“Isabel,” she said when I was standing in front of her. Ee-sabel.
I hadn’t pulled off my cap, and for some reason I felt pleased that she had recognized me.
Elena wore a rose-colored bikini with geometric shapes on it. She had a toned body and a light tan. Next to her, a lounge chair held a few wet towels as if someone had just been there.
She stood and I introduced her to Theo. They shook hands, and then Theo pointed at a chair across the deck, about twenty feet away. “I’ll be over there.”
Elena sat on her lounge chair, her feet on the stone floor, and patted the space next to her. I sat.
She slipped her sunglasses back on. “What are you doing here, Isabel? Isn’t it your birthday?”
“Happy birthday,” she said, smiling fondly.
“Thanks. So, I spoke to your assistant. She mentioned you might be here. And we were looking to get out of Rome.”
“We?” She looked at Theo, then back at me. “A beautiful man. Who is he to you?”
I explained that we’d dated a short time. I told her about Maggie coming over to visit me and meeting Bernard, how I’d then invited Theo. It sounded like a real vacation, and I liked that. I didn’t want to make Elena cautious, not just yet.
“Isabel,” she said. “Why are you here, really?” She shook her head a little. She sounded faintly annoyed.
“I just want to ask you a few questions.”
Something niggled at my mind.
I just want to ask you a few questions. It was exactly what I used to say when I was a trial lawyer, in a courtroom, in front of a witness I was about to cross-examine.
And right then, although I was sitting on a canvas chair on a Mediterranean island, I decided to interrogate my aunt.
I remembered in a rush the training in law school and all the times I’d stood in front of witnesses. Some of them were expert witnesses, some lay-most of them reluctant witnesses who didn’t want to talk to me. My trial teacher had always said, Use a witness before you abuse a witness. In other words, get all the concessions you can, be as friendly as you can, before you attack. I realized that was exactly what I needed to do here.
“Is that okay?” I said. “If I just ask you a few questions?”
She gave a brief nod.
I felt the calm that comes over a trial lawyer when they know exactly what they’re going to ask and how they’re going to ask it-a series of questions, general at first, then more specific. Never asking the ultimate question (which in this case was, “Is my father alive?”) but hopefully drawing so close to the issue that the witness has to admit it because there seems no other conclusion at which to arrive.
I turned so that I was facing her, but I backed up a little on the chair to give her some room-Never physically intimidate a witness too fast-and I put a congenial expression on my face. “I just want to understand our family. Where I come from.”
“Okay, so let me start at the beginning. Your mother, Oriana, was from a Camorra family, right?”
“Yes.” But she glanced around. “Please. Keep your voice down.”
I glanced around with her. The deck we were on was raised, and there was no one else on it except Theo, who was out of earshot. Still, I lowered my tone. “And Kelvin, your father, was ultimately killed by two men who were in the Camorra, is that right?”
“And the men who were in the Camorra, who killed Kelvin, they were never brought to justice, correct?”
“They were not,” she said stiffly.
Time to switch to a different topic. “My father was a psychologist.”
“Is that correct?” I said.
“And he worked as a police profiler.”
“He worked for the Detroit police.”
“He worked on Mob cases, right?”
“Yes, Isabel.” She was growing a little weary now. Any witness being cross-examined gets to that point-where they are simply tired of it. That was fine. I knew exactly where to go from there.
“And at the time my father died, he was working on the case of the Rizzato Brothers, is that right?”
A pause. Then, “That’s right.”
“The Rizzato Brothers were Camorra.”
She glanced over my shoulder as if she were looking for someone. “That is what I’ve heard.”
I followed her gaze. We were still alone on the deck. “You’re not sure?”
“No, I suppose that is correct.”
I heard my trial professor-Always get an exact answer to your question.
Elena shifted slightly on the chair and adjusted her silver sunglasses.
“Elena,” I said, “would you mind removing your sunglasses?”
Though I’d said it kindly, it was a rather forceful request from a niece to an aunt, but my aunt complied. Her eyes, brown and flecked with green, were sad, and a little confused. I hated that confusion, and yet it was exactly what I needed to see.
“So, I’ll ask again. The Rizzato Brothers were known to be members of the Camorra, right?”
“Yes, Isabel. Why all these questions?” Another glance over my shoulder.
“Just give me a few more minutes. I’m trying to figure out something.”
She bowed her head a little as if to say, Continue.
“Thank you. Now, the Brothers Rizzato, who were Camorra-they were from Ischia, correct?”
“I suppose I have heard that.”
“You’ve heard that?”
“Okay. And Ischia is outside of Naples, isn’t it?”
“And Naples is the home of the Camorra, right?”
Elena nodded, and in that instant, I felt as if I were back in the courtroom. I could see myself standing at a distance from the witness, then moving closer.
“And last night in Naples,” I said as I scooted forward on the lounge chair, leaning a little toward Elena. “I was chased by two men with guns.”
She shook her head quickly, her eyes blinking. “Is that true? Did that happen?”
“It happened. In Naples. And do you know, Elena, that the day before I was at the antimafia office in Rome, asking about the Camorra?”
“I did not know.” Her eyes were alarmed.
“And at the antimafia office, I asked about my father. I also mentioned the fact that he was working on a Camorra case when he was killed.”
Elena dropped her head in her hands. When she looked back up at me, her eyes were in agony. “Is that true?”
“It’s true. What is also true is that your family, this family-” I pointed to my chest “-has believed their father to be dead for all these years. It is true that I-” once again I pointed to myself “-will not stop asking about him. I will not stop asking questions. I will never, never stop. So let me ask you a simple question now-Isn’t it, true, Elena, that you do not want your family to be in torment?”
“No,” she said. “Of course, I do not.”
“And you do not want your family to be in danger, do you?”
“No. I do not.”
“And you do not want your family to live like this anymore, do you?”
Elena began to cry, or rather, a single tear slipped from her right eye. She acted as if it hadn’t happened. She didn’t move to brush it away.
“I was thinking about something this morning,” I said. “You didn’t go to his funeral.”
She didn’t reply. And right then I decided to deviate from cross-examination rules and go for it. “You didn’t attend the funeral, because you knew it wasn’t true. You knew he wasn’t dead. Isn’t that right?”
She didn’t reply right away. But she did respond-she nodded.