Agent Matt: Scorpioan's Nest

Chapter 2: Chasing the scorpion

"Now, this building is called the Palazzo Con-tarini Del Bovolo," Mr Avalon announced. "Bovolo is the Venetian word for snail shell and, as you can see, this wonderful staircase is shaped a bit like a shell."

Aichi Sendou stifled a yawn. "If I see one more palace, one more museum or one more canal," he muttered, "I'm going to throw myself under a bus."

"There aren't any buses in Venice," Matt reminded him.

"A water bus, then. If it doesn't hit me, maybe I'll get lucky and drown." Aichi sighed. "You know the trouble with this place? It's like a museum. A bloody great museum. I feel like I've been here half my life."

"We're leaving tomorrow."

"Not a day too soon, Matt."

Matt 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 neighbour 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 restaurant. Even the shops were works of art, their windows framing exotic masks, brilliantly coloured glass vases, dried pasta and antiques. It was a museum, maybe, yet one that was truly alive. But Matt understood what Aichi was feeling. After four days, even he was beginning to think he'd had enough. Enough statues, enough churches, enough mosaics. And enough tourists all crammed together beneath a sweltering September sun. Like Aichi, he was beginning to feel overcooked.

And what about this scorpion seal? The trouble was, he had absolutely no idea what Ivan Harkov had meant by his last words. The scorpion's seal could be a club or a code for something. Matt had looked in the phone book and found no fewer than fourteen clubs with that name in and around Venice. 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 scorpion seal didn't seem to be anything. No signs pointed to it-no streets were named after it.

It was only now he was here, nearing the end of the trip that Matt began to see it had been hopeless from the start. If Ivan had told him the truth, the pair of assassins - he and Nancy Ishida - had been hired killers. Had they worked for an organisation or private clients? If so, these people would be very carefully concealed ... perhaps inside one of these old palaces. Matt looked again at the staircase that Mr Avalon was describing. How was he to know that these steps didn't lead to the scorpion seal itself? They could be anywhere. It could be everywhere. And after four days in Venice, Matt was nowhere.

"We're going to walk back down the Frezzeria towards the main square," Mr Avalon announced. "We can eat our sandwiches there and after lunch we'll visit St Mark's Basilica."

"Oh great!" Aichi exclaimed. "Another church!"

They set off, a dozen Japanese schoolchildren, with Mr Avalon and Miss Bridle in front, talking animatedly together. Matt and Aichi trailed at the back, both of them gloomy. There was one day left, and, as Aichi had made clear, that was one day too many. He was, as he put it, all cultured out. But he wasn't returning to Tomoeda with the rest of the group. He had an older brother living in Naples and he was going to spend the last few days of the summer holidays with him. For Matt the end of the visit would mean failure. He would go home, the autumn term would begin, and...

And that was when he saw it, a flash of silver as the sun reflected off something at the edge of his vision. He turned his head. There was nothing. A canal leading away. Another canal crossing it. A single motor cruiser sliding beneath a bridge. The usual facade of ancient brown walls dotted with wooden shutters. A church dome rising above the red roof tiles. He had imagined it. But then the cruiser began to turn, and that was when he spotted it a second time and knew it was really there: a silver scorpion decorating the side of the boat, pinned to the wooden bow. Matt stared as it swung into the second canal. It wasn't a gondola or a chugging public vaporetto, but a sleek, private launch - all polished teak, curtained windows and leather seats. There were two crew members in immaculate white jackets and shorts, one at the wheel, the other serving a drink to the only passenger. This was a woman, sitting bolt upright, looking straight ahead. Matt only had time to glimpse black hair, an upturned nose, a face with no expression. Then the motor launch completed its turn and disappeared from sight. A scorpion decorating a motor launch. The Scorpions seal.

It was the most slender of connections but suddenly Matt was determined to find out where the boat was going. It was almost as if the silver scorpion had been sent to guide him to whatever it was he was meant to find. And there was something else. The stillness of the woman. How was it possible to be carried through this amazing city without registering some emotion, without at least moving your head from left to right? Matt thought of Ivan Harkov. He would have been the same. He and this woman were two of a kind. Matt turned to Aichi.

"Cover for me," he said urgently.

"What now?" Aichi asked.

"Tell them I wasn't feeling well. Say I've gone back to the hotel."

"Where are you going?"

"I'll tell you later." With that Matt was gone, ducking between an antiques shop and a cafe up the narrowest of alleyways, trying to follow the direction of the boat. But almost at once, he saw that he had a problem. The city of Venice had been built on over a hundred islands. Mr Avalon had explained this on their first day. In the middle Ages the area had been little more than a swamp. That was why there were no roads -just waterways and oddly shaped bits of land connected by bridges. The woman was on the water; Matt was on the land. Following her would be like trying to find his way through an impossible maze in which their paths would never meet. Already he had lost her.

The alleyway he had taken should have continued straight ahead. Instead it suddenly veered off at an angle, obstructed by a tall block of flats. He ran round the corner, watched by two Italian women in black dresses, sitting outside on wooden stools. There was a canal ahead of him, but it was empty. A flight of heavy stone steps led down to the murky water but there was no way forward ... unless he wanted to swim. He peered to the left and was rewarded with a glimpse of wood and water churned up by the propellers of the motor launch as it passed a fleet of gondolas roped together beside a rotting jetty. There was the woman, still sitting in the stern, now sipping a glass of wine. The boat continued under a bridge so tiny there was barely room to pass. There was only one thing he could do. He swivelled round and retraced his steps, running as fast as he could. The two women noticed him again and shook their heads disapprovingly. He hadn't realized how hot it was. The sun seemed to be trapped in the narrow streets, and even in the shadows the heat lingered. Already sweating, he burst back out onto the street where he had begun. Fortunately there was no sign of Mr Avalon or the rest of the school party.

Which way?

Suddenly every street and every corner looked the same. Relying on his sense of direction, Matt chose left and sprinted past a fruit shop, a candle shop and an open-air restaurant where the waiters were already laying the tables for lunch. He came to a bend and there was the bridge - so short he could cross it in five steps. He stopped in the middle and leant over the edge, gazing down the canal. The smell of stagnant water pricked his nostrils. There was nothing. The launch had gone. But he knew which way it had been heading. It still wasn't too late - if he could keep moving. He darted on. A British tourist was just about to take a photo of his wife and daughter. Matt heard the camera shutter click as he ran between them. When they got back to London, they would have a picture of a slim, athletic boy with fair hair hanging over his forehead, dressed in shorts and a Billabong T-shirt, with sweat pouring down his face and determination in his eyes. Something to remember him by. A crowd of tourists. A busker playing the guitar. Another cafe. Waiters with silver trays. Matt ploughed through them all, ignoring the shouts of protest hurled after him. Now there was no sign of water anywhere; the street seemed to go on for ever. But he knew there must be a canal somewhere ahead. He found it and nearly feel into it. The road fell away. Grey water flowed past. He had reached the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in Venice. And there was the motor launch with the silver scorpion now fully visible. It was at least thirty metres away, surrounded by other vessels, and moving further into the distance with every second that passed. Matt knew that if he lost it now he wouldn't find it again. There were too many channels opening up on both sides that it could take. It could slip into the private mooring of one of the palaces or stop at any of the smart hotels. He noticed a wooden platform floating on the water just ahead of him and realized it was one of the landing stages for the Venice water buses. There was a kiosk selling tickets, and a mass of people milling about. A yellow sign gave the name of this point on the canal: SANTA MARIA DEL GIGLIO. A large, crowded boat was just pulling out.

A number one bus. His school party had taken an identical boat from the main railway station the day they had arrived, and Matt knew that it travelled the full length of the canal, it was moving quickly. Already a couple of metres separated it from the landing stage. Matt glanced back. There was no chance he would be able to find his way through the labyrinth of streets in pursuit of the motor launch. The vaporetto mas his only hope. But it was too far away. He had missed it and there might not be another one for at least ten minutes. A gondola drew past, the gondolier singing in Italian to the grinning family of tourists he was carrying. For a second Matt thought about hijacking the gondola. Then he had a better idea.

He reached out and grabbed hold of the oar, snatching it out of the gondolier's hands. Taken by surprise, the gondolier shouted out, twisted round and lost his balance. The family looked on in alarm as he plunged backwards into the water. Meanwhile Matt had tested the oar. It was about five metres long, and heavy. The gondolier had been holding it vertically, using the splayed paddle end to guide his craft through the water. Matt ran. He stabbed down with the blade, thrusting it into the Grand Canal, hoping the water wouldn't be too deep. He was lucky. The tide was low and the bottom of the canal was littered with everything from old washing machines to bicycles and wheelbarrows, cheerfully thrown in by the Venetian residents with no thought of pollution. The bottom of the oar hit something solid and Matt was able to use the length of wood to propel himself forward. It was exactly the same technique he had used pole-vaulting at Readington sports day. For a moment he was in the air, leaning backwards, suspended over the Grand Canal. Then he swung down, sweeping through the open entrance of the water bus and landing on the deck. He dropped the oar behind him and looked around. The other passengers were staring at him in amazement. But he was on board. There were very few ticket collectors on the water buses in Venice, which was why there was nobody to challenge Matt about his unorthodox method of arrival or demand a fare. He leant over the edge, grateful for the breeze sweeping across the water. And he hadn't lost the motor launch.

It was still ahead of him, travelling away from the main lagoon and back into the heart of the city. A slender wooden bridge stretched out over the canal and Matt recognized it at once as the Bridge of the Academy, leading to the biggest art gallery in the city. He had spent a whole morning there, gazing at works by Tintoretto and Lorenzo Lotto and numerous other artists whose names all seemed to end in o. briefly he wondered what he was doing. He had abandoned the school trip. Mr Avalon and Miss Bridle would probably already be on the phone to the hotel, if not the police. Sakura would probably be mad at him as well, more than she already was. And why? What did he have to go on? A silver scorpion adorning a private boat. He must be out of his mind.

The vaporetto began to slow down. It was approaching the next landing stage. Matt tensed. He knew that if he waited for one load of passengers to get off and another to get on, he would never see the motor launch again. He was on the other side of the canal now. The streets were a little less crowded here. Matt caught his breath. He wondered how much longer he could run. And then he saw, with a surge of relief that the motor launch had also arrived at its destination. It was pulling into a palace a little further up, stopping behind a series of wooden poles that slanted out of the water as if, like javelins, they had been thrown there by chance. As Matt watched, two uniformed servants emerged from the palace. One moored the boat; the other held out a white- gloved hand. The woman grasped the hand and stepped ashore. She was wearing a tight- fitting cream dress with a jacket cut short above the waist. A handbag swung from her arm. She could have been a model striding off the cover of a glossy magazine. She didn't hesitate. While the servants busied themselves unloading her suitcases, she climbed the steps and disappeared behind a stone column. The water bus was about to leave again. Quickly Matt climbed out onto the landing stage. Once again he had to work his way round the buildings that crowded onto the Grand Canal. But this time he knew what he was looking for. A few minutes later, he found it.

It was a typical Venetian palace, pink and white, its narrow windows built into a fantastic embroidery of pillars, arches and balustrades, like something out of Romeo and Juliet. But what made the place so unforgettable was its position. It didn't just face the Grand Canal. It sank right into it, the water lapping against the brickwork. The woman from the boat had gone through some sort of portcullis, as if entering a castle. But it was a castle that was floating. Or sinking. It was impossible to say where the water ended and the palace began. The palace did at least have one side that could be reached by land. It backed onto a wide square with trees and bushes planted in ornamental tubs. There were men - servants - everywhere, setting up rope barriers, positioning oil-burning torches and unrolling a red carpet. Carpenters were at work, constructing what looked like a small bandstand. More men were carrying a variety of crates and boxes into the palace. Matt saw champagne bottles, fireworks, and different sorts of food. They were obviously preparing for a serious party. Matt stopped one of them.

"Excuse me," he said. "Can you tell me who lives here?" The man spoke no English. He didn't even try to be friendly. Matt asked a second man, but with exactly the same result. He recognized the type: he had met men like them before. The guards at Shadow Academy. The technicians at Crow Systems Technology. These were people who worked for someone who made them nervous. They were paid to do a job and they never stepped out of line. Were they people with something to hide? Perhaps.

Matt left the square and walked round the side of the palace. A second canal ran the full length of the building and this time he was luckier. There was an elderly woman in a black dress with a white apron sweeping the towpath. He went up to her.

"Do you speak English?" he asked. "Can you help me?"

"Si, con piocere, mio piccolo amico." The woman nodded. She put the broom down. "I spend many year in England. I speak good English. Who can I do?" Matt pointed at the building.

"What is this place?"

"It is the Ca' delle tenebre." She tried to explain. "Ca' ... you know ... in Venice we say casa. It means palace. And delle tenebre?" She searched for the word. "It is the Palace of darkness. Ca' delle tenebre."

"What's going on?"

"There is a big party tonight. For a birthday. Masks and costumes. Many important people come."

"Whose birthday?" The woman hesitated. Matt was asking too many questions and he could see that she was becoming suspicious. But once again age was on his side. He was only fifteen. What did it matter if he was curious? "Signora Roseabella. She is very rich lady. The owner of the house."

"Roseabella? Like the Movie star?" But the woman's mouth had suddenly closed and there was fear in her eyes. Matt looked round and saw one of the men from the square standing at the corner, watching him. He realized he had outstayed his welcome - and no one had been that pleased to see him in the first place. He decided to have one last try. "I'm looking for the scorpions seal," he said. The old woman stared at him as if she had been slapped in the face. She picked up the broom and her eyes darted over to the man watching them. It was lucky he hadn't heard' the exchange. He had sensed something was wrong, but he hadn't moved. Even so, Matt knew it was time to go.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "Thank you for your help." He made his way quickly up the canal. Yet another bridge loomed ahead of him and he crossed it. Although he didn't know exactly why, he was grateful to leave the Palace of darkness behind him. As soon as he was out of sight, he stopped and considered what he had learnt. A boat with a silver scorpion had led him to a palace, which was owned by a beautiful and wealthy woman who didn't smile. The palace was protected by a number of mean- looking men, and the moment he had mentioned scorpions seal to a cleaning lady, he had suddenly become as welcome as the plague. It wasn't much to go on, but it was enough. There was going to be a masked ball tonight, a birthday party. Important people had been invited. Matt wasn't one of them, but already he had decided. He planned to be there all the same.