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That afternoon, the two boys stood in front of yet another grand palace in the heart of Venice.

“It’s called the Contarini del Bovolo,” Alex said, consulting his guidebook. “It says here that the staircase is shaped a bit like the shell of a snail. And bovolo is the Venetian word for ‘snail shell’.”

Tom stifled a yawn. “That’s fascinating, Alex,” he said. “But if I see one more palace, one more church, or one more canal, I think I’m going to throw myself under a bus.”

“There aren’t any buses in Venice,” Alex reminded him.

“A water bus, then. If it doesn’t hit me, maybe I’ll get lucky and drown.” He sighed. “You know the trouble with this place? The entire city’s like a museum. A bloody great museum. I feel like I’ve been here half my life.”

Alex couldn’t bring himself to agree. He had never been anywhere quite like Venice–but then there was nowhere in the world remotely like it with its narrow streets and dark canals twisting around each other in an intricate, amazing knot. Every building seemed to compete with its neighbor to be more ornate and more spectacular. A short walk could take you across four centuries and every corner seemed to lead to another surprise. It might be a canal-side market with great slabs of meat laid out on the tables and fish dripping blood onto the paving stones. Or a church, seemingly floating, surrounded by water on all four sides. A grand hotel or a tiny local restaurant. Even the shops were works of art with windows framing exotic masks, brilliantly colored glass vases, dried pasta, and antiques. It was a museum, maybe, but one that was truly alive.

And yet, part of him felt guilty for dragging Tom here. Tom would have preferred to go straight down to Naples, but Alex had managed to persuade him to spend a few days, first, in Venice. What he hadn’t been able to tell his friend was his real reason for coming here.


He still hadn’t forgotten the last words that Yassen Gregorovich had spoken on the plane even as he lay dying. Night after night he had thought about them, turning over in bed, unable to get to sleep. His father–John Rider–had worked with Yassen. He had once saved Yassen’s life. But then John Rider had been killed by MI6, the very same people who had forced Alex to work for them three times: lying to him, manipulating him, and finally dumping him when he was no longer needed. It was almost impossible to believe, but Yassen had offered him proof.

“Go to Venice. Find Scorpia. And you will find your destiny . . .”

The trouble was, he had absolutely no idea what Yassen Gregorovich had meant by his last words. Scorpia could be a person. Alex had looked in the telephone book and had found no fewer than fourteen people living in and around Venice with that name. It could be a business. Or it could be a single building. Scuole were homes set up for poor people. La Scala was an opera house in Milan. But Scorpia didn’t seem to be anything. No signs pointed to it. No streets were named after it.


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