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Monday, 5:13 a.m. The sun wouldn’t show up for at least another hour, but Nico got out of bed, shrugged on a T-shirt, pulled on a pair of shorts and socks, and laced up his sneakers. Bed had stopped being a welcome place, both back in the Bronx brownstone he and Rita had lived in for twenty-five years and here in this century-old, two-room farmhouse he’d rented since May.
He set up the moka and, waiting for the gurgling to start, made the bed. Since he’d begun making his own bed at age three or four, he never walked away with it unmade. A neat bed started off the day with order, gave him the sense during childhood that all was well despite his father’s drunken temper, his mother’s fear. He knew it was all an illusion, but somehow it had helped then. And now, when he was trying to find order again.
A quick gulp of espresso shook him fully awake, followed by a forbidden cigarette that he smoked at the open window. Back in the Bronx apartment, he had happily lived by Rita’s house rules. Now he had the unwanted freedoms that came with being a widower. Bad language when he felt like it, dressing like a street bum, a cigarette after morning coffee. An extra glass of wine or two with dinner. A good nighttime cigarette. Small stuff that would never be worth it.
The air was still chilly in the early morning, which Nico welcomed as he set off for his three-mile run along the winding road up to Gravigna. It was steep going and dangerous in the predawn light. And even at this hour, cars whizzed past in both directions, their drivers on their way to work. But Nico’s morning run was like making the bed, a ritual that made him feel in control of his life, all the more necessary after the loss of his job, followed by Rita’s death.
When the town appeared, perched on its own small hill, Nico stopped to catch his breath and take in the view of Gravigna, with its medieval castle walls, its two towers, the proud steeple of the Sant’Agnese Church. In the meager predawn light Nico could, with the help of memory, make out the hundreds of neat rows of vines that covered the Conca d’Oro, the golden bowl below the town that had once only grown grain. He had marveled at the sight the first time he’d seen it with Rita on their honeymoon. “Our fairyland,” Rita had said then, and he had laughed, both of them dizzy with love.
Every three or four years, whenever they could afford the trip, they’d come back. It had been her childhood hometown. Rita’s parents, who had immigrated to New Jersey when she was six, had come back to die and be buried here. Rita asked to be buried next to them. He had obeyed, bringing her to her birthplace and immediately heading back. But he no longer had anyone in New York. An only child with parents long gone, ex–work colleagues who shunned him. And he missed Rita and her fairyland. He came back to be close to her and what family she’d had left—her cousin Tilde and Tilde’s daughter, Stella.
A pink-gray light had begun to scale the surrounding hills. It was time to go back and prepare the tomatoes. No going off in his old Fiat 500 to the town’s only café, Bar All’Angolo. The friendly bar owners; the schoolchildren, mothers and workmen crowding the counter; and the tourists sprawling over the tables made him feel less lonely, and the delicious whole wheat cornetti that came fresh from the oven made the place all the more tempting.
This morning, however, Nico was happy to break his routine. He had a job to do. Instead of his usual slow walk back, he started to jog home. Twin motorcycles rent the silence of the morning with their broken mufflers. A few cars passed, one honking loudly to announce its presence behind him. Another, a Panda, whizzed past, only a few inches away. Just another crazy Italian driver. Nico reached the stairs of his new home with a wildly beating heart and no breath left in his lungs. Maybe he was too old now for round-trip jogs. As he stretched his calves, he looked up at the sky. A cloudless blue vault, the start of another glorious Tuscan September day.
THE DOG RELIEVED HIMSELF against a tree and meandered into the woods, sniffing for food that hunters or lovers might have dropped. The snap of twigs was followed by a chain of snaps. The dog froze, its ears at attention.
“Where are we going?” a voice asked.
The dog silently crouched down under a bush.
“I know these woods,” another voice answered. “I’m taking you to the meeting place.”
“Why here, and why at this ridiculous hour?”
“You wanted privacy, didn’t you? You’ll only get that in the woods, when everyone is asleep. If it were hunting season, we couldn’t even come here.”
“We’ve already been walking for half an hour.”
“Consider it a step toward repentance.”
“It hasn’t been easy to live with what I did.”
“You’ve certainly waited long enough to make amends, but don’t worry. The money will be enough to wipe away even your sins.”
“Are you sure this will happen? I have to fly back tonight.”
“Shh. Relax. You’ll get what you came for.”
A TEN-MINUTE SHOWER RESTORED Nico. Cargo pants, a clean shirt, bare feet and he was ready. The previous night’s pickings from the vegetable garden he’d started as soon as he’d signed the lease for this place awaited him in the room that served as both a kitchen and living area. Two baskets of ripe, luscious plum tomatoes sat on the thick pinewood table. He picked one up, felt its weight in his hands. A lot of work and love had grown these beauties. Nico turned on the oven and started slicing the tomatoes in half. After salting them, he drizzled extra virgin olive oil gifted from his landlord’s grove, added a spattering of minced garlic, and spread them, cut-side down, over four trays.
A gunshot rang out just as Nico was sliding the first tray into the oven. The sharp crack made his arm jerk. Tomatoes spilled to the floor.
“Shit!” Hunting season wasn’t opening for another week, but some hotheads were too eager for boar meat to follow the law. Aldo Ferri, his landlord, had warned him about the boars showing up en masse now that the vineyards were loaded with ripe grapes. The farmhouse Nico was renting was close to a dense growth of trees, the beasts’ favorite habitat. They were mean, ugly animals who could grow to weigh over two hundred pounds. Aldo had suggested Nico pick up a hunting rifle to be on the safe side. No, thanks—he was through with guns of any kind. Last night was the first time he’d heard gunshots. They’d come in short, distant bursts. This one had been much closer.
Only one shot. If this guy was after boar, he must be a damned good marksman. A wounded boar would spare no one.
Nico stared down at the tomatoes on the floor. Some had landed on his shoes. Hell, what was the rule? Thirty seconds? A minute? Well, Rita would have to forgive him. He’d swept the kitchen two days ago, and he needed every single tomato for the dish Tilde was letting him cook at the restaurant tonight.
With the tomatoes back in the oven to roast, it was time to enjoy the rest of this new morning. Nico ground some more coffee beans, put the moka over a low flame, cut two slices of bread, and filled them with thin slices of mortadella and a sheep’s milk caciotta. Probably a lot more calories than two whole wheat cornetti, but not caring about that was one of his new freedoms. He put his coffee and the sandwich on a tray, shrugged on a Mets sweatshirt, and stepped out to the best part of the house: an east-facing balcony overlooking part of the Ferriello vineyards and the low hills beyond.
There was just a slim ribbon of light floating over the horizon, enough light to see that the wooden beams holding up the roof were empty. No sleeping swallows. They didn’t usually fly off so early. That gunshot must have scared them away. Or maybe early September was simply time to move on. He would miss them, if that was the case. The evenings that Nico wasn’t helping Tilde at the restaurant, he’d gotten used to sitting out on the balcony with a glass of wine to wait for the three swallows to swoop in and tuck themselves in between the beam and roof for the night. He didn’t mind cleaning up their mess in the morning. They’d become fond of each other.
Nico was halfway through his breakfast sandwich when he heard a dog yelping. A high-pitched, ear-busting sound that could only come from a small breed. Maybe it was the mutt that seemed to have made a home next to the gate to his vegetable garden. A small, scruffy dog that always greeted him with one wag of his bushy tail and then lay down and went to sleep. Nico had checked the garden the first time to see if the dog had done any damage. Finding none, he let it be.
Nico leaned over the balcony and whistled. The yelps stopped for half a minute, then started off again, louder this time. Nico whistled again. No pause this time. As the yelps continued, Nico wondered if the dog was hurt. More than possible. The vineyard fences were electric. Or it could’ve gotten caught in some trap. The yelps seemed to be coming from the left, past the olive grove. What if a boar had attacked the dog?
WITH HIKING BOOTS ON and the biggest knife from his new kitchen in hand, Nico traced the sound of the yelps. They led him past the olive grove, up a small slope of burned-out grass and into a wood thick with scrubby trees and bushes. The yelps got louder and faster. He was getting close. Then silence. Even the birds were mute. Nico broke into a run.
The dog almost tripped him. There it was, between his boots, with a single wag of its tail. “What the—” The dog looked up at him with a perky expression that clearly signaled, I’m cute, so pay attention to me. Toto, the cocker spaniel he’d had as a kid, used to give him that exact same look whenever he wanted a treat.
“I got nothing on me.”
The dog raised a paw. It was red.
Nico bent down to get a better look. Blood. On all four paws. The thick undergrowth had masked the prints. He checked the animal for cuts. Nothing. It was filthy, but fine. The mutt must have found the spot where the boar or other wild animal had been hit with that one shot.
“Come on, you need a cleanup.” Nico tucked the dog under his arm and turned to walk back. The creature squirmed and fought his grip, letting out a growl. “Fine, suit yourself, kid.” Nico put it down and kept walking. The dog stood in place and barked. Nico didn’t stop. The dog kept on barking. Nico finally turned around. Toto would do this when he was trying to tell him something. Once, it had been a nasty rat underneath the porch. No rats here, but maybe he should go along with it.
He turned around. “Okay. What?”
The dog shot off deeper into the woods. Nico trudged behind him. “This better be good, mutt.”
At the edge of a small clearing, the dog sniffed the air a few times, then lay down, his job complete. When Nico reached the spot, he let out a long breath. What the mutt had been trying to tell him was a doozy.
About twelve feet in front of them, at the far edge of the clearing, a man lay on his back, arms and legs spread out at an unnatural angle. What had been his face was now a pulpy mess of flesh, brain and bits of bone steeped in blood.
Nico’s stomach clenched. It wasn’t the sight that got to him—during his nineteen years as a homicide detective, he’d seen worse and quickly numbed to it. No, it was the surprise of finding a body here. He’d walked away from that job, his old life, and come to Italy to find peace. He wanted to be near Rita, near her family, and far from violent death. Murder seemed to have no place in the beautiful Chianti hills.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” His phone was back at the house. Nico bent down and swooped the mutt back up. No protests this time. He took another long look at the dead man without getting any closer. This was a crime scene, and old habits persisted. To blow off a man’s face, you needed a shotgun, not a rifle. Close range, maybe four feet. So it was probable the victim knew his killer. Blood would have splattered all over him. Find the bloody clothes, and you had the perpetrator. Nico’s eyes scanned the ground around the body. No shell that he could see. Either the murderer had picked up his brass, or it was somewhere in the underbrush. Not his job to go looking. His eyes shifted back to the body. A six-footer at least, judging by the length of his torso and legs. Big belly poking out of his jeans and a gray T-shirt mostly covered in blood. Some dark-red letters on it, or was that more blood? Nico leaned as far forward as he could without taking a step. Not blood. Two letters. AP. Blood covered the rest of the word or logo. At the man’s feet were gold running shoes spotted with blood. Michael Johnson sprinters. If this man had ever been a runner, it was a very long time ago. White socks peeked up from the Nikes. On his wrist, more gold—a very expensive-looking watch. Maybe a knockoff. Hard to tell, even up close. Chances were the killer hadn’t been interested in that. Unless something or someone had scared him away.
Nico looked down at the mutt huddled in the curve of his elbow. “You?” He surprised himself by smiling. “Sure thing.” He turned his back to the dead man and, with the dog tucked under his arm, started walking back to the house. About twenty feet back into the woods, Nico felt the ground soften. Nico looked down. He’d stumbled on a patch of wet ground. Elsewhere the ground looked perfectly dry. It hadn’t rained in days. Nico took another step and spotted an upturned leaf. It held water. Pink water. The killer must have washed himself. There was no water source that he could see. Nico continued his walk home. Solving homicides wasn’t his job anymore.