In the spirit of “Stop waiting,” I’ve decided to release of few chapter of my murder mystery, Under the Tuscan Gun. If you like it, let me know.
“I’ve killed Elin and put her body in the trunk of my car.”
Thus Sunny greets me when I arrive at the villa.
“That’s what it feels like,” she clarifies, “I have the run of this amazing house and she’s not even here.”
At exactly five feet tall, I doubt that Sunny could murder anyone, let alone stick the body in a trunk, although her husband may beg to differ. As it is, she has to stand on tiptoes just to hug my husband, Mike, and I “Ciao!” and we are no giants, being half Irish with mothers who smoked during pregnancy. We are slowly taking in the view from the “house” which is situated on an old, hillside olive grove. Overlooked by the medieval hill town of Capalbio, whose crenellated walls and stone castle looms above, Elin’s villa sits above the vineyards of the Maremma, which loom below. The green and gold slopes of clay and grapes and earth eventually dissolve right into the sea a few kilometers away. It was every stunning photo you’ve ever seen of the hills and valleys of Tuscany, plusa beach, in case you were wondering how Tuscany could get anymore amazing.
Oh, and there was a pool.
A few weeks earlier when she had called us with an amazing offer – one that had words in it like “Tuscan apartment” and “free” – we hoped for the best but also tried to manage our expectations. Accommodations in Italy, even in the best of circumstances, were not without their quirks whether it’s a toilet that bellows like a sea otter giving birth every time you flush it- but is nevertheless on a vineyard with a view of all of Campania; a mattress that has two sagging depressions exactly where the people should lay in a Roman suite overlooking the Pantheon; or a tub in a suite on Venice’s Grand Canal that comes to a ‘V’ in the middle so that when you stand in the shower you have to place one foot in front of the other like you’re on a balance beam. We accepted the offer immediately for two reasons: number one, I have never not loved every moment in Italy, no matter how rustic and quirky the accommodations were, and number two, it was free. I lied. There was also a third reason: The Husband and I were running away.
We called it vacation. And according to our tickets, we would be returning. But we had packed our bags and headed to LAX feeling like fugitives escaping a pack of police dogs – if fugitives absconded in Town Cars. A little over halfway through the calendar year and we had had enough. We were jobless, childless and after some recent dinner party drama, damn near friendless, too. It was fight or flight. The entertainment business was all about the fight and I decided that I had had enough of that which left me one option that I gladly took – along with a quarter Xanax and ¾ of a bottle of Aglianico consumed in the business class cabin of Alitalia. (I recommend putting all purchases on a credit card with a decent miles program. If you’re going to run away from your problems, you should do it in comfort. What are we: Hobos riding the rails?) I was going to do a face plant into every vat of wine, bucket of gelato and trough of pasta I came across and if I was unfortunate enough to live through it, then I’d figure out the rest of my life after that.
Sunny took us on a truncated tour of the place she was calling home for the summer, because we were smacking right into the lunch hour and the lunch hour is sacrosanct. The Husband hates to miss lunch. If you do not arrive where you are going in Italy in time to order lunch, you are shit out of luck, as they say in America. The restaurants are then closed until the dinner hour and you have to find a less formal bar or café at which to order something small: a panino or a slice of pizza. Although, to be fair, Italy being what it is you can often be blown away by something as mediocre as the panini you get at the Autogrill along the Autostrada, although I’m sure real Italians wouldn’t agree. But take my word for it: Compared to the GMO road kill we’re used to at rest stops across America, it’s ambrosia.
She quickly showed us the main house. A formal dining room opened onto a living room, behind which was the kitchen. It was beautifully appointed; appliances, furnishings, décor- everything was elegant and modern. Nevertheless, the home had a warmth, as if real people lived there. A row of jackets hung above a pile of sneakers and boots near the front door. The shelves were overflowing with books along with a few pictures of Elin, her super model looks in very un-super model settings: camping, painting, cooking with friends. The most glamorous photo was from her wedding a few years before, and even that had a casual beauty to it. Elin was in a simple white silk slip dress standing in what looked to be the Capalbio town square, next to what I assumed was her husband and our “landlord” for the next week, Silvio. He was shorter than his wife, who was, after all, a model and wearing heels, with thick, wavy, dark hair. But when I looked closer I saw that his face, while handsome, was scarred on the lower half. The flesh across his jaw and neck was puckered and dimpled a raw pink in contrast to his olive skin. I guessed that they were from burns, but Sunny had never mentioned any incidents or fires in all the times she had talked about the couple. I was dying to know; a dramatic backstory is something I have an insatiable curiosity for. If someone mentions a rock bottom I need to know how hard was the rock and how far was the bottom. Nevertheless, the first four minutes I was a guest in his home didn’t seem like the right time to start prying into my host’s secrets. I told myself I could ask Sunny later as I admired the picture one last time. Silvio’s confidence, I observed, was not at all marred by the scarred flesh on the lower half. He smiled broadly. They looked happy.
Sunny took us to the kitchen, which was very important because that’s the place where we chill our wine. When it finally cooled off at night we would switch to red, but it was July and currently 98 degrees during the day with near ninety percent humidity. White wine would be required and lots of it. We had brought a few bottles of Gavi that we had picked up at an enoteca in Rome before driving up that morning and they were quickly taken out of our hands by a friendly older woman who introduced herself to us as Tina, before efficiently disposing of the bottles into a state of the art wine fridge.
Sunny explained to us on the way out, “Tina does the cooking and cleaning. Her husband, Rennato, takes care of the grounds, the pool, the olives.”
We walked across the driveway and slightly down the hill to where it had been terraced to accommodate an infinity pool on the edge of the hillside. To the right of the pool was a large guest house, with two doors opening up onto the poolside, and two more around the back.
“So we’re staying at a villa for free – with two full time staff members?” I asked.
“Three. The butler arrives from Rome later this week. He always travels with Silvio.”
“They have a butler?” I couldn’t believe it. “Does he ring the dressing gong?”
Sunny laughed and explained, “It’s not all Downton Abbeyand Remains of the Day. He’s in charge of everything that happens in the house: overseeing the staff, scheduling repairs and maintenance, keeping Silvio’s schedule and making sure he has everything he needs whether it’s his dry cleaning or the car serviced. He’s like a personal assistant except he doesn’t really want to be an actor.”
My ever-frugal husband raised a salient point. “Why are they paying people to be here if they’re not even here?”
“There’s a circus in town,” Sunny replied as if that should explain everything.
I meant to ask her to elaborate but we had just arrived at our apartment in the guest house: An airy bedroom with an en suite bath and private balcony overlooking the vineyards and hillside below. Our excitement took precedence over investigating Sunny’s cryptic answer. Besides, it was after noon in Italy, perhaps she’d already been drinking. And speaking of drinking, I was feeling parched. Sunny handed us the key to the room and instructed us to put on our bathing suits and get ready to leave. We were having lunch at the beach.
Mike immediately started sorting through his cash and gadgets, trying to figure out which of the highly steal-able possessions he should take with him to someplace they could get stolen. The Husband was a technophile and quite the amateur photographer, as well. On this trip alone, we were traveling with a laptop, a removable hard drive, an iPad, 2 iphones, an applewatch, one Canon 5D camera, numerous lenses, and a GoPro on a selfie stick. He considered it traveling light that he had left the tripod at home, although he had managed to pack something called a “monopod,” and made sure he could turn his phone into a wireless hotspot “just in case.” Next to all that, my 2ndgeneration Kindle looked like a rotary phone – or an actual book. He looked at his gear and furrowed his brow like a kid who just realized he can’t take all his stuffed animals to the sleepover with him and had to make some hard choices. He looked at Sunny, “What should I do with my camera and wallet? Leave them here?”
“They’ll be safe there,” she nonchalantly assured us, “We’re going to the beach club. Elin has a cabana rented for the summer.”
Mike and I looked at each other and smiled. This was exceeding even our “hope for the best” scenarios. I grabbed a wide brimmed hat, threw on a fake Pucci caftan, and walked to the car feeling like a vintage Italian movie star, or at least non-vintage Euro trash.
The feeling didn’t lessen when, an hour later, we were sitting on the beach, under a large canopy, eating linguini with bottarga and clams and ordering our second bottle of Vermentino.
“Marco! Put your penis away!” Sunny yelled in English to her youngest son.
It should be explained here why Sunny was called Sunny. As a child, or so the story goes, Claire Sullivan had a bossy and often abrasive disposition and a string of swear words to go along with it, picked up no doubt at the construction sites her contractor father would have to take her around to after she got kicked out of one kindergarten or pre-school or another, and he had to check in on his crews. When reporting on their youngest daughter to each other at the end of the night, one of her parents would always refer to her sarcastically as “Sunny.” “Sunny” told Sister Mary Alice that if she was going to Heaven, then she’d rather go to hell to get away from her bad breath. “Sunny” asked her grandmother if she was going to leave her any money when she died, and if not, then why did she have to be nice to her.
“Sunny,” it should surprise no one, became a stand up comic.
That’s what she was doing when we met her in Los Angeles over a decade ago in a laundry mat that a mutual friend was running an open mic in. (They can’t all be Carnegie Hall.) Thirty five people had shown up to put their names in a hat, hoping to get picked for one of the twenty-some four minute spots. And if you’ve ever done your laundry in a laundry mat (which is most of us at one point or another) then you know how the only thing that could make it worse would be having to listen to twenty plus comics try out their new material while dryers buzz, clothes tumble, and homeless people come in looking for spare quarters, displaying far more dignity than those of us who came to LA to be somebody and ended up begging for laughs at a fluff and fold.
Fortunately Sunny shared the same dark sense of humor about the business that we did and lived within walking distance ,which proved to be very convenient whether we were drowning our sorrows over the latest career disappointment late into the night at one of our apartments, or splitting a cab we couldn’t afford to a party on the Sunset Strip that Sunny had gotten us on the guest list for. Even then she was good at making friends who could invite her to desirable places and we drank through a large portion of our twenties on the expense account of one agent or another who Sunny had befriended.
Together we survived the Cosmo, the Bellini, and the Apple-tini crazes. We wore strappy heels, which Sunny always painted my toes for, the both of us being too poor to afford pedicures and me being a disaster with a nail polish brush. We did ridiculous things like the time we flirted with the guys cleaning the closed bakery at two in the morning because we were drunk and wanted a cookie, and somewhere in England there’s footage of interviews with us at the Standard hotel, shot by a guy claiming to be making a documentary. Growing up one of seven kids, Sunny already had three sisters, but I had none. Sunny was the closest thing I had. We worked in stand up comedy, a male dominated industry where you had to act like a guy or it was seen as a sign of being “other” and no one wanted that. It was nice to have another woman you could be a woman around and who understood what you were going through whether it was existential angst about your life’s goals or just needing gravy fries at three am.
Eventually Mike and I became television writers. But Sunny got an even bigger break: She got out. She met a sommelier from Rome, fell in love, moved to Italy and had two kids, one of whom never had on pants. To be fair, he was only 5, but I don’t know at what point these things become inappropriate. I mean, I know that at 15 you can’t pull down your pants in public. But I don’t know what the exact cut off for the penis is, so to speak. (And scusa me, for putting that image in your head.) This was the same country where young girls only wore bathing suit bottoms and some not so very young girls, as well. I once saw three women, approximately 18 years old, get off a yacht only in bikini bottoms, and then all have a drink in the hotel bar before getting back on the yacht. Surely some penis in certain social situations was probably no big deal.
With penises put back in pants and lunch being cleared away, talk turned to dinner. Sunny’s husband, Nino, was driving up from Rome and would be joining us. The waitress brought the check and handing it to Sunny said, “Ecco lo, Signora Corini.”
“No,” Sunny corrected her, “Siamo gli ospiti di Signora Corini.”
The waitress apologized and took away our cash. It appeared the money of Signora Corini’s guests was just as good. Only on her way back to the main building I saw a man stop her and point to us. He was a thin man, early forties, with black hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. He was attractive, I suppose, but I immediately got a bad feeling from him and not because it was the new millennium and he was still wearing a ponytail in his forties. Maybe it was because he caught me looking at him and for the brief, accidental moment when we locked eyes, his weren’t friendly. The waitress looked back at us, then said something to him and continued on to the kitchen.
“Sunny? Are you sure it’s OK if we’re here?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”
“I just thought I saw a man pointing at us…”
“We’re Americans. Everyone’s pointing at us,” she dismissed my concern. “It’s totally cool. Elin has guests all the time.”
“Where is Elin?” The Husband asked.
For the last few years Sunny had been talking about the elusive Elin but we had yet to see her in person. As I said, Sunny had a wonderful gift for meeting people. In LA it was because she was always outgoing and forthright, saying whatever was on her mind in such a way that people immediately felt like they knew her. Honesty in Los Angeles is as rare as an atheist in Oklahoma and people were both amused by her and relieved to not have to decipher a lot of bullshit. In Italy, however, her openness was an even bigger gift among the many ex-pats from a variety of countries who all spoke English and were all having one issue or another adjusting to life in Rome. Sunny stubbornly insisted on celebrating the Fourth of July and asking for milk in her coffee after lunch, two things that just weren’t done.
She and Elin met in an English speaking yoga class. (Sunny required a lot of Namaste to balance out all of that opinionated behavior.) Elin had just moved to Rome and knew no one. She’d been a model from a very young age and it wasn’t the type of business that was conducive to making a lot of quality, lifelong, female friends. I mean, sure, she knew who to call if she needed speed, but certainly no one who would go out and eat carbs and gelato with her.
“Elin is with some friends up north, in the Lakes region. It is so much more civilized up there.” I looked at our cabana with table service, the sparkling blue sea and the white shoreline dotted by matching beach umbrellas and wondered how it could get more civilized than this. “She originally told me she’d be here, but I guess her plans changed at the last minute. She’s supposed to be back by the end of the week but I’ve been texting her to confirm and I haven’t heard anything back which isn’t like her.”
Sunny’s concern was only betrayed by the two grooves that formed between her eyebrows as she said this. The Husband, being a husband and therefore totally oblivious to any subtlety expressed by a woman, paid no attention and instead raised his glass. “To Elin. Who was thoughtful enough to invite us and then thoughtful enough to not be here.” Sunny’s concerned look immediately vanished and we all laughed and drained our glasses.
“Scusa mi, Signora.”
Suddenly Ponytail was standing right next to us as if he had just transported himself there or we were too buzzed to notice him coming. He addressed Sunny in Italian, “I am looking for my friend, Elin.”
I heard Sunny explain to him in Italian that Elin was away, or at least that’s what I think she said. To be honest, I can speak Italian, but understanding what gets spit back at me is another matter. And that’s before two bottles of wine.
Ponytail’s outfit was impressive, especially given the humidity. He was wearing a white linen shirt that looked like it had just been pressed and not like he’d been pitting out in it all morning like the rest of us had. He had on a pair of deep green, flat front pants that would look ridiculous on anyone who wasn’t Italian. They were slightly cuffed above a pair of light brown driving mocs.
God I love this country! No cargo shorts and Adidas shower shoes for these guys.
He made his good byes to Sunny in Italian and took off, but my gaze followed him, as if I wanted to make sure he was leaving and I saw him look back at us more than once, as if he wanted to get a look at us one last time without our noticing.
Of course, all of this suspicion may have just been the wine talking.
Mike had already taken his camera out and started fiddling with it while Sunny was talking to the man, but I was still curious, “Who was that?”
“He says he’s a photographer friend of Elin’s and that he needs to speak to her. He even went so far as to say it was urgent. Said his name was Pietro Romano.”
Despite the heat, I shuddered in my chair. “He creeped me out.”
“That’s just the ponytail,” Sunny said.
Having now eaten a large pasta lunch and drank my share of two bottles of wine, I was ready to swim and I stripped off the caftan and headed to the sea. The water was surprisingly warm. Having grown accustomed to the brisker temps of the Italian seaside over the last couple of years I had actually grown to prefer the refreshing quality of the cooler water, especially in this heat. But this water was practically air temperature. Even The Husband couldn’t complain about this.
Despite it’s warmth, or maybe because of it, the water had a soothing quality and I was soon out past where my feet could touch the bottom, looking at the dramatic silhouette of the peninsula and the surrounding islands just to the north. I flipped over onto my back and just stared up, my body rising and falling as the waves came in.
“There are worse things than to drown in Tuscany,” I thought as I allowed the current to take me further out into the Tyrrenhian Sea. I hadn’t been this happy in nearly a year and if it all ended right now with my belly full of linguini with clams and bottarga it was a much nicer end than sitting in Los Angeles traffic.
Because there areworse things than to drown in Tuscany; you could be murdered there.