/Absolution
Absolution 2018-06-08T22:43:23+00:00

Carnivia Book Three – Extract

 

Prologue

The candidate was in darkness.

He heard three short, staccato knocks as his two companions struck the door, followed by the response: “Who goes there?” And he heard the answer, confidently given, the words of the ritual flowing smoothly from their tongues.

Guided by a hand on his back, he stepped through the door into the room beyond. Even though he couldn’t see it, he could sense that it was large and cool, like a church. He smelt candle wax, and the faint spicy richness of the polished stone flags under his bare feet.

“Brother, you will step off with your left foot, and bring the heel of your right foot into the hollow of your left,” a stern voice said.

He did as he was bidden.

“Now step off with your right, and then bring your heels together.”

As he obeyed, the candidate kept his expression solemn. He knew that those around him would be scrutinising his face for any hint of impropriety. Inwardly, though, he was exultant. Taking the third step was an indication that he had now reached the very highest degree of the Craft. All of its so-called secrets would be revealed to him.

But, far more importantly, he would be trusted by them. He could ask any favour of them, secure in the knowledge that it would be granted.

At last, he was safe.

It had been a close-run thing – there had been times just recently when he had felt as if he was staring into an abyss of terror and panic – but now, thanks to the protection of these men, he was untouchable.

“The candidate is in order, Worshipful, and awaits your further will and pleasure,” a voice said beside him.

“You will cause him to kneel on his naked knees,” the Master responded.

The candidate knelt. His knees were naked because the loose cotton trousers – the only clothing he was wearing – had been rolled up to his thighs. There was a cushion on the floor, and once he was kneeling he reached forward to grasp the table he knew would be in front of him.

“Are you willing to take the oath?” the Master’s voice said above him.

“I am willing and eager to take the oath.”

“Detach your hands and kiss the book. Then make your solemn vow.”

The candidate did as he was instructed. As he spoke the stark, formal words of the oath he fancied that he could just make out, through a tiny chink in the mask that covered his eyes – the ‘hoodwink’, as it was known in the arcane jargon of the fellowship – the flame of a nearby candle.

In a few moments, he knew, he would be asked what it was that he most desired. “More light,” he would reply, and the velvet-lined eyeholes of the hoodwink would spring open to reveal that in front of him was a chair in which a human skeleton was sitting, illuminated by the flickering flames of a dozen tapers. It was a symbolic reminder of the consequences of betraying his fellows.

To the candidate, the concept of betrayal was quite meaningless. A man looked out for himself. What else was there? But just for a moment the words he was uttering, which until now had been simply another part of the ceremony, took on terrible meaning. Involuntarily, he faltered.

If any of the watchers noticed, no one said anything. In the long silence after the oath was finished, the candidate shifted a little on the cushion. He must not make such a mistake again.

The point of something sharp pressed against the left side of his chest.

“Brother,” the Master’s voice said, “on entering this place for the first time, you were received on the point of a compass pressing your left breast, the moral of which was explained to you. On entering the second time, you were received on the angle of the square, which was similarly explained. I now receive you on both points of the compass.”

The sharp object lifted from his chest. A moment later, he felt it press a few inches to the right. It felt heavier than on the previous occasions when he’d undergone initiation rituals. He must remember to ask about it later, when they were enjoying the convivial drinks and dinner that would follow the ceremony. They liked nothing better, he had discovered, than to discuss the finer details of their mumbo-jumbo and what it symbolised.

“As the vital parts of man are contained within the chest, so the most excellent tenets of our institution are contained within these two points – which is to say, secrecy and honour,” the Master droned.

The sharp point lifted away. The candidate tensed a little – next, he knew, the compass would be pressed against his skin just hard enough to draw blood. Then the ritual would be over.

He certainly wasn’t expecting the long, hard-bladed shiv that thumped with sudden violence between his ribs. With a sudden choking gasp he fell backwards. Waiting hands caught him and set him upright. He put his hand to his chest and felt the handle of the knife, lodged solidly within him; felt his skin already running with blood, blood that was pumping from his chest in abrupt, jerky spurts. He tried to tear the hoodwink off, but his hands no longer obeyed him.

And then, even more terrifyingly, he felt the spurting stop, and knew that his heart was gone.

Chapter One

It was going to be another beautiful day. Although it was only just gone ten a.m., the sun was fierce and fiery and the only clouds were trapped high over the distant mountains to the north. Kat felt the welcome coolness of spray on her face as the Carabinieri motorboat bounced against a wave, and opened the throttle even wider.

In the stern, Second Lieutenant Maria Bagnasco gave a startled gasp as seawater slapped her face, and stumbled forwards to the relative safety of the cockpit. As well as being wet, she was, Kat noticed, somewhat green. She’d been looking that way ever since they neared the Bocca di Lido, the narrow opening that separated the calm waters of the Venetian lagoon from the choppier open sea.

“How long have you been in Venice, sottotenente?”  Kat called over the noise of the engine.

“A month,” the second lieutenant answered dutifully, although she looked as though even the act of speaking was physically unwelcome right now.

“And you’re still getting seasick? Even when the water’s as calm as this?” Kat said, surprised.

Bagnasco didn’t reply. Telling the capitano that it wasn’t so much the waves making her sick as the ridiculously tight turns Captain Tapo was making as she wove and ducked between the ships making their way up and down the shipping lane from the Bocca di Lido to the Canale di San Marco wasn’t, she knew, going to make any difference. Kat Tapo had clearly relished the chance to turn on the boat’s flashing blue light and break the speed limit. It had been this way ever since leaving the pontoon at Rio dei Greci, the canal beside the Carabinieri headquarters at Campo San Zaccaria: Kat had jumped in and started the engine, drumming her fingers impatiently, while Bagnasco was still clambering cautiously down from the jetty.

The boat veered sharply to the right as they cleared the artificial island built as part of MOSE, the vast underwater gate system that would – if the politicians and engineers were to be believed – soon protect the city against flooding, although many ordinary Venetians were more sceptical. Only recently fourteen people attached to the construction consortium, including its president, had been arrested on corruption charges relating to the project, which was currently running at two billion Euros and six years over budget.

The Carabinieri motorboat was travelling south now, parallel to the Lido, bouncing at right angles to the waves that streamed towards the beach. Kat scanned the shore as she steered. Even though they were only a few kilometres from St Mark’s Square as the seagull flew, this was a very different world. In these closing weeks of August, the Lido had the feel of the faded but once-opulent bathing resort it had once been. Here was Nicelli, the tiny airport where Mussolini had once stood to welcome Hitler, now mainly used by the helicopters and Pipers of the super-rich; here was the hulking, Fascist-era cinema built to glorify the dictator’s pet film festival, around which Kat could see a cluster of tiny figures – although why anyone would want to spend a morning like this watching a movie was beyond her. Here were the serried rows of sunloungers and parasols; here too was the private beach of the former Hotel Des Bains, where Winston Churchill had once painted watercolours, standing at his easel wrapped in a bathrobe and puffing on a cigar. The old capannas, the brightly-patterned bathing tents where Visconti had filmed a different death in Venice to a soundtrack of Mahler, were still here, arranged in rows to the rear the sunloungers, but these days you had to be a millionaire to rent one for the whole season.

Death in Venice…. As if on cue, Kat made out a white capanna-like tent that was slightly larger than the rest, placed incongruously right on the shoreline. Blue and white tape cordoned off a swathe of beach around it, from one breakwater to the next. A figure in a white protective suit, complete with mask and hood, stood up, then crouched back down again to examine something.

“That’s the scene-of-crime team.” Kat turned the motorboat towards a hotel jetty about fifty yards away, slowing to a crawl as she did so. Dr Hapardi, she knew, wouldn’t be best pleased if she ruined his delicate handiwork with her wash.

It had been only thirty minutes or so since General Saito himself had called her at her desk. “How busy are you, Capitano?” he’d asked without preamble.

“Colonel Piola and I are still wrapping up the paperwork on the Murano investigation,” she’d replied. “Perhaps another three or four days’ work.” Cheap coloured glass, imported from China, had been turning up in the shops on the glass-blowing island of Murano – complete with stickers saying ‘Made in Murano, Venice,’ quadrupling its value. A Carabinieri raid on a warehouse in Mestre had netted over fifty thousand fake pieces, with another hundred thousand stickers waiting to be affixed to future consignments. Needless to say, the families who had been selling the imports were blaming an ‘administrative error’ – an error which had just happened to net them over five million pounds in profits, although of the money men who creamed off most of it there was, as usual, no sign.

“That’s all right. I’ve spoken to Colonel Piola and he’s happy to finish up without you. It was the prosecutor who suggested your name, incidentally, but the colonel and I are both confident that you’re ready to run this investigation on your own.”

“May I ask what the case concerns, sir?”

“It’s a homicide,” Saito said tersely. That in itself was surprising – it was customary to preface such terms, at least in the early stages of an investigation, with the words ‘Possible’ or ‘Alleged’. “We’ll discuss budgets and manpower later but it’s clearly going to be a large investigation. In the meantime, I’m assigning Sottotenente Bagnasco to be your administrative assistant. She also comes highly recommended, but given that she’s new to the team let me know how she gets on. And use Colonel Piola as a sounding board for anything you’re not sure about.”

“Of course, sir.” She wondered if it was appropriate to say thank you. “And thank you.”

“I doubt you’ll be grateful for this one, capitano,” Saito said darkly, before he rang off.

She edged the boat right up to the jetty. Most passengers would automatically have jumped out to secure a line, but Bagnasco still appeared too seasick to help, although she recovered somewhat once she was on dry land again. The entire beach seemed to turn to stare as they walked up through the bathers. It felt odd to be fully dressed amongst so much bare flesh, Kat thought; but of course it was their uniforms that were attracting the attention, not just the fact that they were both women. Sun and a murder: it was hardly surprising that nobody was bothering with their books this morning.

At the taped-off perimeter they paused to put on the microfibre suits and face masks that would prevent any of their own hairs or DNA from contaminating the scene. There was already a team of four technicians here, as well as the medical examiner, a photographer and three Carabinieri on crowd control, whom she recognised as being from the station across the Lido at Riviera San Nicolo.

Nodding to them, she went inside the forensic tent. It was incredibly hot. The combination of the blazing sun on the tent’s plastic roof, and the microfibre overalls over her uniform, made her instantly long for the slight breeze that had been coming off the sea. She felt sweat prickle down her spine, and forced herself to concentrate on what she was looking at.

Dr Hapardi got up from his position squatting beside the body so that she could see. The corpse was lying just where the sea met the sand, so that from the waist down it was in shallow water. It was a man, his trousers rolled up above the knees as if he had been wading. His chest was bare, and a length of rope was wound over one shoulder and arm. His throat had been cut open, all the way from one clavicle to another – the head was thrown back at an angle so that the wound gaped obscenely wide: Kat could make out the severed oesophagus, already half-filled with sand, which suggested that he’d been her since the tide was a little higher. But shocking though that was, it was the thing on the man’s face that drew her gaze. Beneath the sodden, greying hair his eyes were covered with a curious-looking mask of leather and cloth, not unlike an old-fashioned pair of motorcycle goggles, but with solid metal cups where the eyepieces should be.

To one side, on a sheet of plastic, was a sandy-looking object the size of a tennis ball. It was this which Hapardi had been examining with a dental probe when they entered.

“What kind of mask is that?” Kat said, pushing aside her face mask to talk.

“It’s called a hoodwink,” Hapardi said heavily. Normally immune to the sights and smells of death, he seemed almost dazed. “Here.” Reaching down, he pressed a small lever at the top of the  mask, and the eyepieces sprung open. Behind her, she sensed Bagnasco jump. The dead man’s eyes, piercingly grey, stared up at them accusingly. “It’s used in rituals.”

“Who found him?”

“He did.” Hapardi nodded to where, some way off outside the tent, a good-looking young man was talking to one of the local Carabinieri. He, too, seemed very pale.  “Or at least, his dog.” There was a small lapdog, some kind of dachshund, tucked under the arm of an older man who was standing next to him. They looked like a couple. The Lido had long had a reputation as being one of the most gay-friendly parts of Venice.

“How come?” she asked.

Hapardi crouched again and indicated the sandy object. “He picked this up and carried it back to his owner.”

She still couldn’t work out what the object he was pointing to was. “What is that?”

Hapardi unrolled it with the tip of the dental probe. “The victim’s tongue,” he said quietly.

Behind Kat, there was a choking sound. She turned. Vomit was spilling from the sides of Bagnasco’s forensic mask. The second lieutenant yanked the mask away from her face and bent down towards the sea, retching.

“You’ll need to give Dr Hapardi a DNA sample, for elimination purposes,” Kat said, when the other woman had finished.

“It’s all right,” Hapardi said. He indicted the vomit where it had splashed onto the damp sand. “I’ll take a swab from this.”

“Sorry,” Bagnasco whispered. “I just…”

“It’s hot in here. Go and get some fresh air,” Kat ordered. When Bagnasco had gone, she turned back to the medical examiner. “Sorry about that. I think it’s her first murder case.” She gestured at the body. “So if the tongue was placed next to the body, he must have been killed elsewhere and brought here by boat, right? But why? Why not just throw him over the side out in deep water?”

“Because of the oath,” Hapardi said.

“What oath?”

The medical examiner wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. I do most solemnly promise and swear,” he said in a low, sing-song voice. “Without the least equivocation, mental reservation, or self evasion of mind whatsoever; binding myself under no less penalty than to have my throat cut across, my tongue torn out by the roots, and my body buried in the rough sands of the sea at low watermark, where the tide ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours, not to reveal the secrets I shall learn.” He looked Kat in the eye. “I don’t know who this man is, capitano, but I’ll lay you very good odds that he was a freemason.”

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