CAIT WILLIS expects weird, especially as a reporter for Skeptic Magazine, but when her newest assignment to debunk one of the world's most sacred Christian rituals turns deadly, she uncovers a conspiracy tracing from Hollywood's elite to the runways of Milan, where she must nail a killer before he commits the ultimate sin.
On the eve of Milan’s Nivola ceremony, Father Amadeo Duretti is forced to hear one last confession. The devout priest recognizes the cold voice of Nico Pasquali, and a tongue of fear wraps around his throat.
For Nico is no ordinary penitent. Known to the media as Hollywood’s Thug, he is best known to Amadeo as his sister’s husband – a husband she no longer wants. Seeking information about his wife rather than absolution for his sins, Nico will use any means to make Amadeo decide between a priest’s faith and a brother’s love.
As the clock ticks down the hours before the Nivola ceremony, Amadeo grapples with guilt, fear, and his fading faith.
In a converging storyline, the story segues from this confession to the apartment of young Skeptic Magazine reporter, Cait Willis.
Cait awakens to the sound of her prized Mustang exploding in the parking lot across the street. The bomb – and subsequent message left on her answering machine – initiate a series of events designed to convince Cait to drop the biggest story of her career.
But Cait is not easily swayed. Under the cover of busting the infamous Nivola “miracle” myth, Cait travels to Milan in search of Nico – and finds Mario instead. A more unbalanced and dangerous criminal than even she could imagine.
Using her entertainment profile articles as his sinister hit list, Mario is murdering beautiful starlets, saving their best parts – a flawless arm, a perfect wrist – to recreate the only woman who has never let him down: the Virgin Mary. A re-creation of the ultimate relic.
He plans to hang this patchwork masterpiece from the blessed nail during the Nivola festival – but first, he must find a soul worthy of his creation. And if the eyes are the portals to the soul, Cait has the most beautiful he’s ever seen…
Lies. Cover ups. Murder. A reporter’s dream. But for Cait – and a priest thousands of miles away – it’s the beginning of a deadly nightmare.
"I rarely give a blurb to unpublished writers, but in this case, I do so enthusiastically. Dawn Ius's novel is exactly what a good thriller should be: exciting, lightening-paced, and full of shocking surprises. It also offers a unique structure and pacing that left me riveted until the very last page. I read it in one sitting."
- James Rollins, NY Times Bestselling author
Darkness could not disguise betrayal. Instead it provided a shadowy cloak for Nico Pasquali’s revenge.
He clamped a Cuban between his lips and dragged the lifeless form across thick mud, his fingers grasping black Italian shoes. Blood smeared his right hand. Rubbing it against his pant leg accomplished nothing – the dark stain remained. A dull ache crept from his chest and nestled in the base of his throat.
No turning back.
Mist swirled around graves like spirits waking from deep slumber. He heaved the body behind tombstones made murky by early morning moonlight, where the names of the dead flashed before his eyes without meaning; he’d not come to visit them.
He paused at the last stone, dropped the body’s feet, and inhaled a puff of smoke. Its bitter aftertaste stung the tip of his tongue. The second drag always hit hardest.
Remorse knocked against his ribs.
Beyond, the city of Milan emitted an eerie glow. Streetlights dotted webs of avenues lined with dark buildings – an eclectic mix of ancient and modern architectural design.
Soon its patrons would merge into the bustle of dawn, but in this graveyard, he heard only the soft whisper of leaves through the tall oak trees. And the steady pulse of his own heart.
He yanked the collar of his leather jacket up around his shoulders and bowed his head. Rain tapped at the side of his face, tracing wet tears along his cheeks. He swiped at them with the back of his hand.
Loose strands of hair stuck to his neck and a chilling breeze turned water to ice as it inched along his spine.
With a deep breath, he lifted the feet to his waist, grasped the ankles, tugged the limp body to a mound of fresh dirt – and stopped. The ache now slid back down his chest.
For a moment he simply stared. Massimo Ferragamo’s chest rose and fell in mesmerizing rhythm, his mouth slack since the brief moment it had frozen in surprise.
He could drown in this rain, Nico thought, but even that wouldn’t offer enough moisture to cleanse the veil of deception. He brushed his hand over Ferragamo’s face to trace the familiar hollows of his friend’s cheeks. Wrinkles of time creased the corners of his eyes, the stubble on his chiseled jaw line flecked with grey. Until now, Nico hadn’t noticed how the years had transformed a once handsome youth into a hardened man.
What part had he played in that?
With only a stutter of hesitation, he rolled Ferragamo into the fresh grave he’d dug earlier, then stalked to his truck and grabbed a shovel from the back. Dirt and darkened blood clung to the sharp tip of the spade. A gust of warm wind blew the scent of iron upward.
Memories ricocheted like shotgun pellets. He fought to suppress them but found himself defenseless against their assault – Ferragamo’s startled scream, the smack of shovel hitting skull, the crack of bone as the blade sliced deep.
Sweat and rain blurred his vision.
He returned to Ferragamo, heaved soil into the grave and buried the body from toes to neck. Raindrops poked round pits into the dirt, creating small pools of sludge.
Swallowing indecision, Nico spiked the shovel into the remaining mound of mud and sat.
The cherry tip of his cigar glowed against the sinister sky, its smoke merging with the disappearing fog.
Ferragamo moaned. His eyes blinked open, closed, then widened with confusion, pupils glowing under the ethereal light. Nico saw his fear; could smell it, a rancid cocktail of dampened earth, body sweat and copper.
As Ferragamo licked his lips, Nico imagined the taste of dirt, rolled the grit under his tongue. Rain drops ticked against the shovel and splattered down onto Massimo’s gaunt face.
“You tried to kill me?”
Nico offered a terse nod.
Ferragamo’s words sputtered out in a gurgle, his voice softened by unease. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you take me for a fool?”
Ferragamo’s brow knit together. “What are you talking about?”
“How long has it been going on?”
“Let me explain.”
Not even a moment’s hesitation, not a sign of guilt.
Nico backed away from the grave as though struck. Ferragamo offered no denial, no apology. Instead, his eyes begged for forgiveness, his voice a plea for understanding.
Nico couldn’t afford guilt, not while rain continued to wash away blood and images that now surfaced with alarming clarity.
Ferragamo shuffled his shoulders in an attempt to squirm out from under the soil. Water rushed to fill the new valleys and crevices. The mud cracked, thin lines webbing from neck to pelvis. Nico watched the struggle, knowing it futile. And then saw the precise moment of realization, the second Ferragamo understood that a blanket of mud pinned him into the ground with no opportunity – no hope – for escape. His face paled, eyes grew wide and alert. A soft warble echoed from his throat.
Over the years, he’d witnessed many instances of Ferragamo’s fear. In childhood, they’d been rebellious. Inseparable. The strength of their brotherhood cemented in a blood ceremony as old as time.
Fitting, he supposed, that the end of their relationship would also be marked in red.
He flicked his cigar stub into the grave and watched its crimson glow fade. “Answer the question.”
“Doing this resolves nothing.”
Nico speared a shovel of dirt and held it above Ferragamo’s face. Flecks of wet soil formed muddy swirls and dripped downward, splatting against his neck.
“Give me a reason to spare you.” His words hissed out in a near whimper, reflecting a weakness that had snaked in through his tough façade, threatening to undermine his resolve. “Just one reason, Massimo.”
“We never meant to hurt you.”
Nico snorted at the universal cry of a victim and blinked away remorse, focused on revenge. “Not good enough.”
He allowed a heap of mud to careen off the blade. It landed in the centre of Ferragamo’s stomach and sprayed upward toward his neck.
Massimo sputtered, soil now caked to his cheeks and lips. “It’s my fault.”
“Neither of you is innocent.”
Nico saw worry creep into the corners of Ferragamo’s eyes. “Don’t hurt her.”
“You disgust me,” Nico said and spat. But repulsion could not be so easily discarded; instead, he felt it trickle back down his throat.
“We didn’t plan for it to happen.”
“I don’t give a damn if you meant for it. I trusted you.”
Images he’d suppressed flooded his vision now. Ferragamo’s arms wrapped around her, fingers lightly tracing the contours of her slight form, tongue lapping up the softness of her skin. Ferragamo’s hands and mouth on his wife.
Who else knew?
Had the boys seen them together, witnessed the adultery?
Photographs of his sons were tucked into the wallet pressed against his chest. In his mind’s eye, their young faces smiled at him even now, oblivious to the sin he would soon commit. He willed himself to shake loose the image of Matteo’s angelic halo of dark hair, the innocence behind Fausto’s chocolate eyes.
“How long have you been sleeping with my wife?”
Ferragamo’s eyes blinked shut. “I wanted to tell you. There never seemed to be the right time, the right words.”
Nico blocked a vision of Angelina, her cheeks flushed against white silk pillows, and allowed anger to overtake grief. “You weren’t man enough to tell me.”
“I’m Fausto’s godfather, for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t speak of my children,” he yelled. “You lost that right when you crawled into bed with her.”
Anguish increased his pulse until it became a heavy thud against his lungs. He’d trusted Ferragamo with his family.
He wailed against the increasing wind, releasing only a fraction of pent-up sorrow. Ferragamo had held Fausto just hours after birth – had he missed a meaningful glance between his wife and best friend even then?
“Nico, please. We can talk this through.”
He shook his head. “I would never have betrayed you.”
“I can make it right.”
“Really?” He forced out a laugh. “How? Will you end the affair?”
“I love her.”
Nico doubled over. Three simple words. He’d believed in them once. What was left for him to believe in now?
He unclenched his fist. “What do you know of love?”
“We can work this out,” Ferragamo said. “There must be some way.”
He impaled another blade of soil. “There is nothing left to say, nothing that could change my mind.”
Nico clenched his teeth. “Shut up.” He turned from the pile and lifted the shovel. Dirty clumps fell on to Ferragamo’s already mud-covered stomach.
No turning back.
Ferragamo blinked as each pebble bounced off his face, declarations of love and forgiveness spewing like vomit.
“Please, dear God, don’t bury me alive.”
Nico swallowed the last of his doubt. “Not alive, Massimo.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You’re already dead to me.”
Copyright Dawn Ius, 2010