The Alchemist's Pursuit (34 page)

BOOK: The Alchemist's Pursuit
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Missier Grande
is on his way here and Luigi will delay him a few moments and your boatmen have tied up next door and if they have any sense they'll stay there.”
Then I was gone.
My fastest way to 96 was through my bedroom and across the
calle
, but if I tried that tonight I might be skewered by some over-eager guard. The carpenter might have put bolts on the trapdoor.
I streaked along the
salone
, all the way to the far end, and out the back door, scooping the key to the garden gate off its hook on my way by. I did not linger to find my sword, for it was not weapons the bouncers at 96 lacked, it was information. Down the stairs I ran. The fog was letting in just enough twilight to let me cross the courtyard without cracking my shins on something or falling into the well.
Out in the
calle
I turned to the right and sped up again. Faint glimmers from windows provided only a fitful, patchy light, but I know that warren so well that I could run it blindfolded. There are seven turns between the Ca' Barbolano gate and the land door to Number 96.
Left . . .
Of course Alina would be wearing black; she probably did not own a garment that wasn't black. She could embroider, so she could sew. She could make a Carnival costume, or a friar's habit,
or a nun's
. Violetta had tried to see Sister Lucretzia and had then sent her a note. I had a sudden nightmare of her sitting alone in her apartment—she who never sat alone in her apartment—receiving word that there was a nun downstairs asking for her. Could even Alina be crazy enough to try to enter a brothel dressed as a nun? Was that what had caused all the laughter I had heard?
Left . . .
I wished I had a transcript of the family gathering last Sunday. Like the Council of Ten eight years ago, like even the Maestro and me now, the Michiels had recoiled from believing that a woman could commit such deeds herself. The Michiels had closed ranks in the name of family solidarity, all except Sister Lucretzia. Today that decision had been reversed and the senior brothers had driven Jacopo out into the wilderness.
Right . . .
Where was Jacopo now? In a cell in the palace? Escorting donna Alina? I wished I had brought my sword.
Left . . .
I raced along the straight to the T junction where I had first met my mysterious cat helper. I swung left around the corner and a lantern was uncovered right in my face, dazzling me. I stopped dead.
“Well, well!” said Filiberto Vasco. “We have a rat in our trap.”
31
A
man behind me laughed and more lanterns were uncovered. I had run straight into the oldest, simplest trap in the world—
Missier Grande
comes to the front door after staking out his
vizio
to watch the back. For a moment I just stood there and gasped for breath, too mad at my own folly to say a word.
And this was not just bad luck. Ca' Barbolano had been the target, not Number 96. The
vizio
had put his
sbirri
, four of them, to block the way to the
campo
. They were armed with matchlock pistols—private citizens may not own firearms. He himself had taken up position in the other arm of the T, the way to 96, to prevent any breakout in that direction. Or perhaps to stay clear of the fighting, if any. If he had been lying in wait for fugitives from the direction of the brothel, he would have put his men around the corner I had just turned.
“Where is the book, Alfeo?” he said. “Hand it over, there's a good boy.”
“The Maestro has it,” I said. “Look, we've identified the murderer, the one who's been killing—”
“I've warned you before not to meddle in matters that do not concern you. Give us the book.”
“I don't have it!” I yelled. “The killer is heading for Number Ninety-six, may even be there already, and I must go and—”
“The only place you are going tonight is jail, boy.” Vasco is no older than I am. Furthermore, he is only citizen class, so he should treat me with the respect due a patrician, but he was very sure of himself this time. The law arrives and someone flees: what could be clearer evidence of guilt?
Run from hounds and they will chase you.
He had me cold at last. “I won't ask you again.”

I do not have the book!
Look, just take me along to the brothel door and let me pass in the warning and then I'll take you back to Ca' Barbolano and give you the damned book, and the name of the murderer, and evidence to prove who killed Caterina Lotto.”
I could see Vasco's smirk, because his face was illuminated by the lanterns of the
sbirri
behind me. Also by twilight, for, while he had a tall building on his right, there was a courtyard to his left, and the wall of that was barely more than head height.
He sighed with deep regret. “It seems we're going to have to search you. Take off your clothes now, Alfeo, or I'll have the lads strip you.”
Seek salvation from on high
.
I looked up. The cat was lying on top of the courtyard wall, watching me with golden eyes.
If there is a fourth time,
the Maestro had said,
the stakes will be very high
. Violetta was in mortal danger; for me the stakes could not be higher. This time I would not wait for Felix to volunteer. I would ask for help if it damned me.
“Look out!” I yelled, and jumped back.
Of course Vasco looked
up
, and the cat came down on his face.
“Rabies!” I screamed. “Get it off him! Oh, please don't let it bite him! Rabies, rabies!”
Alas, I was not at all sure that the
sbirri
could hear me over the racket coming from Vasco as his face and hands were shredded. Nothing is feared more than rabies, so it seemed unlikely that any of his men would dare go close enough to help him. Unable to endure the terrible sight, I dodged past him and sprinted for Number 96.
Right
. . . As I turned the corner, I heard a pistol go off behind me like thunder. I hoped that the shot had been intended for me and not to put Vasco out of his misery, but firearms kick so much that he would not have been in much danger, even at point-blank range.
Then a quick
Left . . .
As I raced along the final straight to the watersteps, I could see gondolas going past the watersteps at the end of the
calle
. It felt like hours since I had noticed
Missier Grande
's boat approaching, but in fact it had been only minutes. Now the convocation of boatmen was leaving the neighborhood like a flock of pigeons. When I stepped through the land door into the loggia, only four of them remained, hanging onto columns so they could lean out and watch what was happening next door, at Ca' Barbolano.
Unobserved, I went on, into the brothel. There it seemed that the news had not yet arrived. Matteo loomed enormous on a stool between two young hostesses wearing what could only loosely be described as clothes. From the somber expressions on all their faces, I guessed that he was telling them about Caterina's murder. The women jumped to their feet to greet me with enormous fake smiles. Matteo looked hard at me, taking in my alarm.
There was another guard present, leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, and him I did not know. He was armed.
“Has a woman come in?” I shouted.
“Who's asking?”
I started to explain, and was drowned out as Matteo and the two women both started to tell him who I was.
“The killer is a woman!”
I yelled.
“Has a woman come in?”
I moved closer.
The guard whipped out his sword.
“Yes.” Matteo came in on his left and punched him once on the side of the head.
Once was plenty and I dodged him as he fell. Then I went up the stairs as if shot from a mortar, three steps at a time, hearing the pounding of boots as Matteo followed. I was relieved to see that Luigi was one of the two men guarding the door to the
piano nobile
, but they both drew their swords.
This time I did not shout. “The killer is a woman! A woman's in there?”
Luigi nodded and reached for his keys. “A widow lady. Arrived just a few minutes ago. Sent in a note. Violetta said to let her come up, it was all right.”
“It is not all right!” I said, pushing past him and leading the way to Violetta's door. I moved gently, though, for Venetian terrazzo floors tend to bounce slightly and might alert the intruder that a Crusader army was on the way.
Luigi turned his key very quietly in the lock. The door did not move.
“It's bolted!”
Matteo slapped us both aside with a two-armed gesture, clearing a path. He backed up to the wall behind, then hit the door like a war galley ramming. The door shuddered, as well it might. He backed up again, and slammed it again, and that time I think he would have gone through a brick wall. Nine two-inch screws ripped out of seasoned timber and the door flew open. He stumbled through with Luigi and me right on his heels.
Hearing a stream of oaths, curses, and abuse from Violetta's
salotto
, we ran that way. And there they were, Violetta and donna Alina, down on the floor, both screaming, wrestling for possession of the
khanjar
dagger. Alina was on top and the dagger was hovering over Violetta's face, but Violetta was holding it away from her. Fortunately I did not have my sword with me, or I would have killed the madwoman on the spot. Instead I grabbed her by the forearms, heaved her off her intended victim, slammed her right wrist against the edge of a table to make her drop the knife, and then threw her into a chair.
Then I turned to comfort Violetta, but she wanted no aid from me.
“Bitch!” she yelled. “She-devil! Who is she?” Spewing abuse, she scrambled to her feet and went for Alina with fingernails drawn. “Hell cat! Madwoman! I'll rip her face off . . .”
I grabbed her and discovered that the tarot had meant Violetta, not Matteo, when it predicted a need for strength. Fortunately, if embarrassingly for me, Luigi came to help and between us we pulled her away.
“Hippolyta!” I shouted. “Calm down!”
I had uncovered a new Violetta persona. Between us, Luigi and I forced the Queen of the Amazons into a chair, where she continued to simmer, still snarling and spitting.
Meanwhile Matteo was standing over Alina to make sure she stayed where she was. She was screaming with fury and pain. “You broke my arm! I'll see you hang for this! Animals! Do you have any idea who I am?” And so on. She was dressed in black, yes, but in the weeds of a respectable widow, not a nun's habit.
Luigi chuckled. “Loud, aren't they?”
Already the room was filling up—girls, guards, customers, madams. There had been a scuffle in a brothel and it must not be allowed to become any more than that. I caught Violetta as she tried to spring out of her chair again; I persuaded her to sit down and accept a glass of wine that happened to be handy. Then I found the dagger and its scabbard and took possession of them. A sheet of paper on the table looked to be in Alina's handwriting but signed as being from Sister Lucretzia, so I appropriated that and the envelope also.
By then Antonio had appeared and was ordering everyone out. The belligerents had fallen silent, except for sobs of pain from Alina.
“I know this woman,” I announced loudly. “And her sons happen to be visiting Nostradamus in Ca' Barbolano at this moment. The doctor there can attend to her arm.
Missier Grande
is there also. Let's get her out of here.”
“And what about me?” Medea yelled, green eyes blazing.
“You hurt?”
“No, but no thanks to you and your crazy charlatan wizard!”
“All thanks to you,” I said. “I'll come back with those as soon as I can. Antonio, can you nail up that door for the night? Matteo, bring the woman.”
Medea melted into Helen. “You're just going to leave me?”
“For now.” I risked bending to kiss her cheek and didn't lose my eyeballs, as I would have done a moment ago. “I'll be back as soon as I can unless they throw me in jail.”
I retrieved donna Alina's hat and veil from the floor and dropped them on her head any-old-how. “Your sons are waiting, madonna.”
32
A
ntonio led us down to the loggia—me and a grinning Matteo shepherding donna Alina. She had refused to let him carry her, but she had fallen silent and was trembling violently, close to shock.
There were still only four boatmen there and I recognized all of them as Michiel employees. A quick peek out between the pillars confirmed that
Missier Grande
's boat was still tied up outside Ca' Barbolano.
I recalled some names from my experience of servant fare in the Michiel kitchen. “Zaneto, isn't it? Alfeo Zeno.”
He scowled at me and my companions. “I remember you. What do you want?” He could not possibly recognize donna Alina under her veil in that light and I did not want to reveal who she was.
“This lady is a real lady, not a worker here. She fell and injured her arm. A doctor lives in that house where your masters are visiting. Would you be so kind as to ferry us to the watergate?”
“There are other visitors there,
messer
.”

Missier Grande
, yes. But I need to talk with him also.”
Left with no further argument, he helped us load our patient aboard, which was hard to do without jostling her injured arm.
“Business as usual now?” Antonio asked.
I hesitated only a moment. Vasco had wanted me to give him the book, so
Missier Grande
had come for the book, so the chiefs of the Ten had sent him for the book, and if the chiefs knew about the book, then they had Jacopo Fauro under lock and key.
BOOK: The Alchemist's Pursuit
5.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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