“Strictly Business” by Hereward Proops
Inspector Edmund Forrester sat before the expansive desk of the Chief Inspector. On the other side of the vast mahogany surface sat Chief Inspector Pardoe himself, an austere gentleman in his late fifties whose stern gaze rested firmly on the documents before him. Several minutes passed in silence before Forrester spoke, his patience beginning to run thin. “You called for me, sir?”
Pardoe’s eyes darted up momentarily and narrowed at Forrester before resuming their perusal of the document. Taking the hint, Forrester sat silently in the uncomfortable wooden chair for several minutes more.
Finally, with a dismissive cough, Pardoe slammed the papers down onto the polished surface of the desk. “Do you know what your problem is, Forrester?” the older man barked.
“No, sir,” Forrester replied, bracing himself for yet another dressing down.
“You’re too blasted impatient. Always rushing off half-cocked and throwing yourself into dangerous situations. Like that job with the blackmailers last year…”
Forrester remained silent but raised a hand to gingerly examine his nose, the main victim of that unsuccessful case. What had once been firm and straight was now tender and crooked, smeared across his features in a manner most displeasing to the eye.
Noticing Forrester’s self-conscious gesture, Pardoe changed the subject. “Have you heard of George Carlson?” he asked gruffly.
“No, sir. Can’t say I have. Might I ask who he is?”
“Youngest son of Lord Carlson, one of Disraeli’s stooges. Unlike his brothers, young George has a bit of a reputation as a hell-raiser. Spends a lot of his allowance on women, drink and gaming, none of which I hear he has much success with.”
“For the past few months the young tyke has been on a grand tour of Europe, no doubt whoring his way across the continent. His father wrote several requests for him to return, all of which were ignored.”
“I fail to see how this is a police matter, sir,” Forrester interrupted, “An errant son of a peer is one thing but—”
“If you’ll let me finish,” the older man growled. “George Carlson’s body was found floating in the Grand Canal in Venice two weeks ago. Seems he’d been stabbed through the heart. Several so-called friends of his claimed that he’d been involved in some sort of duel, a matter of honour or some such nonsense.”
Pardoe paused as he glanced down at the papers on the desk before him. Forrester shifted awkwardly in his seat and waited for the Chief Inspector to continue.
“The main suspect, it seems,” Pardoe spoke without looking up, “is a young Italian bravo… a Count Emile de Ferrante. He also has a reputation for being somewhat wild. The Venetian authorities had warned him in the past about duelling, and now that several fingers have been pointed at him over Carlson’s death they wish to take him into custody.”
“Let me guess,” Forrester interjected. “Our Italian friend has gone to ground.”
“Something like that,” sniffed Pardoe. “The Venetian police couldn’t seem to track him down for questioning. Looked as though he’d plain vanished from sight. That is, until he turned up at a society dinner at Lady Sommersley’s house two days ago.”
“He’s here in the city?” Forrester asked in surprise.
Pardoe nodded grimly. “It seems so. What I’d like you to do is go and have a little chat to the Count. I understand that he remains a guest at Lady Sommersley’s house.”
“You mean for me to arrest him?”
“No,” Pardoe shook his head, “We’ve tried that already. I made the mistake of sending that damn fool Walmsley to do it. Unfortunately, it seems that the Count has a number of alibis for the night in question.”
“Mmm, about two dozen people claim that on the night of George Carlson’s murder in Venice, Count de Ferrante was giving a lecture on Venetian masks in the drawing room of his hostess’ house. Rather queer, no?”
“It seems that there’s only one of two possibilities then,” Forrester said thoughtfully, “Either Carlson’s friends were mistaken or there are a lot of people willing to cover for the Count.”
Pardoe placed his hands on the polished surface of the desk and pushed himself to his feet with a sigh.
“Exactly. What I want you to do is to investigate the matter thoroughly. Strictly business, mind. You seem to have a nose for this sort of thing.”
The drawing room of Lady Sommersley’s house was large and airy. Rich tapestries hung from the walls covering the gaudy paper behind. Fine sculptures and fragile-looking vases sat on nearly every available surface; Forrester was conscious of not upsetting them as he was shown to a luxuriously embroidered sofa where he sat awaiting the Count de Ferrante.
Lady Sommersley was the wealthy widow of Sir James Sommersley, whose father had made his fortune during the Napoleonic wars. After her husband had passed away, Lady Sommersley, hitherto a shy and retiring woman, metamorphosed into an outgoing patron of the arts whose frequent masked balls and soirées were both the scandal and sensation of high society. Most shockingly, Lady Sommersley had gained a reputation for taking in itinerant foreign aristocrats who had left the continent under less than auspicious circumstances.
Forrester had learned these facts from the report Chief Inspector Pardoe had handed to him at the conclusion of their meeting. He was neither surprised nor scandalised by what he learned of Lady Sommersley and her house guests – after so many years on the force it took more than the sensationalised flirtations of an ageing heiress to shock him. He accepted the misbehaviour of the wealthy and normally politically immune classes much as one accepts the inevitable downpour of rain when caught without an umbrella.
He had been shown to the drawing room by a plump, unsmiling butler who had seemed unsurprised when Forrester had given him his card and stated his business there. As expected, the Count kept him waiting; not long enough to be impolite but just long enough to be inconvenient.
When the ornate panelled door did finally swing open Forrester was impressed by the figure that came striding into the room. He had expected the Count to be the typically bilious, overweight foreign gentlemen one read of in the society columns. Instead, Count Emile de Ferrante was a strikingly handsome gentleman, whose broad shoulders and muscular physique seemed incongruously matched to his short stature. He wore a smart suit that had been tailored to fit his unusual form snugly. The rich black material of the suit matched his slicked-back hair and accentuated the light dusting of grey hairs around his temples.
Sparkling brown eyes looked Forrester up and down, lingering slightly longer than would be considered polite on his broken nose. The Count’s handsome, olive-skinned face broke into a smile as he took Forrester’s hand and shook it with enthusiasm.
“Signor Forrester? A pleasure to meet you,” the Count spoke loudly, his heavy Italian accent making it difficult for Forrester to tell whether the man was genuine.
The Count gestured for Forrester to sit before throwing himself onto a velvet covered chaise longue and ordering the silent butler to bring in a pot of coffee for two. “I’d prefer tea, if you don’t mind,” Forrester ventured.
The Count stared incredulously, as though he had received a personal insult. “Tea?” his upper lip wrinkled as he spoke the word, “I hate the drink. So bland and lacking in character. So frightfully English. No,” he snapped his fingers, “We will drink coffee a L’Italiano – as my countrymen do – strong and black.”
The butler nodded and left the room. The Count reached into his pocket and brought out a flat silver case from which he extracted a long thin cigarette.
“Do you smoke?” the Count offered the case to Forrester who politely declined.
“Now,” the Count continued as he struck a match from his fingernail and drew deeply on the cigarette, “For what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Forrester gazed deep into the Count’s dark eyes as he began. “I understand that one of my colleagues paid you a visit earlier on this week.”
“Si…Yes,” the Count corrected himself, “A Constable Walmsley, I believe? Terrible little man. He came with a warrant for my arrest. Ridiculous, I told him so. How could I possibly have fought a duel in Venice when I was speaking that same evening in this very room?”
“Your lecture was on masks, I hear,” Forrester continued, undeterred by the outraged tone of the Count.
“Yes. We Venetians have a long tradition of mask-making. During the Carnivale all people would wear them, from the rich to the poor. Many of the masks are based on the players from Commedia Dell’Arte… you are aware of this?”
“I don’t like the theatre.” Forrester shrugged.
“Tsk tsk,” the Count wagged his finger admonishingly, the cigarette trailing smoke in its wake, “A man who does not love the theatre does not love life. We all wear our masks, Signore Forrester, for do we all not wish to conceal our secrets from others? A man’s face, it is said, can be read like a book. But a mask, a mask is unreadable – or only allows us to see what the wearer wishes.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Come Signore,” the Count blew a cloud of smoke into the air, “I look at your face and I see many things.”
“You do, do you?” Forrester felt his anger rising.
“Yes. I see from your strong jaw and the way you clench your teeth that you are a determined man, you do not like to lose. From that I can deduce that you do not gamble, for only a man who can accept loss plays games of chance. Am I correct?”
“I can see also,” the Count sneered, “that you are a fighting man. Judging from the state of your nose I would guess that you lost a fight… something that must gall you terribly.”
The Count was interrupted as the butler brought in a pot of coffee and two small cups on a silver tray. Without thanking him, the Count dismissed the man and poured their drinks. Leaning back into his seat, the Count sipped his coffee and gazed past Forrester at a nearby painting. Much to Forrester’s relief he appeared to have forgotten their previous line of conversation.
“Is Lady Sommersley at home?” Forrester asked after a time.
“No,” the Count shook his head, “She has gone to visit her nephew in York. She will be gone this whole week.”
“And do you intend to return to Venice any time soon?”
“As a suspect of murder? No Signore, I am not stupid. I will wait for this storm to pass before setting sail.”
“How do you explain the witnesses who claim to have seen you run Mister Carlson through?”
The Count laughed and rose to his feet, pacing back and forth on the carpet. “I do not even know this Carlson. A man such as myself has many friends back home but also many enemies. Does it not seem likely that I have been accused out of spite?”
“I have heard that back home you have a reputation for duelling,” Forrester said over the rim of his cup.
Hearing this, the Count paused and sighed emphatically. “A reputation is an easy thing to gain but far harder to be rid of. It is true, when I was younger and less even-tempered I did participate in a number of duellos. But such things are the follies of youth, are they not? Where I am from, many young men will fight a duel over a careless glance or an unkind word. I would guess that Signore Carlson fell victim to one of the follies of young Englishmen abroad.”
Forrester glanced up from his coffee and met the gaze of the swarthy Italian. “What might that be, Count de Ferrante?” he asked.
“Rudeness,” the Count replied, his unblinking eyes meeting Forrester’s own.
“We were taking our supper at an Osseria nearby Santi Apostoli. You are familiar with Venice?”
Forrester shook his head and let the young man continue.
“Oh you simply must go. It’s really quite a delight. Rather like stepping into another world.”
“I’m afraid the closest I’ve ever come to another world is a few wet weekends in Brighton,” Forrester replied drily, “Not all of us have fathers wealthy enough to send us abroad.”
Archie Drew’s cheeks reddened and he ran a hand nervously through the mass of unruly blonde curls on his head. “Golly, I’m sorry,” he blurted, “No offence meant.”
“None taken,” Forrester said, “Do continue.”
Having spent an hour in the company of the Count de Ferrante and learned little else than the man was intelligent, sophisticated and extremely arrogant, Forrester had decided to pay a visit to Archibald Drew. Drew was a young fop who had been celebrating his graduation from Oxford by accompanying his friend George Carlson on his European tour. Drew had been with Carlson on the night of the duel and was said to be the most reliable of the witnesses, on account of being a graduate with no previous run-ins with the law. After his friend’s death, Drew had come scurrying back to England where he spent his time sauntering in the billiards room of the gentleman’s club owned by his father. It was there that Forrester questioned him about the late-night duel his reckless friend had gotten involved in.
Archie ran his fingers through his hair once more before he continued. “We’d just finished a very good local dish of fried fish and were polishing off our third or fourth bottle of wine, I forget which.”
“You had been drinking a lot then?” Forrester asked.
“Well, no more than we normally do when dining out,” the young man answered quickly, “All of a sudden, over strides this greasy Count who rails at us over our behaviour and table manners as if he owned the place.”
“Can you describe the Count to me?”
“Short chap. Well dressed. He was well built, I reckon, for his size that is. Spoke pretty good English and smoked those funny thin cigarettes.”
“Are you certain it was Count Emile de Ferrante? Forrester pressed the young man, his curiosity roused by the description, “You aren’t mistaken about the name?”
“That’s what he introduced himself as. He seemed genuine enough. The way he glared at Georgie… and the names he called him. Small wonder Georgie lashed out the way he did.”
“Lashed out? He struck the Count?”
“Well, he tried to. The Italian stepped aside and Georgie flew right past him and upended a table. As Georgie was picking himself up the Count called him out. I tried to stop Georgie but he was ever so bloody-minded when he’d been in his cups…”
Drew’s face whitened as the words left his lips, realising that he had said too much. He tried to hide his expression by draining his glass but little escaped Forrester’s eyes and he pressed the young man still further. “You’re saying he was drunk then?”
“Well,” he sputtered, “I wouldn’t say drunk so much as—”
“Come now Archie,” Forrester leaned closer to him and lowered his voice to a growl, “You wouldn’t want to hold anything back from an officer of the law, would you? One as well-groomed as yourself wouldn’t be too comfy in a Newgate cell, certainly not with some of the ruffians I’ve sent there recently. Best you tell all now and I’ll write favourably of you in my report.”
Archie Drew gazed at his feet and fidgeted with his hands. Forrester knew how to apply pressure to rich young fools like this one. It gave him a certain pleasure to watch them squirm at the mere mention of prison, even though he knew that the most a man of Drew’s standing would get were a few stern words from a lenient magistrate. Forrester also knew that his pugilist’s nose lent a certain menacing aspect to his appearance, enough to make a milksop like Archie Drew tremble, at any rate.
“Very well,” sighed the young man, “I’ll say that Georgie had filled his boots. We all had… The wine over there is cheaper than the bloody water. You mustn’t let father know about that, mind. He thought I’d gone over there to gaze at the frescoes or some such nonsense.”
Forrester allowed himself a brief smile as he amended the notes he had made in his small pocketbook. Here was a young man caught up in an unsolved murder who seemed more concerned about his father finding out he had been drinking on the night in question. The upper classes never ceased to amaze him. As he finished scribbling on the page he resolved to have a quiet word with Archie’s father as soon as possible.
“Tell me about this duel then,” he said, renewing his stern gaze. “Was Mister Carlson in any fit state to fight?”
“He could barely hold the sword,” exclaimed Drew, “Not to mention the fact that it was so dark you could barely see the blade unless it caught the moonlight.”
“Where did the duel take place?”
“In the Campo, the square by the church. It was so late by then, all the shutters were closed and you don’t get many folks wandering about at that time. Not decent folks, at any rate.”
“Who struck the first blow? The truth now,” Forrester added, seeing a flicker of deception cross Drew’s face.
“You don’t miss much, do you?” Drew sighed. “Georgie did. Hurled himself at him. Being so dark he tripped over his own feet and went sprawling on the paving stones. The Count just stood there and laughed. Georgie went at him again but the Count parried his blow as though it were nothing. Then, as casual as you like, he lunged – perfect form – and ran Georgie through. Poor Georgie just stood there till the Count pulled his blade clear and then his legs buckled under him. By the time I got to him he was stone dead.”
“And the Count? What did he do?”
“I don’t recall seeing him flee,” Drew looked at his shoes and mumbled, “One moment he was standing there and the next, he was gone. Vanished.”
Forrester took his time transcribing the statement, certain that the young man had given a true account of the evening. A chorus of hearty laughter echoed from a nearby room and then faded away, leaving the two men with only the steady ticking of a carriage clock for company.
“Finally,” Forrester measured his words, allowing his question to carry the appropriate weight, “can you tell me how Mister Carlson’s body came to be floating in the Grand Canal the next morning?”
Drew glanced away and stared at the carriage clock as it continued its relentless beat. When he looked back at Forrester there were tears in his dark brown eyes.
“We didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s fairly obvious what happened that night in Venice,” Forrester growled across the desk to Chief Inspector Pardoe, “George Carlson and his friends were drunk, offended the sensibilities of a short tempered Italian and very quickly found themselves out of their depth.”
Pardoe raised his heavy white eyebrows. “And the Count de Ferrante? What part did he play in it?”
“Nothing,” Forrester answered. “Aside from the fact that the man is an insolent, swaggering foreigner, we have nothing on him. There is no chance of him being in two places at once. All of his alibis are reliable and attest to his being here on the date of the killing. Seems to me that someone in Venice held a grudge against the Count and used his name in order to spite him. Having met the man it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d rubbed someone the wrong way.”
Pardoe idly flicked through the pages of Forrester’s report before sliding it back across the desk. “This won’t do,” the old man spoke solemnly, “The Venetian authorities seem convinced that the Count was the perpetrator.”
“And I’m telling you that he isn’t. It just isn’t possible. If you ask me, young Carlson was your typical, boorish toff who got what he deserved.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion!” yelled Pardoe, punctuating his bellows by slamming his fist onto the desk, “Whether George Carlson was behaving loutishly or not, he remains the son of an extremely influential peer who wishes to see the murderer brought to justice.”
“If you read my report, sir, it could be argued that as Mister Carlson struck the first blow, or at least attempted to, that his killer was, in fact, acting in self defence.”
“It was murder,” intoned Pardoe, “That is the official line, one that I advise you to walk very carefully. Strictly business, remember?”
“What would you have me do, sir?”
“Watch the Count.” Pardoe stroked his chin thoughtfully. “The Venetians aren’t stupid and you yourself said that Archie Drew’s description of the man is uncannily accurate. Follow his movements over the next few days. We’ll see if the Count lets his own mask slip.”
Forrester shivered as he pulled the lapels of his coat up against the bitter chill of night. He had watched the nondescript door of the three-story townhouse for several hours, having followed the Count de Ferrante there earlier in the evening. Judging from the near-continuous coming and going of anonymous hansom cabs and their nervous-looking passengers, Forrester guessed that the plain townhouse in the well-to-do area of the city was, in fact, the front for a high class brothel or gambling den.
The front door opened and the warm light from within the house spilled into the street. Forrester took a few steps backwards, slipping into the shadows to avoid detection. He watched an elderly gentleman with thinning grey hair step into the street and climb into a waiting carriage. Cursing under his breath, Forrester dug a hip flask out of his pocket and drained the remainder of its contents. Whatever the Count was doing inside the house, he was certainly taking his time over it.
Another hour crawled by and Forrester was just about to give up and retreat to the warmth of his bed when the door opened again and the Count stepped down into the street, an attractive blonde woman clinging to his arm. The Count spoke to her for a moment before bidding her farewell with a continental kiss on each cheek and a playful slap to her behind. The blonde giggled as she tripped back up the steps into the house.
Satisfied with the night’s doings, the Count thrust his hands into his pockets. Ignoring the waiting hansom cab he began to walk in the direction of Lady Sommersley’s house. Forrester followed at a distance, clinging to the shadows and mindful not to draw too close to the figure of the Count. On several occasions de Ferrante paused to fasten the laces on his boots or to light one of his thin cigarettes. Whenever he did so, Forrester stopped dead in his tracks, holding his breath lest its vapour betray him to his quarry.
The Count did not take a direct route back to the home of Lady Sommersley. He chose a longer way, turning down narrow alleyways that snaked between the busier thoroughfares, doubling back on himself more than once. Though Forrester took pains to avoid detection, he began to suspect that the Count, if not aware that he was being followed, was at least wary of encountering many people on his journey home.
Forrester watched the Count enter another shadowy passageway and was about to follow when another figure stepped out of the night, crossed the road and hurried into the passage. Certain that the individual had not seen him, Forrester stepped into the narrow ingress between the buildings and continued with caution. He walked softly, aware that his steps echoed off the high walls on either side of him. Ahead of him, Forrester could hear two men, the Count and the stranger, exchanging words. The muffled words turned to shouts that lasted a short time before being terminated by a brief, agonised scream.
Throwing caution aside, Forrester ran up the alley, his mind racing with the possibilities of what he might discover in the darkness ahead. He slowed when he saw the body lying crumpled on the cobbles before him. Warily, he approached the inert form and rolled it over.
It was not the Count. Whereas the Count was handsome and clean shaven, this man wore two or three day’s worth of stubble and showed few signs of ever having washed with soap and water. The Count wore expensive tailored suits, whilst the stranger lying before Forrester was dressed in little better than rags. Buried up to the hilt in his chest was an ornate silver dagger. Forrester carefully pulled the weapon clear from the dead man and noticed the dark sapphires set in the guard. He shuddered as he saw the length of the cruel, thin blade and watched the dark stain spread across the man’s shirt.
Grasping the weapon, he rose to his feet and gazed into the gloom ahead of him. A few steps forward brought him to the termination of the passageway, a solid brick wall as high as the adjacent walls. The Count, it seemed, had vanished.
The Chief Inspector’s cold grey eyes danced up and down the length of the dagger as he turned it in his hands. “A cruel looking blade,” he commented as he placed it on the desk before him.
“I believe it’s called a stiletto,” Forrester said, his eyes meeting Pardoe’s gaze, “Popular on the continent as it is easily concealed in a belt or the lining of a jacket. I also understand that a number of Italian schools of swordsmanship teach their pupils to fight with a sword in one hand and a stiletto in the other.”
“And how, precisely,” Pardoe asked pointedly, “did you manage to lose the Count de Ferrante down a dead-end alleyway?”
“I’ve told you already, sir. I don’t rightly know… he just disappeared.”
Pardoe scowled as he spoke, the lines on his face darkening with his mood, “People do not just disappear! What you mean to say is that you lost him!”
“Apologies for speaking out of turn, sir, but there was no chance of losing him. There was nowhere for him to go. The walls were too sheer to climb and there were no drains he could have clambered into. Never seen anything like it before: one moment he was there and the next… gone.”
“Much like your career if you persist with this ridiculous story,” Pardoe warned, pushing the stiletto towards him. “But this fancy trinket looks like the sort of thing the Count would carry and if what you say is true then we’ve got enough evidence to slap him in irons.”
“Do you want me to pay him a visit at Lady Sommersley’s house?” Forrester asked as he placed the blade into the pocket of his coat and rose from his chair.
“I think that might be the best plan of action,” Pardoe answered, “But do be careful, Edmund. The last thing we need is another body on our hands.”
As on his previous visit, the Count de Ferrante kept Forrester waiting in the drawing room for some time. Forrester did not make himself comfortable, instead choosing to stroll about the room and examine the various ornaments and decorations. Pardoe’s last words echoed in his mind as he gazed at a faded tapestry. It was a rare occasion when the old man addressed him by his Christian name and Forrester knew that this signalled some concern for Forrester’s situation. From what he knew of the Count, Pardoe had every reason for his apprehension. The man had almost certainly killed the stranger in the alley and based on that it seemed increasingly likely that he had something to do with the death of George Carlson.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Forrester started and spun on his heel to find the Count standing a few feet behind him. “You surprised me.”
The Count shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “It is good to be surprised sometimes, is it not? I myself did not expect to be seeing you so soon, Signore Forrester. I trust your investigations are going well?”
Forrester’s stared intently at the Count and gestured for him to sit. He betrayed no signs of guilt, no anxious glances aside, no treacherous beads of sweat. Forrester’s hand strayed to his pocket where he allowed it to rest on the jewelled hilt of the stiletto.
“I regret to inform you,” Forrester spoke slowly, willing his voice calm, “That I am under orders to take you into custody.”
The Count returned his gaze, a bemused smile curled across his lips. “On what charge, might I ask?”
The Count snorted with laughter and waved his hand dismissively. “Signore Forrester, surely you are not still pursuing that preposterous notion that I had something to do with the death of that young man in Venice?”
“No,” Forrester answered, calmly removing the stiletto from his pocket and holding it up so the sapphires sparkled in the candlelight, “I’m more interested in the gentleman who you left this with last night.”
The Count’s eyes widened as he saw the dagger and his innocent facade slipped momentarily. It was enough. Forrester reached into his pocket and removed a pair of handcuffs. He stepped towards the Count and reached for the hands that hung limply at his sides.
Without warning the Count moved, slapping the stiletto from Forrester’s grasp with one hand and catching it with the other. Before Forrester could react de Ferrante had lunged towards him, the tip of the blade pointed towards his heart. Forrester tried to move out of harm’s way but his reflexes were no match for the agility of the Count and the spike pierced his shoulder. As he dropped to the floor, the Count vaulted a sofa and darted out of the room.
Spitting curses though gritted teeth, Forrester hauled himself to his feet and pulled the stiletto from his shoulder. Though he clamped his hand over the puncture wound to staunch the bleeding, a trickle ran between his fingers and dripped onto the carpet underfoot.
He followed the Count through the doorway and saw that it led to a narrow flight of stairs. Determined not to allow the Count to escape him a second time, Forrester pushed the throbbing in his wounded shoulder to the back of his mind and rushed to the top.
His revolver clamped in his fist, Forrester burst through the doorway at the head of the stairs. Though he hated having to use the weapon, he was thankful now that he had taken the Chief Inspector’s warning and brought it with him. Looking down the barrel, his eyes swept the darkened room he had stepped into. White sheets draped over the furniture revealed it to be one of Lady Sommersley’s unoccupied guest rooms.
The lack of any other doorway told Forrester that the Count was in there with him. “You can stop hiding,” he yelled, hearing overwrought nerves in his croaking voice. “There’s no way out of this room…”
His calls went unanswered and he gazed at the silent sheets, searching for a quiver of movement or some such sign of disturbance. With a sweep he pulled a sheet off an ornate dressing table, his bloodstained hands leaving red marks on the white covers. He moved about the room, whipping the white sheets aside and thrusting his pistol at what lay beneath in the vain hope he might discover the Count’s hiding place. A groan of disbelief slipped from his lips as he removed the last covering, revealing a worn leather armchair but no Count de Ferrante.
Forrester slumped onto the newly uncovered chair and sighed. How was it possible? Twice he had pursued the Count and twice the Italian had eluded him leaving no rational explanation for his disappearance. He looked around the room to satisfy himself that there was no other exit. He was certain that he had seen the Count enter the door and had been only a matter of seconds behind him in pursuit. How could the Count just vanish? The dull ache in his shoulder resumed and Forrester pulled back his shirt to examine the wound. His fingers tentatively explored the neat hole from which the blood continued to trickle. Using torn strips of white sheet, he bandaged the wound as best he could.
“Losing a suspect once I can understand, but twice?” Pardoe’s fist landed heavily on the desk. “That’s just carelessness!”
Forrester had arrived late at the office of the Chief Inspector the next morning. The wound to his shoulder had been cleaned and dressed but still ached like the devil. Much as he hated drawing attention to his injury, Forrester wore his arm in a sling. He did not meet Pardoe’s steely gaze as he delivered his report on the events of the previous day, knowing the old man’s disapproving scowl would only make him feel worse.
“With all respect, sir,” Forrester spoke quietly, “I’m not sure what more I could have done.”
“You could have shot the bugger,” Pardoe snapped. “The man’s clearly guilty. He’s killed twice now and shows little compunction assaulting an officer of the law. He’s a dangerous criminal and thanks to your incompetence he’s out there as we speak.”
“He won’t be so lucky the next time,” Forrester seethed.
“There won’t be a next time,” Pardoe said, producing a slip of paper. “Not for you at any rate.”
Forrester took the note and read it. “A month’s leave?” he asked.
“You’ve been wounded in the line of duty,” Pardoe kept his eyes fixed on the papers before him. “You are entitled to a period of convalescence. Any thoughts on how you will spend your time?”
Forrester crumpled the paper and thrust it into his pocket. “I might take a holiday to begin with,” he sniffed.
“A splendid idea,” Pardoe looked up from his papers and smiled, “Get away from it all. Anywhere in mind?”
The assortment of houses sat huddled close together, their elaborate frontages towering over the dark waters flowing between them. Running off the murky expanse were other waterways, traversed by long thin boats lavishly decorated with gold leaf and propelled by smartly attired men wielding strangely shaped oars. The voices of the boatmen drifted across the canals to the open air cafe where Forrester sat. Though he could not understand the words, the few days he had spent in the city so far had familiarised him to the peculiarities of Italian tongue. A warm breeze blew and the rapid, impassioned exchange of words was carried away into the distance.
Forrester lifted the small cup to his lips and sniffed. During his first few days in the city he had struggled to find a decent cup of tea. He had finally conceded defeat and began to order coffee at the numerous waterside cafes his lengthy walks led him to. The coffee was strong and black, its sharp taste contrasting with the other smells of the city of canals: the pungent damp of the waters; the rich aromas of unfamiliar dishes; the fleeting scent of the nearby sea.
The few clouds in the sky turned purple as the sun settled beneath the horizon. Forrester glanced at his pocket-watch, then drained his cup. Rising to his feet he nodded his farewell to the waiter and left a few coins on the table as payment. A few minutes’ walk led him to the Rialto Bridge. Accustomed to the sight of the vast structure straddling the Grand Canal, he did not pause to admire it. He crossed hurriedly, moving through the crowds browsing the shops selling glass trinkets and fine silken scarves. On the other side, he turned down an alleyway and moved into the shadows.
Though the narrow alleyways of Venice had initially seemed bafflingly labyrinthine, Forrester had grown used to them. He had whiled away hours of his holiday wandering the streets, following the winding passages that led to hidden courtyards, luxurious Palazzos and crowded Piazzas. These byways were seldom lit by gas lamps but Forrester’s eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness. He followed a route that he had walked many times before, emerging from the gloom to face the murky waters of the canal and the low arch of the bridge at Santi Apostoli.
Campo Santi Apostoli was a large square surrounded by tall buildings whose shuttered facades gazed down on the smooth paving stones. The bell-tower of Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli dominated the Campo, its onion-dome visible from the Grand Canal. Beneath the vast structure, the Campo swarmed with life. Gondoliers stood chattering by the waterside and tradesmen gathered around the communal well to discuss the business of the day. The glow from the cafe lights spread into the square and banished the encroaching twilight.
Forrester took in the scene as he crossed the square. Turning into one of the small roads leading off the Campo, he headed towards the flickering lamp above the Osseria.
Strains of music could be heard from inside the restaurant. The door was low, forcing him to stoop as he stepped through. It was smoky and noisy inside, the hum of conversation competing with the clatter of crockery and the musicians who plied their trade from a dimly lit corner. Forrester smiled at the moustachioed gentleman who stood behind the bar, and they exchanged a few words. The barman pointed over to a distant corner of the room and Forrester thanked him. Leaving a couple of coins, Forrester made his way through the crowds towards the indicated corner.
Count Emile de Ferrante sat at the table, an empty plate before him. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and drained the contents of his wineglass. “Signore Forrester?” he asked, unable to hide the surprise in his voice, “You are one man I did not expect to see again.”
Forrester did not reply. He pulled a pistol from his pocket and cocked the hammer back.
“A strange thing to bring on holiday, Signore,” the count quipped as he raised his hands in submission.
“The holiday is over,” Forrester growled, “This is strictly business.”
Hereward Proops was born in England but currently lives on an island in Scotland’s windswept Outer Hebrides with his wife and Europe’s stupidest greyhound. He is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel, The Great Absolute. You can email him at email@example.com.
And yes, that is his real name.