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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

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BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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“It damn well wasn't playful,” I snapped, remembering the stench of the air fresheners in the darkness.

“Doesn't sound too bad.”

“It was and, pay attention, you didn't see her expression. She meant business. And I got no help from the car rental people. For some reason, they all love her and they hate me.”

“You can be pretty abrasive. Maybe they don't realize you only want to help.”

“That's what I said to Mrs. P. So why would she turn on me?”

“So do you have any other brilliant ideas to find her?”

I did have one idea. I wasn't ready to share it with Alvin. He wasn't ready to hear it. It was a good time to change the subject.

“Change of topic, Alvin. I need you to do a couple of things: first, see what you can turn up about Harrison Jones. He ended up in England after the war, married to a wealthy girl and running some kind of successful business. Furniture, I think.”

“You mean the guy who wrote the letters? That rat? I don't think much of him.”

“That's the guy. She seems to be retracing his steps in the war. He walked away from that downed flight I asked you to find out about. The one in Berli.”

“I haven't found anything yet. I have feelers out about it. It would help if I knew what kind of plane it was or when it went down.”

“I know he was on that plane that went down. I don't know what else that means. Mrs. P. went to check it out.”

“He must be the dead guy.”

“No, he's eighty-five and still alive, as far as we know. Betty said he's in an exclusive nursing home now, very ill with Parkinson's. And he's sure had a long and prosperous life. Dig around and see if there's anything about his war service. Whatever.”

“He dropped Violet for someone else, Camilla. By mail. What kind of creep would do that?”

“It appears to have been out of character. Betty and Hazel both thought the world of him. Anyway, I can understand, he'd been injured. Maybe he thought she'd be better off without him. He's connected somehow.”

“I'll get on it right away.”

“And this is easy: read me the telephone numbers for Betty and Hazel. I want to ask them a couple of questions. The numbers are by the telephone.”

“I don't see them. The place is a bit of a mess.”

“Check carefully. Otherwise, you'll be looking them up again.”

I drummed my fingers on the phone and listened to scrambling, rustling sounds for a bit while my bill mounted. Eventually Alvin came back. “Oh yeah, here they are. Are you really going to call them from Italy? Are you going to wait until three in the morning?” Alvin said after he had read out the numbers and I'd copied them.

“Camilla?”

“Please don't whine, Alvin.”

“You won't tell Violet's old friends about Violet, will you? I mean about the look in her eyes and everything?”

“Of course not.”

“We've been through so much together. You still feel she's our friend, don't you?”

“What's the matter with you? Of course she's our friend. Nothing could ever change that.”

“You said…”

“Look, Alvin. I'm afraid she's on a dangerous path. She's up to something.”

“But…”

“And she doesn't believe I'll condone it.”

“You? You're the one that always plays fast and loose with the law.”

“What? That's not true.”

“Sure it's true. What does she want to do? It must be something awful if you wouldn't go along with it.”

I took a deep breath. “Revenge, Alvin. She's seeking revenge.”

Fifteen

I
called Hazel next. I reached her answering machine. I tried again a few minutes later, with the same result. Theer's no point in leaving a message when you're calling from a payphone in Italy.

Luckily Betty was home and answering.

“This is Camilla MacPhee. I hope I'm not calling too early.”

“What a surprise, dear. And a pleasant one. It's not early for me, I just got in from my morning walk. Are you planning another visit?”

“No, I'm in Italy. I do have a question for you.”

“For heaven's sake! Are you really calling from Italy? Did you find Violet? I hope this isn't bad news about her.”

“I need to ask you about Harrison Jones.”

“You're calling me from Italy to ask about Harry Jones? Goodness.”

“Bear with me. Mrs. Parnell, I mean Violet, has been to see the site where he was shot down, she has visited the partisans who sheltered him, and she's still on the trail of something. Was there any kind of unusual story about his plane being shot down?”

“Not that I know of. What sort of thing do you mean?”

“I'm not even sure. Only one parachute was deployed. Maybe that was it. Do you ever hear any negative stories about Harry Jones?”

A headmistressy chill drifted down the phone line. “I certainly did not.”

“I wondered if there was anything odd about his escape with the partisans.”

I still felt the nip in Betty's voice. “I know that sometimes people do things that they wouldn't do at home. Harry was a wonderful boy, valiant and patriotic and very loyal. I think the only thing he ever did that didn't measure up was to jilt poor Violet. That's just my opinion, but in my career, I needed to be a pretty good judge of character, and Harry was, and is, very honourable.”

“Okay, it was just an idea.”

“You should be careful what you say, dear.”

“Sorry, just trying to make sense of this situation.”

“Even so, you must do that without causing harm. I can't believe Violet would want that.”

I felt a knot in my stomach, and not just because of Betty's preachy tone. Dr. Hasheem had warned about possible paranoia and personality change. What if Mrs. P. was not in danger but dangerous? I chose not to mention that to Betty.

“Point taken,” I said.

“I'd be happy to try to help. If I think of another reason for Violet to inquire about Harry, I'll certainly let you know.”

“Thanks. I'll be back in touch.”

I waited a bit and tried Hazel's line for the third time. I got the answering machine again. Hazel was obviously a woman on the move.

By this time, my tire was fixed, and I could get the hell out of Florence. Hazel would have to wait.

* * *

Mrs. Parnell's traits, like loyalty and comradeship, might have been on hiatus, but she could still give lessons in strategy. I was disadvantaged by not knowing what she was seeking. And therefore, I had no clue where she'd gone. I was back to speculating about the list of towns. I puzzled over the map, calculating distances to each of these places from Florence.

Whatever she was looking for, she would still want to avoid me. She knows the way I think. Would she conclude that if I could track her down in Florence, and if I knew about Berli, I might also know about the other towns on the list? If so, she'd want to outwit me. She'd put herself in my mind. Normally, I'd head for Pieve San Simone, because that was closest, although it wasn't far from Alcielo. Mrs. P. could safely assume I would never opt for Montechiaro, because it was in the middle. That was a compromise and not my style.

Decision made. Montechiaro it was. I edged the Ka into traffic and aimed for Montechiaro, even if it did seem just plain wrong. According to my calculations, it was less than two hours south east of Florence.

During the drive, I kept looking through my rearview for signs of the black Mercedes. Even though the only thing I saw was a small bright blue Citroën, which had been behind me for a long way, I couldn't let down my guard. People can change cars. I put the accelerator to the floor and shot forward. The Citroën kept pace. In fact, it seemed to be trying to overtake me. The driver kept honking his horn and waving his arm out the window. Under the circumstances, I didn't plan on putting myself at some stranger's mercy. Since I was in a strategic mode, I whipped off the
autostrada
at the next exit, without signalling. I raced along the secondary road until I came to a village. Just over the crest of a hill was a cross-roads with three choices. I made a plan. I made an illegal turn and tucked the Ka behind a stone building. I watched as the Citroën slowed at the crossroads, then sped off in the wrong direction, raising dust in the late afternoon sky.

* * *

Montechiaro is the opposite of Florence. I found no traffic, no tourists, few buildings and not a whole lot going on. A few scattered farms with crumbling stone outbuildings, a half-dozen chickens pecking here and there, and a dusty road leading to a prominent hilltop villa. Vineyards snaked up the hill to meet the building. A pair of goats hung around. No big deal, as far as I could see.

The sole farmer I met did not speak English. Probably had no cousins in Canada. He stared as I tried my missing
nonna
routine on him. As far as I could tell, he hadn't seen Mrs. P. or the Volvo or a black Mercedes. No sign of a pesky Citroën. I pointed up the hill and asked about the villa. Turned out I should have called it il Palazzo. Well, pardon me.

I hopped back into my Ka and prepared to storm the palace. I chugged up the long road to il Palazzo Degli Angeli. As I got closer, I saw that this was no mere villa. Four stories high in the centre, the building was layered like a wedding cake, with pillars that would do any classical Greek proud. A spectacular ornamental pool at the approach set the tone. Classical marble statues watched over the shimmering pool and immaculate property.

If Alvin had been there, he would have said Lord thundering Jesus. I just gawked.

I parked the Ka next to an elderly, dust-covered Fiat 500. The two cars looked like a pair of dinky toys left outside by some royal child. I felt pretty small myself approaching the massive door at the top of the wide marble staircase. My sisters would say it had serious curb appeal. It felt like the setting for a fairy tale except for the lack of passing peasants and the presence of the security sticker by the door. As I raised my hand to knock, the door swung open and a most elegant man said
“Buon giorno, signora.”
He was about forty, long, thin and slightly lopsided, giving the impression he'd been painted by Modigliani. On him, it looked good.

I trotted out my well-worn missing
nonna
tearjerker, repeating the word for cardiac crisis three times. I flashed the poster. He switched effortlessly to English with a hint of Oxford and enough Italian inflection to make it sexy. If you could bottle that and sell it, you'd make a fortune.

“Come in, please. I am Claudio Degli Angeli,” he said.

“Camilla MacPhee.” I extended my hand and gave him my firmest handshake. He winced. Too bad. You never want to let the palace-dwellers get the upper hand.

“Let us go into my office, and you can sit and explain your problem in comfort. Your grandmother is missing and ill? How dreadful. Have you contacted the authorities?”

“No luck there yet,” I said.

I followed him through a grand hallway flanked on both sides by vast sparsely furnished rooms and twelve-foot shuttered windows. Our footsteps echoed on the marble floors. I spotted a grand piano in one of the rooms as we swept past. You couldn't complain about overcrowding here. Cheap reproduction prints of Renaissance paintings hung on the walls. Maybe that was typical palace chic. How would I know?

When we reached a much smaller room off to the left, he stood back to let me pass. At least this one had armchairs with faded, comfortable-looking upholstery. A high, antique secretary-style desk with many drawers and stacks of paperwork dominated the room. I took the seat I was offered, and Claudio Degli Angeli stayed standing.

“Nice place,” I said.

He shrugged. “What is left of it. It was once very splendid. May I offer you an
aperitivo?”

I had begun just to say yes to all offers of food or drink in Italy. Refusals, even polite refusals, just slow things down.

He poured a bit of cognac from a crystal decanter and handed me a delicate snifter. He was definitely not the kind of guy to pop beer caps with his teeth.

He bent elegantly into his chair and raised his own glass. I raised mine back at him. After a graceful sip, he said, “Yes, I have seen your grandmother, although aside from needing a cane, she did not appear to be suffering from any physical or mental impediments.”

“Trust me,” I said, “she's in big trouble. What did she want here?”

“She warned me about people who might follow her and pry,” he said.

“I bet she did. She doesn't want to be found. And you're right, she's in good mental shape. She is also in danger. She has a blocked artery. Plus someone is pursuing her.”

“She's not really your grandmother, is she?”

“Possibly not. Grandmothers get attention here in Italy, and as they say, when in Rome…”

He laughed out loud. I think we were both surprised by that laugh. It seemed to do the trick.

He said, “Of course, we are not in Rome.”

“Nevertheless, someone really is after her. Someone with a black Mercedes who has killed a partisan.” I paused. People who lived in
palazzi
could quite easily drive Mercedes-Benzes. Great. Here I was in the bowels of a building in the middle of nowhere. My Ka could be disposed of in an outbuilding, and no one would ever know what happened to me. I took a swig of the cognac. What the hell. Too late to back out. “So,” I said, “what was she looking for?”

“She wanted to know about the Palazzo.”

“Did she ask anything about the second World War?”

“Yes.”

“About the Canadians?”

“That is correct.”

I looked around. “Were they here?”

“Very much so. They commandeered the Palazzo during the offensive. The officers used the Palazzo as Headquarters.”

I gathered from his tone this was not a good thing.

“What happened?”

“It killed my grandparents. Indirectly, of course. They lost so much. They could never return here. Even after many things were recovered.”

“Was the Palazzo bombed? It doesn't look like it's been rebuilt.”

“Not bombed. Stripped.”

“What?”

“Furniture, artwork, china. Rugs. All worth a fortune, family heirlooms. Gone.” He snapped his fingers.

“You mean looted?”

“Of course, I do.”

“You said many things were recovered.”

“Larger things, furniture. The grand pianos. Much of the china. The artwork and the silver, pffft.”

“That's unbelievable.”

He shrugged. “It was war. I can understand that. Those men had been crawling through icy mud, sleeping with corpses, having shells explode next to their sleeping trenches. War erodes the veneer of civilization in many individuals.”

“I am sure that the Canadians were never involved in looting.”

He smiled at me, a sweet, sad expression.

“Signora
, let us agree to disagree.”

“Did she mention any names? Did she mention Harrison Jones.”

“I had no way of knowing names. My grandparents wouldn't have known names either. They weren't even here. They took refuge in Switzerland until after the war. It was safer there. They heard about what happened from the staff who survived the war.”

“The staff, that's an idea. Would any of them be alive now?”

“They are long in their graves. No one around here remembers anything. In fact, there are very few people in the area. Most have moved to cities, you must have noticed it's very sparse. It's hard to get good help nowadays,” he said with a sly smile. “I don't suppose you'd like a job?”

I returned his grin. “So you couldn't tell her anything.”

“On the contrary, I was able to tell her quite a bit.”

Why does everyone find it necessary to play stupid games? I felt like booting his skinny aristocratic backside.

“Perhaps you could just tell me what you told her, and then we can save ourselves some time and aggravation,” I said.

He chuckled. “My apologies. Your friend wanted to know what had been taken from the Palazzo. We had extensive records of what was taken, what was definitely or most likely destroyed, and what my grandparents believed to be stolen.”

“What was that?”

“Mostly paintings, small sculptures, objets d'art, religious articles. Silver, as I mentioned, although that could be melted down easily. The paintings were cut from their frames and rolled. I have read that the soldiers hid them in their bedrooms, then mailed back to Canada.”

“That's terrible. I can't believe it.”

“What can I say? It could be worse. My family survived the war. The Palazzo was still standing and continues to stand. We lost almost everything. We managed then, and we continue to manage. The Palazzo is a lovely spot for a wedding or a special event or party. We can support corporate functions beautifully. State of the art electronic access, of course.”

“Did she show you any pictures?”

“Yes. They didn't mean anything to me.”

“Do you know where she's gone now?”

“I have no idea. Would you like your drink topped up?”

“I'm good to go,” I said, getting to my feet. “I have a long drive in something called a Ka. I'm thinking of upgrading to a Mercedes. What kind of vehicle do you drive?”

“A Fiat 500. You parked next to it in the driveway. When I have the choice, I prefer to walk.”

* * *

The trip to Pieve San Simone might have been a beautiful drive in the daylight, but it was a least two hours south west of Montechiaro. As my trip wore on, it was getting too dark to be driving comfortably on unfamiliar secondary roads. It wasn't too dark to see a Citroën show up in my rearview though. I spotted the headlights; the blue body might have blended with the night. Were there blue Citroëns all over Italy? Just in case, I used a few evasive manoeuvers, being grateful in one way for the tangle of unpaved back roads in Tuscany. I sat in the Ka, behind a cluster of trees, until I felt confident. I was getting tired and hungry. Pieve San Simone was far enough away that, finally, I took my chances and roared off. I found no trace of my pursuer on the way. Maybe it had just been all in my mind.

BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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