For two years, Urbino Macintyre has been away from his beloved city, wandering the streets of Morocco in search of material for his next book. When he steps off the train and into a gondola in Venice, he knows he has come home. His first stop is to see his beloved friend, the Contessa da Capo-Zendrini, a society butterfly who has two years of gossip stored up for him. But the contessa is not her usual lively self. She is being blackmailed, and only Macintyre can help.
He follows the blackmailer, an old woman from the lace-making island of Burano, seeking clues to her motives. When she is found murdered at a cocktail party, Macintyre slips into the expat society of the tiny, remote island, where land is expensive, life is cheap, and gossip can be a deadly weapon.
About the Author
Sklepowich’s debut novel, Death in a Serene City (1990), introduced Urbino Macintyre, an American expatriate and amateur sleuth who undertakes to solve a Venetian murder. Sklepowich treats Venice as a character, using its ancient atmosphere to shape his classically structured mysteries. He has written eight more Mysteries of Venice—most recently, The Veils of Venice (2009).
Read an Excerpt
Deadly to the Sight
The Mysteries of Venice, Book Six
By Edward Sklepowich
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Edward Sklepowich
All rights reserved.
It had begun from their first moments together in Venice three weeks earlier.
The train had just pulled in from Rome. Urbino and his young companion, Habib Laroussi, stepped down from their carriage. Habib was of medium height, with close-cropped black hair and dark olive skin. But his most striking feature was his expressive dark eyes, which had been hungrily devouring everything since they had arrived from Morocco.
"Go out to the steps and see," Urbino said.
"But our bags," the young man halfheartedly protested.
"I'll find someone. Go."
Ten minutes later Urbino, followed by a porter and their extravagance of bags, joined Habib. The young man was standing motionless, looking at the scene. Urbino hadn't seen it for eighteen months. He drank it in himself: the bridges and domes, the sparkling water and the dancing light, the boats of various kinds and even the dampness that in winter, against all logic, somehow registered not only as a smell but also as the color gray.
"It's beautiful," Habib said. "It's better than you said."
"I was afraid you'd be disappointed."
Habib gave a radiant smile.
"You are a foolish man! And now we must take one of those old-style boats."
Habib pointed toward a moored gondola, rocking in the Grand Canal from the wake of the water traffic.
"My friend said she'd have her own boat waiting."
"La comtesse? She has an old-style boat?"
"A new-style one," Urbino said with a smile. "That's it."
He indicated the Contessa's sleek motoscafo a short distance away. An unfamiliar man, dressed in a white cap and dark blue suit and tie, descended from the boat and walked toward them. He limped slightly on his left leg.
"But please, sidi!" Habib said, using the term of respect with playful urgency. "Let us ride in an old-style one."
The man in the white cap approached them.
"Signor Macintyre? I am Giorgio, the Contessa da CapoZendrini's boatman," he said in Italian. He was much younger and seemed more fit than Milo.
"We've decided to take a gondola."
"A gondola, signore? As you wish. And your baggage?"
"You can take it to the Palazzo Uccello. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes." He hesitated for a brief moment. "The Contessa is expecting you."
"Please tell her we'll see her in an hour. No," he corrected himself, "an hour and a half."
Several minutes later Urbino and Habib glided out into the Grand Canal. At first the young man was silent as they passed beneath the stone bridge of the Scalzi and made their way between the palaces and churches on either side of the waterway.
And then the questions began, coming as thick and fast as those of a child. What is that tower? Those striped poles? Is that a mosque, sidi? And why are there Moorish windows? What is that porch made of wood on the top of the palace? Look! There's another! Why do the chimneys have funny shapes?
"There's plenty of time to ask all the questions you want. Just lie back and look."
Slowly, silently, first down the Grand Canal, then through a maze of small canals and beneath narrow stony spans, they were floated toward the Palazzo Uccello. Habib's dark glance moved in all directions as he fed his artist's eye with images.
"It is like The Arabian Nights!" he had cried out on that first day as they approached the landing of the Palazzo Uccello. "And this is our magic carpet!"CHAPTER 2
Urbino threw open the library shutters and looked straight into the silent night.
A short while before, as the church bells were ringing the second hour, he had awakened from a peculiar dream that still had him in its grip.
Actually, it had been less a dream than a persistent feeling that had wound itself through his thoughts that, even in sleep, seldom were completely still.
The Ca' da Capo-Zendrini was in danger.
It would have been more appropriate, given the damage done to the Palazzo Uccello, if he had been awakened by the urgency of its own, all-too-real problems.
Perhaps, he thought, this mild panic—for that was what it felt like—was simply a matter of displacement, for he had, in fact, been worrying about the Palazzo Uccello before dropping off to sleep.
And yet it was vivid, this sense that the Contessa's own home was threatened in some way. He remembered her uneasiness at Florian's the other afternoon.
He pulled on his clothes and threw his Austrian cape over his shoulders. He would take a walk. He would go to the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini.
He scribbled a brief note for Habib in case he awoke to find him gone, and then slipped out into the night.
Wisps of fog were brushing the bridge and drifting into the alley. He had a quick, sharp inward vision of the snowy domes of the Church of the Salute and the oriental cupolas of the Basilica floating above the mist as it performed its conjuring tricks of levitation and disappearance.
He breathed the air in gratefully. A realization, as strong as the concern that had set him in motion, struck him.
He would be turning his back to the Palazzo Uccello just as he was now, even if he hadn't been seized by this notion about the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini.
For Urbino's preference for the night had only increased since his return. While in the hot sun of Morocco, he had yearned for the damp, fog-filled nights of Venice when he could wander through the watery city as if he were its only occupant—or at least its only privileged one.
Nights in Morocco had been vibrant and spice-scented, filled with flutes and keening songs, and almost always crowded with people who had the gift of turning the most routine of experiences into an occasion for celebration.
To be alone the way he wanted to be, he had sought out the most remote spots beyond the cities, or, on two or three occasions, had sat musing on one of the flat medina roofs until the morning prayer. The desert had brought him solitude, and a restorative kind of peace that healed some wounds he didn't even know he had, but it was a solitude that was—paradoxically perhaps—too absolute. There had been no place in it for the Urbino who both loved and hated sociability.
His commitment to Venice, made almost twenty years ago upon inheriting the rundown building in the Cannaregio, had been largely because he could be splendidly alone, and alone on his own terms. Behind the walls of the Palazzo Uccello, which was like some stationary, elaborately appointed ark, he was far from the crowds and the distracting beauties of the museum city, and yet also in their midst.
He was well aware that he was considered an eccentric by many of the Venetians, and in fact by many of his own friends both here and back home. And there was no doubt that he struck an eccentric pose, but not intentionally so, during these late-night walks in his cape, negotiating the familiar city with an air of aimless purpose.
As he kept to his elastic stride in the direction of the Grand Canal through twisting alleys and across secluded squares, moving more slowly up and down the slick, slippery steps of bridges, he didn't meet another living soul. All he heard, other than his own echoing footsteps, was the slap of water against stone steps and wood hulls, and disembodied voices that sometimes rose up from the black waters and other times floated over the rooftops. It was like wandering through someone else's meticulously detailed dream of an impossible city where gravity was in abeyance, and reflections—even during the night hours—might be mistaken for the real thing if you stared too long.
But tonight Urbino didn't linger on bridges as he usually did, peering down into the dark mirrors of the canals over which wisps of mist were curling. He was soon on the small, graceful bridge that provided the only land access to the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini, whose large iron door was still, at this hour, illuminated by its ornately embossed lamps.
Like all the palazzi on the Grand Canal, the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini turned its aristocratic back on the plebeian activity of the alleys, squares, and bridges, and risked courting envy by presenting all its restrained beauty only on the side of the broad waterway. With its classical facade in Istrian stone and an elaborate attic frieze of lions set off by gentle pilasters, projecting balconies, small oval windows, blue-and-white mooring poles, and trim landing stage, the imposing building was a marriage of austerity with grace, of a simple formality with playfulness.
When the Contessa had married the Conte Alvise, the building had been denuded of its many decorations and severely damaged by the war and industrial pollution from the mainland. She had dedicated herself—in an obsessive way, said some jealous Venetians—to return it to its former glory. Before Urbino had met her, he had heard unkind stories about her hard line with architects and restorers, her search throughout Italy and Europe to find pieces to fill in the gaps in its furnishings, her physical and emotional exhaustion afterward, and her extended stay in a Swiss sanatorium.
Rather than forming a negative impression of her, as many of the gossips intended, he had become fascinated, recognizing in her passion for her adopted city an image of his own, although her passion had considerably more money to keep it afloat. When they had met seventeen years ago at a Biennale reception, they had formed an instant rapport. Ever since, they had been close friends and confidants, and, somehow, more than this.
Light glowed behind shuttered windows on the second story. The windows belonged to the Contessa's bedroom. If it had been the windows of her salotto blu, it would have been almost definite proof that she was waiting for someone. Instead the Contessa, who usually retired before eleven, had turned on her lights because she couldn't sleep, as was her custom.
Should he ring the bell and speak with her? As soon as he formulated this question, however, he moved backward slightly, to conceal himself in a mass of shadows cast by the building behind him. He didn't want her to see him if she happened to look out of the window. This was the indirect, but clear answer to his question. He wouldn't disturb her, for he knew his friend well. Whatever distress she might be feeling would only be increased by this sudden descent on her privacy. When she was ready to confide in him, he would be there to help. Until then, he would keep his distance.
As he turned away from the Contessa's palazzo, he felt the presentiment again that something was not quite right behind its walls. Exactly what, he didn't know, but he was certain that it must have something to do with the old woman who had been staring so solemnly at her outside of Florian's.CHAPTER 3
Since that first day in Venice when Urbino and Habib had floated in style to the Palazzo Uccello, Urbino had played the indulgent cicerone, answering the younger man's constant flow of questions and showing him around the city that he himself was discovering again. It wasn't just that absence, like some fine gold dust, had restored value to all the familiar scenes, but that in the deep pool of Habib's enthusiasm he saw a distant reflection of his own original feelings.
It would be wrong to assume, however, that everything was a delight to Habib. He was critical, usually of smells, and impatient of all the walking.
On more than one occasion, he would come to an abrupt halt on the parapet of a bridge or at the foot of a palace's staircase or in a long museum corridor, and loudly lament, "Sidi, my uncles!" Urbino would good-humoredly correct him—"ankles, not uncles"—and, with just as much good humor, wait for him to regain his strength so that they could cross off another sight from Urbino's impossibly long list.
The Contessa had been making things a bit easier for the both of them lately by putting her motorboat at their disposal when she didn't need it herself.
One of the things Urbino could count on during these outings—other than Habib's malapropisms and theatrical displays of fatigue—was his painter's eye for details. Whether it was a question of a bossage of gargoyles and putti on the facade of a palazzo, or a lion's head door knocker, or a shrine in an out-of-the-way corner, Habib saw it and pointed it out to Urbino. He then drew it in his sketchbook, which he always had with him.
At one-thirty in the afternoon, two weeks after Urbino's conversation with the Contessa at Florian's, Urbino went to join Habib in the Corte Seconda del Milion. Habib was completing some sketches of the boyhood home of Marco Polo and one of the nearby covered passageways. He showed them to Urbino.
"Very good, Habib."
"I want to come back and capture this same spot with my paints. The light in Venice is very tricky."
"And it's not the only thing that is! You've done enough for today. You've more than earned a good lunch."
"I could eat a horse!" Habib enthused, for whom idioms and cliches were mint-new.
"Good, but I have something different in mind. But not here. On Burano."CHAPTER 4
The Contessa's motoscafo cut across the shallow waters to Burano. As the sun broke momentarily through the layer of clouds, the lagoon, with its marshes and mud banks, shimmered ahead of them.
Giorgio commanded the craft lightly and with a touch of elegance, as if in compensation for the limp that hampered him on land. He answered Habib's questions about the sunken islands with their ruined buildings along their route. Although his information wasn't always accurate, it was given in good spirit. It wasn't difficult to see how the handsome man had captured Oriana's perpetually straying eye.
Burano, with its campanile leaning at a precarious and picturesque angle, soon came into view. Urbino gave a little shiver as they approached the quay. He attributed it to the characteristically damp chill of the island, which he always felt more keenly here than in Venice. It seemed to penetrate the closed, heated cabin, and made him feel vaguely unwell.
The last time he had been to Burano had been in summer several years before, when its notoriously filthy canals were being drained. The odor had been terrible, but then—as now—with a chill spreading over his skin, the sight of the improbably bright colors of the small houses had almost made up for the unpleasant assault on the other senses.
Gallons and gallons of red, purple, blue, green, and yellow had been mercilessly spilled to adorn the huddled buildings with an abandon that was both crazed and childlike. The stunning effect was itself responsible for the squeezing and mixing of further gallons of oils and watercolors by artists, and the scrolling of innumerable miles of film by photographers.
Yet, charming though it could be, Burano wasn't a place where Urbino would have been happy to live. It was too relentlessly cheerful in its brightness and with its jaunty strings of washing hung between the houses and across the squares. Its bridges, canals, and houses were too small to suit him. And worst of all, life here was almost a blueprint of conventionality, with the women at their lace and the men at their nets. Or so it had always seemed to Urbino, who during his visits had frequently screamed silently for something more subversive.
Surely Burano must have its dark secrets, now as it had in the past. And perhaps the primary colors of its houses were a trap of delight for the eye, distracting it from contemplating the inevitable cost of the island's perpetual performance of normality. Yet even the colors couldn't deceive the eye for long, at least not an eye like Urbino's, which inevitably—and almost gratefully—noted the way these colors spilled and bled into the invasive waters of the lagoon.
He didn't give Habib the benefit of these impressions, however, for he knew too well the melancholy burden of never seeing things as they actually appeared, a burden all the more melancholy when the appearances were as lovely as those of Burano.
"It's beautiful," cried Habib.
"Yes, it is," Urbino responded.
Stretching ahead of them when they got out of the motorboat was a gauntlet of stalls and shops, presided over by what seemed to be interchangeable, middle-aged women. Urbino would soon have negotiated the danger with barely a slackened pace. He hadn't counted on Habib, however.
"I must buy something for my mother on this beautiful island!" he cried out when he saw the first stall dripping with lace. "We can send it to her. Yes?"
"A marvelous idea. I should have thought of it myself."
Habib had already collected enough gloves, perfume, shoes, belts, towels, and other items to furnish not just his mother but their whole extended family. He had bought hardly anything for himself, however, which to Urbino indicated an innate generosity that made him, in his own turn, generous and all the more happy to be footing the bill.
Habib began to diligently examine doilies, antimacassars, handkerchiefs, napkins, curtains, bedcovers, blouses, vests, shawls, scarves, umbrellas, and designs of cats, gondolas, and flowers in thin wooden frames. He passed from stall to stall and shop to shop, holding items up to the light, turning them over, feeling and even sniffing them, as if he were looking for an immediate position as a quality inspector. The more things he looked at and the more time he spent, the more difficulty he had in deciding.
Excerpted from Deadly to the Sight by Edward Sklepowich. Copyright © 2002 Edward Sklepowich. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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