A baroness poisoned. Dark secrets. And one woman determined to uncover the truth.
March 1870. Serafina Florio investigates the suspicious death of a baroness and uncovers a dangerous plot to destroy the heirs of a large fortune. The adventure leads her to a palatial villa in Bagheria, an aristocratic watering hole on Sicily’s gold coast where she pursues the truth despite haunting peril, diminishing funds, and a heady romance with her childhood sweetheart.
Will she have enough time to catch the conspirators before they kill the youngest heir? Can she keep her family together? Will love prevail?
DEATH IN BAGHERIA is the third book in the Serafina Florio mystery series.
Meet Serafina Florio, a woman determined to uncover the truth against all odds.
Serafina Florio is a widow and midwife-turned-sleuth living in nineteenth-century Sicily where she supports her seven children and catches killers against insurmountable odds.
Wednesday, March 23, 1870
Serafina ran up a winding staircase and opened the door. Breathless, she fished in her pockets for a linen, smelling beeswax, citrus, the must of centuries. After her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she saw Sister Genoveffa, the Duomo’s sacristan, standing at the worktable, arranging lemon blossoms in a vase. The woman’s overskirts were hiked, revealing fine leather boots. Serafina looked down at her own pair, scuffed in spots and worn at the heel. Her temples throbbed, and the last handful of olives she’d eaten rumbled like rocks in her stomach.
“Took you long enough, but now that you’re here, follow me.” She released her hem and turned to the custodian, a toothless sack of a man rattling his keys in the corner. “Ask cook to bring us caffè and biscotti, will you? And be quick—I haven’t much time.”
Serafina followed the nun’s flowing veil into her office. As imperious in homespun as she was in silk.
When they were seated with the door closed, Sister Genoveffa adjusted her wimple and began. “My mother’s been poisoned.”
“But she’s been dead at least six months!” Serafina swallowed, casting her mind back to Lady Caterina’s requiem. “My husband hadn’t long been in his grave when I heard of her demise.” Despite the warmth of the morning, her toes felt clammy. Images of Giorgio’s body lying in state, his waxen face familiar yet so strange, crowded her mind. “Buried near Prizzi, isn’t she?” Serafina asked, dabbing her face with the linen.
Genoveffa nodded. “In the family crypt on my grandfather’s estate. And she’s been dead for eighteen months.”
Serafina was silent.
“Two years ago my father summoned me, demanding that I come home and care for her. They were staying in Bagheria at the time, the villa my mother preferred, where they did most of their socializing. When I arrived, I could see that she was deathly ill. Her stomach was inflamed, the doctor said—acute dyspepsia, he called it. ‘Give her nothing for twenty-four hours. After that, only water and no food for two days. The fast will purge the system, and the illness will subside,’ he told us. I didn’t think much of his directive, but we had no other course.”
She gave Serafina a pinched look. “Family doctor, you know, and my father’s rigid about some things. We shuddered to think her illness might have been a form of—”
The nun hesitated before nodding.
Serafina closed her eyes, remembering her own mother’s death from that horrid disease. Why did the aristocracy imagine themselves exempt from devastation? She shook her head. “Couldn’t have been. Cholera is swift, strikes before you know it. ‘Merry in the morning, dead by noon,’ they say.”
The sacristan hunched her shoulders. “Oh, that fool of a doctor did his best, I suppose, and we followed his instructions to the letter, such as they were. Father should have hired an enlightened physician. But, well, useless to speculate now.”
Serafina heard footsteps in the hall and the click of beads, followed by a knock on the door. Genoveffa twisted to face the newcomer, a postulant, short and slight, carrying a tray. She placed it on the desk, poured caffè. Serafina thanked her for the cup, but declined the offer of sweets.
After the young nun left, Genoveffa continued. “Three days passed, and still my mother was unable to keep down food. Her cramps continued for over a week, and she found it difficult to breathe, complained of teeth and bones aching, of gastric pains, of numbness in her fingers. Her mouth began to blister. We were about to send for the doctor when she recovered.” The nun gulped her caffè. “Three or four weeks later, the symptoms recurred, more severe this time. Again, my father called for me. The doctor gave her a tonic, but I could see that her illness puzzled him.”
“He reconsidered his diagnosis?”
Genoveffa looked at her hands. “Just shook his head. Unsure, he said, but he leaned toward a cancerous growth. He wanted to admit her to hospital, consult with colleagues. Father refused.”
“And why was that?”
“He didn’t want to subject her to more suffering, the scrutiny of others, the press of gossip. He cancelled their events for the season.”
Serafina sipped her coffee.
“Before I could object, my mother’s symptoms subsided, only to return again a few weeks later, more violent than before.”
“Specifics?” Serafina asked, pushing away her cup.
“Skin slackened, her complexion sallowed, and all her vigor fled.” Genoveffa’s finger rimmed her cup. “This pattern persisted. She’d be sick for ten, twelve days. Then, as if by a miracle, she’d recover, and I’d return to my work here. But as the months went by, her condition worsened. With every wave of illness, my father sent for me, and each time I entered her bedroom, I was surprised by her deterioration. I remember thinking, ‘Mother is dying before my eyes, and there’s nothing I can do.’ In the end, she looked like bones bound in parchment. I felt such pity for her—and fear, regret, anger. Shortly after the unrest in Oltramari, she died.”
For a moment, the two women were silent. Serafina heard voices in the piazza below, wheels on stone, the muffled shouts of children.
“Official cause of death?” Serafina asked.
“Forgive me, but I don’t understand why you waited so long to question the nature of your mother’s death.”
The nun pressed her hands together. “No excuse for my delay.” A shaft of light struck the corner where she sat. Crumpled envelopes, books strewn helter-skelter heaped themselves over broken candles on top of the desk, the rubble of her life bathed in a momentary glow.
The sacristan twisted one end of her veil. “You’ve no idea …”
Serafina waited while Genoveffa squirmed. “… how terribly difficult it is to run counter to my father. When you meet him, you’ll agree. A willful man, a chameleon. Irascible. Impossible! Each time I brought up the possibility of poison, he would have none of it. Again and again, he convinced me that Mother died of a cancerous growth.”
Serafina made no reply.
“My brother scoffed at me, and I began to doubt my own mind. Why did I wait this long? I wish I had the answer, but now, finally, I’m convinced that someone murdered her.”
Serafina knitted her brows. She wondered what Loffredo would say and wished he were beside her. She felt the warmth of his hand in hers. “But why? The baroness was respected by the community, loved for her works of charity, admired for her learning. Gracious, regal, approachable. Why would anyone want to kill her?”
“Mother and I had many conversations during her lucid moments. She hated the change in Father—his new business associates, his greed—and she distanced herself from my brother. In their eager pursuit of commerce, she felt that both he and my father had forgotten the nobility of our lineage. She became possessed with the idea and increasingly distraught.”
The door opened.
“What is it now?” Genoveffa asked.
Another postulant, this one tall and grim, tiptoed to the desk, her face in shadow. She gathered up the cups and withdrew, closing the door behind her with a click.
Turning to Serafina, Genoveffa straightened like a Venetian doge. “I want you to find my mother’s killer.”
Serafina rummaged in her reticule for a notebook.
The nun ran a hand down her beads, holding the crucifix in her lap like a revolver. “I understand your investigation will be more difficult because so much time has passed since her death. I should have realized early on that she was being poisoned. If I had, she’d still be alive.” She slammed the cross into her thigh.
Serafina’s heart jumped.
“If my word’s not enough, if you need to exhume her body to prove poisoning, by all means, do so,” Genoveffa said. “Doubtless my grandfather will give his permission.”
As she scribbled some notes, Serafina could hear shuffling feet in the sacristy. “Why do you suggest exhumation? To quell my disbelief, or do you still harbor doubt?”
Emotions crossed Sister Genoveffa’s face like fast-moving clouds—anger, exasperation, regret, sorrow. Tears welled in her eyes.
This woman, Serafina thought, has no one to share her pent-up feelings. Locked in a dungeon of her own making. She reached out and held the nun’s hand. “I believe you.”
Sister Genoveffa nodded, drew out a linen, and covered her face.
With that, Serafina wrapped her arms around the poor woman. “My task is to find the killer. Digging up the dead is a job for lawyers.” She held her a moment longer before returning to her seat.
Genoveffa riffled through the muddle on her desk, drew out a small leather book and a sealed envelope. Handing them to Serafina, she said, “My mother’s diary and a small payment. Read the journal. There may be more volumes at Villa Caterina—she was always writing, my mother—but I would not know where to look for them. You may have questions, and if so, return anytime after Friday. Just got through with Joseph’s day, and now we must deal with Mary’s feast and the archbishop who visits. A crowded week ahead and that’s just the beginning, you understand. I’ve the flowers to arrange, the gardeners to supervise, altar boys’ schedules to check, vestments and cassocks to ready, altar linen to inspect, candles to count. Sometimes I think the Duomo wouldn’t function without me, but of course, I delude myself.”
Serafina felt the softness of the book’s leather covering, opened it, and flipped through a few pages. “I can’t promise to devote all my time to ferreting out the cause of your mother’s death. As you may know, I’m paid for helping with police investigations.”
“Highly irregular, a stipend for detection, especially to a woman such as yourself, but nonetheless, I’m sure it’s a pittance. My retainer guarantees adequate compensation for your expenses. You’ll need it if you work for me, and while you do, you must regard your work for the state as secondary in importance.” For a moment, Genoveffa gazed at an invisible point in the room. “Unfortunately, I’m too busy to give you more time. I’ve no doubt you can find answers yourself, and what I can tell you, well, I’m not so sure I know the truth, other than this: someone murdered my mother. He probably stood watching, day by day, as her agony increased.”
“He?” Waiting for the nun’s response, Serafina unsealed the envelope and looked at the note it contained, a draft drawn on the Banco di Sicilia. She peered at the numbers again and blinked.
Genoveffa rose. “I sent for you because of your reputation. They say you find the truth and do it swiftly. You’ll be generously rewarded after you catch my mother’s killer. I know I took a long time concluding that she was murdered, but now that I’ve done so, I want a quick resolution. You won’t disappoint me.” She took a step.
“Wait—I have another question,” Serafina said.
The nun shook her head. “You’ll have to come back after the Annunciation.”
“After Mary’s feast on Friday.”
“And I said that I have one more question. You’ll answer it before I begin, or you can take back your retainer.” Serafina held the cheque out to Genoveffa and waited for the nun to grab it, thinking that now she’d done it, just when she was beginning to be intrigued and, yes, just when she was beginning to care for the woman. She watched the nun’s eyes flood again, and Serafina’s heart melted. Slowly, she lowered her arm.
Come to think of it, she, Serafina, was the only one who could solve the puzzle of an old murder. Too complex for that clown, Colonna. And the Madonna knew they could use the money. She could hear Loffredo whisper in her ear to take care, but the retainer alone would cover her family’s expenses for at least three years—five, if they were careful. Whoever said she couldn’t juggle? She’d done it before, managed to birth babies while solving all manner of crimes for the commissioner. She must enlist Rosa’s help; she’d be keen for the adventure. Best of all, the case would give Serafina an excuse to consult with Loffredo. She hadn’t seen him in so long, over a week, and the very thought of him made her cheeks flame. She swallowed. Well, she’d work for the state and for Genoveffa, too. Picturing her children’s faces when they saw the note, she stuffed it into her pocket.
“Good. That’s settled.” Genoveffa sat. “I have time for your question.” She crouched forward on the chair, elbows out, hands on her knees like a great water bird about to stab its supper. “But I tell you again, read the journal. It will reveal much.” She turned away from Serafina and thrummed the top of her desk.
“Who poisoned your mother?” Serafina asked softly. “Who could have done? Who wanted her dead? You must have some idea.”
Genoveffa took her time answering. “No idea at all.” But then a strangeness covered the nun’s face, almost like a brief sun breaking through the clouds: she smiled. “A vigorous woman, my mother. Never ill before this. My youngest sister is only four years old, did you know? Of course not, how would you. The child spends most of her time with her grandfather since Mother died, but I believe she is at Villa Caterina now.”
“Getting back to my most pressing question, the one I need you to answer, even if you’re unsure—who would want to murder your mother?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Take a guess, a wild one,” Serafina urged.
“Mother objected to the company my father kept of late. Come to that, she always disliked his business associates. Perhaps one of them killed her? Other than that, I’ve no idea.”
“One of your father’s business associates would have enough access to your mother to poison her? Your mother, who doubtless kept her distance and was always in the company of at least one servant? That seems preposterous.”
Genoveffa teared up again, and Serafina knew that she’d been too harsh. Come to think of it, how would she know who murdered her mother? If she had, she wouldn’t have hired Serafina. And yet, she had to press. “We know more than we think we do.” She paused for a moment. “If you come up with something, anything, however inconsequential it seems, please let me know.”
The nun made no reply.
“What kind of business does your father own?”
“My father inherited his family’s estates, olive groves in Prizzi, oranges and lemons in Bagheria. He exports most of his crops—to where, I don’t know—sells the rest locally. Has done, ever since I can remember. A few years ago, I think it was, he and my brother traveled to Genoa, bought two large steamers from some company or other and hired a crew. And I think they’re building one or two ships of their own. My brother spends his time in Scotland seeing to it. He handles most of the shipping, most all of affairs, come to that. And my father uses all his waking hours worrying over his business or hobnobbing with his new ‘friends,’ as he likes to call them. Father wanted me involved, but that was long ago, before the accident.”
Genoveffa closed her eyes, and her face blanched. “A time in my life that has nothing to do with Mother’s murder.” She stopped short and studied the floor, as if truth lurked in some obscure corner of dust. “So long ago, before my world changed forever.”
Except for the scratch of Serafina’s pencil, there was silence.
“My mother was born into a family that believes aristocrats do not sully their hands with trade. Proud and threadbare, my grandfather, unlike my father, who mingles with merchants. One of Father’s associates Mother found particularly distasteful.”
“It’s all in there,” Genoveffa said, tapping the book in Serafina’s hands. “I tell you again, start your investigation by reading her journal. It will point you in the right direction. Now I must ask you to leave. Return after Friday, any time you wish. I’ll be here.”
“Saturday afternoon suits me. My son says his first mass on Sunday so I must be home before that.”
“An altar boy.”
“Which one? I know them all.”
Genoveffa arched one eyebrow.
Serafina felt the nun’s dislike for her son like a fury invading her blood, but she steeled herself, breathed in. Little wonder Genoveffa was so all alone. “Saturday afternoon gives you a day to … catch your breath after the feast. I’ll need to do more than read this journal, however. I want to talk to your father and to his servants and, most important, I want to spend time in your mother’s favorite rooms.”
“Father expects your visit,” Genoveffa said. “And my brother and little sister, too.”
“She was what, two when her mother became ill? She’ll not remember what happened, but she’ll feel it and probably knows much more than we think she does.”
“Oh, quite, but like children everywhere, there is limited understanding; however, there is no doubt she’s been hurt by Mother’s death.”
Shifting in her seat, Serafina wrote a few more notes. “Getting back to your father, does he now share your belief that your mother was poisoned?”
The look on the nun’s face told Serafina her question would go unanswered.
“Very well. Until Saturday.”
Serafina stood on the landing digesting what precious little she’d learned. Why had it taken the nun so long to decide that her mother had been murdered? Why was Genoveffa reluctant to speculate about the murderer’s identity? After all, she must have some idea. She stood by while her mother suffered, watching the comings and goings in the house, knew who entered the room, the names of her father’s business associates. Was her reticence the result of her upbringing or her lack of trust? Was she grieving or hiding something? Probably both. Still, Serafina saw her in a new way, as a woman of mystery and sorrow whom she longed to help.
She crammed her notebook into her reticule, patted her pocket containing the retainer. With one hand, she grasped the journal and, with the other, lifted her skirts. Winding her way down the stairs and into the clean light of the piazza, she gulped great breaths of air.
Photo: Cover, DEATH IN BAGHERIA, Derek Murphy
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