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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Like I’m From the Heavens

In Death of a Serpent, Serafina’s first mystery, three prostitutes have died. As part of her investigation, Serafina Florio, main character and sleuth interviews the staff at Rosa’s.

In this scene, she’s talking to a young boy, a sixteen-year-old who’s recently lost his mother.

“Don’t look at me like I’m from the heavens. I’ve got a son a little older than you, although I think you’re taller, probably stronger. His nose always in a book, my Vicenzu, especially after the accident, and he loves his numbers.”

“Numbers?”

“You know, you add them, subtract them, make them tell whatever story you want. Vicenzu keeps the ledgers for the apothecary shop.”

“Ledgers?”

“Yes. He tells me I spend too much money. Do you believe it?”

Arcangelo pulled at his sleeves.

Serafina waited.

“One day, I’ll be a doctor of animals, and your mule, dear lady, needs new shoes. Wrong, not to shoe a mule, not for these roads.”

“I’ll tell Carlo, my oldest son. He’s supposed to tend to things like that.” She circled her hand in the air. “A mother doesn’t know about these things.”

“My mother did, but she died.”

Serafina waited a few moments. Softly she said, “So did mine, last year.” She paused. “Terrible disease, cholera. One day she was fine, the next day, dead. I miss her, and I’m a grown woman with children of my own, but I still need her. I talk to her, and she answers, usually with words I don’t like.” She saw her dead mother’s smile, her wrinkled nose. “Sometimes she still scolds me.”

Arcangelo looked up and furrowed his brows. His ears were red. His eyes might have been wet.

She continued. “My mama told me once that she’d never leave me, and I believed her, but she did leave. She lied, and there are no answers and no smiles for that. Anyway,” she blew her nose, “I have a few questions to ask, and your father said you might be able to answer them. He told me you drove Gemma to town in August on the day before she died. Can you tell me about it?”

“Of course, dear lady.”

“Call me Donna Fina, everyone does.”

“Of course, Donna Fina. I drove Gemma because she asked me to.”

“Where?”

“To the blacksmith’s, close to the stables. She told me, ‘My uncle meets me.’”

“Did you see him, the uncle, I mean?”

He nodded. “He wore a hat. I remember thinking at the time, it’s cool for August, but still hot, and I wondered why the uncle wore a fedora in summer. Dark, the color, and he dressed in a heavy jacket of some sort, as if it were winter.”

“Can you describe it?”

“Dark brown or grey, like a monk’s cape, but without the hood. His back was to me and hunched over, his cape, all bunched in the back. Tall, I think. But I didn’t say hello. I helped Gemma out of the carriage and said goodbye to her. He took her hand or beckoned to her or something.” Arcangelo’s face worked to remember. “He had a small mule and cart with him. The mule was old and worn. I could tell just by looking at him, he was not cared for by one who loves animals. For one thing, he wasn’t shod. But I had to get back to help Papa—scything time—so I left.”

“Of course. Give me a minute to write down what you’ve just said.”

When she finished, she read it back to him. “A man, tall, in wintry clothes, wearing a fedora and a short jacket or cape. Mule and cart. Clothes bunched in the back. You mean like a hunchback?”

“Yes, that’s it. Like Quasimodo.”

Serafina smiled. “My son liked the book, too. Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”

He frowned. “Perhaps the clothes and his shape, but I didn’t see his face. His dress was foreign, at least not from around here, and he took Gemma’s case and put it in his cart.” He paused, looking up at the ceiling. “Now I remember something else: when he reached for the case, I saw that he wore gloves. This was in the heat of August.”

She wrote down what he said, read it back to him, then said, “Some men wear them when they work or drive.”

Arcangelo laughed. “Not around here. And he kept his head down. He didn’t greet me or look at me, as if he were afraid or slippery. If I saw the hat again and the cape—”

“Cape or jacket?”

“Cape. Like Fra Berto wears in the winter, only without a hood.”

“The color?”

“Me? Colors?” He pulled at his cuffs. “I’m no good with colors, but I’d say darker than the color of your dress, lighter than my pantaloons. Grey, green, brown, blue—they all look the same to me.”

“What did he wear on his feet?”

Arcangelo shrugged. “Shoes?”

“Shoes or sandals or you didn’t notice?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“And the day, do you remember? Do you know your days of the week?”

He laughed. “Of course I know the days of the week.” He looked up at the ceiling, one eye closed, rubbing the fuzzy stubble on his chin. “It was the day after Sunday.” He winked.

She laughed. “Last time I considered, Monday followed Sunday.”

“I remember it was Monday because we don’t work on Sundays, so we sleep late, and I remember thinking as I drove away from the stable, five more days until I can sleep late again.”

Serafina counted on her fingers. “Six more days.”

He rocked his hand back and forth, two fingers pinched. “Depends on how you look at life, my mother would say.”

Arcangelo was wise for someone his age. She liked this young man. “If you see him again, please tell me right away. You know where I live?”

He nodded.

“Ring the bell by the gate, day or night, doesn’t matter. We’re used to being awakened. I’m a midwife, you see, and babies love to arrive at night, just when they think everyone’s asleep. Tell me right away. It’s important.”

He said he would and rose from his chair. Standing before her, he held his cap. She heard excitement in his voice, saw it in that bent-toward-her way he held his torso.

“You think I may have seen the killer?” His eyes looked straight into hers.

“Yes. I think you did, but tell no one. I can count on you? It’s important.”

“Don’t worry.” He screwed his thumb and forefinger on tightly-closed lips, bowed, walked to the door, said, “And don’t feel bad, I talk to my mother, too.”

After Arcangelo left, Serafina sat for a moment, lost in thought.


Photo: Left: Death of a Serpent. Cover design: Derek Murphy. Right: Detail, Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto, Sicily.

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