Saturday, April 18 , The Present
The smell roused Cotton Malone to consciousness. Sharp, acrid, with a hint of sulfur. And something else. Sweet and sickening.
He opened his eyes.
He lay prone on the floor, arms extended, palms to the hardwood, which he immediately noticed was sticky.
He’d attended the April gathering of the Danish Antiquarian Booksellers Society a few blocks west of his bookshop, near the gaiety of Tivoli. He liked the monthly meetings and this one had been no exception. A few drinks, some friends, and lots of book chatter. Tomorrow morning he’d agreed to meet Cassiopeia Vitt. Her call yesterday to arrange the meeting had surprised him. He’d not heard from her since Christmas, when she’d spent a few days in Copenhagen. He’d been cruising back home on his bicycle, enjoying the comfortable spring night, when he’d decided to check out the unusual meeting location she’d chosen, the Museum of Greco-Roman Culture–a preparatory habit from his former profession. Cassiopeia rarely did anything on impulse, so a little advance preparation wasn’t a bad idea.
He’d found the address, which faced the Frederiksholms canal, and noticed a half-open door to the pitch-dark building–a door that should normally be closed and alarmed. He’d parked his bike. The least he could do was close the door and phone the police when he returned home.
But the last thing he remembered was grasping the doorknob.
He was now inside the museum.
In the ambient light that filtered in through two plate-glass windows, he saw a space decorated in typical Danish style–a sleek mixture of steel, wood, glass, and aluminum. The right side of his head throbbed and he caressed a tender knot.
He shook the fog from his brain and stood.
He’d visited this museum once and had been unimpressed with its collection of Greek and Roman artifacts. Just one of a hundred or more private collections throughout Copenhagen, their subject matter as varied as the city’s population.
He steadied himself against a glass display case. His fingertips again came away sticky and smelly, with the same nauseating odor.
He noticed that his shirt and trousers were damp, as was his hair, face, and arms. Whatever covered the museum’s interior coated him, too.
He stumbled toward the front entrance and tried the door. Locked. Double dead bolt. A key would be needed to open it from the inside.
He stared back into the interior. The ceiling soared thirty feet. A wood-and-chrome staircase led up to a second floor that dissolved into more darkness, the ground floor extending out beneath.
He found a light switch. Nothing. He lumbered over to a desk phone. No dial tone.
A noise disturbed the silence. Clicks and whines, like gears working. Coming from the second floor.
His training as a Justice Department agent cautioned him to keep quiet, but also urged him to investigate.
So he silently climbed the stairs.
The chrome banister was damp, as were each of the laminated risers. Fifteen steps up, more glass-and-chrome display cases dotted the hardwood floor. Marble reliefs and partial bronzes on pedestals loomed like ghosts. Movement caught his eye twenty feet away. An object rolling across the floor. Maybe two feet wide with rounded sides, pale in color, tight to the ground, like one of those robotic lawn mowers he’d once seen advertised. When a display case or statue was encountered, the thing stopped, retreated, then darted in a different direction. A nozzle extended from its top and every few seconds a burst of aerosol spewed out.
He stepped close.
All movement stopped. As if it sensed his presence. The nozzle swung to face him. A cloud of mist soaked his pants.
What was this?
The machine seemed to lose interest and scooted deeper into the darkness, more odorous mist expelling along the way. He stared down over the railing to the ground floor and spotted another of the contraptions parked beside a display case.
Nothing about this seemed good.
He needed to leave. The stench was beginning to turn his stomach.
The machine ceased its roaming and he heard a new sound.
Two years ago, before his divorce, his retirement from the government, and his abrupt move to Copenhagen, when he’d lived in Atlanta, he’d spent a few hundred dollars on a stainless-steel grill. The unit came with a red button that, when pumped, sparked a gas flame. He recalled the sound the igniter made with each pump of the button.
The same clicking he heard right now.
The floor burst to life, first sun yellow, then burnt orange, finally settling on pale blue as flames radiated outward, consuming the hardwood. Flames simultaneously roared up the walls. The temperature rose swiftly and he raised an arm to shield his face. The ceiling joined the conflagration, and in less than fifteen seconds the second floor was totally ablaze.
Overhead sprinklers sprang to life.
He partially retreated down the staircase and waited for the fire to be doused.
But he noticed something.
The water simply aggravated the flames.
The machine that started the disaster suddenly disintegrated in a muted flash, flames rolling out in all directions, like waves searching for shore.
A fireball drifted to the ceiling and seemed to be welcomed by the spraying water. Steam thickened the air, not with smoke but with a chemical that made his head spin.
He leaped down the stairs two at a time. Another swoosh racked the second floor. Followed by two more. Glass shattered. Something crashed.
He darted to the front of the building.
The other gizmo that had sat dormant sprang to life and started skirting the ground-floor display cases.
More aerosol spewed into the scorching air.
He needed to get out. But the locked front door opened to the inside. Metal frame, thick wood. No way to kick it open. He watched as fire eased down the staircase, consuming each riser, like the devil descending to greet him. Even the chrome was being devoured with a vengeance.
His breaths became labored, thanks to the chemical fog and the rapidly vanishing oxygen. Surely someone would call the fire department, but they’d be no help to him. If a spark touched his soaked clothes . . .
The blaze found the bottom of the staircase.
Ten feet away.
Sunday, April 19
Enrico Vincenti stared at the accused and asked, “Any thing to say to this Council?”
The man from Florence seemed unconcerned by the question. “How about you and your League cram it.”
Vincenti was curious. “You apparently think we’re to be taken lightly.”
“Fat man, I have friends.” The Florentine actually seemed proud of the fact. “Lots of them.”
He made clear, “Your friends are of no concern to us. But your treachery? That’s another matter.”
The Florentine had dressed for the occasion, sporting an expensive Zanetti suit, Charvet shirt, Prada tie, and the obligatory Gucci shoes. Vincenti realized that the ensemble cost more than most people earned in a year.
“Tell you what,” the Florentine said. “I’ll leave and we’ll forget all about this . . . whatever this is . . . and you people can go back and do whatever it is you do.”
None of the nine seated beside Vincenti said a word. He’d warned them to expect arrogance. The Florentine had been hired to handle a chore in central Asia, a job the Council had deemed vitally important. Unfortunately, the Florentine had modified the assignment to suit his greed. Luckily, the deception had been discovered and countermeasures taken.
“You believe your associates will actually stand with you?” Vincenti asked.
“You’re not that naive, are you, fat man? They’re the ones who told me to do it.”
He again ignored the reference to his girth. “That’s not what they said.”
Those associates were an international crime syndicate that had many times proven useful to the Council. The Florentine was contracted help and the Council had overlooked the syndicate’s deception in order to make a point to the liar standing before them. Which would make a point to the syndicate as well. And it had. Already the fee owed had been waived and the Council’s hefty deposit returned. Unlike the Florentine, those associates understood precisely who they were dealing with.
“What do you know of us?” Vincenti asked.
The Italian shrugged. “A bunch of rich people who like to play.”
The bravado amused Vincenti. Four men stood behind the Florentine, each armed, which explained why the ingrate thought himself safe. As a condition to his appearing, he’d insisted on them coming.
“Seven hundred years ago,” Vincenti said, “a Council of Ten oversaw Venice. They were men supposedly too mature to be swayed by passion or temptation, charged with maintaining public safety and quelling political opposition. And that’s precisely what they did. For centuries. They took evidence in secret, pronounced sentences, and carried out executions, all in the name of the Venetian state.”
“You think I care about this history lesson?”
Vincenti folded his hands in his lap. “You should care.”
“This mausoleum is depressing. It belong to you?”
True, the villa lacked the charm of a house that had once been a family home, but tsars, emperors, archdukes, and crowned heads had all stayed under its roof. Even Napoleon had occupied one of the bedrooms. So he said with pride, “It belongs to us.”
“You need a decorator. Are we through here?”
“I’d like to finish what I was explaining.”
The Italian gestured with his hands. “Get on with it. I want some sleep.”
“We, too, are a Council of Ten. Like the original, we employ Inquisitors to enforce our decisions.” He gestured and three men stepped forward from the far side of the salon. “Like the originals, our rule is absolute.”
“You’re not the government.”
“No. We’re something else altogether.”
Still the Florentine seemed unimpressed. “I came here in the middle of the night because I was ordered to by my associates. Not because I’m impressed. I brought these four to protect me. So your Inquisitors might find it difficult to enforce anything.”
Vincenti pushed himself up from the chair. “I think something needs to be made clear. You were hired to handle a task. You decided to change that assignment to suit your own purpose.”
“Unless all of you intend on leaving here in a box. I’d say we just forget about it.”
Vincenti’s patience had worn thin. He genuinely disliked this part of his official duties. He gestured and the four men who’d come with the Florentine grabbed the idiot.
A smug look evolved into one of surprise.
The Florentine was disarmed while three of the men restrained him. An Inquisitor approached and, with a roll of thick tape, bound the accused’s struggling arms behind his back, his legs and knees together, and wrapped his face, sealing his mouth. The three then released their grip and the Florentine’s thick frame thudded to the rug.
“This Council has found you guilty of treason to our League,” Vincenti said. He gestured again and a set of double doors swung open. A casket of rich lacquered wood was wheeled in, its lid hinged open. The Florentine’s eyes went wide as he apparently realized his fate.
Vincenti stepped close.
“Five hundred years ago traitors to the state were sealed into rooms above the Doge’s palace, built of wood and lead, exposed to the elements—they became known as the coffins.” He paused and allowed his words to take hold. “Horrible places. Most who entered died. You took our money while, at the same time, trying to make more for yourself.”
He shook his head. “Not to be. And, by the way, your associates decided you were the price they would pay to keep peace with us.”
The Florentine fought his restraints with a renewed vigor, his protests stifled by the tape across his mouth. One of the Inquisitors led the four men who’d come with the Florentine from the room. Their job was done. The other two Inquisitors lifted the struggling problem and tossed him into the coffin.
Vincenti stared down into the box and read exactly what the Florentine’s eyes were saying. No question he’d betrayed the Council, but he’d only done what Vincenti, not those associates, had ordered him to do. Vincenti was the one who changed the assignment, and the Florentine had only appeared before the Council because Vincenti had privately told him not to worry. Just a dog and pony show. No problem. Play along. It would all be resolved in an hour.
“Fat man?” Vincenti asked. “Arrivederci.”
And he slammed the lid shut.
Malone watched as the flames descending the staircase stopped three quarters of the way down, showing no signs of advancing farther. He stood before one of the windows and searched for something to hurl through the plate glass. The only chairs he spotted were too close to the fire. The second mechanism continued to prowl the ground floor, exhaling mist. He was hesitant to move. Stripping off his clothes was an option, but his hair and skin also stank with the chemical.
Three thuds on the plate-glass window startled him.
He whirled and, a foot away, a familiar face stared back.
What was she doing here? His eyes surely betrayed his surprise, but he came straight to the point and yelled, “I need to get out of here.”
She pointed to the door.
He intertwined his fingers and signaled that it was locked.
She motioned for him to stand back.
As he did, sparks popped from the underside of the roaming gizmo. He darted straight for the thing and kicked it over. Beneath he spotted wheels and mechanical works.
He heard a pop, then another, and realized what Cassiopeia was doing.
Shooting the window.
Then he saw something he’d not noticed before. Atop the museum’s display cases lay sealed plastic bags filled with a clear liquid.
The window fractured.
He risked the flames and grabbed one of the chairs he’d earlier noticed, slinging it into the damaged glass. The window shattered as the chair found the street beyond.
The roving mechanism righted itself.
One of the sparks caught and blue flames began to consume the ground floor, advancing in every direction, including straight for him.
He bolted forward and leaped out the open window, landing on his feet.
Cassiopeia stood three feet away.
He’d felt the change in pressure when the window shattered. He knew a little about fires. Right now flames were being supercharged by a rush of new oxygen. Pressure differences were also having an effect. Firefighters called it flashover.
And those plastic bags atop the cases.
He knew what they contained.
He grabbed Cassiopeia’s hand and yanked her across the street.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Time for a swim.”
They leaped from the brick parapet, just as a fireball surged from the museum.
Excerpted from THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL © Copyright 2011 by Steve Berry. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.