“Clayton, darling, it is Francesca.”
For a moment Clay felt only astonishment. Then a big grin came over his face. “Francesca! How wonderful to hear from you.”
“Yes, my darling, it has been ages, and I have missed you. We will meet for coffee.” He understood that this was not a request. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Coffee with Francesca was very much something he looked forward to.
It was one of those charming little European style cafés, tucked away in a narrow side street, a place known only to locals. One sad day it would be discovered by tourists — betrayed, perhaps, by some well-meaning writer of guidebooks — and the thronging hordes would quickly suck the magic right out of it. And then, as if guided by some immutable law of cities, another café would spring up somewhere to take its place. But for now it was safe — you had to know somebody to find it, or at least know somebody who knew somebody.
Francesca knew everybody. Looking across at her beautiful aristocratic face, he could see even in this dim light that she was, at fifty six, far lovelier than any twenty four year old could ever hope to be. Francesca was like a fine italian wine - maturity only deepened her appeal, added new flavors and mysteries. Right now she was filling him in, her elegant phrases framed by a lilting Milanese accent that Carlo Porta himself would have envied.
“…Not that Frederick and I were happy toward the end, precisely. Dear Freddie was such a lost little boy, in so many ways. I suppose that was an essential part of the appeal, you see, at least during the early years. Summers in the south of France, that little cottage we kept in Majorca, the parties and the party people, it was all delightful, and I regret none of it. I stood by him through those ridiculous accusations, of course. But over time I came to accept that he was more boy than man. A boy I loved with all my heart, but alas not quite the yang to my yin, if you see what I mean.”
Clay nodded, letting her ramble on. We each deal with grief in our own way, he mused to himself. If Francesca needed to reframe her relationship with her departed lover, to create some distance in her mind, who was he to judge? We all get by, and many of us wage our battles with Thanatos by turning his own dark weapons against him. Some of us drink.
His reverie was interrupted by something she said. “Wait,” he said, “Go over that last part again.”
Francesca laughed, shaking her head. “Oh Clayton, you were always the dreamer - drifting off somewhere. Wherever does your mind go in such moments?” She regarded him with a fond look, and continued. “I was just speaking of the music box. The strange little box of bronze I found upon Freddie’s desk the day after his suicide, quite pretty actually, one of those silly little dual-purpose things in which you can place your small treasures and what-nots. It plays the most adorable tune, but this tune I cannot place. The melody is strangely familiar, as though one has encountered it before, perhaps as one remembers a tune last heard in childhood.” She looked thoughtful, a faintest crease of worry appearing upon her forehead. Then she leaned forward, gazing into Clay’s eyes with an intensity that was almost mesmerizing. “What I cannot understand — the puzzle, if you will — is how my Frederick could have been in possession of such an object without my ever having seen it. Was it a gift, perhaps, from another? Was I not woman enough for him?”
Suddenly she broke down and started to sob. Awkwardly Clay offered her his napkin. He wished he could say something that would comfort her, but there really were no words. Even Francesca’s formidable armor of European insoucience was no match for such an unexpected death.
He let her weep for a few minutes, waiting until he thought she was ready. He had already decided he would simply say it straight out, unadorned. “Francesca, Frederick’s death was not a suicide.”
She looked at him, startled. He could tell this revelation had caught her completely off-guard. “But the note he left, the method he chose to die — so much like his own writings — the way he had cut himself off from everyone those last months, how even I could not reach him…” Clay waited quietly until her protests had run their course.
“He sent me another note, quite a different one,” Clay continued, handing her the letter he had received. “We have established that this letter is real — and the suicide note a forgery. Your Freddie was murdered, I’m afraid.”
He could see that she had already regained possession of herself — the murder of her lover, horrific as it may have been, was easier for her to accept than the possibility of suicide. Francesca had a formidable mind, and now it was fully engaged. “Enemies?” she pondered. “Who would be an enemy to poor Freddie? He was more than enough of a danger to himself, without any need for outside assistance.” Absently she started to take a sip from her espresso, realized the little cup was empty, and placed it gently back down into its saucer. “What on earth are we dealing with here, my dear?”
“The music box,” Clay replied. “I have a hunch there is a connection. Have you looked inside the box?”
She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I confess that was the very first thought I had upon finding the cursed thing. I was seeking a clue for his suicide, although I was a bit fearful of what I might find. Perhaps only that after all this time I had lost his heart to another. I do not know whether I could have withstood the second loss, on top of the first.”
“And what did you find?”
Francesca shrugged. “Nothing, nothing at all. The little bronze box is quite securely locked. I searched through all the drawers of his desk, somewhat frantically I’m afraid, but the key has turned up nowhere.”