Never before has a case been as tricky as this: The newlywed husband of Carlina’s cousin is found drunk and unconscious in the arms of a dead prostitute. He claims he has no idea how he got there, but even his wife doesn't believe him.
Commissario Stefano Garini is forced to investigate this case, and though he believes Lucio has been framed, he can’t find the evidence he needs. On the contrary, every new clue seems to provide proof that Lucio is the murderer. On top of that, Aunt Violetta and Uncle Teo have come up with a new business venture that keeps the Mantonis busier than ever: Guinea pig racing!
Tricky Death is the eighth in the cozy mystery series Temptation in Florence, but it can be read as a stand-alone because all characters are explained and the plot barely refers to previous books.
Love this series!
I absolutely love the Mantoni clan! In this installment, poor Stefano winds up investigating the murder of a prostitute in a secret nightclub. The main suspect is Carlina's cousin's husband, who was found in the locked room with the victim, covered in her blood and with no memory of how he came to be there. It's a tricky situation and there are lots of twists and turns drawing in drug dealers, fraudsters, and secret grudges. Can Stefano unravel all the knots to find the true killer, especially since at the same time, the elder Mantonis have come up with a new business venture: guinea pig racing! Like all the others in this series, Ms. Boeker weaves a fun mystery with heart and humor. Sweet perfection!
The door bell penetrated her dreams with shrill insistence. Carlina jerked wide awake and jumped out of bed before she had all her wits together, propelled by only one thought. “Something happened to mamma!” Her gut reaction was natural. If the door bell rang in the middle of the night, it had to be a catastrophe, and if it was a catastrophe, it was only logical that her mother should be in the thick of it.
Her naked feet hit the terracotta tiles. She didn't feel the cold of the April night, but rising too fast made her circulation give way, and for a moment, she had to grab the edge of the sideboard to steady herself. Her head spun, and little stars exploded in front of her eyes.
The door bell sounded again.
Carlina winced and only realized at this moment something she should have seen right away. Her husband, Stefano, wasn't in the room. Had he been even quicker than she, his instincts honed by all the years in the homicide department of the Florentine police force? Or had he left the apartment for some reason and forgotten the keys? She grabbed a robe, threw it on, and made for the door. In passing, she noted the time. 2:15 in the morning. Ugh.
She was still in the hall when she heard the front door open, and Stefano's soothing voice. So the problem had to be mamma after all. She hurried to the door and stopped in her tracks when she saw Stefano in his pajama trousers, holding the door open for her cousin, Emma.
Emma's usually immaculate hairdo was all over the place, tears streamed down her face, and she clutched her baby as if someone wanted to wrench the child away.
“Emma!” Wide awake now, Carlina started forward. “Is something wrong with little Zoe?”
“Oh, no.” Emma gave a loud wail. “It's Lucio. He's left me.”
Carlina threw a startled glance at Stefano. “Nonsense. Lucio adores you. You haven't even been married for two years.”
Emma hiccuped. “He doesn't adore me anymore. He … he …”
“Why don't you first come in?” Stefano put a soothing hand on Emma's shoulder and gently drew her inside, then closed the door behind her. “It's cold, and you need to sit down.”
Carlina gave him a grateful look. He always managed to remain calm and unruffled, even if her family had hysteric fits. Tonight they had reached a new level, though. So far, the Mantonis had never exploded into their apartment in the middle of the night.
She picked up her favorite blanket with the faux leopard fur and draped it around Emma's shoulders. Then she gave her a tissue, sat next to her, and patted her knee while trying to catch a glimpse of the baby. Little Zoe's face was hardly visible in the wrap, but she seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Carlina sighed in relief, then turned to her cousin. “Now tell us.”
Stefano sat across from them and listened with all his keen intelligence focused on Emma.
“I … I don't know where to start.” Emma hiccuped again.
“Start at the beginning.” Stefano's voice was calm. “Then go on until you reach the end.”
“The beginning.” Emma's face twisted. “I think the beginning was Zoe's birth.”
“Well, you know, it really shocked Lucio. The birth, I mean. The pain and everything. When it was over, he said he never wanted me to go through the experience again.”
Carlina swallowed. “It's because he was so worried for you. He loves you so much, and it wasn't an easy birth.”
Emma closed her eyes. “That's what I thought at first, too, and I thought it was sweet of him. But then, Zoe started to have her … her fits.” She lifted a tragic gaze to them. “Why does she have to cry every night from five to nine?”
Carlina felt uncomfortable. She was no expert on babies, and she'd heard little Zoe's wails even through the thick walls of the neighboring house. The Mantoni family had already started to discuss remedies for little Zoe with as much passion and controversy as could be expected of them. “They say it'll stop when she's three months old.”
“But it's only been three weeks, and I'm going out of my mind already!” Emma's face crunched up. “You have no idea what it's like. And now, Lucio has gone, and I'm left all alone with her.”
“Why do you think Lucio has left you?” Garini's voice was calm.
“Because … because he hasn't come home tonight.”
Carlina sat up straight. “But that's no reason to believe he's left you. He might have had an accident!”
“No.” Emma shook her head and swallowed. “I feel it. He's left me. I saw the signs.”
“What signs?” Carlina stared at her cousin, willing her to explain. An accident was much more likely, and she felt they should be calling the hospitals now instead of sitting around and wailing.
“He … he kept telling me he had to work late.”
“But that's not always a sign of a husband who's unfaithful.” Carlina drew both hands through her curls. “He did start a new job just a few weeks before Zoe's birth, so of course he has to establish himself and make sure he makes a good impression.”
Emma shook her head. “He doesn't have to stay until midnight.”
“Some business dinners may take that long.” Garini's voice sounded even.
Carlina smiled at him. He looked decidedly sexy with his rumpled hair and his naked torso. His pajama trousers were made of dark-blue silk, a gift from her lingerie store, Temptation. They didn't look bad at all, even if she said so herself. She wrenched her errant thoughts away from her husband and concentrated on Emma.
“They're not business dinners!” Emma's voice became louder, and little Zoe whimpered. Emma gave her a distracted kiss. “He told me he had to go to nightclubs with his prospective customers. At least twice a week!”
“To nightclubs? To do business?” Carlina blinked.
“Yes. Not likely, is it? And then, when Zoe was born, he suddenly had to work even longer, and he's hardly at home anymore.” The tears started to fall again. “And … and I'm so out of shape, and I'm not pretty anymore, and now, he'll leave us and …” She broke down in sobs.
Carlina put an arm around her and hugged her. “Oh, darling, you're still gorgeous. Don't worry. And of course, life changes once a baby arrives, but I'm sure he adores you both. Why, when he's at home, he holds Zoe and carries her around all the time, and the look in his eyes is indescribable, so full of tenderness and love.”
“But he's not at home anymore! Aren’t you listening? He leaves for work at eight in the morning, grumpy and unfriendly, and he doesn't come back until midnight, exhausted, and even grumpier. But he's never been as late as this before, and two o'clock in the morning is the limit. I don't believe in his concocted stories anymore. Customers at midnight! Twice a week! Ha! He's got to tell me the truth now. I'll have it out, even if it breaks my heart!” She glanced at her daughter. “I'd never have thought our marriage could unravel as fast as this, and I thought having a baby would be wonderful. Of course it's magic, but it's also utterly exhausting, and so, so very difficult.”
Carlina hardly recognized her cousin. Emma had always been sure of her worth, her beauty, and absolutely focused on everything she wanted. It wasn't at all like her to fall apart, but then, she'd never been through so many sleepless nights before, and probably her hormones were mixed into a dangerous cocktail that made her touchy and unhappy. “Don't jump to conclusions, Emma.” It sounded weak, even to her own ears. “Let's focus on finding Lucio first. I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation.”
Stefano got up. “Let me call the station. If there was an accident, they're bound to know.”
Emma sniffed. “Maybe I'm a widow already.”
“Emma, stop!” Carlina gave her a little shake. “Don't paint the walls black! I'll make you a tisana, herbal tea, to calm you down.” She got up and went to the kitchen. Through the open door, she saw Stefano picking up the phone. He gave a reassuring smile to Emma, then followed Carlina into the kitchen, closing the door gently behind him. A moment later, he spoke into the phone. “Gloria, it's Stefano Garini.”
“Stefano! How come you're calling me in the middle of the night? You're not out, are you?” Her voice was as loud as a trumpet, filling the quiet kitchen like a fanfare.
Carlina could hear every word.
“No, I'm at home, but I'm concerned about a … a cousin of mine.”
Carlina smiled to herself. Lucio had married into the Mantoni family just like Stefano, so they weren't related by blood at all, but it felt good to see that Stefano considered them as relatives.
Stefano clenched the phone between his ear and his shoulder and started to prepare a cup of coffee. “Do you have any reports on accidents tonight?”
“Some. Do you want me to read the names?”
“I'm looking for Lucio Casanuova. Could you check if there's anything on him?”
“Sure!” Gloria trilled with all the efficiency of a happy bird. “Let me just open this file. You know, it's a real pleasure to hear your voice out of the blue, like this. You hardly ever talk to me during the day, you know. Always so busy.”
Stefano rolled his eyes and didn't reply.
“But of course you're a married man now.” Gloria sighed with all the gustiness of a desert storm.
Carlina switched the water kettle on and shook her head.
“Exactly.” Stefano's voice was dry. “And my wife is very concerned about her cousin, so if you could just check the files, I'd be grateful.”
“No hurry, no hurry. You know our computer systems, they're not the quickest. Ahhh, here they are. Let me see …” She started to murmur indistinguishable names. “Did you say Lucio? We have a Lucio here. A car crash.”
Carlina fixed an anxious gaze onto Stefano.
He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “His name is Lucio Casanuova.”
“That's not him, then. His name is Lucio Dalla. Funny, like the singer. But he died in 2012, the singer, I mean, so it can't be him.”
Carlina gritted her teeth.
“Is there any other information that might relate to the Lucio I'm looking for?” Garini still sounded calm.
“No, nothing at all. That is … let me just pull up this other file. Would be a shame if we missed something. So, is everything all right on your end? Nasty night tonight, isn't it? Way too cold for April. I can't wait for spring to really come. In fact, I'm planning to buy new flowers for my balcony, and –“ She broke off, and the atmosphere changed from being frothy and frilly to ominous. “Did you say Lucio Casanuova?” Her voice sounded different, terse.
Carlina huddled closer against Stefano, her cheek against his chest. The steady beating of his heart was soothing, even though it accelerated now.
“Lucio Casanuova, with a C?”
“Yes.” Stefano spoke through clenched teeth.
“I'm sorry.” Gloria swallowed so hard, they could hear it through the phone. “He's in prison.”