It was ten to six on Friday evening and Franco was napping on his couch. Outside it was still very hot, but inside the temperature was tropical.
Franco dreamt that he was walking in a museum, at night. He was barefoot and could feel the cold stone of the corridors under his feet. Looking out of the window, he could see snow falling silently…
As Franco dreamed on, Giotto leapt onto the couch and started to miaow. Franco awoke with a start and looked at his watch.
He was extremely late!
His shirt was soaked with sweat, but there was no time to change, nor could he be bothered.
Since he was late, he decided to take a taxi to the Contessa’s house. But while he was looking for the phone number of the taxi company, he realised he had no cash anyway.
He hadn’t worked much lately, so he couldn’t really afford such luxuries. He decided to take the metro instead.
Franco arrived at number 21, very tired and late, and rang the bell. While waiting, he glanced around.
The building was spacious, three stories high, and looked very old. The windows, which were all shuttered, looked out on the two great trees, which shaded them.
The front door opened. A maid in a black uniform greeted Franco. She had a white apron, and a tired look.
«Hi, I’m detective Manera» said Franco.
«Come in, we were expecting you» replied the waitress in a flat voice.
Franco was shown into a large living room.
The walls were covered with wall paper with a pattern of golden flowers. The couches were in a retro style and upholstered in a green cloth which matched the drapes.
Next to a couch was a small gilded table bearing a large lamp, its base made of painted porcelain and the shade in a gold colored material with a fringe.
Over all, the room gave an impression of opulance, but – thought Franco – of bad taste.
But the most striking thing was a large empty space on the wall above the fireplace.
It was obvious that that had been the place where the stolen painting had been hung.
The Contessa and her son had been waiting for Franco, and the two of them were obviously arguing about the theft.
Franco heard the Contessa repeating: «You’re wrong, Giovanni, it can’t have been her. Rosa has been working here for ten years. She’d never do such a thing!»
«But mamma! It can’t have been anyone else! Give me the key to her room. We have no choice but to go in and look for proof of her involvement!»
At that point Franco decided to join the discussion. Without waiting to be introduced, he asked: «Who are we talking about?».
The Contessa and her son swung around to face Franco.
«Mamma, this is Detective Manera, from “La Volpe” detective agency. He’ll help us with the painting.»
«Oh, he’s finally arrived! We’ve been waiting for you. Do sit down. I’m Contessa Fernanda Della Torre, but perhaps you already know who I am! I absolutely must get my painting back. You’ve no idea how valuable it is to me! I’m desperate, please help!».
The Contessa seemed genuinely upset.
She wasa a tall, thin woman. Her wrists were hidden by heavy gold bracelets. Her hair was dark brown and combed back. She was middle-aged, but appeared to want to seem young. Her heavily made-up face had a very worried expression.
«Good evening. So, let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about the evening when the theft occurred» Franco suggested.
So the Contessa began her story.
«On Thursday, late in the afternoon, I went out to dinner with my friends. We always meet on Thursdays, to dine and then to play cards. I was out until midnight. When I returned, the painting and the jewels had gone!»
«Was there no one else in the house that evening?».
The Contessa replied «No. We have two servants in the house. But Rosa has the day off on Thursdays, while last Thursday Sonia was at the hospital because her mother is unwell. And Giovanni lives on the outskirts of Rome, but that evening he was in Milan for work».
It seemed to Franco a strange coincidence that the theft should happen when no one was at home. Which meant that the thief must have been someone who knew that everyone would be out. Or one of the maids…
The Contessa’s shrill voice was starting to bother Franco. And the gloomy living room was making him uncomfortable. He was keen to get away as soon as possible. Back home to Giotto, and perhaps to invite Ginevra for dinner. He decided to ask one final question.
«Contessa, tell me about the stolen items.»
«You see, Detective, the painting has been in our family for years. It’s the well-known “La signora dei Cardellini” by the famous painter Risippo. It’s priceless. Obviously the painting is insured, but no sum could make up for its loss!
As regards the jewellery, it was a small loss as most of my jewellery is kept in a safe deposit box at the bank. There were some necklaces and bracelets from the family collection. I’ll show you a photograph…»
Franco had no idea who Risippo was, or if his paintings were worth so much. He hadn’t done well at school. He’d studied as little as possible and hadn’t wanted to go on with his education once he’d finished high school.
At this point Franco, remembering the argument between mother and son a few minutes before, asked «Do you suspect anyone?».
Giovanni, the Contessa’s son, who until now had stayed silent, suddenly changed expression and started to speak.
«I think it was Rosa, our maid. It’s obvious. My mother continues to deny it, but in the last few months Rosa has changed. What’s more, she’s seeing someone who is very unsuitable… I want my mother to give me the key to her room, seeing as how she’s not here today, so that we can look for evidence…»
Franco, who had had enough, said that for the moment there was no need to open the maid’s room. He promised that if she was a suspect, he would follow her in the next few days.
Having said this, he excused himself and hurried out of the gloomy house.
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