- Edition: First
- Available in: Paperback, Kindle
- ISBN: 0984972617
- Published: January 7, 2012
When the police do nothing to solve the murders of three prostitutes knifed to death in 1866 Sicily, Serafina Florio, a struggling widow with seven children, unmasks the killer, but not before uncovering burdensome truths of her own.
It is six years after Unification and Sicily is in chaos. Bandits rule the hills. Waves of cholera kill thousands. The Mafia begins its vicious reign of organized terror, raping a population squeezed by conscription, crippling taxes, and corrupt officials.
At a high-class house near Palermo, three prostitutes have been knifed to death, their foreheads slashed with a strange mark, their bodies dumped on the madam’s doorstep. When the chief inspector does nothing to solve the case, the madam summons her lifelong friend, Serafina, and asks her to catch the killer.
Serafina is a midwife, but she decides she must help. She plunges into the investigation, gathering evidence, following leads. She meets with relatives and friends of the deceased and discovers a thread common to all three victims.
After a fourth victim is strangled, Serafina’s hopes for a quick resolution are dashed. Her emotional low is short-lived, however. In a defiant meeting with the Mafia don, she makes an important discovery. Convinced of the murderer’s identity, she conceives a daring plan and, with the help of her daughter, corners the killer, a wild one bent on revenge. But will she have the strength to save herself and her loved ones?
Sunday, October 7, 1866
Serafina Florio saw the soul leave its body, a shadow hovering over the corpse, sliding up the stucco before vanishing. “Poor woman,” she muttered. She swallowed hard.
She should have been used to death by now. Sicily was smothering in bodies. They rotted in the fields of war, swelled cholera pits, lined the streets after an uprising.
She heard Rosa’s sobs and wrapped her arms around her friend. Afternoon light freighted with the sea slashed the three figures.
The victim lay on the rear stoop facing upward, torso turned to the side. She was clothed in a traveling suit of fine wool detailed in velvet, not at all the costume of a prostitute. The coils of her chestnut hair were undone. Where were her gloves? Her hat? Her reticule?
In a face so still, the mouth was a rictus of surprise. There was a cut in the center of her forehead. A dark stain seeped through the bodice on the left side. One arm was flung outward, the fingers curled.
Serafina lifted the skirt just enough to reveal a layer of taffeta over lace petticoats. The taffeta, she knew, was for effect: a woman wearing a stiff underskirt crinkled when she walked, inviting eyes to turn in her direction. Noticing that the hem was damp, she closed her eyes, breathed in deep. She smelled seaweed. The woman’s boots were caked in sand. Serafina crossed herself.
“Oh, my sweet girl!” Rosa slid her eyes to the ceiling and wailed.
Serafina handed her a clean linen. “You sent for Inspector Colonna?”
Rosa nodded. “Dr. Loffredo, too. But stay here.” She buried her head on Serafina’s shoulder. “With me the longest, Bella.” She wept. “Sewed our garments, she did. Saved enough coins to follow her dream of dressmaking. Now she’s dead.”
Serafina patted Rosa’s black ringlets. She heard voices in the hall.
Swaying on splayed feet, Inspector Colonna lumbered in, holding his fedora, followed by two uniformed men and the artist.
Colonna’s good eye strayed to Rosa’s décolleté. “The body, found when?”
“This morning. My best girl lies here, snatched from life, the third one in three months.” Rosa glared at him.
Colonna opened his mouth to speak, but Dr. Loffredo appeared in the doorway carrying his satchel, accompanied by two hooded figures.
“Wait for my signal,” the doctor said to the stretcher bearers. Loffredo’s face, long and noble, creased in a half smile as he greeted the two women. His eyes gravitated to Serafina.
The two policemen stood on the stoop near the dead woman while the artist sketched. Serafina bit the inside of her cheek as Colonna bent, butt out, to the body. After a moment he rose, motioned to his men. They slouched down the stairs, stopping first to speak with Rosa’s caretaker. Serafina watched while they began their walk around the house.
The inspector’s gaze moved from Rosa, seated at her desk, to the bottle of grappa on a credenza behind her. He, Dr. Loffredo, and Serafina faced the madam.
Loffredo said, “Bella died by a single wound to the heart. Very little bleeding. Death, instantaneous.”
“Like the others?” Serafina asked.
The doctor nodded. “All three victims were killed by the same hand. Wounds almost identical. The killer wields a deadly knife, his placement of the blade, exquisite—clean, deep, accurate.”
Rosa pressed a linen to her mouth.
Serafina lowered her gaze. She should be enjoying the day with her family, but how could she leave Rosa?
Loffredo continued. “All three bodies were moved, I’d say, at least three or four hours after death: rigor mortis was broken,” he said.
Serafina saw the black hoods bear the body away.
Loffredo pointed to the stoop outside Rosa’s office door. “All three bodies were found in the same spot.”
“Deliberate, I’d say,” Serafina said.
“My dear, leave police business to us.” Colonna played with one end of his mustache. He slewed his eyes to the grappa.
Rosa said, “This time the viper bites my soul. Bella, my favorite, a friend. Her death, such a shock, so I sent for Fina to give me comfort.” She eyed Colonna. “But you could use her help. You’ve had three months to catch this killer without success. No leads, no hope, no nothing.”
Colonna’s face mottled. “It could be the work of—”
“Never! Not the work of Don Tigro. Pay him every month, I do.” Rosa poured him a grappa. “Marsala?” she asked Loffredo and Serafina.
They shook their heads.
“And the time of death?” Serafina asked.
The inspector downed his drink, opened his mouth.
“If I might answer Donna Fina’s question,” Dr. Loffredo said. “I’d say very late last night or early this morning, sometime before first light, but that’s a guess. I’m hoping the autopsy will tell me more.”
“The mark on the forehead?” Serafina asked.
Loffredo shrugged. “A spiral of some sort. The same carving appeared on the first two women. I couldn’t guess its meaning.”
“The calling card of a wild one,” Rosa said.
“The bodies of the first two victims, had they been…?” Serafina’s voice trailed off.
Loffredo shook his head. “No fresh bruises or other cuts on the bodies, other than the demon brand. No abuse of their flesh by their killer.”
“But how can you be certain?” Colonna asked. “We are dealing with fallen women.”
“My dear inspector, leave the medical business to me.”
After the men left, Rosa said, “I must bear the news to Nittù.”
“Bella’s father. Turi drives us.”
Photo: Cover, Derek Murphy at CreativIndieCovers.