Clyde Lynwood Sawyer, Jr and Frances Witlin
"Murder mysteries, clairvoyants and Southern mill towns are not subjects that immediately pique my interest. Nevertheless, authors Witlin and Sawyer have combined these disparate elements to craft a compelling tale, abetted by a fine and fiercely drawn cast of characters.
Mario Castigliani, an aging European aristocrat and widower, has a genuine psychic gift that he has lovingly named la Lucia. But he has abused his power to the extent he can no longer count on it to earn his living. On a tour of ill-paying one-night stands, in the dog days of August, he is stranded in a Georgia mill town . A series of strange suicides has drawn the attention of the town's young police chief, the rawboned Beau Tyler. He asks Mario to help with the investigation. As their relationship grows, the reader wonders if the pair are really investigating a series of murders or if they are playing an obscure psychological game."
READ the REVIEWS OF UNCERTAIN CURRENCY
Read an excerpt from AN UNCERTAIN CURRENCY
Mario Castigliani was twelve in 1948, a
compact muscular boy dangling his legs into an archeological trench. Il
professore, a bearded young scientist, Mario’s new friend, was at work in
the ditch, delicately probing the upper strata of exposed earth.
Excavation trenches crisscrossed the Umbrian hillside below Mario’s home city, Perugia. The afternoon sky was immaculately blue. A breeze sparkled distant Lake Trastemino, stirred the poplars, and ruffled Mario’s sun-bleached tangle of curls. The air smelled of wild anise and newly turned volcanic earth. He could hear cowbells made melodious by distance, the bronze tones of a monastery bell, and the soft chunks of the workmen’s picks three trenches away.
Mario’s sandaled feet, scratched by his truant scramble up the hill, hung level, he told himself, with the Middle Ages. The trench went down past the ancient Romans, deeper even than the Etruscans to whom Mario felt so powerfully drawn.
The professor laid his dental pick and brush on a stone near Mario. "Look what we found this morning," he said, handing the boy a tarnished octagonal coin. Mario could make out a lion’s head and worn mysterious lettering.
And then, it happened. The undulant landscape and the earnest face of il professore dissolved into light. A shock stiffened Mario’s spine. His eyes closed on luminous blankness. Energy flowed from the coin gripped in his hand. He exalted, throbbing with joy and vigor. Mario had discovered his muse. Or his muse had discovered him—a fickle, private miracle he would later name La Lucia.
At six a.m. the August sun over Floraville,
Georgia had burned away the mist from the Clinch River. The mill and the white
frame houses surrounding it lay exposed to the glare. Only in the hills to the
west, where the mansions of the millowners slumbered in the shade of ancient
oaks, was there any respite. On the state highway bypassing the town there was
little traffic—a bakery truck, another bringing newspapers from Columbus.
Three farm pickups were parked outside the Floraville Lunch, the sole
establishment open on Main Street. Boxcars, filled with five-hundred-pound bales
of fiber, rumbled steadily out of the freightyard on their way to the mill
A few joggers panted along their customary routes. It was too early for the stream of first-shift millhands to flow along the sidewalks. Several uniformed maids sauntered out of Blue Heaven, on their way to the bus stop. They paused to stare at a solid red-haired woman, flushed and out of breath, packed into jeans and a print blouse darkening with perspiration. She carried two lunchboxes, one old, one new, the new one decorated with images of Barbie and Ken. A few tongues of pink paper licked from inside it.
By ten a.m., Floraville was in the slow swing of its summer routine. In the mills, workers guided yarn into the thundering looms; other crews trundled the finished fabric into the stock rooms. In the park next to Town Hall, two old men sat near the war memorial, warily eyeing the formidable sun. A dozen laughing children, enjoying the last weeks of vacation, played tag among the sprinklers. On the other side of Main Street, shoppers clustered under store awnings, complaining about the heat.
Except for the third-shift millworkers, only one man in town was still asleep. The shades were pulled down; a bedside fan stirred the stifling air. Mario Castigliani tossed on his lumpy hotel bed. He had arrived by bus, late in the night, but his exhaustion had deeper causes than his journey. Troubled dreams were driving him toward an obligatory wakefulness. He had much to do to prepare for his scheduled performance this weekend.
In a shock of light, his nightmare dissipated. He sat up, frowning at the open door and the lanky silhouette framed in it.
"Mr. Mario Castig-lioni? I’m real sorry to disturb you."
Mario pulled the sheet up over his chest.
"I’m the police chief here." The voice was low, polite but firm.
Ahý, a cop! Mario thought. And what have I done? I am a respected artist, guilty of nothing, Signore Policeman. Not yet fully awake, he tried to fathom the thoughts of the intruder. Mario smoothed his thinning mane of grey hair in a seemingly casual gesture. He yawned convincingly, massaging a spot between his eyebrows. This device usually helped to evoke his telepathic powers. But he received nothing from the man in the doorway. He must be one of those, Mario guessed, one of that two percent or so whose minds were closed to him.
"Saw your poster in the restaurant. I want to ask your help."
"’Scuse," Mario said, relieved. He waved noncommittally and got out of bed, using the sweaty sheet as a toga. In the bathroom he splashed himself with cold water and slipped into his maroon silk bathrobe.
The police chief had seated himself on the edge of the chair near the dresser. Mario rolled up the shade and offered his hand to his visitor.
"Tyler," the man said, rising. "Beaufort Tyler."
Mario gave the sinewy hand a precise, formal shake. He stepped to the noisy fan and clicked it off. "It does not help much," he apologized.
Tyler nodded. "Air conditioning still on the blink?"
"They promise it will be fixed this morning."
"Promises don’t cost squat."
Daylight exposed the spartan economy of the room: the painted linoleum floor, the secondhand furniture. Mario’s hand-tailored silk suit, worn at the cuffs, hung on the closet door. His silver hairbrushes lay on the dresser beside an open suitcase of finely crafted leather, scarred by countless journeys.
Mario’s photograph gazed magnetically from a small stack of posters.
Love? Money? Marriage?
Find Out Saturday, August 11, 8:00 PM
Two weeks ago his agent had sent a dozen posters
to the editor of The Floraville Weekly Clarion. Mario had planned to tack
up the rest the preceding night, but had arrived too late.
"How may I help you?" he asked Tyler, with an effort at patience.
Tyler pointed to the poster. "It says there you been on some police investigations."
Mario acknowledged this with a ghost of a bow. He had aged since the photo was taken; he was now in his fifties. Morning stubble blurred his handsome, leonine features. His grey eyes were veiled.
Tyler, fifteen years younger and a head taller than Mario, was ruddy and blond, his features irregular, high-cheekboned, with a prominent jaw. His keen blue eyes seemed to catalogue every detail of the room. He wore a badge and a service revolver. A police cap rested on his knee, above the sharp crease of his khaki trousers.
"Forgive me, Mr. Tyler. I’ve overslept. I must shave and dress and—"
"A man was found dead this morning," Tyler interrupted. "I think maybe he was murdered."
Mario’s eyebrows went up. He did not look at the police chief. Money, he thought. Che buona fortuna! He studied the ornate cornice molding, disfigured by many coats of cheap paint. But what if la lucia deserts me once again? His powers, to read thoughts directly; through handwriting, or by holding objects, had flickered on and off throughout the past twenty-five years. "Are you requesting a private reading concerning this murder?"
Tyler shook his head. "I’m the only one thinks it’s murder. The coroner, he’s sure it’s suicide."
"Who has died?"
"Old black man, name of Roy Washington. Sort of a local celebrity from the civil rights days. Look, Mr. Castig-lioni—"
"Casteel-yanee," Mario gently corrected him.
"Mr. Castigliani. You still interested in police work? I ought to warn you, the money won’t be much. If you run over a couple thousand I have to clear it with the aldermen. But if you qualify…"
Mario raised his hand. "I do have a certain talent, Mr. Tyler. Yes. A clairvoyance, as it were. But to be frank, I cannot always depend on my gift. It has a will of its own."
His modesty, he knew, would protect him in case he drew a blank, and also gave the impression of scrupulous honesty.
"There is a problem of timing," Mario said. "Commitments. Bookings. I must check with my agent." He gestured at the phone on the nightstand, detesting his lie.
Tyler’s glance dropped to the fraying lapels of Mario’s once elegant bathrobe. "’Course I understand. Must be lots of demands on your time." He took out a pack of Marlboros and offered one to Mario.
"Grazie, per˛ no," Mario said, thinking, he sees through me. "I rarely smoke, and never in the morning." The mindreader’s hand went to his forehead. No luck. A wall of steel. Il diavolo nell’ inferno! How can I do this job if I cannot get into his head?
"Trying to kick the habit myself."
Mario thought, I like the man. He looks tired and worried, but still he is cortese. "You have made use of psychics before?"
"Never. All this ESP. Astrology. Crystal balls. Hope you don’t mind me saying it, Mr. Castigliani, but I always thought it was a lot of…"
"Superstition and fraud," Mario said. "It may surprise you, Mr. Tyler, but I’m inclined to agree."
The police chief grinned uncertainly. "’Cept for you yourself, you mean?"
"My gift is a mystery, even to me. I cannot pretend to understand it. But it is genuine," Mario said with sincerity. "Perhaps somewhere there are others who possess it also. In all of my life, I have met only one. The rest were entertainers at best, charlatans at worst." He shrugged. "So. I honor your skepticism. But I find it puzzling that you consult me."
The police chief was silent. Mario reflected on the dead man. Elderly. Black. And mortal as am I. Is that something like grief on the policeman’s face? And I, considering only my own advantage, he reflected with a twinge of shame.
"There is someone… who always wanted me to use a psychic on a murder investigation. But I’ve never had…" he faltered. He seemed about to say either ‘psychic’ or ‘murder’.
"Someone…" Mario echoed.
His eyes went blank, as if sight had been sucked inward. The lids shut of their own accord. He swayed on the bed.
"Mr. Castigliani? You okay?"
Mario did not answer.
La lucia had come back to him in all her radiant power. The trance, which opened minds and granted him visions where past became present, was upon him.
He heard a woman say, "One swallow doesn’t make a summer." Her voice evoked the contralto tones of a violin. On his closed eyelids, Tyler’s "someone" took form and face: a woman, dark, beautiful, troubled and troubling. How like she was to his own amorosa, dead more than twenty years! This vision was taller and slimmer, but had the same Etruscan look. Was she Tyler’s beloved? His wife perhaps?
Tyler’s love for her quickened in Mario’s own blood. She drew closer, then so close he could see her richly fringed eyelids and a faint bluegreen vein on her forehead. Then she vanished.
Mario opened his eyes, now uncannily brilliant, and focussed point blank on the policeman. The impact pinned Tyler suddenly against the chairback.
"Jesus Almighty!" Tyler whispered.
Mario’s gaze continued to the wall behind the police chief. Images flickered, some vague, some sharply delineated. Mario surrendered to them.
"The old man was hanged," he said hoarsely. "In a kitchen? I see a little old house. Books, many books."
Tyler’s mouth was open. He nodded.
"A pink paper," Mario continued. "Crushed to a ball. On the floor of the kitchen."
A middle-aged woman in blue jeans. A framed news photo of an elderly black man, triumphant on the steps of a Federal Court House. A clock with a pendulum. Faces. Figures. All whirled before Mario, too fleeting to put into words. His heart pounded.
Then, la lucia was gone. He saw no more: only the policeman transfixed on the edge of the chair and the blank wall behind him.
Mario covered his face with his large, aristocratic hands and bowed his head. He shuddered, then went limp. A tidal wave of gratitude washed over him. He felt Tyler’s hand grip his shoulder.
"Whoa, hold on there, buddy ro. Don’t pass out on me." Mario’s breathing steadied. Tactfully disengaging Tyler’s hand, he stood and shook his head to clear it. "Grazie. Thank you! Thank you so much. I am all right, Signore Tyler."
"All right?" the police chief exclaimed. "You’re downright amazing."
"I was accurate then?"
"He was hanging." Tyler retrieved his cap from the floor and sat down again. "The flier was pink. Pretty damn scary. How would you know it was pink?"
Mario forced open the window. He leaned out, inhaling the thick humid air as though it were cool and refreshing. Then he smiled at Tyler. "A common color," he teased. "Perhaps a lucky guess."
"No!" Tyler insisted. "You saw it. I watched you seeing it."
"How do you know I wasn’t there? In that house with the peeling white paint? Maybe it was I who did the murder."
Tyler laughed. "Looks like you got yourself one hell of a talent."
"Any skilled professional mindreader could have astonished you equally."
"I’m a hard man to astonish, Mr. Castigliani. If I’m right that Roy Washington was murdered—use your bag of tricks, if that’s what they are. I don’t give a nose-picking damn long as you help me find who did it. If you’re interested in this job."
Mario nodded graciously. "If time will permit, I am willing to try it."
Before they could shake hands, a beeper sounded in Tyler’s hip pocket. He shut it off. "Mind if I use your phone?"
"By all means."
The pink shirt, Mario thought as he unpacked his suitcase, a lucky color. He took out a tarnished octagonal coin and tucked it into the shirt pocket. Then two books: a new paperback, The Etruscan Language; and the illustrated Pottery and Sculpture of Ancient Italy. He laid them on the lower shelf of the nightstand, noting that Tyler’s eyes flicked to the titles.
Mario arranged his boxer shorts and T-shirts in a drawer. Though he seemed absorbed in his task, he caught every word of the phone conversation.
"Beau here. What’s up, Ruthann? … They can take the body away. ... Any luck finding Roy’s daughter? … Try the Atlanta School Board, Candace Shapiro. … No. … No, the house stays sealed. The neighbors can carry their food on over to Cully Bates or somewheres. Let one of ’em offer his own house for the setting in … Tell Bobby Lee I’m on my way."
Mario unrolled a pair of grey socks, the left one torn at the toe. He lobbed them into the wastebasket and took another pair. Now I can buy new ones, he thought, the hell with darning.
"Give Doc Osborne a call," Tyler was saying. "I want him at the hospital in half an hour. And don’t let him give you any grief."
Is there a shoeshine stand nearby? Mario wondered, though his new calfskin loafers hardly needed polishing.
"How’s Myrt doing, Ruthann? She get something to eat? … Take care of her, would you?" Tyler hung up and put on his cap. "I have to get moving, Mr. Castigliani. If you dress real quick, you could come along. I’d sure be obliged."
"I regret that I cannot. But if you wish, we can meet later." Mario glanced at his wrist, then remembered that his French watch was in New York, in an Eighth Avenue pawnshop, having financed this Floraville trip.
"Can you be in my office, say, four o’clock?" Tyler opened the door. "Right next to Town Hall."
"I will be there. Arrivederci, Mr. Tyler."
Mario shut the door and leaned against it. He felt like laughing, weeping. I need a celebration, he thought. Perhaps a festive brunch.
He remembered the violin tones of the dark magnetic woman. "One swallow doesn’t make a summer." We say that in Italy, too, he told himself, except that our swallows arrive in the springtime. "Una rondine non fa primavera."
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