CHAPTER 1 - SORRENTO
The Violin Shop
Chapter 1 - Sorrento
June 11, 1995 - Evening
Feet pounding hard on the wet pavement, he ran. The night sky was black and rumbling overhead. Storm clouds hid the moon and Charlie Keyser couldn’t see very well. It was cold outside and he was sucking in wind, but he couldn’t stop. Not now. Not for anything. The rain beat on him mercilessly as if God Himself had turned on the faucet, but he kept running. Turn after turn he ran past the old houses and new tourist traps in Sorrento, Italy. His dark brown dress shoes were slipping and sliding on the concrete, and the bottoms of his feet were starting to get very sore. His socks were completely soaked through. He could feel the outside of his feet rubbing raw with blisters, but he didn’t stop. Charlie’s side started to ache and his breathing became more irregular. Fear urged him on...Faster...Farther...Charlie feared for his life at this point, but the adrenaline pumping through his veins made him truly believe he could escape. In fact, as he made his way down toward the sea, he started visualizing himself on his little fishing boat waiting at the Marina Grande - out of reach and on the waves - safe and sound. Almost there...almost there…just a few more blocks.
He clutched the little treasure with a vice-like grip, if he failed, all was lost. A small golden key was in his hand, tied onto a rope that Charlie had wrapped around his fingers like a referee whistle. His fingers were turning white in his grip, but he wasn’t about to let it go now. This key, this gaudy, accursed key, was going to set things straight. He had a good idea of who this man was chasing him down, and he was taking no chances.
He first had the sense of being followed two days ago, when he spotted the same man three times in the same day. In the morning as Charlie was getting his coffee and croissant, there was a man outside across the street lingering and staring a little too long. Later that same day when he was walking to the store, he noticed the same man one block back, pretending to window shop, trying much too hard to be invisible. Charlie ducked in and out of a shop and started to double back when the stranger caught his eye and melted away into the crowd. And then after dinner, when he took a walk in the park to clear his head, he could swear he saw the same man following behind. At first he thought he was being paranoid and crazy, but now he knew better. After two days of not seeing the stranger, the man had appeared one block behind, turning everywhere Charlie turned. It was too dark to make out a face, but Charlie knew it was him. Tonight the stranger hadn’t bothered to play games, and he was gaining ground. When Charlie took off running with a sprint, the stranger followed at full speed.
After he almost lost his footing turning quickly on the slippery cobblestones, Charlie picked up the pace and allowed his second wind to push him even harder. Trying to lose his pursuer Charlie took a hard left and cut into a narrow alleyway. He allowed himself a moment to take a quick look back and the man was nowhere to be seen. “I’ve lost him!” he thought as he allowed himself a moment of hope. He decided it was too dark and too rainy to keep up with anyone this long, and that the stranger must have made a wrong turn or lost him completely. Charlie ducked into a door frame of an old house and waited a few minutes to catch his breath and be sure. Long, deep, breaths brought Charlie some comfort. His heart and mind settled down, and he sighed. …He leaned carefully out of the doorframe to peek behind him...Nothing…Just the wind and rain and thunder…But no steps....no stranger. For some reason he thought of his bags left in the hotel, and how they were gone forever as far as he was concerned. He needed to get out of Sorrento fast. He could always buy new clothes at his next stop.
When he was breathing normally and was certain the coast was clear he smiled and took a few more deep breaths. “Thank God, I’ve made it.” He carefully stepped out of the doorway and made a quick turn to leave, when seemingly out of thin air, came the worst pain Charlie had ever felt in his life. His belly felt hot and cold at the same time as he fell wide-eyed to the dirty, wet pavement. He grasped frantically at his stomach as he tried to scream. He couldn’t. He gurgled and whimpered and gasped, but he couldn’t speak. All he could see was a long handle protruding out where his navel should be. There was blood everywhere. Too much blood. His flailing hands tried to remove the handle, but the lightest touch sent waves of nausea over him and a shooting pain through his body that sent him onto his knees and rolled him on his back. When he turned over, Charlie looked up and saw the Grim Reaper looming over with a gloved finger pointing in his face.
“Hello, Charlie.” the Reaper said in a dull and lifeless tone.
“Oh...no...it can’t be...I...I…trusted you…” Charlie gasped in between waves of pain. He recognized the Reaper, and wished he didn’t. His mind raced as he pieced together the Reaper’s true identity. What had Father done? What had they all done? The pain coming in waves made it so hard to think. He tried to calm down, to breath slowly and not panic, but the pain was so bad. He felt like there must be ten thousand needles racing through his body tearing up his insides every time he moved. He was muttering now. He was slipping, “Please...Please...God help me...”
“ENOUGH! SHUT UP! You betrayed ME, Charlie! God isn’t listening.” The Grim Reaper shouted and cut off Charlie’s desperate ramblings with a kick to the stomach that almost sent him into total blackness. The Reaper’s spittle was flying as he continued, “You...betrayed...ME! I warned you. I warned your whole vile family, but no one listened to me.”
Charlie was horrified now. The Reaper was clearly mad. His eyes had a glazed over look that sent chills up his spine. He bent down so close to Charlie’s face that Charlie could smell his rancid breath, a putrid potpourri of tobacco and fish. The Reaper leaned in and lowered his voice condescendingly as if he was talking to a little child. The Reaper twisted his mouth in a smile and began to run his hands through Charlie’s curly brown hair. He gripped the back of Charlie’s head and moved it back and forth in time like a marionette as he began to sing...
“I know what you’ve done,
and now you know how I feel!”
The Reaper was fluttering his fingers with excitement and all Charlie could do was wince in pain. He couldn’t think straight. He wanted to swing his arms or kick his legs, but he was paralyzed by his fear. His eardrums were pounding and it was getting very hard to see. The Reaper gave another smile and then slammed Charlie’s head on the concrete with a thud and straightened his collar.
“Now, my dear Charlie, I’m afraid we must conclude this ugly business. I have been patient long enough.”
It took everything Charlie had to gather the strength to look into the Reaper’s eyes. He shivered in terror as pure rage glared down on him. He no longer saw a man, but hatred personified. His mind worked feverishly, with a life flashing before his eyes, always focusing back on the events that led him here. He needed help. He needed a way out. “Please, wait” he begged, “I am sorry! Please… take the key. Think of my family. Just take the key and get me a doctor. I’ll never say a word of this to anyone. You must know how sorry I am. I didn’t realize….I didn’t know!” He was wheezing and gasping for air like an asthmatic now. The phlegm and blood in his throat gave him a grotesque timbre that brought a sick pleasure to the Reaper’s face. In that moment it made Charlie think that this is how a hungry wolf must look at a lamb with a broken leg.
“Oh, Charles, stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself. I don’t need you to give me anything.” The Reaper reached down and slowly unwound the thin rope from Charlie’s shaking right hand. “You see, my friend, I have what I need now. I don’t need you or your apologies. I will, however, try and give your family some comfort in the coming days. Goodbye.” The Reaper reached over to wipe blood from the key on Charlie’s pants leg. “Don’t looks so indignant, Charlie. You knew this was coming. Think about your Father, your Mother. You knew it all along, and you knew I would collect. I always collect.” The Reaper placed his hand on the knife blade and pushed it down further to boost himself. As he stood up, Charlie’s back arched and his eyes bulged like they were going to pop out, he was sucking in wind and panting for breath. The Reaper simply turned and strolled away at a leisurely pace. He was whistling the tune to Bizet’s “Habanera” as he disappeared into the night smiling ear to ear.
The rain was just a drizzle now, and Charlie could hear the Reaper’s footsteps fade down the alleyway. He couldn’t see anyone else around, but he knew it wouldn’t matter at this point. He knew he had lost too much blood, and it took a monumental effort to wheeze each breath. All he could hear was the blood and his vision was betraying him. For all the red pooling around him, he couldn’t believe there could be much more blood in him to lose.
Charlie wanted to cry, wanted to shout out “HELP! Please! You can’t just leave me to die here. I am so sorry! Believe me!”, but he couldn’t. No words would form, and the edges around his vision started to turn black and blue and white all at once. He felt like he was drowning, the pain pulling him down deeper and deeper in dark waters. Each breath was an increasingly fruitless effort. In torment, his entire body feeling as if it were being cut up with glass, Charlie pulled his worn leather journal and pencil out of his jacket pocket. His hands were shaking so badly that he had to pin the pad down on the ground with his left forearm so he could scribble on the page. He had to let them know who the Reaper was but he couldn’t hardly form his thoughts, he could barely breath. He couldn’t let the key die with him. Maybe he could somehow warn his brother? In desperation he managed to write only one thing on the page, the most important thing - 55>MCMXLIX>ANNA. He closed his old journal and slid it back into his jacket pocket with trembling hands. Charlie gave in and allowed his head to roll back over onto the cobblestones. It was a strange sensation feeling the cool rain coming in while the warm blood oozed out. He thought of everything and nothing, thought of his loves and his losses. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. There was no one around to help. He stopped resisting.
Charlie’s last thought was of the Reaper. As the rain stopped, so did his heart.
Early in the morning the locals found him. Poor, elderly, Mrs. Cavicio nearly fainted when she saw the body on her way out to buy some fresh bread at the market. The local police were called to investigate and the first man on the scene was complaining about having to work a case before he had a chance to drink some espresso and have a cigarette. It didn’t take Homicide Detective Peter Pienzo long to process the scene. At first glance, this looked like some kind of alleyway robbery gone bad. Pienzo had been working in the local police force for over 25 years, and in all that time he had learned a few things. Most importantly, that the world was going to Hell in a handbasket, and some people are unfortunately going to get scooped up in the mess.
A quick once over the body told him a few things immediately. This man had very fine taste and obviously came from some money. The deceased was neatly dressed in a hand tailored suit and shoes and a gorgeous Rolex watch. The man’s face was locked in a horrific mask, which indicated severe pain and trauma. Not unusual for one being stabbed to death, but somehow this look was much worse. Like the man had seen something truly terrifying.
The culprit must have panicked at the sight of how much blood can flow out from a human body and scurried off. He didn’t even take the poor man’s wallet or Rolex. Maybe he was just high and lost it? Of course, this may be an intentional homicide, but that would be either take incredibly bad luck on the dead man’s part, or disturbingly premeditated evil. Detective Pienzo took a look at the corpse’s information and quickly deduced that the deceased was an Austrian, probably here on Holiday. “Poor bastard. What a horrible way to go. Must’ve hurt like the devil to be run through like that.” He flipped his notepad shut after jotting down the deceased’s address so next of kin could be notified. He was ready to have some breakfast, and go back to his desk to figure this out so he could go back to dreaming about retirement next year. “Alright boys, let’s pack it up. Get the body out of here before we scare off the tourists. I want this evidence processed and the blood cleaned up before noon. Sal, I want to run some prints on this knife and get a little background on him. This looks like more than just a robbery gone wrong. Get some guys to start knocking on doors and see if anyone saw or heard anything last night.”
“Sure thing, PP, I’m on it.” Pienzo’s younger partner, Detective Sal Ricci had arrived and answered much too energetically for this early in the morning. “Before I do though, the evidence team thought you might want to take a second look at this, they found it in our dead tourist’s jacket.” Sal handed his partner the faded and worn journal that Charlie was carrying when he died. Sal had pulled it out and laid it out to be reviewed later.
“Did you read it? What’s in it that is so intriguing that it can’t wait an hour so I can get some decent breakfast?” Pienzo gruffly barked at the young man.
“No Sir, I didn’t read it, they said you should see it right away, Sir. They thought it was...um...weird.” Sal never was quite sure how the old man would react so he just stood there, arm outstretched and holding the journal for Pienzo. Before he knew it the cranky older officer had snapped it out of his hand and was yelling some more.
“For Saint Mike’s sake, take some initiative next time, Sal. Just give it here!” Pienzo was in no mood to read some dead tourist’s diary, but once he opened the journal he was intrigued. There was page after page of beautiful free-hand drawings. Mountains, flowers, portraits, and houses sketched completely in pencil. All very peaceful and serene, but nothing unusual. He was just about to throw the journal back to Sal for wasting his time, when he noticed what the evidence team must have been so concerned about. On the last page of the journal was an odd inscription that read like something from a horror book. The short poem was colored in very bold with pencil and outlined in a square border.
“Dear friend, your time is coming,
You do not know when or where.
Please help us, Saints and Angels,
Avoid the Reaper’s glare.
When you see the Reaper coming,
There is naught that you can do.
Don’t run, Don’t hide, for He abides.
His steps shall soon reach you.
There is no place you can cower,
No sanctuary there.
The Reaper knows and sets the trap,
He’s honey to a bear.
The blood is in the water now,
The Shark can smell His prey.
There is no lifeboat coming,
The Reaper hunts today.
When He finds you He will take you.
He is nourished by your cry.
For the Reaper’s bite is final.
‘Goodbye, poor soul, Goodbye.’”
Pienzo made the sign of the cross and felt the hair on the back of his neck raise up just a little. “Good God, this gives me the creeps, Sal.” Sal Ricci was sufficiently terrified that it wiped the smile off his face, and made his normally rosy cheeks blotchy with white.
As Pienzo took a closer look he noticed that the page was streaked with random blood stains that were obviously left by the victim. Directly underneath the quote in hurried, messy handwriting, was the victim’s desperate last communication - 55>MCMXLIX>ANNA. After another hard look, Detective Pienzo decided this was going to be a very long day.
Down at the end of the alley, standing in a crowd of curious locals and tourists, the Reaper smiled and watched.