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Chapter 1: Revenge of the Ziti

--By Kirsten Weiss


Image of Revenge of the Ziti on a phone screen, beside a plate of chocolate cookies and a cup of chocolate drink.

As a member if the inn-keeping profession, I strive to uphold certain standards. A level of professional courtesy is de rigieur, or whatever passes for it in Italian. So I found myself wilting beneath the B&B owner’s fierce gaze when I came up short.


“You said you would be here at two.” Federica narrowed her eyes, the lines at the corners of her mouth deepening.


The glittering waters of the Mediterranean unfolded in an azure wash behind her high counter. A paler blue sky stretched down to meet the sea. They were as implacable as her steely gaze.

I swallowed and looked away. Her Sicilian B&B was as modern as mine was Victorian. Perched on a hilltop, its picture windows overlooked the village below. Black and white photos of odd lights over the water and of a flaming hairdryer decorated the walls.


Federica opened a thick book, its leather cover slapping on the marble counter. The curvy woman ran her manicured finger down a column of tightly packed names and dates. She tapped a pink nail on the bottom of the page.


Whoa. I interrupted my moment of guilt to smother a gasp. The paper… Was that parchment? Arsen shifted beside me.


“Mr. Arsen and Mrs. Susan Holiday,” she said, her Italian accent lilting. “Two o’clock. It is now fourteen minutes past three.”


I clawed my blond hair behind one ear and tried not to ogle her planner. It was gorgeous. The leather looked hand stitched. Italians were masters when it came to paper products. I’d already bought at least half a dozen notebooks on this trip.


And my planner envy wasn’t important. What was important was that Arsen and I were off schedule. And my pride at that detail was fast fading in my fog of hot humiliation.


In fairness, I hadn’t thought an hour or so would be that big of a deal, especially in Italy, where people seemed looser about time. But I shouldn’t buy into stereotypes. People weren’t cookie cutouts.


And neither was I. I raised my chin. If there was one thing we Witsends (now a Holiday) excelled at, it was sticking to a scheme. And mine was to break out of my list-making, trip-planning, micro-managing mold. I could be more spontaneous for Arsen’s sake.


So on the drive, I’d gritted my teeth and insisted we linger in the mountains to photograph Sicily’s furry black pigs. They were famous. And a family had nearly run beneath the wheels of our Jeep, so it seemed like fate.


But I hated tardiness. And now, pigs. One had chased me down the mountainside before my descent had been stopped by a prickly bush. I rubbed my scraped arm.


“Sorry.” Arsen took my hand and smiled, his handsome face lighting. Our vacation had darkened his chiseled face and lightened his whiskey-colored hair.


“It was the black pigs that slowed us,” he continued. “They’re hilarious.”


I tore my gaze from my husband’s muscular form. He was out of his usual golf shirt and khakis and in a new white linen shirt… and khakis. Arsen was an adventurer and favored cargo pants. But he looked good in anything.


“Ah. Did you kill one?” The innkeeper pressed her broad hands onto the counter. Expression eager, she leaned forward. “They are delicious.”


He blinked. “Uh, no. But we got some great pictures.”


“Bah.” Federica flicked her hand. “Pictures! You cannot eat a picture.”


“We’re so thrilled we got a reservation at your B&B,” I said, trying to regain control of the conversation. “I run a UFO-themed B&B too.”


She drew herself up, her lipsticked mouth pinching. “You are a competitor?”


“My B&B’s in California,” I said quickly. And not a competitive threat. Something brushed my leg, and I glanced down. “Maybe—”


“Do not look at the dog!” she shouted.


My face warmed. Obediently, Arsen and I studied the white-painted ceiling.


Federica had already warned us once. Ziti got upset if you made eye contact. I assumed the little dog’s aggressive attitude had something to do with him only having three legs. But it seemed rude to probe.


Pages rustled on the counter. “You have the honeymoon suite,” she said.


Arsen’s hand squeezed mine. “Yeah, we’re on our honeymoon.”


“You should have told me in advance,” she scolded. “I did not prepare anything special.”


“That’s okay,” Arsen said. “Being in Sicily’s romance enough.”


“Ah, well.” Her voice softened. “Love is all you need, yes? Is this all your luggage?”


I glanced down at the suitcase by my feet. “Ye—”


“Do not look at the dog!”


My head jerked upward. “Sorry.” Ziti might have a bad attitude, but at least whoever had named him had a sense of humor. Though from my brief glimpse of the fawn-colored dog, Ziti hadn’t looked particularly pasta-like.


Federica sighed. “It is not my dog, you understand. It belongs to my English guests. They visit every year, and one brings Ziti. This Englishman, he adopted Ziti from Sicily. Such a good boy.”


I wasn’t sure if she meant Ziti or his owner.


“They are shopping for ceramics in Santo Stefano,” she continued briskly. “The town is famous for this and has its own unique style.”


I nodded. Sicily was the final leg of our Italian honeymoon. I’d been resisting buying ceramics up until now, because I hadn’t wanted to lug them around. Arsen had said we could just ship them home, but the expense seemed wasteful.


“I shall show you your room now,” Federica said. “Ziti, stay.”


The little dog whined a protest.


She led us down a spacious, tiled hallway with a glass roof. Plants in colorful ceramic containers lined the wall. Federica opened a door and walked inside.


Arsen and I followed her into an earth-toned room with a wide, king-sized bed beneath a brown coverlet. Federica marched to a set of double doors and opened them onto a balcony overlooking the sea.


I sighed and followed her outside, a balmy breeze tossing my hair. On the low, white wall, multi-colored ceramic flowerpots shaped like men’s and women’s turbaned heads overlooked the water.


I rested my hands on the wall’s smooth metal railing and took in the view. We were in paradise.


Arsen came to stand behind me and laid his hand on my shoulder. I stifled the urge to lean into him. Just because we were on our honeymoon, it didn’t mean we got to maul each other in front of a hapless B&B owner.


I’d been that hapless B&B owner too often, looking away, embarrassed, from amorous guests. We could wait until she left. Which would hopefully be soon. Or immediately. Arsen’s thumb trailed down the back of my neck, and I shivered.


“You are interested in the UFOs?” Federica asked.


I turned to face her and leaned beside Arsen against the railing. “Yes, as I mentioned, I own a UFO-themed B&B in Doyle, California. It’s in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Doyle’s famous—or maybe infamous—for UFO abductions.”


She hooked her hands behind her back and drew a deep breath, her chest swelling. “In 2004, a strange series of fires attacked our town. At first, we thought arson. But then one of the investigators—a scientist—saw a hairdryer burst into flames in front of him. It was unplugged at the time. And then, we began to see the lights over the sea. They came from the direction of Mt. Etna.”


Arsen gazed longingly in the snow-capped volcano’s direction, sunlight gilding his hair. If there was anything climbable in Italy, Arsen was determined to best it.


My shoulders sagged. We’d been to the top of every bell tower, cathedral, and mountain we’d visited. It was exhausting.


I nodded at Federica and absently massaged my thighs. The story about the town was nothing I hadn’t already known. It was why we’d come. And UFOs emerging from mountaintops were common in the lore.


“Thanks,” I said. “We’ll come down later to learn more.” Now go. I trailed my hand down Arsen’s muscular back.


“The fires ended,” she continued, “and the mystery was unsolved.”


“Oh, too bad.” I straightened off the railing. “Well if that’s all—”


“And then the strange fires began again in 2014,” she continued, “and the UFOs returned.”

Arsen touched my lower back. “I heard speculation that volcanic activity offshore could have caused electrical surges. Maybe that’s what started the fires.”


The B&B owner shrugged. “Yes, it is possible. No one knows. It has been nearly ten years since the last sighting. Perhaps it will happen again, eh?”


It sounded like a conclusion to the tale, and I nodded eagerly. “Thank you so much. We can’t wait to get settled and explore the town.”


“There is not much to explore,” she said. “I recommend Santa Stefano. Now, our mayor himself witnessed the UFOs. He said—”


There was a bark from downstairs, and she scowled. “Basta, Ziti! Excuse me,” she said to us. “I must check on the dog. If you have any questions, come see me.” She left the room, closing the door behind her.


On the balcony, Arsen pulled me into his arms. “I suppose we could explore the town.”

“She said there wasn’t much of it.”


His hazel eyes twinkled. “Ceramics in Santo Stefano?”


“You know, as a fellow UFO-themed B&B owner, I feel we should just... stay here.”


Arsen’s grin broadened. “Market research?”


My belly heated. “Something like that.”

***

Our market research continued well into the afternoon. When we finally emerged from our room, it was nearing six. We drove to Santo Stefano and wandered its charming stone streets in search of dinner.


We’d already learned that as Americans, we ate unfashionably early. Even at seven o’clock, we were usually the first diners. But I’d never been fashionable, and all our market research had worked up an appetite.


We sat on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean. Lanterns and planters in the Moorish heads design lined the low cement railing.


“I’ve been thinking,” I said over a glass of the local red wine.


Arsen cocked his head. “Oh?”


“You’ve been so good putting up with all my schedules and planning and—”


“And it’s been great,” he said. “Thanks to all your travel planning, everything’s run like clockwork.”


“Yes, but… Aside from the black pigs, it hasn’t been very spontaneous.” I knew Arsen didn’t mind my schedules. We’d known what the other was like before we married. But we were in this for the long haul, and I could evolve for his sake.


He stabbed a piece of beef. “Does our honeymoon need to be spontaneous?”


“No, but I’d like to be. You’re so good about just going with the flow. I want to be more like that.”


“You want to go with the flow,” he said flatly, his expression skeptical.


I arched a brow. I’d changed quite a bit in the last few years. There was no reason why I couldn’t keep on changing.


“Why not?” I reached across the white tablecloth and laid my hand on his. “We’re together. You flow, and I’ll go along with it.”


He laughed. “Okay. We’ll be spontaneous. Until you decide not to.”


Oh, please. One thing about us planners, once we set our minds to something, we follow through. “I won’t decide not to.”


His hazel eyes twinkled. “We’ll see.”


We finished our meal, wandered spontaneously (of course I could be spontaneous. Why couldn’t I be spontaneous?), then drove back to our clifftop B&B.


Arsen parked the Jeep Renegade we’d rented outside the high, white walls. The Jeep stood out amidst all the Fiats on the island, but that just made it easier for us to find after we’d parked.

We wandered through the B&B’s high gate into a walled garden. Hot pink bougainvillea spilled over its walls. Prickly pear cacti in ceramics lined the path. Palm trees arced above us, and a warm breeze scented with salt tickled my neck.


I sighed and leaned into Arsen. His broad hand caressed my back.


“This has been a dream,” I said. “It’s hard to imagine going home.”


“The dream doesn’t have to end, even after we return,” Arsen rumbled. Running his fingers through my hair, he cupped my head. He tilted my head back and bent toward me.


His warm breath against my cheek sent a tremor through me, and my pulse skittered. He smelled of soap, and the scent had never been so sexy. My lips parted.


A dog barked wildly. “Ziti! Come back!” a man shouted in a British accent.


A group of people emerged from behind a pink flowering latomie bush. Barking, Ziti hobbled toward us on his three legs, his collar jingling.


“Don’t look at the dog,” the group shouted, then laughed uproariously.


I smothered a groan. Talk about bad timing. But I looked skyward. We were away from the cities, and the stars were bright. But they weren’t as bright as a summer night in the Sierras.

Ziti’s collar tinkled. “Here,” a woman said. “I’ve got him. You can look now.”


The group staggered closer. And the three men in the group really were staggering. One seemed the worse for drink. The other two propped him up on each side. They all appeared to be in their early sixties, with graying hair and cheerful faces.


“Sorry,” a round-faced woman said. Her navy sportswear showed off her curves and well-padded middle. She shook her head, her loose curls brushing her shoulders, and pulled Ziti’s leash closer. “Ziti’s harmless, but he really doesn’t like strangers.”


“We’ve already met Ziti,” Arsen said. “When we arrived.”


“Oh, lovely. Have you eaten?” the woman asked. “We just prepared the most amazing meal, thanks to Federica. There’s plenty left over.”


“No, thanks.” I pressed a hand to my stomach. “We just ate.”


The drunken man broke free of his friends and spiraled toward a garden table made of gray lava stone. He dropped heavily onto a red, wooden chair. “Good.” He rested one forearm on the table and his head on his arm.


The round-faced woman scowled down at him. “Brilliant. Alfie’s out for the night. That’s what comes of being a vegan in Italy. He’s eaten nothing substantial to soak up all that wine. Now what do we do?”


One of the Englishmen, rotund with bristly gray jowls, lifted his brows. “Alfie may not be done yet. Let’s give him an hour or two. Imogen, you bought wine. Why don’t you bring down a bottle, and we’ll wait him out here.”


Imogen smiled. “I’m on it.” She jogged from the garden.


“It was nice meeting you,” Arsen said, drawing me away. He lowered his head. “So much for a romantic night in the garden,” he said quietly. “But there are other things we can do.”


I shivered. “Ready to turn in?”


“Something like that,” he growled.


We didn’t exactly race to our room. But we didn’t waste any time either.

***

I woke to barking and jammed my pillow up around my ears. It didn’t muffle the dog.

Blinking grumpily at the glass balcony doors, I released the pillow and sat up. One of the many benefits of this vacation was not having to get up early to cook for B&B guests. I checked the clock on the side table.


It was five. I hung my head. My dog was more polite in the mornings. I suffered a guilty pang. I hoped Bailey was doing okay back at Wits’ End.


The sky was the gray that comes before sunrise. Since Ziti’s barking showed no sign of stopping, I rubbed my face and slunk from the bed. I slithered into my robe and slippers and glanced over my shoulder.


In sleep, Arsen looked angelic, his handsome face relaxed, his hair tousled. Despite my annoyance, my heart swelled with love and gratitude. Gratitude for his love. Gratitude for this magical time together in Sicily. Gratitude for just being alive.


I breathed a quiet sigh. It had taken us a long time to get to this point. Arsen and I had been friends, then he’d joined the military and I hadn’t seen him for years. When he’d returned, our friendship resumed and eventually blossomed into more.


Part of me wished we’d come together sooner. But another part understood this was the only way things could have unfolded, and it was perfect.


Slipping from the room, I made my way to the lobby, where there was an espresso machine for the guests. I fiddled with the controls and was finally rewarded with a noisy stream of dark liquid.


The dog kept barking, and I frowned. If Ziti didn’t pipe down, he’d wake the entire B&B.

It sounded like Ziti was in the garden. Opening the glass doors, I walked outside. Spiky aloe plants loomed like daggers in the morning gloom. My robe caught on one of the thick leaves, and I yanked it free.


I padded down the red-tiled path, past ceramic planters and drooping flowers.Rounding the latomie bush, I stopped short.


Alfie was still lying across the table. The shoulders of his sports jacket were dark with dew.

I jammed my hands on my hips. Unbelievable. They’d actually left him there to sleep it off overnight. “Some friends,” I muttered.


Granted, he was a largish man. Moving him might have been a challenge. But it was still a rotten thing to do.


Ziti barked, prancing around the man. The little fawn-colored dog raced to me then back to his master.


Shaking my head, I approached the man. He must have really been blasted to have slept here all night and not be aware of his dog’s barking. I reached to grasp his shoulder and wake him.


My hand froze. A bird trilled a morning greeting. Heart thumping in my chest, I carefully pulled away.


The man’s eyes were open and staring. He was dead.



Revenge of the Ziti

Murder, Mayhem, and Meatballs.


It’s been an idyllic Italian honeymoon for lovebirds Susan and Arsen, as they explore the winding streets of romantic Sicily. For once B&B-owner Susan is enjoying staying in someone else’s bed and breakfast, even if that someone else is a tightly wound innkeeper who reminds her a little too much of herself.


But sunny Sicily takes a dark turn when the newlyweds discover a body on the inn’s private grounds. In this Italian-garden mystery, any of the quirky guests could be the killer. Danger lurks around every corner as Susan and Arsen navigate newlywed bliss, Sicily’s historic hilltop towns, and the twists and turns of murder. Will they be able to uncover the truth before the killer strikes again?


If you love quirky heroines, twisty mysteries, and laugh-out-loud humor, you’ll love this short mystery, book nine in the Wits’ End mystery novels. Get cozy with Revenge of the Ziti and start this hilarious whodunit today! (A book written entirely by a natural, semi-intelligent human and not by AI).


​​​​​​​Pasta recipes in the back of the book!


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