In this scene from No More Brothers, Serafina is sleuthing, desperate to find Ugo’s killer. Arsenic was found on the dead man’s lips, so arsenic is on Serafina’s mind.
After finishing her breakfast, Serafina folded the paper and watched Assunta clear the table. Was there evidence that Rodolfo had purchased arsenic, she wondered? She remembered her mother once telling her that the unscrupulous did a brisk business in arsenical compounds, not caring who bought how much or for what purpose. Women of all classes purchased potions from the strega laced with arsenic to rid themselves of an unwanted fetus. Most died in the process. Colorists used it to tint wallpapers. And Giorgio told her the story of Tufania d’Adamo who sold arsenic to women longing to be widows. “Acqua Tufana, she called it. Very popular. No color. No taste. Four drops in water or wine meant instant death. Burned at the stake, our Tufania. Took the formula of the poison with her.”
But Loffredo said that the residue around Ugo’s lips was an arsenical salt, a simple garden variety, easily obtainable. He thought that Giorgio might sell it. It was the logical place to begin her search.
Serafina opened the door to the family’s apothecary shop on the far side of the piazza and was flooded with memories. She couldn’t help a few tears as she recalled Giorgio in his dark suit and starched apron, standing behind the counter, greeting customers.
Dark wood paneled the walls, their shelves filled with glass jars and vials. One wall contained life’s bathing necessities, shaving supplies for men, toiletries and perfume for women, combs, clasps, salves, creams, crutches, hot water bottles, variously sized and priced smelling salts, soaps, medicinals, and powders.
“Mama, what are you doing here?”
“Do we sell arsenical compounds?”
Vicenzu rested fists on his hips. “This is about Ugo’s death, isn’t it? Can’t let it alone, can you?”
“Shhh! Not a word to any of the customers or, worse, to your brother.” She filled him in on her recent discovery of the holes in Abatti’s confession, her visits to the prisoner and the commissioner and his order that she gather more evidence connecting the shoemaker with Ugo’s death. “Abatti stuck to his confession. He claims he poisoned Ugo’s wine in Boffo’s, later met him in the Madonie and stabbed him.”
Vicenzu thought a moment. “Boffo’s is closed on Sundays.”
“Just so. I’m convinced the shoemaker hired Abatti, helped him by putting a little poison in his brother’s wine.”
“A little poison? No such thing.” Vicenzu shuffled his feet. “The dose makes the poison. But he could have laced his wine with a toxic amount of arsenic.”
“So do we sell it?”
“Arsenic trioxide. It has its uses.”
“A popular rat poison. We sell it from time to time. In sufficient quantity, it can kill a man, but so can many other substances we think of as benign. You’re thinking that we may have sold the arsenic found in Ugo’s wine?”
Photo: The Madonie in January, Antonio Llardo (Flickr), Creative Commons. Cover, No More Brothers, Derek Murphy, Creative Indie Covers