The Press of Gossip
Updated: Aug 9
Death in Bagheria is the third book in the Serafina Florio mystery series. Serafina investigates the death of a baroness, and in this scene, she receives her commission from the dead woman’s daughter, a nun who happens to be the sacristan in Serafina’s town near Palermo, Sicily in 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.”
Photo: Cover, Death in Bagheria. Design, Derek Murphy