"Most gruesome thing I've ever seen," Frank said. He shook his head, loosening strands of fine gray hair. "The little girl's head was completely severed from her torso. Caught in elevator doors at the mall."
I dropped my fork into my marinara sauce and made a slight gagging sound, earning a worried look from Matt Gennaro, my first romantic partner since we put a man on the moon.
"Are you all right with this, Gloria?" Matt asked me, concern in his droopy brown eyes. Al Pacino eyes, I called them. I'd yet to come up with a similar complimentary label for my own baggy lids.
The four Galiganis--Frank, Rose, and their grown sons Robert and John--were watching me, too. Frank had been in the mortuary business for more than thirty years, and I guessed macabre dinner conversation had been the norm. Matt, a homicide detective, was no stranger to grisly scenes either. Even though I'd consulted with the police on a few murder cases, I was the weak one at the table, not quite comfortable with the mixture of embalming and endive.
But, as a retired physicist, I'm also overly curious. I picked up my fork and cleared my throat. "I'm fine with this," I said. "Absolutely fine."
"The parents insisted on an open casket," said Rose Galigani, the hostess and my best friend. "The mother was one of the six Basotti girls from Beachmont, the one who married a Fantone." We thought of Rose as the human database for residents of Revere, Massachusetts. With these statistics, however, I heard an undercurrent of prayer in her gentle voice. Rose nudged her husband. A proud smile lit her face and spilled over Robert--heir to the family business--and John--a journalist with the local paper.
"Tell them how happy you made little Casey's family, Frank," she said.
Frank pushed his tomato-streaked plate away to make room for gestures. "I took a piece of skin about this long from the girl's thigh"--he used his hands to mark off approximately ten inches of air--"and I wrapped it around a cardboard tube, to make a neck. Then I stitched. . ." Frank's fingers sewed imaginary thigh flesh to an invisible chest.
I finally summoned the nerve to look at his photos-not prints from an ordinary camera, but images stored on a floppy disk and displayed on a handheld monitor, a computer screen no bigger than the last slice of Italian bread in the basket in front of us. I shuddered as the scenes shifted into view, the high resolution giving the images a you-are-there quality. I stared at the latest in camera technology. Casey's head carefully lined up next to her small torso. Close-ups of the stitches holding her flesh together at her chin and her chest. The little girl's sweetly coiffed hair discreetly spread over layers of makeup that covered the patchwork.
Frank shook his head, as if reliving the experience. "It's hard enough to have your little girl come back from the mall in pieces. The least I could do was put her back together for them."
"Great work, Dad," Robert said.
Nods all around the table.
"Very nice," I managed to say. I knew Frank was a professional, eager to share his work as part surgeon, part artist, part beautician. Not unlike particle physicists, I thought.
But I was glad I'd chosen physics, not mortuary science, as a career. My lab had been clean, if not sterile. I'd used lasers instead of trocars. I'd calculated the density of inorganic crystals, not human hearts and livers. During my thirty years of research, the worst smell might have been from a burnt-out 6.3-volt filament winding on a power transformer.
"This morning's case . . ." Frank began.
"I think we've had enough shop talk," John said. His voice was temperate, but with an edge that said he meant it. As a journalist, he usually had bizarre stories of his own to tell. But this evening he'd been quiet and preoccupied.
Rose smoothed things over in her typical perfect-hostess style. "This is Gloria's welcome home party." Deliberately or not, she was dressed to match her Wedgwood serving bowls, in cream slacks, a short-sleeved blue jacket, and beads that set off her auburn highlights. Even as children, Rose and I were separated by several dress sizes, but I loved her anyway.
"I've only been gone ten days," I said, but I caught a look from Matt that confirmed our mutual feelings--it had seemed like months.
"Tell us about your West Coast adventure," Robert said.
Frank snapped his hi-tech photo display shut. "Police work is turning into a second career for you, isn't it, Gloria?"
"We're happy about that," Matt said, his casual, bulky presence a contrast to the trim Galigani men. Another comforting look passed between us. For a woman who had spent three decades with as many dates as your average nun, I'd adjusted quickly to a pattern of suggestive glances. I smiled at him over Rose's beautifully pressed linens and fresh flowers.
A year ago, I'd retired from my lab in California and returned to Revere, Massachusetts. Back to the town I was born in, a few miles north of Boston--home to America's first public beach, the travel books noted. I moved into the small apartment in the Galigani Mortuary building, three floors above Frank's embalming table. An address that had proved more exciting than I'd imagined.
If I had any doubts about settling again in my hometown after thirty years away, they'd been squashed by my new relationship. I'd met Sergeant Matt Gennaro when he'd hired me as a science consultant, and we grew closer with each case.
"Dr. Lamerino on the job," Rose said, with a twirl of her monogrammed spoon. "Catching another killer, coming home from battle without a scar."
I frowned, exaggerating my pain. "I have scars. My feet are all torn up," I said with a mock whine. "I had to run across a nasty waste pit, through broken glass and gravel and who knows what corrosive material." I pointed to the copper metal cane my Berkeley friend Elaine Cody had given me as a sendoff present after my quasi-vacation with her. She may have meant it as a joke, but I'd found it very useful. My wounded soles deserved to be spared the entire weight of my full-figured body.
I showed my own photos, this time simple, low-tech paper snapshots with lovely California landscapes, as we ate dessert--Rose's homemade cannoli, a rare treat that we all exclaimed over.
Except for John, who picked at crumbs.
Matt looked at his watch. "We have to leave soon," he said. "I need to get Gloria home, and then go to work. I told Berger I'd stop by his house to get briefed on a new case."
"Yolanda Fiore, I suppose," Frank said.
Matt nodded. "Her body was found in the library yesterday morning. I've been out, so I don't know what we have." He looked at me as if to say it was my fault--he'd been busy picking me up at Boston's Logan Airport. Without a lot of practice in my adult life, it had taken me a while to see the affection in his eyes when he teased.
"Very sad," Rose said. She shook her head and clucked her tongue. "We knew her." I waited for statistics-age, ancestry, number of siblings. Instead, Rose cast a sympathetic look at her younger son. "Yolanda and John used to date."
"Everyone and John used to date," Robert said with a grin.
"That was a long time ago," John said. He gave his older brother a playful punch, but his face was strained. He turned to me with an explanation. "We were pretty close once. I can't believe she's dead."
I felt sad for John, and glad to know the reason for his somber mood. "Were you, uh, close for very long?" I tried to remember a mention of Yolanda in John's letters to me while I lived in California. Nothing came to mind.
"About a year." John's voice was low, his fingers playing with the corner of his lacy placemat. "She was a writer for the Public Affairs Office at the lab and at one time I worked that beat for the paper."
I straightened up. Another murdered labbie. My emotions swung from sympathy for John at the death of his friend, to excitement--if there was a possibility Yolanda's murder was related to her work at the Charger Street lab, I'd be called on to help.
The doorbell rang, and as Frank went to answer it, I pondered the possibility of a new contract with the Revere Police Department.
"How long did she work at the lab?" I asked John, spinning my crystal water glass on its axis, striking a casual tone.
"Don't even think about it," Matt said before John could answer. He laughed and stretched his chunky legs under the table until he bumped against my ankle. "Take care of those feet first."
The small thrill I felt at his touch kept me quiet until Frank returned to the dining room with Sergeant Ian Parker, one of Matt's colleagues whom I'd met at the station. He was accompanied by a uniformed officer.
Their look said they hadn't come for cannoli.
"Gennaro." Parker's young, thin face registered surprise at seeing Matt. "Didn't know you'd be here. We'd have given you a heads-up."
Before I was aware he'd moved, Matt joined the two officers in a huddle by the door leading to the kitchen. "What's up?" I heard him ask.
The rest of us stayed in place, motionless.
I focused on Rose's expression as she stared at the cluster of representatives from the Revere Police Department. From her calm, curious look, she might have been wondering why they'd come to spoil her perfect decor.
Parker moved toward Rose and Frank, his badge barely visible at his waist, under his jacket. He addressed them in a soft voice. "I'm sorry to interrupt you like this."
Rose's eyebrows reconfigured into a frown. Frank put his arm around her as Parker turned his attention to John. The chamber music that had brightened our lunch stopped abruptly, the CD player seeming to respond on its own to the force of law.
"John Galigani, we'd like you to come down to the station. We have some questions. . ."
Before Parker was finished, John shoved his chair behind him and stood. He let out a low moan, a sigh of resignation, as if he'd been waiting all day for the summons. In his loose T-shirt and tennis shoes, he looked younger than his thirty-six years and too fragile for police custody.
Frank drew in his breath. Rose threw up her hands. For me, it was an experiment gone wrong.
"Questions about what?" Rose asked, her voice high-pitched and weak.
Parker responded softly, a sign he wasn't enjoying the moment any more than the rest of us. ". . . in connection with the murder of Yolanda Fiore."
I fell back onto my chair. A shiver ran through me when I caught Matt's eye. Nothing I can do, was his silent message.
Copyright 2002 by Camille Minichino
Camille Minichino has been the President of the Northern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and President of the California Writer's Club Mt. Diablo branch. Her periodic table mystery novels (The Hydrogen Murder, The Helium Murder, The Lithium Murder, and The Beryllium Murder) feature Gloria Lamerino, a retired physicist who lives above her friends' funeral parlor and consults with the police on science-related cases. Like the amateur sleuth in her books, Camille has a Ph.D. in physics and a long career in research and teaching. Camille currently teaches physics at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. She also teaches fiction writing and works as a scientific editor in the Engineering Department of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Camille lives with her husband and satellite dishes in San Leandro, California. This is her fifth novel.