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LA PERLA DI NAPOLI was on the edge of Greenwich Village between a grocery store and a tiny office that published what appeared to be a highly subversive newspaper. The dark green paint on the outside would need some work soon and the green and white striped awning was only good for perhaps a couple more years, but inside the friendly welcome and the rustic Italian atmosphere made up for everything.
Of course, I was greeted in a friendly manner because I was with Gabriella but I watched couples and families coming in after us and every one was known to Giovanni and Elsa Rossini. The restaurant was small with only a dozen tables squeezed close together. On the walls were oil paintings, probably by some local artist, depicting familiar Italian scenes from pigeon-laden St. Mark's Square to a certain tower with a very p.r.o.nounced tilt. Between them hung wicker-covered Chianti bottles, banners declaring undying support for the Intra-Milan soccer team and photographs of prominent Italians from Tony Bennett and Dean Martin to Pavarotti and the Pope.
The scent of basil hung heavy in the small room but it was losing the unequal struggle against waves of garlic. I fancied I could discern the smells of sage and rosemary but against such powerful compet.i.tion, that was probably imagination. If pasta had a smell, though, it would have dominated all others, for the steaming plates sailed by continuously, carried aloft by Gabriella's perspiring father, a small wiry man with a happy grin and a nonstop line of chatter in both Italian and English.
"Does your father cook too?" I asked Gabriella. She was wearing a black sweater with tiny sparkles in it and a skirt in a sort of cobalt color. Her hair was l.u.s.trous black-I tried to push the overused "raven's wing" description away, apt as it was.
"Oh yes. He's a bit lighter on his feet than mamma so he spends more time here up front. But he's up every morning by six, making the pasta."
"Seldom had better," I told her.
We had started with a tray of antipasti-mortadella, Parma ham, margottini (small domes of polenta sprinkled with gruyere), salami, smoked salmon with sliced mushrooms (Gabriella's eyes had widened-"Everybody doesn't get this," she confided), ceci (chickpeas), eggplant slices rolled around caciocavallo cheese, marinated mussels, a slice of scarpazzone (spinach pie) ... It was a feast in itself and the accompanying garlic bread had been carefully soaked in olive oil but not allowed to become soggy.
We had finished the pasta course. It was readily identifiable as having been made from semolina but Gabriella explained that it was known as cavatieddi, a specialty of Apulia. Pieces of dough the size of a thumbnail had been pressed out with the tip of a b.u.t.ter knife to produce a shape like a seash.e.l.l but smaller than the similar and better-known orrechietti that resemble the lobe of an ear.
Giovanni came and poured more of a luscious ruby-red Amarone, then hurried off, calling "p.r.o.nto, p.r.o.nto" to a loud demand for more bread. "He usually serves a Chianti Cla.s.sico to special customers," said Gabriella. "He must think you're running for mayor."
"Not even chief of police," I told her.
We sipped the wine. It was rich and smooth. A wine taster would describe it as having raisin and chocolate flavors but such descriptions should be confined to the trade-they merely confuse the average wine drinker.
"So the case is all wrapped up now," I mused. "You found the gun in Eck's car and it fired the bullets that killed both men."
Gabriella sipped a little more of her wine. "As wrapped up as they ever are. We've leaned on Mr. Singyang too. He most likely did buy the birds' nests, though we'll never prove it, but it looks as if the sale was done so carefully that he really didn't know the ident.i.ty of the seller."
"Have you found out how Keyhoe paid Eck? I mean, was it twenty thousand fifty-dollar bills or what?"
"No trace yet but it won't take long. Might have been diamonds-that's a popular way to pay large sums using a small package."
"Then the seller has to be able to tell real from phony too. Does he have to get an authenticator as well?"
"Hopefully," said Gabriella. "Anything to make things tougher for the bad guys."
"Another thing-I hadn't realized that you had probed into Marvell's movements so closely."
"Oh, of course we did. And we found out that Marvell had to fly to Boston to be there when his daughter had a critical brain operation."
"He could have told me that."
"He's a very private man. Doesn't like to give anything of himself. He knew this two weeks earlier-which was when he told Cartwright that he was to meet the delivery, giving Cartwright time to plan the theft with Eck. That also prompted Eck to spread suspicion on Marvell-spread further by Keyhoe."
"So Keyhoe caved in and Marvell has the Ko Feng back."
Gabriella nodded agreement.
"I'm still uncertain about the motive for killing Don Renshaw," I said.
"We expect to get confirmation from the interrogation of Eck but we know that Renshaw spotted the similarity in the two thefts. The obvious man for him to call was Cartwright, who told Eck, and both of them evidently thought that Renshaw knew more than he did. Incidentally, we had already had word that Eck's desk was heavily in debt."
In a casual voice, she went on, "I had a half hour with the vice-president of Paramount Pharmaceuticals this morning. You hadn't mentioned she was a woman."
"Didn't I?" I frowned, tapping my forehead. "I suppose it wasn't important. I just saw her as a vice-president."
"I was wondering," Gabriella said, still casual, "why you thought she was telling the truth when she told you she was losing her job because she hadn't been able to buy the Ko Feng."
"It wasn't the truth? You mean she's not losing her job?"
"Oh, that's true enough. I confirmed it before I talked to her. I just wondered how you were so sure."
"Oh, experience," I said loftily. "From years of talking to witnesses."
"Witnesses to who put the copper wire into the gorgonzola, for instance?"
"I know that's not like grilling murderers," I protested. "But I could tell she hadn't bought the Celestial Spice."
"Not at all."
"You mean you don't think she is?"
"Oh, in a-a blond sort of way, I suppose she is, yes. But that's not why I thought she hadn't bought the spice."
"Hm." She sounded unimpressed but I supposed she was used to much sterner interrogation techniques at the NYPD. "You know, you still haven't explained how you learned that Keyhoe had bought the spice."
"I-er, didn't exactly learn it, well, not in a direct manner..."
"Because it could have turned out to be somebody who hadn't previously shown up in inquiries."
"I didn't think so. I was counting on the pressure we had put on the thief. After all, I had declared a sample a phony when I knew it was the real thing and that had queered that sale. We discussed the likelihood of killing me as revenge but I was betting on the thief continuing to act in the same rational, logical pattern as before and not react emotionally.
"So rather than go further afield," I went on, "which would take longer, he did the smart thing. He got another authenticator-one from three thousand miles away-and got the best deal he could from one of the willing buyers on hand."
"The testing you went through at Martha's should have sewed it up," said Gabriella. "Which willing buyer was that?"
"It was Gloria Branson."
She darted me a sharp look. "It was? You didn't recognize her voice ... well, no reason why you should. Any security store sells devices for $19.95 that will disguise your voice so that your own mother wouldn't know it."
"She may have been a good first choice. With her job on the line, she was anxious to buy. Eck probably approached Keyhoe next."
"I think so. He was almost as anxious."
"Gloria Branson talked too about some research you were going to help her with?"
"Whenever I can, I like to help expand the database," I said virtuously.
"I talked to Kay Grenville at New England a.s.surance also," she continued. "She received a phone call inviting her to discuss a deal for returning the Ko Feng."
"Yes, we talked about that possibility, didn't we? Eck would have been exploring that possibility when he found he was having problems selling the Ko Feng. What did she tell him?"
"She turned him down, although she didn't know who he was. Told him two murders made any deal out of the question."
A beaming Giovanni Rossini appeared with two plates of fritto misto and set them down before us with a flourish. He poured us more Amarone-in true Italian style, he wasn't fussy about when to serve white and when to serve red.
Gabriella went on. "We were having another round of interviews with the restaurant people too, just in case the thief had any idea of trying some different approach with them. I talked to Mrs. Rifkin first."
"Who?" I had asked the question before it struck me but Gabriella was already saying, "Well, I suppose you know her only as Ayesha ..."
"How do you decide on your interviewing technique?" I asked, savoring the crispy, crackly little fish. "Start with all the women?"
She smiled. "Hal thought I might get more out of them. You know-woman to woman ... Why, what's the matter?" she asked slyly, "afraid your girlfriends might blurt out some indiscretion?"
"I'm sure any of them might," I said, "but as long as it concerned the case, it wouldn't matter." I motioned to the fritto misto. "This is excellent. Cooked just right. Your mother has a magic touch."
She chuckled delightfully, attacking the fish with gusto. "Okay, I won't tease you anymore. This is good, isn't it? It's one of my mother's favorites, she can make a meal of it."
With every table filled, Gabriella's father was kept busy. "He has a waitress help him on Friday and Sat.u.r.day nights," Gabriella said. "Other nights, he manages alone."
Tiny fish fried that way are always salty and Giovanni thoughtfully brought us a large bottle of San Pellegrino.
"It's almost ready," he said and Gabriella and I exchanged excited glances.
The previous day, as soon as I told Hal Gaines that Keyhoe was the buyer of the Ko Feng, he had promptly placed him under arrest. Leading him to believe that Eck had admitted who the Ko Feng had been sold to had resulted in Keyhoe caving in completely. The precious sack had been recovered and-for the last time, I hoped-I was called upon to authenticate it.
I had been tempted to turn a disappointed face to Hal Gaines and say that it wasn't Ko Feng but I was doubtful if he had either the patience or the sense of humor at that moment so I gave him a thumbs-up sign.
"I'll tell Marvell," he had said. "He can make arrangements to come and collect it."
I had held out a hand-it had two stamens in it. "My fee for the authentication," I said and Gaines rolled his eyes and gave me a to-each-his-own kind of shrug as he went out.
Those same two stamens, carefully chopped, had been added to the seasoning of the os...o...b..co that Mamma Rossini was now cooking as the main course. Little wonder that our mouths were watering.
"Speaking of fees for authentication," said Gabriella, "I hear you donated the five bills you got at Martha's Restaurant to the charities fund yesterday."
"How'd you hear that?"
"We have our ways."
"Evidently. Well, in our first meeting, Marvell cut me off completely but now he's come through in style and is paying all my expenses and my originally agreed fee."
"You could have kept the other five too."
"No. That was blood money-bloodstained money."
Giovanni went by, both arms laden with plates of pasta, then he was back at once with another bottle of Amarone. He pulled the cork, then as he poured, he looked back in surprise. "Hey, here's Mamma!"
Beaming, perspiring, Mamma bustled out with a plate in each hand and set them before us.
"Have you tasted it, Mamma?" asked Gabriella, eyes alight.
Mamma touched fingers to her mouth and raised them in a salute.
"Buon appet.i.to!" she wished us. "It's magnifico!" She left us. Gabriella and I tasted ... our eyes met. Perhaps the opportunity for research into one of Ko Feng's fabled characteristics hadn't slipped by after all.
MY THANKS ARE DUE to the following: Dr. John B. Morrill of the Division of Natural Sciences at New College, University of South Florida, for his invaluable help in structuring the character of Ko Feng; Joan Wasylik of Cargill Europe for an imposing array of data on the spices of the past; and Donaleta Robinson of Magagnosc in the South of France for her tireless research into food and restaurants.