Authors: Beate Boeker
“What questions?” Aunt Maria frowned.
“He seemed to wonder if grandpa had reason to kill himself.”
“No way.” Ernesto shook his head. “That would have meant he would lose the competition with Uncle Teo. He kept saying that the one who dies first is the ultimate loser.”
The rest of the family nodded. Nobody who knew Nico could for one minute accept the idea of suicide.
“Exactly.” Carlina smiled at her younger cousin. “That's what I told the Commissario.”
Aunt Maria sighed. “In a way, it's a pity.”
Fabbiola blinked. “What is a pity?”
Uncle Teo gave his wife a sharp glance. “I know what you mean. If Carlina had accepted the idea of suicide, he might stop looking for a murderer.”
Carlina's head started to turn. “Are you kidding? I'm through with lying. He's not human, that man. He's a sort of police machine. If you want to lie to him, go right ahead, but I won't play along.”
“But if father was killed, then we have to find the murderer!” Benedetta pulled the ends of her red mouth down.
“Even if it means that one of us will be convicted?” Aunt Maria munched a garlic clove as if her words hadn't frozen the rest of the family.
Annalisa rallied first. "I'm sure it was someone from the outside. None of us would do this kind of thing. How was he killed, exactly? I mean, what stuff was used, Carlina?"
"It was an overdose of morphine." The now familiar feeling of sickness rose inside Carlina.
"Morphine?" Aunt Maria lifted her head. "Who in the family uses morphine?"
Carlina shrugged. "As far as I know, nobody."
But that doesn't mean anything.
Ernesto shook his phone and mumbled to himself.
"Is it broken?" Annalisa bent closer to her brother.
"I don't think so." Ernesto frowned. "But I don't get a connection. Maybe when I go outside . . ." He jumped up and went to the open window.
"How can you talk about cell phones when your cousin is accused of murder?" Benedetta frowned at her children.
“Carlina isn't accused of murder!” Fabbiola placed a protective arm around her daughter's shoulders.
Something cold ran up Carlina's spine.
Accused of murder.
Garini hadn't said it, but she had seen it in his eyes.
Ernesto gave her an apologetic smile, shrugged, and went onto the small balcony.
In two seconds he was back, his face white. "Carlina. The Commissario is having coffee with Signorina Electra. He's sitting at her open window."
Carlina's heart plummeted.
He overheard every word we said.
Her mind raced back. Had they said anything incriminating? Anything the Commissario could use to build a case against her?
Ernesto swallowed. "He says you should come out to him."
Six stricken faces turned to Carlina.
Does my voice sound firm and confident?
She stepped onto the balcony. Right in front of her, so close she could touch its stone wall if she stretched out an arm and bent forward, was the opposite house. Signorina Electra lived in the apartment right across from Benedetta, but she didn't have a balcony. Her living room window started to the left, where Benedetta's balcony stopped. Signorina Electra was a great fan of geraniums, and every spring, she crammed as many plants as she could into her window boxes. Sometimes, to Benedetta's irritation, she even used a part of Benedetta's balcony, though how she managed to reach this far at her age remained a much discussed mystery. The red and white blooms cascaded over the window sill, their bitter smell strong and pungent.
Garini sat in Signorina Electra's living room at a spindle-legged table. He lifted a fragile teacup in silent salute, looking as out of place as a panther in a kindergarten.
I hope her herbal tea makes him sick.
"Signorina Ashley. I hope you're having a pleasant time off."
Carlina was aware of the family behind her, listening with bated breath to her every word. "Quite. Want to come over to interrogate us?"
He lifted his eyebrows. "What a charming invitation. I rang your bell, but when nobody answered, I figured I might just as well visit my old friend Signorina Electra." He turned in his seat as the door of the living room behind him opened.
Signorina Electra glided into the room, her wide gown flowing behind her. Golden stars glittered on her garment as she lifted her teapot. "Here's the tea. It's a different type this time, chamomile-peppermint."
Garini's face became even more wooden than usual.
Carlina bent over the railing and said in a low voice, "Don't you love her teas, Garini?"
Signorina Electra came closer and peered out of short-sighted eyes at Carlina. "Is that you, Carlina? My, I haven't seen you for a long time. You're not as pretty as Emma. Are you married yet?" Her voice echoed through the slim gap between the houses.
"No." Carlina shouted back loud enough for all the street to hear. "Are you enjoying your visitor?"
The family behind Carlina gasped.
"But of course. We go back a long time, don't we, Stefano?" She winked at Garini.
Carlina clenched her teeth. "Well, when you've finished your chamomile-peppermint drink, don't hesitate to come over, Garini."
"I will." His light eyes held her gaze. "Make sure the bell works."
Carlina stood on a ladder and held the screwdriver as well as the cover of the bell in her left hand when Garini appeared behind the etched glass panes. She eyed his lean shadow for an instant.
Why does he always make me so nervous?
She descended the ladder with care and pulled the door open. "The bell isn't working yet, but you can come in."
"Thanks." He followed her in and watched as she climbed the ladder. "What happened?"
"Cable fell off." Carlina already regretted her rash action. She had more trouble than she wanted to admit to get the thing going again.
"Just like that?"
"Hmm." From the corner of her eye, she saw his eyebrow twitch.
He always seemed to know when she was lying.
"You can repair electrical problems by yourself?"
"Who taught you?"
"My father." She handed him the cover of the bell. "Would you hold this for a minute?"
He accepted it without comment. "Can you talk while you repair the bell?"
"I'm a woman." Carlina grinned down at him. "I can do plenty of things simultaneously. But I should warn you that this is no place to discuss confidential things."
"Because every word you say down here carries through the staircase as if this was the famous opera-house La Scala. It can be heard on every floor."
He leaned against the door. "I don't have anything confidential to discuss."
She glanced at him. "Neither do I."
Why does he always sound so ironic?
Carlina pulled at the cable that seemed to have gotten too short. Her hands were dusty and the round window above the door didn't let in enough light.
"Tell me about your grandfather," he said.
"What do you want to know?" She sounded short and out of temper, which she was.
"Did he take medication?"
Carlina shook her head. "No. He was proud not to depend on anything at his age."
"I will have to check his bathroom later." It was a statement, not a question.
"Didn't you already do that?"
"This time, I'll look deeper."
I don't like the sound of that.
Carlina clenched her teeth. "I see."
The Commissario didn't take his gaze from her face. "You said your grandfather had phases?"
No more friendly talk from me, Mister.
"The last phase was about the bad past, is that right?"
She glanced down. "Are you recording me again?"
He put his hand into his leather jacket and pulled out the recorder. "Thanks for reminding me. Do you agree that we record this conversation?"
"Of course, of course. Record every damn sneeze, if it makes you happy." For an instant, she was tempted to drop the screwdriver onto the small box.
"I will." He sounded unruffled. "Tell me about a typical episode from that bad past period."
Carlina shrugged. "It was always the same. Grandpa dropped a reference to our bad past like a bomb, usually in the middle of some family gathering or other. Sometimes, it was downright hilarious. Other times, people became embarrassed or even angry." The cable finally remained where it belonged. She gave a satisfied nod. "That's it." She held out her hand, still looking at the cable. "The cover, please."
He placed the bell cover into her hand. "What did he say to you?"
"To me?" Carlina glanced over her shoulder at him. "What do you mean?"
A ray of sunshine touched the round ornamental window above the door. It shone through the colored glass panes and painted yellow and red blobs of color onto the white wall at the side. Carlina smiled.
One day, I'll clean that window, then it'll be even more spectacular.
The Commissario's voice pulled her back to earth. "Did your grandfather mention an episode from your bad past?"
"Oh, yes." Carlina placed the cover over the cable. "He said I had chased away a prince and would end my days as an old maid or married to --" she broke off just a second before the next words slipped out. . . .
garbage man. That's what he said, but I won't tell you so, after the things I said at Temptation. Don't want you to get the wrong idea.
"Or what?" he asked.
Of course Garini had caught her hesitation. "A butcher," she improvised.
"And had you?"
Carlina fixed the last screw that held the cover. "Had I what?"
"Chased away a prince?"
She dusted her hands and climbed down. "No."
"So the tale was completely invented?"
Carlina threw him a look and sighed. If she didn't tell him her story, someone else would. "No." She opened the front door. "I'm not running away, don't worry. I just have to check the bell."
He held the door for her as she went out.
Carlina pressed the lowest bell next to a row of shining brass plates engraved with their names. The bell in Nico's apartment rang so loud, it could be heard outside. Carlina smiled. "Good."
Then she straightened her shoulders. An uneasy feeling pooled in her stomach. She wasn't going to enjoy telling her story to this man made of steel. "We have two choices," she said. "Either we sit on the stairs or we go upstairs to my apartment."
"Can't we remain standing?"
"No." She shook her head.
Was he laughing at her? She was sure his mouth had twitched. "Because I have to stand all day long at my store. That's why I choose to sit whenever I can."
"Your apartment, then," he said.
Now why did I give him a choice?
She gave a sharp nod.
"But first, I'd like to check your grandfather's bathroom." He took a folded piece of paper from his leather jacket. "I need to show this to your Uncle Teo."
Carlina eyed the paper. "What is it?"
"It's the search warrant."
The word triggered a surge of fear inside Carlina.
He's going to arrest someone, someone from my family.
They will be put away behind bars, away from life, away from the sun, away from happiness. For what? Twenty years? More?
Her head swam.
"What?" Her mouth felt dry.
"You're not going to faint again, are you?"
She clenched her teeth. "No." She could feel herself sway and sat on the first step so hard, she hurt her backside. "Uncle Teo is upstairs, in Benedetta's kitchen. You go and find him." With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and leaned against the banister.
"I'm here, Carlina." Uncle Teo's voice came from above. "What do you need?"
"I'd like you to see this search warrant." Garini held out the piece of paper.
Uncle Teo came down the stairs and took the paper. He unfolded it, fished his glasses from his breast pocket, placed them on the tip of his nose and read the paper. "The whole house?" He sounded surprised.
"Yes." Garini didn't elaborate.
"Are you planning to search other houses as well?"
Garini lifted his eyebrows. "Like whose?"
Uncle Teo lifted both hands. "The rest of the family. Gabriella, Bernando, and little Lilly's house. Alberta, Angela and Marco's villa."
"Not yet." Garini didn't twitch a muscle. "We'll start here."
"All right." Uncle Teo inclined his head. "I will inform the others."
He turned and narrowed his eyes at Carlina. "Are you all right, dear?"
Carlina got up. "Yes."
"One more thing, Commissario." Uncle Teo focussed his rheumy eyes onto Garini. "When can we have the funeral?"
Garini frowned. "We'll need a few more days. I'll be in touch as soon as I know more."
"All right." Uncle Teo sighed and went upstairs again.
Carlina's heart went out to him. He looked so frail and alone, without the competition of his twin brother to push him to new heights every day.
The Commissario waited until Benedetta's apartment door had opened and closed, then he nodded at Carlina. "Would you now open the door, please?"
"Yes." Carlina pushed her key into the lock of Nico's apartment door. The police seal broke as the door swung open. She stepped back with a motion for him to go through.
"Please come with me," he said.
His cool eyes assessed her. "I'd rather have you near me."
Great. Just great.
"If you're trying to imply that I might tamper with the evidence while you're gone, you should remember I had plenty of time to do so already." The words rushed out before she could stop herself.
"Not inside this apartment, you didn't. Don't forget to close the door."
Carlina snapped her mouth shut and followed him without a word.
Uncle Nico hadn't been vain. Above the sink, on a rickety cupboard with mirrored doors, they found some cheap shaving lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, a toothbrush crooked with age, and a simple bar of soap. Garini pressed a button on his infernal recorder and spoke into it, listing each item. Then he closed the small doors. "The mere basics." He turned around and looked at her, his face inscrutable. "Did you ever give him anything?"
"Just an Aspirin, once or twice. He hated to take medicine."
"Do you have access to morphine?" He made it sound casual, as if he had asked for a tissue.
Carlina clenched her teeth. "No, I don't."
"Do you know if anybody else gave him something to take?"
If you don't tell him, someone else will.
"I know he once asked Aunt Maria for something against heartburn."
Garini sighed. "Then I need to check her bathroom and yours," he said. "But before we do that, I'd like another look around the apartment."
She nodded and followed him. He went into the bedroom first, his hands in his pockets, his eyes sharp and inquisitive, as if he was a tourist who was not allowed to touch anything but absorbed every atom of information.
He stopped in the middle of the bedroom and looked around. Carlina stood next to him and tried to see the room through his eyes. On the wall, a row of pictures showed all her uncles and aunts and her grandmother. The pictures were yellow at the edges. The wardrobe was slim, a cheap thing made of pressed wood. Behind the wardrobe, the ceiling had a smudge. Carlina suppressed a smile. It dated back to Annalisa's early teens, when she had fallen asleep in the small tub while the water was still running. She had managed to inundate the whole bathroom before Benedetta came to wake her up.
The chair in the corner was covered with green brocade, but it had scuffed armrests. The bed looked as if it came straight from 1950, but the bedspread was thick and bright green. Garini frowned. "Was your grandfather poor?"
"He wasn't rich." Carlina said. "But most of all, he wasn't interested in decorating."
"Who gave him the bedspread?"
Carlina caught her breath. "I did. Green was his favorite color." She swallowed. "I assume you deduced that he would never have bought it himself?"
God, how stilted I sound.
A glimmer of a smile. "You assume correctly, Signorina Ashley."
He went into the sitting room. "Your grandfather loved the arts." He looked at the reproduction of Botticelli's Birth of Venus above the sofa and the collection of glossy art books on the low table in front.
"Yes." Carlina smiled. "He always wanted to drag me into museums."
"I take it you don't like the arts?"
Carlina shrugged. "I don't like the darkness and dreariness of the medieval paintings. I much prefer the impressionists with their light and warmth." She lifted her chin, waiting for a condescending remark, but none came.
Garini wandered into the kitchen and looked around. Then he opened the fridge with the help of a handkerchief. For an instant, he looked at a bit of cheese, two eggs, and some butter. "Nothing much there."
"He usually had dinner upstairs."
"Does the whole family eat together every day?" He made it sound as if that was his personal nightmare.
Carlina shrugged. "Benedetta works as a secretary for the town council and she always finishes early. She loves to cook, and so we often eat in her kitchen."
"He doesn't have anything to drink in the fridge."
Carlina nodded at the window. "He drank one carafe of tap water each day. We all told him it wasn't enough, but he said he wasn't tall, so it would do." She smiled a bit at the memory. "He filled it each morning and drank it all through the day."
Garini went to the window. The carafe stood on the sideboard, a glass stopper on top. "Is that where he always kept it?"
Garini looked at the liquid. "Did anybody touch it on Sunday?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. There was so much coming and going."