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By Dan T. Alighieri
Michael O'Mara Books LimitedCopyright © 2013 Michael O'Mara Books Limited
All rights reserved.
What the hell? thought Blandon.
He was looking out across a river of blood at a pile of corpses that were writhing in unspeakable pain, clawing and gnashing at each other. They looked over at him with pleading eyes, their loud shrieks of agony echoing across the churning blood.
'Are you all right?' asked Blandon. 'Do you need me to fetch anyone?'
The corpses only screamed louder in reply.
The air around him was thick with the oppressive stench of decay, death and desperation. It smelt like someone had shit their pants.
'Where am I?' cried Blandon. 'What do you want?'
The bodies multiplied, writhing around and screaming. There were hundreds of them, thousands, millions.
'Oh God!' shouted Blandon. He'd had a phobia of mounds of writhing, smelly bodies ever since he'd visited a rock festival as a student.
Blandon woke up.
That's right, we started with a dream sequence. Deal with it.CHAPTER 2
What the hell? thought Blandon.
He was in a bed in a bright room. The air was heavy with the smell of hospital medicine and the sound of hospital machines.
Where am I? he wondered.
He turned to the right and saw an IV drip sticking out of his arm.
I'm in a hospital, he thought. What the hell?
Blandon's head stung with impossible pain. He lifted his hand to the back of his thick brown mullet and stuck his finger into a large hole. It poked right through to his skull.
A bullet hole, he thought. I've been shot.
Why have I been shot?
Who would want to shoot me?
I'm one of the best-loved people in the world.
Blandon stared out of the window at the dark night and tried to piece together what had happened. He'd been invited to Florence to deliver a lecture to thousands of eager puzzleology students at the university. He was the world's greatest puzzleologist and had been described as 'the cleverest person in the world' by Brainy Tweed-Clad Academic Monthly.
He'd been looking forward to delivering his lecture, and was going to cover really hard topics like cryptic crosswords, palindromes and expert-level Tetris. But he'd never even reached the lecture hall.
Blandon thought back to earlier in the day. He'd flown into Florence airport in a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet, which had a height of 7.06 metres and a length of 20.23 metres. He'd listened to the unmistakable sound of the Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engines as he'd studied his lecture notes.
The jet had taxied to a private terminal and Blandon had been greeted by a sleek limousine and climbed into the luxurious interior. It had been just like any other foreign visit for an academic. What had gone wrong?
They'd driven into the centre of Florence, where he'd been scheduled to meet Professor Companion, the head of the Florence University Puzzleology Faculty. And then ... what?
What had happened?
Blandon looked at his reflection in the hospital window. He was handsome and charming, in a way that reminded everyone of Harrison Ford. Or Tom Hanks, if Harrison Ford doesn't want to do it.
He was wearing his regular tweed jacket, black turtleneck sweater, khaki trousers and loafers. It was what all the cleverest professors and thriller authors wore.
Blandon heard footsteps in the corridor.
At last, he thought. Someone's going to tell me what's going on.
The door swung open and an angry Italian policeman stepped inside.
What the hell? thought Blandon.CHAPTER 3
'What happened last night?' asked Blandon.
'I was hoping you might be able to tell me,' said the policeman. He had wide angry nostrils, like those of an enraged bull. His angry hair was slicked back like that of an annoyed otter. His small angry eyes were like those of a disgruntled ferret. 'Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Inspector Fascist of the Florence Police Force.'
'I'm Robert Blandon,' said Robert Blandon.
'Like I don't already know,' spat Fascist. 'You're the most famous puzzleologist in the world. We've had to spend all night turning away starstruck fans who are desperate to get their copies of Crosswords and the Sacred Feminine signed.'
Blandon chuckled to himself. His last book, which had proved that the descendants of Christ were still alive and setting the clues for cryptic crosswords in broadsheet newspapers, had caused quite a stir. He hadn't meant it to. He was simply stating the facts. Not boring facts based on evidence and research like those other stuffy professors used, but more exciting ones that he thought up himself.
'So why don't you take me through what you do remember?' sneered Fascist, dripping sarcasm all over the hospital floor. 'If it's not too much trouble, that is.'
'I was on my way to meet Professor Companion,' said Blandon. He trawled his sharp mind for more details, but all he dredged up were the writhing bodies from his dream. 'That's all I got.'
'How very convenient,' asserted Fascist angrily.
'What do you mean?' asked Blandon, his heart pumping faster.
'Professor Companion is dead,' said Fascist. 'And you were the last person to meet him.'
'What the hell?' asked Blandon.CHAPTER 4
'Dead?' asked Blandon. 'But he can't be. I spoke to him just yesterday.'
Blandon couldn't believe Professor Companion was dead. He'd been in charge of one of the most renowned puzzleology faculties in Europe. He'd been a popular figure at home and abroad.
And now he was dead.
'But how?' asked Blandon.
Fascist sighed and tossed a gory Polaroid at Blandon. At first Blandon thought he was looking at a slaughterhouse bin, but as he peered closer he saw the naked form of an old dead man. He had been shot in the heart then his torso had been slit from groin to neck. The dead old man was holding the flaps of skin back to reveal his own sticky entrails.
'Bring anything back?' asked Fascist.
'Nothing,' said Blandon.
Except perhaps my lunch, he chuckled to himself.
'Look at the words on the floor,' said Fascist.
Blandon peered at the photo. He could just about make out some words scrawled in blood on the stone piazza next to the body.
'As he was dying from his gunshot wound, Companion slit his own stomach open and used his blood to write these words on the ground. Do they mean anything to you?'
Blandon peered at the words. They read:
My first is in peaceable but not in place
My second is in mortal but not in marmot
My third is in irrigate but not in tiger
My fourth is in crooner but not in coercer
My fifth is in supersede but not in purse
My sixth is in vegetation but not in negative
My seventh is in nought but not in ought
'What does it mean?' asked Fascist.
'I need time,' said Blandon. 'This is a really hard puzzle.'
'Well you'd better get a move on,' said Fascist. 'Because here's what I'm thinking. You met up with the professor last night and got into some argument about puzzles or symbols or some such intellectual nonsense. Things turned ugly. He shot you in the head and you got revenge by slitting him open and pulling his entrails out.'
'You've got it all wrong,' pleaded Blandon, his head quite literally spinning around.
Blandon tried again to remember but nothing came back to him.
'What's going on in here?' purred a woman's voice. 'I don't remember giving anyone permission to see my patient.'
A woman wearing blue scrubs strode in. She had long blonde hair and a strong, delicate gait like a medal-winning athlete who has retired to become a florist. Although she was only in her early twenties, Blandon could tell from her profound brown eyes that she'd experienced an unusual amount of pain for someone her age. He could tell from the small beauty spot above her lips that she had a keen, inquisitive mind. And he could tell from her left earlobe that she had a warm heart beneath her cold exterior.
'I need to talk to Mr Blandon,' said Fascist. 'It's a matter of vital importance.'
'It will have to wait,' said the doctor. 'Mr Blandon will be able to answer your questions when he's recovered.'
Fascist snorted like an angry gazelle as the lady doctor ushered him out of the room.
'Thanks,' said Blandon. 'I really appreciate you helping me out like this, doctor.'
'I'm not a doctor,' said the woman. She ripped her blue scrubs off to reveal a tweed jacket, black turtleneck sweater, khaki pants and loafers. 'I'm a puzzleologist.'
'What the hell?' asked Blandon.CHAPTER 6
On the street outside the hospital, a lithe woman with fierce animal determination in her eyes leapt from her BMW S1000RR bike, which had a 999cc inline-4 engine, had a top speed of 305 km/h (190 mph) and could do 0-100 km/h in 3.1 seconds.
The woman's sharp, unforgiving green eyes smouldered with animal conviction. She ran a hand through her cropped blonde hair and smoothed down her leather riding suit.
She strode towards the hospital with human purpose. Tonight she'd made a mistake.
Now she was going to put it right.
She was going to aim her 9mm Glock 17 Gen 4 at Robert Blandon's mullety head once again.
And this time he wouldn't survive.CHAPTER 7
'Allow me to introduce myself,' said the woman. 'I'm Florence. Florence Companion.'
Of course, thought Blandon. He'd recognized those deep profound eyes. They were the eyes of Professor Companion. Her father.
'I'm Robert Blandon,' said Blandon. 'I'm a puzzleologist too.'
'I know,' said Florence. 'We studied your book Su Doku and the New World Order in university. It's the best thing I've ever read.'
Blandon chuckled to himself. The establishment had absolutely shat itself when he'd published that two decades ago. Now they were teaching it to college kids.
All great truths begin as blasphemies, thought Blandon. No matter how often he tried to explain this to mankind, it didn't seem to sink in.
'I'm sorry for your loss,' said Blandon.
'Yes,' said Florence, looking down at the floor. Suddenly her confident bluster was replaced by the trembling sigh of a lost little girl. 'Dead ... Dad ... Dad ... Dead. It still doesn't seem real.'
Florence's confident tone reappeared. 'But never mind about all that. We need to get you out of here.'
'Out of here?' protested Blandon. He pointed to his bleeding head. 'What about this?'
'It will be the least of your worries if we don't leave right now,' yapped Florence. She held up a copy of the Polaroid Inspector Fascist had been carrying and pointed to the words scrawled on the floor. 'Haven't you worked this out yet?'
Blandon willed the words to make sense. But it was no use. The puzzle was too hard.
'Don't you see?' asked Florence. '"Blandon" is the answer to the puzzle. The only answer. You can bet Fascist has got the police puzzleology department working on this right now. And as soon as they work it out, you'll be transferred straight from the hospital to the prison.'
'The prison?' spluttered Blandon. 'They'd think I murdered your father? But what proof would they have?'
'Oh please,' snorted Florence. 'You are not in your precious America now. As soon as they realize that my dad named you in the puzzle, they'll have all the proof they need to lock you up and throw away the key.'
Blandon leapt up from the hospital bed and yanked the IV drip out of his arm. 'So what do we do?'
Florence darted over to the window and slid it open. 'We jump out of here,' she said.CHAPTER 8
Inspector Fascist rushed back down the hospital corridor like a peeved ostrich. The puzzleology department had finally come back to him, and it was good news. Not good news for the mullet- headed American, of course, but good news for him.
The answer to the puzzle the dying professor had scrawled was 'Blandon'. That was enough to convict him of murder in any Italian court. But it would never get that far. Professor Companion had been one of the most popular academics in the country. As soon he tipped off the papers that Blandon was the only suspect, an angry mob would descend on the station and tear him to pieces.
And Fascist would look the other way.
Why should he care? All he had to do was drag Blandon out of the hospital bed and down to the station. Then his job would be done. And this time he wouldn't listen to any meddling doctors.
Fascist kicked the door aside angrily.
The bed was empty.
Blandon was gone.
A trail of blood led from the bed to the open window.
Blue scrubs had been discarded on the floor.
Fascist snorted angry air out of his incensed nostrils.
He'd been tricked by the murderous professor and a puzzleology fan posing as a doctor.
He was sick and tired of Americans stomping onto his patch, killing people and assuming they could get away with it.
Well, this time he wasn't going to stand for it. He took his Beretta 93R single action automatic pistol out of his pocket and rushed for the door.CHAPTER 9
Florence grabbed Blandon and pulled him into a doorway as the police car sped past. Blandon imagined Inspector Fascist inside it, scowling like an angry lion that could drive.
Blandon took his cell phone out of his pocket but Florence snatched it out of his hands.
'Is there anyone you need to call on this? A wife? Children?' Florence asked.
Blandon loved his life as an independent, carefree bachelor and had never wanted to get tied down to one woman. He'd had a lot of offers, sure. With his massive lecturer's salary, the huge royalties that poured in from his academic publications, and his Indiana Jones (or failing that, Forrest Gump) good looks, he was desirable to hot, clever women.
He'd had a string of romances with attractive, virtually identical professional women. There had been Rome Sidekick, Paris Tourguide and Washington Loveinterest. They'd all made love to him, often as a reward for defeating villains, which was actually quite sexist when you thought about it. But he'd never kept in touch with any of them.
It just wasn't his way.
'No,' asserted Blandon powerfully. 'There's no one like that.'
Florence grabbed his phone and tossed it into the River Arno, which is 241km (150mi) long, originates in the Apennine Mountains and flows through Florence, Empoli and Pisa on its way to the Ligurian Sea.
'What the hell?' asked Blandon.
'I'm sorry,' said Florence. 'But that's the first thing they'll check when they're tracing you. Any schoolboy with a laptop could find you through that thing these days.'
Great, thought Blandon. There goes my chance of calling for help. But who could he trust anyway? If experience had taught him anything, it was that generic beautiful female companions were the only people he could trust.
'Okay,' said Blandon. 'So how do we find the killer? Do you think it might be someone else called Blandon?'
'That's what I thought at first,' said Florence. 'Then I saw this.'
Florence pointed at the bottom of the Polaroid. It turned out that her dying dad had daubed the words 'Mega hell icon' onto the saggy white skin of his calf.
'What the hell?' asked Blandon.
'After my father was shot then slit his own stomach open, pulled the entrails out and scrawled the riddle on the floor, he wrote these words on his leg,' said Florence.
'But what do they mean?' spluttered Blandon.
He rubbed his severe head wound. Usually a riddle like this would be no problem at all for him, but the gaping hole in his head was impairing his puzzle ability.
Just when he needed it most of all.
'I can tell you're trying to solve the puzzle,' said Florence. 'But there's no need. I've already done it. He wants us to go to a large painting of hell. Namely, Fra Angelico's "The Last Judgment" in San Marco church.'
Of course, thought Blandon.
Mega hell icon.
Large painting of hell.
Why hadn't he seen this?
'The Last Judgment' was a painting by Renaissance artist Fra Angelico. It showed Christ sitting in judgment, with heaven on the right side and hell on the left side. The sinistra side.
It's a secret message from Professor Companion, thought Blandon. He's sending us to the San Marco church.
Maybe there was a clue to the professor's real killer there.
Maybe he'd sent someone there to help them.
Either way, it was where they needed to go.
'Quick!' shouted Blandon. 'We need to get to the church!'
Excerpted from Dan's Inferno by Dan T. Alighieri. Copyright © 2013 Michael O'Mara Books Limited. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
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