As the eerie morning fog slowly lifted, a soft glow from the sun illuminated the beige and gold walls of the city. Roberto looked out the window of his apartment above his cobbler shop. He noticed a shadowed figure on the metal balcony across the street. It made a quick movement that caused a loud pop. He jumped back and closed his eyes while his hands searched his body for blood. He drew a deep breath and sighed in relief when he found no injury. Reluctant, he peeked out the window again and discovered his imaginary assassin was only a woman hanging the linen. With a gulp, he returned to his task.
“You must go!” Roberto pleaded.
Intermittently, he glanced out the window to examine the people walking along the street. Soon, two tall, ominous figures would appear at the front door of his cobbler store to collect what was due. They were ruthless men who enjoyed collecting past-due payments in the form of money or life. Today, Roberto, a modest cobbler, would pay with both. But he was not ready for the devil’s servants to arrive, not yet. He had one last thing to do, and he prayed he did not botch his final act as he did with his family’s four-generations old business.
“No, I will stay!” Francesca snapped.
Her angelic voice pulled him from his paranoia.
“Please, my love!”
Roberto kneeled beside the mattress and frantically shoved the overflowing mountain of silk, cotton, and wool into the old suitcase.
“Stop! Stop, you will ruin them if you treat them so!”
Francesca rushed over to pluck her favorite red silk dress from the chaotic pile.
“My Love, it is no longer safe for you here. You must go!”
“Why? The war is not coming here! Besides, that evil Hitler will soon fall from power.”
Francesca, ignoring her husband’s neurotic ramblings, firmly pressed the ruby red fabric against her body as she elegantly twirled around an imaginary ballroom.
“That is not the danger that concerns me,” Roberto fretted.
Roberto’s veins bubbled with anxiety. Every ten seconds, like a paranoid prairie dog, he popped his head out the window to look down at the sidewalk.
“Who are you watching?” Francesca demanded, stomping her foot.
“My love, please go to my family in Alessandria. I sent them a letter. They are ready to receive you.”
Roberto’s caramel-brown eyes emitted the glowing plea of a lover to Athena to no avail. Frustrated, he ordered his wife to obey her husband’s command, but she left the room in a huff.
“I will not leave without you,” she huffed.
Roberto disregarded his wife’s coy tantrum and returned to the closet to gather her shoes. In the back, he spotted an old ragged pair of two-tone pumps. A tear rolled down his cheek as he pulled them from the darkness. These shoes brought his love into his life. She was on holiday with her mother, or so they said. Hundreds had traveled south from Germany to find safe havens from an evil tyrant. Every month, dozens of weary travelers stopped at Roberto’s shop to have their shoes repaired, and Roberto's business boomed. When his beloved walked into his store one brisk April morning, it was as if heaven opened its gates. There Francesca stood, a vision of grace and beauty. Her long, golden curls cascaded down her shoulders, and her radiant blue eyes sparkled in the morning light.
“You kept them?”
“Yes, darling!” Francesca smiled. “They led me to you!”
Roberto squeezed the shoes, and his stomach turned with guilt. He placed his faith in one man. Yet, instead of buying a better life, it condemned his family to hell. Roberto cringed at the breadth of destruction his choice made. He shoved the shoes into his overalls. He would keep them as a reminder of Francesca’s beauty. The thought of her love would carry his spirit into the next world. With a heavy heart, he prayed God would forgive him so they could reunite in the afterlife.
“Francesca, I do not want them to harm you. I order you to leave!”
The men after him would do horrific things to Francesca; he had to protect her. It was his mistake, not hers. She had no part in it except to enchant him into the web of Athena’s love. A boundless love, compelling him to provide all the finery that money could buy. She was a goddess, his goddess, and he wanted to give her a life worthy of her radiance.
Roberto jumped when Francesca placed her hand on his broad, muscular shoulders. The contrast of her soft loving hands against his muscles bound by fear was stark.
“Roberto, what is the matter? Why are you so tense?”
The cobbler struggled to voice an explanation of his crime. His wife was not from Italy and did not understand the cultural nuances. For Don Salvatore, a ruthless mafia boss, to control the rich and poor through physical threats and exorbitant taxes, was inconceivable to a foreigner. So, any explanation would only confuse his wife.
Because the Salvatore family’s power started two decades after Roberto’s great-grandfather repaired the first pair of shoes, Roberto felt the hefty burden of disappointment from his ancestors. He fell prey to an evil, which those before him evaded. As an heir, he failed. As a husband, Roberto refused to let his ‘Athena’ live under the thumb of this corrupt overlord. She deserved a better life.
He glanced at the clock; it was almost 8:00 a.m. He had only a few minutes before the devil's henchmen arrived. He peered down at the street below, his breath heavy on the glass. Soon, he would open the shop door for the demons to enter the peaceful sanctuary he called ‘home.’
“Roberto, please tell me what is wrong. I am your wife!”
“You will be safe in Alessandria.”
“But I will not leave without you!”
“You must! They will do terrible things to you.”
“You will not let them! I know you, you will not,” Francesca insisted, but the quiver in her voice belied her level of certainty.
“For as long as I live, I will protect you. It is when I am gone that I fear for you!”
A tear ran down his cheek as he gazed into her sapphire eyes bobbing in a welling pool. She blinked, breaking the dam that held the trail of her salty tears.
“Francesca deserves to know,” a voice echoed in Roberto’s head. “She is your wife; do not leave her in such darkness. Lies will fester and cast a grim shadow across her memory of you.”
Gently, Roberto urged Francesca to sit on the bed. He kneeled before her, bowed his head, and passionately kissed her hands and drew in the heavenly scent of lavender and sandalwood sweetened with a hint of citrus. He savored it for a moment before looking up at his beautiful angel.
“I am sorry, my love,” Roberto wept.
Francesca wiped the tears from his cheeks, pressed a kiss to his forehead, and urged him to free his thoughts.
“This is hard to explain, but I hope you can forgive me.”
“There is nothing you could do to upset me,” she smiled in adoration.
“I have offended Don...”
“Oh, Roberto, you could never...”
He interrupted, pressing a finger to her lips.
“I broke Don Salvatore’s law, not maliciously, but…” Roberto sighed. “This is not how I wish to spend my last moments with you! What I did was for love, for you and the child you carry.”
Her eyes danced with joy. “You know?”
“Yes, my love, I know because your skin glows like the morning sun.”
“When the time was right, I planned to tell you.”
“I know, my love. You and our child must leave this place. A ticket for the 8:50 train is in your pocketbook. You must be on it! Take the back alley to Severino Street. You know the rest of the way?”
“Yes,” Francesca sobbed.
“Good! Now let us speak of more important things,” Roberto smiled. “If you have a girl, name her Josephine, and if you have a boy...”
“I will name him, Roberto!”
“Thank you, my love. I could ask no more of this life. Tell my child I was a good man.”
“I will tell him you are an honorable man!”
Roberto smiled at his bride, then kissed her soft crimson lips while his hand roamed through her soft, golden curls. Kissing Francesca was heaven, and he swore he heard angels singing in the distance. He embraced her until the clock chimed the eighth hour.
“I do not wish this to end, my love. But I must open the shop, and you must hurry to the station.”
Roberto grabbed the suitcase and rushed her down the steps to the back door. He cracked the door and peered along the cobblestone path. It was vacant except for a black and gray cat in pursuit of a small field mouse.
“Do not look back,” he insisted.
She leaned in and kissed his lips once more before scurrying down the alley. For a moment, he listened to her footsteps echo off the brick walls. He leaned against the closed door, made the sign of the cross, and prayed for her safety.
A knock at the entrance ended his prayer. With a gulp, he walked to the front of the shop where two tall shadows loomed. Out of the shop window, Roberto saw a dozen shop owners scurry like mice in avoidance of devil’s soldiers. Their actions did not upset him. No one dared acknowledge the devil’s existence out of fear he would call at their door next.
Roberto’s hand trembled as he unhooked the chain. Slowly, he turned the handle and pulled the door open. The old, rusty hinges screamed in protest, making a shiver race down his spine. This ancient door was once a gateway to heaven. Now, it was a portal to hell.
“Antonio and Bruno, good morning!” Roberto greeted the cloaked demons.
“It is a good morning for us!” Antonio chuckled.
The mafia boss’s henchmen shoved Roberto out of the way as they strolled into the shop. Antonio, acting as the hand of Don Salvatore, punished any man or woman who did not obey. His horrific methods of torture, done on behalf of The Don, was no secret.
His life was charging for the finish line with the speed of a racehorse. Roberto pulled back on the reins with small talk to buy Francesca enough time to reach the train station.
“What brings you in this morning? Do you need your soles mended?” Roberto asked, stepping behind the counter.
“No, only a soul to take!”
Roberto gulped back his terror.
“Your name is Antonio, but they call you ‘Demoni di Fuoco,' the devil's flame, yes?” Roberto asked, moving toward the empty till.
The night before, Roberto stuffed the till’s contents into Francesca’s purse; a dead man did not need money.
A grin wrinkled Antonio’s leathery face, intensifying his demonic appearance.
“You have done your homework.”
“You could say,” Roberto muttered.
The casual banter was unnerving for the cobbler; it prolonged his inevitable death. Adamant to give Francesca more time, Roberto continued his chatter with the thought of his bride's soft hand in his.
“Do you know why they call me Demoni di Fuoco?”
A swell of fear slowly rose to the cobbler's throat, making his words tremble. “Because you like to burn things?”
Antonio leaned close, his sour breath and evil snarl which exposed his yellowed teeth made Roberto recoil.
“Ah, close!” Antonio mused, “I enjoy burning people! The crackling sound of their flesh as it melts from the bone, the tortured scream. Ah! It is more pleasing than a harlot's moan!”
The implication that Roberto’s flesh would be the fuel to destroy his family’s legacy horrified him. Soon, his family’s business would tumble in a heap of flames and rubble at the feet of an unworthy heir.
Antonio's counterpart opened his long, black trench coat and unstrapped two tall cans that sloshed when they hit the hardwood floor.
“Take a seat, Cobbler,” Antonio instructed.
Roberto backed away, but an impatient Antonio grabbed the cobbler’s collar and flung him into the chair.
“Put your arms on the table!”
When Roberto refused, Antonio grabbed the cobbler's right hand and slammed it on top of the workbench.
“Bruno, hold him still.”
Antonio grabbed a handful of nails out of the rusty can on the nearby counter. Roberto struggled to get free. The effort to escape was futile, Bruno was twice the cobbler’s size.
“Isn’t that cute, the cobbler is excited,” Antonio mocked as he jostled the nails in his hand. “Or are you afraid? Sometimes I confuse the two.”
Roberto noticed his grandfather’s hammer a foot away. He contemplated using it to rack Antonio in the balls and smack Bruno in the head. The heroic act would give him time to run; to be with his lovely bride and watch his son grow to be a man.
Distracted by his vision, a visceral scream pulled Roberto back to reality. He glanced around to find the injured soul but saw no one. His search ended when a debilitating pain from the nail Antonio drove through his hand radiated up his arm. It was Roberto’s shrill of agony that echoed around the room.
“I am not a violent man. I do not believe in torture,” Antonio professed. “Do you believe me?”
Roberto shook his head.
“See, I knew you were not stupid!” Antonio snickered, driving another nail into Roberto’s right hand.
Writhing in pain, Roberto released a long chilling scream.
“That didn’t hurt!” Antonio mocked. “But this will!”
Antonio drove two more nails into Roberto’s other hand and one into his wrist.
“See what happens when you wiggle. I wanted that nail to go here,” Antonio scoffed as he drove a nail into the meaty part of Roberto’s thumb.
“Please…” Roberto sobbed.
“No!” Antonio replied, driving in another nail.
Roberto wailed from the intense and unending pain.
“Oh, hush!” Antonio scolded, shoving a rag into Roberto's mouth. “That is better! I swear people can be so dramatic.”
Antonio removed a large silver flask from his breast pocket and drizzled the liquid up the cobbler’s arm. The pungent smell of gasoline made Roberto’s lungs revolt. In a fit of coughs, the rag launched out of his mouth.
“Oh, you want a drink? It will make the process go faster!” Antonio chuckled. “See Bruno; I am not a violent man. I am a man of mercy!”
The two devils laughed in unison.
Bruno threw the cans aside and barked. “It’s done.”
His focus on Antonio, Roberto, did not realize Bruno had returned to pouring gasoline along the perimeter of the shop.
Antonio removed a second flask from his other breast pocket. After a long inhale of the fumes, he poured the liquid from Roberto to the door.
“Oh, and sorry, we cannot stay for your finale. The Don requested we give your beautiful bride a proper sendoff,” Antonio quipped as he glanced at his watch. “Ah! Plenty of time to catch the 8:50 train to Alessandria!”
Roberto's face ran pale. He struggled to free his hands from the table, but every movement caused a surge of agonizing pain and an eruption of blood. The crimson river flowing from his wounds spilled off the table’s edge into the puddle of gasoline at his feet.
Antonio bit off the end of a cigar and, with a grin, spit the tip at the cobbler.
“Any last words, Cobbler?” Antonio asked. “No? Probably for the best.”
Antonio scraped the match across the matchbox. The flame surged, and Roberto shivered in horror. Not because of his impending death, his fate was irrevocably sealed. It was what the dancing yellow and red flame illuminated that traumatized Roberto. Inside Antonio’s demonic eyes, Roberto saw the gate to hell’s fiery inferno open.
Antonio held up the match to his cigar, drawing air through until the end turned red. A trail of smoke rolled from his nostrils, and a grin curled his lips as he allowed the match to fall to the floor.
Roberto, transfixed on the tumbling stick, braced for the ensuing fire. One foot above the floor, an invisible cloud of fumes ignited, and a raging river of fire raced toward him.
“Are you hungry?” Antonio asked Bruno as they casually left the cobbler’s shop.
“Sure,” Bruno grunted
“They have a nice café at the train station.”
The sweet sound of death's scream came from the cobbler’s shop engulfed in flames. A snarky grin curled Antonio’s lip.
“Ah!” Antonio chimed. “An exquisite melody!”