Gabriela deepened her breathing to calm herself as she raced to meet Eduardo. The warm October evening was mild for the northern Italian coast—more like early September. Perfect weather for an assignation with her amore along the waterside promenade known to locals as la strada dell’amore, “The Path of Love.” Her heart still raced whenever she thought of being alone with him.
Lights gleamed from the windows of the brightly painted homes and businesses towering above her on both sides of the narrow, cobblestone street, reminding Gabriela of warm nights sharing meals al fresco with friends and family in the middle of the thoroughfare. Traffic would be rerouted to a side street when that happened, giving everything a celebratory feel. Scivoloso was the quintessential Northern Italian town, with ancient stone buildings filled with history, clinging to sandstone cliffs.
In her satchel she carried a liter of the local wine, trading wineglasses for the intimacy and practicality of drinking directly from the bottle. She’d also brought two different kinds of cheese—one bovine, the other sheep—redolent with the earthy fragrance of her beloved region, a package of flatbread, and a small jar of her family’s olives.
Gabriela glanced at her phone. She was already late. Eduardo would understand. He always did. Business at the restaurant had been brisk that evening, and her uncle had asked her to finish folding the linen napkins for the next day’s lunch service.
She hurried through the metal gate designed to keep errant tourists from stumbling upon the private walkway and stepped onto the stone path that led to her and Eduardo’s special place.
A full moon sparkled across the surface of the Mediterranean, playing hide-and-seek with scudding clouds as a gusty breeze tickled her cheek, bringing with it the briny scent of the sea. Partially hidden among a venerable grove of ancient olive trees, a semicircular stone bench materialized from the darkness. Here, the view of the sea set a mood for her meetings with Eduardo; they’d spent many evenings laughing, eating, drinking, and doing other things that would have made her grandmother blush.
Curiously, Eduardo wasn’t there.
Gabriela set the satchel and wine on the bench, and was about to prepare the evening’s feast when she heard a noise further down the path.
Perhaps Eduardo had been night fishing with some of his friends. Leaving the satchel, Gabriela made her way along the darkened walkway, a smile forming on her lips as she heard her fiancé’s deep baritone rising above the relentless boom of waves crashing against the boulders below.
A storm was coming. Originating from deep within the Sahara, the scirocco was known to southern Italy as the “blood rain” for the red sand brought by the rain and cyclone-force winds. Here in the north, the system was no less destructive, bringing with it salt from the sea, damaging vineyards and structures built too close to the cliffs.
Rounding a concrete bulkhead, Gabriela stopped short at the sight before her. Bathed in moonlight, Eduardo stood below her on the sand with two men she didn’t recognize. Held from behind, dark blood dripped from Eduardo’s battered face as he struggled against the larger of the two men.
The shorter one leaned closer and said something. Eduardo shook his head, his protests obvious by his expression, although not loud enough for Gabriela to understand. The shorter man hunched his shoulders and delivered a blow to Eduardo’s stomach, and her fiancé jackknifed forward. The waves stole Gabriela’s shriek.
The shorter man stepped back. Something gleamed like a silvery fish as the man holding him reached from behind and slit Eduardo’s throat.
Gabriela’s scream ripped through her, its keening wail shrilling above the suffocating waves. Terrified she’d been heard, she slapped her hand over her mouth.
The shorter man spun her direction as Eduardo slumped to the sand. The man’s malevolent gaze speared her as paralysis battled with flight.
Terror fueled Gabriela’s escape. She didn’t register the bench or the satchel as she raced past. At the entrance to the path, she hesitated, not knowing which direction to turn. The thought of bringing this evil anywhere near her family filled her with indecision. Should she hide or run?
The sound of heavy footsteps pounding up the lane behind her spurred her on. She careened toward the safety of the town’s main street, panic clouding her memory—had any of the businesses she’d passed on her way to the beach been open?
Fighting for breath, Gabriela’s hope sank as she reached the main street. The sleepy seaside town, normally so safe and welcoming, struck her as dead and barren of life. Her panic grew as she stumbled along the ancient cobblestones, praying for rescue. Tears streamed down her face. She was about to die. Not in her old age in a comfortable bed with her children and grandchildren surrounding her as she’d always hoped, but violently afraid, taking the secret of Eduardo’s murderers with her to the grave.
She had to hide. Gabriela twisted to look behind her. The winding street was in her favor—for now. The men hadn’t yet rounded the corner. She hurried past the closed restaurants and bakery, past the gelateria that had been there for as long as she could remember. A faint glow to her left caught her eye, and she veered toward it, a moth to a flame.
The sign hanging in the glass door read Chiuso. Closed. Her heart sank at the rows of empty bookshelves visible through the glass. A light in the back of the store lit a flame of hope that someone was there. She tried the handle.
Stifling a sob, she knocked, gently, careful not to make too much noise, praying to the Virgin to deliver her from danger.
Between howls of angry wind, the sound of footsteps echoed in the street behind her. The men’s pace had slowed. They were being cautious, aware a violent death in the street would bring attention in this small town.
Her violent death.
Her terror growing, Gabriela grasped the door handle and tried to shake the lock free.
The light inside the store momentarily dimmed as the silhouette of a tall, broad-shouldered woman emerged from the back. A sob of relief escaped Gabriela, and she waved frantically.
The woman opened the door and drew her inside, her other hand cutting short the delicate tinkle of bells used to announce visitors to the store. The faint scent of jasmine and ylang-ylang mixed with a feeling of safety enveloped Gabriela and she instinctively relaxed. The woman closed and locked the door, then pulled the privacy shade before moving Gabriela swiftly to the back room where she turned off the light.
“Thank you, I—” Gabriela began, but the woman held a finger to her lips, and she quieted. Seconds later, the front door rattled, and the woman stiffened.
No, stiffened wasn’t the right word. Gabriela detected no fear in her, only focus and self-assurance.
Gabriela leaned against the wall, her breath shallow as she tried to calm her racing heart. The woman stood and listened, hidden by shadow.
The door shuddered once more. Low voices floated toward them, then faded as the men continued their search. Gabriela and the woman waited in silence several more minutes. The ticking clock on the opposite wall echoed through the small room, marking the moment.
The immediate threat gone, the woman relaxed and lowered her arm. Gabriela hadn’t noticed the gun.
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