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The Vulnerable Rind
About the Author: Joseph D'Agnese is a journalist, author and ghostwriter who has written for both adults and children alike. He has won a Derringer Award for his short mystery fiction, and one of his stories appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology, guest-edited by author James Patterson. D'Agnese lives with his wife in North Carolina.

Scarpone stood on the sidewalk after his session checking his phone when Coen exited his apartment building to shyly ask if they might grab a coffee together. “There is a small, ah, potentially criminal matter that I wish to discuss,” Coen said. “If you do not mind. If it is not inappropriate.”

It was completely inappropriate, considering their relationship.

Coen was Scarpone’s senior by some decades, with the requisite beard of his profession and an orange cardigan that Scarpone had never seen him without. He wore a pair of spectacles on a thin chain that made him look like one of the archivists Scarpone had come to know during his time working in the antiquities branch of the carabinieri. Coen’s round frames were thick acrylic, in a similar shade as his cardigan, and they bestowed upon Coen an appearance that might be more suited to a fashion designer or a yoga guru than what he was—one of the force’s approved state psychologists.

Scarpone was new to this business of head-shrinking. His period of mourning was still quite fresh and the wounds he had suffered in the automobile accident not yet healed. But the older gentleman’s manner had piqued his interest so sufficiently that he did not bother to question the issue of propriety. To his mind, crime—theoretical or all too painfully real—was a most welcome topic of conversation.

Coen tossed a purple silk scarf over his neck and they strolled amiably down the hill to find a coffee shop on the Viale Aventino, in the shadow of the monstrous food and agriculture branch of the United Nations. There, amid the sounds of squirting espresso and the scent of foaming milk, Coen sketched out the matter.

“They are simple people, you understand,” he said near the end of his little speech, slurping the last of his espresso corto. “Old friends of my family, and I’m sure they don’t wish to rush immediately into a formal inquiry. But the incidents have become so frequent that it’s impossible at this point to look away. The current proprietor is a man about your age.”

Scarpone dug in his service jacket for his notebook. “I understand completely,” he said. It would not be the first time a friend of a friend or a family member had pressed him into service. “I can be discreet up to a point,” he promised, “but should something troublesome come to light—”

“Oh, of course!” the shrink said. “Who knows what you will find if you look into it? The mind, as I well know, can play tricks. Either it’s an inside job or it’s a poltergeist.” The doctor chuckled as he tapped his lips with a paper napkin. “In any case, I think you will enjoy the cheese. It’s delicious. You like cheese, don’t you?”

The question amused Scarpone more than he could ever reveal, for who in their nation did not love cheese?

As it happened, the cheesemonger’s shop was situated in a neighborhood Scarpone knew by heart. He had lived in the vicinity until only a few months ago. But to the best of his recollection he had never patronized the little shop on the busy Via Marmorata. 

It was easy to see why. Only one small window faced the street, and if you sailed past that installation of hanging provolone and stacked rounds of parmesan, you’d miss it entirely.

Squeezing himself past the line of nonnas waiting for glistening balls of mozzarella fresh from their milky bath, Scarpone followed the proprietor down the length of the refrigerated case with a growing sense of claustrophobia. The ceiling dripped with stalactites fashioned not of rock but of the cultured products of sheep, cow, and goat. Pendulous caciocavallo dangled perilously close to his head. In the case he saw lovely little rounds of goat cheese, and marinated ciliegine that bobbed in spicy juices.

“It’s really not much,” Luca Chirugini said, “but it’s been in our family for three generations. And our reputation—”

“Is superb, I imagine,” Scarpone said, saving the fellow the embarrassment of spelling this out.

The little man blushed, “Grazie, yes. So it has been said. We carry some excellent, hard-to-find cheeses.” He was in his mid to late thirties, with little hair, and a pale, pleasant face that suggested he spent more time in cheese caves than in the real world. He was heavily swathed in a white apron over white trousers with only the faintest hint of a necktie under a sweater.

This story appears in our FEB 2019 Issue
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