Delayed Death (Temptation in Florence Book 1) (3 page)

He chuckled. "I noticed."

"We call them the gang." Carlina wrapped both hands around the elaborate arrangement of orchids in front of her and pushed it to the side to get more room.

Marco lifted his eyebrows. "Sounds dangerous."

"It is."
A
nd if you knew I've just shifted my dead grandfather, you would believe me.

Angela bent forward, her dark hair falling over her shoulder. "Now don't you scare him, Caroline. We are a normal family."

"That depends on your definition of normal."
She's the only one who never calls me Carlina.

"Nonsense." Angela fingered the linen napkin with nervous fingers. "There's nothing wrong with any--"

"Carlina!" The booming voice behind Carlina caused the crystal glasses to rattle.

Marco gave a start of surprise.

"Uncle Teo!" Carlina jumped up and kissed her great uncle. "How are you?" She searched his face for any signs of fatigue or exhaustion.

"Never better, never better, my girl." Uncle Teo's few white hairs stood up in tufts, in stark contrast to his impeccable dark suit and white shirt, but his eyes were bright, and his cheeks had a rosy glow that showed how much he enjoyed himself.

He reminded Carlina so much of Nico, it felt as if someone had punched her straight in the stomach.

"What do I hear from Fabbiola?" Uncle Teo grinned at her with delight. "Nico is ill?"

Marco gasped. "For a moment I thought it was Nico himself." He said under his breath to Angela.

Carline caught the words.
Ha, ha. Our normal family is already getting to him.
She added a hug to the kiss. Uncle Teo felt fragile and small in her arms. Sadness swamped her.

Angela bent closer to her husband. "No, this is Teo. He's better dressed than Nico. That's the only way you can tell them apart."

Carlina straightened her back with an effort. "The bad-vibe-period has come back," she said. Her voice didn't sound quite firm. "So he decided not to come."

Uncle Teo cackled with laughter. "That bad, eh?"

Carlina's mouth went dry. "What do you mean?"

"I bet he felt weak and decided not to stay up all night." He paraded two steps in front of her with a swagger. "Well, we can't all become younger every day." A wink at Carlina. “I'm not finished yet, no matter what that old doctor tells me!” He looked across the room at his wife. Aunt Maria lifted one large arm and waved at him. "Maria says I have to return to our table. See you later." He wriggled his white eyebrows at her. "Don't forget I want to dance with you. I want to dance with all my beautiful nieces." He grinned at Angela. "I'm not too old for that. Bad vibe. Ha. I bet Nico is nowhere near as fit as I am."

Carlina swallowed.
How true.

Uncle Teo waved at them again and strutted off.

Phew.
Carlina felt as if all her muscles had turned into water.

Marco shook his head. "Why is he happy that his twin brother is sick?"

Angela sighed and pushed her hand through her long hair.

Carlina said, "Because they are in eternal competition. From the day they were born, they wanted to outdo each other. Some say they had seven kids each because every time one of them got a new baby, the other went straight home and told his wife he wanted one more."

"Caroline! You make them sound so disagreeable." Angela pulled her slim eyebrows together.

Marco chuckled into his glass.

"But not at all." Carlina played with the white sugarcoated almond on her plate.
Now the competition is over, but Uncle Teo doesn't know it yet.

"Why did they stop at seven kids?" Marco put a hand onto his wife's arm but kept looking at Carlina.

"Because my grandmother died after the birth of her seventh child." She turned the almond in a circle, lost in thought. "My grandpa raised all his kids on his own; though to be fair, Aunt Maria and Uncle Teo helped a lot."

Marco whistled. "Wow."

Angela withdrew her hand. "You know I hate that."

"What?"

"That whistling. It's so vulgar."

Mamma mia.
Carlina suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
She's so prissy, I wonder if she isn't a changeling.
She smiled to herself.

"What's so funny?" Marco's dark eyes probed her face.

"Oh, my family. They're a source of never ending amusement to me."
When combined with my thoughts, that is.

Chapter 2
I

“Carlina!"

Someone pulled the bed cover away. Carlina held onto it with as much strength as her sleep-drugged arms would allow, but her fingers slid off the soft cotton, and a cold draft of air wafted around her legs. Carlina shuddered.

"Carlina! Get up!" Fabbiola sobbed. "Father died."

Carlina shot up, the shock coursing like hot lightning through her body. "Oh, God, I overslept." Her voice sounded drunken with sleep.

"What?" Fabbiola's eyes were red-rimmed. "What did you say?"

"Nothing." Carlina jumped out of bed and ran to the door of her apartment.

"Carlina! Stop!"

Carlina swiveled around.
Wake up, stupid. You need all your wits now.
"I . . . I can't believe it, Mama. I need to go downstairs and see it for myself." She rubbed her eyes.

"You can't go downstairs in this . . . this lacy nothing." Fabbiola pointed with a shaky finger at Carlina's nightdress.

"Oh. Right." Carlina hurried to her small bathroom and grabbed her white silk bathrobe with the red belt. She bent over the sink, turned on the faucet, and splashed cold water into her face. Things became clearer. She toweled off her face and turned to her mother who stood on the threshold to the bathroom.

Fabbiola's henna-red hair hung in strands, and last night's mascara smudged her eyes with huge black shadows. She was wearing her yellow silk dressing gown - a gift from Carlina - inside out.

Carlina felt a wave of tenderness rise inside her. "Who found him?"

Fabbiola wrung her hands. "Teo did. He said he wanted to chat with his brother about the wedding."

“Oh, God.” Carlina turned cold. “Is he all right? What about his heart?”

“He's fine.” Fabbiola said. “He says his heart doesn't bother him at all.”

Carlina sighed.
Probably he wanted to gloat about having been awake all night and having eaten all kinds of indigestible things without side effects. Damn. I wanted to spare him the shock.
"And then?"

"He found him dead and came upstairs to wake me."

Oh, no.
Carlina went to her mother and hugged her. "I'm so sorry, Mama. He was a wonderful man."

Fabbiola returned the hug with a sob. "It was so unexpected. Yesterday, he was just the same as always, and today . . ." She shuddered and wept without restraint.

Carlina held her tight. She waited until her mother calmed down, then said with a gentle voice. "Have you called the doctor?"

Fabbiola wiped her eyes. "I tried to. But I only got an answering machine. He's ill. It said I should call the hospital." She sniffed. "Just when you need Enrico, he's ill. That's so typical."

"But Mama, he was always here when one of us was ill. He can't help it if it he's not able to work right now. Did you call another doctor?" Carlina looked around for her cell phone.

Fabbiola drew herself up to her full size. "Of course not! What an idea. As if I would call someone I've never seen in my life." She eyed her daughter who was searching through her handbag with a determined face. "Don't you dare call a stranger either. I don't want an unknown man in my house."

"Mama." Carlina fished out her cell phone and held it up. "We have to call someone. Without a death certificate, you can't move him. We need a doctor to get a death certificate."

“Oh,
Madonna
, I don't want to discuss this!” Fabbiola hugged herself. “My father is dead, and we're fighting about trivialities.”

“It's not a triviality, Mama.” Carlina tried to keep her voice calm. It helped her to cope with the grief by focusing on something to do. Anything. “It's the law. We don't have a choice.” She looked at her phone and frowned. “Maybe --”

"Wait!" Fabbiola stretched out her hands. "I have an idea! We'll call Marco."

Carlina's hand sank to her side. "Marco? Why should Marco be able to help us?"

Fabbiola gave an impatient hiss. "Not Marco the mason. I mean Angela's Marco. Your new cousin! He's a doctor, isn't he?"

"Well, yes, I guess, but doesn't it seem a bit unfair? He has just finished medical school and--" Carlina shivered and pulled the bathrobe tighter around her.

"Nonsense." Fabbiola held out her hand with an imperious gesture. "Give me your phone. I will call him. He is family. That counts."

II

By the time Marco arrived at
Via delle Pinzochere 10
, the bells of Santa Croce had chimed eleven o'clock. Carlina listened to the familiar sound with a feeling of relief. In five minutes, Emma's plane would leave from Pisa airport, and nothing could stop her vacation in Africa. The wedding had been a success, the honeymoon would be fine, and when Emma returned, the worst would be over.
I just have to be strong for another day or two. As long as I remember my story and stick to it, nobody will start to ask awkward questions.

Half the family had gathered in Nico's small kitchen. Those who didn't fit stood around in the entry. Carlina shook her head. She still didn't understand how news traveled faster than light within the Mantoni gang.

Aunt Maria leaned against the gas stove and breathed heavily, expelling clouds reeking of garlic with each breath as a small dragon would expel fire. Carlina frowned. Where was Uncle Teo? Was he still with his dead brother? In the other corner of the kitchen, as far away from Aunt Maria as possible, she saw Angela, who had crossed her arms in front of her chest and tapped a well-shod foot on the worn linoleum.
I bet she isn't happy that her husband was hauled in to sign the death certificate.

Next to her, Carlina's cousins Ernesto and Annalisa stood with wide open eyes, their red hair flaming in the late morning sun coming through the window. At the ages of seventeen and nineteen, they were more impressed by death than the older folks. Their mother Benedetta had an arm around Annalisa's shoulders and sniffed into a handkerchief, but she had found the time to put on her bright red lipstick as always. Behind her, Carlina discovered her sister Gabriella with her husband Bernando, both with red-rimmed eyes. Gabriella's brown curls looked tangled, as if she had last brushed them a week ago.
Where have they come from? They live thirty kilometers away.
Thank God they hadn't brought little Lilly. She would mourn her great-grandfather enough without seeing him dead.

Fabbiola reigned over the crowd by standing at the center and distributing paper handkerchiefs. Carlina sidled into the kitchen and avoided eye contact. She knew she would start to cry the minute she saw sympathy in someone's face.

A commotion at the kitchen door made her turn around. It was Marco. His handsome face looked pale. He hunched his shoulders as if he expected a blow and addressed Carlina. "Do you have a pen?"

Carlina nodded and opened the rickety drawer where Nico had kept all the odds and ends needed in a kitchen. She passed him a cheap ballpoint pen and watched him take a folded paper from his jacket pocket. The room fell silent. The only sound left was Aunt Maria's heavy breathing and the rustling of the paper beneath Marco's hands. It sounded eerie.

Carlina shuddered. It felt unnatural, the way they all watched Marco with immobile faces.

Marco filled two lines with an illegible scrawl. Then he checked the time on his wristwatch and noted that too, but just as he lifted the pen one last time to sign the death certificate, Uncle Teo shot through the door, stopped right in front of Marco, grabbed his arms, and shook him.

"Uncle Teo!" Carlina started forward. "Calm down."

"Something is wrong!" Uncle Teo's gnarled hands looked like claws on Marco's jacket. "I feel it! I know it!"

Carlina grabbed the edge of the table to steady herself. "What?"

"I tell you!" Uncle Teo let go of the young doctor and looked around the room, his eyes wild. "Something is wrong!"

Carlina took a chair and pushed it in Uncle Teo's direction. "Sit down, Uncle Teo."
And hush up. Now!

Uncle Teo jumped away from the chair as if it was contaminated. "I don't want to sit. I tell you - me, Teodoro Alfredo Mantoni," he pointed with his right thumb at his breast, "I know. Something is wrong." His usually impeccable shirt looked crumpled and made him seem older.

His wife frowned and bent forward. "Why, Teo? How do you know?"

"I guess he inherited the bad vibe period," Angela muttered under her breath.

Uncle Teo glanced at her with acute dislike. "Nico is still wearing socks."

Carlina's thought she had misunderstood. "What?"

Her great-uncle nodded so hard, his white hair flopped forward. "Yes. He never wore socks in bed. Never! I know him. I'm his twin. I know."

Carlina felt as if the universe was turning around her in ever quickening circles. She placed a hand onto Uncle Teo's arm, not sure if it was a gesture to steady herself or to restrain him - or both. "I guess he changed his habits. We all do from time to time."

"No!" Uncle Teo shook his head. "An old man doesn't change his habits."

"Maybe he felt cold when he went to bed."
He sure started to be cold.

The family watched the conversation in fascination, their heads turning as if they were watching a tennis match. Benedetta clapped a hand in front of her mouth, her eyes wide. The bright red lipstick peeking from between her fingers looked out of place in her white face.

"Nonsense." Uncle Teo hissed air between his teeth. "Nico didn't feel cold. It was hot yesterday. Too hot for late September."

I have to stop this. I have to divert him.
Carlina pretended to give a nonchalant shrug. "I guess he must have felt ill already. That's why he didn't take off his socks."

"No." Uncle Teo shook his head. "He always took off his socks first."

Why, oh, why have I insisted on undressing Grandpa? How stupid of me!
Desperate, Carlina turned to Marco. "I'm sure everything looked normal, don't you think so, Marco?" She fixed him with a compelling stare.
Say yes, Marco. Come on!

Marco returned her look with a vacant expression as if he hadn't heard her.

"I think you should believe Teo." Aunt Maria moved her considerable bulk forward until she stood right next to Uncle Teo. "He knows what he's saying."

"I'm sure there's a perfectly normal reason why Grandpa is still wearing socks." Carlina clenched her teeth and smiled at Marco in what she hoped was an encouraging smile. "I suggest you sign the death certificate, and then we move on."

Marco nodded and lifted his pen, but before he could start to write, Fabbiola stuck her hands on her hips and said to Uncle Teo, "Are you telling us father was murdered?"

Silence. Even Aunt Maria stopped breathing. All eyes stared at Marco.

"Of course not!" Carlina felt hot and cold at the same time. She faked a laugh. "What an absurd thought!"

Marco placed the pen with care on top of the death certificate and straightened. He looked at Fabbiola, his face set like a mask. "I think you should consider what you are saying. If it was indeed murder, it would cause quite a scandal."

Wrong answer, wrong!
Carlina winced. If only he knew the family better. Promising a scandal was a surefire way to get them interested. She could already see Ernesto and Annalisa perking up. Aunt Maria took one of her garlic snacks from the voluminous pocket of her skirt and cracked it between her large teeth by way of celebrating the occasion.

"Murder!" Fabbiola stared at Marco, her eyes wide, but Carlina could see the glittering that showed she was already checking the possibilities in her mind. "You're not serious."

"Of course not!" Carlina made one last attempt to save the situation. "So Grandpa died with his socks on. What's the big deal? He must have felt bad and forgotten them."

"No." Uncle Teo shook his head. "He wouldn't have done that."

Damn you, Uncle Teo. This is not the time to become stubborn.
Carlina looked around the room in the faint hope of finding someone to support her, but they were all hugely entertained by the thought of having a family murder. Her sister Gabriella lifted her eyebrows so high, they disappeared beneath her tumbling curls, and her husband Bernando looked as if he had just been promised an exciting night out.

"Marco." Angela pushed Fabbiola to the side and stopped next to her husband. "I suggest you call some other doctor. It's a bit much to expect you to shoulder the responsibility when you've only just started work." She glanced at Fabbiola, her eyes cold.

Marco looked at his wife, his expression hard to fathom. He picked up the pen and held it cocked at an angle as if he wanted to sign the death certificate but didn't want to contradict his wife.

Carlina studied his immobile face, her thoughts running ahead in a panic. Was he relieved that Angela tried to shield him or did he resent it? Theirs had been a whirlwind romance. Was he having second thoughts? Maybe her beauty had swept him away, and now he was starting to get to know the lady underneath the veneer.
Quick, Carlina, quick. You have to find a solution to make him sign the paper.
What could she do to overcome Angela's influence and make him sign up now?

Fabbiola shook her head and pouted like a five-year-old. "I didn't push Marco to do anything at all. I just asked him."

Carlina gulped. Of course. Her mother never commanded anything, she asked. Like royalty . . . and it was just as hard to say no as if a real queen had asked the favor. Her throat constricted. She had to make Marco sign the Paper. “Marco, I think --”

Uncle Teo crashed a fist onto the table.

Everybody jumped.

"Enough!" His voice sounded higher than normal. "We won't discuss this anymore. Nobody is going to sign the death certificate, and nobody is going to treat this as a natural death. I will call the police."

Several family members gasped with delight.

Carlina gasped in dismay. "No!" She placed her hand on Uncle Teo's arm. "I'm sure there's a perfectly normal explanation." She tried to convey with her eyes that she knew the explanation and would share it with him as soon as they had gotten rid of the rest of the gang, but Uncle Teo shook her off. "Nobody is going to stop me." His voice rose, and two cords stood out on his neck like knotted ropes. "Nico was my twin." His cheeks turned puce. "I know something is wrong!"

Carlina stared at him.
If I try to stop him now, he's going to have a heart attack, and I will be responsible.
She bit her lips.
Damn.
"All right, Uncle Teo." She made sure her voice sounded soothing.
I'll talk to him as soon as I can get him all alone.
She smiled and opened her mouth to suggest that Teo take a rest, when her mother beat her to it.

Fabbiola straightened her shoulders, looked around the room, and delivered the verdict like a fanfare. "Let's call the police." She went to the phone in the corner of the kitchen and punched in the emergency number 113.

Carlina's mouth dropped open. Her mind went blank.

Before she could make up her mind what to do, Uncle Teo jumped forward and snatched the phone out of Fabbiola's hands. "He was my twin! I call the police!" His face turned from puce to lilac, and his eyes bulged.

Carlina balled her fists and took a steadying breath.
I can't stop him now . . . he would suffer a heart attack. Damn, damn, damn.

Uncle Teo pressed the phone against his ear and listened without moving.

The whole family waited with bated breath.

Maybe the line is busy.
Carlina bit her lips in agony.

"Pronto?" Uncle Teo knew the important role of a family entertainer. He spoke with relish and enough emphasis to shame a poet declaiming his favorite work. "I have to report a murder." He switched the phone on loudspeaker.

Oh, no.
Carlina suppressed a groan.
Please. This is not a theater show. This is real.

"Can you give me your name, please?" The policewoman wasn't aware she was supposed to take an active part in the theater; she even seemed bored.

Gabriella shook her head in disgust at this meager performance until all her curls wobbled.

"I'm Teodoro Alfredo Mantoni." When the operator didn't react, Uncle Teo repeated, "Mantoni. You know the Mantoni name, don't you?"

All Mantonis waited with bated breath for the reply, but the operator proved to be a disappointing partner. "Right." she said. "Where are you now?"

A sigh went up. The Mantonis had counted on a better show.

Uncle Teo frowned. "I'm at home, of course."

"Where is home? Could you please give me your address?"

"Of course." Uncle Teo sounded affronted now. "It's Via delle Pinzochere 10, in the historic center of Florence, next to Santa Croce."

"Noted. Now please tell me where you found the body."

Uncle Teo frowned. This wasn't going according to plan. "In his bed."

"Who is the victim?"

Carlina winced. Nico wasn't a victim. He had died a normal death, and his grandchild had moved him around a bit. That was all.

"It's my twin, Nicolò Alfredo Mantoni," Uncle Teo said. "You surely have heard about the twins Teodoro and Nicolò Mantoni, haven't you?"

The operator was well trained; she ignored questions that only lead to trouble. "How do you know the death wasn't natural?"

Uncle Teo took a deep breath. Now this was the climax of the drama. "He was wearing socks."

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