Pasta Imperfect

Chapter 1

There are lots of things you can't do in Rome.

You can't leave your belongings unattended without fear of having them ripped off. You can't talk in the Sistine Chapel. You can't exit the Colosseum the same way you entered. You can't buy a ticket aboard a bus from a vending machine that's out-of-order. And you can't take pictures in St. Peter's Basilica.

Don't get me wrong. You can try to take pictures of the towering marble columns, the gilded arches, and the dazzling mosaics, monuments, and altars. The Vatican encourages all kinds of photography. But the thing is, everything is so big inside the basilica, you have to stand really far back to get your shot.

Like Tuscany.

"How do you s'pose they keep the floor in this place so shiny?" Nana asked as we stood near the monstrous holy water stoups in the nave of St. Peter's.

I marveled at the acres of gleaming marble that stretched before us. There was only one way to keep this floor looking as polished as an Olympic ice-skating rink. "Zamboni," I concluded.

Nana sighed with nostalgia. "Your grampa always wanted to drive one a them Zambonis. He said watchin' that machine resurface the ice sent chills up his spine. I never had the heart to tell 'im it wasn't the Zamboni what give 'im chills. It was his underwear. Cotton briefs don't cut it at a hockey game. You gotta wear thermal."

Nana stood four-foot-ten, was built like a fireplug, and despite her eighth grade education, was the smartest person I knew. To kick off the first day of our Italian tour, she was dressed in her favorite Minnesota Vikings wind suit and wore a Landmark Destinations name tag that identified her as Marion Sippel.

I never wore a name tag, but all twelve seniors in my tour group knew me as Emily. Emily Andrew -- the theater arts major who'd gone off to the Big Apple to become a serious stage actress, even landing a minor role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, only to return home to Iowa after my husband ran off with the dreamboat who donned Joseph's dreamcoat every time the lead actor was under the weather. Life has a way of turning lemons into lemonade though. I applied for an annulment, which returned me to "virgin" status in my mother's eyes, and I found permanent employment at the Windsor City Bank as the well-paid coordinator for its Senior Travel Club. I arrange day-trips throughout Iowa during the year and holidays abroad through national tour companies. Then I get to accompany the group as an official escort. It's a dream job that suffers only one major drawback.

People keep dying on me.

Nana assessed the floor with a critical eye. "You s'pose the floor's as slippery as it looks? This would be a bad time to fall and break my hip."

Unh-oh. I'd had a feeling all day long that some calamity was about to happen. It was like a ripple in the order of things. A disturbance in the force. Ever since my eerie encounter at an Irish castle last month, I'd flirted with the idea that I might be possessed of some kind of sixth sense, but to be honest, I hoped I was wrong. Living through disaster was bad enough. Being able to predict it would be right up there with tooth extraction by rusty pliers.

"The floor only looks like ice," I assured Nana, checking out her size five sneakers. They weren't Nike or Converse but appeared to be some off-brand she'd bought at Wal-Mart for ten bucks. She might be a lottery -