Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“He lied about poisoning Ugo.”
“An insignificant detail. The commissioner is happy with your work—the murder of a military hero solved in a day or two. Townspeople will see the killer pay for Ugo’s murder.”
“We’ll hang the wrong man and there’s not much time. We’ve got to stop him.”
“Who?” Colonna looked amused with himself.
“The shoemaker, of course. He planned the murder, contracted Abatti to do the deed, and helped his hired man by adding a small amount of arsenic to Ugo’s wine.”
“How do you know? Were you there? Does the shoemaker know Abatti?”
For an instant, a half-formed image flickered in her mind before it died. She reminded Colonna of the evidence found in Ugo’s home—the wine glass and napkin with traces of arsenic that Abatti knew nothing about. She told him of the shoemaker’s suspicious behavior during her interview with him. “Told me he hadn’t seen his brother in six or seven years when in fact he met with him each month.”
Colonna leaned forward and she could smell stale garlic. “A bit of advice. You are a good investigator. In time, you may approach my expertise, but you need to learn when to quit.”
“And Ugo’s gold and silver?”
The inspector looked around to make sure the shadows had no ears. “I called him in. The shoemaker and I came to a little understanding. I helped him with the red tape. He took the pot of gold—most of it—and I found a dealer for the silver. Not strictly my duties, I admit. And, all right, meddling in your case a bit, I grant you, but…you need experience in these matters and I knew I could help, just like I did with Abatti’s confession.”
Serafina stared at him.
“My dear, you must learn the ropes.”
Friday, February 15, 1867
or the past two days, Serafina had been busy delivering babies and could ill afford time to uncover evidence of the shoemaker’s guilt in his brother’s murder.
But yesterday, on the pretext of delivering a fresh batch of medicinals, Serafina squeezed in another visit to Graziella. The shoemaker was not present.
The only member of the household to welcome her was Teo, who bowed when she entered. Serafina winked at him and he smiled.
But it was as if Graziella barely knew her.
“Sit, please, Donna Fina.” Teo wrapped a tongue around his lips.
Graziella sat rocking her infant, staring at something on a barren wall, not acknowledging Serafina.
“I can’t stay long.” Serafina held out a bottle. “I’ve brought you a refill of Mama’s potions.”
Graziella rocked her baby and spoke to Teo. “Put it in the cupboard.”
Serafina took her leave, thinking that the woman’s spirits seemed desolate, her house as cold and ungiving as it had been shortly after the birth of her baby. Strange, she should have snapped back into her old humor by now.
Saturday, February 16, 1867
fter finishing her breakfast, Serafina folded the paper and watched Assunta clear the table. Was there evidence that Rodolfo had purchased arsenic, she wondered? She remembered her mother once telling her that the unscrupulous did a brisk business in arsenical compounds, not caring who bought how much or for what purpose. Women of all classes purchased potions from the strega laced with arsenic to rid themselves of an unwanted fetus. Most died in the process. Colorists used it to tint wallpapers. And Giorgio told her the story of Tufania d’Adamo who sold arsenic to women longing to be widows. “
, she called it. Very popular. No color. No taste. Four drops in water or wine meant instant death. Burned at the stake, our Tufania. Took the formula of the poison with her.”
But Loffredo said that the residue around Ugo’s lips was an arsenical salt, a simple garden variety, easily obtainable. He thought that Giorgio might sell it. It was the logical place to begin her search.
Serafina opened the door to the family’s apothecary shop on the far side of the piazza and was flooded with memories. She couldn’t help a few tears as she recalled Giorgio in his dark suit and starched apron, standing behind the counter, greeting customers.
Dark wood paneled the walls, their shelves filled with glass jars and vials. One wall contained life’s bathing necessities, shaving supplies for men, toiletries and perfume for women, combs, clasps, salves, creams, crutches, hot water bottles, variously sized and priced smelling salts, soaps, medicinals, and powders.
Now that her son ran the shop, Giorgio’s tendency toward jumble was missing. Everything was neatly displayed, nothing out of place, the visible sign of Vicenzu’s well-ordered mind.
“Mama, what are you doing here?”
“Do we sell arsenical compounds?”
Vicenzu rested fists on his hips. “This is about Ugo’s death, isn’t it? Can’t let it alone, can you?”
“Shhh! Not a word to any of the customers or, worse, to your brother.” She filled him in on her recent discovery of the holes in Abatti’s confession, her visits to the prisoner and the commissioner and his order that she gather more evidence connecting the shoemaker with Ugo’s death. “Abatti stuck to his confession. He claims he poisoned Ugo’s wine in Boffo’s, later met him in the Madonie and stabbed him.”
Vicenzu thought a moment. “Boffo’s is closed on Sundays.”
“Just so. I’m convinced the shoemaker hired Abatti, helped him by putting a little poison in his brother’s wine.”
“A little poison? No such thing.” Vicenzu shuffled his feet. “The dose makes the poison. But he could have laced his wine with a toxic amount of arsenic.”
“So do we sell it?”
“Arsenic trioxide. It has its uses.”
“A popular rat poison. We sell it from time to time. In sufficient quantity, it can kill a man, but so can many other substances we think of as benign. You’re thinking that we may have sold the arsenic found in Ugo’s wine?”
“I think you’re mistaken. If someone buys arsenic to kill, he probably gets it from a strega.”
“Do you record each sale?”
He squared his shoulders. “Of course. I suppose you want to see for yourself, but I’d remember if I sold any to Rodolfo. Comes in from time to time. His wife is here more often than he. Buys toiletries, usually.”
Serafina followed Vicenzu to the back office, marveling at how much he resembled Giorgio, and sat while he combed the shelves for the records. In a while he returned, plunking down several books on the desk.
Serafina spent the next two hours looking through ledgers labeled
Sales of Dangerous Compound
s. Starting with the most recent, she worked her way back. Most entries were in Vicenzu’s careful script, recording date of purchase, amount, and name of buyer.
When she came to the third book and saw Giorgio’s bold lettering, her hands trembled. She bent to smell the paper, holding his scent close to her. For at least an hour, she continued poring through the records, her finger traveling down each page. Soon her eyes began to feel like rocks and she caught herself having to go back and re-read some of the words.
“Coffee?” Vicenzu asked.
“If it’s not like the syrup your father served.”
He set the cup before her and she breathed in its steam. Surprised at the warm, rich taste of the drink, she thought of mornings. Two or three swallows and she was refreshed. “You make a splendid coffee.”
Not a mote of dust in the store or in the back office where she sat and she felt a pang of remorse for overlooking the depth of her middle son’s spirit. Like Renata, he was not colorful, not demanding like Carlo, but quick, logical, self-effacing. He never created a fuss—well, except about coins.
She finished reading but did not find the information she sought.
t any hour on a Saturday, Boffo’s might be crowded with his late afternoon clientele, but she had some more questions for him, so she trekked across the piazza in the direction of his awning.
She was fortunate there were not many customers. Three shoppers and two British tourists were seated separately. Boffo looked up from serving one of the tables and smiled, showing his red gums.
He led the way to a quiet corner behind the bar. Serafina smelled spoiled fruit. Her stomach lurched.
“A glass of red or white? On the house, of course.”
“Did you ever see Ugo and his brother in here together?”
“You mean at the same time?” He hesitated, gave a slight shake of his head. “Can’t say as I…”
“Take your time. It’s important.”
“Well, yes, now that I think on it. Yes, by the snakes, I seen them together, the shoemaker and Ugo. Same flat face, I remember laughing to myself and thinking I was seeing double pretty early in the day. A rare sight, I might add—the brothers weren’t friends, but everyone knows that.”
“Why the bad blood between them?”
“Well, what I’ve heard…” He leaned forward and breathed vinegar near her face. “The shoemaker wrested the shop out from under Ugo’s nose. That’s what they say.”
She nodded. “Were the brothers here for the whole evening?”
He shrugged. “Long enough to have a drink, but you see it was—when was it—end of last week? Weather warming, as I recall.” He paused long enough to smack his gums. “Not crowded. Had to have been recent.”
Although she felt her temples throb, Serafina kept very still. “Can you recall what day of the week it was?”
He cocked his head. “Let me think on it a while.” He quieted for a long time until he nodded. Imperceptible at first, his movement grew distinct, a definite nod. “Saturday, Saturday a week. Definite, that.” He pointed to his head and grinned. “Yep, that’s a definite. Saturday a week. First the shoemaker came in.”
He shook his head. “No, he came in with someone. Now let me think, hold on, he came in with a queer bloke, a faded soldier, as you might say. Might have seen that one before, but after a while, they all look alike.”
Serafina brought out her notebook and wrote. “A faded soldier. Can you describe him?”
“Not short, not tall. Thick. Kept a rusty rifle by his side, like all the rest.”
“Did they spend the evening here?”
“Hold on now.” Boffo scratched his head. “Not so’s I recall. First the soldier comes in, then the shoemaker. Must have planned to meet here, you see. They sat at a table in the corner away from the bar behind the pillar, although they had their pick of seats. Not crowded, that’s how I remember it. Then a throng comes in. Lost track of the pair, you might say. Later on, Ugo rolls in, seats himself at the brother’s table. But I think, yes, I think the soldier had left by then. Or maybe not. By that time, quite a crowd. Yes, definitely this past Saturday. A rollicky gal, this bar, and she still draws a mob on Saturdays.”
“So you don’t know how long they stayed, but they were together, first the shoemaker and the soldier and after the soldier left, Ugo came in and drank with his brother.”
Boffo’s cheeks puffed in and out. “That’s about it.”
Serafina waited a bit, then stuffed the notebook into her reticule. “Did the brothers leave together?”
“Don’t remember. Just remember the handshakes. And later, that same evening must have been, Rodolfo has a bottle with him. Wants me to fill it with the house wine. I did. Said I could add it to his bill. Old customer, you know.”
“And now he has a high tab?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Yesterday, he paid up.”
erafina sat in her mother’s room on the third floor and wrote down what she’d remembered of her failed meeting with Abatti, her conversations with Rodolfo and his wife, weighing their words and mood, mentally sifting through and jotting down the physical evidence found at the scene of the crime and in Ugo’s kitchen.
She wrestled her mind into the straightjacket of logic and fact, only to give up and let it graze freely on possibilities and failed stratagems. Thumbing through her notes, she considered what she’d learned so far—precious little for all the time she’d spent, certainly not enough to nail Rodolfo to his brother’s murder.
She chewed on the inside of her cheek, realizing she was not as objective as she liked to think: she had begun the investigation of the shoemaker with her mind already convinced of his guilt. Closing her eyes and leaning back, she emptied her head, letting each damaged thought fly away like wounded birds out a window.
She dozed, dreamed a little. Refreshed, she began with what she knew.
From her interview with Rodolfo shortly after she found Ugo’s body on the beach, she learned that the shoemaker’s motives for killing his brother were strong. Like most of the other shopkeepers, including her own son, he was having difficulty making ends meet. Sales dwindled while expenses grew. By his own admission, Rodolfo had to share profits from the store with his brother. With his brother dead, all the profits were his to keep.
While he and his family were well-clothed and seemed well fed, Rodolfo had a tab at Boffo’s. Perhaps he had other debts. If only she had some concrete evidence linking him to his brother’s murder, perhaps the courts would issue a mandate to examine Rodolfo’s financial records and she’d find deeper arrears, but for now, she could only assume his monetary situation had worsened.
She considered Rodolfo’s means at hand—the soldier, the poison.
Boffo claimed he’d seen Rodolfo in his bar with “a faded soldier” on at least one occasion shortly before Ugo’s death. There were many former soldiers in and around the piazza, thousands in Sicily. Was Boffo’s soldier Abatti? And if asked, would Boffo identify Abatti as the soldier he’d seen with Rodolfo?
The barkeep also said he’d seen the Rodolfo and Ugo together. Recent and unusual behavior, according to him. Did the shoemaker affect a reconciliation with the brother, bring a bottle to his brother’s home, and slip a small quantity of arsenic into Ugo’s glass when he wasn’t looking?