Conrad Williams. City in Aspic

Conrad Williams is the author of Head Injuries (The Do-Not Press) and the International Horror Guild Award-nominated Nearly People (PS Publishing). His short fiction has most recently appeared in Cemetery Dance, The Spook, Dark Terrors 6, Phantoms of Venice and The Museum of Horrors. He is a past winner of the British Fantasy Award.

‘City in Aspic’ was written by an author who has never set foot in Venice. ‘But,’ argues Williams, ‘it’s one of those cities that worms its way into your consciousness, especially if you’ve seen Don’t Look Now, which is simply one of the best, if not the best horror films ever made. You can’t help but feel you know that city, and working with a Time Out Venice Guide did me a few favours. ’

It was the author’s fondness for the Nicolas Roeg film that inspired him to write the tale. ‘It is my tribute to the film,’ continues Williams. ‘The names of the characters in my story correspond to the names of the actors who appear in Don’t Look Now, and the Europa is the hotel where John and Laura Baxter actually stayed.

‘I’m hoping to go to Venice some day to find out how authentic this story managed to be in terms of its sense of place. Probably in the winter. No doubt I’ll see a few mateless gloves flapping about. If you go out looking for them, they’re everywhere.’

* * * *

It was a place that needed people in order for it to come alive. In winter, the streets whispered with uncollected litter and nervous pigeons. The air grew so thick with cold that it became hard to walk anywhere. When night came, the water that was slowly drowning the city turned the darkness into an uncertain quantity. There was astonishing beauty here too, though, even where there oughtn’t to be any. The crumbling structures, the occasional bodies dragged from the waterways, the bleach of winter that pocketed the city’s colour for months on end: all of it had a poetry, a comeliness. Massimo understood this skewed charm. Where others saw moles, he saw beauty spots.

Many times Massimo had wished he could simply drift away like the tourists at the tail end of the season, or the leaves that blew from the trees. It would be nice to spend the coldest months of the year farther south, perhaps with his cousins in Palermo. But now that was not possible. He and Venice were stuck with each other until March.

He stood on the balcony of the honeymoon suite, smoking his last cigarette and enjoying the garlicky smells ofchicheti that wafted up from the osterie on the Riva degli Schiavoni. One of Venice’s interminable mists had risen from the Canale di San Marco and clung to the facades like great sheets hung out to dry. Behind him, from deep within the hotel, the sound of the vacuum cleaners on the stairs competed for a short while with the toots of the vaporetto and the bell of San Nicol? dei Mendicoli. The last of the guests had checked out that morning and in a little while Maria, the cleaner, would be finished and he could lock the great doors of the Hotel Europa until next year.

He could have his dinner here, on this balcony, every evening if he so wished. The corridors would be his alone to patrol. A different bed to sleep in whenever he liked, though such a choice disturbed him perhaps more than it ought. Deaths had occurred in some of the Europa’s rooms; children and divorces had their origins on a number of those mattresses.

He flicked his cigarette end in the direction of the canal and returned to the room where he smoothed the bedspread before taking the stairs down to the ground floor. His father, Leopoldo, had told him this was a job of great responsibility; if he went about it with professionalism, then he would be considered for the post of reception clerk. He was under no illusions. He was a security guard, no more. In the seventies, his father had run the Europa with a touch of ?lan and much warmth. Tourists who stayed at the Europa came back the next year and the year after that. And then the hotel had been taken over by men in suits with large bellies and eyes that gleamed when they assessed his father’s profits. They paid a hefty sum to take over the hotel. Massimo’s father was tired. A stroke had robbed him of his personable nature. Though the hotel was Massimo’s birthright, Massimo agreed that they should take the money in order that it should fund his father’s senescence. But his father, though crippled by the stroke, clung to life and the money was running out.

Maria, who had been a cleaner here for as long as Massimo could remember, patted his arm before she left and told him that spring would be here before he was aware. ‘Take advantage of the rest,’ she advised him. ‘You’ll be busy again too soon.’ Perhaps seeing the bitterness in his eyes, she smiled at him. ‘Your father would be proud of you.’

And now, alone. The magazines had been read and the puzzle books completed. The evening stretched before him like the interminable carpets on the five floors above. He took a cursory stroll of the ground floor, checking the window catches in each room and the locks on the doors. The furniture was shrouded with dust sheets that reduced everything to the same lumpen shape.

He was about to return to the lobby and rewatch an old football video when he saw the single glove draped across the newel post. The stairwell reached up into darkness, those risers beyond the sixth step lost to a night that had fallen on the city as stealthily as snow. It was a lady’s glove for the left hand, made from black leather and scuffed with age. The inside smelled of perfume. Maria must have come across it while she was preparing the rooms for the winter. He pocketed it and drew the curtains across the front entrance but not before noticing that the street was empty. He didn’t like the way that Venice was abandoned each year. It was as if sunshine and long days were the only things of interest to visitors. Newly married couples ran the gamut of clich?s before returning to their homes; the way the tourists clung to St Mark’s Square or were punted around in boats suggested that Venice had nothing else to offer.

Irritated by this train of thought, Massimo turned off the television and went out into his city, a place where he could still get lost in the dark, a place that thrilled and comforted him like no other. The somnolent lap of the water against the gondolas was the beat of a mother’s heart. It was not merely a comfort. It justified him. It fastened him like a bolt to the earth and gave him substance.

He stopped for coffee andgrappa at the trattoria al canastrello and watched from the window the black water as it ribboned beneath the Ponte di Rialto. One of his favourite occupations was observing people, but at this time of the year the only people around were the old and infirm. They drifted through the streets as if the weight of their experience was shoring Venice up, as much a support for the ancient city as the countless larch poles that cradled it beneath the waves. Venice, during the winter, seemed to run down like an old clock. Its streets and facades could still play a backdrop for anybody from any time over the last fifteen hundred years without them seeming anachronistic. He would not have been surprised to see Marco Polo himself hurrying along the Fondamenta del Vin. The people fastened Venice to the here and now. But when there were no people, it was as if the city were immune to history. Venice had the quality of an eternal ghost.

A woman with one hand paused at the apex of the bridge to look into the water, but then he saw how the light was absorbed by the dark glove on the limb that he thought had been missing, which made it seem invisible. She was moving away from the bridge, in the direction of the San Polo district, when Massimo remembered the glove in his pocket. He cast a handful of lire on to the table and burst out of the trattoria into the cold. The air was damp and settled heavily in his lungs.

By the time he was under the grand arch at the top of the bridge the woman was nowhere to be seen; she could have taken any one of the half-dozen exits away from the canal. Frustration bled through him. He glanced back to the warmth of the trattoria and saw that somebody had already taken his place at the window, was hunched over a newspaper. Angry, he stalked in the direction she had taken, rubbing at the glove in his pocket. It was an old thing. Tomorrow, no doubt, she would buy herself a new pair, thus rendering pointless this little chase of his.

Massimo walked for twenty minutes, until the fog had drawn an ugly, persistent cough from his chest. He tugged at the collars of his coat but the damp was in him and around him now, settling on the thick black twill like dew. He heard a brief snatch of music from one of the pensiones but it was stolen away before he had the chance to place it. The absence of people disarmed him. During the day, this area was a hive of activity filled with erberia and pescheria, along with jewellers’ shops and clothes stalls. Now it was lonely and its voice was any number of echoes. The lack of physicality, of motion, had taken away his confidence. The street names were made indistinct by the quickening mist. He had grown up in this city, and understood that part of its charm was its complication of alleyways, but never before had he felt so lost. His home had turned its back on him.

Shutters closed noisily on the night. Venice was sealing itself against the hour.

He stumbled gratefully upon the Campo San Polo where he was able to reorient himself. Eager to return to the hotel, he lingered as he heard the skitter of heels clatter through the arches toward him. She was still nearby, or somebody else was. He bit down on his compulsion to find her and hurried back to the Europa. Once there, he locked the glass doors and threw on the lobby lights.

He placed the glove behind the reception desk and checked the phone messages. There was just one, from his father, who felt well enough to take lunch with his son the following day, if the weather was fair.

In bed, Massimo allowed the creaks and sighs of the old hotel to lull him. At least here, among these well-known and much-loved sounds, he could feel at home, even if his city had shown him its inaccessible side tonight. He slept and dreamt of hands reaching out from the sacrament-black waters. They would not rest until they touched him. And where they touched him, a little part of his happiness, his warmth inside, was switched off for ever.

* * * *

Massimo wakened feeling hollow and feverish. He knew it was his blood-sugar levels in need of a boost, but could not resist blaming the dream on his skittishness. He wished, as was so often the case with other dreams, that he had been unable to remember it.

He took breakfast in another of the suites, white dust sheets covering the furniture and brightening the room, while also making it cold through its lack of definition. The mist had disappeared. Feeble sunlight splashed across the roofs and turned the surface of the canal into the colour of watered-down milk. Feeling better, he set the timer on the central heating to ensure that each room would be warmed for a few hours, and switched on the television.

In the night, a murder had been committed in Venice, at the campanile near the church of San Polo. According to the reporter, who was standing by the Palazzo Soranzo in the square, his nose red from the cold, the woman had been found just after midnight by a man walking his dog. The camera switched angles to show the crime scene, which was dominated by a white tent erected by the carabinieri, a number of whom were standing around with sub-machine guns hanging loose over their arms. Bystanders watched as a stretcher was shunted into an ambulance, a crimson blanket covering the body.

Shaken, Massimo switched off the bulletin and showered. He had picked up a sniffle after last night’s adventure and he felt too ropy to go out. He considered calling his father to cancel lunch, but the old man did not take the air much these days; he would be looking forward to spending a little time in the sunshine with his boy.

Massimo toured the hotel, desultorily checking windows and locks. He flapped ineffectually at the pigeons that had settled on the terraces and made a mental note to buy some disinfectant and talk to Franco, the handyman, about getting some netting to drape from the roof, to prevent them nesting. With a heavy heart, he locked the hotel doors behind him. It was not so much the emptiness of the old building that got to him, but its silences. Coming back to a quiet place, that over the years had known so much bluster and happiness, was saddening in the extreme. It was a different hotel from the one his father had run. It was as if, at the time of Leopoldo’s departing, its spirit had left too, perhaps clogged up with the cogs of the old-fashioned fob watch he wore in his waistcoat, or bunched in a pocket like one of his maroon silk handkerchiefs.

Massimo spotted his father easily. His beard was a white strap for his chin and he wore the only tie he owned, a dark blue knot against a badly ironed white shirt.

‘Hi, pop,’ he said, bending slightly to kiss the top of the old man’s head. The beard was not clipped as neatly as it once had been; his hair was haphazardly oiled. He smelled of burnt toast.

‘Buon giorno,’ Leopoldo said, formally. ‘Come sta?’

Massimo ordered another glass of Prosecco for his father, despite his protestations, and a grappa for himself.

‘You heard of the killing?’ Leopoldo said, through the slewed mess of his mouth. He dabbed at the corner of it with a handkerchief every ten seconds or so. The left side of his face seemed to be sliding away from his head. It gave him a dismissive air that, Massimo suspected, pleased his father no end. He seemed distressed by the news, though.

‘This morning, yes,’ he replied. He could not help feeling guilty. His father’s stare still had the capacity to find some speck of fault in him, even when there was none.

‘A woman, they say.’

Massimo grunted.

‘They say her left hand was skinned, like a rabbit.’

‘I didn’t know that.’ Reaching for the glove in his pocket that, of course, was not there, Massimo betrayed more of his nervousness than even he expected of himself.

Leopoldo had noticed also. ‘Are you all right, son?’ He tried to reach out the withered nonsense of his own left hand but he could do no more than waggle it in Massimo’s direction.

‘I’m fine. It’s the hotel. Strange to be there with nobody else around.’

‘It is a good hotel. She will protect you.’

‘I know, pop, I know.’

They were halfway through lunch when Massimo thought of something.

‘How did you know about the hand?’ he asked. ‘You said it was skinned.’

‘So they say.’

‘Who are “they”?’

Leopoldo wiped his lips. His plate was littered with splinters of chicken bone. Much of the sauce patterned his shirt; he was having a good lunch.

‘I have my friends,’ he said. ‘Friends all over Venice. They stay in my hotel sometimes. Maybe when they need a little help. Polizia. I have friends there too. You don’t think your papa has his contacts?’

Sadly, Massimo understood that, like his father, the only friends he could lay claim to were friends of the hotel first. They were friends by extension.

‘It’s nice to see you again, pop.’

‘You too. We should do this more often. You should come visit me.’

‘I will. I will.’

Massimo walked his father to the vaporetto and waved him off before deciding to investigate the murder site for himself. The crowd had dispersed since the body had been taken away, but the white tent remained, as did the carabinieri. Police tape sealed off the area. By day, the campo did not seem capable of possessing the menace it had exuded the previous night. All of its shadows had been washed clean by the sunlight.

He wanted to ask one of the policemen, or perhaps one of the louche reporters leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes, if they knew anything more about the death and whether or not Leopoldo’s nugget of gossip bore any truth. Instead, he walked away. To say anything might be to incriminate himself. He could not help feeling in some small way responsible for the woman’s death. If he had caught up with her, he might have been able to give her her glove; his presence alone might have been enough to dissuade her pursuer from attacking.

On the Ponte di Rialto he saw a dark cat withdrawn into the shade. His father had loved cats and had kept many at the Europa over the years. Massimo beckoned it to him but it did not come. It was only as he drew nearer that he realized it was not a cat at all. It was another glove.

* * * *

Massimo did not go out that evening. He ate his dinner in the hotel kitchen and played patience in the lobby while the television murmured. He paid it no attention, but its burble was of some comfort. He thought about calling some of his old friends, people he had not seen for many years, and asking them round for drinks but he did not possess the courage. It would be too much to find that they had moved away from Venice or worse, that they had remained but did not remember him. The hotel had nailed him to this city. He might be taking care of it at the moment, but he saw now how it had more than taken care of him. He stopped dealing cards and looked up at the paintings on the walls, the worn carpet leading from the door to the reception area, the sofas under their dust sheets, the ashtrays on the fake marble tables. He suddenly despised the hotel, and the way his father had shackled him to it. He envied the old man’s freedom. All of Massimo’s formative years had been poured into the hotel and while it had remained robust, fashionable even, he had found himself at the doorway to his forties, his promise, his potential dwindling like the hair at his temples. Venice was like an ill-matched spouse that one gets used to, that one learns to if not love, then abide. Its waters lapped slowly at one’s resolve; Massimo had been worn down by it. He had capitulated.

Evening had lost its ripe colours to the night. Faint drifts of cloud were scrapes at the bottom of a bowl of dark chocolate. A cold wind, a taste of winter, was coming in from the north, inspiring shapes among the twists of litter. Massimo sat back in his chair and reached for the bottle beneath the desk. His hand brushed against the gloves. He took two quick shots of grappa and picked up the telephone. His fingers remembered the number before he had fully mustered it in his thoughts. He was surprised by the readiness of this memory. She can’t still live there, he thought, as the line burred with the ringing tone. The lights in the hotel dimmed and then grew very bright. He was about to hang up, embarrassed by this asinine plot, but he was startled into saying something when a voice leapt down the receiver at him: ‘Pronto!’

* * * *

Adelina Gaggio remembered him. How could she not, she had argued? Though it had been thirty years since they had last spoken at length, when they had both been at school, their conversation had been spiced and easy, as if they had never lost touch. Her voice had been a soft hand enclosing his, bringing him in from the cold.

Yes, she had eaten, but she was at a loose end tonight and would be thrilled to come and see him. She too lived in the Sestiere Castello, in Calle Dietro te Deum, and would be with him within the hour.

Massimo hurried around the lobby, stripping back the sheets to try to rouse some colour and warmth from the old building. He changed into clothes that were not so tired-looking and relieved the wine cellar of a few bottles of Bardolino. It was as he was wiping them clean and trying to remember which bunch contained the key for the dining room, where the glasses were stored, that he heard two very loud thumps above his head, as if somebody struggling to remove his shoes had managed to kick them across the room.

The spit vanished from his mouth. He had nothing in the way of a weapon, other than a broken snooker cue from the games room that had been waiting months for a repair that would never happen. He took the lower half of it, tight in his fist, and padded along the corridor to the stairs. Throwing the switches to illuminate the upper floors might scare the intruder off but the coward in Massimo could not bear to ascend in darkness. He was halfway up the second flight, the suite of rooms where the sound had come from in view, when the lights went out again, staggered, as though a finger was deliberately flicking off each set. Massimo’s hand would not settle on the butt of the cue. He paused, his breath coming harder than this simple exertion ought to inspire, while his eyes accustomed themselves to the fresh dark.

A pair of pigeons had flown into a window, confused by the reflections in the glass. The electrics, old and unreliable in such a building, had fused. Hadn’t they suggested their unpredictability to him downstairs just now? He clung to the possibilities like a child at the tit. But if the circuits had fused, shouldn’t the lights go out as one?

There were different sets of switches. The ones he had thrown at the foot of the stairs and separate consoles for each floor. If there had been an intruder up here, then he was still up here. Where was the sense in breaking in, dashing downstairs and then killing the lights after the caretaker had gone to investigate? Massimo removed his attention from the inked-out column behind him and forced his focus to fix on the shadows ahead. Nothing moved up there that he could see, but now he could hear the slam of a window in its frame as the wind increased.

He swept up the final flight and stood at the end of the corridor. The door to room 29 was ajar. Biting down on his fear, he approached the room. He would swing first and ask questions later. The thought of violence encouraged his heart to beat faster. Six feet shy of the door a moan slipped out of him as the gap in the doorway shrank and the door snicked softly shut.

Downstairs, the entry buzzer rasped.

The torpor of fear fell away from him like a chrysalis. Refreshed by the promise of an ally, he hurried back down the stairs and unlocked the doors. Adelina was standing hunched against the wind, a smile fading. She had taken off one of her gloves to press the buzzer. Her eyes went from his own to the makeshift cosh he brandished.

‘Come in,’ he said, grabbing her arm roughly.

She stiffened under his fingers. He apologized quickly and told her what was wrong.

‘Call the police,’ she said, as if she were explaining something simple to a child.

‘I can’t. I’m not sure.’

She rolled her eyes, the first expression she had shown him that he remembered from their youth. Time had bracketed her face with a kind heaviness that nevertheless had fogged his recollections of her until now. She marched past him and took the stairs two at a time. He noticed that the lights had come back on.

‘Wait,’ he said, and hurried after her. Despite his anger at himself, he stopped in the same place as before and watched her open the door. He saw the shadows spring back as the light went on and then noticed the counterpane on the bed diminishing, the narrowing of the watercolour on the far wall as the door swung slowly shut. He waited for her to cry out. A minute passed that felt the length of a season. If he went downstairs now, the frost would be gone from the car roofs and spring would have lent its freshness to the canals.

Adelina emerged, wiping her hands off against each other. She looked bored, as a person waiting for a bus in the rain might.

‘A window had come loose,’ she said simply, and brushed past him. ‘Do you have something to drink?’

* * * *

Massimo’s attention kept returning to those hands, even after the first bottle had been consumed, when his body had relaxed into itself and his earlier panic seemed distant and foolish. They were slimmer than the rest of her body, as if they had once belonged to another woman. She used them to help shape her words, which had loosened with the drink, and their movements were accompanied with frequent laughter. It bothered him slightly that she refused to take off the left glove, but the wine was numbing him to his insecurities. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all.

It seemed absurd to Massimo that their paths had not crossed, even by accident, in the three decades since they had shared classes at school. Since then, she had stayed in Venice for all but one of the following years, and had worked as a saleswoman for the Murano Glass Company since the mid-1990s. She had never married, but she had a teenage son, Bruno, who was currently travelling in England. ‘My life now, I want to devote to animals. And then find myself a good husband. Have some happiness before they put me in my pretty little plot on San Michele.’

Towards midnight, the two bottles drained, they suddenly became aware of the passage of time. The wind had become a constant howl but Adelina declined Massimo’s offer to take one of the rooms, gratis. She left with his telephone number, and promises that they would keep in touch now; that they had no excuses not to. Her kiss on his cheek stayed with him, like a line of poetry, or a new song that feels like an old favourite by the time it ends. He fell asleep in the chair.

When he wakened, he thought it was morning, but the light was the artificial spill coming from the brackets on the walls. His mouth was sticky with wine. He saw from his watch that he had been asleep a matter of two hours. It was cold, the heating having turned itself off, but that was not what had roused him.

Somebody had screamed. The wind was dead, so he couldn’t blame the sound on that. He rose from his seat and switched off the lights in order to see better when he pressed his face to the window. Two hours was more than enough time for Adelina to have arrived home safely; nevertheless, unease spread like indigestion through his chest.

On the ground six feet away from the doors, a suede glove the colour of the cement it rested on flapped at him, as if agitating for help. There were no blocks of light in any of the other buildings that he could see, which suggested that he had imagined it after all. But another scream, this one deeper and somehow more liquid, stitched by frantic gasps, cut through his doubt. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold glass, as if its chill might numb the distressed part of his mind. What could he do to help? The scream had been severed and originated from the maze of streets off the main drag. He could spend half an hour looking for its author, enough time for a body to be dumped in the canal and a killer to become a ghost. He might have opened the doors anyway, and tried his best, if it hadn’t been for the grate of heels on the pavement. He moved back from the window into the sanctity of shadow and watched as a shadow lengthened in the frame afforded by the Europa’s entrance. Something in its deportment rattled him. The shadow seemed too stiff, too jerky, as if the joints of the owner’s body had been fused together. It became, in the second or two when he realized the figure was going to pass into view, dreadfully important that he did not look at who it was, regardless of the fact that the other would not be able to see him in the gloom. He turned away, like a child from a bad dream, and sensed eyes burn into him, scorching him away layer by layer. He felt raped by their awful scrutiny.

An age later, he craned his neck and saw that the figure had gone. The glove, though, remained on the ground, fingers curled skyward, like a dead animal that had withdrawn and hardened. Was it the woman he had seen the day before? He could almost believe that her presence had given the glove that solidified, bereft appearance and was grateful that he had lost her on the bridge that night. Because for the first time, he suspected that she had been tracking him.

* * * *

Signorina Sinistra.Massimo heard the name a dozen times the next morning in the market place as he shopped for vegetables and fruit. ‘She takes the skin from the left hand’, a voice at his shoulder said as he was testing the ripeness of an avocado. Another, queueing behind him while he took coffee in a bar, confided: ‘They found another body this morning. Near the Arsenale. A man this time. His hand, oh my Lord, his hand!’

Another body. That made two. A little premature, he thought, to start giving the killer a moniker, providing a myth before its time. And how could they be certain it was a female murderer? But then he thought of the footsteps outside the hotel and he shuddered. He must hurry back and burn the gloves that he was keeping under the desk. God only knew why he had bothered to collect them in the first place. They had brought him nothing but trouble. He suspected that his complicity in the murders had begun with the recovery of the first one, as if that simple act had been some kind of secret signal, a green light of sorts.

A police car was parked outside the hotel when he returned. A sombre-faced man with doughy jowls standing by the passenger door tried to smile at him but the curve of his lips only served to turn his mouth into a flat line. Massimo’s heart lurched when he saw that the entrance doors to the hotel were open. Two policemen were standing inside.

Massimo said, ‘I’m sure I locked that this morning.’

The sombre-faced man, who introduced himself as Inspector Scarpa, shrugged. ‘It was for the best that we should stay until you returned. You are Leopoldo’s son, yes?’

Massimo nodded. Inspector Scarpa aped him. ‘My first job,’ he said, ‘when I joined the police, was here, at the Europa.’

‘Oh?’ Massimo moved away from the other man, into the warmth of the lobby. The two policemen looked at him as if he were trespassing. He saw a third policeman now, standing behind the reception desk with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the television screen. A football match was playing.

‘Yes,’ said the inspector, following Massimo into the hotel. ‘A most terrible case. Your father must remember it. Some people staying here. Two men. They tortured a woman — a young girl, in fact — in one of the rooms. But they escaped.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Massimo spat, horrified that his hotel could be guilty of such a secret. His father had never mentioned such a thing to him.

‘You must have been no more than a boy. It was in all the newspapers. Twenty-eight years ago. A big, big story. The girl died, as I recall. A complication. She developed infections. Nasty business.’ He shrugged again, as if it was a game.

The policeman had grown bored of the football match and was picking through the coffee cups and notepads on the desk.

‘Do you have a search warrant?’ Massimo barked, and then smiled awkwardly at the inspector, hoping he would take the outburst as a joke. Inspector Scarpa’s eyebrows had raised.

Now the policeman had seen something; Massimo could tell from his expression what it was.

‘Well, thank you for looking after my hotel. I’m grateful to you. I’ll make sure I’m more careful in future.’

‘Careful in what way?’ Inspector Scarpa said as the officer lifted the gloves into view and all eyes turned on Massimo.

* * * *

He asked for a glass of grappa and they brought him one. The inspector looked like an indulgent uncle who has caught his nephew watching a pornographic film. The face seemed born to police work. Tell me all about it, was its message. It was big enough and friendly enough to absorb lots of information. The inspector was a sponge.

Massimo told them everything, right up until the previous night when he had seen the woman in the street. The only details he changed concerned the checking of the second-floor room: he could not admit to Adelina searching it for him. The inspector had made a barely imperceptible gesture with his hand when he mentioned Adelina’s name and thereafter his concentration was qualified with a slight frown, as if he couldn’t quite understand Massimo’s dialect.

When he was finished, Inspector Scarpa said, ‘Can we see the room?’

Massimo swallowed the last drops of the grappa; his ‘Sorry?’ was strangled slightly by its fire.

‘The room you checked. Where you heard the intruder.’

‘There was no intruder. Just a window that wasn’t locked properly.’

‘Can we see it?’

‘I don’t see why this is so—’

Inspector Scarpa held up his hand. In a soporific voice, he said: ‘Per favore, Signore Poerio. Please. Indulge us. We shan’t take up too much more of your precious time.’

The first sting of sarcasm. It hit home more acutely, coming from Inspector Scarpa’s affable mouth. They suspected him of something. Well, let them.

‘This way,’ he said, brusquely, and set off for the stairs without waiting for them to gather. On the second floor he slipped the bunch of keys, from his waistband and hunted for the relevant master. As he did so, the inspector ran his fingers along the slender knuckles of his opposing hand, eliciting cracks from the joints with little tweaks and twists. The sounds were unbearably loud in the corridor. Massimo dropped his keys. Nobody seemed to mind.

‘Adelina, you say?’ muttered the inspector, in a faraway voice. ‘Adelina?’

‘Yes. What of it?’

Another shrug. ‘It’s familiar. It’s familiar to me.’

Massimo opened the door and stood back to let the other four men into the room. In the mirror, before he could enter, he saw them looking down at a body. The crimson rug that it lay on had once been white. He reacted more quickly than he believed he could have, closing the door and locking it before the police had a chance to stop him. Fists pounded the door, yet still there was no rage in Scarpa’s voice. He sounded saddened. Perhaps he and his father had been closer than he let on. What was it pop had said? You don’t think your papa has his contacts?

Massimo hurried downstairs and pulled on his coat. His mind would not stand still long enough for him to formulate a plan. He should pack a suitcase. He should contact Adelina. Perhaps he should steal the police car.

Instead, he locked the hotel doors behind him and scurried west along the canal. Once past the Piazza San Marco he paused on the Calle Vallaresso, listening for sirens. In Harry’s Bar, he pushed past the lunchtime gathering and found a telephone. He dialled and let it ring for a full three minutes but his father did not answer. Then he tried Adelina’s number. An Englishman answered.

‘Adelina,’ Massimo said. ‘I need to speak to Adelina.’

‘Now capisco, amico.’ His Italian was frustratingly poor.

‘Adelina Gaggio. She lives there. Can you get her for me?’

‘Non. Nobody here by that name.’

Massimo had punched in the correct number. There was no doubt. ‘Please. You have to—’

‘Hey? You deaf? I said nobody here called Adelina. Testa di cazzo.’

Massimo slammed the receiver down. He could go there, to the street Adelina had mentioned, but without an address it could take hours to find her and even then she might not be in. She might be at work.

The glass company.

Excitedly, he dialled 12 and obtained the number from directory services. When he got through to the receptionist at Murano her contact list did not contain any reference to Adelina Gaggio.

‘Has she been with us long?’ the receptionist tried. ‘She might not be on our list if she joined us recently.’

‘Five years,’ Massimo said. A white, abject face stared at him from behind the bar. He was about to order a bellini from it when he realised it was his own, reflected in a mirror. ‘At least five years.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘She must—’

‘Very sorry, sir.’

What now? He struggled to keep himself from crying out. He had nobody to go to, other than the police, and they would not be patient with a man who had locked some of their colleagues in a room with a woman he had ostensibly murdered. But surely they would see that his panic was inspired by innocence. If he had killed somebody in his own hotel, would he not take pains to dispose of the body, rather than blithely stroll around Venice having left the main entrance unlocked?

How could Adelina have lied to him? The coolness of the woman as she came out of the room. How could it be that he had called her after twenty years only to find that he had invited a deranged killer onto the premises? The police would not believe him if he told them this, but it was all he had to offer.

He dialled 112 and was patched through. He tried to explain but every time he finished a sentence, the police operator would ask him to expand on every iota of information or ask him to spell the names he mentioned. Then the operator would fudge the spelling and get him to repeat it.

‘Adelina,’ the voice buzzed. ‘What’s that? A-D-A.?’

It dawned on him then, and he replaced the receiver gently. He glanced out of the front windows but how could he chance it? Then again, they would have any rear exit covered too. They would not expect him to leave by the front door.

He saw a group of suits standing to return to the office and he hurried after them, catching up with them, and purposefully barging into a middle-aged woman. He put on a big smile and apologized profusely as they filtered on to the street. He put his hand on her arm. There was wine in her. She was happy and forgiving. She covered his hand with her own and said it was perfectly all right. He asked her what she had had for lunch. He asked her the name of the perfume she was wearing. In this manner he passed along the street with his new friends. He didn’t look back until he was in sight of a safe alleyway he could move down. Only now were the police cars drawing up outside Harry’s Bar. He ran.

* * * *

This time his father did pick up the phone. But he heard a click, as soft as a pair of dentures nestling together, and he understood that what ought to have been the safest house of all was now the most dangerous.

‘I’m okay, pop,’ he said. ‘I’m all right.’

‘Massimo,’ his father said. ‘I’m sorry.’

Massimo killed the connection, hoping that even those few seconds had not been enough to expose him to the authorities a second time. He had been running for days, it seemed, but it could only have been a matter of hours. The sunlight was failing now. The light on the canals was turning the colour of overripe peaches. From the east, a wedge of flat, grey sky was closing upon Venice like the metal lid to a box of secrets. Freezing air ran before it, as though the weather too was trying to escape the city’s confused sprawl.

His thoughts turned to the inspector, who had seemed so understanding, yet had contained an edge as hard as the coming cold snap. The policeman’s past seemed as caught up in the Europa as his own. He wished he had had the time to ask his father about the incident that Scarpa had mentioned. He would have been a ten-year-old when the hotel had provided a torture chamber for some of its guests. He couldn’t remember a thing about it, but then he would have been shielded from such an appalling event. He thought of the way his father had said sorry and did not like what his mind came up with.

With no better task to turn to, Massimo caught a vaporetto to San Tom?and hurried the two hundred metres or so to the Campo dei Frari. The woman at the reception desk of the Archivio di Stato looked as impenetrable as a bad clam but she was sympathetic to his needs, even if the five-hour window for requesting materials had lapsed.

It didn’t take long. Once he had been shown how to access the microfiches and blow them up on the viewer, it was simply a matter of trawling through the front pages of Il Gazzettino from 1973. A photograph of the Europa’s exterior halted him before any of the words did. The headline took up much of the page but this had no impact on him once he had noticed the small photograph at the foot of the page, the torture victim who had died. He didn’t need to read the caption to know it was the woman he had entertained in his hotel the previous night.

* * * *

It was there, in black and white, and his brain had sucked it in even though he had averted his eyes, fearful of an image decades old. Yet he wasn’t happy. They could have got it wrong. They could have mixed up her picture. Theymust have got it wrong. The alternatives were too outlandish to swallow.

Everywhere he looked, there were gloves lying companionless. In the canal, sitting on windowsills, hunched on the ground near lamp-posts and benches. His panic mounted as he counted them. Nothing looked quite so dismal as a discarded glove. Did each one signify a terrible death in the city? Just because two bodies. three bodies had been found didn’t mean that more were lying in wait, stretching back to a time when the killer had set out on her spree.

Snow had begun to fall on the city. Already the narrow streets and uneven roofs were dusted with white while the canal absorbed the flakes and remained black. In some areas, where the light was poor, the canals escaped from view completely. They became plumbless moats that one could look into without hope of ever finding an end.

At Fondamente Nuove he persuaded a vaporetto pilot preparing to go home to take him to San Michele. The promise of ten thousand lire if he waited to bring him back was enough of a lure. On the short journey, Massimo watched the waters creaming at the bow while Venice fell away behind them. A series of lights came on around the Sacca della Misericordia, as though people had opened their windows to watch his journey.

The island loomed out of the dark. More and more, his father had made references to this place, with its pretty cypress trees. It would be expensive to find him a plot here, but it seemed, even through Leopoldo’s oblique language, that his heart was set upon it.

Even from here, in such unsociable weather, Massimo could smell the perfume of cut flowers on the graves. As the vaporetto drew up alongside, the white stone of the Convento di San Michele seemed lambent in the murk.

‘You know the cemetery is closed, Signor?’

‘Just wait for me,’ Massimo ordered, and then: ‘Do you have a torch?’

The pilot sat back and rummaged for cigarettes in his jacket pocket. ‘Yes. And I might allow you to hire it, if you ask me nice.’

It was not such a difficult cemetery to break into. Beyond the entry archway, the cloisters marked the beginning of the graveyard proper. But Massimo ignored it. Adelina might well have been buried here, but she was not here now. The island could not take bodies indefinitely. Having gorged on the dead for so long, it had reached bursting point. Now the bones of the resting were lifted every ten years or so for another final journey to an ossuary on the mainland, in order to make way for the next wave of cadavers. If Adelina’s name was to be found here, it would be on a plaque, not a headstone. Massimo trained the feeble torchlight on the neatly arranged plinths, readying himself for a long night’s hunt. At least they were easier to read than the weathered slabs.

The snow that had begun to fall on the heart of the city found its way out here after half an hour. Massimo blew on his hands to keep them warm and tried to ignore the impatient hoots from the vaporetto horn. The pilot was going nowhere; his pockets would remain empty if he did.

He covered the cemetery in a slow strafing movement, his hopes lifting with every plaque that did not bear her name. Perhaps, simply, he was going mad after all. When he did not find her here, he could return to the mainland and find it had returned to normal. All he needed was this restorative jaunt to pick clean the tired crevices of his mind.

But then, of course, of course: Adelina Gaggio, 1963–1973. The characters were chiselled in marble as cleanly as if they had been formed that very afternoon.

He found himself back at the water’s edge with no recollection of climbing over the monastery wall. The pilot had turned his back on him and was eyeing the wink of lights across the Venice coastline. It was a pale comfort to Massimo, but the longer he stared at his home, the more he wanted to be back there. He would turn himself in and try to help the police as best he could, even if it meant being charged for obstruction, or worse.

‘Start the engine, friend,’ he said, as he clambered on board. The pilot did not move. A white glove lay on one of the seats. Massimo struggled to piece together a sudden scattering of jigsaw pieces in his thoughts, but none of the pieces would fit: they seemed to be from different puzzles and he knew they could not match the complete picture he was striving for.

‘I don’t—’ he began, but his words were coated with too much breath, too much saliva to complete his sentence.

He touched the pilot and watched as he toppled back in his seat. Massimo recoiled as he saw the pilot grinning at him. But the grin was too low on his face, and too wide and wet.

The glove was nothing of the sort. Or rather, it could only have fitted the pilot’s hand. It had been skinned with a surgeon’s precision.

‘It doesn’t fit,’ she said. ‘None of them ever fit.’

She solidified at his side, as if structuring herself from the particles of dark that helped to make up what the night was. Almost immediately it was as if she had always been there.

‘Don’t worry, Mass,’ she whispered. ‘When you called me, why, it wasn’t you calling me at all. It was the hotel. It was the Europa, bringing me home. Our true resting place is never the final resting place, is it? It’s where we drop. That’s what takes our essence. The rug in the room you were so afraid of. That has the flavour of my final breath in its weave. It’s an always place. More real, I suppose, than our city, trapped in a yesterday none of us believe in any more. More real than I ever was.’

He was paralysed with fear and doubt.

He saw her hand come free of the glove, which she dropped over the side of the boat. What he thought at first to be tattoos of some kind, a weird graffiti that sprawled across her flesh, revealed itself to him as the veins and sinews of a severely damaged hand. The fingernails were warped with the aftershock of septicaemia. They looked as thick and twisted as ram’s horn.

‘They sliced my fingers as though they were bits of meat, Mass. They stuck splinters under my fingernails and set fire to my palm. They skinned me. For fun. For fun. And your father took money for it. Hush money. He pocketed his bundle of notes and at the centre of them was my pain, wrapped so very tightly.’

Massimo was weeping now. ‘I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘You were my friend. I didn’t know.’

She gently rubbed his neck with her grotesque claw. ‘You saw what was happening. But you forgot. I called to you. The men shouted at you to go away. And your father gave you money to forget. But you saw all right. Every cry for help since, haven’t you chosen to ignore it? Haven’t you always turned your back and thought, “Well, what can I do?” You’re like this city, Mass. You close your eyes to ugliness. And the blood that runs through you is as cold as the water in those canals.’

He had slumped against her. So exhausted was he, and so enchanted by the Venetian lights, that he failed to notice what her hand was doing until it was withdrawing.

She said, ‘Your hand, when you held mine, Mass — didn’t they fit together so perfectly?’

His flailing mind saw that her hand, with its five gnarled horns, was sheathed by a new glove. A really quite beautiful glove that waxed and waned in his eyes like the beat of water in the canals. It was a deep, glistening red. He was going to ask her what material produced such a fine colour, but he was too tired to speak. The last thing he saw before he became indivisible from the night was the flash of a cleaver as she pulled back the deep corners of her cloak. And even that was beautiful.


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