He felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
Behind the admiral trailed a good baker's dozen of the Seaview's crew. Behind them, shepherding the men as if they were a herd of cattle ranged a small contingent of policemen. Nelson had found the men in various stages of dishevelment, looking them over as they emerged from side streets along the route they were taking to what he assumed was the police station. Kowalski and Patterson seemed to be in the worst shape, each supporting the other with an arm over the shoulder. Kowalski's jumper was torn at the neck and his nose was bloodied. Patterson sported a black eye and, minus a shoe, he was limping along.
The light streaming from the door of Police Headquarters was bright enough to outline the familiar form of Chip Morton as Nelson approached the building. Chip was pacing up and down in front of the doorway, hands rubbing his upper arms; for all the warmth of Italian summers, the early mornings were naturally cool. Nelson was glad he was wearing a jacket.
As soon as Chip spotted the admiral, he straightened, shook away the policeman trying to stop him and met them about halfway down the block.
"What's this all about, Chip?" Nelson asked.
"Well, Admiral, from what we've been told there's a missing religious statue, and the police think Lee and I stole it, sir!"
"That can't be true, Mr. Morton," a voice from behind Nelson spoke up. "These goons think Patterson and me stole it!"
There was a chorus of "Same here, sir!"
Nelson stopped, and the whole procession came to an abrupt halt. "Say that again, Kowalski!"
"That's what they said when they grabbed us, Admiral. Some statue's missing from a church. I know the Italian word for stolen" - Admiral Nelson didn't ask him how he knew - "and statua's pretty easy to figure out. We didn't take too good to what they were telling us," he said, grimacing. "So - here we are, sir."
Kowalski readjusted Patterson's arm and continued. "Admiral, Mr. Morton, me and Patterson were, uh, just taking in some of the local color, sirs." That the local color included a raven-eyed beauty and her sister stayed unmentioned.
"The local color."
"You bet, sir! Honest, we were just about to head for the boat, it being close to the end of liberty and all. We could see the water, so figured we were heading in the right direction. We came around a corner, and, well, sir," he said as he straightened up, his jumper not cooperating, "that's when they jumped us, Admiral!"
Kowalski began telling his story, emphasizing that it had not been an even fight. The rating quickly explained how the policemen had confronted them just after coming out from one of the local bars, or osteria, was what it was called. The instant the men hidden in the shadows grabbed them they put up a flaying flight, he related, all arms and legs and language their mothers hadn't taught them. But their assailants' blows were better directed, and in a few minutes the confrontation was over. Now he was sore from what he was sure was some well-placed kicks to his ribs and his friend Pat was sporting the blossoming black eye. Kowalski had gotten in some good shots of his own, he remembered, but in the end, both were heaps in the middle of the street. Hauled to their feet, they were at the head of the procession following the admiral.
"Sir," Kowalski said, his voice now low and earnest, "we never even saw anything that looked like a church, never mind stealing anything from it!"
"I see. You go along with this, Patterson?"
The combination of alcohol and the fighting had taken their toll. "Cara mia. Bellissima," Patterson murmured, before falling against Kowalski's shoulder again.
Kowalski's face reddened. Propping his friend up once he more, he said hurriedly, "Ah, he ain't feeling so good, sir. Patterson's a good man, sir, but he's not much of a drinker, sir."
"Would that we were all so blissfully unaware," Nelson muttered. "And this is the same thing you encountered, Chip?"
"Pretty much, Admiral. We were on our way back to the boat, and got lost." Chip's sheepish look filled his face. "I swear it was only about twenty minutes when we gave up and started looking for help. That's when the long arm of the law showed up. We thought they were coming to check on us. Boy, were we wrong. We're dealing with a policeman named Masella who likes to throw his weight around. Guess he figured he'd send for you, since giving us the third degree wasn't working."
Nelson's face darkened. "Well, we're just going to see about this, aren't we?" He started up the steps while the crew, Chip and Ensign Paul (who was regretting his unfortunate turn as the OOD for some time now) fell in behind.
"Who's in charge?" Nelson bellowed, catching sight of Lee, whose face broke into a satisfied grin when he saw the admiral.
Masella rose up from his desk. "I am, Admiral Nelson. SeniorIspettoreLorenzo Masella. Please, sit down," he said, indicating the closest chair.
"Not just yet, thank you! Just explain to me what's going on around here."
A fleeting shadow of annoyance rippled through the officious officer's expression but Masella shrugged and wasted no time going through the circumstances again. When he'd finished the admiral's face was a darker red, his ear well and thoroughly rubbed and he was standing with his hands on his hips.
"There is no way my men did this, Inspector Masella. You have my personal guarantee!"
Masella thought about that for a long time. "I appreciate what you say, Admiral Nelson, but this is now a matter for your Embassy. It is not quite time to call them, but we will have to report this."
"Good Lord, man, this is ridiculous! Your own mayor will vouch that we are here on a goodwill visit. Why should we besmirch our name and that of our country by stealing a religious artifact none of us knew even existed?"
"I am in charge, not the mayor! And the facts do not lie. You and your men arrive in our peaceful town and within hours our statue is taken. It is clear there must be some connection. Therefore, it is for me to contact your Embassy. The matter is closed!" Masella shouted in accented English as he firmed his lips and glared fiercely at Nelson.
Nelson grabbed the closest chair and sat down, thrusting his hands down into the pockets of his jacket and stretching out his legs. "If you won't take my word this never happened, I'll just sit here and wait until you get hold of the Consul. All of us will wait. Captain Crane, don't say another word," he ordered as Lee's mouth opened, hung there for a moment, and then snapped shut. "It'll give us all a chance to settle down and wait for this statue to turn up. And believe me, Inspector, it will."
As in a silent movie farce, Masella grabbed a chair and settled down on it, mimicking Nelson's pose. They remained this way for several minutes while everyone grew restless.
The tension was broken by a rustle at the door, followed soon after by a large yelp.
Everyone jumped and rounded on the doorway. An apparition stood in the opening, holding onto the arm of a squirming young man.
One of the Italian policeman exclaimed, "Corzo!"
The figure did look like a crow. Draped in black from head to toe, in a style not seen in Italy in a hundred years, her head covered with an elaborate headpiece, the woman glared towards them. Only the prominent wrinkles of someone very old were visible around her eyes, nose and mouth. It was therefore a surprise when she spoke and her voice was light and accent-free.
"So, I understand Father Fermi is missing a statue. And these men have been accused of the theft?" She let go of the young man's ear and came forward into the room.
"Signorina Campi?" Masella askeduncertainly.
"Of course it's me! Ah, sorry. I did not bother to change after the performance tonight." She whipped off the lacey construction on her head, revealing a mass of auburn hair. Grabbing a handkerchief out of her pocket, she rubbed at her face and the years melted away, the wrinkles disappearing into the folds of the lace-edged hankie. What emerged from the heavy makeup was the face of a beautiful Italian woman, all dark eyes and brows and full, red lips.
Springing up, Masella offered her his chair. She ignored him.
"A good thing I went straight home after the theater, or I might never have found out what happened." She pulled on the young man's ear again. "My brother thought that making a personal intercession to the Virgin Mary to approve his latest scheme would ensure its success. He didn't think anyone would notice it was missing so soon. I take it Father Fermi stayed up to go to the welcoming reception? And realized the statue was gone when he returned to the church?" Receiving affirmation from the inspector, she turned to the men of the Seaview. "The timing was in all ways unfortunate, gentlemen. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The brother pulled away from his sister, wincing as his arm came free. "I just wanted to borrow it for a while, Sophie! I never thought the sailors would be accused! I meant no harm." He looked pleadingly in their direction, addressing all of them. "I apologize, signori."
"Ah, Emilio. One of these days…. Well, Inspector, what do you say?"
"If that is what the Signorina says happened, I will accept it." The look on Masella's face was a study in respect as he bowed slightly.
Lee's eyes opened wide at the change in the man's attitude. It was clear this woman exercised an enormous influence in the town, judging from Masella's body language.
"Where is the statue, Emilio?"
"In the garage at the villa, Ispettore."
The inspector snapped his fingers and flung a furious series of words out at his men. Grabbing the hapless Emilio on the way, they hurried out the door and disappeared.
"Miss Campi, you are a very welcome sight," Lee said, picking up her hand and kissing it. Her face lit up in pleasure. What had on first look appeared as the signs of maturity had been wiped away. Her olive-colored skin was clear and wrinkle-free, the black eyes surrounded by thick lashes rather than the heavy age lines of an old woman.
"I'm just glad I could help sort this all out. And please, call me Sophie." The smile disappeared as she turned to Masella."This is no way to treat distinguished visitors. You should be ashamed of yourself."
The inspector raised his shoulders up to his ears. "There was a report, Signorina Campi, and the evidence-"
"Unless you caught them red-handed with the statue there was no evidence," she spat at him. "This is all about the animosity between yourself and Mayor Bennici. The whole town knows about it, Lorenzo," she added when he looked about to protest. "Perhaps this is a lesson for you."
By the look on his face, this would be a lesson hard earned.
She turned her attention back to Lee. "I am Sophia Campi. My family owns the Campi Olive Oil Company among many other things here in Pendio. I actually live in Massachusetts. I'm just visiting for the summer and having a little fun playing a part in the local theater company." She did a little side step and held out her hand to Admiral Nelson. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Admiral."
The admiral, caught off guard, first looked down at the hand and then up to her face. "You said Massachusetts. You're not Dr. Sophia Campi, from Woods Hole, by chance?" Nelson exclaimed.
She turned the magnificent smile onto him. "The same, Admiral. I didn't think you recognized me in this getup."
"I apologize for not doing so right away. Lee, let me introduce you. Dr. Campi is a marine biologist at Woods Hole. I first met her at that C&GS seminar last July." He took her hand and shook it gently. "What a surprise, seeing you here!"
"I imagine it must be," she said, laughing. "I would have been along sooner, but it took me a while to find out why Emilio was acting so strangely. My foolish brother is opening a new business, and with all the rules and regulations in Italy, it doesn't hurt to ask for help in the form of divine intervention. As usual, he has gone about it the wrong way."
"Unlike ours, your timing was perfect." Lee smiled warmly before turning to his XO. "Chip, let's get everyone out of here." Lee thrust himself in front of the official. "So we're free to leave, right?"
Masella made an expansive gesture with his hand but his cold eyes were hooded and he had more the look of a predator than a friendly cat. "Of course. I apologize. Please wait and I will provide transporta-"
"No thanks!" said Lee and Chip simultaneously. Lee declared, "We'll walk - with the Admiral leading the way, of course. Uh, you can find our way back, right, Admiral?"
Nelson indicated the door. "Follow me, gentlemen. Dr. Campi, are you free sometime this weekend? I'd like to have you come aboard Seaview and give me your opinion on a research paper I'm preparing."
"I'd be honored."
"Very good, we'll make the arrangements later today." He took her hands in his. "It's wonderful to see you again, Doctor. Let's go home, everyone."
"As fast as we can," Lee asserted.
Something Chip said set the admiral to laughing, and they went out the door still chuckling. Lee smiled gratefully; with a visiting scientist aboard, the admiral was going to be better company for a while.
Lee turned back to the woman, a wide smile on his lips. "Thank you again, Sophie."
"I was happy to help. Please, come tomorrow - or perhaps I should say later today - to my family's restaurant on the boardwalk. I would like to make it up to you for your embarrassing treatment." She held up her hand again, a hint of naughty humor in her eyes. "You will be very welcome, Captain. And your men, too, of course."
Kissing her hand again, Lee said, "I appreciate the invitation, signorina. And will be sure to accept. I'd escort you home, but getting lost again would not be a good idea."
Laughing, she said, "Thank you for the thought, Captain, but my car is just outside."
He let his touch on her fingers linger a moment longer before turning to his departing crew. "Here, let me give you a hand, Kowalski." He took hold of Patterson's right arm while 'Ski smiled his thanks.
Patterson raised his head, squinting through unfocused eyes. He looked at Lee first, who almost laughed aloud at the startled expression on the man's face.
"Glad to see you're still among the living, Patterson."
Pat turned to Kowalski next. "Did we have a good time, 'Ski?"
"I'll tell ya all about it later, Pat."
"Il diavolo fa le pentole ma non i coperchi"
"The devil makes the pots but not the lids."
Meaning that sooner or later the truth will prevail, for if you
cook in a pot with no lid, people will see what you're cooking!
Thanks go to The Smiling Eggplant blog for the title…