A Ghostly Silence

Capuchin crypt in Palermo_by soyignatius

Excerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

Thursday, March 24, 1870

“Time for sleep.” Rosa yawned.

Unfortunately, Serafina could not forget the image of the mysterious lady in blue. Despite the danger, she had to find out her identity, so after saying goodnight to Rosa, she opened her door with infinite care, crept down the back stairs, and stepped outside.

The wind had lessened as she tiptoed toward the front of the house. When she strained, she could hear the lapping of waves on the shore. She stopped. Had she just heard something else? A twig breaking, someone following her? She looked around, saw nothing, wished she’d remembered to take her cape and the sharp envelope slicer she’d seen on the top of her desk. She must be more deliberate, consider all possibilities. Should she retrace her steps for them? Shaking her head, she pricked her ears and waited in the ghostly silence for any other sound. After a few minutes, trying to reassure herself that there was no other presence, she ignored the drumming of her heart, steeled her resolve, and continued on her quest.

Skirting the terrace, she picked her way through some shrubbery, crouching low, on the off chance that the baron was watching from his study window. Doubled almost in half, she advanced slowly, peered beyond the villa’s entrance and down the wide expanse of lawn fronting the road to the harbor, but saw no sign of life. Misted over now, the moon lent an eerie light to her surroundings and she wondered who might be watching her from the shadows, what wild creatures might be lurking in the tall grasses bordering the property only a few meters away. She stopped suddenly when she heard the hoot of an owl. The churning waves were now more distinct and she remembered what her mother called the sound of the sea, “the breath of God.”

Looking back at the house, she gazed from top to bottom, making sure that no light shone before continuing. Her boots were sodden with early morning dew. Cold and wet, she headed toward the sea, crossing the lawn past the carriage drive, moving with deliberation.

With a start, she halted, straining to understand what it was she saw before her—the outlines of a figure in middle distance, the specter she and Rosa had seen from the window in the baroness’s bedroom.

 Photo: Capuchin crypt in Palermo. Credit: soyignatius (Flickr), Creative Commons.

A Speck in the Vastness

Palermo_angel with crossExcerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

Serafina and Rosa descended the main staircase, stopping on the second floor to admire the ballroom and its five crystal chandeliers suspended from a vaulted ceiling, the walls made of red marble with decorative inlay. Except for three small parlors off one end, the room, devoid of furniture, took up one floor of the villa.

Rosa pointed to the corner blocks of the crown molding. Each one contained the bust of a woman holding a torch. They laughed at the excess, then at the echoes of their laughter, listening until the last remnant of sound rolled away. Serafina stood for a moment, struck by the similarity of echoes and truths; verities that she’d initially proclaimed with such force soon bounced off the walls of her mind, slowly losing meaning before evaporating.

French doors led to balconies that overlooked the front of the house, and their footsteps reverberated on the parquet floor as they walked the width of the room and stepped outside. She and Rosa gazed at the baron’s ship, astonished at its swift progress since leaving the harbor just a few minutes ago, now little more than a speck in the vastness. Both stacks were blowing smoke and the sails were unfurled, slashed with purples and reds from the setting sun before melting into the distance.

“Look what’s coming home to roost,” Rosa said. “The baron does a brisk business, I’ll tell you.” Tugs were guiding another large steamer, this one a little worn looking, into the same spot vacated by the Caterina Bella. They watched its progress for a while before making their way back across the ballroom floor when Serafina closed her eyes, conjuring the strains of a full orchestra. She held out her arms, unable to resist twirling in time to the music. “Who is that exquisite beauty dancing in my arms?” she heard Loffredo whisper. Opening her eyes, she stepped back, longing for his presence even as the ghost of him vanished. She felt Rosa’s eyes upon her, whirled around, and smiled bleakly at her friend.

Photo: Palermo angel. Wikipedia Commons.

Something Spooky about this Place

Excerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

As if reading her thoughts, Rosa said, “Something spooky about this place. The spider crawls up my spine. And the little girl, what’s her name?”

“Adriana.”

“Sweet little thing, but weird all the same. If my Tessa acted like Adriana, she’d get her hide whipped once and that would be the end of it, I can tell you. And the nurse, or governess or whatever she is, gives me the creeps.”

Serafina said nothing for a while, and when she spoke, she told Rosa about the child’s visions of her mother walking about the grounds in the middle of the night, doubtless the fantasy of a child grieving for her mother, but the telling deepened Serafina’s sense of foreboding: at her core, she felt the mysterious atmosphere at Villa Caterina. However much Serafina knew she needed to distance herself from fear and cultivate a clear head, her temples throbbed. When she shut her eyes, she saw the undulating grasses, now appearing in bright colors in her imagination, heard a strange wind blowing through them, so she opened her eyes and gazed at the sea. “We’ve awakened the monster. Whoever poisoned the baroness is in this house, I’m convinced of it. Nature senses it, and so does the child.”

Rosa nodded. “I feel it, too, and the nun was correct—the baroness was slipped a venom—but we’re a long way from proving it, especially to the likes of the baron.”

Photo: Noto at dusk. Credit: gnuckx (Flickr)

Clutching at the Back of a Dream

Campagna delle Madonie - AraturaExcerpt from Death of a Serpent

November 4, 1866

Patting her lips with the napkin, Francesca examined her watch pin, rang the bell, and stood. “Bella and I knew it would be hard to plant our feet in this business, so we had this room decorated. Bella’s design, no expenses spared.” Flinging her arm upward, she said, “Hired a painter for the ceiling. Needed to have a room suitable for greeting our clients.” Her voice faded. Serafina could see the woman clutching at the back of her dream.

The domestic entered. “Finished, La Grinaldi?”

“Kindly take away the tray.” She turned to Rosa. “Two o’clock. You have only thirty minutes before you must leave, and I want to show you Bella’s work.” She teared up again.

“Get up the stairs, La Grinaldi. Move now. Make Bella proud,” the domestic said, and left, casting a glance over her shoulder.

With a toss of her head and a remark about the insolence of servants, Francesca led them up a winding staircase, her scarf trailing behind.

The workroom was high-ceilinged, surrounded by windows, the view of Palermo and the sea, breathtaking. There were at least six sewing machines, five or six cutting tables, scissors, tape measures, mannequins. Shelves on one wall held bolts of material, large spools of thread. In the middle of the room, an iron figure stood, draped in a satin gown of emerald green with gossamer sleeves and high collar.

“Princess Rosso’s favorite color is green. How she loves all the shades—green of the sea, tender leafy greens, greens of the forest deep. Expects a fitting in a month. Now, I don’t know what to do.

Photo: Campagna delle Madonie. Credit: lorca56 (Flickr), Creative Commons.

Weakened by the Wind and the Sun

Taormina by soyignatius (Flickr)Excerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

While della Trabia locked the larder, Serafina looked around for Rosa. Nowhere. She began circling around to the back, slogging through dead weeds and found her, finally, poking at a lump of long grass and webs with the toe of her boot.

“What are you doing?”

“Making myself useful.” Rosa bent to pick up part of the tangle and came up with a crumpled note, torn and faded, weakened by the wind and the sun. She held it out to Serafina. “Probably nothing.”

Gently, Serafina smoothed out the paper as best she could, but it was so old and weathered, that a corner of it crumbled at her touch.

“We’ll be in residence a month if you don’t hurry.”

Serafina made no reply. She could barely read the notation, “5g.,” followed by a partial word “tri” and something else, so smudged that it was illegible.

“Keep it,” Rosa said.

Gently she stashed the dogeared note into her pocket. Serafina wondered where she’d seen the notation, 5g, before and wished, not for the first time, that Loffredo were here. Could be a doctor’s directive or a druggist’s cipher. Her son, Vicenzu, would know. She wrestled with the thought until she remembered a case she’d worked on two years ago where the victim was given a small dose of arsenic trioxide “to soften him up.” They had to be careful because “less than four grams would kill a man,” she remembered Loffredo saying. Could this paper have something to do with the chemical that slowly killed the baroness?

Photo: Taormina. Credit: soyignatius (Flickr), Creative Commons.

You’d Better Make the Desserts

Bagheria facade by luigi9555Excerpt from Death In Bagheria, a work in progress

Thursday, March 24, 1870

Serafina gazed up at a baroque façade of soft limestone, topped with a blue copper dome rivaling the great churches of Palermo and Rome. Carved and curlicued lintels dripped with stone putti, vines, and roses. She estimated the main wing had about thirty rooms.

“Too fancy by half,” Rosa whispered.

“I could live here,” Renata said, brushing the dust from her cape. “And I’ve heard the kitchen is a magnificence and that the cook …”

“What about the cook?” Rosa asked.

“And that the cook doesn’t deserve it.” Renata blushed.

“Then you’d better make the desserts.”

 Photo: façade in Bagheria. Credit: luigi9555 (Flickr)

Curled in on Itself

Hotel San Domenico Taormina_gnuckx

Excerpt from “Death of a Sad Face,” one of five short stories anthologized in Serial Sleuths, vol 1, Haunted! available at Amazon US & Amazon UK

October 1868

The footman appeared with Serafina’s cape. As she swung it round her shoulders and fastened her gloves, something on the floor caught her eye. It whirled like dust in the wind. What was it, a piece of material or her imagination? She bent to examine it—a long silky thread, the color of a ballerina’s gown.

“Yours?” she asked Lucia.

The baroness shook her head. “Pink’s not my color.”

Serafina laid the strand between two pages of her notebook. It curled in on itself, guarding its own secret.

Photo: Hotel San Domenico Taormina. Credit: gnuckx (Flickr)