Many years ago an editor from Reader's Digest in New York invited me to write a 100-word story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he insisted that it couldn't be 99 words or 101.
Still not satisfied, he asked me to present the finished piece within twenty-four hours.
My first effort was 118 words, my second, 106, and my third, 98. I wonder if you can work out which two words I had to put back in.
The result was "Unique," which you will find on the next page.
It may interest readers to know, this is also 100 words.
Paris, March 14, 1921.
The collector relit his cigar, picked up the magnifying glass, and studied the triangular 1874 Cape of Good Hope.
"I did warn you there were two," said the dealer, "so yours is not unique."
"Ten thousand francs."
The collector wrote out a check, before taking a puff on his cigar, but it was no longer alight. He picked up a match, struck it, and set light to the stamp.
The dealer stared in disbelief as the stamp went up in smoke.
The collector smiled. "You were wrong, my friend," he said, "mine is unique."
WHO KILLED THE MAYOR?
Cortoglia is a delightfully picturesque town in the heart of Campania. It rests high on a hill, with commanding views toward Monte Taburno to the east, and Vesuvius to the south. It is described in Fodor's Italy quite simply as "heaven on earth."
The population of the town is 1,472, and hasn't varied greatly for over a century. The town's income is derived from three main sources: wine, olives, and truffles. The Cortoglia White, aromatic with a vibrant acidity, is one of the most sought-after wines on earth and, because its production is limited, is sold out long before it's bottled. And as for the olive oil, the only reason you never see a bottle on the shelves of your local supermarket is because many of the leading Michelin-starred restaurants won't consider allowing any other brand on their premises.
The bonus, which allows the locals to enjoy a standard of living envied by their neighbors, is their truffles. Restaurateurs travel from all corners of the globe in search of the Cortoglia truffle, which is then only offered to their most discerning customers.
It is true that some people have been known to leave Cortoglia and seek their fortunes further afield, but the more sensible among them return fairly quickly. But then, life expectancy in the medieval hill town is eighty-six years for men and ninety-one for women, eight years above the national average.
In the center of the main square is a statue of Garibaldi, now more famous for biscuits than battles, and the town boasts only a dozen shops, two restaurants, and a wine bar. The council wouldn't sanction any more for fear it might attract tourists. There is no train service, and a bus appears in the town once a week for those foolish enough to wish to travel to Naples. A few of the residents own cars, but have little use for them.
The town is run by the consiglio comunale, made up of six elders. The most junior member, whose lineage only goes back three generations, is not considered by all to be a local. The owner of the winery, Lorenzo Pellegrino, chairman (ex officio), Paolo Caraffini, the manager of the olive oil company, and Pietro De Rosa, the truffle master, are all automatically members of the council, while the three remaining places come up for election every five years. As no one has stood against the schoolmaster, the pharmacist, or the grocer for the past fifteen years, the voters have almost forgotten how to conduct an election.
The Polizia Locale had consisted of a single officer, Luca Gentile, whose authority derives from the city of Naples, and Luca tries not to disturb them unnecessarily. This story concerns the one occasion when it was necessary.
* * *
No one could be certain where Dino Lombardi had come from, but like a black cloud, he appeared overnight, and was clearly more interested in thunderstorms than showers. Lombardi must have been around six foot four, with the build of a heavyweight boxer who didn't expect his bouts to last for more than a couple of rounds.
He began his reign of terror with the weaker inhabitants of the town, the shopkeepers, the local tradesmen, and the two restaurateurs, whom he persuaded needed protection, even if they couldn't be sure from whom, as there hadn't been a serious crime in Cortoglia in living memory. Even the Germans hadn't bothered to climb that particular hill.
To be fair, the policeman had retired the year before, at the age of 65, and the council hadn't got around to replacing him. But the real problem arose when the mayor, Mario Pellegrino, died at the age of 102, and an election had to be held to replace him.
It was assumed that his son Lorenzo would succeed him. Paolo Caraffini would then become chairman of the council, and everyone else would move up a place, with the vacancy being filled by Umberto Cattaneo, the local butcher. That was until Lombardi turned up at the town hall, and entered his name on the list for mayor. Of course, no one doubted Lorenzo Pellegrino would win by a landslide, so it came as something of a surprise when the town clerk, on crutches, his left leg in plaster, announced from the steps of the Palazzo dei Municipio that Lombardi had polled 551 votes, to Pellegrino's 486. On hearing the result, there was a gasp of disbelief, not least because no one knew anyone who had voted for Lombardi.
Lombardi immediately took over the town hall, occupied the mayor's residence, and dismissed the council. He'd only been in office for a few days when the citizens learned he would be imposing a sales tax on all three of the town's main companies, which was later extended to the shopkeepers and restaurateurs. And if that wasn't enough, he began to demand a kickback from the buyers as well as the sellers.
Within a year, heaven on earth had been turned into hell on earth, with the mayor quite happy to be cast in the role of Satan. So, frankly, it didn't come as a great shock to anyone when Lombardi was murdered.
Luca Gentile told the chairman of the council that as murder was out of his league, he would have to inform the authorities in Naples, and he admitted in his report that there were 1,472 suspects, and he had absolutely no idea who had committed the crime.
Naples, a city that knows a thing or two about murder, sent one of its brightest young detectives to investigate the crime, arrest the culprit, and bring them back to the city to stand trial.
Antonio Rossetti, who, at the tender age of thirty-four, had recently been promoted to lieutenant, was assigned to the case, although he considered it an inconvenience that would keep him out of the front line — but surely not for long. He assured the chief of police that he would wrap up the case as quickly as possible, and return to Naples so he could deal with some real criminals.
However, it didn't help that Luca Gentile died of a heart attack before Lieutenant Rossetti had set foot in Cortoglia. Some suggested Gentile was suffering from the strain of the whole affair, as the last murder in the town had been in 1892, when his great-grandfather had been the poliziotto. The only person left who seemed to know anything about the case was the examining doctor, who resided in the next village.
Rossetti called in to see Dr. Barone on his way to Cortoglia. He was not pleased to discover that Lombardi had been cremated, and his ashes scattered on the far side of the mountain within hours of his death, such was the locals' hatred of the man. The one thing Dr. Barone could confirm was that only he and Luca Gentile had seen the body before it was taken away in a plastic bag.
"So you and I are now the only people who know how the murder was committed," said Barone as he handed over the results of the autopsy to Rossetti.
* * *
Lieutenant Antonio Rossetti arrived in Cortoglia later that evening, to be told that the council had decreed he should reside in the mayor's home until the murderer had been apprehended.
"After all," the chairman said, "let's get this over with so the young man can return to Naples as quickly as possible."
The following day, Antonio set up office in the local police station, which consisted of two small rooms, one unoccupied cell, and a lavatory. After reading Dr. Barone's report once again, he decided to leave his office and roam around the town, in the hope that someone might approach him wanting to offer information. But even though he walked slowly, and smiled a lot, people crossed the road rather than have to speak to him. He was clearly not looked upon as the Good Samaritan.
After a fruitless morning, Antonio returned to his office and made a list of those people who had most to gain from Lombardi's death. He came to the reluctant conclusion that he would have to start with the members of the town council. He wrote on his notepad, Wine, Oil, and Truffles. He decided to start with Truffles, and called il Signor De Rosa's office to make an appointment to see the councilor later that afternoon.
* * *
"Would you care for a glass of wine?" said De Rosa, even before the policeman had sat down.
"No, thank you, sir, not while I'm on duty."
"Quite right," said De Rosa. Although it didn't stop him from pouring himself a large glass of the local white.
"Could we begin," said Antonio, opening his notepad and looking down at his prepared questions. "As your family have lived in Cortoglia for over two hundred years —"
"Three hundred," corrected the truffle master.
"I was hoping you might have an opinion on who killed Dino Lombardi?"
De Rosa refilled his glass and took a large gulp, before saying, "I most certainly do, Lieutenant Rossetti, because I killed Lombardi."
Antonio looked surprised. A confession on his second day. He was already thinking about returning to Naples in triumph, and getting back to locking up some serious criminals.
"Are you willing to sign a statement to that effect?"
"Most certainly I am."
"And you do realize, Signor De Rosa, that you will have to come to Naples with me, stand trial, and you may well spend the rest of your life in jail?"
"I have thought of little else since the day I killed the bastard. But I can't complain, I've had a good life."
"Why did you murder Lombardi?" asked Antonio, who accepted that motive almost always accounted for any crime.
De Rosa filled his glass a third time. "He was an evil man, Lieutenant, who terrified everyone who came into contact with him." He paused, and took a sip of his wine, before adding, "He made their lives unbearable, mine included."
"How in particular?" Antonio persisted.
"He not only levied a crippling sales tax on my truffles, but then demanded backhanders from my oldest customers. If it had been allowed to go on for much longer, he would have put me out of business." Antonio kept on writing. "Last year the company made a loss for the first time since I took over from my late father," said De Rosa. "The truth is, he got no more than he deserved."
"I only have one more question," the detective said. "How did you kill him?"
"Stabbed him with my truffle knife," said De Rosa without hesitation. "It seemed appropriate."
"And how many times did you stab him?"
"Six or seven," he said, picking up a knife and giving a demonstration.
"I am sure you know, Signor De Rosa, it is a serious crime to waste police time."
"Yes, of course I do," said De Rosa, "but now I have confessed, you can arrest me and lock me up."
"I would be delighted to do so," said Antonio, "if only Lombardi had been stabbed."
The truffle master shrugged his shoulders. "Does it really matter? Just tell me how Lombardi was killed, and I'll confess to the crime."
This was the first time Antonio had ever known someone admit to a crime they hadn't committed.
"I'm going to leave, Signor De Rosa, before you get yourself into even more trouble."
The truffle master looked disappointed.
Antonio closed his notepad, stood up, and walked out of the room without another word. He tried not to laugh as he passed a pen full of the most contented pigs he'd ever seen, almost as if they knew they would never be slaughtered.
Antonio was on his way back to the police station, when he spotted a pharmacy on the other side of the square, and remembered he needed a bar of soap and some toothpaste. A little bell above the door rang as he stepped inside. He stood by the counter for a few moments, before a young woman came through from the dispensary, and said, "Good morning, Signor Rossetti, how can I help you?"
When you're the only person in town that nobody knows, everyone knows you.
The hardest criminals from the back streets of Naples couldn't silence Antonio Rossetti, but a chemist from Cortoglia managed it with one sentence. She waited patiently for him to respond.
"I wanted a ... bar of soap," he eventually managed.
"You'll find there's quite a good selection behind you on the third shelf down."
Antonio selected a bar, but ignored the toothpaste, because he wanted an excuse to return as soon as possible. He placed the soap on the counter and tried not to stare at her.
"Do the police expect to get everything free in Naples?" she asked, suppressing a smile.
"I'm so sorry," said Antonio, quickly taking some coins out of his pocket and dropping them on the counter.
"Do come back if there's anything else you need," she said, passing him a small bag.
He almost ran out of the shop and quickly returned to the police station. He sat in his office and began to write up a report on his abortive meeting with De Rosa, but found it hard to concentrate. Once he'd done so, he returned to his list of names and crossed out Truffles.
Antonio decided he would next have to pay a visit to Paolo Caraffini, the owner of the olive oil company, but this time he wouldn't call to warn him. He left the police station just after lunch, and set out for the factory on the outskirts of town, pleased he would have to pass the pharmacy on the way. He slowed down as he approached the shop and glanced through the window. She was standing by the counter talking to an elderly woman, and looked up as he passed by. She smiled, which caused him to quicken his pace and hurry away.
When Antonio arrived at the Caraffini Olive Oil factory, he asked the receptionist if he could see il Signor Caraffini.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No," he said, and produced a warrant card.
"Yes, I know who you are," said the receptionist. She picked up the phone and said, "It's that policeman to see you."
Antonio smiled, as a door on the other side of the corridor opened, and an elderly gentleman appeared. "Do come in, Signor Rossetti," he said graciously.
"I'm sorry I didn't make an appointment, sir," Antonio said as he followed il Signor Caraffini into his office.
"That is quite understandable," said Caraffini, "after all, you were hoping to take me by surprise, whereas I am not at all surprised."
"Why not?" asked Antonio as he sat down opposite him.
"Everyone knows you are investigating the murder of Lombardi, and I expected to be among the first people you would want to interview."
"Because I've never hidden the fact I hated the man, and therefore assumed that the reason you didn't want to warn me is because you're about to arrest me."
Antonio put down his pen. "And why would I want to do that, Signor Caraffini?"
"Because it's common knowledge I killed the mayor, and I've been finding the strain of having to live with the crime almost unbearable."
"Why did you kill him?"
"He was ruining my business. Another year of that damned man and there would have been nothing to leave to my children. I'm only thankful that my son is ready to take over now that I'll have to be locked up." Caraffini stood up and stretched his arms across the desk as if expecting to be handcuffed.
"Before I arrest you, Signor Caraffini," said the policeman, "I am curious to know how you killed Lombardi?"
Caraffini didn't hesitate. "I strangled him," he said, before sitting back down.
This time he did hesitate. "Does it matter?"
"Not really," said Antonio, "because I'm afraid Lombardi wasn't strangled."
"But as he was cremated, how can you be so sure?"
"Because I've read the autopsy report, and I can assure you, Signor Caraffini, he wasn't strangled."
"Tell me how he was killed, and I feel sure the murderer will give himself up fairly quickly, and that will solve all our problems."
"It most certainly will not," said Antonio. "So be sure to tell your friends, Signor Caraffini, I'm going to catch whoever did murder Lombardi — and put them behind bars," he added, as he slammed his notebook closed.
As Antonio got up to leave, he spotted a photograph on Caraffini's desk. The olive oil manager smiled. "My daughter's wedding," he explained. "She married the son of my dear friend, Signor De Rosa. Oil and water may not mix, lieutenant, but olive oil and truffles certainly do." He laughed at a joke Antonio presumed he'd made many times before.
"And the chief bridesmaid?" said Antonio, pointing to a young woman who was standing behind the bride.
"Francesca Farinelli, Signor Pellegrino's niece, who I had rather hoped would marry my second son, Mario, but it was not to be."