Murder at Midnight

BOOK: Murder at Midnight
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Murder
at
Midnight
AVI

Scholastic Inc.
New York Toronto London Auckland
Sydney New Mexico New Delhi Hong Kong

FOR
MARIANNE
MEROLA

CHAPTER 1

A
PALE BEAM OF COLD OCTOBER SUN SLIPPED THROUGH
a crack in the old roof and settled on Fabrizio’s drowsy eyes. With a flap of his dirty fingers the boy attempted to brush the light away. Failing, he rolled over on his straw mattress and slipped back into a doze. The next moment he sat bolt upright. He had overslept! There were chores to do! Mistress Sophia would soon be leaving to care for her sick sister. And that meant that Master Mangus would be harder to please than ever.

But it’s better than living on the streets,
Fabrizio reminded himself.

During the past year, his parents — ragpickers — had died, leaving him a homeless ten-year-old. Only by relying on his wits and friends did Fabrizio survive the streets of Pergamontio. But a month ago, the City Corporation, which had the responsibility for orphans, bound him over to Mangus the Magician.

It was the magician’s wife, Mistress Sophia, who made the arrangements. It was she who insisted that her elderly
husband needed a personal servant. She herself proved kind, and Fabrizio was thrilled not to be begging on the streets for a daub of cold, clotted pasta for his dinner. Now he had good food in his belly, a roof over his head, a bed for his back, and even a few coins in his pocket. Besides, not only did Master Mangus have a house with two older servants, there was his amazing magic.

But the old man was
not
happy. He insisted he did
not
need Fabrizio, complaining that the boy was an ignorant, idle chatterer. Mangus was proving a hard master.

Now, with Mistress going away — no one was certain for how long — Fabrizio knew he must be careful not to displease the old man. The last thing he wanted was to go back to the streets.

Fabrizio yanked on his tunic and trousers, tightened his rope belt, drew on his old cloth boots, scurried out of his small attic sleeping space, and all but slid down the rickety ladder. Reaching the second floor, he paused to listen. No one was astir.

Down the steps to the main floor he crept, heading right into his master’s study at the rear of the house.
Fabrizio found the room fascinating. A dim and chilly place, the warped oak-beamed ceiling hung low, walls were stained by smoke, and the wooden floor lay as uneven as the sea. It smelled, too, of burnt candles, sealing wax, parchment, bundles of manuscripts, as well as some thirty leather-bound books that lay scattered about.

Two chests of Master Mangus’s magic equipment sat in one corner. In another corner stood a reading lectern, a chair in another. Shelves stuffed with books and parchment pages lined the walls. In the room’s center was a heavy oak table, laden with more books, more papers. On the table sat a human skull, which Fabrizio always thought was staring at him.

Fabrizio shivered, took up the clay pot that sat on the floor, dumped its cold ashes into a bucket, and refilled it with wood chips and lumps of charcoal. With flint and iron, he sparked the wood until a small fire burned, enough to gentle some warmth into the room.

Using a metal pincer, he plucked up one of the red hot coals and lit the candle that sat inside the skull. The light glowing through its empty sockets had the appearance of
living eyes. They reminded him of Mangus, fascinating but angry.

Fabrizio gathered up the books and began to shelve them. It was the third volume — one of Mangus’s magic books — that made him pause. Its wondrous pages revealed how to make things change and appear magically. Fabrizio had been studying it secretly.

Setting the book down, he went to the door to see if anyone else had gotten up. All remained still.

Cleaning his fingers with a quick lick of his tongue, Fabrizio placed the book of magic near the skull light and opened it. Unfortunately, he was just beginning to read. Still, there were complex pictures of equipment: boxes, tables, tubes, bowls, all with fascinating diagrams, which, he was sure, revealed ways for a magician to hide, float away, and reappear.

As Fabrizio studied these illustrations, he took some coins —
pezollas
— from his pocket and practiced making them appear and disappear.

Suddenly, he heard the sound of someone coming down the steps. Snapping the book shut, he pocketed the coins,
dropped to his knees, and, with a pounding heart, began shoving books onto shelves.

Behind him, the door opened slowly.

“Ah, Fabrizio. Here you are,” said a soft voice. Mistress Sophia, a fair, gray-haired woman with a dimpled, kindly face, stepped into the room.

Much relieved, Fabrizio jumped to his feet. “Good morning, Mistress.”

“Just a quick word,” she said. “The donkey cart taking me to my sister’s will be here soon. And Master will be down shortly.”

“Yes, Mistress. I’m very sorry you have to go.”

Sophia brushed Fabrizio’s black hair from his forehead, placed her hands on his narrow shoulders, and gazed earnestly down into his dark eyes.

“Fabrizio, I hope you know how fond of you I’ve become. Like the child we never had. I do so want you to remain with us. But I fear we’ve not convinced Master that you need to stay. I know” — she said, preventing him from replying with a finger touch to his lips — “he’s been difficult. But while I’m gone, you
must
try extra hard to please
him. Take care of him and all his needs. Do your chores well. Find new ones to do. Don’t quarrel with the other servants. Work hard at your reading. In short,” she said, giving the boy a gentle shake, “think of my being away as your best chance to prove how useful you can be. Make Master Mangus love you as much as I do.”

“Yes, Mistress,” said Fabrizio earnestly. “It’s as someone once told me: No use having the lioness like you if the lion doesn’t.”

“Exactly right.” Sophia laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair with affection.

“Mistress, how long will you be gone?”

“It could be a day or a month. My sister isn’t far, and she’s never as ill as she claims. So much depends on her.

“Now, Fabrizio, listen well: Tonight, Master Mangus is performing his magic at the Sign of the Crown. You’ve been begging to go. I’ve urged him to let you take my place at the door collecting money. You’ll be pleased to know … he’s granted my request.”

“Truly?”
cried Fabrizio.

“Your first performance,” said Mistress Sophia, smiling at the boy’s joy. “But,” she added solemnly, “you must do well.”

“I will, Mistress!” said Fabrizio, snatching her hand and covering it with kisses. “I promise!”

“Now then,” said Sophia. “Get on with your work. And … Why not sweep the hallway? When Master comes down, he’ll see you working hard at one of my tasks. Remember, you
must
show him how much he needs you.”

“Yes, Mistress. I’ll make myself as useful as his right hand.”

“God keep you,” she said, bending down to kiss him on both his cheeks.

“You, too, Mistress,” returned Fabrizio, suddenly reaching out and hugging her. “And your sister.”

Sophia offered a warm smile and left.

A performance!
thought Fabrizio as he rushed to shelve the remaining books. Finished, he dashed into the hallway, grabbed a straw broom, and began to sweep vigorously.

Reaching the front door, he unbolted and pulled it
open to brush out the dust. There, on the empty street, stood a man dressed in a monk’s black robe. The hood was pulled down so only his eyes were exposed. He was staring at Mangus’s house.

“Can I help you, Signore?” Fabrizio called.

“Is this the home of Mangus the Magician?”

“Most wonderfully, yes, Signore.”

“Is he performing soon?”

“Tonight, Signore. At the Sign of the Crown. And I,” the boy could not resist adding, “shall be there. For the first time!”

The black-robed man drew the hood farther down over his face, turned, and hastened away down the street.

Fabrizio glanced after him and shrugged. The city was full of black robes.

As he hurried back into the house, Fabrizio nearly bumped into Master Mangus coming down the steps.

“Good morning, Master,” Fabrizio whispered.

“What’s that?” Mangus grunted.

As befit his seventy years of age, Mangus was somewhat stooped. His robe was neat and clean, his carefully
cut beard was gray, his hair white, and the folds of his eyes much crinkled. And as far as Fabrizio was concerned, Mangus’s pale face suggested the deepest knowledge of things magical and mysterious.

“Good morning, Master,” Fabrizio repeated, offering his best smile.

Mangus frowned. “Your mistress will be leaving shortly,” he grumbled. “Go fetch her things.”

“Yes, Master,” said Fabrizio.

He ran up the steps. Halfway up he recalled the black-robed man at their door.
Should I tell Master?

“Fabrizio!” cried Mangus. “Don’t dawdle! You’re needed!”

“Yes, Master,” said Fabrizio. “Of course, Master.” He raced up.

The black robe was forgotten.

CHAPTER 2

T
HAT NIGHT, IN THE CROWDED BACK ROOM OF THE
S
IGN
of the Crown tavern, Fabrizio was determined to see everything. Since his task — collecting money — would come at the end of Mangus’s performance, he had climbed atop an overturned basket behind the audience.

The magician, standing before a yellow backdrop, was costumed in a green velvet robe lined with red silk that peeked out like spots of fire. On his feet were blue Turkish slippers with tips curled like monkey tails. On his head sat a three-peaked hat. From each peak hung a black star.

Exactly the way a magician should look.
Next moment, Fabrizio scolded himself.
Never mind what he looks like! Watch! Listen! If you want to become a magician, you must learn!

He stood riveted as Mangus made balls, bones, flowers, and cups appear, disappear, change shape, color, and size. Fabrizio had no doubt that some of what he saw were tricks. He was equally sure the rest was real magic.
How clever of Master to mix the real with tricks!

A ball was taken from an empty box.
That’s a trick,
Fabrizio decided, recalling a diagram from the magic book. A burning candle was pulled from an ear.
That’s true magic,
he thought. A box changed into a hat.
True magic, again.
Objects were snatched from noses, sleeves, and elbows. There were flashes of light. Smoke. Real or unreal, everything was wonderful!

“Dear friends!” Mangus said to the enthralled crowd. “Is not the great enterprise of magic to make something from nothing? To make more from less? I believe it is! Therefore, for my final act of magic, I shall do exactly that: create something from nothing. Furthermore, from that something, I shall make many — with magic!”

Fabrizio watched intently. The old man rolled back the sleeves of his robe. Nothing hidden. He showed the backs of his hands. Nothing there, either. He extended his right hand toward his audience. Empty. His bare left hand gestured as if sculpting air. Suddenly, he was holding a large tarot card that bore the image of a crowned head!

“The king!” exclaimed Mangus, holding the card aloft. “Our beloved Claudio the Thirteenth!”
Fabrizio was astonished.

The crowd — and Fabrizio — applauded wildly.

Mangus offered a courtly bow. “And now,” he said, waving his right hand around, “may the king’s power —
increase
!”

In an instant
two
tarot cards were in his hand.

Fabrizio laughed.
What wonderful magic!

Mangus made yet another hand flourish.

Three
cards were in his hand!

Four!

Five!

Fabrizio was bedazzled.

“From nothing,” proclaimed Mangus, “comes something. From something, many!” With eyes full of merriment, he held up the five tarot cards.

“Bravo!” shouted an excited Fabrizio from the back of the room. “Bravo!”

The crowd joined in.

With another wave of his hands, Mangus made a quick pass. The cards
vanished!

“Fantastic!” came loud cries from the audience. “Mangus the Magnificent!”

“Oh, I do love magic,” whispered Fabrizio, applauding so hard his hands hurt. “My master is truly amazing!”

The old man held up a hand. The crowd hushed.

“Dear friends, thank you kindly. Since magic makes a magician weary, that’s all I can do for you tonight. Be assured I shall recover soon enough to perform again — right here — in the near future.

“But now the king’s curfew is almost upon us. The king loves us and wishes to keep us safe from devils. Besides, I don’t want any of you to sit in one of Count Scarazoni’s jail cells.”

Somebody hissed.

“I beg you, return to the safety of your homes. But if —
if
— you have found some mystery, some amusement in what I’ve done, be so kind as to drop a coin or two — a single
pezolla
will be fine — into my servant’s cap. No coin is too small! The boy — his name is Fabrizio — stands by the door, cap in hand.”

Fabrizio grinned with delight.

“Thank you, dear friends,” Mangus concluded. “Remember, even a magician must eat!” With a final bow, he stepped behind the backdrop.

That was Fabrizio’s cue! He leaped off the basket, scurried to the room’s doorway, whipped off his wool cap, and held it before him. The crowd, babbling with pleasure, shuffled toward the exit where he stood.

“Thank you, Signore,” Fabrizio said as coins clinked into his cap, one after another. “Thank you, Signora.”

Intent on making sure no one took any money out of the cap, Fabrizio paid little attention to those who passed. Only when he decided that the last of the audience had gone did he look up.

He gasped. A large man wrapped in a black robe with the hood hiding most of his face loomed over him. Even as Fabrizio started back, the person grasped him firmly by a shoulder and drew him close.

“Boy!” he whispered harshly. “Tell your master he’s in grave danger.”

Before Fabrizio could collect his wits, the black robe fled into the night.

Fabrizio gazed at the doorway through which the black robe had fled.
Is that the same man who stood outside our house this morning? What is he warning Master about?

He was still staring when he heard, “Hey! You! Boy!”

Fabrizio spun around.

Giuseppe, the older of Mangus’s two manservants, had stuck his head through a slit in the yellow backdrop. He was about the same size and build as Mangus but bore a head of curly hair and a thick black beard. “Is the audience gone?”

“Yes, Signore,” Fabrizio replied. “Everybody.”

“Good.” Giuseppe pulled aside the backdrop. Mangus, his hat set aside, sat slumped in a chair. Benito, Mangus’s other manservant, was already packing up the large props. Benito was quite tall, and liked to show off his strength.

“Fabrizio,” Mangus called across the room. “Did we collect much money?”

“Forgive me, Master. You know I can’t do sums.”

“Alas, I do know.”

“But listen!” Fabrizio held up his cap and shook it. He grinned as the coins rattled.

Mangus turned to his other servants. “They say the sound of money is the devil’s own laughter. But while there may be too much devil’s laughter in the world, there never seems to be enough money.”

Benito and Giuseppe looked at each other and laughed loudly.

“Two hungry young men for servants,” Mangus continued. “A hungry wife. And I suppose, even a magician must eat.”

Fabrizio — aware that he had not been included in the list — approached the magician with cap in hand. “Master, I once heard a priest proclaim that those who can’t speak for themselves have the greatest hunger of all.”

Benito put the backdrop curtain into a wooden chest and looked around. “Boy! Don’t contradict Master!”

Fearful he had been too familiar, Fabrizio held still. “Forgive me, Master,” he whispered. “I meant no offense. But, Master, just now, at the door, a man —”

“The money, Fabrizio,” interrupted Mangus, his voice heavy with fatigue. “The money.”

Fabrizio, deciding it best not to speak just now about the threat, knelt and offered up his cap. Mangus spread his legs so his robe made a bowl into which he dumped the coins. As the magician counted them, Fabrizio eased off the old man’s Turkish slippers and began to rub his feet.

“Benito! Giuseppe!” exclaimed Mangus. “I believe we’ve collected decent earnings for our night’s work. But, as your master, it’s my duty to inform you: An artist’s life is not always successful.”

Fabrizio looked up. “Surely, Master, you’re not just an artist but a great magician.”

Benito, squaring off the tarot cards, snorted with disdain. “There you are, Master: A whole month with us and the ragpicker still believes your magic is real.”

“Is that true, Fabrizio?” said a frowning Mangus. He dropped the coins into the leather purse attached to his belt. “Do you really think what I do is true sorcery?”

“No doubt, Master.”

Giuseppe snorted. “You see what a fool he is, Master!”

“Fabrizio,” said Mangus, “your faith in me is based on ignorance.”

Fabrizio, his cheeks burning, handed the old man’s slippers to Giuseppe. In return he received a pair of soft boots, which he slipped onto his master’s feet. After a moment he looked up. “With permission, Master,” he whispered, “I should like to be a magician, too.”

“Now that,” said Mangus, “would take real magic.”

Fabrizio hung his head to hide his stinging tears.

Mangus pulled his feet from the boy’s grasp. “Time for home. The king’s curfew applies to us, too. I doubt the night watch will look kindly on an elderly charlatan and his cheap tricks.”

He started to rise, faltered, and settled back. Fabrizio, still on his knees, shuffled closer to allow the old man to put a hand on his shoulder as an aid to standing.

Giuseppe scowled at him, and then took up the chest at one end. Benito lifted the other. The two servants left the room.

Mangus and Fabrizio followed.

In the tavern’s main room, Signor Galda, the pole-thin and balding owner of the tavern, met them. He held out
Mangus’s thick wool cloak and affectionately draped it over the old man’s shoulders.

“Was it a good performance, Signore?”

“Excellent,” said Mangus, patting his purse. “And as always, gracious thanks for letting me use your room.”

“Ah, Signore,” returned the tavern owner, “it’s my pleasure. A goodly number of those who come to see you also eat and drink, so please, continue to perform here. Just send a servant on ahead to give me warning. This is your new boy, I presume.”

Fabrizio beamed.

“To be sure,” said Mangus. “I’ll send someone.”

Someone?
Fabrizio winced.
Oh, please, Mistress,
he thought,
come back before Master discharges me.

Mangus and Signor Galda exchanged a warm embrace, after which the old man and Fabrizio stepped onto the dark, blustery street. Benito and Giuseppe, twenty steps ahead with the chest, held up a fluttering torch to illuminate the narrow, stone-paved way.

“With permission, Master,” said Fabrizio as he reached
up and adjusted the cloak around his master’s neck. “You need to keep warm.”

Mangus frowned and set off at a slow pace.

Fabrizio stayed close. “Forgive me, Master. Mistress Sophia said I should look after you.”

“I can take care of myself,” muttered Mangus.

They walked on a few paces until Fabrizio, trying to coax Mangus into talking, said, “Master, your magic tonight was truly wonderful. That last piece — making something from nothing, and then many things — was fantastic. The whole town will be talking.”

“Let’s hope not,” said Mangus. “Not only is the king deeply superstitious, he has outlawed magic. If his authorities learn what I do, they might, like you, believe I make real magic. I could find myself in trouble.”

“Master, I know that not all you perform is real magic. But much is.”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” insisted Mangus. “My skill is the ability to fool people into believing what I do is true. I do
imitation
magic —
illusions.
Like my
costume, it’s just visual nonsense. Performing tricks is the way I put food on my table.”

“But, Master, if you had lived on the streets as I did, you’d know that if you didn’t read the magic of the clouds, you couldn’t forecast the weather. And if you didn’t understand the magic of the sea, you couldn’t catch fish. And the stars, Master, if you don’t know how they move through the heavens, or … or how to read tarot cards, you couldn’t predict the future.”

“Fabrizio, do you really believe such superstitions?”

“Of course, Master, surely.”

“Then what is your future?”

“I pray it’s with you, Master,” whispered Fabrizio.

“Fabrizio,” said an exasperated Mangus, “if you wish to remain in my household, know that my real love is philosophy, which is to say, reason and logic,
not
magic! Remember that.”

Fabrizio was quiet for a few moments. “Master,” he suddenly said. “I just remembered something! When I was collecting coins at the door, someone whispered something strange into my ear.”

“Which was?”

“He said, ‘Tell your master he’s in grave danger.’”

Mangus halted. “What! Who was this person?”

“Forgive me, Master, I have no idea.”

“You should have told me sooner. Describe him.”

“Master,” said Fabrizio. “I was so surprised by his words, and his hasty departure, I can’t say what he looked like.”

“Was he short?” demanded Mangus. “Tall?”

“Much taller than me. Wrapped in a black robe with his face hidden in his hood.”

“Fabrizio, Pergamontio is full of black robes: priests, monks, nuns.”

“I just remembered something else: There was another black robe at our door this morning.”

“This
morning
?”

“I told him about your performance.”

“Why?”

“I was excited about going.”

“As far as I recall, there was only one black robe in the audience,” said Mangus. “Did you see more?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, then, was the person at our door the same one who gave you the warning?”

“I don’t know,” said Fabrizio, wishing Mangus’s angry eyes did not remind him so much of the skull’s eyes.

“Fabrizio, pay attention to what’s visible and you can discover what’s hidden. The one who spoke to you at the performance: Was his robe
all
you noticed?”

Fabrizio was afraid to look up. “Forgive me. I was surprised by what he said. I suppose to be surprised is to lose one’s wits.”

“The great blessing, Fabrizio, of having wits,” chided Mangus, “is
not
to be surprised.
Omne ignotum pro magnifico!

“Is that a magic spell, Master?”

“It’s a Latin expression that means ‘Everything surprises if we lack knowledge of it.’”

“I always thought that being surprised is the most unsurprising fate of man.”

Mangus looked around at the boy. “Who told you that?”

BOOK: Murder at Midnight
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