DAVID P. WAGNER

AUTHOR OF THE RICK MONTOYA ITALIAN MYSTERIES

Chapter One

Fall’s coldest day brought a damp chill that seeped through clothing and skin, but the bearded man was oblivious to the temperature. He crossed his arms over his chest, bent forward slightly, and focused on the figures before him. His breath came in small clouds of vapor, obscuring the scene that held his gaze. He could not tear his eyes away from the drama before him.

The funeral procession he watched followed the ancient traditions of Etruria, but timeless sorrow etched deeply into the faces of the family. Two powerful horses pulled the covered cart, heads bowed as if to honor the dead man inside. Their waving manes and pulsing muscles, so full of life, contrasted with the flat, tomb-shaped stones of the wall behind them. The wife, or perhaps an older daughter, followed on foot behind the cart with two children in tow, their eyes questioning her in silence. Behind their round faces her robe dragged on the ground, covering sandaled feet. She gripped the tiny hands and stared ahead, her face stiff with grief. The observer guessed the two small figures were the grandchildren of the deceased, not quite aware of what was going on, but sensing something dark. A lone, male rider, cloak flowing behind him, sat on a saddled horse at the head of the cortège. The steed strained forward against the reins, but the man’s head was turned back toward the cart, his face reflecting the sadness of the woman. Was he her brother, and now the reluctant head of the family?

The watcher would never know. He breathed deeply and pulled at his carefully trimmed beard, hoping the gesture didn’t betray his nervousness to the two men with him.

“Spectacular,” he said. One arm reached out to touch the cold alabaster, its fingers running across the smooth faces of the two draft horses, down through the curled grooves of the milky manes, and pausing for a moment at the muscles of their shanks. His hand and eyes continued to caress the stone as he spoke. He almost whispered, as if he were standing before an altar in a church. “It looks like it was carved yesterday.”


The two other men exchanged glances, and one of them spoke.


“The urn was discovered only recently, and it has been professionally cleaned with great care.” The voice was clipped and businesslike. “Had it been exposed to the elements for more than two millennia, instead of buried in a tomb all that time, it would never have survived in this condition.”


The three men stood in a half-lit basement room around the only piece of furniture in the space—a table on which the rectangular stone box sat. A heavy black cloth, which had covered the piece when they had entered the room, was now
folded neatly on the side of the table. The damp chill of the Milanese streets outside had seeped into the house; only the lack of wind kept the temperature bearable. All three men kept on their heavy coats, not that there was anywhere to hang them. A musty smell, maybe of something stored there in the past, permeated the room, but the man intently inspecting the funerary urn was oblivious to all but the stone box before him.

“Volterra? Fourth century BC?” His eyes kept on the urn, examining the sides where the carving continued.


“Precisely.” The two returned to silence as their visitor circled the box. The collector had made his desires known weeks ear- lier—put in his order, as it were—and they had delivered. Now it was time to let the Etruscan urn itself make the final sale.


Minutes passed before the man turned from the ancient stone to the two men who had been waiting patiently. “The cover?”


“This is the way it came to us. The lid must have been lost or destroyed at some point.”


The first man ran his hand along the top edge and peered inside. “That makes it considerably less desirable.”


“The price reflects that.”


“Your price does seem reasonable…but I should like a few days to decide. It is not a small sum. Perhaps I could take a few photographs to help me—”


When the potential buyer lifted a small camera from his coat pocket the larger of the other two stepped forward and held up his hand.


“No.” He spoke a touch too firmly. Then he added, in a less menacing tone, “I’m sure you will understand that photograph- ing this piece is impossible. Under the circumstances.”


“Yes, I understand completely.” He slipped the camera back into his pocket. “As to the tomb where it was found. Where was it located?”


The two associates exchanged glances, as if to decide who would reply. The shorter one finally said, “I’m afraid we can only say that it was in Tuscany, in the area around Volterra.” He glanced again at his companion. “We are not told the exact location.”


The man pretended that the answer satisfied him. “Yes, of course.”
After a few more minutes of examination, the urn was covered with the cloth again and the three walked to the door. The buyer opened it and headed up the shadowed stairs toward the street. The larger man turned to his colleague and shook his head quickly. The other nodded agreement before following their visitor up the stairs. At the top, a metal door creaked open. The three stepped outside into a fog that almost obscured the building across the narrow alley. The short man pulled out a key and noisily closed the deadbolt on the door before turning to the client. Thirty meters away, where the alley began, cars crept slowly through the fog, their lights on but dimmed. The Milanese knew fog well and treated it with respect. The three walked in silence out to the street where they stopped.


“I will be in contact by the end of the week. I know you need an answer.”


The two dealers smiled stiffly and nodded. No handshake was offered, so the buyer hurried off toward the center of town while a tram rumbled past him on its tracks, making the sidewalk vibrate under his feet. They watched him until one tapped the other on the arm and jerked his head back toward the passage. By the time the tram was passing the alley, the key was back in its metal door.


DEATH IN THE DOLOMITES excerpt

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