Authors: Alfredo Colitto
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Mystery & Detective
Alfredo Colitto is the author of six novels.
He lives in Bologna.
‘How far would you go to find the secret of life itself? Delving into the hellish margins between alchemy and science,
brews an intoxicating tale of murder lust and revenge in 14th century Italy.’
‘Daring, gripping and steeped in the ancient mysteries of alchemy... Thrilling and superbly atmospheric’
‘The sounds, smells and textures of 14th century Bologna enrich every scene, and the wonderful supporting cast adds colour and authenticity to a plot that never falters.’
First published in Canada in 2011 by
McArthur & Company
322 King Street West, Suite 402
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Sphere
Copyright © Alfredo Colitto 2009
This English translation © Sophie Henderson 2011
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, without the express written consent of the publisher, is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Inquisition / Alfredo Colitto ; translated by Sophie Henderson.
Translation of: Cuore di ferro.
I. Henderson, Sophie II. Title.
PQ4903.o447C8613 2011 ––853’.92 ––C2011-901353-3
Typeset by M Rules
Cover design: Emma Graves lBBG
Cover images: Shutterstock
eBook Development by Wild Element
McArthur & Company
For my mother, with immense gratitude
On 12 January of the year of our Lord 1305, you and other Knights Templar took part in an act of extreme cruelty against an innocent man, in the hope of obtaining a secret that would make you immortal as well as rich beyond measure.
You were not even certain that he was in possession of the secret. But nonetheless you tortured him and finally killed him, without inducing him to confess. The fact that he was not a Saracen and enemy of the faith, but a Christian like yourselves, did not suffice to hold you back.
Your actions disgust me, but that is not the reason that I am writing to you. The secret you have been searching for is now to be found in the city of Bologna, in Italy. I also desire to possess it, but I need help.
Rather than try to convince accomplices of its existence and find they turn out indecisive and unreliable, I have decided to ask people who, like you, have already killed without hesitation in order to take possession of it.
If my proposal interests you, come to the place that they call Jerusalem Bononiensis, opposite the Mount of Olives, on Saturday 1 May 1311, after vespers. I will explain what I want from you in return for what I am offering.
Consider the object that you find accompanying this letter as proof of my truthfulness.
In the autumn of 1310, three Knights templar, in naples, Cyprus and toledo, each received a copy of this letter, written in faultless Latin and containing variations with regard to the place and time of meeting.
They were astonished and deeply uneasy. All three knew to which event the mysterious ‘Friend’ referred and were inclined to believe that the letter was genuine. Indeed, in the copper tube that contained the parchment, each of them found, wrapped in a piece of black silk, an object that possessed the repellent fascination of a reptile: an emaciated human finger, with neither skin nor fingernail, covered in a network of blood vessels.
However, the veins of the finger were cold, hard and dark, made of filaments of metal. A skilful artisan could have made the object by covering a human bone with iron. But the incredible precision led the observer to think that it might even have been a real finger transformed into iron, rather than a work of ingenuity.
The knights had no way of knowing that all three of them had received the same letter. Each decided independently that he should find out whether the person was telling the truth. If someone were able to change human blood into iron, it might be possible to change it into gold too.
And blood changed into gold was an essential step in attaining the limitless power over life and death that they wanted. The secret that they had spent years searching for and that had seemed lost for ever had now returned to haunt them. But it was imperative to take precautions. In Bologna, as in most of the cities of Europe, the trial of the templars initiated by Philip the fair and endorsed by Pope Clement V was well under way.
Disguised as merchant, pilgrim and mercenary respectively, the knights took to the road. One thing was clear to all three of them: the person who had sent the letter knew too much and would have to be eliminated come what may.
Mondino de Liuzzi saw the fire and heard the crackle of the flames and the dull crash of a roof beam collapsing. The street was so full of people that it might have been broad daylight. There were men, women and children everywhere, all half-dressed. And everyone was shouting to make themselves heard above the din. From the wells behind the Church of Sant’Antonino and the neighbouring houses, the women drew one bucket after another, while the men formed a chain up to the top floor of the building where the fire was spreading. The rasping of the well pulleys produced a constant background screech to the shouting.
Mondino did not stop to lend a hand, thus twice neglecting his duty: both as a citizen and as a neighbour. He had other things to do that night. The men he was expecting would be in a hurry to rid themselves of their burden without being seen.They were probably hiding in some courtyard, but couldn’t stay there long with all these people about. He hurried on to the school of medicine, keeping to the arches so as not to be recognised. No one he knew would have risked going abroad at night without an escort. But if they had done, they would use the centre of the street. It wouldn’t have entered their minds to walk through the thick pools of shade under the arcades. Mondino was tall and stronger than his narrow frame suggested, but physical readiness would count for little against two or three villains armed with daggers. As often happened when he thought of the dangers that he was forced to undergo for the love of science, he felt a rush of anger and clenched his fists.
He paused behind an arch to let past an entire family running with buckets to give a hand. The husband rushed by without turning, as did the three children, scampering along in bare feet in the mud of the road. The wife, a dark and alluring woman, seemed to sense his presence and turned to stare into the darkness. She spotted him and opened her mouth to shout, so Mondino did the only thing possible: he half-leaned out of the shadows and put a finger to her lips. His high forehead, green eyes and wavy chestnut hair, worn neither long nor short, usually inspired confidence in the opposite sex. He hoped so this time too.
Out of the blue, a short, fat old hag, with her round head wrapped in a grey bonnet, bumped into the woman, murmuring a word that sounded like ‘Whore’, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away. It must have been her mother or mother-in-law.
Mondino hurried on a bit further, peering ahead into the gloom, then he stopped at a doorway and took a big key from under his tunic, put it into the keyhole and entered, closing the door behind him.
He busied himself in the dark with flint and tinder and lit the candle that he always kept on a shelf near the door. Then he walked between the empty desks, touching the flame to the wicks of the oil lamps on the stands at the four corners of the dissection table. For what he had to do it was important to see well. He went to a cupboard and took the saw and two surgeon’s knives, one long and one short. Then he began to sharpen the blade of the long one, forcing himself not to listen to the turmoil outside caused by the fire. He tried to concentrate on the swish of the knife on the strip of well-oiled leather, but couldn’t. He only hoped that there would be no deaths or injuries.
All of a sudden he heard three urgent raps at the door. With a sigh of relief, he put down the knife and went to open it.
He stopped short in front of his student Francesco Salimbene who was standing there with head uncovered: wild hair, sweaty face and a slightly mad look in his blue eyes. Even by the uncertain light of the lamps, bloodstains showed on his knee-length tunic and his chausses beneath. Mondino took one look at the man who Francesco held up by the waist and saw that he was dead. Before Mondino had time to react, the young man pushed him aside and entered, quickly closing the door behind him with his free hand.
‘I beg you, magister, don’t shout for help,’ he said, while he laid the corpse, not without delicacy, on the marble tabletop. ‘I can explain everything.’
Mondino took advantage of the moment to go quickly over to the sloping workbench where he had left the knife and pick it up with a decisive gesture. Then he went back to stand between the young man and the door. Glancing at the body on the dissection table, he noticed for the first time the stumps where the man’s hands should have been and the fact that his tunic was drenched with blood around his chest.
‘I won’t shout for help,’ he said. ‘But I have no intention of covering up a murder. Tell me what my laziest student is doing here with a corpse in train. Then we will call the city guards and sort the thing out according to the law.’
‘This man, Angelo da Piczano,’ said Francesco, turning round and noticing the knife but not showing the slightest concern, ‘Was killed in a way that seems to have something to do with the magic arts and trade with the Devil.’ ‘Did you kill him?’
The young man opened wide his arms in a gesture of entreaty. ‘Certainly not. Do you think I’d have come to ask for your help if I had?’
In the flickering light, his eyes seemed more black than blue. Mondino suspected that he was waiting for a moment of inattention to try to disarm him. But he would find to his cost that a doctor knows how to wield a knife even better than a soldier.
‘I did not say that I would help you,’ Mondino said, in a flat tone. ‘Go on.’
‘I can’t tell you everything, Master,’ said the young man. ‘I am asking you to trust me and to help me get rid of this man’s body. If the Inquisition finds it, many innocent people could suffer.’
Mondino stared at him. ‘Do you realise what you are asking? Destroying the evidence of a murder is a serious crime. Harbouring a fugitive is an even greater crime. If you think that I am prepared to help, you are severely mistaken.’ ‘So you really do think I killed him?’
There was a desolate tone in his voice, but Mondino was unmoved. ‘It’s the most logical thing to think. To convince me otherwise you’d need to do better than just ask me to trust you.’
Mondino wasn’t frightened of him, but there was no sense in running unnecessary risks. The best thing was to play for time. The grave-diggers would soon arrive with the corpse he had asked for. He would tell one of them to call the guards and the problem would be solved. He just had to keep the student talking until then.
‘I can tell you this,’ said the young man, after a moment’s indecision. ‘My real name is not Francesco Salimbene, but Gerardo da Castelbretone. And I owed this man help and protection, as he did me. I would never have harmed him.’
‘Is he a relation of yours?’
The doctor looked at the dead man. He was about forty, with an athletic build and an austere expression on his face that he had not lost even in death. He was dressed in a simple tunic with neither surcoat nor belt.
‘Because he resembles you. A resemblance of character, more than looks.’
Gerardo da Castelbretone, if that was really his name, seemed to be deliberating with himself. Then he smiled bitterly and shrugged his shoulders. ‘You are very quick, magister. No, he’s not a relation of mine. But we are bound by a tie that is just as strong. I am a Poor Knight of Christ and the temple of solomon, as was he. That must account for the resemblance that you notice.’
A silence followed in which Mondino absorbed the information, then he burst out: ‘You’re a templar! that’s why you use a false name, why you don’t study and only come to my lessons to waste time. You are pretending to be a student to avoid arrest in the current trial against your order.’ He was so furious that he took half a step towards the young man, brandishing the knife in one hand. ‘And now you’ve decided to come clean because you need my help. But you’re mistaken. The Church’s quarrels simply do not interest me.’
Gerardo lifted up both his hands in a gesture that invited calm. ‘Please, before you decide, listen to me.’ ‘Go on,’ said Mondino, without lowering the knife. The young man explained that Angelo da Piczano was a confrère who had escaped the wave of arrests ordered by Pope Clement V at the will of Philip the fair of France, and taken refuge in naples. They had met one another in Ravenna when Gerardo was preparing to take his vows and they had become friends, despite the difference in age. Four months previously Angelo had written to him to say that he was coming to Bologna on urgent business, naturally travelling incognito, and he asked if he could stay with Gerardo for a few days.
‘I answered that my house was at his disposal, and five days ago he arrived.’
‘Did he tell you what business brought him to the city?’ asked Mondino, interested despite himself. He had not understood the reference to the Devil, but the amputated hands alone were enough to show that the templar had not been killed in a tavern brawl or a robbery.
‘No, and I didn’t ask him,’ answered Gerardo. ‘These are difficult times for us. The less we know about each other, the better.’
Mondino nodded, and the young man rapidly finished his story. That evening Angelo had asked him if he could borrow his room. He had to meet someone and didn’t feel safe in any other place in the city because he feared a trap. Gerardo had explained how to escape across the rooftops in case of danger. Then he went out to have supper in a tavern behind the Mercato di Mezzo, doing his best to avoid the offers from prostitutes without letting them know that he was a monk.
‘Angelo had told me that the meeting would not take long and that I could come back after compline,’ he continued, briefly turning to look at the corpse out of the corner of his eye. ‘When I returned to my room I found him lying on my bed, dead. But I hardly had time to register the outrage that had been inflicted on his body because the Inquisition started knocking at the door, obviously notified by the person who had killed him. I thought that it’d be better if they didn’t find his body devastated in such a manner. I set fire to the house to distract them and made my escape over the rooftops, taking him with me.’
‘And you decided to bring the problem along to me,’ said Mondino, having difficulty containing his fury.
It was Gerardo who was responsible for the fire. He would have to answer for that too. The shouting outside had diminished, a sign that the flames had been overcome. The grave-diggers would not be long now.
‘The fact is that I didn’t think I’d find you here at this hour, Master,’ said the templar. ‘But I saw the light showing under the door and I thought I’d knock.’
‘You’re lying! All my students know that I often come here at night to conduct anatomical experiments so as not to attract too much attention.’
The young man nodded, admitting the truth. ‘The Inquisitor’s men were looking for me and they wouldn’t have taken long to find me if I’d stayed out on the streets, hampered by my dead friend here. I needed help.’
Mondino thought of his uncle, Liuzzo, who had been predicting for some time that his habit of coming to their school of medicine at night to dissect corpses would sooner or later end in disaster. Liuzzo had really been thinking of him being attacked in the street by some miscreant because he insisted on going out alone without wearing his physician’s red robe or even taking an attendant as an escort. He would never have imagined anything of this sort.
‘Why didn’t you leave him where he was when you set the house on fire?’ he asked. ‘The Inquisitor would only have found a body burned to a cinder that was wholly unrecognisable, and you would not have run enormous risks by taking him with you.’
Gerardo turned away from him, silently staring at the corpse on the table. A current of air fluttered the lamp’s flame and for a second, because of the rapid movement of the shadow, it seemed as though Angelo da Piczano’s body had moved. Despite himself, Mondino took a step back.
‘Answer me, templar!’ he exclaimed, irritated for letting himself be frightened. He was still finding it difficult to address the templar by the name of Gerardo. The man’s face, long hair, blue eyes, athletic and well-proportioned frame, all corresponded in his mind to an image to which he had given the name Francesco Salimbene from Imola. And now he resisted the idea of giving him another.
‘Perhaps not all of him would have been burned,’ answered Gerardo, without turning round. ‘And what remained would have gravely damaged our order. The accusation of adoring the Devil that has been levelled against us would have been well substantiated.’
It was the second time that he had referred to witchcraft, but the corpse spread out on the table had nothing strange about it, apart from the amputated hands. The face conveyed an expression of stupor more than horror. Some dried blood in the short hair at the nape of the neck suggested that he had been attacked from behind.
‘So,’ said Mondino, ‘You found this man murdered and left naked in your house. You dressed him, set fire to the house and fled. How were you thinking of getting rid of his body?’ Gerardo opened his mouth wide, surprised. ‘How did you know that he was naked?’ then he nodded. ‘Oh, I understand, the tunic.’
The fact that his surprise lasted so short a time slightly annoyed the doctor. But it was not the moment to worry about such nonsense. He had to carry on talking and hope that the grave-diggers would be there soon.
‘Exactly, the tunic,’ said Mondino. ‘It is stained with blood and yet there are no holes, a sign that the wound to the chest was inflicted on this man when he was undressed. And perhaps,’ he continued, moving to the side to get a better view, ‘When he was already dead or had fainted due to the blow to his head.’
‘Your perspicacity is worthy of your fame,’ said Gerardo.