Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 48

Benito was in as cheerful a mood as he'd ever been in his life. Maria was so pleased with the way he'd been handling himself that she had decided to take him further into her confidence.


Well . . . she'd been damned desperate. But it was a start. Lately, being liked and noticed by Maria had mysteriously become important to him.


She'd flagged him down with the little signal they'd worked out that meant she needed to talk to him somewhere where they weren't likely to be observed. He finished his current run in double-time; then, when there didn't seem to be anybody about, ducked under the second bridge at the Rio de San Martino. He eased his way along the ledge at water level.


And there was Maria, holding her gondola steady against the pull of the canal current.


"Ker-whick-a," Benito chirped, seeing the flash of her eyes as she looked in his direction. He skipped over to the side of the boat, keeping his balance on the ledge with careless ease. "What's it you need, Maria?"


"I got a problem," she said in a low, strained voice. "Giaccomo sent me to pick up a payment for him—only after I'd got it, something spooked the Schiopettieri. They're all over the damned water and they're stopping gondolas—"


"And if they find you with a bag of coin—" Benito didn't have to finish the sentence. "Huh. Caesare'd have a helluva time prying you away from the Doge's torturers. Pass it over, Maria. I got to go by Giaccomo's anyhow. They won't stop a runner in House livery, and even if they do, they won't touch Ventuccio money."


"If there's one lira missin'—"


Benito pouted, hurt. "C'mon, Maria, Ventuccio trusts me with cash!"


"I ain't as stupid as Ventuccio," Maria replied, but with no real force. "Here."


She pulled a flat packet out of her skirts, a packet that chinked and was surprisingly heavy. Benito raised a surprised eyebrow. Silver at the least—maybe gold. Something had gone amiss if Giaccomo had sent Maria out to make a pickup of this much coin in broad daylight.


He slipped the package inside his own shirt. "Keep heading up the canal," he suggested. "If it's you they're looking for, an' lookin' for you to head for Giaccomo's, that ought to throw 'em off the scent."


She snorted, and pushed off from the bank. "Tell me m'own job, landsman," she replied scornfully. "Just you tend to what I give you."


"Si, milady," Benito executed a mocking little bow, then danced back along the ledge to the first water-stair up to a walkway.


Behind him he heard Maria swear half-heartedly at him, and grinned.


* * *

Julio Destre had been trailing that canaler Maria for hours—just as the Dandelos had paid him to do. Then he saw her duck under the bridge—and a moment later, saw that bridge-brat Benito do the same.


He snickered to himself. Keeping tabs on the brat after he dropped out of the bridge-gangs and into "respectability" had been well worth his while, after all.


"Jewel" Destre had graduated from bridge-brat to street bravo in the two years since he and Benito had last tangled. He sported a cheap rapier (that he used like a club) and silk scarves and a constant sneer. There were dozens like Jewel on the walkways of Venice, and "work" enough to keep all of them in grappa and scarves, if you weren't too particular about who you worked for. Jewel certainly wasn't. The Casa Dandelo might derive its money from slave-trading but their ducats spent like anyone else's.


No one had ever beaten Jewel at anything—no one but bridge-brat Benito, that is. Benito had gotten to Jewel's girl, gotten her off the walkways and out of the gang, into the purview of his mentor Claudia.


Which wasn't what the brat had intended, but before you could say "surprise" Lola had gotten installed in an acting-group and acquired a very wealthy patron. And had no further need or desire for Jewel and his gang.


It still rankled. Jewel had never forgiven Benito for the way the little bastard had humiliated him. So this looked like a chance to pay Benito back and turn a little profit by way of a couple of Dandelo bonuses.


He watched Benito moving in the shadows under the bridge. He squinted, but couldn't make out anything more than a brief exchange with someone in the gondola—just a meeting of a pair of shadows within the shadows. Then Benito squirted out again and scrambled up the water-stairs and on over towards Cannaregio.


So. Maria had transferred whatever it was she'd picked up to the boy's hands—likely because of the Schiopettieri stirring on the water.


He grinned viciously with absolute satisfaction, and headed up the walkway on the brat's backtrail. In a few more moments, he'd have whatever it was Maria had been carrying, and he'd have the boy as well to sell to the Dandelos. Without balls. He was a good age for a trainee eunuch.


* * *

Harrow spotted the swarthy bullyboy trailing Benito with almost no effort whatsoever. The scar-faced low-life was so clumsy in his attempts to shadow the boy that Harrow snorted in contempt. This inept street brawler wouldn't have lasted five minutes as a Montagnard agent.


Once Harrow saw that the boy was on the Calle del Arco, Harrow had a fairly good notion where he was bound: Giaccomo's. That boat-woman must have passed something on to him.


The bravo evidently had a shrewd notion where Benito was going as well, since he increased his pace a trifle. It looked to Harrow like he was planning on ambushing the boy down in one of the sotoportego that Benito would use as a shortcut on his way to Giaccomo's. Harrow gave up trying to be inconspicuous—there wasn't anyone much in this decaying part of town anyway—and hastened his own steps.


He was almost too late. He hesitated a moment at the shadows next to the Gallina bridge, his eyes momentarily unable to adjust to the darkness of the sotoportego after the dazzle of sun in the piazza. Then he heard Benito shout in anger and defiance—and a second time, in pain.


He saw a bulkier shadow in the darkness of the overbuilt alley ahead of him, and that was all his trained body needed to respond with precision and accuracy.


A few heartbeats later the bully was unconscious at Harrow's feet, and Benito, huddled beyond, was peering up at the face of his rescuer with shock and stunned recognition.


Harrow gave him no chance to say a word. "Move, boy," he said gruffly. "And next time don't go down dark places without checking to see if someone's following."


The boy gulped, and scrambled to his feet, favoring his right arm. "Yessir!" he gasped, and scrambled down to his destination as if someone had set his tail on fire.


Harrow saw him get into a gondola twenty yards farther on. Good. He was safer on the water.


Harrow considered the body at his feet, thoughtfully prodding it with one toe. He rubbed his knuckles absently; he'd almost forgotten to pull that last punch; and if he hadn't the bravo wouldn't be breathing. He wasn't sure why he'd held back, now; he was mostly inclined to knife the bastard and push him into the canal—


But that wouldn't keep others of his type from dogging the boy's footsteps. On the other hand, if he made an example of this bravo, he might well save Benito and himself some future trouble.


* * *

Some half hour later, Jewel dragged himself, aching in every bone, from the cold, foul water of the Rio del Panada. He was lighter by his sword, dagger, purse, and cloak—at least the terrible, scarred madman had slapped him awake before tossing him in. He clung to the ledge that ran around the canal edge, clinging to the step of someone's water-door. He clung desperately to the sun-warmed, rotting wood, not thinking much past the moment. He hadn't swallowed any of the canal water; but he was bruised all over. The crazy man hadn't smashed bones. He'd shown he was perfectly capable of doing so. Jewel was just grateful to be alive enough to hurt and shiver.


Never, for the rest of his life, would Jewel forget that masklike face, those mad eyes. Or the carefully enunciated words, spoken in a voice like the croak of a marsh-bird.


"Touch that boy again," the mysterious attacker had warned, "and the next time you land in the canal we'll see how well you swim without knees and elbows."


* * *

"Katerina!"


Katerina looked up from the water, wary, startled. The last thing she wanted was to be recognized. It was that scamp, Benito. He had blood running out of his nose, and looked pale and frightened. Common sense said she should paddle away immediately. It was bad enough doing runs in daylight without extra trouble.


She stopped and he scrambled hastily into the boat. "Give me a lift a bit away from here. Please."


She sculled steadily as he attempted to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. "You going to bring trouble on me?"


"No. Trouble just got itself beaten up." Benito paused. "But—yes. You'd better let me off. Schiopettieri are doing checks of all vessels. You got anything . . ."


"We're inside the cordon," she said scornfully. "Don't you know anything? Now where were you going?"


"Giaccomo's," he said, gratefully.


 


Back | Next
Framed