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Chapter 1: The Cannoli Caper

--By Kirsten Weiss



Book cover; The Cannoli Caper Banner: Pre-order price .99 cents


It was the most beautiful cookie jar I’d ever seen—not that I’m a cookie-jar connoisseur. I do, however, have a secret weakness for ceramics. This one was shaped like a stylized Sicilian pine cone, squat and rounded, and in shades of Mediterranean blues, whites, and greens.

Variations of pine-cone ceramics were all over Sicily. I hadn’t paid them much attention until now, stuck in a jewelry shop in Caltagirone with my sister, Melanie. I glanced out the window at the narrow medieval street where my mother had vanished.


My sister folded her arms over her expansive bust. As an opera singer, expansive busts went with the territory. This morning she was showing off hers in a form-fitting burgundy turtleneck.

The rest of her figure was closer to Barbie than Brunhilde. I’d long stopped bemoaning the unfairness of Melanie getting my mother’s Scandinavian build. I’d gone full Central European peasant—freckles, pale skin, and brown hair.


“It figures in a store selling high-end jewelry,” Melanie said, “you’d gravitate toward a cookie jar.” She admired her engagement ring. Its massive diamond flashed beneath the store’s cobalt-blue pendant lamps.


“It’s handmade,” I said, defensive. Plus, the jar was lovely enough to be used to display gold jewelry.


Melanie said something in Italian to the angular man behind the glass counter. He glanced up from his paperwork. Adjusting his black-frame glasses, he spoke some words in the same language.


“Three hundred and fifty Euro,” my sister translated.


I gasped. For a cookie jar? Was he insane? That was more than three hundred and fifty bucks. “That’s— No.”


“Don’t worry. He’ll drop the price for me.” Melanie strolled to the counter and leaned her elbow on it.


“That’s—”


But she’d already begun negotiations, and Italian flew back and forth. Melanie gave a smile that would have frozen Medusa and straightened.


Sweat beaded my forehead. A couple hundred bucks was no big thing for my über-successful sister. But I ran a non-profit paranormal museum. Lack of profit was built into the job description.


A second man, bearlike, bulky, and silent, shuffled around the counter. He picked up the cookie jar and a matching ceramic pine cone beside it.


“What’s happening?” I asked, a panicky feeling fluttering in my chest.


“I got it down to two-fifty, and he’s throwing in the matching pine cone decoration.”


Two-fifty? That was more than I’d paid for a cookie jar in my life.


But I swallowed. I wasn’t paying for this Italian adventure, my sister was. And Melanie was proud of her bargaining skills. This was a chance for some sister bonding—bonding which had been sorely lacking.


“Do you want it?” she asked, tugging on her lower lip.


Cringing inside, I forced a smile. “Yes,” I said, “of course. It’s amazing, and the pinecone too.” What the devil was I going to do with a decorative pinecone? “Thank you.”


Two-hundred-and-fifty Euro? What if they broke on the trip back to California? Would they even let me take it on the plane? Because I’d have to carry them in my lap. There was no question of jamming ceramics into my suitcase.


Melanie beamed, then started. “Oh.” She pulled a black velvet bag from her matching burgundy purse and handed it over to the jeweler.


More Italian flowed back and forth. The jeweler said something to his colleague. The larger man ripped sheets of paper from beneath the counter and began wrapping my new treasures.

The jeweler pulled an object from the bag. It was a brooch with a glittering red stone. He adjusted his glasses, turning the brooch beneath a desk lamp.


“You’ll love this, Mad,” my sister said. “The brooch I gave him is cursed. Right up your alley.”

My scalp prickled. “Cursed?” I asked, intrigued despite myself. But when you run a paranormal museum, you’d better be interested in cursed jewelry.


Uneasy, I glanced at the jeweler. I may be a paranormal agnostic, but I would never blithely hand a cursed object to a civilian.


My sister adjusted the designer purse over her shoulder. “One of Nico’s family jewels that needed repairing. I offered to bring it down for him. A good relationship happens when both people ask, ‘what can I do for you,’ and not ‘what can you do for me.’”


“Did you get that off Twitter?” Or whatever that social site was being called at the moment.

She raised a brow.


“Sorry,” I said. It had felt a little like I was being lectured, but maybe I was oversensitive. I’d just broken up with my long-term boyfriend. And even though in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do, it smarted.


But I shouldn’t take my misery out on Mel. Sister bonding.


She waggled her finger at me. “Don’t be jealous just because I’m marrying old money.”


Now she was just rubbing it in. I stretched my smile wider. “It’s impressive that they managed to keep the money in the family.” Most family wealth vanished after a few generations, wasted by spendthrift heirs.


The jeweler extended his narrow hand, palm up, and smiled. “Two hundred and fifty Euro.”

Trying not to wince, I handed over my credit card. His large colleague carefully put the jar and pinecone in a paper bag and handed it to me.


Grazi,” I said with feeling. After what I’d paid for it, I appreciated the care he’d taken wrapping the jar.


The big man gave me a shy smile in return.


The jeweler laughed. “Do not mind Bruno. He is not so smart.”


My smile faltered. Bruno might not be bright, but he wasn’t deaf. Even if he didn’t speak English, it was an unkind thing to say.


Melanie shuttled me from the shop. She slid the sunglasses from the top of her head onto her nose. “Now to track down Mom.”


We found our mother in a ceramics shop buying Christmas ornaments. She was dressed like a stereotypical American in her white jeans, denim blouse, and squash blossom jewelry. A new Sicilian scarf with lemons on a blue background was tied around her neck.


Being a stereotypical American myself, I repressed a grin. My mother definitely upstaged me in my blue jeans and Paranormal Museum hoodie.


After she finished paying for her ornaments, we wandered the town. Melanie seized a table at a pasticceria with outdoor seating. The waiter fawned over Melanie in a gratifying fashion -- gratifying for my sister, at least.


“You need to try the cannoli here,” Mel said, signing a napkin for the besotted opera fan. She handed it to him and ordered in rapid-fire Italian.


Soon we had miniscule coffees in front of us. On a tiny white plate sat a single cannolo speckled with miniature chocolate chips.


One cannolo. Three women. Do the math.


I sighed. “Someday, I’ll have a cannolo of my very own.”


“Not if you want to fit into your bridesmaid dress,” Melanie said tartly, holding her hand to the light. The ring flashed on her slender finger.


My mother smiled, crinkles spoking from the corners of her blue eyes. Was it my imagination, or had her cropped hair lightened in the two days we’d been in Sicily? The silver threads seemed less prominent.


We noshed on the cannolo and sipped coffee and watched the world go by. And despite my jet lag, I felt my mind clearing. Doing nothing in Italy has that effect.


My mother pushed away her empty cup. “Show me this cookie jar.”


Carefully, I extracted it from the bag, peeled off the tape, and unwrapped it on the table. A piece of lined paper fluttered to the pavement.


I bent in my chair to pick it up. It was an invoice, but not mine. The Euro amount was in the hundreds of thousands, and it was dated my birthday, last month.


“It’s lovely.” My mother held the blue and green cookie jar to the sunlight. “I haven’t seen anything like it. How much was it?”


“Two-hundred and fifty Euro,” Melanie said smugly. “Including the little pine cone.”


My mother blanched. “That’s an awful lot for a cookie jar.”


“Don’t worry. It can double as my urn when I die.” I frowned at the invoice. An invoice in this amount might be important. I should take it back.


Melanie snorted. “Still morbid as ever, Mad. You really need to spend more time outside your creepy museum.”


“Sure, Mel,” I said absently.


“What’s wrong?” my mother asked me.


“When they were taping up my cookie jar,” I said, “this invoice for someone else must have gotten stuck in the paper. I should take it back.”


Melanie glanced at her watch and rose. “No time. It’s probably nothing, and we’re on a strict schedule.”


“It won’t take long,” I said.


“I have to return next week for the brooch anyway,” my sister said. “I’ll give it to them then.”

I tugged my ear. “But—”


“Oh, Madelyn,” my mother said. “We’re on vacation. Relax.”


I grimaced. Right. Vacation. I folded the invoice and slipped it into the rear pocket of my jeans. We made our way back to Melanie’s red Alfa Romeo, parked on the street, and squeezed inside. My mother pushed out the side mirror, which had been folded in to keep it from getting clipped off by passing cars.


The big man from the jewelry shop walked into the middle of the narrow, stone road. He scanned the street.


“Hey.” I twisted in the back seat. “There’s Bruno. Just give me a second—”


“No time,” Melanie sang out. The sports car peeled from its spot, rocking me backward. “We’re on our way to Siracusa. You’ll love the ruins there.”


And we did love the ruins and the ancient gardens and the ear of Dionysus—a massive sand-colored cave opening. We were less enthused when we returned to Melanie’s car. Pebbles of glass littered the street below the front passenger window.


“My cookie jar.” Stomach churning, I scrambled into the back seat.


I released a relieved breath. My cookie jar was on the wrong side of the seat but still neatly wrapped in its paper. I frowned. In fact, it was packaged more neatly than I remembered leaving it.


“Forget your cookie jar,” Melanie howled. “Look at my car.”


“Oh, dear.” With her scarf, my mother brushed crumbles of glass from the front seat. “Was anything taken?”


“There was nothing to take.” Melanie tossed her head. “Never mind. Nico will take care of it. Whoever did this—” She flattened her full lips and looked across the street. A Vespa buzzed past.


Zipping my hoodie higher, I eyed my sister. Whoever did this... what? What sort of pull did Nico have on the island?


Her chest rose and fell. “Isla Ortiga’s not far.” Melanie’s smile was taut. “We may as well go there as planned.”


“Are you sure?” my mother asked. “Your car—”


“Is just a car,” Melanie said, anger edging her voice. “You may never be in Sicily again. We can’t let some common criminals ruin my—your trip. You don’t have the luxury of traveling like I do. Castello Maniace shouldn’t be missed.”


She wasn’t wrong about our traveling habits. But I knew she wanted to return to the hotel. And I had a feeling we’d pay for her burst of self-sacrifice. But I didn’t argue.


My mother dealt with the wind whistling through her broken window by covering her head with her scarf. I tightened my ponytail and squinted against the escaping strands of hair, lashing my face.


My sister’s hair remained suspiciously still all the way to the small island, roughly thirty feet off the coast of Siracusa and accessible by bridge. Gnawing her bottom lip, Melanie parked her car in a lot.


We walked across the dry moat to the sand-colored fortress on the shore. Trying to lighten the mood, my mother and I chatted about cannoli we’d known.


“Next time,” I finished. “I’m getting my own cannolo.” A third of a cannolo was just a cruel joke. And no, I wasn’t making mountains of molehills.


Cannoli in Sicily were on a whole other level. The sweetened, whipped ricotta in a deep fried pastry shell was enhanced with candied orange peel and pieces of chocolate. Of course, the flavoring depended on the pastry shop. Some added pistachios, chocolate, or candied cherries.


Invented centuries ago during the Arab rule of Sicily, one legend said these phallic sweets were created to honor the local sultan. I’d noticed it wasn’t the only Sicilian sweets to vaguely resemble naughty body parts.


I was about to ask about the breast-shaped pastries I’d seen in the pasticceria, when Melanie burst out, “You don’t understand. It’s different for you, Mad. You can eat what you want. It doesn’t matter what you look like. You run a little paranormal museum. But I have a public. I need to watch my figure.”


My brows drew downward. Okay, true. We’d already been accosted by half a dozen fans in our ramblings. But I didn’t need the flaws in my figure pointed out.


I brightened. On the other hand, if it didn’t matter what I looked like, who cared how I looked in my bridesmaid dress? Because if there were chocolate cannoli, and candied cherry cannoli, someone must have put the two together.


I opened my mouth to point that out. My mother shot me a warning look, and I clamped my mouth shut.


“You have no idea what it’s like,” my sister continued. “You can’t imagine the stress of dealing with my public. They expect so much.” She exhaled slowly and pinched her thumb and forefinger together. “And it’s important for my singing that my nerves remain calm.”


Oh, brother. When had remaining calm ever been a part of my sister’s brand? Histrionics were what kept her in the local tabloids.


My mother shot me another quelling look. “If you want to go back to the hotel, Melanie, it’s fine with us. We can skip the fortress.”


“No, no,” my sister said briskly. “We’re already here.”


We bought tickets inside the fortress walls. Bypassing information displays and armor in glass cases, we strolled into a wide expanse of courtyard. On its opposite side stood the squarish castle, with rounded corner towers.


Clouds scudded overhead. A chill breeze scattered the loose, pale earth. In the courtyard, I shivered, feeling small beneath the sky and fortress walls.


Our footsteps crunching in the hard dirt, we crossed the big space. I glanced at the stone walls bounding it. A lone tourist walked the battlements.


We strolled through the castle’s pointed arch and into a massive stone room. Corinthian columns striped with black metal bands held up the gothic-arched ceiling. I tilted my head back, marveling at the black and honey-colored bricks.


“Nico thinks your little museum is absolutely charming,” Melanie said, apropos of nothing.

Oh, sure. I believed that. He’d never even seen my museum. But at least she was trying. I could too. “Thanks,” I said. “You two should come visit sometime.”


“San Benedetto?” Melanie snorted. “I don’t think so. Does it still smell like cows?”


It always smelled like cows. It was in central California. She didn’t need to act so superior about it. “I have noticed,” I said icily, “that there are cows in Italy too.”


My sister laughed. “It’s hardly the same.”


My fists clenched. For Pete’s sake. Why was I getting defensive? She’d just had her car broken into and wasn’t at her best. Who cared what she thought of our hometown?

But I could feel repressed childhood wrongs starting to seep out. “I’m going to find the ladies room,” I said abruptly.


Leave before I lose my temper. Pivoting, I strode into the wide courtyard. I stopped in its center and counted to ten.


It was the same old dance. Melanie would say something irritating. I’d feel defensive and react, and then I’d be the bad guy. Well, no more. I didn’t have to react. I didn’t have to play that tired old role.


So what if she was a glamorous opera singer? So what if my international career had crashed and burned? If I hadn’t been fired for whistleblowing, I wouldn’t have switched to the quirky profession of paranormal museum director.


Besides, in fifty years we’d be dead, and no one would remember any of it. So I may as well enjoy today.


And next time, I was getting my own cannolo.


The tourists on the battlements had vanished. It was March, and Sicily was gloriously uncrowded, if a little cool. I inhaled the scent of sea air and wandered toward an interesting-looking archway. There was no reason I had to return to Melanie and my mom right away.


I stopped beside a stone arch and peered down a long tunnel, its end bright with sunlight. It looked like an entrance to an alchemist’s lab, and I walked down it, feeling more cheerful. The castle wasn’t that big. I’d find my mother and Melanie eventually.


My phone rang in the pocket of my Paranormal Museum hoodie, and I checked the number. It was my friend, Mason, back in California. Surprised, I answered. “Hey. What’s up?”


“This a bad time?” he asked.


“No. I’m just wandering around an old castle.”


“Aren’t they all old?”


I laughed. “Probably. What’s going on?” My footsteps echoed hollowly on the tunnel’s wood plank walk.


“Jordan’s leaving for science camp in an hour, and he just informed me he needs to bring a project.”


“Oops,” I said, wondering what his son’s science project had to do with me.


The kid had done some work for me once—well, it had been more along the lines of community service. During the process, I’d never indicated any insider knowledge of science camps.


“Can he borrow one of your museum’s EMF detectors?”


Ah. That, I could help with. “Sure. I’ll give them a call and let them know it’s okay.”


He exhaled. “Thanks. How’s Sicily?”


I exited the tunnel and blinked, my eyes adjusting to the sunlight. “It’s great.” Maybe it was the blinding sunlight. Or maybe I was still off my game with jetlag. But I had no warning for what was about to happen.


Namely, everything went black.


***

Ex Files Italian Style…


Paranormal Museum director Maddie is navigating the waters of post-breakup life in sunny Sicily. But there's no time to wallow as she prepares to play bridesmaid for her famous sister's castle wedding.


But are the pre-wedding celebrations a veil for something sinister? Because Maddie is snatched from Sicily’s cobbled streets and thrust into a quirky caper of misadventures and murder. And when a man from her past rushes to her rescue, Maddie must face uncomfortable questions about her heart and her family.


And the biggest question of all...can Maddie stop a killer before he strikes again?


If you love quirky heroines, twisty mysteries, and laugh-out-loud humor, you’ll love this short travel mystery, book ten in the Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum novels. Get cozy with The Cannoli Caper and start this hilarious whodunit when it launches February 14th! (A book written entirely by a natural, semi-intelligent human and not by AI).


Pre-order now at the discount price of .99!


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