To a thief, it isn’t the first item one would think to steal for the purpose of financial gain. In fact, the crown worn by Our Lady of Sorrows is (or was) made merely of metal. Therefore, it made no sense to Giovanni Rossi, one of the members of the carabinieri assigned to investigate the theft, that this would be the only item pilfered from the church, honed in upon for some evident-to-no-one-else very specific purpose. As he took statements from the gaggle of old women who first noticed that the crown had disappeared from the virginal statue’s head, his mind wandered to plans he had made with his girlfriend to go away–run away, more accurately–this upcoming weekend. To drive far from Rimini and go down the coast to Bari, where they would catch a boat to some island on Greece. It was, in a word, escape. Their intentions had been formed over the course of the past two years, during which time the various and consistent drug busts in relation to that description of the town that went, “a city of Emilia-Romagna on the Adriatic coast, known for nightclubs on the sea and shallow waters,” made for a lucrative form of capitalization from Giovanni’s perch in the carabinieri. As for the backdrop of Rimini, naturally, what was a club experience without something to elevate the mind to a point of ignoring the total vacuity of it all?
With his position of power, Giovanni had profited from reappropriating the moonlighting role of drug dealer to himself. And now, the careful collection and conservation of all those funds would finally pay off, after so much quiet and strained waiting. Of enduring the endless monotony of afternoons spent drinking wine and chewing bread as though the future weren’t bursting at the seams to be met with. It was for this reason that the burgling of the crown was unsettling to Giovanni, who felt it presaged some sort of ill omen. After all, a Virgin Mary with no crown was made to look even more melancholic, as though the reason she was crying was for the accessory that had been wrongfully ripped from her head.
Trying his best to focus on the urgent ramblings of these pious old women–the last of the devout, the true believers–he knew that the thief was a lone operator, had some sick motive in stealing the adornment that he couldn’t possibly be aware of or even have the unwell mind to intuit. But he went through the irksome process of making the biddies feel that they were being heard, that they were indispensable to “cracking the case.” Walking back to his motorcycle, Giovanni was met with a sudden and forceful headache. The kind so jarring it nearly made him stumble backwards from the pain. But he was a man, and a puissant one at that. So he gathered his bearings and forced himself onto the motorcycle to get back to his apartment for one of the last boring lunches before fleeing with Rosa. Beautiful Rosa, who he had, of course, met at one of those clubs along the Adriatic Sea. She was careening slowly to the fast beat of one of the popular dance hits of the time, “Sweet Nothing,” which is precisely what she was willing to live on so long as it meant they could be together per l’eternità. For that’s how it was when you found someone who wasn’t a tourist in Rimini–you rather couldn’t help but latch onto them. Who else could you commiserate with about living in a town that could only come alive in the summer? And though it was like that with all of the Romagna Riviera, Rimini felt especially destitute in the off season, which meant that cozying up to any attractive local you could find was absolutely necessary. As far as Giovanni was concerned, there could be no other for him than Rosa. She was just the right amount of pale–not so white as to look pasty but not so tan as to look like a refugee. Her cascading dark blonde hair fell to her shoulders in waves, and she never wore makeup other than the occasional flourish of rossetto–but that was only on very rare occasions. Which is why Giovanni was somewhat flummoxed to see her lips painted a piercing crimson upon entering their abode near Rivabella, not too far from the water, but just far enough to be affordable on Giovanni’s carabinieri salary–since, after all, his drug funds were being reserved for their imminent getaway. Yet Giovanni all at once felt that something was amiss at the sight of Rosa wearing this lipstick with her usual loosely fitting black sweater dress, for it had grown cold in these early fall months.
“Giovanni, what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen vomit on the street. Am I so hideous?”
Giovanni shook himself out of his daze. “No, no. It’s just…you never wear lipstick.”
She shrugged. “I just felt like putting some on today. I wanted to look nice.”
He approached her to give her a peck on the lips. “You always look nice.”
She appeared squeamish at his touch, almost imperceptibly pulling away as she shoveled some Bolognese pasta onto the plates she had set out. “Sit down, I’ll get some wine.”
He abruptly felt uneasy, as though he had something to be suspicious of in her slightly off appearance and behavior. Nothing was provably different, per se, but it was an intuitive sentiment, a foreboding that could not be cast out, even as Rosa spoke affably to him about their impending escape and how life would be so much better for them once they reached Greece.
He nodded along, smiling, all the while his mind was racing with thoughts of the missing crown and the portentousness of its inexplicable absence. Had a little girl stolen it for the pleasure of playing dress up in her room? Had a young man plucked it to give as a romantic gift to his residual summer love? He had to know before he departed. Chewing in contemplation, Rosa interrupted his swirling thoughts with the wave of her hand. “Eh, are you still there?”
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry. It’s just…there was this…incident.”
“What kind of incident?” she said, arching her brow.
“At the church. Our Lady of Sorrows.”
Rosa averted her eyes from him as she took a slow sip of wine. “Oh, and what happened there?”
“It’s just so strange. So absent of motive. Someone took the crown off the Madonna’s head. It’s made of metal. It has no value.”
“Maybe it does to whoever wanted it,” Rosa said quickly. “Or maybe someone did it simply just to do it, some juvenile delinquent.”
Giovanni eyed her with skepticism. “No, I don’t think that’s what it was.”
Rosa sighed. “Well, why worry about it? We’re leaving in a couple days, and you’ll never have to concern yourself with that stupid job again.”
He stabbed his fork into a stack of spaghetti strands. “I just find it unsettling. I can’t explain it.”
Rosa shrugged. “There’s nothing to be done.”
But there was. Later that evening, when Giovanni was back on duty, he found himself meandering into the piazza where Our Lady of Sorrows of the Church of Suffrage, as it was so bombastically called, remained in innocence. Looking just the same as it always had in spite of the crime that had been committed against it, the egregious pillaging that it never warranted, Giovanni felt compelled to enter the edifice, despite the fact that, ever since he had been an adolescent, he largely avoided churches at all costs. Yet something within him was drawing him to the Madonna, something tacit and undefined.
Approaching the statue with reverence, he knelt before it, making the sign of the cross without thinking. One supposes the latent Catholic in all Italians cannot be quelled in such random instances as these. And just as he was about to look back up at her, this tortured woman who cried for everyone and no one, he saw forthwith a blackness overtake him–struck, incidentally, with the very crown he couldn’t put out of his mind.
When he awoke, he found himself a less than fifteen minute drive away, tied up in one of the many faux luxurious hotels along the shore, this one called Hotel Eden. When he opened his eyes, he saw Rosa standing in front of him with a man he had never seen before. He was burly and swarthy, possibly not Italian. Maybe Albanian. Thinking over the viable reasons for why Rosa could betray him this way, he without warning felt a heaviness upon his head that he hadn’t noticed right away in his state of disorientation.
“Feel that?” Rosa spat with a sneer on her face. “It’s the crown you wanted back so badly. The one you were so curious about.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “But why? Why did you take it?”
The possible Albanian spoke up in this instant, casually stating, “We needed you to be distracted with a ‘case’ while we concluded our affairs.”
A burning sensation in Giovanni’s stomach began to eat away at him. He couldn’t believe that the woman he thought would remain loyal to him forever, in truth, turned out to be his ultimate betrayer, his Judas. Then again, hadn’t the bible taught him, long ago, that to place trust in anyone was to risk being double-crossed? Almost to guarantee it. The reason he had so long ago lost interest in faith, and all of its associated rituals, pertained to the death of his mother just one month after his thirteenth birthday. His father, who had long ago absconded, reemerged from his disappearance to attend the funeral, harboring the not so secret hope that their might be some monetary gain in it for him–because, yes, even after all he had done, or rather, not done for her, she still loved him and had the means to bequeath something to both him and Giovanni. Before she died, however, she warned her son that he was going to be disappointed in certain decisions she had made that would soon come to light, but that he might try to understand them by remembering that forgiveness was the only thing a person could do to make him be and feel closer to God.
He quickly understood her cryptic advice, for when Giovanni and his father were summoned by the lawyer entrusted to handle her affairs, it was to Giovanni’s father that all of her assets were given to. What a fool of a woman, Giovanni thought. She genuinely believed that “forgiveness” through this bestowment would make his father realize he still loved her now that she was gone forever. Naturally, all he did was take the money and run, without so much as a kind word about her or even an apology to Giovanni for abandoning both of them.
So no, he did not take his mother’s “wisdom” to heart. Not then, and certainly not now as he watched the possible Albanian grab Rosa by the waist and kiss her as he stuck a knife in Giovanni’s gut. He watched Rosa with her eyes closed, reveling in the affection from this man as she, in retrospect, clearly never had with Giovanni. Flashes of their life together pieced together in a collage of falsity that made him throw up right then and there, the tune of “Sweet Nothing” playing on a loop in his head as he discerned that she had gone through all the motions of love–and so well–for the money that he had risked everything to squirrel away for a happily ever after he himself wouldn’t get to live out. No, he had worked instead for the future of this possible Albanian that Rosa had been with all along and for far longer. Writhing from the pain and the retching, only Our Lady of Sorrows could have presented a bleaker portrait during those last gasps of Giovanni’s life, the knife ensconced in his stomach and the crown of the Virgin atop his head.