Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (8 page)

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
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So that Sunday my Auntie Poldi sat in the front pew dressed all in black with a lace shawl over her wig like a Mafia widow in a B feature, and asked the Almighty to accept Valentino's soul and persuade Uncle Peppe to wait for her a little longer.

The same afternoon, as expected, Poldi received a visit. She had just cut a photo of Valentino out of
La Sicilia
and pinned it to a corkboard on her bedroom wall when the doorbell rang.

Montana was still wearing the same suit, but he and the suit were looking rather crumpled as though they had both been through a lot in the last day-and-a-half. Poldi, who was still attired in black, feigned surprise and invited the policeman in.

“Some coffee, commissario?”

A momentary pause. Then, “Please.”

Montana surveyed his surroundings while Poldi was in the kitchen making coffee. He noted the half-full bottle of brandy, cast a fleeting glance into the bedroom and inspected the ebony idols, decorative spears and crudely carved masks in the living room.

“Have you been to Africa a lot?”

“No,” lied Poldi, because she preferred to gloss over that chapter in the novel of her life.

Montana turned his attention to the collection of antique firearms. “Quite an arsenal you have here.”

“From my father,” Poldi called from the kitchen. “It doesn't include a lupara.”

“Can they be fired?”

“What? Of course not – they've all been officially deactivated.”

“Are you a good shot?”

“Fair to middling. But in any case, Valentino's murderer didn't need to be a marksman.”

With a sigh, Montana sat down on the sofa. He noticed the copy of
La Sicilia
with the excision in it.

“Mind if I smoke?”

“Feel free, commissario.”

Poldi heard the click of his cigarette lighter. She could sense that he was watching her through the kitchen door. Unobtrusively bracing herself, she presented his laser-beam gaze with her best physical assets and imagined it was his hands.

“Are you married, signora?”

“I used to be. My husband died many years ago.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to —”

“You didn't. How about you?”

“It's complicated.”

Complications were another field of Poldi's expertise. She emerged from the kitchen with the coffees and some colourful little marzipan fruit she'd bought from Signora Cocuzza just in case.

“I like complications. How complicated are yours?”

Montana cleared his throat. “When did you move here, signora?”

“Poldi. Call me Poldi. Just over a month ago.”

“And you seem to know everyone in the locality. Wherever I go, you were there before me.”

“I'm the communicative type.”

“Your Italian is pretty good.”

“Apart from my accent, you mean? Thanks. I get by.”

“When did you learn it?”

“Oh, over the years. My husband was a Sicilian.”

“From this area?”

Poldi sat down on the sofa beside Montana. She had to restrain herself from crowding him.

“In a manner of speaking. He was born in Munich and only spoke Bavarian and Sicilian. We often spent the summer here with his sisters, and I sometimes came to Italy on business.”

Montana was smoking his cigarette like calm personified. Poldi half welcomed and half resented this, because she would have preferred him to be a trifle nervous in her presence. She was accustomed to a different reaction.

“You've created a fine old mess, signora, do you know that? You called the Carabinieri
and
the state police, and the result has been a squabble over spheres of responsibility.”

“I thought
you
were heading the investigation?”

“Yes, but I have to keep those idiots permanently in the loop. Still, that's not your problem.”

Montana stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and sank his teeth into a dark-red marzipan cherry as plump and authentic-looking as the real thing.

“Mm. This
pasta reale
is really fresh.”

“Glad you're enjoying it. There's no one I like better than an appreciative guest.”

My Auntie Poldi was adept at subtle eroticism. She also liked to get straight to the point.

“Now then, commissario, have you found out anything new?”

Montana took his time. He ate the rest of the cherry and sugared his coffee.

“Why didn't you tell me you'd made inquiries about Valentino?”

“Oh, because I failed to discover anything. Certainly no more than you have since yesterday.”

“How would you know?”

“Take it as a compliment. I'm sure you've interviewed Valentino's parents and Russo, haven't you? Do you know where Valentino was killed? Were there any clues on his body?”

Montana briefly swirled his coffee cup and downed its contents in one. He was wearing an open-necked shirt, and Poldi glimpsed a well-tanned chest. Hirsute but not too hirsute and sprinkled with a few white hairs, it seemed to whisper sweet nothings to her. She imagined herself unbuttoning his shirt and conducting some gentle preliminary research at first hand, then pulled herself together.

“What about the red sand in Valentino's trouser pocket? It came from Russo's nursery, didn't it?”

“So you
did
rummage in his pockets.”

“I only looked while I was holding his hand. Well?”

Montana shook his head and eyed her suspiciously.

“Russo's hiding something, don't you think?” Poldi persisted. “Does he have an alibi for the time in question?”

“I think
you're
hiding something from me, Signora Oberreiter.”

“Poldi. Just Poldi.” She was now sitting so close to Montana, she could have grasped that strong, shapely hand of his. She was on the point of owning up about the two pieces of mosaic, but she felt it would only have got her into more trouble. It wasn't that my Auntie Poldi ever ran away from trouble, but something else held her back: an instinctive restlessness that had dominated the Oberreiter family for generations, taking hold of the entire body and arising whenever the wind changed – whenever the world went awry and called for adjustment and correction. That was when my Auntie Poldi experienced a kind of tug in the guts, an unpleasant tightening of the skin like sunburn, a change in her general well-being – a kind of atavistic wanderlust that could be cured only by setting off at once into the unknown, and it grew worse the longer departure was postponed.

It was the hunter's instinct.

Perhaps Montana had noticed that fever in my aunt's eyes, that particular form of hunger he recognized from his own experience and that of some of his colleagues.

“So you've nothing more to tell me?” he persisted.

Poldi leant forwards, cursing the fact that she was still wearing her high-necked churchgoing dress.

“No,” she said in a low voice. She could smell Montana's aftershave. A whiff of sandalwood, khus-khus and tobacco laced with a hint of sweat – a mixture that demanded almost inhuman self-control from her.

Montana cleared his throat but did not move away. He picked up the newspaper and tapped the spot where Valentino's photograph had been. “I'd like to make something clear, signora.”

“Poldi.”

“Keep out of this. I've got enough on my plate as it is.”

Poldi was galvanized. “You mean,” she exclaimed, “I've stirred up a hornet's nest, and now you're being pressured into sweeping something under the carpet. Who is it? Russo?”

“You know,” Montana said with a sigh, “I hate it when someone obstructs me in my work, so keep out of it. I mean that in the friendliest way, do you understand?”

Poldi looked at him and nodded.

“I understand.”

“No playing Miss Marple, are we agreed?”

“We'd make such a good team, though.”

“Are we agreed? If not, I'll have to come and see you again.”

My Auntie Poldi construed this as an invitation, and as a definite indication that a terrible battle was raging within Montana's splendid, hairy chest between the inner demon of the steadfast, lonely sleuth and the inner demon of passion. And Poldi knew a thing or two about inner demons and passion.

“I agree,” she said with a smile, resting her hand on his. “But only if you at least answer me one question: who was the last person to see Valentino alive?”

Montana withdrew his hand. “To date, signora, it's still you.” He looked at his watch, rose stiffly to his feet and handed Poldi his card. “In case something more occurs to you.”

“Why in such a hurry, commissario? It's Sunday. Some more coffee?”

“I've a murder to solve.” In the doorway he turned and looked at Poldi. As before, his gaze seemed to pierce her through and through.

“Thanks for the coffee. And… welcome to Sicily.”

“And that was all?” Aunt Luisa asked that evening. “You let him go, just like that?”

“What was I supposed to do, handcuff him? Don't worry, though. Signor Adonis took the bait. I've got a feel for that sort of thing.”

“You really ought to keep out of it,” said Aunt Teresa.

“You'll only make trouble for yourself,” warned Aunt Caterina.

“Fiddlesticks,” cried Aunt Luisa, who was more enterprising. “
Forza
Poldi.”

My aunts are vernal creatures. Ever beautiful, ever in bloom, a trifle sensitive and reserved if there's a cold wind blowing, but brimming with laughter and confidence at the least sign of a thaw. Always ready to render assistance, to bestow consolation, to give pleasure, to feed cats, to love and enjoy, to bring up grandchildren, to protect sisters-in-law from themselves, or to cook their nephew a dish of spaghetti. Teresa, Caterina and Luisa had grown up in Munich, but during the 1970s they met their husbands while on vacation in Sicily and soon afterwards moved back home with my grandparents. Only my father and Uncle Peppe stayed behind in Germany, but they are both dead. The aunts are my only remaining relations on my father's side.

They're all very small, those three vernal creatures, and all born under the sign of Taurus, so they're contented, patient women and sensual pragmatists who appreciate good food and nice perfumes, harmony and solid prosperity. They love life. What they hate, on the other hand, is change, turmoil and unreliability. If someone shoves them around too much, lets them down or gets on their nerves, they can really lose it. That's when the fun stops and it's time to take cover. Where men are concerned, though, they have a slight penchant for unreliable adventurers and twinkle-toed eccentrics. Take Uncle Martino, for instance, who wasn't taking part in the conversation but getting ready to barbecue half the fauna of the Mediterranean clad only in a pair of ancient shorts.

“What does a commissario like that earn, does anyone know?”

“What did he smell like?”

“And he liked the marzipan, you say?”

“A creased suit means nothing. It's the shoes that matter – they're always worth a second look.”

“His business card isn't very impressive.”

“I used to know a Montana family from Lentini. Nice folk. Lawyers, some of them.”

“Heavens, Poldi, don't be so secretive.”

But Poldi was thinking of Valentino and the morning when she found him on the beach – when she hunkered down beside his corpse, held his cold hand and made him a promise: that she would do all in her power to find his murderer. And she already had a suspicion.

“I mean,” she muttered to herself, “who murders someone with a lupara these days?”

But the aunts would have none of this.

“Whenever you Germans say Sicily you really mean the Mafia,” Aunt Caterina cried indignantly. “You're positively obsessed with the Mafia. No, worse than that: you're in
love
with the Mafia – you romanticize it like everything else.”

“As if there aren't criminal gangs elsewhere in the world,” Aunt Luisa chimed in.

“The Mafia,” Aunt Teresa stated categorically, “is just an invention on the part of North Italian fascists designed to give us southerners a bad reputation.”

But that wouldn't wash with Poldi, of course.

“Come off it. Why do I read the M-word in every edition of
La Sicilia
?”

“Anyway,” Aunt Teresa said stoutly, “even in Italy the police are still responsible for murder inquiries.”

“But I can at least keep an eye on the signor commissario and see he doesn't go astray.”

“Talking of going astray,” said Caterina, pointing reproachfully at a big wooden crate in the courtyard, which was overflowing with empty beer, wine and spirit bottles, “did you drink all those in the last week?”

Poldi sighed, because now she had to come clean. This was serious.

“I had a drink or two the day before yesterday, but most of them I poured down the drain,” she said deliberately, but with a slight tremor in her voice. “The thing is…”

She harrumphed, drew a deep breath, braced herself and spoke the fateful words.

“I'm on the wagon.”

Luisa, Caterina and Teresa stared at her in disbelief.

“For the time being,” she added quickly. “It's just that I need a clear head and sweet breath at the moment.”

Universal delight. The aunts beamed.

Aunt Teresa sat up a little straighter. “How can we help?”

Her sisters nodded enthusiastically. It should be explained that all three of them are ardent fans of police procedurals and, thanks to satellite television, cast their net widely.

Poldi looked surprised. “What about ‘even in Italy the police are still responsible for murder inquiries'?”

Teresa dismissed this objection with a brusque gesture and spread her fingers while speaking, as she always did when important matters were under discussion. “You may not have been able to save Valentino's life,” she said firmly, “but we can at least save
yours
.”

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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