In the heart of Venice, a woman is sacrificed to a forgotten god, sparking a mystery lost for thousands of years.
Dr. Penelope Bryne is ridiculed by the academic community for her quest to find the remnants of Atlantis, but when an ancient and mysterious script is found at a murder site, she flies to Venice determined to help the police before the killer strikes again.
Penelope has spent her entire life trying to ignore the unexplainable and magical history of Atlantis, but when she meets the enigmatic Alexis Donato, everything she believes will be challenged. Little does she know, Alexis has spent the last three years doing his best to sabotage Penelope’s career so doesn’t learn the truth—Atlantis had seven magicians who survived, and who he has a duty to protect.
As Alexis draws her into the darkly, seductive world of magic and history, Penelope will have to use her heart as well as her head if she is to find the answers she seeks.
With the new MOSE system due to come online, and Carnivale exploding around them, Penelope and Alexis will have to work together to stop the killer and prevent dark magic from pulling Venice into the sea.
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The wind WAS howling off the canal as Inspector Marco Dandolo wrapped his coat tightly around himself and lit a cigarette. He'd been trying to quit — his third time that year using Isabella's hypnotist — and it had been going well until he'd received a call about two distraught Americans. The unfortunate students had been taking photos of the canal entrances when they had seen a body hanging inside.
"What do you think, Inspecttori?" Beppe asked nervously. As one of the Polizia di Quartiere for Santa Croce, Beppe had been the first officer the Americans had alerted. They had been loud and hysterical, and by the time Marco had arrived, Beppe was pale with sweat and breathing heavily.
"Your first body?" Marco asked.
"Si," Beppe admitted. Marco passed him his packet of cigarettes and Beppe lit one gratefully. "I never thought people could be so horrible to each other."
Marco grunted. "I've seen some terrible murders, but this ... this is something else."
"A good thing they have Le Doge Cane on the case," Beppe said brightly. Marco smiled weakly at him.
Le Doge Cane was a nickname he had acquired as much for his famous ancestor, Doge Francesco Dandolo, known as the dog after he chained himself while petitioning the pope to remove Venice's excommunication, as for Marco's ability to focus on a case like a bloodhound. He hated it but did his best not to let the banter between officers get to him. As reputations went, it wasn't a bad one.
They finished their cigarettes in silence before ducking back under the police tape, walking along the narrow strip of stone and into the canal entrance of the palazzo.
"Have we found out who owns the palazzo yet?" Marco asked a nearby female police officer. She was young and pretty, and he always managed to forget her name.
"The Tintoretto's, a celebrity couple," she replied.
"Are they here yet?"
"No, but their alibi is solid. They're in Milano where she's doing a photo shoot for Vogue."
"Does anybody else have access to the house?"
"Only their sixty-year-old housekeeper who didn't see or hear anything."
"Grazie," Marco replied, waving her on.
Steeling himself with a deep breath, he finally looked up at the body hanging in front of him.
The woman was naked, a bull's head pulled over her own. Her arms had been stretched out and tied above her head. In one hand she held a goblet, in the other an elaborate Greek urn painted with sea creatures.
An umbilical cord fell from her vagina, terminating at an embryonic sac and calf fetus resting in a copper pan at water level. The victim's heart had been removed, but the wound had also been cleaned. On the stone wall behind the body were three massive symbols encircled by a script unlike any Marco had ever seen.
"It looks a little like Sanskrit, but it's wrong," a masked forensics officer commented. He and the rest of the forensics team were working quickly to beat the next high tide, due in two hours. "I studied some of it for my degree, but this looks too jagged, almost like a mutated cuneiform."
Marco pulled out his phone and took multiple photos of the wall. "I might know someone who can help."
* * *
IT WAS midnight when Doctor Alessa Christiano's phone rang in her office at Sapienza in Rome.
"Pronto?" she answered, barely looking up from her computer screen where she was composing a lecture on the Roman conquest of Egypt.
"Alessa, I'm glad you are awake," a painfully familiar voice said. "I should've known you would still be working."
"Says the man also still working. What do you want, Marco?" Her exlover's voice didn't sound drunk, but she detected a note of trouble in it.
"I need your expertise, Dottore. I've emailed you some photos I need you to look at."
"Marco, I really don't have time —"
"It's a case, Alessa," he insisted. "This is the Polizia de Strato asking, not Marco Dandolo the coglione.Per favore bella, a woman is dead."
"Fine, fine, I'll take a look," Alessa sighed and clicked through the pages on her screen to bring up her emails.
"I need to warn you, the pictures —" Marco began, but she had already opened the first one.
"Mio Dio," Alessa cried, crossing herself twice. "Who would do such a thing?"
"A sick bastard. Click on the other attachments. There is some script I'm hoping you can decipher; it might give me an idea who did this."
Alessa downloaded and scrolled through the other photos, zooming in on the graffitied wall.
"It's a hoax."
"What do you mean?" Marco asked.
"I mean apart from the three main symbols, which are alchemical, the rest of the script is completely made up."
"What do the three main symbols mean?"
"I don't know alchemy, Marco. Look them up. I've seen them before, but the rest is bullshit."
"How do you know?"
"A few years ago a fragment of a stone tablet was found near Crete. It had a similar sort of disjointed cuneiform style of writing. Your wall looks like a fanatic has created a full alphabet from it and finger painted it on his murder site." Alessa looked at the next picture. "It's all gibberish, Marco."
There was a long pause and then the sound of a metal lighter flicking open from the other line. They'd broken up years ago but, whenever Alessa smelled MS tobacco, she still thought of him. "I see your sister's hypnotist has failed again. You need to stop paying her."
"She's Isabella's wife's sister. If I don't let her hypnotize me, they will try and set me up on a date with her."
"If she were any good, she could just hypnotize you into sleeping with her."
"You said fanatic," Marco commented thoughtfully. "Why that word?"
"Only someone obsessed with the legends would go to that much effort to create a full alphabet over an artifact that doesn't prove a thing." She rubbed the lenses of her glasses before putting them back on. "Worse than a fanatic, I think you have a true believer."
"In what? What legend?"
Alessa couldn't hold in a snort. "The Lost City. Atlantis."
"And you say they found evidence of it?" asked Marco, sounding not at all phased by her revelation.
"No, I said they found a fragment of a stone tablet. The person who found it claimed it was evidence that Atlantis existed. She wanted funding to do an underwater dig at the site."
"Nothing. No professional scholar would take Atlantis seriously. She is a pariah in her field." Alessa shook her head. "It's a shame. Both her parents are brilliant scholars. Anyway, there were some who believed her. They were more the New Age crowd, and a few mythologists hunting the dream."
"And you think one of them could be our killer?"
"I don't know, Marco. The only place I've ever seen anything like this was an attachment to the paper about the Tablet."
"Where can I get a copy of it?"
"I can email it to you." Alessa took one last look at the mutilated woman and shook her head. "Her contact details should be at the bottom of the paper if you want to talk to her yourself. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful, mio amico."
"You have been an incredible help to me tonight. I knew you were the right person to call. Next time you are in Venezia, I will buy you the best meal of your life," he promised.
Despite their separation, they still ate together whenever she was in Venice, or he was in Rome. Inevitably, it always ended with them in bed together that night, and by morning, agreeing how it was better they had broken up.
"It's a deal. I hope you catch them soon, Marco," Alessa said solemnly.
"Grazie Dottore." He hung up, and she sent him the paper as promised before heading out to midnight mass.
Alessa wasn't God's most pious servant, but after seeing the bull-headed woman, she couldn't shake the taint of evil from her mind.CHAPTER 2
Breathe slowly, take in the sound of nothing, Penelope told herself as the weights on her belt drew her down into the dark blue water. She adjusted her mouthpiece and goggles more comfortably before checking her watch. Beginning now, she would have two hours of blessed silence with nothing but tropical fish for company.
Penelope had just started her first holiday in two years when a friend working at James Cook University in Cairns had called to tell her that some coins had been brought in to his office by a pair of free divers.
"They look Phoenician, Pen," he'd revealed. "I know you have your theories about Egyptians and Phoenicians coming this far so I thought I'd let you know. See if you're interested."
Get your ass back on the horse, Pen, her best friend and flatmate Carolyn had said. You just need a win.
She had watched Penelope's downward spiral after losing out on investors and grants for the past two years. Carolyn was an academic. She knew the score when it came to research funding, but when Penelope had mentioned the coins and a trip to the warm sunshine of Queensland, Carolyn had all but packed her bag for her. Hunting Phoenician coins on the Great Barrier Reef seemed exactly like the right kind of holiday.
Still chasing ridiculous dreams, Penelope. When are you ever going to grow up? Her father's voice echoed in her head.
Penelope ground her teeth around the rubber of her regulator. It had been six months since their argument, but the words still stung. Professor Stuart Bryne was known for this prowess as a lecturer, but what people didn't know was that he had practiced those skills by lecturing Penelope.
"He's only worried about you," her mother, Kiri, had consoled her that afternoon when Penelope had called in tears. Kiri was back in her native New Zealand working on her newest book about gender roles in Maori culture.
"He's worried I'm going to tarnish his reputation. He's an anthropologist, for God's sake. We aren't even in the same field!" Penelope snapped. "He needs to calm his shit and let me live my own life."
"Hey! Don't you use that kind of language about your father," Kiri defended. "He loves you and doesn't want you throwing your career away."
"They thought Schliemann was crazy, too, until he found Troy. I know it exists, Mom. I can feel it. It's like an extra heartbeat inside my chest. It's mine. I know it is."
"Maybe it's not the right time for you to find it yet," sighed Kiri. "Take a job teaching for a while until you can figure out your next steps."
Like usual, Penelope only decided to take her mother's advice once she'd run out of other options and lost any hope of getting funding.
At least under the water, the only thing she needed to worry about was drowning.
Penelope breathed slowly through her regulator, counting down from ten to soothe her anxiety. There's nothing around or over you. Straight dive. Nothing to get caught on.
Three years ago, she'd nearly drowned while diving through an old ship, and it had taken her months to get the courage to put a pair of goggles on again. Penelope hated being afraid of anything, so she'd quickly forced herself back into the ocean, starting small with lifeguard courses before moving on to snorkeling, and then finally back to deep diving. As long as she had open water, and wasn't moving through wrecks or caves, her fear of drowning remained in check.
It had been on her first real dive since the incident that Penelope had discovered the corner of a stone tablet. It was on a research trip to Crete, and she thought her luck couldn't have been better. She was wrong.
And didn't that just send my anxiety off in a whole new direction. She thought the Atlantis Tablet would be the key to her Troy, but all it'd done was set her up for more disappointment and frustration.
One of the free drivers, Sam, swam past her, making her start. Phoenician coins, Pen, no mysterious tablets with mixed origins. It didn't matter that finding Phoenician coins in Australia would launch a whole new line of inquiry for her to be ridiculed over. These mysteries keep finding you, not the other way around.
Sam waved at her and pointed to an outcrop of coral and rock before he shot up to the surface for another breath of air. Penelope shut out her thoughts, letting the eerie silence of the ocean fill her as she searched the rocks, brushing the seabed with her gloved hands.
Three hours underwater produced four startled stingrays and two tarnished coins and Penelope couldn't have been happier.
By the time she got back to her hotel, she felt calmer than she had in months. Her chestnut hair was a riot of salty curls, and her body was physically exhausted. She showered and made sure her heavy silver ring was secure on her finger. It was a replica of the Phaistos Disc, and she had bought it on the same trip to Crete that she had found the Tablet. The Disc had been discovered in a Minoan temple in 1908 and researchers still had no idea what it meant. It was a reminder that some mysteries fought against being solved.
After pouring herself a glass of wine, Penelope opened her laptop. Despite being on a semester break until March, Penelope's university inbox had a way of becoming flooded with emails if she didn't clear it out daily.
Her Atlantis Tablet had gained her notoriety with all the wrong people. The mystery of Atlantis called to ufologists, New Agers, and Lemurian theorists alike. They all wanted to know about the magic, about the secret hidden knowledge the Atlanteans had allegedly possessed. It felt like Penelope spent half of every day emailing the enthusiasts back politely to say that she had no new information for them.
In her defense, Penelope had done everything she could not to get caught up in what she couldn't prove. She had stuck to facts, scraping away at the added mystery of the few primary sources she had, such as the one from Plato, trying to get to the heart of the mythic civilization.
Forever the realist, her father did his best to disregard the esoteric. The fact that Penelope's dream had been to find Atlantis since she was ten years old had caused him countless headaches. He couldn't look at her bookshelves, crammed with as many mythology collections and fantasy novels as academic textbooks and journals, without rolling his eyes.
"You're just like your grandmother," he often muttered in his Irish brogue. "She was mad by the time she died, leaving milk out for brownies and God knows what else." At times like that, Penelope regretted never having the chance to meet her grandmother. Both her parents were painfully atheist, believing only what could be proven by scientific theory.
Scrolling through her inbox, Penelope deleted the university newsletter and staff room spam until an unknown name caught her attention.
Who on earth is Marco Dandolo?
She opened the email, silently hoping he wasn't another crazy person.
Dear Doctor Bryne,
My associate, Doctor Alessa Christiano, gave me your paper on the Atlantis Tablet. She believes you might be able to assist in identifying markings I encountered this evening at a crime scene. Please forgive me for contacting you so directly, but our experts are at a loss and time is particularly short regarding this case.
Please find the attached photo of a sample of the writing. I would appreciate any help you might be able to provide.
Regards, Inspector Marco Dandolo
A crime scene? Penelope read the email twice. The footer had his official titles, the police station, and its crest. It wasn't spam. Penelope prayed it wasn't a virus before opening the attachment. The glass of wine fell from her hand, splattering red all over the tiles.
"Impossible. This can't ..." Penelope zoomed in, trying to get a closer look, but the resolution of the photo only blurred. Five minutes later Penelope picked up her phone and called Carolyn.
"I knew you couldn't go three days without ringing!" Carolyn said triumphantly, "What's up, Bryne? Have another panic attack caused by your shit brain father?"
"Carolyn, don't freak out"— Penelope took a steady breath —"but I'm going to Venice."CHAPTER 3
The lecture room at the State Library was filled with students, scholars, and the curious. Penelope squeezed her notes together and tried to remind herself that this was not the first time she'd been forced to stand in front of people.
"You're going to be fine," Carolyn had assured her. She had a doctorate in Esoteric Religions and knew a tough crowd when she saw one. "This is a great turn out, Pen. The more people who know how brilliant you are, the more money they will give you to continue your research."
"Thanks, Caro," Penelope replied, her mouth dry. She tightened her ponytail and smoothed the lapels of her blazer again.
It was the first time she was going to present her paper on the Atlantis Tablet, and she was a bundle of tightly wound nerves. There were people in the audience who could help fund her dig off the islands of Crete. She had to be brave and confident. The Tablet demanded it of her.
Carolyn gave her a helpful shove after she was announced, and Penelope mumbled her thanks to the university and the State Library for allowing her to use the space for the lecture.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Immortal City"
Copyright © 2019 Amy Kuivalainen.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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