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APRIL SMITH. White Shotgun

Ana Smith, book 4

For Molly Friedrich

True friend, incomparable agent

MONTE SAN STEFANO, ITALY

In bosco nasce,

In prato pasce,

In citta suona,

Il vivo porta il morto

E ’l morto suona.

In the woods it is born,

In the pasture it grazes,

In the city it plays,

The living carries the dead

And the dead plays.

“The Riddle of the Drum”

Folk poem from the Palio of Siena

PROLOGUE

The Chef drove easily in the dark, anticipating the turns with pleasure, having been in the woods often enough to know the road by heart. The playlist he’d made of his personal favorites was a mix of Italian pop music with interludes of a folksy mandolin. The feel was upbeat. He drove a well-kept silver van with the company name in red lettering on the side and plenty of room in back. The entwined rosaries hanging from the rearview mirror jostled softly, and the black and white Australian sheepdog beside him kept an alert watch through the windshield. It was a cozy drive for Il Capocuoco — the Head Chef — known for his ability to mix chemicals like a master.

When they passed the barn and turned onto the dirt track, the dog stood up in anticipation. When the Chef got out and unlocked the gate, the dog followed and then jumped back into the front seat to wait. The Chef paused to appreciate the stars. It was silent except for the idling engine. Exhaust fumes spoiled the scent of juniper.

They continued through dense trees until the headlights picked up a half-burned abandoned house and, behind it, a prefab shack where sacks of lye were stored. The Chef’s day job was delivering chemicals along a busy route of Tuscan farms. He still wore the dirty jumpsuit that was his uniform. The charred ruins of the old house came closer into view. The headlights cut out, the door opened, and the dog scrambled down into the pine mulch.

A steel vat encased in wood stood on a platform high off the ground. The odd hiker would have thought it a water tower. Underneath the vat was a row of burners, connected to a tank of propane. The Chef lit the gas fire and waited for the chemicals inside the vat to heat.

For the past hour he had been putting off his hunger, eager to get to the site. Now he unwrapped a stick of salame sopressata, sliced off the tip with a sharp folding knife, and methodically scored and peeled the outer casing, cutting off slivers of meat, which he shared with the dog. The smell of garlic made him even more ravenous, and he went through the potato chips, orange soda, and packaged cream puffs as well.

The Chef sat behind the wheel with both doors open to the night, counting his money by the dashboard glow, until his pleasantly full belly contracted with venom. Once again, the pezzo di merda who delivered his pay had skimmed 10 percent off the top, and there was nothing he could do about it. They must consider him an idiot, he thought with rage, and threw the empty soda bottle into the bush. The dog’s tail went up and he continued to bark at nothing, while the Chef stalked around the back of the van and lugged out a large plastic bin. This time it was the body of a woman, and it was light. Facile. Easy. He slipped on goggles and gloves. When the temperature was right it would not take long for the corpse to dissolve in la minestra, the soup.

The woman, Lucia Vincenzo, beautiful, a player both in money laundering and drug dealing, had vanished on a trip to the local market. Her car was left in the parking lot, containing bags of groceries and no evidence of struggle. In the language of the mafias, a murder where the body is never found is called lupara bianca, or white shotgun. To disappear with no one knowing how they killed you is a warning to the enemy meant to echo in the most lasting way — in the stark silence of the imagination.

The Chef dragged the bin up the ramp that led to the vat. He drew off the tarp and backed away as toxic vapors rose from la minestra. No one appreciated the quality of his work. How smooth, complete, undetectable.

LONDON

ONE

It was only another good-bye. Sterling McCord was lying on his back, staring at the lace-curtained window that looked out on the sidewalk. I was up on an elbow, studying the green in his eyes. Rainy light floated around us like the aftertaste of a kiss.

“Hello, cupcake,” he murmured.

“Don’t go,” I said.

We had been camping out in a borrowed flat in South Kensington while I was on vacation status from the Bureau. The place had belonged to the deceased relative of a friend — four rooms in the basement of a Georgian mews house just off Old Brompton Road. The air smelled of mildew and face powder, and we found frilly candy wrappers balled up on the dresser. Sterling called it “the old-lady hooch.” We’d had to push two narrow cots together, along with their wobbly headboards of padded roses, but we managed. After a couple of weeks of coming and going, it was starting to feel less like a tomb and more like a place to live. Keys on the table. Eggs in the refrigerator. Then Sterling got the call.

“Do you want to do something interesting?”

That was the way it always began. The voice on the phone. A deep Welsh accent. Sly, as if the reason he was calling wasn’t all that interesting. An hour later, Sterling would disappear on a mission he couldn’t discuss.

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