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Chapter 59

"Message for you, Maria," said Jeppo laconically, as they unloaded the barrels at Giaccomo's. "That Spook came here for you. The boss don't like her here. Giaccomo's real nervous about that 'magic' crowd. She ain't a good contact to do business with."


"I owe her," said Maria shortly, pushing her hair back from a sweaty brow. "Ain't business. But I got stuff to give back to her. What's the message?"


"Said she'd be over at Zianetti's tonight."


"Uh huh." Maria sighed. "All the way over to Accademia tonight."


Jeppo grinned. Twitched a thumb at Benito. "You better teach the apprentice to row."


* * *

Zianetti's was never as noisy as Barducci's. There'd been trouble years ago about a tavern in the middle of the Accademia area disturbing students—who were of course the ones who made the disturbance, and not the ones who complained. So Zianetti's wasn't a music place. The food was good and relatively cheap. The drink slightly more expensive than elsewhere. This simple recipe kept those intent on serious drinking going elsewhere, while making sure there were always customers. The big common room had been split up into a succession of smaller rooms, so rowdy argument—about everything from politics to paints—was limited to the crew who could fit in the smaller salons. Benito found it too quiet for his taste.


He and Maria looked into several rooms before finding Kat in one of the smaller back ones.


With Marco.


Oh, great. One man's trouble is another man's delight. It made sense now. And by the way Marco looked at that snappy-mouthed smuggler-girl, this was real trouble. What on earth did Marco see in her, besides someone shrewish enough to give Maria words? He had to grant—now that he could see her coppery curly hair—that she was prettier than he remembered. And sort of aglow. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkling.


Wonder if she's stuck on Marco too? he thought. That'd be a change! Normally the girls who want Marco don't even get noticed by him, and he's all eyes for the ones who don't know he's alive.


"Hey, ciao, Kat," said Maria cheerfully, leaning over their table. "What brings you to a dump like this? Got no music. And the wine is expensive."


Benito flopped down next to them. Maria was pleased to see Kat. That was obvious. Great. Now he had a brother and Maria to get away from trouble. Caesare didn't know how right he'd been in telling Benito to be her minder.


Kat dimpled. "The company is good though. Listen—a word of warning. There's going to be a Schiopettieri sweep through the town tonight."


Benito shivered. If they hadn't gone early they'd have been caught up in it.


Maria sat down abruptly, scowling. "Bastardos! They're just trying to intimidate anyone from hitting the Dandelos." She stared at Kat, the scowl turning into a crease of puzzlement. "How do you know this stuff, Kat?"


Kat's face took on a guarded look. "Business. Let's just leave it out of this."


Benito got to his feet. "I'd better go over to Claudia and Valentina. I've got something to give back—uh, to deliver to them."


Maria nodded. "Si. I'll take you. Quicker. Look Kat, I've got a bundle I need to get to you."


"I'll be here on Thursday." She glanced shyly across at Marco.


He nodded.


Like that was it? thought Benito grimly. Have to break this up. "You'd better come with us, Marco. Hear Claudia's got some . . . doctor who wants to talk to you."


Marco stood up, reluctantly. "I suppose so." He smiled at Kat. "Thursday then."


She drained her wine, and stood up. "I might as well go too. Time I got home."


They walked out. As they got to the door there was something of a press of older men. Benito realized he recognized one of them. It was the short, red-haired man with the single line of dark eyebrow . . . who had seen them that first early morning outside the Imperial embassy—and then again when they'd recovered Kat's parcel. He was the Spaniard who had been staying with Ricardo Brunelli.


The redhead looked across the crowd . . . his eagle eyes taking them all in. The eyes narrowed and he began to push towards them.


"I've got to get out of here," said Kat, genuine fear in her voice.


But there was a real crowd at the door. A masque must have finished across at La Fenice, and this was the drink-after-the-show bunch. "Follow me." Benito dropped to his knees and began squirming between legs. He collected a few slaps on the rump, and by the squawks behind him, so did a few of the others. But they were out in a minute, all of them.


"It'll take more than a crowd to stop that man," said Marco. Sure enough the redhead was outside the inn, peering into the night. And, as luck would have it, he'd come out closer to the canal.


Benito didn't know this area as well as he did some the richer areas he'd cased along the Grand Canal. But knew it well enough. "We can just nip up that alley. If the tide is out enough we can walk along the ledge around to where the gondolas are moored."


The alley a few yards from the corner of Zianetti's stank just like what it was often used for. They moved down the dark curve of it quietly. And then, Maria—who happened to be in the lead—stopped them. Outlined by lights on the far side of the canal, at the mouth of the alley, were two people . . . kissing passionately.


"Merda," whispered Maria. "Him!"


Benito recognized the man too. It was that Milanese trade mission fellow he'd taken the message to at the German Hotel. The one he'd seen Caesare in the alley with afterward. The fellow had a very recognizable profile, even in bad light.


"There are some stairs back there," whispered Kat.


Benito thought he was good at managing without light, but she was obviously as good as a real cat. They went back a few yards and up the little walled staircase. There they crouched and waited. Sure enough, someone came past beneath them.


The person stopped a few yards further on. And then turned and walked far more quietly back.


"That's the figlio di una puttana who questioned me in the Casa Dandelo," hissed Maria.


"Who? Senor Lopez?" whispered Kat. "The man who saw us at Zianetti's and chased us? You mean it was you he was after?"


"No." whispered Maria. "I'm talking about the man kissing the woman. I've never seen that Lopez fellow in my life before. Who is he, anyway?"


Benito heard Kat take a deep breath, and whisper nervously. "He pretends he's just a visitor to Venice. But I think he's a witch-finder from the Grand Metropolitan in Rome, hunting Strega."


"I thought the Petrines believed in tolerance of other religions?" whispered Marco.


Kat snorted quietly. "Did he look tolerant?"


Benito had to agree. He didn't. Determined; powerful, yes. Tolerant, no.


"You don't know the other man? The one at the end of the alley? Or the woman?" Whispered Maria, before they got bogged down in theology.


"No," said Kat.


Benito actually bit his tongue to stop himself from saying "Francesco Aleri." He must talk to Caesare. He didn't have a clue who the woman was.


* * *

Kat bit her tongue. She had no idea who the man was. But the silhouette of Lucrezia Brunelli's hairdo was unmistakable.


And from the foot of the stairs someone rasped. "All right, Lorendana's kids. Aleri and the other guy have gone. You can go home."


Kat hadn't realized she'd been holding Marco's hand. She felt him relax. Whoever this was, he wasn't bad. "Thanks, Harrow," said Marco.


The relieving party said nothing, just walked away up the alley. So they all got up and left too. Two minutes later she was out on the Grand Canal. Why was Lopez after her? The thought was scary. She'd better prompt Giuseppe to not have her at home to any visiting Spaniards. And she'd take the long way home to avoid the sweep.


* * *

Maria worked her oar in silence for a while. Then she said "Marco, what did your Spook say?"


"Kat? She's not 'mine.' " Marco sounded almost wistful about it. "She's a wonderful girl, isn't she? And you heard what she said . . ."


Maria clicked her tongue in irritation. "Tch. Lord and Saints, Marco. Not Kat. That burned-face troll that follows you around! Ugliest guardian angel in the universe."


"Oh. Harrow." Marco shrugged. "He's just somebody who—knew our mother."


"And the other name?" asked Maria, intently. "Aleri?"


"Well," said Marco thoughtfully. "There was a high-up Montagnard in mother's time by that name. Francesco Aleri."


Benito wished like hell Marco's memory was less good. He really had to talk to Caesare about this before Maria went in like a bull in a china shop. Aleri would have to die. But Maria must be kept well clear. Best to change the subject before Marco remembered something else inconvenient. "So now you're crazy about Kat, Marco. What happened to the dream girl in the boat?"


Marco laughed happily. "Kat is the dream girl in the boat, Benito."


There was a long moment of silence from both Maria and Benito. Benito wound his jaw back up. Bossy-boots Kat, with too big a mouth, and a tongue that could scour brass?


"What!?" he croaked—in unison with Maria.


* * *

Late that night, there came a knock on Eneko's door. When the priest opened it onto the dimly lit Ghetto alley, a burly man with a badly scarred and burned face seized the Basque by the lapel of his cassock and forced his way inside. Then kicked the door shut behind him.


Eneko made no attempt to resist. The man's strength was enormous.


"Why are you following the boys?" the man rasped.


"I'm not," replied Eneko calmly.


"You've been watching them," snarled the scar-faced man. "I've seen you—you and the other two. And tonight, at Zianetti's—"


Eneko laughed softly. "I wasn't trying to talk to them. I wanted to talk to the girl they were with. The one they call 'Kat.' "


The man released the cassock and stepped back a pace. "Why?" he demanded.


"None of your concern," said Eneko, shaking his head. "But I will tell you that I mean her no harm. I simply wanted to pass a message on to another through her. Unfortunately, she left too quickly."


The man grunted. "The whore."


Eneko cocked his head. "That's not a term I use. But . . . if we're speaking of the same woman, I wonder how you know who she is."


The man took another pace back. "I'm charged with protecting the boys. I watch everything—everyone—they come into contact with."


"Charged by whom?" asked Eneko mildly.


The man shook his head. "None of your concern." He turned on his heel and left, not bothering to close the door.


Eneko followed, standing in the entrance. "Stop," he said softly. The man, now halfway down the alley, paused and looked over his shoulder.


"Should you ever have need," said Eneko, "I will help you with your task. Those boys are vitally important."


The man's eyes seemed to widen a bit. "Smart, for a priest." Then he was gone, moving more quickly and silently than Eneko would have imagined such a scarred lump of a man could possibly do.


When he turned back into his room and closed the door, he found Pierre and Diego already there. The door to the adjoining cells was open. Pierre held a cudgel in his hand.


Seeing the cudgel, Eneko clucked. "We are not a militant order, Pierre."


"Define your terms," came the instant retort. "And remember that I'm a Savoyard peasant, not a theologian."


 


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Framed