Delayed Death (Temptation in Florence Book 1) (4 page)

Carlina started to shake with suppressed laughter.

"Excuse me, Signor? Did you say he was wearing socks?" A sense of humor had not been part of the operator's job description.

"Yes."

"And you believe these socks were lethal?" Not a trace of amusement crept into the operator's voice.

"I never said that!" Uncle Teo's eyebrows bristled at the dumbness of the question. "But it was unusual."

For an instant, no sound came over the phone.

"Hello?" Uncle Teo shook the receiver as if that would improve the connection. "Are you still there?"

"Yes." The operator sounded patient now. Too patient. "How old was the victim?"

"Seventy-nine," Uncle Teo said with dignity. "Seventy-nine and four months and three days, to be exact, and fifteen minutes older than I am."

"Excuse me?"

"He was my twin." Uncle Teo repeated as if that explained everything.

"Are you telling me the victim was seventy-nine years old; he died with his socks on while he was in bed, and that's why you believe he was killed?"

"Exactly." Uncle Teo didn't catch the note of incredulity in the operator's voice. "Now we're understanding each other."

A chuckle escaped Carlina. She smothered it with a fake cough. Limp with relief, she sank against the table.
Thank God Uncle Teo made such a hash of it. The police will never come.

The operator said, "I'll send an officer around within the next thirty minutes."

Chapter 3
I

Dust danced in the Sunday morning sunlight that came through the window next to the reception desk at the Florence police station. Gloria finished the call, shook her head and dialed three numbers in quick succession. After four years on the police force, she knew the internal numbers by heart.

Stefano answered after the first ring. "Tell me!"

"Ever heard of the Mantoni family?"

Stefano didn't reply.

Gloria inspected her fingernails as she waited. She knew Stefano well enough to picture him, his thick hair brushed back, his eyebrows pulled together in thought. A pity he wasn't interested in her.

"No."

Gloria smothered a smile. Never one to waste a word, Stefano sounded rude, but she knew him better. "I just got a call from an excited seventy-nine year old. Full name Teodoro Alfredo Mantoni." Gloria spoke slowly, as she knew Stefano would write it down. "He introduced himself as if he belongs to the royal family."

"Go on. I'll run a background check on him while you speak."

Gloria heard the clicking of Stefano's keyboard. "He said his twin was murdered because they found him dead in bed with his socks on."

Stefano laughed.

"My thoughts exactly. However, this guy claims it was unusual."

"Fat chance."

Gloria hesitated. "As it's quiet today, and as he seemed so excited, I said I would send someone over. Paolo is ill, so I wondered if you . . .?"

Stefano groaned. "I have a pile of work on my desk. What about Sergio?"

"Sergio is working on the Bellini case."

"All right." Stefano sighed. "Where do I have to go?"

"Via delle Pinzochere 10. Do you know it?"

"I do." Stefano said without hesitation. "It's a tiny street in the historical part of town, right next to Santa Croce."

"Nice area." Gloria looked out of the dusty window. "At least you'll get some fresh air in the sun."

"Hmm." Stefano didn't sound convinced.

Gloria heard a keyboard clicking. "What are you doing?"

"I just got the background check," Stefano said. "It shows a few speeding fines. Nothing else. But it seems to be a huge family."

"If you're lucky, it'll be over in ten minutes." Gloria made her voice upbeat. "Who do you want with you?"

"Roberto. Maybe for once, he'll be able to say it was a natural death without an autopsy." Stefano sounded resigned.

"Roberto has some days off and is out of town. He won't be back before Tuesday."

"Great. What am I supposed to do? Look at the guy's socks and give a verdict as if I am God Almighty?" He broke off. "Sorry, Gloria. I guess I'll just listen to what they have to say. I hope it won't take the whole day."

"Who's coming with you?"

"I'll ask Piedro, but you don't need to call him. I'll tell him myself."

"Fine. Good luck." Gloria disconnected the line with a sigh. She wished she had the courage to ask him for an evening out, but every time she mentioned something in that direction, Stefano became icy. A shame, really.

II

"I have to come up with a strategy. What is my best course of action?" Carlina held her face to the hot water coming from the shower. She owed the best ideas in her life to her shower, so when Uncle Teo had finished his conversation with the police, she had bolted for her bathroom as a fox bolts for his hole. Besides, she couldn't welcome the police dressed in a silk bathrobe.

But today, the shower didn't help. Her brain felt blocked as if all the intelligent fibers were frozen by fear. “First, I have to relax." Carlina concentrated on the steady stream of water, on the patter of warm drops on her shoulders, on the soothing steam swirling around her, and waited for relaxation to kick in.

It didn't. Her nerves were as taut as a thong two sizes too small. It hurt.

She switched off the water and leaned forward to pull a soft towel from the rail. As she toweled herself off, she wondered what was going on downstairs. If she knew her family well, Benedetta would refresh her lipstick and start to cook a gigantic meal to feed everyone. Not a hope that anybody would return home while the prospect of sharing a murder investigation kept them entertained.

Damn Emma.
I shouldn't have listened to her
. Now her cousin was far away in Africa, out of reach of the police, while she was sitting in the soup. Damn Uncle Teo, too. Did he have to make a scene? Did he have to call the police?

Carlina pulled her favorite bra and slip out of the drawer and put them on. For once, the imitation leopard fur on the straps and cups failed to give her pleasure. She picked a blue cotton blouse and a pair of jeans at random and dressed without noticing what she was doing. Just before she left her apartment, her glance fell on her cell phone. She stopped dead. An idea flashed through her mind.
I could call the police and explain it was all a mistake.

Carlina grabbed her phone and started to punch in the number, then hesitated. What could she say? "I'm sorry, but please forget about that call you got some minutes ago? My grandfather died a natural death, but the timing didn't fit, so I stuffed him into his bed to hide him, only, I forgot to take off his socks?" How did that sound?

Her heart sank.
I can't tell them on the phone.
She pressed her lips together.
It'll be easier to tell them in person
. She would ask the police for a confidential talk, and then she would tell them the truth. It would be the most embarrassing thing ever, but she didn't have a choice.

As she descended the worn wooden staircase from the top floor, she realized she was walking twice as slowly as usual, her fingers caressing the smooth wooden railing out of habit. She didn't want to arrive. She didn't want to face the police. She didn't want to explain how stupid she had been.

In front of her grandfather's green door, she pulled back her shoulders, shook her hair, and took a deep breath. But before she could touch the handle, someone flung it open from inside. A flash of red hair, then her cousin Ernesto called over his shoulder as if he was seven and not seventeen, "Here she is!"

Carlina's stomach curled up. "Are you waiting for me?"

"Yes!" Ernesto grabbed her arm and led her to the kitchen like a prize he had won at the local carnival. "The Commissario is here. He has looked at every detail, and we've already explained everything, but now he wants to see you."

What? He was supposed to come in thirty minutes, not in five!
Carlina stopped. "I think I forgot something," she said. "Let me just run upstairs, and I'll . . ."

The kitchen was still full of people, but it now looked more like a party. Benedetta was busy handing around little slices of bread with tomato cubes, and already, voices were raised in heated discussions.

"Carlina!" Fabbiola rushed toward her. She had found the time to dress and brush her hair, but she carried her trusted cushion under one arm.

Carlina looked at it with dismay. If her mother started to carry the cushion around inside the house, it was worse than she'd expected. For some reason, her mother felt safer with cushion than without and took it with her whenever she left the house, but as a rule, she didn't carry it around if she stayed inside.

Fabbiola gave her a lopsided hug. "Why do you look so afraid?" she asked with a stage whisper. "He's nice, the Commissario. I've already explained everything to him."

Everything? Oh, no.
"That's all right, Mama." Carlina's voice sounded as uncertain as she felt.

A man appeared in the kitchen door, tall enough to tower over her. "Are you Caroline Arabella Ashley?"

Carlina nodded. Her throat felt tight. He had his back to the light, so she couldn't make out his features, but he seemed lean and athletic. He was wearing a crisp white shirt and black trousers, formal enough to scare her.

"My name is Stefano Garini. I'm the Commissario at the homicide department."

Carlina winced. The homicide department. It was all so wrong.

Her mother grabbed her arm and gave her a reassuring smile.

"Would you please step into the sitting room?" He led the way, then opened the door and stood to the side.

Carlina cleared her throat. "Sure."

"I won't leave you." Fabbiola declared in a voice that brooked no opposition.

"That's not necessary, Mama." Carlina's voice sounded flat.

Commissario Garini inclined his head. "If you wish to have your mother with you, it's not a problem."

Carlina looked at him. His thick hair was dark-brown, brushed back from his brow. He was tanned, as if he had been in the sun all summer long.

"See?" Fabbiola shook Carlina's arm. "I told you he's nice."

"Mama, I can talk to him on my own. I'm not a teenager anymore."

"I know, my dear." Fabbiola smiled at her daughter. "But what kind of a mother would leave her daughter all alone with the police?"

It sounded as if the police was equal to a wild beast, bent on devouring Carlina until not a hair was left.

The Commissario didn't bat an eyelid. "This is Signor Cervi." He made a motion with his hand toward the corner of the room. A young man with an impassive face nodded at them. He was seated on a low stool.

Grandpa used this stool to put up his feet. He'll never do it again
. The loss hit Carlina like a wave.

The Commissario glanced at her. "Are you all right,
Signorina
Ashley?"

Carlina pulled herself together. The Commissario had sharp eyes. She had to keep her wits about her. "Yes."

Commissario Garini nodded. "Signor Cervi will take notes about our conversation. Do you agree to this?"

"Of course!" Fabbiola sat on the sofa. "Don't we, Carlina?"

Carlina nodded. "Yes." She felt like a puppet on strings, moving without her own will.

Signor Cervi took out a notebook and a pen.

"Come here, my dear." Fabbiola patted the place next to her.

Carlina dropped onto the sofa and looked at the Commissario who took a seat in the battered armchair to her left. His face was lean and thin, and his nose reminded her of a hawk. No, the resemblance with a hawk came from the eyes. They were light and hard and gave her the impression he could spot a detail at a distance of several kilometers. He didn't look like someone who would understand a silly mistake or two.

"I understand from your family that you were the last person to see Nicolò Mantoni alive."

"Together with her cousin, Emma, that is." Fabbiola pushed the cushion behind her back and leaned into it as if she wanted to talk for an hour.

Commissario Garini nodded. "Quite, Signora Mantoni-Ashley. However, I would appreciate if you could let your daughter tell me in her own words." He focused on Carlina and waited for her to begin.

Carlina met his eyes. They were cool and expectant, and for an instant, she thought she saw an ironic twinge in the faint lifting of an eyebrow. Her heart plummeted. How could she tell this unemotional man she had moved her dead grandfather around?

Fabbiola took her hand and pressed it so hard, Carlina thought her bones would crack. "Tell him about father's phases, dear."

Carlina frowned. Why was her mother so protective all at once? "My grandfather . . ." her voice cracked.
Damn
. Carlina could feel herself blushing. The Commissario would think she was an emotional wreck. She cleared her throat and recommenced, "My grandfather was a bit . . . eccentric."

Fabbiola lifted both hands, still holding onto Carlina's hand. "He wasn't eccentric; he was crazy. But lovely crazy, if you know what I mean."

Commissario Garini gave her a look as if "lovely crazy" didn't exist in his dictionary.

Carlina tried to free her hand, but Fabbiola held onto it.

"My mother means he had different phases, but they didn't do any harm," she said.

Commissario Garini frowned. "What phases?"

"Well, he had a phase when he joined the Sun Worship Church. Have you heard of them?"

He shook his head.

"They adore the Sun and sink into meditation whenever it comes out."

She had been right about that ironic eyebrow. It twitched higher. She could tell Garini wasn't a man to waste sympathy on anybody's foibles.
Oh, God.
"He also had a health food period, when we were only allowed to eat homemade bread. During that period, he drank vinegar for breakfast."

"Vinegar and honey," Fabbiola corrected. "It's supposed to be good for you."

"I see." It sounded as if the Commissario was wondering why Nico hadn't been locked up years ago.

"Another period was the bad vibe period," Carlina said. "That's when he felt bad vibes that prevented him from doing some things."

"How convenient." Commissario Garini's voice was dry.

"It had nothing to do with convenience!" Fabbiola fired up. "It was a real feeling, and it made him sick to do things that went against his conviction." She patted the cushion behind her back for support.

The Commissario inclined his head. "I understand."

He thinks we're a bunch of lunatics.
"These last weeks, he had the bad past period." Carlina tried to convey with her voice that she was in full control of all her intellectual capacities, even if the same couldn't be said of all her family members.

The Commissario lifted his eyebrows. "What does this mean?"

Fabbiola made a throw-away gesture with her hand. "Oh, it was nothing. He told us we had bad things in our past that would catch up with us. We laughed so hard about some of the things he invented." Without warning, she started to cry. "I'm going to miss him."

Carlina put her arm around her mother, her own eyes filling with tears.

"Signorina
Ashley, I don't wish to make your life difficult at such a sad time, but could you please corroborate the statements I heard earlier?"

"Of course." Carlina bit her lips. Had she just agreed to confirm everything?
Oh, no.
Her mother pulled the cushion from behind her back and sobbed into it.

The Commissario watched her without twitching a muscle.

He won't understand. He won't believe me. He's a police computer with a body wrapped around it. He has no idea how a human being feels.

Fabbiola's sobs made Carlina wince.
I can't embarrass her so much. She'll never forgive me if I present them all as liars now.

"Signorina Ashley? Would you please answer?"

Carlina met his cool gaze for a fleeting instant. He seemed dark and menacing, though she couldn't tell where the impression came from.
I never want to see him mad.
She opened her mouth and heard herself say. "My grandfather didn't want to come to the wedding. He said it would be unlucky. We had the impression the bad vibe period had returned, and we couldn't change his mind, so we left." The words rushed out of her mouth. There. She had said it. She had crossed the point of no return.
Oh, Madonna.

The Commissarios light eyes seemed to penetrate into her brain. "You're quite sure he was fine and well when you saw him?"

Her heart started to race.
What does he know?

"Of course she's sure." Fabbiola said. "Do you think my daughter would lie to the police?"

The Commissario didn't take his gaze off Carlina. "Signorina Ashley?"

Carlina cleared her throat. "Yes." Her voice sounded higher than normal.

"Then how do you explain the socks?"

Carlina shrugged.
Did that look nonchalant enough?
"He probably felt too bad to take them off."

"Did he seem different compared to his usual self?"

Very.
Carlina bit her lips. "No."

"Thank you." The Commissario got up. "I have all the information we need. Due to the circumstances, we will arrange an autopsy, but it will take some days. You will hear from us. In the meantime, I would like to seal the apartment."

Fabbiola gasped. "What?"

He looked at her. "It's standard procedure. We're treating this case as a murder investigation until we have further evidence. I understand your father lived on his own?"

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