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A Plague in Venice

William Glass has never seen a ghoul and has never gone back in time. He's never witnessed a person being crucified or being cooked aliveover burning coals.

He's lived a pleasant life in Venice with his wacky aunt and uncle since his parents were killed when he was fifteen. Now twenty-six, William is beginning to see success as an artist, and his matchmaker aunt has finally fixed him up with a young woman he likes.

But when an earthquake frees an ancient ghoul from the tomb in which he's been imprisoned since 1576, William is faced with a kind of evil, horror, and savagery he could not have imagined. He finds himself pitted against an immortal and powerful creature with a taste for human flesh, and who is bent on a revenge that could kill most of the world.

 


 

“...a powerful tightrope walk through death.”

--Midwest Book Review

Excerpt

I

Venice during the plague of 1576

 

The gondola landed at the island in the Venetian lagoon where they burned the dead. Lorenzo Zorzi stepped from the boat onto soft, damp soil. To the gondolier he said, “Where is the other boat?”

The gondolier was considering the pillars of black smoke rising in the distance against the night sky. “It’s coming.”

“Wait here,” Zorzi said.

Zorzi’s companion, Gregor, stepped from the gondola. “Where is she buried? We don’t have long.”

Zorzi indicated straight ahead with a nod. “The reports are that she’s in a pit fifty paces in this direction.”

“Then let’s get to it.”

Moans and faint cries came from nearby.

“Some of these people are still alive,” Zorzi said.

“Let’s hope that Loredana is, as well.”

They strode across soft, grassy soil until they came to a long mound of fresh earth.

“Listen,” Zorzi said.

They stood in silence for a moment, and then Gregor said, “I hear it. The munching.” He indicated a spot several feet to the right. “Over here.”

The earth at that place moved.

Gregor leaned down. “Loredana?”

A hand poked from the soil and reached up with its fingers spread. The hand opened and closed as a desperate signal for someone to grasp it.

Zorzi took hold of it and pulled.

Another hand broke through the soil. Gregor took hold of it. The two men pulled until a head of blonde hair, covered with a thin shroud and matted with mud and filth, cleared the mound. A wisp of moonlight lit her pale skin, and bright eyes shone through the grime of the shroud, which was red with blood and eaten away at her mouth.

She gasped for air. “Where have you been?”

“We got here as quickly as we could,” Zorzi said.

She spat mud. “Get me out of here.”

They dragged her from the grave and headed toward the boat.

“It’s a good thing they didn’t burn us,” she said.

Zorzi nodded. “Indeed.”

“The second boat had better be there,” Gregor said, “or I shall eat that gondolier alive.”

The sky began to lighten in the hour before sunrise. The second boat sat on the embankment next to their gondola.

“We shall go back to my palazzo,” Gregor said. “Loredana, you must go to your house and clean up. Stay out of sight.”

The gondola containing Zorzi and Gregor slid into the lagoon toward the Grand Canal, while Loredana’s boat dis­appeared into the gray, morning mist in the opposite direction.

Reaching the Grand Canal, the rower propelled the gon­dola silently over the glassy water in the dim light of early morning. The sun was rising behind them, pale orange in the blue haze, as the boat disturbed the surface like a flea on quicksilver.

Two lanterns illuminated the red, green, and gold damask lining the gondola’s cabin, casting the cold men in warm light.

“This is a nasty business,” Zorzi said.

Gregor peered through the slats covering the tiny window of the gondola. “It is of our own making.”

“I was against introduction of the plague.”

Gregor continued to stare out the window. “If you were, you didn’t express your opinion with much rigor.”

Zorzi nodded. He couldn’t deny that.

“They blame everyone from the Jews to the Gypsies,” Zorzi said. “They will never know the truth.”

The gondolier stopped the boat at two red-and-white-striped poles next to a small pier, tied off, and then opened the door of the tiny cabin. Zorzi and Gregor crossed the pier and entered Gregor’s palazzo.

Two servants approached them. One took their cloaks, the other held out a silver tray from which they each took a glass of brandy. Persian rugs of deep blues, reds, and greens covered the terrazzo floor, and frescoes adorned the walls and ceiling. At the end of the room, four huge windows hung with curtains of Venetian-red silk allowed in shimmering light reflecting from the Grand Canal. Massive stone fireplaces on either side of the room provided warmth. The two men sat on opposing sofas near the window.

Zorzi tasted his brandy.

Gregor emptied his glass and placed it on a table by the sofa.

“Stories are already developing,” Zorzi said. “The Vene­tians call us ‘shroud eaters.’”

“I’ve heard that too.”

“They’ve gone so far as to put bricks in the mouths of some of the dead because they thought they were eating through their burial shrouds. The people believe the chomping makes the plague worse.”

Gregor stood at the window, looking out over the Grand Canal sparkling in the early morning light. Small boats moved through the now pink haze over the green water. “These vile people will believe anything.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Let’s hope they don’t believe the truth when it comes, or our immortality will be sorely tested.”

Zorzi sat quietly for a moment, then said, “Quite.”

A disturbance came from the main entrance of the house. A servant rushed into the room, eyes large, the color gone from his face.

To Gregor, he said, “Maestro, quickly, you must leave.”

“What is it?” Gregor asked.

“You are not from here. You were seen this morning coming from the Island of Lazzaretto Nuovo.”

“I don’t understand.”

The noise from the front of the house grew louder.

“Please, I’ll explain, but we must get out.”

The servant led them to a large cabinet against the wall and put a finger into each eye of a head carved from wood. A latch released and the cabinet cracked open, allowing the men to escape down a narrow stone stairway. Tiny lanterns, each with one candle, dotted the steps. They descended into the semi-darkness.

Herds of rats melted away before them, jumping into the black water of the subterranean canal and swimming away, sending V-shaped ripples through the still water.

The servant explained that the people were in a state of panic over the plague and they were looking for anyone to blame. If they found the cause, they could purge it. Placate the Holy Virgin, as it were. Gregor, as a foreigner and, according to rumor, a Jew, was the perfect scapegoat. Having been observed coming from the burial ground at such an early hour, he must have been there at night. And to have been there at night could only mean that evil was conducted there. Witch­craft; sorcery; necromancy. Shroud eaters had been found in the graves, and some graves had been opened. Perhaps he was a shroud eater risen as a vampire.

Gregor smiled. “Amazing. The most incorrect and con­voluted logic leads very close to the truth.” For that night they had freed Loredana from the pit.

Their steps echoed from the stone as the servant led them through the darkness along the water, which smelled of the sea, and of fish.

“The truth of this matter,” Lorenzo said, “will do us no good.”

“Quickly,” the servant said.

They picked up the pace. From in front of them came a hum, punctuated by shouts.

“What is that?” Zorzi asked.

Gregor peered into the darkness. “I don’t know.”

As they rounded a bend, the light of torches reflected in the water, and the buzz of a mob echoed in the distance.

“They’re down here,” the servant said.

Gregor scowled. “We’ve been betrayed. The only way for them to have discovered this place is if someone in the house­hold told them.”

“What do we do?” Zorzi said.

“Go back,” the servant said. “There are many passages out of here.”

Behind them came the subdued mumble of voices, and a dim orange light that flickered across the brick walls.

“They’ve come from behind too,” Gregor said. “Is there another way out?”

The servant stopped and scanned the darkness. “Only the water.”

The voices grew nearer.

Zorzi considered the alternatives. They could not run, and they certainly could not swim away. He came from an impor­tant family, but there was no telling whether these people could be reasoned with. If they wanted Gregor, they would, at least for now, have him. He pulled his dagger and held it to Gregor’s throat. “Sorry, my friend.”

The servant moved to stop Zorzi, but Gregor shook his head.

The mob dragged Gregor to Piazza San Marco by a rope around his neck, his hands and feet bound. The early morning sun threw long shadows through the columns of the Doge’s Palace and illuminated the blue and gold of the clock tower.

Gregor struggled to breathe. He managed to choke out, “What have I done?”

Zorzi stood before the crowd with his hands clasped behind his back, his sharp features in high contrast to the newly risen sun. He raised his hand to hush the crowd. He was known here, as his family had been in Venice for centuries, and held important posts. These people respected him and, more importantly, feared him.

“Of what do you accuse this man?” Zorzi called out.

An old man spoke from the edge of the crowd. “He is a minion of the Devil. He has brought the plague here.”

Zorzi did not fancy conducting a trial here in the square, but his friend’s life hung by a thin and fraying thread. This crowd was ready to hang him between the two massive columns at the end of Piazzetta San Marco, and would prob­ably burn him at the same time.

Zorzi considered the man. “You know this, how?”

The crowd murmured but grew silent when Zorzi raised his hand.

The old man said, “This morning I was rowing past Lazzaretto Nuovo when I saw a dark figure near the fresh dirt of the burial pit. The figure bent, reached down, and took hold of a hand protruding from the grave.”

The crowd gasped.

“He grasped the hand and pulled a corpse from the earth, which corpse then rose and walked away.”

The crowd stirred, whispering amongst themselves.

Zorzi said, “You were in your boat this morning, in the lagoon?”

“Yes.”

“What time was it?”

“Just before sunrise, but it was light.”

“Yet, it was dim and gray with haze?”

The man glanced about the crowd and then blinked at Zorzi. “Yes.”

“Misty, as well, was it not?”

The man looked to the ground. “Yes.”

“At what distance were you?”

The man pointed to the church of San Geminiano at the opposite end of the square. “From here to there.”

“That far? In the dim morning light, before sunrise, in the fog, you saw this man?”

There was a quiet murmur from the crowd.

“I thought so,” the man said.

Zorzi raised his voice to address the crowd. “Could have been anyone.”

The man was silent.

“Free him,” Zorzi said. “Are we in Venice reduced to dragging men through the streets to be hung on the evidence of shadows in the morning mist?”

Zorzi motioned toward Gregor. “Untie him and go back to your houses, or I shall have you all arrested.”

When Gregor had been freed, Zorzi said to him, “Let’s get to my house as quickly as possible.”

Gregor stood, stretched, and dusted himself off. “Thank you, my friend, I thought you had betrayed me.”

Zorzi smiled. “I knew you would, and for this to work, you had to. Now, let’s go.”

They moved through the city as quickly as they could, arriving after a short time at Zorzi’s house. The servants let them in and secured the door with two thick wooden beams. Zorzi nodded to the servant. A few moments later two men came into the room and took hold of Gregor.

“What is this, my friend?” Gregor said.

“It’s for your own safety,” Zorzi said. “And ours.”

The men bound Gregor’s hands and put a black bag over his head.

“What are you doing?” Gregor shouted. “Release me. Lorenzo, tell them to let me go.”

Zorzi did not answer.

The men guided Gregor toward the door.

“Zorzi, you will pay for this. We are brothers, you and I. This is treachery.”

To the men, Zorzi said, “Put him in the tomb.”

Gregor howled as they dragged him from the room.