(The story is posted in two parts due to LJ size constraints. Follow the link at the end of Part One to get to Part Two.)
DEATH IN VENICE
They stood on the quay outside Marco Polo Airport, their luggage piled about them, waiting for the water taxi that would convey them across the Venetian Lagoon to their hotel. Illya shivered, and raised the collar of his trench coat against the bitter wind blowing in off the Adriatic.
“It never fails,” he muttered. “Every time we are in Venice, I end up with a head cold.”
“Quit complaining, tovarisch,” Napoleon replied cheerfully. He shaded his eyes with his hand, hoping to get a better view of the stunning brunette in the chartreuse minidress, just now climbing out of a taxicab.
“I am not complaining. I am merely stating the facts. Venice is not good for my health. Remember what happened the last time we were here?”
“Sure I remember. Thanks to THRUSH, we took an unscheduled swim in the Grand Canal. I ended up in the hospital with bronchial pneumonia, and you got to drink beer with Mark Slate, and play tennis with some Baroness.”
“I nearly got murdered by her husband in their wine cellar!” Illya glared. “That reminds me -- it is your turn to play the gondolier this time. I am tired of singing O Sole Mio to every tourist with a few hundred lire to burn.”
The senior agent chuckled. “But you looked so fetching in your costume.” The brunette paused to adjust her sandal, bending low to reveal a luscious expanse of tanned thigh. Napoleon's jaw dropped. “Oh, che bella.”
She fluffed her hair, made a discreet, if futile, effort to tug the hem of her dress down, and disappeared into the terminal. Napoleon sighed and turned away. “What were you saying, tovarisch?”
Illya rolled his eyes. “Never mind.”
“Fine. If you are done complaining, can we please focus on the mission?”
“Oh, is that what you were doing?”
He was spared having to answer by the timely arrival of the vaporetto. Within moments, their tickets had been collected, their luggage stowed under the brightly colored naugahyde seats, and they were speeding across the choppy waters of the Lagoon toward the city of Venice.
They passed a smattering of sparsely populated islets and then, like a vision from a fairy tale, the gilded spires of the city rose to greet them. Gothic bridges, Moorish palaces and lavish Byzantine domes danced before their eyes in a fantasy of form and color. Bathed in sunlight, pale and golden against the dark waters of the Lagoon, the view took their breath away.
The vaporetto slowed, negotiating its way through the crowded harbor, and entered the serpentine of the Grand Canal. They chugged along, passing under the arches of the Rialto Bridge and skirting the edges of a busy fish market. Their driver waved and called to friends in his oddly sibilant dialect. All too soon, the vaporetto turned into a narrow side canal, and docked alongside their hotel.
“Pronto, here you arrive,” the driver announced in broken English. “Hotel Arlecchino. Watch you step.”
They unloaded their luggage, Illya scowling at the exorbitant tip Napoleon pressed upon the driver. Napoleon shrugged. “The man has to make a living, doesn't he?”
They carried their suitcases up the newly refurbished stone staircase, past terra cotta tubs overflowing with bougainvillea, and pushed open the heavy oak door. The enticing aroma of oregano wafted toward them, and Illya's stomach rumbled with hunger.
“That smells wonderful,” he sighed.
“Lucrezia, she makes the sausage for tomorrow breakfast,” the man behind the front desk said, gesturing toward a set of double doors, behind which the men could hear a clatter of pots and pans. “You hungry, yes?”
“My friend is always hungry,” Napoleon replied, holding out his hand. “Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. We have reservations.”
“Ah, the UNCLE agents.” The man laughed at Napoleon's surprised expression. “Signore Waverly, he tells me you are coming.” He took the senior agent's hand in an iron grip. “Luca Barbozzi. My daughter Lucrezia and I own this hotel.”
Napoleon's hand strayed closer to his Walther. “I'm afraid I'm a bit confused, Signore Barbozzi. What, exactly, is your connection with UNCLE?”
The man laughed again. “Mi dispiace. I forget, you suspicious men.” He removed his spectacles, and leaned his elbows upon the oak countertop. “Signore Waverly, he's save my daughter life, long time ago. Pay for her operation. Now I return favor, play host to UNCLE agents when they come.” He shrugged. “Not dangerous, like work you do, but is way to pay back for kindness.”
Napoleon exhaled. “I see.”
“He's say you here to find out why so many agents getting murdered. I help.” He tapped his chest proudly. “Ask Luca anything.”
“Thank you for the offer, Signore Barbozzi, but --”
“Did all the murdered agents stay here at the hotel?” Illya interjected brusquely.
Napoleon threw his partner a puzzled glance, but said nothing.
Luca turned toward the blond man. “Sì, sì. All five. Two in July, One in Augusto, and two more in Settembre. They go off one morning, but they never come back. Week later, we find bodies in canal.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I think maybe you got a -- how you say? -- traditore.”
“Let's hope not, for all our sakes.”
The kitchen door swung open with a clatter, and an attractive, dark-haired girl stepped through, wiping her hands on her apron. “Le salcicce sono pronte, Papà. Vado giù -- oh, scusi!” The young woman blushed prettily. “I did not know our guests had arrived.”
Luca beamed. “My daughter, Lucrezia, gentlemen. Figlia mia, questo è Signore Solo e Signore Kuryakin da UNCLE. They come about the murdered agents.”
“Yes, of course. Such a terrible thing to happen. If there's anything I can do to help? Anything at all --”
“Thank you, signorina,” Napoleon replied, taking her hand. It was soft and warm. “We'll keep that in mind. Your English is excellent, by the way.”
“Grazie, signore.” She smiled demurely, and allowed him to hold onto her hand a moment longer than was necessary. “I attended college in New York City -- a degree in hotel management. I thought it might help Papa's business.”
“My beautiful daughter,” Luca sighed. “Always, she thinks of others.”
“We are rather tired after the long trip,” Illya declared impatiently. “If you could please show us to our room --”
“Sì, sì, certo.” Luca selected an ornate key from the pegboard behind the desk. “Number Six, top of the stairs, end of hall. I bring your luggage?”
“Thank you, no.”
“As you wish, signore. You need anything, just call for Luca.”
“Or Lucrezia,” the young woman added with a sultry smile.
“I'll, ah, remember that,” Napoleon replied, releasing her hand with reluctance.
“Na-po-leon --” Illya stood at the foot of the stairs, arms folded across his chest.
The senior agent sighed. “Buona sera, signorina.”
“Buona sera, Signore Solo.”
“Okay, tovarisch,” Napoleon demanded as soon as the door to their room was shut, “what the heck was that about?”
Illya held a finger to his lips, and tapped his ear significantly. After a moment, Napoleon nodded. For the next several minutes, they chatted casually about the beauties of Venice while they made a thorough sweep of their room for bugs.
“Satisfied?” Napoleon said at last.
“For the moment.”
“Okay, so give. Why were you rude to those people?”
“Don't you think it is suspicious, Napoleon, that the five dead agents all stayed at this hotel?”
He frowned. “You think Luca and his daughter had something to do with the murders?”
“It would be immensely foolish to discount the possibility.”
Napoleon stared out the window, following the progress of a group of nuns across the quiet piazza. Their black habits swirled in the stiff breeze. “I don't know, Illya. The Barbozzis don't seem like the THRUSH type.”
Illya snorted. “Pray tell, what is the 'type?'”
He considered the question. “Greedy. Amoral. Self-serving. Luca seems like a salt-of-the-earth sort of guy, and he's genuinely grateful toward Mr. Waverly. Why would he betray the man who saved his daughter's life?”
“You are assuming the story is true, and not a clever fabrication.”
“It's easy enough to check,” Napoleon replied a bit defensively.
“We should make it a priority. In the meantime, I will remind you that Venice has a lurid history of ruthlessness, corruption and political intrigue dating back to the Renaissance. Machiavelli, the Borgias, not to mention the Mafia --”
Napoleon turned from the window. “Okay, tovarisch, you've made your point. We'll keep our guard up while we're in the hotel.”
“I'll contact Waverly and check out Luca's story. Meanwhile, you keep those baby-blues of yours focused on our gracious host, and I'll cultivate the attentions of the daughter.” He smiled. “Catching flies with honey is my specialty.”
The Russian scowled. “Be careful that you do not become the fly.”
Illya woke, shivering.
Thunder rumbled through the open window, rattling the headboard of the bed in which they slept. A steady rain clattered rhythmically against the tiled roof. The bedroom curtains billowed like restless phantasms, swirling in the gusting wind.
He lay silently under the covers, trying to recall what had woken him.
A sound. The rain? Thunder, perhaps?
Beside him in the bed, Napoleon slept on, snoring softly.
No. Not the rain. A scraping sound, like stones rubbing together.
He waited, breathless, listening, but the sound did not come again. At last, he drew the heavy quilt up around his chin and rolled over. He was asleep in seconds.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, they elected to skip the sumptuous breakfast offered by their host until they received confirmation from Waverly. If Luca was offended by their decision, he gave no sign.
“You Americans and your crazy diets,” he laughed, wishing them buona fortuna in their quest for answers regarding the murders of the five agents.
“Where to first?” Napoleon asked once they were out of earshot.
“Breakfast,” Illya answered readily.
The day was cold and damp, the sunlight weak and anemic. The cobbled walkways, usually crowded with people, were all but deserted. They crossed the Ponte Accademia, and found a coffee bar that had opened early to serve the local fishermen. Standing at the bar, they sipped their strong doppios while Illya attacked a half-dozen cream puffs, licking the rich, custardy filling from his fingertips with the concentration of a true hedonist. Napoleon contented himself with a pair of tette di nonni.
“Were all the murdered agents working on the same Affair?” Illya asked as he signaled for another doppio.
“You'd think so, wouldn't you? But no. Hastings and Burke were investigating THRUSH activity at the mental health facility on Poveglia, Kowalski was checking on rumors of a connection between THRUSH and the La Fenice Opera Company, and Fong and Cosmo were tracing the route of banned chemical substances entering Europe through the Adriatic gateway. Three unrelated missions.”
“No connection whatsoever, and yet they are all dead.” Illya frowned, and drained his doppio. “Where does that leave us?”
“Retracing the movements of the agents, I suppose. It's all we've got to go on. Fortunately, each was here for only a day before going missing.”
“Fortunate?” Illya's blue eyes challenged. “For us, perhaps. Not for them.”
“No,” Napoleon agreed soberly. “Not for them.”
A siren abruptly pierced the silence, a single wailing note.
“Good God,” Napoleon exclaimed. “Is that an air raid siren?”
Illya shook his head. “It is warning of an impending acqua alta – an unusually high tide. Flooding is common here in the Fall months.”
Napoleon clamped his hands over his ears. “Could that thing possibly be any louder?”
The siren cut off abruptly, and he sighed into the blessed silence. “So how bad does the flooding get?”
Illya shrugged. “It depends. The more siren blasts, the higher the acqua alta will be. Four blasts is rare, but would be cause for real concern.”
“Has that ever happened?”
“Only once, in 1966 -- a tidal surge of nearly ten feet. The city was inundated, the lower floors of many buildings completely submerged. Fortunately, today's was only a single alarm, meaning there is little to worry about besides wet shoes.”
“Wet shoes. Wonderful.” Napoleon glanced down at his stylish Italian loafers.
“We could buy you some galoshes," Illya smirked. "I hear they come in colors now.”
“Rubber boots, ugh. Not exactly the fashion statement I had in mind.”
They began their investigation on the adjacent island of Poveglia, site of the mental health facility the first two agents had been sent to investigate. The old hospital was in a sorry state, its foundation crumbling from constant exposure to the salt air, weeds taking over the once pristine grounds. Inside, the place was a vast, hollow shell through which the wind whistled eerily. File cabinets had been overturned, papers strewn everywhere, as though the facility had been abandoned at a moment's notice. The locals claimed the place was haunted.
“The Venetians are a deeply superstitious people.” Illya commented as he rifled through a rusted file cabinet. “Did you notice how reluctant our driver was to bring us over here?”
“I don't blame him,” Napoleon shuddered. “This place gives me the creeps.”
They spent the morning poring through old files and documents, and scouring the deserted building for clues, but to no avail. If Hastings and Burke had passed this way, they had left no trace of their presence.
“Looks like we're done here,” Napoleon said at last. He felt a growing frustration with their mission. Five men were dead -- five experienced agents -- and they hadn't a clue to finding their killers.
Just then, his communicator began to beep. “Solo here.”
The cultured voice of Alexander Waverly brought a momentary warmth to the room. “Gentlemen,” The Old Man said, “I trust you have news regarding your investigation into the Venetian Affair?”
“We're just finishing up at Poveglia,” Napoleon replied. “Unfortunately, there's not much to tell at this point. The trail is pretty cold.”
“I don't want excuses, Mr. Solo. I want results. It's imperative that we find out who is murdering our agents. Our Mediterranean operations are at a standstill, and Carlo's tirades on the subject are becoming increasingly tiresome.”
“Yes, sir. We're headed to La Fenice this afternoon. Hopefully we'll find something worthwhile there.”
“See that you do, Mr. Solo.”
Napoleon hesitated. “Uh, about Luca Barbozzi and his daughter --?”
A slight pause. “My apologies, gentlemen. That information should have been included in your briefing.” Waverly sighed, and Napoleon imagined The Old Man casting his memory back all those years.
“When she was three years old, Lucrezia Barbozzi was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and the family didn't have the funds to pay for her operation. This would have been just after the War -- the country was in shambles back then, and no one had much in the way of money. I was stationed in Aviano at the time, and heard of the family's dilemma. I had funds wired over to cover the cost of the child's treatment.” A pause. “I take it little Lucrezia is doing well?”
Napoleon chuckled. “'Little' Lucrezia has grown into a lovely young woman. Sir.”
“Oh, yes, quite. I'm afraid I have a tendency to think of the child as I last saw her.” The sound of papers being shuffled. “Well then, if there's nothing else? Keep me posted on your progress, and give my regards to Signore Barbozzi and his daughter. Waverly, out.”
Napoleon pocketed his communicator. “Well, there's a bit of good news. Looks like our hosts are in the clear.”
“At least we know it is safe to eat dinner at the hotel tonight,” Illya replied with renewed enthusiasm. “I was sorry to miss the sausages.”
They spent a rainy afternoon following the trail of the remaining two teams, a trail that took them from the rarified atmosphere of the opera house to the rough-and-tumble world of the docks. The only thing they discovered was that none of the agents had stumbled onto anything criminal -- or even remotely interesting -- in the course of their investigations.
They made their way back along the flooded streets, balancing on the wooden planks laid out by shop owners to allow passage across the acqua alta. As they entered the hotel, they saw Luca scurrying across the lobby, his arms full of flowers. He waved in greeting.
“Buona sera, signori. Momento, I make fresh bouquet for lobby.” He thrust a tall stem of poppies into a chipped vase. “You have the good luck today?”
“Not much, I'm afraid.”
Luca's face fell. “Oh, too bad. Tomorrow better, Luca is sure. Tonight my Lucrezia make for you the hot supper. Bisato, with nice cuttlefish risotto. Delizioso.” He blew a kiss.
“Bisato?” Napoleon rolled the word over on his tongue. “It sounds delicious. What is it --some sort of pasta?”
Illya smirked. “Marinated eel.”
The eel was spicy and tender, and Napoleon had to admit that it was delicious. It was served with a creamy cuttlefish risotto, basted in the creature's own black ink. A medley of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines accompanied the dish, along with a bottle of crisp Soave Classico. Illya, for his part, tucked in with enthusiasm, devouring the meal as though his life depended on it.
“I guess you fellas give up on crazy American diet,” Luca remarked with a sly smile.
Dessert was a decadent tirimasù, the marscarpone cheese oozing enticingly down the sides. It was served with glasses of bubbling prosecco spumante.
Illya rose from the table with a contented sigh. “It has been a long day,” he announced, catching Napoleon's eye. “I am going to bed.”
“You go ahead,” the senior agent replied with a wink. “I want to thank Lucrezia for the wonderful dinner.” He headed toward the kitchen, whistling in anticipation of the evening ahead.
Illya changed into pajamas, and selected a volume of Boccaccio's Decameron from the bookshelf. He opened the bedroom window to let in the cool night air, pleased to see that the weather had finally cleared. He leaned out the window, inhaling the freshness that always followed a rain, and winced in surprise as a splinter pierced his finger. He glanced down; a tiny drop of blood formed on the pad of his thumb. He put it to his mouth and sucked.
The room lurched alarmingly. Illya's vision wavered, and his entire body began to shake. He tried to cry out, to signal Napoleon somehow, but his vocal cords refused to function. His breath came in short gasps that did little to fill his lungs.
A paralytic! Chyort!
He took a step toward the door, but his legs collapsed under him, and he hit the floor with a thud.
Blackness took him.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Napoleon broke off the kiss.
“What was that?” he said, suddenly alert.
Lucrezia's eyes opened. Her voice was sleepy, languid with desire. “Mmm? What was what?”
“I thought I heard something fall.”
“I didn't hear anything.” Her fingers stroked his bare chest. The nails, he saw, were blood red. “I'm sure it was nothing, caro. Probably just Papa cleaning. We have new guests arriving tomorrow.”
“New guests?” Napoleon nestled closer, feathering kisses down her neck. “You mean I'll have to share you?”
She laughed, a throaty sound. “Not tonight,” she murmured, and pressed her lips to his.
Read Part 2 HERE