Death in Florence – Blake Pierce

Florence. Even when Diana was a little girl, the name of the Italian town had inspired thoughts of lush landscapes, cobblestone streets, flowery breezes, and romance. Lots of romance. So it was ironic that Diana was here, in Italy, on her whirlwind European trip—completely alone. Diana had always been a planner, detailing things almost down to the minute. But when she’d left Paris, she’d made a decision. She’d spent the ten-hour high-speed bullet train ride (with a transfer in Milan) transforming her itinerary, which was once full of sites and excursions every tourist wanted to see, to something else. A bucket list, of sorts, personalized to her. The first item on the list? Fall in love in Italy. A tall order, considering she couldn’t speak the language, was newly divorced and had been hurt before, and wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. But as she stepped off the train at Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station early that morning, she dragged in a bracing breath of chilly air and smiled, excited by the challenge. She looked around at the many tourists scurrying about like mice, energized and thrilling over the possibilities. I can do this. And it’s going to be great. Smiling from ear to ear, she retrieved her luggage and walked along the concourse, listening to the musical sound of the Italian language wafting up from the intercom and from people around her.

In the background, Andrea Bocelli crooned. The rich scent of roast coffee and vanilla coming from a tiny pasticceria tantalized her. The station was modern and nondescript, a boxy warehouse by American standards, but a little shiver went through her as she stepped outside into the warm light of morning and gazed up at the Italian flag flapping in the breeze, and the tile-roofed Florence buildings scattered about the hillside. She stepped around a rack, brimming with bicycles, and stood in front of the McDonald’s (a reminder that she could never fully escape America, no matter how hard she tried), waiting for a taxi. She decided to wait to check her phone for messages, which she was sure would all be from Lily and Bea, her adult children in vastly different time zones, and all of them versions of Are you okay? They hadn’t believed she could do this. Didn’t think she’d make it. Thought she’d come back after the first week. But she’d muddled through. Paris had been an adventure, what with nearly being arrested and murdered. No, it hadn’t been everything she was hoping for.

Far from it. But in a lot of ways, it’d been more. And she already couldn’t wait to see what kind of adventure she’d find in Italy. A taxi pulled up at the curb, and an old man popped out, smiling at her as he tipped his flat cap and took her luggage. “Buongiorno.” “Buongiorno!” she replied, scrolling through the translation app on her phone. “Um . Per favore portami a questo indirizzo . Castello Di Gabbiano?” Could you please take me to this address? “Ah. Si,” he said, opening the door for her and helping her in.

Then he slipped into the driver’s seat, and they took off into the wondrous historic city nestled in the heart of Tuscany. The city proper was full of small, winding streets that it seemed the small cab would barely fit through. Though much of it was like any ordinary city, with streets full of busy, fashionable people, tightly packed modern buildings, and traffic, everywhere around were signs of the rich history of this part of the world. She kept her eyes peeled for the unique sights that made Florence Florence, looking for things that had been on her old list, the Cathedral of Santa Maria, the Galleria, and more. She still planned to see them, but since all her plans in Paris had been thrown into the air and she’d still had an amazing time, she’d decided to be more flexible about it. Not exactly an easy thing. After fifty-two years of rigid scheduling, this leopard wasn’t going to change its spots overnight. Still, she was determined, and as a former successful businesswoman who’d clawed her way up the corporate ladder, she was used to facing adversity head-on, and adapting, if necessary. She gazed in awe as they swung around a corner and the brick-red dome of the massive Cathedral of Santa Maria appeared in the window, framed by a gorgeous pink sunrise. Slowly, the pink and green façade of the architectural marvel came into view, the sunlight gleaming off of its many intricate windows, its white, green, and red marble surface, and the bronze ball atop the cupola, which, she’d read, had been soldered by none other than Leonardo DaVinci himself.

She shivered a bit at the thought, at the feeling of being in the presence of such a magnificent piece of history. The taxi sailed on past the cathedral, past many other buildings, spaced farther and farther apart, most with stucco facades and burnt orange terracotta roofs. They came out to a valley, with rolling hills and a vineyard stretching below, with rows and rows of grapevines baking in the sun. The driver pointed at a large stone building in the distance with an impressive tower and a medieval turret, just like the kind a princess would gaze out from. Her hotel. A castle. She’d planned to play it by ear, but on the train ride, she’d stumbled upon this place on her phone and couldn’t resist. An old castle amidst a vineyard, full of rooms with canopy beds and stone floors and views of the rolling green countryside? Yes, please! After seeing it, she’d added it to her itinerary. Stay in a medieval castle. Now, she was really glad she’d booked in for three nights.

The place was even better than the pictures she’d seen on TripAdvisor. The cab pulled up a brick drive and drove through stone arches climbing with vines before stopping under a rustic wooden portico. By then, it was far too warm for a jacket, so she slipped it off and tied it around her waist. As she stepped out, two handsome young valets rushed to her service, fussing to help her with her one bag. They spoke in rapid-fire Italian, ushering her on into the lobby. Though stone-walled, it was by no means a cold space. In fact, with the sun pouring in the open windows and a large ceiling made entirely of stained glass, it was warm and inviting. There were wine kegs stacked in a corner, and rustic bottles placed on almost every surface. The home of Chianti. That’s what the website had said.

As she stood there, fumbling with her wallet for her credit card, she heard someone giggle. She looked up to see a young blonde woman pulling her considerably older lover along with her, toward a light-filled patio. He had a stupid grin under his salt-and-pepper moustache. Of course, Diana thought of Evan, her ex, who’d traded Diana in for his own younger, blonder model, whom Diana and her girls referred to, not-so-affectionately, as Vidal, since all of her substance was in her hair. Shoving those thoughts away, she pulled out her MasterCard and was just about to approach the reception desk when the elevator doors opened, and out stepped a young, starry-eyed couple, arms wrapped tightly around each other. They kissed as they walked, nearly bumping into Diana as she stood there. “Oh. Um, sorry,” the young, goateed guy said in an American accent, confused to find her there. Before she could respond, he was locking lips again with his companion and heading out the doors. “No problem,” Diana murmured.

As she turned to head to the desk, a couple jumped in line in front of her, speaking German and throwing their massive backpacks on the ground. They were scruffy, the man with an unkempt beard and the woman with bits of dried leaves in her hair, both in hiking boots and shorts. Diana wondered if they’d just hiked over the Alps to arrive here. They retrieved their key and, hand in hand, headed toward the elevator. Diana watched them go, a sinking feeling in her stomach. Italy was for lovers. She knew that. But still . why did it seem like the Universe was rubbing it in her face? Who cared if it was morning? She needed a glass of Chianti, stat. Like the girls in the of ice used to say, it’s five o’clock somewhere.

Shrugging it off, she stepped up to the counter, patted her chest, and said, “St. James. Prenotazione,” which she’d been practicing in her head while on the train. St. James. Reservation. The pert, fairy-like woman behind the counter smiled. “Ah, Signora St. James. We are very happy to welcome you to our place.

I trust you have had a good trip here?” English. Thank goodness, Diana thought as the woman typed something into her computer. “Yes. Thank you. Is there a place I can go for breakfast?” The clerk nodded and pointed to some double doors, from where the faint sound of conversation and clinking silverware and dishes emanated. “We’re serving right now.” With that, Diana’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything since a croissant in Paris, right before she’d boarded the train. She was starving. “Thank you,” she said, taking her key card from the clerk.

“I mean, grazie.” “You’re very welcome. Enjoy your stay with us.” Diana headed for the elevator, smiling. I’m sure I will. Now, time to freshen up and change before breakfast and touring the grounds. She walked down a dark, travertine-tiled hallway until she found her room. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, she gasped. The room had a high ceiling, crossed with rafters, and the space was simply enormous, so much so that the canopied queen bed, draped in organza curtains, was practically dwarfed by its size. Sunshine spilled in through a massive, open bay window.

Crossing to it, Diana peered outside at the rolling hills, and the rows of grape plants, lined against the lush green valley, cut by a single dirt path. Off to the side was a crystal clear pool with waterfall, fashioned from river stone, surrounded by umbrellaed tables. The sky was blue and cloudless, and the air smelled of earth, honey, and fruit. “I have to take a picture of this,” she said aloud, feeling in her purse for her phone. No, she wasn’t one for selfies, but this scene before her simply demanded it. She dipped her hand in her enormous purse, coming up empty. Then she felt for her pockets, before she realized the travel outfit she was wearing didn’t have pockets. She checked her purse again, more frantically now, the hair on her neck rising to full attention as she confirmed her suspicion. No no no no no, her mind screamed as she looked around, helpless for some indication of where she could look next. But there was no other place.

She’d used it on the train, in the taxi . hadn’t she? She couldn’t remember. Her mind spun with half-formed thoughts, and from these, one irrefutable fact rose above all others. Her phone was gone. CHAPTER TWO Gone. Just gone. Diana shuddered at the thought of her precious iPhone, in the hands of some thug who’d look at her photos and private information, intruding on her life. She had everything on that phone, her whole entire being. Maybe he’d even use it to commit crimes in her name and get her into just as much trouble as she’d been in in Paris. And now, what was she going to do? As she stood in line in a busy electronics store, she ripped her thumbnail off in her anxiety and peered down at the ragged remnants of it.

She needed to stop that. Instinctively, for the thousandth time that hour, she reached into her purse for her phone. Bzzzzz. Sorry. Only now that it was missing did Diana realize what it had been to her. No, she wasn’t as attached to her phone as her children were, but over the years, it’d come to be her security blanket. It was especially so now, where she didn’t know the language or the landscape. Standing here, in a strange country, she felt farther away from the United States than ever. She shivered again, feeling exposed to attack. Naked.

It’d been a struggle just getting this far. When she’d first realized it was gone, she’d hurried downstairs, hoping to find it in the reception area. No such luck. Then she’d retraced her steps out to the curb, where the two valets helped her look for it. Nothing. The clerk helped her make a call to her wireless provider, who explained that out of the country, there was nothing they could do to replace a lost cell phone. After a good amount of freaking out and, yes, a lot of gnashed teeth, the clerk offered to put her in a taxi to the nearest iPhone store, FastWeb Cellular, in downtown Florence. Now, as she stood in line, cataloging everything that she’d be missing without her phone, her stomach sank more and more. Her contacts were gone. Sadly, she didn’t even know the phone numbers of her own daughters, since she was so used to speed-dialing them.

She had no method of taking or keeping any photographs of the marvelous things she’d see—so she’d probably forget half of this trip. And forget about touring—without the opening and closing times of museums, she’d be a lost puppy. How would she be able to pick a restaurant without checking the menus online first? And without the hourly weather forecast . what if it rained? Calm down, Diana. You’re five minutes away from buying a new cell phone. You can handle this momentary blip. She stepped up to the counter. “Buongiorno. I’d like an iPhone.” The man nodded and handed her a tablet.

“Fill this out. You get in a week.” “A week? But—” “New iPhones are on backorder. Could be sooner. You give us number, we call when they come in, si?” She filled out the form. “Is there a way I can get a phone to use right now?” He looked at her like she was insane. “Not here. We all cleaned out. Try next door.” After finishing there, she went to the next shop over.

The place wasn’t exactly an Apple Store, something Diana had noticed the moment she’d stepped inside. Aside from that it didn’t appear to have any cases or displays with the latest gadgets, it also sold old appliances, like space heaters and box television sets. There was a partially bald cat sitting in the window, under a neon sign that said Elettronica. Diana had to wonder if the clerk had made a mistake. She hadn’t lost her toaster oven; she’d lost her phone. As the person in line in front of her stepped away from the counter with a new-to-them electric kettle, Diana attacked it, a feverish heat flushing her face. “Hello, I, um—” She winced when the old lady in the housecoat behind the counter stared at her, unamused. That was another thing. No phone, no easy translations. Taking a breath, she tried again.

“Ciao. I’m looking for . ” She made her hands into binoculars, cupping them around her eyes. Then put a pinky and thumb to her cheek. “Phone?” “Ah, telefono.” The woman reached behind the counter and pulled out an old, rotary-dial phone from Diana’s youth, circa 1968. “No. A cell phone? You know, newer?” “Cellulare?” The woman nodded. “Si?” “Yes. Right.

Si? Do you have?” Again, the woman nodded and shuffled into the back room. When she returned, the old lady was using the hem of her housecoat to polish something, lifting it up to bare her doughy white legs. When she set it on the counter, Diana winced. It was an old flip phone, circa the turn of the century. Diana had had one of those . once. Back in the olden days, those and BlackBerries were high-tech. At least it wasn’t the size of her forearm, but still . what kind of features did something like that have? The sinking feeling turned to outright nausea. This was bad.

Really bad. “You don’t have anything newer?” The woman stared at her, uncomprehending. She didn’t have time for this. Besides, something was better than nothing. “Fine. Can you hook that up to my service so that I can get it to work?” Again, the woman stared. Diana’s shoulders slumped, and she was ready to call it a day, when a voice in the back said, “I can.” A younger man with a full head of dark hair and a tan came out of the back, picking up the phone. “You’re American, yes?” She nodded as he looked her over, feeling herself blushing. He was probably about her height, a good six inches shorter than Evan, and yet he had the face of a movie star, the only signs of age a few creases at the corners of his eyes.

Her breath caught. “Lost your phone, eh?” “Yes.” He picked up the cell phone and inspected it. “You’ll need a SIM card from the carrier but I can get you set up. Usually, we don’t get people wanting new cell phones around here. Especially with FastWeb Cellular right down the street.” “Oh—” She looked around. She knew she had to have been taken to the wrong place. As she wondered if it would be impolite to tell him no thanks, he spoke again. “But you know what, I think these little babies have something special to them that the new phones don’t.

People these days are too into their phones. They don’t look around to see what is going on.” He held up the flip phone. “This is just what it’s supposed to be. A phone. That’s all.” Just what it’s supposed to be. Right. A phone. Not a lifeline.

She’d gone on this trip to assert her independence. To learn the ancient art of relying on oneself. What was so independent about being tethered to a piece of electronic equipment? Besides, the man was right. She’d lived almost half her life without a cell phone, and life had been a lot different then. Freer. More fun. She remembered fondly the days of paper maps, of pulling over to the side of the road to chart a course with a highlighter. It was much more adventurous, exciting, heading out, not knowing every little thing about your destination. Which was exactly what Diana had attempted to accomplish, first with her itinerary, and now with her phone. As the man behind the counter worked on the phone, a little chill passed through her.

Could she live without a smartphone, using one that was only good to put in the occasional call to her kids? Maybe. Was it possible? Well, she guessed she was about to find out. The man handed her the phone. “You’re all set. You remember how to use one like this?” She stared at it, remembering those days of the early 2000s, when she’d had one just like this. All she’d used it for was phone calls, usually meetings, on her drives into and out of New York City, before driving and talking on cell phones had been outlawed. Nobody texted back then, because texting took forever. Pictures were grainy and terrible. Really, a phone call and voicemail was all it was good for. And maybe that was just what she needed.

If only she could let herself believe that. She took it and handed him her credit card. “Thank you. It looks great.” As she turned and walked away from the counter, she noticed a rack with brochures and maps to various local attractions near the door, sandwiched among a dusty eight-track console and an ancient bullet-shaped refrigerator. She lifted out a brochure which included a map of downtown Florence. Yes, this would do very nicely. And, bonus—she didn’t have to worry about it running out of charge. When she stepped outside, she smiled. Really, who cared if it rained when she was out exploring? She’d never melted before.

This would be fun. And that was what she’d come to Europe for. * A few moments later, she walked past the cell phone store again, trying to tell herself that it was only the old Diana who needed an iPhone. But this was the new Diana. The Diana who rolled with the punches. Who let fate take her around, like a feather on the wind. As she walked, she came across the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence, a square, stone palace with its remarkable high tower stretching into the sky. She stared up at it, gazing at the remarkable architecture, and noticed the statues flanking the front entrance. She nearly tripped over another person, trying to get a better look at the one to the left. Wait .

was that Michelangelo’s David? It certainly looked like it, though in pictures, it’d never had quite so much pigeon poop on it. She looked at the map, then back at it. It was a replica. Turned out, the actual David statue was at the Accademia, several blocks northward. The map was written in Italian, but from what she could tell, this used to be the spot where the actual statue once stood. She’d have to get to the Accademia, eventually. But right now, as she studied the map and the location of the nearest attraction, something far more exciting caught her eye . Following the road signs, she traveled down another block, following the Arno River, until it came into view. Her breath caught. There it was.

.

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