Near Pozzuoli, where Aeneas descended into Hades, the ruins of a Roman sudatorium, became a tufa cave, attracting Victorian Era guides. For lire, they amused tourists by lowering yapping dogs into the darkness until the animals were choked silent by the noxious fumes vomited up by the Phlegraean Fields west of Naples.
In town, a boy’s shotgunned body lay at his nonna’s knees. Blood puddled in the dust. The woman’s blue-veined hands stretched to her daughter, Sophia, standing stiffly. The daughter held her pale face. She knelt, cradling her son’s head in the lap of an ankle-length widow’s black dress. His matted hair stained her hands red.
The older woman said, “Nicolo Bruno ordered him killed.”
Sophia seemed not to hear. She murmured, “Leonardo,” and gently rocked her son’s head.
The grandmother spat out, “Vendetta.”
Sophia closed her eyes.
Her mother pointed a bony forefinger. “You must avenge him.”
As if deformed by a stroke, Sophia’s strongly-featured face sagged around the mouth.
The grandmother pressed Leonardo’s hand into Sophia’s. “Swear, now, that you’ll avenge his death.”
Sophia rocked her son.
The old woman’s voice rose. “Swear it.”
Sophia put Leonardo’s hand to her lips. She exhaled a long breath. “I swear.”
Nicolo Bruno, the Camorra guappo, lounged on a café’s wooden chair under the shade of a Birra Peroni awning. Thick brows, hooded calculating eyes. Inscribed by a rival clan-leader’s blade, a scar traced from his right ear to his cruel mouth. Bruno surveyed the street while joking with fellow gang members. They wore gray newsboy caps pulled down. Their shotguns leaned against a stone wall. Horse-drawn, wooden-wheel carts rumbled over cobblestones. Like white flags of surrender, washing hung on ropes strung between the three-story buildings that lined both sides of the street. The odor of rotting fish was in the air.
Sophia lingered in shadows and watched with hot, brown eyes. Leonardo was dead, and his murderer laughed. Her jaw tightened. Bruno would never stand trial. The police were corrupt and hadn’t even questioned the guappo about the crime. Justice must come by Sophia’s hand or not at all. Should she rush Bruno with a shotgun, firing both barrels? She’d be killed, but her heart no longer had a purpose. No. She’d be gunned down before getting close. Lunge at Bruno’s throat with a knife? Bruno had beaten men.
Sophia drew a breath, then left the shadows striding toward the knot of thugs. As she approached, hungry eyes surveyed her body still draped in widow’s garb. She stopped. Her gaze locked with Bruno’s.
Bruno leaned back. “Buon giorno, Signora.”
Bruno spread his hands. “My sympathies on the loss of your son, Leonardo.”
Sophia stiffened. He dared to speak her son’s name. She smothered the urge to spit in Bruno’s face. “Grazie.”
Bruno nudged a henchman, and the man rose from his chair. “Signora, please join us.”
Sophia imagined Caesar at the Rubicon. She took a seat. “You’re most kind.”
Bruno asked, “A coffee?”
Sophia managed a tight smile. When the coffee arrived, she refused sugar and drank it bitter.
She accepted Bruno’s invitation to his villa for dinner. Afterward, he led her to a bedroom. He was sweaty and aggressive. Sophia imagined slicing Bruno’s throat while he slept, but after he’d done with her, he returned to a guarded room. Once Sophia entered Bruno’s villa, the townspeople of Pozzuoli branded her a putana. A reputation, once squandered, couldn’t be recovered. She endured Bruno’s pawing, hoping to discover an alternative way of revenge. After a week, Sophia still stifled the urge to retch whenever he touched her.
Arsenic was called, “The Gift of the Borgias.” Rats in Pozzuoli were common; the Farmacea carried the poison. A pea-sized dose of the tasteless, odorless, white powder could bring down a bull. When Sophia procured the arsenic, she imagined an evening when Bruno was drunk, and she could slip a lethal dose into his wine. To Sophia’s dismay, Bruno always employed a credenza, a food-taster who sampled everything before being served.
Bruno’s garden had a few lemon, orange, fig trees, and grape vines. On sunny days, the guappo would stroll the orchard, picking and consuming the fruit. Ripe figs would be stolen by birds if not picked immediately. Sophia recast her plan. She stayed up all night and used a brush. The next days, she was vigilant to scoop up dead birds from under the fig tree.
That afternoon, after popping a fig into his mouth, Bruno doubled over, grasped his stomach, and fell to his knees. His face became scarlet. He retched and spat up bile. He called out. “Sophia. Help me.”
She stood over him until Bruno became still, his glassy eyes staring.
She spat on him, “Schifoso,” then turned on her heel.
Nicolo Bruno’s funeral procession was the largest ever in Pozzuoli. Afterward, Vincente Bruno, Nicolo’s younger brother took over as guappo. He summoned Sophia. She stood before him, trembling.
Vincente, lounging in an armchair like a pharaoh, displayed a small smile. “What was Nicolo’s is now mine.”
Sophia nodded. She sighed. She knew there’d be another.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, now live in Texas.
Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one-hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller was published by HSE in June 2017.
Joe was among one-hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan, Columbus Day Parade.