Nonna Maria and the Case of the Stolen Necklace
She was found with her back against the side of a pine tree. Dust and scattered cones nestled along the backs of her folded legs, thick strands of dark hair partially covering her face. One of her arms was leaning against the base of the tree and the other was laid out flat, fingers resting on the edge of the curved road. She was motionless, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted. A gentle wind ruffled her blue-flowered dress, and one of her high-heeled shoes hung loose off her right foot.
It was seven in the morning on what would be another brutally hot summer day in Ischia, the sun rising above the calm waters of the port several miles below, its angled rays slowly beginning to wrap the woman in a blanket of warmth.
Two carabinieri officers parked their motorcycles at an angle to block off access to the road, patiently waiting for the medical examiner to arrive before allowing the body to be removed. A small group had gathered across the way—men and women who had been preparing to open their shops or head to work, stopped by the sight of the body of a woman none seemed to recognize.
The younger of the officers stared at the body, a concerned look on his boyish face. “There’s no blood anywhere,” he said in a low voice. “It’s almost as if she fell over and went to sleep.”
“A sleep that lasts forever,” the other officer said, stepping next to the young carabiniere. “Most likely a heart attack did her in. From the looks of it, she’s been here a few hours. That puts the time of death in the middle of the night. Where would she be going? There’s nothing around here at that hour but shuttered shops and a gas station. Closest house is at least a mile down the road.”
A carabinieri car came up behind them, braking to a stop in front of the two motorcycles. The two officers turned from the woman’s body and waited for their captain to approach them.
Captain Paolo Murino nodded at them and gave a quick glance at the group on the far side of the road. He stepped closer to the dead woman, his eyes taking in the curled body and the area where she had come to rest. “Who called it in?” he asked, without turning his head.
“Local fruit peddler,” the younger officer said. “Told me he was driving past on his way down from his farm, his truck packed with deliveries.”
“Did he stop to check on her?” Captain Murino asked.
“No, sir,” the officer said. “He gave her only a passing look, thought she might have had too much to drink and fell asleep. And he was running late as it was.”
“Did he leave you with a name?”
The younger carabiniere pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket and flipped open several pages. “Caldani,” he said. “Bernardo Caldani.”
“Check him out, make sure he is what he says he is,” Murino said, staring at the younger of the two. “Your first week in Ischia, Franco, and you get to work a homicide. I’m certain that’s not what you expected when you were transferred from Rome. Like anyone else who does a tour on the island, you were looking forward to days filled with quiet street patrols and flirting with tourists.”
“What makes you so certain it was a homicide?” the second officer asked.
“Well, for one thing, her body would be at rest at that angle only if she had a number of broken bones,” Captain Murino said. “I’m sure even you took note of that, Enrico.”
“Yes, sir, I did,” Enrico said. “But she could have fallen, tripped, and landed hard enough to break a bone or two.”
“Perhaps,” Captain Murino said, moving away from the two officers and standing in the center of the road. “But those two black skid marks tell me otherwise. If you compare them to the others on the road, you’ll notice they are darker and deeper. That tells me they’re fresh skid marks. Which might mean the woman’s body was dumped or tossed from a car. She hit the ground hard, causing additional damage to her body.”
“She is someone without a name,” Franco said. “We didn’t want to touch the body until the medical examiner signed off, but we looked for a bag or a purse and there wasn’t any to be found.”
“She has a name,” Captain Murino said. “We just don’t know it yet.”
He turned to gaze out at the harbor below, where the first of the morning tourist boats were starting to head out for their trip around the island, and a packed hydrofoil was coming in to drop off another batch of guests. It was the second week of July and the tourists had been arriving in numbers far greater than any previous year. Murino had been stationed in Ischia for six years now and was still surprised by the thousands who flocked to the island each season. Ischia, eighteen miles off the Naples coast, had been, since the late 1960s, a prime vacation destination for a devoted number of Northern Italian, German, British, and American tourists who packed its many restaurants and beaches and enjoyed the supposedly healing powers of the thermal spas spread across the large island.
Captain Murino was in his mid-thirties, slim, with light brown razor-cut hair and, when the occasion called for it, a warm and engaging smile. He was set to marry a local girl in the fall, weeks after the last of the tourists had left the island, and he planned to make Ischia his permanent home, providing his superiors didn’t have another transfer in mind. He was a Northern Italian who had grown to love the island and its many customs and traditions, but was still regarded with suspicion by many of the locals. Over time, he was ever so slowly building up goodwill and trust among people who gave out such feelings with great reluctance.
“Canvass the area, talk to as many of the locals as you can,” he said to the two officers. “Focus on the ones who live close by. Maybe one or two heard something or, with luck, saw something. Perhaps they might have a clue as to who this woman is or where she came from.”
“Not exactly a pleasant way to begin a new day,” Enrico said, looking back at the crowd, grown larger since he had first come onto the scene.
Captain Murino looked at Enrico for a moment and then turned and stared at the body of the dead woman lying on the side of the quiet road. “Or to end one,” he said in a low voice.