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Chapter 47

Marco had another mission tonight, besides that of dealing with the man who called himself Harrow. He'd had a suspicion for some time that there was something not quite right in the Ventuccio books; today that suspicion had become a certainty. And it was something that might well be very valuable to Caesare Aldanto. Maybe valuable enough to repay what Aldanto had spent for his sake.

When he locked the front door and listened for signs of life in the apartment beyond, he heard footsteps in the kitchen; shod footsteps with a certain lightness to them. Only one of the four living in this apartment wore shoes on a regular basis; so Caesare was home, and puttering about in the kitchen again. Well enough. Marco always preferred to accost him back there, it was a friendlier place—small, tiled in a cheerful terracotta, and always warm—than the sitting room.

He padded down the hall to the rear of the apartment and stood, quiet as you please, in the doorway of the kitchen, waiting for Caesare to notice him. He'd been trying to imitate the wallpaper ever since the disaster of this winter, doing his level best to become invisible whenever he was in the apartment. He'd evidently gotten quite successful at it, for Aldanto got halfway through his finocchio soup before he noticed Marco standing there, twisting his cap nervously in his hands.

"Marco, I almost didn't see you! Are you hungry? There's enough for you if—" He looked, then looked again, and frowned. "Have you got something on your mind?"

"It's—something I think you ought to know, Milord Caesare," Marco replied quietly, edging into the cone of light cast by the oil lamp above the table.

"Lord, boy, don't tell me you've been writing poetry again," Aldanto groaned, putting both the bread and the spoon down. "It's been a long day; I don't think I could handle another romantic crisis."

Marco blushed, but took heart at the ghost of good humor in Aldanto's eye. "No, Caesare, it's—there's something funny going on at Ventuccio."

Aldanto grimaced, and shoved his chair back a bit. "Marco, I'd be very much surprised if there wasn't 'something funny' going on there. Half this damn town smuggles."

"It isn't that—I mean, they tell us what not to see, if you catch my meaning." Marco bit his lip as he struggled to communicate what he had discovered in a way that Aldanto would understand. "This is something else; it's different. I'd swear on my life it's something that Ventuccio doesn't know is going on. It's something I sort of ran into in the books. I don't think anybody else would notice, because nobody else remembers these things like I do."

Now Caesare looked serious, and very much interested. He quirked one finger at Marco. "Come over here and sit where I can see you—"

Marco obeyed, pulling out the chair next to Aldanto's and plopping into it. Aldanto shoved his food aside and clasped his hands quietly on the table before him. Marco imitated his pose without really thinking about it.

Aldanto took a deep breath. "I've got good cause to know about that memory of yours; I don't know that I've ever seen it play tricks. So what is it that you've uncovered?"

"About twice a month," Marco replied, picking his words with care, "there are three or four fewer tax stamp receipts than there are items on the bill of lading inventory, which is when things go into the warehouse. But there's exactly the same number as on the warehousing inventory, when things go out. There's no discrepancy in the bill of lading and what's been paid for, and no calls for reimbursement from clients, so there's no reason for Ventuccio to go back-checking the books; so far as they figure, they've been paid in full, everything's okay. The way things go is this—the bill of lading gets checked off at the warehouse door when the ship gets unloaded. That's the first time they make a count. Then the Doge's official in charge of duties inspects the goods, stamps each thing when it comes back out again; that's the second time. That way nobody can swipe stuff from the warehouse with the tax stamp on it an' resell it."

"Huh." Aldanto looked very thoughtful. "So—somebody is bringing something in, paying Ventuccio for it, then 'losing' it before it gets duty paid on it."

Marco nodded. "Or before it gets inspected. That's what it looks like to me, milord."

"Do you know who—or even what?"

Marco nodded again. "Spices. Or so it claims to be. About three, four little spice casks at a time."

Aldanto chewed his lip. "Not much is it?" he said after a pause.

Marco's head bobbed. "Enough to make a real difference to somebody, I'd think. Spices aren't cheap. And maybe they just don't want those casks looked at."

Caesare brooded for a bit. "You've been doing your damnedest to act and think like a responsible adult, lately," he said, and Marco flushed painfully, lowering his eyes to his clasped hands. "I'm minded to see if you can take an adult task. It just might be worth what you cost me."

Marco looked up at him in a flare of sudden hope.

Caesare smiled sourly. "You'll be fishing in dangerous waters, Marco, I want you to know that. This might be something one of the younger Ventuccios is running without the knowledge of the Family—it's maybe something worth enough money that at least one of the parties involved is going to be willing to kill to protect it. You're going to have to be very, very cautious, and very, very smart."

"You want me to find out who's involved," Marco stated. "And you figure that I've gotten enough sense beat into me to take the risk and come out on top. If I keep my head."

Caesare nodded, and coughed a little self-consciously. "And you know why. I sell information, and I don't much care who I sell it to, or how many times I sell it. If you take care, you should be all right, but this will probably cost you your job, no matter what—"

Marco shrugged. "It was you got me the job in the first place," he pointed out. "Reckon I can scrounge another one somewhere. Maybe Maria can have a word with Milord Giaccomo; maybe Milord Giaccomo could use a pencil pusher, or knows someone who could—"

"Oh no, boy—" Aldanto got a real, unfeigned smile on his face. "No, you won't have to go hunting up another job; you're going to have enough to worry about, come summer. I had a word with Milady Dorma this afternoon—"

Marco blushed very hotly, knowing quite well that the "word" was likely to have been pillow talk.

"—and it seems she's talked her formidable older brother into giving you full Dorma sponsorship into the Accademia. Think you can handle that assignment, Milord Almost-A-Doctor Valdosta?"

Marco's jaw dropped, and he stared at Aldanto like a brain-sick fool. Never, never in all his wildest dreams, had he thought for a moment that Angelina Dorma would follow through on her half-promise once he'd revealed how he'd deceived her with his poetry, poems she'd thought came from Caesare Aldanto.

"Now I want you to listen to me, Marco Valdosta," Aldanto continued, staring so hard into Marco's eyes that it felt like he was trying to inscribe his words directly onto Marco's brain. "This is good sense, good advice I'm giving you. Put your dreams and idealism in your pocket for a minute and listen to me just as carefully as you can."

"Yes," Marco said, dazed.

"Dorma," Caesare said with force, "is going to expect you to become their House Physician; that's the price you will personally be paying for their gift. You're going to become fairly well-off; you'll have to be, you'll be an associate of the Family. Now I know you want to help out Maria's friends; that's very nice, it's very admirable—but you aren't going to be able to help the poor by being poor yourself. Be smart; take what comes your way and use it. Once in the Family you will be in a position to get that medical help to the canalers. Dorma seems to have a certain sense of noble responsibility." His tone was wry; cynical. "You can play on that if you play their game by their rules. And that's the way to get what you want in this world. So don't blow the chance you've been given; it's been my experience that you don't often get more than one."

Marco got his jaw back in place, swallowed, and nodded. "You're right, Caesare, I know you're right. The world's like that. And you've been—real good to me and Benito. Better than you had any reason to, and I can't say as I've done much to deserve it. I just wish—" He swallowed again. "—I just wish I could do something to give you a shot at what you've always wanted. You wouldn't screw it up."

Aldanto turned his eyes on him. Pulled a wry face and shook his head.

That strange look lasted only a second—then Aldanto was back to his old self.

"One more thing," he continued, pulling his interrupted dinner back towards him, and toying with the bread. "You've been granted two ways to prove you've learned your lessons and to pay me back for the trouble you caused. One—to find out what's going on at Ventuccio. Two—to become my channel into Dorma and the Accademia, to be my eyes and ears and keep me informed. You know what kind of information I'm likely to find interesting. So—"

"Don't blow it," Marco completed for him, still a little bemused by the turn in his fortunes.

Caesare actually chuckled. "Right," he said, resuming his meal.

"Caesare—would it be all right if I wrote to my grandfather and told him about going to the Accademia, do you think?" Marco asked hesitantly, as he shoved his chair away from the table and prepared to leave.

Aldanto considered the possible ramifications for a moment; Marco could almost see the thoughts behind the eyes. "I can't see where it could do any harm," he finally replied. "It might ease his mind about you. Go ahead."

Marco hesitated at the doorway. "Thank you," he said shyly, feeling that he was likely to be glowing with gratitude and happiness.

"For what?" Caesare asked, weary, but amused. "Oh, go on, Marco. If you're not hungry, go and read, or to bed. Get out of here—you keep reminding me of how old and corrupt I am."

Marco bobbed his head awkwardly and scooted back to the room he shared with Benito. The kid wasn't back from his mysterious errand with Maria—but Marco wasn't overly worried about him. This wasn't the first time he'd been out on a night-run with Maria. It was no doubt dangerous—but less so than roof-walking with his old mentor Claudia, the singer-thief. And possibly even less dangerous than what Marco was going to attempt.

So Marco undressed and climbed into bed—and for the first time in months, the dreams he dreamed were bright.

He thought out a plan of action the next morning on the way to work, grateful beyond words for the presence of Harrow on his backtrail so that he was able to spare a bit of his mind to make plans. The very first thing to do was to try to find out if this was an overall scam, or limited to one particular ship—which was what he thought likeliest, given the frequency.

He waved to Tonio on the canal below, who waved back; the man was much friendlier now that Marco was accepting "payment" for his doctoring. There was, thank God, less of that, now that the killing season of cold was over. Marco hadn't needed his cotte for weeks; the only bad part about the weather warming was that the canals were beginning to smell. Then would come summer; plague-time.

Well—that was to come; now was for bare feet on the walkways, and heads bared to the spring breeze, and a general feeling of cheer all around that another winter had been lived through. And the laxness that came with spring-born laziness just might make it possible for Marco to find out his information undetected.

He was early to work; scooting in through the peeling wooden doorway literally as soon as Niccolo Ventuccio unlocked it. The early morning sun wasn't yet high enough to penetrate into the lower levels, so he had to trot around the dusty, cluttered outer office, lighting all the clerk's lamps. That was usually Niccolo's job—but the Ventuccio cousin didn't look at all displeased at the junior clerk's enthusiasm. He gave Marco an approving nod and left the outer office, to take up his position at the runner's desk in the next office over.

Marco had reason for being so early; he was early enough to make an undisturbed, though hasty, check through the import lists by ship. He soon discovered that only one, the caique Jaila, a regular on the Black Sea run, ever carried the spice shipments that had the discrepancies. And only one captain, Alessandro Montello, had been at her helm since the discrepancies started.

This was quickly and quietly done. By the time anyone else came in, Marco was at his desk, copying the inventories from the galliot Albiona into the appropriate books. One or two of his fellow clerks jibed at him for working so hard; Marco looked up from his copying and grinned slightly. "What do you expect," he countered, "when a fellow is so ugly no girl will look at him? A fellow's got to do something to take his mind off—what he ain't getting."

Matteo Feruzzi rolled his dark eyes expressively as he settled onto his tall stool behind his slanted desk. "Father and Saints, Marco—if you ain't getting nothing it's because you ain't looking! Half them canaler girls is makin' big eyes at you—and the only reason the rest of them ain't is because their fathers would beat them black and blue if they did." Matteo snorted, scratching his curly head. "Ugly! Hell, I wisht I was as 'ugly' as you! Maybe Rosa wouldn't be giving me such a hard time!"

Marco blushed and ducked his head. He knew why the canaler girls were giving him the eye—not because he was desirable; because he was notorious. The boat-folk had been alerted when he'd gone "missing"—and all of them knew the outcome. He was just grateful that his fellow-workers didn't; they were landers, and canalers didn't spill canal-gossip to landers. And it seemed Marco was semi-adopted now—because the boat-folk hadn't told the landers about what a fool he'd been.

And for all of that, he still hadn't seen THE GIRL since that awful day. He'd looked—oh, how he'd looked!—but he'd not seen her once. His only possible aid, Maria, had been unable—or unwilling—to identify her. Marco sighed, recollecting the peculiar jolting his heart had taken when he'd seen her—she'd shaken Angelina Dorma clean out of his head, and herself in.

Well, he couldn't think about her now; he had a ticklish job ahead of him.

Matteo chuckled at Marco's blush, not knowing what had caused it. He was about to toss another jibe in his direction when Christophoro Ventuccio stalked through the outer office on the way to his inner sanctum, and all four clerkly heads bent quickly over their assignments.

For the next bit of information, Marco had to wait until the appropriate book came into his hands legitimately—though he'd agreed to take on the lengthy Albiona inventory with the notion of getting at that book in mind. This East-run round ship had sprung a leak in her hold and had as a consequence sustained a bit of spoilage to chalk off on the loss sheets. And that was the book Marco wanted in his hands; the "Spoilage, Refund, and Salvage" book—because if he was the captain covering tracks, that's where he'd have hidden those little spice casks.

And sure enough—there they were; and no one else ever seemed to have quite as much spoilage in such a specific area as Captain Alessandro Montello of the Jaila.

It looked legitimate; all properly logged, and with no loss on the Ventuccio ledgers. The only thing that the captain had forgotten—were the casks themselves.

The miniature barrels that spices were shipped in were unlike any other such containers in that they were not tarred to make them waterproof. Tar ruined the delicate flavor of the spices. They were very carefully waxed instead; caulked with hemp and coated with beeswax, inside and out.

This made them very valuable, no matter that they were so small. Cooks liked them to hold flour and sugar and salt. For that matter—a good many used the casks, with the wax coating burnished into their wood until it glowed, as workbaskets, and for a dozen other semi-ornamental purposes.

So even if the spice inside had somehow spoiled, through leakage, or rot, or insect contamination, the cask had a resale value. Yet none of those casks from the Jaila's inventory ever appeared on the "Salvage" side of the blotter.

And no one seemed to be interested in claiming back part of the value from the company that imported the spice for them. And that was very odd indeed.

And it was in the "Spoilage, Refund, and Salvage" book that Marco found out who had ordered and paid for the "spoiled" spices—and who had apparently been so careless, or generous, as to absorb the entire loss.

Casa Badoero. Spice merchants on Murano.

The next day, and the next, Marco kept strictly to legitimate business, waiting for an opportunity for him to get at the packets of tax-stamps.

The Venetian tax-stamps, placed on an article that had had its duty paid in full, were distributed by a small army of officials, Capi di Contrada, who had to report to the Doge and the Council of Ten. The stamps themselves were green paper seals, signed by the officiating capi, and each was wax-sealed and stamped twice with a unique number. They were intended to be split into two parts, each half bearing the same number. The first part was sealed with lead and wire to the taxed goods. The second part was torn off and returned, after counting at the Doge's palace, to the appropriate importer as evidence that he had paid his tax-duties to both the Republic of Venice and the Doge. The stamps came in from the Doge's palace in bundles and were kept in the cubbyholes of the tax desk, one hole for each day of the month. At the end of the month some luckless clerk got to check them against the warehousing inventory and file them away. Marco was too junior to be entrusted with such a task—but Matteo Feruzzi wasn't.

Sure enough, at month's end Matteo got stuck with the job. And Matteo never had lunch at his desk. Marco waited until lunchtime, when Matteo had gone off to lunch with Rosa and the office was deserted, to make his move.

He slid over to Matteo's desk, counted the little packets and purloined the one representing the twelfth of the month, the day the spice shipments from the Jaila had been collected by the Badoero representative. He thumbed through the little slips as quickly as he could, not daring to take the packet out of the office, hovering over in a corner next to the filthy glass window where the light was best. Finally he came to the Badoero slips, and got the name of the officer in charge puzzled out.

Capi Marco Tiepolo.


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