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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Always at the Ready

Rosa is a very important character in the Serafina Florio mystery series. For one thing, she’s Serafina’s best friend. They’ve known each other since childhood, and except for that one time when they had a major slip in their friendship, Rosa is always there for Serafina.

At the end of Death of a Serpent, the first book in the series, Rosa retires from running her brothel and buys a lavish villa close to Serafina’s home. Mornings you’ll find her in her study counting her coins, but she’s always at the ready when Serafina needs her, and she’ll drop everything to go questing.

In all Serafina’s books, Rosa functions as a sidekick, helping to solve mysteries. And she brings a lot to the table because Rosa has knowledge that only a retired madam in a small town would know. Not only that, she’s amassed a fortune so she bankrolls Serafina who, like the rest of the middle class in 19th-century Sicily, is squeezed to death with taxes and high prices.

Rosa’s in a different class than Serafina. Earthier. And she’s not above gulping down a grappa with the grasping Inspector Colonna. Unlike Serafina, Rosa disregards the constructs of society—they roll off her like water off a duck’s back.

She crackles with exuberance. Physically she’s different from Serafina. At first blush, she looks like a ball in a dress—until she takes your arm and looks into your eyes and charms you. And Rosa’s got a unique cadence and syntax.

Unlike Serafina, she’s comfortable with all classes of men—dukes and kings and barons—so she’s able to get them to trust and to talk.

But Rosa is rounded too. In Death of a Serpent, she has secrets hidden so deep that not even she knows of their existence. So she’s got her own character arc going on because she begins to realize that she has trusted the wrong people, a lesson she needs to learn and re-learn.

Here’s an excerpt from the first scene in Death of a Serpent.

Sunday, October 7, 1866

Serafina Florio saw the soul leave its body, a shadow hovering over the corpse, sliding up the stucco before vanishing. “Poor woman,” she muttered and swallowed hard. She should have been used to death by now. After all, Sicily smothered in bodies; corpses rotted in the fields of war, swelled cholera pits, and lined the streets after an uprising.

Hearing Rosa’s sobs, she wrapped her arms around her friend while afternoon light freighted with the sea slashed the three figures.

The victim lay on the rear stoop facing upward, the coils of her chestnut hair undone, her torso turned to the side and clothed in a traveling suit of fine wool detailed in velvet, not at all the costume of a prostitute. Where were her gloves, her hat, her reticule?

In a face so still, the mouth was a rictus of surprise. There was a cut in the center of her forehead, and a dark stain seeped through the bodice on the left side. One arm was flung outward, fingers curled, as if in supplication or terror.

After crossing herself, Serafina lifted the poor woman’s skirt just enough to reveal a layer of taffeta over several lace petticoats. The taffeta, she knew, was for effect: a woman wearing a stiff underskirt crinkled when she walked, inviting eyes to turn in her direction. Noticing that the hem was damp and that the dead woman’s boots were caked in sand, she closed her eyes, breathed in deep, and smelled seaweed.

“My sweet girl!” Rosa slid her eyes to the ceiling and wailed.

Serafina handed her a clean linen. “You sent for Inspector Colonna?”

Rosa nodded. “Dr. Loffredo, too. But stay with me.” She rested her head on Serafina’s shoulder. “Bella’s been here the longest,” she said, weeping. “She sewed all our garments. Such bold designs, too. We paid her, of course, and last week she told me she’d saved enough coins to follow her dream of dressmaking.” She wiped her eyes. “Now she’s dead,” she said, choking on the words.

As Serafina patted Rosa’s black ringlets, she heard voices in the hall.

Swaying on splayed feet, Inspector Colonna lumbered in, holding his fedora, followed by two uniformed men and an artist. His good eye strayed to Rosa’s décolleté. “The body, found when?” Ω

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