DAVID P. WAGNER

AUTHOR OF THE RICK MONTOYA ITALIAN MYSTERIES

Chapter One

Rick Montoya took a deep breath, held it, and weighed the cold steel of the Beretta in his outstretched hands, pointing both thumbs forward. Fifty meters ahead a dark figure, purposely obscured by weak lighting, faced him directly. Rick squinted down the gun barrel, stiffened his grip, and slowly squeezed the trigger, just as he had practiced. The pistol barked loudly and jumped back in his hand. Heart beat steady, he let out the breath and dropped his arms. The distinctive metallic smell drifted up to his nostrils as he noticed heat now spreading through his grip. Lights popped on, bouncing off the low ceiling of the previously darkened room. A voice behind him was just a murmur.
“Not your best.”

Rick took one hand off the pistol and pulled the ear protectors down around his neck. “What was that, Uncle?”

“I said not your best,” repeated Commissario Piero Fontana. “You give me second thoughts about trying to convince you to join the police force.” He put down the binoculars and pushed a button to make the paper target rumble back toward them along a wire. The silhouette had a ring of holes in the center of the figure. When the target reached them, the policeman pointed to one just to the left of the waist. “That one’s yours. He would still be coming at you if he were armed, and you’d have to hope he was a worse marksman than you are.”

Rick checked the weapon to be sure it was not still loaded and placed it on the table behind them. “Did it occur to   you that I missed him on purpose so that you’d drop the subject of me becoming a cop?”

Piero smiled. “I had not thought of that.”

A few minutes later they stood at a bar across from Rome’s police headquarters where the commissario had his office. Coffee available inside the questura was so notorious that policemen joked it should be on the most wanted list, so this place was crowded with uniforms at all hours of the day and night. Rick and his uncle took their small cups and walked to a tall table near the window where they added sugar from a large bowl. Commissario Fontana had shed the leather jacket he’d  used  at the shooting range and returned to the coat which was per- fectly coordinated with his light wool slacks and silk tie. The temperature on the street outside had not required an overcoat, and Rick wore only a light sweater over a sport shirt with no tie. Well-ironed jeans covered the tops of his cowboy boots.

“Riccardo, there is something I want to talk to you about, in addition to your need for more shooting practice.”

Rick sipped his coffee. “I got that impression, Zio, when you called me yesterday.”

His uncle smiled. “You know me too well.” “As well as you know me.”

They both considered that for a moment before Piero spoke. “Your family needs you, Riccardo.”

Rick was more curious than concerned. He knew from the way Uncle Piero spoke that his parents were fine, and in fact he’d spoken to his mother—Piero’s sister—from Brazil on Skype the previous evening. His Italian family was not very large in comparison with his father’s side, whose relatives could be found in most corners of northern New Mexico. His mother had one sister and a brother, Piero, but because Aunt Marta Dozzi lived in Perugia, Rick seldom saw her and her husband. The Italian grandparents had passed on when Rick was in high school in Rome, both in the same year, a difficult one for the three Fontana offspring. There was also a cousin, Aunt Marta’s only son, but Rick hadn’t seen Fabrizio Dozzi since high school, when Fabrizio was a little boy. Perhaps Fabrizio wanted to go to the States to study and needed some advice from his half-American cousin.

“It’s Fabrizio.”

“I suspected that, Uncle. How old is he now? Must be about twenty?”

“He’s twenty-one.” Piero studied his nephew before continu- ing. “Fabrizio has always looked up to you, Riccardo. Never had a big brother, of course, so you, the older cousin, have been special for him.”

“I never saw him more that a dozen times, and he was just a little kid. He’s not in trouble, is he? His policeman uncle would be the one to intervene if that were the case.”

Piero waved off the idea with an uplifted palm. “He’s not breaking the law, if that’s what you mean, or I certainly would get involved. No, it’s his behavior that is very upsetting to his mother, and when my sister gets upset enough, she calls me.”
Rick, a professional translator, tried to think of an equivalent phrase in Italian for “cut to the chase,” but nothing jumped into his mind. “Zio, what’s going on with Fabrizio?”

The policeman took another sip of coffee. “You’ll remember that Fabrizio was studying at the university in Perugia after   he graduated from the liceo. I’m not sure what courses he was taking, but it could have been literature since he’s now decided to become a writer. A few months ago he met a woman in a nightclub and they hit it off. She lives in Orvieto, and was sight- seeing in Perugia with some friends. One thing led to another, and she invited him to visit her in Orvieto. That was six weeks ago. He’s still there.”

Rick nodded. “I can see how that would upset Aunt Marta.

But a youthful fling isn’t the end of the world, and—”

“The woman is twice his age, Riccardo, and married. She is also wealthy, and she’s set Fabrizio up in a small apartment close to her palazzo. But Orvieto is so small, everything is close.”

“Ah.” Rick digested the facts, considered making a joke, but stifled the thought when he read the look on his uncle’s face. “So you need someone to talk some sense into Fabrizio.”

“That’s correct.”

“And what better person than the older cousin whom the kid has idolized forever?”

“Precisely.”

Rick’s deep breath was something closer to a sigh. He’d been meaning to get up to Perugia to see the Dozzi since he’d moved to Rome from Albuquerque, but something had always come up, usually work. Building up his interpreting and translating business took time, and he had to drop everything when a job appeared. Now he had gained enough of a reputation around Rome to be selective in the jobs he accepted. Coincidentally, just the previous week he’d thought about traveling to the Umbrian capital to visit his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Now, at least to see Cousin Fabrizio, he would not have to go as far as Perugia. This was a task that had to be done in person, and Orvieto was a relatively short drive from Rome.

“I suppose Aunt Marta has made an attempt.”

Piero’s reply was to lift his eyes to the heavens and then back to Rick.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been up to Orvieto, and Betta has finally worked at the art police long enough to have accrued some vacation time. We’ve talked about getting out of Rome for a few days, this could be just thing.”  The thought of spending a few days with Betta definitely helped.

“So you can catch two pigeons with one fava bean.” Piero used the Italian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone.”

“Exactly, Zio.” Rick quickly sorted things out in his mind. “But I have a contract to interpret for a visiting group of American doctors the next three days, so I can’t go up until the weekend. I assume you know where Fabrizio is.”

“I know exactly where he is, at an apartment rented in the name of Tullia Aragona. There are advantages to having the resources of the Polizia dello Stato at hand.”

“You agree, Zio, that it will be better for me to drop in on Fabrizio rather than to phone?”

“Absolutely. Surprise him in person. He won’t listen to reason over the phone. I’ve tried. Your Aunt Marta has called too.”

I’ll bet she has, Rick thought. “Send me the information and I’ll get a car rental reservation.”

As Rick and Piero walked toward the door, five young plain-clothes policemen nodded polite greetings to the commissario and wondered who the young guy with him was. Once out on the street, the two instinctively checked the patch of sky visible between the buildings to see if any change in the weather was in the offing. The few clouds they saw, which would have constituted a promising weather system in New Mexico, were not worth noting in Rome. The commotion of coffee machines and conversations in the crowded bar was replaced with the cacophony of the street, including the sound of mopeds and cars. The imposing police building did not keep Roman drivers from behaving as they did in the rest of the city, including parking at angles not condoned by municipal regulations. The two men squeezed between two parked cars and waited for a speeding Fiat to pass before carefully crossing the street. They paused in front of the large entrance, its tall doors guarded by two uniformed policemen who stood straight when they spotted Rick’s uncle. “Sorry we are burdening you with this task, Riccardo, but you are the perfect person to take it on.” “I hope you’re right, Zio.”

“I know I’m right. You solved those mysteries up north, so this should be simple.”

Walking back to his apartment, Rick thought that finding a murderer would be easier than getting his young cousin to give up the pleasures of a woman. Which brought his thoughts back to Betta and spending a few days with her in Orvieto. He extracted his phone from his pocket and scrolled down the numbers.
 
# # #
 
The desert heat pressed down on Scottsdale, as usual, but inside the house the air felt icy cool. Two large suitcases lay open on the wide bed, their dark canvas contrasting with the white of the bedspread, walls, and furniture. The thick carpet was a soft pink, not a color or a pile that would be the first choice of most men. But the men who’d entered the room over the years hadn’t noticed, or if they had, didn’t care. Rhonda Van Fleet opened the drawer of one of four dressers, pulled out another clump of clothing, and dumped it in one of the suitcases. She stepped back, her bare feet making no sound as they sank into the lush pile. Looking at one almost-full suitcase, she thought how dif- ferent this trip would be from that first one those many years ago. She didn’t have two bags then, only a stuffed backpack that she’d carried on the plane. Life was simpler in those days, but so was she. The thought made her laugh silently.

“What is your name?”

“Rhonda. It is a family name.”

“And a beautiful name. It sounds like music.”

“And what is your name?”

“Luca. With one C, not like the city.”

“You live in Orvieto?”

“My aunt does, I come to visit her. You are a student?”

“Yes, I will study art. And learn Italian.”

“I will visit my aunt more often. I can help you learn Italian.”

“I would like that.”

“Can I help you with something, Mrs. Van Fleet?”

Rhonda answered without turning to the woman standing in the doorway. “The decisions on what to pack are ones I have to make myself, Anna.”

The maid nodded, wiped her hands on her apron, and returned to the kitchen.

The big decision had already been made: whether to make the trip at all.

It had come after her visit to the doctor two months earlier, when what should have been a regular exam turned out to be any- thing but routine. As she drove home that afternoon she realized that she had to return to Orvieto, and it had to be now, while she still could. What was it she had told her? A year, perhaps more if she were lucky? But the serious symptoms would not become debilitating until close to the end. Some consolation. She had a death sentence hanging over her, but she would not go quietly. Submissiveness was not her style. Never had been. She’d turned her focus to Orvieto, spending hours on the Internet searching for threads that would connect her to that year so long ago. What she found both shocked and delighted her. Thoughts of the trip had already been dominating her waking hours. Now, with this new information, they were seeping into her dreams. The phone rang. She padded to the table next to the bed to see the number. “Don’t answer it, Anna. I’ll get it,” she called to the other room. She reached for the receiver. “Hi, Gina. I was just packing.”

“I haven’t started yet, Mom,” said the voice at the other end. Rhonda noticed something in her daughter’s voice. “What’s the matter, Gina? Are you having second thoughts again? I told you there would be enough vegetarian choices on the menus in Italy. You can eat pasta, can’t you? Or has that moved to the prohibited list too?”

“Don’t be like that, Mom. You know it isn’t that.” There was a pause. “I’m just concerned about you, whether you’re doing the right thing. If you’re making this trip for the right reasons. You can’t achieve fulfillment in your life if you dwell on negatives. You must expel the negative energy inside you that has built up over the years and cleanse your system. This trip won’t do that.” “I don’t need any of that psycho-babble, Gina. Your friends there in Santa Fe love that crap, but it doesn’t work on me. You should know that by now.”

The heavy breath was audible. “I suppose I should. But please, at least think about what you really are searching for in Italy.”

“Whatever. Don’t miss your flight. Francine and I will be waiting for you in the first-class lounge in Atlanta near the international departure gates. Our flight arrives an hour before yours, so Francine will likely be loaded by the time you get there. We’ll probably have to pour her onto the flight.”

“I’ll be there, Mom.”

Rhonda put down the phone. As loopy as her daughter could sometimes be, she had a point. What was the real reason   she wanted to go back? It had been something she’d been wrestling with since getting the news from the doctor. At first she had told herself she needed to return to Orvieto to get closure. Closure? What the hell did that mean? She didn’t need to close the book on that part of her life so she could move on; she wasn’t going to be moving on for very much longer. Did she need to see those people again, look them in the face and let them see that she’d done something with her life and wasn’t just another idealistic art student? She had to admit there was something to that. It was in the middle of the night when it came to her. She had to walk those streets again, the streets where she and Luca had strolled those many years ago. It wouldn’t bring him back, but she needed to do it. Why, she didn’t know. Gina would have some explanation, but Rhonda would never hear it because she would never tell her daughter. This was between her and Luca. Leaving one suitcase still empty, Rhonda walked to a set of glass doors, pushed them open, and stepped out onto the tiled lanai where her gin and tonic waited. Seeing that the drink was warm, she thought about calling Anna for more ice, but instead pushed it to one side of the glass table. A rich expanse of golf fairway with mountains hovering in the distance should have drawn her eye, but she sat and opened a yellowed plastic photo album on the table. Italia 1979 was printed in a young, feminine hand on the cover. She opened it and slowly turned the pages while her eyes moved from one yellowed picture to another, until she reached the third page. There she stopped.
.

RETURN TO BOOK PAGE

STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT BOOK

MURDER MOST UNFORTUNATE excerpt

RETURN TO TOP OF PAGE