Delayed Death (Temptation in Florence Book 1) (8 page)

II

Carlina raced home through several forbidden shortcuts, parked her Vespa at a rakish angle, and ran into the house. The unbroken seal on Nico's door made her feel sick. She raced upstairs. Her mother wasn't in her apartment, though all the windows stood open. Damn. Where could she be? Had Garini arrived already? She stopped in Fabbiola's kitchen and listened. The house was silent. No door slammed, no footstep could be heard, no wailing, no shouting.

But wait. Wasn't that a murmur of voices? Carlina rushed to the kitchen window and leaned out. She could hear Uncle Teo's voice. He was on the first floor, in Benedetta's kitchen. They had opened the door to the small balcony, otherwise Carlina would not have heard them.

Carlina turned on her heels and ran downstairs again.

"Benedetta?" Carlina pushed open the door to her aunt's apartment. "Is my mother here?"

It smelled of frying onions with a bit of
aceto di Modena
– balsamic vinegar - as spice. It was the only kind of vinegar her aunt ever used. A homey smell, a smell that made her feel welcome. Carlina pressed her hands together. With clenched teeth, she went forward until she could look through the open door into the kitchen.

Benedetta looked up from the dough she was kneading. She had flour up to her elbows and a small mountain of dough on the marble working slab in front of her. "Yes, she's here, Carlina." Her red lipstick glowed through the gloomy room. The neighboring house stood so close, little light came into Benedetta's kitchen.

Carlina went through the door and stopped dead. Benedetta had not mentioned the room was stuffed full with Mantoni family members.

Next to Benedetta, her children Ernesto and Annalisa had gathered at the kitchen table. Ernesto slouched in his chair, his right thumb flying over his cell phone as he composed a text message.

His sister Annalisa grated a piece of Parmesan cheese with the easy moves that came from long habit. The pile of grated cheese on the marble slab in front of her was already ten centimeters high.

Without stopping composing his message, Ernesto leaned over and picked up a bit of cheese with his left hand.

Annalisa slapped his arm.

Uncle Teo sat in front of a glazed terracotta bowl filled with black olives. He looked unfamiliar, all dressed in black, but the usual innocent expression on his face, as he chewed without a sound, was well-known to Carlina.

Aunt Maria, also in black, peeled garlic gloves next to him while humming to herself, and Fabbiola stood at the sink and washed spinach. A yellow curtain moved with the breeze in front of the open balcony door.

"You're early today, Carlina." Her mother turned around and pointed with her chin at the fridge. "Could you get out the Ricotta?"

Carlina obeyed without a word.
So I've beat Garini. I wonder how many minutes I have until he shows up.
Sweat ran down between her shoulder blades as she reached into the fridge and took out the cool plastic containers filled with Ricotta cheese.
I need more than two minutes to explain what happened.

An idea flashed through her mind. "I'll be back in a second." She placed the Ricotta cheese onto the table, swiveled around and ran downstairs to the front door. As she reached the landing, she moved to the side and glided along the walls of the entry hall. Garini had better not see her shadow through the etched glass panes that filled the better part of the wooden front door.

Next to the door, she reached up. Thank God, the central box for the door bell cable was within her reach. She pulled the cable from the box with one swift move. There. Now Garini could ring until he turned blue. Nobody was home.

She ran back upstairs and stormed into the kitchen.

"Close the door, Carlina," Benedetta said. "The pasta shouldn't sit in a draft."

Carlina closed the door. She felt sick with fear. What would they say? She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. "Listen, everybody. I have to tell you something."

Uncle Teo looked up. "Carlina, you're so pale."

Carlina bit her lips.

"Yes, I've thought so, too." Fabbiola nodded and stirred the spinach once more in the sink filled with cold water. "Hand me that dish cloth, will you Carlina?"

Carlina gave her mother the dish cloth.

"You're not coming down with an illness, are you?" Benedetta frowned. "I think you work too much." She lifted the pasta machine from the shelf and shifted it into the right position on the table, so she could flatten the dough into a thin sheet as soon as it had rested long enough.

"But she's early today," Fabbiola smiled at her daughter and spread out the dish cloth next to the sink.

"Mama, I have to tell you something." Carlina started to feel desperate.

"Benedetta, I think you should close the balcony door." Fabbiola said. "The pasta will become too dry."

"Oh, no." Ernest looked up from his cell phone. "Please leave it open. It's already too stuffy in here."

"Then you should put the dough somewhere else to protect it." Fabbiola gave the pasta mountain an affectionate little pat.

"Place it into that bowl." Aunt Maria pushed a garlic clove into her mouth and conjured up a battered stainless steel bowl with the other hand.

Carlina lifted her voice. "Listen, I don't have much time, and I need to tell you something important."

Fabbiola frowned and placed a wet hand onto Carlina's brow. "Are you coming down with a fever, dear?"

"No." Carlina felt like screaming. "Commissario Garini stopped at Temptation today and --"

"He, he," Uncle Teo picked another black olive. "Wanted to buy underwear for his sweetheart, didn't he?"

Carlina closed her eyes.
Can you please let me finish my sentence?

Annalisa looked up with such a quick move, her red hair swung back like a wing. "Does he have a sweetheart?"

"I don't think so." Fabbiola shook the wet spinach above the sink until the drops flew in all directions.

"Why not?" Benedetta placed the pasta dough with care into the stainless steel bowl. "I think he's a very attractive man, and in general, attractive men are not single."

"It doesn't matter if he's single or not," Carlina cut in.

"Now, why are you not interested?" Aunt Maria winked at her.

Uncle Teo chuckled. "So maybe he came to the store to chat with Carlina."

"Exactly."
I have to tell them in a rush. I can't prepare them.
Carlina took a deep breath. "He came to tell me that grandpa has been poisoned."

Everybody froze.

The rustle of the thin curtain remained the only sound in the room.

Ernesto's phone hit the kitchen floor with a crash.

"Damn!" Ernesto dived under the table.

Uncle Teo banged his balled fist onto the table. "I told you! I knew something was wrong!" He grinned in triumph.

With a splash, Fabbiola dropped the spinach into the sink as if she hadn't tried to shake it dry for several minutes and turned around. "Why did he tell you?" She emphasized the last word.

Benedetta closed her red mouth with a snap. "Why shouldn't he tell Carlina?"

Aunt Maria nodded. "Carlina is an attractive woman. He --"

"He came to tell me because I lied to him." Carlina clenched her teeth. This was the hardest part.

"You lied to him?" Annalisa's mouth dropped open. "I wouldn't try that too often. He's scary."

Ernesto emerged from beneath the table, but he didn't look at his phone. He stared at his cousin. "Wow."

"Why did you lie to the police? What about?" Fabbiola pressed her mouth into one thin line.

"I told him Grandpa was still alive before the wedding."

"But he was!" Fabbiola stuck her hands on her hips.

"No." Carlina shook her head. "He was dead. Emma and I placed him into bed." She nodded at Uncle Teo. "But we forgot to take off his socks." There. Now the worst was over. Maybe.

Ernesto's mouth dropped open. "You put Grandpa to bed after he was dead?" His eyebrows almost touched his red hair. "Wicked!"

"I don't believe for a minute that Emma would do anything like that!" Benedetta fired up in defense of her eldest daughter.

Carlina swallowed.

"Of course she would," Uncle Teo crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Emma probably had the idea."

"But why did you do it?" Aunt Maria held a forgotten garlic clove in her hand.

"Because we didn't want to destroy the wedding."
It sounds so silly now.

Annalisa's mouth dropped open. "Are you crazy?"

"You lied to me!" Fabbiola stared at her daughter.

"And to me." Uncle Teo frowned at Carlina.

Carlina stood up straighter. "Yes, I did, but that doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter?" Fabbiola's voice rose higher. "You say it doesn't matter that you lie to me, your only --"

"Mama." Carlina took her mother's hands. "We have other problems now."

Fabbiola withdrew her hands. "I don't see what you mean! I say things have come to a pretty pass when --"

Carlina interrupted her with a rising feeling of desperation. "Listen to me!" Didn't they get it? Hadn't they heard what she'd said?

Aunt Maria contemplated the garlic clove. "Who killed Nico?"

Everybody whipped around and stared at her.

"Thank you, Aunt Maria." Carlina dropped into a chair. "That's the big question."

Silence.

The yellow curtains fluttered in the breeze as if the world was still in order.

Fabbiola took two small steps and bent over her daughter. "Father was murdered?"

Carlina nodded. "That's what Garini said."

Ernesto's eyes widened. "Did you kill him, Carlina?" His red hair stood up like a flame.

His mother turned on him with a hiss. "Of course not, stupid! How can you say such a thing of your cousin?"

Carlina shook her head. "Ernesto isn't stupid. The Commissario thinks the same."

Benedetta covered her red mouth with her hand. "Oh,
Madonna
."

Fabbiola straightened and placed her hands on her hips. "I can't believe the Commissario is so dumb. He looked like a clever man. How can he think my daughter is a criminal?"

Carlina bit back a smile. "Because said daughter behaved like an idiot."

"What did he say to you?" Fabbiola's tone turned belligerent.

"He took me apart, looked deep into my soul, and found nothing trustworthy there."

"Is that a poem?" Ernesto eyed his cousin with mistrust.

"No." Carlina sighed. "It's the truth."

"But . . . " Fabbiola shook her head until a henna-colored strand slid out of her bun. "We have to call Emma. Emma can tell the Commissario that you said the truth."

"We can't call Emma." Carlina shrugged. "Her cell phone doesn't work in Africa. I tried at least seven times. Her mailbox is switched off, too."

Fabbiola gave an exasperated hiss. "Why did she have to go on a nature safari? I said all along that it was stupid! She will return with Malaria and intestinal worms and --"

Benedetta wrung her hands. "Emma has nothing to do with this." It sounded more like a prayer than a statement.

Uncle Teo got up. "Carlina." His voice sounded serious.

"Yes?"

"Tell us once again, from the beginning, how you found him."

Carlina cleared her throat. "I told Emma I would help get grandpa ready and went downstairs. We still had about twenty minutes before meeting Uncle Ugo with the limousine at the end of the street. Grandpa was already dressed for the wedding. He was sitting in the kitchen, his chin on his chest. At first, I thought he had fallen asleep. But then I saw his eyes . . . " Her voice trembled. "His eyes were open. At this instant, Emma came. When she saw Grandpa, she threw a fit."

"I can imagine." Ernesto grinned.

Benedetta gave him a sharp look. "That's enough, Ernesto. What then?"

"We wondered what to do. Just then, someone walked past the window. He looked in, but fortunately, Emma was blocking the view. That's when we realized everybody could see grandpa dead in his chair. So Emma suggested placing him into his bed."

"That was a sensible thing to do," Fabbiola said.

Carlina suppressed a nervous giggle.
Only Mama would say that.

Uncle Teo frowned. "But . . . do you have any idea why Nico was killed?"

Carlina shook her head. "No. I mean, I never, ever thought anybody would hate him enough to kill him." For an instant, she heard Emma's heated voice again, saw her twisted face when they found Nico.
How well do I know my family?
To what lengths will they go if under pressure?
She shuddered.
But Emma wouldn't have killed grandpa on the very day of her wedding.
She felt weak like overcooked spaghetti. “The Commissario also asked a few other questions.”

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