Storm Front - Richard Castle



The gondolier could only be described as ruggedly handsome, with dark hair and eyes, a square jaw, and muscles toned from his daily exertions at the oar. He wore the costume the tourists expected of his profession: a tight-fitting shirt with red-and-white jail house striping, blousy black pants, and a festive red scarf tied off at a jaunty angle. He finished the outfit with a broad-rimmed sunhat, an accessory he kept fixed to his head even though it was nearly midnight. Appearances needed to be maintained.

With powerful, practiced movements, he propelled the boat under the Calle delle Ostreghe footbridge. When he felt they were sufficiently under way, he opened his mouth and let a booming, mournful baritone pour from his lungs.

“Arrivederci Roma,” he warbled. “Good-bye, au revoir, mentre…”

“No singing, please,” said the passenger, a pale, doughy man in a tweed jacket, with a voice that was vintage British Empire boarding school.

“But it’s-a part-a the service,” the gondolier replied, in heavily accented English. “It’s-a, how you say, romantic-a. Maybe we-a find-a you a nice-a girl, huh? Put you in a better mood-a?”

“No singing,” the Brit said.

“But I could lose-a my license,” the gondolier protested.

He rowed in silence for a moment, cocked his head directly toward the Brit, then resumed his crooning.

“Assshoooooole-omio,” he crooned. “Ooooo-sodomia…”

“I said no singing,” the Brit snapped. “My God, man, it’s like someone is squeezing a goat. Look, I’ll pay you double to stop.”

The gondolier mumbled a curse in Italian under his breath, but the singing ceased. The moon had been blotted by clouds, giving him little light by which to navigate. He focused on his task, pointing the boat’s high, gracefully curved prow toward the middle of the Grand Canal, then out into the open waters of the Laguna Veneta, a strange place for a gondola in the dark of night.

The currents were stronger here, and the flat-bottomed vessel was not well suited to the chop created by a stiffening breeze blowing in from the west. The gondolier frowned as the Campanile di San Marco’s tower grew faint in the distance behind them.

“Where are we-a going again?” he asked. “Just keep rowing,” the Brit answered, his eyes surveying the darkness.

A few minutes later, three quick floodlight flashes split the night from several hundred yards away. They came from the bow of a small fishing boat that was approaching the gondola’s starboard side.

“There,” the Brit said, pointing to the right. “Go there.”

“Sì, signore,” the gondolier said, aiming the boat in the direction of the light.

Soon, they were alongside the fishing boat, a white fiberglass trawler. The gondolier took quick stock of its occupants. There were three, and they weren’t fishermen. One was stationed on the bow with an AK-47 anchored against his shoulder, the muzzle arching in a semicircle as he scanned the horizon. One manned the wheel house, with both hands firmly planted on the helm and a handgun holstered on his right hip. The third, an egg-bald albino, was in the stern, apparently unarmed, and focused entirely on the Brit.

This would be easy.

The fishing boat’s engine shifted into neutral and it slowly glided to a stop. Once the boats were stern to stern, a brief conversation between the Brit and the albino ensued. The gondolier waited patiently for the exchange, then it happened: a small, velvet bag passed from the albino to the Brit.

The gondolier made his move. The man with the AK-47 never saw the long oar leave the water and certainly didn’t realize it was tracking at high speed in his direction—at least not until the blade was three inches from his ear, at which point it was too late. He dropped to the bottom of the boat with a heavy thud.

One down.

The man at the helm reacted, but slowly. His first move was to leave the wheel house and inspect the noise. That was his mistake. He should have gone for his gun. By the time his error began to occur to him, the gondolier had already dropped his oar and leaped onto the fishing boat, and was approaching with hands raised. The gondolier had a full range of Far Eastern martial arts moves at his disposal but opted, instead, for a more Western tactic, delivering a left jab to the side of the man’s nose that stunned him, then a right uppercut to his jaw that severed any connection the helmsman had to reality.

Two down.

The albino was already reaching down to his ankle, toward a knife that was sheathed there. But