Incense burns like perfume. My father always loved the smell of it. When we went to Mass on Sundays, he’d always inhale deeply as it poured out of the small church before the doors were even opened.
Organ music vibrates low and constant. I feel it under my feet as we approach the cathedral entrance. People have gathered at the square. Word got out. Of course, it did. An unnatural silence falls over the space as they lay eyes on the casket. On me. The eldest daughter of Geno Russo. His only child in attendance. I escorted his body on its final journey from New York City. My brother was too much of a coward to come if you ask me. But then again, what do I know? I’m a woman in a man’s world. Perhaps my father would have wanted that. For him to stay out of reach. Safe. He is my father’s successor.
I lead the procession toward the open doors. Guards stand sentry around the square to keep people back, but I don’t think it’s necessary. They keep their distance, the women making the sign of the cross and kissing their rosaries as I pass as if I’m a vampire. Like they’re warding off the bad luck I’ll bring. The evil that surrounds me. My father was too young to die.
The cool darkness within the cathedral walls is a stark contrast to the brightness of the day outside. The sun shines brighter here. Dad was right. We lead the procession forward, my heels a soft click on the stone floors where the dead rot beneath. The man holding the camera turns into the center aisle.
My brother will watch from the live feed.
Someone clears their throat. A door opens behind the altar, then closes. An altar boy relights the candles that blew out when we entered.
I wear a modest black dress. Different from how I’d imagined it would be when I came here. When I would wear white lace and my father would walk me down this very aisle to my groom. He spoke of it often. That dream died, though, along with him.
No pews creak as people settle into their seats. No one will be in attendance to hear the mass. The guards will make sure of that.
I lead the pallbearers who carry the coffin containing my father’s body on their shoulders.
When I reach the front pew, I step into it, and the men set the casket on its decorated dais. It is overloaded with white lilies, their smell sickening beneath the lovely one of incense.
It’s my turn to watch the procession of the priest as plumes of smoke accompany the chanting. Half a dozen altar boys follow him. Some of them can’t be more than ten. They all glance at me from the sides of their eyes as if they’ve been told not to look directly at me.
A Russo is here, back in Naples, after too long in exile.
Once the priest takes his place at the pulpit, the man behind the camera zooms in on my face. I try to ignore it. I want to punch him. He is communicating with my brother through an earpiece. It’s my brother who has requested the close-up. What does he expect? Tears or strength? Neither will be good enough for him.
I wonder if he’s letting Emma watch, though. I don’t know if I want that. Emotion dampens my eyes at the thought, and I steel myself. She’s only five. She won’t understand. Although she knows her father is dead. Not that he’s ever been much of a father to her. And my brother? I wouldn’t be surprised if he had her locked in her room. It’s maybe best for her. She’s safest away from him. I’m the only one who stands between her and his wrath. The one who stood between her and my father’s hate. I wanted to bring her if only to keep her with me, not my brother. She’s not safe in that house.
I draw a trembling breath in as Father Paolo clears his throat, the microphone screeching momentarily before carrying his voice over the loudspeakers. I’m not sure why he’s using it. It’s only the pallbearers and me if you don’t count the guards. The camera finally moves off me and slides over the casket.
But just as the final notes of Mozart’s Requiem fade, the doors open again. Loudly. And footsteps stalk purposely toward the front of the cathedral, echoing off the vaulted ceilings.
The priest stops midsentence, his face going ashen. He makes the sign of the cross. Screams come from outside. The man behind the camera stumbles backward in an effort to run. But he doesn’t get far. A soldier appears from a door behind the altar and cocks a gun at the back of his head.
It all happens in an instant. I turn to look and gasp at the sight that greets me. An army of soldiers pouring into the church, drawing the large, heavy doors closed again and blocking out the last of the bright afternoon light.
My brother sent men to ensure our safety, but I don’t see them. They’re gone. Vanished.
Footsteps like that of a stampede approach the altar as I watch. At their head are two men in suits, their faces half-covered with black bandanas. Two men with matching scars across their faces visible above the coverings holding shiny black Glocks at their sides.
One catches my eye as he nears. Gray eyes like the coldest, cruelest steel. And suddenly, I’m transported to that afternoon. To the garden full of bright yellow dandelions. The memory washes over me like a slip in time, a flash of another place. It makes me stagger. I grab the edge of the pew to steady myself, and as I do, the two men leading the soldiers split, the one farthest from me raising his pistol to the priest who tries to run. The other, the one with the steel eyes, grabs my arm, his grip like a vise.
This is what my brother was afraid of. This is why he did not come. We have many enemies here.
Someone fires their pistol as he tugs me from my place in the pew and toward the coffin. A body goes down on the stone stairs leading up to the altar, blood splattering the pristine white lilies.
I stumble as I’m tugged toward the coffin, and all I can think through the chaos of gunfire is please don’t let my sister watch me be killed. Please don’t let her see that.
More screams from outside. More bullets fired. More blood as red as the lipstick I wear to stain the sacred floors. It is the color of violence. Of death.
We reach my father’s casket, and the man who has me kicks one of the legs of the pedestal. I gasp as the lilies are knocked askew, and the priest scrambles backward, falling. The other man with the scar climbs the three steps up to the altar, gun raised, not caring that it’s a sacrilege, the violence of the act in this holy place.
“Up,” he says, gun arm extended to the priest. “On your feet, padre.”
I watch as the priest does as he’s told, trembling, holding the Bible up between himself and this man as if God will save him now. That’s the thing with God, though. You can serve him all your life long, but he will not meddle in our affairs. He will take our souls back once we pass, but we’re on our own down here.
“Open it,” the one who has me orders, pointing with his pistol to the pallbearers, the two who remain standing, alive, who look at each other, unsure what to do. Afraid. They turn to me, and so does the man who has me. He grins. “Tell them to open it, Dandelion.”
I stare up at him and blink to clear my head. He gives me a shake, and I nod my head to the men. Two step forward to raise the lid and a shift in the atmosphere is palpable. I am released, thrown into the arms of a soldier who takes hold of me as I watch in horror while the two look at the body of my father. One spits into the coffin and the other curses him to eternal damnation before emptying his Glock into my father’s body.
That’s when I scream. That’s when my screams drown out all the other noise.
Once his pistol is emptied, he kicks the pedestal hard enough to knock the casket onto the floor. Then he kicks the box again. And I glimpse my father inside it, his dead body riddled with bullets. His face unrecognizable. The two with the scars look at one another, nod, then the one who called me Dandelion turns his full attention to me and smiles. Walking swiftly toward us, he takes me back from the soldier.
“Let’s go put your father in the ground,” he says, drawing the face covering down as he turns away from the camera. The scar runs to the edge of his mouth. The other one laughs a strange laugh as he gives orders for the soldiers to bring the man with the camera.
I’m forced out of what should have been a sanctuary into the too-bright light. Into a waiting SUV, one of a dozen. I’m shoved into the back, the man sliding in beside me. And when I try to climb out of the other side, the other one with the matching scar on his face gives me a grin and climbs in, the two trapping me between them. The last thing I see as we drive away is the pallbearers carrying the desecrated body in the destroyed casket.
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