THE WIDOW'S PALACE
That afternoon, the two boys stood in front of yet another grand palace in the heart of Venice.
"It's called the Contarini del Bovolo," Alex said, consulting his guidebook. "It says here that the staircase is shaped a bit like the shell of a snail. And bovolo is the Venetian word for 'snail shell'."
Tom stifled a yawn. "That's fascinating, Alex," he said. "But if I see one more palace, one more church, or one more canal, I think I'm going to throw myself under a bus."
"There aren't any buses in Venice," Alex reminded him.
"A water bus, then. If it doesn't hit me, maybe I'll get lucky and drown." He sighed. "You know the trouble with this place? The entire city's like a museum. A bloody great museum. I feel like I've been here half my life."
Alex couldn't bring himself to agree. He had never been anywhere quite like Venice--but then there was nowhere in the world remotely like it with its narrow streets and dark canals twisting around each other in an intricate, amazing knot. Every building seemed to compete with its neighbor to be more ornate and more spectacular. A short walk could take you across four centuries and every corner seemed to lead to another surprise. It might be a canal-side market with great slabs of meat laid out on the tables and fish dripping blood onto the paving stones. Or a church, seemingly floating, surrounded by water on all four sides. A grand hotel or a tiny local restaurant. Even the shops were works of art with windows framing exotic masks, brilliantly colored glass vases, dried pasta, and antiques. It was a museum, maybe, but one that was truly alive.
And yet, part of him felt guilty for dragging Tom here. Tom would have preferred to go straight down to Naples, but Alex had managed to persuade him to spend a few days, first, in Venice. What he hadn't been able to tell his friend was his real reason for coming here.
He still hadn't forgotten the last words that Yassen Gregorovich had spoken on the plane even as he lay dying. Night after night he had thought about them, turning over in bed, unable to get to sleep. His father--John Rider--had worked with Yassen. He had once saved Yassen's life. But then John Rider had been killed by MI6, the very same people who had forced Alex to work for them three times: lying to him, manipulating him, and finally dumping him when he was no longer needed. It was almost impossible to believe, but Yassen had offered him proof.
"Go to Venice. Find Scorpia. And you will find your destiny . . ."
The trouble was, he had absolutely no idea what Yassen Gregorovich had meant by his last words. Scorpia could be a person. Alex had looked in the telephone book and had found no fewer than fourteen people living in and around Venice with that name. It could be a business. Or it could be a single building. Scuole were homes set up for poor people. La Scala was an opera house in Milan. But Scorpia didn't seem to be anything. No signs pointed to it. No streets were named after it.
It was only now that he was here, one day before they were due to leave, that Alex began to see that it had been hopeless from the start. If Yassen had told him the truth, the two men--he and John Rider--had been hired killers. Had they worked for Scorpia? If so, Scorpia would be very carefully concealed . . . perhaps inside one of these old palaces. Alex looked again at the staircase his guidebook had described. How was he to know that the steps themselves didn't lead to Scorpia? Scorpia could be anywhere. Or anyone. And after six days in Venice, Alex was nowhere.
"Where shall we go now?" Tom asked.
"I don't know. What do you want to do?"
"I'd like to see a movie. The trouble is, they're all in Italian. I don't know. We could go down to St. Mark's and feed the pigeons. You seem to like pigeons . . ."
And that was when Alex saw it, a flash of silver as the sun reflected off something on the edge of his vision. He turned his head. There was nothing. A canal leading away. Another canal crossing it. A single motor cruiser sliding underneath a bridge. The usual facade of ancient brown walls dotted with wooden shutters. A church dome rising above the red roof tiles. He had imagined it.
But then the cruiser began to turn and that was when he saw it a second time and knew that it was really there. It was a silver scorpion decorating the side of the boat, pinned to the wooden bow. Alex stared as it swung into the second canal. This wasn't a gondola or a chugging, public vaporetto, but a sleek, private motorboat--all polished teak, curtained windows, and leather seats. There were two crew members in immaculate white jackets and shorts, one at the wheel, the other serving a drink to the only passenger. This was a woman, sitting upright, looking straight ahead. Alex only had time to glimpse black hair, an upturned nose, a face with no expression. Then the motorboat completed its turn and disappeared from sight.
A scorpion decorating a motorboat.
It was only the most slender of connections, but suddenly Alex was determined to find out where the boat was going. It was almost as though the silver scorpion had been sent to guide him to whatever it was he was meant to find. And there was something else. The stillness of the woman sitting in the back. How was it possible to be carried through this amazing city without registering some emotion, without--at least--turning her head from left to right? Alex thought of Yassen Gregorovich. He would have been the same. He and this woman were two of a kind.
Alex turned urgently to Tom. "I'll meet you back at the hostel," he said.
"Why?" Tom began. "Where are you going?"
"I'll tell you later!"
And with that he was gone, ducking between an antique shop and a café, up the narrowest of alleyways, trying to follow the direction of the boat.
But almost at once, he saw that he had a problem. The city of Venice had been originally built on no fewer than a hundred islands. He had read it in his guidebook the first day he'd arrived. In the fifteenth century, the area had been little more than a swamp. That was why there were no roads--just waterways and oddly shaped bits of land connected by bridges. The woman was on the water. Alex was on the land. Following her would be like trying to find his way through an impossible maze in which his path and hers would never meet.
Already he had lost her. The alleyway he had taken should have continued straight ahead. Instead it suddenly turned at an angle, blocked by a tall section of apartments. He ran around the corner, watched by two Italian women, both in black dresses, sitting outside on wooden stools. There was a canal ahead of him, but it was empty. A flight of heavy stone steps led down to the murky water, but there was no way forward . . . unless he wanted to swim.
He craned around to the left and was rewarded with a glimpse of wood and water churned up by the propellers of the motorboat as it passed a fleet of gondolas that were roped together beside a rotting jetty. There was the woman, sitting in the back, now sipping a glass of wine. The boat continued underneath a bridge so tiny, there was barely room to pass.
There was only one thing he could do. He turned around and retraced his steps, running as fast as he could. The two Italian women saw him again and shook their heads disapprovingly. He hadn't realized how hot it was. The sun seemed to be trapped in the narrow streets, and even in the shadows the heat still lingered. Already sweating, he burst back out on the street where he had begun. There was no sign of Tom. Alex guessed he would already set out for the hostel, happy to get a rest.
Suddenly every street and every corner looked the same. Relying on his sense of direction, Alex turned left and ran past a fruit shop, a candle shop, and an open-air restaurant with the waiters already laying the tables for lunch. He came to a turning and there was the bridge--so short, he could cross it in five steps. He stopped in the middle and leaned over the edge, gazing down the canal. The smell of stagnant water reached up to his nostrils. There was nothing. The boat was nowhere to be seen.
But he knew which way it had been going. It still wasn't too late . . . if he could only keep moving. He darted forward. A Japanese tourist had just been about to take a photograph of his wife and daughter. Alex actually heard the camera shutter click as he ran between him and them. When they got back to Tokyo, they would have a picture of a slim, athletic boy with long, fair hair, dressed in a Billabong T-shirt, with sweat running down his face and determination in his eyes. Something to remember him by.
A crowd of tourists. A student playing a guitar. Another café. Waiters with silver trays. Alex plowed through them all, ignoring the shouts of protest thrown after him. There was no sign of water anywhere. The street seemed to go on forever. But he knew there must be a canal somewhere ahead.
He found it. The road fell away suddenly. Gray water lapped past. He had reached the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in Venice. And there was the motorboat with the silver scorpion, now fully visible. It was at least fifty yards away, surrounded by other vessels, and getting farther with every second that passed.
Alex knew that if he lost it now, he wouldn't find it again. There were too many channels it could take, opening up on both sides. He had come to a wooden platform floating on the water just ahead of him and he realized it was one of the landing docks for the vaporetti--the Venice water buses. There was a kiosk selling tickets, a mass of people milling about. A yellow sign gave the name of this point on the canal: Santa Maria del Giglio. A large, crowded boat was just pulling out, a number one bus. The school party had taken it from the main railway station the day they arrived and Alex knew that it traveled the full length of the canal. It was moving very slowly but already a couple of yards separated it from the landing dock.
Alex glanced back. There was no way he was going to be able to find his way through the labyrinth of streets in pursuit of the motorboat. The water bus was his only hope. But it was already too far away. He had missed it and there might not be another one for five or ten minutes. A gondola drew past, the gondolier singing in Italian to the grinning family of tourists he was carrying. For a moment Alex thought of stealing the gondola. Then he had a better idea.
The oar was slanting toward him and he reached out, snatching it from the gondolier's hands. Taken by surprise, the gondolier shouted out in Italian, twisted around, and lost his balance. The family looked on in alarm as he plunged backward into the water. Meanwhile, Alex had tested the oar. It was about ten yards long and heavy. The gondolier had been holding it vertically, using the splayed paddle end to guide his boat through the water. Alex ran forward. He stabbed down with the blade, thrusting it into the Grand Canal, hoping the water wouldn't be too deep.
He was lucky. The tide was low and the bottom of the canal was littered with everything from old washing machines to bicycles and wheelbarrows, cheerfully thrown in by the Venetian residents with no thought of pollution. The bottom of the oar hit something solid and Alex was able to use the length of solid wood to propel himself forward. It was exactly the same technique he had used pole-vaulting at Brookland sports day. For a moment he was in the air, leaning backward, suspended over the Grand Canal. Then he swung down, sweeping through the open entrance of the water bus and landing on the deck. He dropped the oar behind him and looked around. The other passengers were staring at him in amazement. But he was on board.
There are very few ticket collectors on the water buses in Venice, which is why most young people in the city somehow "forget" to buy their tickets before they get on board. So there was nobody to challenge Alex about his unorthodox method of arrival or to demand a fare. He leaned over the edge, grateful for the breeze sweeping over the surface of the water. And he hadn't lost the motorboat. It was still ahead of him, traveling away from the main lagoon and back into the heart of the city. A slender wooden bridge stretched out over the canal ahead of him and Alex recognized it at once as the Bridge of the Academy, leading to the biggest art gallery in the city. For a moment he wondered what he was doing. He had just abandoned his friend. He had run the full length of Venice. And why? What did he have to go on? A silver scorpion decorating a private boat. He must be out of his mind.
The vaporetto began to slow down. It had already reached the next landing dock. Alex tensed himself. He knew that if he waited for one load of passengers to get off and another to get on, he would never see the motorboat again. He was on the other side of the canal now. The streets were a little less crowded here. Alex caught his breath. He wondered how much farther he could run.
And then he saw, with a surge of relief, that the motorboat had also arrived at its destination. It was pulling into a palace a little farther up, stopping behind a series of wooden poles that slanted out of the water as though, like javelins, they had been thrown there by chance. As Alex watched, two more uniformed servants appeared. One moored the boat. The other held out a white-gloved hand. The woman took the hand and stepped ashore. She was wearing a tight-fitting cream-colored dress with a jacket cut short above the waist. A handbag swung from her arm. She could have been a model stepping off the front cover of a fashion magazine. She didn't hesitate. While the servants busied themselves with her suitcases, unloading them from the boat, she disappeared behind a stone column.
The water bus was about to leave again. Quickly, Alex stepped off and climbed onto the landing dock. Once again he had to work his way around the buildings that crowded onto the Grand Canal. But this time he knew what he was looking for. A few minutes later, he found it.
It was a typical Venetian palace, pink and white, its narrow windows built into a fantastic embroidery of pillars, arches, and balustrades . . . like something out of a production of Romeo and Juliet. But what made the place so unforgettable was its position. It didn't just face the Grand Canal. It sank right into it, the water lapping against the brickwork. The woman from the boat had gone through some sort of portcullis, as though entering a castle. But it was a castle that was floating. Or sinking. It was impossible to say where the water ended and the palace floor began.
The building did at least have one side that could be reached by land. It backed onto a wide square with trees and bushes growing out of ornamental tubs. There were men--servants--everywhere, setting up rope barriers, positioning oil-burning torches, and unrolling a red carpet. Carpenters were at work, constructing what looked like a small bandstand. More men were carrying in a variety of crates and boxes. Alex saw champagne bottles, fireworks, different sorts of food. They were obviously preparing for a serious party.
Alex stopped one of them. "Excuse me," he said. "Can you tell me who lives here?"
The man spoke no English. He didn't even try to be friendly. Alex tried a second man, with exactly the same result. He recognized the type . . . he had met men like them before. The guards at the Point Blanc Academy. The technicians at Cray Software Technology. These were people who worked for someone who made them nervous. They were paid to do a job and they never stepped out of line. Were they people with something to hide? Perhaps.
Alex left the square and walked around the side. A second canal ran the full length of the building and this time Alex was luckier. There was an elderly woman, a grandmother figure in a black dress with a white apron, sweeping the towpath. He approached her.
"Do you speak English?" he asked. "Can you help me?"
"Si, con piacere, piccolo amico." The woman nodded. She put the broom down. "I spend many year in London. I speak good English. Who can I do?"
Alex pointed at the building. "What is this place?"
"It is the Ca' Vedova." She tried to explain. "Ca' . . . you know . . . in Venice we say Casa. It means 'palace.' And Vedova . . . ?" She searched for the word. "It is the Palace of the Widow. Ca' Vedova."
"What's going on?"
"There is a big party tonight. For a birthday. Masks and costumes. Many important people come."
The woman hesitated. Alex was asking too many questions and he could see that she was becoming suspicious. But once again age was on his side. He was only fourteen. What did it matter if he was curious? "Signora Rothman. She is very rich lady. The owner of the house."
"Rothman? Like the cigarette?"
But the woman's mouth had suddenly closed and there was fear in her eyes. Alex looked around and saw one of the men from the square, standing at the corner, watching him. He realized he had outstayed his welcome . . . and no one had been that pleased to see him in the first place.
He decided to have one last try. "I'm looking for Scorpia," he said.
The old woman stared at him as though she had been slapped in the face. She picked up the broom and at the same time her eyes darted over to the man at the corner. It was lucky he hadn't heard the exchange. He had sensed something was wrong, but he hadn't moved. Even so, Alex knew it was time to go. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Thank you for your help."
He made his way quickly up the canal. There was yet another bridge ahead of him and he crossed it. Although he didn't know exactly why, he was grateful to leave the Ca' Vedova behind him.
As soon as he was out of sight, he stopped and considered what he had learned. A boat with a silver scorpion had led him to a palace. It was owned by a beautiful and wealthy woman who didn't smile. The palace was protected by a number of mean-looking men and the moment he had mentioned the name of Scorpia to a cleaning woman, he had suddenly become as welcome as the plague.
It wasn't a lot to go on, but it was enough. There was going to be a masked ball tonight, a birthday party. Important people had been invited. Alex wasn't one of them, but already he had decided. He would be there all the same.