The Four Horsemen by Gregory Dowling is the second book in the Alvise Marangon Mysteries series (available October 10, 2017).
Tour guide Alvise Marangon thinks he knows Venice better than ever, but now he finds himself ensnared by mysteries as obscure as the city and in many cases just as old.
Certain that he is finally about to have his guide’s license revoked after a tavern brawl, Alvise is instead dragooned into the service of Missier Grande, who has linked the death of one of his agents to a secret society known as the Four Horsemen. Every attempt that Missier Grande makes to investigate the matter is blocked by forces on high, and enlisting Alvise is a move of last resort—one last-ditch effort to uncover the crimes of the present in the secrets of the past before the future claims more lives.
Among the dark arcades and fetid canals of 18th-century Venice, Alvise is the one who finds himself led on a tour, at any turn of which could lie a fresh corpse or an ancient conspiracy.
I didn’t like the man who approached me at the Malvasia del Remedio. Unfortunately I made the mistake of making it clear that I didn’t.
It wasn’t entirely my fault. He should not have interrupted me while I was reading. And he should not have been so offensively slimy.
A fault-finder, had there been one in the tavern at that hour, might have hinted that perhaps I could have been a little more sober. But it had been a long day, it was cold outside and the Malmsey wine provided by the tavern was both comforting and reasonably priced. And like so many of the tavern’s clients, I liked to indulge myself in the fancy that the very name of the place indicated that it offered a remedy to life’s ills, even while I knew that Remedio just happened to be the proprietor’s surname.
“Sior Marangon?” said this individual.
I looked up from my volume of Pope; it was a beautiful edition of the first two books of The Iliad, which had been given to me by a grateful client with good taste. The shift from Achilles’ wrath to this man’s fawning tone was jarring. His excessively tight clothes, over-powdered wig and fixed smile all added to the contrast, and to my irritation.
“That’s my name,” I said, in as civilly neutral a tone as my annoyance would allow.
“You work as a cicerone principally with English travellers, I believe,” he said, and sat down at the table opposite me. He never stopped smiling; or, to be more accurate, he never stopped displaying his teeth, which gleamed in the light from the candle-bracket above my head. His eyes, which flittered around the room as he spoke, were entirely unaffected by the smile.
“That is the case,” I said. Although Venetian by birth I had grown up in England, thanks to the intermittently nomadic life led by my actress mother. Being able to speak both English and Venetian fluently was an undeniable advantage in the fiercely competitive world of the professional tour guides or ciceroni. “Are you proposing a new client? Because at the moment I am already engaged with a young nobleman.”
“Yes, I am aware of that,” he said. “And it is precisely on that subject that I have come to speak to you. On behalf of my master, Sior Molin. Sior Lucio Molin.”
“Ah,” I said.
His eyes fixed on me for one moment. “I gather you know of my master?”
“I’ve heard of him,” I said, my tone remaining neutral. I lifted my book in as obvious a fashion as possible.
He ignored the hint. “Then you will know he has one of the most sought-after gambling establishments in the city.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And he has asked me to propose a business arrangement with you.”
“Please thank your master, but tell him—”
He lifted his hand. “You have not yet heard his very generous offer.”
“No, and I don’t wish to hear it,” I said, deciding to abandon all semblance of civility. “When my clients ask me for advice on gambling establishments, I recommend the state ridotto and nowhere else. I have no wish to be blamed for any losses they might sustain.”
“Who is to say that they might not win?” he said, and somehow managed to reveal a few more gleaming teeth on both sides of his mouth.
“Who indeed?” I said. “But the answer remains no.”
“I understand that you accept pecuniary rewards from some of the artists that your clients visit.”
“Well, that’s different. When my clients buy a portrait from Sior Nazari or a veduta from Sior Marieschi, it’s possible that they may be so lacking in taste as to be dissatisfied with the work, but the painting does exist. In real terms they are no poorer than they were before.”
“Visitors to Sior Molin’s establishment, of course, do not always win, but they certainly pass a pleasant and sociable evening in the best of company…”
“And long may they continue to do so,” I said. “I certainly won’t prevent any of my clients from visiting it. I just don’t wish to be the one who sends them there.”
“If I may say so,” he said, “you are turning down a considerable source of income, and one that is perfectly legitimate.”
It was here, perhaps, that I made my mistake. “I have little more than my reputation to keep me going,” I said, “and so I have no wish to jeopardise it for a few easy bribes.”
Suddenly his display of teeth became unambiguously menacing. “I will inform Sior Molin of your refusal – and also of your insult. He will not be pleased.”
It might have been more dignified on my part simply to dismiss him at this point with a wave of my hand and to return to the epic struggles of the Greeks and Trojans, but rather late I remembered that Lucio Molin, like so many managers of gambling establishments, had a number of burly henchmen, or bravi, in his employ, and so I mumbled a few words to the effect that I certainly had no wish to offend anyone. However, my interlocutor was already getting to his feet and paid no attention.
As he left me I caught the eye of Siora Remedio, who came over to my table.
“Another cup of wine, Sior Alvise?” she said.
“I think I’d better not,” I said, although the temptation to drown my misgivings in Malmsey was strong. “Oh, by the way…”
“Did you happen to notice if the man who was talking to me just now was with anyone else?”
“Yes. Like a bravo – or two.”
“Oh dear,” she said. “Have you been getting into trouble again, Sior Alvise?”
“Again?” I said.
“Well, for a quiet young man who likes reading you do seem to have a few, um, unusual friends,” she said.
I knew who she was thinking of. My second job, slightly more lucrative though considerably less respectable, was as a confidential agent for the Missier Grande; this occasionally involved my meeting with one or more of the city’s sbirri or law-enforcers; “unusual” was probably the most flattering adjective that had ever been used to describe them. I had clearly made the mistake of using the tavern as a meeting-point rather too often.
“You know how it is as a cicerone,” I said, and hoped my vague arm-sweeping gesture would suggest all sorts of reasonable explanations. “Do you think you could just look outside and see if the man is still out there? Without making it too obvious?”
She picked up my empty tankard and moved towards the door. There were too many other customers for me to see what happened, but I suddenly heard her voice raised with the authoritative tones only possessed by the women who manage Venetian taverns (the husbands are never so imposing). “Be off with you! We don’t want your sort hanging around here!”
The clientele of the tavern looked towards the door with interest. It was a dull evening in November and her tone suggested a break in the monotony at least.
She came back to me. “Well, I sent them packing.”
“Who were they?” I said, trying to make my voice sound casual, and probably not succeeding.
“That smarmy type who was talking to you and two rough fellows carrying cudgels. Not the sort you should be mixing with, Sior Alvise.”
“No,” I agreed. “Definitely not. In fact, I’ll take your advice and have nothing to do with them. Could I leave by the kitchen door?” I could not imagine that they had gone very far from the tavern. They were probably waiting on the fondamenta alongside the nearby canal.
“The kitchen door?” she said. “It gives on to the canal.”
“Ah,” I said, just briefly toying with the idea of swimming home. “Well, maybe not, then…”
“But we’ve got a boat there.”
This was to be expected, since their supplies would arrive by boat; however, lending it to me seemed to go beyond what was expected from our hostess–client relationship. I said, “I see,” in a puzzled tone.
“All you have to do is swing it out and you should be able to reach the calle on the opposite side. We can pull it back.”
“That would be very kind,” I said, wondering if this was a regular occurrence with some of her more obstreperous customers.
“No problem, Sior Alvise.” Then a thought struck her. “You’ll settle the week’s bill, will you?”
I did not find this apprehension on her part in any way encouraging, but I dug into my purse and paid what she told me was due, wincing just a little when I realised quite how much Malmsey I must have consumed over the last few evenings.
I wrapped my cloak around me (the first really warm garment I had ever possessed, even more expensive than my weekly malvasia bill) and put on my tricorn hat. A pity I had come unequipped with a mask; it was already the middle of the month and half the population was indulging in the freedom offered by anonymity. However, I only used masks in those places that required them, like the city’s gambling houses and theatres, and this evening I had had no intention of engaging in any such activities.
I followed Siora Remedio towards the kitchen. I think this tame conclusion to the evening disappointed one or two of the clients, although they raised a salutary tankard in my direction.
It proved as simple as Siora Remedio had suggested. The kitchen had a door right on to the canal, and there lay the tavern’s simple sandolo, moored at both ends. I untied the rope at the prow and pushed off against the brick wall of the tavern; the boat swung out, its prow pointing towards the dark alley between two high buildings on the opposite side of the canal. I glanced to the right, and at the far end of the canal, where it veered leftwards, I could dimly make out the bridge that led into the little square beneath the Querini palace. I thought I saw a figure on the bridge but paid no attention.
The alley had steps down to the canal and I managed to scramble out of the boat and on to their seaweedy surface without slipping straight back. Maybe I was not so very drunk after all, I congratulated myself.
I turned round and waved to Siora Remedio, who stood stalwartly framed against the light of her kitchen. She indicated that I should push the boat back, and I managed to do that too without falling into the canal. I should probably offer to give lessons in sobriety and deportment to the city’s youth.
I then applied my keen brain to the question of where I was. “Casselleria,” I said to myself, after just a second’s calculation, and with a touch of self-congratulation on my geographical expertise. If there had been anyone around I would have told them that it was the street of the chest-makers, who had their own little shrine in the nearby church of Santa Maria Formosa. “And they helped to rescue the Venetian brides kidnapped by Istrian pirates back in the tenth century,” I informed a passing rat. Sometimes ciceroni can be rather tedious.
I now made my second big mistake of the evening. It would have been perfectly easy to follow the Casselleria northwards and head towards the Rialto, comfortably distant from any lurking bravi, and then take a circuitous route back homewards. Instead, feeling complacent in my knowledge of the city’s geography, I took the first turning left, which led, after another sharp left, to the Ponte de l’Anzolo, Bridge of the Angel. I had come this way just a few days earlier with an earnest English clergyman to show him the fine sculptured angel on Palazzo Soranzo that looks towards the bridge, and I had told him the quaint story of the monkey and the devil associated with it. He had thought the story a foolish example of Papist superstition, and I had said nothing in defence of the angel (or of the Catholic Church). So maybe now I was coming back to make amends. And perhaps I also felt I needed an angel’s protection.
But it didn’t work. As I passed the first turning left after the bridge I heard an urgent clatter of approaching footsteps from somewhere along the gloomy depths of the alley – and I realised that it led straight back to the tavern. If that figure I had glimpsed on the bridge earlier had been one of Molin’s bravi, then they could easily have guessed that I might come back this way. Especially if they knew that I was drunk and stupid. And my conversation earlier had perhaps given them an inkling.
Copyright © 2017 Gregory Dowling.
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Gregory Dowling grew up in Bristol before studying English at Christ Church, Oxford. He moved to Venice in 1981, where he is Associate Professor of American Literature at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. He is the author of several novels, including Ascension, co-edited two anthologies of poetry, and written various non-fiction books and academic articles on Italian, British, and American literature.