Magical Venice …and murder.
Jane Thornley was one of my very first guests. She joined me on episode 14 to talk about her Crime By Design books. Today she is back to discuss The Carpet Cipher, the first book in the Agency of Ancient Lost and Found mysteries.
Jane has always done a lot of traveling, which is reflected in all her books and that’s true as well of the excerpt she reads to us. We begin in Venice, pre-Covid-19, and you can almost smell the damp and decay as Jane’s protagonist, Phoebe McCabe makes her way through the city. I’ve never been to Italy, but am as desperate as ever to visit the floating city after hearing Jane read.
This week’s mystery author
Jane Thornley has been creating stories forever, or at least, as far back as she can remember. Once a superintendent of schools, once a travel host, once a professional librarian, once and still a knitwear designer, now she remains passionate about travel, history and art.
Though she’s published many books, her new Agency of the Ancient Lost & Found series remains the most popular.
To learn more about Jane and all her books visit JaneThornley.com
Excerpt from The Carpet Cipher
Venice, February 2019
How long had it been since she had last ventured into the Venetian streets at night—five years, ten? Too long ago, in any event, and to do so tonight of all nights, when the carnival finale was in full swing and the revelry would reach a raucous pitch, seemed foolish even for her. How she detested the noise, the crowds, even the fierce and gilded costumes that would press against her in the dark like fevered dreams. To stay home by the fire with a book and a glass of wine seemed far preferable. Still, it must be done. After tonight she would lay one matter to rest and possibly see the conclusion of another, much older mystery.
She opened the front door, hesitating briefly before leaving the safety of her palazzo and plunging into the throng, her velvet coat wrapped tightly around her to ward away the spring chill. As expected, the young people were outdoing each other with fantastic finery. Gone were the days when only the time traveler mode of long gowns and medieval costumes ruled, though plenty of those still roamed the streets. Now creative interlopers had arrived with glittery fairy wings, and was that a chicken? Yes, a chicken, complete with an enormous egg tucked under one false wing! She stifled a laugh.
Her own mask, on the other hand, was demure by comparison, a lovely sun/moon creation she had had especially made for another carnival long ago when she had been a young woman, her whole life stretching ahead. Then, the duality of light and dark had been no more than a playful game. As on that evening, she also wore the cape worked in deep blue velvet stenciled in gold stars with Mariano Fortuny’s distinctive flair. Now, that subtle silken loveliness seemed to sink like a poor cousin against the surrounding sequins and gaudy trappings.
Never mind, she told herself, the man she was to meet would appreciate it for what it was: a testament to artisan beauty in a world that had long lost sight of what does not scream for attention. That she would reunite with the one with whom she had first worn the ensemble was a fitting end to their long torturous relationship. Though they had not seen one another for many decades, she prayed that he had finally forgiven her long enough to help her now. He of all people would know the significance of what she had discovered.
But first, she must resolve the other matter. There was to be no meeting at her family’s weaving studio, on that point she was firm. The call had come just moments before she left the villa and her first response had been to refuse the request, but then she reconsidered. The matter could not be avoided forever and perhaps could be dealt with fairly. Her counteroffer was generous. She would make the meeting brief, citing her other appointment to excuse her haste, and hopefully the ugly matter would be laid to rest at last.
The chosen rendezvous was tucked away from the street in a corner she had reason to believe would be suitably private, close to the canal but not in the midst of the celebrations. She slipped through the press of merrymakers. At least they were good-natured and she could only hope that the person she was to meet would be in a similar mood, or at least open to compromise.
She passed a market stall now caged for the night and turned a corner to where the winter storms had damaged the street so that temporary planking now bridged the narrow side canal. Behind the repair works, tucked against the side door of an ancient church with steps leading to the canal, the meeting place offered privacy.
Still, it was surprisingly dark, much darker than she had anticipated. Fool. Why hadn’t she thought this out more carefully? Two, maybe three shapes detached themselves from the dark clot of shadows against the church door, one of them immediately recognizable, and at once she knew she had miscalculated. There would be no easy resolution, after all.
I had flown into many airports but never one that required waiting for a boat on a dark rainy night. Naturally Seraphina had everything in hand and soon we were ushered to a private speedboat for a brief zip across the lagoon.
Lagoons should be turquoise, tropical, and warm, not inky dark, layered in mystery, and scented like the breath of time. That was Venice for you, always a mystery, no matter how often you approached her. She had once grown rich and gilded from trade centuries ago, and though that luster still glowed beneath layers of age, it now felt tenuous. Venice: you could never say you’d been there no matter how many times you had. She would always be the most unknowable city on earth.
As if the city had already cast a pall, my companions remained sober and disinclined to talk, not that conversation was even possible over the roar of the boat engine. There were so many things I needed to know. Of course, Nicolina had just suffered a loss and here I was about to intrude upon a house of mourning and as what—a detective, a purveyor of moral support, an observer? The whole thing made me edgy.
After a few minutes, I escaped the noisy silence to duck outside where I could feel the wind and rain in my face. I pulled up my rain jacket’s hood and hunched down to watch Venice approach. I needed time with my thoughts. That Nicolina was Maria Contini’s executor was a relationship I hadn’t anticipated. What else about this situation had I yet to learn? Again, my own fault for not doing due diligence and insisting on answers before taking the leap.
Ahead, Venice appeared as a mirage—lights strung out over a reflective darkness whipped by rain. I held my breath as the boat skimmed past tall shuttered villas looming down over the water, and glimpsed the golden domes of St. Mark’s Basilica just seconds before we sped into one of the main arteries—the Grand Canal, I realized—awash with light from the multitude of lamps and windows like some kind of ancient, dignified playground.
Stands of gondolas rocked at their moorings, a tour boat churned the wake beside us, and I glimpsed people dashing somewhere with their umbrellas popped on either side of the canal. When we sped under the Rialto Bridge, I could only gaze up as if I was seeing Venice for the very first time, overwhelmed by the impact of history and the city’s unique kind of magic.
I wanted to call to Nicolina to share this moment, to see Venice as I did at that very instant, but how pointless was that? My friend struggled with grief while I tried to emerge from my own losses. A veil of loneliness came over me that set my mood adrift. If only I could visit Venice with somebody I loved—with Noel, maybe—as if that would ever happen. I had cast away the man of my heart, and if that heart was broken as a result, that, too, was my own damn fault for falling for a man like him. Color my mood self-recrimination.
The boat darted into a smaller tributary and the driver immediately throttled the engine back to a sedate putter. Now the slosh of water against stone accompanied the sounds of the boat as we snaked our way deeper into the city’s heart. We passed under many bridges and slipped past multiple tiny campi, their rain-washed cobbles deserted. Once I looked up to see a man on a balcony gazing down as he smoked a cigarette. He lifted his hand to acknowledge me but the boat had turned into another artery before I could wave back.
Traveling anywhere in Venice with its watery streets and myriad porti felt like a journey of mythic proportions and always delivered you to some place unexpected even if it was your intended destination. Whatever I was expecting of Maria Contini’s doorstep, it wasn’t a narrow ledge tucked around a corner of a tiny canal with only a battered and algae-scummed hunk of timber for a door. No knob, no latch, not even a bell to ring. At least there was a light blazing blearily down on us from a motion lamp fixed to the wall above.
The driver grappled for one of the steel docking rings to secure the prow while I clambered to the stern to tie the rope around the other. He was calling something to me in Italian that I couldn’t grasp—maybe thanks for not being merely decorative or you know boats, sì? I didn’t require a translator to do the obvious. I’d been around boats most of my life.
Soon Seraphina appeared and the Italian truly grew intense as she began dispensing instructions, I’m guessing, while the driver argued back. That gave me time to look way up to where the dark wall of the villa loomed overhead. This was not my first experience with a looming Italian villa, but I had to admit, Venice did them best. If structures were faces, this one was totally inscrutable with closed eyes under long arched lids and a dark countenance. The arched windows indicated Islamic influences, meaning the building must date from at least the 1500s.
And then suddenly one lid flew open as a woman unlatched a shutter and called down. Seraphina responded and more debating ensued. Then Nicolina appeared, the hood of her coat flung over her head. “Zara wishes us to use the front door but the driver, he says that is not possible tonight,” she told me. “There is construction in the front of the canal. We must enter through the cantina.”
Cantina, I knew, did not translate into café in Italian but cellar, which meant we were to enter through Venice’s idea of a basement, something which would horrify most hosts and certainly Zara, judging from her tone. In the case of Venice, a cellar was likely the villa’s first-floor back door.
The moldy wooden door creaked open and the driver began to unload the luggage and try to help the ladies, though both Seraphina and I refused his proffered hand. I leaped over the stoop on my own steam whereas Seraphina insisted on helping with the bags. Nicolina, however, waited for assistance with her usual grace.
That left me standing alone in a damp cavernous space peering into the darkness lit by a single overhead bulb. A small motorboat sat on tracks pointed toward the now-open door, ready to be pushed into the canal when needed. These bottom floors also seconded as boathouses. This one had to be at the bottom of a very large footprint, by the looks of the capacious space.
I detected two more narrow boats propped on stilts way back in the shadows—very old by the glimpse of an ornate lantern peeking out from under one tarp. The area was also a repository for things stored for centuries with odd shapes clustered on stands in the shadows or hung from hooks on the damp walls. Repeated floods had those hooks positioned five or six feet above floor level to escape the jagged green line that seemed to chase the objects up the walls. The scent of motor oil, diesel, and damp was overpowering but brought me back to my childhood.
I had just caught the gaze of an elaborate mask covered in clear plastic when Nicolina came up and touched my arm. “Phoebe, come. Zara awaits upstairs.”
I traipsed up behind her, Seraphina bringing up the rear. Masks on the walls watched our progress like a row of bizarre spectators frozen in shock. It was a relief to step into the villa proper where a small, dark-skinned woman with graying hair scraped into a bun waited for us in the shadows. Nicolina made the introductions and the woman shook my hand and shot me a perfunctory smile.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said.
She turned to Seraphina for a translation and nodded when it came but soon forgot about me the moment she enveloped Seraphina in an expansive embrace amid a battery of Italian. We were then ushered down a dark hall into a large high-ceilinged room and asked to sit.
The salon was like the reception rooms of all Italian villas I had known and yet different. This one had the same high-ceiling grandeur of Nicolina’s residences and yet a pervading sense of loss clung to the walls along with the richest array of disintegrating textiles I had ever seen. Though the clear outline of a missing frame was visible over the fireplace, I was too distracted by the surroundings to focus there.
Threadbare brocades and velvets covered every shabby chair and settee, their deep Prussian blues and golds still rich in the lamp and firelight. It was as if the entire room was paved in fabric and jeweled colors. My eyes traveled around the space touching every glossy inch, marveling at the silk-covered walls, the kilim cushions, and magnificent patterned Persian carpets spread underfoot.
Nicolina spoke softly. “It is as I told you, Phoebe. Maria celebrated textiles as if they were dear friends, much like you do. It was in her blood, you understand. I will explain later. Please be patient for Zara speaks no English and I will translate when I am able.”
I nodded, relieved not to be expected to speak, especially since my gaze had focused on a framed piece of damask on the far wall—very old, I guessed. Fabric treated with as much veneration as art met with my approval, though conservation didn’t seem to be a consideration here.
While I studied every detail within my range of vision, Seraphina sat beside Zara while Nicolina and I sat on the opposite side on a flaking velvet and gilt wood settee. The Italian flowed, intense and emotional. I gathered that Nicolina and Seraphina were asking questions of Zara until, at one point, the housekeeper disappeared and returned with a tray of wine.
Forgoing the wine, I continued sipping water, absorbed in studying the edge of a rare carpet when suddenly I caught the change in Zara’s tone. I pulled my attention back to my companions and noted that Maria’s assistant now appeared to be answering Nicolina and Seraphina’s questions as if every word had to be pried out of her. Her replies escaped her slight frame in bursts, one moment sitting silent with her lips pursed and the next responding with an artillery of short, terse sentences.
Nicolina asked her something that caused Zara to jump up from her chair with a cry and dash from the room, Seraphina following after.
“What was that about?” I asked, turning to Nicolina.
She sighed. “Maria’s death has been very traumatic for her. She does not wish to speak of it to me any longer.”
“But surely she must?”
“Yes, I agree she must, but not tonight. Today the police have questioned her over and over again and she is weary. This I understand. Seraphina will take care of her while we talk and enjoy our vin Santo. They have been friends since I first began bringing Seraphina here years ago.”
Nicolina attempted to pour me a glass of her beloved sweet wine but I shook my head. Her eyebrows rose. “Phoebe, I hope you do not refuse the wine because of what happened in Amalfi? I only drugged you because of the need to keep you safe and—”
I waved away the notion. “It’s not because of that, Nicolina, though it’s true that I’ll never look at Santo quite the same way again. It’s just that I don’t do well with wine in general and I have had too much coffee tonight already.”
“Then you need the wine to help you relax, yes? Here, I will pour you a glass and you will drink or not, as you wish.” She poured a goblet of the deep maroon drink and set it beside my water glass before sipping deeply of her own.
“Zara must have told you something about what happened?” I pressed.
“But of course. She said that Maria, for whom she has worked for nearly thirty years, had seemed troubled over these many weeks. She does not know why as Maria would not confide—they were not as close as I am to Seraphina, not as a confidantes, you understand. Their relationship was more formal.”
As if I could ever understand the relationship between an employer and a long-serving employee/servant. Serena was more my friend than gallery manager so that didn’t count.
Nicolina continued. “It had something to do with money, she believed. Over the years, the household has become increasingly poor and Maria had been worried. I noticed an edge in her tone when we spoke on the phone days ago but I thought it because she was feeling—how do you say?—under the weather. She never mentioned an illness to me or to Zara. She was very energetic, very spry, as the English say. Zara thinks she was very worried about something.”
“How old was she?”
“Oh, young, then.”
“Exactly. Yet the police suggested that Maria may have tripped and fallen into the canal that evening as if she was clumsy or drunk. That was not Maria.”
“Maria was found in the canal?” I almost choked on my water.
“She was found in the Cannaregio, yes. Apparently there were no signs of struggle.”
I followed her gaze to the ceiling-high brocade drapes I had been admiring earlier, which I now realized must shield equally tall shutters that looked out over the main canal. “They think she drowned?”
“The autopsy is not yet complete. There are many events during that last night of Carnevale—the grand finale, the water parades, the revelry,” Nicolina said, pouring herself more wine. “Maria did not feel up to taking part, Zara says. She said she would stay home and watch the water parade from her balcony and yet she did go out. Nobody knows why. Perhaps she stepped out to a café or restaurant, though they would be very busy that night, and Maria did not take big meals in the evening anymore. Or perhaps she decided not to miss the excitement, after all.”
“But didn’t she say where she was going to anyone?”
“There was no one here to tell, only Zara, who always spends Carnevale with her niece in Mestra. All the other staff had been let go years ago, including Zara’s brother. Had Maria wanted her to stay, she would have but she insisted that Zara go. In the old days, there would be parties that Maria would host or attend but not for many years. She now lived a quiet life and yet…” She gazed down at her glass, deep in thought.
“And yet she went out.”
“But maybe she decided to join the festivities, after all?” I offered.
“Perhaps, but this does not fit with how anxious she had been lately. Zara says that she suddenly became very concerned about the painting one day last week. The painting had hung in the same place for centuries—in her bedroom, and there had once been one over there, which is the one she sold months ago.” She glanced toward the vacant spot over the fireplace. “But last week she received a phone call. She would not say who from but immediately insisted that they crate up the last painting and store it down the street in the family vault.”
There was a family vault. I fixed on the rectangle of lighter peachy silk wall covering over the mantel. “So, the remaining painting was stolen from this vault and not from here?”
“Yes. Did I not say? I apologize. Yes, the painting was stolen from the vault down the canal on the same night that Maria was found dead. The vault had been breached by explosives. The police say that the thieves must have used the fireworks and all the noise outside to hide the sounds. All very clever, really—the excitement, the masks, everyone running in costumes—how easy it made it for them to steal.”