Va Via!

I had forgotten about the DNA test for so many years, that by the time my nephew contacted me wanting to know the details for a paper he was working on, the password needed to be retrieved. After a few frustrating attempts, and denied access, magically the page opened, and a full inbox stared at me. Thirty-six unread messages! After swiftly filtering through the obvious spam, I kept the 7 remaining for review. They were all from one individual, who claimed to be a long lost relative living outside of Napoli. Massimo Gardino. Well, that had been my grandmothers maiden name, but really this seemed like a long shot. A wave of irritation swept over me, as I slogged through the long winded messages regarding locations and people I had never heard of. He wanted to connect, because all of his relatives had passed. Even those he knew who had emigrated to the U.S. were deceased. There was that one half-sister living in Spain, but he claimed she was a whore, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. He begged and pleaded that we make a familial connection, and after reading the 7th message, I caved.
Massimo and I became acquainted, via emails,  and soon I found out that he was a widowed gentleman, and a very distant cousin of my grandmother. He lived in a mountain town in a dilapidated castle. An actual castle! He sent photos of himself, a cute petite man, with a shrunken apple face.

There was a family resemblance to my grandmother. There were photos of idyllic gardens and fields, where various cows and chickens grazed. Mountains sprang up behind pastures, and the rolling grassy hills were punctuated with small stone buildings, and narrow cobbled streets. Finally, there was a photo of the castle itself. The image was an old one, and I noted a few turrets peaking out from behind foliage. It was hard to see much else. So, when he extended an invitation to come visit the old country, I was more than intrigued.
The flight from NYC to Rome was easy enough, and I opted to take a train down to Naples, followed by a bus to the small mountain village. After the ardous but invigorating journey, I finally arrived at a small bus station around 6 am on a Sunday. The smell of fresh baked bread infiltrated my nostrils. A small stand was open, where I ordered a cappuccino, and carefully balanced it in one hand, while wheeling my trusty carry-on bag towards a roadside bench. Quietly, I waited for the car to arrive to take me to the castle, where Massimo would meet me. On the way up the mountainous roads, the driver and I shared our conversation in broken English and my awkward Italian. He seemed to be very excited about the castle I was headed to. I dozed, my head jolting side to side around the hairpin turns, waking, only to fall asleep again due to sheer exhaustion of the trip. The car slowed, and I felt the driver tapping my knee to wake me. “Ahhhh Eco’La!”,  He exclaimed as we rounded a curve. I peered over his shoulder, and there it was on the horizon. Perched on a precipice, a large, stone castle , surrounded by olive and citrus trees. A few ancient cypress stood guard along the back cliff, which looked out towards even higher mountains. Shuttered windows swung open at the upper floors of the castle, sheer lace curtains breezing through the openings.
I gasped at the sheer majestic beauty as the driver pulled up in front of the main entry. Massive wooden double doors parted, and a small woman wearing what appeared to be a uniform waited for us. The driver came around to help me out with my bags, and we walked up the steps.
Entering into the foyer, the woman and my driver shared some hushed words in a dialect I couldn’t understand. They were friendly, and it was apparent that they knew one another quite well.  I was far too mesmerized to pay much attention to them. Looking around at the grand entry, I gasped with awe at the ancient tapestries flanking the walls. The tiles on the floor were well worn, yet spectacular in design and detail. A massive Egyptian urn with remnants of gold inlay, stood proudly in the center of the vaulted entry way. Wandering in a daze, I passed the urn, and out another set of doors into an overgrown courtyard. An alabaster fountain featuring a goddess on a clamshell was the centerpiece. Although she was covered with moss and mold, I heard and noticed a stream of water trickling down over the smooth stone body and into a small pool below. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sat down on a small stone carved bench to take it all in. A few birds flew to bathe in the water. Just then, a small black cat slithered past my leg, purring and pausing to lean against my bag. The driver and the woman came into the courtyard laughing and flirting with one another. He yelled out,  “Massimo! Ma Dove Sei?” From afar I heard an old man’s voice straining to yell,”vengo adesso.” Then, from a distance, down a long passage way, echoed the footsteps of an old man shuffling in our direction.

“Tesora! Finalamente incontriamo! ” The man smiled revealing a couple of remaining teeth. His blue eyes sparkled in the morning light. The heavily lined face revealed a life well lived, and his thick tanned skin was testament to his farming years.
He embraced me and we laughed. The driver and maid were now sitting adjacent snuggling on a small bench under a tree. She let out a cascade of giggles, sounding like a schoolgirl, even though she appeared to be around 80.
Massimo rambled on and on about how delighted he was to finally meet a long lost relative. Looking at my tired face, he smiled and insisted on showing me to my room for a rest. The two lovebirds remaind in the courtyard exchanging glances and bursts of laughter which echoed off of the ancient limestone and marble. Massimo had a firm grip for an elderly man as he guided me through the corridors and continued to recite all of the various relations, as well as famous and infamous individuals who had passed through these halls.
He told me to close my eyes as he scrambled through some heavy metal keys. I heard a heavy sounding door being unlocked, and creaking open. He put his hand over my closed eyes, and I could smell the scent of ancient garlic and lemons. “Apri!” He exclaimed as he released his hand. Opening my eyes, I saw a fantastic, deep red velvet covered canopy bed fit for a queen. Mahogany furnishings adorned the chamber. An intricate small desk sat in front of a picture window looking out to the Cyprus row in front of the mountain. I sighed with amazement.
“Viene. Viene.” he said. At the edge of the bed, Massimo sat down, and patted in a motion for me to sit next to him. Putting his frail yet strong arm around my waist, he firmly looked at me. He told me he needed to talk about something very important.
He proceeded to inform me that he had cancer, and not long to live. He was going to go live at a home where he could get proper care. With no relatives, he didn’t want to leave the house empty. This was the reason he had been so eager to meet me. He went on to tell me that he was giving the castle to me because if he didn’t, that maid, the one downstairs, flirting like a whore with the driver, yes that one, well, she had long ago been a lover. When the rumors got to be too much, he tried to get rid of her, but she wouldn’t leave, so he allowed her to stay on as a maid. At this point, she had stayed so long, that she would be the one to inherit the property upon his passing.  He just could not accept that, especilly since she had been cheating on him for years with every man in town. She had made a fool of him, and there was no way he would leave his family heirloom to such a “strega”!
I was overcome with emotions. Excitement at this sudden incredible opportunity, stress at the thoughts of how would I manage a property from afar, and the question of this maid.Massimo sensed my apprehension and took my hand gently in his crinkled soft palm. “Non ti preocupare…..daverro.” I sighed. I told him, of course I would accept and anything to help him out at this point in his life. He went on to tell me the maid, Rosa, was old as well. He said I probably wouldn’t need to put up with her for too much longer. But, he did tell me she would not be easy. She had a terrible reputation and she had a vicsious streak.

The day passed quickly. Massimo showed me around the property and the gardens, where we picked fresh vegetables. For dinner we sat outside watching the sunset, enjoying fresh greens, rustic bread, cheese, olives, and local wine.

Finally, back in my quarters, I was able to take a relaxing bath. I luxuriated in the spectacular, deep claw footed tub, inhaling the soft lemon verbena scented soap. In a comfortable tee shirt and shorts, I got ready for a much needed rest. Snuggling into the plush down- filled bed, I inhaled the fragrance of night jasmine as it drifted through the air. I brushed off any worries about Rosa, and only thought of the ways I could fix this place up, and how perhaps I would just stay here and never return to NYC at all. I could easily pursuade my boyfriend to come join me, and we would be able to do some sort of rental to make ends meet. I fell asleep feeling excited and hopeful for the recent turn of events, and the possibilities ahead.

I’m not sure what time it was, but the bump jolted me awake. It felt like a minor earthquake. Alarmed, I sat up in the massive canopied bed. Boooooom!!!! The bed swiftly elevated and dropped with a loud thump. I cried out with fear! Just as I was able to grab my cell phone from under the sheets to shed some light into the darkened room, it happened yet again! My heart raced and sweat beaded up on my upper lip. I cried out, “Massimo! Rosa!” The bed slowly elevated as I slid deep into the center of it. I felt something crawling just beneath the mattress….like a giant snake slithering and roiling.
I screamed and screamed, but nobody came. I cried tears of terror, but nobody came. I tried to make a call, but nobody came.
Fear paralyzed me and I held a pillow tight to my body as the bed neared the high ceiling. At that level, it began to vibrate, and I froze in horror. Just then, the door creaked open, and I saw a weak stream of light slip through. The silhouette of Rosa stood there in a cloaked robe, and she cackled loudly! “Sta Zitto!”, She cried. I screamed again. ”STA ZItt!” She yelled. I hugged the pillow, burring my head inside of it, as the bed hovered and shook pressing the velvet canopy into the ornate celing. “VA VIA!”, Rosa screamed, her voice trailing off with a bloodcurdling gurgle.
Just then, the bed lowered a bit, hovered momentarily, and suddenly with a slam, it landed on the Persian carpeted floor. Pillows scattered and I collapsed into myself, tears rolling down my cheeks. Rosa walked over and sat on the bed. Staring at me, her eyes glowed red and she smiled a toothless grin. With a low whisper she said to me, ”Adesso…..va via Tesora….Va via.” With that, as shaky as I was, I got up on autopilot, grabbed my belongings, and raced out of the room towards the exit of the castle. Oddly the driver was outside waiting, as though he had expected me. He laughed. “Andiamo.”
I got into the backseat in shock ,and he ferried me to the airport where I booked a one way flight, without ever looking back.

Liquidation

Gently pushing antique wire framed eyeglasses up the narrow bridge of his nose, Leonard inhaled deeply as he scoured the online estate sale listings. Selecting only the most upscale of neighborhoods, he perused photos of items until he found gold. Not just any gold, but liquid gold. Vintage liquor cabinets, bar carts, or wine cellars. Any of these would do. Making notes in a well-worn leather binder, he beamed with excitement at the possibilities that lay before him.

It was a peculiarly cool weekend in April that brought, to his delight, the advent of two simultaneous sales. Conveniently, they were happening within a mile of one another, and both offered magnificent potential.

He took his time as he dressed in his lucky shirt. A burgundy silk button down with small domed gold buttons. It had been a well-received gift years ago from an older wealthy woman in Vegas, with whom he’d had a sordid affair. That was a lifetime ago, but he still associated the shirt with good fortune. Looking into the mirror, he combed back his silver hair with a bit of Brylcreem. Smiling with pride, he admired his thick tall pompadour. At least he still had a full head of hair, unlike most men of his age. He had taken good care of himself, considering the set backs life had thrown his way.

The walk-up apartment was small, but tidy, and dimly lit. Leonard prefered low lighting, as it camouflaged the ever evolving lines on his face. He had been quite a handsome man in his prime. He liked to believe that his striking good looks had only gotten more “intense” with time. Picking up a bottle of his best French cologne, he dabbed a bit along his neck and wrists. Pausing to inhale the rich fragrance, Leonard closed his eyes, and sighed with delight. This particular scent always took him back to his days in Paris. He reached for a well-worn antique leather binder, along with his keys, checked his watch, and bolted down the hall. Locking the door with a deep breath, he turned on pointy black ostrich leather boots, and darted down the stairs. As he exited the building onto the avenue, a crisp breeze lifted his already tall pompadour to new heights. He liked the attention it attracted from the ladies passing by. He moved swiftly towards his destination, filled with sweet anticipation.

2799 Willow Avenue was the first stop. It was a delapidated old mansion. Apparently, the family had lived there for generations. However, a sudden tragedy had forced them to give up the property. Leonard entered the foyer, barely acknowledging the woman who greeted him. Making a beeline for the dining room, he headed straight for the majestic bar against the far wall. Dark mahogany carved wooden shelves stood fully stocked with various bottles, and a massive collection of glassware. Leonard rudely pushed past a few fellow shoppers who were admiring a set of club chairs. He rushed behind the bar, with a cardboard box in hand, laid it on the bar counter, and started filling it with bottles. He did so methodically, shelf by shelf. When the box was full, he shouted out to whoever was listening, “box, box. I need another box! I’m in a rush here!” A couple of boxes were tossed in his direction, and he rapidly filled them with all of the remaining bottles on the shelves. Leaving it barren, only glassware and a few sundry items remained. At checkout he tried his best to be charming, and after some bargaining, got it all for a steal. Since he wanted to go on to the next sale, he asked if he could store the purchased items there until his return. The saleswoman noticeably rolled her eyes, mumbling, “of course Leonard, of course.” He smirked with satisfaction.

56 Hummingbird Drive turned out to be a much smaller home, but still very fine, and just waiting for his entrance. Again, Leonard rushed in, took a hard right, and went straight to the small bar by the fireplace. Not as grand as the first location, he still found 14 bottles of alcohol, ranging from gin to a fine cognac, albeit slightly cloudy looking. He boxed these up, and took them to the check out. Again, he sweet talked the ladies with false compliments and his flashing smile, and got the entire stash for a song. He took the goods out the door, and headed back to the first location. At this point it was far too much to carry, so he called a cab, and waited outside with the 3 boxes of bottles.

Finally home, he lugged the boxes one by one up the stairs, and dragged them into his humble abode. Taking out the bottles, Leonard lined them up, one by one, on the narrow kitchen counter, organizing them by types of liquor. He smiled with delight as he examined some of the rarer items he had scored. When he was finished, he picked up an old fashioned rotary phone and dialed. His hand trembled as he stuttered into the mouthpiece, “Hello, hello, Lucia? It’s me, Leonard. I’ve got a haul for you.” He paused, listening intently to the voice on the other end of the line. He ran his fingers thru his hair, smiling and closing his eyes. “Yes, yes, I got the White Chartreuse you’ve been searching for.” He held is breath for her reaction, which was better than he had anticipated. He laughed out loud with excitement. “Yes, yes, I’ll bring it downtown, along with the gins, some good ones, I think, as well as a fine bourbon. I did you proud, ma’am. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.” He hung up the phone and started whistling aloud as he sorted through the bottles, selecting 7, then after a pause, adding an 8th. He placed them carefully into one of the smaller boxes, and headed out once again. Leonard rode in the cab down towards the avenues, hand steadying the box of bottles next to him, which he had secured with the seatbelt. It was getting dark by now, and the rain had started to fall. The streets shone black and slick ahead. As they reached the run down warehouse district, he yelled at the cabby to pull over in front of a dimly lit façade. “Here! Here! Stop, this is it, pull over in front of this one!” On the dark wall, a tiny window appeared, lit with a soft red light. He paid the driver, got out, and carried the box up a few steps. At the window a woman’s face peered at him. She told him to come in, and suddenly a door opened.

As he entered, it was so dark, he could barely see. Soft bass music drifted from afar. As his vision adjusted, he saw the woman motioning him to follow her down a long corridor. They entered into a lounge with a long bar, lined with empty stools. A tall thin woman with a platinum bob approached Leonard. Wearing a shimmering white velvet gown, she looked almost ghost-like. As she got nearer, it was clear that she was much older than he had first thought. She reached out a well-manicured hand,  and introduced herself with a raspy low voice. “I’m Lucia. Finally, we meet face to face. Let’s see what you’ve brought for me.” She peered into the box, and motioned him over to the bar. Reaching inside, she carefully unpacked the various bottles, and lined them up along the spotless counter. They sat side by side on the black leather barstools, and he waited patiently, as Lucia examined each bottle with a keen eye. As she traced a long blood red lacquered  fingernail over the labels, it was evident that she was pleased. She gasped at the last bottle, the coveted white chartreuse. He smiled, “I told you, didn’t I?” “Yes, you did well, my friend. You will be compensated generously, and I will await your next delivery with eager anticipation.”

With that, she reached down into a small purse slung low around her slender hips, and pulled out a roll of cash. She discreetly counted out two thousand dollars in hundred’s twice; then once again for good measure. She placed the rolled up bills in his outreached hand. He curled his fingers around the warm money, and tried to remain cool and collected, even though he was trembling with excitement. She took his arm and offered him a drink. “Perhaps a glass of champagne to celebrate the occasion?” Why not, he thought. After a pause, her eyes lit up as she caressed the rare liquor sitting in front of them, “perhaps we should share a thimble of the white chartreuse instead!” He agreed, and she called over to the barmaid to bring her a shot glass. She cautiously opened the beautiful vintage bottle and gingerly poured a minuscule amount of the pale yellow liquor. It glowed phosphorescent in the low light. She lifted the glass towards Leonard’s lips, and he took a tiny sip, savoring the heady herbal flavors. She followed his lead, closing her eyes as she took a delicate taste, her full pink lips barely touching the glass. Suddenly, Leonard’s breath got caught in his throat, and she too began to gasp for air. Her eyes grew large with fright, and he stared back at her unable to speak.. Simultaneously, he slumped forward onto the bar face first, and Lucia slid elegantly down to the floor, a pool of white velvet spreading out from her silhouette. The barmaid and another girl ran over, but it was too late. Both of the bodies lay there motionless and pale in the dim light. The barmaid picked up the bottle of white chartreuse, took a cautious whiff from the opening, and gasped. A toxic fume caused her to choke. Apparently, it had been refilled with poison. In fact, shortly after this tragic happening, there was a report that the Willow Avenue estate owner had indeed poisoned his wife, shortly before killing himself. Although the source of the poison was never determined, it was strongly suspected that he had given her a toxic cocktail, moments before her sudden death.