Authors: Beate Boeker
Carlina hummed to herself as she undressed the mannequin in her store. Thank God she had switched to the new models. They weighed less than the former style of mannequins, were a lot easier to handle and looked sexier too. She slung the old bra and slip over her shoulder, then bent down to pull the new collection from the box at her feet. The bra came up first, and she held it against her mannequin to check the effect. Hmm. Creamy white with lace. Gorgeous, but on the mannequin it looked kind of weak. Carlina stopped humming and frowned. Maybe she needed to buy a darker mannequin. After all, white was still the best-sold color, and if she could never show it on her pale mannequin, it hurt sales. She dropped the creamy bra and fished out another in chocolate brown with white lace.
Better. Much better. Carlina started to hum again. Lovely for autumn. She would hang up a poster of a dark-skinned woman with the creamy bra behind the mannequin, then she could show both. The new nylons in soft brown with golden swirls would fit so well. She could--
, Signorina Ashley."
Carlina jumped and dropped the bra. She swiveled around and stared at the tall man in front of her. "Commissario Garini." As she met his eyes, she knew her memory hadn't faulted her. He looked as intimidating as ever. No, he looked worse. The blue jeans and black leather jacket seemed too warm for this late September day, but that wasn't the problem. His eyes scared her, those hawk-like eyes, too light and cold. She felt like a mouse and wanted to run for cover.
"What can I do for you?"
The Commissario looked around. "Is anybody else in the shop?"
Carlina's heart started to beat faster. "No. My assistant has already left."
"Can you close up?"
Her hand started to tremble. "I'd rather not."
He checked his heavy wristwatch with an impatient gesture. "When will you close?"
"I can't wait that long. I need to talk to you."
God, he was rude. Carlina pressed her lips together. "One moment, please."
I won't leave my mannequin naked in the window, even if you have to wait.
She turned back to the mannequin, laid it on the floor with an expert flick of her wrist, slipped on the new thong, fixed the bra, and put it back into the window. The nylons would have to wait. His presence made her too nervous to handle the fragile material.
Then she stepped out of the window and went past him to the entrance of her store.
Quick as a flash, he was behind her, a hand on her arm. "Where are you going?"
She jumped with fear. "I just want to put up a sign that the store is closed." She narrowed her eyes. "Unless you prefer to interrupt our conversation whenever a customer comes in."
His hand dropped from her arm. "Go ahead."
With stiff legs, Carlina went to the door.
This is not going well. Oh, my God. I should have told him the truth. They have found out that grandpa died earlier. Damn, damn, damn.
She took the sign from its hiding place, hung it on the inside of the glass door and closed the door with the key. Then she turned around and faced him. "Come to the back," she said.
No need to be polite with this humanized police computer.
He didn't take his eyes off her, not even for one second. "Why?"
"Because I don't want the whole world to see that I'm having a long conversation with a Commissario from the homicide department."
Those hateful eyebrows twitched. "Is it going to be a long conversation?"
Carlina clenched her teeth. "Yes." She brushed past him and went to the back of the store. He was right on her heels, so close she felt stifled. "Do you have to walk so close behind me?" It sounded like a hiss.
"Yes." His voice was free of emotions. "Otherwise, you can pull a gun on me."
"I'm not wearing a gun!"
"I know. But you might have one in a drawer somewhere."
How did he know she wasn't wearing a gun? Had those light eyes scanned her from top to toe? Carlina felt hot, then cold. "I don't own a gun."
"Officially, you don't," he agreed.
"How come you're on your own?" She drew the curtain to the side and stepped into her tiny storage room. "I thought policemen only come in sets. Are you sure I'm not too dangerous to handle all on your own?" She heard her own words and stopped, appalled. What on earth was she saying?
His gaze became arctic. "I don't underestimate you, if that's what you fear. However," he leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms in front of his chest, "you shouldn't underestimate me either."
I sure don't. On the contrary.
Carlina took two small folding footstools off a hook on the wall, unfolded them and placed them on the floor. Her storage room was small to begin with, and her clever storage system diminished it even further. She was proud of the tiny cubicles that covered every free space on the walls from the ceiling to the floor, plus the second layer of storage racks that could be moved to the side on rails. She pushed the racks to the end to enlarge the room close to the curtain. Now the door to the small bathroom in the back was blocked, but that didn't matter. "Sit down."
He lifted his eyebrows.
The way he stood there seemed insolent, as if he was relaxed and at his ease, but she wasn't fooled. He had a coiled energy about him that reminded her of a panther. If she made a wrong move, he would pounce on her quicker than she could blink.
"I prefer to remain standing," he said.
Damn. Now I have to look up at him if I want to rest my feet.
Carlina sat on her footstool, leaned her back against the shelves and, to make up for her inferior position, put her feet onto the stool he had rejected as if she was the most relaxed tourist Florence had ever seen. If she rested her head against the shelf, she could even look at him without getting a crick in the neck.
Was he grinning? She stared at him.
He returned her gaze unblinking.
I must have imagined that twitch around his mouth.
He reached into the pocket of his black leather jacket.
"Nervous, are you?"
She didn't reply.
He pulled out a small box in black and pressed a button. A red light came on. "I want to record our conversation. Do you agree?"
What choice do I have?
"Yes." The tiny room felt overcrowded with him at the door.
"Your name is Caroline Arabella Ashley, living at Via delle Pinzochere, 10 in Florence. Do you confirm this?"
"Yes." Carlina bit her lips. God, this was hard. She felt like a total idiot. How could she ever have lied to that unforgiving, inhuman man?
"Signorina Ashley, do you wish to add anything to your statement of last Sunday?"
I don't want to play cat and mouse with him. He's better at this than I am.
Carlina pulled herself up. "I do."
He waited without twitching a muscle.
"I lied about . . . about the time when I saw my grandfather last. He was dead when Emma and I went downstairs to pick him up for the wedding."
God, he doesn't make it easy.
I was so stupid.
"How did you get access to his apartment?"
Carlina stared at him. "With my key, of course."
"You have a key to your grandfather's apartment?"
"Yes and no." Carlina crossed her legs at the ankles to look more relaxed, but she had the uneasy feeling he wasn't fooled. "Our keys are universal fits. I can enter any apartment in the house with my key."
His mouth went slack. "What? You have access to all apartments with one key?"
"Yes." Carlina nodded.
"Good grief. How many apartments are in that house?"
"On the ground floor, we have two - my grandfather on the right." She swallowed.
Not anymore. No, better not think about it.
"Uncle Teo lives with Aunt Maria on the left. They are --," she broke off and started again. "They were identical twins. They painted their doors bright red and bright green, the colors of Italy."
She could tell he wasn't interested in the colors of Italy and suppressed a sigh. "On the first floor, we have Emma with her fiancé, I mean husband, Lucio, and on the right, her mother Benedetta with my cousins Ernesto and Annalisa. Benedetta is my mother's youngest sister."
He looked a bit dazed.
"Benedetta is the one with the bright lipstick." No, he wasn't interested in the lipstick either. "Ernesto and Annalisa both have red hair. It's funny because their older sister Emma is a lot darker and . . ." Her voice petered out when she saw the expression in his light eyes.
"And the second floor?"
"On the second floor, my mother lives on the right hand side. The apartment on the left is rented to the neighboring house, and they have made a hole into their wall instead and closed the door to our staircase."
Now he looked as if he wanted to congratulate the neighbors for their decision. "I understand you have one brother and one sister."
"Why don't they live with you in the house?"
Carlina shrugged. "Enzo works in Pisa and doesn't want to commute each day, though grandpa told him a hundred times he should live at home." She smiled a little at the thought of her irrepressible brother. "My sister Gabriella is married to Bernando, and they live next to Bernando's mother, thirty kilometers away. The apartment would be too small for them anyway because of Lilly. She's my niece, and she has just turned seven. But they visit us often, and Lilly likes to stay with me because--" She stopped herself. The Commissario wasn't interested in hearing how well she got along with her niece. It wasn't her style to rattle along like a woman without a brain. God, he made her nervous.
"And you? Where do you live?" he asked.
"I live above my mother, underneath the roof."
"Where did you find your grandfather?"
Carlina throat tightened. The preliminaries were over. Now came the hard part. "Grandpa was sitting at the kitchen table." Her voice cracked.
She felt as if he was pushing her bit by bit forward, until she would drop off a cliff. "My cousin . . . Emma threw a fit."
His eyebrows twitched. "Why?"
"Emma was the bride! His death destroyed her wedding."
Commissario Garini looked as if he had no clue what she was talking about.
Do you have no imagination at all?
"Can you picture the bride coming up to church and saying that her grandfather just died?" Carlina closed her eyes. It was easier to speak without looking at the man made of steel next to her. "Everybody bursting into tears, the wedding canceled, no dancing, no party, the flowers wilting, the ceremony postponed, the honeymoon annulled . . ." She shook her head so hard, she felt the edge of the shelf beneath her hair.
"I like the wilting flowers," he said. "Nice touch."
Her eyes flew open.
I hate you.
He returned her gaze without emotion. "Go on."
Another step closer to the edge
. "In the end, we said it would make no difference to my grandfather if we pretended he had died later, but for Emma, it made all the difference in the world."
"Interesting." His voice was dry as dust.
Damn that man.
He wanted to provoke her, and he managed all too well. “We had another reason, too.”
“The doctor told Uncle Teo to avoid stress because of his heart. He almost forbade him to join the wedding party. Emma and I were afraid that Uncle Teo would have a heart attack if we told him in the middle of the wedding.”
He lifted a skeptical eyebrow but didn't comment. “What happened then?”
Carlina took a deep breath, but for once, the smell of dust and boxes and brand-new products, the smell of her own universe, failed to soothe her. Where had all the oxygen gone? "Everybody could see my grandfather through the kitchen window, so we decided to put him into bed."
"Fully dressed?" His eyebrow twitched.
"Emma undressed him, but she forgot the socks."
"What were you doing in the meantime?" He sounded as if he thought she had used the interim to dance a solitary waltz in the kitchen.
Carlina clenched her teeth. "I was sick in the bathroom."
"So you did feel some emotions. Congratulations." His voice was vitriolic enough to make a hole in the floor if it dripped.
Don't reply, Carlina. Ignore him.
"Let me get one point clear," Garini said. "If I understood correctly, you were both fully dressed for the wedding in long evening gowns."
"Mine was long." Carlina looked at her hands. "Emma's was short."
"Both with high heels, I assume?" His light eyes seemed to pierce her.
"Yes." Carlina glared at him. "Want to know our hairdos as well? If you wish, I can send you a picture."
"That would be helpful," he said. "Wasn't it difficult to carry a dead man in that outfit?"