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Authors: Edward Sklepowich

Death in the Palazzo

Death in the Palazzo

The Mysteries of Venice, Book Five

Edward Sklepowich




Barbara, Contessa da Capo-Zendrini—the British widow
of an Italian aristocrat

Urbino Macintyre—an American dilettante,
Barbara's longtime friend

Gemma Bellini-Rhys—a celebrated painter

and member of Barbara's husband's family, the Zenos,

daughter of Renata, granddaughter of Marialuisa

Robert—Gemma's son, a medieval art historian

Marialuisa Zeno—the matriarch of the Zeno family

Luigi Vasco—the Zeno family doctor

Renata—Gemma's mother, sister of Bambina,
daughter of Marialuisa

Cesarina (“Bambina”)—Marialuisa's only living child,
now seventy-five

Angelica Lydgate—Robert's fiancée

Viola and Sebastian Neville—Barbara's cousins
from England

Molly Wybrow—the uninvited guest

Oriana and Filippo Borelli—Barbara's friends,
part of the house party

Whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast.

—Wilkie Collins,
The Moonstone


The Contessa's Folly

On this November afternoon everything in the rococo Chinese salon at Caffè Florian seemed burnished to an extreme—the paintings under glass, the wood stripping on the walls and ceiling, the embracing arms and curved backs of the banquettes, the tea service, the bronze amorino lamp, and the parquet floor—and yes, even Barbara, the Contessa da Capo-Zendrini herself.

Urbino Macintyre, a glass of dry sherry in his hand, studied her silently as she gazed out through the glass at the almost deserted Piazza San Marco. It wasn't just her copper-toned dress, gold accessories, and honey-blond hair. It was something about her face as well. In the more than fifteen years of their friendship, the American had seen age make its inevitable, albeit mercifully subtle alterations on that attractive canvas.

But since her extended stay this summer in Geneva, she looked even younger than before—and she had always been a woman who could credibly subtract ten years from what she called “the obscene number” of her age.

After Geneva, she had kept herself aloof up at her villa in Asolo. On the two occasions he had visited her there, she had been masked in large sunglasses, swathed in silk scarves, and obscured beneath wide brims. Today, in fact, was the first time she had cast aside her camouflage, the effect being not unlike that final stripping away of green netting from historic buildings after their months'-long restoration.

“You look so—so”—Urbino searched for the right word, knowing it was essential to find it—“so

Her bright smile showed that he had been successful.

“Why, thank you,
,” she said, picking up a petit four. “You know how refreshing the air of Asolo is.”

“And the air of Geneva. Mont Blanc, you know.”

A frown came and went from the Contessa's remarkably smooth forehead. When she had eaten the teacake and taken a sip of tea, the special first-flush Jasmine that Florian's now stocked for her own use, she said, “It's all for us today.”

She made a gesture that languidly appropriated the empty Chinese salon and, by extension, the Piazza outside, so welcomely serene after the madness of high season.

“Thank God it's November,” she said. “Almost five months of peace and quiet before the tourists invade.”

“Except for Carnevale,” Urbino said.

She shivered slightly, for she was reminded of a tragedy that had come painfully close to her during a recent Carnevale. She took another sip of tea.

“It's fortunate that you look so marvelously rested,” Urbino said to draw her thoughts away. “Your portrait.”

“Ah, yes, my portrait.” She said it less than enthusiastically. “How can I forget about that frightful experience hanging over me! Death! That's what a portrait means: She once looked like this. Yes,
, but no more! I couldn't be in a worse state! I'm at Gemma's mercy—and everyone will be there to see!”

The Contessa had commissioned her portrait to be begun next weekend. It would be unveiled several weeks later during an intimate house party at her palazzo, the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini. “Gemma” was Gemma Bellini-Rhys, a celebrated painter and the Contessa's cousin through marriage.

“Maybe I should have waited a little longer.”

It was a rather outrageous statement, since her reason for having her portrait done was to keep a promise to her husband, the Conte Alvise, dead for close to twenty years.

“But what am I saying?” she corrected herself. “What good would the portrait of a—a crone be on the wall next to that of my handsome Alvise? And that's what I'll be in a few years. A toothless, blind, spotted old crone like the one in that frightening Giorgione at the Accademia!”

Even with the passage of more than a few years—and without any return to the restorative winds off Mont Blanc—the Contessa would be so far from being a crone that Urbino laughed. He spilled a few drops of sherry on his shirt front. The Contessa poured some mineral water on her handkerchief and attacked the spot more briskly than was warranted.

“Men! You don't understand! You never will!”

She finished her assault and, with some of the vehemence of her last words, she flung her glance out into the large square. There, by ill chance, it encountered an old woman with a dowager's hump inching her way across the stones with a cane. When her glance found relief only in a lovely young woman who looked like a fashion photograph, it turned itself on Urbino with something like desperation.

“It's not just your portrait that's bothering you, Barbara,” he said, reaching out to touch her hand. “You're worried about the house party.”

“And why shouldn't I be?” she threw back at him as she pulled her hand away. “It could be frightful! Everyone gaping at my portrait and—and the Zenos stabbing me in the back! I may never forgive you and Oriana for encouraging me in this folly.”

“I don't call it folly when you want to heal wounds in your late husband's family.”

“Some wounds never heal! They bleed and bleed and bleed! I'm afraid I might have got carried away with myself. What did the Greeks call it? Hubris? Yes, overweening pride! I thought we might try to carry reconciliation as far as it could go. If I was about to reconcile myself to my age by having my portrait painted, then maybe the Zeno family and I could get reconciled. And since Gemma's a Zeno, too, it's icing on the cake.”

Relations between the Zeno and Da Capo-Zendrini families had been bad since the thirties and hadn't been improved by the Contessa's marriage to the Conte twenty years later. Because a tragic house party at the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini during the thirties had been the last time the two families had been together, the Contessa had got the brave idea, of which she was now repenting, of giving her own house party with some of the same Zeno family members as guests of honor.

Urbino had never met any of the Zenos, although he was familiar with Gemma Bellini-Rhys's artistic work. From what he did know of them, however, they were an unusual lot.

Realizing that this was a topic the Contessa needed to talk about, he encouraged her by saying, “Tell me about the Zenos.”

“Well, they're not all Zenos by name, as you know. Gemma, the granddaughter, is a Bellini-Rhys and so is her son, of course. Robert is a medieval art historian, with a speciality in relics. Rather appropriate, considering that Marialuisa Zeno—his great-grandmother—is as old as the hills. And even though Marialuisa's personal physician, Luigi Vasco, who is almost as old as she is,
a Zeno, he's been in attendance on the family so long that he—and they—probably think he is. He had hoped to marry her daughter Renata, Gemma's mother, after she was widowed but that—that didn't work out,” she added vaguely, since this was bringing her too close to the troubled waters of the thirties.

“Then last, but certainly not least,” she went on a bit too brightly, “is Marialuisa's only living child, Cesarina, or as she's always called—and I suppose
have to do it too!—Bambina. Never married but supposedly still looking.”

“And Bambina is how old?”

“Seventy-five if she's a day! Oh, I've forgotten someone. She's not a Zeno—not yet anyway. Angelica Lydgate, Robert Bellini-Rhys's fiancée.”

“Lydgate? Wasn't that the name of the man who was going to marry Renata, Robert's grandmother?”

“Angelica is Lydgate's grandniece. We're going to be an intimate little group.” But there was unease in the Contessa's voice. “So that's all of them.”

“All the Zenos. But don't forget the two Nevilles.”

The Contessa smiled.

“Ah, yes, Viola and Sebastian, my dear, dear cousins.”

The Contessa reveled in referring to the Neville twins as her cousins, not so much from strong family feeling—the cousinship was in fact rather distant—but quite simply because it pleased her vanity to have cousins who had recently graduated from Cambridge. She believed it somehow magically took years off her own age.

“I hope you like them. Sebastian's very intelligent but a bit of a
, I'm afraid. And Viola—well, Viola is Viola! You'll see. Ah, the whole world before them.” She said this with a touch of regret as she looked out again at the Piazza, which—with the fairy-tale city around it—had been a large part of her world for so long. “Their first time in Venice! Aren't they lucky!”

Considering what would soon descend on her home, the Contessa could hardly have uttered a less apt comment—about the Neville twins or any of her other guests.

But neither she nor Urbino had the slightest premonition, despite the dark cloud that chose this moment to pass slowly above the Piazza, dulling all the gold in the Chinese salon and marring the Contessa's well-cared-for face with unbecoming shadows.


The Guests Arrive


Sebastian Neville, dressed in loose mauve trousers and a russet cashmere sweater, was the first to alight from the
Orient Express
and step on the fabled ground of Venice—or, more accurately, on the red carpet spread on the pavement of the Venice railway station for the privileged travelers. He turned to help down a lady, not young and certainly not his twin sister, Viola. It was a woman in her fifties, whose dwarflike, deformed body and features and emaciated condition were perfect illustrations of an obscure congenital disease. She gave her clawlike hand to Sebastian and peered around the station from behind thick spectacles that grotesquely magnified her eyes. They gleamed with something more than intelligence.

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