Authors: Shani Struthers
The Venetian, This Haunted World: Book One
, Copyright Shani Struthers 2016
This Kindle edition published 2016
The right of Shani Struthers to be identified as the Author of the work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved in all media. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording, photocopying, the Internet or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal use only. It may not be given away or re-sold to other people.
All characters and events featured in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to any person, organisation/company, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover credits: Rob Wilson, Danatos 1205 Bigstock. Design by RoseWolf Design
* * *
For Jack Struthers, destined to be one of life’s great explorers.
The first in a brand new series, getting it right has proved an arduous task but so many have helped me along the way. First up, my incredible band of beta readers, they see so much that I don’t and make me change so much too – but all for the better! Huge thanks to Louisa Taylor (who read it through twice!), Rob Struthers (who I made read it through twice!), Lesley Hughes, Alicen Haire, Sarah England, Sarah Savery, Corinna Edwards-Colledge, Julia Tugwell, Jan Ruth, and last but never least, the lovely Rumer Haven. Huge thanks also to my editor Jeff Gardiner, he’s always such a pleasure to work with, and Gina Dickerson, who designed the cover and formatted the books for print and e-book. Thanks also to you, the reader, so many of you have been a great support, right from the very first book. I hope you enjoy this one too.
The Venetian is the first book in my new This Haunted World paranormal series – a set of books not connected by characters but by places in our big wide world that are considered haunted. Each book will be a standalone and seeks to mix fiction with fact – or at the very least the myth and legend that haunted places tend to be shrouded in. Like all my books, I try to find the ‘human’ story behind the ghosts, what they’ve suffered, why they’re still grounded, and why some of them seem hell bent on revenge and destruction. My books aren’t ‘horrors’ but sometimes, and inevitably, the boundaries blur. If you’re reading at night, you might want to leave a light on…
This Haunted World: Book One
Louise took a deep breath. This was it. She couldn’t put the moment off any longer. She had to know. She looked at Rob. He was as eager as she was.
“Just do it,” he urged.
“Okay, I will. Wait there won’t you?”
“Sweetheart, I’m going nowhere.”
Louise hurried upstairs to the bathroom. After shutting the door she crossed to the mirror and looked in it, trying to steady her nerves, her hands too – she was shaking like a tree caught in a thunderstorm. Closing her eyes, she opened them again to stare at herself. In her mid-thirties, of medium build with brown shoulder-length hair, she could be considered attractive she supposed, but there were lines around her eyes, a careworn look to them. Would that disappear today? Would they glitter instead with happiness? For as long as she could remember she’d wanted a family. Growing up a single child with only her mother to look after her, her father on the scene but more off than on, the need for lineage ran deep. It was what she fantasised about – a child, two children, more than that, a brood – and she and Rob the perfect parents. And they would be… so many of their friends agreed, friends who were busy starting families of their own.
She picked up the pregnancy test and carefully unwrapped it. Something she’d done so many times before. Two lines, that’s all she wanted, to show her dreams had taken root. Whilst squatting she prayed, reciting one word over and over.
Please, please, please
. There’d been other signs this time, a metallic taste in her mouth, sore breasts – signs that her body had changed, had responded.
Standing up, she flushed the toilet and yanked her knickers up, all with one hand. The other wouldn’t let go of the stick, not until she knew. She stared at it, begged every deity there was for a positive result. A single line appeared, then… nothing.
As if the stick was molten, she threw it across the room. Her back against the door, she slid down, familiar pain engulfing her. It was always the same: there’d be hope and excitement at the possibility of a new life, the sheer miracle of it and then disappointment.
disappointment. But far worse was the anger. It would rear up and consume her.
Oh, God, the anger…
Touching down on Venetian soil, Louise grabbed her husband’s arm.
“We’re here, we’re finally here!”
“I’m aware of that.” There was a wry smile on Rob’s face.
Louise leaned into him. “Oh come on, you must be excited!”
“I am, look at my face, I’m excited.”
Louise laughed. She knew his feelings matched hers but they were on an aeroplane, a packed aeroplane, and he was a bloke; there was no way he’d be as effusive as her. Rob liked to play it cool. They’d known each other for fifteen years, been married for most of them, and it was here she’d wanted to come for their honeymoon – Venice with its gondola-strewn canals, its labyrinthine alleys and its sense of timelessness. But there’d been a house to buy, careers to forge, IVF to pay for when babies refused to come along. Recently, they’d come to a decision. They’d live life for each other, travel to all the places they wanted with Italian cities top of the hit list. They’d marvelled at the Coliseum in Rome, grown starry-eyed at art in Florence – she was still high from seeing Botticelli’s
– and admired Milan’s fashionistas. Now it was the turn of Venice, number one on her hit list but number four on his, and he’d got his way. No matter. They were here now.
There was movement all around them. Although they were still taxiing to their designated port, belts were being unclicked, mobiles turned on, and coats and scarves retrieved. Impatient to get off the plane too, to actually stand on Venetian soil, even if it was only the airport tarmac, Louise rubbed her hands together in anticipation. She could hardly contain herself. This ‘carpe diem’ ethos they’d devised after their fourth round of heartache was really doing the job. Their failure to conceive was neither his fault nor hers – it was simply unexplained. In a third of cases a clear cause is never established, and, incredibly, they’d fallen into that third, despite various tests. What a verdict! Modern medicine had come so far and yet still they couldn’t find a reason? They could clone animals but not spark the flame of human life? ‘Don’t blame the doctors,’ Rob tried to reason. ‘They’re not Gods.’ No, but they were similar in a way. They’d both let her down.
A quick glance at Rob and she abandoned such thoughts, reminded herself to live in the present, to forget about the past and not dwell on a childless future – to remain in the here and now. Sound advice from her psychiatrist. And right here, right now life was good.
Finally they were able to follow a long line of others as they moved along the aisle and out into the open. It was mid-November. Not the ideal time to visit Venice, admittedly, it was going to be cold, but they’d been too busy to visit any earlier. Rob was an architect and she was in marketing. Both self-employed, they had to commit whilst the work was there, travelling off-peak was the norm but it had a definite upside: there’d be fewer crowds. Where they lived, close to the centre of London, it was always crowded.
Not only cold outside, it was raining, coming down in sheets. Although it was only a few minutes past four, the sun had given up and retired for the night. Rob stood close to her as they waited at passport control, the cedar wood smell of his aftershave a familiar comfort.
“The weather will make Venice even more atmospheric,” he said. “Honestly.”
He’d visited the city before, when he was younger, a couple of years before they’d met, rode in with some friends of his on their motorbikes. He’d only stayed for the day and hadn’t been that impressed. ‘Then again,’ he’d elaborated, ‘we only really went to St Mark’s Square. You’d never believe the price of a coffee there. Got to keep away from the tourist traps I think.’
As they exited customs and followed signs to the water taxi, Louise started talking about Poveglia, a small island in the Venetian lagoon with a very chequered history. Not only had it served as a temporary confinement station for plague victims throughout the centuries, but also, in the 1920s, buildings had been converted into an asylum for the mentally ill. Apparently, the practices carried out there had been dubious to say the least. Thankfully, the hospital had shut down in the late sixties and had since fallen into disrepair. The island was now privately owned, the anonymous investor deciding how best to develop it.
“I wonder who buys an island with that kind of history?” she mused. “They say about one hundred and fifty thousand people have died there. Really, it’s one big graveyard.”
“Who knows? Who cares?”
“I know, I know. It’s just that when I was researching what sights to see, ‘haunted’ Poveglia kept coming up, there’s tons written about it. You’ve got to admit, it’s fascinating.”
Rob shrugged, looked sideways at her. “The supernatural
fascinating, but let’s stick close to the living this weekend.”
“Not too close,” Louise reminded. “You said off-the-beaten-track remember, although to be honest, the city looks as if it’s fairly compact, everything’s within walking distance. Rather than structure each day too much, shall we just go where the mood takes us?”
“Spontaneity’s fine with me. We’ll take a look at St Mark’s Square, but we’re not eating or drinking there!”
“Ha! You’ve never got over having to part with however many thousands of lira it was for a coffee have you? It must be the Scottish in you.”
“Hey, don’t knock my Scottish roots, I’m proud of them! I just think there are better, more authentic places to down an espresso. Besides which, I’m not
mean, I’ve paid for a private speedboat to get us to Venice, we don’t have to rough it on the water bus.”
“Shame you didn’t hire a gondola.”
“A gondola, how naff. There’s no way you’re getting me on a gondola!” He raised an eyebrow before adding cheekily, “Besides, they’re bloody expensive too.”
At the dock, their booking was taken and they were shown to their boat. The driver took their bags and, with his thumb, motioned for them to go into the cabin. The roof was so low she had to bend right down, as did Rob, both of them wary of banging their heads. He then positioned himself at the helm for the half-hour journey across the waters into the heart of Venice. Settling into their seats, Louise looked out of the window. This was what life was all about – new experiences, new sights and sounds, this was what made her feel alive. A miracle considering how low she’d sunk after finally realising they’d never start a family together. Black days they were; days when she’d acted… crazy. There was no other word for it, swinging between moods like some wild pendulum. She hadn’t realised it was possible for one person to cry so much. ‘Don’t forget your hormones have been messed with,’ Rob would say as one of his many attempts at consoling her. ‘IVF plays havoc with everything.’ Which is why they’d called it a day. There was only so much she could take; only so much
could take. Remembering that, she sighed.
“Everything all right?” Rob asked, noticing.
At first her smile was forced but gradually it relaxed and became more natural.
“Of course I’m all right, I’m happy,” she replied, reaching over to squeeze his hand.
They might be travelling under cover of darkness but the journey was still impressive. The rain had let up slightly and the clouds must have parted because moonlight shimmered on the sea, lending it an almost ethereal touch. Acting as guides, wooden pilings rose upwards, looking to her like stick men, worn ragged by the constant wash of salt water. She pitied their loneliness. Out here, in the lagoon, you were so near to civilisation, and yet so far. You were stranded. Where was that island, she wondered? They’d passed several on their journey.
“Look, there’s Venice, can you see it?”
Rob was talking again. She shunted closer, breathed in his smell, relishing that as much as the sight in front of her.
As they approached Venice the boat slowed, observing city speed limits. Quickly she became entranced as buildings rose like giants on either side of them, painted in faded shades of pastel. Far from humble, most were grand structures with arched doorways, balconies and shutters, as romantic as she’d hoped they’d be. In front of them various boats were moored, most of a practical nature. The canals were narrow at first, their driver negotiating them with impressive ease, but they turned a corner and it widened into a much bigger expanse. It was the Grand Canal, teeming with colour, with life, with the toing and froing of boats, taxies and buses, all of the aquatic variety and packed to bursting.
“Look, there’s a couple on a gondola!” She couldn’t help it, she was squealing again.
Rob rolled his eyes but he looked amused nonetheless. “Our hotel’s a bit further down, I hope you like it. It’s got rave reviews on-line.”
“I’m sure I’ll love it. I love everything about this place. Everything!”
“Everything?” queried Rob as the driver made a slight left so he could dock. “Even that weird island you were reading about, what’s it called? Pov…”
“Poveglia,” she replied, laughing about it. “It’s called Poveglia. You don’t pronounce the ‘g’ apparently, so phonetically it’s Pov-el-ia.”
“Ah, okay, Pov-el-ia,” he repeated in an exaggerated manner.
Realising the driver had cut the engine she edged the short distance towards the deck, Rob close behind her. It felt good to be standing tall again, breathing the fresh air. She was about to thank the driver for a safe journey –
, thanks a million – but his expression rendered her mute. What was wrong with him? He looked… horrified.
Perché parli di questo posto?
Louise had no idea what he’d said. “I’m sorry, I…”
Poveglia, perché parli di questo?
The island – the one she’d researched, that Rob had just mentioned… correction,
had just mentioned – is that what he was referring to? In a string of alien words, she recognised that one at least. Not sure he’d understand her, she tried to explain.
“Look, it’s just a joke, on Google when I—”
Surprising her further, the driver closed what little gap there was between them. When they’d climbed on-board, she hadn’t really noticed him; she’d been too caught up in everything around her. But he hadn’t set any alarm bells off; he’d been benign enough, a shadow figure; someone who’d transport them to Venice and be paid well to do it. But now she recoiled. He was no longer benign – he’d transformed into something menacing.
Panic ignited. “Look,” she said, “we’re only here for the weekend, we…”
Unsure what else to say, she looked at Rob for help, he seemed as confused as she was, his mind working overtime, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Hang on a minute, mate—” he began but the driver was having none of it.
A rush of words tumbled from his mouth and again it was just the one that stood out:
. When she’d been looking at images of Poveglia, there were a couple that had included a sign, located at the entrance to the island where the boats pull up, and on that had been inscribed the word ‘
’ in large red letters. The place was prohibited.
As Rob and the driver continued to square up to each other, the expressions on their faces growing increasingly fierce, she held up one hand in a conciliatory gesture and forced it between them, desperate to stop the situation from escalating. “
” she said, cursing her pigeon Italian, “
proibito, Poveglia proibito
What had been in the driver’s eyes – horror, anger and something else too – began to dissipate, but with a slowness that was excruciating. Even so, she waited patiently for him to speak and when he did she felt almost weak with relief to notice he was calmer.
?” he repeated.
,” she hurriedly replied. “I understand.” Making a wide arc with her hand she continued, “Just the city, we’re visiting the city, that’s all.”
,” he emphasised. And then in hesitant English, “Do not go. No tourists.”
“We won’t.” Vigorously she shook her head to emphasise her words. Glancing again at a still startled Rob, she said, “Pay the man and let’s get to our hotel.”
As the driver stood by – thankfully letting them pass without further incident, she whispered to her husband. “And make sure you tip him.”
Right now, all she wanted was to appease him and to escape.