Chapter 76

Chapter 76
Out in St. Mark's Square, the Gypsy woman selling Venetian masks was taking a break, leaning against the outer wall of the basilica to rest. As always, she had claimed her favorite spot-a small niche between two metal grates in the pavement-an ideal spot to set down her heavy wares and watch the setting sun.

She had witnessed many things in St. Mark's Square over the years, and yet the bizarre event that now drew her attention was not transpiring in the square ... it was happening instead beneath it. Startled by a loud sound at her feet, the woman peered down through a grate into a narrow well, maybe ten feet deep. The window at the bottom was open and a folding chair had been shoved out into the bottom of the well, scraping against the pavement.
To the Gypsy's surprise, the chair was followed by a pretty woman with a blond ponytail who was apparently being hoisted from within and was now clambering through the window into the tiny opening.
The blond woman scrambled to her feet and immediately looked up, clearly startled to see the Gypsy staring down at her through the grate. The blond woman raised a finger to her lips and gave a tight smile. Then she unfolded the chair and climbed onto it, reaching up toward the grate.
You're far too short, the Gypsy thought. And just what are you doing?
The blond woman climbed back down off the chair and spoke to someone inside the building. Although she barely had room to stand in the narrow well beside the chair, she now stepped aside as a second person-a tall, dark-haired man in a fancy suit-heaved himself up out of the basilica basement and into the crowded shaft.
He, too, looked up, making eye contact with the Gypsy through the iron grate. Then, in an awkward twist of limbs, he exchanged positions with the blond woman and climbed up on top of the rickety chair. He was taller, and when he reached up, he was able to unlatch the security bar beneath the grate. Standing on tiptoe, he placed his hands on the grate and heaved upward. The grate rose an inch or so before he had to set it down.
"Può darci una mano?" the blond woman called up to the Gypsy.
Give you a hand? the Gypsy wondered, having no intention of getting involved. What are you doing?
The blond woman pulled out a man's wallet and extracted a hundred-euro bill, waving it as an offering. It was more money than the vendor made with her masks in three days. No stranger to negotiation, she shook her head and held up two fingers. The blond woman produced a second bill.
Disbelieving of her good fortune, the Gypsy shrugged a reluctant yes, trying to look indifferent as she crouched down and grabbed the bars, looking into the man's eyes so they could synchronize their efforts .
As the man heaved again, the Gypsy pulled upward with arms made strong from years of carrying her wares, and the grate swung upward ... halfway. Just as she thought they had it, there was a loud crash beneath her, and the man disappeared, plummeting back down into the well as the folding chair collapsed beneath him.
The iron grate grew instantly heavier in her hands, and she thought she would have to drop it, but the promise of two hundred euros gave her strength, and she managed to heave the grate up against the side of the basilica, where it came to rest with a loud clang.
Breathless, the Gypsy peered down into the well at the twist of bodies and broken furniture. As the man got back up and brushed himself off, she reached down into the well, holding out her hand for her money.
The ponytailed woman nodded appreciatively and raised the two bills over her head. The Gypsy reached down, but it was too far.
Give the money to the man.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the shaft-angry voices shouting from inside the basilica. The man and woman both spun in fear, recoiling from the window.
Then everything turned to chaos.
The dark-haired man took charge, crouching down and firmly ordering the woman to place her foot into a cradle formed by his fingers. She stepped in, and he heaved upward. She skimmed up the side of the shaft, stuffing the bills in her teeth to free her hands as she strained to reach the lip. The man heaved, higher ... higher ... lifting her until her hands curled over the edge.
With enormous effort, she heaved herself up into the square like a woman climbing out of a swimming pool. She shoved the money into the Gypsy's hands and immediately spun around and knelt at the edge of the well, reaching back down for the man.
It was too late.
Powerful arms in long black sleeves were reaching into the well like the thrashing tentacles of some hungry monster, grasping at the man's legs, pulling him back toward the window.
"Run, Sienna!" shouted the struggling man. "Now!"
The Gypsy saw their eyes lock in an exchange of pained regret ... and then it was over.
The man was dragged roughly down through the window and back into the basilica.
The blond woman stared down in shock, her eyes welling with tears. "I'm so sorry, Robert," she whispered. Then, after a pause, she added, "For everything."
A moment later, the woman sprinted off into the crowd, her ponytail swinging as she raced down the narrow alleyway of the Merceria dell'Orologio ... disappearing into the heart of Venice.


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