Authors: Kai Meyer
The First Chapter
One of Them
Call It a Dream
Creatures of the Same Species
The White Telephone
The Thrice Great
A Deathly Silence
The Voice of Arcadia
The Hungry Man
The Island and the Moon
About the Author
About the PublisherTHE FIRST CHAPTER
“DADDY?” SHE TUGGED AThis sleeve. “There’s a dead cat outside the door.”
“Good. One less in the world.”
“When I’m grown up I want a cat of my own. Just for me.”
“Cats can’t be tamed.”
“I’ll tame mine.”
“It will hurt you.”
“No, it won’t. Never.”
OUT ON THE RUNWAY, a plane began its ascent into the sky, and the world around Rosa fell silent.
No sign of Alessandro anywhere.
As she walked through the departures hall and past the panoramic window, she blocked out the voices of her six-man escort. For an endless moment she saw only, in slow motion, the aircraft taking off, the midday sun sparkling on its white fuselage, and behind it the majestic cliffs of the Bay of Palermo.
Where is he?
She knew the six men weren’t going to take their eyes off her. They were trying to force her to listen to their advice and questions and warnings. Rosa heard nothing but the beating of her own heart, the blood pulsing in her temples.
Hair flying behind her, she raced ahead while her advisers followed close behind, talking, gesticulating, pestering her. Ticks in the thick protective coat she’d wrapped around herself these last few months.
Half a dozen men in expensive suits, handmade shoes, and silk ties, with their hair well cut and their hands manicured—conventional businessmen, and cleaner than clean to any stranger who happened to set eyes on them. But in reality justsix of the countless criminals who looked after the fortune of the Alcantara clan.
She should have taken an interest in it. Instead she met her advisers’ questions and demands with indifference—as if she had nothing to do with her own money. Anyway, what the six of them cared about most was their own share. For reasons that irked them, they were now, for better or worse, at the mercy of an eighteen-year-old girl’s whims.
At least Rosa knew what to make ofthat. Refusing to talk was a little like stealing from them. She knew about stealing things—it was difficult to break a habit you’d come to enjoy. Silence equals stealing equals an adrenaline fix. That was about as much math as she could cope with in an overcrowded airport.
Her blond hair cascaded in wild confusion over her slender shoulders. It resisted brushing the same way her pale complexion resisted tanning. Nothing would take away the shadows around her eyes, and they’d become even darker in the last year. Some people thought it was makeup, kohl for a moderate Goth look, but Rosa had been born with them. They were part of her, like so many other things that she couldn’t shake off. From her nail biting to her neuroses. And her origins, along with the addictions that came with them.
Where the hell was Alessandro? He should have been here.I’ll come see you off, he’d said.
One of the men caught up and tried to block her way. Block him out; act deaf. His efforts to attract her attentionmade him seem like a ridiculous mime. She dodged him and hurried on.
Damn you, Alessandro!
It was four months ago, last fall, that she’d come to Sicily to escape the past. And now, in mid-February, she was taking off again. This time to escape from the present, from this island.
By all appearances, she was the heiress to an empire of companies. Since her eighteenth birthday two weeks ago, she had also become legally responsible for what her business managers did. It made Rosa’s head spin to think what it meant to be head of a Cosa Nostra clan.
Security was coming up ahead of her. No Alessandro anywhere in sight. The bastard.
She quickened her pace, ignoring the piece of paper that one of the six men was holding in front of her. At the last moment she murmured something like “Back in a few days,” and breathed a sigh of relief when she had left the six men behind on the other side of the security gate.
Rosa looked around her. The six of them were retreating toward the exit, swearing. She was searching for one person in particular among the crowd in departures. A face that she had come to know better than her own.
Had she passed him and missed seeing him in her haste? Surely not. Had he hung back when he saw her escort? That was more likely. A Carnevare in a relationship with an Alcantara—many of the other clans still regarded that as a declaration of war. Rosa and Alessandro knew that plenty of members of their own families were saying, off the record,that both their corpses should be sunk in the sea. For Rosa, this could have been an exciting game—exactly the element of risk that she needed for an adrenaline fix—if she hadn’t been keenly aware that, as the two of them walked their tightrope, they could fall to the depths below. In the end either they would have to break up, or she would have to risk everything for love.
The six men beyond the barrier put up with Rosa’s disinterest in them because they knew that, in the long run, they would derive greater authority from it. But her relationship with a Carnevare was a black mark against her. The Alcantaras and the Carnevares had been enemies forever, and only a mysterious pact between them, dating from ancient times, had kept them from wiping out each other’s families long ago. Out of necessity, the two clans managed to coexist. But most of them would never tolerate an alliance made by two teenagers in bed.
How long are the others going to stand by watching?Rosa had once asked.
Until we can force them to close their eyes to it, Alessandro had replied.And then hope they never open them again.
It was Alessandro who really understood what it meant to becapoof a Mafia clan. Rosa had become head of her family against her will. Alessandro, however, had fought for his position. He had killed his parents’ murderers, and over the past few weeks other enemies had fallen silent one way or another. He was keeping his options open through self-protection. While Rosa was on the run from responsibility, Alessandrofaced hostility, warnings, and threats with determination.
Shit. He really wasn’t here. She fought off her disappointment with a mixture of anger and anxiety. It made her stomach ache.
Calm down. It’s not like you’re addicted to him.
She adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag. As she did so, her black turtleneck stretched taut over her breasts—which, goodness knew, wasn’t an everyday event.They’ll get bigger, her sister, Zoe, had said once, and Rosa used to pray that they would. Now Zoe was in her grave, and Rosa’s chest was still nothing to brag about.
Whenever Alessandro was late, or didn’t call to say he’d be late, she feared for him. What they were doing was crazy. They had discussed going away together, leaving Sicily and everything else behind them. But Rosa didn’t want him to give up anything for her sake. She would never make demands. If she really did want to go someday, she certainly wouldn’t make him go with her. That wasn’t her way. She’d rather be miserably unhappy without him than see him regretful. There were some risks even she wasn’t willing to take.
There was still a good hour left before her flight. She showed her ticket and went into the business-class lounge. It had armchairs and sofas arranged in groups, a lavish buffet with options for vegetarians like Rosa herself, and rows of computer terminals with online access. Loudspeakers in the ceiling played classical music. And there was coffee, of course.
Several businessmen sized her up. Her turtleneck came down to her thighs, and she wore it with black jeans. She mustlook as if she’d rattle if anyone shook her, she thought, with her hip bones sticking out and her legs so thin—far too thin. But obviously some of the management guys in the armchairs didn’t share her opinion. Rosa’s lips formed a heartfelt, silentPedophile!and then gave a sweet smile.
A young man’s head appeared above one of the partitions dividing the groups of seating. It turned in another direction, disappeared, came up again. He was looking straight into her eyes. His own were green and bright. If she hadn’t known him already, she could have invented a whole life for him at the sight of those eyes.
His dimples deepened, his wide smile as infectious as the day they first met. His face made the world a better place.
“I don’t believe it!” She flung her arms around his neck; her bag jammed between them, so she wrenched it free and pressed close to him again. In fact, a little closer than before. Might as well give the others in the lounge something worth seeing.
He kissed her, looked at her, beaming, and kissed her again. He often did that. A short kiss, a smile, a long kiss. Like a secret Morse code.
“What are you doing here?” She sounded more breathless than she would have liked.
He waved a ticket in the air. “I bought this.”
“But you said you weren’t coming with me!”
“I’m not. But I wanted to see you. Without those hangers-on out there.”
She stared at him. “You mean you paidfour thousandeurosfor a ticket just so they’d let you into the business-class lounge?”
“My father paid three times that for a set of golf clubs. This is a brilliant investment by comparison.”
She pressed her lips to his and felt for his tongue until they were both out of breath. A woman on the sofa near them got up and made her husband move to a seat farther away.
Rosa felt a cool tingling inside her, glanced at her hand, and saw reptilian scales forming on her fingers. Her skin looked translucent as the transformation began under it. Startled, she pulled back, saw concern in his gaze, and knew what he had just seen in her blue eyes. Her pupils would have narrowed to slits.
Not now, she thought in alarm.
Damn hormones.WITHOUT YOU
“HEY,” WHISPEREDALESSANDRO SOOTHINGLY, pulling Rosa down on the sofa. The partitions between the groups of seats more or less shielded them from view.
She rubbed her palms on her jeans, as if she could wipe away the metamorphosis that was just beginning. She forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths. Gradually the chill shrank to a tiny point in her heart.
His hair wasn’t dark brown anymore, but black. She was sure that if she put her hands under his shirt she could have stroked the fine down of the panther fur as it grew on his back.
“Not a good place,” she said, suppressing a nervous laugh.
His eyes flashed with mockery. “For the price we’ve paid, we ought to get more than a sandwich from the cooler.”
She took his hand and gently massaged it between her fingers. When he tried to lean forward to kiss her again, she smiled and fended him off. “You see what happens. Until we can control it—”
“Until then, no sex,” he promised, grinning.
Their attempts to sleep together would have looked odd to other people. They generally ended in chaotic transformations, sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, usually just embarrassing. The worst of it was that they seldom reacted inthe same way to them. When it made him laugh, she felt like dying on the spot. As soon as she teased him about his panther coat, he began to sulk.
Strong emotions brought out something in both of them that would have inspired more than just indignation in the other passengers in the lounge. Rosa felt that she was under close observation, watched by informers from other clans and undercover police officers, and by the eyes of predators lurking beneath the mask of normality. There must certainly be other Arcadians in this room.
“Change the subject?” she suggested—it was one alternative to a cold shower.
“State of the financial markets? The weather?”
“Responsibility.” In her mouth, it sounded foreign.
His hair went back to brown at once.
“You saw those six guys back there,” she said. “They were waiting outside the airport to hand me a whole bunch of papers to sign. Construction contracts for new wind turbines. Stock options. Applications for subsidies.” Who said she couldn’t be romantic when she wanted to?
“Maybe you should go see them in the city now and then. Or ask them to come to the palazzo.”
“I’m signingsomethingevery day,” she said ruefully. “I spend hours on the phone in the mornings with obscure second and third female cousins in Milan and Rome, just because they manage companies that happen to belong to me. I don’t even know them. I’m lucky if I can remember their names.”
“Just as long as you realize that they’re lying with every word they say to you.”
In October, the body of her aunt Florinda Alcantara had been fished out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. What had upset Rosa more than the bullet wound in Florinda’s skull was the fact that she herself was next in line to be head of the clan. None of its members had wanted her, and no one had seriously expected her to accept the challenge. That was probably why she did. When the first of the new “good friends and confidential advisers,” who now came thronging to the Palazzo Alcantara, suggested that she might voluntarily decline her inheritance, she made her decision. They’d just have to learn how to get along with her.
“I’m doing my best to remember they’re lying”—it was one way of describing her lack of interest in them—“but I’m not Florinda. Or Zoe. I feel like a pilot who takes a plane thousands of feet up in the sky and then realizes he’s scared out of his wits.”
“Kind of limits your career options.”
“But I don’t want this career. I never asked to inherit everything. It’s not the same for me as it is for you.”
That was the difference between them. Alessandro had achieved what he’d always wanted. But she had never wanted anything, least of all this. Only him. Very, very, very much.
For all their disagreement on that one point, however, something else bound them together. Neither wanted to change the other. Perhaps that was the very reason she felt so at ease with him.
There was a thoughtful expression on his face. Difficult subject number one, business. Difficult subject number two, his family. Their discussions suffered from the same kind of ups and downs as their sex life—except that their conversations atleast actually happened, while their sex life wasn’t much more than speculation. They both had their ideas of what it would feel like—if and when it came to anything. Not having snake scales or panther hairs in your mouth would be a plus.
“I’ve begun cleaning up,” he said quietly. “Clearing away some of the mess left by Cesare and my father.” For decades, the Carnevares had dealt with the bodies of other clans’ victims for them, burying them under the asphalt of highways or embedding them in the concrete of ruinous gray buildings. It was a profitable business. Alessandro was no saint, but he wanted nothing to do with the money his clan earned that way. Not all the other members of the family and itscapodeciniagreed.
She took his hand again, hesitated for a moment, and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. “I guess that hasn’t made you any friends, huh?”
“It’s getting worse. Even the few who did accept me ascapoare beginning to turn away. Not openly, but most of them are too stupid to be subtle about it.” He seldom complained, and even now his eyes were clear as glass and his voice determined. “Sometimes I don’t know if this is really what I wanted.”
Rosa often wondered whether his wish to succeed his father ascapomight just have been because he needed to avenge his mother. Now that his father’s cousin Cesare was dead, Alessandro wasn’t really sure what to do with the Carnevare inheritance. He had known he wanted it, but now that he had it, it was much larger and more complicated than he had expected.
“Cesare got what he deserved,” she said.
“Yes, but didweget what we deserve?” He raised one hand and caressed her cheek. “Maybe I ought to come with you. Just to be somewhere else for a few days, and maybe after that—”
“Go away forever?” Smiling, she shook her head. “I know you better than that.”
“At this moment, the idea that you’ll be on the other side of the world while I’m still here is driving me crazy.”
She put her finger to his lips and moved it gently down to his chin. “How many times a week do we see each other? Three? And not always even that much. I’ll only be gone a few days. You won’t even notice it.”
“That’s not fair.”
Of course it wasn’t fair. But much as she, too, longed to be near him when he wasn’t in the same room—and even more so when hewas—she didn’t want him on this flight with her today. Not on her way to New York. On her way to see her mother.
“I could cancel a few meetings,” he added. “I’m still theircapo, whether they like it or not.”
“That’s nonsense; you know it is. They’d like to be rid of you yesterday.” Rosa held his glance, marveling at the intense, bright green of his eyes. “What would they say if you flew off on vacation with an Alcantara, with things here the way they are?”
When Zoe was dying in her sister’s arms, she had made Rosa promise something: to find out what linked their dead father to TABULA, the mysterious organization secretly at war with theArcadian dynasties. It was Rosa’s bad luck that she could think of only one place to begin, only one person who could tell her more about their father, and that was their mother.
There was no one in the world Rosa wanted to see less. Not after all that had happened. Not after Gemma had refused to come to Sicily even for Zoe’s funeral. Bitch.
Alessandro sighed. “I wanted to be in charge of my family, and now it’s in charge of me.”
“Well,” she said with a glance of wide-eyed innocence—she’d worked hard on perfecting that—“you should have thought of that before, right?”
A voice over a loudspeaker announced that her flight was now boarding.
“I’ll probably dream of you every night,” he said. “And when I wake up, I’ll know that the best part of the day is already over.”
“You read that somewhere.”
She kissed him again, a long kiss, and very tender. He still tasted of another world. The snake began to stir once more as he put his arms around her.
“Hey!” she said, laughing. “My flight. The gate. I have to—”
“What we have won’t ever end,” he whispered.
She ran her fingers through his unruly hair. “Never.”
Then she freed herself from his embrace, picked up her bag, and hurried to the exit.
WHATROSA FOUND THATevening was not her own New York, but the New York of tourists and theatergoers, the glittering madhouse of Broadway.
It was almost thirty degrees colder than in Sicily. Her jacket was too thin, her nose was running, and she’d packed only one of a pair of gloves in her suitcase. Home, sweet home.
Wearily, she left the lobby of the Millennium Broadway Hotel, trudged through the snow around the candy-colored corner facade of Toys “R” Us, and was in Times Square surrounded by milling crowds of people, bright billboards, and walls of video ads.
She had spent almost her whole life in New York, although admittedly on the other side of the East River. She knew what went on between Wall Street and the Bronx more from TV than from her own experience.
Rosa had grown up in Brooklyn, in one of those down-at-the-heel neighborhoods that didn’t have views of the Manhattan skyline. Home had been a dump of a building with too many tenants in apartments too cramped for them. With graffiti in the stairwell, busted central heating, drafty windows, clattering fire escapes that drove you crazy with the noise they made during storms. Cats had their kittens next todead rats on the ledges outside the basement windows, and Rosa could remember more than one cockroach plague of biblical proportions.
All around there were endless rows of apartment buildings like hers, basketball courts surrounded by high fences, grubby playgrounds where young mothers stared vacantly at sandboxes during the day and speakers played at full volume in the evenings. Traffic lights dangled from cables above the streets. Photocopied faces of missing children, dogs, and cats looked out from tree trunks. Faded American flags hung under windowsills. And sometimes, at night, an empty baby carriage rolled across an intersection, on fire, a declaration of war by a gang fighting off boredom.
That had been Rosa’s New York. Today, only a few months after leaving it all behind, she was staying in a luxury hotel booked by her secretary in Piazza Armerina. She was paying with a platinum credit card, and the doorman addressed her as Ms. Alcantara. Six months ago he’d have thrown her out on her ear. She didn’t just feel like a stranger in this city; she felt like a stranger in her own body. Taking over some other girl’s identity.
She walked around for almost an hour, let herself drift with the flow of the crowd, and finally decided that what she needed was a grubby backyard, a snow-covered blind alley, some kind of still eye in the hurricane of the metropolis. She found an alley wider than she had hoped for, but dilapidated enough to remind her of the New York she knew. She felt the worn asphalt through the snow, listened to the roar of trafficin the streets, smelled the stale air coming up through a subway grate.
Why did her longing for him have to hit her here, right at this very moment? Well, nothing she could do about it. One moment she was thinking, So here I am again, and the next, It would be better ifhewere here. If she wasn’t careful, she’d soon be dreaming of ironing his shirts.
Almost reluctantly, she started rummaging around for her iPhone, began to think someone must have stolen it in the crush of people, but finally she felt it among the other stuff in her bag: paper tissues, eyedrops, a notebook. She wasn’t sure why she even carted the notebook around with her.
But what she’d thought was her cell phone turned out to be another book. Smaller, fatter, in a disintegrating binding. The leather on the spine bore the wordsAesop’s Fablesin tiny lettering. She held it under her nose and breathed in deeply. The smell took her straight back to a sun-drenched graveyard deep in the Sicilian countryside.
Silly. Totally childish. She quickly put the book away, found her phone, and discovered that it had been on during the entire flight. Obviously God wanted her to live and suffer.
No text message. No email. Out of sight, out of mind.
She tapped in:arrived. new york in the snow. v. romantic. Then she hesitated, and added:getting a bladder infection. bad climate for snakes. stupid weather. stupid city.
SEND. And her sensitive love letter was winging its way to the other side of the Atlantic. Where it would be two in the morning. She bit her lower lip, feeling guilty. Alessandro’s cellphone always lay beside his pillow, switched on.
It was only a minute before the answer came back.
can’t sleep. thinking of you too much.
Her heart beating faster, she typed:did you shift shape?
deprivation = no transformation, he replied.
This must be International Bad Equations Week.
new york minus alessandro = even colder, she wrote back.
He replied:cold + rosa = snake (better not).
only when cold + sex.
sex + city, like on TV?
must buy manolos. hope you sleep better now.
His reaction was a little while coming.rosa?
steer clear of the new york carnevares. meant to say so at the airport, but your tongue got in the way.
i mean it. my ny relations don’t like the alcantaras.
I really do mean it.
I get the idea.
have fun buying shoes.
That’s not likely, she thought.will be in touch soon.
wow, HAIR everywhere…ewww!
She was grinning at the screen like a lunatic. She waited a moment to see if there’d be anything else, then put the cell phone back in her bag.
She stood there in the alley, undecided, rubbing her handsto warm them and staring at the snow around her shoes.
Well, why not?
The next morning she took a taxi to Gothic Renaissance on Fourth Avenue and bought black steel-toed boots with a diagonal seam and eight lace-up holes, the only winter-weight tights in the store, and a heavy-duty stapler at a shop around the corner.
Now she had really arrived.
The stapler felt good in her hand and contained a hundred steel staples that could be driven into practically anything by compressed air at intervals of a second. After the rape she’d made it a habit to have a stapler like that always ready. Why make do with pepper spray when you could buy one of these in any hardware store?
Of course she had enough money now to hire bodyguards to protect her full-time, but the mere thought of it made her feel unlike herself. She hadn’t come to New York to ask for trouble; she’d come to talk to her mother. But the weight of the stapler in her hand made her feel safer.
It was sixteen months since she’d been drugged at a party and then raped by a stranger or strangers. Afterward, they’d left Rosa unconscious in the street. To this day she knew nothing more about what had happened that night, and after endless sessions of counseling and therapy she had come to the conclusion that she didn’t really want to remember. She had given up searching for suppressed images and scraps of thoughts, emotions blocked out by her unconscious mind. Ifthere was one thing to be grateful for, it was the blackout that kept her from knowing the details, the memory of faces or voices. Not even physical pain remained. Only her fears. Her neuroses. Her bitten fingernails, her kleptomania, and for a long time the feeling that she couldn’t trust anyone—until she met Alessandro. Sometimes you had to see through another person’s eyes to understand yourself better.
But the rape had left other traces behind. Nathaniel. The baby she’d aborted. She knew it would have been a son; she just sensed it. She had waited a long time, until the third month, before caving to pressure from her mother and the advice of all the doctors. The operation had been under total anesthesia—just routine, the doctor had said. Routine for the doctor, maybe.
Slush sprayed up on the sidewalk. There was a white bicycle chained to a lamppost on the other side of the street, one of many ghost bikes in New York, placed around in memory of cyclists who had been run over. Rosa stood outside the hardware store, weak at the knees now, staring at her stapler as if it held the answers she’d been avoiding for months. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come back; she hadn’t put enough distance between herself and the rape yet. Confronting her mother wasn’t going to make matters any better. A conversation toclear everything up. As if there were still anything to be cleared up.
She walked to the Union Square subway station at Fourteenth Street, hesitated at the stairs, and then continued to the next entrance, at a traffic island on Astor Place. Here again she couldn’t bring herself to go down to the platform,and instead went on to Broadway-Lafayette, where she’d have changed trains anyway.
On the way, however, she decided it was ridiculous to put off the meeting any longer. After walking through the cold, it occurred to her that she didn’t have to watch every dollar anymore, and she took a taxi over the Brooklyn Bridge in the direction of Crown Heights.
She got out of the cab outside the building where she had grown up, searching her mind for any sense of coming home, or at least of familiarity. Nothing. She had felt a void like this before, when she’d arrived in Sicily last October. Now she wondered where her home really was. Her hand went into her bag and touchedAesop’s Fables.
Slush spurted up from the tires of the taxi as it drove away. Rosa stood on the sidewalk staring at the eight steps up to the front door. The building had only three floors above ground level, and there was a faded burn mark below the flat roof, left by the riots during the 1977 blackout. In all the decades since, the owner hadn’t thought it necessary to invest a few dollars in painting the facade.
The curtains of her mother’s apartment were open, all the windowpanes clean and shiny. A bunch of fresh flowers stood at one window. Gemma must have chosen the place because it got the most sunlight. The Petersons’ station wagon was parked right outside the door to the basement apartment, as always. If Mr. Piccirilli hadn’t drunk himself to death on cheap bourbon yet, there’d be the usual trouble.
And if she went on staring at the building like this, she wasgoing to burst into tears of sentimental nostalgia.
It was only a few steps to the front door and the apartment buzzers beside it. She hadn’t taken a key with her when she left for Italy. Now it felt as if she’d been away not four months but forty years. That, more than anything else, made her realize how definitively she had broken with everything here.
The idea of climbing those steps made her feel terrible. Her mother probably wouldn’t be home anyway. She must still have that job at Bristen’s Eatery, and the second job at the Laundromat. At night she sometimes cooked glass noodles in a Chinese restaurant two blocks away, and then took the next day off. So she might be home after all. Which only made it worse that Rosa was standing there on the sidewalk as if frozen to it, easily visible.
What would she have chosen if her mother had advised her to keep the baby? Would she have brought Nathaniel into the world? And then what? She’d still be living here, hearing Mr. Piccirilli’s snores through the floorboards at night, feeding a howling infant, trying to get by somehow or other.
She had to get away from here. Right away.
Hadn’t Gemma been right to say Rosa would be doing herself no favors by having a baby at seventeen? Didn’t she have enough trouble with herself already? But they didn’t have to talk about that. She only wanted to find out something about her father and TABULA.
It was pathetic, just standing here doing nothing. Not going in, but not going away, either. Indecision of that kind had killed Nathaniel.
The lace curtain beside the bunch of flowers moved. A draft of air?
Why didn’t the snowplow come along and run her down? That would make it all so much simpler.
Her hand, she noticed almost to her own surprise, was still clutchingAesop’s Fablesinside her bag. She let go of the little book and took out her cell phone instead. She tapped in the number and stopped with her finger hovering above theCALLkey. The curtain moved again. Yes, just the wind. The windows had hardly any insulation. Rosa took a deep breath and pressedCALL. Was tempted to hang up.
She saw a silhouette behind the lace, someone going from the bedroom into the kitchen.
“Hello?” Her mother sounded tired. So she had indeed been working the night shift. “Hel-lo?” More awake now, and annoyed.
Rosa’s eyes were burning. She heard Gemma breathing. A small dog appeared at the entrance to the building and barked. Her mother must be able to hear it too. Twice, like an echo—through the window and over the phone.
Rosa quickly hung up and walked away.
The dog, yapping, followed her a little way down the street and then left her alone, pleased with itself for chasing off an enemy.HIS FACE
SHE DISCOVERED THE BRONZEpanther by pure chance.
He was crouching on a hill in Central Park, his black eyes looking down on East Drive, one of the two streets running north to south through the park. From up there his view over the treetops must reach as far as the skyline of high-rise buildings on Fifth Avenue. Up there on his rock, surrounded by leafless tendrils of Virginia creeper, he seemed about to pounce.
Rosa sat down on a bench and examined the statue from a distance. Joggers and walkers passed by, and now and then one of the horse-drawn carriages driving tourists and amorous couples around the park. Icicles hung from the big cat’s jaws as if he were baring his teeth. But she could see only sadness in his dark eyes, nothing threatening.
She had grabbed her laptop from the hotel before coming here. She brushed the snow from the bench, but a chill still seeped through her jeans and tights.
The bronze panther looked as if he were watching her. She knew how that effect was achieved from the oil paintings in the Palazzo Alcantara. If she got up and walked a little ways away, the statue’s eyes would seem to follow her.
The laptop lay closed on her knees as she tapped Alessandro’s number into her phone. It would be just after nine inthe evening in Italy now. She had once asked him what he did during the evenings they didn’t spend together. “Nothing,” he had said. “I sit there doing nothing.”
“You mean reading? Or watching TV?” Even as she said it, it struck her as such a boring question that she could have screamed at herself.
Alessandro shook his head. “If it’s hot, I go up on the battlements and look across the plain to the south. Over the hills on the horizon. When the sirocco blows, you can smell Africa.”
“Is that a panther thing?” She gestured clumsily. “I mean…like panthers. Jungles. Africa.”
“That’s where we come from. Originally, anyway.”
“I thought it was Arcadia.”
“The human part of us. But the origin of the other part, the roots of the Panthera, they’re somewhere in Africa.”
“How about snakes?”
“Same for snakes, I guess.”
“Will you show me? How to smell Africa up there on your battlements?”
The panther on the rock looked as if he, too, were dreaming of somewhere far away.
The ringing of the phone brought her back out of her thoughts, and the next moment Alessandro’s voice mail kicked in. Rosa hesitated for a second, cleared her throat, smiled, and said, “I was just thinking of you. What you said about Africa. There’s a panther here with me. He’s made of metal, but I’dlove to climb up and put my arms around him.”
Good God. That was easily the most ridiculous thing she’d ever said. In panic, she broke the connection, and realized at the same moment that it was too late. She couldn’t unsay what she’d said.Climb up and put my arms around him. She felt like crawling under the park bench.
But the panther kept looking down at her, and now his icicle teeth flashed in a sunbeam as if he were grinning at her, saying,Come on up here, then.
She let the cell phone drop to her lap, picked it up again, and buried it deep in her bag. Maybe he’d forget to listen to his messages. For about the next fifty years.
Almost automatically, she turned to her laptop. The casing felt icy. She desperately needed gloves and was annoyed with herself for not having bought a pair at Gothic Renaissance. Although black lace probably wouldn’t have been the best choice for this cold weather.
Her new emails wouldn’t all fit on a single screen. A handful were addressed directly to her—mostly from the men who had escorted her to the airport—but the majority she was only cc’d on. Correspondence between the managers of her companies, meaningless stuff to give the police surveillance experts something to do. Some of it seemed to be in a bewildering code, but really it was only randomly picked sequences of letters and numbers. Every minute that the anti-Mafia commission wasted trying to decipher the code was taking police attention away from other work.
The remaining messages were confined to the legal activitiesof the Alcantara companies, particularly the building of wind turbines all over Sicily and the delivering of wool blankets and food supplies to the refugee camp on Lampedusa.
One of the last emails, however, made her frown. It came from the Studio Legale Avv. Giuseppe L. Trevini. An attorney, Trevini had worked exclusively for the Alcantaras for many years, ever since Rosa’s grandmother had been head of the clan. Rosa had visited him three times in the last few months and realized that he knew every last detail of all the family’s dealings—legal and illegal. Whenever she had questions, he had told her, she could turn to him. Trevini was old-fashioned, cranky, but also crafty, and he was a technophobe. He had never sent her an email before. What he didn’t want to keep in the archives on paper, for reasons of security, he stored in his personal memory. She had never met anyone with such total recall. In spite of his close connection with the Alcantaras, she didn’t trust him. In the days just before she left, he had asked her no less than four times to visit him. But that would have meant going to Taormina. Trevini was in a wheelchair and refused to leave the grand hotel looking out on the bay where he had been living for decades.
So it was unusual for the attorney to send her an email. Even more startling, however, was the subject line:Alessandro Carnevare—important!
Avvocato Trevini had made no secret of his extreme disapproval of any relationship between an Alcantara woman and a Carnevare man. That was another reason why she felt uneasy as she opened the message.
Dear Signorina Alcantara, he wrote.As your family’s legal adviser for many years, I would like you to look at the attached video data file. In addition, I ask you again for a personal conversation. I am sure you will agree that the attachment and further material in my possession call for urgent consultation. On that occasion, I would like to introduce you to my new colleague, Contessa Avvocato Cristina di Santis. I remain, with the deepest respect for your family and in the hope of meeting you in the near future, yours sincerely, Avv. Giuseppe L. Trevini.
Rosa moved the cursor over the attachment icon and then stopped. She read that last sentence of his email again, annoyed.Deepest respect for your family. By which, of course, he meantDon’t forget where you belong, you stupid child.
With a snort of indignation, she clicked on the attachment and waited impatiently for the video to come up. The picture was no larger than the size of a pack of cigarettes, pixelated and much too dark. Metallic rushing sounds and distorted voices came from the speaker.
She was seeing a party, evidently filmed on a cell phone, with wobbly, indistinct images of laughing faces. The video panned across a large room. Scraps of conversation were barely audible; the sound was a blurred mixture of words, clinking glasses, and background music.
Now the camera was turned on a single person, and stayed there. Rosa was looking at her own face, shiny in the heat of the room. She was wearing makeup. In one hand she held a cocktail glass and a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked or drunkfor almost a year and a half now. Not a drop of alcohol since that night.
A girl’s high-spirited voice asked how she was. The Rosa in the video grinned and shaped a word with her lips.
“What?” called the voice.
“B-A-T-H-R-O-O-M,” Rosa spelled out. “The bathroom. Coming with me?”
The answer couldn’t be heard, but the picture wobbled. A head was shaken. Rosa shrugged her shoulders, put her glass down on a buffet table, and walked out of the frame, listing heavily. She’d drunk a lot that evening.
The picture changed again. The camera panned over faces, lingering on them when it found a good-looking man. Now and then someone grinned into it; several greetings were called out to the girl holding the cell phone. “Hi, Valerie!”—“How’s it going?”—“Hey there, Val!”
Valerie Paige. Rosa hadn’t thought of her in months. How did Trevini come by a video made by Val of that party? He must have found out what had happened there. That was all she needed.
Valerie stopped again. She zoomed in and out a few times—more faces, most of them pixelated beyond all recognition. Then she concentrated on a group of young men in one corner of the room.
Five or six of them talking, three with their backs to the camera. One of them waved to Valerie and gave her an appreciative wolf whistle. Rosa had never seen him before. Val zoomed in again. Off camera she called, “Hey, Mark!” Theothers turned to her as well. One of them was looking straight into the camera, smiling.
The picture froze. The sound broke off.
The status bar showed that the file wasn’t finished yet, but the rest of it was occupied by the still of that one face. With that silent, frozen smile.
Trembling, Rosa enlarged the window until the young man’s features consisted of brownish rectangles. Then she minimized it right down again.
She could have spared herself the trouble. She’d recognized Alessandro even before he’d turned around. From the way he moved. From his unruly hair.
Muttering curses, she leaned against the back of the park bench. Above the lid of the laptop, the bronze panther, unmoving, was still staring at her, up on his rock framed by a background of bony branches.
Alessandro had been there. On the night it happened. In that apartment in the Village where Rosa had never been before, and would never be again.
His hair was shorter than today—a boarding-school haircut, he had once called it. The others with him had similar hairstyles.
Damn it,he had been there.
And had never said a single word about it.
IT WAS A TRICK. A lie. Some perverse ruse to make her feel insecure, distract her attention, keep her from messing up any of the Alcantara deals from which Trevini earned his money.
It wasn’t hard to see through his ploy. He wanted to unsettle her so that she’d be easier to manipulate. Most people thought the Mafia shot down anyone who stood in its path with a machine gun. That was nonsense; there were many other ways to get rid of them, and Avvocato Trevini knew them all. A man who had been working for the Cosa Nostra for decades, defending murderers, springing criminals from prison, discrediting public prosecutors—a man who had survived all the changes of leadership intact, and even the bloody street warfare of earlier years, knew what he was doing.
A video clip could be faked. How hard was it to replace one face with another? Trevini must know that she didn’t trust him. That, naturally, she would sooner believe Alessandro. All she had to do was call Alessandro, ask him, and the whole hoax would be exposed.
And yet Trevini had sent her the video.
She took her cell phone out of her bag and dialed Alessandro’s number for the second time that afternoon. The ring seemed louder and shriller this time. Voice mail again.
His smile was still caught on the monitor of the laptop, blurred like a half-forgotten memory. Had she seen him that evening? When Valerie thought a man looked sexy, it was her habit to point him out. Had she pointed him out to Rosa at the party? And more important, hadheseen Rosa and failed to tell her later that he recognized her? Why had he kept quiet about it?
He hadn’t been straightforward with her once before: when he’d taken her to Isola Luna so that her presence would interfere with Tano’s plans to murder him. They hadn’t been a couple yet at the time. Did that make a difference?
She decided to send Trevini an email.
You’re fired, she typed.Get out of my life.
She deleted that, and instead wrote:You’ll be hearing from my contract killers. Shitty attorney. Shitty cripple. I hope you miss seeing a shitty staircase in your shitty hotel.
It was almost poetry.
After a moment’s thought, she deleted that, too.Dear Signore Trevini, I am not at home right now. I will be in touch about a date for a discussion in the next few days. Where did you get that video? And you mentioned other material; what kind of material is that? Sincerely, Rosa Alcantara.
PS: I HOPE YOU CHOKE ON YOUR SHITTY LEGAL LIES IN YOUR SHITTY WHEELCHAIR, YOU MISERABLE BASTARD.
She stared at the postscript, then deleted it letter by letter, very slowly. Finally she hitSENDand closed the laptop.
Her cell phone rang at the same moment. She sawAlessandro’s name on the display, waited a few seconds, and then answered.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“What are you doing there with that panther?”
Puzzled, she looked around her, and then remembered the voice mail.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked.
He hesitated briefly. “Discussions?” It sounded like a question, as if he couldn’t believe that she’d forgotten that. “Good to hear your voice.”
She hated herself a little for being unable to pretend better. For not managing to sound, at least for one or two minutes, as if everything were all right. Instead she said, “You were there.”
Another pause. “Where? What do you mean?”
“At that party. A year and a half ago in the Village. You were there.”
“What are you talking about?”
Relieved, she thought: Good. So itwasa trick. All lies. He had no idea what she was asking him.
Only she didn’t say that. “I saw you. On a video. You were at the same party as me, on the same damn night.”
His reaction was calm. “When exactly was this?”
“October thirty-first. A Halloween party, but no costumes. Anyone who did come in costume had to strip down to their underwear and run right through the apartment.”
She heard him draw his breath in sharply. “Thatwas theparty. Where they…It happenedthere?”
Suppose he was lying so as not to hurt her? Would she rather it was that way? She wanted to know the truth, never mind how bad or bewildering it was.
“Yes,” she said dully.
“I didn’t know. You never mentioned it.”
“Did you see me there?”
“No.” He almost sounded distressed, something she’d never heard in his voice before. She didn’t like it, and it only confused her even more. “No,” he repeated more firmly. “Of course not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Shit, Rosa…I had no idea! There were so many people around, and we went out to parties like that all the time. I went with friends from boarding school; we used to drive into different parts of the city. Including the Village. Someone always knew someone else, and there was always a party somewhere.”
That sounded plausible. And there was no reason at all to distrust him. She did love him.
Only there was an undertone, a slight hesitation in his voice that made her wonder.Someone always knew someone else.
“Did you know them?” she asked quietly. “The guys who did it?”
Now he understood. “You think I knew about it and never said anything? Never said anything all this time?”
“I don’t know what I think.” She couldn’t even feel her fingers on the cell phone now. The sun was shining over CentralPark, but a freezing wind was chasing down East Drive, making ice crystals swirl up in the air and getting under her clothes. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“You don’t seriously think I’d cover up for someone like that, do you?” He sounded hurt, and she was sorry. “If I knew who the bastard was, I’d personally put a bullet between his eyes.”
She passed her free hand over her face. She still couldn’t think straight. “When I saw you on that video…well, I hadn’t expected that.”
“I wish I was there with you.”
“Not a good idea talking about something like this on the phone. I know.”
“No. I…I’m so sorry, Rosa. What can I say? I didn’t know.”
“You can’t help that.”
“I’ll get on a flight for New York. Tomorrow morning.”
“No, don’t be silly; I’ll cope. You can’t help me anyway. I’m too much of a coward even to speak to my mother. And now this…” She rubbed her knees together to warm them. “I just have to get over it and then everything will be okay.”
“No, it won’t,” he said firmly. “You don’tsoundokay.”
“Let’s just call each other again later.”
“Don’t hang up now. Or I’ll fly out tonight.” With the Carnevares’ private jet on call, that wasn’t such an outlandish idea.
“Oh, really, Alessandro…don’t do that.” She had to pull herself together. It was a bad sign if the video could knock heroff balance like this. It meant that Trevini was right about her. “I’ll manage here on my own. Maybe I ought to just drop that business about my father and TABULA.” They both knew she wouldn’t. Not after her promise to Zoe when her sister was dying. “It’s odd to be back here. New York is…kind of different.”
“Of course it’s odd. You’re different now yourself.”
“Once I wouldn’t have lost control like this.”
“You haven’t lost control. You’re annoyed. Of course.” He cleared his throat, and she imagined him rubbing his nose as he sometimes did when he was thinking. “Who sent you this video?”
“He says—” she began, but she swallowed the rest of the sentence:He says he has further material in his possession. More evidence? Of what? “He didn’t tell me where he got it. But you can bet he will.”
“He’s the same as the others. They all hate that we—”
“I can ignore the others. But not Trevini. He’s the only one who knows absolutely everything about the way the Alcantaras earn their money.”
“He doesn’t like an eighteen-year-old girl having the authority to give him orders.”
“You can’t really blame him.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“He wants me to go and see him.”
“Maybe you’d better not.”
“He can’t do anything to me. It would be stupid of him to. My managers don’t trust him—none of them like him knowing so much. If he tried murdering me, he wouldn’t survive very long himself. The rest of them think I’m naive and out of my depth, but they believe that sooner or later they’ll be able to guide me in a direction that suits them. Trevini could never becapo; no one would accept him. Thirty or forty years of working for the Alcantaras still doesn’t make him one of us.”
“All the same, don’t go to see him. He’s planning something. Why else would he have sent you the video?”
She was beginning to calm down. “Does the name Cristina di Santis mean anything to you? Contessa di Santis?”
“Trevini’s new colleague, he says. He wants me to meet her. It may not be important.”
“With the jet, I could be with you in ten hours.”
“No, you have to make sure your own people aren’t about to stab you in the back. I can deal with Trevini. And my mother, too.”
His long silence showed that he wasn’t convinced. “Who filmed this video?”
“A friend of mine…at least, she was at the time. Valerie Paige. She was the one who dragged me to the party.” She sensed that he was about to say something, but she kept talking. “It wasn’t the first time. She waited tables in a club; she was always getting invited somewhere, and sometimes I went with her.”
“And she filmed me?”
“Not just you. A whole crowd of people who were there. Later on someone froze the picture on your face. I assume that was Trevini’s doing.”
“How does a lawyer stuck in a wheelchair in Sicily come by a cell phone belonging to a New York waitress?”
“I mean it, Rosa.”
“I have no idea. And I don’t care. But it’s helped to talk to you about it…and Alessandro? I’m sorry that I…you know what I mean, right?”
“I care about you a lot,” he said gently.
“I care about you too. And I can’t wait to see you again. But not here in New York. I’ll be home in a few days. This is something I have to do on my own.” She hesitated for a moment. “And don’t get any ideas about speaking to Trevini yourself. This is my business. Okay?”
“But it’s just as much—”
“Please, Alessandro. They’ll never take me seriously if as soon as things get tricky I send a Carnevare, of all people, ahead of me. Anyway, you have enough trouble of your own.”
He didn’t contradict her. She wished she could kiss him for that.
“Call me every day, okay?”
They said good-bye. Rosa put her cell phone away and listened to the pleasant echo of his voice in her head. Her conversation with him, and the fact that they were so far apart, drained her even more than her failure to get in touch with hermother. She longed for him, but when she was with him she couldn’t express her feelings the way she wanted. And it didn’t help that he certainly knew how she felt anyway. Yet she was surprised by her own desire to let him see her feelings; that wasn’t like her. So why this sudden need for communication? It was embarrassing. Or at least unusual.
Finally his voice in her head died away. She had silence back, in the middle of the noisiest city in the world. She was briefly tempted to watch the video again. But not here in the park, not in this cold, where she wouldn’t feel it if theotherkind of cold began rising in her.
The bronze panther bared his icicle fangs. She didn’t think he looked like Alessandro anymore. As she set off, his moody gaze followed her.
If she wanted to find out how Trevini had come by that video, there was only one person she could ask.FREAKS
ROSA ANDVALERIE HADfirst met online in a community called the Suicide Queens; none of them were personally acquainted with any of the others. All they knew about one another was how they looked in various states ranging from wide awake, to out of it, to near death. The webcams were unforgiving when it came to recording their dying moments, which would be posted on the site.
All the members were girls and young women, although opinion was divided on the question of whether a woman named Lucille Seville had once been a man. At the very least, she wore a wig, which they knew because the paramedics accidentally knocked it off when they were taking her away.
The rules of the Suicide Queens were extremely simple. They took turns, one of them every evening. A greeting on camera to everyone who was logged in, then the presentation of the pills. Usually this introduction occurred in front of the bed or the sofa on which the rest of the drama was to unfold. The first points awarded by the other Queens were for the number of tablets. More points could be scored for powers of persuasion, which were on display during the emergency phone call. Some members of the club screamed and cried hysterically. Others kept perfectly calm and said only, “I’m goingto die very soon. Come and get me if you can.”
Valerie was one of the latter sort. She swallowed more sleeping pills than anyone else, and somehow or other she got hold of the really hard stuff. Her next step could only be rat poison. She washed the medication down with alcohol and kept her emergency call short. After that she lay on the bed, in full view of the community at home in front of their monitors, waiting for sleep to come. And for the paramedics. Sometimes they took only a few minutes, sometimes half an hour. Valerie claimed to have seen the light at the end of the tunnel a number of times already. She knew the movie of her life by heart, she said, because she’d seen it flash before her eyes so often.
No one could compare to Val. She took the most pills, stayed conscious longest, and at least once she hadn’t given the emergency services switchboard the number of her apartment. The paramedics had to go halfway around the block asking questions before they found it. Valerie almost died that night. But a week later she was sitting in front of her webcam again, back in the running—with the highest score since the founding of the Queens. Her smug demeanor told everyone that she thought the point of life was in the expectation of death.
Rosa had competed actively only once. She had spent days on Google, reading everything she could find out about committing suicide by taking sleeping pills, pages upon pages upon pages, until the idea almost took on its own kind of morbid romance.
She hadn’t even fallen asleep yet when the ambulance pulled up outside the door of her building. The only club memberwith fewer points to her name was a punk from Jersey who claimed that aspirin had the same effect as zopiclone and tried to convince them that she had fallen into a coma after the fifth tablet. Rosa had not taken part again.
A week later she met Valerie at Club Exit on Greenpoint Avenue. Valerie spoke to her as easily and cheerfully as if they had met out shopping. Val was wearing a T-shirt that saidYour hardcore is my mainstream. Rosa would never have recognized her on her own. The distorted perspective of the webcam, the pixels, the poor lighting had given her a ghostly look that did justice to the name of the Suicide Queens. In real life, however, Valerie was a pale teenager like Rosa herself, with a black bob that gave her the look of a 1920s silent movie star. Like Rosa, she was thin and heavily made up, and at their second outing, at the Three Kings, it was obvious that she also thought much like Rosa. After half a dozen meetings, some by chance, some planned, she admitted that her appearances on the Suicide Queens site were all a hoax. The pills were magnesium tablets, the bourbon was apple juice, the paramedics were friends from the apartment on the floor above hers.
Rosa was both fascinated and disappointed. “How about the Queens and their code of honor?”
Valerie stared at her, astonished. “But they’refreaks!” she blurted out, and that was that.
In the end, Rosa’s admiration for the way Valerie coolly fooled a bunch of idiots who were tired of life—including Rosa herself—won out. During the online chats, the otherswere all eating out of Val’s hand and never thought of criticizing any of her absurd theories about life after death.
For Valerie it was all a big joke. Offline she laughed unkindly at the other Queens, and Rosa felt flattered because this strange girl trusted her. Of course she would never mention it to anyone; she’d had to promise that just once and never again. She had entered Valerie’s close circle—a circle that consisted of Valerie and Rosa. For the first time since Zoe had left for Sicily, she felt there was someone who took her seriously and accepted her. In spite of the differences between them, her sister had left a vacuum behind, and Valerie filled it with her bizarre charm and charisma.
After that, they danced together through the clubs, from Bushwick to Brighton Beach, they smoked pot under the Brooklyn Bridge, and they tried to think up ways of outdoing Valerie’s triumph over the Suicide Queens. Twice a week Valerie waited tables at a club in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, but she wouldn’t take Rosa with her. It was work for her, not play. Rosa respected that.
Valerie had an eye for cute boys, but all she ever did with them was drink and smoke. For Valerie, her attitude was nothing but a show, an illusion—an act she put on for the Suicide Queens as well as men. Even Rosa wasn’t quite sure whether she had ever met the real Valerie, or only the mask she wore for show.
The Halloween party in the Village had been one of thousands of parties thrown in New York that weekend, and what happened to Rosa could have happened to any girl. The drugsin Rosa’s cocktail, the strangers who raped her—it was pure chance that it was her. There were probably several dozen such cases on the same night. She was nothing out of the ordinary; the police had no doubt of that. She’d been drinking; she was wearing a miniskirt. That was enough to make the rape an everyday event with an eleven-digit reference number in the files.
The party had been Valerie’s suggestion. Someone had given her the address while she was waitressing. She and Rosa took a taxi because the subway on Halloween would be hellish, and they began drinking in the back of the cab. All Rosa knew was that they were going to the Village, but she didn’t know the house, and she had no memory of the building where they got out. A typical brownstone: an old building with several floors. The police spoke to Valerie later, but she too said she couldn’t remember the address. Maybe that was the truth, maybe just another lie so she didn’t get a reputation for hanging out with the cops.
Not that it ultimately made any difference. After that evening Rosa didn’t want to see Valerie again, and for reasons that Rosa first put down to a guilty conscience, and later to indifference, Val herself never tried to get in touch. What had looked like a close friendship for a couple of months had really just been a kind of useful link between them based on Valerie’s idea of a good time, and the rape had put an end to any fun for one of them. In Valerie’s world of trendy clubs in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, there was no place for regret or for Rosa.
Sixteen months later Rosa didn’t know Valerie’s number by heart anymore, and the cell phone where it had been stored no longer existed. They had never met at home. There was no Valerie Paige listed, and the last name was far too common to be used as a starting point for inquiries.
In retrospect, it seemed odd that Valerie had disappeared from her life without a trace. Even the Suicide Queens weren’t to be found on the internet anymore, after one of the girls had taken the game too far. For her, there’d been no going back. Rosa did find hints in one forum that the community still existed on another server, under a new name, but there were no direct links, and no other clues to the new online identities of its members. Anyway, she doubted she would have found Valerie there; she had probably gotten tired of playing around with placebos and apple juice long ago, and was looking for her fun elsewhere.
When Trevini still hadn’t called by late that evening, Rosa took a cab to the Meatpacking District. She had never seen the club where Valerie waited tables, but she remembered its name: the Dream Room. She had found the address on the internet and was almost surprised to see that not everything connected with Valerie had vanished into thin air, leaving no trace.
She got out of the taxi just before midnight and joined the line waiting outside the club. It was on a side street and, like so many other buildings in this neighborhood, had once been a slaughterhouse, as an antiquated inscription on the dark brickmasonry of the second floor boasted. The neon sign of the Dream Room, however, looked almost modest. A few dozen people were waiting outside its steel door. Two burly doormen were checking the guests’ IDs. Rosa, in her short dress, black tights, and steel-capped boots, was let in easily enough. She hadn’t gone to much trouble with her outfit, but because her wild blond hair wouldn’t be tamed, and was in such contrast to her black clothes, she looked dressed up enough for Manhattan’s chic club scene. At least an Asian girl with pink hair extensions, on her way down the concrete steps, cast an envious glance at Rosa’s blond mane.
The interior designers of the Dream Room had removed the floor of the second story to make an enormously high-ceilinged chamber. From the stairs, all you saw was a wide, wavering surface—cloud cover made of dry ice concealed the view of the dance floor from above. Here and there the swathes of mist parted to reveal a milling throng of bodies. A continuous salvo of beats, somewhere between industrial and jungle music, boomed from unseen speakers.
Now Rosa could see how the Dream Room got its name. Thousands of dream catchers hung from the ceiling, high above the sea of dry ice. Someone must have bought up the entire stock of the souvenir shops on Indian reservations to get so many. The dream catchers dangled up there like mobiles made of wickerwork and feathers, strings of beads and horsehair, some right beneath the ceiling, others deep in the mist. There were dream catchers large and small, plain and extravagant, and they all shook, swinging and turning, from thebooming music from the loudspeakers.
Only now did she realize that she had stopped halfway down the stairs. Guests impatient to get in pushed past her, but a few others also stood there taking in the sight.
She tore herself away, walked down the remaining steps, and broke through the layer of dry ice. The scene below was equally eccentric. The floor was crisscrossed by a labyrinth of corridors, like trenches on a battlefield overhung by mist. They linked half a dozen dance floors together. Guests dressed to the nines pushed along the narrow aisles; physical contact was desirable and couldn’t be avoided anyway. Spotlights flickered above their heads. In the trenches themselves, diffuse strip lighting showed the way, and there were other dim lamps here and there, illuminating the corridors for only a few feet ahead. Most clubs tried to present their guests with a world of their own, but Rosa had never seen one that did it so effectively, and by such simple means, as the Dream Room.
Soon she too was making her way along the aisles, looking hard at the waitresses, but she didn’t see anyone at all like Valerie. She hadn’t really expected her to still be here, but maybe someone remembered her and would know where to find her. Trevini would certainly have some explanation ready of how he had come by Valerie’s video, but she doubted it would be the truth. It couldn’t hurt to find out as much about Valerie as possible on her own.
On the edge of one of the dance floors, she leaned over the bar and asked the bartender if he knew a girl called Valerie Paige. He shook his head. The same with her second and thirdattempts. She was about to plunge back into the turmoil of the trenches when she stopped to watch a remarkable entrance.
The crowd gave way before a group of black-clad bodyguards. The men towered above most of the guests by a head, and beside the wraith-like emo girls and the heavily made-up Goths they looked like trolls. In their midst swooped a figure from another age. A young woman in her midtwenties, with raven-black hair, high cheekbones, and strikingly large eyes, came gliding out of the mist of dry ice onto the dance floor and immediately took possession of it. She was wearing a wide, black hoop skirt, floor-length and trimmed all around with lace at the hem. Entirely absorbed in herself, she swayed her slender torso above the huge skirt in fluid, circling movements. Her bodyguards shooed away any guests who came too close to her, but she seemed not to notice. If she was aware of the presence of other people, she didn’t let on in any way. Countless pairs of eyes were watching her, and hardly any of them showed less than awe and respect.
“Who’s that?” Rosa asked one of the waitresses, who looked at her with as much scorn as if she had been in St. Peter’s, in Rome, inquiring about the identity of the old man at the altar.
“Her name is Danai Thanassis,” said a male voice beside her. A slender young man, a little older than Rosa herself, leaned toward her. His girlfriend couldn’t take her eyes off the graceful dancer. “She’s from Europe. Former Yugoslavia or Greece, I think. Whenever she puts in an appearance, the world stops turning.” He sounded slightly injured, as if hiscompanion had dragged him here just so she could see the dancer make her entrance.
“So what is she? A pop star or something?”
He shook his head. “A millionaire’s rich daughter, they say.Veryrich. And very strange.”
The circles made by the woman as she moved around the floor grew larger, forcing bystanders closer and closer to the walls. Some of them tried to retreat into nearby corridors but met a solid rampart of guests pushing forward to see Danai Thanassis and her fascinating dance.
Rosa noticed a man, accompanied by one of the doormen, making his way out of the crowd behind the bar. He looked Italian, or at least of Italian descent. He was talking to the staff, who gathered obsequiously around him. The owner of the club, or at least someone with a say in running it.
As Danai Thanassis went on with her captivating solo performance, Rosa wove her way toward him, moving against the current with such determination that she caught the doorman’s attention.
The music rose to a frenetic roar of bass and heavy beats as Rosa reached the end of the bar, and went up to him, a colossus, with her chin raised. “I want to speak to your boss.”
The corners of the man’s mouth turned down in a pitying smile. Behind him, his boss was still talking to the staff and taking no notice of Rosa.
“I can wait until he’s through with those people,” she said, assuming an innocent expression. “That’s no problem.”
“Why do you want to speak to Mr. Carnevare?”
She was surprised, but not very. Every pile of shit along her way just seemed to be waiting for her to step in it. All a question of habit. Alessandro had warned her about his New York relations—and guess what?
“I’m his cousin,” she said, without batting an eyelash. “From Palermo.” When the colossus wrinkled his brow, she added in pretend desperation, “Sicily? Italy? There’s land on the other side of the ocean, you know.”
The bouncer’s eyes darkened menacingly. She was afraid she’d turned the screw too far. Did he hit women as well as men? She hardly needed to ask.
“Say hi to him from me,” she said, before he could get any stupid ideas, “and tell him I’m here.” She glanced back over her shoulder at “Mr. Carnevare” and saw that he wasn’t bad-looking up close. Not at all bad-looking.
“His cousin?” repeated the doorman, like a robot.
“Palermo.” She dismissed the point and gave him a smile. “Oh, let’s just say Europe.”
Once again he looked her up and down suspiciously, probably wondering whether she had already given him a good enough reason to throw her out of the club. But then he turned and went over to his boss.
Rosa used the moment to glance at the dance floor. Danai was now standing motionless in the middle of a gap in the crowd; her bodyguards were keeping it open for her. Her eyes were closed, her head tilted to one side, as if she werea mechanical doll whose clockwork had run down. Suddenly she moved again, seeming to hover gracefully above the lace hem of her skirt as she went toward the nearest passage. Her bodyguards hurried to forge a path through the throng for her. Although they were none too gentle about it, there was surprisingly little muttering or resistance from the bystanders. They were all under the dancer’s spell.
While Danai Thanassis glided closer to the exit, and the crowd slowly shook off the magic of her presence, someone behind Rosa placed a hand on her shoulder.BLOOD RELATIONS
“LILIA,” SAIDROSA, LOUDenough to be heard above the music. “Lilia Carnevare.”
The club owner leaned forward as if to smell her breath. She felt beads of perspiration break out on her forehead, but down here in the club everyone was sweating.
“Lilia,” he repeated. “Forgive me, but have we met before?”
She tried a random shot, knowing how horribly wide of the target it might go. “At a birthday party for the baron…Uncle Massimo. I was very young then. Seven or eight.”
“Then you must forgive me for failing to remember you.” He even succeeded in sounding like a gentleman as he said that.
“I wasn’t very…well developed at the time.” That got a smile out of the doorman but left his boss cold. She had to pull herself together. Under no circumstances should she underestimate this man.
He was taller than Alessandro and looked equally athletic, but he was attractive more in the way she remembered of Tano and Cesare. His shirtsleeves were pushed to his elbows, not rolled up, and his muscular forearms were hairy. He seemed used to having his orders followed. When he smiled, his lips revealed two perfect rows of snow-white teeth. Hissparkling brown eyes unsettled her. She could imagine how many women must have fallen for the promise in his gaze, but she had no doubt that the passion in it was mainly for his own well-being. All the same, she had to admit that she liked his voice.
She could have left and called Alessandro, asked him to have a word with his relative for her. But that was exactly what she didn’t want to do. She’d had to cope with her problems on her own for years. Alessandro would certainly have backed her up in this case, but she didn’t want to rely on him too much or have him try to stop her.
“Sorry to turn up like this. I’m au pairing in Millbrook. They gave me three days off, and I thought I’d—”
“Visit your family in this city.”
She smiled. “I really wanted to buy some shoes.”
He looked down at her steel-toed boots.
“Oh, not these!” she added in pretended indignation. “My new ones are at my hotel.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Parker Meridien.” She knew the place because the best burgers in town were sold in the restaurant in the lobby.
“Good address. Not cheap.”
“The family’s paying for everything.”
“Who’s your father?”
“Corrado Carnevare.” A name that Alessandro had once mentioned.
“Never met him.”
“Cesare’s cousin.” She batted her eyelashes in the directionof the doorman. “I thought we were a little more closely related than it seems we are. Sorry about that.”
He was still inspecting her, but she had an uncomfortable feeling that he trusted his instinct more than what he saw before him: a pale girl with glacier-blue eyes, a mane of blond hair, and the gleam of nervous sweat on her forehead.
“So how can I help you?” he inquired.Help her. If that was his idea of her, okay. “You didn’t come here just to say hello.”
She looked around as if to locate the source of the noise in the club. “It’s so loud in here,” she shouted against the beat.
“Michele,” said the bouncer, turning the microphone of his headset aside to speak to his boss, “we’ll have to leave in half an hour. The others are there. Everything’s almost ready.” He listened to a voice in his earphone again, then whispered something to Michele. Michele’s expression didn’t change; he simply nodded.
Rosa waited until he turned to her again and then said, “Can you give me five minutes?”
Michele Carnevare smiled. “Come with me.”
She followed him behind the bar and down a narrow staff corridor. At the end of it, a flight of steps led up to a gallery of wrought-iron latticework just under the layer of mist. It was closed to the public. Apart from the two of them, there were only a few security guards up here, black-clad and also wearing headsets. They were watching what went on down below.
Rosa’s glance fell on Danai Thanassis moving toward the exit on the other side of the hall under the protection of her bodyguard. “She’s beautiful,” she said, impressed.
“So everyone here thinks.” He didn’t say whether that included him. “She lives on a cruise ship belonging to her father. Whenever theStabat Materdocks in New York, she comes here. Every evening for a week or so, then she’s gone again for a few months.”
He shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. “Well then, Lilia Carnevare. What exactly can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for a girlfriend,” she said. “More of an online friendship, really. She told me to visit when I was in Manhattan, said that we’d, well, go out together.”
He nodded as gravely as if she had just been explaining his taxes to him.
“And now she doesn’t answer when I call her.” Rosa hoped she wasn’t laying the naiveté on too thick.
“I think it’s mean of her.”
“And what’s that to do with me?” His tone of voice was still calm.
“She and I are friends. Or I thought so, anyway. And now she’s just disappeared on me. There I am in my stupid expensive hotel, going on tours around the city instead of hanging out with her.”
He sighed quietly. “Look, you’re cute and all that, but I’m in a hurry. A club like this doesn’t run itself. If I can help you, then—”
“She works here, she said. But that was quite a while ago.”
“If she works here, then she has her hands full right now.”
“I just want a quick word with her. I won’t take her away from her job.”
He was still looking at her intently, not offensively, as she had half expected, but with curiosity. As if the way she was taking up his time with trivialities intrigued him.
“What’s her name?”
“And what else?”
If this was a name that he linked with anything more than a paycheck, he didn’t show it. “Yes, she worked here two or three years ago. Not since then.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you any further.”
She looked at her shoes. “Sorry. You’re in a hurry, and I’ve been wasting your time with this garbage.”
He touched the tip of her nose with his finger and smiled. He was alarmingly attractive, and for the first time she really did see a resemblance to Alessandro. “But after all, we’re blood relations, right?”
She cleared her throat and tore her eyes away from his face. The layer of mist hovered just above their heads. Here and there dream catchers hung down through the swathes of vapor.
“What do those do?” she asked.
“They catch the dreams of everyone dancing down there and then throw them back down, arranged and sorted. Better than any drug.”
Now she did turn back to him, to see whether he was making fun of her. But his smile and his nut-brown eyes still seemed perfectly honest.
Naively she asked, “What, right now?”
Michele leaned on the balustrade of the gallery. Even his damn hands looked good. “Anyone who comes to the Dream Room sees things you don’t see anywhere else. Or that are invisible anywhere else.”
“You should put that in your ads.”
“Oops.” She smiled. “Looks like you know how to run your business.”
It was the dimples. They were just like Alessandro’s. They were there even when he wasn’t smiling. Blood relations, yes—only the relationship wasn’t with her.
She leaned over and dropped a light kiss on his cheek. “Thanks,” she said. “And again, I’m sorry to have been a nuisance.” He smelled of aftershave.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“You look younger.”
“A lot of people say that.”
“I’m sure those guys at the entrance asked to see your ID.” Now he sounded almost sorry about something. But the dimples were still there. “If not, I’ll have to fire them.”
She was boiling hot all of a sudden. “Oh,” she said quietly.
“Don’t let it bother you. You couldn’t have known who owned this place.”
“They saw my name.”
“They recognized it. And they have their instructions. Some names mean trouble for us here. Obama. Bin Laden.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Alcantara.”
She didn’t have to look around to know that she wasn’t going to get back down from this gallery. He was standing in her way, and here came his security men. She heard footsteps on the iron latticework. Very close.
“That was a lie,” she whispered. “You’re not in any hurry.”
“Oh, but I am.”
“Then why didn’t you say right away that—”
“I wanted to find out what it is that Alessandro likes about you.” That charming smile again. “Apart from the obvious.”
She tried to spin around, but a powerful arm grabbed her from behind and held her. She heard distorted voices from a headset very close to her ear.
The worst of it was that she couldn’t avoid his eyes anymore.
“Shit,” she murmured.
With his fingertip, he touched his cheek where her lips had touched it. “I know what you did.”RETRIBUTION
THEY GAGGEDROSA, BOUNDher hands and feet, and threw her into the back of a delivery van. When the metal door was bolted behind her, she lay there alone in the dark, doing her best to rouse the reptile within her.
It didn’t work.
She tried to do it by concentrating hard, but that was hopeless in her present situation. Then by dwelling on her fury with Michele. No chance.
The van began to move uphill. Rosa rolled over the floor, groaning, and collided with the rear door. The noise of the nighttime streets grew louder. They were climbing the ramp of an underground garage, and now they joined the traffic. She heard the muffled voices of two men in the front seat but couldn’t make out the words.
Now she was lying on her side, with her knees drawn up, her tights torn, her hands tied behind her back, and her feet painfully lashed together. The cables cut into her skin and wouldn’t work looser by even a fraction of an inch. There was a rubber ball in her mouth, held there by a strap buckled tightly behind her head. With the tip of her tongue, she could feel someone else’s tooth marks in it. She wasn’t the first to go through this ordeal.
The floor of the van was sandy. God knows what they usually carried around in it. When the tires bumped over manhole covers and potholes, she was tossed around, grazing her skin. Once, the back of her head hit the side wall of the van, and for a moment she saw swirling lights in the darkness.
The more desperately she tried to force herself to shift shape, the more impossible it seemed. She felt not a rising chill but waves of heat as her fear got the upper hand. Her clothes were drenched in sweat; her hair stuck to her forehead.
They hadn’t even given her an injection, like Cesare had that time when he’d wanted to make sure she didn’t get away from him in her snake form. Michele Carnevare didn’t need second sight to guess at her lack of experience. She had known for only four months what she was, and what she had inherited. An Arcadian first shifted shape on the verge of adulthood, seldom before the age of seventeen. Merely by counting on his fingers, Michele could tell that the hormonal turmoil of adolescence had only recently given way to something much worse.
All the same—it ought to be possible. Several times, she’d seen Alessandro change into a panther at will. Yet something or other kept her from doing it. No self-control, probably.
And then she knew what it was. She literally couldn’t change her spots, like the proverbial leopard. While Alessandro was able to put his own interests to the back of his mind when he had to do something he didn’t like, to achieve his one great aim, she couldn’t do the same. For her, changing shape at will was about as realistic an idea as jumping across theEast River. She was always herself, and anyone could see what she was thinking from a mile away. The whole show she put on of being head of her clan was a farce. She didn’t want it; she wasn’t able to do it.
It was the same with changing into the snake. The harder she tried to force the transformation, the more useless it was. Her body wasn’t interested in the least—it just wanted to crouch there in a heap and wait for the danger to pass.
When Salvatore Pantaleone, the formercapo dei capi, had attacked her at the top of the Sicilian ravine, she had turned into a snake within seconds. Maybe if Michele or one of the others went for her…But could she wait that long? And wouldn’t Michele foresee that very thing? He was no fool—he might even be counting on her transformation.
He had something planned for her, and it seemed to be only part of a larger scheme. That was why they were in such a hurry. Everything was almost ready, the security man had said. Ready for what? They hadn’t been expecting Rosa, but there was obviously room for her, too, in whatever net they had cast.
Bitter gall rose in her throat. In disgust, she swallowed it down. With the rubber ball in her mouth, she’d choke on her own vomit.
She had shifted shape twice when the lives of others were at stake. The first time out of love for Alessandro, in a cellar near the Gibellina monument while Cesare’s henchmen were coming to kill him. And the second time beside her dying sister, when her hatred for Pantaleone blotted out everything else.
But how about her own life? Would the snake show up to save itself?
She had to lie there and wait. The men in the front seat were laughing. The sound of the honking horn and the engine noise came in through the vents of the van, and once there was music, like a gigantic carnival. Maybe they were in Times Square.
Now and then, when they stopped, Rosa kicked both feet against the side wall of the van with all her might. Again and again, until her tights were hanging around her calves in scraps and the skin underneath wasn’t in much better shape. But nothing she did in here would attract any attention outside. This was Manhattan. No one was going to notice a clattering sound in a delivery van driving by.
In her helplessness, she bit on the rubber ball until her jaws ached. Her pulse was racing, but the Lamia in her was not impressed. It might have been putting Rosa to the test.
Her ability to change shape could have been a gift. Instead it just confirmed what Rosa already knew. She was different. Not like ordinary people, not like the other Arcadians. Her head was simply too messed up.
She stretched out full length on her back, swallowed sour saliva, breathed more slowly, and waited to see what would happen.
At last the van stopped, and this time she heard the doors of the driver’s cab being opened. More voices joined those of the first two men. They were expected.
It was bitterly cold in the back of the van.
Footsteps crunched in the snow outside. The street noises had died down a good deal. They weren’t in the middle of city traffic anymore. Maybe this was someone’s yard.
When the rear door was opened, she saw the men’s outlines, with gnarled branches behind them. Leafless trees, made visible in the darkness by the red back lights of the van. A park. Maybethepark.
One of the men climbed into the back while another leveled a shotgun at her. They knew about it. They were making doubly sure.
“Same as before,” said the man in the van. “Only a girl.”
Her stapler was in her jacket back in the club, and they had taken her cell phone away from her.
She heard Michele’s voice outside. “Then give her the injection now.”
She screamed in spite of the rubber ball when the man rolled her roughly over on her stomach, raised her skirt, and dug a needle into one buttock. Then they were holding her. The hands of strange men on her skin. She had no memory of the events of sixteen months ago, but her body recognized the situation at once. She began kicking and struggling, hit the man on the chin with her elbow, defended herself as best she could.
It made no difference. He hauled her out into the open air and set her on her feet in the snow. Someone undid the strap at the back of her head and took the ball out of her mouth.
“Assholes!” she spat.
There were four men, including Michele Carnevare andthe bouncer, obviously now promoted to bodyguard. Behind them in the snow stood a black jeep with mirrored windows. Both vehicles had stopped beside a wide pathway through the park, near empty benches and overflowing trash cans. There was light behind a nearby avenue of trees, as if searchlights had been set up there. Indistinct voices came from that direction; figures were moving around. Was there any point in screaming to draw attention to herself? But Michele would never have made her get out in this spot if the people over there hadn’t been in his pay.
“What do you want with me?” she asked him, ignoring the other three.
“And what do you want with Valerie?” he replied. “I wasn’t lying when I said she’d disappeared. I’d very much like to know where she is myself.”
“Did she have anything to do with the murders?”
He gave her face a resounding slap. Her head flew to one side, her cheek burning. When she looked at him again, all she saw was his dimples. Alessandro’s dimples.
“What murders?” she asked again.
This time it was the bouncer who moved to hit her. Michele held his arm back. “That’ll do.”
She laughed at the bald-headed man. “Go fuck yourself.” She could taste blood in her mouth, but she held his angry gaze until Michele sent him back to the jeep. Only then did he turn to her again.
“The serum will keep you from shifting shape for the next quarter of an hour. You know how it works, I assume. It’s very effective. Tano got the stuff—you knewhimas well, right? One hears this and that. For instance, that you’re to blame for his death.”
Did he expect a reply to that? She said nothing.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” he went on. “Or any other Alcantara. This was to be just a party, a bit of fun in the snow for members of the family.”
The lights beyond the trees. The shadowy movements. She began to guess what was going on here. She felt sick to her stomach, and everything about her hurt—her face, her bruised legs; even her butt felt as if the needle were still in her flesh.
“You’re going to hunt human beings? Here inCentral Park?” By now she had recognized the nocturnal skyline above the trees; in the distance to the left, she thought she saw the roof of the Dakota building. West Drive couldn’t be far away. They were probably somewhere near Seventy-Fifth or Seventy-Sixth Street, maybe a little farther south.
“The murders,” he repeated. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about them. Are you trying to say that you just happen to be here in New York by chance? Now, of all times? Does Alessandro know you’re here?”
“Who’s been murdered?” she asked. “Some of the Carnevares?”
Once again he took a menacing step toward her, and this time she saw that he could barely restrain himself. He hadenviable powers of self-control, but below the surface he was seething.
“My brother Carmine is dead. Two of my cousins, Tony and Lucio, were gunned down in the street when they were taking their kids to school. A third cousin has a bullet in the back of his neck, and no one can say how much longer he’ll live. His name is Gino.” His eyes were focused intently on hers now, as if he were trying to read the truth there.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said.
He took a deep breath, and only when he retreated again did she realize that he had picked up the scent of her sweating terror. He didn’t believe a word of what she said, but obviously he was in no mood to interrogate her. She could sense the excitement that had hold of him now. Sheer bloodlust.
“Take her over to the others,” he ordered. “And give her another injection before we begin.”
THEY CUT THE CABLEStying Rosa’s ankles and pushed her forward through the trees. Blood streamed down the backs of her legs to her numb feet. It was a miracle that she could walk at all.
Soon they reached a snow-covered clearing surrounded by oak and beech trees. Two trucks with the inscriptionMOBILE LIGHTNING, INC. were parked along the edge, their headlights switched on.
Between them, where the two beams of light intersected, four teenagers lay in the snow, bound hand and foot and gagged with rubber balls. Each of them wore several layers of ragged, dirty clothing. The white light made their emaciated faces look even sicklier. Rosa would have assumed they were junkies if she hadn’t felt sure that Michele was anxious to have healthy prey, and wouldn’t want to infect himself by hunting anyone who might have HIV or hepatitis.
“You can’t be serious about this,” she managed to say. “Not right here in the middle of Manhattan.”
Michele was staring pitilessly at the four captives on the ground. “No one’s going to miss them. And no one will disturb us.”
“But the park is under surveillance! There are park rangers,police, helicopters…” She saw the corners of his mouth twist in a smile as his dimples deepened. “How many people did you bribe to turn a blind eye to this?”
It was a rhetorical question, and she didn’t expect any answer. All the same, he said, “It’s all official. As far as the park administrators know, a movie’s being filmed here. There’s a special police department responsible for closing film sets to the public. That’s in force for this terrain and a long way around it. Doesn’t come cheap, but the budget will cover the expense.” He was grinning even more broadly now. “For the next few hours, no one will even blink at the occasional scream or so—it’s all in the screenplay we handed in.”
“It’s not the first time you’ve done this.”
“Do you have any idea how many movies are made in New York? A few hundred film crews are at work in the city every day. All we have to do is persuade one or two people in the film office to eat out somewhere classy tonight instead of hanging around here.”
As he talked, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the young people. She knew kids like these; there were thousands upon thousands of them in the city. They slept in the entrances to buildings, in backyards, among cartons and containers. If the cops picked them up, they got hot meals for a day or so, and sometimes—not nearly often enough—a bed in a shelter. After a week, at the most, they were out on the street again. Michele was right. No one was going to miss them.
There were two boys and two girls, terrified and frozen. They couldn’t lie there in the snow much longer. They’dprobably been brought in one of the trucks.
Other vehicles were standing outside the illuminated area. Most were parked among the trees with their lights off and their engines running. She could make out the vague outlines of figures inside them, two or three to each car. Here and there cigarettes glowed in the dark.
The doorman who had been going to hit Rosa had followed them to the clearing. Michele signaled to him. She saw him approach her with a syringe in his hand, and this time she didn’t resist. He sank the short needle into the back of her neck. Her skin was so cold that she hardly felt it prick her.
Car doors were opened. Men and women climbed out of their vehicles. Most of them wore only bathrobes, in spite of the icy cold. The first Arcadian to step into the light could hardly control himself. His eyes were glowing like a big cat’s, and his lips were thrust forward because fangs were already forming in his jaws. Others were shifting rhythmically from foot to foot in their excitement, as they tried to suppress the transformation until they heard the signal for the hunt to begin.
Michele looked at the other Panthera with mingled arrogance and satisfaction. He must have sensed that Rosa was watching him, because he turned to look at her and asked impatiently, “Anything else you want to say to me?”
She held his gaze. “Can you still remember it?”
“The reason for the war between the Carnevares and the Alcantaras. And for the concordat.”
“The concordat!” He laughed softly. “The tribunal of thedynasties, the myths of Arcadia, the Hungry Man—all that and its rules and regulations may still strike terror into you back in Europe, but for us it’s about as real as all that stupid talk of our Sicilian homeland and the good old days. Look around you! This is the United States! Everything is more colorful here, louder, and now we even get it in 3-D.” Michele shook his head. “I’m not interested in the concordat, and as for the long arm of the tribunal…well, we’ll see whose muscles are bigger. If it ever comes to that.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Do you remember the reason?”
Michele’s head shot forward as if he and not she were the snake. “No, and right now it makes no difference. Someone in this city is systematically killing Carnevares, at a time when there are no local clan feuds, no open hostility between the New York families. And then you of all people turn up, and that suddenly explains a lot. How many reasons doyouthink I need to throw you to the lions?”
Even in this situation, in view of all the Panthera in the dark among the trees, she realized that there was something she didn’t know. A missing link in his line of argument, something that he wasn’t withholding from her deliberately; he simply assumed that she’d known it all this time.
He waved that aside. “Save your energy for running. Maybe you’ll make it as far as one of the barriers.” His smile seemed to turn time back to their meeting in the club. “Not that I’d bet on it.”
While he was talking, the cables tying the hands and feet of the street kids had been cut. Two of them had managed to get up on all fours, but the other couple were still lying in the churned-up snow. They had been tied up too long to be able to get to their feet.
Rosa cast Michele a withering glance and then hurried over to them. She took one of the girls under the armpits and helped her up. “What’s your name?”
“Jessie.” There was naked terror in her stare. Living on the streets had left its mark on her face, but she couldn’t be any older than fifteen. Suddenly she seemed to realize that Rosa had just been standing beside the kidnappers. Her eyes flashed with rage and defiance. “Don’t you touch me!” She tore herself away, stumbled two steps back, and almost fell over one of the boys.
“I’m not like them,” whispered Rosa, as if trying to convince herself. Louder, she said, “It can’t be too far to Central Park West.” The street running along the outer side of the park.
“What are they planning to do with us?” asked one of the boys.
“They trade in human organs,” said the other with conviction.
It was on the tip of Rosa’s tongue to say,There’s not going to be much left of your organs to trade. Instead she said, “Run as fast as you can. Keep going straight ahead. Don’t even think of doubling back—that won’t stop them. They can pick up your scent, so don’t hide. Running is allthat may save you.”Us, she should have said.
The whole situation still felt totally unreal. The one thing that did seem real to her was the cold. And now that she had noticed it, it got worse. She was wearing nothing but her short dress and her torn black tights. Her jacket was still in the coatroom at the club. If she didn’t turn into the snake very soon, suiting her body temperature to her surroundings, she could forget about running at all.
Suddenly Michele was beside her. “You’ve explained what it’s all about to them much better than I could have done. Anyone might think you’d had experience with it.”
Jessie spat in front of Rosa’s feet. “I hope you die a horrible death with the rest of them.”
Michele smiled, impressed by the child’s courage. Rosa had a nasty feeling that he had just picked his personal prey—for before or after he had finished with Rosa herself.
“And whatever you do, don’t stay together,” she told the four kids. “Run different ways.”
“Don’t listen to her,” one of the boys objected. “If we stick together, maybe we can make it.”
“No!” Rosa snapped at him. “You have to split up.”
Michele was beaming with satisfaction as he watched this scene. “Remember, she’s one of us.”
The second girl began begging for her life, but no one took any notice of her.
“They’ll kill you all if you stay in a group,” said Rosa. But the four weren’t paying any attention.
“We’ll kill you whatever you do,” said Michele complacently.
Rosa spun around, and before he could avoid her, she struck him full in the face with her clenched fist.
Michele staggered back with a groan, and at that moment one of the boys thought he saw a chance. “Come on! Run!” he shouted to the others, and they stumbled off, four weak, emaciated, helpless young people who would have all the Panthera on their heels in a few moments. They reached the trees and disappeared from Rosa’s field of vision. The girl was still in tears, and her sobs gave away their whereabouts.
As Michele straightened up again, the first Carnevares were throwing off their robes in the background. Outside the headlights on the trucks, human silhouettes changed and distorted. Snarling, growling sounds came from all directions. There were women among them. Unlike the Lamias, Panthera of both sexes could change shape. Rosa saw one of the women fall to her hands and feet—in the next moment she had four paws.
With an angry gesture, Michele shooed away two of his henchmen, who were about to fall on Rosa. “I’ll have a part of you sent to Alessandro,” he said. “Deep-frozen. Which do you think he’d like?”
“He’ll kill you for this, Michele.” She had simply said that without thinking, but as she spoke the words, she knew it was the truth. She had seen how vengeful Alessandro could be. He wouldn’t rest until he’d killed her murderer.
Not that that was any help to her right now.
The boss of the New York Carnevares wiped a drop of blood off his split lip, looked at it on the back of his hand, and licked it off—with a tongue that wasn’t human anymore,but supple and rough. His hair also changed color, growing lighter. He didn’t go to the trouble of taking off his clothes.
“Run, Rosa Alcantara,” he spat at her, as more and more of the others sank to the ground on four paws. “Run, and keep your meat warm until I catch up with you again.”
Then she raced away, out of the bright light to the other side of the clearing, through the ranks of the snapping, growling, howling predators who could hardly keep their greed under control.
She ran westward in the shadow of the trees, over virgin snow.THE PACK
SOON SHE WAS STUMBLINGdown a slope, at the bottom of which was a narrow path. Ahead of her in the darkness rose a mighty arch made of rough-hewn stone blocks. She knew this part of the park; she had been here before, years ago.
It was the Ramble, an artificially laid-out wilderness with dense woodland, winding paths, and steep rock formations. Streams and pools of water looked idyllic in daylight, but on a winter night the open, unprotected, icy surfaces became insurmountable barriers.
Somewhere in all these thickets there was a man-made grotto that had been closed to visitors for years, as well as countless other nooks and crannies that might provide a hiding place. Michele certainly assumed that his prey would look for cover somewhere, hoping that the Panthera wouldn’t find them. But Rosa knew what a keen sense of smell the big cats had and didn’t make the mistake of underestimating it. She had seen Alessandro and other Carnevares in their animal form, and it was obvious that there was nowhere to hide from them. Sooner or later they would track down anyone who crept into one of those places for shelter.
Run straight ahead, she had told the others. But you couldn’t do that in the Ramble. The network of paths woundthis way and that, there was no way to see straight in front of you, and steep slopes and precipices rose on either side. Michele had chosen the best imaginable playground, for the same reasons that Cesare had once chosen the Gibellina monument. There was no escape from the narrow aisles between the rocks and the rampant undergrowth.
Rosa ran through the crusted snow and tried to control her racing breath. The soles of her heavy shoes kept her from slipping, but she was still too slow. She wanted to go west, to the edge of the park, but whenever she caught a glimpse through the trees, she saw only darkness, no skyline. Maybe she was running the wrong way, farther and farther into the park. She didn’t dare turn around. The Panthera had to be on her trail already.
She heard the first scream when she was ducking low as she crossed a small bridge. One of the boys, probably, but it was hard to tell for certain—the voice was shrill and high, a shriek of mortal terror.
Rosa ran on. No time for pity, not now. She felt sick. She just made it to the handrail of the bridge and threw up on the frozen surface of the water.
When she looked up, she saw movement in the bushes, the outline of something gliding along the bank in the darkness. She flung herself around and ran on. She would have liked to listen to the sounds made by her pursuer, but could only hear the crunch of her own footsteps in the snow and her own breathing, both of them too loud.
The second scream came from one of the girls, and wasfrom a different direction. So the four of them had separated after all. Not that it had done them any good. The Panthera had taken their second victim. Rosa wondered if they killed their prey at once or just injured it, let it get away, gave it a head start, and then followed the scent of hot blood.
Once again something moved among the trees, beside her now. Keeping low and close to the ground, as if the black silhouettes of the trunks were forming growths that moved from tree to tree and merged. Whatever it was scurried through the brushwood parallel to the path. But she immediately lost sight of it again when, after a few steps, the next high slope cut off her view.
How long had she been running now? Less than five minutes. It was going to seem forever before the effect of the serum wore off and she, too, had a chance to change shape. Would Michele wait that long before attacking? Did he want a fight with an opponent who could defend herself? Rosa remembered the duel between Zoe and Tano that she had seen in the woods on the Alcantara property, snake and tiger locked in combat. She doubted whether she could fight back as well as her sister.
Another scream, and this time it seemed endless. The snarling of the big cats echoed through the night. Several Panthera scuffling with one another for possession of the prey. Then came the mighty roar of a lion, and after that, silence. The argument had been settled.
She reached a crossroads in the path and turned right. Another bridge under branches hanging low. Ahead of heryawned the mouth of a pedestrian underpass. She could see the other end of it, not thirty feet away, a vague gray patch in the black of the darkness.
She stopped, listened, heard her heartbeat thudding. Alessandro’s face appeared before her mind’s eye, but that was the last thing she needed right now. She was waiting for the snake, for the ice-cold reptile in her. She didn’t want to think of Alessandro at this moment. But the more she fought against it, the more her feelings rose to the surface. She couldn’t let them distract her from what lay ahead.
From the black mouth of the tunnel.
From the muzzle of the black panther suddenly barring her way.
They stared at each other, and for a crazy moment she felt sure that the panther was Alessandro.
She hadn’t yet seen many Panthera after their transformation into big cats, but she knew that their human features could still be recognized in animal form. Only in small details. There was a certain sparkle in Alessandro’s eyes. Not in this panther’s.
She took a step backward.
Behind her, the snarling of the pack could be heard again, and then branches breaking and snapping. They were coming through the frozen winter woodland of the Ramble now, ignoring the paths, racing through the undergrowth.
The panther in front of her didn’t move, just imperceptibly raised his nose and waited. Then she realized that he was picking up the scent of the others as they charged this waythrough the night. Presumably working out how much time he still had to claim her just for himself.
Quickly, Rosa began climbing the steep slope to the left of the path. The panther wasn’t twelve feet away, with the tunnel opening directly behind him. Somehow or other she had to get to the top, crossing the frozen snowdrifts caught in the tangled tendrils and roots. Broad tree trunks rose above the slope. Something was moving behind them.
The panther let out a snarl, but she didn’t turn around.
Then the sounds coming from his muzzle changed.
“Not that way.”
She looked down on the path. A naked man was crouching in front of the tunnel, at first glance not much older than Rosa herself. As she stared at him, he stood up, swaying, dazed by the speed of his shift back to human form. Strands of panther fur scurried over his muscular body, branched out, and disappeared. But his eyes were still glowing; his hair was still raven black.
“I’ll help you,” he managed to say hoarsely, as his interior organs went on changing and his vocal cords became human again. He looked pale and defenseless in front of the deep, black mouth of the tunnel.
“Come with me.” He stretched out a shaking hand.
She went on climbing. Up to the trees. To the figures moving among them.
Swaying, she straightened up, and now she could see just over the top of the slope.
Two lions were prowling through the undergrowth. Thenshe saw the girl. Jessie was cowering behind a tree over to the right, trembling with the freezing cold as she hid from the beasts. When Rosa looked left again, there were more Panthera there. A leopard. Two tigers. A graceful lioness with huge eyes, her beautiful feline face seeming almost innocent.
The beasts were approaching Jessie’s hiding place. The girl couldn’t see them, but she probably smelled them, heard the crunch of frozen foliage and twigs under their paws. But Jessie stood there, frozen to the spot, behind the trunk of the oak tree, not daring to move.
Only her eyes were turned toward Rosa, over a distance of some twenty-five feet, pale pearls shining in the darkness. A pleading, terrified glance.
A hand was placed over Rosa’s mouth from behind and forced her down, into the shelter of the edge of the slope. A whisper in her ear, almost inaudible: “There’s nothing you can do for her.”
As if she had no will of her own left, she let him lead her down the hill. She knew he was right. But she had just turned her back on a stranger who, in those few seconds, had begged Rosa for her life.
Down at the foot of the slope she tore herself away from the man, ready to scale it again and intervene after all, shout at the Panthera that she was the only one they really wanted, the Lamia they hated so much.
Except that that wouldn’t change anything.
Up in the darkness, Jessie began to scream.
The man leaped after Rosa and hauled her down again. “Ifyou don’t come with me, you’ll die,” he hissed at her, still with that dangerous feline growl in his voice. She thought it attractive in Alessandro, merely menacing in this man.
She wanted to resist, contradict him, run to help the girl.
But she did none of those things. She just stared at him, feeling something die inside her, maybe her pity, maybe only her brief moment of desperate courage, and then she nodded.
“This way,” he whispered, and ran into the tunnel ahead of her. “Come on.”
She followed him, hoping that Jessie’s screeching and howling would lessen down there, but instead it was amplified. Many growls and much feline mewling mingled with it as the Panthera quarreled over their prey again, and then, as before, an animal roar silenced them. It did not sound as fierce and barbaric; more domineering. A short command in the language of the Panthera, and immediately there was quiet apart from Jessie’s weeping and pleading.
The sounds that finally silenced the girl almost brought Rosa to her knees. The noise of snapping and tearing echoed through the tunnel, as if the Panthera were feasting down here in the shadows, right beside Rosa.
The man seized her again and pulled her along. “They’ll kill us both if they catch up with us.”
“You’re one of them.”
He didn’t deny it.
“Why are you helping me?”
She might have expected anything, or nothing. An ally of Alessandro, one of his informers in the New York branch ofhis clan. Or one of the Panthera wanting her all to himself.
But not this.
“Because of Valerie,” he said quietly.
She asked no more questions, but only ran faster now, away from the sound of the angry jaws snapping behind her.
They reached the other end of the tunnel, turned down a path branching off, and ran along the bank of a small lake. Then the man pulled her after him, by the arm, into the undergrowth. It didn’t grow so luxuriantly here. They were near the edge of the Ramble, approaching the well-tended, neat, and tidy part of the park.
In the cover of a line of trees, the outskirts of a little wood, he stopped and looked out at the open terrain beyond. He was still naked, and by the light of a nearby lantern she saw that he was trembling. Now that he had no panther coat to protect him, he was freezing like any ordinary human being. Neither of them would last much longer.
“Is that East Drive?” she whispered. Ahead of them, beyond a narrow snowfield, lay a paved road, entirely empty.
He nodded. His lips were blue.
“But you’re heading for somewhere, right?” she asked doubtfully.
“Not far now.” He looked right and left, then back over his shoulder. “Run!”
They left the protection of the shadows under the trees. Rosa’s steel-toed boots left deep prints in the frozen snow, while he ran across it barefoot as if part of him were still a cat.
“Are they following us?” she asked.
“They won’t stop to eat their fill until they have you all. Then they take all the prey to a place where they divvy it up.”
They crossed the street, and Rosa thought of following it south. He saw the way she was looking, and shook his head. “There’s a barrier where this road meets Terrace Drive. You wouldn’t get far. Not in human form.”
“What’s your name?” she asked, as they reached the trees on the other side of the road. The trunks were much farther apart here, and there were few bushes.
He nodded again. “You’re Rosa.”
She was going to ask how he knew, but he got in first. “Valerie,” he said. “She sometimes talked about you.”
Behind them she heard a triumphant roar as the pack streamed out onto the snowy field.
THE SWEAT ONROSA’Sforehead was icy cold. Her face felt numb. She was running eastward with Mattia through the trees, while the Panthera chased after them.
How much longer before the effect of the serum wore off? Five minutes? Seven? There were no general rules; every Arcadian reacted to it differently. She could be bound to her human form for another ten minutes or more.
And who knew whether she’d be able to force herself to change shape? She just had to hope that the transformation would set in when danger threatened.
Out of breath, they passed the statue of a man sitting on a bench with an open book on his lap, a bronze duck looking up at him from the ground. Ahead, a paved promenade stretched around the perimeter of a pond. A silvery shimmer came from the ice on the water. In the light from the opposite bank, Rosa saw a single-story building with a pale green roof that reminded her of a circus tent. It had a tall spire like that of a church on top of it.
“Conservatory Water,” said Mattia breathlessly. “If we can make it over to the other side…”
He didn’t say what exactly would happen then, but she assumed that he meant they’d reach the high-rises on FifthAvenue whose lighted windows stood out against the night sky, beyond the building with the green roof and a row of bare treetops.
“If we go around it, we’ll never get there,” she managed to say, with a groan. The cold was beginning to hurt, and as soon as she saw his bare skin, it got even worse. Why was he doing this?
Rosa wanted to run over the promenade and cross the ice, but Mattia held her back.
“No, don’t! The pond is thawed out in the day so that sailboats can go on it. The layer of ice is far too thin to support us.”
Sailboats? On this tiny pond? But she wasn’t stopping to argue. She tore herself away from him again and ran northward along the perimeter. When she looked over her shoulder, she saw dark shapes on the snow-covered space between the trees, at least a dozen of them, maybe more. Several were carrying something in their mouths, and that held them back, but the rest of the pack adjusted their speed to the others, as if they didn’t trust them enough to let them lag behind with the prey. Four human bodies, to be divided among too many big cats.
Rosa was running so hard now that she could hardly breathe. Frost was getting into her lungs, and her throat felt as if she had swallowed splinters of glass.
Another set of bronze statues at the far end of the lake: Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit.
Mattia, too, was slowing down. The cold was beginning to numb him.
“Change shape!” Rosa called to him. Even her voice sounded like crushed ice.
“They can see us,” he replied, shaking his head. “They can’t know that I’m one of them.”
“You’re naked!” she snapped at him. “What do you expect them to think? That I picked up some kind of pervert on my way through the park?”
He swore—and turned into the panther. The change happened so fast that Rosa’s eyes could hardly follow it. His torso and limbs morphed at high speed; fur flowed over his skin like black oil. Then he was running ahead of her on all fours. For a moment she was almost overcome by envy. He was at most three years older than her, yet he had mastered the transformation perfectly. For him it was a gift. For Rosa, so far, it was a curse.
With the last of her strength she followed him to a terrace leading down to the pond, in front of the brick building with the green roof. She had expected them to run past the house and under the trees behind it. Fifth Avenue was so close; she could hear the nocturnal traffic as clearly as if she were standing on the sidewalk. A police siren howled as it went by, going south, and merged with the noises of the Upper East Side.
But the big cat was heading for the entrance of the building, and she realized that he intended to go in. She looked back once more. The Panthera were less than forty yards behind them. A gigantic leopard in the middle of the pack was carrying a human body in his jaws as if it weighed no more than a rabbit.
Jessie’s thin legs brushed the ground on one side of his muzzle, her hair on the other. Her arms swayed up and down at every step the big cat took. His head held high, the leopard was carrying her as the trophy of his victory. Full of pride, full of scorn.
“Michele,” whispered Rosa, her voice full of hatred.
When she turned to the single-story building again, Mattia was standing at the entrance in human form, beckoning to her with an exhausted gesture—and opening the gray metal door with his other hand. It swung inward. There was a key in the lock.
“I work here,” he managed to say, with a groan. “That’s why.”
The Panthera reached the terrace. Some of them, those who had killed no prey yet, couldn’t control their greed any longer and sped up. Rosa ran past Mattia, dragging him with her, and the two of them flung themselves against the heavy door from the inside. It latched. With trembling fingers, Mattia turned the key in the lock. Outside, several of the big cats uttered howls of fury as their claws scraped over the metal. The noise was deafening.
“The windows have grates over them,” Mattia whispered to her. “They won’t get in here even in human form.” His catlike eyes were glowing as brightly as the single emergency light above the entrance. While she saw him only as a vague outline, he must have as clear a view of her as if it were daylight. She put out one hand, her fingers so cold that she was afraid they might break off if they met the slightest resistance.Hesitantly, she touched his shoulder. It could have been made of ice.
Only now did she realized that it was improbably warm in this building. The heat was on full blast.
“You planned to bring me here,” she said.
He nodded, faintly. “The key was on the outside of the door, and I turned the heat up hours ago. I knew what state we’d be in when we got here.”
He moved away from the entrance and opened a small switch box on the wall. A red light showed. Mattia pressed it.
“The alarm system,” he said, loud enough for those outside the door to hear it. “It’s switched on now.”
The scraping of claws stopped. Something dropped on the snow—Jessie’s body?—and now they heard Michele speak. He was back in human form.
“How long are you going to hide in there? Until morning?” He uttered a sound that was possibly meant to be a laugh, but wasn’t. It was more of an animal screech. “There’s already someone on the way to fetch men with tools.”
Mattia lowered his voice. “If the alarm goes off, this place will soon be teeming with security guards. They won’t risk that until they’ve hauled some park official out of bed and bribed him. That’ll take at least an hour, and by then the effect of the serum will have worn off.”
As if that guaranteed her survival. “Let’s set off the alarm ourselves,” she said.
“I have to talk to you before all hell breaks loose,” he said. “What’s more, then they’d find us both here, me naked andyou…well, with not much more on.”
She followed his glance to her legs, which were blue with cold. There was hardly anything left of her tights.
“Better to appear in court on immorality charges than dead,” she said, going to the window and peering out. The Panthera had retreated to the edge of the terrace. Only Jessie’s body lay in the snow, distorted, looking like a dirty garment and easily visible from the window. A promise.
Rosa abruptly turned away. She stepped aside, leaning against the brick wall. “They’re waiting.”
“Good. That gives us time.”
Long tables dominated a gloomy room that occupied the entire single story. Several dozen model boats stood there, none of them more than a foot long, with pointed sails, countless little pennants, and colored symbols. By one of the side walls stood a workbench with carpentry tools, stacks of paint and varnish cans, plastic canisters, and rolls of sailcloth. There were more tools hanging above it.
“Kids and tourists rent the boats and sail them on Conservatory Water,” said Mattia, as if it were something she would need to know. “I repair them when they break down, which is quite often.”
She looked at his glowing eyes. “What’s the plan?”
“We have to talk. About Valerie.”
“They’re going to kill us, Mattia, whether or not the serum’s still working.” She fell back against the brick wall, which was so cold that she hardly noticed her backbone rubbing against the joins in the brickwork as she slowly slid downit. She sat on the floor with her knees drawn up. “Why Valerie? What does she have to do with any of this?”
“She and I,” said Mattia hesitantly, as if it were something to be ashamed of, after he had been running around beside her stark naked all this time, “we were a couple. And she still loves me, I know she does.”
She stared at him, unable to take this in. She didn’t feel like laughing, but she laughed all the same. It sounded slightly crazy, but it felt good.
“Love?” she repeated. “So that’s what this is all about?”
He shook his head as he crouched in front of her until their faces were level. Her eyes traveled down. “You thought of everything, but not a pair ofpants?”
“Sorry.” He stood up, glanced at the window, and went over to the workbench. A moment later he came back with a piece of cloth, spattered with varnish, knotted around his waist. “Better?”
“Valerie and I,” he started again, “were inseparable for almost a year. Then I made the mistake of introducing her to my family. I took her to parties with me, to the Dream Room and a few of the other Carnevare clubs. That’s how she met Michele.”
Rosa tried to forget about the murdered girl out in the snow for a moment. To forget about her own fear. She began to guess where this story was going. “Michele took her away from you,” she said, and only then did it finally sink in that they were talking aboutherValerie. The Valerie who alwayssteered clear of men. Who had never mentioned so much as a one-night stand, let alone a steady boyfriend.
“She fell for him.” Mattia sounded as if it still hurt to talk about it. “She’d have done anything and everything for him…. Shediddo anything and everything for him,” he corrected himself. He paused briefly, as if to choose his next words carefully. “She found out somehow or other. What he is, what we all are. I never told her; she must have watched him, or else she found something out by chance.”
“Mattia,” Rosa said imploringly, “why here and now? You could have asked me out for coffee to tell me this. Those people out there are going to kill us.”
“Valerie disappeared,” he said. “Sixteen months ago.”
Rosa jumped to her feet as if electrified. Her chilly skin was tingling all over from the warmth in the room. The question slipped out. “When, exactly?”
He bowed his head slightly as he looked intently at her. “Just after Halloween.”
She pressed her lips together and breathed out sharply through her nose.
Mattia went to the window again and watched the Panthera. As she waited impatiently for him to go on, she looked past him outside. All was still calm out there. Michele and the others were waiting for reinforcements to arrive with crowbars. Presumably a parks department official had already received a phone call to warn him, and to make sure that no security guards responded to an alarm from the boathouse.
“Well?” she asked.
“The last I heard, she was traveling in Europe.” He was still looking at the scene outside, and without doing so herself Rosa knew that he was staring at the girl’s corpse. “I don’t know if that’s the truth. It’s possible that Michele—”
“Killed her?” She went over to him. “Why?”
“To keep her quiet. The concordat was still in force at the time, and there was something that no one could know.” He turned his head and looked her in the eye. “I know what happened to you at that party. So does Michele.”
Her face was numb. She bit her lower lip, but didn’t feel it until she tasted blood.
“Michele?” she asked tonelessly.
Mattia nodded. “He was there,” he said. “Michele was one of them.”THE TRANSFORMATION
ROSA WAS PERFECTLY CALM. Exhaustion that had nothing to do with her run came over her. Like the feeling when hysteria changes to dull indifference. She had passed the point of screaming and raging, and had reached a state when she felt nothing anymore.
Mattia sighed. “The building where the party was held, Eighty-Five Charles Street…it’s in the West Village. Does that address mean anything to you?”
Her fists were clenched so hard that her fingernails dug deep into the palms of her hands. “Tell me names. One or two of them, any names you know.”
Something was happening outside. Mattia’s glance moved nervously from Rosa to the terrace. He cursed under his breath. “There’s a car coming, on the other side of the pond. Those are Michele’s men.”
“Mattia, damn it!” she shouted at him. Now, at last, she felt something again, and she welcomed that familiar but still strange sensation like a friend.
“One of the apartments in that building…it belonged to Gaettano. That’s—”
“Tano?” She stumbled back and knocked into one of thetables covered with model boats. “ThatTano?”
“He was here a lot. He and Michele were good friends. Michele’s younger brother was shot a few days ago, but that didn’t hit him half as hard as Tano’s death a couple of months back. His brother Carmine was a bastard, even Michele could see that, and a coked-up walking corpse, too. More people mourned him in Colombia than here in New York. But to Michele, when Tano died it was—”
“I was there.”
He nodded. “Michele says you’re responsible for his death.”
“I wish I were.” She ran her hands over her face. After so long, she suddenly felt dirty and humiliated again, as if the rape had been only yesterday.
Tano. And Michele.
Once again she had to lean against the wall for support. “Anyone else?”
“Those two are the only ones I know about.” He was obviously uneasy, and not just because of the headlights approaching along the perimeter of the pond. “But there must have been others involved, probably two of three of the men waiting outside for us now.”
She closed her eyes, felt her breath streaming into her lungs and out again. And every time she let air out, something else rose with it, slowly, as if it first had to dig its way out from deep within her up to the surface. A chill that had nothing to do with winter was spreading through her rib cage, rolling over the remains of the serum in her bloodstream like a wave of quicksilver.
“What do you want from me?” she asked Mattia.
“If Valerie really is in Europe, then she’ll turn up at your place there sooner or later.”
“She dragged me along to that party with her, Mattia. If she knows what happened there, and that Michele was involved—”
“She was the one who told me about it, the very next day. That was the last time I saw her.”
Scales were forming on the backs of her hands. They felt like tiny hairs standing erect in an icy draft of air. “If I see her, I’ll kill her.”
“But she couldn’t help it! She swore that to me. She didn’t find out until later that night, when Michele told her. Michele was doped up to the eyeballs at the time. It knocked her sideways, and she came to me to—”
“Oh, sure,” she interrupted icily. “I bet she felt truly terrible. BecauseIhad been raped. Byherboyfriend.”
The sound of the car engine laboring as it made its way through the snow was getting louder. But Mattia was so desperately trying to justify Valerie that he took no notice of it.
“It wasn’t her fault,” he said. “She said she wanted to talk to you. She was going to ask you to forgive her.”
Forgive her. Rosa felt like laughing at him for his stupid, blind love for a girl like that, but then she remembered how she herself had fallen under her spell. Valerie had charisma that made it easy for her to bewitch other people.
“What do you expect me to do?” she asked. “Act as if nothing happened?”
“When you see her, tell her I’m waiting for her,” he said. “Tell her she can always come back to me, never mind whatshe’s done. You’re the only hope I have left. If Valerie’s alive, she’ll go to you to ask your forgiveness. That’s what she said then.”
Rosa thought of the video, and she wondered whether Valerie hadn’t, in fact, tried to get in touch with her long before this. She just didn’t understand how Trevini had come to be involved.
The car stopped by the terrace. Its headlights shone through the window, casting the shadows of the sailboats on the back wall of the room. They looked like rows of black teeth.
Rosa’s skin was moving beneath her clothes. Scales caught on fibers of fabric, rubbing against each other like the surfaces of Velcro fasteners. Her tongue split into two in her mouth, but it happened so naturally that she noticed only when she tried to speak.
For a second she wondered whether he had told her all this intentionally, to set off exactly this reaction—the one moment when she lost all control over her body.
Metal clinked as tools were unloaded from the car. Footsteps stamped through the snow, and then she heard voices outside the door.
Rosa realized that she wasn’t in human form anymore only when she sank to the floor in the middle of her clothing. It didn’t hurt; it never did. It was almost pleasant, as if in leaving her human body she also left behind some of her fears. She perceived everything now with a cold, precise, reptilian mind.
Outside, orders were given, and then there was a long-drawn-out mechanical hissing sound. Mattia swore. “They’ve brought an oxy-acetylene cutter with them. They’ll be throughthe door in a couple of minutes with that.”
Rosa looked up at him from the floor, trying to get her bearings in her new shape. She wanted to say something to him, but found that only a hiss would come from her throat. Anger took possession of her, and she couldn’t direct her feelings in any particular way or against any individual. Valerie, Michele, even the dead Tano—they had all merged into a faceless phantom that aroused nothing but rage in her. Rage that banished her human thinking and dominated the mind of the snake.
An acrid smell wafted under the door. She felt vibrations that she couldn’t have perceived in human form. But the noise was suddenly more diffuse. She knew that she had to rely more on her sense of smell than on her hearing. Her field of vision was more restricted, too, and she didn’t see as clearly, although she saw differences of temperature optically, almost as an infrared camera would show them. That may have been why she saw the glowing patches on the door way before Mattia. The men were moving the oxy-acetylene cutter in a semicircle around the handle and lock. If the door had nothing else securing it at the top and the bottom, it would swing open as soon as the locking mechanism was cut away.
Mattia called to her to get to the back of the room and escape through one of the windows while he distracted the Panthera. She heard him, but it was a moment before she could connect the sound of his words with their meaning. Then she slid nimbly under the tables of model boats and deeper into the shadows.
Mattia was still in human form when he ran over to theworkbench and pulled a plastic canister out from among the cans of paint and varnish. Rosa waited a moment to see what he was doing. With frantic movements, he opened it and held it upside down over a plastic bucket. The caustic smell immediately threatened to cloud her heightened senses; as a snake, she felt as if someone were dripping acid into her nose. Rosa hurried away, but the odor of the solvent followed her through the boathouse.
The gurgling as the canister was emptied into the bucket was dull to her snake’s ears. The hissing of the oxy-acetylene cutter was more aggressive. When she looked back, the tops of the tables got in the way of her view of the door. Between two of the tables, she raised the front half of her serpentine body almost five feet up in the air, saw a window in front of her, and glanced back once more.
Mattia threw the empty canister aside, picked up the bucket, and ran to the door. He took up a position two steps away from it. The cutter had left a glowing track in the iron, a white half-moon shape around the lock. Sparks were flying into the room. Outside, two men called something to each other, but to Rosa it only sounded muffled, strange, incomprehensible.
But she felt new vibrations, much stronger now, as someone kicked the door from the outside. She knew from experience that her hypersensitivity would wear off soon, as soon as her mind was used to the new body. At this point, however, it was still almost unbearable. The air itself seemed to throb with every blow to the door.
She went down between the tables again, heading for thewindow in the back. Only when she had reached the wall did she raise her snake’s head again and look out through the glass. Leafless bushes stood outside the window; she could see the lights of Fifth Avenue through their branches. It wasn’t far, but at this moment the street might as well have been on the moon.
The damn mesh over the glass was too narrow.
Her amber-colored snake’s body was the size of a human thigh at its widest point. She would never be able to force it through the fine steel screen, even if she succeeded in pushing out the glass without beheading herself.
Her head swung around when there was a metallic grinding sound from the entrance. The point of light showing the cutter’s path blazed with painful intensity while it moved once more along the glowing track. Mattia stood motionless in the dim light, holding the bucket of acrid solvent in his hand.
He glanced at her. “The other window! Quick!”
While the bright tip of the cutter in the iron traveled the last half inch, Rosa slid over to the next window. The pane stood ajar; she could easily open it with her head. It swung open without a sound, and cold night air immediately blew in. Mattia had planned ahead here, too. The steel mesh itself was as narrow as in the other pane, but now she saw that the long screws holding it in place had been removed. It was loose in the frame, and a firm push from inside would be enough to—
Something was making its way through the bushes. Twigs cracked under mighty paws. A muscular body with tiger stripes.
The big cat was patrolling the back of the boathouse. Evenas Rosa stared, the tiger raised his head and looked straight at her. Their eyes met. He opened his mouth and let out a savage roar.
Rosa heard the sound of feet kicking the iron door behind her again. This time, the glowing edge of the hole traced by the cutter gave way. As she swiveled around, Rosa saw the door swing in and the shapes of two men appear. One with the oxy-acetylene cutter, its blade of flame blazing in the darkness as if through a half-closed eye, the other with a shotgun raised.
Mattia flung the contents of the bucket at them. As it flew through the air, the flame set the solvent on fire. The explosion enveloped the men, turning them into living torches. Screaming, they stumbled apart. The gun fell to the floor; the flame of the cutter went out. The burning fluid was blazing in the doorway and in front of the entrance.
Rosa was briefly dazzled. For a few seconds all she saw was brightness. She was almost stunned by the stench of the chemicals and could hear hardly anything except the men’s screams. Within a moment Mattia took on his panther shape and, with one great leap, sprang through the flames. Here and there sparks caught on his fur, leaving little tracks of light.
Now Rosa was alone in the boathouse. She turned to the window again, hoping that the tiger had been driven away by the noise and heat, but instead he had come closer and was looking straight in at her. He stood up on his hind legs, propping his forepaws on the windowsill. The light of the fire danced in his eyes; glittering saliva dripped from his fangs.Rosa ought to have known better than to count on his mind being a tiger’s; this was a man in the shape of a big cat, and he had worked out long ago what she planned to do. Soon he would notice that the mesh was loose in the window frame, he would pull at it from outside, and with one leap he would be in the room with her.
She abruptly dropped to the floor and slid under the tables in the direction of the door. The heat was fiercer here. The glow and the wavering heat haze blurred Rosa’s vision more and more. The noise could no longer be unraveled into voices: It was a chaotic mixture of human screams, the sound of the flames, and the roaring of the Panthera. Had they caught Mattia? Were they waiting for Rosa to find a way out into the open air? Or had they started to retreat, well aware that no bribe, however large, could keep the firefighters away from this?
Rosa realized that the place was also burning overhead when scraps of sailcloth sank to the floor around her in flames. Splashes of solvent must have carried the fire to the front tables. Several model boats had caught at the same time, and now the flames were leaping from table to table, fanned by the draft between the entrance and the open window.
The only way out was through the door. Large areas of the floor were burning on both sides of it. One of the men lay twitching in the middle of the puddle of bubbling solvent; the other was nowhere to be seen.
The tiger roared at the window behind Rosa. With a furious blow of his paw, he tore the mesh out of the frame. It fell with a clatter.
Her chances of getting out of here alive were shrinking with every second that passed. In human form, she could have tried leaping across the sea of flames. As a snake, however, she could move only over the floor, through the middle of it.
She couldn’t close her eyes because they had no lids. She could hardly breathe for the stench, and the heat was nearly intolerable. Even the concrete seemed to be burning where the solvent had seeped into its hairline cracks. The steel threshold of the doorway glowed like a red neon sign.
The glass of the window broke behind Rosa as the tiger leaped into the room, and the frame crashed against the wall. He raced toward Rosa under the tables where the burning boats stood. His jaws snapped shut just where one of her coils had been lying. His fangs scored furrows in her scaly skin, but missed her backbone. Fire rained down on the tiger’s fur and made him shrink back, but not for long. The stench of burnt hair mingled with all the other fumes, choking her.
Rosa hissed. Quick as lightning, she drew up the back part of her body, giving herself enough of a forward thrust to shoot through the flames as fast as an arrow, straight into the boiling chemicals.
Blazing brightly, her scales scraped over the glowing floor. Fluid that didn’t extinguish anything but was several hundred degrees drenched her skin. Her flesh hissed and bubbled; the tips of her split tongue drew far back into her jaws, like sizzling plastic.
Her snake body was almost nine feet long, but she managedto catapult it forward with a single thrust of her muscles. The way out of the flames seemed endless, although it lasted only seconds. She passed swiftly under something, and realized only later that it had been the drawn-up legs of the burning corpse. She could hardly see anything, and her other senses were also failing her. It didn’t seem to matter anymore that the Panthera were waiting.
Wrapped in flame, she shot out of the oily, seething puddle and onto the terrace. The ice had melted around the fire, but Rosa was in the snow again. She hardly felt the cold. Her pain was all around her. Her mind had withdrawn; all that was left were the motor functions of her reptilian body.
But then she did hear something: the howling and roaring of the Panthera everywhere around her. She barreled through them, enveloped in water vapor and the smoke that rose from her roasting, scaly skin. By the time the first Panthera had overcome his fear of the flames and taken up pursuit, she was already slithering over the side of the terrace and down to the frozen pond.
The layer of ice was no thicker than a finger’s width. It couldn’t support the heat and weight of a gigantic snake on fire.
Frigid water swallowed Rosa up immediately after she hit the ice. She vaguely heard some of the Panthera jump in after her, and then sink with roars of panic.
But she swam forward, on and out into the freezing, healing, trance-like darkness.CALL IT A DREAM
SHE WAS RUNNING, INhuman form, over the muddy bottom of the pond, running as fast as she could, although her feet sank into the silt with smacking noises every step she took. Sludge swirled around her in the water, blurring the green light in the depths.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw that she was being followed.
A yellow taxi, a typical New York cab, was racing after her over the muddy ground. Its tires kicked up even more dirt; brown ramparts of cloud drifted on both sides of the car. The windshield wipers washed waterweeds away, oscillating right and left, right and left. A rubber figurine of Simba fromThe Lion Kingdangled from the rearview mirror.
Rosa could hear much better than before. Not just her own footsteps on the bed of the pond and the engine of the car, but also the music coming out of its open windows. The song was “Memory,” fromCats. Another good reason to run.
The metal frame of a burnt-out baby carriage appeared in the darkness ahead of her, bowling along through the sludge and the aquatic plants on wheels made of spokes without tires. It crossed Rosa’s path. She could hear the axles squealing, a sound that grew louder and then softer again. As it movedaway from her, she looked inside it and saw a bundle lying in the carriage, with arms and legs flailing in the air. The metallic squeals turned to the sound of a baby crying.
She changed direction and ran after it in the dim light. The headlights of the taxi followed her, and “Memory” turned into Scott Walker’s cheerful “The Girls and the Dogs,” its quick rhythm making her race with the carriage look ridiculous. Laughter sounded on the recording as she stumbled and grazed her knees. Clouds of blood swirled up, and the laughter swelled even louder.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw who was at the wheel of the taxi. Tano waved at her and grinned. She recognized him in spite of his sunglasses and the gap left by the bullet wound that had blown away part of his forehead. Valerie bobbed excitedly up and down next to him in the passenger seat, wearing a T-shirt with the Suicide Queens’ logo on it. Michele was in the back seat, waving a machine gun in the air. There was a rose stuck in the barrel of the gun.
She tried to run even faster to catch up with the baby carriage. The sharp ends of the spokes threw up dirt until the taxi was barely visible in the drifting swathes of brown water. But Rosa kept running, even when the distance between her and the carriage increased, while the spokes rotated in a hectic time-lapse effect. That’s not fair, she thought indignantly. Tano turned up the volume of the music, and Scott Walker’s voice vibrated through the lake.
Tano tooted his horn in time with the song, until Michele hit him over the head from behind with his gun. Valerie laughed hysterically. The taxi began weaving around, and Tano tookone hand off the wheel, put it into the hole in his head, and adjusted something displaced by the blow. After that, the car drove more slowly again.
Rosa looked ahead—perhaps she’d been doing that the whole time, yet she knew what was going on behind her. All that mattered was reaching the carriage. Its front spokes suddenly collided with a rock, and the carriage fell apart into separate pieces. The screaming bundle was flung up, and then it bobbed through the turbulent water at a leisurely pace, so slowly that Rosa was able to catch it as she ran.
She clutched the child to her. He was wrapped in a cloth spattered with paint and varnish. A pretty little boy. “My name is Nathaniel,” he said.
A cat’s paw shot out from under the cloth, and claws dug furrows in Rosa’s face.
Nathaniel laughed in Tano’s voice.
Tano in the taxi was yelling like a newborn baby.
Rosa let go of the child, and watched as a current carried him away. There was a haze of blood before her eyes. She heard the taxi behind her coming closer and stormed forward again, half blind in a cocoon of red.
Then, all of a sudden, she was moving upward. The ground rose more and more steeply. The tires of the taxi’s wheels stuck in the mud; the engine howled, so did Tano, and Valerie laughed louder than ever.
Rosa’s head came up through the surface of the water, through leafless branches. She slipped through railings muchtoo narrow for her, yet they couldn’t hold her back. Light surrounded her, yellow streetlamps, bright white cones from headlights.
A taxi pulled up in front of her. She flung the door open and slipped in. There was a child’s hand dangling from the rearview mirror. Or perhaps it was only a twig.
She gave an address, and then her head fell to one side.
She dreamed, and everything was all right.GEMMA
ROSA COULD FEEL EVERYpore in her body, every nerve, every single point of contact with the fibers of the sheets.
She opened her eyes, and looked at the past. She was in her old room, in the building with the burn marks on its facade. She recognized her closet, her dresser with photos and Post-its stuck all over the mirror, her bookshelf of paperbacks, her old stereo surrounded by stacks of CDs that she’d burnt herself, a few posters, and another photo, a larger, framed one—a picture of Zoe.
Her sister was dead now; she remembered that. Dead, like Tano Carnevare.
The bedroom door was open. She heard dishes clattering outside it.
Mattia’s face flitted through her mind. Had he escaped?
A scream began to surface in her before she even realized why. Then she remembered it all: the boathouse, the flames, her scaly snake skin on fire.
With a great effort, she flung off the quilt and looked down at her body. She was naked except for a pair of brightly colored Simpsons shorts. She’d left them behind when she fled to Sicily, and she hadn’t missed them.
She was intact apart from some bruises on her knees andher shins. Her skin seemed to have an abnormal amount of blood flowing through it. It wasn’t as pale as usual, much pinker, like that of a newborn baby. When she cautiously ran her fingers over her flat stomach, her prominent hip bones, her thighs, it felt as if lotion had only just been rubbed in, all smooth and silky.
That’s not my skin, she thought. This is new.
“Oh, my God, Rosa!”
Someone rushed through the doorway, fell on her knees beside her, and hugged her hard. The woman’s face was surrounded by fair, reddish hair drenched in the smells of cooking and cigarette smoke. Rosa knew that smell, and in spite of herself she found its familiarity comforting. Cautiously, she turned until she could put her own arms around her mother. It was just a reflex action, but at the moment it seemed right to her, if not perfectly honest.
Her mother was crying, and couldn’t say a word. When she tried, it just came out as a sob.
“I’m okay,” whispered Rosa. “Nothing—” She was going to sayhappened, but then she thought of Jessie and the ragged street kids. Michele’s leopard eyes, and the angry roar of the tiger at the window. Mattia and Valerie.
Fire reducing her skin and muscles to black cinder.
The only thing that didn’t come back to her was the pain. It was as if it had shrunk to a tiny dot, like a crumpled little ball of paper that would unfold again only slowly. Her mind couldn’t possibly suppress what she had felt forever.
But hadn’t she blotted everything out once already,everything bad and painful?
Tano. Michele. And in a way Valerie, too.
A shiver ran through her body, and suddenly she felt frail and vulnerable in her mother’s arms. Then she heard herself talking, but none of it made any sense, and Gemma replied without letting go of her: something about a cab driver who, complaining loudly, had dropped her off here stark naked, smelling of soot and smoke, saying she should count herself lucky he hadn’t either taken her to the police or flung her out of his taxi.
Only in this city could things like that happen. Rosa’s mind went to an oldI Love New YorkT-shirt in her closet, and she thought she ought to wear it now and then, by way of saying sorry.
When a pause for breath started turning into a long silence, she asked, “You didn’t call the cops, did you?”
Her mother gave her a long, considering look. “No,” she said at last. No explanation. Just an unspoken question in her glance.
Rosa nodded. “Better not.”
That’s how it is in our family, she thought. My mother’s eighteen-year-old daughter is delivered naked to her door in the middle of the night, and she doesn’t call the police. Or even a doctor. And a part of Rosa wanted to ask:Why not?Wanted to revive her old resentments, because whenever she looked her mother in the eye, only one word occurred to her.Why? Why? Why?
Then she realized that she was the one who owed Gemmaan answer. Even if the question hadn’t been asked.
“It wasn’t…what it looked like,” she said, avoiding Gemma’s eyes. “Not like that other time.”
Her mother put a hand to her mouth, and breathed in twice as if to keep herself from hyperventilating. She managed to stay calm. Her blue eyes blazed, but she stayed remarkably well under control. “They hurt you,” she said. She had fresh scabs on little bite marks on her lower lip, and her hands shook. Her fingernails were cut very short, and slightly discolored from nicotine.
“I’m all right now,” said Rosa. “Thanks for…for letting me come here.”
“Did you ever doubt you could?” Gemma got up from the edge of the bed, moved a couple of steps away, and stood with her back to Rosa. “You still can’t quite trust me, can you?”
Rosa sat up and drew her legs and the sheets closer to her body, put her arms around her knees, and laid her cheek on them. She watched her mother, the long pale hair with a touch of red in it, the slender body that not even constant night shifts, fast food, and too much wine could harm. Gemma would always be a good-looking woman, whatever fate had in store for her.
Rosa let her eyes wander over the walls, the furniture, the photographs on the mirror. Difficult to imagine that this had once been her life. Everything here was strange to her now.
“You never mentioned anything,” she said. “About the family. The dynasties. But you knew all along.”
Gemma spun around, her face flushed. “I didn’t wantyou to find out from Florinda, least of all from her,” she said firmly. “But I couldn’t…” She interrupted herself, searching for words. “I’d already lost Zoe to her, and I knew it was wrong to keep your origin and…and all the rest of it secret from you. But I couldn’t help it. I tried to say something, and it was no good. Talking to you about it would have been like…”
“Like Dad was still here. As if he hadn’t died.”
Her mother stared at her. After a while, she asked quietly, “What do you think I should have told you? That one of these days you’d turn into a snake?”
“Well, for example, yes.”
Gemma leaned back against the chest of drawers, supporting herself on it with both hands. “And you think that would have one of those cozy mother-daughter moments, like on theGilmore Girls?”
“It would have been honest.”
“I had to stand by helplessly for years, watching you get dragged off to a police station for questioning again and again. You were still a child! But they didn’t leave you alone. Because you’re an Alcantara. Because you inherited that damn name.” She gesticulated energetically, but a moment later the strength went out of her. “Because someone thought a girl of thirteen or fourteen could tell them about the Mafia!” She laughed bitterly. “About crimes committed by people she’d never met, who lived on the other side of the world.”
“I didn’t choose my family, Mom. You did that.”
“I chose your father, that’s all.”
“And then there were suddenly two daughters, and they were useless, too.”
“That’snot what I meant, and you know it.”
“Yes, it went wrong. Obviously.”
Gemma pushed herself away from the chest of drawers, took a couple of hesitant steps, and stopped in the middle of the room. “You were never an easy child, Rosa, but you didn’t used to snipe at everything before you went to join them.”
“Well, at leasttheyaren’t a problem to you anymore, right, Mom?” Rosa jumped up, then felt as if someone had hit her over the head, but she managed to stay on her feet, and went over to the closet, passing her mother. “Zoe and Florinda are both dead. Maybe you’d be able to remember them better if you’d turned up for their funeral.”
Gemma flinched. “I’m never setting foot on that island again.”
“So you said already. More than once.”
When she’d changed back into human form, Rosa had shed the snake’s burnt skin, but this new one didn’t seem to hold her together just yet.
She rummaged around in the closet with both hands. Everything was just as she had left it four months ago. Her mother hadn’t changed anything.
Gemma said quietly, “Would you have contacted me? I mean, being here in New York and all…no, you wouldn’t even have called me, would you?”
Rosa was looking at some old jeans and sweaters. Most of them were black and had once belonged to Zoe. “I cameespecially because of you, Mom. Maybe that was a mistake.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Believe whatever you want.” She took out a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a heavy wool sweater. There was no underwear, so she had to keep the Simpsons shorts on. As she went to pull on her jeans, and was wobbling on one leg, she felt dizzy. She lost her balance and tipped over, just like that.
Her mother was beside her in a split second, and caught her.
Rosa cursed in Italian.
“That was quick,” said Gemma.
Rosa tried to break away, but her mother wasn’t letting go. Gemma forced her daughter to look her in the face. “Icouldn’tcome to Zoe’s funeral,” she said forcefully. “I know you don’t want to understand that. But I swore never to enter that house again.”
“Swore to who?”
“Myself. And you can think that’s ridiculous or pigheaded, whatever you want. But things happened there that…anyway, I’d rather die than go up that mountain again and set foot through the palazzo doorway.”
“There’s no one there now, Mom. No one but me.” She could have mentioned Iole, but this was hardly the right time.
Gemma stared at her, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes. “I’m so afraid for you. I lie awake thinking what…what might become of you. That place, that island…they made Zoe into a different person. And the same thing will happen to you.”
“I’ll turn into a snake; that’s the only difference. And it has nothing to do with Sicily or the Palazzo Alcantara. Or even with Florinda.” She pushed Gemma’s hands aside and pulled the jeans up. She felt weak at the knees, and not just because of her new skin. “What would it have been like if it had happened here? In school? Or on the subway? Fuck, Mom, you should have warned me!”
“I suppressed it. Not always, not at the start, but the more I made up my mind to talk to you about it, the less I found I could.”
“Too bad for you, right?”
“Your father…Davide…he never said a word about it. Not after Costanza chased us out and we came here—”
“Grandmother threw you out?” She hadn’t known that.
“Grandmother!” repeated Gemma scornfully. “Sounds as if you knew her. God, how I wish I’d never met that witch myself.”
Rosa blinked at her, intrigued, and slowly shook her head. No one had ever told her anything about Costanza Alcantara, her father’s mother. Not when she was a child, not in the months she had spent in Sicily. She was no more than a name. Two words on a granite slab in the family vault. A face in an oil painting that Florinda had taken down from the wall and pushed behind a cupboard years ago.
Gemma went to the door and leaned against the jamb with her arms crossed. She was even paler than usual. “You don’t know anything about Costanza, do you?”
Rosa pulled the T-shirt and then the sweater over her head.To her surprise, they both smelled as fresh as if they’d just come out of the washing machine. “This has nothing to do with her.”
“Italwayshas to do with her! No one ever mentioned her name in this house. She never called or sent news in any other way. But she was always around, all the same, every damn day.”
Rosa was going to make a snide remark, but a glance at her mother’s eyes kept her from doing so. Instead she said hesitantly, “So you didn’t have a good relationship with your mother-in-law?”
Gemma snorted. “Costanza was the head of the Alcantara clan for several decades. She was one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in Italy. Do you really think a woman like that would have been satisfied with the usual mother-in-law role?”
“Would it make any difference if I told you?”
“Look, this is exactly our problem! You always think you know what’s good for me. And what I should know or not know. Would it have made any difference if I’d known about Arcadia? Yes, it would have. A lot of difference, actually. Would it have made any difference if I’d known what TABULA was? Maybe.”
“TABULA?” Gemma looked at her, baffled.
“You’ve never heard of it, of course.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. What is it? Something to do with the dynasties?”
“Dad never mentioned it?”
Her mother shook her head.
Rosa made a dismissive gesture and was immediately aware that she was acting just like her mother. In how many ways were they more alike than she wanted to think?
“Are you sure Dad never mentioned TABULA?” Now she had come to the real reason she had traveled to New York. Suddenly it didn’t seem half as important as before.
“I promise you I never heard that name before today,” said Gemma.
Rosa sighed and leaned against the windowsill. The pleasant smell of clean laundry reminded her of the past. “Tell me about Costanza first.”
Gemma was still standing in the doorway, rubbing her upper arms. With a shiver, she said, “Davide was always special to her. Most male Alcantara offspring don’t live very long; he was the great exception. And the men don’t have the same…abilities as the Alcantara women. It must have surprised his mother that Davide grew up at all,let alonethat he had all the qualities that would have made him a goodcapo. If she was able to feel anything like love, presumably she loved him. She always preferred him to Florinda and didn’t bother to hide it. That was one of the reasons why your father and his sister never got along particularly well. When he turned up at the palazzo with me one day, Costanza didn’t like it one bit. An American with Irish roots instead of a native Sicilian girl…Costanza did all she could to nip it in the bud. She tried to talk him out of it, she was involved in schemes all the time, but it made no difference. Only when Zoe and thenyou were born did she give up for a while—most of the time she wasn’t at the palazzo anyway, but in Rome or Milan or Naples, or God knows where.”
Gemma turned her head, so Rosa could see her only in profile. Zoe had looked remarkably like her. “Then, one day, she came to me and offered me money to go away. I was to leave you two with her—with her and Davide. First it was a few hundred thousand dollars, then a million, after a while two million. One million for you, another for Zoe. I told her I’d never in my life sell my daughters or my husband. It was the only time I ever saw her lose her self-control.”
All the color drained out of Gemma’s face. “I saw it only that once with my own eyes. Davide couldn’t shift shape. Like all the Alcantara men, he was just an ordinary human being. But Costanza…she turned into a gigantic black cobra. I think she’d have killed me if Davide hadn’t shown up right then.”
Rosa frowned, feeling the wintry cold seep into her back through the windowpane.
“A few hours later we were on a flight to New York. I never saw her again. And she ceased to exist for Davide, too. But to me, she was still there, like a smell that we’d brought back from Sicily. And even when we were talking about something entirely different, her presence still seemed to linger. Sounds silly, I know…but if you’d seen her that day, and heard what she said to get rid of me…” Furiously, Gemma rubbed her eyes. “She left us in peace for a while.Until fourteen years ago, and that phone call.”
“That’s the year he died, isn’t it?”
Gemma laughed—a bitter laugh that made Rosa feel colder than ever. “Obviously Costanza had been very sick for years, and finally she was bedridden. Florinda had been running the clan’s business for a while already—circumstances more or less forced her to do it. I don’t think Costanza had planned for that to happen, and it was something else she couldn’t forgive your father for.” She took a deep breath, as if gathering all her powers for the final stretch of her story. “Fourteen years ago Costanza died. Soon after her death, Davide got a phone call, I don’t know from who. Probably Florinda or one of theconsiglieri. He was a different man after that. He changed completely.”
“I guess they were offering him the inheritance.”
“That’s what I thought. Even if Costanza’s death had affected him so much…well, I could have understood that. I don’t mean I could haveforgivenit, but for God’s sake, she was his mother.” Gemma slowly shook her head. “But it wasn’t any of that. For two or three hours after he put down the phone, he didn’t say a word. He just stared out the window—and then he stood up and told me he was leaving us, you two girls and me. That he was going away and wouldn’t be back. Just like that.”
Rosa’s hands pressed firmly down on the edge of the wooden windowsill. A splinter ran into one thumb, but she didn’t feel it. “So he left you?”
“Us, Rosa. Not only me: all three of us.” Gemma’s toneof voice demonstrated to Rosa, for the first time, the self-discipline it must have taken for her to keep that secret all these years. She and Zoe had always been told that Davide was dead; he had been traveling in Europe and died there of heart failure. His body had been laid to rest in the family vault in Sicily. Rosa had been four at the time, Zoe seven. Gemma had told them it was impossible to fly to Italy for the funeral. Rosa didn’t remember what reason she had given—probably that they couldn’t afford it.
But no one had ever told her that her father had left his family before he died. Oddly enough, she felt more shocked than upset. It was so long ago, and he hadn’t been around anyway, for whatever reason. Yet it affected her in a way that surprised and shook her.
“Did Zoe know?” she asked quietly.
“Not from me. I never told either of you.” Gemma raised her hands defensively. “And before you blame me for keeping quiet about that, too, put yourself in my position. I was deeply hurt when he told me he was leaving. We had our problems, sure, but who doesn’t? With two small children, and no money, but the knowledge that there was so much wealth almost within reach, but only almost…he’d have had to take you girls and go back to Costanza to get the money. Instead he cut himself off from her, never said a word about her, and accepted all the deprivations of life in a shabby apartment in this run-down neighborhood. I’d be lying if I said we were always happy. And I’m sure he missed Sicily, the countryside, the loneliness of the hills, the Mediterranean…but I don’tthink any of that was the reason for his final decision. Longing, or discontent, or simply disappointment—I could have explained any of that to you. But when he saidnothing at all, gave no reason…how could I make that clear to two little girls?” Gemma let herself drop to the floor in the doorway, drew up her knees, and stared at them. “So I thought I’d wait until I heard from him, until we could discuss it all again.”
“Did you hope he’d come back?”
Gemma shook her head. “I looked him in the eye when he said he was leaving. And he seemed so determined…Perhaps it was also fear that—”
“It was a look I’d never seen on his face before. Almost panic.”
“What could have scared him so badly? Something he’d heard about Costanza?” She used the name deliberately this time, because Gemma was right about one thing: Rosa had never known the old woman, and the wordgrandmothersounded as if they’d had a close relationship, which they hadn’t.
“He didn’t tell me who had called or what it was about,” her mother said. “And he hardly said a word himself during the phone conversation.”
“Did you ever hear anything from him again once he left?”
“No, nothing. Soon after that, Florinda called and said he was dead. The doctors discovered that he’d had a weak heart—in fact it was a miracle that he lived as long as he did, they said. Maybe there’s something to the story of the curse onthe male Alcantara descendants after all.”
“Nathaniel didn’t die because of any curse. That would have been nice and neat, wouldn’t it have? But it wasn’t like that.”
“You can’t blame me for that all your life. I knew exactly how tough it is, bringing up children as a single mother, holding down several jobs—andIwasn’t seventeen! How could you have—”
“You were just afraid of being saddled with another kid.”
“And you blame me for that?” Both Gemma’s hands had clenched into fists on the floor, but the gesture was helpless, not aggressive. “Take a look around! Is this what you’d want for your child? Crown Heights, a dump of an apartment?” Resigned, she leaned her head back against the door frame, took a deep breath, and said more quietly, “There’s something else I didn’t tell you.”
Surprise, surprise, thought Rosa.
“A day after you called Zoe and told her you were pregnant, Florinda called me. She made me the same offer as Costanza all those years ago, if I’d send you to her with your child.”
“She offered you money?”
“Florinda wasn’t as obvious about it as her mother. She promised me that you and the baby would never want for anything. And that as soon as you were eighteen, you would also be free to provide for me.” Her laugh was a little too shrill. “‘Provide’ for me. That’s how she put it.”
Rosa remembered Florinda’s expression when she first arrived in Sicily, the smile on her aunt’s face. Maybe it hadn’tbeen friendliness. Only triumph, because she had won at last.
In fact Rosa had been used more often than she’d thought. By Tano and Michele; by Salvatore Pantaleone, thecapo dei capi; by Florinda; even by Zoe, who had gone along with her aunt.
The only one who hadn’t been using her was her mother. The person she’d blamed most for everything.
“Did it ever occur to you,” she asked, “that Florinda might be responsible for Dad’s death?”
Gemma laughed quietly. “I was sure of it for a long time. They never liked each other, and Florinda was in charge of the Alcantara businesses after Costanza got sick. In a way she earned her claim to the inheritance, and in the end she enjoyed managing things after all. Maybe she was afraid that Davide would come back after Costanza’s death and take it all for himself, the way their mother had originally planned. Florinda would have had good reasons to get rid of him.”
“But now you don’t think she did?”
“No. Because I know Florinda…or knew her. And because she came to New York to see me a few months after Davide died.”
That was news to Rosa, too.
“We talked for a long time, she and I, and she assured me that she had nothing to do with his death.”
“She was a good liar,” Rosa pointed out.
“But not a hypocrite. There wouldn’t have been any need for her to show up here and pour out her heart to me. However, that’s what she did. She told me how Costanza had madeher suffer, even as a child. Part of that was because Costanza always preferred Davide. And Florinda made no secret of the fact that she was glad at first when Davide left Italy with me. Until she realized what it meant to be head of the clan with her mother breathing down her neck. If Florinda ever killed anyone, it was Costanza herself—I could have understood that. I don’t know if she did, and I never asked. But she swore to me that she was in no way to blame for Davide’s death. I mean, she was head of a Cosa Nostra family! Why would she bother to come and talk to me about it? Never in her wildest dreams could I have harmed her. And whatever can be said about her, I had the feeling back then that she was honest with me.”
Rosa tried to reconcile all this with her own picture of her aunt. She had certainly hated Florinda’s methods—but at the same time she had to admit that her aunt had been a woman who lived by principles of her own. If Florinda had done away with her brother, she wouldn’t have made any secret of it. She had been cold as ice, and must have walked over corpses more than once to get where she wanted—but she would never have flown halfway around the world just to put on an act for the benefit of Davide’s widow.
Rosa leaned against the cold glass of the window. “How did he die?”
“A heart attack. It was very quick. In business class, on a Boeing 737 as it took off. There was an autopsy, and Florinda had him laid to rest in the vault in the chapel of the palazzo.”
“I’ve seen his slab on the tomb.”
What connection had there been between her father andTABULA? Had he really died a natural death? And if not, could it maybe have been the work not of a Mafioso or Arcadian, but of TABULA?
“Why are you telling me all this now?” Rosa asked.
“Because you blame me for keeping secrets from you and Zoe. And I want you to understand why. Should I have made everything even worse for you both after Davide’s death by telling you the truth? That I didn’t lose him because he died, but because it was his own decision to walk out that door and never come back? Exactly how would that have made anything better?” She shook her head. “Think whatever you like about me, Rosa—but I still believe I did the right thing. I wanted you and Zoe to have a chance to grow up as normal girls, and it was bad enough with all that Mafia garbage, all the times you were summoned by the police for interrogation.” She looked tired now, drained by her memories. “And as for the transformations: I’m not an Arcadian, and Davide never had the ability to be anything but himself. I hoped that as the children of ordinary parents, you’d be like your father and me—not like Costanza. Just what should I have told you? That the two of you might turn into snakes someday when you grew up? Don’t you think that I’d have lost you much earlier that way?”
Outside, an ambulance raced down the street, its siren howling. The little dog that Rosa had seen on her first visit ran around the building and barked at the noise.
“If you think I’ve let you down, then I can’t change it now,” said Gemma. “It’s too late for so much—certainly too late for that.”
“Maybe you did lose Zoe to Florinda,” said Rosa. “But not me. I almost shot Florinda once.”
Gemma smiled sadly. “Sounds like my girl.”
“You can always come back to Sicily with me. They could show up here looking for me.”
“What about the concordat?”
“That was broken months ago, by both sides. I guess it’s not valid anymore.”
“I thought that was for the tribunal to decide.”
“You still remember a lot about it.”
“I lived with the Alcantaras long enough.”
“Come back with me,” Rosa said again.
Her mother shook her head. “That’s nice of you. But no thanks.”
“You’re not safe here.”
“I wouldn’t be safe in Sicily either. No one who has anything to do with the dynasties is safe there.”
Rosa’s eyes wandered over to the photos on her mirror—and there he was, half covered by a picture from a magazine. “You really did love Dad, didn’t you?”
“And he loved you?”
“I think so.”
“But he left anyway.”
This time she didn’t ask why.
Her mother gave her the answer, anyway. Orananswer.
“I think he had no choice.” Gemma stood up, but stayed there in the doorway. “You know, it’s a lie when people say there’s nothing as strong as love. It’s one of the biggest, worst lies of all. Love isn’t strong. It’s incredibly vulnerable. And if we don’t take care of it, it shatters like glass.”
“But you still love him. Even now.”
“Does that help me? Does it make me any stronger?” She shook her head. “It just hurts, that’s all. It hurts like hell, every day and every night. And it’s not true about time healing all wounds, either. It makes them worse. Time just makes everything even worse.”
Outside the window, the little dog turned its head, saw Rosa on the other side of the windowpane, and howled as if it were howling at the moon.SICILY
ROSA’S CONNECTING FLIGHT FROMRome landed in Palermo late in the afternoon. A limousine met her at the airport. As the driver stowed her suitcase in the trunk, she was already dozing off in the backseat.
Somewhere along the way she woke up, freezing, and realized that ever since that night in Central Park, cold temperatures had new and unwelcome associations for her. She asked the driver to adjust the air conditioning, and soon after that the sense of being hunted and the heavy weight of winter started to drain away from her limbs.
Golden sunlight shone in through the tinted panes. Although it was mid-February, on the island it already looked almost like summer. Outside temperature fourteen degrees Celcius—around fifty-seven degrees Fahrenheit—Rosa read on the dashboard, and it rarely got any cooler during the day in Sicily. The difference from the biting cold in New York was so great that she was going to have a hard time adjusting to the climate change as well as jet lag over the next few hours.
The expressway passed across a wide, ocher plain with mountains rising steeply on either side. Abandoned farmhouses falling into ruin, the remains of feudal Sicily, lay on their yellowish-brown slopes. Now and then a billboard shotpast beyond the guardrails, and then there was nothing but sunlit emptiness again. The rectangular white buildings of a mountain village dotted one of the peaks like a cap. Behind them small clouds drifted across the deep blue sky.
Rosa had never said much about the love she’d felt at first sight for this landscape, but now she felt it again—this was a place so close to the ancient history of the Mediterranean. After tightly packed New York, where everything aspired to height—buildings, expectations, egos—this was the exact opposite. The world went on and on, far beyond the horizon.
She couldn’t wait to see Alessandro. There was a lot that she anticipated with distaste: meetings with her advisers, with the managers of her companies, many of them women, and—worst of all—with Avvocato Trevini. But looking forward to seeing Alessandro helped her feel better about the pressure and terrors of the last few days. She would have liked to ask the driver to take her straight to Castello Carnevare. However, Alessandro was in the conference room of one of his firms in Catania; she hadn’t told him when her flight was landing, only that she was on her way home. What she had to discuss with him wasn’t a subject for phone calls or crowded airports. And there was something new that they did have to talk about. An address: 85 Charles Street. An apartment that had belonged to Tano.
The memory of Mattia briefly surfaced in her mind. She saw his face before her, his last desperate leap through the flames in his panther form. Had the other Carnevares caught up with him? Michele would show no mercy to the man who had saved her life.
At the Mulinello exit they left the expressway and raced along Route 117, going south. After a while the domed church tower of Piazza Armerina and the rooftops of the town appeared behind the bare trees. Rosa had expected to feel uneasy on her return, but it was just the opposite. She was glad to be back.
A good six miles outside of the town, right after the road forked off for Caltagirone, a driveway on the left led into the wooded hills. When the two guards recognized the car and its driver, a heavy iron gate slid aside on a guide rail, clattering.
As they closed the gate behind the limousine again, Rosa glanced through the rear window. A silver BMW passed the entrance to the drive and continued south. It had been following them ever since they’d left the expressway. Judge Quattrini’s anti-Mafia team had only a limited number of cars at its disposal, and Rosa knew most of them. This one had shadowed her a few weeks ago. She sent the judge a text message with a brief thanks for the welcome committee.
The driveway rose gently uphill for just over a mile. Gnarled olive and lemon trees covered a large part of the slope, and pines grew here and there. When the rooftops of the Palazzo Alcantara appeared above the crowns of the trees, she finally felt the uneasiness that she had been expecting ever since she landed. There was only one car parked in the courtyard of the palazzo: a decrepit red Toyota, none of the flashy roadsters that her business managers drove. Thank God. The old rust heap belonged to Signora Falchi, Iole’s private tutor.
The fountain with the stone statues of fawns wasn’t backin working order yet, but the gardeners had stopped collecting birds’ nests in it. One of Rosa’s first acts had been to revoke Florinda’s orders for the regular removal of all nests from the trees around the palazzo, to be burnt in the stone basin of the fountain. She’d decided to make sure that water flowed from the blackened jets again as soon as possible.
The palazzo had four wings, arranged in a square around an inner courtyard. Plaster was peeling off the pale brown facade in many places. And the tuff statues looking out of niches and down from the edge of the roof were also in urgent need of restoration. Wrought ironwork on the balconies nodded to the property’s former magnificence. Today it was a sad, neglected sight.
The limousine rolled through the tunnel beyond the gate in front of the house. The flower bed in the center of the inner courtyard was still overgrown with weeds; the four facades around it were the color of terra-cotta that had been outdoors for too many winters.
The car stopped at the foot of the double flight of steps leading up to the main entrance on the second floor. Rosa got out before the driver could open the door for her. The smell of damp, crumbling stone was everywhere, even in high summer, and you certainly couldn’t ignore it in February. Once again she wondered whether it would be a better idea to find somewhere else to live. Another decision that she kept putting off.
There was a sound of frantic barking as a black mongrel raced down the steps, leaped at Rosa, and planted his paws onher shoulders. He exuberantly licked her face, panting with excitement.
“Hey, Sarcasmo!” she managed to say, crouching down to hug the dog. Smiling, she ran her hand through his woolly coat, scratched him behind the ears, and buried her face in his neck. “I’ve missed you, boy. Wow, you still smell just as good as I remember.” No wonder; Sarcasmo lounged about on the antique sofas and rugs in the palazzo all day long. At night he jumped up on Iole’s bed and snored for all he was worth.
The driver carried Rosa’s suitcase into the house, and almost collided at the door with a frail-looking woman who came hurrying out at the same moment. She wore wire-framed glasses and a white blouse, and her jeans had creases ironed into them.
“Signorina Alcantara,” she cried, sounding as if she might suffer a stroke any minute. “Ah,signorina, it’s high time you were back here!”
Rosa hugged Sarcasmo one last time, and stood up. The dog ran into the building ahead of her as Rosa climbed the steps, looking at the tutor through the unruly hair that fell over her eyes. Raffaela Falchi was in her midthirties but looked fifteen years older, and seemed to have given up fighting against her advancing age. She looked sober and a little matronly, and that was why Rosa had trusted her impressive references. It would never have crossed the mind of a woman like Signora Falchi to have her résumé produced in some Sicilian forger’s workshop. She didn’t seem likely to be an informer for the public prosecutor’s office, either. Ultimately, though, Rosa had left the choiceto her secretary in Piazza Armerina. Her own high-school days were barely a year behind her, and she felt totally unequipped to be the judge of a tutor’s competence.
“Signorina Alcantara!” cried Raffaela Falchi for the third time. By now Rosa was wishing she was surrounded by the advisers she usually disliked, so that she could hide behind them.
“Ciao, Signora Falchi,” she said unenthusiastically.
“Now then—about your cousin. I just don’t know where to begin…”
Irritated, Rosa pulled her blond hair back from her face. They had said that Iole was her cousin in order to avoid unwelcome questions. “Didn’t we agree that you’d decide all that for yourself?”
The tutor’s feathers were obviously ruffled, and as she was still standing a few steps above Rosa, it made her look quite intimidating. “Iole won’t discuss it with me, and it would be better if you didn’t make the same mistake, Signorina Alcantara.”
Rosa sighed. “What happened?”
“Iole doesn’t turn up regularly for her lessons. She talks to herself. She scribbles in her exercise books. Sometimes she hums to herself, and not even in tune. She won’t accept my authority.” And so it went on, while Rosa mentally ticked off the complaints she’d already heard before she went away. “She does her makeup while I’m teaching her. And she goes ‘la-la-la’ when I ask her to listen to me.”
“‘La-la-la’?” Rosa raised an eyebrow.
“In a loud voice!”
“And then what?”
“Then nothing. She just does that.” The tutor was wringing her hands. “Yesterday she belched like an uneducated peasant! The day before yesterday she insisted on wearing a hat with a veil. Heaven only knows where she found it. And then there are those dreadful scented candles.”
“She ordered them on the internet, she says. Do you know how many hours a day that child spends in front of the computer?”
“Thatchildwill soon be sixteen.”
“But we both know that she hasn’t reached the intellectual level of a sixteen-year-old.”
“Iole isn’t mentally challenged, Signora Falchi,” said Rosa firmly.
“I know that. And I’m well aware of what she’s been through. Six years in the hands of criminals…but that doesn’t change the fact that she has to adhere to certain rules if I’m to help her catch up on those six years. I’m not a therapist, but as a teacher I know what I have to do. And what’s necessary to make Iole an educated young woman. But to do that she’ll have to take my advice to heart whether she likes it or not.”
Rosa took a deep breath, then nodded. “I’ll talk to her.” She continued climbing, and reached the tutor’s side on the wide step in front of the entrance. “But I’m not Iole’s mother. Or even her big sister. Maybe she’ll listen to me, maybe not. Where is she, anyway?”
Signora Falchi straightened her glasses, puffed out her cheeks, and then let the air escape with a plopping sound. “In thecellar!” she uttered.
“What on earth is she doing in the cellar?”
“Howon earthwould I know?”
There it was again. Responsibility. For the business affairs of the Alcantara clan, for her relationship with Alessandro, for herself—and for Iole as well. She felt a sudden urge to get into one of the sports cars in the garage and race off toward the coast at high speed. Or through the mountains. Anywhere so long as she was alone.
“Talk to her,” said the tutor, adding, surprisingly gently, “and if you need my help or advice, I’m here for you. For both of you, Signorina Alcantara.” It was one of the few moments when she showed that she knew very well that her employer wasn’t much older than her pupil.
“Okay,” said Rosa. “Thanks. I’ll see to it.”
The indignation disappeared from Signora Falchi’s features, and suddenly there was understanding and sympathy in her face. Shewasa good teacher, and although she could also be a terrible battle-ax, so far Rosa hadn’t seriously regretted hiring her.
“Iole is a clever girl,” said the tutor. “She just has to give herself—and me—a chance.”
Rosa nodded, and headed down to the vaulted cellar.
“They smell of vanilla! And mango! And amber! And snowflakes!”
“So what do snowflakes smell like?”
“I’ve never smelled one. I’ve never seen a real snowflake. Only on TV.”
“Like honey. Honey withraspberries!” Iole laughed happily, took Rosa’s hands, and, doing a silly dance, swung her around in a circle. “They smellsogood! And there are so many different kinds! And if you order five hundred they cost hardly anything!”
“You ordered five hundred scented candles?”
“Only in that one shop.” Iole let go of Rosa but kept dancing in a circle by herself. She had often done that for hours, all alone and chained at the ankle, when she was the Carnevares’ hostage.
Rosa groaned. “How many stores did you order from?”
“All of the ones that had great offers!” she gushed, and looked at Rosa out of her pretty eyes as if she couldn’t imagine that her friend wouldn’t understand. “That’s why they have them on sale, see? So that everyone can buy them cheap. Even people who don’t earn much money. It’s so,sogreat!”
“And what exactly do you do with all those candles?”
“I light a different one every hour. Signora Falchi likes the place to smell good, too.”
“That’s not true.”
But Iole was already changing the subject, as she turned a final pirouette and came to a halt, swaying slightly. “Alessandro called.”
Rosa chewed a fingernail. “So?”
“Don’t you want to know what he wanted?”
“You’re about to tell me anyway.”
Iole lowered her voice conspiratorially. “He asked me how I was.”
“That’s nice of him.”
“I think he still worries about me.”
“Alessandro worries about a lot of things.”
“But he likes me.”
Rosa smiled, took Iole by the shoulders, and held her close. “Of course he does. Everyone likes you. Including Signora Falchi. Or she would if she saw more of you.”
The dank smell of the cellar clung to Iole’s short black hair. She must have been down here for some time.
“But he likes you best of all,” said Iole.
“You know he does!”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“He’s had Fundling moved. To a hospital near the sea.”
Rosa felt guilty for not having asked about Fundling herself. He’d been in a coma ever since the exchange of gunfire at the Gibellina monument. The doctors had removed the bullet from his head, but four months later he still hadn’t regained consciousness. Alessandro paid all his bills, and he had made the decision, some weeks ago, to have Fundling taken from the public hospital to an expensive private sanatorium. Rosa still wasn’t sure why. Alessandro said very little about it, but she sensed that he felt responsible for Fundling, maybe because of the crucial role Fundling had played in opposing CesareCarnevare, the murderer of Alessandro’s parents.
Iole picked up a lock of Rosa’s hair and smelled it, as if that were the most natural thing in the world to do. “Have you asked the judge yet?”
“I’ll talk to her when…as soon as I see her.”
“Shemustlet me go! I’d love to see Uncle Augusto again.”
Augusto Dallamano was Iole’s last living relation. Six and a half years before, the rest of her family had been murdered by the Carnevares. Iole herself had been held hostage—until Rosa and Alessandro had freed her. She’d been pestering Rosa for weeks to be allowed to visit her uncle. But that was far from easy to arrange.
“Uncle Augusto taught me how to shoot,” announced Iole.
“With an automatic pistol. And a shotgun, too.”
“How old were you then?”
Iole frowned, and counted silently. “Eight?”
Dallamano was living, with a new identity, under the witness protection program of the state prosecutor’s office. Rosa had met him once, in Sintra, near Lisbon, and in the park of the Quinta da Regaleira he had answered some of her questions about the mysterious find made by the Dallamanos on their diving expeditions in the Strait of Messina.
“The judge isn’t very happy with me right now, did you know that?” Rosa guessed that her explanations would simply bounce off Iole. She had missed six years with other human beings, six years of contact with the outside world. It was easyto like her, but sometimes she could rile you, without knowing what she had done wrong. She had quit therapy after the first session, and Rosa could understand that. Her own experience with psychotherapy had not been a good one.
“Judge Quattrini never gives you anything for free,” added Rosa. “If there’s nothing in it for her, she isn’t interested.”
“Then we’ll have to give her something.”
“Like scented candles?”
“She could have the pine-scented ones. I don’t like those so much.”
“I kind of think that won’t be enough.”
“How about some sort of Mafia information?”
Now and then Iole said something so disarmingly naive that Rosa wondered whether there wasn’t an element of calculation in it after all. But the girl’s mind had already moved on to another thought. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“What else did you buy?”
Iole leaned forward conspiratorially, as if someone might be eavesdropping on them. “I explored the cellar.”
Rosa looked past her and down the long corridor. She’d been down here only once since the deaths of Florinda and Zoe. The light came from yellow lamps held in latticework grilles at wide intervals on the ceiling. In between the circles of light they cast, strips of shadow moved over the masonry. Like striped tiger fur.
“There’s an iron door right at the back, under the north wing,” said Iole, with an air of mystery. “And something mechanical humming behind it. An engine, I think.”
“It’s the old freezer. It still works, but it’s not in use. No one can get in there to turn the thing off.”
“They can now.”
“The door has a lock with a number code.”
Iole nodded, and the corners of her mouth turned up in a grin of pride.
Rosa looked at her doubtfully. “You cracked the code?”
“How did you do it?”
“I tried everything.”
The code consisted of four or five digits. Millions of possible combinations. Rosa shook her head, unable to take it in. “Nonsense,” she said.
“Well, I had luck. And five days without Signora Come-Do-Your-Lessons-This-Minute.”
“Did you write it down?”
Shaking her head, Rosa took Iole’s hand and said what she assumed sheshouldsay. “I don’t want you running around down here on your own.”
“There’s nobody else around.”
“But it’s…dark.” God, she thought, she was worse than her own mother.
“So?” Iole laughed. “I’m not scared of the dark. It was dark in those places where they shut me up. The huts up in the mountains. The empty farmhouses. Even in the villa on Isola Luna.”
Rosa felt that the role of big sister was beyond her. Zoehadn’t been much good at it, and she wasn’t doing any better herself. “Okay,” she said, resigned. “I guess there’s no real reason why you should stay away from the cellar. Do what you want, but don’t come to me later and…and complain.” Good god.
Iole looked at her triumphantly. “Don’t you want to see?”
“The freezer. What’s behind the door.”
“Is it important?
“Well, important…” Iole shrugged her shoulders.
“Then it can wait until tomorrow, okay? I’m worn out.” She glanced along the dimly lit cellar corridor again. Dust hovered in the yellow, tiger-striped light. She suppressed a shudder. “Anyway,I’mscared of the dark!” She said that with a twinkle in her eye, but at the moment it was closer to the truth than she liked.
Iole poked a finger into her stomach. “You are not!”
Rosa sighed. “Today I am.”A REUNION
ROSA SLEPT LIKE THEdead until morning. Once awake, though, she remembered her date with Alessandro, and got up in frantic haste, showering and eating breakfast in record time.
The helicopter was waiting on the landing pad near the palazzo. In jeans, black sweater, and sneakers she climbed aboard and buckled her seat belt. As usual, the pilot complained about everything that was wrong with the old chopper, but she trusted him when he told her, with a gloomy expression, that they were likely to arrive safe and sound just this once.
Soon the gray volcanic cone of Mount Etna rose ahead of them. To avoid the treacherous winds blowing up its slopes, and to keep out of the monitored airspace of Catania, the pilot took the helicopter farther south over the open sea. Keeping their distance from the coast, they followed its course northeast and then, flying low over the water, raced toward the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the toe of the Italian boot.
Below them, the steely blue Mediterranean rushed past, the crests of the waves throwing the helicopter’s shadow back and forth like an oil slick. Apart from a few sailboats, the sea could have been swept clean.
Only some time later did two dots appear on the horizon.
“There they are,” said the pilot’s voice in Rosa’s headset. She was sitting beside him in the cockpit, but the helicopter made too much noise for her to go without ear protectors. Soon after that the headset began to crackle. They were entering the area where Alessandro’s people scrambled radio traffic.
TheGaia, the Carnevares’ 130-foot yacht, lay dazzling white on the water. From above, Rosa saw that the whirlpool on the sundeck had been covered with an awning. No one was using the luxury seating either.
The second boat, rocking on the waves not far from the yacht, was not as impressive at first sight, although Rosa was sure it couldn’t be worth much less than theGaia. Belowdecks the modest-looking vessel had hundreds of cubic feet filled with high-tech equipment. She knew what vast sums theColony’s day-to-day operations—not to mention the use of the unmanned drone diver—required.
The helicopter came down squarely on theGaia’slanding pad.
Alessandro, ducking low, hurried toward her as she jumped down from the cockpit. He hugged her while they were still below the circling rotors, and then they walked hand in hand to the railing, as the chopper rose in the air again behind them. The pilot waved a hand in farewell, turned west in a tight curve, and flew back toward the coast.
She gave Alessandro a long kiss as the noise of the helicopter died away in the distance. He held her tight as if the wind might carry her off with it across the sea. A hot, tinglingsensation ran over her from head to foot, so unexpected and exciting that it took her a moment to work out what it was—her new skin reacting to his touch. Its tinge of pink had faded by now, but her nerves were in turmoil as she felt Alessandro near again. She had expected a chill, the sign of the snake stirring inside her, but instead a comfortable warmth took possession of her. She nestled closer in his arms.
When they finally moved apart, she realized that so far she had felt him but hadn’t looked at him. She looked now—and it was a shock.
He was pale and seemed exhausted, with dark rings under his eyes. His brown hair was even messier than usual, and the dimples that were always there couldn’t disguise the fact that he clearly hadn’t had much to smile about in the past few days. Even in his weary state he was still outrageously good-looking, and his green eyes easily outshone his pallor, but she could tell that something was wrong. All at once her own exhaustion disappeared.
“You look terrible,” she said.
“I haven’t been sleeping much. And when I did, I had bad dreams.”
She’d had those, too, but she had already decided to keep the reason for them to herself for the time being. Not just out of consideration for him, but also out of sheer self-interest. She wasn’t going to let Tano’s ghost cast a shadow over their reunion. She had that much power over it. Tano might have taken possession of her body, but with a little effort she could wipe him from her memory.
“If I’d known you were coming here, I’d have—”
She put her hand on the back of his neck and silenced him gently with another kiss. Only then did she ask, “What’s wrong?”
“Well, my own people would like to be rid of me, and sooner or later someone will try to do something about it, but that’s nothing new.” He smiled with the mixture of melancholy and determination that no one had mastered as well as Alessandro. “How about you?” he asked. “You stopped calling.”
He looked her in the eye. “You’ve found out something.”
“Give me a little time?”
“They hurt you.”
“Alessandro, please…I’ll tell you all about it, but for now I just want to be with you. We don’t have to tell each other all our problems right away.”
He took her hand and led her from the landing pad to the wood-paneled interior of the yacht, and along a stairway with gold fittings down to the main deck. When they were in the open again, Rosa saw that theGaiaand theColonywere fastened together with cables as thick as a man’s arm. They moved from one vessel to the other along a gangplank.
Two men and a woman, all in blue overalls, were standing by theColony’s rail, smoking and looking at them. One of the men, gray-haired and tanned brown by the sun, nodded briefly in Rosa’s direction. Professor Stuart Campbell, Englishman and egocentric treasure hunter—he was in chargeof the investigations that Alessandro had commissioned the group of marine researchers and archaeologists to carry out.
“Signorina Alcantara,” he greeted her.
“Professor Campbell.” She didn’t like the way he looked at her, as if she were some dumb little blonde who had hooked Alessandro. However, she wasn’t interested enough in Campbell for it to infuriate her seriously.
Alessandro let her enter the control room of theColonyahead of him. Half a dozen men and women, also in overalls, were sitting close together in front of a great deal of radar and echo-sounding equipment. The windowless room might as well have been inside the drone that was operated from here by remote control through the trenches and ravines on the seabed. The air was stuffy, and cigarette smoke from outside drifted in through the doorway, which did nothing to improve the atmosphere, but the others didn’t seem bothered.
“Here,” said Alessandro, pointing to one of the screens. “Take a look at that.”
It was a three-dimensional diagram of the seabed, covering three hundred square feet. Alessandro used a touch pad to alter the perspective. As he moved two fingertips apart on the pad, the virtual camera zoomed in on the curving lines of the pattern.
“Those are the exact coordinates from the Dallamanos’ documents,” he said.
Rosa looked intently at the graphics. They took some getting used to. “Looks empty.” Which would explain why when she and Alessandro had tried diving, twice, theyhad found nothing either time.
“Wrong,” said a red-haired woman in her midthirties. Rosa had forgotten her name, but on her last visit the redhead had been the only one on board who would condescend to give her more than a brief greeting. “To call it empty isn’t quite accurate.”
The woman archaeologist moved Alessandro’s hand aside and used the touch pad herself. Perspective and size changed rapidly as she zoomed in on an inconspicuous part of the network of lines. A brief tap on the keypad, and at once a second and much finer pattern overlaid the first. Rosa’s brow wrinkled. “Stones.”
“That’s what we thought ourselves at first,” said the woman. “Not statues, anyway—not what we were looking for.”
Rosa glanced inquiringly at Alessandro.
Patience, his eyes said.
The researcher dragged a cursor down to the edge of the picture. A column of figures in the corner changed. The framework filled in from the outside; then it looked as if someone had placed a gray cloth over the structure.
Rosa leaned closer to the screen. “Roundstones?” she asked skeptically.
“Twelve of them,” added Alessandro. “All inside that square.”
Rosa ran her fingers through her hair. “Does that mean…?”
“Someone got here ahead of us,” said the woman. “Someone snapped up the statues from under our noses.”
“But no one knows the coordinates!”
“Are you sure?”
“Dallamano was taking us for a ride,” she murmured.
Alessandro shook his head. “Not necessarily.”
“You of all people defending him? He almost killed you.”
“According to him, your aunt had the documents in her hands, at least for a few hours. And Pantaleone got them from her. We don’t know who may have been told about the contents of the documents, by either or both of them.”
“Not to mention the fact,” the researcher added, “that this area is more than three miles offshore, outside the country’s borders, so in theory anyone could have come across them. Maybe by chance, maybe because he knew what he was looking for.”
Rosa snorted. “Chance!”
“We don’t believe that either,” one of the men said behind them. Rosa could smell the cigarette smoke that he brought into the control room even before she turned to him.
Professor Campbell pointed to a monitor on the opposite wall. One of the men at the controls vacated his seat for the professor. Rosa exchanged a glance with Alessandro, who nodded encouragingly at her.
“Let’s get to the reason why I asked you to come here, Signore Carnevare. Look at this.” The treasure hunter indicated the screen, where the different camera angles of the underwater drone were changing in quick succession. Finally he stopped at one of them. “This one was taken by thestarboard camera onColony Two.”
One of the floodlights moved over the seabed. Crevices and holes gaped wide in the rock. The Strait of Messina was constantly exposed to underwater earth tremors, and was encrusted with geological scar tissue.
“How deep is it?” asked Rosa.
“ Not very deep. A little over a hundred and twenty feet. We’re also searching the bed with divers, but that’s laborious, and not half as effective as the instruments on boardColony Two.” Campbell kept the photograph on the monitor and tapped the glass with a ballpoint. “This is what I’m interested in. It’s one of our plinths.”
Rosa couldn’t see much more than a raised round shape, with a few angular chunks of rock in the background.
“It measures roughly three feet in diameter, but it’s probably taller than that. We can assume that, like the other eleven, it’s sunk deep into the seabed. But we’re going to take a closer look at it.”
The dim, ghostly illumination from the searchlight and the floating particles visible in the foreground of the picture reminded Rosa of the Dallamano photographs. Those, however, had shown a statue of two animals: a panther upright on his hind legs, with the broad body of a giant snake coiled around him. The reptile’s head hung before the eyes of the big cat, and the two of them were looking at each other.
“We’ve compared the photos you gave us with these.” Campbell pressed a combination of keys. The picture of the panther and the snake that they had found at Iole’s housemoved over the picture on the screen like a film. The perspectives were not exactly the same, but because of the rocky structures in the background there was no possible doubt. It was the same place, but the statue was gone.
“Fuck,” whispered Rosa.
The treasure hunter smiled. “My sentiments exactly.”
She glanced at Alessandro. The greenish light from the screen intensified the color of his eyes. For a moment she couldn’t look away from him. “Did you know about this?” she asked.
“Not until yesterday. I was going to tell you about it today.”
“Does it mean that’s it? Everything here was all for nothing?”
“Definitely not for nothing,” said Campbell drily. “Wait until you see my invoice.”
“Wasn’t salvaging the statues supposed to be your job?” she asked sharply.
“I’m not through yet.” For the first time he spoke as if he took her seriously. “I have some information that will be new to your friend as well.”
Alessandro’s cheek muscles twitched. “Go on, let’s hear it.”
Campbell zoomed in closer on the round block of stone. “As I said, the plinths probably go down several feet into the seabed. That assumption is based on values drawn from past experience of the geological nature of this region, tremors, volcanic activity, et cetera, et cetera…. But let’s look at the surface of the stone, so far as the picture quality allows it. I already have divers down there who will look more closelyat our find, put it under a magnifying glass, but it looks like someone cut the statues neatly away from their plinths.”
“You mean each plinth and its statue were carved from a single piece of rock?” asked Alessandro.
Campbell nodded. “Do you see that fluted structure? What we have there are either traces left by extremely fine conventional cutters, or a laser cutter manufactured specially for an underwater operation like this one.”
“Then someone must have invested a lot of money to get hold of those statues,” said Rosa thoughtfully.
“Going down to a hundred and twenty feet isn’t a problem for a well-trained amateur diver, and certainly not for experienced deep-sea or military divers. With the right equipment, you can stay at that depth for quite some time. However, we’ve calculated that to sever a stone block like that cleanly would probably take several hours. Which means that the teams down there either worked with top-quality respiratory technology, probably the kind used by military divers, or worked in several shifts.”
Rosa’s hand was lying on the back of Campbell’s chair. When she felt the touch of Alessandro’s fingers, they exchanged a fleeting smile. She couldn’t have said just what she had expected of this venture. She had trained intensively as a diver herself, but when she and Alessandro had finally gone down, they had been unable to find anything but rocks and mud. Only after that had they hired a professional salvage team.
“What’s more, we’re talking about twelve statues,” thetreasure hunter went on, “and we can now say for certain that at least seven were removed from their plinths by the same high-precision methods. In the photos you gave us, the statues were all of panthers and snakes. Some of them were in pieces, or badly damaged. But even those remains must have been salvaged to the very last fragment, all but the plinths. Whoever did it was very thorough, and also treated his find with great respect. Those people didn’t make it easy for themselves. And we have to assume that they could afford to work without any financial restrictions.”
Rosa nodded to Alessandro. She silently formed the wordTABULAwith her lips.
Campbell tapped his keyboard, and the underwater picture disappeared. He half turned and spoke to one of the women at the instruments. “Give me number thirty-four on seven, Ruth, please.”
The gray-blue surface of the sea came on-screen, obviously a photo taken at a steep angle from a great height.
“What you see here,” Campbell told Rosa and Alessandro, “is secret material that I…well, let’s say I borrowed it.”
“Looks like Google Earth,” Rosa commented.
“Almost. And that’s why I mention it, so that you won’t be surprised, later, about certain items I’ll be charging you for.” The treasure hunter paused and then went on. “The Mediterranean between North Africa and southern Italy is a part of the world under more surveillance than most. And around Sicily the security network is biggest of all.” He added, with an ironic undertone, “There must be a great many people inthese parts earning their money through illegal activities.”
“With stolen military photographs?” Rosa suggested.
“I’m about to show you an enlargement of our mysterious picture. If the water was as transparent as everyone thinks, we’d be able to see the twelve statues now.”
“Or their plinths,” said Alessandro.
“No,” the professor contradicted him, “because this picture was taken before the statues were salvaged. As you’ll see.”
“When was that?” asked Rosa.
“On January seventeenth, just under a month ago. Of course there was no nonstop filming of every square sea mile, but photographs were taken at regular intervals. Every yard of the Mediterranean has some satellite camera or other turned on it about every forty-five minutes. All we had to do was get hold of the material we wanted and evaluate it.”
“Here, forty-seven minutes later.” The picture changed, and this time a boat could be clearly seen at its center. “And again three-quarters of an hour later.” No change; the vessel was still in the same place. “There they are,” said Campbell.
Alessandro narrowed his eyes. “Who?”
“Not the army, that at least is certain. And the boat we’re looking at here is obviously smaller than theColony. It has no crane, just a set of cable winches along the rail. Obviously the statues were dragged away underwater, then brought to the surface and unloaded somewhere else.”
He zoomed in closer to the vessel, but now the picture was so pixelated that he withdrew again with a grunt. “Ruth, howthe hell do I get that filter on-screen?”
The woman behind them at the console told him a sequence of keys. When Campbell entered the code, his face brightened again. This time the picture was much sharper. Once again he tapped his ballpoint on the glass surface. “Here, and here, and here…those are the divers they sent down.”
The three figures were still not clearly visible, only pale outlines at the rail.
“Looks like they’re not wearing diving suits,” said Alessandro.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
“Do you mean they went down there without any diving equipment?”
Campbell nodded. “No suits. No oxygen flasks. Not even flippers, for God’s sake!”
Alessandro shook his head, baffled. “What exactly are we looking at, please?”
Campbell cleared his throat. “Four pictures farther on, they’re coming up from the water again.” He brought up a new picture on the screen: the boat, the sea—and the three pale outlines, two of them still in the water, the other on a ladder outside the hull. “About three hours later. Not nearly enough time for three of them to cut seven of those statues away from their plinths and collect the leftover fragments.”
“Maybe they went down again later,” said Rosa.
“We’ve checked all the pictures from the day when you two were there to the day when we began our investigations. Nothing. The boat was there only on January seventeenth,and for less than four hours. And as far as we can work it out, only those three divers went into the water during that time. Without any equipment apart from a few tools that were probably cutters of some kind.”
Campbell paused, to let his words sink in. Rosa and Alessandro said nothing.
“But that’s not all,” he finally said. “The vessel set off again a little later. It’s not in the next photograph. However, we did succeed in tracing its route.” He was going to give Ruth instructions over his shoulder, but she was already ahead of him.
“Got it,” she called. Rosa heard her fingers tapping the keys.
Several satellite pictures appeared on the screen in quick succession, but this time the coordinates at the edge changed with each photo. “They’re on their way south,” Campbell explained. “They go south for about an hour. Then they come to this.”
Rosa narrowed her eyes as if she could see the picture more clearly that way. Alessandro whistled through his teeth.
The boat looked tiny now. It was lying alongside a much larger ship at least ten times its length. The huge vessel was snow white, with complex superstructures, many decks, and several helicopter landing pads.
The next picture came up. The smaller boat beside the gigantic white vessel had disappeared.
“It doesn’t reappear anywhere in this area,” said Campbell. “They must have taken it on board. Including what was hanging beneath the surface from the cable winches. It all seemsto have happened very fast. I’d say they were pros—except that even professionals would need some kind of breathing apparatus and diving suits. As it is, I can only say I haven’t the faintest idea who they were. Not the army. And not any treasure hunters that I’ve ever heard of. Experts, for sure—but not from the same planet as mine.”
Still baffled, Alessandro shook his head. “That’s a cruise ship.”
Campbell nodded. His fingers moved nimbly over the keyboard, and he zoomed in on the picture.
The view centered on one of the landing pads, indicated on-screen by a letterHinside a circle. Rosa held her breath.
Something was inscribed on the deck in big black letters, easily visible to pilots flying that way.
“THANASSIS,” she exclaimed.
Alessandro and Professor Campbell looked away from the monitor in surprise. “You know the vessel?” asked the treasure hunter.
“Only by name. It belongs to a Greek shipowner called Thanassis.”
“I thought he was dead,” said Alessandro.
“There were reports in the media a few years back that he was very sick,” replied the professor. “But there was never any official announcement of his death, only all kinds of rumors and assumptions. It’s a fact that he hasn’t been seen in public since.”
“And now he’s developed a taste for underwater archaeology?” asked Rosa. But she was really thinking of something very different. The Dream Room. Danai Thanassis dancing in her hoop skirt, protected by her bodyguards. Her dreamy, almost ecstatic expression.
Campbell shrugged his shoulders. “All we could find out in a hurry was that theStabat Materhas been sailing between Europe and North America for years. She never seems to stay in any harbor for long, usually just for a few days. Clearly it’s impossible to book a passage on board. Either the cruisesare reserved for very exclusive customers, or she crosses the Atlantic as good as empty. A kind of ghost ship.” He grinned, but Rosa didn’t feel like laughing. There was something wraith-like about Danai Thanassis, yes, but she was certainly no ghost.
“Do you think old Thanassis is on board?” asked Alessandro. “And that’s why no one sees him these days?”
“Possibly. We got these photos only yesterday evening, so we’ve hardly had time to research more than the most essential features.”
“The shipowner’s daughter lives on theStabat Mater,” said Rosa. “I think.”
Alessandro looked at her in surprise. “How do you know all this?”
She searched her mind for a way to evade the question, but then said, straight out, “From Michele.”
He stared at her.
“Let’s talk about it later,” she suggested.
Campbell looked over his shoulder again. “Ruth, did you find out anything about the route after that?”
The woman in overalls shook her head. “No, nothing. Access is barred, even to our contact.”
Alessandro didn’t take his eyes off Rosa. “You talked to Michele?”
“Not now.” Although everything in her urged her to tell him the truth—and ask what he knew about it himself—she was saving all that until they were alone. She was already annoyed with herself for mentioning Thanassis at all.
Clearly Campbell could sense the tension between them. “Looks like we won’t get anything more on the later route of theStabat Mater. We know that she left the Strait of Messina going southwest, but after that her trail is lost in the open Mediterranean. We can’t find any more satellite pictures of her. Obviously they were all deleted after my contact got us that first series of photos.”
“The Thanassis family has deeper pockets than ours,” said Alessandro. There was unconcealed belligerence in his voice. Rosa had always liked that about him, but at the moment it made her furious. Why did he think he could blame her? Because she’d gone against his wishes by getting in touch with the New York Carnevares? She was the one who’d almost been torn to pieces in Central Park. She didn’t need him playing the role of her protector in hindsight.
Campbell rose from his swivel chair and looked at the two of them, his eyebrows raised. “How about leaving us to get on with our work now? And there seems to be plenty that you two want to discuss.”
Reluctantly, Rosa stopped staring at Alessandro and left the control room.
“Keep me up to date,” she heard him say behind her, and then she hurried over the gangplank to theGaiaand waited for him to join her on the upper deck.
“You knew!” she cried into the wind. “As soon as I told you about the party in the Village, you knew!”
She was standing by the rail, both hands clutching the cooliron, staring out at the horizon. Where the sky and the sea met, she could see the blur of a brownish-gray line. Sicily.
The wind tasted salty on her lips and stung her eyes. But she didn’t want to turn around. He was standing behind her on the deck, and had listened in silence as she told him everything, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She wished she could be somewhere else. Alone with her anger and grief and her unanswered questions.
“I wanted to find out the truth,” he said gloomily. “Until you told me on the phone, I had no idea it had happened at that party. You have to believe me. And after that…right after that I began asking questions. There are people very close to Michele who owe me. I get information from them.” He added, more quietly, “About that, too.”
“And when were you planning to tell me the truth? That it was Tano? And Michele.”
He said nothing for some time, and she heard him take a step toward her. Maybe he was thinking of touching her, but then he stopped. “Michele will pay for that,” he said. “He won’t get away this time.”
She closed her eyes, blinking the tears away. “I only wanted toknow. To hear the truth. You should have left the way I went about it up to me.” She slowly shook her head, got swirling strands of hair in her mouth, and brushed them back from her face. “All I wanted was for you to be honest with me.”
He moved closer; she could feel him now, but she tried to suppress the feverish tingling that he set off when he came near her. Not now.
“I didn’t want to keep it secret from you,” he defended. “But what did you expect? For me to call you in New York and tell you over the phone that it was Tano, of all people—” His voice was hoarse; he paused, then went on hesitantly. “That it was that bastard and Michele…that they were behind it?”
She thought again how exhausted and drained he looked. Maybe discussions until late into the night weren’t the only reason for that.
Slowly, she turned to him. “I have to be able to trust you. Trust you entirely and forever. I don’t want any secrets between us, or at least no secrets that have to do withbothof us.”
He didn’t avoid her eyes, but she could see from looking at him that he would have liked to. “I wondered how to tell you. And when the best time would be. But there’s never a good moment to say: By the way, the bastard who raped you was my cousin.”
She gently touched his cheek with her hand, ran it over his unruly hair. “So now Michele simply gets away with it.”
“Michele is going to be sorry he ever set eyes on you,” he told her. “And Tano is dead.”
“But not because ofthat,” she said. “Only because he wanted to do it again. Because he was a perverted asshole…” This would have been the time to rage and scream or do something else dramatic. But she didn’t feel like any of that. She still didn’t remember anything much of that night, not even pain—those hours might have been deleted from her mind. Now, though, she wondered whether the way she blacked them out was really blindness. Weakness. A failing in her.
“Tano is dead,” she said, repeating his words. “So now I can’t even wish for him to die. Or suffer. He was dead before he even knew what was happening to him. And maybe you think it’s terrible for me to say that I’d have liked it to take a long time and hurt him. Hurt him badly. Because he deserved it. Because even in his fucking grave he still deserves all the pain I can imagine.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “There’s something else. I don’t know if it makes any difference, but…”
She looked questioningly at him as he searched for words.
“Michele was there, but he didn’t rape you. Or so my informant says. There were four of them, and Michele certainly told all the others what to do. But Tano was the only one who touched you.”
“It makes no difference who just watched and who was—” She stopped when she realized what he was telling her. “Tano is Nathaniel’s father,” she whispered tonelessly.
Alessandro said nothing. He just looked at her. She was grateful for that. Pity was the last thing she wanted.
Dazed, she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Michele will pay for it—for everything.” She was as keenly aware of his eyes as she was of his hands when he took her fingers in them.
“I don’t want to lose you as well,” she said. “Revenge isn’t worth that. Definitely not.”
“Are we supposed to act like nothing happened?”
“No.” She leaned against the rail and drew him closer to her. “That girl, her name was Jessie…he was carrying her inhis mouth like a trophy. That’s what he cares about. To prove who he is and what he’s capable of. That’s why he has those hunting parties. Andthat’swhy he deserves to die.”
“He’s a bloodthirsty bastard. Tano idolized him.”
She felt the rail cold against her back, but everything inside her was numb. “What else did you find out?”
“That business about Michele’s brother and the others—that’s the truth. Someone is killing the Carnevares closest to Michele, and I’d feel better if I knew who and why.”
“He suspects you.”
Alessandro smiled grimly. “Me!”
“You know what he did. And he knows about the two of us. If he’s even slightly acquainted with you, he must realize that you won’t give him any peace.”
He bent his head, and she noticed the surprise in his bright, cat-like eyes. “Doyoubelieve that? That I’ve already started taking revenge on him? That I’m in the process of wiping out his family?”
“Not if you tell me it isn’t true.”
He was silent for a long time. “I have nothing at all to do with it,” he said at last.
Then she was the one to smile, and she had never felt so much like an Alcantara.
“That’s too bad,” she said, and when she kissed him, she sensed his shiver.
AN ARSENAL OF LIFE-SUPPORTdevices stood beside the sleeping man’s bed, but most of them were not in use. Fundling was breathing by himself, but had to be artificially fed through a tube into his stomach. His face was pale and drawn. His thick black hair had grown back since the operation on his skull, but it was not as long yet as it had been when he worked as a chauffeur for the Carnevares. And as an informer for thecapo dei capi—as well as for Judge Quattrini.
Rosa wondered what else, unknown to her, Fundling had been.
“He looks peaceful,” said the nurse who had just put fresh flowers beside his bed.
“He looks dead,” said Rosa.
The nurse wrinkled her nose and seemed about to say something, but she must have been deterred by the black look Rosa gave her, because she just turned and left the room.
“Who sent the flowers?” asked Rosa.
“It’s all part of the service here,” said Alessandro. “A fresh arrangement every day.” He was standing by the window of the single room. Outside, a well-tended garden reached to the top of the steep cliff on which the hospital stood. The crests of the waves sparkled like rubies in the evening sunlight.
“What a waste of money,” she said, looking at the vase.
“They choose blossoms with a particularly strong scent.”
“To drown out the corpse smell?”
“He isn’t a corpse.”
She sat down on the edge of Fundling’s bed and touched his hand. “He got a bullet in his brain, and who knows what harm it did there? He’s been in a coma for four months. How is that so different from being dead? Apart from the fact that he’s breathing.”
“They say that if it becomes necessary, I will have to make the decision. Whether to let him keep going like this, or…”
“But you’re not even related.”
“No one here’s interested in that. Officially, he isn’t in this hospital at all.”
She glanced up at him. “But you had him moved here from a public hospital. So how—”
“His files say something different now.”
“You had him declared dead?” It shouldn’t have surprised her. In a grotesque way it confirmed what she had just said.
Alessandro turned to look at her. “I’ve made worse decisions that were easier for me, all the same. But this is about Fundling. He and I grew up together. Reading the worddeadin his files was almost as bad as seeing him lying here. However, now no one will ask any more questions about what happened at Gibellina. Plus, he’s safe only as long as no one knows he’s here. Word got around that he was working for the judge, and as you know, that’s something the clans would never forgive.”
“But he’s in a coma!”
“It hasn’t been that long here since babies were thrown intovats of acid because their fathers had given evidence against Cosa Nostra to the state prosecutor. Do you think Fundling’s condition would stop people bent on that kind of revenge?”
“He can hardly be any quieter than he is.”
“Fundling will wake up again one day.”
“You think so?” she asked sadly.
He pressed his lips together until all the blood drained out of them. Then he nodded. “Yes.”
She turned back to the bed. The nurse had been right. At first sight Fundling did seem peaceful. Only if you looked more closely did it seem as if a silent battle were raging behind that lifeless mask. Rosa wasn’t sure what to make of it. In the first few days his eyes had moved beneath their lids, but that had stopped some time ago. His features were still now, and yet she thought she saw movement behind them. As if she could see him thinking—thinking and feeling.
It occurred to her that the flowers hid the picture that Iole had left beside Fundling’s hospital bed. The photo of Fundling’s dog, Sarcasmo. Rosa stood up, moved the vase aside, and pulled the frame closer to the edge of the bedside table. Maybe it was pointless, but she wanted Fundling to see the photograph if he ever opened his eyes again. He and Sarcasmo had been inseparable, and even after four months she felt every day how much the dog missed him.
Maybe he could hear everything they said. It seemed strange to her to talk to him when there was anyone else present—even Alessandro—and she decided to come by herself next time.
Alessandro followed her eyes to the photo of the dog andsmiled sadly. “Iole says that whatever happens, she’s not giving him up.”
“She loves Sarcasmo.”
“I phoned her while you were gone. She sounded cheerful. The lessons seem to be doing her good.”
“She’s driving her tutor crazy. Instead of studying, she’s been sitting down in the cellar for days on end trying out numerical combinations on a lock.”
“She was locked up herself for six years. If anyone knows how to occupy herself on her own, it’s Iole.”
“But she doesn’t need to do that anymore.” Another of those maternal remarks—she could have kicked herself.
“How many ofyourold habits have you abandoned since you came to Italy?”
“I’m not stealing now,” she said defiantly. “Well, not often.”
“You’re the head of a Cosa Nostra clan,” he said, amused. “You steal nonstop, twenty-four hours a day, without ever lifting a finger yourself.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Tell that to the judge.”
His grin infected her, and she leaned forward and gave him a long kiss.
Suddenly it was as if she felt Fundling’s eyes on her. But when she reluctantly moved her lips away from Alessandro’s and looked at the sleeping man, he still lay there with his lids closed, the same as ever.
Alessandro was smiling so irresistibly that she found it difficult to change the subject. “I’m going to see Trevini tomorrow,” she said.
“Better leave him alone, if you ask me.”
“I have to rely on him. He’s the only one who knows all about the business affairs of the Alcantaras.”
“He sent you that video to drive a wedge between us. Maybe even to make you turn to him. So how straightforward do you think his intentions are where your business is concerned?”
“If he really has the profits of the Alcantara companies at heart, as he says, he can’t ignore our relationship,” she said. “Suppose we took it into our heads to merge the business of both clans?”
He laughed—a bitter laugh. “We wouldn’t survive ten minutes. Trevini’s not the only one who would—”
“You underestimate him.”
“One more reason for you not to go and see him alone. Wheelchair-bound or not, he’s dangerous. You don’t know what he’s planning or what surprises he still has up his sleeve. That video was only bait.”
“I can’t have him plotting behind my back.” She steadily returned his gaze, and at last he seemed to realize that it was pointless to go on arguing.
“You’ve made up your mind.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“And you think the video really was shot by this girl Valerie?”
“I was there when she was filming it. The only question is, how did it get into Trevini’s hands?” She hopped off the edge of the bed, walked past him, and looked over the gardens atthe shimmering sea. Cutters were on the way to their fishing grounds. It was going to be a clear, starlit night, and the moon hung in the sky, bright white in the evening twilight. “You’ll look after Iole, won’t you, if…?” She watched the window cloud with the moisture of her breath.
“Don’t talk like that.”
“If something happens to me, either tomorrow or some other day, then I want you to look after her. And Sarcasmo.”
“I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
“Promise me.” She turned slowly around to face him, and saw that the evening light was bathing the whole room in gold. Fundling, the furnishings, the walls—and Alessandro. Everything seemed to glow. “Iole has no one else in the world.”
“I know. And I’m as fond of her as you are.”
“Sarcasmo has special diet dog food.”
That made him laugh.
“And he loves his Kong.”
A sound came from the bed. They both swung around.
A wasp, buzzing, was hovering over Fundling’s closed eyes.
Without thinking what she was doing, Rosa lunged forward and opened her mouth—and out shot her long, forked snake’s tongue, catching the insect in the air and crushing it in a fraction of a second. Before she realized what had happened, she was standing there, bent double and coughing. She spat the dead wasp out on the floor.
She murmured a curse that even she didn’t understand. Her tongue quickly went back to its usual shape, but the horrible taste was left in her mouth.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” she groaned, shaking with disgust. “It…it just happened.”
Alessandro put his arms around her. “We can learn how to control it,” he said. “How to start the transformation deliberately. Or how to stop it in its tracks.”
“And you of all people are going to teach me?” She remembered, only too well, the outbursts of temper that always ended with his transformation into his panther form—at the expense of his jeans and T-shirts.
“It’s all just a question of practice.”
She raised one eyebrow. “So what do you get up to in secret when I’m not around,capoAlessandro?”
He kissed her, but when his lips opened she retreated; she didn’t trust her tongue. It probably still tasted of the wasp’s poison.
“Well?” she whispered.
“I’ll show you how to do it.”
“Here and now?”
“No.” He was openly grinning now, but with such charm that she felt dizzy. “I know a place where no one will disturb us.”CREATURES OF THE SAME SPECIES
“YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS.”
“I come here often. And I know how we can get in.”
“Get into azoo?”
He gently took her face in both hands and smiled. “Trust me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Hell, no. At least, not if we stand around here any longer.”
At Valcorrente they had left Route 121. In daytime, they could probably have seen the gray volcanic slopes of Etna from here. Now, however, just before midnight, the grounds of the Etnaland water park were a brightly lit island surrounded by deep darkness. Alessandro had parked his Ferrari on a path in the fields, next to a high chain-link fence.
They walked along the fence on foot for about fifty yards and then reached a place where it had been cut neatly apart to waist height. Several small twists of wire held the incision together so that it couldn’t be seen at first glance. Alessandro removed them and held one corner back for Rosa to slip through.
“We’resucha couple of criminals,” she whispered.
“I recently donated a hundred thousand euros to the zoo.”Alessandro followed her in, and closed the gap in the wire netting again. “And one of my firms delivers animal feed on special terms.”
She made a face. “And let’s not forget what kind of animal feed it is.”
“That’s all in the past. Since the Carnevares got out of the disposal business, everything’s above board.”
It had taken a good deal of courage—and great difficulty—to give up one of his clan’s most profitable ventures overnight, so she merely nodded, and looked through the bushes on the inside of the fence at a path leading farther into the place.
“Aren’t there any night watchmen?”
“Yes, two,” he replied. “But they’re sitting in their lodge at the main entrance playing cards. One of them goes around every three hours. So we still have”—he looked at his watch—“two hours and twenty minutes.”
There were only a few lights on, here and there, inside the zoo. Several of the side paths lay in darkness, and the sounds of nocturnal animals came from a couple of the enclosures, but all was quiet in most of them.
They reached a place where two walkways met at a sharp angle. Like an arrow, they pointed to an enormous cage as high as a building. “Cesare financed that,” said Alessandro. “Probably the only decent thing he ever did in his life.”
The front of it had to be at least thirty yards wide. Rosa couldn’t see how far back the cage went on the inside. Two lamps illuminated the paved courtyard, but the light from them did not reach very far into the enclosure. Moving closer,she could tell that the ground sloped downward. Farther inside, there were angular rock formations, but she couldn’t see the lowest point.
Alessandro went over to the bars of the cage and breathed in deeply.
She wrinkled her nose. “You smell better.”
He had closed his eyes. In the dim light, she saw a black trail of fur rising from his leather jacket and up the back of his neck.
“This is what you call a controlled transformation?”
He opened his eyes again. “Come closer.”
She took another step, but stopped at arm’s length from the bars, remembering only too well the big cats who had hunted them on Isola Luna.
“These won’t hurt you,” he assured her.
Her heart was pumping an icy chill into her veins, but she went to stand beside him in front of the iron bars. Suddenly she didn’t mind the sharp, animal smell coming from the enclosure anymore.
“Can you see them?” he asked.
Her eyes were getting used to the darkness. Or was her snake’s vision taking over? Something down there radiated warmth. The interior of the enclosure was like a crater with graduated rocks, and niches and openings among them. Farther down, a pool of water lay as dark and still as if it were made of glass. On the left bank, the night had come together into a formless, dense heap of something.
“The pride,” said Alessandro.
“Won’t they pick up your scent?”
“Most of them are asleep. But look over there…and there.” He pointed to several places in the shadow of the rocks, and she realized that they had been under observation for some time. Big cats, as still as statues, sat on rocky outcrops. The longer Rosa looked, the more clearly she saw their eyes glowing in the light of the lamps on the courtyard.
“They’re keeping watch while the others sleep,” said Alessandro.
She moved a little closer to him, and he put his arm around her waist. She felt his muscular chest rising and falling faster, and pressing more firmly against hers. He put his hand under her long hair, stroked her neck. Could he sense the chill that was now reaching her lips? Her hands caressed his back, and she knew that panther fur was growing on his backbone under the leather jacket, spreading over his shoulder blades.
Smiling, she bent her head. “What were you thinking of doing?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“You lured me here,” she said with mock indignation, “in order to—”
“To show you how I’ve learned to control it.” The corners of his mouth turned down. “Only it won’t work as well if we do it right here.”
She returned his grin and let go of him. “So?”
“So I have to go in there.”
She shook her head. “No, you don’t.”
“Nothing will happen to me. They know me.”
Doubtfully, she looked from him to the motionless animals on the rocks. They seemed wild and untamed, even in captivity.
When she looked into Alessandro’s eyes again, they were glowing emerald green in the darkness, like the eyes of the big cats.
“You do understand, don’t you?” he asked gently.
She shook her head, but perhaps too soon.
Among the older Arcadians, she knew, there was a legend that the souls of their dead slipped into newborn animals of their own species, so that no Arcadian ever really died, but led an eternal life in an animal body, generation after generation. If that was true, there was a good chance that some of the big cats in this enclosure had once been human beings, ancestors of Alessandro and the other Panthera.
She shook her head again, incredulous but also fascinated. “Theytaught you how to do it?”
He nodded, but then added, “I haven’t mastered it perfectly yet. It works sometimes, but not always. All the same, we can learn from them.”
There was movement in the sleeping pride. One of the animals got up, strolled down to the water, and drank. Then it returned to the others and lay down on the ground again.
“Learn how?” she asked.
“By accepting that we’re like them. We have to give ourselves up to them. It’s a bit like meditation.” He shrugged his shoulders as if he found it embarrassing to discuss. “By becoming one with them.”
“May the Force be with you, and all that?”
He ran his fingers through her hair, and then lightly stroked her arm down to the wrist. His hand reached for hers. “The Hungry Man and the others who miss the old times, all that killing and hunting…they make us forget that Arcadia isn’t only about barbarism and bloodshed. There’s also something else. Something…beautiful.”
“And I’m supposed to stand around here while you go in?”
“You can come with me if you like.”
“I had all the Panthera I needed in New York.” She felt his hand, sensed his skin on hers. “Well, more or less.”
He kissed her, then let go of her and moved along the side of the cage. “Wait here.”
She was about to follow him, but then she stopped and just watched him go. “Whatever you think.” She looked for the chill she had just been feeling and was surprised to find that it had worn off.
In the darkness, she heard hinges creak as a door opened in the side of the enclosure. She couldn’t see him now, but somewhere keys turned in locks. The entrance was locked again, and she heard his clothes rustling as he took them off.
He appeared a little later, naked, on the top circle. The eyes of the big cats on guard followed him, but they didn’t leave their stations. A leopard, sitting closest to him as he passed, purred quietly.
Stepping steadily and surely, Alessandro climbed down the rocks. Rosa bit her lower lip, but realized that she felt no fear.As he had asked her to do just now, she trusted him entirely.
The light from the courtyard turned his body to bronze. His muscles rippled beneath his skin; only on his back was it covered by the black hair of his panther coat. The fur was not spreading any farther. Alessandro had his transformation under control.
He didn’t have to climb now; the rocks were laid out like a wide spiral staircase, and he followed it patiently down. Rosa was watching every step he took, every supple movement of his muscles on his upper arms and thighs, his chest, the sharply defined musculature of his stomach. Once, just once, he looked up and smiled at her. Don’t, she thought. Concentrate.
Down by the water, several of the animals raised their heads, picking up his scent. A lion growled softly, but not aggressively, more like he wanted to calm the other members of his pride. She realized, for the first time, that down there all the species of big cats were lying close to one another, tigers next to lions, leopards beside panthers. Why was there no competition among them? No struggle to establish dominance?
She thought of the snakes in the greenhouse of the Palazzo Alcantara. She had been into it only a couple of times, and had never again experienced the place as intensely as on her first visit. But there, too, different species of snakes lived in close quarters. Boa constrictors and pythons, adders and vipers. Venomous cobras and other reptiles side by side.
Alessandro reached the bank of the little lake. The pridewas lying on the other side of it. Without hesitation, he went toward them along the edge of the water.
The big cats got up. Only a few at first, then all the rest in a single shadowy ripple of movement.
He walked into the middle of the pride.
Its leader was waiting for him at the end of an avenue that the others formed for him. Alessandro and the lion stood facing each other as if they were of equal rank. As if the lion did not have the power to tear the boy facing him limb from limb within seconds.
They looked at each other for a long time, while the pride stood around them, motionless. Rosa placed her hands on the ice-cold bars of the cage and then passed her face between them. Spellbound, she looked down into the depths.
Alessandro changed shape. Not explosively, like Mattia in Central Park, but in a fluid, elegant transition from one form to the other. There was nothing unnatural or alarming about his transformation. One body turned into another, and there was a beauty about the shift of shape that brought tears to her eyes.
Alessandro sank to the ground, all panther now. He and the lion crossed the short distance still between them, lowering their heads as if to exchange whispered words.
After a while they moved apart again. Alessandro rose, stood on his hind legs, and shifted back into human form. He turned his face to Rosa, and even in the darkness she saw him smile. He calmly raised one arm, beckoning to her. She was going to shake her head and step back, and then she realizedthat she was on the other side of the bars already. She had slipped through in her snake form without even noticing the transformation.
The lion roared. A tiger on top of the rocks stood still to let Rosa pass.
Alessandro came to meet her, leaving the main pride of big cats and moving to the foot of the rocks. Patches of fur were passing swiftly over his body like electrical discharges, twitching over his arms, his thighs, covering his hips and moving away again.
Like a torrent of amber, Rosa flowed down the rocks. She reached him, wound her way up him, coiled around his limbs, her scaly skin caressing his muscles, his hair, his entire body. In her embrace he turned back to panther form, and the sensuality of that movement filled her with icy bliss.
THE SUN WAS BLAZINGabove the sea, its rays sparkling on the rotor blades of the helicopter, which had come to a halt. It was standing on the landing pad below the hotel while its engines cooled off. The pilot sat in the cockpit, leafing through theGazzetta dello Sport.
Rosa stood higher up, on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Jonio, her hands on the wrought-iron balustrade, looking down the steep coast at the gray-blue water. Far below, train tracks ran along a narrow strip of land between the rocks and the breaking waves. A small, red-roofed station building rose from the bleak rock. The old town center of Taormina lay on the plateau to the left of the hotel, six hundred feet above the sea and the railroad.
Rosa was wearing a three-quarter-length leather coat, black boots, and a close-fitting Trussardi dress. She had tied her blond hair back in a ponytail, hoping that it made her look sterner and older. If there was one thing she had learned from Florinda, it was to dress well for business meetings. She wanted Avvocato Trevini to see immediately that she was the head of her clan, not an intimidated girl who had let his video lure her here.
Behind her, she heard the sharp click of stiletto heels onthe marble of the terrace. Rosa waited until the sound stopped directly behind her, then turned around.
“Theavvocatowill be here in a moment,” said the young woman who had come out of the hotel to join her. Contessa Cristina di Santis—Trevini’s new assistant, confidante, who knew what else?—was descended from the old Sicilian aristocracy, as Rosa’s secretary had found out for her. She had studied in Paris, London, and Milan, earning her doctoral and law degrees in record time. There was no di Santis clan in the Mafia these days; it had been almost entirely wiped out in the 1980s by the Corleonese. Its last few members had a good amount of wealth of their own, but no longer kept in active touch with Cosa Nostra.
With one exception. As Trevini’s assistant, Cristina di Santis accepted the rules of the Alcantara clan.
“Theavvocatoasks me to say he is very glad that you have come to see us, Signorina Alcantara,” said the young attorney formally. “He is extremely sorry that his state of health makes it necessary for him to keep you waiting for a few minutes.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Rosa untruthfully. The delay was nothing but an attempt at harassment. Trevini had been asking for weeks for an appointment with her, and now that she had come to Taormina, couldn’t he turn up on time?
“If I can offer you some refreshment—”
“Thank you.” Rosa did not take her eyes off the other young woman, deliberately leaving it to thecontessato guess whether she meant yes or no, and watching the way Cristinadi Santis dealt with the uncertainty.
Thecontessawas half a head taller than she was, black-haired, slender, but with all the curves that Rosa lacked. Her raised left eyebrow suggested that she was sizing Rosa up. She seemed to be waiting to test Rosa seriously, and then she would show this stupid, full-of-herself American girl how contempt was expressed stylishly here in Europe.
None of this surprised Rosa. In a way, she could totally understand it. What did surprise her was thecontessa’s reaction when the soft sound of rubber tires on stone announced the attorney’s arrival.
An expression of diligent civility appeared on thecontessa’s face. Like a robot without any personality of its own; as if her emotions had suddenly been extinguished.
Careful not to show any irritation, Rosa turned to the old man in the wheelchair. This was the third time she had met the Alcantaras’ attorney, the gray eminence of the clan, and once again she thought that he was like a certain actor, though try as she might she couldn’t think of his name. She didn’t remember seeing him in any movie; she just had a sense of him staring down at her from a screen, larger than life. Not that there was anything about Trevini to intimidate anyone at first sight. He was an emaciated old man, he had been confined to a wheelchair since childhood, and he was blind in one eye. Threat and intimidation didn’t look like that in Mafia circles. Yet there was an aura that followed him, surrounded him, came into a room with him, and lingered in the air out on this terrace.
“Signorina Alcantara.” The corners of his mouth moved,merging with his countless wrinkles. “We meet again at last. I am so glad to see you.”
The wind off the sea swept Rosa’s ponytail forward over her shoulder, but theavvocato’s white hair was untouched by the draft. Maybe he had put gel on its few remaining strands to keep it in place. His lips were narrow and colorless, as if he were parting scar tissue when he smiled.
She went to meet him, with a surreptitious glance at her two bodyguards standing motionless in their black suits at the edge of the terrace. She was already regretting that she had let Alessandro persuade her to take the men with her.
She offered Trevini her hand.“Avvocato.”
“You received my message,” he said.
“You haven’t replied to my questions about that.”
“Because matters call for discussion face-to-face.”
She took this ploy with a good grace. “And that’s why I’m here.”
“Will you come a little way with me?” He steered the wheelchair along the balustrade of the terrace. Thecontessawas left behind.
Rosa walked beside the wheelchair for some twenty or thirty yards, until they were out of earshot of anyone else. “I haven’t seen much of my business managers and the other annoying people who usually harass me whenever they have the chance,” she said. “Since I came back from the States, they’ve left me alone. I assume I have you to thank for that.”
“I am sure that you value a little rest after such a strenuous journey.”
“What did you tell them? That from now on you would be making the decisions on all economic matters?”
“Is that what you’d prefer?”
She had some difficulty in not letting the milky membrane over his right eye distract her. “What do you think my grandmother would have done, in her time, if you had gone over her head like that?”
He smiled. “I certainly would not be here any longer.”
With a sigh, she grasped the balustrade and looked out at the sea. A few isolated yachts were cruising off the coast. Even in February, Taormina was not entirely free of tourists. There was hardly another place in Sicily as popular with foreign visitors as this town high above the water.
“I hate what you’re trying to do here,avvocato,” she said quietly. “I’m sure you think it’s stupid of me, but I just don’t like it. Not you, or your cheap tricks, or the whole damn thing.”
“But you have no objection to all that money, do you?”
Angrily, she spun around, and noticed at the same time that the movement had alerted her bodyguards. With a shake of her head, she let them know that everything was all right.
“Was that really necessary?” asked Trevini, glancing at the two men.
“You tell me.”
There was a touch of warmth in his smile. “What makes you think that I don’t wish you well?”
“I’m a nuisance to you, Avvocato Trevini. An annoying inheritance from my aunt, and you have to battle it as best you can.”
“Do I look to you as if I want to fight anyone?”
“Why did you send me that video?”
“As a warning. And before you misunderstand that, too: a warning not against me, but against the company you keep.”
She turned her face to the wind and closed her eyes for two or three seconds. “You know, I’m really sorry to hear that. My family is consumed by fear of the Carnevares. The women managing my companies in Milan, my so-called advisers, they all predict disaster after disaster. And a great many older men make a great many conjectures about my sex life. Maybe I should worry aboutthatrather than my relationship with Alessandro Carnevare.”
There was a glint of mockery in Trevini’s one good eye. “I have never taken the slightest interest in what the Alcantara women do behind closed doors. I am concerned only with the business of the clan: its financial prosperity, profit margins.”
“But the responsibility is mine.” Big words, but she didn’t believe them herself.
“The Carnevares are not to be trusted. You ought never to forget that.”
“I’m not sleeping with the Carnevares,avvocato. Only with one of them.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.”
She stared at him. She thought she was going to have to punch a defenseless old man in the face, here and now. With immense difficulty she controlled herself, understanding that provocation was one of his strongest weapons. The realizationdidn’t make what he had said any less hurtful, but it did lessen its poisonous sting.
“I know exactly what happened on that occasion,” he said. “At Eighty-Five Charles Street, wasn’t it? Michele and Tano Carnevare, along with a few others. It’s no secret, even if you may wish it were, Signorina Alcantara.” He slowly shook his head. “I wonder how you can still stay close to a Carnevare, that’s all.”
“I wasn’t raped by Alessandro,” she managed to say tonelessly.
“But he’s one of them, and he always will be. He was present that evening.”
For a moment, doubt entered her mind, and she hated herself for it. She was letting him force her on to the defensive. She couldn’t allow that.
“How did you get hold of that video?” There was cold fury in her voice, and a chill was spreading through her.
“You know me a little, Rosa.” He used her proper name for the first time, and although she didn’t like it, she didn’t tell him not to. That would have been admitting that she felt too young for the part she had to play. Let him call her what he wanted.
Cristina di Santis was watching them from the far end of the terrace.
“You know me,” Trevini repeated, as if that made it truer. “I would love to tell you about a clever plan that allowed me to acquire that video. But the truth is much more mundane. The cell phone with the video on it was delivered to you at aPalermo branch of the Alcantara bank. The employees there didn’t know quite what to do with it. Simply putting it in an envelope and mailing it to the other end of the island may not have struck them as entirely appropriate.” He shrugged his shoulders, which looked odd, because he had difficulty with certain movements. “Or else they felt it their duty to let someone who has been a buffer between the Alcantaras and the harsher side of life for thirty years see it first.”
She wondered whether she could manage to haul him out of his wheelchair and throw him over the balustrade. He couldn’t weigh much; he was only skin and bone under his elegant gray suit.
“That’s how I came by the recording. I saw you on it, Rosa, you and young Carnevare, and I thought it must have some deeper significance, or someone wouldn’t have been so anxious to get the video into your hands. So I had a few inquiries made of the New York police. It didn’t even take an hour for my capablecontessato find all the information.” He was beaming. “Ah, I love to call her that—mycontessa…Well, be that as it may, an apparently unimportant snippet of film showing some party or other suddenly became a highly explosive pictorial record.”
Rosa glanced at his assistant again. She was standing motionless in her chic skirt suit and elegant high heels. One of the bodyguards was staring at her ass. Rosa decided to fire him.
“The next step was obvious,” said Trevini. “I had the person who handed in the cell phone tracked down.”
She was fighting against the cold again, and wondered what Alessandro would have done in her place.
“My people found her at a sleazy hotel. She was not in a good state, but she was still able to answer a few questions.”
“You talked to Valerie?”
“Of course.” Trevini was jubilant. “And so can you. You see, Rosa, Valerie Paige is here with us in Taormina.”THE PRISONER
AT THE END OFa long trek through the basement, some way from the hotel laundry room and wine cellar, Trevini braked his wheelchair in front of an iron door with a bolted and shuttered peephole in it.
“The management was kind enough to outfit this for my purposes,” he explained.
Rosa couldn’t tear her eyes away from the closed peephole. “Good service.”
“I’ve been living in my suite here for thirty-four years. One can expect a little more than fresh orange juice for breakfast.”
She went past him to the door and pushed aside the bolt over the peephole. Before she opened the viewing window itself, she turned to the attorney again. “Was this what you meant by ‘further material’?”
“You’ll see. I didn’t promise more than I could deliver.”
With an abrupt movement, she opened the viewing window.
The interior of the cell was decorated with shiny, moisture-repellent paint in the unhealthy green of hospital walls. There was a mattress on a concrete base, with a crumpled quilt and a pillow showing traces of blood.
On the ground in front of it, knees drawn up and empty-eyed, sat a thin figure in torn jeans and a creased T-shirt so dirty that you couldn’t make out the logo of the band on it.Valerie’s dark hair was short and untidy; she had probably cut it herself. Her face was emaciated, and the dark rings under her eyes could have been drawn on with finger paint. She had been biting her lips again and again; that was probably where the blood on the pillow had come from.
Without turning to Trevini behind her, Rosa asked, “You haven’t been torturing her, have you?”
“She was questioned. But she has no physical injuries to show for it. She was a wreck already.”
Valerie’s arms were covered with tattoos, all dating from the last sixteen months. She’d had piercings when Rosa knew her before, but now she had several rings in each ear and half a dozen silver pins on her eyebrows, nose, and chin. Whatever she saw at this moment with her bloodshot eyes wasn’t anything that was actually in the cell with her.
“Sedatives. She’s had injections on her arms, between her toes, and under her tongue, but they’re not our doing. When my people found her, she’d been pumped full of chemicals. I’ve no idea what your friend has gone through, but I don’t imagine she remembers much of it. Or at least not any of it from the recent past.”
Valerie must have been able to hear the voices on the other side of the door, but she showed no reaction.
“Valerie?” Rosa stood on tiptoe so that her face filled the viewing window. “It’s me. Rosa.”
Not even a twitch.
Rosa took a step back and looked at the lock of the door. “Open that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Damn it, will you just open that door?”
Theavvocatotook out a key and handed it to her. “Here you are.”
She put it in the lock, but before she turned it, Trevini said, “There’s just one thing we ought to be clear about.”
“Everything else is up to you and you alone. She’s your prisoner now, not mine.”
Once again she turned to the door, taking a deep breath. The smell of laundry detergent wafted through the hotel basement, and machinery was throbbing in the distance. The pipes under the hall ceiling gurgled.
“Make up your mind,” said Trevini. “About what happens to her. Do you want to ask her more questions? Let her go? Dispose of the problem entirely?”
She couldn’t look at him. She hated him with all her heart, and even more she hated the fact that he was telling the truth. Now that she had seen the captive in the basement with her own eyes, she couldn’t act as if she didn’t know about her. Trevini was on her payroll; the Alcantara clan also financed his assistant and the men who had caught Valerie andquestionedher. Rosa felt bile rising in her.
“You understand what I’m telling you.” Trevini found her sore spot and probed it. “If you want to get rid of the girl in there, it will be done. No one will know. She treated you badly. Who could blame you for holding a grudge against her?”
She half turned to Trevini, closed the shutter over the peephole with her other hand, and asked, “What did she tell you?”
“I’m glad to see I’ve been able to arouse your curiosity after all.”
She had come in order to offer him a proposition. Now she was glad that she hadn’t mentioned it yet. Seething inside, she realized that it was in her power to dispose ofhimentirely. He knew it, and yet he was playing games with her. Because they depended on each other. Without him and his knowledge of three decades of the Alcantara businesses, she would never survive a tug-of-war for leadership of the clan. And without Rosa, he was just an ordinary attorney whom the rising generation ofcapodeciniwould be only too happy to replace with a modern legal office in Palermo.
But did she really want to be in a position in which she had to make decisions like this about the life or death of a young drug addict?
“You’re sorry for her,” Trevini remarked. “You ought not to be. Michele Carnevare told her to take you to that party. And she obeyed him. That’s the truth of the matter. She wormed herself into your confidence, Rosa, only to lead you like a lamb to the slaughter.”
“Maybe she didn’t know what Michele planned to do.” She could hardly believe that she, of all people, had suggested such a flimsy reason for Valerie’s innocence.
“That’s possible.” Trevini wheeled his chair a little closer, until the footrests almost touched her shins. “Maybe, as you say, she didn’t know. Does that make it any better? Isn’t ignorance the oldest and hoariest of excuses?”
Mattia had said that Valerie had flown to Europe to ask Rosa to forgive her. She had promised to pass along hismessage if she met her, and in return he had saved Rosa’s life. Would she really sentence Valerie to death now?
She turned the key and pushed the door open.
Trevini laughed softly. Or was it only the gurgling of the water pipes?
“Valerie.” She stopped in the middle of the cell, a few feet from the despondent figure on the floor. Valerie’s eyes went straight through her. Rosa resisted the urge to turn around and look behind her.
“Valerie, can you hear me?”
Rosa took another step forward and crouched down. Their faces were level now. She hadn’t mourned their friendship over the last year, and she certainly didn’t mourn it now. Her mind was full of accusations instead. Anger. How practical it would have been to feel nothing but indifference today. Instead, rage seethed inside her.
Hesitantly, she followed Valerie’s gaze and looked over her shoulder.
Only the bare wall.
“It’s up to you,” she thought she heard Trevini say. Or was that a voice from her memory?
A drop of blood was running down Valerie’s chin. She had taken her lower lip between her teeth and bitten it again. But her eyes were as fixed as ever.
Why didn’t Rosa feel sorry for her? Was this the inheritance that she had claimed here in Sicily? The cold-blooded nature of her grandmother, and Florinda after her?
She stood up and left the cell, too quickly, too obviouslyin flight. Trevini was bound to register that, and when she forced herself to look at him again, his smile was the smile of an understanding schoolmaster.
“I can teach you,” he said. “Everything you need to know.”
She left the door unlocked and dropped the key in his lap. “Keep her here for now. I spent a year in hell on her account; a few more days won’t make any difference to Val.”
“And then what, if I may ask? What’s to become of her later, after another week or another month?” He weighed the key in his hand as if it were much heavier than before. “You could give her her freedom. You could be gracious and generous. What does your conscience tell you, Rosa Alcantara? And what does your blood tell you?”
She left him behind her and walked quickly down the corridor in the direction of the elevator.
He called after her, “You asked me just now what Costanza would have done.”
“I am not my grandmother.”
“But you must learn to be like her. You want a life here on the island? You want young Carnevare? Then you must be harder than any of the others, more cruel than your enemies. Costanza knew that. And you will soon understand it as well.”
“I’ll see you on the terrace,” she called back over her shoulder. “We’ll discuss it further there.” Not down here. Not in the dark.
But the darkness followed her up into the daylight.
ROSA BREATHED IN THEfresh air as if she couldn’t get enough of it. A cool breeze off the sea was blowing in her face, but she couldn’t shake the smell of the hotel basement.
She closed her eyes, but the sun was still burning bright red through her eyelids. Forcing herself not to show any weakness, she looked ahead again, and was irritated to see Contessa di Santis coming toward her on the terrace with a concerned expression.
“Everything all right, Signorina Alcantara?”
“You look pale.”
“I have a fair complexion. Always did.”
The assistant nodded understandingly. “We can’t choose what we’re born with, can we?”
Before Rosa could reply, di Santis turned to Trevini, who was guiding his wheelchair out of the hotel lounge and into the open air. Rosa thought this would be a good moment to throttle him from behind.
“Can I bring you anything?” asked the assistant. “Drinks? A little snack from the kitchen?”
Trevini shook his head. “Leave us alone, please.”
Di Santis looked back over her shoulder, almostreproachfully. As she did so, her left eyebrow rose higher and higher, until Rosa began to fear that it might disappear right into her hairline.
“As you wish,” said the assistant, stalking away into the lounge. Rosa signaled to the two bodyguards to go into the building as well. Di Santis could not refrain from saying, “Please come with me, gentlemen. Maybe I can do something for you.”
Trevini moved his wheelchair past Rosa and over to the balustrade. His good eye wandered over the water in the distance. “We’re all inclined to take ourselves too seriously, don’t you agree? To think of all that this sea has known in its time! Ancient Greece, Rome, Carthage, the early Mesopotamian tribes. Ur and Babylon, the biblical peoples. And here we are discussing a single life, just one unimportant human being.”
“You move me deeply,avvocato, you really do. But I didn’t come here for a history lesson or to look at the beautiful view.”
“Without the sea I couldn’t live here,” he continued, undeterred. “It’s one of the reasons why I never leave this hotel.”
“What are the others?”
“I’m too old to take risks.” He put his fingertips to his temples. “What I have in here, in my head, is the only capital I have. Did you know that I don’t even own a computer? And no cabinets full of files.” Of course she knew; it was the first thing she had heard about Trevini. “I keep everything that matters in my mind, as I have for years. No evidence, no trails. I was born with an extraordinary memory, and Iimagine it’s only right that I pay for it with certain deficiencies in other respects.”
She was watching him as he spoke. But he was still staring out over the Mediterranean, into that breathtaking blue space.
“I’m sure you have wondered why I appointed thecontessamy assistant,” he went on. “She has top qualifications and references, she is easy on the eye—but none of that explains why she is really here. The truth of it is that she has the same qualities as me. I have spent a long time looking for someone who can compete with me in that respect. She is young, enormously ambitious, and she is certainly a complex character. I suffer from that more than anyone.” The twinkle in his eyes ought to have seemed insinuating, but instead it looked almost friendly. “Above all, however, she has a remarkable ability to absorb facts. She hears something, sees something, and after that it’s stored in her head as if it were on a hard disk. I have to resign myself to being less unique than I have always thought. That young lady is perfect.”
Rosa sighed. “At least as far as her bra size is concerned, right?”
“I’m sorry,” he said in kindly tones. “You don’t have to like thecontessa, Rosa. I’m not even sure that I do. But think of her as your personal security copy of me. Just in case something happens to me one of these days.”
“She’s been initiated into everything? Every deal? Every transaction?”
“I took the liberty of revealing them to her. We sit together and I tell her the facts. Hour after hour, day after day. Thecontessastores it all in her mind. I’ve tested her more than once. She’s fantastic. She remembers everything. And with her excellent education, she’s in a position to make judgments that surprise even me.”
“How nice to know that in the future I won’t have only you to deal with, but also”—here she glanced into the lounge and saw di Santis flirting with the bodyguards—“but also thecontessa.”
“Life is a never-ending series of tribulations, my dear.”
“If you call me that again, I’ll push you over the railing.”
He laughed. “Mutual respect is a wonderful thing. But that’s not what brought you here. The video interested you, but that wasn’t all, am I right?”
The strong breeze off the sea had loosened several strands of hair from the clip she wore, and they were blowing around her face. “I’ll make you an offer,avvocato. We can beat around the bush for hours, but we both know what the end result will be. We depend on each other. I don’t like you at all—well, maybe I like you a little better than I like yourcontessain there. She’s probably unbeatable at sprinting in high heels.”
He laughed heartily at that. Ah, so this was the way to get at him. Just tell him the truth.
“You depend on me as much as I depend on you,” she said, slightly relieved that now she could fall back on the speech she had prepared in advance. “I don’t know anything about the business affairs of the Alcantaras, and I need someone to keep all that at a distance from me. As you’ve obviously already begun to do. On the other hand, you could never becapoofthe Alcantaras, because you don’t belong to the family. My relatives in Milan and Rome would never accept someone like you as head of the clan. As a lawyer who can spring them from prison, and as a miraculous human calculator and financial genius—no problem there; they love you for that. But you’re not an Alcantara, and you never will be.”
He was observing her very closely now. “What are you suggesting?”
“I am the head of the clan, and nothing will change that. I’m beginning to feel at home here on the island. I represent what this family stands for, and I am now the public face of the clan, whether the others like it or not.”
She had learned it by heart, but she thought it sounded good.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” he asked. “Why don’t you just take a large sum of money and your new boyfriend and go off to live happily ever after somewhere at the other end of the world?”
“Because no one—not you, not those idiots in Palermo and Rome—none of you trust me to do anything. Because everyone’s just waiting for me to mess it all up.”
“That,” he said, smiling again, “that’s an unorthodox view of the situation. But I understand what you’re getting at.”
“I’m accepting my inheritance,avvocato. I will lead the Alcantaras.”
“And you think you can do it?”
She gave him a sweet smile. “This is where you come in. You do what you’ve been doing all these decades—you remain thegenius in the background. The one who pulls the wires. Lord God Almighty of Taormina. I can butter you up as much as you want. I know how to pay compliments, I promise you I do.”
He sighed. “I think I understand you, too. You represent the clan; I do the work.”
“That’s the plan.”
He breathed in and out deeply. “I’m an old man.”
“What do you need? Another nurse like your protégée there? With longer legs, bigger breasts?”
“I can be very obstinate. Pigheaded. Difficult to deal with.”
“But you have thecontessa. You can always take it out on her.”
He smiled. “You have no right of veto. No say in business affairs.”
“Forget it. I do.”
“We play the game like that or not at all.”
She shook her head. “You obviously don’t understand yet,avvocato.Imake the rules. You throw the dice and see that they always come up sixes.”
He blinked, maybe because she was standing in front of the sun. Or because his expression had become a little more forced than ever. “What do you want, Rosa?”
“I’m no Mother Teresa. I know what I’m getting into. But therewillbe rules. No arms deals. No drugs.”
He laughed at her, just as she had planned. “Then how are we to earn money? With ringtones?”
“With what’s been most profitable to us over the last few years—the subsidies from Rome and Brussels that you fixed.Money for wind turbines that don’t generate any power, for instance.”
“It can’t be done without the arms deals,” he said categorically. “You may have to look around for someone else.”
Rosa had seen that coming, and realized that she had to make some concessions. “Where do the arms go?”
“Africa. South America. Southeast Asia. Most of the stuff comes from Russia, but some of it from the USA, Germany, France. Where do you suppose that helicopter of yours was made? It certainly isn’t branded ‘Made in Italy.’”
“How about the drugs?”
“That trade’s not what it once was. Too much competition from Russia and the Balkans. My heart’s not set on it. But you can never be one hundred percent sure it’s not going on, with some of thesoldatidoing deals of their own.”
“If that happens, I should hear about it.”
“You won’t make friends that way.”
“I know.” She smiled. “That’s why I want you to do it for me.”
“You think you’re making it easier for yourself, but you’ll soon see it’s exactly the opposite. It’s not the law you want to guard against; it’s your own people.”
“Then I’d better begin with you, right?”
“I swore to your grandmother, on oath, that my life belongs to this family. And I’m a man of my word.”
“You haven’t done badly up until now.”
“And as we happen to be discussing it, I have one condition. Lampedusa.”
“Florinda’s favorite project?”
“Some of her signatures still have to be honored. I have, shall we say, a personal interest in the business with the refugees on that island. We can forget about the drugs, we can reduce the arms deals, but Lampedusa must stay as it is. You will not place any obstacles in my way in that respect.”
Reluctantly, she nodded.
“We’re of the same mind, then?” he asked.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be of the same mind,avvocato. But we have a deal.” A pact is more like it, she thought, grinding her teeth.
He offered Rosa his hand, and she shook it without hesitating.
As she left, she gave Contessa di Santis a charming smile, and as they said good-bye to each other, she held thecontessa’s hand a little too long. On the way back to the helicopter Rosa threw the diamond ring she had been holding in her clenched fist into the sea.COSTANZA’S LEGACY
ROSA FOUNDIOLE INthe greenhouse. The glazed annex was like a long arm reaching out from the north wall of the Palazzo Alcantara. The walls and the vaulted ceiling were made of glass panes that creaked dangerously in high winds. Rust and verdigris covered the iron framework. Like everything else in the palazzo, the place was in urgent need of restoration.
“They like me,” said Iole proudly.
She had a snake draped around her neck like a shimmering stole. Iole was caressing its skull. The other end of the reptile was coiled around her waist. More snakes were winding around her feet, darting their tongues in and out and hissing.
Rosa closed the door of the greenhouse behind her and entered the sultry jungle inside. Palm trees, giant ferns, exotic shrubs, and climbing plants had merged into dense thickets over the years. The humid heat that clouded the glass with condensation took her breath away at first. But in a moment her body adjusted to it. In fact it felt like she could breathe freely in the palazzo for the first time in months. Part of her duties, those that had lent a leaden heaviness to the place, had been left behind with Trevini in Taormina. She felt better—but at the same time she was confronting new anxieties.
“Would you like to see it now?” asked Iole, carefully tryingto lift the snake off her shoulders. The creatures were remarkably trusting. Iole was not a Lamia, indeed not an Arcadian at all, yet the reptiles accepted her as one of their own.
“Would I like to see what?” Rosa dismissed the image of the captive Valerie that had superimposed itself on Iole’s cheerful face.
“The freezer!” Iole made a reproachful pout. “Hello?The keypad working the door, remember? Days and days working away down in the dark cellar? Me, the genius with numbers!”
Rosa smiled, and helped her to put the snake down on the floor with the others. The sound of hissing and spitting came from all directions. More and more snakes came winding their way out of the undergrowth and formed a wide circle around Rosa, not as playful as they were with Iole but rather preserving a respectful distance.
Rosa took Iole’s hand. “Okay, let’s go. Can’t wait to see what you found.”
Iole beamed. “You really have time?”
“You act as if I never do.”
Iole’s mouth twisted, and she looked at Rosa as if to say:Well, think about it.
Rosa groaned guiltily and led Iole to the door. The snakes swiftly glided aside and formed an avenue for them. Rosa was glad when they had left the greenhouse and the latch clicked behind them. It wasn’t that she didn’t like to be near the snakes; it was more that she got slightly irritated finding, week after week, how she felt about being near them.
There were several ways into the palazzo cellar. They useda staircase behind a door in the kitchen, not far from the open range where whole pigs used to be roasted on spits.
The stairway was narrow, and clearly hadn’t been used for years. Iole went ahead, warning Rosa of cobwebs and any steps that were shorter than the others, obviously enjoying the role of guide. When she operated an old-fashioned rotary switch on the wall, round lamps in metal frames on the hall ceiling came on.
After the tropical climate of the greenhouse, it was definitely cold down here. A slight draft of air smelled of dank stone and mold.
“There’s something I have to ask you,” said Rosa as she followed Iole along the brickwork corridors. Iole liked to wear white—perhaps to declare her independence from Rosa’s habitual black—and had a strong aversion to anything too close-fitting. In the dim light, there was something fairy-like about the loose material of her dress wafting around her.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know if you’ll want to talk about it.”
Iole didn’t look back at her. “What it was like when I was being kept prisoner?”
Rosa sighed softly. “Yes. But something particular about it.”
“How did you feel about the men who were keeping you captive? Did you hate them, or were you angry or afraid of them? A mixture of all that? Or something different?”
Iole shook her head. Rosa could still see her only frombehind. “I didn’t feel anything about them.”
“Nothing at all?”
“I didn’t think about them except when they came to bring me food or clothes. Or when they were taking me to a new hiding place. Otherwise I pretended they didn’t exist. Like when you dive into the water with your hands over your ears—you don’t hear anything. It works with feelings, too. Everything inside you closes up; it doesn’t let anything through. And then it’s like you’re deaf to feelings. You just don’t have them anymore.” She stopped and turned around. “Sounds a little crazy, right?” Rosa hugged her. “It doesn’t sound crazy at all.”
Raising her head from Rosa’s shoulder, Iole looked at her. “Why are you asking?”
“That’s not true.” Iole tilted her head a little and stared at her, hard. “Areyoukeeping someone prisoner?”
“What makes you think that?”
“There was one of those men who brought me things, and he always seemed a little sad, like he was ashamed of himself. You look just the same.”
Rosa took a step back, shook her head, and ran her fingers through her hair. “Let’s keep going, okay?”
Iole shrugged. “You have to make sure the prisoner always has something to drink. And something to eat. Not too sweet, not too sour. And a TV set. Otherwise your prisoner goes soft in the head.”
Rosa didn’t know how well Trevini was looking afterValerie, but she was pretty sure there was no TV set in her cell. Oddly enough, it was that point that pricked her conscience.
Iole continued walking, and Rosa hurried to catch up with her. She had been down here once before, but none of it seemed familiar. The coarse brown masonry, the cobwebs over the electric bulbs in their metal holders, the cracked concrete underfoot, which had been laid down over even older floors—as if the palazzo were about to show its true face, one that had been hidden behind halfhearted renovations.
“It’s cold down here.” She folded her arms around her shoulders as she walked.
“It’ll be colder in a minute,” said Iole.
Soon they reached the space outside the freezer. They had been going for only a few minutes, but it felt to Rosa as if an hour had passed. Below the ceiling, neon tubes came alight, humming. The place was empty except for a metal box beside a heavy iron door.
“And you’ve been in there already?”
Iole nodded. “Sarcasmo was with me. He got excited when he smelled those things.”
“Wait and see.”
Iole opened the flap on the little metal box. Her feet crunched on crumbs of dog biscuit. Her fingers danced over an unilluminated keypad. The numbers on the display consisted of large lines in a style that must have been the latest in modern technology two decades ago.
A hydraulic mechanism hissed, as if the iron door wereuttering a reluctant groan. Several locks opened with clicking sounds. It seemed an unusual security system for a freezer that would normally have held provisions and game animals killed in the hunt.
“Give me a hand, will you?” Iole was tugging at the enormous door handle.
Rosa still wasn’t sure that she really wanted to see what her grandmother had left here. But the adrenaline junkie in her surfaced. That did her good.
She pulled at the handle with Iole, and retreated, step by step, as the heavy door swung out into the corridor.
Darkness reigned beyond it. The cool air of the cellar retreated before a surge of Arctic cold.
“You do know I’m a vegetarian?” She peered past Iole into the darkness. “If there are ancient pig carcasses or something dangling from the ceiling in there—”
Iole vigorously shook her head. “No, much better than that.”
The neon tubes outside shed light into the freezer for only a few feet. To the right and left, it fell on something that looked like rows of cocoons lined up. They hung from the ceiling without touching the ground. An aisle ran between them.
“Wait.” Iole pressed a button next to the display on the keypad. More neon tubes lit up on the ceiling, crackling. Their light flickered on in a wave from the entrance to the depths of the freezer. The white light showed a long room, more like a tunnel than anything else. It was wide enough for not just one but three aisles between the hanging shapes.
Rosa went up to the steel doorway. Iole hurried past her, brought a metal doorstop out of the room, and wedged it under the open iron door. “There,” she said, pleased with herself.
Vapor rose as Rosa breathed out. “Whatarethose things?”
Iole went ahead. “Come with me.”
Together they approached the nearest dangling forms, which Rosa now saw were fabric bags. Made of linen or cotton, and stuffed very full. Four rails ran under the ceiling, parallel to the side walls. Animal carcasses had probably once been hung in here. The idea turned her stomach.
She looked more closely at one of the bags.
The shapes of arms showed right and left inside the fabric.
No legs. No head.
Iole put out one hand and tapped the front fabric bag. The hook fastening it to the rail made a slight grinding sound, and the shapeless thing began swinging back and forth.
“Fine. Right,” said Rosa, working hard on sounding matter-of-fact. “Not dead bodies, are they?”
Iole grinned. “Depends how you look at it.” She ran both hands over the fabric, found a zipper, and pulled it down with a firm jerk.
Brown fur spilled out of the opening. Iole put one hand inside and stroked the fluffy surface.
“Fur coats,” she said. “A hundred and sixteen. I counted them.”
Rosa bent her head and tried to look between the rows at the opposite side of the tunnel-like cellar room. But thehanging linen cocoons seemed to be moving closer and closer together at the back, as if to bar her view of the far end of the freezer.
“My grandmother stored herfur coatsdown here?” she whispered.
“They keep better in the cold,” said Iole, pride in her voice. “I read that somewhere.” She took the fur at the front off the rail, removed it entirely from its bag, and rubbed her cheek against the garment, enjoying its softness.
Once again Rosa realized how cold she was. “Who needs a fur coat in Sicily? And who, for god’s sake, needsa hundred and sixteenof them?”
However, she could answer that question for herself. Cosa Nostra loved status symbols, from magnificent properties to fast cars to designer fashion. Many a Mafioso collected villas on the Riviera; others surrounded themselves with crowds of beautiful women. Costanza had obviously had a weakness for furs. Florinda had hated her, Rosa knew that much.
She pointed to the rows. “No black leather jackets, I suppose?”
“If you sell all those coats you can buy yourself a thousand leather jackets.”
“Then I’ll have all the animal-rights activists in Italy after me, not to mention the police.”
“I think they’re great!” Iole put the coat on. It was much too large for her; its hem fell in folds to the floor around her feet.
Rosa walked slowly past the linen bags. Four rows—thatmade it around thirty to each rail. They hung at intervals of a foot and a half. And it seemed that the freezer went on beyond the last fabric bags. She could see the neon lighting at the far end of the room.
“You put one on too,” said Iole. “Otherwise you’ll catch a chill.”
Rosa took one of the coats at random out of its stiff protective covering and slipped it on. The fur was soft and supple, but it wasn’t just because she was a vegetarian that she felt there was something unpleasant about the touch of it.
Slowly, she turned once in the middle of the linen bags. Her coat, too, dragged on the floor. “What am I going to do with all this stuff?”
“What’s beyond the coats at the far end?”
“Containers of some kind,” said Iole, shrugging her shoulders.
Rosa frowned and hurried down the narrow aisle between two rows. The broad fur shoulders of her coat brushed against some of the linen bags as she passed them, and set them rocking gently. When she looked back to see whether Iole was following, there was ghostly movement all around her. As if something alive were stirring inside the cocoons and might slip out any moment. Iole was having fun pushing more of them to make them swing, and Rosa had to stop herself from snapping at her. It wasn’t Iole’s fault that she was on edge.
At last she reached the end of the rows of coats. From a distance it looked as if the long room became narrower andnarrower toward the end, but she had been wrong. What she had taken for more linen bags was really a large number of white, circular plastic containers built into a wall. Stacked one above another, they formed a rampart reaching almost from one side of the freezer to the other, right across the aisles. But still she had not reached the far side of the underground room. You could pass to the right and left of the wall of containers.
Iole emerged from the swinging coats behind her. “Containers. Like I said.”
“Do you know what’s in them?”
“And behind them?”
“A safe on the back wall. That’s all.”
Rosa went up to the containers and saw, upon glancing through the spaces between them, that there was a second row behind them. She did a rough calculation of their number and counted at least forty containers, each a good two feet high and a foot and a half in diameter.
“Are you going to look inside?” asked Iole eagerly.
“In a minute.” Rosa walked on to peer around the corner of the wall. Once again she had been wrong. There were not two but four rows of the round plastic containers. Around eighty, then.
Once again she looked back at Iole, who was already coming to join her. “First the safe. What’s in it?”
“That didn’t stop you from opening the door.”
“Locked with akey.”
“Didn’t you try to break it open?”
“I tried, but it was no good.”
With a conspiratorial expression, Iole followed her. Nine feet of empty space lay between the last row of containers and the back of the room. In front of the wall stood a gray iron safe, as massive as a church altar.
Rosa investigated the lock. Nothing complicated. Costanza must have relied entirely on the number code at the entrance. She herself had broken into cars on the streets of Crown Heights, and she knew that this mechanism would be child’s play. “I need something sharp.”
Iole went back around the containers, and Rosa heard her doing something to the rustling linen bags. A little later she came back with a wire coat hanger.
It didn’t take Rosa more than a minute before there was a click inside the lock of the safe. “Voilà,” she said, stepping back, and she dropped the coat hanger, now bent out of shape, on the floor.
Iole was rocking excitedly from foot to foot.
The two doors of the safe squealed as Rosa pulled them apart.
Countless ampoules containing a yellowish liquid were lined up on five shelves inside the safe. There was no written label on any of them, just row upon row of the little thumb-size glass flasks.
Rosa took one out, and held it up to the light. The honey-colored contents were clear, and as fluid as water.
“What’s that supposed to be?” asked Iole.
“I have no idea.”
“Drugs of some kind?”
“She wouldn’t have kept those here in the palazzo. Far too dangerous. There are secret places to store drugs all over Sicily.”
Iole picked up one of the ampoules herself. “Maybe your grandmother used some kind of substance like that herself. Or Florinda.”
Rosa could exclude that possibility, at least for her aunt. But as for Costanza…she knew too little about her. However, none of this seemed to fit together. The collection of fur coats, these ampoules. The rows of containers.
She put the vial back on its shelf. “Let’s see what’s in these.” She went over to the rampart of containers and tried to lift one of them off the top row.
Iole hurried over. “Wait a minute. I’ll help you.”
Together they got the container down on the floor. It had a screw lid similar to a mason jar, secured all around with a broad strip of tape.
Rosa’s fingernails, painted with black nail polish, were too short to get the tape off. Iole did better. She ripped it off with a tearing sound, got her fingers entangled in it, and then had her work cut out to get the sticky stuff off her hand. Rosa helped her—impatiently, because she was burning with curiosity to open the lid.
Finally, with both hands, she unscrewed the top a quarter of the way to the left. There was a hissing sound like air coming out of a Tupperware container.
“Ugh,” said Iole, holding her nose.
Rosa breathed in through her mouth and then took the lid right off. The stench was appalling. She was prepared to see anything.
What she found was a dirty, sticky fur. For a moment she felt sure it was the corpse of an animal. The chill in the freezer and the airtight lid of the container had prevented decomposition inside it, but the smell of old blood rose from the contents.
Iole retched. “Gross.”
Reluctantly, Rosa put out a hand and touched the fur. It was a relief that nothing moved underneath it. Hesitantly, she grasped it with her other hand, got hold of the edge of the fur, and pulled it out at arm’s length, like an item of laundry.
It was not a corpse, but a sandy brown animal pelt. Dried blood and remnants of skin clung to the underside.
Iole was about to touch it, but withdrew her fingers just before they reached it. “Were they going to make more fur coats out of these?”
“Looks like it.”
“There are more in there.”
Rosa put the fur down on the floor, then lifted out a second, using only her fingertips, and spread it over the first. She had to bend so far over the container to get out the third that the stench almost made her throw up. There was yet another one at the very bottom, but she left that where it was.
“Four,” she said. “Multiplied by eighty.”
“That’s a lot,” said Iole. “How many do you need to make a coat?”
Rosa shrugged her shoulders, and looked at the ampoules full of yellow liquid again. Not necessarily drugs; there was another possibility. She went over to the cupboard, picked up one of the little glass tubes again, and peered at it more closely. Its metal seal had a round rubber center through which a needle could be pushed to draw the liquid up into a syringe. Or a needle for an injection.
“Look,” said Iole. “There are little labels on the furs.” Rosa’s stomach muscles cramped.
“It says something on them.”
Her hands trembling, Rosa began taking off the fur coat she was wearing. It seemed to be sticking to her body as if by suction.
The fur fell around Rosa on the floor. “Iole,” she managed to say in a toneless voice. “Take off that coat.”
But the girl was crouching over the furs, undeterred, reading out the labels. “Paolo Mancori…Barbara Gastaldi…Gianni Carnevare.”
“Iole. Take the thing off.” Rosa’s legs felt numb as she took a clumsy step away from the fur coat on the floor.
“Did you know any of them?” asked Iole.
Rosa went around behind her, and had to force herself to touch the fur to lift it off Iole.
Rosa tugged the heavy coat off her, more energetically this time. “We’re getting out of this place.” In disgust, she flung the fur aside.
Rosa hauled her to her feet, grabbed her by the shoulders, and looked hard into her eyes.
“These furs,” she said, “don’t come from animals.”
“They don’t?” asked Iole, her voice husky.
Rosa took her arm and led her around the containers, until they could see the rows of linen bags hanging in front of them, all the coats in their gray coverings.
“All of these,” she whispered, “were once Arcadians.”APOLLONIO
“DID YOU KNOW?” SHEspat into the receiver. “Shit, of course you knew!”
At the other end of the line, Trevini sighed. “This is not a subject we ought to discuss over the telephone.”
“I want to know the truth. Now!” She had a date to meet Alessandro this evening, but instead of looking forward to it she had to grapple with this filth first.
“You’re being unreasonable. You’re letting yourself get carried away over something that—”
“That’s enough!” She jumped up from her swivel chair, went around the huge desk, and began pacing up and down the study. Her heavy metal-studded shoes hammered on the parquet flooring as if a military commando unit were storming the palazzo.
Far away in Taormina, the attorney let out a breath. “Wait.” Something clicked on the line, to be followed by a rushing sound, and then another click. “There, that’s better.”
“I’ve switched on a distorting signal to keep you from informing on us all. You will never again—never!—try talking to me about such matters over the phone without previous warning.”
“What are those furs in the cellar? Why did my grandmother keep them together down there? Where do they come from? And why somany?”
“Costanza didn’t kill those people, Rosa. If that’s what has upset you so much. And if they can be described as people, indeed as human at all.”
“Don’t you consider me human, Avvocato Trevini?”
He laughed softly. “The fact is, I wish you werelesshuman. More like your grandmother.”
“She was a monster!”
“A collector with discriminating taste.”
“Taste?Have you lost your mind? Those furs down there were once men and women! And there are a few hundred of them.”
“As I said: She didn’t kill them with her own hands. She didn’t even contract for their deaths.”
“We ought to—”
“Discuss this at your place? Forget it.”
“The bugging specialists at the public prosecutor’s office never take more than three or four minutes to crack a distortion signal. If they’re listening in now, we don’t have much time left.”
“Then press the button again.”
“You’re upset because—”
“Because I’ve found a fucking mass grave in my basement!”
He seemed to be drinking something; she heard a faint clink. She was going to explode with rage any moment now.He was right about one thing. She had to calm down, control herself.
Reluctantly, she used the brief pause to go back to her chair at the desk. Florinda’s spacious study was strange to her. It had once been a living room in the palazzo, with walls paneled in dark wood and a view of the inner courtyard from a wrought-iron balcony. She felt small and out of place here.
There was a crackle and a rushing sound on the line again. Trevini had recoded the signal. Another three minutes.
“Well?” she asked.
“I don’t know much about it, believe me. Costanza had a weakness for furs of all kinds. The palazzo was full of them. As hearth rugs, runners, even curtains. She loved furs more than anything. Most of them disappeared after her death. Florinda got rid of them.”
“Florinda didn’t know about the freezer?”
“Yes, I think she did, but maybe her mind suppressed the truth.”
“Who else knows?” Suddenly she had an idea. “Isthatwhy all the other clans hate the Alcantaras so much?”
“If the others had the faintest inkling of it, your family would have been wiped out decades ago. And none of this must ever be known, or the palazzo will go up in flames within a few hours—and all of us with it.”
She let her head drop back against the leather upholstery of the chair. “That means that you, and I, and Iole are the only people who know it exists?”
“Don’t say you told that irresponsiblechildabout this!”
“Iole isn’t irresponsible. And she was the one who cracked the code to the lock of the freezer. She found the coats.”
“Good God in heaven!” His agitation lifted her mood slightly. She liked to shake his composure. “You must silence the girl.”
“Iole won’t tell anyone. Leave that to me.”
His snort was contemptuous. “And there’s also someone else.”
“A man called Apollonio. He supplied the furs to your grandmother. I didn’t know him, had never heard of him before. But soon after Costanza’s death he made contact with me and said that she died owing him money. Obviously she hadn’t yet paid him for his last delivery.”
“What did you do?”
“I transferred the sum to a numbered account for him, to keep his mouth shut. And then I called Davide.”
She pricked up her ears. “My father?”
“But by then it had been ages since he’d had anything to do with the clan’s business affairs. I always hoped that one of these days he’d come back to take his rightful place as head of the family.”
Interesting. Sounded as if Trevini had disliked Florinda so much that he’d rather have discussed the subject with the disinherited Alcantara son than with her. “What did my father say?”
“He was quite upset.”
“I can imagine.I’mquite upset.”
“Davide wanted to know everything about this man Apollonio, and he said for me not to do anything for the time being.”
“Did you tell Florinda?”
“He expressly forbade me to do that, too.”
“And you were only too happy to do as he said, right?”
“Your aunt wasn’t as effective a head of the family as she thought. In addition, she was under the sway of Salvatore Pantaleone. Just as well that he is dead.”
Did Trevini know that Rosa was responsible for Pantaleone’s death? Impossible, really—but by now she was ready to believe him capable of anything.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “The signal…” That clicking and rushing on the line again. “Right,” he finally continued.
She tried to put her thoughts in order. There were two things that she had to find out more about. “Did my father give you any other instructions?”
“No. He asked me to let the matter rest, saying he would see to everything else personally.”
“When exactly was this?”
“Shortly before his death.”
The mysterious phone call that her mother had mentioned. Her father’s strange reaction to it. And then his hasty decision to leave his wife and his two daughters and go to Europe.
“It wasyou,” she whispered.
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You were the reason he left. You called him, and afterthat he…” She stopped, and turned the swivel chair slowly in a circle.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Trevini. “But it seems that Apollonio was reason enough for him to become active again himself.”
“Tell me all about this man Apollonio. Every last thing.”
“As I said before, I don’t know much about him. In the first place, an attorney’s office in Rome got in touch on his behalf. I finally managed to speak to him myself, but never face-to-face, only by phone. I was aware of Costanza’s collection in the cellar—”
Why did he know?
“—and I had always assumed that I was the only person she had taken into her confidence. However, this Apollonio left me in no doubt that he knew all about it.”
“Did he try blackmailing you?”
“I had to believe him, like it or not, when he said that he had supplied the furs. And I thought it possible that the last payment hadn’t yet been made at the time of Costanza’s sudden death. He was threatening to make the whole thing public. That could have meant the end of the Alcantaras.”
“A breach of the concordat,” she murmured.
“Worse,” he told her. “Treachery.”
The word seemed to echo down the line for a moment. “TABULA?” she whispered tonelessly.
“Apollonio never mentioned that name. But yes, I do think there is some connection. TABULA carries out experiments on members of the dynasties. How else could he have come bythe pelts of so many Arcadians?”
She remembered the video that Cesare Carnevare had shown her. Endless rows of cages, with Arcadians in their animal forms shut up inside them. Obviously the captives had lost the ability to turn back into human beings.
“As far as I know,” Trevini went on, “hardly anyone who was abducted and held by TABULA ever appeared again.”
“And you think these people are sick enough to skin their victims and sell the pelts? Sell them back to another Arcadian, of all people?” She instinctively thought of Alessandro. Of his silky black panther fur.
“Maybe there are other collectors. Or maybe not. I can’t answer that question.”
“Right,” she said, after a brief pause. “So this Apollonio got the furs from TABULA. He’s probably even a member of it himself. And my grandmother did business with him—with TABULA, the archenemy of all the Arcadian dynasties.”
“That was the danger I saw looming at the time. And I had to react.”
“Did my father know about it?”
“He drew exactly the same conclusions as you did just now.”
“You have no idea what he was planning to do?”
“None whatsoever. He expressly told me not to investigate the matter any farther. He was going to see to it all himself.”
“And he didn’t survive that.”
“It’s possible that he tracked down Apollonio. And that the meeting didn’t turn out well for him.” Trevini cleared histhroat. “However, all this is pure speculation.”
“Do you think Florinda knew about it?”
“If so, she never mentioned the subject.”
But how else, if not from Florinda, could Zoe have known? What had the connection been between her father and TABULA—the link that Zoe had been talking about just before she died?
“Is that all?” asked Rosa.
“I respected your father’s wish. Apollonio was his business, not mine anymore.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
Trevini’s voice was icy. “You don’t like me. I can understand that. But don’t cast doubt on my loyalty. I haven’t worked for your family for thirty years only to have you insult me now.”
“Do you seriously call it loyalty to have kept something so important from Florinda?”
“What I do is done for the good of the clan. Your father, Rosa, might have been a goodcapo. That’s why I was on his side. The way things are now, however, there’s only one side in this family, and it’s yours. That ought to be enough to persuade you to trust me.”
“If I ask you to find out more about this Apollonio—to continue where you left off eleven years ago—will you do it?”
“I can’t promise you results, but yes, of course.”
“I’d be very grateful.” She managed to say it without grinding her teeth.
“We had better end this conversation now,” he said. “But one more thing: I hope you’re aware that you must not talk toanyone else, anyone at all, about what you found in the cellar.”
“By ‘anyone’ you mean Alessandro Carnevare.”
“Whatever you may think of him, whatever you feel for him—don’t trust him. This is not just about you, Rosa; it’s about the fate of your clan. Everything that Costanza and her predecessors built up.”
And it was about him, Trevini, as well. That was what he was saying.
She didn’t reply.
“Don’t make the mistake of seeing him as only a young man in love,” Trevini warned her, with a note in his voice that sent a shiver down her spine. “Alessandro Carnevare is much more than that. He’s ambitious. He is angry, and implacable. And he’s dangerous. Please keep that in mind, in everything you do.” He was silent for a moment, and then he said again, “Don’t mention any of this. You have to promise me that.”
She didn’t have to do any such thing.
“Please,” he said forcefully. “Not a word.”
Rosa ended the call.
“The entire freezer is full of them.”
He slowly shook his head, unable to take it in, and for a moment she was afraid that this could all backfire on her. Suppose he thought she was just like her grandmother? Suppose he began to believe what everyone had been telling him for months? That she was bad news for him, bad news for Cosa Nostra as a whole, and it was a mistake to have anything to do with an Alcantara.
Rosa was sitting beside him on the battlements of Castello Carnevare in the evening twilight, looking out at the plain below the mountain where the castle stood. The land was not as flat as it looked at first sight. The farther you went from the Castello, the hillier the country became. Here in central Sicily the landscape was bleak and inhospitable, a sea of ocher undulations in the ground, with dry riverbeds spanned by ancient stone bridges running across them. The sun had sunk below the horizon in the west. A solitary car was driving along a road a few miles away. Its headlights were two lonely stars in the darkness.
Rosa and Alessandro were nestling close together, enveloped by blankets. Both of them had drawn up their knees andwrapped the thick wool tightly around them. They were sitting on the very edge of the abyss; if anyone were to push them from behind, there would be no stopping their fall. Forty-five feet to the bottom of the castle wall, and nothing in the way to slow their progress along the rocky slope.
But Rosa wasn’t even uneasy. Nowhere had she ever felt as safe as she did with him, her shoulder against his, their fingers closely entwined.
“I love you,” he said.
Just three words—but it was so sudden that she swallowed. Whatever they had been talking about just now, their emotions were in tune. They both felt equally ready to be there for each other, forever.
She didn’t say anything. She still couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring the words past her own lips, or not so that they sounded genuine. Even as she formed the sentence in her mind—I love you—it sounded artificial to her. She had tried to explain that to him, and she could see in his eyes that he understood.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, felt his lips in her hair.
“How do you do it?” she asked, looking into the distance.
“Be the way you are. Still like me in spite of everything I’ve just told you.”
“That’s got nothing to do with us. What your grandmother did—it’s so long ago. We can’t help what our ancestors did.”
She raised her head. The horizon was reflected in the green of his gaze. For a few heartbeats she saw the world through his eyes. Larger, wider, and yet so close that you could putout your hand and grasp it. To him, nothing was beyond his reach.
She had told him everything. About her horrifying discovery in the cellar, and also about her visit to Trevini and the agreement she had made with him. And how Valerie was a captive in his hotel.
“I have to get rid of the whole thing,” she said, adding quickly, in case he misunderstood, “I don’t meanher; I mean the stuff in the basement. But if I have the furs burned, there’s a danger that someone could see the names on them.”
“We can tear the labels off first.”
“Open all those containers? Take out every single fur?” She shook her head. “I’d rather move somewhere else and have the whole palazzo blown sky-high.”
“By somewhere else you mean—”
“Not here. That wouldn’t be a good idea…and not safe,” she added a moment later. “It’s strange enough that they let us see each other at all.”
“Most of them have other things on their minds right now.”
“The Hungry Man?”
Alessandro nodded. “Some of them are more worried than ever that he’ll return. And others can’t wait for it. The mere possibility that he might come back to Sicily from the mainland has them at one another’s throats. I’ve seen them sitting in a conference room in Catania…worldly men in expensive suits. If the rest of us hadn’t separated them, they’d have torn one another apart. They shifted shape, the idiots. Luckily there were only Arcadians in the room, or else—”
“It’s getting out of control, right? The old rules of the dynasties, the laws of the tribunal, all the agreements to keep the peace…before long, none of that will mean anything anymore.”
He smiled sadly. “I know some who claim that our relationship is already part of it. Nothing’s the way it used to be. Alcantaras and Carnevares hand in glove. A package deal.”
She plucked at her blanket. “Two of them. Dammit.”
He turned to her and put one hand under the soft bedspread. His beautiful, long fingers touched her bare thigh. Moved farther up. She was wearing only a large T-shirt and a pair of his shorts. They had been in the pool down in the castle, and after that in the sauna. Her own black clothes were lying crumpled somewhere down by the edge of the pool.
“Wait,” she said, and almost choked.
His hand stopped moving. “Snake alarm?”
“That too. But I have to talk to you. First, I mean. Talk—normally.”
His smile widened. A wind from the plain, from the south—maybe from Africa, as he always claimed—blew through his tousled hair. It wasn’t its usual nut brown, but almost black. He didn’t have his transformation under much better control than she did, no matter what he said the big cats in the zoo had taught him.
“Valerie,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with her.”
He let out a sigh. She felt his fingertips move back like velvet paws. “And you think she’s responsible for what happened?”
“Partly, anyway.” Why didn’t she tell it as it was? Valerie had handed her over to Tano, Michele, and the others. There was no ignoring that.
“Then let her rot away with Trevini.” He meant exactly what he said, as she could tell from looking at him.
“I can’t,” she replied. “I can’t give someone orders to kill her. Or simply act as if I don’t know about it. It feels like she’s next to me all the time. Even when I look at Iole, I see Valerie.” A cold breeze blew against the walls and got under the fabric, and she pulled her blanket close. “We both freed Iole because your family was keeping her captive. Am I going to do something like that to Valerie now?”
“Iole was innocent,” he said. “Valerie isn’t.”
“I know that. And yet…” She shook his head. “Trevini and the others are right. I’m a disaster as head of a Mafia clan.” She laughed out loud. It sounded hysterical, and made her furious with herself. “Even the words are like a bad joke. Head of a Mafia clan!”
“Then ask her questions. Try to find out what really happened back in New York. What Michele wanted with you.”
“Tano,” she corrected him.
“Both of them.” The anger in his voice made her shudder even more than the cool wind from below. But the goose bumps on her arms and legs felt good, perfectly natural, unlike the icy breath of the snake.
“I can’t talk to her,” she said after a moment’s pause. “If I do, I’ll go for her throat. It’s…I’m surprised at myself. When I saw her sitting there, totally helpless, stoned out of hermind—I didn’t even feel sorry for her.”
“It’s what she deserves.”
“That sounds so simple. But it’s a little more complicated for someone who wasn’t brought up knowing the basic rules of the Mafia.”
He stroked her cheek, smiling. “Where’s the tough Rosa who was on that first flight to Sicily with me?”
“The odd thing is that all this should have toughened me up even more. Made me more realistic about it. But instead just the opposite has happened.” She ran her fingers through her hair, and propped her chin on her knees. “I don’t understand myself anymore. And that’s an awful feeling. I don’t want this. Can’t everything just go back to how it was before Trevini brought the whole thing up again?”
“He’s a calculating man. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
“Yes, sure. But now it’s too late. I can’t just act as if I never watched that video.”
He looked out into the dark. “Are you asking me what I’d do in your place?”
She’d known the answer to that for a long time, and it wasn’t what she wanted. “No.”
Minutes passed, and neither of them said anything. Their hands met again, but he didn’t make another attempt to get closer to her. It was probably up to her to take the next step.
All she said was, “And then that ship.”
“I have people finding out as much as possible about Thanassis and theStabat Mater. They’ve come up with nothingbut a few newspaper reports. Looks like he’s cut himself off from the outside world in every possible way. Erected a kind of firewall around his business affairs and his private life. Not easy to get past that.”
“Do you think he’s a member of TABULA?”
“How would I know?”
“Exactly. We don’t know anything.” Alessandro didn’t conceal the fact that he was at a loss, and it was good to see him, too, baffled for once. Without any answers. Or suggestions. Or any idea how to get out of this mess.
“There are just too many things I don’t understand,” she said. “And now my father is part of it as well. Can’t anything be simple for once?”
“What did you say to Trevini’s proposition?”
“What do you mean?”
“When he asked why you didn’t get out of here, taking a large sum of money.”
“He can go fuck himself. Figuratively speaking, anyway.”
“What?” She stared at him, at the fine profile that looked, against the indigo twilight, as if it had been drawn with a quill. “How can you of all people say that?”
“I’ve thought of doing it myself,” he admitted. “More than once.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. You’re exactly where you wanted to be.”
“But you matter to me more.”
“I’m not running away from you.” She tried a smile. “Hey,you have a sauna. And a great pool. I wouldn’t give that up for the world.”
“Maybe wewillgo away, all the same, some time or other.”
“Sure.” She didn’t believe it for a second.
“Can I take a look at them? Those furs?”
“Come tomorrow. Maybe you’ll arrive before the villagers march up the mountain with lighted torches to burn the monster on her pyre.”
“Your grandmother was a monster. Not you.”
She widened her eyes theatrically. “A reptile? Nine feet long? How does that sound to you? There we are, the story of my life. My boyfriend turns into the most beautiful animal in the world, and what do I turn into? Godzilla.”
He drew her close to him, and she was thankful for that. He often guessed what would do her good even before she knew it herself. But why did the same never happen to her? Was that why it was so easy for him to say he loved her—and she found it so hard to say she loved him back? How long had she mourned for Zoe? Not long. What did she feel for her mother? Not enough. Couldn’t she love like other people? Was that her real problem?
He kissed her, and as the tips of their tongues touched, she thought: Of course I love him, more than anything else in the world.
When his hands felt under her T-shirt, and her fingers touched his arms and went to his chest—all in a tangle of blankets, crumpled shirts, and shorts, rather clumsily and very much her—some things didn’t seem to matter, otherswere more important, and she thought: Don’t let the snake control you.
She felt the panther fur at the back of his neck and the scales on her hands. She heard them rubbing together, and the sound thrilled her to the marrow of her bones. It was like a series of gentle electric shocks, a tender vibration that lasted a long time, much longer than usual, before the cold she feared came over her at last, bringing with it the transformation, and the end of something that hadn’t even properly begun.
Coiling and purring, they lay together on the battlements, unable to stay in human form. But for the moment it was all right, because it was their nature, what they had in common, and perhaps even their purpose in life, if they only wanted it enough.CERTAINTY
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Iole was hurrying across the inner courtyard of the palazzo in Rosa’s wake. She impatiently brushed the cobwebs that had been clinging to the toolshed door off her face.
Rosa went ahead to the gateway leading to the front of the house. Her footsteps echoed under the vaulted roof, hardly muted by the fluffy patches of mold hanging above her like storm clouds. She had a pickax in her hands, but she quickened her pace in spite of its weight.
“Rosa! I want to be there if you’re going to wreck something!” In the tunnel, Iole’s voice seemed to come from all sides at once, although she was several yards behind Rosa. She wore loose linen trousers and a white turtleneck, and looked more grown-up than she did in her usual summer dresses. Her short black hair had an almost blue sheen as she ran out of the tunnel into the open.
A glance over her shoulder confirmed Rosa’s fears: Iole had Signora Falchi in tow. That was no surprise. Iole had seen Rosa in the courtyard through the schoolroom window, and had stormed out despite her indignant tutor’s protests. She had trailed Rosa to the shed, where garden tools and other implements were stored.
“Iole! Signorina Alcantara!” The tutor was flailing her arms excitedly in the air as she followed Iole, some way behind her. “Just foronce, will you please listen to me!”
Rosa hurried on.
“What are you going to do with that thing?” Iole demanded.
Rosa did not reply. She pressed her lips together firmly. She might change her mind if she said aloud what she was planning to do.
She went around the southeast corner of the palazzo, along the untended path that led to the side of the property facing uphill. Four months ago, when Zoe and Florinda were buried, the weeds and shrubs rambling all over the path had been removed. In the mild winter climate of Sicily, some of them had grown back, though not as wildly as before. At this time of day, the shadow of the chestnut trees on the outskirts of the pinewoods farther up the mountain didn’t reach the east facade. At eleven in the morning, the sun was still too high. It shone with a dull glow in the hazy February sky.
As she walked, Rosa turned the pickax around in her hands to avoid grazing her leg on its rusty iron point. The tool looked as if no one had used it for years.
“Signorina!”called the tutor again when she, too, rounded the corner of the wall. She was determined not to be shaken off. “What on earth are you doing?” And, most uncharacteristically, she added a half-swallowed curse.
Rosa stormed toward the entrance of the funeral chapel. The small annex huddled furtively against the facade as if it had occurred to the architects of the palazzo, rather late inthe game, that they had nowhere in the house dedicated to prayer and devotion. In fact, Rosa doubted whether anyone in the palazzo had ever prayed. A cast-iron bell hung in a niche above the chapel porch, as black as if pitch had been poured over it.
Just outside the entrance, Rosa stopped. She heard Iole’s footsteps behind her and wondered for a moment whether to tell her not to come closer. But she lost patience and pushed both doors inward. All the doors in the palazzo squealed, this one loudest of all. Signora Falchi, still thirty feet away, sighed, “Holy Mother of God!” and slowed down.
Hands firmly clutching the pickax handle, Rosa stepped into the chapel. Inside, it smelled of dank masonry and withered flowers, although the floral arrangements for the last funeral here had been removed long ago. The odor seemed to have sunk deep into the walls and the faded fresco of saints under the ceiling.
The front and side walls were covered with a chessboard pattern of granite slabs, arranged one on top of the other in sets of three. Rosa didn’t know when the first of her ancestors had been laid to rest here, but she assumed that the family tree went back centuries.
Costanza’s tomb was on the far side of the room, beyond the altar in the front of the chapel. Rosa went up to the panel embedded in the wall and dropped the heavy end of the pickax. The metal crashed on the stone floor, and the sound vibrated through the high interior. The bell on the porch seemed to reply with a deep clang.
Rosa’s fingertips touched the lettering carved into the granite surface.COSTANZA ALCANTARA. Black dust had settled inside the characters. Instinctively, she wiped her fingers on her jeans. There were no dates of birth and death, same as all the other tombs. Just names. As if it made no difference when the family members had lived. All that mattered was that they continued the Alcantara line, ensuring the survival of the dynasty.
Iole stumbled through the door, the tutor close on her heels. They both stood speechless. Rosa could feel their eyes on her back.
She placed the palm of her hand on the stone slab, as if feeling whether anything was moving behind it. A little dirt was left under her fingernails. She could see it even through the black nail polish that she had to reapply after every transformation. For a long time she had been making an effort to stop biting her nails. The dirt from the inscription on Costanza’s tomb would certainly stop her now.
She withdrew her fingers, grasped the pickax again with both hands, and turned to the interior of the chapel.
Iole watched with bated breath. Signora Falchi’s eyes, behind the lenses of her glasses, looked anxious and simultaneously fascinated in a macabre way.“Signorina,”she began cautiously.
“Just keep it to yourself,” retorted Rosa.
Three or four steps, and Rosa was looking at her father’stomb. Like Costanza’s, it was in the middle row of slabs. The one below it bore no inscription; the lettering on the one above it was faded. Curiously enough, no dust had settled there. As if only Costanza attracted all the dirt in this place.
Rosa took a deep breath and swung her arm. With an earsplitting noise, she drove the tip of the pickax into her father’s tombstone.
Steps behind her. Clattering heels.
Rosa struck a second time. A crack as wide as her finger ran across the surface like a flash of black lightning.
“Signorina Alcantara, I beg you—”
Spinning around, she let out a hiss that made the tutor flinch. Rosa felt her tongue split behind her teeth, but she took care not to open her mouth as the woman gave her one more dark glance, then turned and ran back to Iole, stationing herself protectively in front of the girl, as if seriously afraid that Rosa might go for her with the pickax.
When Rosa hit the tombstone for the third time, a gray triangle broke off the stone beneath the inscription. She had to strike the slab several more times before it crumbled away completely. The fragments fell to the floor, leaving only a few splinters in the open compartment of the tomb.
She could see the foot of a casket. The last eleven years had left it untouched. A gilded handle shone in the darkness.
Suddenly Iole was beside her. “Here, I’ll help you,” she said quietly. Rosa nodded gratefully, propped the pickax against thewall, and took hold of the broad metal handle on one side of the casket. It was cold as ice. Iole grasped the other handle, and as the tutor stood silently in the background, they gradually pulled the casket forward until the end stuck a foot and a half out of the wall compartment.
“That’ll do,” said Rosa.
Iole nodded and stepped back.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rosa saw Signora Falchi down on the floor beside the door. For a moment she was afraid that the tutor was going to faint, but she was wrong. Instead the woman frowned, leaned back against the wall as she sat there, and drew up her knees. “Nothing I can do about it,” she said, sighing. “I’ll just wait here until it’s over, if I may.”
Sweating now, Rosa raised the pickax. She hit the oak lid of the casket three times, until a hole the size of a human head gaped in the wood, and the pickax stuck in as far as it would go. With a gasp, she pulled the tool out, let it drop, and bent over the hole.
“Let’s just hope,” remarked Signora Falchi on the other side of the chapel, “that it really is the foot end you have there.”
Rosa peered over the splintered edge of the hole. Iole’s hand reached for hers and held it tightly.
“Makes no difference,” she said a moment later, straightening her back and standing erect as she breathed deeply in and out.
Iole looked at her, and then she too peered inside the casket.
“Oh,” she said.
Rosa squeezed her hand once more, then let go. She walked out of the chapel, stopped, and drew fresh air into her lungs. It smelled of the pine trees growing farther up the slope, of grass, and of the salty wind blowing over the hills from the distant sea.
Behind her in the chapel, she heard the sound of the tutor’s footsteps as she took her turn glancing inside the casket.
Iole came out onto the porch and stopped a little way behind Rosa.
“Where is he, then?” she asked.
Rosa shrugged her shoulders, and went back into the house in silence.