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Chapter 28

Petro Dorma studied the body lying on the kitchen table. The two chirurgeons were still working on the pitifully mangled thing, but it was obvious to Dorma that the shopkeeper was as good as a corpse. The amount of blood spilling over the table onto the stone-flagged floor was enough in itself to doom him—leaving aside the ghastly trail of blood that led from the shop where the merchant had been attacked.

Blood, and . . . other things. Horrid pieces of a half-dismembered human body. Whatever had done this had been as insensate in its violence as in the previous murders. This was now the fourth victim Dorma had examined—assuming that the street urchin killed the first night had been one of them, an assumption which Petro had made long since. All of them displayed the same characteristics. Bodies ripped apart, as if by some kind of huge animal, not simply stabbed or bludgeoned in the manner of a human murderer.

He turned away and walked out of the kitchen, taking care not to ruin his expensive shoes by stepping in the blood. Once in the room beyond, he paused and examined the area once again. He had done so already, but Dorma was meticulous by nature. That was one of the reasons his fellow senators had elected him to the Signori di Notte. The Lords of the Nightwatch who controlled the city's Schiopettieri were too powerful a group to be given into the hands of careless men. The more so if one of them, like Petro Dorma, was also a member of the Council of Ten—the shadowy semi-official body of the Senate which had almost unrestricted powers to investigate and suppress whatever they saw as threats to the security of the city.

Petro Dorma had the reputation for being judicious as well as intelligent, and not given to factionalism or fanaticism of any kind—exactly the qualities which the oligarchy that controlled the Venetian Republic looked for in its most powerful officials. The Republic had now lasted for a millennium, maintaining its prosperity and independence in the face of many challenges, by being cautious and methodical. Venetian diplomats were famous the world over—notorious, perhaps—for being the most skilled at their trade. The challenges which had faced the city over that thousand years had been internal as well as external. Venice's secret police were every bit as expert as the city's diplomats.

Petro Dorma never thought of himself as a "secret policeman," much less as the effective chief of the secret police. In truth, he never really thought of his status at all. He simply took it for granted. The male head of one of Venice's most prominent houses, a wealthy and highly respected merchant, very prominent in the Senate. And, also, the dominant member of the Lords of the Nightwatch and perhaps the most influential within the Council of Ten.

So it was. Petro Dorma's position in Venetian society was as much a matter of fluid custom and tradition as it was of any official title. He did not care much about titles; did not even think of them very often. He was Petro Dorma, and . . . so it was.

* * *

The room was plain, unadorned. The narrow and cramped shop of a simple dealer in linens, nothing more. As with most small merchants in Venice, the shop was simply the front room of a residence. The kitchen adjoined directly; the bedrooms and living quarters were upstairs, accessible only by a narrow staircase leading from the back of the kitchen.

Absolutely typical—and completely different from the locale of the previous murders. The first victim had been a very wealthy financier, slaughtered in his own bedroom on the upper floor of one of the city's premier mansions. The presumed second victim a street urchin, killed by the canalside. The third a poor prostitute, butchered in an alleyway where she plied her trade.

That fact alone was enough to tell Dorma that he was dealing with no typical fiend. In his experience—considerable experience—homicidal maniacs were obsessive in the way they selected their victims. As obsessive as they were in the manner with which they murdered.

This fiend, however, seemed not to care. Not, at least, with respect to the nature of his—or its—victims. And if the grotesquely brutal manner in which it killed the prey seemed obsessive, Dorma suspected that it was not. He suspected, more and more, that the fiend killed in this manner simply because it came naturally. Is a shark "obsessive" because it rends bodies into shreds with huge teeth? Or a lion with talons and fangs?

Petro did not believe, any longer, that he was dealing with a human murderer. As skeptical as he normally was whenever he dealt with charges of "witchcraft"—charges with which he had as much experience as he did with mundane crimes—Dorma had become convinced, in this case, that he really was facing something supernatural.

And that being true . . .

His thoughts wandered, for a moment, to the still-unsolved mystery of what had happened to Father Maggiore, the Servant of the Holy Trinity who had been burned alive months earlier at the ceremony in the Imperial embassy. As it happened, Dorma had been present himself on that occasion, and had personally witnessed the horrifying death of the monk. There had not been the slightest resemblance between the manner of that death and the ones which came after. But—

Who can say what form true demon-work can take? This might all be part of the same thing—whatever that "thing" might be.

He turned to the Schiopettieri captain standing respectfully nearby. A quick check of his excellent memory brought up the man's name.

"Ernesto, have there been any cases reported of people being burned to death? Say, over the past six months. Not murder cases—I would have heard of those—but things which simply seem like accidents?"

The captain frowned. "A few, Lord Dorma. But nothing which seemed more than misfortune."

Dorma pursed his lips. "Do me a service, if you would. Discreetly—discreetly, mind you—double-check all of those reports and tell me if anything strikes you amiss. For instance, a death with no eyewitnesses. Or a death whose cause seems unexplained. And while you're at it, now that I think upon the matter, check to see if there have been any kind of mysterious deaths. Whether by burning or—" His eyes glanced for a moment at the door to the kitchen. "Or by any means."

The captain nodded. Dorma was satisfied that the man would do a thorough job. Petro was a polite man by nature; but that innate temperament had been reinforced by experience. He had learned long ago that treating his subordinates with courtesy produced far better results than arrogance and browbeating.

That done, Dorma sighed. Nothing for it but to deal with the family, now. That was the aspect of his work he truly detested. The grisly parts of investigation he could handle with reasonable aplomb, controlling his squeamishness easily enough. But talking with grief-stricken relatives . . .

Then, he remembered. And felt a little flush of guilt at the relief that flooded him.

"The poor man was a widower, no?"

"Si, Lord Dorma. His wife died two years ago."

"No children?"

"No, sir. Well—not here, not alive. Two children once, apparently. But one seems to have died long ago, of the plague. And the other took ship and has not been seen for several years. A son, lives now somewhere in Constantinople, I've been told. Estranged from his father, according to rumor."

Petro nodded; and, again, felt some guilt. He really should not feel relief at the misfortunes of a poor family, simply because it removed an unpleasant task from his shoulders. For a moment, he wondered at the life of that family. One child dead of disease, another estranged and long gone. The mother dead, and now the father horribly murdered.

It was a melancholy thought. He could only hope that the couple had gotten along well enough in the years they had spent together at the end, childless and alone. But there was nothing he could do about it now. Or could have, at any time. Once again, Petro Dorma reminded himself of the sharp limits to his power, for all its outward trappings. And in so doing, although he never once considered the manner, reconfirmed the wisdom of Venice's Senate in selecting him for his post.

One of the chirurgeons emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a rag. Seeing Dorma, he simply shrugged, very wearily.

As expected. Dorma nodded, a nod deep enough to convey to the chirurgeon his respect for the man's efforts. Then, started for the doorway leading to the street outside.

"Take me to the priest now, Ernesto. If you would be so kind."

* * *

The priest was in the nave of his little church, located not much more than a block away. The elderly cleric was hunched on one of the pews, his head bowed, clutching a cross in his hands and trembling like a leaf. Clearly enough, reaction to the horrifying event which had transpired not long past was now setting in.

Dorma did not begrudge the man his uncontrolled shivering. From what he could determine, at the moment of crisis the priest had done all he could—and done so with a courage which would not have shamed any of the Church's great martyrs. The fact that, afterward, a humble parish priest had fallen into quiet hysteria was quite understandable. He was not, after all, a great condottiere like Carlo Sforza, accustomed to scenes of horrendous carnage and brutality.

Dorma stepped up to the priest, stooped, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Please, Father, can you tell me what happened?"

The priest raised his head and stared at Petro. His brown eyes were blurry with moisture.

"It's very difficult, Lord Dorma," he whispered shakily.

The fact that the priest knew the identity of his questioner did not surprise Dorma. Even though, to the best of his knowledge, he had never met the priest. In fact, he did not even think about it. Everybody in Venice knew who Petro Dorma was—his appearance and official position, at least, if not the full range of his powers and his membership on the Council of Ten.

"I'm sure it is, Father, and I apologize for disturbing you at such a moment. But I really must learn as much as I can about what happened."

The priest's nod was as shaky as his whispering voice. "Yes, yes, of course. It's just—I can't remember much. It was dark and—very confusing. And . . . and I was very frightened. Confused myself."

Dorma gave the shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You handled yourself as well as any man could have, under the circumstances. Just tell me what you can, Father."

Visibly trying to bring himself under control, the priest took several deep and slow breaths. Then:

"It was very late at night. Near dawn, in fact. I had been spending the night with Luigi—the linen merchant—sitting up with him and . . . talking, mostly. I was worried about him. Since the death of his wife, he has been very unhappy. I've been concerned that he might even be starting to think of suicide."

The priest paused for another deep breath. "We heard a noise. Downstairs, in the shop. Nothing loud. In fact, I didn't hear it at all. But Luigi had a shopkeeper's sensitivity to such things, of course. So he excused himself and went down the stairs, carrying a candle."

Again, the priest paused. For much longer, this time. Clearly, now that his tale was approaching the moment of horror, he was reluctant to continue.

Petro made no effort to hurry him along. He took advantage of the delay to review in his mind everything he had seen in the shop. And was struck again—as he had been at the scene of the financier's murder—at yet another contradictory fact. The same creature that slew in such an incredibly excessive manner was also quite capable of delicate work. The financier's mansion had been entered in so sure and subtle a manner that the Schiopettieri were still uncertain as to the murderer's exact route of entry. And if the entry to the linen seller's shop was obvious, the lock on the front door had been skillfully picked, not broken. Dorma suspected that the only reason the shopkeeper had heard anything was because he had been wide awake and, as often happened with elderly merchants, had become extraordinarily sensitive to the risk of burglary.

The priest was ready to continue. "Then I heard a scream," he rushed on. "Luigi's voice. I raced down the stairs. Through the kitchen. By the time I got to the front room . . ." He gasped, a moment. "It was horrible. Luigi was being held by—something. I couldn't see it clearly. He must have dropped the candle, so there was no light in the shop. Only what little light came through the open door from outside. Not much, because sunrise was—only still coming. Everything was dark, dark. Horrible."

"Was it a man?"

"I don't think so, Lord Dorma. If it was, it was a huge and misshapen one. But—no! It couldn't have been a man! I saw a tail—I swear! I remember that! And—then, when it must have heard me entering—I was probably shouting myself, I don't remember clearly—but I know I was holding up my cross and calling on the Virgin—"

The priest's voice was starting to rise hysterically. Dorma calmed him with gentle pressure on the shoulders, kneading the old cleric's thin bones and flesh with his hands. After a moment, the priest continued, his voice now dull and leaden.

"It flung poor Luigi at me and fled from the shop. I saw—something like suckers on its arm. Like an octopus, except it was more like a man's arm—huge one—than a tentacle. Then it was gone, racing out the door. I saw the tip of a tail. Like a reptile's, of some kind. No more." He shuddered. "Please, Lord Dorma. No more."

Dorma nodded, gave the priest's shoulders a last little reassuring squeeze, and straightened up. "Enough, Father. Get some rest."

On the way out of the church, he had a few words with the Schiopettieri captain. "See to it that a guard is maintained here at night, for the next few weeks. I don't expect there'll be any . . . trouble. The fiend doesn't seem to have returned to any of its other crimes. But—"

Ernesto nodded. "The priest is the only eyewitness. And the only one who interrupted the—whatever it is—before it finished. I'll see to it, Lord Dorma."

* * *

Later that day, after hearing Lord Dorma's report, the Metropolitan of Venice summoned the special envoy from the Grand Metropolitan of Rome to a private audience, in a secluded room in the cathedral.

Metropolitan Michael was becoming more than a little impatient with the envoy, so he did not preface his first words with the usual phrases of polite greeting.

"How much longer?" he demanded. "By the Saints, man, you should at least meet with Petro Dorma. He could be of great assistance to you."

The envoy shook his head firmly. Metropolitan Michael almost hissed with displeasure. The Grand Metropolitan's envoy did everything firmly, it seemed. He even managed to limp firmly, somehow.

"And why not?"

The envoy frowned. Firmly, of course. "I still do not know the identity of the evil, Your Eminence. The source of it, yes. It comes from Lithuania, like most of the world's demonry. But I still haven't determined the channels, or the conduits—not all of them, at least—nor, most important of all, its ultimate purpose. For all I know, Petro Dorma himself is entwined in these plots."

The Metropolitan threw up his hands with exasperation. "That's absurd! You might as well consider me a suspect!"

The Grand Metropolitan's envoy studied the Metropolitan calmly, saying nothing in response. As if he were examining him. After a moment, realizing the man was immovable, Michael sighed.

Even the man's eyebrows annoyed him. They, too, were firm. It, rather. Like a solid bar of rusty iron above implacable eyes.


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