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A Death in Florence

  A DEATH IN FLORENCE (EXCERPT)

  

Chapter One

On the morning of the last day of his life, Dr. Anders Jason Croft, PhD, respected Professor of Medieval Studies, is asleep. He is not a young man, or even middle-aged. For him those years have fled. Years ago he could have been asleep in one of many hotels, wherever his work—or instinct—took him. Now a retired scholar, he travels only when necessary. 

It is barely dawn when the percussive tones of music reach his ears. Is it a Bach fugue? At first he thinks it might be Kate at her piano, playing arpeggios. But it is not piano music he hears. Somewhere, bells are ringing. Swimming up through his awakening torpor, he tries to identify them. Are they the University chapel bells calling him to class?

He now realizes the bells are playing a Bach Passacaglia. Is he imagining it? It is so early, and the notes are stabbing at his brain like an ice pick. The timbre of these bells is different from those at the University. And there are more of them. Where is he? It is too much effort, and he sinks back into his nightmare: He was checking out of a hotel at the foot of a mountain. The innkeeper has wire-frame glasses and the ice-blue eyes of a Nazi agent from a 1970s movie he can't quite recall. He has just told Anders that it is a shame he is leaving, since on top of the mountain in a temple lives a beautiful lady with a face of gold. Anders starts up the mountain to see for himself. Bells peal. A shabbily dressed old woman joins him in the climb. She seems unaware of him, and agitated. The crest comes into view, and he sees only twisted trees. Black storm clouds are boiling above the trees. Where is the temple? Where is the lady with the golden face? He is afraid, and his belly cramps. The old woman leers at him. He realizes she is in league with the Nazi agent. A gruff Tuscan voice behind him growls…Ma San Bartolomeo t'accompagnera

San Bartolomeo will accompany him? Will watch over him? Anders lurches fully awake. The light shining through the white gauze curtains is blinding even through his half-closed eyelids. Who is San Bartolomeo? One of Jesus's lesser-known disciples? Or Fra Bartolomeo, who painted the famous frescoes at the turn of the sixteenth century? Perhaps better to have a dead saint by your side than a dead artist. And the Nazi? The old woman? The promised lady with the golden face? The importance of any of it? Dante's phrase floats into consciousness…"but if the truth of dreams dreamt close to dawn…" 

Right now he needs to know the time, to orient himself in the world. Why is it so hard to turn his head to check the bedside clock? It isn't just a stiff neck; it's as though his nerves have forgotten how to snap their impulses from his brain to the muscles that rotate his skull. Somewhere the wires are down. He must get a grip on himself. His left hand makes it to his skull but his right makes it only to his collarbone. God, he thinks, not another stroke. He works the fingers of his left hand against his right temple and pulls his head to the side, far enough to see out of the corner of his left eye. He can see there is no clock. Instead of his familiar cherrywood bed stand there is an unfamiliar white one painted with a violet and blue floral design. He releases his head and lets his arm flop on the bed beside him. Where could he be? 

The bells unleash a cascade as if in answer. Something about the clarity of the tones, their pitch, the way the air in the room vibrates… He remembers: Florence. The Hotel Lilia. The bells must be those of Santa Maria Novella, not the primitive ones of the 12th-Century Santa Trinita nearby, the latter clanging at seven and then seven-fifteen every morning with its ancient clunky single bell. He is in his spiritual home, the Florence of Dante. All will be well…the brilliant October light will flash off the Arno's rippling surface as the river follows its passage beneath the gauntlet of arched bridges…the light will bless the city's hill-edged sea of red tile roofs, will bless the towering white and green marble of the Duomo's cathedral walls…will bless the Florentines, and even the tourists sitting in the Piazza Signoria sipping their creamy hot chocolate. Will the transparent October light bless him, Anders Croft, as he strolls through the city's old center with Sebastiano, the concierge he has known over the years? If so, all will be well.

But why isn't Kate stirring, surely awakened by the bells? He has caught no murmur, no whisper of her breathing, no movement in the bed. He tries to turn his head to the right to see her, but as before, his neck muscles simply aren't working this morning. His body feels heavy. And yet his left arm did seem to work. He stretches it across his body to try to touch her, but can't reach far enough. It is time to cry out, to wake her up. He opens his mouth but out comes a gurgle. He closes his mouth, ashamed. That was not his voice. A man knows his own voice, and that was not it. That was the choking of a dying animal. With luck, Kate didn't hear it.

The bells pause, then begin a syncopation as they rock back on themselves with longer and longer pauses, until finally they are mute. He lies there in the new silence and tries to assemble a sense of how and why he got here. He remembers a journey. Terribly uncomfortable hours in a plane, his legs and feet swelling, hurting as if locked in a vise. A long taxi ride from the airport into Milano through early morning fog hugging the ground. Passing Milano's gingerbread cathedral, yes, inside, to the right of its altar—he remembers—the statue of San Bartolomeo, his face serene, flayed alive, his own skin draped gruesomely over his shoulder like a serape blanket. There was that name from his dream again…

At the train station the Roma people had attacked him at the steps, cursing him when he refused them money, pushing their sheets of cardboard up against him to conceal their thieving hands rooting through his pockets. And later, through the train window to Florence: small stucco houses, Matchbox cars on the autostrada, golden fields lined with mulberry trees, their branches amputated.

But was Kate with him on the train? Or for that matter on the plane? He feels a wave of terror, then guilt. Has he lost her along the way? He gathers his strength, heaves himself up onto his left elbow, twists to his right, and falls back. In that instant he has seen that there is no Kate. 

Years ago, in Italy…midway through his two-year sabbatical to research an artifact in Dante's verse, with Kate at thirty-eight trying to forge a link to her interrupted career as a concert pianist…a scene unfolds. He and Kate are in their four-door Alfa Giulia on the autostrada approaching a tunnel. She has said something to him, something insistent about their fight the night before. But she can't erase his anger at her betrayal. He jerks the wheel and pulls out to pass, blind, a double-trailer truck grinding along, excruciatingly slow. A car comes straight at them, closing too quickly to avoid, there is nowhere to go… 

He only imagines the head-on collision. He has no recollection of it. What he knows of it was reconstructed for him by the police. His sense of words with Kate just before the accident is a guess based on the fight they had. He recalls only the doctor afterwards, the domed Tuscan forehead creased with worry lines, the brown eyes sorrowful at his hospital bedside: "Con mio grande dispiacere…my condolences…" 

He stares at the ceiling in horror, as he did in the hospital all those years ago. He is alone. And gradually he feels a different, perplexing horror, in the face of…what? How could he have thought that Kate, thirty years later, was still next to him? Why didn't he imagine beside him one of the women since Kate's death? Bored wives of colleagues, female professors at resort colloquia, the students especially…the young, irresistible students. Is it only because he finds himself so suddenly in Florence? Is Kate's spirit nearby?

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