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Tuesday Fiction: “Valletta, City of Guilt” by Michael Vella

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Michael Vella. Michael lives in Malta with his wife and son, who continually inspire him. He has been published in Daily Science Fiction and he occasionally publishes other authors in Schlock Magazine, Malta’s only short story magazine.

This is the story’s first publication.

Valletta, City of Guilt

Michael Vella

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name;
There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame;
But the tear that now burns on my cheek may impart
The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart.

—Extract from Lord Byron’s I Speak Not

* * *

March 1820, Valletta, Castellania

The smell of thick bean soup made Mikiel’s mouth water as he crossed the courtyard. The tray he carried bore the soup, a hunk of sourdough bread, fresh goat’s cheese and an entire fresh sausage. Why do condemned men get hearty meals, he thought, I’m lucky when I get a slice of day-old bread with butter.

This new job would change his life. He was only thirteen, but soon he’d have more money than his father—God bless his soul—had ever made. Half a scudo a month. A silver coin all for himself.

The thought of the coin and all the things he would buy with it at the end of the month made him lightheaded. The soup’s aroma did not help.

He glanced around the courtyard. Empty.

Sitting on the stone bench in the corner, Mikiel dipped a small piece of the bread in the soup and stuffed it in his mouth. This was better than his mother’s.

Tomorrow, they would bring the condemned into this courtyard and he would sit on this bench as the priest performed the Last Rites. Then they would parade him through the streets until they reached the gallows outside the city walls where he’d hang by his neck.

He wouldn’t miss a sip of soup.

Savoring the taste for as long as he could, Mikiel continued on his way to the prisoner’s cell. The first thing he would buy with the half-scudo was food as good as this.

At the East end of the courtyard, he opened the heavy timber door and descended the steps that led to the two cells. A draft of cold air rushed up the stairs causing his skin to pimple. He hurried down the steps. He hated it, away from the light. The air smelled of old and forgotten things.

The dank cellar was a far cry from the luxury of the rest of Castellania. A few yards above their heads, the city Law Courts were in full session. Attorneys and judges dressed in black silk robes and long wigs were spouting Italian at each other, arguing over innocence and guilt and men’s lives.

There were only two cells, both for those who would meet the hangman. Only one cell was occupied today. He’d killed his wife, the judges said, but everyone knew it probably wasn’t true. Today, he’d eat well, and tomorrow he’d die.

Mikiel opened the hatch at the bottom of the cell door and, with a pained expression, slid the tray into the cell. What a waste.

He slid the hatch closed, but stopped when he realized that the prisoner had not taken the tray.

He knocked on the door. “You asleep?”

No answer.

“You’re lucky to get such a good meal.”

Silence.

Ungrateful fool. Now he would die with an empty belly.

Mikiel closed the hatch. “I’ll return soon to collect the food, whether you’ve eaten or not.”

He ran up the stairs as quickly as he could, away from the dark heavy room and into the bright noon light. He lifted his face to the sun. After this, he’d spend all day running up and down stairs delivering messages from one office to another. Better to enjoy the fresh air while he could.

After a few minutes, he returned to the cell. The tray was untouched. He reached in, but it was just out of his grasp.

“Hey you, slide the tray to me.”

Nothing.

“Are you deaf in there?”

Lying on his stomach, Mikiel peered inside. The prisoner was in his bed, on his back. One arm dangled to the floor. So still, so quiet.

A tremor of panic shot up his spine. He scrambled across the flagstones, trying to get as far away from the door as he could. He ran up the stairs, crossing himself.

Old Censu was asleep in his little closet. He shook him awake, barely able to explain what he had seen.

So still, as still as a statue. As still as…

The words gushed out of his mouth.

Censu followed him to the cell, still not entirely understanding what was happening.

Mikiel clutched the older man’s arm for support. The air was thick, thicker than he remembered, too thick to breathe properly. All that was down here was rot and death. How could they stand it?

They entered the room. The man didn’t move. They approached the bed slowly.

Censu fell onto his knees and made the sign of the cross, but Mikiel could not move. He could not make the sign of the cross, or the sign against evil, or pray. He could do nothing, except stare at the corpse in front of him.

The prisoner was dead, but his face… What had they done to his face?

* * *

June 1820, Valletta, Grand Harbor

“What a majestic sight,” David said as he gazed at the square-shaped limestone houses jutting behind the bastions of Valletta from the deck of HMS Hunter. The sharp horizontal lines were broken every few meters by large domed churches and fluttering papal gold banners. The Mediterranean light was brighter than the dull glow of London. It transformed the yellow limestone into red gold, the blue water into an azure mirror. Everything was more alive, more real.

“I suppose.” Barnes’s languid drawl broke the illusion. He waved his pudgy hand dismissively. “I imagined it grander.”

Dressed in tight, baby blue breeches and waistcoat, with a darker blue collarless coat that hung to his knees, Barnes looked a century out of date. His massive stomach strained at his waistcoat buttons, testament to a lifetime of gluttony. The tight curls of his matching blue wig whipped across his pock-marked face with the breeze. “Do me the favor of not composing any poems to this scenery.”

David studied the fortifications. Within the hour, he would be searching the walled city for truth, for a murderer. For now, he wanted to enjoy the view, without distractions. It was a welcome change from the grey of London.

David turned to face his companion and pointed towards the shore. “Is it not worthy of verse? The greatest poets of our time visited. Byron, Coleridge—”

“One, a sodomist. The other, an opium addict. These men, you consider great? Not that anything is wrong with buggery every now and again…” He glanced at the city then flicked his thumb against the wreckage of his nose. “As for the city… too much religion. All those domes.” He waved his hand towards them. “I’d wager there isn’t a whorehouse anywhere within those walls.”

David leaned against the rail. “And what use would one such as you have with whores?”

“Little would you know what pleasures I can still bring a woman. To have one in my care for only an hour would be bliss.” He bared his yellow stained teeth in a predatory grin. “For her and me.”

David sighed. “Why do I allow you to accompany me on these excursions?”

“That is a mystery we may never solve,” Barnes said. He pulled out a silver snuff box and put a pinch of tobacco powder in his remaining nostril. Carnal and spiritual excess had ravaged most of Barnes’s body, but he still had his uses. Since David had saved him from annihilation half a decade ago, Barnes had remained his faithful companion.

His gaze drifted to the sea, so blue and clear and faultless. The sun reflected off the water, happily twinkling in the waves created by the ship’s wake.

Her eyes were as happy and clear, David thought. He shook his head. Forget the past. Look forward, or else you are lost.

An unfamiliar voice called out his name. “Mr. Strangeways?”

David turned, thoughts of happy azure eyes faded relunctantly. A young officer wearing the blue and white of the Royal Navy approached him.

“Yes?” David replied. The boy looked no older than fifteen, so young to be a junior officer. The war against Napoleon had changed many things.

The officer bowed his head. “Sub-Lieutenant Chambers. I am to accompany you to shore.”

Barnes sniggered. “Perhaps we should bring this young drake with us. I am sure many young wanton lasses would—”

“When do we depart?” David asked, frowning at Barnes who was standing behind the sub-lieutenant.

“As soon as your preparations are complete, sir.”

“Allow me to collect my luggage and then we can set off.”

“Yes, sir.”

The young officer turned and walked through Barnes. He paused mid-stride, shivered, and looked around. He quickened his pace and disappeared behind the bulwark.

Barnes laughed. “Did you see that? He nearly fainted.”

“Must you be such a pest?”

“Please, David,” Barnes said, as he took out more tobacco from his snuff box. “You must allow me some ghastly pleasures.”

“Fine,” David said as he walked to his cabin. There was no point in arguing. How could he stop a ghost from doing what he wanted?

* * *

The cool sea breeze onboard the HMS Hunter had masked the strength of the afternoon sun. David removed his jacket and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

A row of one storey limestone houses lined the marina, each boasting bright colored timber doors and windows. Orange, green, yellow… the colors screamed for attention. Shopkeepers stood outside the buildings calling their wares from under white linen tents. The colors of their goods matched the doors and windows. Fishmongers stood beside the blue doors, waving a cloth above silver-blue fish to keep flies away. An old man next to a yellow door gave David a gap-toothed smile and pointed at his pyramid of lemons. Another man, in front of a green door, called out and spread his arms over a row of lettuce and green peppers. The language was a harsh and guttural Semitic but with the cadence of Italian. The men were barefooted, wearing simple linen trousers and shirts, orange sashes wrapped around their waists, with long red and gold caps that dangled past their shoulders. The women’s garments were more subdued. They wore dark overflowing dresses that covered them from neck to foot. Some had scarves wrapped around their heads, while others wore a strange-looking dark shawl that covered their heads and formed a peak that shaded their faces from the sun.

At the end of the marina, the road curved upward, around a small fountain. A statue of Neptune stood in the middle of the fountain, lifting his trident to the sky, and staring longingly at the sea. David paused and splashed some water on his face. The coolness brought momentary relief.

The sub-lieutenant handed David a handkerchief and waited while he wiped his brow. “Only a bit further until we enter the city proper. There should be someone waiting for us.”

David stared at the long uphill road and hoped things would be easier once they reached the top.

* * *

Grandmaster’s Palace

“My apologies, Mr. Strangeways, but the Governor will not be able to meet you,” Hooke said.

They sat in a large room in the Grandmaster’s Palace. Hooke had told him it was called the Hall of Ambassadors, and was where the island’s former rulers had received guests. The crimson walls darkened the room’s corners. A high frieze played out the early history of the knights of the Order of St. John when they still had forts in Jerusalem. Now, it was a grand office for the Governor’s personal secretary, Reginald Hooke.

Hooke sat behind his desk in clothes as stiff as his demeanor. His eyes were small and set deep in his pasty face, giving him a bloated appearance.

David frowned. Lieutenant-General Thomas Maitland was the Governor of Malta and the person who had requested assistance from the Crown to investigate a bizarre murder. And now he could not meet?

“When will the Governor be available?” David asked.

“Unfortunately, he has had to travel to the Ionian Isles to deal with some very important business.” Hooke’s expression remained impassive.

Barnes coughed. “He’s lying.” For all his coarseness, Barnes made up for it with his uncanny intuition.

David almost scowled. He had to remain calm for now, he had just arrived, and he needed to gather information. Later, there would be time to find out the truth behind the lie. Now, he had to play the game.

“However,” Hooke continued, “he has asked me to provide you with any resources you require.”

“I would like my clothes taken to my lodgings, and to visit the murder scene.”

“Of course.” Hooke rang a small bell on his desk. A young boy hurried in.

“Have Mr. Strangeway’s bags taken to his lodgings and then fetch the Inspector General.”

The boy nodded and ran out.

Hooke folded his hands on the desk and his lips stretched. It took David a moment to realize he was smiling.

“What are your first impressions of the island, Mr. Strangeways?”

“The people have a beautiful costume, but the heat is overwhelming.” David glanced at Barnes. David hoped he would pay attention to what Hooke was saying. As he thought it, he was surprised at how much had had come to rely on Barnes’s insights, even for the most trivial of conversations.

“Yes, it takes some time before one gets used to it.” The smile widened.

David shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The feigned camaraderie made him uneasy.

Hooke’s smile died as quickly as it had appeared. His face returned to its impassive stare.

There was a quick knock at the door. “Enter,” Hooke said. The young boy opened the door, leading a tall trim man dressed in a white uniform. “Mr. Strangeways, allow me to introduce Colonel Francesco Rivarola, the Inspector General of Police.”

Rivarola had a strong grip. He looked to be about forty, with a long waxed mustache, and had the hardened look of a battle-worn soldier.

“How do you do?” Rivarola said.

“Colonel Rivarola will escort you to Castellania and give you the details,” Hooke said. “If there is anything else you need, please let me know.” He pulled out some papers and studied them, dismissing David and the others.

They walked out of the palace and into Piazza San Giorgio. The wide space was nearly empty. The setting sun cast an orange glow on the buildings, infusing them with a fiery aura. Except for the subdued splash from the small fountain at the east of the piazza, there was no other sound. David took a deep breath and smiled. “Finally, some shade. And this scenery, too beautiful.”

“David… don’t do it,” Barnes growled.

David looked around and said, “As I stood in the square of the knights, I felt on my face, the sun, oh, so bright…”

Barnes groaned. “I’ll return after you’ve completed your epic.”

“…to my left, what was once the palace of kings, has become nothing except a hall of empty things.”

Rivarola stood a few paces away, staring at him. He cleared his throat and said, “A poet, eh?” His voice boomed across the piazza. A few locals lounged in the shade of the fountain, playing cards. They looked up at the sound of Rivarola’s voice, and then returned to their game.

David shook his head. “Not yet. Still unpublished.” He unbuttoned his collar.

They walked on the shaded side of the street. After a few minutes, Rivarola stopped and faced the entrance of a baroque palazzo. The large bronze doors stood open, flanked by statuettes of two lounging maidens, Justice and Truth.

“This way,” Rivarola said. He led them into a large courtyard. “This is Castellania, over there are the Law Courts.” He pointed at one end of the courtyard with an ornate door and stone carvings decorating the frame. “This is where the body was discovered.” He walked to the other side of the courtyard, to a plain timber door with a rusty iron lock. “The gaoler discovered the body when bringing his supper.”

“Where is the gaoler now? I should speak with him.”

Rivarola shook his head. “Unfortunately, he ran off and we have not been able to find him. The sight of the body made him mad, I think.”

David lifted his eyebrows. What had happened to the body then?

Before he could ask, Rivarola unlocked the door and continued. “We keep condemned prisoners here on the eve of their executions.”

David followed him down into the dank cellar. A torch sputtered in the corner, shedding little light.

“The condemned was a young man from a self-made family, Domenico Camenzuli. He murdered his wife, Lucia.”

David stepped into a cell that was large enough for a wall-mounted cot, a pail, and a crucifix above the cot.

Barnes hovered above the cot. David had not noticed his reappearance. Barnes sniffed the air. His head swung side to side. He sneezed. “Strong magic was used,” he said. “Evil magic, vindictive.”

David studied the cell. There was nothing here he could see.

“Did Camenzuli have any enemies?” David asked.

Barnes continued sniffing, flitting from one corner to the other.

Rivarola rubbed his mustache. “None that we knew of. But…”

David turned to face him. Rivarola was hesitating.

“But?” David asked.

Rivarola sighed. “During the trial, Camenzuli insisted that he was innocent and that his wife had been murdered by her former lover, Giovanni Testaferrata.”

“Did you speak to Mr. Testaferrata?”

Rivarola scowled at David’s question. “We didn’t need to.”

Barnes floated out of the cell. “I can’t tell where the magic came from. But somewhere close. I’m going outside.” He drifted up the stairs. Although Barnes could float and fly, he could not pass through stone, wood, or earth.

“Why not?” David asked Rivarola.

Rivarola answered as if explaining letters to a young child. “We found Camenzuli covered with his wife’s blood. He was the only other person in the house and there were no signs of forced entry. We did not need to ask anyone else.”

“How was she murdered?”

“Her throat was cut. And…” Again, Rivarola hesitated.

“And?”

“Her ring finger was cut off. We never found it.”

A clear and easy path, David thought. Was it the truth? The truth was seldom that easy to find, David knew.
The clear blue eyes appeared again, this time, red-rimmed and full of tears. She looked at him and cried, about to ask the question that haunted him. Would he lie to her again, as he had before, or would he be strong enough to tell her the truth this time? She opened her mouth…

He focused on the cell and stared at the cot. He concentrated on what Rivarola had told him.

A murdered woman, a husband covered in her blood, no one in the house. The police could overlook the missing finger. If the husband was mad enough to kill his wife, he was mad enough to cut off a finger.

They had crafted their version of the story, but now David would craft his own. The truth was all that mattered, even if it did not come easily.

“How was Camenzuli murdered?”

“I…” Rivarola paused, cleared his throat. “It’s best you see for yourself.”

* * *

British Army Hospital

The size of the hospital was larger than some palaces David had visited. It spread across three main buildings and a number of adjoining houses.

British soldiers, both in Army red and Navy blue, filled the corridors. Men in white frocks made their way briskly through the crowds of people. The susurrus of English voices reminded him of London on a market day.

“I hate hospitals,” Barnes said. “It’s the smell. Horrid.”

They entered a large room that stank of alcohol and arsenic salts. David’s eyes began to water.

Rivarola approached a vat filled with embalming solution. “We preserved the body as best we could.” Domenico Camenzuli’s corpse floated in the liquid, face down. His skin had turned milk white from the chemicals, but his body was in perfect condition. No bruising or any other injuries that David could see.

Rivarola turned the body.

David held back a gasp. He had seen many horrible things as an investigator, but this did not frighten him—it fascinated him.

The eyes, mouth, and ears had been hacked from the skull, the skin had been torn away, like the face of a statue roughly chiseled away to anonymity.

“Someone must have not enjoyed his company very much,” Barnes said.

Leaning forward to take a better look, David whispered, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

“Excuse me?” Rivarola said.

“An oriental proverb.” David studied the face a little longer. Gouge marks surrounded each empty orifice. Whoever did that had inhuman strength. “No one heard any screams?”

“No. And… his body was drained of blood.”

“Fascinating'” David replied. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Rivarola frowned. “Does that mean you’re unable to help?”

David smiled at how quick Rivarola was to dismiss him. “I can help. But it’s late. I’d like to go to my lodgings.”

“I will escort you.”

When they stepped outside, David breathed deeply. The noxious smell had made him dizzy.

They walked the streets in silence. David thought about Camenzuli’s face, but behind those thoughts, the sad blue eyes waited for him.

* * *

Strada Mercanti

The lodgings they had prepared for him were larger than he had imagined. There were six rooms, all facing an internal courtyard. The rooms were large and surprisingly cool, with high ceilings and small windows. The housekeeper, Marija, kept a small vegetable garden in one corner of the courtyard, and there was a well in the center.

Marija was a loud woman, short and chubby, with thick, maternal arms. She had a young boy who ran around the house on countless errands and did his best to stare at David when he thought David was not looking.

Marija knew few words of English but immediately ushered David into the dining room, sat him at the table, and presented him with a large steaming plate of rabbit stew and hunks of crusty bread.

He dipped the bread into the thick red sauce and lost himself. Suddenly, his plate was empty, with only a pile of rabbit bones remaining.

Barnes disappeared each evening to attend to his own business, probably spooking whores. David had never asked where he went. The peace and quiet was welcome. It helped him think. If David needed him, he only had to call.

The boy appeared to fetch the empty plate.

David smiled. The boy blushed.

He was handsome, olive-skinned, like most of the locals, with dark hair and eyes.

“Do you speak English?”

The boy nodded then looked around quickly.

“Are you scared?” David asked.

The boy nodded again. “If Marija sees me idle, she will hit me with her wooden spoon.”

His accent was good. He almost sounded English.

David liked him. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell her you were helping me.”

The boy relaxed.

“Do you know anything about Domenico and Lucia Camenzuli?”

He nodded.

“Have you ever met Lucia?”

He shook his head, then made the sign of the horned goat with his left hand and tapped his open fingers on the wood. “It is bad luck to speak about the dead. My grandmother said they haunt you if you speak ill of them.”

“Ghosts do not exist,” David lied. “I swear we will not speak ill of them. I only want the truth.”

The boy seemed to find that acceptable. He sat down next to David. “I never met her, but everyone knew her. She lived close, in Strada Sant’ Ursola.”

“Have you ever seen her?”

“Yes, many times. She went to the same butcher as my mother.”

“What do you know about what happened?”

Rivarola had given him the easy story. But the people had another. The common mob was usually untrustworthy and full of base emotions, but sometimes their many eyes and ears learned things that escaped the authorities.

“She was killed, but no one believed her husband murdered her.”

“What does everyone believe?” David asked.

“That Giovanni Testaferrata murdered her.”

“Why?”

“A month before the murder he tried to return to her a gold ring she wore when they were engaged. It was in front of Neriku’s shop. When she said no, he slapped her and told her that he would kill her.”

Rivarola had not mentioned this. How many other things was he hiding?

“Who is Giovanni Testaferrata?”

Marija entered and began speaking loudly to the boy, all grunts and exclamations. David thought she was screaming at the boy for sitting, but then she nodded and smiled, and looked at David expectantly.

“Yes?” David asked.

“She wants to know if you liked the rabbit,” the boy said.

David laughed. “Yes. Tell her it was wonderful.”

She grinned and took the plates away.

When she had gone the boy said, “She likes you.”

Now it was David’s turn to grin. The locals seemed relaxed, not as uptight as the Londoners he knew, especially the courtiers at Court. And if he kept getting meals as big as these, he would return to London with tight shirts and loosened trousers.

“Shall we sit in the courtyard?” David said.

They took the chairs outside and sat next to the well.

“Now, tell me everything you know about Testaferrata.”

* * *

Strada Sant’ Ursola

The house where Domenico and Lucia had lived was a mansion compared to the other houses on the street. Four floors, over twenty rooms, a courtyard, roof garden, and an adjoining stable with room for a small carriage.

Since the murder, Domenico’s family had abandoned the house. Two constables had opened the door for him and then refused to enter, saying that the entire street was dangerous and they did not want to anger the spirits. The constables explained that eight years ago the plague had broken out in Valletta only a few doors down from the Camenzuli home. Since then many people kept away from the street. Domenico’s father had taken the opportunity to purchase the home at a low price. He must have regretted that decision now.

Lucia had been murdered in the drawing room.

Her throat had been cut and her finger chopped off, David thought. She had bled to death here, on the floor, at the foot of the table. David bent on one knee and ran his hand across the cold brown tiles. Had she looked up at her husband’s face before she died? In shock at his betrayal, or in fear that there was no hope, that he could not save her?

According to Rivarola, there had been no sign of forced entry. No one had got into Domenico’s cell either. Whoever, or whatever, had killed them was invisible.

A drop of sweat trickled off his nose and onto the tile. His shirt was already drenched. How could people live in this heat, he thought. He longed for a cool breeze.

Barnes floated around the house, sniffing the air like a bloodhound.

“Can you sense anything?” David asked.

“There is something here, but I’m not certain. Whatever it was has faded, but something was here.”

David frowned. That was not enough.

He walked from room to room, looking for something that he may have missed. There was nothing. Furniture covered with white dusty sheets, shuttered windows, silence.

Birds sang in the courtyard trees. David sat on a stone bench and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

“Where do we go from here?” David said.

“Back to London if you ask me.” Barnes took out his snuff box. “I hate this place. Too bright. Give me the fog any day.”

“I thought you hated the grey skies and incessant drizzle.”

“That was yesterday.”

“I can hardly believe it, but I agree with you.”

Barnes looked up from the snuff box, his eyebrows raised. “You do?”

“I have a bad feeling about this place.”

Barnes sniffed. “What you need is a good wench. She’ll suck that right out of you.”

David rolled his eyes, then stood and drew water from the well. He took a long draught and splashed the remainder on his face. “It’s too hot to think.” He straightened, sighing as the cool water dripped down his back. “Let’s wait for this damnable sun to set.”

* * *

Strada Mercanti

Dinner was a large plate of thin rolled steak stuffed with minced meat, eggs, and cheese in a red wine sauce with more of the ubiquitous crusty bread.

David stared at it.

“Is there something wrong?” the boy asked.

Although it was evening, he still felt too hot. “I’m not hungry. The heat has drained me.”

The boy giggled. “Marija’s not going to like that.”

“Let’s take supper outside. Maybe a cool breeze will bring back my appetite.”

The boy carried David’s plate to the courtyard. David sat facing the well. Marija was drawing water. She smiled and shouted out something.

“She is wondering why your plate is full,” the boy said.

David took a small bite and forced himself to swallow. The meat was tender and the stuffing melted in his mouth. Marija continued her work, pulling on the rope easily, hefting the bucket without spilling. She distributed the water among a collection of clay jugs. The boy picked up a pair of full jugs and began to walk to the kitchen.

David stared at the well. “There was a well in the Camenzuli home.”

The boy glanced at him. “Sorry?”

David placed the plate on the flagstones and stood. “Does every house have a well?”

“In Valletta, yes. Water is important.”

“Is it the same for other towns and villages?”

The boy shook his head. “No. In the villages there is one well in the center. Everyone gets water from there.”

“I need to return to the house.”

David smiled. He could see the truth begin to take shape.

* * *

Strada Sant’ Ursola

The well was wide enough for a man to descend. It looked deep, but he had risked more dangerous situations. A constable handed him a flaming torch. His partner stood outside the house, making sure no one entered.

Taking hold of the rope, David wrapped it around his free arm. He sat at the edge of the well.

“If something happens, go to Colonel Rivarola immediately.”

The constable nodded. “Are you certain this is a good idea?”

“Not at all. But it’s the only idea I have.” David pushed himself off the edge.

The space was narrow enough for him to spread his legs and push his back against the wall. Even so, he held onto the rope for safety. The air was damp but cool. A dark green moss carpeted the shaft. The torch light flickered along the walls, creating distorted shadows.

In a few minutes, he reached the bottom. There was enough space to stand upright. The water reached his knees. For a moment, he stood there, enjoying the coolness. He dipped his hand into the water and took a sip. It was fresh and clean-tasting.

He moved the torch around the cistern slowly. The flame licked at the stone walls ineffectually. The walls were jagged edges and sharp lines, the quick work of a chisel.

There seemed to be nothing out of place. He turned in slower circles, but it was the same. Nothing.

He bent down and searched closer to the waterline. There had to be something. He held the torch closer to the wall.

There!

A patch of wall, nearly submerged, was a slightly different color and not as rough looking. He scratched at it. Small flakes of what looked like mortar crumbled into the water.

“Constable!” His voice echoed up the shaft.

He did not answer.

The circle of light above him suddenly seemed far away.

He grabbed the rope and tugged. There was no resistance. It fell down the hole, splashing at his feet.

He dropped the torch into the water and hoisted himself up into the shaft. He had not heard any commotion, but he had been concentrating on searching the well.

The journey up the shaft seemed to take hours. The jagged walls cut his hands and tore his nails. The air thickened and descended on his chest and shoulders, trying to push him to the bottom. He struggled against the weight, climbing slowly and resting every few feet to catch his breath.

As he struggled, her face appeared again, tears flowing down her cheeks. Charlotte, he thought, why, why are you doing this to me? He almost lost his grip, but managed to hang on without falling. He closed his eyes and let the memory unfold. He couldn’t fight against it and pull himself out of the well.

“Do you love me?” she asked.

He opened his mouth, determined that this time he would tell the truth. No more lies.

“Yes.” The word escaped from his lips before he could take it back. Again, he had lied to her. Again, he had killed her.

He shook his head. Not now, he thought, I have to move forward, or else I am lost. He grabbed the next handhold and continued.

Finally, he pulled himself over the edge of the well and clambered onto the courtyard flagstones. He sucked in lungfuls of sweet air. The oppressive force disappeared. He looked around for the constable. He was not in the courtyard.

David found him in the drawing room lying in the place where Domenica had been murdered. A pool of blood spread across the tiles.

* * *

Rivarola smoothed his mustache and frowned as David repeated the same information for what seemed the hundredth time. He sat on one of the drawing room chairs while Rivarola paced the room. Constables wandered around the courtyard and rest of the house looking for clues. They had not found anything.

“No, I did not see who attacked him,” David said. He was beginning to lose his temper.

Rivarola stood there, observing him, as if by doing so he would get to the truth. Rivarola had been questioning him for more than an hour. David wanted to go to his room and crawl into bed. He could not think clearly anymore.

“Not good, Strangeways. Not good at all.” Rivarola cleared his throat and paced around the drawing room, hands folded behind his back.

“I know it’s not good, Colonel. But I think I may have discovered how the murderer struck. Each moment we spend—”

Rivarola spun on his heels. “Are you questioning my work, Strangeways?”

The forcefulness of the question made David recoil.

“No, Colonel, I—”

“Do you not see that you’ve put me in a difficult position?”

The excitement of his recent discovery had blinded him to his predicament. The constable was badly wounded and he had been the only other person in the house. The constable guarding the door had sworn no one else had entered or exited the house. The clear and easy path, David thought.

“You think I’m responsible?”

“You’re the only suspect.”

“I am here to investigate a crime, not commit one. Why would I harm a constable? I should go speak to him.”

“You will do no such thing. You are fortunate he is not dead.” Rivarola let the words hang in the air. “However, seeing that I have been instructed to assist you, I cannot hinder your progress with the investigation. He does not remember what happened, so I must let matters stand as they are, for now. I think it would be best if you went to your lodgings this evening and continued your investigations in the morning.”

David stood. He felt the soreness in his back and legs. His hands still bled where his nails had ripped. His body cried for rest, but he did not want to waste another minute. “Colonel, you—”

Rivarola held up his hand. “Please, Strangeways. Enough.” He stamped his foot on the tiles. The sound echoed. “You will continue your investigation in the morning. You will not leave Valletta nor will you venture onto the marina. My men will call upon you tomorrow—to assist.” He looked David in the eyes. “Do you understand?”

David nodded.

Rivarola turned and marched out of the room.

Everything in Valletta was working against him. The enthusiasm of his discovery had disappeared.

He ran his hand through his hair. It was wet.

It was still hot, even after sunset. This heat, he could not think in it. If only it rained or there was a breeze, something, anything to help me think, he thought. He hadn’t even called Barnes to help.

* * *

The next morning, a new pair of constables escorted him to the house. The older of the pair—he told David his name was Robert but asked to be called Bertu—spent the entire time practicing his broken English on David. The younger constable walked ramrod straight, and was mercifully silent.

They fetched a hammer and chisel and David made his way into the well again.

Each hammer blow eased David’s frustration. He struck the chisel with all his strength. The vibration burst up his arm and rattled his teeth. Chunks of plaster splashed into the water, slowly exposing a passageway. Cool air flowed from the hole and made David shiver. He held back a laugh. Cold had never felt so exquisite.

“Go to it, Strangeways.” Barnes stifled a yawn. “As much as I enjoy a session of grunting and pounding, this is not the place, nor occasion, I would choose to see it.”

The younger constable had remained above ground in the courtyard. Bertu stood behind David holding a torch.

“Sir,” Bertu said. “You want help?”

“No,” David replied, striking a blow against the wall that sent a large rock crashing to the water. The hole looked large enough for him to pass through if he bent double.

“Get another torch,” David told Bertu, handing him the hammer and chisel. “And put these away.”

Bertu called up to the other constable in the local language. A few minutes later, he lowered more torches.

Breathing heavily, David peered into the passageway. He couldn’t see anything, but he felt the vastness of the space beyond. For a moment, he forgot about the heat, the constable in a pool of blood, and Rivarola, and Hooke, and Charlotte with the sad blue eyes that tortured him. He stared into the darkness and enjoyed his accomplishment.

“Bertu,” David said. “Do you enjoy poetry?”

Barnes groaned.

Bertu swished through the water and handed David a torch. “Sir, no. Me and the reading, we no get along so good.” He laughed then choked. He spat a thick glob of phlegm into the water. “Sorry.”

“Ready?” David asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Bertu, while Barnes sighed.

Bending down to go through the hole, David said, “As I strode into the dark void, my thoughts returned to my youth..”

“Eh, sir? This a poem?” Bertu said.

“…I remembered how each night in bed, I shivered and I shook…” He thrust the torch ahead of him. The light barely illuminated the room. The air was surprisingly fresh. From what he could see, the dimensions of the room were as large as the courtyard. “…But now a grown man am I and no longer will I fear, what remains of the dark is gone, replaced by the light of day.”

“Very good sir,” Bertu said.

“Can you see anything?” David asked, only interested in what Barnes had to say. Barnes saw perfectly in the dark.

“No, sir,” Bertu replied. “It very dark.”

“The room is proportionate with the courtyard above, but there is an alcove in each wall. There is a statue of a woman in each alcove,” said Barnes.

David approached the alcove on the near wall and held the torch up to the statue. “It’s the Madonna.”

Bertu peered over his shoulder. “Yes, sir, look at that!”

The humidity had eaten away at the face of the statue but the posture and specks of blue paint left no room for doubt. Perhaps this room had been a chapel?

“David, you must see this,” Barnes said, behind him.

David turned and walked slowly to the middle of the room. Even with the flickering torch light, the darkness did not give up its secrets easily.

“Stop!” Barnes hovered in front of him, holding his arm out. David had never seen him with such a serious expression before.

“What?” David said, without thinking.

“What?” Bertu repeated. “What is wrong, sir?” David heard him approach.

“Look down.” Barnes moved out of the way. David followed his gaze.

Drawn on the floor with white chalk was a rough circle with strange sigils etched on its border. David crouched to get a better look. The main drawing was a group of concentric circles, the smallest, in the center, big enough for a man to stand in. A serpent enclosed the circle, swallowing its own tail. Within the body of the serpent were various symbols, markings, and what looked like drawings of a snail. A few feet from the circle, towards the direction of the well, was a triangle. In the triangle was a gold ring.

“The circle’s magic has dissipated,” Barnes said.

David reached out and picked up the ring. It felt warm. He wagered that this ring had once belonged to Lucia. Behind him, Bertu gasped and crossed himself. He mumbled a prayer. “This no good, sir, no good at all.” He pointed at the drawings of the snail. “You see? Gaw Gaw.”

“Bow-wow?” David said. “What do you mean?”

Bertu shook his head. “No sir, Gaw Gaw, Gaw Gaw. Very, very bad—”

Before Bertu could explain, Barnes called from the other side of the room. “These tunnels continue… I think they are under the entire city.”

This explained how the murderer had traveled unnoticed. He had not entered the house, since the plaster covering the entrance had been intact. The only question that remained was how did the murderer know which room to enter? Was there a map? No, wait. The answer was usually obvious and simple.

He turned and studied the doorway they had come from. “Bertu come here and give me more light.”

David studied the arch. He rubbed his hand against the cool limestone. At around shoulder height, he felt bumps in the smooth stone. “Here,” he told Bertu. He rubbed at the stone and blew. The layers of dust fell away, allowing him to see the markings more clearly.

“Can you see this?” David asked Bertu.

Bertu leaned forward and squinted. “Yes, I think is hamsa u ghoxrin… Istja!

“What?”

“Oh, sorry. I say that is uh… five and twenty, you see?” He traced the outline of the numbers with his finger.

David nodded. “Yes, that’s it. The same number as the house, yes?”

“Yes.” Bertu nodded eagerly.

“So, this is how he found his way here.”

* * *

Grandmaster’s Palace

David held the gold ring in the palm of his hand and squinted at the inscription inside the ring. Ghal Lucia, il-mahbuba tieghi, GT.

“What does that mean?” He handed the ring to Rivarola, who was sitting next to him, facing Hooke’s desk.

Hooke sat behind his desk with his usual morose expression. He steepled his fingers and stared quietly at both men.

“It means, ‘For Lucia, my beloved.’ Where did you say you found this?”

“Underneath the courtyard in the house. It was used in a ritual,” David replied. “I think it was used to direct a malign spirit to Lucia.”

Rivarola scowled. He pressed the ring back in David’s hand. “This is hogwash, Strangeways. Magic does not exist.”

Hooke watched both men intently. David ignored his gaze and turned to face Rivarola.

“Does it not? It is the only explanation. How else can a murderer enter a house without breaking a lock, or window?”

“Pah! Even so, this magic circle, or whatever you called it, was underground, how could the spirit, or whatever it was, get to the courtyard?”

“Magic circles are made in such a way that their power extends to the heavens above and the depths below. The spirit could have appeared anywhere above or below the circle.” He leaned back in his chair, satisfied that he had made his point.

Hooke broke his silence. “Your ring proves nothing.”

David straightened. He looked at both men, stunned that they were so blind. It was obvious to him—the truth was there, waiting for them to grasp it. “He used the ring to summon something to kill Lucia.”

Hooke sighed and nodded to Rivarola.

“Strangeways,” Rivarola said. “The ring is not evidence of a crime. It is evidence that someone had it in their possession and that same person drew a circle and used it for some purpose. We have no proof that this ritual is what led to the murder.”

David gripped the edge of the table. “I know that!” They were not thinking along the same lines he was. “But the ring links Testaferrata to Lucia. She flung it in his face when he tried to return it. We should question him. Confront him with the ring and see his reaction.”

Rivarola cleared his throat.

Hooke said, “Impossible.”

This was unbelievable. Were they protecting Testaferrata?

“Then I shall await Maitland’s return and discuss the matter with him.”

Hooke turned a deep crimson and slapped his hand against the desk. “You shall do no such thing.”

Rivarola looked away.

David stood. “I shall do what I damn well please. I was summoned here by Maitland to find the truth. And I shall do that, with or without your assistance.” He turned and walked briskly out of the room.

“Strangeways! You’re making a mistake!” Hooke called.

David ignored him. Damn him, and damn this city, he thought. The sooner he confronted Testaferrata with the ring, the sooner he could leave this forsaken rock.

In the hall, he nearly crashed into Bertu.

“Sir!” Bertu saluted.

David rolled his eyes. “Why are you saluting me? I’m not…” He did not have time for this. He grabbed Bertu’s arm and dragged him along. Bertu jogged beside him, struggling to keep up.

“Ah sir, very quick, eh?”

“Yes, very quick, Bertu. I must speak with you about a matter of importance.”

Bertu nodded. “Yes, sir, but maybe we walk slower, eh?”

“No time, Bertu, no time.”

Bertu’s expression saddened, but then gave way to a look of resignation. “Yes sir,” he replied dully.

“In the tunnel you mentioned a Gaw Gaw? What is that?”

“Ah, Gaw Gaw very bad sir, very evil. It, ah, how you say? Can smell the bad in you and it come and kill you.”

“Can it now?” Interesting, David thought. A spirit that detected evil. He did not know about Lucia’s personal life, but she did not strike him as being particularly evil. But if that was so, Testaferrata would also be evil for having her killed. And Domenico, what had been his evil deed? Robbing Testaferrata of a bride?

“It can smell the bad in you? What do you mean?” David asked.

“Like the judge, you know? When you do something bad, he tell to you, you go in the gaol. You know?”

David slowed his pace and repeated what Bertu had told him, trying to decipher the bad English. “When the judge tells you…” He stopped in mid-stride.

“I understand,” David said. “A judge pronounces you guilty. The Gaw Gaw smells guilt.”

“Yes, sir. Guilt, yes, I forget how to say.”

David grasped Bertu’s elbow and resumed his quick march.

“One more thing,” David said.

“Yes sir?”

“Where is Testaferrata?”

“I no know sir. He missing since Sir Tom get sick, sir.”

David stopped and swung around to face Bertu, who almost crashed into him. “What?”

Bertu smiled, obviously happy that he had said something that impressed David. “Yes, sir, he very sick.”

David wanted to slap himself. The knowledge of the masses, and he did not ask. “Where is he?”

“In the Lazaretto, sir. Quarantine.”

David could not understand why Hooke and Rivarola were keeping this a secret. People were transferred to a Lazaretto when they had a contagious disease. Something was missing, but this truth had to wait.

“Bertu,” David said. “You’ve been most helpful.”

“Yes, sir!” His eyes lit up with pride.

David nodded, then pressed a silver coin in his hand.

“I help you when you want, sir,” Bertu said.

David continued down the hall. Ideas whirred around his head, a perpetual motion machine of thoughts and theories.

He had to find Testaferrata.

David took the gold ring out of his pocket and stared at it. The ring was the key.

* * *

Strada Mercanti

“Are you certain you want to do this?” Barnes asked.

David was surprised at the note of hesitancy in Barnes’s voice. He had only seen Barnes afraid once before and that was when they had first met, five years ago.

“Are you nervous?” He was crouching in Marija’s courtyard, drawing a circle on the tiles with a piece of chalk. She was sound asleep in her room for the midday siesta.

Barnes sniffed. “My good man, I am never nervous.” He walked around the circle slowly. “I am concerned, that’s all.”

“Concerned for whom?” David asked with a smile. He finished the circle and placed the gold ring in a basin of water in the center of the circle. To the north of the circle, a few feet away, he drew a triangle.

“For your sake, of course. I’m already non-living.”

Barnes had every right to be concerned for his own safety. David would be using him as a spiritual conduit for the ritual. If something went wrong, it would happen through him. Any defenses or attacks they had to endure would strike Barnes first before reaching David.

If he made any mistakes, Barnes would suffer. It would disrupt him, which David understood to mean that he would be scattered among different planes until he could reassemble himself, but he was not completely sure.

David stood in the center of the triangle. “I’m ready.”

Barnes took a pinch of snuff—was his hand trembling?—and floated into position opposite, facing south.

Taking a deep breath, David began the chant.

“Boreale et Australe, Oriente et Occidente, Fontem Reperi Anxietatis Mei.”

Barnes shimmered and he giggled. “It’s beginning, David, I feel the tingling.”

The effect was immediate. The air within the circle vibrated with power. A gale of searing wind, smelling of sulfur, blasted against the triangle barrier. Sweat formed along his forehead, dripped down his face.

“Spectaculum Senti, Sonitum Audi, Quod Relictum erat est Deprehensum.”

The bowl trembled. Waves formed on the water’s surface. The light in the courtyard dimmed even though the sky was cloudless. The unnatural wind intensified, howling in anger and frustration as it tried to breach the triangle.

Barnes spread his arms, beams of light shot from his fingers. “Da, da, da…”

Sweat poured off David, slicking his hair and drenching his clothes. He frowned. The power within the circle was overwhelming. His hands trembled as he tried to control it. He could feel it building, like hot air trapped in a balloon, searching for the weak spot so it could burst.

Grimacing, he intoned the final words of the chant. “Monstret Aqua Mihi Testaferratae Locum.”

Silence.

The wind died. Everything returned to normal. Barnes looked around. “What happened? Have you…”

Suddenly, a figure dressed in a long black overcoat with a wide-brimmed hat that covered its face appeared in the center of the circle. It looked in David’s direction.

Even though he could not see the face, David felt the malice wash over him. Instinctively he took a step back and then stopped himself. His heel was at the edge of the triangle, a hair’s breadth away from the marking. Cold fear deadened his limbs. If he breached the triangle, he would be lost.

The figure lifted its head to the sky and shrieked. David covered his ears, but it made no difference. The sound surrounded him, shot through him. He felt it in his head and bones.

With a bang, the figure disappeared.

Barnes stumbled to his knees. “I don’t feel well.” He fell on his face.

David looked around, making sure that the danger was over. He cautiously stepped out of the circle.

“Barnes?”

He was gone. David felt a spasm of worry, but held it down. Barnes had to look after himself.

The figure had shaken him. He had expected some kind of resistance, but nothing like that. The intensity of its hatred had been palpable. He was sure that if it hadn’t been for Barnes and the protection of the triangle, it would have devoured him.

Any doubts that Testaferrata was the murderer vanished. He had powerful allies and he did not want to be found.

David stepped into the circle and looked into the bowl.

The spell had worked.

The image was already fading, but he saw a long narrow street, packed with… were those sailors? Yes, the blue uniforms were unmistakable. The street looked like it was in Valletta. There was a dome. He was sure he had seen it before.

Testaferrata was here. He was in the city.

* * *

Strada Stretta

The long narrow street ran like a gash through Valletta’s heart. Sailors and other men, mostly British, thronged along its length, jeering and shouting. The street was only wide enough to allow three or four men to stand side by side. They stumbled and pushed past each other in varied stages of intoxication. Barnes had been wrong about the lack of whorehouses.

David looked down the street. There was the dome. The doorway he had seen in the scrying bowl could not be far.

A woman emerged from a second floor balcony and hooted. “Hey, English!”

David looked up.

She was dressed in a frilly pink dress and had copious amounts of rouge on her cheeks. She pulled down her top and exposed her matronly breasts. “You like?”

A group of sailors whistled and applauded. David hurried down the street. An old sailor bumped into him. “There was a ship…” he said, and staggered on.

David stopped in front of a worn door. This was it.

Along the street, the doors were open, men came and went, and women leaned on the frames. This door was closed, the windows shuttered. The house had two floors. Dead weeds hung limply from numerous cracks in the decayed timber balcony on the second floor. The stone façade shone with green-yellow mildew. The sun-bleached paint on the doors and windows had once been lime-green.

The crowds avoided the house, passing by without a glance.

David tried the handle. Surprisingly, the door swung open. A gust of stale air wafted out. He covered his nose. It smelled of damp cave, of mold and darkness. The entrance hall was unlit. A stone staircase, on the right, led to the top floor. David moved slowly, one hand over his mouth, the other stretched in front of him. The light was low, just enough to make his way. A thick layer of dust covered the few pieces of shabby furniture. Patches of green and black moss carpeted the limestone walls. Weeds had overgrown the courtyard. He returned to the staircase.

The stairs were worn, a depression in the center of each step. The top floor had only three rooms, each with closed timber doors. The paint had long since peeled away, leaving worm-eaten planks with gaps between.
Flickering light shone behind one of the doors. David placed his hand against it. It was warm. He pushed and the door creaked open.

A rough pentagram drawn on the floor with chalk. Five sputtering candles placed on each angle. Smell of burning hair and rotten meat. Broken furniture piled against the walls. A shattered full-length mirror.

A thin figure approached, out of the darkness, from the far corner of the room. His clothes and appearance had been handsome once but had been left to ruin.

David could not make out his face. He held his head low, avoiding David’s gaze. He could only see his hands, pale with long, elegant fingers.

“I knew you were coming,” the man said. He spoke perfect English without any accent. His voice was low and deep, soothing.

“Giovanni Testaferrata?” David said.

The man chuckled. He moved his hands while he spoke. They drew David’s gaze like beacons in the night.

“Yes,” Testaferrata answered. “But you’ve known this for some time, haven’t you?”

David nodded.

The air in the room gradually grew colder, but the light increased. The candles stopped spluttering. The flames burned white.

David’s toes tingled. The feeling rushed up his legs, made his knees weak. His body relaxed. His arms dangled uselessly, heavy and unwieldy. He wanted to sit.

“You look exhausted, my friend,” Testaferrata said.

David stifled a yawn and replied, “I know what you’re doing.” He had to stay focused.

Testaferrata held out a pale hand. His fingers were light blue, like the sky on a clear day. “Let me help you.”

It was too difficult to resist.

David took a step closer and reached out. It was simpler like this. He would rest, for a short while. It was comfortable here, away from the heat. Just for a moment, then he could continue with his work refreshed. The tiles looked cool and inviting…

A pool of blood spreading across the tiles.

David drew back and waved his right hand in front of his face. “Avaunt!”

The yell shattered the spell.

Testaferrata stumbled and leaned against the wall for support.

The light in the room dimmed and the candles resumed their uneasy existence. The oppressive heat returned.

David shook his head, cleared it from the heaviness. Testaferrata was no novice, his powers were greater than David had imagined. But David was no novice either.

“It’s finished, Testaferrata.”

Testaferrata laughed again. He stood straight and faced David. “What’s finished, Mr. Strangeways? The pain and torment? The suffering? The guilt? They’re never finished. They’re never-ending, bottomless, infinite.”

David frowned. “I’m not here to discuss metaphysics.” He weaved his hands, crafting a spell of binding, strong enough to hold Testaferrata until he could get him out of the house. “You’re a murderer, and I’m here to find the truth.”

The air around Testaferrata buzzed as the spell began to take hold.

“Truth?” Testaferrata slouched, weighed down by the binding. “There is no truth.” He fell onto his knees, his head bowed, as if he were praying. He looked up at David, fixing him with his empty gaze. “Only guilt.”

He had no eyes.

David faltered for a moment. But it was enough.

Testaferrata raised his arms and shouted. “Gaw Gaw!”

The candles flared. The black-clad figure with the wide-brimmed hat appeared in the center of the pentagram. He jumped with inhuman grace and landed between David and Testaferrata.

David held up his arms, trying to cast a protection spell, but he had no time.

It grabbed his hands. Numbing cold shot up his arms, making him gasp. It lifted its head, revealing the face beneath the hat. Slime covered skin, no eyes or ears, just one large puckered mouth that opened and closed, gulping hungrily.

Memories flooded through his mind. He remembered everything.

He abandoned his mother after he moved to London. He chose the endless balls and gatherings over caring for her when she sickened. Empty laughter with empty people, as she died miles away in an empty house.

The affair with the young maid, Charlotte, with the laughing blue eyes. The promises that bound her heart to his. The promises that evaporated when she was with child. How those eyes changed when he turned his back on her, his lies transformed her into something hideous and grotesque.

The child had her eyes, they said.

How empty her eyes were when they dragged her body from the river.

They never found the child.

It was true. He was guilty. His lies had killed the people he loved.

The Gaw Gaw leaned closer. The mouth slurped and gulped.

He was guilty, but he was no longer that selfish young man. He dedicated his life to hunting down those that had caused harm because he knew how easy, how effortless it was to cause pain. He searched for the truth because he knew how easy it was to lie.

Gathering what remained of his strength, he shook one hand free from the Gaw Gaw’s grasp and plunged it into his pocket.

The Gaw Gaw reached for David’s escaped hand and pulled him closer. It smelled of dead things and forgotten places.

He pulled out the gold ring and waved it in front of the Gaw Gaw’s face.

It released him from its numbing grip and followed the swaying of the ring. The coldness where it had touched him faded but he still had fleeting glimpses of other memories—memories not his own.

A young man gave the ring to a beautiful young girl. Her face lit up with happiness and she hugged him…

Weeks later, she pulled the ring off her finger and returned it to him. He asked her, “Why?” She said, “Your family has no income. My parents will never allow it. We must never see each other again…”

The young man stared at the ring for hours, no longer a symbol of eternal love but of her betrayal…

He plucked out his eyes, to never see beauty again, and as a sacrifice for what he asked.

It was placed as a gift in the magic circle, as thanks for the murder…

The Gaw Gaw reached out. David pulled his hand back and threw the ring. It arced over the Gaw Gaw and landed in front of Testaferrata. Even though he was blind, his hand darted out and found the ring. He rubbed it between his fingers.

He moaned. “I killed her…”

The Gaw Gaw turned and leaped, pinning Testaferrata to the ground. Testaferrata screeched.

It lowered its head onto his and his cries stopped, replaced with long wet slurps. David ran out of the room, retching. He leaned against the banisters and tried to catch his breath. Suddenly he was overcome with fatigue. He sat on the floor and closed his eyes to rest, only for a moment…

The front door burst open. A group of constables ran in, truncheons drawn.

“Here,” David said. “Up here.”

They jogged up the stairs. Rivarola stepped in, arms folded behind his back. One of the constables ran into the room while another stood next to David. “Are you well, sir?”

David nodded.

The constable who had run into the room called out. “He’s dead. It looks like an attack of apoplexy.”

Rivarola ascended the steps. “Strangeways, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“Testaferrata is dead,” David replied.

Rivarola waved his arm as if swatting away bad news. “Yes, yes. Well done.”

David scowled. He had expected Rivarola to make his usual conclusions and accuse him of the murder. Instead, he reacted as if it were unimportant.

“My men will see to the body,” Rivarola said. “In the meantime, the Governor wants to see you.”

“Hooke? What does he want?”

“No, Strangeways. The Governor. Maitland.”

* * *

Manoel Island, Lazaretto

The room was small. Unadorned walls, a cot, a small window, a bedside table with a pitcher and basin.

“There is nothing else a soldier needs,” Maitland said, as he sipped water from clay mug. “All of those bombastic rooms—one can easily tell they were built by papists.”

Maitland looked thin and pale, but otherwise healthy. He sat at the edge of the bed, dressed in loose pants and a white shirt. He studied David carefully.

David nodded. “They have a propensity to exaggerate.”

“So, Strangeways, tell me, has that fool assisted you?”

David paused. Maitland had a reputation for being blunt. “I’m not sure I understand, sir.”

“Come off it, Strangeways. We aren’t at Court. No need for your pansy dillydallying. I mean Hooke.”

Ah, that fool, David thought.

“He did not hinder me in any way, sir. However, neither did he help move my investigations forward. He also misinformed me that you had gone to the Ionian Isles.”

Maitland raised his eyebrows. “Did he?” He shook his head and hummed. “What would you make of that, eh?” He took another sip of water.

“He was scared of the truth,” David replied.

“The truth, eh? Is that what you think? Tell me then, what is the truth?”

David told him what had happened, and left out nothing, except for Barnes. Barnes was his secret.

“All I wonder now, is how someone as young as Testaferrata could have enough power and knowledge to control something as powerful as the Gaw Gaw,” David said. “It might be possible, but you would need knowledge, and I saw no grimoires.”

Maitland narrowed his eyes and studied David’s face. Then, he nodded, seemingly content with what he found there. “His family is an old one, Strangeways. Not as rich as they used to be, but old. Old and wise. Perhaps wise in things that people shouldn’t be wise in.”

“I see.” David felt the stirrings of excitement in his stomach.

Maitland drained the rest of his cup and poured himself another. “They live in Mdina. Have you been there in the course of your investigation?”

“No, sir. I was prohibited from leaving the city.”

“That prohibition has been lifted, as of now.”

“Thank you, sir.”

David ran through the various reasons why he should leave the island. The heat, the strange language, the danger. But if Testaferrata was just a novice, what else was there? What lurked in Mdina?

“I will deal with Hooke as soon as I leave this cell. You are probably correct in thinking he was afraid that he would be struck down by a curse, as he believed I was.”

“Were you, sir?”

“I don’t believe in such things, Strangeways. But that does not mean they don’t exist.” Maitland looked out the window for a moment. “I was sick, Strangeways. So sick I was certain my time had arrived. My body felt as if it were being crushed. Each day I could breathe less and less.

“I’m not a holy man, I’m a soldier. I’ve known death. I’ve met that heartless bastard many times before. I was certain this time would be the end. But then a strange thing happened. A few hours ago, the crushing weight lifted and I was good as new.”

“Very intriguing, sir. But coincidences happen.”

“Of course they do, Strangeways, of course they do. But do you know when I was taken ill?”

David thought for a moment, and replied, “On the day I arrived?”

Maitland shook his head. “Close, but no. On the day I received word that my request for assistance had been approved. The day I found out you were coming.” Maitland leaned towards David and fixed him with a steady gaze. “How do you think Testaferrata found out so quickly?”

David understood why they had nicknamed him King Tom. He commanded respect, even while sitting on a sick bed drinking water.

“Yes,” Maitland continued. “I’ll deal with Hooke very soon.” He put down his cup and cleared his throat. “So, Strangeways, I require your assistance with another matter. Are you game?”

* * *

Strada Mercanti

The night was cool, with a breeze blowing through the courtyard. David sipped at a glass of claret and stared at the stars. Barnes appeared at his side, dressed in his blue suit.

“You took a while,” David said.

Barnes pulled out his snuff box. “That damned spirit disrupted me into a realm I’d never been before. Took me ages to find my way out. Did I miss anything?”

David wondered what that must have been like. “You missed Testaferrata.”

“And how was he?” He sniffed the snuff and wriggled his nose.

“Charming. You would have enjoyed his company.” He decided not to tell Barnes about the whorehouses. He’d never pry him away.

Barnes sneezed. “I’m sure.”

David yawned. “I’m off to bed. Have to rise early tomorrow.”

“The morning ship back to London?” Barnes asked.

“We’re not returning to London for now.”

Barnes halted, mouth open. He floated in front of him and waved his hands. “What do you mean? Has the heat robbed you of your senses? This trip has had its moments, but enough is enough.”

“There’s something else we need to do.”

Barnes sighed. “And what is that?”

“Maitland wants me to continue my investigations. We need to go to Mdina.”

“What the deuce is Mdina?”

“Testaferrata was only a hatchling. Mdina is where the dragon lurks,” David said, as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. “A long, long day Barnes… Get some rest, or sleep, or what it is you do, and make sure you’re ready…”

Barnes hovered, staring at David’s back. He opened his mouth to reply, but thought better of it. He shrugged and took another pinch of snuff. Whatever it was he would find out tomorrow…

THE END

October 9, 2012 - Posted by | October 2012, Uncategorized | , , , ,

3 Comments

  1. […] and not least, Michael Vella’s story “Valletta City of Guilt” is now available at World SF Blog.  This alternate history story about an Englishman in […]

    Pingback by Hopefull Monster News | D. Thomas Minton | October 10, 2012

  2. Reblogged this on Wizard of Gobbledygook and commented:
    My good friend – and fellow Schlock Magazine co-editor/scribe – Michael Vella is featured on World SF Blog! Check out this rollicking story of supernatural sleuthing in 19th century Valletta.

    Comment by gobblerants | October 10, 2012

  3. Loved the story — so what happens in Mdina (one of my favourite places)?

    Comment by Andy | October 19, 2012


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