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Authors: Christobel Kent

The killing room

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CHRISTOBEL KENT’Sprevious books includeADarkness Descending, The Dead Season, A Fine and Private Place, A Time of Mourning, A Party in San Niccolo, Late SeasonandA Florentine Revenge. She lives near Cambridge with her husband and five children.

Also by Christobel Kent

The Sandro Cellini Novels

A Darkness Descending

The Dead Season

A Fine and Private Place

A Time of Mourning

Published in trade paperback in Great Britain in 2014

by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © Christobel Kent, 2014

The moral right of Christobel Kent to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Trade paperback ISBN: 978 0 85789 330 7

E-book ISBN: 978 0 85789 331 4

Printed in Great Britain.

Corvus

An imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd

Ormond House

26–27 Boswell Street

London WCIN 3JZ

www.corvus-books.co.uk

For Laura, with love

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Epilogue

THE POWDERY RESIDUE DUSTEDNieddu’s hair white: it sat in his eyebrows and on his lashes, but even beneath it the stonemason was ghost-pale. He pushed his way out through the PVC sheets they’d hung to protect the rest of the Palazzo from the excavation’s fallout. The other man – no more than grunt labour, a Romanian on day rates – followed him anxiously until they reached the long doors that opened into the imposing building’s garden. Pulling roughly at his mask on the threshold, the mason gulped the damp, cool air as if he’d been underwater.

Below them three men were talking under umbrellas on the terrace, and beyond them the great city spread out in the drizzle. The boss in his tight-buttoned coat turned to look up at the workers and, seeing something, held up a hand to stay his interlocutors.

It was the boss and the architect out there in the rain; the third man was a prospective client. The boss had introduced the client to Nieddu, when they’d passed through the cellar excavations, as a man of science: a bit of showmanship thatwas really a warning to be on best behaviour. The hand the man had held out to him had trembled and stalled in mid-air, and the mason had felt something in the atmosphere then, a vibration. Afterwards it seemed to him the client’s reluctance foreshadowed what was to come.

Nieddu had not long worked out there was something back there: the little rivulet of crumbling plaster at the first probing was the telltale sign of a long-gone rush job. It hadn’t been the time to mention it. They’d waited until the men were out of earshot before starting in with the Kango and the big sledge-hammer. It had taken no more than fifteen minutes to get through, then another five for the dust to settle.

A man of science. The stonemason was a practical type himself but even he knew science didn’t explain everything. It didn’t explain what they had found.

‘There’s a whole other room down there,’ he said to the Romanian, his breathing still irregular. ‘It must have been bricked up.’

‘Bricked up?’ The labourer repeated the words in his thick accent, still struggling to understand Nieddu’s pallor, the haste with which he’d backed out of the excavation site. The two men hardly knew each other, but the air between them had turned nasty. Something had seeped out from the place they had disturbed.

‘Years ago. Decades. Maybe centuries, I don’t know.’ Nieddu shook his head and the dust shifted. There were spots of colour now in his cheeks, streaked with dirt. ‘The boss needs to know about it.’

Bottai was walking up towards them. The architect stared after him uncertainly: he would do what he was told, anyway.The smile the stonemason had seen fixed on the boss’s face from day one, for the benefit of the prospective clients, had been replaced with a look of grim determination.

‘I don’t like it,’ said Nieddu, to himself. ‘It’s more than bad luck.’

Chapter One

THE SUIT HUNG ONthe heavy-fronted wardrobe, souring the evening before it had begun. It had been put there by Luisa who, by the time Sandro saw it, was in the bathroom applying her make-up.

‘Just put it on,’ she said, without looking round.

Standing next to her now, at sunset on the steep cant of the Costa San Giorgio, Sandro surreptitiously worked a thumb into his waistband. The woman ahead of them in the line to get in – a Marchesa di Something or Other, Luisa whispered – had already given him a look of disdain.

‘You could get it let out,’ Luisa had said dubiously in the bedroom, walking round him, tugging here and there. Loosening something off. The suit had been made by a tailor in Prato more than twenty years earlier and Sandro had remembered the man saying through the pins in his mouth,It’ll see you out. Room for another five kilos.

Which, to the tailor – a wiry little smoker of cheroots, an unmarried man who sat under fluorescent light at his cuttingtable in a grimy Prato backstreet until late into the night – must have represented a wild over-estimate of what a man of stature could expect to gain in his middle years.

He couldn’t remember why he’d had it made. It seemed a ridiculous extravagance from this end of a life, though much had been made at the time of the bargain he was getting. A wedding? A funeral was more likely, even then, even when he’d been little more than forty. In their prime, policemen attended funerals like most people went to christenings.

‘Why are we even going?’ he’d said grumpily, gingerly pulling the sides of the jacket together. ‘Why were we even invited.’ It was more a lament than a question.

‘She’s an important customer.’

‘Who is?’

‘She’s called Alessandra Cornell.’

And now Alessandra Cornell was standing just inside the carriage entrance to apalazzoon the steep southern bank of the Arno, a slender blonde in a nicely cut cocktail dress Sandro assumed Luisa had sold her. A barrel-chested man Sandro distantly recognised stood beside her, leaning down to clasp the hand of the Marchesa.

Alessandra Cornell had a name badge. ‘Welcome to the Palazzo San Giorgio,’ she said, fixing him with her attention. She spoke in English to him too, as though by passing through the flawlessly restored doorway of the palace they had left Italy behind them.

‘She’s . . . what is she?’ Luisa had said from behind his back in their bedroom, uncharacteristically vague. ‘She spends plenty in the shop. I think her card says “attaché”, or something.She’s basically going to be running the place.’

‘The place’ being the newly consecrated Palazzo San Giorgio, a luxury residence overlooking the glittering expanse of Florence from the privileged slopes of the Oltrarno. Sandro had looked at the brochure Luisa had brought home a week or so back. A new concept in leisure, a revolution in lifestyle choices. He had no idea what that meant. As far as he knew, it was serviced apartments. And attaché? For the love of God.

Four storeys high and five vast windows across, the wide, handsome frontage of the palace was visible from Fiesole, on a clear day. For decades it had stood decaying and unrestored while its multiple owners haggled with sitting tenants, bickered with their children and their cousins and their wives over whether it should be sold and for how much, and then over how the spoils should be divided.

‘Ah,’ said Alessandra Cornell, holding on to Sandro’s hand a fraction longer than he would have liked and looking, not at Luisa, which would, given their connection, have been both the polite and the natural thing to do, but at Sandro, and too intently at that. ‘So this is the famous Sandro.’

Sandro flinched, but did not turn accusingly, as he would have liked to have done, on Luisa.

‘Am I?’ he said weakly.

Cornell frowned a little and turned to the man at her side. ‘This is our Director,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you already know of him. Gastone Bottai.’

Looking over Sandro’s shoulder, the man offered him a limp hand. No warm clasping for Sandro.

‘Yes,’ said Sandro. ‘Of course.’

A pampered son, a PR man. Bottai’s gaze rested on him, supremely indifferent. They might have been introduced half a dozen times, but it wouldn’t be worth his while remembering a policeman. Ex-policeman. He supposed the titleDirectormust mean Bottai was the boss. In which case, God help them.

And abruptly he found himself moved on, past Bottai and Cornell and into the high vaulted space of the entrance where a waiter stood, already glazed with boredom, holding out a tray. ‘Luisa,’ he heard Cornell say behind him, airily familiar, ‘I’ll catch up with you later. Enjoy.’

Enjoy. Sandro reached for a glass of champagne. It was going to be one of those evenings. He remembered that thought, later.

‘Behave yourself,’ said Luisa, into his ear. They followed the couple in front of them around a corner and found themselves in the garden.

There were candles everywhere, gleaming in the clipped hedges, in deep glass jars standing on the low walls, flickering on small tables. Sandro didn’t understand candles outside a church – secular, domestic candles, scented candles, candles in the bathroom, nightlights in special holders. The young woman in the building opposite them in Santa Croce burned tealights every evening, a little votive row along her windowsill.

Below them on the garden terraces people moved in the flickering light, the night filled with murmuring voices. A good turn-out: between them Cornell and Bottai must have used the big guns. Why Sandro had been invited remained an uneasy mystery to him.

A tall, fair man with a high forehead stood immediately in front of them, talking to a younger, stockier one with a chiselledjaw. Just to the side, a very handsome woman with auburn hair and a lot of gold at her neck was looking bored. The younger man appeared to be listening earnestly: the tall one was stooping slightly and talking, as far as Sandro could tell, about seaweed. ‘The figures are what are interesting,’ he was saying. ‘Costs barely anything to generate. Of course there are environmental concerns—’

‘Darling,’ said the handsome woman, interrupting, her eyes sliding over the young man, pausing, moving on. Sandro made a guess at her age: forties. Strong. After fifty that tends to go. ‘I’m sure I can see the Flemings.’ Now she was looking at Luisa, pondering.

Luisa nodded just barely. The woman nodded back and turned away.

‘Who was that?’ said Sandro, his interest piqued despite himself.

‘Customer. One of their . . . residents. Scardino. He’s English, but Italian some way back, a professor of something. She’s the wife. Polish.’ Luisa wore an expression he knew of old: concentrated dignity, which she assumed when confronted with bad-mannered foreigners. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the back of the woman’s neck, the glint of gold, the shining hair. He heard her laugh, low. Luisa smiled just faintly. ‘Third wife.’

‘And not the last?’

Her smile warmed, rewarding him. I love my wife, he thought.

‘You should mix,’ she said, giving him a little push at the elbow. ‘It’s what we’re here for.’

Sandro stood his ground, and she looked at him. ‘Don’t you understand,’ she said, ‘this is what you have to do. It’s called networking.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Cornell’s got clout. She might not know it yet, but she needs someone like you.’ And then she was waving. ‘Signora Artusi,’ she called, and she turned her back on him, the woman she’d hailed already swivelling round to size her up with narrowed eyes. ‘Marina!’

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