Venetian Blood, page 1
Copyright © 2017 by Christine Volker
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, digital scanning, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please address She Writes Press.
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Print ISBN: 978-1-63152-310-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017934265
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Map by Mike Morgenfeld/cartographer
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
per sempre e sempre.
For your love, encouragement, and insights over countless hours. Without you, my journey would be incomplete.
The Belvedere Hotel, Venice, Italy
1 Santa Lucia Train Station, Venice, Italy
2 The Sinuous Voyage
3 La Stella
4 Beside the Still, Green Canal
5 In the Heart of the Faviers
6 A Tenuous Connection
7 The Murder
8 The Money Trail
9 The Garden
10 The Meeting
12 Of the Incurables
13 The Bombshell News
14 In the Police Station
15 La Biblioteca Marciana
16 Caffè Florian
17 A Forgotten Place
18 St. Mark’s
19 A Disjointed Message
21 Dr. Zampone
22 The Watch
23 Black Hole
24 Il Gazzettino
25 The Dark Yacana
26 Red Dawn
27 Napoleon’s Gardens
28 Leaves of Green
29 Dark Star Trails
30 La Guardia di Finanza
31 L’Ospedale Civile
32 In the Shadow of the Doge
33 The Lilies of San Stae
34 The Golden Lido
35 Calle dei Assassini
36 The Dream
About the Author
The Belvedere Hotel, Venice, Italy
Saturday, September 12, 1992
Count Sergio Corrin gloated. Leaning against a stone pillar, he surveyed the masked revelers. Checkered harlequins tangoed with Columbinas on the veranda, a skull mask floating in their midst. Smiling clown visages and long-beaked Pulcinellas peeked over the feathers of can-can masks. He spotted a joker with flowing red hair, not moving to the orchestra, gazing down from a balcony, still as a mannequin.
The impressive proceeds from this evening’s fundraiser would guarantee him yet another year as president of the Preserve Venice Foundation. After the unmasking at midnight, he’d announce, to more thunderous applause, that his valiant efforts had secured an even greater triumph: The twice-stolen Giovanni Bellini painting will regain its rightful spot in the Valier Chapel of Madonna del Orto Church. These feats dwarfed the competition. They could only scrape up enough lire to restore a bench outside Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Madonna and Child will return, thanks to his magnanimous donation and muscular influence in the art world’s darkest corners. The laser-locking system and bullet-proof glass would be the Pietà’s equal, protecting Bellini’s masterpiece from thieves and the knives of madmen.
He cut through a bobbing sea of painted masks, leaving silk gowns and lilting voices to climb the brick steps to the gardens. Heart-shaped hedges divided the expanse of the lawn, phosphorescent in the floodlights. Gliding past an illuminated sculpture of Venus, he pulled down his Pinocchio mask and inhaled the heady scent of roses. Though hearing light footsteps, he grinned in anticipation of the meeting in two weeks. He picked up a pebble and threw it as far as he could. His spirit soared for having found a talented aide to do his bidding. He would win again.
But his attempts with Anna in the caffè that afternoon had failed so far. Such a memorable body, but an unyielding heart. Firing his arsenal of charm at point-blank range had not swayed her; rather, she had turned heads by trying to snatch the Polaroids he had taken, leaving him no choice. He tapped his pocket. She’d get them under one condition: Grant him the favors he demanded, or her employer would get a nice shock upon opening a plain manila envelope. If she wasn’t fired immediately, she’d be forever smeared in disgrace. No matter how hard she scrubbed, traces would linger, like bruises on her delicious derriere. She had shut up after that. Their story hadn’t ended. He’d squeeze more, and she’d collapse.
Just a few minutes remained before he would head down and seize the microphone to share the splendid financial results with the upper crust of Venetian society. Enough time to reach his favorite spot, the overlook. As he hurried past a copse of trees, the festive music seemed to die.
He jogged up the stairs and pressed against the railing, like a sailor in a crow’s nest high above the roiling sea, savoring the wind. Hugging the distant bank, moored gondolas rocked in unison like dark seahorses nodding. Lamps flickered from the broad promenade. The lighted reflection of the Doge’s Palace became a thousand fireflies skimming the water. Plaintive notes from a wooden flute hung in the air as Sergio felt the heart of Venice beating in timeless opulence, showering him with a bouquet of memories. He could live nowhere else.
Waves tapped the metal dock below in a hollow echo, jarring his reverie. Rustling from behind a nearby cypress froze him.
The tree’s jagged outline pierced the platinum moon. A long-haired figure bent in the shadows, small golden bells tinkling atop its joker’s mask.
“Signora,” he said, swaggering over, captivated by her cascading, auburn hair. He spied the glimmer of a coquette’s eyes, and full, red lips upturned in a permanent grin.
“Come si chiama, bella?” he asked, wanting to know her name. She tilted her head to one side, then the other. For just an instant, he pictured a cobra, dancing.
The knife held by a gloved hand caught the cold light. In one silent thrust, the masked figure plunged the steel blade deep between his ribs as church bells tolled midnight.
Staggering away in disbelief, he teetered before collapsing onto the Istrian stone, splitting his head open.
Santa Lucia Train Station, Venice, Italy
Sunday, September 13, 1992
Anna gulped Venice’s brine-filled air as if it could magically erase bad memories. Sergio’s last-minute phone call imploring her to come one day early had filled her with the hope that she could get her damn pictures back and never hear from him again. Instead, he had revealed himself to be even more sinister than she had feared. Arguing with him at the caffè, trailing him to the gala, fleeing before speaking to him, her efforts had been a disaster. If she didn’t fulfill his demand within five days, a time limit he had termed “generous,” she had no doubt that he’d make good on his threat. She needed to figure out how to defuse his time bomb, no matter how much the thought of it made her hands tremble.
Yesterday’s clacking train from Zürich had brought her through the blue, towering Alps, past verdant hills studded with sienna villages, until at last descending to the broad coastal plain, with a whiff of salt and a glimpse of the vast Adriatic and its jumble of reedy islands. Seen from the carriage window, Venice’s bramble of towers and red roofs had been nearly swallowed by the sea.
Now, in the late afternoon’s waning light, she watched somber gondolas slide through a bedlam of water taxis, docking vaporettos, and industrial barges as the waters of the Grand Canal washed over the sidewalk just twenty feet away. Ancient stone and brick-clad buildings floated in the distance. Behind her, the sleek mass of the rail terminal rose from demolished crypts and disinterred bones of saints. With acqua alta, as her Italian grandfather had called it, the water proclaimed its dominion. Nonno had always feared for her in Venice. You can get confused there, he would say, and step into a puddle only to find that it was really the edge of a canal.
Fidgeting, Anna scanned the crowds. No sign of Margo. Late again, just like all those years ago in college, when Anna would wait for her at Sather Gate after solid geometry class. She stowed her glasses in her purse and rubbed her aching eyes, seeing well enough without her distance lenses.
An aqua speedboat marked Polizia—far from the black-and-white squad cars of home, Anna thought—crawled past before docking. Two smartly dressed policemen tied up the boat and alighted. After studying a paper in their hands, they met her staccato glances with penetrating stares as she fingered her chestnut hair.
“Signora, cosa fa qui?” the stocky one demanded in a singsong voice, dark brows knit together, wanting to know what she was doing there.
Surprised, Anna labored through her rusty Italian and with an upturned hand told them, “Aspetto un’amica.”—“I’m waiting for a girlfriend.”
“You tell her thata you be very late,” he replied. “Come with us now, please.” He grabbed her by the wrist, his calloused hand holding fast as they walked.
His balding partner followed with her bags.
“Dove andiamo?” she asked, wagering Italian would help her find out where they were headed. “Non ho fatto niente. Lasciami stare.”—“I haven’t done anything. Leave me be.”
Deaf to pleas in any language, they marched her back toward the train station. People gawked at the lumbering procession while Anna felt her cheeks flush. They crossed the shadows to the door of the police station, set inside the giant maw of the depot. After taking her passport at the front desk, the policemen led her down a dim stairway before nudging her into a cool chamber.
The door thundered shut, the sound magnified by slick floor tiles decayed into a tartared sheen. A wooden table, ringed by mismatched chairs, dominated the space. The pendulum of a wall clock sliced loudly through the dank air as its stark hands pointed to six-thirty. Twin mirrors studded the far wall. Slumped in one of the aged chairs, Anna pictured officers huddling behind the glass, cementing their gaze on her, weighing her every move and expression.
Questions arose like a beggar’s chorus. What did I do? What do they want with me? How can I get out of here?
A dripping sound made her pause. How far above sea level is this room, anyway? Feeling queasy, she recalled Nonna’s sepia-colored prints of St. Mark’s Square submerged beneath wind-whipped waves. She envisioned minnows swimming over the stone pavement and between pedestrians’ legs, imagined water oozing through a crack in the corner of the floor, then starting to rise. Calm, stay calm, she told herself. Don’t panic. Just think. There must be a mistake, some reason the police had picked her out, one she could deduce by concentrating on it. Nonno had been the first to praise her, saying that her mind was like his. Logical. Analytical. At home with facts and figures. Her early aptitude in mathematics had foretold her professional success.
Her right leg twitched. She forced herself to determine potential causes for her detention. Sergio had changed his mind. He was making false charges against her, would soon let her know he’d rescue her from jail if she’d help him immediately. Or, the clerk at the Locanda Stazione—the greedy bastard—was accusing her of damaging the room or of stiffing him, to get more money. Maybe he had a relative on the force. She had paid him more than forty thousand lire, roughly forty dollars, for a single, but he hadn’t given her a receipt; she had no proof of staying there. Or, worse, what if she resembled the suspect in a crime that the police were hell-bent on solving?
The door burst open and a blond man with a Slavic tilt to his icy, wide-set eyes strode into the room.
“I am Detective Biondi,” he announced in a baritone voice.
His well-cut navy suit framed broad shoulders, making him look more refined than she had expected, down to his gleaming wingtips. Biondi pushed his chair close and sat down, scrutinizing her.
“I will like to ask you some questions.” He set a small tape recorder on the table, pressed a button, and muttered, “Niccolò—”
Just then a female assistant entered the room and placed two glasses of water on the table, earning an annoyed look. Biondi restarted the tape.
“Niccolò Biondi. Il tredici settembre.” Having spoken his name and the date into the microphone, he turned to Anna and asked, “Who are you? Why are you in Venice?”
“Anna Lucia Lottol, same as on my passport. I’m on vacation.” She struggled to keep her voice steady as she continued, “I’ve done nothing wrong, so why have you brought me here?”
“I ask the questions.”
“I refuse to answer any more. Get me the American Embassy.”
“You say you are a diplomat?”
“No. But I know my rights. I work for the US government.”
“The FBI told us you work for the Treasury Department.”
Anna stifled a gasp, stunned at Biondi’s quick contact with US authorities. Maybe he had even talked to her boss.
“We are not so naïve to think that government employees do not commit crimes. We will not treat you any worse than an Italian national under the circumstances.”
“What circumstances are those?”
“I can lock you up. It depends.”
“Then I want a consular official here.”
Biondi glanced at his platinum Reverso watch. Anna recognized it from the Zürich train station displays, its price well above what a detective could afford.
“The nearest consulate is in Milan. They are closed Sundays. Impossible to get here before noon tomorrow, and only if they have nothing better to do than come to your aid. Which I doubt. You may wait here long.”
“Why don’t you just let me go? You have my passport. I’ll come back when they arrive.”
“I believe you have a saying, not a snowball’s chance in hell? You will enjoy our cozy accommodation, sharing one tiny, dirty cell with the dregs of Venice. Let me see. We hold one aggressive prostitute, another woman scratches herself, thinks she carries bugs. Maybe she is right. Then the drunken woman picking fights with her cellmates—”
Anna sighed. “All right. I’ll answer your questions.”
“You recognize him?” he asked, sliding a photograph in front of her.
Anna’s eyes were drawn to the pool of blood bathing a man’s head, tingeing the ends of his white hair a clownish red against the stone pavement. Vacant eyes sunk into folds of skin. Thin lips framing a mouth contorted to one side in a sickening smirk. One pale, veined hand wearing a gold signet ring resting on his crimson-stained tuxedo. A Pinocchio mask crushed under his chin.
“Oh, no!” Anna pushed the picture away, shutting her eyes for a moment, hardly believing what she had seen. Sergio
“You are upset.”
Anna took a sip of water, hands unsteady. “Y-you just showed me a photo of a dead man. Of course I’m upset.”
“You don’t know him?” Biondi asked.
Her forehead throbbed. She thought back through her movements the previous night: crossing the lagoon to the gala Sergio would be attending, entering the hotel from the back, hiding behind a party mask she had found in the ladies room, running up the garden steps to see the dance floor and spy on him, then, losing her nerve to engage him again, dashing down the main stairway, pulling off her mask and jumping into the dark, jam-packed launch back to St. Mark’s Square.
“What happened?” she asked, peeking at Biondi, knowing how much pressure he’d feel to quickly resolve the murder of a powerful Venetian count, debating whether she was willing to trust in local justice. “Venetians are as slippery as eels,” she recalled Nonno saying.
She took a few coughs. If she said she knew Sergio, Biondi would ask how they met. Once he found that Sergio had been her lover for four whole days back in January, he’d dig until he found more, conclude that she was a jilted inamorata who had traveled to Venice to kill her beloved, and throw her in jail. She blinked, still undecided, before remembering the college acquaintance who had traveled to Asia and spent five years behind bars for a crime he hadn’t committed. Lost five years and aged ten.
Last night, near the train station, the somnolent hotel clerk hadn’t asked for her passport. She had even scribbled her own name in the guest log to save him the trouble of writing it. That meant there was no central police registry with her name and passport number and a record of where she had stayed. Since she had paid cash, there’d be no credit card trail. And the Italians at the Swiss border hadn’t stamped her passport, so who was to say when she had arrived? At least five hundred people must have attended the masked ball, many looking like her—brunettes were scarcely rare here. Scores of people would have known Sergio from business, art, or philanthropic connections. Biondi, she thought, would be very busy sorting them out before finding some illicit deal that would lead him to Sergio’s murderer.