Maria Pia Angelotta?
The woman who, on the subject of body art, runs the gamut from nausea to horror?
Little did I know that before the week was up, I'd be seeing another Belfiere tattoo-on a corpse.
If this Belfiere cooking society was enough to get my squeamish grandmother ready to run out and get inked, I didn't like it. Neither did Landon. I could tell by the fact that in the last thirty seconds he had left traces of mint leaves and chocolate shavings in his otherwise perfect hair.
We followed her back into the dining room, where the last of the evening's customers were weighing the effort of pushing themselves off their chairs against hanging around for the late-night regulars' first set. Our cousin Choo Choo Bacigalupo, the maitre d', dimmed the lights and smiled suggestively at his crush, our server Vera Tyndall.
Paulette and Mrs. Crawford-our mysterious pianist who I suspect was named Mrs. Crawford at birth-could tell something was afoot from Landon's hair and the fact that my black chef's toque had fallen over my eyebrow. The two of them shot us questioning looks. Pointing at the violet invitation in Nonna's hand, I mouthed, "Get the card," at them.
Paulette improvised. "Is that a c.o.c.kroach?" she exclaimed loudly, stalking over to a dark corner behind the bar where our octogenarian bartender, Giancarlo Crespi, was slicing lemons with manic ferocity.
"Where?" gasped Maria Pia. She quickly glanced around to see what effect this discovery was having on business-zero-so she headed toward the corner, still clutching the violet invitation from the crackpot cooks at Belfiere.
I looked pleadingly at Mrs. Crawford. Without a ripple of change in her expression, she performed the arpeggio that opened my grandmother's favorite song, "Three Coins in a Fountain."
All interest in an alleged c.o.c.kroach evaporated.
Maria Pia fanned herself demurely with the invitation, acting as though her nightly mad interpretive dance to the fountain song had been vigorously requested by the crowd.
There was no crowd. There was a red-nosed businessman hoping another split of champagne would cure the eye-rolling boredom of the young redhead with him. There was a table of five flashy women who kept trying to top each other's bad boyfriend stories but had dressed with enough dazzle that they were probably secretly hoping those boyfriends would walk in. There was a very pregnant gal thumbing through a baby name book and disagreeing with everything her husband liked.
No one was clamoring for my nonna's expressive whirling, but with a theatrical flourish, she set the invitation down on an empty table and launched into the song. She got as far as "Three-" and was sucking in a big breath, when our singer, Dana Cahill, came motoring up to her shouting, "No, no, no!"
At that moment Landon oozed by the table, snagged the violet card, and disappeared into the kitchen. I knew he was heading to the office at the back, where he'd make us a copy of this invitation from Belfiere that was already smelling like five-day old mackerel.
Dana smiled indulgently at Maria Pia and drew her aside, out of earshot of the late-night regulars. "Don't you remember what week this is, M.P.?"
To which my bemused grandmother said, "Heh?"
Dana smoothed her bobbed and dyed black hair, as if it ever got wayward, and licked her vampirish red lips. She was wearing a sleeveless black sheath I think I saw at Saks in the Donna Karan collection and a black armband. Who died? Knowing Dana, it could have been the death date of some obscure Russian poet-anything to throw out there if someone asked her about the cloth around her bicep. She chooses her dramatic effects and then digs up a plausible reason for them.
"It's Grief Week," she said in a way that reminded me a nun in fourth grade when some poor boy couldn't name the ninth Station of the Cross.
My grandmother looked puzzled.
Dana explained, enunciating each syllable. "Se-mano do-lo-ro-so. Grief Week." For someone wearing a black armband, she was sporting a lot of gold jewelry-about two pounds of it.
Maria Pia Angelotta looked like she was about to strong-arm the slight Dana out of her way. "I must give them"-she slapped a hand on her breast-"what they want." (In that case, Nonna, grappas all around.) But Dana went on to remind my thwarted grandmother that the third week in June honors the losses suffered-in a bizarre coincidence-by the regulars during that week. Different years, same week. It all came back to me. It was the third week in June when the clarinet's wife left him, the mandolin's son died in a road accident, the drummer's mother succumbed to a bee sting, Giancarlo Crespi's father died on Okinawa during WWII, and Dana Cahill's bassett hound, Booger, died (probably just to stop answering to that name).
So in a show of solidarity that annually drives away customers, our late-night regulars take the opportunity to play maddeningly mournful music. If the song features justice gone awry or star-crossed love, they were all over it. And if it wasn't already down tempo, they'd work their anti-magic on it until it was.
Maria Pia glowered at the hang-dog regulars. "Oh, all right," she spat.
Mrs. Crawford lifted her fishnet-gloved hands from the keys, and the regulars launched into their first number that I'm pretty certain was a dirge played for wailing crowds at state funerals in Kazakhstan, when Dana leaned in to me. "I love what they do with 'Teen Angel,' " she whispered.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Landon slipping the invitation from Belfiere back to the spot our nonna had left it, just as she seemed to remember she had set it down, and turned to retrieve it. Landon patted his pants pocket, which I took to mean that he had stashed the copy there, and I looked at him quizzically.
Blinking, he mouthed a big exaggerated "Wow!" at me. So he had read it.
I wasn't reassured.
He headed toward the kitchen and whispered as he passed, "Wait 'til you see it."
Staring, Landon kept walking. "No good can come of it," he intoned.
Landon and I managed to clear everyone out of Miracolo by 11:52 p.m., well before its usual closing time. Grief Week was just going to have to be a tad less grief-filled this year; we had a crazy cooking society to discuss before collapsing into our beds.
The staff warbled their good-nights, Landon killed the lights, I locked up, and then we headed across Market Square to Jolly's Pub, which stays open until 2 a.m.
The downtown commercial district in Quaker Hills, Pennsylvania, consists of shops and businesses that line all four sides of the three-acre green s.p.a.ce called Providence Park. Straight across the park from us is Jolly's Pub, owned by a second-generation, pencil-mustached Brit named Reginald Jolly. I think of him as the anti-Maria Pia-he's as inscrutable and self-controlled as she is generally Out There. They approach each other warily, which is wise, and not often.
Landon flicked open the top two b.u.t.tons of his shirt as we loped across Market Square and then the park. "Hi, Akahana," I called to our j.a.panese bag lady, who was stretched out on the kiddie slide, reading by the halogen light of a head lamp. I could tell by her grunt that she was pondering the origins of consciousness, her favorite late-night activity.
The entire front wall of Jolly's Pub had been raised up and out of sight like a garage door, and the drinking crowd had spilled out to scattered tables fronting Market Square. Inside was a long bar that gleamed like a grand piano and cafe tables holding battery-op candles that flickered like the real thing. No Grief Week on this side of the Square. Glasses clinked. Voices topped each other. Late-night laughter sounded like surf. The scent of Scotch perfumed the summer air. Floating close to the tin ceiling was the sound of Bob Dylan singing "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Maybe I could just hang out at Jolly's for the rest of Grief Week.
Landon and I grabbed a table, signaling two short ones to Jeanette, the bartender. Listing over to one hip, he teased the copy of the Belfiere invitation from his pants pocket. Landon is probably my best friend and the closest thing I'll ever have to a brother in this lifetime. After my mom died when I was nine and my father-Maria Pia's oldest son, Jock-took off for parts unknown when I was fifteen, Landon's dad gave me a home, partly to keep me out of his mother's clutches. It almost worked.
He slid the paper across the table to me.
My fingers walked over to it and slowly drew it toward me.
After about three seconds, Landon erupted into fits of exhaled air and pulled his chair around so he was shoulder to shoulder with me. I smiled at him. Bullets leave guns slower than the limits to my beloved cousin's patience. "Oh, here," he cried, as if I'd bungled the unfolding. In what looked like one motion, he unfolded the copy of the Belfiere invitation, smoothed out the creases, and spun it to face me.
Centered at the top was what looked like a coat of arms. The shield seemed shaped like a funnel, which I suppose made more sense than something you'd carry into battle. Even on the worst days, the kitchen at Miracolo didn't get that bad. In the upper right quadrant were three silver knives with identical ebony handles laid side by side. A carmine-colored slash ran diagonally from there down to the lower left quadrant, where a black mortar and pestle was pictured. Below the funnel-shield was a scroll with the words NUMQUAM NIMIS CULTRI. Possibly Latin for Crazy Cooking Club?
And then I read:.
The Society of Belfiere.
honoring the gustatory delights of life and death welcomes you as a member You will first undertake to receive the traditional 3cm "B" tattoo in b.a.s.t.a.r.da font on the wrist of your stirring hand You will prepare an exclusive evening meal for fifty guests on Friday, June 20 at 9 p.m.
You will provide yourself with the traditional Belfiere gown in midnight-blue satin for your induction on Sunday, June 22 at 10 p.m.
at 7199 Gallows Hills Drive Pendragon, Pennsylvania You must arrive and depart alone You must perform all instructions faithfully and In all things pertaining to Belfiere you must observe omerta We are 200 years old and our traditions are known only to ourselves In matters of our history we are Clotho In matters of ourselves we are Lachesis In matters of food we are Atropos We are Belfiere I shuddered.
"I know!" whispered Landon, his green eyes wide.
Our Scotch arrived-Laphroaig for me, Oban for Landon-and we stared at the amber liquid. Whatever this whole Belfiere thing was, Maria Pia Angelotta had unquestioningly bought into it, so the prosciutto was about to hit the fan.
"Our fortress has been breached," I told Landon moodily, picking up my drink.
"The barbarians are at the gates," said Landon, lifting his drink, adding, "and they are so wearing last year's fashions."
"Dwelling on the line about the midnight blue?"
"Well," he lifted his elegant shoulders, "coupled with the satin-" He punctuated his scorn with a little sound that went something like "Puh!"
I took one sip I let slosh from side to side, then knocked back the rest. "I mean, what's their brand? On the one hand, b.a.s.t.a.r.d tattoo fonts-"
"On the other," said Landon, sipping, "an elegant dinner for fifty. I agree. And girlfriend, let's not even touch the"-his voice dropped-"omerta line."
Omerta is the code of silence, usually reserved for certain Italian neighborhoods. Usually understood as the cost of doing business with certain Italian businessmen. Or getting the business from certain Italian business men. The fact that Belfiere members were bound by this code of silence gave me the creeps.
I signaled for a second glass. "There's a lot of death talk in this invitation," I pointed out. "Omerta, the Three Fates-"
Landon took the paper back. " 'The gustatory delights of . . . death.' " He shivered. "What are they talking about? What are those?"
Indeed. "Do they believe in some kind of epicurean afterlife, or . . . "
Landon caught my drift. "Or does Belfiere 'help' you on your way? An assisted suicide cult?"
My skin p.r.i.c.kled with danger. I didn't like this one bit. I whispered, "Or . . . could Belfiere be . . . a murder club?"
Sh.e.l.lEY COSTA is an Edgar Awardnominated, internationally published author of short fiction; her stories have appeared in anthologies and journals including Alfred Hitchc.o.c.k's Mystery Magazine, The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Blood on Their Hands, and Crimewave from the U.K. She holds a Ph.D. in English and is the author of The Everything Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. Her first novel, You Cannoli Die Once, kicks off her Miracolo mystery series.
A former New Yorker, she lives near Cleveland and is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she teaches fiction writing and screenwriting. Visit www.sh.e.l.leycosta.com.
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