Authors: Beate Boeker
"Yes." Fabbiola clutched her cushion tight.
"Then it won't create too much of an inconvenience." He held the door open for her to leave the sitting room. "Please ask the family to leave the apartment."
Carlina shook her head, but the feeling of having strayed into a surrealistic movie remained.
As soon as the Commissario was out of earshot, Carlina rounded on her mother with a hiss. "Why did you behave as if I'm a five-year-old?"
Fabbiola pouted. "I don't think you should be alone with a policeman."
It sounded as if policemen were a dangerous species. "Why?" Carlina put her hands on her hips. "What did you think would happen?"
Fabbiola hitched her cushion higher and gave her a dark look. "He kept asking who had last seen father alive. He said it was important to speak to you. It sounded . . . " her voice trailed out, then she shrugged. “It sounded sinister."
"Oh, Mama." Carlina gave her a quick hug. "Thank you, but it wasn't necessary at all."
In fact, you rendered me the worst possible service.
When the Commissario and his assistant had left, she extricated herself from the family and ran upstairs to her apartment on the top floor. It was a relief to be alone, to stop acting, and to be just herself. She felt hollow and exhausted and dropped onto her bed with the leopard print cover.
I have lied to the police.
She felt like a criminal.
Carlina placed her hands behind her head and looked at the slanted ceiling painted in a soft lilac. Now what? Call the Commissario and tell him it was all lies?
No way. He would look at her with those cold eyes and would decide it was time to lock her up.
Carlina shook her head. "Now relax, my girl," she said to herself. "Forget the policeman made of stone and think about it without emotions." She forced herself to think through her options. Even if the interview didn't go the way she had planned, nothing worse could happen. They would make that stupid autopsy; they would realize it had been a natural death, and that was it. She could relax now.
She bit her lips. Just one problem remained. What if the autopsy revealed that Grandpa had died earlier than Carlina had claimed? She had no idea how long he had been dead when they had found him. Not very long, but what did that mean in hours or minutes? Hadn't she seen on TV that it was almost impossible to pin down a death to an exact moment? Surely they wouldn't be able to do that. If they did the autopsy in a few days, it would be even more difficult. Hadn't she read this somewhere?
Carlina got up and decided to put all thoughts about her grandfather's death behind her. But in spite of all her reasoning, she felt jumpy all day long. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she grabbed her keys, took her trusted Vespa, and roared around the hills of Florence. For once, it didn't help. The Commissario's lean face and hard eyes were imprinted on her mind like an image of Nemesis.
Cool down, silly.
Carlina stopped her Vespa on top of a hill, took off her helmet with the leopard print, and breathed the soft evening air. It smelled of rosemary from a nearby hedge.
You're exaggerating him. The image you remember is distorted by emotion. Nobody can look as fierce as that.
Carlina sat without moving and looked around the scenery she loved. Already
dusk settled below a mauve sky. The evening light spun a golden haze over the dark outline of the trees on the hilltops around her, and on the fields, fog gathered like foamy water. In the valleys, windows sprung to light, warm islands of comfort. Carlina took a deep breath.
Don't worry. You'll never see him again.
"So what do you make of the Mantoni family?" Stefano led the way to his office and pushed open the gray door. It squeaked as always, and Stefano thought for the hundredth time that he should remember to bring oil for the hinges.
Piedro shrugged. "From what they said, the victim must have been bananas."
Stefano nodded. "To me it seemed as if the whole family was odd." He smiled at his subordinate. "Sit down, Piedro." He waited until Piedro had taken a seat in front of his old desk, then stretched himself out in his own chair. "Anything else?"
Piedro took out his notes and studied them before he looked up. "Nothing. I don't think there was anything suspicious at all. Of course some were nervous, and some were excited, but that's pretty normal, isn't it?"
"Yes." Stefano looked at Piedro and decided to help him along. "Who was nervous, and who was excited?"
"Let me see." Piedro leafed through his notes. "The twin, Teodoro, he was excited. Loved the whole thing. Am not sure about the daughter of the victim. Name of Fabbiola Mantoni-Ashley. Funny name, that one."
"She said she had been married to an American. Didn't you note that?"
I have to read his notes later and add the things he forgot.
"You should add it. How did her behavior strike you?"
"Well." Piedro looked at his notes as if he hoped for inspiration. His gelled-up hair stood up in spikes. "First, she was excited, but later, she seemed worried about her daughter."
"Yes. Do you think that was unusual?"
Piedro shrugged. "Not really. I just wondered why she got all worked up. She didn't look as if she needed to be protected. The daughter, I mean. What was her name? Carlina."
"No. Caroline Ashley."
Piedro frowned. "Everybody called her Carlina."
For an instant, Stefano saw Carlina's pale face again. The freckles had made her look younger than she was. Her eyes reminded him of a cat, slanted and intelligent.
Piedro shrugged off the name. "She acted real nervous."
"Yes, I noticed that too."
Piedro grinned. "Maybe she never talked to an investigating officer before."
"Who knows what she has to hide." Stefano sighed. "So many lie to us for many different reasons." He frowned. "Didn't her mother tell us she owns a retail store?"
"Yes." Piedro leafed through his notebook. "They sure talked a lot, all of them, if you don't count this Carlina." He turned another page. "Here it is. It's a store for luxury underwear called Temptation." He grinned. "Think something is wrong with that store?" He checked his notes once again. "It's on Via dei Tornabuoni. Expensive area."
"Yes." Stefano frowned. "It might bear looking into. We should keep our eyes open." He pushed his hand through his hair. "One other thing, though. Did you notice anything unusual about the body?"
Piedro looked as intelligent as a pair of boxer shorts. "Unusual?"
"That's what I said."
Be patient, Stefano. He's still young.
"No. He was dead."
Spot on, Piedro.
"Yes. I know he was dead. But did you see the marks on his backside?"
Stefano felt like he was explaining things to a kangaroo. "They come from the blood. It pools when the circulation stops, and they indicate the position of the body when he died." He shook his head, puzzling over it. "The marks on this victim were faint, but they seemed unusual to me, as if he had died in a sitting position." He shrugged. "Then again, the mattress was sagging like a hammock. I guess that's why."
Piedro's eyes glazed over. "I'll type the report, then," he said.
I wonder if he heard a word I said.
Garini suppressed a sigh. "Yes. Please leave it on my desk when you're done."
Piedro nodded and made a move to get up.
Stefano stopped him by lifting his hand. "Wait a moment."
"Yes?" Piedro looked wary.
"Why did you decide to become a policeman?" Garini bent forward.
His subordinate blinked. "My father said it was a good job."
"And you? What did you think?"
Piedro looked around the room as if the answer was written on the walls. "I dunno."
Stefano remembered the first day he himself had started work. Naive? Yes. Full of lofty ideas? Oh my. He smiled a little at himself. But also with a strong desire to protect, to help, to keep injustice at bay. With the years, he had become more of a cynic. He had discovered beautiful faces with black holes where their souls should have been; had been shocked more than once by the depth of human wickedness; had started to mistrust the surface of things, the smiling faces, the easy answers. His probing had become harsher, his search for truth more ruthless. But underneath, he still knew why he was doing his job. He fought for stability, for justice. It was easy to forget that when faced with paperwork, with politics, with stupidity, but whenever he solved a case, it gave him a satisfaction nothing could equal. Did Piedro feel any of this? Did he sense a mission?
Piedro got up. "I'll do the report, then."
He doesn't even ask how we will proceed
. Stefano forced himself to explain the next steps in spite of the bored expression on his assistant's face. "We won't get the autopsy before Tuesday. Roberto's assistant is already checking the most important points, but we need to wait for Roberto's return before we get the official file. I do wonder about those marks . . ." He shook his head. "Still, I think it doesn't matter. This case will be over before it begins, Piedro. An old man dies in his bed, and his over-excited family tries to make a story out of it." He sighed. "We only have one result: I have to stay an hour longer tonight to deal with the paperwork."
"Stefano!" A man waved at Stefano from the other side of the street.
Stefano looked up from the hot pizza in front of him and lifted his hand. "Ciao, Roberto."
Please don't come over.
He inhaled the scent of the aromatic salami and watched the pathologist with a wary eye
. Of course he arrives the minute my pizza is served.
Roberto crossed the narrow street with a jaunty step. He passed the terracotta pots filled with boxwood that separated the restaurant from the sidewalk and came closer with a grin on his round face.
The red-and-white checkered tablecloth fluttered in a sudden gust of wind.
"Roberto." Stefano nodded at him and lifted his fork. "Sorry if I start, but my pizza will get cold."
Roberto pulled up an iron chair with a flat red cushion, dropped onto it and stretched his legs in front of him. "No problem." He waved at the waiter. "Bring me some of that red wine I had the last time."
Stefano suppressed a sigh. He had counted on a quiet meal, and now he had to share it with the most voluble of his colleagues.
If only he doesn't start to talk about work.
"Why are you eating so late?" Roberto pointed at the pizza. "Or should I say early? Is this lunch or dinner?"
"Lunch. I wanted to finish a case first." Stefano cut a good-sized bit out of his pizza wedge. "Had a good weekend?"
Roberto shrugged. "It was all right. We went to see my wife's family, up in Milano."
"Hmm." Stefano munched the first piece of pizza. It tasted crisp and spicy, just the way he wanted it. He liked this pizzeria, hidden from the steady stream of tourists, with simple, wholesome food.
"You can be lucky you're not married." Roberto rolled his eyes. "I can stand my mother-in-law for two hours, but any minute longer is torture."
"You shouldn't go if you don't like it." Stefano took the next piece of pizza.
He glanced at a sparrow that fluttered from the boxwood to the pavement. It looked like a tiny ball of feathers on the gray stone slabs.
"You don't know my wife!" Roberto threw his hands into the air. "Silvia would pulverize me if I ever suggested such a thing."
Stefano felt an old feeling of boredom creep up.
Why do people complain all the time about things they can change?
"So get a divorce."
The sparrow cocked its brown head and looked at Stefano out of unblinking, black eyes, as if it wanted to say "Want to share, mate?"
Stefano threw him a crumb.
Roberto burst into laughter. "That's so typical for you, Stefano!"
Stefano lifted his eyebrows. "What? A divorce? I've never been married."
"No, no." Roberto shook his head. "You're so rude. You have quite a reputation for blistering one-liners, you know that, don't you?"
Stefano blinked. "I do?"
The waiter arrived with the wine and filled Roberto's glass from a slim glass carafe. Three more sparrows landed on the pavement.
"Grazie." Roberto nodded at the waiter and picked up his glass. "No wine for you?"
"No, thanks." Stefano lifted his glass filled with water. "Salute."
I thought I'd kept most of my scathing comments to myself.
Roberto looked at him, a grin spreading over his round face. "Maybe it's good you're not married. I can't imagine you making compromises."
"God, Roberto, you're hitting hard today." Stefano put down his fork. "I may not be the world's best choice for small talk, but I've never seen myself in such a bad light."
Roberto crossed his ankles and looked with satisfaction at his polished shoes before he glanced at Stefano's abandoned fork. "Sorry, I didn't want to destroy your appetite."
Stefano lifted his eyebrows. "You could have fooled me."
The pathologist grinned. "Hey, I haven't even started to talk about work."
"Thanks." Stefano's voice sounded dry. He picked up his fork and continued to eat.
"In fact, I wanted to tell you about that old man you sent on Sunday."
Stefano lifted both hands. "Sorry for that. For once, I obeyed my nobler instincts and humored a crazy family. You can see where it got me."
"It wasn't a natural death."
The fork fell with a clatter onto Stefano's plate. "What?" His voice thundered through the small street.
The sparrows flew up in a flurry.
The waiter came running. "Is everything all right, Signori?"
Stefano forced a smile. "Yes, thanks." He turned back to Roberto. "You're kidding me."
"Not at all." Roberto chuckled into his fist. "That got you, didn't it?"
"It sure did." Stefano's voice sounded grim. "I wondered about the marks on his body, but I thought they were due to the sagging mattress. What was it?"
"Morphine. Enough to kill a horse." Roberto moved his shoes a bit, so the light would move on the shiny surface. "The kind you get on prescription when you're in pain. He took it with a drink."
Roberto cocked his head. "Is there a problem?"
Stefano frowned. "I was sure it was a natural death, so I didn't dig as deep as I usually do."
Roberto shrugged. "You can still ask all the questions you want." He emptied his wine glass and refilled it from the glass carafe. "You sure you don't want a glass?"
"Yes, thanks." Stefano frowned at his last piece of pizza. "Anything else?"
Roberto moved his head from side to side. "Two things."
Stefano clenched his teeth. "Tell me!"
"You just mentioned the spots on his body. I would say the victim died sitting, but you found him in bed, is that right?"
"Hmm. If you had asked me, I would have said it was impossible."
"Even with a mattress like a hammock?"
Roberto frowned. "Yes. We found some marks on his legs too, and they would not have been there if he had died stretched out. Very faint, though. No wonder you missed them."
"I see." Stefano wanted to hit something hard. "What else?"
"The time of death seems to be . . . off-key. From your report, I know he was supposed to have died sometime between one thirty in the afternoon and the next morning at ten forty-five, is that right?"
Stefano nodded. "That's what the witnesses said."
"My assistant took him in and checked him through." Roberto emptied his glass and put it back onto the table with a satisfied sigh. "Of course, he's not very experienced yet, and when I came back from Milano, it was much too late to tell, but he said several signs hinted at an earlier death."
"Earlier?" The image of a nervous woman with cat eyes rose in Stefano's mind. "How much earlier?"
She lied to me.
Roberto shrugged. "Difficult to say. It was a hot day, and I don't know about the room temperature, so I can only give you some very loose information. Don't look at me like that; I didn't see him when he came in, so I can't be certain of the time."
Stefano waived at the waiter.
"Il conto, per favore!"
"Hey, you haven't finished your pizza!" Roberto pulled up his feet and bent forward. "No need to run off in a panic. The guy has been dead for days. Some minutes more or less won't make a difference."
Stefano pulled out his wallet. "I've lost my appetite."
Roberto watched him. "No wonder people are afraid of you, Stefano. In a black mood, you look more dangerous than any killer I've ever seen."
"You've only seen dead ones."
"Thank God." Roberto shuddered. "But you . . . who do you want to kill?"
"Me." Stefano slapped two bills on the table. "For having been so stupid. And -- " he broke off.
"And?" Roberto's eyes were alight with curiosity.
"A woman called Carlina."
I felt sorry for her.
Stefano hurried back to the police station. He had two options now. Either the old man had killed himself or he had been eliminated.
If only I had taken the whole thing seriously right from the start.
He skipped over a pile of dog poo, pulled out his cell phone and called his assistant. "Piedro?" Stefano pressed the phone against his ear.
What's that noise?
"Sì!" Piedro's voice almost drowned in a clanging sound.
"Where are you?" Stefano tried not to sound as impatient as he felt.
"I'm still at the garage. They say they'll have my motorbike repaired within the next hour."
"They've said so twice already."
"I know." Piedro managed to sound harassed. "But when they had checked the brake fluid, they realized it can't have been the source of --"
"Don't explain." Stefano interrupted him. "If your bike can't be repaired within the next hour, take the train back to Florence."
"But that takes more than an hour!"
"A little less. The train connection isn't that bad. After all, you're only in Pisa, not at the end of the world."
"But how do I collect my bike?"
"By the very same train. On your next day off." Garini made sure his voice sounded sweet.
Piedro sighed. "All right."
"Hurry. We have a new case, and I need you here."
"A new case?"
"Yes. Remember the grandfather who died with his socks on?"
"Yeah. The one with the mad family."
"Exactly. He was poisoned."
Garini sighed and rang off.
If only Piedro wasn't the son of my boss.
As he hurried back to the station, his mind clicked off the things he had to do. Get a search warrant. Kick himself for having been taken in. Get a tape recorder from the station and start with another round of interrogations, first tackling that woman called Carlina. He shook his head at his own stupidity.
It's not like you to be taken in by a pair of cat eyes and some freckles, Stefano.
If only Roberto had for once given him a tighter frame of time. Vague as it was, it didn't help at all. The whole Mantoni family had been milling around the house all morning, bringing flowers, helping each other get ready for the wedding, collecting stuff. He had already established that during the first round of interviews.
He had to scare someone into talking. It was his only chance.