The Sweep of the Wind: Death of a Sad Face
Here’s an excerpt from a short mystery I wrote a few years ago, Death of a Sad Face.
It stars Serafina, midwife, widow, and sleuth. Her co-star is a young boy, Teo. He’s traumatized because he’s seen both his parents killed. Of course Serafina, living in the nineteenth century, wouldn’t have used traumatized to describe Teo. No, she thought of his face as weighted.
The story takes place in a mythical town near Palermo, Sicily, deep in the chaos caused by cholera and misrule. Serafina’s family is bloated because she’s taken on two more children after the death of their parents, and one of them, distraught, goes missing.
Early Thursday morning Serafina Florio bit into a brioche. “Colonna’s on the front page declaiming again, as if he were the commissioner.” Had she spoken aloud? She listened for sounds of stirring, but heard nothing, only a solemn emptiness from the floors above and the domestic banging about in the next room, keeping time to the sweep of the wind under the eaves. She went to the stove, poured herself another caffè. Returning to her newspaper, she pursed her lips and flicked the image of the simpering inspector photographed next to a twisted body in situ. The headline read, “Butler Dead, Jewels Missing.” Another crime in sleepy Oltramari. Well, she was having none of it, not that the commissioner had asked for her help yet. Instead, she set the paper aside and let her thoughts wander.
Lately, life had been filled with dead bodies, and she wasn’t in the mood for another one. First, it was her husband’s death over two years ago, followed by a bloody uprising in town, and a slew of other killings, too many to count. Most of all, she remembered the look on the faces of those weighted with sudden loss. Teo’s eyes swam into view.
She worried about them, Teo and his baby brother, ever since their arrival for a stay of indefinite duration, and hadn’t anticipated the difficulty her children had in accepting the newcomers. Maria, especially. Perhaps Serafina should have sent Teo and his brother to the orphanage like her friends advised, but after the horror they’d witnessed and her involvement in the case, she couldn’t abandon those two boys, just couldn’t do it. Her older children had welcomed them. Vicenzu, the son who now ran the family pharmacy, saw another pair of willing hands. No, it was Maria, her youngest daughter, who’d not welcomed the pair. Come to think of it, ever since Serafina had begun her sleuthing, she’d felt the heft of Maria’s spirits. Vicenzu said she was imagining trouble—the household would settle of its own accord soon enough—but she doubted it. She must spend more time with them, but how could she? The family needed the extra stipend her sleuthing fetched, and detecting required time away from home, lots of it, whole swaths of days when her mind did nothing but ruminate. And so, when she was home, she wasn’t there for her children, not really. Oh, it was all too much of a muddle.
After swallowing the last of her caffè, she scooped up the paper again and stared at the words flickering in the candlelight while the memory of the children’s raised voices last night played about her mind.
The door opened, letting in a howl of air. Boots clomped down the hall.
“Back so soon?” she asked.
Vicenzu took off his cape. “Why are you up so early? It’s not yet first light.”
“The wind woke me, whipping against the shutters, making a sound like a wild specter.”
“Go on about the specter.” He grinned. “Grate’s cold.” He limped over to the hearth and began poking about the charred logs. Soon she heard the crackle of the fire and felt warmth creep into her toes.
Over his shoulder, he asked, “Where’s Teo? He was supposed to meet me at the pharmacy this morning.”
Photo: cover, Death of a Sad Face