1. For prospective new members, a word of warning: don't use common names like Dennis, Simon, or Kenny if you decide to create an account. Spammers have used them all before you and gotten those names flagged in the anti-spam databases. Your account registration will be rejected because of it.
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Since it has happened MULTIPLE times now, I want to be very clear about this. You do not get to abandon an account and create a new one. You do not get to pass an account to someone else and create a new one. If you do so anyway, you will be banned for creating sockpuppets.
    Dismiss Notice
  3. If you wish to change your username, please ask via conversation to tehelgee instead of asking via my profile. I'd like to not clutter it up with such requests.
    Dismiss Notice
  4. Due to the actions of particularly persistent spammers and trolls, we will be banning disposable email addresses from today onward.
    Dismiss Notice

Murder in Paradise

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Dec 27, 2014.

  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,745
    Murder in Paradise

    by Ack

    [Author's Note: this is a standalone story. It's very loosely inspired by the song Where Do You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt. I had to write it, so I could get back to writing other stuff without it cluttering up my creative processes. Enjoy.]



    The Third Day

    The Hotel Mallorca was perhaps not the largest or most exclusive of its kind, but it was certainly a contender. A fountain in the forecourt spilled crystal droplets into the crisp morning air; within, the rooms were luxurious, the staff attentive, and the decor an admixture of old-world charm and modern convenience.

    Which made the new arrivals even more out of place than normal; a gaggle of police cars, some with lights still flashing, were gathered haphazardly at the front. Uncouth police officers tracked dirt in through the main lobby, and upstairs to room three-zero-four, where a dead man lay in a congealed pool of his own blood. Forensic investigators worked their arcane craft, which appeared to require spreading fingerprint powder over every available surface, and cared not a whit that the carpet would need taking up once the deceased was removed from the premises.

    Lieutenant Salvator Alvarez heaved himself out of his car and looked around. He was a big man, heavy-set and running to fat. He had been with the Majorcan police force for nearly thirty years, and was looking forward to retirement. To draw attention from his greying hair and balding head, he had begun to cultivate a moustache some years previously; as his hair thinned, the moustache grew ever more luxuriant.

    There to meet him were three of his best people; Detective Sergeant Donna Cervante and Detectives Xavier Rosario and Jose Tramante. Cervante, four years a sergeant, was as tough as they came. Rosario and Tramante worked well with each other and Cervante.

    "What do we have?" he asked. "Who's on site already?" He spoke Spanish, as did they all.

    "Murder, sir," Cervante responded at once. "One male, caucasian, late fifties or early sixties, piercing and slashing wounds to the back and neck. Forensics techs are with him now."

    Rosario's phone beeped at him, and he checked the screen, then whistled. "Sir, this is interesting."

    "Talk to me," Alvarez ordered, pulling out his reading glasses.

    "The victim's ID put him as Balducci, first name Giovanni, employed as an antiquities dealer ..." Rosario trailed off meaningfully.

    Cervante and Tramante looked at each other. "Smuggler," they chorused.

    Alvarez nodded. "Indeed, yes. So what's the interesting part?"

    Rosario scrolled upward. "Well, just on a hunch, I decided to run his prints and photo past the Interpol database, and will you look who popped." He showed the phone to his boss.

    "Well, well," murmured Alvarez. "Well, well, well." He nodded to Rosario, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Well done, Xavier. Well done, indeed."

    <<<>>>​

    "Martel," Alvarez greeted the concierge as they approached the front desk. "It appears that your hotel can't keep out of trouble."

    "To be fair, Lieutenant," Martel responded imperturbably, "it was six years ago, and in that case it was a missing necklace." His Spanish was fluent, although it held a faint but distinct Italian accent.

    "And back then, Pierre, you were the head of staff, not the concierge," Alvarez commented. "In any case, to business. I presume you have -"

    "Staff list, and guest list, here and here," Martel supplied, placing both lists on the counter. "Staff roster for last night, along with who was actually here, and who was not, for whatever reason."

    "Damn," observed Cervante, collecting the lists and leafing through them. "You're organised here."

    "We try, Detective Sergeant, we try," murmured Martel. "I have had occasion to assist Lieutenant Alvarez with his inquiries before."

    "Are we sure it was a staff member or a guest?" asked Rosario. "If a guest let someone else in -"

    Martel inclined his head. "A salient point, Detective. However, our security cameras cover every entrance. I have been over the tapes already; I will be supplying them to you for scrutiny, of course, but no-one has been in or out in the last twenty-four hours who was neither staff nor guest."

    Tramante scratched his chin. "Would those cameras cover other areas of the hotel? Such as the corridor outside the victim's room?"

    Martel shook his head regretfully. "Alas, our guests prefer discretion over oppressive security, and so there are no cameras in the guest areas, merely the public areas."

    Alvarez nodded; he already knew this.

    "Holy crap," blurted Cervante, staring at the guest list. "Sir, do you know who's staying here?"

    "Quite a number of celebrities, I would imagine," observed Alvarez. "Which one's got your attention?"

    "Oh, no-one special," Cervante replied, trying for nonchalance. "Just Aurora Delacroix, is all."

    Silence fell, as the other three officers stared at her.

    Tramante responded first. "Oh wait," he ventured, rubbing his chin, "isn't she famous or something?"

    "No, no," Rosario put in. "You're thinking of Ki-"

    "One more word, and I'll run you both in for disturbing my peace of mind," growled Cervante. "Here; you two gather some uniforms and start canvassing the guests and staff for anything they might have seen and heard. From the way this guy died, it can't have been quiet."

    Martel cleared his throat discreetly. Cervante turned to him.

    "Yes?" she asked.

    "The Hotel Mallorca prides itself on its discretion, Detective Sergeant," he pointed out with understated pride. "Our walls are quite well insulated against sound. A gunshot might be audible from one room to the next, but anything less than that ..." His voice trailed off meaningfully.

    "Hm. Well, thanks for that," she responded. "Keep that in mind, guys." She cleared her throat, then spoke in a rush. "Sir, request permission to begin interviewing the guests."

    "Indeed," replied Alvarez dryly. He had rarely seen Cervante flustered before; it was somewhat entertaining to watch. "And who do you wish to interview first?"

    <<<>>>​

    Martel had to be over thirty by now, but he still had the slim build and clear gaze of a young man, with not a grey hair in sight - and not a hair out of place either, a fact that impressed the habitually scruffy Alvarez even more. The man had been on the move since the body was discovered that very morning, and still he looked as unruffled as though he had just now donned his freshly-starched tuxedo.

    They sat at either side of a delicate round table on the rear patio of the Hotel Mallorca, the morning sun adding a welcome touch of warmth to the air. A waiter discreetly poured coffee for the policeman, leaving milk and sugar beside the cup. Martel had a cup of tea, into which he stirred milk, while Alvarez used the tiny silver tongs to add several lumps of sugar to his beverage.

    Martel sipped at his tea, and nodded toward Alvarez' cup. "Too much sugar is not good for you," he observed neutrally. Alvarez, who reckoned himself a student in such matters, had yet to nail down a region for Martel's accent; it was as cultured and impersonal as Martel's own manner.

    "A man has to die of something," Alvarez pointed out with dark humour. The courtesies satisfied, he went on. "A bad business, Martel. What can you tell me?" As he spoke, his pen was poised over the notepad next to his cup.

    Martel sipped again at his tea, then put the cup down upon his saucer with a muted clink. “Very little, I am afraid,” he confessed. “The victim signed in the day before yesterday, in the evening, under the name of Giovanni Balducci … “ He paused expectantly.

    “A false name,” Alvarez confirmed the unasked supposition. “We ran his fingerprints through Interpol, and got his true identity.” He did not elaborate further.

    “This does not surprise me,” Martel responded thoughtfully. “He was a loud, crude man. While he had money, he had not earned it, not in any genteel manner, in my estimation. Had the Hotel Mallorca known of his character before he arrived, he would have been turned away.”

    Alvarez' head came up. “Did he cause trouble in the time he was here?”

    Martel sniffed. “I will not say that he did not try. But I have an excellent head of staff, Adolfo Hernandez. Balducci – or whoever he was – made improper suggestions to the maid who went in to turn down his bed. She was in tears by the time she escaped the room. Adolfo sent her home on full pay, to remain there until Balducci had quit the hotel. I fully support his decision.” His lips tightened slightly. “I would have had him ejected altogether, but we had accepted his payment in advance.”

    “This maid, I will need her name and address,” Alvarez requested.

    “As you wish,” Martel responded. “Adolfo can give you that information at your convenience.”

    Alvarez nodded, making a note on his pad. “Very well. When was the victim due to leave?”

    Martel tilted his head in thought. “Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps the day after,” he suggested. “The airline strike has quite a few people stranded here. I received the strong impression that this was the reason he was not moving on.”

    Alvarez nodded wearily. The airline strike was all over the news; tourists from all over Europe were stranded on Majorca. For those who were holidaying on the island, this was hardly an imposition; for many more, it was a cause to complain to anyone who would listen. Including overworked police lieutenants.

    “Your Mr Hernandez, he is quite protective of the staff, I gather,” Alvarez suggested. “Could he be pushed to violence by such a man?” He gestured with his pen. “Especially if Balducci had importuned other female staff … ?”

    Martel shook his head definitively. “I cannot see it. Adolfo is the most level-headed of men. Once this incident occurred, he made arrangements for only older male staff to be alone in Balducci's room. We spoke on the topic at length, and I am satisfied that he would not have attempted to harm the man for such a slight.”

    He paused. “In any case, Adolfo is a most gentle man, who becomes queasy even when faced with cow's blood in the kitchen. From what little I saw of our dead man, he bled quite copiously, from multiple wounds. Adolfo would have fled, retching, after inflicting just one such wound.”

    Alvarez frowned, but made a note. “I will accept your word on this, but Hernandez will not be taken off our list of suspects until we have made further inquiries.”

    “Of course, of course,” agreed Martel readily. “I will not stand in the way of you doing your work.”

    Alvarez turned a page of his notepad. “Did any of your other staff clash with Balducci in the time he was here?” He glanced up at Martel. “You yourself; did you have any dealings with the man?”

    Martel shook his head. “I believe that I was on the front desk when he arrived, but I barely spoke to him. Thereafter, I only saw him in passing.” He paused, opened his mouth, then closed it once more.

    Alvarez glanced up from where he was writing. “Yes?”

    Martel sighed. “He complained about the quality of the food at the midday meal, yesterday. I suspect that this was a ploy to gain him free meals from the kitchens; none of the other diners had any complaints. I went in, spoke with him briefly to calm him down, then left him to his own devices.”

    Shaggy eyebrows rose. “So you spoke with him more than once.”

    Martel nodded. “I prefer not to recall those times. I told you he was loud and crude? That was being kind to the man.” He chuckled briefly, mirthlessly. “But just between you and I, Lieutenant? If I murdered every man who complained needlessly about the quality of service, there would be a row of graves stretching halfway around the island.”

    “I suspect I know exactly what you mean,” Alvarez agreed. “And the other staff? No problems with him?”

    Martel shook his head. “No more than with any other loud, crude, obnoxious tourist,” he agreed. “Of which there is no shortage, unfortunately.”

    Alvarez nodded, and drew a line under his notes. “Very well. If the staff had no particular problem with the man, how about the other guests?”

    Martel shook his head. “I received no official complaints about him from the other guests.” He sighed. “With one of those, I could have had him ejected. But the guests are either day trippers, or are waiting for the strike to end.”

    “'Official' complaints,” repeated Alvarez. “Do you mean to say that there were unofficial complaints made?”

    Again, Martel sighed. “There appears to be little I can hide from you, Lieutenant. Yes, I spoke with one guest. She indicated that she had conversed briefly with Balducci in the corridor outside her room. The conversation had ended on an … unpleasant … note.”

    Alvarez' attention sharpened considerably. “Which guest was this?”

    Martel met his eyes, and he lowered his voice. “I will give you one guess.”

    It wasn't hard to work it out. “Aurora Delacroix?”

    “Indeed,” confirmed Martel. “Do you wish to inform your sergeant of this matter?”

    Alvarez shook his head. “No. It's better if she goes in without expectations.” He wrote on the pad. “Did Ms Delacroix say what the conversation was about?”

    Martel shook his head. “I did not inquire. I asked if she wanted to make a formal complaint, but she chose not to do so, merely to inform me of the fact of the incident.”

    “Did they have any further contact? When did this happen, by the way?”

    “It happened midway through yesterday morning,” Martel recalled. “The lady was returning to her room after breakfast. And no, I do not recall them having any further communication. Or at least, none I was informed of.”

    Alvarez had, of course, heard of the lovely Aurora Delacroix. A classical beauty who had been educated at the Sorbonne, she travelled in the most rarefied of high society circles and had residences in several cities around the world. She was rumoured to be engaged to the scion of one of the great European families; while the family fortunes had declined of late, the prospective groom was still a millionaire several times over.

    To imagine that she had even a tangential part in a gruesome murder such as this beggared the imagination; unfortunately, Alvarez had a job to do and he knew it. He wrote a note to remind himself to check the statement made by the lady herself, to see if she also mentioned the encounter, and perhaps, what was said at the time.

    He drew another line under his notes. “Now, if you can tell me what you know of the man Balducci's movements last night … ”




    The Second Night

    Sofia stared down at the gross, bloated body of the man who had called himself Giovanni Balducci. Blood ran from several deep wounds in his neck and back, and pooled on the carpet, soaking into the thick pile.

    “He's still breathing, Luca,” she observed, only her quickened breathing showing the disquiet that she felt.

    “Not for long,” Luca told her. “He loses too much blood. He will die soon. And with him, your secret.”

    You still hold it,” she pointed out lightly, almost playfully.

    Luca smiled at her, without artifice, without pretension. She caught her breath, to see the love expressed there. “I would die before admitting to it.” A nod toward the sprawled body of 'Balducci'. “I will kill to protect it. To protect you.”

    She nodded. “I know. I think I always knew. You were always there to protect me, Luca.”

    “From him, and men like him – always,” Luca assured her, and pulled out a handkerchief. “Did you touch anything in the room?”

    She shook her head. “Only the doorknob, on the way in.”

    Luca smiled again. “Which I already wiped. So.” It was the work of a moment to open the door, quickly check the corridor. “It is clear; we must be quiet.”

    Taking a deep breath, she calmed herself. “Yes.” She stepped from the room; Luca pulled the door to, before tucking the handkerchief away again.

    <<<>>>​

    Slowly, agonisingly slowly, the man in room 304 stirred. A finger, smeared with blood, moved over as-yet pristine carpet. A dying hand wrote, accusing.

    L … U … C … A

    <<<>>>​

    The corridors were silent as they made their way to Sofia's room; dim lights in the wainscoting illuminated the carpet, allowing safe passage. She paused at her door, sliding the key in as silently as she knew how, turning it carefully so as not to cause the lock to click loudly. “What happens now?” she asked, in a whisper. Luca could not come in, as they both knew.

    “The police will come,” Luca admitted. “They will ask questions. You tell them this, and only this.” Sofia listened carefully as Luca spoke rapidly, outlining what she was to say. “Do you understand?”

    She nodded. “I understand. But you … what of you?”

    Luca's teeth were very white in the dimness. “I am your Luca, your street rat. I will survive. Do not worry about me.”

    “You will forgive me if I worry just a little bit,” she murmured, then leaned in and touched her lips to Luca's cheek. A moment later, her door was closing silently, without even a click as the lock tongue went home.

    Even before it had closed completely, Luca was gone. Old instincts were coming to the fore. There was much to do before the body was discovered.




    The Third Day

    Sergeant Donna Cervante was a ten-year veteran with the Majorcan police force, but still she had felt like a giddy schoolgirl when she found that she was about to meet the Aurora Delacroix. Even now, sitting across from the woman herself at a small table in the hotel restaurant, she felt her heartbeat quickening. Aurora Delacroix was an icon of the modern age; she was smart, beautiful and compassionate. And rich, of course. One could not forget that she was rich.

    Cool green eyes observed the policewoman, and perfect lips curved in a gentle smile.

    “I suppose you have questions for me?” Delacroix asked, in a sweet alto.

    “I – yes,” Donna blurted, then took a deep breath. “The deceased, Mr Balducci, did you know him? Were you acquainted with him before you came to this hotel?”

    The expression became pensive, and Aurora Delacroix tilted her head to one side slightly. “I can honestly say that I did not know anyone called Giovanni Balducci before I came to this hotel.”

    Sergeant Cervante made a note. “Did you meet the man before he died?”

    “Once,” admitted Aurora. She shuddered delicately. “He spoke to me in the corridor, not far from my room. A most boorish man. I escaped as soon as I could, and locked myself in my room.”

    “What did he speak to you about?” pressed Donna.

    “I … do not wish to say,” Aurora responded. “Must I speak of it?”

    Feeling more sure of herself, Donna nodded firmly. “This is a police investigation. All details are important.”

    Aurora Delacroix nodded in turn. “Yes, of course. This Balducci man, I believe he followed me up from breakfast. He accosted me in the corridor, and spoke to me in crude terms, telling me that I was a most beautiful woman, and that beautiful women were good for only one thing.”

    “And how did you respond?” asked Sergeant Cervante, scribbling rapidly.

    “I ignored his statement, and asked him to leave me alone,” replied Delacroix. “But he would not. He described himself as a procurer of … of courtesans for the rich and famous, and that I would make a fine addition to his … to his stable, as he called it. He suggested that for a sufficiently large offer, I might be willing to work for him.” She shuddered again. “I still cannot believe that he was serious. It must have been a crude attempt at humour, at shocking me.”

    "Perhaps," allowed Cervante. She had been briefed about the man calling himself Balducci. Such an offer would not have been made in jest, not by that man. "What did you do then?"

    "I went to my room and locked myself in," Aurora told her. "Then I had Phillipe mix me a brandy -"

    "Phillipe?" asked Cervante. "Who is Phillipe?"

    "Oh," Delacroix elaborated, "Phillipe is my manservant. He is married to my personal maid, Marie-Claire. They travel with me everywhere I go. I see them as family, rather than servants."

    "Did either Phillipe or Marie-Claire witness this conversation?"

    Aurora shook her head. "I was alone."

    Cervante wrote another note. "I see. Please, go on."

    "Where was I? Oh, yes. I had Phillipe mix me a brandy to steady my nerves, then I called upon the concierge, what was his name ... ?"

    "Martel," Donna supplied. "Pierre Martel."

    "Oh, yes, him," agreed Aurora. "He came to the room and we spoke on the matter. He suggested that I make an official complaint, but I did not want that squalid man to have any sort of grievance against me."

    Cervante's voice was curious. "Why not?"

    Aurora Delacroix sighed. "I am to be married," she explained. "The tabloids are desperate for any sort of scandal about me. Since I accepted dear Henri's proposal, I have been accused three times of being pregnant with another man's baby, once of having terminal cancer, and twice of pursuing affairs with other women. If this Balducci truly wanted to ruin my name, he could have told them the most outrageous stories, and they would print them without a qualm. So I opted to not give him an excuse."

    "Did you tell Martel what had happened?" asked the policewoman.

    "Not in so many words," confessed Delacroix. "Just that we had spoken, and that it had been an unpleasant experience. He assured me that Balducci was one complaint away from being ejected, and to avoid him as much as possible. Meals would be served to me in my suite, if I so wished."

    "And did you eat in your suite?" asked Cervante.

    "Why, yes," confirmed Aurora. "Our meals were delivered to the suite, we retired for the night, and in the morning, we discovered that the man was dead."

    "Convenient for you," Donna observed, just a little sarcastically.

    “However do you mean?” asked Aurora, her perfect brow wrinkling.

    The policewoman coloured. “I'm sorry. I meant that his death solved the problem of your being accosted by him.”

    "Not particularly," Aurora told her. "Once the tabloids hear that I was in the hotel when the murder took place, I will immediately become Majorca's next serial killer. Until the culprit is seized, I will have merely exchanged one problem for another."

    “Well,” Donna assured her, “the police will not be publicising the names of any of the guests at this hotel.”

    Delacroix shook her head. “It would not matter. My presence here is already known. I think someone must have spotted me coming from the airport. Phillipe regularly checks on the latest news items containing my name, and he found an article about me being here less than an hour after I checked in.”

    “My goodness,” Sergeant Cervante exclaimed. “I didn't know you were here until I checked the guest list.”

    Aurora shot her a beaming smile. “Which means that you don't read the sort of tabloids that make a habit of pursuing every detail of my life. For that, you have my profound gratitude.”




    The Third Afternoon

    Alvarez looked at the team, gathered around the crime board. “So, what do we have?”

    Already on the board was a photo, taken from the crime scene. Under it was the name 'Giovanni Balducci', and below that, '(Antonio Caruso)'.

    Rosario cleared his throat. “Interpol forwarded us their file on the guy,” he reported. “He was not a nice man.” Chuckles arose at the understatement. “No, really. He's been active for twenty years or more. Started out in Naples. Kidnapping teenage kids, runaways and homeless, and selling them to North African brothels. Since then, he'd branched out into drugs and guns, but he was still peddling the odd bit of flesh. Sometimes kids, sometimes mistresses for the rich and famous. But you can be sure that whatever he was into, it's sketchy.”

    Alvarez smoothed down his moustache with finger and thumb. “So it's likely that the reports we have had of him propositioning people at the hotel, they are accurate.” Do not mention Aurora Delacroix by name; we don't want to spread rumours here in the station.

    “Yes,” agreed Tramante. “I spoke to the maid at her home, in her mother's presence. She told me exactly what the man said.” His face darkened with anger. “It was disgusting.”

    “Her mother?” queried Alvarez. “How old is this maid?”

    “Sixteen,” Tramante told him. “She lives with her parents. They are very proud of her position at the hotel. Her father is also quite angry at her treatment at this man's hands -”

    “At his hands? Did he lay hands on her?” interjected Alvarez.

    Tramante shook his head. “Sorry, a figure of speech. She swore there was no physical contact. Although she felt very threatened all the same.”

    Alvarez frowned. “The father was very angry, you say. Do you have his movements from last night?”

    Tramante nodded. “He and his wife swear they were home all last night.”

    Cervante raised her hand. “To be approached like that must have been quite a traumatic experience for one so young. I wonder that the parents do not insist that she leave the hotel.”

    “I asked about that,” Tramante reported. “Apparently the head of staff, Hernandez, escorted her home personally. He told the parents what had happened, assured them that she could stay home on full pay until the man had left, and paid her a bonus from his own pocket.”

    “Martel said that this Hernandez was a good man,” mused Alvarez. He looked at the crime board, at the picture of Caruso. “Do we know why he was here in Majorca, at that particular hotel?”

    Sergeant Cervante shook her head. “No, sir. I checked with the airport; he flew in on a charter plane from Morocco, which was why he was able to get in after the airline strike.”

    “Interesting,” observed Alvarez. “He flew into Majorca for some specific reason, and got killed. I wonder if the death has anything to do with his reason for being here?”

    No-one answered the rhetorical question, but he saw thoughtful expressions on the faces around the board.

    “So Caruso flies in to Majorca, opts to stay in the hotel, and is murdered one day later,” Rosario summarised. “Perhaps he was carrying out some sort of deal? Meeting with someone in the hotel?”

    “Not one of the staff,” Cervante stated. “He's never been here before, and no connections have popped between him and any of the current staff.”

    “Another guest, then?” proposed Rosario. “Didn't he proposition one of them, as well as the maid?”

    Cervante opened her mouth; Alvarez shot her a warning glance. She nodded, then addressed Rosario. “Yes, he had an encounter with at least one guest. No-one has reported anything else of that nature happening, but if they don't register a complaint ...” She let her voice trail off.

    “Who is the guest?” pressed Rosario. “If she – I presume it's a she – or her husband took offence, they may have taken matters into their own hands.” He glanced at Alvarez. I can't believe we're not already following this up, his expression said.

    “The guest in question is Aurora Delacroix,” stated Alvarez reluctantly. “She is not married; her fiance is elsewhere. Sergeant Cervante interviewed her, and has communicated to me her satisfaction that Ms Delacroix is innocent of any wrongdoing.”

    “Although,” Cervante pointed out, “she does have a manservant, as well as a personal maid. I'm following up their backgrounds; it is not beyond possibility that one or the other – or both – may have acted on her behalf, with or without her knowledge.”

    “Which brings up something else,” Alvarez noted, placing something else on the crime board. It was a photograph of angular, crabbed letters, highlighted against the background.

    “What's that?” asked Tramante. “'Luca'? What does that mean?”

    “One of the techs spotted it,” Alvarez told them. “It was under Caruso's arm. He wrote it, on the carpet, in his own blood, before he died.”

    “The killer's name, surely,” Rosario suggested.

    “You'd think so,” Alvarez agreed. “But while there is a 'Lucille' in the kitchen and a 'Luca' on the fourth floor, the one was home at the time of the murder, and the other is a six year old boy. Neither of them had, as best we know, any contact with the victim.”

    “A nickname, then,” Tramante proposed.

    “That's what I'm thinking,” Alvarez commented. “Everyone; tomorrow we check through the place again. Cervante, follow up on the servants. I'll find out from Martel if any of the staff has the nickname of 'Luca'.”

    Everyone started moving out of the room; Donna Cervante hung back.

    “Help you, Sergeant?” asked Alvarez, starting to shrug into his coat.

    “You know, sir, everyone at the hotel that we can't specifically place anywhere is a suspect,” pointed out Cervante. “Even Martel himself.” For all that he's your friend, she did not add.

    “I am aware, Sergeant,” Alvarez replied heavily. “But I have known Pierre Martel for years. He described Adolfo Hernandez as the most level-headed of men. Likewise, I would consider Martel the most rational of men; nothing flusters him. He would be no more likely to suddenly strike out and murder a random guest than he would be to walk down Main Street on his hands, wearing only his underwear.”

    “Perhaps this Caruso importuned someone at the hotel, someone he was close to?” suggested Cervante.

    Alvarez shook his head. “He was displeased that it had happened, certainly, but the hotel is merely his job, his livelihood. He is married, and adores his wife. This event has not affected them in the slightest. No, I cannot see it.”

    “Could there be some connection between Pierre Martel and Aurora Delacroix?” pressed Cervante. “I mean, I know how silly it sounds -”

    “Not at all,” he told her. “The essence of good police work is to pursue enquiries, even if you yourself do not believe something to be possible. But … Martel and the lady Delacroix? Once again, I think not. She has never stayed at this hotel before. Martel has been here for years. None of the staff reported them keeping company. They have only spoken on a couple of occasions. There has been no chance for them to strike up a friendship, much less a relationship that might cause him to kill the man who insulted her.”

    “I suppose,” the policewoman admitted. “I mean, I do not wish to cause trouble for your friend, but it would tie it up so neatly.”

    He smiled paternally. “You should know by now, Donna. So few cases tie up so neatly.”

    Reluctantly, she chuckled. “This is true, sir. Sorry for having wasted your time.”

    A shake of the head. “Police work is never a waste of time. Go home; Caruso will still be dead in the morning.”

    “Yes, sir.”




    The First Day

    “Sofia.”

    The voice was quiet, but she recognised it instantly; she had not heard the door open. She turned sharply, staring at him. “What are you doing here?”

    He shrugged carelessly. “I work here, remember?”

    She drew a ragged breath. “I mean, here, in this room. If we were seen together -”

    He chuckled. “Your servants are downstairs, gathering your luggage.” He paused. “I had to … see you.”

    “Why?” The word was simple; the question, complex.

    He threw it back in her face. “Why not – Sofia?”

    Do not call me that!” The command was no less of one even though it was hissed instead of shouted.

    He shrugged. “You are Sofia; I am Luca. It is who we are, deep down. I find it … helpful, to remind myself of that from time to time.”

    “Why?” she demanded, once more. A different question, this time. “Do you want to go back to those days, in the back streets of Naples? Begging in rags? Dependent on what we could steal or trick people into giving us?” She turned, took a few steps away, then turned back to him. “I am not that Sofia, your Sofia, any more. To me, that life is less than a dream, a nightmare long past. If I wish hard enough, then it never happened.”

    He shook his head. “No, I have no desire to go back there. But to forget it, to deny it … that is something I cannot do. We lived through it, we survived it. That is something for us to be proud of, not ashamed.” He paused, changing the subject. “You have done well for yourself.”

    Her eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting -”

    Both of his hands came up, and he laughed. “Oh, no. Far from it. I myself am doing moderately well, as you can see. I have two children. I would ask of nothing from you.”

    The tension in her posture relaxed. “Two children? Really? Are they beautiful?”

    His expression softened. “The most gorgeous children on Majorca. I named them after us, you know.”

    Her eyes widened. “What?”

    He nodded. “Oh, yes. The boy is called Luca, and the girl is Sofia.”

    “Oh.” She paused. “Is that not some sort of risk -”

    He shook his head, chuckling. “My dear Sofia, no one knows. They are just two names. They remind me, daily, of what I left behind. They help me strive for more. And it pleases me to know that these two, this Luca and this Sofia, will never have to know the privations that we did. Is that not a good thing?”

    She smiled, acknowledging his point. “I think I shall want children, someday.”

    “They help ground you,” he agreed. “You are to be married, yes?”

    “Yes,” she responded. “He is a good man. It is a match of love, I think.”

    “I wish you all the luck,” he told her. Drawing her to him, he placed his lips on her forehead. “Be good, little Sofia.”

    “Be good, Luca,” she murmured.

    Moments later, the door clicked shut behind him, and she was left alone in her suite once more.




    The First Night

    She tossed and turned in her bed, unable to get comfortable. The conversation she had had with the man who she had once known long ago as Luca had disturbed her more than she had thought, at the time. The midday meal and the evening meals had passed pleasantly enough; other guests recognised her, of course, just as she recognised a famous soccer player, and a movie star. She chatted with a few of them, enjoying the company.

    But it felt that, even as she fitted into this level of society, there was something false there. For the first time in a very long time, she had found it an effort to put on the mask of the high-born socialite, to speak to the others as if she were their equal.

    She had managed it, of course; her willpower was easily up to the task. But afterward, in her room, as Marie-Claire brushed her hair out, she found herself pondering Luca's words. Had she truly broken away from her roots? Was some part of her still Sofia, still the little girl begging for crusts in the gutter?

    She rolled over again, plumped her pillow, tried to sleep.

    Eventually, she drifted into a troubled slumber.

    And she dreamed.

    <<<>>>​

    Sixteen Years Ago

    Sofia panted with excitement, her back pressed against the brick wall of the alleyway. Any moment now, she expected to hear a shout of anger, an alarm raised. But there was nothing, until she heard the running footsteps, and Luca flung himself into the alley.


    Did you get it?” she demanded, her eyes bright.

    Of course,” he replied, showing her the bag of fruit. His carefree, cocksure grin flashed at her. “With you to distract him, it was dead easy.”

    We might want to stay away, these next few days,” she cautioned. “He might remember you -”

    - never saw me,” Luca boasted.

    All right, but he might remember me,” she pointed out.

    They slipped out the other end of the alley, leaving a fruit vendor down the way to frown and recount his wares.

    Back at their hidey, they counted the money Sofia had wheedled out of the man, and added it to their growing stash. “Not long now,” Luca promised her. “We'll be able to pay for proper clothes and a night class for you, and you'll be able to read and write properly, and get a real job, and live in a real apartment.”

    Sofia bit into a peach, and handed him another one. “And you too,” she reminded him, juice running down her chin. “Not leaving you behind.”


    I'll be fine,” Luca told her. “It's you I'm worried about. Caruso's been sniffing around. You're growing all the time now, and you know he likes girls of your age.”

    You need to watch it too,” she retorted. “I heard he likes boys too.”

    Ecch,” he shivered. “Yeah, I heard that too, but he just likes boys for himself. Carlo, down the block, he said that the boys come and go, but the girls just … go.”

    Katarina said she was thinking of going to work for him,” Sofia told him quietly. “She said that he offered her work as a dancer. Or maybe a singer.”

    Where is Katarina, anyway?” he asked. “I haven't seen her in days.”

    She shook her head. “Nor have I. Maybe she's working for him, in a good part of the city.”


    I hope so,” he agreed. “I really hope so.”

    I – he offered me money, once,” she blurted suddenly. “A lot of money. Enough to go to school with. If I agreed to work for him.”

    I don't like that idea,” he stated firmly. “The way he looks at you, I know what sort of 'work' he has in mind. And I don't want that, not for you.”

    Other girls do it,” she pointed out tentatively. “And it was a lot of money.”

    And if you go away, and never come back?” he reminded her.

    I would come back, for you,” she assured him, and gave him a hug. “I would never leave you behind, Luca.”

    He returned the embrace. “You're all I've got,” he whispered. “I don't want to lose you.”


    You won't,” she promised. “I'll be here, always.”

    <<<>>>​

    She came awake with a gasp, staring at the darkness, panting rapidly.

    Gradually, her breathing eased, and she rolled over once more. Another promise broken, she told herself sadly.

    Slowly, she drifted off once more.

    Again, she dreamed.

    <<<>>>​

    But why can't I come along with you?” she wheedled.

    Just because,” Luca insisted. “It's a dangerous job. I don't want you anywhere near it.”

    But I could be your lookout or something,” she told him.

    Not that sort of job,” he stated firmly. “It's me, or nobody.”

    She pressed her lips together. “You come back to me now, Luca,” she ordered him, and hugged him tightly.


    I promise,” he assured her. “Now, lock the door, and don't open it for anyone but me.”

    All right,” she agreed. “Hurry back.”

    He grinned at her, but there was something strained behind it. “Soon as I can.”


    <<<>>>

    He did return, late that night. When she pressed him for details about where he had been, he became close-mouthed, and eventually snapped at her when she would not shut up. Hurt, she retreated to her little bunk bed. She heard him moving around, and counting money into their stash. It sounded like quite a bit. And then he washed himself, carefully, all over, before climbing into bed as well.

    A little later, she heard strange noises; propping herself up on one elbow, she listened carefully. She had not been mistaken; he was crying.

    Climbing from her bed, she crawled in under the blanket that he used to ward off the night's chill. “Luca? Are you all right?”

    The sobbing stopped. “Sofia? Go back to bed.”


    Not until I know that you're all right.”

    I'm all right.”

    You don't sound all right.”

    Well, I am, okay?”

    She paused, stymied. Time for another tack. “Luca?”


    Yes?”

    I'm scared of the dark. Hold me?”

    A pause, then a sigh. “Okay. Come here.”

    She scooted across the mattress, and into his arms. He had stopped sleeping in the same bed with her a year or so ago; she wasn't sure why. But now he seemed to welcome her. She settled down into his embrace, and closed her eyes.

    He didn't cry again that night.


    <<<>>>

    The pattern went on each night for a week; Luca would go out on his 'job', and would return late at night with a fistful of money. He slept badly, unless Sofia was holding him. His eyes became haunted and he barely ate a bite; after the third day, Sofia was worried enough to raise the topic with him.

    What is this job?” she demanded.

    He shook his head. “I can't tell you. But it pays well, and it's nearly over.”


    It is killing you, whatever it is,” she insisted. “Stop, now. Please.”

    He shook his head again. “I can't,” he muttered. “Not yet.”


    <<<>>>

    On the last day, he did not come back at the usual time. Sofia waited up, becoming more and more worried by the minute. An hour passed. Then a second one. A third.

    In the fourth hour, well after midnight, Sofia had determined to go looking for him. She was just dressing as warmly as she could, when she heard the banging on the door to their hidey.


    Who is it?”

    It's me, Luca,” she heard, breathlessly, from the other side. “Sofia, we have to go.”

    She peered through the little peephole beside the door. He was alone. Quickly, she undid the bolts, and let him in. He was holding a metal case, and was panting as though he had run a marathon. But he looked more alive than he had all week.


    Luca, what -?”

    Closing the door, he locked it, then strode over to their little rickety table. Then he put the metal case down on it, undid a clasp, and opened the lid. Sofia looked inside, and gasped. Money. More money than she'd ever seen before.


    There must be hundreds -”

    Thousands of euros there, Sofia,” Luca told her grimly. “Tens of thousands.” He was grabbing their meagre stash and shoving it into the case. “Enough for all of our needs, forever. But we have to leave town, now. Tonight.”

    She stared at him, eyes wide. “What – how – where did you get it from?”

    He shook his head. “Better that you do not know. But we must leave. Now.


    Why?” she asked one more time, but she was already moving. She knew why. Because that money did not belong to them, and whoever it did belong to would be looking for it. Very soon.

    <<<>>>​

    Luca did not relax until they were on the bus, rolling out through the outskirts of Naples. He and Sofia were dressed in their very best scrounged clothing, their scanty belongings in bags between them. They had washed their faces and combed their hair, and the lady at the bus station had not looked twice when Luca purchased two out-of-town tickets.

    They slept on the bus, fitfully, as it rolled on through the night. One of them was always awake, and they kept their hands on the precious bag that held their entire future within the metal case.

    With this money, they could make a start. A real start.

    Sofia often wondered, in the days and weeks and months that followed, exactly where Luca had gotten his hands on such a windfall. There was no police outcry, no search for two vagabond children. But no matter how many times she asked, he refused to tell.

    In the end, it ceased to be important. She got her education, and he got his. Each of them gained employment, and became independent. Slowly, inexorably, they drifted apart. And one day, they said goodbye for what should have been the last time.





    The Fourth Day

    “We caught a break, Inspector,” Tramante reported. “We think we found the murder weapon.”

    “Prints?” asked Alvarez reflexively.

    Tramante shook his head. “None except for the cook who found it and handled it. It's a carving knife, from the kitchens.”

    “The cook?” inquired Alvarez.

    “Already cleared.”

    “Where are the knives kept?”

    “In a locked case,” Tramante explained. “But, and I checked, there were scratches around the lock. Someone very probably picked the lock to get at the knives. The one we think was it has blood around the base of the blade; perhaps wiped quickly and put back. They're checking for a DNA match now.”

    Alvarez pondered. “Well, a carving knife would definitely match the wounds. Now all we need is to find the professional assassin amongst the suspects.”

    “Sir?” asked Tramante.

    Alvarez gestured at his own back. “The first stab – or at least, the one they think was the first stab – went into the kidneys. This dropped him to the floor. Then the killer knelt on his back and stabbed him three times in the upper body, and finally sliced his neck, opening his carotid. He didn't die immediately – he had time to write that damned name – but it wasn't long in coming.”

    Tramante saw his point. “The killer knew what he was doing. Remember the Giorgio case? Seventeen stab wounds, and the man survived.” He frowned. “But why the three stab wounds in the upper back? They didn't do much.”

    “With a thinner man, they would have,” Alvarez pointed out. “I checked with the coroner. Each of those is in a direct line with a vital organ, but the blade could not penetrate deeply enough.”

    “Damn,” muttered Tramante, impressed. “He knew what he was doing, all right.”

    “Or she,” Alvarez pointed out. “Women can hold knives, too.”

    “Or she,” agreed Tramante.

    <<<>>>​

    Aurora Delacroix tilted her head questioningly. “You believe Phillipe to be somehow complicit in this murder?” she asked. “You are surely mistaken, but certainly, you may ask him any question that you wish.”

    Sergeant Cervante shook her head. “We are merely following leads at the moment, Ms Delacroix,” she replied. “The victim insulted you; Phillipe works for you. The connection is clear.”

    “I suppose it must appear so, to you,” agreed Aurora. She raised a tiny silver bell and rang it; the clear chimes were still hanging in the air when Phillipe appeared through a connecting door.

    “You rang, milady?” he enquired deferentially.

    “Yes, Phillipe.” Aurora indicated the policewoman. “This is Sergeant Cervante. She wishes to ask you questions regarding the death of that man.” She nodded coolly to Donna. “I will be in the other room, with Marie-Claire, if you should need me.”

    “Milady -?” ventured Phillipe.

    Aurora smiled. “Answer every question completely and honestly. You have nothing to fear, Phillipe.” She exited, closing the door silently behind her.

    Phillipe eyed the door as if for escape, then turned resolutely to Cervante. “What does the Sergeant wish to know?” he asked formally.

    The policewoman gestured to the chair. “Please take a seat, Phillipe.”

    Obediently, he sat, right on the edge of the chair, as if uncomfortable being seated in her presence.

    Cervante flipped to a fresh page. “Your name is Phillipe Gascon, correct?”

    “Yes, Sergeant.”

    “How long have you been in Ms Delacroix's employ?”

    Phillipe paused in thought. “Three … perhaps three and a half years now, Sergeant.”

    “Are you happy, working for her?”

    Phillipe nodded. “I have never been happier. She treats us well, and pays us well. We travel the world, to places I would never be able to afford to go on my own.”

    Cervante made a note. “Tell me, how did you meet Aurora Delacroix?”

    Phillipe paused for a very long moment.

    Cervante stared at him. “Phillipe?”

    He took a deep breath. “I … do not know if I want to answer that question, Sergeant.”

    He had been starting to relax, to answer more naturally. Now, all the formality was back. Even his back was stiffer, straighter.

    “If you refuse to answer the question,” she told him quietly, “I could have you arrested and questioned in the police station.” She let him stew on that one for a few moments.

    “I will answer it,” he stated at last, “but I request to have milady present when I do so.”

    Cervante would rather not have had Phillipe's employer present when he answered the question, but it was a reasonable request. Standing, she knocked on the connecting door. It opened; Aurora Delacroix stood there.

    “Yes?” she asked.

    <<<>>>​

    Phillipe sat on the edge of the chair, looking wretched. Aurora sat near him, and gave him a nod of encouragement. “Tell her everything,” she urged.

    The manservant took a deep breath. “Very well, milady,” he agreed. “Marie-Claire and I were … vagabonds. Street children. We were a partnership; she would distract someone, while I performed the theft. We were good at it, and never got caught. Until we met milady.”

    Cervante raised an eyebrow, scribbling rapidly. “Really?” she asked, eyeing Aurora with interest.

    “Really,” confirmed Phillipe. “I tried to snatch her bag, only to find that she had caught me.

    The policewoman glanced at Aurora, only to receive a confirming nod.

    “Go on,” Cervante told Phillipe.

    “We thought she would call the police,” Phillipe confessed. “But she didn't. She gave us the choice to come to work for her, as her personal servants. She would teach us what she could, and pay for our education, and in return, we would not steal from her. Not ever.”

    Cervante stared at Aurora. “That sounds extremely risky. How did you know that they would not … “ Her voice trailed off, leaving much unsaid.

    “It's quite simple,” Aurora told her. “They weighed the option of living in relative luxury, in return for education and a little menial labour, for what amounts to the rest of their lives, as opposed to living on the streets, the chance of going to jail or worse.”

    “More like milady pointed it out to us, quite forcefully,” Phillipe observed. “Marie-Claire saw sense first, and convinced me. Once we were in her service, she paid for each of us to take what training she could not give us. Languages, elocution, driving lessons and so forth. And when Marie-Claire asked if she and I could be married, milady paid for the wedding herself.”

    “Very charitable,” commented Cervante. “It seems like a large outlay for little return, myself.”

    “Not at all,” Aurora replied. “For the outlay, I have two people whom I can trust above all else. I do not trust the servants one can hire through normal channels, you see; I caught my previous maid selling my personal correspondence to a newspaper.”

    “That could be an occupational hazard, yes,” agreed Cervante. “But this brings us to our original question. Phillipe, you are obviously devoted to Ms Delacroix. When you heard that Balducci had insulted her, how did you react?”

    “I was angry, of course,” Phillipe responded. “Had he followed her to this room, I would have ejected him quite forcefully. But milady was in a state, and so I stayed by her side.”

    “And afterward? Perhaps in the evening, after Ms Delacroix had retired?”

    “Did I go out and perform murder upon the monster in question?” asked Phillipe harshly. “No, I did not. I was never the type to carry a blade. Snatch and grab, that was my thing. I will not say that he did not deserve it. But I did not do it myself.”

    Cervante considered that. Phillipe was of the physical type to be able to do what had been done. But, on recalling the scene, she remembered that all the wounds had been in Caruso's back. A man like that would have been highly unlikely to turn his back on an angry stranger in his room, whether or not he knew he was armed. And the anger, the conviction, that he exhibited … if he was guilty, then he was also the best actor she had ever seen.

    “Very well,” she noted, then the same thing occurred to her as to Alvarez, earlier. “But Marie-Claire … could she have done it?”

    Aurora smiled at that. “Let me answer that one for you,” she suggested. Raising the bell, she rang it.

    The connecting door opened, and Marie-Claire appeared for the first time.

    “You rang, milady?” she asked.

    Cervante looked her over. A sweet appearance, petite – barely over five feet in height – she was immaculately dressed in a modest lady's-maid uniform.

    And she was also very pregnant.

    In such a state, Cervante could not imagine her killing Caruso with a gun, much less a knife. She didn't quite walk with a waddle, but she wasn't far off it either.

    “Well, Sergeant Cervante?” asked Aurora sweetly. “Are you going to interrogate her?”

    Shutting her notebook with a snap, the policewoman stood up. “I believe that I am done here,” she conceded, with a nod toward Aurora Delacroix. “Thank you for your time.”

    “You are very welcome,” Aurora replied politely. “Phillipe, once you have shown the sergeant out, could you please draw me a bath? I feel quite fatigued, with all this talking.”

    “As you wish, milady,” the manservant answered, as he opened the door for Cervante. As she exited, he bowed quite low. She wasn't quite sure if he was being mocking or not. She was sure of one thing, however; Aurora Delacroix had gotten the better of that little exchange.

    <<<>>>​

    As she lay back in the bath, Aurora closed her eyes and relaxed. Marie-Claire sat on a chair at the head of the bath and gently washed her hair, massaging shampoo and then conditioner through it.

    Within her mind, belying the exterior serenity, Aurora was in turmoil. She recalled the conversation with the man she knew as Caruso; it had gone slightly differently than she had reported to the policewoman Cervante.




    The Second Morning

    Antonio Caruso stepped out of the discreetly placed elevator; he could have taken the stairs, but with his weight, he preferred to exert himself as little as possible. The breakfast tables were being set, and he was a man who liked his food.

    As he entered the dining room, he scanned the guests already present. Ah, good; she isn't here yet. If he wanted to get an adequate meal into himself, he would need at least fifteen minutes' worth of head start. He really hoped that she would come down to breakfast; after the previous night's fiasco with the little maid, he wanted to score a win for the day.

    It wasn't even as though he had been particularly offensive to her; maybe he had been a little over-enthusiastic about how he described the potential duties of being one of his girls, hoping that she might get in the mood, but she didn't have to run out crying. Next time I'll lead with the pay offer, he decided. Dazzle them with dollar signs. It was a favourite saying of an American acquaintance of his.

    He was halfway through his second helping when Aurora entered the dining room. He was impressed; she had come a long way from the skittish, half-grown girl he had seen on the streets of Naples. Maybe it was not a bad thing that Luca kept her away from me; she's matured nicely.

    Of course, such thoughts did not keep him from plans of revenge.

    <<<>>>​

    Aurora left the dining room after breakfast. It had been heavenly; perfectly presented, and done to her personal specifications. The service almost made up for the fact that she was only staying this long due to the airline strike. And, of course, for the shock of being confronted by her past in such an abrupt fashion. It wasn't that she was not glad to see him; she owed so much to him that it was impossible to count the cost. But seeing him had reminded her of how far she had climbed, how long and painful the journey had been to get to this point.

    So lost in her musings was she, that she did not hear the man behind her until he grasped her by the arm.

    “Hello, Sofia.”

    <<<>>>​

    The look on her face as she turned to look at him was … delicious. It was almost worth the aggravation, the years of waiting. The surprise, turning to fear. Turning to anger.

    The anger surprised him in turn; he did not want anger. Anger did not suit his purposes.

    “Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked coolly, pulling her arm free of his grip.

    He smiled, and she recoiled. “You know who I am, Sofia,” he reminded her.

    “Caruso,” she whispered.

    He beamed; she did not look any happier. “You do remember.”

    “You have no power over me, Caruso,” she told him. “Go away, or I call hotel security.”

    He shook his head massively, jowls wobbling. “Oh no, little Sofia,” he remonstrated. “Oh no. It will not be that easy. There is a price to be paid. You owe me.”

    <<<>>>​

    “I owe you nothing!” she blazed. “It is you who owes me for the years of terror.”

    Again, he shook his head. “Do you not recall, the night you left Naples? The money? The metal case? Where do you think it came from?”

    Abruptly, she was back there, Luca lugging the case in, opening it, showing her the windfall.

    “You,” she whispered. “Luca stole it from you.”

    “Oh, yes,” he confirmed. “And I want it back. The full value. With interest.”

    Feeling herself on surer ground, she shook her head. “That money was made with theft, with drugs, on the pain of others. You deserved to have it stolen. I will pay you not one cent.”

    “Oh, but you will pay me,” he insisted. “You see, all I have to do is go to the tabloids and tell them the true story of their precious Aurora Delacroix. They will fasten upon it. Your husband to be – he will not marry you. I will ruin your life, if you do not give me what I want.”

    “Suppose I give you the full amount of the money back,” she suggested. “You will leave me alone?”

    He shook his head. “Oh, no. It is not the money I want. I have plenty of that, after all. What I desire is … “ He licked his lips, obscenely, while his eyes tracked up and down her body. “Your willing acquiescence to my desires. For a full night. That will pay off your debt to me.”

    She shook her head. “I call your bluff. If I do not bow to you, you have no power over me. I will give you nothing. Especially not that.”

    He bared his teeth. “Well then. I was saving this for later, but since you are being such a stubborn bitch, listen carefully. Your friend Luca, I will ruin him. Not instead of, but as well. I have pictures which will end his employment at this hotel. He will be unemployable.”

    Her breath caught in her throat. She had no idea what he was talking about, but his very assurance shot fear through her soul. “Pictures?”

    He chuckled, evilly. “Oh, my dear Sofia. You do not know what Luca did to get that money he was bringing back every night? He was selling to me that which you would not. Every night, he returned.”

    Aurora closed her eyes, trying not to sway too obviously on her feet. It fitted. It all fitted. But she could not admit surrender. “You lie,” she snapped weakly. “You lie.”

    “I had an automatic camera in the corner of the room,” he informed her with vicious glee. “It took many, many pictures. I still have them. I can have them published in every newspaper on Majorca. His face will be recognisable.”

    She turned and stumbled away down the corridor, sick at heart. Not wanting to hear any more.

    “Come to me tonight,” he called after her, “and none of this need happen. Refuse … and you both pay the penalty.”

    If he said any more, it was drowned out by the thunder of blood in her ears.

    <<<>>>​

    She had no idea, later, how she managed to get back to her suite. Phillipe heard her fumbling with the key at the door, and let her in. Half-fainting, she allowed herself to be carried to the sofa, her shoes removed and her feet elevated, while Marie-Claire chafed her hands.

    “What has happened, milady?” asked Phillipe anxiously.

    “Brandy,” she told him weakly. “Brandy. A strong one.”

    He must have taken her at her word; the first mouthful nearly took the top of her head clean off. But it had the desired effect, of clearing her mind, and she took another mouthful, to finish the job. Her whirling thoughts stilled, allowing one in particular to stand out.

    I have to know the truth.

    “The telephone,” she requested next. “I need to make a call.”

    <<<>>>​

    Pierre Martel knocked on the door of room 217; it opened, to show the worried face of Aurora's manservant. “Phillipe, yes?” he asked. “I received a call.”

    Phillipe nodded, and ushered him in. “Milady has been taken by quite a shock, sir,” he explained.

    “Well, does she need the hotel doctor?” asked Martel.

    “No,” he heard her voice call out from farther back in the suite. “She needs to speak to the concierge, immediately.”

    If she is making jokes, then the shock cannot have been too bad, he told himself, and strode forward. “I have my own crises,” he began. “There is a man in the hotel … “ he trailed off, not wanting to say too much in front of Aurora's servants.

    “I know,” she told him, from her partially reclining position on the sofa. “I met him this morning.”

    Immediately he was at her side, bending over her solicitously. “He did not hurt you?”

    She looked up at him with a wounded gaze. “Not physically, no.”

    He frowned. “Then what … ?”

    She turned her eyes to Phillipe and Marie-Claire. “Please, leave us. I will call you when I need you.”

    Reluctantly, they left the room, the connecting door closing solidly behind them.

    “Sit,” she told him, patting the cushions beside her. “There is something I must know.”

    He sat, slowly. “What is it that you need to know?”

    Her gaze was inexorable. “The money. Where did it come from? Tell me the truth. Please.”

    “What did he tell you?” he asked, his voice almost unrecognisable in his own ears.

    “Please.” Tears flooded her eyes. “Just tell me.”

    He took a breath, averted his eyes, and began to tell her the story.

    <<<>>>​

    Sixteen Years Ago

    Luca.”

    The sixteen year old whirled, hand coming out from beneath his shirt to produce a six-inch blade. He weaved it back and forth, turning the blade to make sunlight glitter from the silvered metal.


    Keep back,” he snapped, “or I'll open your guts to the air.”

    Caruso chuckled and raised his hands in a gesture of peace. Luca did not relax.


    Calm yourself, boy,” Caruso told him. “I'm not after a fight.”

    One step closer and you'll get one, whether you want one or not,” Luca promised him.

    And I have no doubt of that,” Caruso acknowledged him. “But it's a deal I want to make, not a fight.”

    A deal?” asked Luca, suspiciously. “What sort of deal?”

    Caruso shrugged slightly. “You're saving money. You want to get out of this hell-pit. Off the streets. Right?”

    Luca glared at him, but the man was right. It made Luca nervous to realise how much Caruso knew of his and Sofia's affairs, but …


    And what if I was?” he demanded.

    Whatever you've got saved, I can double it,” Caruso offered lightly. “Triple it. Name your figure.”

    Luca felt the pit yawning at his feet; he tightened his grip on the knife. “And what do I have to do for this?”

    Caruso smiled. “Bring Sofia to me.”


    No!” shouted Luca, so harshly that nearby pigeons took flight. “Never!”

    Five times,” Caruso went on smoothly, as if he had not spoken. “Ten times. Enough for you to get a proper education, a job, a life away from here. She's holding you back, Luca. Stopping you from getting what you deserve.”

    Luca shook his head. He had almost been tempted there, until he heard the price. “I have a counter offer,” he retorted.


    Oh dear,” murmured Caruso. “Is this where you tell me to go and do something anatomically impossible?”

    Luca shook his head. “No. Our money. We have almost fifteen hundred euros. I'll give it all to you, if you promise to leave Sofia alone forever.”

    Caruso snorted with laughter. His whole body shook and rippled with it; Luca was repulsed.


    Oh no,” the fat man replied, when he was able. He wiped tears from his eyes. “That was a fine joke, little street rat. But she would be worth far more to me in the first month. So, one last offer. And you must listen carefully. You bring her to me, just for one night. And I will pay you five hundred euros for the privilege. And each night thereafter that she willingly returns, another five hundred.” He shrugged. “Or, shall we say, ten thousand for a one-time deal. Which really is a deal, let me assure you. Because I am sure I will tire of her charms before the three weeks are out.”

    Ten thousand. The enormity of the number floored Luca for just a second. For just that second, he imagined having it in his hands. Being able to get what he wanted. For just that second, he was tempted.

    And then, angry at himself, he shook his head. “No,” he snapped. “I will not betray Sofia to you for any money, any deal. Ever.”


    Well, you see, here is the problem,” Caruso informed him coldly. “If we do not make a deal here and now, I will set about finding where you two make your hiding place. And sooner or later, when you are not around, I will take her. And you will not get a single euro. And you will know that it was all your fault. Do you really want to live with that?”

    For a moment, Luca was tempted to step forward, to stab with the knife until the fat man fell, to kill him with his bright blade. This temptation was far harder to conquer than the other one with which he had been faced. But if he tried now, and failed, then Sofia would be left alone. And Caruso, or another of the men who preyed on the young and weak, would take her.

    He knew what he had to do. The gorge rose in his throat, but he spoke clearly. “I offer another deal.”


    <<<>>>​

    He stood in Caruso's lodging, next to the bed. A safe, large and blocky, sat next to the bed; Caruso obviously preferred to keep his money close.

    The safe door was open; Caruso sat before it, pulling money out. “Two hundred and fifty euros.”

    Numbly, Luca accepted the money. It was cold in his hand, matching the lead weight in his stomach. He tucked it away securely in his pocket.


    Come now, boy,” urged Caruso. “The deal is that you give me your willing acquiescence, for the evening. You have been paid. It is time to hold up your end of it.”

    Slowly, reluctantly, Luca began to unbutton his shirt.

    Caruso's greedy eyes followed every movement.

    Luca wanted to throw up. Somehow, he did not.

    Sofia, this is for you.


    <<<>>>​

    Back again, boy?” Caruso's voice was an obscene giggle. “Are you sure you are not beginning to enjoy it?”

    Just pay me.” Luca's voice was a whisper.

    Oh, very well.” Sulkily, Caruso bent over the safe, and began working the combination. Luca pretended not to watch, looking ostentatiously away every time Caruso glanced around at him. He did not have all the combination; just some of it.

    The first night with Caruso had been to make the man hold off, and to get bus fare for both of them out of town. But he had seen the safe, and the plan had exploded fully formed into his brain. He just had to hold out until he had the combination in full. He had to. Or it was all for nothing.


    <<<>>>

    Caruso snored; it was like sleeping next to an ongoing earthquake. Luca felt sick to his stomach at what Caruso had made him do, but at least it had tired the man out. He wanted to cry; he wanted to throw up. He had time to do neither. He had agreed to stay the entire night, in return for another hundred euros in the morning. This was the only chance he had to get at the safe.

    Carefully sliding out of the bed, he crouched before the safe. There would be no chance whatsoever of hearing the tumblers fall, not with Earthquake Caruso ongoing in the room. And he could not play with it for too long; if Caruso awoke to find him tinkering with the safe, his revenge would overflow from Luca to Sofia.

    I've got one chance at this.

    In his pocket, he had brought a precious flashlight, the battery carefully hoarded. Cupping it in his hand, he shone the light on the dial. Carefully, he turned the dial, to the first number. Left thirty-three.

    Then to the right, to seventy-six.

    Left again, to fourteen.

    Right, to forty-two.

    He was a little hazy on the next one. It was either fifty-six or fifty-seven. He tried fifty-six.

    Finally, he spun the dial right, to seventeen.

    He tried the handle.

    Nothing.

    Behind him, Caruso muttered and rolled over in his sleep. Reaching for where Luca should be. Frantically, he spun the dial back to the beginning, and started again.

    Thirty-three.

    Seventy-six.


    Luca?” murmured Caruso. “Where are you, boy?”

    Fourteen.

    Forty-two.


    You better not have run off, or Sofia is mine,” grumbled Caruso, still mostly asleep. “Oh, that sweet little peach is all mine.”

    Fifty-seven. It had to be fifty-seven.

    And finally, fourteen.

    The safe door opened, just as Caruso sat up in bed, still patting at Luca's side. And then he turned his head, to see Luca crouching, still naked, before the safe. The open safe.

    He woke up very quickly indeed, then.


    Oh, you treacherous -” he began to bellow.

    Thinking quickly, Luca shone the beam of the flashlight straight in his eyes, blinding him. Then he grabbed the metal case from inside the safe and came up and around in a surging arc, swinging the case at the end of its handle. The side of the heavy case thudded hard into Caruso's head; the fat man shuddered and went down again. Almost, he fell off the bed, which would have pinned Luca hard between the safe and the bed. But he fell backward instead of forward, emitting a sick sort of snore.

    Luca didn't give his heart a chance to slow down. He put the case on the floor in front of the safe and opened it, shining the flashlight inside.

    Money. Lots of money. The top note on each stack was a hundred, and the stacks were thick.


    Oh, Sofia,” he breathed. “This is it.”

    Hastily, he shovelled the remainder of the contents of the safe into the case – may as well be gruesomely murdered for a sheep as for a lamb, he told himself – then closed the case, grabbed his clothes and ran.

    He had covered three blocks, stark bollock naked, before he dared stop long enough to put his clothes back on. And then he ran onward.

    He had to reach Sofia, and get them both out of town, before Caruso woke up.

    Nothing else mattered.


    <<<>>>​

    He finished telling the story, and turned to her. Her eyes were huge, wet with tears.

    “Why did you not tell me?” she asked.

    He shook his head. “I could not. We were away from him. It didn't matter any more. That money gave us our start; I ended up here, and you … you will marry a millionaire.”

    “Luca … “ she whispered. “He will ruin me. Tell the world who I was.”

    “Let him,” he told her harshly. “Your fiance; is he a good man?”

    She nodded. “The best.”

    “Then he won't care. He won't give a damn. I can guarantee it.” He reached out, placed a hand on her cheek. “And if he does, then he's not good enough for my Sofia. There'll always be a suite for you at the Hotel Mallorca. I promise.”

    Her smile was teary. “But Luca, that is not all. I told him much the same thing. He has pictures, of you and him. He will publish them. Ruin you. Ruin your marriage.”

    He shook his head. “I defy him and his pictures. I will not let him win. Not now.”

    She reached out in her turn, cupped his cheek. “Luca … you did this for me once before. Now let me do it for you.”

    “No.” His voice was pleading. “I did it because your life was at stake. Can't you see?”

    Her voice was soft, desolate. “And yours isn't?”

    His was heartbroken. “Sofia, no. Please, god, no. Do not do this.”

    She had her eyes closed; the tears leaked through. “I must. When I was twelve, it would have destroyed my life. But I am older; I have lain with men. There are few surprises left for me. I can do this. One night, and I am done with him, now and forever.”

    He clasped her hands in his. “And your husband?”

    She squeezed his fingers tightly. “He need never know.”

    He shook his head. “If you do this … Caruso wins. Somehow, he will maintain his grip. He will keep preying on you, on us. We have to stop this now.”

    She stared at him, at his set face. “How do we do that?”

    The smile on his face resembled a death's-head grin. “I have a plan.”




    The Second Night

    The lights in Caruso's room were out; he had candles lit, all around the room. After all, he told himself, I won't need all that much light to see what I'm doing. And the automated camera in the corner of the room did not need much light either. Because leverage on a millionaire's wife can be so very profitable.

    He heard the soft tap on the door; clad in a bathrobe – the Hotel Mallorca had done well, he had to admit, to have bathrobes that fitted even his robust frame – he cautiously opened it.

    Outside stood a vision of loveliness; Aurora – Sofia – clad in a soft white gown that fairly flowed over her firm, inviting body.

    “I am here,” she told him; it seemed as though she was forcing the words out.

    Grabbing her arm, he pulled her inside, then closed the door and turned the key in the lock.

    “We will not be needing interruptions,” he informed her, licking his lips. “The dress. Take it off, now.”

    Taking a deep breath – which did nothing to diminish her charms in the slightest – Sofia slid the straps of the gown off of her shoulders. As she walked forward, the gown slid down off of her body, to puddle around her feet. She was left wearing underwear that barely fitted even that description; Caruso felt his heart pounding, merely looking at her.

    “My,” he marvelled, “you have become a real little slut, haven't you? I think I got to you just in time.”

    Her eyes downcast, she walked past him to the bed.

    “Can we please just get this over with?” she asked, climbing on to the covers. “I want to be up early tomorrow.”

    He shook his head. “Oh no, it's not as simple as that. Whether or not I cancel your debt depends on how well you do tonight. And Luca's debt can be paid off tomorrow night.” He licked his lips. “But you're going to have to really convince me that you're willing to go the distance -”

    He did not hear the door lock click open. The door opened silently. Nor did he hear the tread of Luca's feet across the thickly carpeted floor.

    But when the door opened, an air current entered, and the candle flames flickered slightly. That, and the slight widening of Sofia's eyes, was all he needed.

    Lurching sideways, he brought back his arm; it slammed into Luca's midsection, sending him staggering back. The knife, jarred from the concierge's hand, fell to the ground.

    Caruso ignored it, moving after Luca, slamming one meaty fist into the man's stomach. Luca fell to one knee, retching. Caruso wrenched him to his feet, flinging him across the room so that he hit the bed and fell back, groaning. Sofia screamed and scrambled off the far side of the bed.

    “This is even more satisfying,” grunted Caruso as he wrapped his hands around Luca's neck. Luca, grunting, tried to knee him in the groin. Caruso grinned, and squeezed harder.

    Abruptly, he let up, and threw Luca to the ground. “I'm not going to kill you straight away,” he gloated. “I'm going to cripple you. Then I'm going to rape her. Use her in ways that will sicken the both of you. And then I'll kill her in front – aaarrgh!”

    His knees buckled, and he fell to the floor; Luca rolled frantically to the side. Caruso had taken his eyes off of Sofia for just too long; she had taken up the knife, and stabbed him in the kidneys, crippling him with the agonising pain.

    <<<>>>​

    “He's still alive,” Sofia panted. “I'll finish him.”

    Luca shook his head. “It was my plan. My responsibility.” Taking out his handkerchief, he pulled the knife from Caruso's kidney; the fat man groaned horribly. Placing one knee upon Caruso's back, Luca stabbed downward three times in a row, the sharp kitchen knife plunging to the hilt every time. Caruso cried out with each stab, but seemed otherwise unhindered.

    “Christ on the cross,” muttered Luca. It was a long time since he had sworn, but it seemed appropriate. “The bastard's too fat.”

    Leaning forward, carefully avoiding the blood spilling from each of the wounds already inflicted, he slashed the side of Caruso's neck. Dark blood spilled out, pooling rapidly.

    “Well,” he commented philosophically, “there goes the carpet.”

    He glanced over at where Sofia was pulling the gown on once more. “Are you all right?”

    “I am fine,” she assured him, then indicated the dying man on the floor. “He's still breathing, Luca.”

    <<<>>>​

    After he placed the hastily-wiped knife back in the case, with the artistic scratches around the lock, Martel went back upstairs. Turning the lights on, he conducted a thorough search of Caruso's room. By the time he left, he bore a startling amount of evidence that could have been used to harm either himself or Aurora. The furnace in the basement would turn on at set times during the night; placed within, the evidence would be ash long before the police ever arrived.

    Following that, he went to his own quarters and examined himself carefully. He did not bruise easily, for which he was to be grateful. The only marks that would linger from the fight with Caruso would be covered by his clothing. He would merely have to make sure not to wince or show any other sign of pain when talking to the officers.




    The Fifth Day

    The news was all over the hotel by breakfast time; the airline strike had ended. As they watched overdue travellers flocking to the desk to check out, Alvarez spoke to Martel.

    “There go most of our suspects.”

    Martel nodded. “I am afraid you are correct.”

    Alvarez sighed heavily. “I strongly suspect that this will end up an unsolved case.”

    Martel shrugged slightly. “Such things happen. It reflects no blame upon you that the perpetrator in this case was not obliging enough to leave an evidence trail back to himself.”

    “Or herself,” Alvarez noted.

    “Or herself,” Martel agreed blandly. “From what you have told me, and from what I have noted, his death is not a great loss to the world.”

    For a moment, he thought he might have overstepped the mark, for Alvarez glanced at him sharply. But then he nodded. “He caused a lot of pain and suffering and death. I won't be mourning him.”

    Martel was silent, looking past Alvarez. The police lieutenant turned, to see Aurora Delacroix approaching with her entourage. Porters puffed past, wheeling trolley after trolley, loaded with her bags.

    “Lieutenant Alvarez,” she greeted him; he took her hand and kissed it in the classic manner. She smiled brilliantly in reply. “Thank you for your efforts; no doubt your presence in the hotel kept us all safe.”

    He felt a blush coming on, as if he were a teenager caught in the full glare of her approval. “It was nothing, madame,” he mumbled.

    “I think not,” she replied, then turned to the concierge. “However, Mr Martel, I will be complaining most strenuously to your superiors about the ordeal I have had to undergo in your hotel.” She slapped the room key into his hand. “Here; you may have this back. I will never be returning, you can be sure of that.”

    As he closed his hand around it, around the crinkling of paper that he felt, she marched out, for all the world like an Empress set on conquering the world. Phillipe and Marie-Claire followed on in her wake.

    “An astonishing woman,” murmured Alvarez.

    Martel nodded. “And one of quite a fiery temper, it seems,” he agreed, still staring out the doors.

    Alvarez turned to Martel. “You know, it seemed to me a few times that I had the solution to this case almost at hand. All I had to do was grab the right thread and tug upon it. Do you know the feeling?”

    Martel nodded absently. “Yes, I suppose I do.”

    Alvarez sighed. “Well, I suppose I had better be getting back to the station, to report once more that we have not captured the murderer. Take care, Luca.”

    Almost, Martel responded. Almost, he replied. But he caught himself, just in time. Slowly, he turned to look at Alvarez, to face that intent gaze, and frowned slightly.

    “I'm sorry?” he asked. “What did you say?”

    Alvarez smiled slightly. “Nothing. A slip of the tongue.”

    He turned and walked off, leaving Martel staring after him.

    <<<>>>​

    Later, in his office, Martel opened the note which Aurora had slipped him with the room key.

    It read, simply,

    Thank you, Luca.

    Sofia.


    He smiled as he set a match to it, and watched it burn to ashes.



    The End
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2015
    PathtoReading, mauke, Psythe and 6 others like this.
  2. Biigoh

    Biigoh Moderator

    Joined:
    Feb 19, 2013
    Messages:
    20,211
    Likes Received:
    57,678
    Nicely done, Ack...
     
    Ack likes this.
  3. kinglugia

    kinglugia A Randy Avian

    Joined:
    Oct 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,836
    Likes Received:
    21,433
    So romantic~
     
    Ack likes this.
  4. Nolrai2

    Nolrai2 Can't count

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2013
    Messages:
    2,185
    Likes Received:
    2,590
    There's a very nice mood to this piece. Like I can feel the place. The location.
     
    Ack likes this.
  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,745
    Thank you.
     
    kinglugia likes this.
  6. lunaticRose

    lunaticRose I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Joined:
    Dec 13, 2014
    Messages:
    830
    Likes Received:
    2,864
    Of everything you've written this has instantly become my favorite. I am actually reminded of the original Sherlock Holmes short stories though the prose is pleasantly lighter and has an equally pleasing lack of Holmes himself.
     
    Ack likes this.
  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,745
    Thank you. I tried. (Great fan of Holmes, myself).
    Note that Alvarez more or less figured it out, but chose not to do anything about it.
     
  8. lunaticRose

    lunaticRose I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Joined:
    Dec 13, 2014
    Messages:
    830
    Likes Received:
    2,864
    I did notice this, but I also noticed that Alvarez is notably more human than Holmes. Holmes was rather sociopathic and lived only for his next adventure, he's interesting but very inhuman in some of his workings, one of the reasons we see the stories from Watson's perspective. Alvarez is more understandable and relatable in his motivations and the way he relates to people.
     
    Ack likes this.
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2014
    Messages:
    6,605
    Likes Received:
    46,745
    A little extra has been added, in the initial conversation at the main desk with Martel: