Il Consorte: Must-Read Mystery Long Read By Kim. M. Munsamy
Kim. M. Munsamy is a psychology graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Her work has appeared in The Misbehaving Dead Anthology, The First Line Literary Journal, and online journal Ripples in Space.
A cold wind blew through the crowd, causing the flame from the wilting candles to flicker. On the cover of multiple leaflets, Andre Durham’s youthful face was pulled into a giant and handsome grin. He seemed oblivious to the cries which filled the moonless night.
The memorial service was held at a park in the city, the dark pupil at the center of a concrete eye. Andre was no stranger to the looming redwood trees or the bushes which produced midnight-purple berries. As a child, he visited the playground at the front of the park where swings and monkey bars were rooted in the ground. As a teenager, he ventured into the thicket for private meetings with his friends. His parents had thought it a fitting place for the memorial. Julia agreed.
Julia was a teacher at Orchid Preparatory School, where Andre had spent three years. He was enthusiastic about her art history classes, and often asked her questions that left her stuttering and stumbling through the answers. So brilliant and informed was he, that she forgave him for the mundane work he produced in her creative writing course. Now, he would inquire no longer. Death had muted him.
A soft hymn rose up around her, punctuated by tears and sniffles. Julia joined in, but stopped after a few verses. The words felt heavy, too leaden for her tongue to form them. She touched the chain around her neck- gold with an evil eye pendant- and thought of the student who had given it to her. Suddenly, a glimpse of green light caught her attention. She turned toward the source, but the light vanished a second before she could ascertain what it was. The remnant of the peculiarity was a pair of boot-prints which led out of the park and into the grey streets. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sound of mourning.
Her fingers moved along the door knocker, while she contemplated escaping. When she finished weighing cost against social convention, Julia knocked three times. There was slow movement on the other side. Feet were dragged, the owner no doubt expecting a casserole-bearing neighbor. Samuel Durham, Andre’s father, opened the door.
“Hello,” Julia said. Her nervous hands busied themselves in the bouquet she held. “I’m Julia Augusta, Andre’s art history and creative writing teacher.”
“Ms. Augusta,” Samuel remarked. He shook her outstretched hand. “Come inside.”
Julia entered, closed the door, then followed Samuel Durham into the living room. Andre’s mother, Martha Durham, sat in a velvet armchair by the fireplace. Embers from the crumpling grey wood gave her face an unnatural glow. With her sunken eyes and slumped posture, she looked like an abandoned puppet.
“Andre spoke about you often,” Samuel said. He crossed the room, sat on the armrest beside his wife, and gently ran his hand over her hair. She was unresponsive to his touch, but he only stopped when strands caught on his ring. “Ms. Augusta said this, Ms. Augusta said that, practically drove his mother crazy with jealousy.”
Julia sat on the couch. “He was my favorite too. I am sorry for your loss. Andre was a lovely boy and a fine student. I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
“It’s hell,” Samuel remarked. “It feels as though we’re being punished for some sin, but there is nothing so horrible that could have warranted this.”
Martha looked at her husband, but said nothing.
“At the vigil,” Julia continued, “no one mentioned how he died. I don’t know why I care about that, I guess I’m trying to find a way to cope, but if you’re willing to share the burden then I’m here to listen.”
A small, crooked smile, appeared on his face.
“No one dared ask us that,” he replied. “I think they believed us too weak to discuss it. For the most part, we are, but I’m glad you asked. It needs to be said. We came home from work to find Andre vomiting in the bathroom. He had been vomiting the entire day, and he had stayed away from school. Martha thought it was the flu. I, on the other hand, thought he’d had his first sip of the bottle and then a sip too many. We were both wrong. He was extremely ill. The doctor…pathologist…is examining the…the…body. I guess they want to make sure it wasn’t a contagious disease that got our boy. I wish they’d hurry up. We need to let our boy rest. You will be attending the funeral, won’t you?”
Julia flinched. While Samuel spoke, she had been strangling the bouquet. The result was a small gash on her right index finger. A thorn had tugged at the flesh.
“I moved all the flowers into Andre’s room,” Samuel said, noticing the bouquet for the first time. “Would you take it up there while I make us some tea?”
“Certainly, which room is it?”
She smelled the flowers as soon as she reached the top of the stairs. It was a nauseating amalgamation of lavender, lilies, daffodils, and an assortment of other flora. Pulling her sweater over her nose, Julia took hold of the doorknob and turned. Immediately and a little guiltily, she wished she had offered to make the tea rather than enter here.
Across the powder blue walls were magnificent replicas of famous paintings, all bearing a signature that was paradoxically clumsy to the work he had copied. A. Durham. There was Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Van Gogh’s Irises, and Rembrandt’s Danaë. There was Kahlo’s Pitahayas, Monet’s Regatta at Sainte-Adresse, and Dali’s Galatea of the Spheres. All paintings he had learned about in class.
Julia stumbled toward the bed and collapsed on it. She got her heels into the box spring, raised her knees, and pressed her forehead against them. A desperate sadness engulfed her, and she tried hard to suppress the tears which burned her eyes. It would not be good to wail where Andre’s parents could hear her. They had their own sorrow to curtail.
After a moment had passed, Julia woke from the bed. She turned, bent to right the mattress, and saw that there was a sheet of paper hidden underneath. Curious, Julia lifted the top half of the bed.
She gasped. It was not a single hidden sheet of paper, but twelve of them. They were identical charcoal drawings of the most beautiful woman Julia had ever seen. On impulse, she shoved all of them into her purse.
Taking one last look around her, Julia swept out of the room and back downstairs.
After two long flights and a great many aspirin, the schoolteacher stood outside Andre’s fantasy. The Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Andre and the rest of the students in his year had come to Italy on a school field trip. She had taken ill and could not attend, but now her health was fine and her curiosity raged.
The Galleria degli Uffizi is one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world, open to visitors as early as the sixteenth century. Julia stood in the corridor between two wings and stared out at the Arno river. In the corner of the sky, the sun melted to swirl blue and fuchsia, and the sight was reflected on the still water. The Galleria degli Uffizi was home to Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Titian, and many others. Yet, Julia thought the sight of the sky against the Arno and the architecture which cradled it in its golden palms could rival all those brilliant artists. She was certain Andre had felt the same.
Reluctantly, she returned to the halls. Light cascaded in from the huge windows on the right wall. It embellished the paintings on the left and the murals on the ceiling. Although Julia looked upon the art with fondness, her legs carried her quickly through the crowd of admirers. Finally, she found herself exactly where she wanted to be. A new addition to the museum, The Yellow Room, housed paintings recently kept in storage. In the corner of the room was the reason she had come to Florence.
Despite his talent, Andre’s sketch was a cheap imitation of the painting in front her. The portrait was beyond breath-taking. The woman’s hair was a deep and impenetrable black, the shades on her skin perfectly blended, and her lips were inanimate and parted. She stood in a cherry orchard, either at sunset or sunrise, but the orchard was barren. Although the painting was signed at the bottom right corner, the plaque behind it did not carry the artist’s name. Only the name of the painting- Il Consorte. The Consort.
Julia was startled when a stranger appeared beside her. He was middle-aged, tall, and broad shouldered. On his nose was a pair of round spectacles with green lenses and there was an unidentifiable sign on the side of them. He spoke to her in an Italian dialect, but, after a few moments, comprehended her confusion.
“You are not from Firenze?” he asked in English.
“No,” she answered. “I’m from far away, very far.”
“Glad to have you here,” the stranger replied. “Firenze is magnificent, as I’m sure you’ve seen. I must say, few tourists have come to the Galleria degli Uffizi to see Il Consorte specifically.”
“Not just this painting. There are many others I’d like to have a good look at, but this one just speaks to me. I can’t explain why. I guess art is like that. Explanations are immaterial.”
“Well said.” He looked at his watch. “I must be going now. Enjoy the rest of your visit.”
“Thank you,” Julia replied.
When he disappeared around the corner, she continued to admire Il Consorte.
Julia took a seat at the table, smiling to herself as she reminisced over the familiar smell of paperbacks and wooden furniture. The letters on the outside of the building were big and bold- BIBLIOTECA NAZIONALE CENTRALE. A library by any other name still reads as sweet. In contrast, the book before her smelt dusty and sour. The cover was thick, the pages were yellow, and the spine was well-worn. As an indication to its position of importance, the librarian constantly walked back and forth as Julia paged through the volume of Italian artworks and their history. She found Il Consorte in Chapter 20- Unknown works of the fifteenth century- and began to read.
From neighbouring France, the story of Joan of Arc spread to fifteenth century Italy. Yet, it was not the woman’s bravery or piety that captured the attention of the people in a small village near the Ionian Sea. It was the fact that her opposite lived among them. This woman was known only as Ginevra. While Joan of Arc heard the Saints, Ginevra was plagued with visions of the devil. While one walked in light and favour, terror followed the other.
Fields in Ginevra’s village seldom bared finely and fell to disease when they did. Some houses crashed into the Ionian Sea and were swept toward Greece, others burned until ash covered the streets. If a murder occurred, if a son fought his father and a daughter spoke out, Ginevra was blamed. Julia thought it ridiculous, but she could see how fifteenth century folks would not. A painter, taken with Ginevra’s beauty and the sorrow she walked alongside, decided to set her down on canvas. He named the painting Il Consorte, an abbreviation of the original title- Il Consorte del diavolo.
According to the records, he died three days later from a fall. Believing him and all his work to be cursed, his paintings and sculptures were burned, but Il Consorte was smuggled out of the village before the pyre could be lit. The last paragraph concerning Il Consorte mentioned that Ginevra disappeared, but a cult had sprouted from her absence. They called themselves Figli della Consorte- Children of the Consort- but nothing more was said about them.
Julia returned the book to its shelf, then took a seat at one of the computer terminals. She punched in Figli della Consorte, waited for the slow connection, then clicked on the first find. A gold emblem sat against a maroon web page. The emblem contained a diamond, within it was a C cut by a vertical line and surrounding it was a curling and open-mouthed serpent. Julia stared at the emblem for a few seconds before she remembered where she had seen it. The side of the stranger’s spectacles. Sure, it had been minuscule then but the shape was undeniable.
According to the records, he died three days later from a fall. Believing him and all his work to be cursed, his paintings and sculptures were burned, but Il Consorte was smuggled out of the village before the pyre could be lit.
Suddenly, red light illuminated her forehead. The webcam on the computer had activated. Julia stumbled backward in shock, much to the chagrin of the approaching librarian. When the screen did not change and the light did not fade, the schoolteacher hurried away.
Julia sat on the balcony of her hotel room. She drew a shawl across her shoulders, sipped at a tall glass of soda and whisky, then rubbed her eyelids. Her mind fixated on the webcam, and she wondered who had seen her. Had it been the stranger from the gallery?
Suddenly, a soft thought screamed out. Julia moved into the bedroom, reached for the phone, and placed a call to home. After three rings, it was answered.
“Hello?” Lilah Roth asked.
Lilah was one of Julia’s students, a year older than Andre. Her father was the owner and editor of the city’s newspaper, where she worked part-time as a photographer. From the noise in the background- the clanging of a printing press and numerous phone bells- Julia knew she was pulling an all-nighter and that something huge had happened.
“Lilah,” she said. “It’s Ms. Augusta.”
“Ms. A!” Lilah exclaimed. “Wow, are you calling me from Italy? I heard you’re on sabbatical there, but you must have called about the new development in the Durham case.”
“What new development?”
“You don’t know?” she asked. “Ms. Augusta, Andre was murdered. The pathologist found poison in his system- some insecticide- and an investigation’s been launched.”
“Murdered,” Julia repeated.
“It’s awful, but the case is progressing. A store attendant witnessed a man buying that particular insecticide. His description of the man is broad enough to include half the city, but the attendant claimed he wore some ornate ring on his right hand, gold with an emerald stone. Although, I don’t know how influential catching Andre’s killer will be to Martha Durham. She’s a wreck.”
“I can imagine,” she remarked. “Lilah, I need a bit of help and a bit of discretion to go along with it.”
“You’ve got both.”
“You took photographs of the memorial service. I’d like you to email those photographs to me. I also need you to do a bit of research into a cult called Figli della Consorte or Children of the Consort. Could you do that?”
“Certainly. Is there a reason why?”
“If there is, you’ll be the first to know.”
Julia refreshed the webpage for a fourteenth time, and 23 emails became 24. She clicked on Lilah’s and scrolled through it. Despite the horror in knowing that Andre had been murdered and the grimness of the mourners among the redwood trees, Julia thought they were beautiful photographs. She found what she was looking for in the fifth. The stranger from the gallery leaned against one of the redwood trees, his head tilted in the direction of Andre’s blown-up photograph. Her suspicion about the mysterious green light had been correct- moonlight against his spectacles. Why had he attended Andre’s memorial?
Julia reached the bottom of the email, and read Lilah’s findings on Figli della Consorte. The cult had little online presence, even in the dark web, but Lilah had managed to secure the details surrounding their next meeting. It would be held tomorrow in a place called Luogo di Sonno- Place of Sleep- just outside Florence. It did not surprise her that they would be meeting in a graveyard.
Julia moved silently through the graveyard. In the starless darkness of the night and the stillness of the grey armada who kept that place, the schoolteacher wondered what she was doing. Charcoal artworks from a dead boy had sent her into a foreign country where she was intruding on a cult dedicated to the consort of the devil, a cult who may or may not have had something to do with the boy’s death. She was cold, tired, and armed with a flashlight and a dinner knife. Just before she could contemplate retreating, she came upon Figli della Consorte. Crouching behind a stone angel who wept, she observed their meeting.
They stood around a grave, marked only by a small and malformed stone crucifix. There were thirteen members in all, each clad in a black robe which veiled their faces expertly. Julia, however, knew the face of one of them. A green light shone from the cultist directly behind the crucifix. The stranger from the gallery was in attendance.
A thought occurred to her. What if they conducted their meeting in Italian? While she prided herself on a few simple sentences she had learned before her trip and a bit of dialect she had picked up after arriving in Italy, she doubted her capability to keep up with them. To her surprise, the member who began the meeting spoke English. His accent was Nordic, and the stirring of pregnant clouds greeted his voice.
“Welcome. Once more we meet at our mother’s grave. Ginevra, the consort of the devil, who is at his side once more. Nearly a week ago, a child visited the Galleria degli Uffizi and fainted upon viewing our mother’s portrait. On impulse, one of our Italian brothers followed the child back to his country. He entered the child’s house, and saw drawings of our mother hidden underneath the child’s bed. He witnessed the child speak of visions and other marvels, events no ordinary child could comprehend. This child was Ginevra’s descendant, we are sure of it. Our brother aimed to liberate him by-”
Lightning and thunder erupted in the sky, startling Julia into a scream. Within seconds of hearing her, the cult disbanded. Most of the thirteen ran for the gates. However, the Nordic speaker, the stranger from the gallery, and two other members, hurried toward her. Underneath the intervals of light and the downpour, she maneuvered through the stone sentinels and sprinted away from her pursuers.
Hearing their loudening voices, Julia slipped through the mausoleum gates and entered a long corridor with twelves cubicles on either wall. Each cubicle housed a marble coffin, where a member of a wealthy line rested. The smell of rot and decay was heavy in the air, patters of rain and the sound of her footsteps boomed like a scream, and her pursuers were closer. Julia boosted herself into one of the top cubicles, tied a handkerchief around her mouth, and moved the lid on the coffin. She crawled in beside the dead woman and pulled the lid over them, leaving a crack large enough to get her fingers through. The mausoleum gate flew open with a bang.
Julia heard footsteps approach. They were quick, but slowed as the cultist checked the cubicles. Three quick steps. A pause. Three quick steps. A pause. She counted them out in her head, and calculated that the cultist was just a few more steps away from her. The smell of the dead woman was unimaginable. It made her nauseous, and she tried her hardest not to give into it. Sticky flesh pressed against her arms and face, and she was aware that there were maggots crawling in her hair. Tears streamed down her face. She wanted nothing more than to jump out of the coffin and run into the graveyard, but who knew what they might do to her.
Another pair of footsteps approached.
“Anything?” the Nordic man asked.
“No,” the first cultist replied.
“Then she is gone. The rest of the cult has left, we should too. Quickly.”
They hurried off together. Julia waited five more minutes, and not a minute longer, before she pushed the lid off and sprung out of the coffin. She gasped for clean air, crawled out of the cubicle, and fell onto the floor. She vomited, screamed, then vomited again. Now completely alone with the dead, Julia whimpered in the dark.
Julia sat on the Durham’s front porch. She had spent nearly five days on a cruise ship, sailing away from Italy, and was glad to be back in the raging life of a familiar city. From here, she could see towering buildings which pierced woollen skies and could hear the music of vehicles streaming passed. Even the smog felt poetic.
The shadow beside her grew longer, and the Durhams had not returned. Julia slid a letter underneath the door then headed home. Tomorrow, she would visit Lilah and tell her everything she knew.
Stepping out of the shower, Julia pulled on a satin gown and entered the living room. A hot wind blew through the open window. She moved toward the window, closed it, then looked up at the sky. It was a remarkable shade of red, startling, and almost exactly like the one above Ginevra in Il Consorte. She removed Andre’s necklace from the pocket of her gown, and ran her fingers over it.
A noise behind her made her spin around. She tightened her gown and looked at the man uncertainly.
“Mr. Durham,” Julia remarked. “How did you get in here?”
“Don’t play games with me, Ms. Augusta,” Samuel began. “You left this letter under our door. You said you knew who killed Andre.”
“You need to understand why I did it.”
Julia stared at him. She could not understand what he meant. The cult had killed Andre. They said so. Death was Andre’s liberation. Samuel took a step forward. His left hand was concealed behind his back, and his right was extended toward her. For the first time, she examined the ring on his middle finger. An ornate gold band with an emerald stone.
“He wasn’t my son,” Samuel remarked. “I found love letters in my wife’s drawer, written to her by an old flame. The letters described the nights they spent together, the last a few weeks before we found out Martha was pregnant. Andre wasn’t my son, you see. It wasn’t prolicide. He wasn’t my son. He was hers. His death is a punishment for her sin. A warranted reward.”
“You poisoned Andre,” Julia whispered.
He took a step forward. “I mixed the insecticide into snacks he took on his field trip. The dosage wasn’t enough. The chaperone called us to say he was weak and faint, so I increased the dosage when he got home. He began to hallucinate, nausea took him, and in a while he was dead. I was sorry he had to die, as I am sorry about you.”
Samuel lunged at her. Julia threw herself out of the way. The knife embedded in the window pane, and she slammed into the couch. Samuel tugged at the knife, trying to pull it free. Julia rushed at him, swung Andre’s chain around his neck, and pulled. She thought of Andre’s body lying on a metal slab at police headquarters, and her grip tightened. Samuel threw his weight against her, toppling her backward onto the floor.
She thought of the memorial service, and her grip tightened. Samuel floundered on top of her, his voice raspy and desperate. The evil eye popped off the chain and struck the window. She thought of the chase in the graveyard. She thought of sheltering in the coffin. She thought of Martha, and her grip tightened until Samuel lay still.
Julia pushed him off her, grabbed the window pane, and clawed herself up. Il Consorte’s sunset veiled her face in shadows as she stood over the dead man.