Just as Cardinal Fratelli leaned back in his chair, smiling, glad to have a moment of peace, someone wrapped on the door. Slightly opening it, he peeked his head through and saw Dina, the kitchen-maid standing there. She wore a long, light blue dress, her brown hair tied-back and tugged the door fully open.
“Your Eminence, I know you aren’t feeling well today but your brother is here. He wants to see you immediately,” she said.
Fratelli walked out and at the hallway’s end, he met a tall, muscular man with handsome features and amber eyes just like his own.
“Angelo, you have to come to my house at once!” he stammered, “Michele is very sick!”
“Ernesto, wait, I’ll be out in a minute…let me fetch my gloves…”
“You don’t need those,” Ernesto replied and jerked his arm, leading out the door.
In the front-yard of Fratelli’s villa waited a small, uncovered coach. Ernesto climbed atop and helped Fratelli after him. The cardinal sat uncomfortably. He shifted abruptly, clutching the armrest beside him when their driver urged the horses forward. As trees blurred past, leaving the city and crossing open country, Fratelli glanced aside. Used to smoother transport, he closed his eyes against bumps and jolts. At last everything stilled. Ernesto easily jumped down and left Fratelli struggling to plant his feet solid on the ground.
Before a stately farmhouse, built of wood and dull-yellow brick, he stood beside Ernesto who pushed the door open then shouted, “Michele, we are here!”
Michele’s figure emerged from another room, her dainty, olive-toned skin shining dully in afternoon sunlight. Moving aside her silken black curls, she stared with rich, dark-brown eyes.
“My, you poor creature, you look exhausted!” Fratelli cried.
Ernesto elbowed him.
“No Michele dearest, you look beautiful” he said- then asked the cardinal, “Doesn’t she look just stunning?”
Scowling, Michele plumped down on the couch nearby. Soon as she did so, a bell rang out as her brown-pointed; Siamese cat came running into the room.
“Oh Bella…” Michele sighed, taking the cat into her arms.
Seeing Fratelli standing so close, Bella peered curiously with pristine, blue eyes, and mewed.
“She wishes for an audience with you, Angelo,” Michele said.
She handed Bella to Fratelli. He uneasily pried the cat’s claws from his fine sleeve and uncomfortably held her. Perceiving this discomfort, the cat squirmed, landed a nice tear in Fratelli’s red cassock then jumped down. Sticking a finger through the hole, he groaned.
“Are you feeling better, Michele, my dear?” Ernesto asked, sitting next to her.
“I believe so…” she replied, “I keep thinking that maybe... I’m pregnant.”
Fratelli stirred, his lips curling with joy, his hands nervously folded and he inquired, “Am I going to become an uncle?”
“I don’t know…” she answered.
“How can’t you know!” Ernesto cried
He took his wife’s hand. His deep amber eyes stared at her, begging.
“Ernesto, these things are complicated…” Fratelli stated.
Now glancing up towards him, Ernesto remarked, “and how do you know?”
The cardinal blushed, looked again at the hole in his garb and responded, “I’ve read about it…of course.”
“You two,” Michele said, “Are starting to make me feel worse!”
Simultaneously, both men stepped away, letting light shine from the window onto her comely face. She breathed deeply, appearing quite relieved. They remained, sat and conversed for about an hour. Ernesto retrieved a brass time-piece from his trousers and hesitantly announced:
“It’s getting late, should I take His Eminence home?”
“How I wish you could just stay here…” Michele told Fratelli who anxiously eyed the window.
The skies had darkened somewhat as grey clouds covered the sun. They were thick, gauzy bands but not menacing or harboring a storm. Returning his attention to the others, Fratelli spoke:
“Let us share a glass of wine first- to celebrate.”
Smiling, Michele stood but Ernesto stopped her and went into the kitchen himself. Resting back in her seat, she snickered childishly, holding within those mysteries only a woman could hold. After Ernesto returned, Fratelli unseated, took the wine-bottle and blessed it with a swift gesture.
“Thanks be to God!” he gasped.
Twilight already engulfed the city in shadows when Fratelli arrived home on horseback, led by Ernesto. He dismounted, stroked the horse’s neck and shook his brother’s hand.
“You have my blessing and profound congratulations,” he said.
“But…remember: we really don’t know?”
Fratelli laughed, “I suppose not. Be careful, sleep well my brother.”
As the cardinal turned his back, striding indoors, Ernesto gripped the reigns of his horse and circled. His stern face betrayed no excitement but surely, he felt it within. Pacing at a trot, he glanced homewards and smiled wide against the setting sun.
Cardinal Fratelli had finished night-time prayer and just settled into bed when light poured into the room and Dina barged in.
“What are you doing?” he began but she hushed him, waving her hands.
“Get up, come at once- something terrible has happened and you are urgently needed at the jailhouse!”
“Your Eminence, get up!”
Finally, he stood, his mind struggling to make sense of what was happening. Suddenly, he froze.
“Well, I’m not changing until you leave,” he asserted.
“Sorry,” Dina replied, “I am tired too. Meet me downstairs when you are ready- and hurry!”
Trudging down the stairs, fully-dressed and stifling a yawn, Fratelli mumbled, “What on earth?”
Beside him, Father Rodrigo emerged. His stocky face crinkled from worry, forehead beading with sweat as he tugged Fratelli’s arm.
“Come on…wake up!” he hissed while leading him through the hall and out the door.
Once hustled into a stagecoach, Fratelli gave another yawn, sharp and protestful. He tiredly eyed Rodrigo who sat across him, frantically clasping his hands, hiding them beneath his priestly robes.
“I heard someone was murdered- tonight, right by the clock-tower…” the priest stammered.
“And what has that to do with me?”
“What’s it have to do with you? Your Eminence, they found a priest at the scene of the crime- Father Adreo.”
Stiffening, eyes growing alert, Fratelli gasped. However, he stayed wordless, now clenching together his own hands. Rodrigo overheard his jumbled whispering: a Hail Mary in Latin. But, he did not respond.
Wheels screeching, the coach halted. Fratelli almost tumbled out of his seat but steadied himself as Rodrigo opened the door and hopped outside. The air brushed cold against his face when Fratelli awkwardly followed. There was no time for him to collect composure because Rodrigo at once, yanked him forth. When they came home…and if he remembered…Fratelli swore he’d scold him for this harsh treatment.
Several blue-uniformed, black-cloaked policemen gathered at the jailhouse door. Their silver buttons gleamed in moonlight and small handguns dangled at their waists. One, wearing a shiny rapier around his hip, appeared. He then escorted Fratelli and Rodrigo to a basement-room. Cells with dark, grey bars lined one wall and a desk cluttered with papers occupied the room’s other end.
Smelling a stale odor, Fratelli jerked his arm free, scowled and declared, “This is objectionable, bringing me here!”
Suddenly Ernesto came forth and placed a calming hand on his brother’s shoulder. Fratelli moved away. Irritated, patience thinning, Ernesto shouted:
“Stop being so fussy…I’m on your side! There are things more important than your personal comfort, now sit here and listen to me.”
Wide-eyed, agape with shock, Fratelli paused then crossed his arms. He glanced away, utterly embarrassed. Various replies swirled in his mind, some uncharitable, but he eventually sat down- too tired and bewildered for further resistance, only frowning like a scolded child.
The sword-bearing officer, from before, perched across from him. Father Rodrigo felt unlucky, having to stand while this rather intimidating gentleman introduced himself:
“Good evening, Your Eminence. I am Timotheo.”
Timotheo’s intimidating demeanor lessened somewhat when he leaned, kissing the cardinal’s ring, but his tenacious gaze resumed as he spoke again:
“Let me explain why you’re here…”
“I know why I’m here,” Fratelli interrupted, “You mistakenly took one of my priests into custody… he can come back to the rectory now and we can forget all about this terrible inconvenience.”
Timotheo suppressed a laugh then quickly covered his mouth.
“We cannot do that,” he explained, “At three minutes before midnight we found a man dead, apparently murdered within feet of the clock-tower. Also present was a young priest who willingly identified himself as: “Conti Adreo”. Worse, he had the victim’s blood on his own hands.”
Fratelli instantly stood.
“Where is he?” he demanded, “Where is he?”
Timotheo pointed and the cardinal rushed to a holding cell where Adreo’s lean figure sulked.
“Come here you fool! What did I tell you about wandering off at ungodly hours of night?”
“Your Eminence!” Adreo cried, scrambling afoot and approaching.
He leaned his hands against the bars, which separated them and said, “I’m not worried… because I know I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Some disagree with you,” Fratelli gently replied, “You’ve gotten yourself into horrible trouble. Now what do you expect me to do about all this?”
“Listen to me: I was walking around the piazza and I heard some shouting and noise then I found him already lying there. The only thing I did was kneel down to absolve the poor man and yes, some blood did get on my hands…”
“Fine then, tell them and we will go home.”
“It’s not that simple,” Ernesto said walking forward, “We have no way knowing that he’s telling the real truth…”
“My priests do not lie!” Fratelli objected, “And why would he?”
“Because, good Father forgot to mention that he had a nasty quarrel with the same exact man who was killed.”
“Merciful goodness!” the cardinal shrieked, hysterically throwing up his arms.
Ernesto expressed sympathy but Timotheo unseated, met with them and flatly said, “Your Eminence, we need you to provide some information about when you last saw Father Adreo.”