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A Close Shave (March 14, 2008)

from The Beast of Barbaresco

Ezra Brant first heard about The Beast of Barbaresco in the tiny Piedmontese village where the serial killer had begun his gruesome career.

In spite of the man's appetite for killing (the locals were convinced it was a man), his dubious celebrity status had yet to be acclaimed by the popular press outside of Italy.

To the accompaniment of the rasp and click of scissors, Ezra listened – a reluctant captive under a yellow nylon sheet – as Corrado Berutti, the village barber, related a litany of the Beast's exploits. And he did so with the relish of a soccer fan reliving a World Cup triumph.

"Sixteen bodies over a period of ten years. Mostly in couples, Dottore. He only kills lovers," Corrado said, whispering in Ezra's year. "Always on a Saturday night, in the back seats of cars. A single bullet in the brain."

The barber was dressed in a short-sleeved white jacket with a choker collar, the kind Ezra's dentist wore. He pointed two fingers at his temple, cocked his thumb, said, "Bang!" Then he brushed the shorn white locks from Ezra's shoulders to the floor. Ezra could smell the Vaseline on his fingers which were cracked and the lines ingrained with purple. The mark of a home winemaker.

"That's terrible," said Ezra. "Ten years! What have the police been doing?"

"I carabinieri?"

Corrado smirked into the mottled mirror. Its frame was fringed with curling postcards of bikinied girls romping on beaches around the world. "He laughs at them."

Ezra shifted his bulk in the leather chair and regarded his reflection in the glass as Corrado measured the length of his sideburns. The barber put his face level with Ezra's, extending index fingers on either side of his head. The warm morning air was heavy with the scent of shaving soap, moisturizing cream and hair oils. Flies clung to the necks of bottles half full of coloured liquids. Long black combs stood in elongated jars with an antiseptic that turned the water ice blue. The yellow sheet tucked into his collar hung from his body like a marquee, billowing out gently from the breeze that blew through the open door. The colour of ballpark mustard, it intensified the pallor of his usually ruddy complexion, emphasizing the lilac shadows under his sleep-deprived eyes.

The seat on the Canadian Airlines flight from Toronto to Milano had been too narrow for him and after the long drive from the airport to the castle on the hill overlooking Barbaresco he was too exhausted to sleep. Thirty years ago he would have been too excited to sleep but now he fought the pillows all night, rose with the roosters to wander the cobbled main street of the village.

He had watched the baker pull the metal pans of steaming round loaves from the oven, seen the vineyard workers in their heavy boots trek down well worn paths, carrying their lunch in canvas bags, and patted the thin, sand-coloured dogs who took over the piazza at first light. To pass the time he ordered an espresso at the tobacco shop on the corner opposite the San Donato church. But it was no longer a church; it had been desanctified and was now an enoteca, displaying the wines of the region. Behind it and dwarfing its phallic shape stood the stolid square bell tower, a landmark for miles around. It reminded Ezra of the ruined tower of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. His magpie mind recalled that this tower was originally built by the Romans to guard the point where the valley of Cuneo meets the valley of Asti. And that all the bells of Barbaresco had been requisitioned by Napoleon's General Flavigny to be melted down and recast into cannon. In the last war the tower had been a homing beacon for Allied bombers.

From the parapet at the edge of the square he could see the semi-circular sweep of the southern Alps on the horizon, stretching from Liguria west towards Milano. Jagged teeth biting into the blue sky: Mount Viso, the source of the Po, Monte Rossa, Mont Blanc. And beyond the Ligurian Alps to the south west, the beaches of Nice. Below him the silvery, shallow Tarno twisted through the mud flats, combed by the leaves of the weeping willows along its banks.

Turning around, Ezra could look down and see an old Barbera vineyard, its vines supported by tall bamboo canes, the shoots tied with willow branches by its frugal owners. The new vineyards had concrete posts and wires and their green leaves shimmered in the late June sunshine.

The barber had wished him buon giorno as he opened up his shop. His name, Corrado Berutti, was emblazoned in peeling gold letters on the window. The red and white banded pole set horizontally above it reminded Ezra that he needed a haircut and he followed the barber inside. A lover of puns and word-play, he could not resist the temptation of being able to say that on his first morning in Italy he had paid a visit to 'The Barber of Barbaresco.'

Ezra had been asked to judge at the annual Italian wine competition sponsored by the Banco d'Assisi. Eminent wine writers and winemakers from around the world were invited to Barbaresco to taste the wines blind and award prizes for the best. The event had no professional value for him other than affording him the opportunity to enjoy the company of his peers and the fact that he could escape Toronto and the escalating demands of his wife's lawyer. A little distance and the fine cuisine of Piedmont would be balm for his bruised psyche. His weekly column in The Toronto Examiner needed filling and, besides, his heart always beat a little quicker in Italy. In a previous life he must have been a Northern Italian, a winemaker probably, living on the slopes above the Veneto plain or the wilder reaches of Tuscany or here in the stately Albese hills.

"He's a crack shot, the Beast," continued Corrado, undeterred by Ezra's lack of response. "They say he was a sniper in the army. His last victim was a worker at the marble quarry. He was deaf from too much drilling."

He made the motion of a man using a pneumatic drill.

"Probably didn't hear him coming. They found his body at the bottom of the quarry a week ago last Sunday. His ring finger was missing. That is the trademark of the Beast. He cuts off the finger and sends it to the police. Can you imagine?"

Unfortunately for Ezra, he could imagine and he was beginning to feel queasy. In an effort to change the subject he said, "You speak very good English. Where did you learn it?"

"In Toronto. I have cousins in Toronto. We all have cousins in Toronto. I worked there many years, cutting hair."

Ezra was too tired to admit that he too came from Toronto for fear of the torrent of conversation that would break over him. Instead he decided to treat himself to a shave. Corrado ratcheted the seat back, took a steaming towel from a silver dispenser and wrapped it around his face, leaving only his nose exposed.

Ezra had a moment's pause remembering all those gangster movies he had seen where blue-jawed men in sharp suits and trilby hats burst in with Thompson sub-machine guns and riddled helpless rivals as they lay back under towels waiting to be shaved. But the warmth of the steam relaxed him and he felt himself drifting off to the sound of a straight razor being stropped on a leather.

As he was about to lapse into sleep he heard a woman's voice from the doorway, speaking Italian. Ezra had learned what little Italian he knew from his father who had taught himself how to speak the language from primers; but he could tell from the accent it was not the woman's native tongue.

"Do you cut women's hair?" he heard her ask.

"Of course, signorina," replied Corrado in his Piemontese drawl. "Please come in, take a seat. I'll be right with you."

From the tone of his response, Ezra could tell the barber found the woman attractive. Certainly her voice was melodious with an intonation that suggested she was Irish. He heard a creak as the woman lowered herself into the vacant chair next to his. Immediately, he caught the smell of her perfume, a fragrance that reminded him of marshmallows, a cheap scent that recalled a birthday present he had bought for is mother at Woolworth's when he was fourteen. It was called 'Evening in Montparnasse' and she wore it once then emptied it down the bathroom sink. He caught her filling the bottle with her customary Chanel No.5 which she poured into the tiny aperture down the shaft of a needle.

"I've just arrived from Dublin and I didn't have time to have it done before I left," said the woman. And then in English, as if speaking to herself, "God, would you look at yourself, girl, you look like crap on a bagel."

"You look fine," said Corrado, removing the towel from Ezra's face.

"Oh Lord," moaned the woman, "and I suppose your man understands English too."

Before Ezra could reply, the barber began to lather his face with a brush, speaking as he did.

"Is this your first time in Barbaresco? There are many things to see around here. Romantic restaurants. I would be happy to show you. I will drive you. I have a car."

Ezra tried to swivel his head so that he could get a glimpse of the woman. As Corrado reached for the razor he caught her image in the mirror. She must have been in her late twenties or early thirties. Her hair was red and windswept; her skin a translucent ivory, made all the more so by the blue of her eyes. Her arms, slim with blue veins close to the surface of her skin, were freckled. The kind of skin that goes lobster-red at the first ray of the sun. She wore a lime-coloured T-shirt and a pair of linen slacks; on her lap she held an over-sized handbag which she seemed unwilling to set down.

The woman was smiling, her head cocked to one side as if she were listening to a distant birdsong.

She was a good twenty years younger than Ezra but he felt immediately drawn to her.

"I won't have much time for sight-seeing," she said, running her fingers through her hair. "How much do you think I should trim?"

Ezra wondered how he could strike up a conversation with her. His face was full of lather and Corrado was doing a fine job of running interference. Ezra no longer knew how to speak to women, how to approach them. Those final surly, mean-spirited years of his marriage to Connie had left him taciturn and awkward around women. This was not the place. There would be other opportunities.

The barber handed him a towel and he wiped the remaining lather from his face. Avoiding any eye contact with the woman, who was now leafing through a magazine, he levered himself out of the chair and moved towards the cash desk. He paid for his haircut and shave, tipped Corrado and walked out. As he reached the pavement the barber called after him, "Dottore! You have nothing to fear from 'The Beast of Barbaresco.' Like I told you, he only kills young lovers."

Find out what happens next... buy the book, The Beast of Barbaresco, by Tony Aspler, now only $12 plus $6 for shipping and handling (plus GST).

Or buy the series of three Ezra Brant novels, Blood is Thicker than Beaujolais, The Beast of Barbaresco and Death on the Douro, for $30 plus $8 for shipping and handling (plus GST).

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Here's a bit more about the books:

Blood is Thicker than Beaujolais
Wine writer Ezra Brant and his wife Connie travel to the remote French village of Haut St. Antoine for a relaxing vacation while Ezra reports on the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau. But after a visit to a local cave cellar Ezra ends up reporting a body to the police instead.

Troubled by the apparent lack of interest in finding the murderer and the village's silence about the victim, Ezra gets on the case – much to Connie's chagrin. While the other tourists join in the idyllic harvest celebration, Ezra and Connie are drawn relentlessly into a dangerous web of murder, fraud and international intrigue.

The Beast of Barbaresco
For wine writer Ezra Brant, the trip to the picturesque Piedmontese village of Barbaresco to help judge the annual wine competition was supposed to be a restful interlude – despite all the talk of a serial killer the locals have dubbed "the Beast."

But when a fellow wine writer disappears without a trace, Ezra has no choice but to investigate. Could his colleague have become the latest victim of the Beast? Or does his disappearance have to do with a story he had been pursuing? Ezra puts his wine knowledge to work in finding the truth, in spite of all the obstacles set before him... including a charming Irish redhead.

Death on the Douro
When Matthew Sykes, scion of an old port shipping family, extends an invitation to wine writer Ezra Brant to attend his quinta's bicentennial celebration in Oporto, Ezra is delighted to accept. An all-expenses-paid trip to sunny Portugal is just what he needs, and the visit will dovetail nicely with his research for a book on the history of port wine.

But when Ezra arrives, he finds his friend Sykes has more on his mind than the anniversary fete. A series of strange and sinister incidents around the Quinta San Pedro point to a deliberate attempt to derail the big party. When murder becomes part of the picture, Ezra becomes more determined than ever to find out what really lies behind the events.




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