Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 58

It was dark, and it was dangerous, and Benito was so happy he could hardly stand himself. If it hadn't been too risky to chance any sound, he'd have been singing. Or humming, anyway.


He was upside-down, hanging by his knees from one of the dozens of timbers supporting Casa Dandelo's leaky, half-rotten roof—the kind of position he'd held so many times in the past that he was almost as comfortable upside-down as he was on his feet. Hidden by the darkness, three stories beneath him the canal-water lapped quietly against the foundations of Casa Dandelo, but there was not much else in the way of sound. There wasn't even so much as a breeze to make the timbers of the building sway and creak, which made it all the more imperative that he keep silent.


He was sawing most of the way through the bolts that held the metal grilles and bars protecting the slave-quarters' upper-story windows. Most of the way, not all; just enough so that someone who was determined on a breakout had only to give a good hard pull to break the grilles free—but from inside or outside, to everything but a close inspection, all was secure. To really hurt the slavers you had to hit them where it counted most—the pocket. That meant slave breakouts . . . for which Benito was now cheerfully preparing the way.


He grinned to himself, working the cable saw carefully, slowly, back and forth on the bolt currently under his fingers. Valentina had threatened his life if he lost that very expensive saw—but had been quite willing to lend Benito the tiny thief's tool when she heard whose place it was going to be used on. Little more than a bit of wire with two handles, it would cut through damn near any metal, and was making short work of Casa Dandelo's soft iron bolts.


It was as black as the inside of a cat tonight, no moon, nary a star showing through the clouds of a warm, overcast spring night. No matter. Benito hadn't ever needed to see, to know what he was about. Valentina and Claudia had taught him to work blind. It was best working blind in some ways: the darkest nights were a thief's best friends.


One: case the place till you know it like the inside of your mouth. Two: take it slow. Three: go by feel and know by feel.


Those were Claudia's rules for nightwork. She might have added the one Benito was abiding by tonight.


Four: have you a lookout.


And Lord and Saints—what a lookout!


Down there somewhere on the canal below him, hidden in the darkest shadows and straining eyes and ears against the thick blackness, was no less a personage than Maria Garavelli—and a more unlikely banditry pairing than himself and Maria was hard to imagine.


* * *

The greater wonder was that Maria had come to him to ask for his help.


Runners had lunch after the rest of Venice; not the least because runners were often sent to fetch lunches and drink for their employers. It made for a long morning and a rumbling stomach, but Benito had gotten used to it. Besides, it meant that the rest of the afternoon until knock-off time was that much shorter.


And you could pick up some nice stuff at half-price from vendors anxious to unload what was left, now that the noontime crowd was fed. So this afternoon Benito had been pleasing his palate with several slabs of castagnaccio that were only slightly old. He was pleasing his hide with warm spring sunshine, and his mind was at ease with the fact that his behind was firmly planted on the upper steps of the Casa Ventuccio. He had a good view of the canal from there, and no one hassled a kid in Ventuccio-livery there—so long as he kept his butt near enough to the edge of the steps that he didn't impede traffic.


He had been dangling his feet over the edge, and had both arms draped over the lower bar of the guard rail, watching the traffic pass in the half-light below him. He was rather pleased that he knew a good many of those passing by name—even if those good folk would hardly appreciate the "honor." He watched, feeling his back and shoulders ache in sympathy, as Gianni and Tomaso labored against the current, poling what looked to be a nice little cargo of barrels of some kind up the canal. He noted one of the younger Baldasini boys go by, riding in one of the family boats, and old man Mario in a hire-boat going in the opposite direction. And he saw a double handful of canalers he recognized besides Gianni, and rather wished he had his brother's incredible memory. There might be valuable information there if he only could remember who he saw going where. The one real pity about having his lunch break late, was that he and Marco couldn't sit together.


He hadn't had a decent talk with Marco since Maria's return from captivity. Marco had gotten back from looking for Luciano Marina even later than Caesare had returned from his visit to Casa Capuletti. Marco, at least, had been sober. Benito sighed. Marco was walking around with that moonstruck look on his face again. Doubtless yet another girl. Benito couldn't understand it. Girls were . . . interesting. But not this walk-into-walls-and-die-for-you stuff. And what did he mean by that "One person's trouble is another person's delight"? Benito sighed again. More trouble for Benito and the rest of them no doubt. But right now the sun was warm and the chestnut-flour castagnaccio was superb.


He was halfway through his lunch when he saw Maria tie up down below. So far as he knew she had no business with Casa Ventuccio today, so he wasn't much surprised when she strolled up the steps and planted herself beside him; feet dangling, like his, over the edge, the rest of her hugging the bottom railing.


"Bite?" he said, offering her a piece of castagnaccio to be sociable. It didn't pay to be less than polite to Maria at any time—but most especially Benito walked softly these days. What with her being short-fused and in a muddle over Caesare Aldanto, and them being short of cash, and Benito's brother more than half the cause of both—and now this Dandelo thing—


"No," she said shortly. "I ate."


He shrugged. She'd say her say when she was ready; he wasn't about to push her.


He kept watch on her out the corner of his eye all the same. After living these months with Caesare Aldanto, Benito knew Maria Garavelli about as well as he knew anybody—and the storm warnings were definitely out. The sleeves of her dark blue dress were pushed up over her elbows, which only happened when she was nervy; her battered hat was pulled down low on her forehead, like she was trying to keep her eyes from being read. But Benito was close enough for a good view, and he could see that her square jaw was tensed, her dark eyes gone darker with brooding, her broad shoulders hunched, her fists clenching and unclenching—storm-warnings for sure.


Well, she and Caesare had "celebrated" her return from captivity in the Casa Dandelo two days ago with an almighty fight. Things definitely hadn't been right between the two of them lately. He should talk it through with Marco, but he'd barely seen Marco since the night Maria had gotten back.


"You've got the sneak thief's ways, Benito Valdosta," she said at last, softly, so softly her voice hardly carried to Benito.


Benito tensed up himself; in all of Venice only Alberto Ventuccio, Maria Garavelli, and Caesare Aldanto knew his real name, his and Marco's. Only they knew that Marco Felluci and Benito Oro were real brothers; were Marco and Benito of the Case Vecchie, the last of the longi family Valdosta. Only those three knew that the boys had fled from assassins who had killed their mother, and were still very probably under death sentence from Duke Visconti for the things their dead mother Lorendana might have told them and the names and faces they knew. Even the Ventuccio cousins didn't know.


For Maria Garavelli to be using his real name—this was serious.


"I ain't no sneak thief," he said shortly. "'Less Caesare wants a job done. It don't pay, 'cept to buy a piece of rope at nubbing cheat. Unless you're real good." He thought of Valentina, of Claudia, their skills and bravado, with raw envy. "I'm good; I ain't that good."


"What if I wanted you to turn sneak thief for a bit . . . for me?" came the unexpected question.


"Huh? For you?" he responded, turning to stare at her, his jaw slack with surprise.


She moved her head slowly to meet his astonished gaze. "Casa Dandelo," she said tersely.


He nodded, understanding her then. Somebody—Montagnards, likely—had kidnapped the redoubtable Maria Garavelli; had kidnapped her, and truly, truly, frightened her, something Benito had never thought possible. She said that nothing else had happened. Benito believed her, but most of the canalers didn't. They assumed Maria had been molested, maybe raped, and was lying about it out of shame.


That assumption was fueling the seething anger which was steadily building among the canalers and the Arsenalotti. Most of Venice's working poor had no love for the Dandelos at the best of times. Now that the Dandelos had crossed the line by messing with a well-known citizen of the Republic . . . a poor one, true, but a canaler, not a vagrant . . .


There was going to be an explosion soon, Benito thought. And a lot bigger one than the initial rash of attacks on Dandelo retainers who had been unlucky enough to be caught in the open when the news of Maria's escape—and the identity of her captors—had raced through the city. Four Dandelo hangers-on, one of them a distant relation of the family, had been stabbed or beaten to death in two separate incidents within hours. After that, all the Dandelos and their retainers had hastily retreated to their fortresslike building to wait out the storm.


The canalers and Arsenalotti were now waiting to see what measures, if any, the authorities would take against the Dandelos for their flagrant transgression of the unspoken "rules." So far, however, all the signs were that the Signori di Notte intended to remain carefully blind to what the Dandelos had been up to. In which case . . . all hell was going to break loose, soon enough.


Maria herself, it seemed, had already waited long enough. She intended to start her own vendetta—now!—and she'd come to Benito first. He felt a strange, great thrill at that fact.


"Si!" Benito replied. He owed them too. Maria gave him hell sometimes, but he was fond of her. Kind of like a sister, except sometimes she made him think unsisterly things. Ever since he'd seen her in those Case Vecchie clothes . . . he'd realized she was beautiful. Not that she was interested in anyone but Caesare, of course. "Si, Maria, you got me. You say, how and when."


The hunched shoulders relaxed a bit; she favored him with a ghost of a smile. "Knew you wasn't all bad," she said, grabbing the railing and pulling herself to her feet.


* * *

Benito wasn't all fool, either; he knew where his primary loyalty lay—with the man he'd privately chosen as his model and mentor, Caesare Aldanto. When Benito had arrived at Caesare's Castello apartment—which they all called "home" now—that afternoon, he'd first checked to make sure that Marco and Maria weren't home. Caesare was sitting reading. Benito felt no qualms about disturbing him with a terse report of Maria's attempt to recruit him.


The warm, comfortable sitting room seemed to turn cold as Aldanto's expression chilled. Aldanto's hands tightened a little on the sheaf of papers he was holding; his blue eyes went cloudy. Benito knew him now, too—knew by those slight signs that Aldanto was not happy with this little piece of news.


Benito clasped his hands in front of him and tried to look older than his fifteen years—older, and capable; capable enough to run with Maria. Maybe even to ride herd a little on Maria.


"Caesare—" he offered, then before Aldanto could speak to forbid him to help, "you know I'm not bad at roof-walking. You've seen me; you've set me jobs yourself. You know if I tell her 'no' she's just going to go it alone. Let me help, huh? Happens I can keep her out of real bad trouble. Happens if she's got me along, she maybe won't go looking for bad trouble so damn hard, figuring she's got to keep me out of it."


A good hit, that last; Maria was likely to feel at least a little bit responsible for Benito, if only because she was maybe two years older than him. That was the line Valentina had taken when he was along on one of her jobs, and she was one of the least responsible people Benito knew. Aldanto tilted his head to the side and looked thoughtful when Benito had finished, then put the papers down on the couch to one side of him, crossing his arms over his chest and tapping his lips with one long, aristocratic finger. "How about if I tell you to keep her out of trouble?" he asked finally.


Benito winced. That was nothing less than an impossibility, as Aldanto should very well know. "Ask me to fly. I've got a better chance."


Aldanto managed a quirk of the right corner of his mouth. "I'm afraid you're probably right. I should know better than to ask you to do something no one else can." He stared at Benito, then stared though him; thinking, and thinking hard. "All right; go ahead and give her a hand. See if you can't keep her from being totally suicidal."


Benito grinned and shrugged; so far as he could see, both he and Maria had won. He'd told Caesare—and he hadn't been forbidden to help or ordered to hinder. What little conscience he had was clear, and he was free to indulge in the kind of hell-raising he adored with Aldanto's tacit approval—


He prepared to turn and scoot down the hall to vanish into the downstairs bedroom he shared with Marco, when Aldanto stopped him with a lifted finger.


"But—" he said, with the tone that told Benito that disobedience would cost more than Benito would ever want to pay, "I expect you to keep me informed. Completely informed. Chapter and verse on what she's doing, and when, and how. And I want it in advance; and well in advance."


Benito stifled a sigh of disappointment.


"Si, milord," he agreed, hoping his reluctance didn't show too much. Because he knew what that meant. Maybe he wasn't going to have to try to stop Maria—but now he was honor-bound to keep her from trying to do the kind of things he'd like to pull. And what that meant, mostly, was keeping things quiet. Damn. "Quiet" wasn't half the fun.


* * *

Hey, this one didn't work out too bad, Benito thought, inching along the rough beam to the opposite corner of the grille and ignoring the splinter he got in a palm. Pain was for later. He attacked the next bolt.


Quiet—and nothing to connect me or Maria to the mess when all hell breaks loose. Caesare was happy enough about that. We're here earlier than planned but I told him every detail. And we've been doing well tonight; this is two more windows than I'd figured likely to cut when we planned this.


He had gotten this bolt nearly sawed through when a feral cat yowled from the invisible canal below him. She did a good cat-yowl. . . . It was somewhere to his right, which meant upstream.


Maria had spotted possible trouble.


Benito coiled up the cable saw and stowed it safely away in the buttoned pocket of his breeches, making damn sure the button was fastened and the saw in there. Then he inched, still hanging upside-down, back along the support beam until he met the cross-brace. He switched to it, using both hands and legs, taking it slowly and carefully to avoid making the wood creak, until he reached the end that met the roof, where the gutter was. The drainpipes and gutterwork on Casa Dandelo Isle were sound, even if most of the rest of the building wasn't; Dandelo got most of its potable water from rain.


Might ask Marco if there's something we could drop into the roof-tank, give them all the heaves and trots. Benito grinned again in the darkness—he had a fair notion Maria would like that idea real well. It was another quiet one—which would please Caesare. And it was an idea that would cost the Dandelo's money, real hard-cash money—cash for the doctors, for clean water when they figured out what the cause was, and for somebody to come clean and purge the system. That pleased Benito—and there was always a chance that the fear of plague or sickness in Casa Dandelo would flush some of the Montagnard agents out of their safe-house and maybe into the hands of the Schiopettieri. Hmm—another thought; if they had any human cargo in there, they might have to find another place for the captives. And that would give the slaves a chance to escape. That pleased Benito even more; he didn't have much in the way of moral scruples, but he was flat against slaving.


He continued to think about this new plan as he grabbed the edge of the gutter and hauled himself up onto the roof with its aid. The metal groaned a little, and he froze, but nothing further untoward happened. He continued easing himself up over the edge. He crawled from that point along the roof-edge, feeling his way and moving slowly to avoid any more noise, until he found the outside corner of the roof and the place where the gutter met the drainpipe. He stopped, taking stock with his ears, and nodded after a bit. The echoes from the water lapping against the building were right for where he thought he was; and he thought he could make out the sable pit of the Grand Canal, a blacker blot in the night-shadows ahead of him. He should be right on the point of Casa Dandelo where the building fronted Rio della Crea—and Maria should be right below him, holding her gondola steady against the pull of the current.


"Woo ooo," he called softly, and was rewarded with a yowl almost directly below. He eased himself over the edge of the roof, dangling blindly for a little until he got his legs around the pipe, then shinnied silently down the drainpipe. It went in through the wall to a tank within, but in a full stretch he could reach the narrow ledge that ran around the edge of the islet.


"Woo ooo," he chirped, struggling to hold his balance on the cold, slippery, slimy ledge, as he positioned himself with his back to the wall. Come high tide, this would be underwater, and it tended to collect unsavory stuff. He was having to hold to the drainpipe above him with both hands; the ledge was barely two inches wide.


Meeeow, came the answer, and the soft bump of a boat-nose against the ledge beside him, black blot against the reflective water. Benito squirmed about like a real cat, grabbed the gondola's nose with both hands and leapfrogged aboard her before Maria had a chance to say a word.


He felt his way down off the nose, worked his way past the barrels occupying the slats of the bottom, and sat down on the worn boards of foredeck, knowing she knew he'd gotten aboard safely by the gondola's movement. He heard and felt her heave with the oar, moving the gondola into the current of the Grand Canal. There was a tense moment as they passed the bulk of the residential side of Casa Dandelo, but it stayed quiet, with hardly a light showing anywhere in the building. Then they were past, down into Cannaregio, where Maria had legitimate—well, sort of—business. A barrel delivery from Giaccomo, and not all the barrels were empty. This wasn't the first night she'd had him along on the skip to help—nor would it be the last, hoped Benito. Maria's company grew on you, away from Caesare.


Make it look like business as usual, and that's what everybody is going to figure, was another of Valentina's maxims.


When they finished this delivery, they'd head home by way of Barducci's. Benito would pass Valentina her little tool under cover of buying her a drink, and that would be her signal to spread the word tonight along certain channels that Casa Dandelo was no longer as impregnable as the Dandelos thought.


Benito grinned yet again as he picked the splinter from his climb out of his palm with his teeth. Figure as many as two of the slaves hit them—and they'll fall out. With a small pry bar, anyone could pry them loose. Lord and Saints—I damn sure wouldn't want to be the fellow responsible for those grilles! he thought, smugly.


He heard Maria start to whistle through her teeth, and guessed she was thinking the same thing.


Well, that was a little more off the tot-board for what he and Marco owed to Maria and Caesare. A good night's work, profitable for everybody—except Casa Dandelo.


 


Back | Next
Framed