“. . . [A] pleasure trip that quickly devolves into a nightmare . . . ” AudioFile Magazine
“A riveting whodunit . . . ” Kirkus Reviews
A money launderer. A seduction. An old rivalry. Murders.
Fighting to forget a crumbling marriage, Anna, a US Treasury officer, comes to Venice on vacation. A choice she soon regrets.
Blackmailed by a money-laundering count, Anna demands he return explicit photos taken during their affair. He refuses. Tracking him to a hotel gala blows up when he is murdered and a dogged police detective accuses Anna of the crime.
Anna draws upon her talents in math and science to attack the intricate puzzle of finding the killer among many suspects. They stymie her efforts by hiding secrets and spinning lies in a city built on illusions. Whom can she trust?
Pursued, gripped by terror, barely dodging death’s dark embrace, Anna struggles to clear her name before police can destroy her alibi and lock her up.
But then, as attempts on her life mount, she just might be safer in prison. . . .
Readers of psychological mystery will enjoy this story of a brainy heroine battling daunting odds.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Murder in a Sensuous City
By Christine Evelyn Volker
She Writes PressCopyright © 2017 Christine Volker
All rights reserved.
Santa Lucia Train Station, Venice, Italy
Sunday, September 13, 1992
Anna gulped Venice's brine-filled air as if it could magically erase bad memories. Sergio's last-minute phone call imploring her to come one day early had filled her with the hope that she could get her damn pictures back and never hear from him again. Instead, he had revealed himself to be even more sinister than she had feared. Arguing with him at the caffè, trailing him to the gala, fleeing before speaking to him, her efforts had been a disaster. If she didn't fulfill his demand within five days, a time limit he had termed "generous," she had no doubt that he'd make good on his threat. She needed to figure out how to defuse his time bomb, no matter how much the thought of it made her hands tremble.
Exhausted, she propped herself against a stone wall outside the Santa Lucia train station. The lumpy mattress in the nearby grubby inn last night and the recollection of Sergio flashing a devilish smile while unveiling his ultimatums had sabotaged her sleep. When she'd first met him, he had adopted the guise of a bella figura: respectful, courteous, and soft-spoken. Underneath, however, lurked a calculating scoundrel.
Yesterday's clacking train from Zürich had brought her through the blue, towering Alps, past verdant hills studded with sienna villages until at last descending to the broad coastal plain, with a whiff of salt and a glimpse of the vast Adriatic and its jumble of reedy islands. Seen from the carriage window, Venice's bramble of towers and red roofs had been nearly swallowed by the sea.
Now, in the late afternoon's waning light, she watched somber gondolas slide through a bedlam of water taxis, docking vaporettos and industrial barges as the waters of the Grand Canal washed over the sidewalk just twenty feet away. Ancient stone and brick-clad buildings floated in the distance. Behind her, the sleek mass of the rail terminal rose from demolished crypts and disinterred bones of saints. With acqua alta, as her Italian grandfather had called it, the water proclaimed its dominion. Nonno had always feared for her in Venice. You can get confused there, he would say, and step into a puddle only to find that it was really the edge of a canal.
Fidgeting, Anna scanned the crowds. No sign of Margo. Late again, just like twenty years ago in college, when Anna would wait for her at Sather Gate after solid geometry class. She stowed her glasses in her purse and rubbed her aching eyes, seeing well enough without her distance lenses.
An aqua speedboat marked Polizia — far from the black-and-white squad cars of home, Anna thought — crawled past before docking. Two smartly-dressed policemen tied up the boat and alighted. After studying a paper in their hands, they met her staccato glances with penetrating stares as she fingered her chestnut hair.
"Signora, cosa fa qui?" the stocky one demanded in a singsong voice, dark brows knit together, wanting to know what she was doing there.
Surprised, Anna labored through her rusty Italian and with an upturned hand told them, "Aspetto unamica," — "I'm waiting for a girlfriend."
"You tell her thata you be very late," he replied. "Come with us now, please." He grabbed her by the wrist, his calloused hand holding fast as they walked.
His balding partner followed with her bags.
"Dove andiamo?" she asked, wagering Italian would help her find out where they were headed. "Non ho fatto niente. Lasciami stare." — "I haven't done anything. Leave me be."
Deaf to pleas in any language, they marched her back toward the train station. People gawked at the lumbering procession while Anna felt her cheeks flush. They crossed the shadows to the door of the police station, set inside the giant maw of the depot. After taking her passport at the front desk, the policemen led her down a dim stairway before nudging her into a cool chamber.
The door thundered shut, the sound magnified by slick floor tiles decayed into a tartared sheen. A wooden table, ringed by mismatched chairs, dominated the space. The pendulum of a wall clock sliced loudly through the dank air as its stark hands pointed to six-thirty. Twin mirrors studded the far wall. Slumped in one of the aged chairs, Anna pictured officers huddling behind the glass, cementing their gaze on her, weighing her every move and expression.
Questions arose like a beggar's chorus. What did I do? What do they want with me? How can I get out of here?
A dripping sound made her pause. How far above sea level is this room, anyway? Feeling queasy, she recalled Nonna's sepia-colored prints of St. Mark's Square submerged beneath wind-whipped waves. She envisioned minnows swimming over the stone pavement and between pedestrians' legs, imagined water oozing through a crack in the corner of the floor, then starting to rise. Calm, stay calm, she told herself. Don't panic. Just think. There must be a mistake, some reason the police had picked her out, one she could deduce by concentrating on it. Nonno had been the first to praise her, saying that her mind was like his. Logical. Analytical. At home with facts and figures. Her early aptitude in mathematics had foretold her professional success.
Her right leg twitched. She forced herself to determine potential causes for her detention: Sergio had changed his mind. He was making false charges against her, would soon let her know he'd rescue her from jail if she'd help him immediately. Or, the clerk at the Locanda Stazione — the greedy bastard — was accusing her of damaging the room or of stiffing him, to get more money. Maybe he had a relative on the force. She had paid him more than forty thousand lire, roughly forty dollars, for a single, but he hadn't given her a receipt: she had no proof of staying there. Or, worse, what if she resembled the suspect in a crime that the police were hell-bent on solving?
The door burst open and a blond man with a Slavic tilt to his icy, wide-set eyes strode into the room.
"I am Detective Biondi," he announced in a baritone voice.
His well-cut navy suit framed broad shoulders, making him look more refined than she had expected, down to his gleaming wingtips. Biondi pushed his chair close and sat down, scrutinizing her.
"I will like to ask you some questions." He set a small tape recorder on the table, pressed a button and muttered: "Niccolo —"
Just then a female assistant entered the room and placed two glasses of water on the table, earning an annoyed look. Biondi restarted the tape.
"Niccolo Biondi. Il tredici settembre." Having spoken his name and the date into the microphone, he turned to Anna and asked, "Who are you? Why are you in Venice?"
"Anna Lucia Lottol, same as on my passport. I'm on vacation." She struggled to keep her voice steady as she continued, "I've done nothing wrong, so why have you brought me here?"
"I ask the questions."
"I refuse to answer any more. Get me the American Embassy."
"You say you are a diplomat?"
"No. But I know my rights. I work for the US government."
"The FBI told us you work for the Treasury Department."
Anna stifled a gasp, stunned at Biondi's quick contact with US authorities. Maybe he had even talked to her boss.
"We are not so naïve to think that government employees do not commit crimes. We will not treat you any worse than an Italian national under the circumstances."
"What circumstances are those?"
"I can lock you up. It depends."
"Then I want a consular official here."
Biondi glanced at his platinum Reverso watch. Anna recognized it from the Zürich train station displays, its price well above what a detective could afford.
"The nearest consulate is in Milan. They are closed Sundays. Impossible to get here before noon tomorrow and only if they have nothing better to do than come to your aid. Which I doubt. You may wait here long."
"Why don't you just let me go? You have my passport. I'll come back when they arrive."
"I believe you have a saying, not a snowball's chance in hell? You will enjoy our cozy accommodation, sharing one tiny, dirty cell with the dregs of Venice. Let me see. We hold one aggressive prostitute, another woman scratches herself, thinks she carries bugs. Maybe she is right. Then the drunken woman picking fights with her cellmates —"
Anna sighed. "All right. I'll answer your questions."
"You recognize him?" he asked, sliding a photograph in front of her.
Anna's eyes were drawn to the pool of blood bathing a man's head, tingeing the ends of his white hair a clownish red against the stone pavement. Vacant eyes sunk into folds of skin. Thin lips framing a mouth contorted to one side in a sickening smirk. One pale, veined hand wearing a gold signet ring resting on his crimson-stained tuxedo. A Pinocchio mask crushed under his chin.
"Oh, no!" Anna pushed the picture away, shutting her eyes for a moment, hardly believing what she had seen. Sergio — dead. Vigorous, hateful Sergio. He had been holding his head high, glossy mane moving in concert with his grand gestures as he wove his way through the elegant crowd last night. And now? He looked like a rag doll someone had smashed on the ground.
"You are upset."
Anna took a sip of water, hands unsteady. "Y-you just showed me a photo of a dead man. Of course I'm upset."
"You don't know him?" Biondi asked.
Her forehead throbbed. She thought back through her movements the previous night: crossing the lagoon to the gala Sergio would be attending, entering the hotel from the back, hiding behind a party mask she had found in the ladies room, running up the garden steps to see the dance floor and spy on him, then, losing her nerve to engage him again, dashing down the main stairway, pulling off her mask and jumping into the dark, jam-packed launch back to St. Mark's Square.
"What happened?" she asked, peeking at Biondi, knowing how much pressure he'd feel to quickly resolve the murder of a powerful Venetian count, debating whether she was willing to trust in local justice. "Venetians are as slippery as eels," she recalled Nonno saying.
She took a few coughs. If she said she knew Sergio, Biondi would ask how they met. Once he found that Sergio had been her lover for four whole days back in January, he'd dig until he found more, conclude that she was a jilted innamorata who had traveled to Venice to kill her beloved and throw her in jail. She blinked, still undecided, before remembering the college acquaintance who had traveled to Asia and spent five years behind bars for a crime he hadn't committed. Lost five years and aged ten.
Last night, near the train station, the somnolent hotel clerk hadn't asked for her passport. She had even scribbled her own name in the guest log to save him the trouble of writing it. That meant there was no central police registry with her name and passport number and a record of where she had stayed. Since she had paid cash, there'd be no credit card trail. And the Italians at the Swiss border hadn't stamped her passport, so who was to say when she had arrived? At least five hundred people must have attended the masked ball, many looking like her — brunettes were scarcely rare here. Scores of people would have known Sergio from business, art, or philanthropic connections. Biondi, she thought, would be very busy sorting them out before finding some illicit deal that would lead him to Sergio's murderer.
Biondi pursed his lips. "I repeat. Did you know him?"
Anna shook her head.
"Subject indicated no," Biondi said into the tape recorder. "I tell you one thing, Signora Lottol. Someone saw a woman running from the hotel last night. Lucky for us he was an artist. Good likeness, no?" He placed a drawing on the table.
Anna examined the rendering of a woman in motion and took a sharp breath. The sketch captured her slender torso, long legs, and broad stride, hinting at her athleticism. The same dark eyes as hers peered from behind wire-rimmed glasses she sometimes wore. But the nose was bulbous instead of straight, the chin weaker. Framed by long, wavy hair, the oval face was unlined, free of incipient crow's feet, making her appear five years younger than her age of forty. A phalanx of cops must have been trawling the train station and airport armed with that sketch. One group or another would have seized her eventually. She felt her skin grow clammy, her eyes drilling into her depiction.
"Well?" Biondi asked.
She felt like retching, but was convinced that recanting her lie would only make things worse. Five years of precious life if she trusted him, she thought, before saying, "There's a resemblance, yes. But, I wasn't in Venice last night."
"You," he stabbed the air with his forefinger, "deny you were at the Belvedere Hotel?"
"The where?" she asked, blanking, her thoughts blurring.
"I already told you — the Belvedere Hotel," he barked. "Where the murder took place."
He's going to end it right here and arrest me now, she thought, hiding her shaking hands in her lap. "Murder ... God, no. I would never ... How could I? I was in Zurich — I just arrived here by train this evening. I'm a tourist, like thousands of other people."
"Porca miseria," Biondi mumbled.
Anna understood this to mean "bloody hell." That's where she'd be sent soon, she feared.
"All right, we do this the hard way," he said in a raspy voice. "If you have a train ticket and address book, I would like to see them. Right now."
Pushing away from the table, Anna fumbled in her purse with jerky, abrupt motions, her trembling hand going in circles, her mind struggling to remember his request.
"You need help?" Biondi's voice rose. "Shall I do it?"
"No," she managed to say. Her hand brushed against a business card. She tried to control her breathing. In, then out, in, then out, calm, like the cool-down of her aerobics class. She breathed more deeply. Keys, compact, eyeglasses, lipstick, address book, yes. She handed it over.
Biondi shoved the leather book to one side, took her passport out of his pocket and flipped the pages with manicured hands. "You are married, yet the husband is not with you."
"I'm traveling alone."
"You say you came from Zürich this evening?"
Anna nodded. "I flew to Zürich and took the train here."
"I see the Zürich Flughafen stamp from the airport. You arrived there yesterday morning." He sought her gaze.
She plunged her thumbnail into her forefinger and tried not to flick her eyes away. "That's right. That's what I meant. I ... I was sightseeing there."
"It's a lovely, historic city," she said. "Venice is not the only beautiful one, you know."
"Gray city. Full of banks and bankers. What did you see?"
"Um ... watches. I went shopping and saw lots of expensive watches."
"No Künsthaus or Lake Zürich for you?" A scowl washed across his face. "Just watches. You buy any?"
"No." Her right hand jerked, hitting the underbelly of the table. A tangle of gouges, a finger's width apart, had left the wood tortured and raw.
"Missing a stamp here for Italian customs." He flung the passport onto the table.
"You know on the train they generally don't do that," she said, recalling three other times she had entered Italy by rail.
"You think you are an expert? Biondi is a simple man, Signora Lottol. All I know is that we have the dead body of a Venetian count. With a person of interest, looking like you, likely American or British by their accent in Italian. You will need to prove me that you were not here last night. And where is that train ticket?"
"Tossed it out." Anna congratulated herself on having thrown the ticket into a bin by the track as soon as she had arrived.
"I don't remember, maybe outside the station. Do you save your train tickets?" She smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle in her brown-checkered raincoat.
"Don't get too smug. We speak to conductors and the Ferrovie. Did you ride in first or second class?"
"You have receipts from your trip?"
Excerpted from Venetian Blood by Christine Evelyn Volker. Copyright © 2017 Christine Volker. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Belvedere Hotel, Venice, Italy, 1,
1 Santa Lucia Train Station, Venice, Italy, 4,
2 The Sinuous Voyage, 19,
3 La Stella, 34,
4 Beside the Still, Green Canal, 37,
5 In the Heart of the Faviers, 52,
6 A Tenuous Connection, 63,
7 The Murder, 68,
8 The Money Trail, 85,
9 The Garden, 88,
10 The Meeting, 99,
11 Wanderings, 110,
12 Of The Incurables, 123,
13 The Bombshell News, 132,
14 In the Police Station, 141,
15 La Biblioteca Marciana, 149,
16 Caffe Florian, 157,
17 A Forgotten Place, 164,
18 St. Marks, 180,
19 A Disjointed Message, 185,
20 Searching, 191,
21 Dr. Zampone, 200,
22 The Watch, 214,
23 Black Hole, 221,
24 il Gazzettino, 224,
25 The Dark Yacana, 234,
26 Red Dawn, 241,
27 Napoleon's Gardens, 251,
28 Leaves of Green, 254,
29 Dark Star Trails, 263,
30 La Guardia di Finanza, 268,
31 L'Ospedale Civile, 283,
32 In the Shadow of the Doge, 288,
33 The Lilies of San Stae, 297,
34 The Golden Lido, 303,
35 Calle dei Assassini, 312,
36 The Dream, 319,
About the Author, 331,