. The torch sputtered and the guards grew impatient, but she let silence bore into the layers of his courage before asking again, “Who poisoned him?”
“While we drank that evening.”
“Evening I killed him. Sunday.”
“Killed him in a grove in the foot of the Madonie Mountains.”
“You know what I mean. Where did you poison him?”
“Café down the street, Boffo’s.”
“Boffo’s is closed on Sundays.”
He said nothing.
“Who helped you, Abatti? Who gave you the Marsala Medal?”
“It’s mine!” He glared at her. “I earned it.”
“I didn’t find your name on the list of recipients.”
She saw beads of sweat run down his face and lose themselves in the folds of his neck. The guards moved from side to side.
“Where is your Marsala Medal now?”
“Guards have it.”
“And you think they’ll bury it with you? Don’t be naive.”
She watched a new shadow cross his face.
“I want his name, Ugo’s poisoner.”
“Abatti is his name, Ezzo Abatti.”
She waited a few moments in silence. Convinced, finally, that Abatti would never talk, she gathered up her reticule and said, “If you change your mind, have the guards send for me.”
Walking home, she was glad for the drying sun on her face and the smells of early spring.
espite the commissioner’s advice, Serafina entered the wing of the Municipal Building reserved for police, detectives, and inspectors. Why did the commissioner consider Colonna a good detective? He had nothing but kind words for him. She felt her cheeks burn and her step quicken. Men stick together, she decided.
Was her judgment of Colonna too harsh? Did she want all the glory as Carlo had warned her last week? Should she confide in Colonna, ask for advice? She’d shivered at the thought, but she’d meet with him. She’d show her son. After all, she couldn’t continue acting alone and now she could use the fat inspector’s help.
He was seated behind his desk when she knocked on his door.
Colonna bit on a toothpick while he listened to Serafina’s arguments implicating the shoemaker’s direct involvement in his brother’s death.
“Do you mean Abatti’s not the killer? You found the murder weapon on his person. He confessed. Would you like to read it?”