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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

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BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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“Roger, over and out,” Alvin whispered back.

Naturally, there is no way to stash a phone book in your pocket. “You want to watch while I check the bedroom?” I said to the Super with what I hoped was a meaningful look at Alvin.

“Sure thing. I can't believe she would leave her place like this,” the Super said, shaking his shiny head. “It was always so perfect, eh.”

“She didn't. Someone burgled it, which is why we are waiting to see those tapes. Have the reporters been by yet?”

He paled. “I left a message for the owners. They got lawyers too. In fact, I think they might be lawyers themselves. Don't quote me. Oh boy, somebody did a job in here too.”

I stalled long enough for Alvin to check the phone book and any other magazines or books he found. There was nothing in the bedroom.

“I wish I could have helped you stay in your apartment. The owners were pissed off about all the complaints about you. And the awful thing on the balcony a few years back. The false alarm in September was just the last straw.”

“I didn't pull that fire alarm. Never mind, did these complaints come from different sources?”

“You know that's confidential.”

“Oh, right, I forgot. Privacy. Yeah, yeah. People can complain about me, but I can't know who they are.”

“You can be a scary lady.”

“Know what I think? I think all the complaints come from the guy in 1604. You got a whole bunch of complaints from one gold-plated jerk.”

He paled. “You didn't hear that from me,” he said.

“I owe you one.”

“Ready, Camilla?” Alvin called. “We gotta get back and walk the dog.”

I grinned at the super. “We'll check in soon to see what got caught on the cameras.”

* * *

We burst through the door of my place, and Alvin brandished the front cover of Mrs. Parnell's phone book. He slapped it on the table and covered it with a piece of printer paper. He scribbled over the paper with a pencil. I watched intently. It was just like being a kid with a puzzle from a cereal box. Words of a sort appeared. We read them out together, squinting. As far as we could tell, they said:

Berli

Pieve San Simone

Montechiaro

Alcielo

“There's another one too,” Alvin said. “Maybe she didn't press as hard because it's hard to make out.”

I squinted at it.

“O-R-F?” I asked

Alvin always likes the last word. “Not to squabble. I think it might be O-R-E.”

“Let's make a list and check them all out. They sound like place names to me. And she is in Italy. Although with Mrs. P., that might prove to be a diversionary tactic. We'd better check them out anyway.”

Alvin was already at the computer. “Lord thundering Jesus, the system's down.”

“Crap. Keep trying, and I'll go pack. Who knows what we'll have to deal with tomorrow.”

Gussie helped with my packing by flopping on the bed and sighing loudly. Some of the sighs were pretty stinky, so they may not have been actual sighs. Mrs. Parnell's cat helped by stretching out in the suitcase and licking her front paws. She varied this by also rolling languidly on the dark clothes I laid out and licking her back paws. Alvin helped by continuing to swear loudly at the online provider over the phone.

I already had the print-out of my e-ticket in my new backpack style leather purse, black of course. My passport went in too. I dug through the boxes of books from my apartment and ferreted out my trusty old Italian phrase book and my favourite guidebook. I tossed them into the purse and added a notebook. So far so good.

I am not the most fashionable person, as my sisters would be happy to tell you. I do not use an entire closet, so naturally I don't have a separate travel wardrobe. I sure didn't want to spend time seeking laundry facilities in Italy. Although the November weather in Italy would be more pleasant than Ottawa's, it could be cool. I decided to travel in my jeans, black sweater, new jean jacket and broken-in black running shoes, with a hooded raincoat for insurance. I dusted off my rolling carry-on luggage and packed black wool pants, my good black leather loafers and a charcoal blazer that was warm yet presentable. I squeezed in a long-sleeved turtleneck, three pairs of warm socks, a couple of T-shirts in case of warm weather, a toiletry kit and all the clean underwear in my drawer. None of my sisters would leave home without a little black dress and pashmina, neither of which I own. As a concession to their voices in my head, I added a red silk scarf, a Christmas gift from Edwina. The Christian Dior Graffiti Red lipstick Alexa had given me for my birthday went into the little black backpack. You never know when you have to look respectable for someone in authority. In Italy, appearance counts.

My closet was almost bare, and I was good to go. Less than twenty minutes. Whatever I'd forgotten to pack, I'd just have to live without. It was too late at night to call Ray and tell him about the trip to Italy. Alvin gave up on the system and headed back to Mrs. Parnell's to keep the night watch. Just in case.

It was late, and I was fried. Still, I stayed awake for a long time reading Mrs. Parnell's letters. What the hell was she up to?

* * *

After my morning coffee, I dragged Gussie off through the rain-soaked streets. I splashed home and made myself presentable. I didn't have a lot of time to spare before my three o'clock flight, and I didn't want to waste a minute. I was banking on the idea that a retired school principal would not be lying in bed on Saturday morning.

I picked up Betty Connaught's address and Mrs. Parnell's photos, which I protected with bubble wrap and a plastic bag.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled up in front of an imposing condo-style building on a fine old street in Sandy Hill. Luck was with me. Betty Connaught answered on the second ring. Five minutes later, I was sitting in her gracious living room.

“I hope I'm not catching you too early,” I said.

“Not at all. I've already been out walking for an hour,” she said, pointing to a walking stick. “Can't let the weather hold us back.”

Betty was tall and spare, and she still conveyed an air of authority. Lines criss-crossed her face. Her cheekbones were strong, and her chin remarkably firm. She wore her silver hair in a sleek pageboy. The style suited her, as it probably had for fifty years. She wore smart-looking navy pants and a soft grey sweater set, almost certainly cashmere. She was so pale that I wondered if her visit to the doctor the day before had been for something serious. On the other hand, I had burst in on a Saturday morning before she'd put her lipstick on. Lipstick or no, there was no doubt she was the dark-haired girl in Mrs. Parnell's photo. She still had the dark eyebrows, and she used them to advantage. Her former students must have dreaded being sent to Miss Connaught's office.

I was not a former student, and I'd had the advantage of growing up as the daughter of a high school principal. It has always come in handy.

“A nice pot of tea will help us both on this miserable day,” she said. “Does Darjeeling suit you?”

I like to use the time when people are playing host to examine their environments. My sisters would have given this one high marks. Betty owned lovely antiques, oriental rugs on polished floors, cream custom millwork shelving, silk draperies. Her walls were a soft celery shade which suited the soft faded greens and beautiful backlight of the large oil painting on the main wall. Fine, delicate watercolours hung in tasteful groupings. Alice Munro's latest book sat on the coffee table, keeping company with a National Gallery publication on Jean Paul Lemieux. The room even smelled elegant and old-worldly. From the kitchen, the CBC radio news was a soft burr in the background. Betty's life in retirement was pleasant, agreeable to the senses; she had a comfortable as well as an elegant home.

I reminded myself to get those damn boxes unpacked when I got home. And slap a milk calendar up on the wall.

Apparently Betty not only believed in tea, she believed in silver and in keeping it polished. She seemed worried and slightly distracted. It couldn't have been the antique silver tea service, because that was gleaming.

“Well, dear. I'm sorry to say that I've been fretting about poor Violet since we spoke, was it just yesterday? I can't really think of anything to help. It's quite distressing.”

“Believe me, I know.”

“Of course, you're going through the same thing.”

“Maybe you
can
help,” I said, accepting my tea in a Crown Derby cup. “Does the name Berli mean anything to you?”

“Vardy? I think there's a doctor by that name.”

“B–E–R–L–I. I think it sounds like ‘barely'. Mrs. Parnell, Violet, had written it down.”

“It sounds Italian. Could it be a type of cheese? No, that's silly. This seems as though we're playing a trivia game, even though it's really quite serious. Anyway, food was never important to Violet.”

“I thought it might be someone's name.”

“Berli. I've never heard that name. We didn't know any Italians when we were girls. There weren't any in Chesterton. Even though my memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, I couldn't forget that. Of course, one meets Italians everywhere these days. I don't recall hearing of anyone named Berli in any connection.”

“What about Pieve San Simone?”

She shook her head.

“Montechiaro?”

“Monte Carlo. Of course, dear, who hasn't heard of that.”

“No, this is Montechiaro. Or it might be Claro.”

Betty frowned. “Perhaps it was a misprint.”

“How about Alcielo? I think I'm pronouncing it right.”

“I would have no idea how to pronounce it. I'm afraid I'm not much help to you.”

“I thought it was worth asking. It looks like Mrs. P. has headed off to Italy.”

“Italy? What, by herself? Didn't you tell me she's had some kind of a heart attack?”

“Something like that.”

“That's serious. She wouldn't want to find herself in a foreign country at the mercy of some other medical system.”

We weren't the only people who thought this trip was a bad, bad idea. “I'm heading to Italy to find her. My assistant, Alvin, will be looking after things here. You can contact him if you think of anything that will help. And there's voicemail.”

“Off to Italy to look for Violet? My heavens. Do you know Italy, dear?”

“I've visited several times. I took a year off after I got my undergraduate degree and roamed around Europe. Italy was my favourite country. I even spent my honeymoon there.”

“Do you think she's heading for one of those places you mentioned?”

“Possibly. We're flying blind, really.”

“Do you speak the language? It's not easy to make yourself understood, although I suppose most people speak some English.”

“I've taken a course or two over the years. Before I go, I want to show you some pictures.” I slipped the photos from the bag.

Good thing I hadn't whipped them out when I first got there. Betty Connaught was the last person I would have expected to dissolve into tears.

“Forgive me,” she said, wiping her eyes. “It's just seeing this photo. Perce was killed in 1944. I have nothing left of him. He was the greatest loss of my life. I adored him.”

“I am so sorry to bring this up,” I said.

“Just let me pull myself together. You would think that after sixty-one years, I'd be able to talk about Perce. All right, your photo. I remember the day this was taken. Violet and I, and Hazel Fellows had just finished high school, although I'll never understand how Hazel got through. The boys were older. Look how devil-may-care they are.”

“They're very handsome. Which one is this?”

“That's Harry Jones. He was Perce's best friend. They enlisted together. And he was Violet's beau. Then something dreadful happened later in the war. He broke off his engagement to Violet and married someone else, and she married that Major Parnell, shortly after the war. He was a bit of a cold fish. I still can't think of her as Mrs. Parnell. Maybe if she'd married Harry, she wouldn't have shut everyone out of her life. Although, perhaps she had her reasons.”

“And Harry Jones was injured, not killed, is that right?”

“He made it, thank heavens. He married an English girl, Dorothea Brockbank. She was from a wealthy family, and he went into her family's business, something to do with furniture, I believe.”

“You don't hold that against him? Breaking off the engagement and marrying someone else, just like that?”

“I didn't. Of course not. I imagine it was hard on Violet, although she was such a strong girl. War can have a terrible impact. Harry was a wonderful boy. He'd been horribly injured. He'd seen so many friends die. He was vulnerable, and Dorothea was a lovely, gentle person.”

“He didn't bring his wife back to Canada?”

“She had family money, as I mentioned, and both her brothers died in France, I believe. Harry went on to run the family business. He did very well. I stayed in touch with him. I have tea at Brockbank Manor whenever I am in England. He's all I have left from my life in Chesterton. Harry had no reason to come back here. His father died while he was overseas. Another tragic family. I lost my own mother before the war was over, you know. I believe it was heartbreak in both cases. People have no idea what we all went through. I still think of my brother. Such a golden boy. This year, with the sixtieth anniversary of VE day, the war's all over the papers. I keep wondering what he would have been like. A grand old man! Such a waste.” She wiped her eyes again.

I said, “Truly tragic. Do you think I could contact Harry Jones?”

She stared at me. “Contact him?”

“Yes, in England.”

Her eyes brimmed again. “Oh, dear.”

“Is he dead? I'm sorry.”

“He's almost eighty-six now, although that's hard for me to imagine. He has advanced Parkinson's. He's very fragile and finds it hard to talk. He's in a nursing home, a very exclusive one, of course. Still, it's sad. I am bracing myself to get over to England for one last visit. It won't be easy to see him deteriorating. Harry was a wonderful, valiant fellow, the last of our boys. I always admired him. I'll just have to stiffen my spine and do it.”

BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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