Authors: Alex Connor
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2013 by Alex Connor
The moral right of Alex Connor to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 84866 299 5
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Also by Alex Connor
The Rembrandt Secret
Legacy of Blood
Memory of Bones
Isle of the Dead
It was all a mistake.
Mr Deacon had come to Venice – to that overblown, flashy little city on the waves – on a promise. Only a month earlier his wife, Abigail, had died unexpectedly. As he had been twenty years older than her he was shattered by the unexpected and brutal turn of events and found himself desperate to escape London.
Taking the last available booking on a cruise ship, Mr Deacon tried to make himself comfortable in his cramped surroundings. But the cabin was cruelly unwelcoming, the Cyclops eye of the porthole inescapable. He was unnerved too by the sounds of his fellow passengers, determined to have all the fun they had paid for. And when he did occasionally venture out of his cabin, Mr Deacon found himself unsettled by all the sympathetic looks.
Was his bereavement so obvious? he wondered, retreating. He was feeling his age suddenly. Not looking it, but feeling it. From a distance he could pass for a young man, his walk quick and confident. But his shyness kept him at a remove from others, and he paced around the boat with his eyes averted, his hat pulled down low. He suspected that the Captain had activated the deluge of attention, but all Mr Deacon craved was a remote, and polite, disinterest.
When I retire …
he had told his wife repeatedly in the past …
I’ll take you to Venice and show you the Titians …
Mr Deacon thought back on the old promise. He was an art dealer in London, so an Italian trip had always been appealing. But although it had been mooted for over a decade, it had never happened. Perhaps, he thought with a guilty pinch, it had never been more than an intention. Perhaps Fate, that prickly little bastard, had scuppered it.
Because Abigail contracted breast cancer.
“We’ll go to Venice when you’re better …” he had told her, and she had nodded, grabbing at the intimation of a future.
Through all the weeks and months of her deterioration, Mr Deacon had described the city – its buildings, churches and, naturally, its works of art. He had always had a facility for maps, an unerring sense of direction, and had memorised the routes they would take. Guilty that he had never made time for the visit in reality, he created a Venice out of words, describing a city he now realised his wife would never see.
“We can visit St Mark’s and then the Basilica. And we must visit Titian’s house. I’ll show you his famous garden where he held his notorious parties. All the most beautiful women of Venice attended and the most cultured men—”
“He would have invited you.”
He glowed at the compliment. “They say it’s not really Titian’s house, just the site of it. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’ll go, darling; we’ll still go.”
It became so real to her that on last day of her life Abigail had turned to him and said, “Take me to Venice, won’t you? You promised.”
finally taking her to Venice, Mr Deacon thought sadly. The promise would be honoured, if not in the way he would have chosen. Abigail’s body might be lying in a cemetery in England, but her memory would go to Venice in her stead.
Do you know Venice? I mean, really know it? Do you know it in January, in winter, when the mist comes down? When all its greedy beauty is stripped bare? When everything is muffled, furred by fog? When palaces could be market halls and churches banks? When the lions of St Mark
’s look little more than children’s rides at the mouths of supermarket doors?
Do you know
Venice? In winter, when it has no gender, this mouldering little skittle in the sea. No sexuality, no bravura. Few launches come to unload their tourists then, shoes soon slimy from the water coursing over the squares, the steps to the sea green-slimed and dark with weed. Few tourists relish what they see of Venice then.
And above all, in the winter, in the fog, the city plays havoc with the compass. Alleyway
s that should lead over bridges turn back on themselves, like snakes biting their own tails. Piazzas, wide and open, huddle under their pelt of fog, and streets that should lead inwards take the stranger instead to the steps of the sea. The mists distort sounds too. Voices curl from unseen windows, running feet and shouts reverberate like bagatelle balls. What you hear, you think you hear. What you see, you guess at.
In the horrific winter of 1555 the fog had come down, and stayed. At the time, the Venetian artist Titian had been painting one of his most notorious works,
the likeness of a merchant famous in Venice. Then, as the temperature had plummeted and the mist rolled in, the Doge had become critically ill. Word went out that it was an omen, that the Father of the Republic was in peril. If the Doge died, the city would be doomed.
But it wasn’t the winter, or the Doge’s sickness, that doomed Venice. It was one man. A man who had gone about his work on the deserted, freezing streets. Who had crossed and recrossed bridges in the early hours. Who had used the fog as camouflage as he killed. It was the merchant Angelico Vespucci, the man who became known as ‘The Skin Hunter’. In the time it took Titian to complete his portrait, four women had been murdered and flayed, their hides hidden. Never found then, never found since.
Now tell me, do you know
Disembarking at the quayside, Mr Deacon rushed away from the launch. His desire to escape the sympathetic attentions of his fellow passengers made him hurry, his feet soon damp, his raincoat small protection from the niggardly drizzle. Walking too fast had overheated him and he paused, taking off his hat as he entered a cafe and ordered a coffee.
The surly waiter enchanted him, such a change was he from Mr Deacon’s garrulous fellow passengers.
“Can you help me with some directions?”
He shrugged. “You speak Italian?”
“A little,” Mr Deacon replied, saying slowly, “I was wondering where Titian’s house is. He had previously studied the route, but the fog had completely disorientated him and time was limited. “Where do I go from the Fondamenta Nuova—”
“Then the Vaporetto steps, turn down Calle de le Tre Crosse …” The waiter paused, thought for a moment, struggling with his basic English. “… Calle Botteri, there – Titian’s house.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “Long way. Troppo lontano a piedi.”
Mr Deacon frowned.
“Long way,” the waiter explained in English.
“But I’ve only got two hours before I have to go back to the boat.”
“No good,” the waiter said dismissively. “Another time maybe?”
Sorry, Mr Deacon thought. Sorry, Abigail. If we’d come when you were still alive we would have had time. All the time we needed. I was selfish … He stared into his coffee, thinking of the gallery back in London. He had been a good provider – but of what? Money, not time. Perhaps Abigail had needed less in her bank and more in her camera.
Outside the cafe window he watched the fog thicken. He finished his coffee then made his way into the street. It was a pity he wouldn’t make it to Titian’s house, but he would visit some of the artist’s paintings instead. There was a church nearby, he was sure of it. He would go there.
Remembering what he had plotted on the map, Mr Deacon turned left, took a second right, and began to cross a bridge. A lonely ribbon of sunshine came through the clouds and lit his way, throwing its half-hearted light on to the canal below.
And then he saw it.
Leaned over and looked into the water.
But the sun had gone, the fog rolling over like a fat man in bed, and the water was now only white soup. Perplexed, Mr Deacon moved along the bridge, waiting for another break in the cloud, his attention fixed on the water.
There was something down there.
Christ! Was it a body? He jumped back, started, then looked around him. But the alleyways on both sides of the bridge were empty, and he could hear no footsteps. Clinging to the rail as he leaned over the bridge again, Mr Deacon stared down into the canal, but could see nothing.
And then suddenly – bobbing up to the surface as though about to strike – came the flayed and bloodied carcass of a woman.
I remember my first sight of Mr Deacon, how he came hurrying into the hotel where I was sitting drinking coffee. He was out of breath and had obviously been running. Tall, elegant and well dressed, he was clearly in some kind of shock, holding his hat in his left hand and breathing like a piston pump.
“There’s a body …
in the canal.”
The manager of the hotel came out from behind the bar, sour-faced, irritable already.
“Qual è il problema?”
“D’you speak English?”
“I’ve just seen a body. Corpo.”
“Corpo?” The manager’s eyes widened. “Body?”
“Yes! I just saw it. In one of the canals. I just saw it!” Mr Deacon said heatedly, taking the glass of water offered to him and drinking it in one. Slumping into a seat, he took off his coat and bowed his head, distraught. “It was covered in blood … she was mutilated, ripped up …
Oh, God. We need the police.”
I couldn’t tell if the manager was angry because he had been disturbed, or because he thought he was dealing with a fool. But the fool was obviously not about to be fobbed off.
“We need the police!”
The manager glanced at me imploringly and I walked over.
Seeing me, Mr Deacon appeared immediately relieved. “Can you help me?”
“Yes,” I agreed. W
“I’ve just seen a body. A corpse. From the look of it it’s been in the water a while; it’s decomposed …” He swallowed drily. “It just popped up, just came to the surface …” He looked sickened, struggling to remain calm. “We need the police.”
“Yes, yes,” the Manager agreed, glancing
at me again. “Si può ottenere la polizia? Presto!”
“Yes, quickly!” Mr Deacon urged, picking up on the words he understood. “As quickly as you can.”
I reached for my coat. The manager was agitated, watching us and trying to follow our conversation as I prepared to leave. As for Mr Deacon, he was jumpy, anxious.
“Are you from the boat?” I asked him.
“Yes, from the cruise ship.” We shook hands as he introduced himself. “My name’s Deacon, Geoffrey Deacon. I’m taking a trip I promised my wife. I always said we’d come to Venice, but I left it too late. She’s dead now …” He looked at his watch, suddenly galvanised. “We have to hurry and get this sorted out! All the passengers have to be back at the quayside for the launch to pick us up
I held his gaze. “Are you
it was a body?”
“I saw it with my own eyes!” Mr Deacon replied, indignant that I should question him.
“But it could have been a dumped bag—”
“A dead bird—”
“It was a body!”
“The fog’s dense today; it makes visibility difficult—
“It cleared momentarily and I saw her!” Mr Deacon fired back at me. “It wasn’t a bird, or a bag, or anything innocent. It was a body. A woman’s body. I know what I saw.”
The manager folded his arms. He understood very little English and was confused. “La luce può giocare brutti scherzi in inverno—”
a trick of the light!” Mr Deacon replied, picking up a thread of the manager’s words. “For a moment the sun came through the fog and I saw a dead woman. I saw her as clearly as I see you.”
“OK.” I exchanged a glance with the manager. “Look after Mr Deacon, will you? I’ll go for the police.”
Surprised, the Englishman looked up. “Why not ring them?”
“You don’t know Venice,” I replied. “T
hey’d think it was a hoax. No, I’ll call by the posto di polizia first and explain what’s happened. Then the police can come back and pick you up. You’ll need to show them where you saw the body.”
I looked at him carefully. I could imagine that in normal life Mr Deacon would have been respected, his word never in doubt. But the shock of seeing the dead body had unnerved him and he was panicky, stumbling over his words.
“ Can you remember where you saw it?”
“I think I can. Yes, I remember. It was three – no four streets away from here. I saw the name plaque as I stepped on to the bridge. I stopped to read it
… Oh, why can’t I remember?” He was impatient, annoyed with himself, trying to picture what he had seen. “Yes, that’s it! The bridge was called Caninni, The Caninni bridge—”
“You know where it is?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Please hurry and get the police,” he urged me. “I don’t have much time before the launch comes.”
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I won’t be long. You’ll get back to the boat, I promise.”
Ordering a brandy, Mr Deacon slumped back in his chair. Out of season the cafe was quiet, and the manager had returned to his post behind the bar. He wiped the top of the counter several times, watching Mr Deacon, his eyes moving from him to the fog outside. Hadn’t the Englishman said something about four o’clock? he wondered, glancing at his watch. Only an hour left; the police would have to hurry. He carried on wiping the counter top.
A woman left by the back door and the fog rubbed its jowls against the window. Dense as a wolf’s fur, it blocked the scene outside, the afternoon light beginning to fade. Business was always bad in winter, but next month brought the Carnival and that brought trade. Lots of it. Tourists came from all over the world to strap on their paper masks and ape their betters. There was something deceitful about a mask; something which made the plainest of women desirable, and concealed the most vicious of thugs. For all the talk of the Carnival’s glamour, the manager knew better. Pickpockets and perverts thrived in the melee, tourists so crushed in the crowds they seldom noticed the nudge to their back or the hand sliding into their pocket. In the mingling of capes, costumes, breasts and feathers, hands that moved suggestively shared space with nimble fingers intent on mischief.