Published On: Sat, Dec 24th, 2022

Read the final part of Jeffrey Archer’s Christmas thriller | Books | Entertainment


Lord Archer's third and final instalment

Lord Archer’s third and final instalment (Image: Rob Murray)

The day started badly for Antonio Rosetti. He was studying the pin board, now covered in photographs with several crosses through them – suspects already cleared, each after confessing to the murder of Cortoglia’s venal and deeply unpopular mayor, Dino Lombardi. His thoughts were interrupted by Riccardo, the local postman, who marched in and even before delivering the morning mail said: “I can’t bear the strain any longer, Lieutenant. I’ve decided to give myself up and admit that it was me who murdered the mayor.”

“I was just making a cup of coffee, Riccardo, would you like one?”

“Not before you arrest me.”

“Later perhaps, but first a few questions.”

“Of course.”

“Black or white?”

“Black, no sugar.”

Antonio poured a cup of coffee and handed it to the postman.

“How did you kill the mayor, Riccardo?” he asked, no longer wasting any time with preliminaries.

“I drowned him,” said the postman.

“In the sea?” suggested Antonio, raising an eyebrow.

“No, in his bath. I took him by surprise.”

“It must have come as quite a surprise,” said Antonio, opening his notebook. “Lombardi couldn’t have been drowned in a bath, because there’s only a shower in
the house.”

“In the sea?” said the postman hopefully.

“‘Not an option. Not least because 11 other men have already confessed to drowning him in the sea.”

Antonio, the only person in town who knew exactly how Lombardi had been killed, closed his notebook. “But good try, Riccardo. More importantly, have I got any letters this morning?”

“Yes, three,” said the postman, putting the opened envelopes on the table. “A card from your mother, who can’t wait to meet Francesca and hopes you’ll be home for Christmas. The second is from the chief of police in Naples who wants to know why you haven’t arrested anyone yet, and a third from your brother.”

“And what does he want?’ Antonio asked, ignoring the fact the postman had illegally tampered with the mail.

“Could you let him know as soon as you have arrested someone, and if they’ve got any money, would you remember to recommend him?”

“Are there any secrets in this town?”

“Just one,” smiled the postman.

Dinner under Christmas fairy lights with Francesca Farinelli, Cortoglia’s pretty pharmacist, at Lucio’s restaurant was about as public as an execution. If Antonio had even thought about holding her hand, it would have been front-page news in the Cortoglia Gazzetta. The couple had met after the local police officer had disappeared and Antonio had been sent from Naples to undertake the murder investigation.

“Don’t you ever get bored living in a small town?” he asked her after a waiter had whisked away their plates.

“Never, I have the best of both worlds,” she replied.

“I can read the same books as you, watch the same TV, eat the same food and enjoy the same wine at half the price. And if I want to visit an art gallery or buy some new clothes, I can always spend the day in Naples and be back in Cortoglia before the sun sets.

“And perhaps you haven’t noticed the magnificent rolling hills or how fresh the air is, and when people pass in the street they smile and acknowledge each other.”

“But the bustle, the excitement, the variety of everyday life?”

“The traffic, the pollution, the graffiti, not to mention the manners of some of your fellow Neapolitans who consider women should only be seen in the kitchen or the bedroom, and then not necessarily the same woman.”

Antonio leant across the table and took her hand. “I couldn’t tempt you to come back to Naples with me?”

“For the day, yes,” said Francesca. “But then I’d want us to be back in Cortoglia by nightfall.”

“Then you’ll have to go on murdering some more of the locals.”

“Certainly not. One will be quite enough for the next hundred years. So who’s the latest person who tried to convince you they disposed of Lombardi?”

“Paolo Carrafini.”

“Whose wine we are both enjoying,” said Francesca, raising her glass.

“And will continue to do so,” said Antonio, “as Signor Carrafini’s attempt to prove he murdered the mayor turned out to be the least convincing so far”’

“What was wrong with Lombardi falling through a trap door into the wine cellar and breaking his neck?’”

“Nothing wrong with the idea,’ said Antonio, “it’s just a pity Signor Carrafini would have had to lift up the trap door before he could push Lombardi through. You should tell any other potential murderers that they must be prepared for something to go wrong even when they’re innocent.”

“So who’s next on your list?”

“I’m afraid it’s your father’s turn and he’s the last person I want to arrest. Although when it comes to motive, he’s an obvious candidate.”

“Why?”

“Because we know Lombardi removed him as mayor and within days of the murder, your father was back in the town hall.” Francesca leant across the table and touched his cheek.

“Don’t worry, my father isn’t going to admit to the murder.”

“All the more reason to believe he did it.”

“Except in his case he has a cast-iron alibi. He was in Florence at the time, attending a local government conference.”

“That’s a relief, assuming there are witnesses.”

“Over a hundred.”

“More than enough. But if it wasn’t your father who killed Lombardi, I’m fast running out of suspects. Although there still remains the mystery of the missing policeman, because Luca Gentile hasn’t been seen in Cortoglia since the day Lombardi was murdered. So he has motive, as well as opportunity.”

“Although I suspect he knows who did it, which is why he won’t be returning to Cortoglia and resuming his former duties until you’re safely back in Naples.”

“Then I’ve still got three more days before Christmas to surprise you all,” said Antonio.

Antonio took her hand as they crossed
the square to Francesca’s home. When she opened the door this time Antonio followed her inside.

The Naples chief of police called Antonio the next day and asked if he was making any progress. “I can’t pretend I am, chief,” admitted Antonio. “To date,” he said, opening a thick file, “forty-four people have confessed to killing the mayor, and I’m fairly sure none of them are guilty. And worse, I think they all know who did murder Lombardi.”

“Someone will crack,” said the chief. “They always do.”

“This isn’t Naples, chief,” Antonio heard himself saying.

“So who’s the latest one to confess?”

“Not one, but 11. The local football team claims they pushed Lombardi over a cliff and he drowned in the sea.”

“And what makes you so sure they didn’t?”

“I interviewed all 11 of them. The nearest coastline is over 40 miles away, and they couldn’t even agree on which cliff they pushed him over, where they pulled him out of the water, or how they managed to get him back to Cortoglia and tuck him up in bed. Frankly, I think it’s more likely Lombardi would have pushed all 11 of them over a cliff before they laid a hand on him.”

“All the more reason for you to come back,” said the chief. “Lombardi’s clearly not going to be missed by anyone in Cortoglia, because I’ve just received a confidential
report from the Guardia di Finanza to let me know the Mafia expelled him. They felt he was too violent.

“So if you haven’t discovered who murdered him by the end of next week, I want you back in Naples where real criminals still roam the streets.”

During the next few days, the number of citizens who confessed to killing Lombardi rose to 51 and, when the chief called again from Naples to tell him to wrap up the case, Antonio had to admit the locals had defeated him, and he accepted that perhaps the time had come to head back to the real world. Indeed, Antonio might have done so if the new mayor, Lorenzo Farinelli, hadn’t phoned and asked to see him on a private matter.

He entered the room, surprised to find the whole council awaiting him. Signor Farinelli nodded towards the empty seat at the other end of the table.

Once Antonio had poured himself a glass of water and sat back, the mayor said: “We’ve just finished our first meeting of the new council, and wondered if you would bring us up to date on how your investigation is progressing.”

“Although I don’t have sufficient proof, Mr Mayor, I’m fairly sure I now know who killed Lombardi. However, despite my suspicions, I’ve been instructed by my chief to close the case and return to Naples.” Antonio couldn’t have missed the collective sigh of relief from those seated around the table.

“I am sure your chief has made a wise decision,” said the mayor.

“However, I confess that wasn’t the reason we wanted to see you, lieutenant. Our town policeman, Luca Gentile, has recently contacted us to let us know that he will not be returning to Cortoglia for personal reasons, and the Consiglio voted to offer you the position as chief of police.

“The council have agreed we should build a new police station, worthy of your status.’

“But…”

“And we’d pay you the same amount as the chief of police in Naples,” Farinelli said.

“That’s more than generous…” began Antonio. “However,” the mayor continued, “although we didn’t put it to a vote, there is one thing we felt strongly about. If you were able to marry a local girl…”

SEVERAL guests, including Antonio’s parents, arrived from Naples on the morning of Antonio Rossetti and Francesca Farinelli’s New Year’s wedding. However, Antonio assured the mayor they would all be going home the next day.

The whole town turned out to witness the vows of eternal love sworn by the couple, including several locals who hadn’t been invited. When il Signor and la Signora Rossetti left the wedding celebrations to set off for Venice, Antonio suspected the festivities would still be going on when they returned home in a fortnight’s time. The newly-weds spent their honeymoon in Venice, eating too much spaghetti alle vongole, and drinking too much wine.

On the final night, Antonio sat up in bed and watched his wife undress. When she slipped under the covers to join him, he took her in his arms.

“It’s been the most wonderful fortnight, my darling,” Francesca said. “So many memories to share with everyone when we get back home.”

“If you’d only come to Naples, Francesca,
I would introduce you to one or two restaurants you might enjoy.’

“Perhaps I’ll come for lunch one day. Although I confess I’m looking forward to getting back to Cortoglia.”

“Even though I still haven’t solved the mystery of who killed the last mayor,” said Antonio. “Come to think of it, you’re about the only person who didn’t confess to murdering Lombardi. I was going to ask for your alibi when I first visited the pharmacy.”

She smiled: “But you seemed more interested in trying to pick me up.”

Antonio laughed: “Then all I need to know, darling, is how you killed Lombardi?”

“A spoonful of cyanide dropped into his coffee after dinner. A slow and painful death, but no more than he deserved.”

Antonio sat bolt upright and stared.

“And I don’t have to remind you, my darling,” continued Francesca, “that in Italy, a man can’t give evidence against his wife.”

  • Exclusively adapted by Jeffrey Archer for the Daily Express from Who Killed The Mayor. His latest must-read thriller, Next In Line (HarperCollins, £22), featuring William Warwick, is out now. Lord Archer’s fee has been donated to Give A Book.



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