Venice in winter is an absolute must, they say. Sitting in the gondola, Alex Perkins is not so sure. The cold wind is biting through the thick cloth of the cashmere coat. It is peacefully serene though and there is only one vaporetto in sight. The evening light is gently kissing the facades with a subtle orange glow. The bridge of sighs is empty but as they approach the palazzo, Alex can see that it is brightly lit and voices can be heard streaming down towards the water. Getting off after paying the extortionate fare, thoughts of arriving in style at the ambassador’s reception balance out the cost.
The party is in full swing and many people are standing on the terrace, glasses of champagne in hand. Wondering briefly if anyone of value will be present, Alex swiftly climbs the stairs to the front door and is greeted by an attendant wearing a red and gold uniform. After checking the invitation card, the grand foyer doors are opened and guests can be seen mingling and a cute waitress offering a glass of champagne. There are many stewards circulating with trays of canapes but none of the Ferrero Rochers the advertisement claim is a must at any such reception. The ambassador is not here yet but Alex catches sight of his daughter, the beautiful Emily, dressed in a black wrap-around dress that leaves little to the imagination. As usual, she is surrounded by an entourage of thirty something admirers wrestling for her attention. Their eyes meet and a glowing smile forms on Emily’s lips, they would meet later in the privacy of his own home but for the moment intermingling is a must.
In the corner of the room an overweight man is staring at Alex as if searching his mind for recognition but then turns his attention back to the group of people he is talking to. The man is Jeffrey Chandlers, a controversial journalist and tyrannical food critic for Venice’s own newspaper, Il Gazzettino. Their last encounter did not work out too well; Alex having criticized an article lambasting a newly opened restaurant. Let’s keep well clear of the man tonight if I want to avoid any berating of my latest novel. Suddenly there is someone very near.
‘Alex, how good to see you.’ The voice does not ring any memory in Alex’s mind, yet the face is familiar.
‘Anton de Wries,’ the man winks. ‘Oxford, Trinity College 1990.’
Anton de Wries had been a star attraction during their student days but the years had not been so kind to him and he had lost the lustre of his younger years as well as most of his hair. He was always the soul of the party in those days, the son of a Belgian entrepreneur, Anton had lived in Hong Kong, Dubai, America and lastly in Belgium before being sent to England to study English. This is how the two met; practising the language at Mrs White’s house whilst drinking tea and devouring the landlady’s famous home-made scones with equally traditionalist cream and jam.
‘Anton? I haven’t seen you in years. Where did you disappear? The last time we met must have been what, twenty years ago? What brings you here?’ Alex smiles, taking the hand offered and shaking it.
‘I am well, indeed. Is it really twenty years? It seems like yesterday only. You had published your first book and if I remember correctly, it was called The Little Book of Miracles. Yes, it was the launch event at the Dorchester hotel and you invited me to attend when we bumped into each other at a taxi rank some days before.’
‘What are you up to these days? You used to work for the Belgian embassy, are you still there?’
‘No, I’ve left almost eighteen years ago. I am in a very different job altogether now. As a matter of fact, you are the very person I was hoping to bump into, tonight. Do you think we could find a quieter spot for a bit of a chat?’
‘Yes, I’m sure we can. There is a little study just off the corridor, I shouldn’t think anyone is using it at the moment. Would that be suitable?’
‘What I need to share with you is a little delicate and certainly not fitting for most ears.’
‘You sound very mysterious but alright, I like a bit of a mystery, follow me.’
It took them a few minutes to reach the room at the end of the corridor as the whole hallway was milling with guests and they had to stop a few times to say hello to some acquaintances of Alex who never was one for small talk but had to keep a pleasant demeanour in view of the writing career that was really in full swing by now. Once in the room, the pair settled on a couple of armchairs facing the beautiful vista over the canaletto. It was December but the weather was unusually mild for the time of year and the windows had been left open to let the evening breeze permeate the heavily peopled rooms. The study felt cool compared to the other areas they had entered and after just a couple of seconds, Alex stood up and closed the windows
‘I’ve always loved Venice’, said Anton. ‘It has a unique atmosphere and so many family secrets. You must have come across some of them after all these years living here!’
‘I must say that I have heard a few interesting stories.’
‘Like that of the Catina Do Mori, I bet! The Venetian food haunt is said to have been around since the early 15th century and supposedly frequented by the charismatic Lothario Casanova and his friends.’
‘Everyone knows about it, I think. It has been revealed by some many websites that I believe it is now one of the main attractions for those visitors looking to go off the beaten tracks.’
‘Talking about secrets, did you know that this palazzo used to be the meeting point of a secret society in the middle ages?’
Alex nodded. ‘It is said that the cellars had been used for sacrifices and that a few virgins disappeared over the years. Nothing that could be proven, though.’
‘God knows how much truth there is in these rumours but they did find some rather odd-looking instruments back at the beginning of the last century when the house was purchased after the last descendant of the family passed away.’
‘Anyway,’ said Anton, ‘as much as I would like to spend more time discussing the merits of Venice’s dark past with you, we must come to the reason why I needed to talk to you.’
Alex moved towards the drinks’ cabinet, chose two tumblers, picked up a bottle of Lap Laphroaig 1998 – pronounced La-froyg – a single malt smoky flavoured whisky, renowned for its medicinal properties and worth a few hundred Euros. Having filled a couple of fingers into each glass, Alex sat back down again.
‘OK, Anton, I am all ears, it sounds as if me may need a drink a tad stronger than champagne for what comes next.’
‘Good idea! Cheers! Hum, this is a drink I am quite partial to. Anyway, not long after our last encounter, I was approached by a government official and asked to join a rather discreet bureau investigating strange disappearances. Because of my background with embassies and the fact that I speak a half dozen languages made me – or so the guy said at the time – a perfect candidate to head the newly created agency. I have recently been involved in top security projects and until recently had to keep a very low profile. I am here, today, on a very special mission, a rather delicate situation, and one that requires your help.’
‘I really don’t see how a reclusive writer like me could be of any help to a government man.’
‘You still write murder mystery novels, I hear.’
‘Well, in this case you may be able to cast some light on a rather different type of disappearance. We are dealing here with people who have been made to disappear and by this, I mean die.’
‘This sounds rather ominous but I still don’t see how I can help.’
‘You can help me understand the mind of a rather complex killer.’
‘How is that?’
‘You see, Alex, the suspected murderer in question is none other than a cabinet member whose colleagues have recently developed a rather deplorable tendency for dying. There have been six deaths in as many months and whilst it may, at first, seem a rather unfortunate coincidence, no theory of probabilities would account for so many.’ With this, Anton grabs Alex’s arm towards the window.’
‘Who is the suspect?’ Alex asks.
‘Alas, I cannot reveal the identity, not just yet.’
‘Anything else I should know?’
‘Yes, each victim died in the same fashion, they were found naked in a hotel room with the key card clenched between their teeth.’
‘Any other clues?’
‘I’m not sure if this helps but each room was the penthouse of a luxury hotel, a different one each time.’
‘Were the victims all male?’
‘Yes, why do you ask?’
‘It may imply that the killer is a woman.’
‘But it doesn’t make sense, the cabinet member is a man.’
‘Is it possible that he had relationships with men?’
‘Not a chance, he is as straight as a die.’
‘Is he married?’
‘Yes, and by the sound of it, very happily.’
‘Any extra marital activities?’
‘No, that’s the bit that bothers me.’
‘So, we may have to rule out an ex-lover or a jealous wife wanting to blemish his reputation and punish him.’
‘It seems to be that way.’
‘Anything else found with the victims?’
‘Yes, but we don’t yet understand the significance of it. Each of them was found with a teddy bear by their side.’
‘Have you researched the victims and suspected killer’s childhood, any sign of abuse?’
‘Yes, and no. Nothing to indicate foul play but having said that our man spent some time inside. Authorities who have been following the case closely say that as a twelve-year-old he spent two months in Castington, a male juvenile’s prison in Northumberland and became the youngest offender in a high-security prison in England.’
‘What was he in for?’
‘Supposedly helping another youngster abduct and abuse a toddler. He was subsequently acquitted on the grounds of diminished responsibility and released under a new name. There was no proof of his involvement, you see, only the testimony of the other youngster. Used to go by the name of James Duncan but got a different identity now.’
‘Hum, this is rather unusual. Are you certain that the suspect is the perpetrator?’
‘We are fairly certain, yes. Our suspect was spotted by a few witnesses in the same towns where the murders took place.’
Alex stood thinking and after a couple of minutes came up with a new question;
‘Was there any conference, trade show, convention or seminar taking place?’
‘Now that you mention it yes, there was a Toys & Games trade show in each town.’
‘Probably easy to find a teddy bear then without raising suspicions’, said Alex. ‘Did you check for any common ground for the victims, anything that could explain why they were selected? What I mean is, is there any link between them?’
‘None that we have been able to find. Two English, two American, one Canadian and the last one Irish.’
‘Were there of a similar age?’
‘No, but they were all between 30 and 50.’
‘What type of teddy bear?’
‘What do you mean?
‘Was it the same type of teddy bear, I don’t know a Paddington bear or a Winnie the Pooh for example?’
‘No, each bear was unique. Rather plain teddies really, nothing remarkable about them.’
‘Have you scanned them, looked for clues, hidden objects in them?’
‘Yes, we found nothing.’
Alex thinks for a minute whilst Anton pours them each another glass of whisky. A teddy bear, there must be an obvious clue in this!
‘What did the victims die of?’ Alex asks.
‘Well, that’s the strange thing; heart attack, all of them and no sign of a struggle.’
‘When is the next murder anticipated?’
‘All occurred on the 3rd Wednesday of the month.’
‘But, that’s today!’
‘I know and we have no idea who may be targeted next, however as our suspect is currently in Venice for “official” reasons, we suspect the next crime will take place here.’
Alex suddenly recalls a news item from a few years back. What was that again? Oh yes, some students were expulsed from school for making a film in which an evil teddy bear killed teachers.
‘Where is you suspect staying?’
‘He checked in at the Danieli. We’ve got him under surveillance.’
The door suddenly opens and in comes Emily.
‘Alex, here you are! Daddy was looking for you. Could you come and join us now?’
‘Yes, of course, I’ll join you in a couple of minutes. I’ll just finish here and I’ll be right with you.’
‘Anton, give me half an hour. I’ll take your mobile number now and call you later.’
Alex and Anton joined the reception again a few minutes later having exchanged contact details. The party was still in full swing by then and a pleasant, if not exactly decadent half hour ensued. Back at the hotel and, after a few discreet words with Anton and a promise to catch up later that day, Alex spends a couple of hours making phone calls. Suddenly things click in Alex’s mind and Anton’s mobile rings.
‘Yes?’ says Anton’
‘It’s Alex. I think I know what’s going on… Are you still at the reception?’
‘No, I’m back at my hotel.’
‘Right, join me in the lobby of the Danieli hotel as soon as you can.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘I think your killer is there and just about to act.
‘Bloody hell, Alex, I’ll get the security kids to join us.’
‘No. I don’t think that would be necessary.’
Minutes later both Alex and Anton are in the lobby of the hotel.
‘I think you’ll find your suspect is being entertained in room 101.’ Says Alex in a low voice.
As they approach the bedroom door, they can hear a crystalline and heady string of laughter pearls cascading down.
‘Now! Cries Alex punching the code and opening the door to find a man naked, tied to a chair and holding a key-card between his teeth. An old woman is standing fully dressed and holding a white teddy bear. She makes to run but Anton catches her.
‘Hello again Ms Teddyngton, how nice to meet again.’
‘Let me go! You don’t have any right to be here.’
‘Oh, but I think I do. Anton,’ says Alex ‘meet Ms Jessica Teddynton, former teacher at Trinity College, Oxford. Ms Teddynton did not stay long with us, I believe she left before you joined Oxford. Jessica here made quite the news in her days, she was accused of raping a teenager – not a Trinity student – but at the trial she was declared innocent. No proof, no witnesses only the testimony of the victim. In any case her career was tarnished by the event and her life ruined. She emigrated to America is the last I heard about her. What always intrigued me though was that a collection of teddy bears was found in her rooms. Nobody thought anything of it at the time but I think Ms Teddynton had plans for them, only she was stopped before she could put them to use. Weren’t you Jessica? That first victim was lucky to escape but rape was not what you intended to do.’
The frail old lady hands out some prints. These show a rape taking place. What looks like the absolutely perverse rape of a toddler. ‘But it can’t be! How would anyone with a sound mind take such a picture, never mind committing the crime!’, Alex is thinking.
‘Jessica, can you give me the pictures?’, he asks.
‘Who is the little girl in the pictures?’ Asks Anton as he looks at them over Alex’s shoulder.
‘It is this man’s daughter’ says Jessica, pointing at the naked man.
‘Except that this rape is not real, is it?’ Demands Alex.
‘No,’ says Jessica but they are good enough to impress. Imagine seeing a picture of your child being raped, could give you a heart attack, couldn’t it?’
On closer inspection, Anton can see that the face of a toddler has been superimposed over that of a very life-like looking doll.
‘I also have another photo’, she says, producing a slightly faded print.
‘I told all those depraved men such as him, that I was taking my revenge by paying kids to rape their little ones as I watched. Of course, these are photoshopped photos and no rape actually happened but I wanted these satanic creatures to die with their last memory of their progeniture being abused. Just like they did with my little boy so many years ago. This picture here,’ she waves the photograph towards Alex and Anton’ is the photo they took of Roger after they had taken it in turns to rape him! He’s never been the same since he was abducted and abused. He’s been living in a mental institution for the past 30 years and never really recovered. That’s what he and his friend did to him!’ she points to the fake rape picture.
She takes a long breath as if it is too difficult for her to say anymore without taking a pause, her hands shaking as they point towards the tied up man.
‘His friend, who witnessed the rape was judged and found guilty of the crime whilst this little shit went on to lead a normal life and only spent two months in a juvenile place. But then, his father was the headmaster of the school I worked for at the time and although there was no evidence of the crime, he feared the publicity of his son’s crime would destroy him. He is the one who provided him with an alibi, thereby absolving his son of the most heinous crime.’
Jessica is silent for a few seconds, her eyes lost in forlorn memories of a cruel nature, probably reminiscing on the time the private investigator had found Robert hiding in farmer’s Jenkins barn, under the hay mount, crying his heart out.
‘Tomas White was the first one to die of a heart attack in a hotel room. That first victim was the little friend who withdrew his testimony of the assault for a lot of money paid to his family, £50,000 I believe, which would have been a lot 30 years ago! The family invested the money and when he got out 5 years later, he was set with a good capital. Only sixteen by then, he went on to become an ambassador whilst my little Roger was going crazy, not even recognizing me. In the end I had to let go of him as he would scream every time I visited.’
‘Who was the second victim?’ Alex is asking
‘Aw, that’s the fun bit, really. He was the student I was supposed to have raped in Oxford. He had a few years’ reprieve but, in the end, he paid just like the others.’
‘What was his part in this?’ Anton is curious to know.
‘Well, you see, that student was also a child rapist. A friend of mine had a toddler who got done by this pile of shite here that you just called a “victim” although to me the victim was rather the child. Nothing could be proved as his daddy “arranged things” for him. They were all from “good” families and what was a nobody like me be able to do about it? In the end though, time was on my side and they do say that revenge is a dish best eaten cold.’
‘Victim number three what had he done?’
‘Same as the others, in Ireland this time before I emigrated to America. Twas on all the papers and again all that cover up but the poor lad this time was in my school and it broke my heart again seeing as the teenager got off scot free like them others.’
You could hear a twang of American accent coming through as she reminisced about the past.
Now, Alex thought, we are not talking about adult catholic priests abusing teenagers, in some way, it is worse, we are dealing with teenagers violating children. That was even worse. How can the mind of a child turning into an adult be so corrupted as to inflict sexual hardships on kids barely out of toddler years?
‘Number four was American’ the voice of Jessica made him emerge from his thoughts, ‘another depraved youngster who had his way with my neighbour’s granddaughter. Poor kid never got a chance. Was taken for a ride to the fair, never made it there, instead got highjacked by a sex driven 13 years old. Got traumatised like my little Roger what with the kid having no mother or father and brought up by granny who was not exactly in her prime. Couldn’t prove a thing again!’
‘Who provided cover up for the assailant this time?’
‘His own grandmother would you believe it? Sixty three and a heavy drunker who was probably sleeping her daily hangover off whilst the grandkid was enjoying a bit of doctors and nurses – Frankenstein fashion – with the neighbour’s granddaughter.’
‘What about number five?’ asks Anton.
‘Le’ mee fink. Five was back when I was studying to become a teacher. I was a teaching assistant then and this little mite told me one of the big ones had hurt her. Parents never went to them police, they were not the sort of parents you’d want if you were a kiddo, I tell you. Just told her to keep quiet and stop bothering them. Never even went to court that one. I remember coming across her at the local bakery, she was a flimsy little thing, afraid of her own shadow. One day, as I was coming into the shop, I found her sitting on the steps, crying silently. Wot’s up, I asked her. Noting, she answered. Then why are you crying? She would not reply so I sat down next to her and asked her why she was so sad. I cannot tell, she said, if I do he’ll be killing me. Ok, I said, this is my house there, can you remember that? Yes, she sobbed. Well, I continued, if you are ever in trouble, come and knock on that door and you won’t be alone anymore. She smiled at me for the first time and I squeezed her hands with mine trying to convene a serene understanding between the two of us. For a fleeting moment, I think I saw happiness in those little blue eyes of hers.’
‘Then what happened?’ Anton was so taken by the story that he had forgotten politeness and only wanted to hear what came next.
‘She came to my house a week later, all distressed and in tears asking if she could stay the night. Of course, I said, but won’t your grandma mind? No, she replied, Grammy takes sleeping pills every night and would not wake up unless there was an earthquake. OK, I answered, you are welcome to stay here but would you tell me what happened before you go to sleep? He came again, she replied, and this time it really hurt. I asked him to stop but he wouldn’t and he put his willy into me and then suddenly I felt a terrible pain like I have never experienced but before he could get up, I ran outside down the street towards your house. You are safe now, little one, stay with me. She stayed a few years in the end. And we kept the story to ourselves. As far as everyone was concerned, she was my granddaughter, we had moved to another area and no-one knew us there.’
‘And number six?’, now it is Alex asking.
‘Six is just a random one, really. A story I read on Facebook where a mother was telling of how her story and how her little boy had been sexually assaulted but wouldn’t tell who did it. It was just heart-breaking and it brought back all them memories with my Roger. Nobody was willing to help her, so I took it upon myself to do the right thing.’
A knock on the door then Emily enters. She goes straight to Mrs Teddynton and hugs her.
‘You know each other?’ from Alex and Anton at the same time.
‘Yes,’ says Emily, ‘this man here raped me when I was only eight but he was a high-powered politician back then and nobody could touch him. My word against him, who would believe a child with an over-active imagination – as the psychiatrists described me to my parents – I must have read the newspapers again although I was not supposed to. My father was not an ambassador at the time and I had got into trouble before, making up stories where I had been abducted and that did not work in my favour that and the fact that I never cried as a child, but I promised myself that one day he would pay.’
‘How did you two meet?’ from Alex this time.
‘From a Facebook link where I was able to connect to a blog for registration to a private group dealing with abuse cases against children by young adults. It then connects you to a private chat room with only a handful of members, if you are accepted, that is.’
‘Emily was accepted, as a matter of fact I vouched for her story having checked the details she gave me and I managed to track the whereabouts of this man here. We have contacts in many places and are able to access information that is normally only available to the medical profession or the police force. We also have friend journalists and private investigators that are able to dig deep into people’s past. There was an eye witness to Emily’s rape, a 10-year-old girl who shared what she had seen with an old family friend – she did not dare mention what she saw to her parents as this man was a lawyer – who reported the rape to a child protection group but the case was brushed under the carpet once more.’
Jessica was looking at Emily in a fond way.
‘I’m so sorry you did not get your revenge. We were so close!’
‘Nobody should be able to do what he did to children and get away with it’, Emily was glaring at the naked man. ‘He stole my innocence!’
Jessica explained how when she retired she came back to England to get her revenge. It had taken her years and many travels to implement her scheme, build the network of collaborators and investigate the truthful and unavenged cases. This had become her only goal.
‘Why wait all these years?’ asks Anton.
‘Because no one would suspect an old lady. He was the last one,’ she says pointing at the now crying man, ‘but what he does not know is that the papers are publishing my story as we speak, naming all seven of them. Their pictures and proof of guilt will also be featured. This will be worse than death for this one, because he will lose all credibility, his job, his notoriety but most of all his family. A rather good read, I should think.’
‘What about the teddy bears?’ Continued Anton.
‘It kept you thinking along the lines of a vengeful lover or wife, but to be honest it was a symbol of a lost childhood and for me even more symbolic as my Roger, when he was found, was clutching his teddy bear and refused to be parted with it. Teddy was an anchor in a sea of depravity and he never let it go, sits by his bed still. For this very reason, they have been my signature card.’
‘I feel reluctant to call the police, says Anton but it can’t be helped. Jessica, I am sorry for what you and the victims had to endure but murders have been committed.’
‘I am not proud of what I have done but in the absence of justice, I feel I have done the right thing, I have no regrets.’
A few hours later Alex and Anton were sitting at the bar of the Danieli hotel nursing another drink. Jessica and Emily had been taken away for questioning but the story was already all over the news with the sympathy going for them. There was talk of mitigating circumstances and a full enquiry was in process; witnesses and further victims of the murdering rapists had come forward. The story was not over yet.
‘How did you suss out what was going on?’ Asked Anton.
‘A few phone calls, a good memory and some perceptiveness, I guess but a bit of luck too. I can’t say I blame Jessica for what she did, no-one can ever say what they’d do in similar circumstances. We can always imagine how we would behave but until you are faced with the exact same situation, there is no guarantee for our actions.’
‘Alex, you are the most astonishing woman I know, except perhaps for our Ms Teddyngton. Maybe I’m cynical, but I really don’t think any of that stuff works for anyone who is truly broken. Serves us better to just keep barrelling forward and hope the demons can’t keep up, so you might as well be who you are.’
Venice in winter is a must, so they say. Alex still not entirely sure the statement is correct, but it is certainly interesting!
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