Not While We’re Eating
In this scene from Death of a Serpent, Rosa and Serafina, along with their daughters, are on a train rolling their way to Bagheria—in 1866, the year the story takes place, Bagheria was the end of the line. They took a coach to their destination, Palermo. On the train, Serafina, playing the sleuth, grills Rosa, the madam who has lost three of the working girls in her brothel.
Tuesday, October 23, 1866
Rosa folded her hands. “Tessa inherits my estate, all of it, I’m afraid to disappoint you.”
Serafina chewed the inside of her cheek. “Didn’t you need a husband?”
“I bought one. A hefty charge, but my lawyer took care of it.”
“Was. Deceased, the spouse.” Rosa made an elaborate gesture with her hands. “No need for you to know all the details; I’m not sure I understand them myself. Either he was dead before we were married, or I’d been married for longer than I realized when he died, but shortly after the ceremony, Tessa was legally adopted.”
Renata passed the basket of food, and Rosa reached for several cookies, a slice of cheese, and a fig. They all ate something, even Serafina.
A conductor with a purple nose opened the door to their compartment, offering drinks from his beverage trolley. The three women asked for caffè, which he poured from a dented tin pot. Steeped for days, it seemed to Serafina, but it was wet and washed down their food. With a flourish, the man handed Tessa an orange drink.
After he left, they were silent for a while. Serafina picked at her food and stared at the passing scenery, swaying back and forth, lulled by the movement. Presently she said, “I want to talk about this figure in brown that Scarpo described, the one lurking about your house.” She told them about her encounter with the begging monk in the piazza shortly after Bella died. “He smelled like a thousand foreign sheep, wore gloves and boots, and called himself Don Roberto. Even though Scarpo thinks not, I’m convinced he’s the same man he saw at the blacksmith’s, the same one Arcangelo saw posing as Gemma’s uncle when he drove her to the stables to meet him the evening before you found her body. It was the last time she was seen alive, except by her killer, of course.”
Rosa’s face colored. She reached across and stroked Tessa’s cheek.
Serafina read aloud from her notes. “‘A man, tall, in wintry clothes,’ that’s the way Arcangelo described Gemma’s uncle.”
Rosa smiled. “Arcangelo is bad with his colors.”
“And here’s what Scarpo said about him, ‘There’s one, a stranger … he wears brown and smells funny, not from around here.’ And something else about their descriptions, something odd, the detail that convinces me it’s the same man: both Scarpo and Arcangelo say the man was wearing gloves and the weather was warm.”
“Gloves in August?” Rosa asked. “Surely he’s got something to hide, like a hand with six fingers or a missing thumb.” She was silent for a moment, and Serafina could see the wheels of the madam’s mind churning. She nodded slowly. “The man in mocha, he’s our killer. Forget the others.”
“Speaking of forgetting, did you remember to ask Scarpo to talk to the smith? Did you ask him to get Eugenia’s address?”
Rosa shook her head.
The four munched their food while the train slowly rounded a corner.
Breaking the silence, Serafina said, “Whoever he is, he plans on killing again. And soon.”
“Not while we’re eating—what’s wrong with you?” Rosa asked.