Authors: Beate Boeker
I have not told you whom I'm meeting.
Carlina didn't answer.
Carlina? Are you still there?” A clanging sound told Carlina that her great-uncle had started to shake the phone.
Yes, I'm still here. What is your message?” There. That was a good compromise. He could get it out of his system, and she had not offered any information.
Can you remind Signor Garini that he said I could work for the police some time? Do some investigations?”
The mere thought of Uncle Teo tracking criminals caused a shiver to run down Carlina's back. “When I see him, I'll tell him.”
“Oh, are you not going to see him tonight, then?” Uncle Teo sounded disappointed.
Uncle Teo.” Carlina made sure her voice was patient. “I'm not a teenager anymore. You don't need to screen my every move.”
But I'm not doing anything of the kind!”
She could see in her mind how he drew himself up and squared his shoulders as he said that.
“I'm just asking you to pass on a message. Will you, dear?” The question ended on an anxious note that got to her.
That's great. Thank you.” He sounded his usual self again.
Bye, Uncle Teo.” She hung up, shaking her head. She had to find something to make him happy, and soon.
"Is that you, Garini?" Cervi poked his head out of his office door.
Stefano Garini suppressed a sigh. He should have tiptoed past the office of his boss. "Yes?" His voice made it clear how reluctant he felt to obey the summons.
"Come in for a moment."
Garini glanced at his watch. Almost one o' clock. Seven hours before he could see Carlina. Surely Cervi wouldn't manage to destroy his plans yet again?
The office smelled of Cervi's aftershave, something cloying and sweet. The air was spent, stifling and dry from the radiator. Stefano tried to breathe through his mouth.
"Sit down." Cervi made a tired move with his hand toward the leather chairs around the mahogany desk in the center of his office. With a sigh, he lowered himself into one chair and fixed his subordinate with a resigned look. "A man has been found strangled in the Basilica di Santa Trìnita."
Stefano clenched his teeth. He knew where Cervi was leading, but this time, he was going to put up a fight. "Have you told Sergio?"
Cervi shook his head with a glum expression. "He called in sick this morning. A heavy cold."
Stefano made sure his voice sounded even.
"You promised me the next case would go to him."
Cervi shrugged. "I can't drag him out of his bed by his hair, can I?"
Stefano narrowed his eyes. What amazing luck Sergio seemed to have. Every time a body dropped somewhere in the city, he was sick. Or maybe it was the other way round: He was sick so often, it wasn't surprising that a few murders coincided with his illnesses. “How about Paolo?”
Cervi shook his head. “Paolo is on vacation.” His face was impassive. “A cruise in the Caribbean. It has its advantages if you have a rich wife.”
Look who's talking
. Stefano suppressed his sarcastic thought and straightened. "I have worked on the last four cases without pause. I told you I would leave tonight at six, and I'm afraid I can't cancel it again."
"You're forgetting your vacation a short time ago."
Stefano swallowed his reply. It wouldn't go down well to mention Cervi's extra-long vacation every summer, stretching from mid-July to mid-September. With Sergio ill and Paolo on vacation, he knew he couldn't refuse to take on this new case.
. He clenched his teeth. "I'm taking up this case, but I have to get off at six o'clock tonight." That would leave enough room for last minute delays. He didn't want to keep Carlina waiting.
"Just what is so important tonight anyway?" Cervi's gaze focused with interest on Stefano's face. He looked like a vulture waiting for prey.
Stefano met his gaze and didn't reply.
Cervi chuckled. "Like that, is it? A woman, no doubt." He leaned back and folded his arms in front of his chest. "If you had wanted a nine-to-five-job, you should have become a clerk."
Or I should have applied for your position.
Cervi's face lost all trace of a smile as if he had heard Stefano's thoughts. "There's no choice, Garini. You have to do it."
I know that, idiot.
Stefano made sure his face didn't show his emotions. "Fine. As long as I can put the investigation on hold after six tonight."
Cervi leaned forward. "What if something decisive happens tonight? Will I tell the mayor that you had to take time off to schmooze with your girlfriend?"
Stefano got up. "You may tell him I suddenly fell ill and that you couldn't very well drag me out of my bed by my hair."
Cervi's face turned red.
Stefano continued without heat. "And now you'd better tell me all about it."
Cervi jumped up. "Talk to Gloria. She took the call."
"Fine." Stefano turned to the door.
"Remember, Garini." Cervi's voice followed him out of the room. "I want a written report every two days. Starting tomorrow."
Gloria bent forward so her impressive cleavage would hang right in front of Garini's eyes. "The call came fifteen minutes ago. What took you so long? Didn't Cervi find you?"
Stefano closed his eyes for an instant. "Tell me what it said."
"A couple of tourists stumbled over a body in a corner of the Basilica. The priest is watching over the body and waiting for you."
A murder inside the Basilica and tourists involved, a few days before Christmas. What wonderful headlines for the sensation-seeking press. Stefano sighed. "Anything else?"
At least no Mantoni was involved. Stefano shuddered as he thought back to the case last autumn, when Carlina and half her family had been suspects. A thought chilled him. It was possible that the priest was part of the Mantoni family. But no . . . he couldn't imagine anybody of that exuberant and crazy family taking holy orders.
Fifteen minutes later, Garini stopped his motorbike in front of the Basilica and frowned. A faint rain drizzled down and made the cobblestone pavement treacherous and slick. His assistant Piedro should have arrived by now and closed the church to the public, but he was nowhere to be seen. No surprise there.
He pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped into the basilica. A current of cold air, redolent with the smell of incense, made him shiver and shrug deeper into his heavy leather jacket. At the altar, he could make out a few people standing around, but in the dim light, details were smothered. The candles at the altar flickered as he approached the sober group, and the sound of his steps echoed through the vast church.
A thin man, almost as tall as Garini, detached himself from the group and went toward him with measured steps. “I'm afraid you can't come any closer, my son.” His long fingers plucked with a nervous move at the sleeve of his black cassock.
Stefano pulled his identification out of his pocket and held it out to the priest, though he knew it was too dark to make it out. “I'm Commissario Garini from the Homicide Department.”
The priest clasped his hands together as if in prayer. “I'm Padre Balli.”
Good. No Mantoni.
“Padre.” Garini inclined his head. “Please close the door of the church and then explain the situation to me.”
The priest gave a start. “The door? Oh, yes of course, I forgot.” He hurried away, his wide habit fluttering at the edges like the wings of a hectic bird.
Garini went to the altar. Close by, he was able to discern the two people standing next to it. A woman with gray hair like a helmet and a square form stood with her feet planted apart as if she expected the ground to rock beneath her feet any minute. The slight man next to her seemed insignificant in contrast. To their left, a dark shape lay on the stone floor, half-concealed by the shadow of the wooden benches.
Garini turned to the priest who had come back. “In a few minutes, the police team will arrive, but I need some light first.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I'm sorry.” Padre Balli shook his head as if wondering how he could have forgotten to illuminate his church to celebrate the occasion of murder and hurried through a door at the left of the altar. A click, and two weak spotlights flickered to life. Their irresolute light only seemed to enhance the darkness in the rest of the vast church.
This won't do.” Garini frowned.
Where is the forensic team? Have they gone Christmas shopping?
“Do you have a stronger light?”
The priest looked startled.
Why is he so nervous? Is it a reaction to the murder? I'll have to ask him later.
Aloud, Garini said, “A bigger lamp, maybe?”
I . . . I'll check.” The priest disappeared through the side door and returned with a floor lamp. It had a yellow silk top with tassels that swung to and fro as the priest presented it.
It looked so incongruous that Garini had to suppress a smile. He took the lamp with one arm and placed it next to the body. The priest plugged in the cord, and a mellow light illuminated the dead man on the floor. His body laid slumped between the first and the second row. From where they stood, they could only see the back of his head. He was covered by a dark coat with an upturned collar, but that was all Stefano could make out. If he investigated the details now, he would overlook too much. This meant he had to wait for the camera team and their strong lights and first had to concentrate on the witnesses. It wasn't an ideal situation as he needed more light to see their faces clearly, but at least they weren't half-hidden behind a bench. He turned to the couple at his side. “Who found him?” he asked.
“I did.” The stout woman said with a gravelly voice.
The small man next to her looked at his feet as if he found the brilliance of this black patent leather shoes fascinating.
Now that the light had improved somewhat, Garini could make out his short-cropped hair. It covered a head that reminded him of a racing horse – an elegant bone structure, not an ounce of fat, the skin stretched tight over the bones.
The Commissario frowned. At first, he had assumed that the two were a couple, but somehow the slight man didn't suit the practical woman next to him. She was a tourist, that much was obvious from the sturdy pair of shoes to the guide to Florence sticking out of a serviceable pocket of her shapeless coat. The small man was more difficult to place.
The priest returned to the little group like a silent bird.
Stefano took out a small notebook and a pencil. Where was Piedro with the tape recorder? “Please tell me your names.”
“Gertrude Asseli.” The stout woman said.
Now Garini could place her accent. She came from the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
She continued without being asked. “I'm from Zurich, on vacation in Florence, and we called you,” she checked her watch, “thirty-two minutes ago.” Her face twisted in disgust. “I have to say you took your time.”
Garini turned to the small man. “And you?”
Ms. Asseli gave a snort. “I found him on top of the body.”
Both the priest and the slight man flinched.
“I beg your pardon?”
Oh, he fainted when he saw the body and fell right on top.” Ms. Asseli's voice was filled with contempt.
Stefano turned his back to her. “Could you please tell me the story in your own words, Signor . . . ?”
The man twisted his cap in his hands and swallowed so hard, it shook his whole body. “Morin. I'm Leopold Morin from Paris.” His Italian was perfect, his voice low and cultivated. “I teach Italian at the university of Nanterre.”
I'm a teacher, too.” Gertrude Asseli cut in. “I teach biology and geology.” Her complacent smile revealed teeth as large as sugar cubes.
Stefano looked from one to the other. “So you know each other?”
“Oh, no.” Leopold seemed shocked, and the look on Ms. Asseli's face showed that for once, they shared the same feelings.
Padre Balli shook his head in a sad way like a man who doesn't understand why his kids don't get along.
“I . . . I came to church to pray,” Leopold said.
Garini narrowed his eyes. It sounded as if Leopold was picking his words with care. Or was he making up a lie? But he'd had enough time to concoct a story. Thirty-two minutes, to be exact. No, maybe less. Gertrude had not yet explained how long it had taken her to shake life into the senseless Leopold.
“I went to the front, my eyes on the altar. I'm afraid I was a bit distracted due to . . . the beauty of the church, and it was dark. When I stepped into the pew, I stumbled and fell.” He shivered. “I must have hit my head because the next thing I knew, Signora Asseli was trying a mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation on me.” He looked revolted.
What a cruel fate for the fastidious man in front of him. Garini hoped nobody noticed his twitching lips.
“It was my duty as a citizen,” Gertrude Asseli stated with satisfaction.
Did you move the body?” Garini asked.
Ms. Asseli shrugged. “I'm sure Signor Morin flattened him when he fell on top.” It sounded as if the Frenchman had the shape of an elephant instead of being a bundle of bones.
“But you did move him too, my child,” the padre said, his hands clenching and un-clenching into nervous fists.
What?” Ms. Asseli rounded on him.
Padre Balli took one step back but stuck to his guns. “When Signor Morin had woken up and had sat down over there,” he nodded at the opposite pew, “to recuperate, you lifted the head of the dead man.”
“Well, of course I did.” Gertrude shot him a furious look. “ I thought he might be in need of help, and it's my duty as a citizen to come to the help of those who need it.”
Stefano scribbled down the words as fast as he could. How he missed his tape recorder. His assistant Piedro was supposed to bring it. “And did you try the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him?” Stefano slanted another look at the body on the floor. The victim's feet pointed toward them, and in the yellow pool of light, the stitching in the leather soles – a sign for high quality shoes - was clearly visible. Gertrude Asseli must have scrambled right over him. Damn.
Of course not.” Ms. Asseli looked as if she had expected better powers of deduction from a member of the Florence homicide department. “It was obvious he was dead.”
Stefano went to the other end of the pew, slipped between the first and the second row and knelt next to the body without touching anything. Now he could see the distorted face, the black tongue. Strangled with a black scarf. He touched the material with his fingertips. Gossamer thin, silky. Not a scarf, something different. He knew the material, but for an instant, couldn't place it.
“It's a pair of nylons.” Ms. Asseli's voice boomed through the church. The hollow sound magnified in the vast dome and echoed from the walls.
Garini's stomach lurched. Carlina had mentioned a special launch of nylons today. For an instant, her face with the cat-like eyes appeared in front of his inner eye.
Stop being a fool. She isn't the only woman with access to nylons in Florence.
A booming knock made the priest jump. He hurried up the aisle to open the door.
Garini watched the arrival of his force without moving.
The camera team took over. As soon as the strong lights had been installed, Stefano watched the scene like a hawk and walked all around the victim, taking in every detail. From the position of the body, it was possible that he had knelt when he was attacked from behind. A clean way for the murderer to avoid the victim's hands and fingernails.
Someone plucked at his sleeve.
“I would like to leave, Commissario.” Leopold's brown eyes looked like a puppy's. “I feel the need to wash.”
To wash?” The cold seeped through Garini's coat into his bones. A need for a fire he understood. But water? The flash-light of the camera illuminated Leopold's scared face for an instant.
Yes.” Leopold took a trembling breath. “I was in touch with a dead man, besides, . . . “ his voice petered out, but the look of loathing in Gertrude's direction spoke volumes. No doubt the attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation would remain a nightmare in his memory.
I'm afraid I need to know a few more things before you can leave,” Garini said.
Leopold stiffened. “Yes?”
Garini took him by the arm and went toward the side, out of Gertrude's hearing range. “Are you here on vacation?”
The lean face in front of him quivered. “Yes.”
“Why did you choose this church to pray?”
The Frenchman lifted his hands. “I don't know. I was . . . en passant . . . I took a notion to pray.”
“Are you a Catholic?”
Mais oui.” Morin looked at his shoes.
Another flash-light filled the church like lightning.
“Do you know the victim?”
Non!” It came out as a shout, muted by fear.
Garini made sure his face didn't show what he was thinking. Maybe Leopold was nervous because he had covered a body with his full length. Part of his reaction was understandable. But this seemed a bit over the top. “Is there anything you think you should tell me?”
“I need to wash.” Morin got more nervous by the minute. “Please.”
He didn't want to stay.” Gertrude's voice came from behind Garini, “but I told him not to budge. It's our duty as a citizen to assist the police.“
Stefano clenched his teeth and turned his iciest stare on her. “I will come to you in a minute, Signora Asseli. Please let me finish my conversation with Signor Morin first.”
Gertrude grunted and stomped back to the priest who still stood next to the altar, wringing his hands.
Stefano asked to see Morin's passport and noted the number as well as the address of his hotel and his cell phone number. “How long do you plan to stay in Florence?”
“Until the twenty-seventh.”
Another week, covering Christmas. “Are you here on your own?”