Cold Tuscan Stone: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery #1

Cold Tuscan Stone: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery #1

Rick Montoya has moved from New Mexico to Rome, embracing the life of a translator. He's settling in to la dolce vita when a school friend who is now senior ...

About The Author

David P Wagner

David P. Wagner is a retired foreign service officer who spent nine years in Italy, learning to love things Italian. ...

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Chapter One

Fall’s coldest day brought a damp chill that seeped through clothing and skin, but the bearded man was oblivious to the temperature. He crossed his arms over his chest, bent forward slightly, and focused on the figures before him. His breath came in small clouds of vapor, obscuring the scene that held his gaze. He could not tear his eyes away from the drama before him.

The funeral procession he watched followed the ancient traditions of Etruria, but timeless sorrow etched deeply into the faces of the family. Two powerful horses pulled the covered cart, heads bowed as if to honor the dead man inside. Their waving manes and pulsing muscles, so full of life, contrasted with the flat, tomb-shaped stones of the wall behind them. The wife, or perhaps an older daughter, followed on foot behind the cart with two children in tow, their eyes questioning her in silence. Behind their round faces her robe dragged on the ground, covering sandaled feet. She gripped the tiny hands and stared ahead, her face stiff with grief. The observer guessed the two small figures were the grandchildren of the deceased, not quite aware of what was going on, but sensing something dark. A lone, male rider, cloak flowing behind him, sat on a saddled horse at the head of the cortège. The steed strained forward against the reins, but the man’s head was turned back toward the cart, his face reflecting the sadness of the woman. Was he her brother, and now the reluctant head of the family?

The watcher would never know. He breathed deeply and pulled at his carefully trimmed beard, hoping the gesture didn’t betray his nervousness to the two men with him.

“Spectacular,” he said. One arm reached out to touch the cold alabaster, its fingers running across the smooth faces of the two draft horses, down through the curled grooves of the milky manes, and pausing for a moment at the muscles of their shanks. His hand and eyes continued to caress the stone as he spoke. He almost whispered, as if he were standing before an altar in a church. “It looks like it was carved yesterday.”

The two other men exchanged glances, and one of them spoke.

“The urn was discovered only recently, and it has been professionally cleaned with great care.” The voice was clipped and businesslike. “Had it been exposed to the elements for more than two millennia, instead of buried in a tomb all that time, it would never have survived in this condition.”

The three men stood in a half-lit basement room around the only piece of furniture in the space—a table on which the rectangular stone box sat. A heavy black cloth, which had covered the piece when they had entered the room, was now folded neatly on the side of the table. The damp chill of the Milanese streets outside had seeped into the house; only the lack of wind kept the temperature bearable. All three men kept on their heavy coats, not that there was anywhere to hang them. A musty smell, maybe of something stored there in the past, permeated the room, but the man intently inspecting the funerary urn was oblivious to all but the stone box before him.

“Volterra? Fourth century BC?” His eyes kept on the urn, examining the sides where the carving continued.

“Precisely.” The two returned to silence as their visitor circled the box. The collector had made his desires known weeks ear- lier—put in his order, as it were—and they had delivered. Now it was time to let the Etruscan urn itself make the final sale.

Minutes passed before the man turned from the ancient stone to the two men who had been waiting patiently. “The cover?”

“This is the way it came to us. The lid must have been lost or destroyed at some point.”

The first man ran his hand along the top edge and peered inside. “That makes it considerably less desirable.”

“The price reflects that.”

“Your price does seem reasonable…but I should like a few days to decide. It is not a small sum. Perhaps I could take a few photographs to help me—”

When the potential buyer lifted a small camera from his coat pocket the larger of the other two stepped forward and held up his hand.

“No.” He spoke a touch too firmly. Then he added, in a less menacing tone, “I’m sure you will understand that photograph- ing this piece is impossible. Under the circumstances.”

“Yes, I understand completely.” He slipped the camera back into his pocket. “As to the tomb where it was found. Where was it located?”

The two associates exchanged glances, as if to decide who would reply. The shorter one finally said, “I’m afraid we can only say that it was in Tuscany, in the area around Volterra.” He glanced again at his companion. “We are not told the exact location.”

The man pretended that the answer satisfied him. “Yes, of course.”

After a few more minutes of examination, the urn was covered with the cloth again and the three walked to the door. The buyer opened it and headed up the shadowed stairs toward the street. The larger man turned to his colleague and shook his head quickly. The other nodded agreement before following their visitor up the stairs. At the top, a metal door creaked open. The three stepped outside into a fog that almost obscured the building across the narrow alley. The short man pulled out a key and noisily closed the deadbolt on the door before turning to the client. Thirty meters away, where the alley began, cars crept slowly through the fog, their lights on but dimmed. The Milanese knew fog well and treated it with respect. The three walked in silence out to the street where they stopped.

“I will be in contact by the end of the week. I know you need an answer.”

The two dealers smiled stiffly and nodded. No handshake was offered, so the buyer hurried off toward the center of town while a tram rumbled past him on its tracks, making the sidewalk vibrate under his feet. They watched him until one tapped the other on the arm and jerked his head back toward the passage. By the time the tram was passing the alley, the key was back in its metal door.


Chapter Two

It just doesn’t seem possible.

Rick Montoya settled back into the soft back of the chair, stretched his long legs so that his tooled leather boots were visible, and faced the official sitting behind the heavy wooden desk. The office had to be one of the choice rooms in the ministry, its windows overlooking the orange tiled roofs of central Rome. In the distance the large tricolor flag of Italy fluttered slowly over the presidential palace, silhouetted by one of the seven hills. If this were a hotel, the view alone would make the room worth hundreds of Euros a night, with or without breakfast. The man behind the desk spoke into the phone as he smiled at Rick.

“Two coffees please, Marta.”

Was this really Beppo Rinaldi? Rick had run into Beppo on the Via del Corso just after moving to Rome six month earlier, but they hadn’t much time to talk. The two exchanged business cards and promised to meet and relive their high school days on the basketball team. When Beppo called a few days ago, Rick had all but forgotten the encounter.

Rick, along with everyone else in their class at the American Overseas School of Rome, always assumed that Beppo Rinaldi would go into the family business. Beppo was a Roman, after all, one of a minority in the school where most students either had one American parent or were the kids of diplomats working at the foreign embassies. With his American foreign service father and a Roman mother, Rick fell into both categories. Beppo, however, was the scion of rich local parents who thought fluent English and an American high school education would serve their son well in international business.

But Beppo had surprised Rick by saying that instead of joining his father’s company, he was working at the Ministry of Culture. That career shift was startling enough, but now what fully amazed Rick was the section of the ministry where his friend sat. Beppo, the goofy kid whose claim to fame in school was a lucky winning shot in a basketball game, was now investigating stolen antiquities. Rick shook his head and returned the smile as Beppo put down the phone.

“Beppo, I can’t believe you’re working here. I—”

“You thought I’d be working for my father? I thought I would too, but when I started my university studies I got interested in art history. Loved it. One thing led to another, and before I knew it here I was. Not bad, huh?” He glanced up at the painted ceiling of the room. The palazzo had once housed a religious school, and a well-funded one at that. The Jesuits had spared no expense on the decoration of this part of the building, but Rick suspected the classrooms were more spartan. “And your translation business, Rick, I trust it is prospering?”

The question prompted Rick to straighten his tie. Lunch with an Italian meant coat and tie, and in his short time back in the city Rick had spent much of his earnings, perhaps too much, on an Italian wardrobe. So while not dressed as well as Beppo, he didn’t look like an American tourist. Only his cowboy boots gave a hint of his New Mexico roots, but he told his Roman friends that he wore them for their comfort. Which was just what he’d told his drinking buddies in Albuquerque when they’d noticed his Bruno Magli loafers. Today he’d almost put on a pair of light brown wing tips to go with charcoal gray slacks and a blue blazer, all three recent acquisitions, but instead convinced himself that the well-shined boots worked just fine. A dark blue shirt and solid red tie completed the wardrobe. You can never go wrong, his father always told him, with a solid red tie.

“Thankfully, yes, Beppo, the translating business is doing well. It’s still just me and my computer, but I may have to hire a secretary soon and even get a real office instead of working out of my apartment.” He scanned the room while shaking his head in disbelief. “It won’t be as sumptuous as this, of course. So, where do you want to eat?”

Beppo leaned forward, elbows on the desk. He folded his hands under his chin, showing more forehead between eyes and hairline than Rick remembered from school days. They say that nobody changes much from high school, but Rick was starting to notice some differences beyond the tailored suit and the receding hair. Beppo’s expression could be serious.

“Rick, before we go to lunch to talk about the good old days at AOSR, there’s something I want to discuss with you. Something to do with my work. I think you could be of considerable help, if you accept my proposition.”

Just as I suspected, Rick thought, there had to be something more than a reunion afoot. Rick had split his life between Italy and New Mexico, so he’d spent enough time in Rome to think like a local. Cosa ćè dietro? ‘What’s behind it?’ the cynical Roman would ask himself in even the most innocuous situation. More often than not, such ingrained skepticism served the romani well. But Beppo could be a positive contact for his business, and his workload of the moment would not keep him from taking on more business, not by a longshot. Translations for Beppo would be a great way to get his foot in the door at the ministry, and could lead to other government work around the capitol.

“As long as it doesn’t take too long. I’m hungry.”

Beppo gazed at his friend for a few moments with a weary expression that Rick did not remember seeing in school. “Not that long. Let me show you something.” He got up from the desk and walked behind Rick’s chair. Having been dazzled by the window views of the city, Rick had not noticed a table near the door which held a large object covered by a black cloth. Beppo carefully pulled off the cloth, revealing a highly-decorated stone box. The sides were carved in relief, covered with figures in action. It was a battle scene, soldiers wielding spears and shields, wearing armor and helmets. Centered in the rectangular front panel, in the middle of the fray, a charioteer commanded his two horses. In contrast to the chaos of the war panels, a carved human figure covered the lid of the urn, an aged man reclining on a sofa, his wrinkled head held up by a hand cupped under his chin. He could have been sitting for a portrait while enjoy- ing an ancient banquet.

At Beppo’s nod, Rick reached out, running his palms over the carvings, feeling the stone reliefs with his fingertips. “Etruscan? I was a language major in college so it’s not a period I have studied. No doubt you have.”

Beppo stared as if seeing the stone for the first time. He kept his eyes on the piece as he spoke.

“Often the Etruscan are described as mysterious, but that’s mainly because serious study of them started relatively recently and so much is still unknown about their civilization. Histori- ans spent more time on the Romans, who absorbed Etruscan territory into their empire. And only in the last century has the Etruscan language finally been deciphered, which has led to many more discoveries about them. And as you might expect, much of the scholarship has been done in Tuscany, since most of the cities in the Etruscan federation are found there. This urn was found in western Tuscany.”

He glanced at Rick and then returned his gaze to the stone. “It is a fairly typical Etruscan burial urn from the fourth century BC. It held the ashes of a wealthy person, though likely not very prominent politically, given the urn’s size. The figures on the front and sides are myths or perhaps an important battle, but they’re typical, and likely had nothing to do with the life of the man whose ashes were placed inside.” He carefully placed a hand on the stone head and ran his fingers over its features. “However, the image of the man himself is accurate. The Romans raised portraiture, especially in sculpture, to levels never seen before and rarely repeated since. They probably learned their early skills from the Etruscans. This figure of the deceased is an excellent example of how Etruscan artists captured the real person in their work. They don’t romanticize the subject, as you can see.” Rick glanced at his friend’s face and grinned. “Where is the Beppo I remember, the guy in the back of the class, always quiet?

You sound like a professor.”

A brief smile flitted across what had been a serious face, contemplating the carving. “Sorry, Rick, I love this stuff. But let me tell you what has happened.” He glanced away from the urn to Rick. “And how you might help us save some of these beautiful objects.”

This didn’t sound like a translation job.

“Several urns from this period, like this one, have suddenly appeared on the market. Their sale is illegal, of course. Anything discovered in a dig is the property of the Italian state, but you know the sale of stolen or looted artifacts is big business. It’s what keeps our office busy.” He walked back to the desk as he talked while Rick returned to his chair. “We think that a new tomb has been discovered, and not by reputable archeologists. These pieces have begun turning up in the usual places, and we are doing our best to track down the sources. It hasn’t been easy. Oh, thank you, Marta.”

A woman had arrived with a round tray bearing two plastic cups, four packets of sugar, and a pair of tiny wooden sticks. She put the tray on the edge of the desk and disappeared. Both men reached forward, took a packet, and tore open their sugar. “Not very elegant, I’m afraid. If you call on the minister you

get real cups and silverware, but not here.”

“No problem, Beppo.” Rick stirred his espresso. “How do you know about the urns showing up on the market?”

Beppo drank his coffee in one gulp and threw the cup into a wastebasket. “We have our contacts, of course. The office got word that one was on sale in Milano last week, and we sent one of our undercover men there.” He was speaking rapidly now, and gesturing with thick-fingered hands with perfectly manicured fingernails. “Unfortunately the sellers got cold feet at the last minute and disappeared with the urn, but not before our guy had a chance to see it. He swears the piece was genuine.”

“It could have been fake?”

“There’s a large market in fakes. That isn’t our priority. Such things are usually handled by the regular police. We’re after the real thing, like that one over there.”

“That’s stolen?” “It was.”

Rick was curious about how it had turned up in Beppo’s office, but clearly his friend would say no more.

“These latest urns have all been from Volterra, Rick. Without boring you with details, I’ll say that the type of material, the carving quality, and the iconography all indicate they must have been found in a tomb near that city. So we’ll concentrate our efforts on Volterra. Once pieces leave the country, it is far more difficult to get them back. I received word this morning that one may have surfaced in Bulgaria. That is very disturbing.”

“But what do I have to do with it?”

Beppo shifted away from the desk, his jacket opening to show the brightly colored silk tie and tailored shirt. A foulard which matched the tie was casually but carefully tucked into the jacket pocket. His elegant wardrobe indicated that working for the ministry hadn’t cut Beppo off from the profits of the family business.

“The other day I remembered your connections.”

Rick was puzzled. Connections? His Italian uncle, the police- man? But how would Beppo have remembered that from high school?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, your connection with New Mexico.” Rick blinked.

“Let me explain.” Beppo opened a drawer and pulled out   a small card which he passed across the desk. After reading it, Rick became even more confused.

“A commercial art gallery in Santa Fe? I’ve been there, but now I’m completely lost.” He handed the card back.

“Rick, stolen antiquities appear in the Santa Fe art market, mostly from South America, but there is the occasional piece from Italy. We have worked with this dealer in the past, and they have always been very cooperative. I called them yesterday and they agreed to help us again for this case.”

“Still not with you, Beppo.”

“Simply put, Rick, we’d like you go to Volterra and pose as a buyer for the gallery.”

“Me?” Not what Rick had imagined. Not even close. A few documents translated, some interpreting for a visiting English speaker, but not undercover work.

“It would be like this: You are a friend of the American gallery owner, and since he knows you are now living in Rome, he’s asked you to go up to Tuscany to look into some possible purchases to export back to New Mexico. The gallery’s interested in alabaster pieces, as well as a few fine works of art, especially sculpture in the classical and Etruscan style. All legitimate, of course. You would also carefully leak the news that you might be in the market for some genuine artifacts. Volterra being a relatively small town, the word would get out and you would be approached by the men who have found the tomb with these urns. At least that’s what I think will happen.” Beppo settled back in the chair and watched his friend’s reaction.

Rick immediately thought of his Uncle Piero. Wouldn’t he love this? As the favorite nephew, Rick was the only one in the family Piero ever talked to about his work. Rick ate it up, but his mother didn’t, worried her brother was trying to steer her only son into a police career. Much too dangerous a profession for an Italian mother to accept without a fight. When Rick dined with his uncle after moving to Rome, always at the same restaurant, the subject was inevitably the crime of the moment. Overhearing snippets of conversation, the waiters at first assumed Rick was a younger police colleague. But when the true relationship became known, they noticed how similar the two men at the corner table were. It went beyond physical traits—lanky frames, kind eyes—to their gestures, the serious way they always studied the menu, and the even more serious way they both studied any attractive woman who entered the room. When Rick wrote his weekly email to his mother he never failed to mention seeing his uncle, though without the details. She may have gotten the idea that the two met at Mass.

“I don’t know, Beppo. I’d have to think about it. Do you really believe it could work?”

“I sure as hell hope so, since it was my idea and I managed to sell it to my boss.” His smile was forced. “Not that my reputa- tion within the ministero is anything you should consider before making your decision. But we must move as quickly as possible, and naturally you’ll have to get some detailed briefings here at the ministry before you drive up to Volterra. So do think about it, though please, not forever.”

Rick was thinking, all right. What first came into his head was finally visiting Volterra. In all the years he had spent in Italy as a kid he had never been to this famous hill town in western Tuscany. Rick’s father, the New Mexican, loved to explore new places in Italy but his job at the embassy didn’t allow that much time off. And Rick’s mother, the Italian, usually insisted that those precious vacation days be used to visit her family around the peninsula. There was an aunt in Tuscany, but she lived in the south east part of the region. Volterra, in the west, was always on the “to visit” list for the Montoya family. Going undercover for the Italian government would certainly make him an unorthodox tourist. How would it work? As if reading Rick’s mind, Beppo spoke.

“We, of course, would pick up all your expenses, and would also be in contact with the police in Volterra to keep an eye on you.” Rick’s eyes widened slightly and Beppo added quickly, “We don’t expect any trouble. It is our experience that these traffickers avoid violence at all costs. It would just be a precaution.”

Beppo stood and straightened his jacket.

“How about some lunch? I have a favorite place a few blocks away, and their specialty is Roman artichokes. It’s on me, by the way.” He reached into another drawer and pulled out a  book, passing it to Rick. “This is an excellent volume on the Etruscans. Pallottino is still considered the best, and I’d like you to have it even if you decide not to take up this offer.”

“Thanks, Beppo.” He flipped through the pages and came to a photograph of a funerary urn like the one on the table behind him. He turned more pages and found the she wolf is the prized piece in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Even he knew that the two figures of the infants Romulus and Remus were added in the middle ages, but that did not detract from the artistry of the Etruscan wolf.

“Something else, Rick, that hardly needs mentioning, but I must.” Rick looked up from the pages and saw that Beppo’s serious look had returned. It was becoming standard. “What I have told you here should not be shared. Except with your uncle, of course.” So Beppo did remember that Uncle Piero was a policeman.

Or had he done a background check and found out? Probably better not to ask. Something else came to mind. “Beppo, did you ever meet a girl at the university here named Erica Pedana? Art history, specializing in the Mannerists? She’s a professor now at La Sapienza.”

Beppo squinted in thought. “A relative, Rick?” “No, a friend. She’s from Rome.”

The big smile that Rick remembered from high school returned to Beppo’s face. “I got my laurea at Padova, Rick, not here in Rome, so I don’t know her. But if you’re asking if you can let her in on this business, I would rather you did not.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, seeming to realize how serious he’d sounded, and forced a laugh that was not convincing. “And the ministry will not pay to have her accompany you to Volterra.”

Rick looked at his friend and tried to understand why, whenever the old Beppo tried to emerge, he was pushed back inside by the ministry bureaucrat.

“Speaking of the university,” said Beppo, “that reminds me.” He took one of his cards from a small stand on the desk, wrote something on it, and passed it to Rick. “I had some classes with this guy in Padova. We were not close friends, and I have to admit that he was a bit strange, but it might be useful for you to meet him when you get to Volterra. He’s the curator of the Etruscan museum there.”

Rick studied the card.

“You mean if I go to Volterra.”

“Of course that’s what I meant.” He moved from behind the desk and gestured toward the office door, like a good host. “I haven’t seen Zerbino since we left the university, but he’ll remember me. You can tell him I work in the ministry, but please don’t get into specifics.” He buttoned his jacket. “Andiamo a mangiare. By the way, Rick, do you remember that game our senior year, when we played the team from the base in Aviano?” The old Beppo was trying hard. “Do you remember how tall those guys were?”

“Beppo, I am amazed you took this long to bring the subject up.”

“And do you remember how the game ended?” He was grin- ning as he opened the office door.

When they got to the elevator Rick was wondering how he would keep this from Erica. How could he just pop off to Volterra without explaining why? Beppo’s words, if Rick remembered correctly, were that he’d rather Rick did not tell her. “Rather not.” The door was clearly ajar. And when it was all over, whose bad side would he rather be on, Beppo’s or Erica’s? Not much of a decision there.

He was also thinking about Beppo’s mention that the Volterra police would be keeping an eye on him. Not that any problems were expected. It would be just as a precaution. Don’t even give it another thought.

# # #

“Aren’t you going to drink your Campari?” asked Rick.

Erica pondered the question as if it dealt with something deeper than the red liquid in her glass. Rick watched and waited. Once again—the curse of the professional translator—he remembered the meaning of her name in English. Heather. How appropriate was that? Beautiful at first look, as well as second and third looks, but a bit prickly when you get past the blossoms. That description could be used with quite a few Roman women he’d met since moving here, women who weren’t named Erica. Must be something in the water.

Erica’s long wool coat was draped over the extra chair at their table. A leather attaché case rested on the seat, next to a large shopping bag with the name Fratelli Rosetti, a shoe store a few blocks away. While Rick was talking, she had leaned forward on her elbows, her chin resting on clasped hands, the sleeves of her silk sweater pushed up to show a gold bracelet on one wrist, contrasting with a dark blue Swatch on the other. She brushed back her dark brown hair, perhaps the better to hear Rick’s story, revealing large gold hoops swinging from her ears. Her knees, covered by a plaid skirt, touched his under the small table.

When they had first met in the late summer a few months earlier, her outfit was just as fashionable. They found themselves looking into the windows of a shoe store, and since the men’s and women’s shoes were on opposite sides of the entrance, they unconsciously backed into each other. Awkward scusis were exchanged, a conversation started, and two hours later they were still chatting over empty coffee cups. She talked of growing up in Rome, studying art at the university, and a gallery internship in the exciting city of New York. He told her of his bi-cultural family, living in various parts of the world, and now trying to start the translation business in Rome. He also used diplomatic skills learned from his father to point out that New York was not considered by the people of New Mexico to be the real America. Now they sat in the same bar as that first day, a place that had become their regular meeting spot. It was about halfway between their two apartments, though Erica once pointed out that it was a few minutes closer to hers. It wasn’t, but why start another argument? The atmosphere at Mimmo’s was that of dozens of coffee bars in downtown Rome, the same neon glare bouncing off the stainless steel machines, the sweet brown smell of espresso, and the thud of metal against wood as wet coffee grounds were loudly discarded to make room for the next order. They always sat at the same table near the window, but their eyes seldom glanced out at the piazza.

Erica listened to the highly edited account of Beppo’s proposal without comment and barely touched the aperitivo in the glass in front of her. The bar was beginning to thin out now, its other clients drifting off to their homes after a quick drink and a bit of gossip with co-workers following a day at the office. Many of them were staffers from the nearby Parliament offices, their passes dangling from tri-color ribbons around their necks. She finally picked up the small glass and took a sip of the Campari as he drained the last drop of espresso from his small cup.

“Are you going to do it, Ricky?” “What do you think?”

She covered his hand with hers and her head moved closer. “I would never presume to influence your decision.” She paused. “But knowing you, I’m sure it would be difficult to keep you away from Volterra.”

She does know me, he thought. “You didn’t answer the question.” “Ricky, of course you should go. It’s your civic duty.” He was about to smile when he realized she was serious. Her next comment confirmed it. “Italy is unique in the world for our historical and artistic patrimony. If you can help in some small way to preserve it, you must take the opportunity to do so. Did

I ever tell you about my grandmother?”

He shook his head in reply, not understanding what her grandmother would have to do with all this.

“Just before she died—I was a little girl—she and I were in the church our family has gone to for generations. As we were walking out that day, Nonna stopped and pointed to an empty space above the altar of one of the side chapels. The wall, she said, once held a small painting of the Madonna in a gilt frame. The painting had the most beautiful face she had ever seen, and she often prayed before it. One day during the war, just hours before you Americans liberated the city, she was kneeling in that chapel praying for the safety of her family, when a German soldier burst into the church, brushed past her, and ripped the painting off the wall. She was still frozen on her knees when she heard the door to the church slam and a truck grind into gear outside. The painting has never been recovered.” She paused, stuck in the memory. “I sometimes wonder if Nonna’s story helped push me toward art history.”

He rarely saw this side of her. More often than not their conversations about her work got stuck on faculty intrigues, apathetic students, or the lack of outside consulting opportunities. But a few times, and only a few, her passion broke through, showing why she had picked art history as her life work. He savored the moment as she took another drink of the Campari. Her serious look brightened.

“You’ve been to Volterra, haven’t you, Ricky?”

Did she know the answer? “I’m ashamed to say that I have not.”

“Well, that settles it. Fascinating town. Etruscan artifacts, Roman ruins, medieval buildings. It has everything.” She tilted her head and looked at Rick’s face. “You’ve already accepted, haven’t you?” Rick shrugged, caught, and she squeezed his hand, still underneath hers. “I wish I could go with you, Ricky.”

He felt a pang which hinted that their relationship could be more serious than he wanted to acknowledge. “I do, too.”

“Maybe I can adjust a few things on my class schedule and get away for a couple days.” Her hand remained over his. “They have some wonderful Mannerist paintings in the museum there that I haven’t seen in years. Does your friend Beppo really want you to leave so soon?”

“Yes. He thinks that every day increases the chance of losing more of these priceless funerary urns. I suppose he’s right. But could you get away? What are you looking for?”

Erica had begun rooting through her case, and now she pulled out her agenda and began to flip through it pages. Almost every professional in Italy used a leather-bound notebook which held everything from a calendar to telephone numbers, and included paper and pen for writing notes. The electronic devices were catching on, but agendas were still holding their own.

“I just remembered, there was a compagna of mine at the university who is an art dealer in Volterra. Donatella Minotti. Call and give her my best regards.” She found the name and phone number and wrote them on a paper torn from the book. “We had various classes together the first few years at the university. When we chose our specialties, she went for Etruscan art and I opted for Mannerism.” Still holding the paper, she lifted her brows. “Perhaps I shouldn’t give you her name. She’s extremely attractive.”

First Beppo and now Erica. Everyone knows someone in Volterra. He pulled the paper from her fingers, folded it, and tucked it into his jacket pocket.

“She couldn’t be more attractive than you, cara. And she’s probably married with ten kids by now.”

“Not Donatella.” She looked at him with a curious smile. “You know, Ricky, I’ll try to rearrange my schedule. I would hate to think of you spending those nights up in a strange city all by yourself.”

The desire to change her schedule said more about this Donatella woman than Erica realized, thought Rick. He dropped some coins on the table and helped her with her coat, taking in the fragrance of her perfume. It was Jicky, as he had discovered recently at her apartment, a scent that was new to him. Curi- ously, he had never focused on such things back in Albuquerque. It must be part of the acculturation process, starting to notice a woman’s perfume.

“New shoes?” Rick picked up the paper bag and held it out. “They didn’t have the pair I wanted so I had to settle for these. Why do they put shoes in the window if they don’t have them in all sizes?”

“It’s a hard life here in Rome.” As soon as the words came out he knew he’d made a mistake. Her glare confirmed it.

“Are you going to start on that again?” Erica shook her head slowly. She pulled the shopping bag from his hand and slipped her leather case over her shoulder. “I get it, Ricky. We Romans just don’t appreciate what we have. Didn’t your girlfriends in America ever complain about anything?”

She had a point. A girl he was dating before leaving for Italy came to mind, eerily enough also a professor of art history, Latin American art, not Italian Mannerism. She had railed against all manner of injustice, mostly what she considered the major issues facing society like hunger and climate change. How could two women have the same interests and yet be so different? And how could Erica one minute wax passionately about the Italian cultural heritage and in the next complain that a shoe store didn’t have her size? One thing, though, she wasn’t boring.

Fortunately the storm passed quickly, as it usually did. She took his hand as they walked to the door and out into the street. “Erica, one thing Beppo said to me is that this whole business in Volterra is, well, very confidential.” “But you told me anyway.”

He shrugged. “It would have been hard to disappear for a few days without telling you where I’d gone. And if I can’t trust you…”

Erica remained silent and appeared to be deep in thought. A light wind was blowing through the piazza, and she let go of his hand to pull her white silk scarf closer around her neck. He waited for her reaction.

“It will be colder in Volterra,” she said. “Ancient hill towns always feel colder. It must be all the stone.”

“I’ll bring an extra sweater,” said Rick.

She studied his eyes and kissed him lightly on the cheek. The softer Erica had reappeared. “Be careful, Ricky. And call me.”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered in English, with a smile that was not returned. She turned and walked across the piazza in the direction of her apartment. Even with the wool coat he could trace her slim figure, accentuated by heels which American women would deem highly impractical on the cobble stones of Rome’s historic center. But they served their purpose, thought Rick, as she disappeared around the corner.

Reviews of

Cold Tuscan Stone: A Rick Montoya Italian Mystery #1

“Wagner hits all the right notes in this debut. His likable protagonist engages, plus the Italian angle is always appealing. Perfect for readers who enjoy a complex puzzle, a bit of humor, and a fairly gentle procedural. Don’t miss this one.”

Library Journal starred review

“The intriguing art milieu, mouthwatering cuisine, and the team of the ironic Conti and the bemused but agile Montoya are bound to attract fans.”

Publishers Weekly

“Like the Etruscan urns he seeks, Rick’s debut is well-proportioned and nicely crafted.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The first in a new series, this should appeal to fans of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy novels and Iain Pears’ Italy-set art-theft series starring Jonathan Argyll and Flavio diStefano.”


“Going against a popular stereotype, Cold Tuscan Stone has far less violence and mayhem than many American stories that involve Italian criminals. More people end up eating fishes than sleeping with them.”

The Pueblo Chieftain