By Alexis Larkin
Rapallino could still hear the squawks of merchants and gulls alike at Venice’s new Rialto market as he turned down Calle Rosso and towards No. 3, his humble home. He opened the front door intent on kissing his wife, filling his belly, and resting his feet in peace and quiet, though not necessarily in that order. An unfamiliar and altogether inexplicable sound sent him back to the street to make sure he was at the right house: the inconsolable wail of a newborn baby.
“Esmeralda?” Rapallino said as he came back into the entryway.
“Come quick,” Esmeralda said.
She dragged him with both hands into the living room. There Rapallino found his neighbor Don Carafa showering his daughter Angelina with the most vile insults imaginable. She in turn showered a swaddled baby with a thousand coos and kisses.
“Rapallino, thank God you are here,” Carafa said as he dropped to his knees in supplication.
“I was thinking just the opposite.”
“Tell my daughter that if she does not identify the father of this bastard child that you will bring her before the Doge himself!”
Rapallino turned to the young woman, expecting her to cower at such threats, no matter how hollow they might be. He was impressed that they only seemed to intensify the fire in her lovely jade eyes.
“I told you that I don’t know who the father is so there is no use for such histrionics.”
Carafa crossed himself vigorously. “Lord deliver me, her defense is that she is a putan. Name the possible suitors, and our detective will discover the truth.”
Rapallino helped Carafa to the sofa. “You have my every sympathy, but this is hardly a matter for the state that I could get involved in.”
“But you are the man who thwarted the Dalmatian plot, recovered the Fontana diamond, and assisted the Doge in rediscovering St. Mark’s remains, surely you can snap your fingers and locate the scoundrel who has brought such shame on my family.”
Esmeralda pulled her husband aside before he could renew his protestations. “He is threatening to disown her. He is blind with rage or how else could he look at the face of that little miracle with such contempt. Where will Angelina and her child go? Will your conscience bear their fate?”
“Let me think on it,” Rapallino said. He was about to excuse himself to the study to think of anything else when his assistant walked through the front door.
“Bragadin, I just left you. Is there a pressing matter that we must make our way to immediately?” Rapallino said.
“That is why your wife sent for me isn’t it? The message concerned a domestic matter of the utmost important. Is that wrong?” Bragadin said.
Rapallino sighed deeply, straightened his tunic, and for a moment enveloped Esmeralda’s hands gently with his own. “That a wife knows what her husband’s needs even before he speaks? No, that is not wrong. Let us wade into this family’s muck and mire, and hope we don’t drown in it.”
With everyone seated quietly in the living room, Rapallino began the investigation.
“Dear Angelina, identify the men who may have fathered this child. We will do what we can. You must be completely honest. This is no time for shame,” Rapallino said.
“Rest assured I feel no shame whatsoever in this matter. If it is the names of men you want, how about Captain Vasari?” Angelina said.
“A sailor? May the saints protect me! Well, at least he owns a ship I have used in the past and can make use of again,” Carafa said.
“Prince Henrik is a gentleman new to our parish last year,” Angelina said.
“Royalty…” Carafa said.
“Giuseppe Coldi,” Angelina said.
“My banker? Yes, Rapallino. Make it the banker,” Carafa said.
Rapallino could sit silent no longer. “The man will be whoever he is. You must promise me that when we find the father, you will be satisfied with the match and marriage.”
Angelina nodded her assent, but Rapallino would not budge until Carafa spoke.
“I swear to it. Now be off. There isn’t a moment to lose. My gondolier Giulio will take you wherever you need to resolve this catastrophe. He is the best in all of Venice, and he probably knows all of Angelina’s hideouts from driving her anyway,” Carafa said. He pushed them out the back door and towards the nearest canal.
* * * * *
Within the hour, Rapallino and Bragadin found themselves sitting face-to-face with the sailor Vasari in his squalid lodgings at the edge of Cannaregio. Flies buzzed round their heads as the room filled with an icy draft. Bragadin was convinced he knew the man, but Rapallino could not believe his protégé had ever fraternized with such filth.
“So many women. How can I remember just one?” Captain Vasari said, picking his yellow teeth with a long fingernail.
“You may consider starting a ledger. For now, focus on the Venetian family of Carafa and more specifically the daughter Angelina.”
“At least that narrows it down a bit. I seem to remember some business with the father. But it isn’t possible anyway. I use a lemon skin or a goat bladder and I’m no cad, I offer the lady a glass of sheep’s urine if she has any concern,” Vasari said.
“How gentlemanly of you,” Rapallino said.
“Thank you. So you see, a pregnancy is impossible,” Vasari said.
“Yet miracles have been known to occur,” Rapallino said.
“When would this have been?” Vasari said.
“August last, signore. Can you name the women you bedded that month?” Bragadin asked.
“I cannot, which until now had caused me much dismay,” Vasari said, searching his desk and finally handing a parchment to Bragadin. “Perhaps this is the miracle of which you speak. I was a guest of the Doge, or at least his dungeon, for the summer. It was a misunderstanding over a debt here or there. But I could not have enjoyed the company of your dear lady during that time.”
Bragadin sneered. “I thought you looked familiar, signore. Good to know it is in my official capacity and not from our social circles,” he said.
Rapallino could not help but laugh as Captain Vasari bowed deeply in response.
* * * * *
Back in the gondola, while Bragadin busied himself with their notes, Rapallino reflected on the morning and how he could make sure his evening looked nothing like it. Finally, he called out to the gondolier.
“Giulio, would you help me please?”
Giulio slowed his strong, graceful stroke and turned to Rapallino. “Of course. Angelina—I mean Signorina Carafa—has spoken so highly of you that I would be honored to assist.”
“Good man. Where have you taken Signorina Angelina for her trysts with these men?” Rapallino said.
The smile melted from the gondolier’s face. He turned back to rowing as he responded. “Nowhere. It is an outrageous claim against her.”
“Your anger is palpable,” Bragadin said looking up from his notes.
“There is shame on the entire house because Signorina Angelina refuses to acknowledge the father of her daughter,” Giulio said.
“Yes, I can see how even you would benefit from a swift resolution,” Bragadin said.
The gondola pulled up to a sumptuous palazzo on the Grand Canal.
“By the way, where is this gentleman a prince of?” Bragadin asked.
“I’m not entirely sure. It’s one of those German principalities no one is sure actually exists,” Giulio said as he moored the boat.
* * * * *
Inside the palazzo, Rapallino and Bragadin were lead through a series of rooms, each decorated more ornately than the last until they found the prince lounging on a divan in the courtyard. He was so handsome and exuded such good breeding that Rapallino was sure they had found the man worthy of Angelina and her child.
“Please sit down gentlemen. Of course I have heard of you at court, and now my butler tells me you are here concerning my good friends the Carafas. How may I help you?”
“The matter is rather delicate. It concerns Signorina Angelina–” Rapallino started.
“Thank heavens! She means the world to me, the most welcoming soul I’ve encountered from the moment I dipped my toe into this most serene republic. But I have not seen her for many months, not even at the parish church. What news have you?” Prince Henrik said.
“She has just birthed a daughter, your excellency,” Bragadin said.
“What wonderful news. And please, call me Henrik young man. What is the babe’s name? I look forward to paying tribute,” Prince Henrik said.
“The name is yours of course,” Bragadin said.
Prince Henrik looked genuinely confused for a moment before the veil of misunderstanding appeared to lift slowly from his face. “I see. But you are mistaken, Don Bragadin. It could not be me.”
“Were you with Angelina in August?” Rapallino asked.
“Yes, but gentlemen, you must understand … how shall I put this for your noble and delicate ears. Let us say, I spend too many hours with my Venetian brothers for such a union as you suggest,” Prince Henrik said. Rapallino thought for a moment, then nodded solemnly and began to stand to apologize and excuse their mistake when Bragadin spoke.
“But how long does it take to fill a woman with child? Surely your brothers gave you time for that,” Bragadin said.
“No, no, no. Let me say then that you would be more likely to find me in a French marriage, an affrèrement if you will,” Prince Henrik said.
“Yet Frenchmen have been known to step outside their marriages as well,” Bragadin said.
The prince laughed heartily and gave Rapallino a pleading look.
“How much clearer can I make myself, Bragadin? I am more likely to raise a child with you than with our Angelina,” Prince Henrik said.
“I will explain all, your excellency,” Rapallino said, dragging Bragadin to his feet and toward the door. “Please forgive our mistake.”
But the prince was still laughing. “It was a mistake made out of affection for my dear friend. How could I hold it against such valorous gentlemen? Go with my blessing and tell the Carafas I hold them in my heart. Later today I will send them a small token of my own affection that I hope they will accept in celebrating the joyous birth.”
Bragadin shook his head as they made their way back to the gondola. “If that was the case, why didn’t he just say so from the beginning?”
* * * * *
At last they reached the banker’s office, though it looked more like the royal vaults to Rapallino. He could see why Carafa would have favored their final stop on the hunt for a son-in-law if only it were not for the banker himself. Appraised of the situation in the most delicate manner possible, his response was anything but.
“If the child was mine, I would gladly pay,” Don Coldi said from behind a desk big enough to host a state dinner.
“A noble sentiment, but not entirely believable,” Rapallino started.
“Really? Ask Carina or Viola, perhaps Fiammetta, then Mariella, and even Vera. All mothers to my children. All beneficiaries of my largess, in more ways than one. Sadly, though, I never was able to bless Angelina with my gifts. It was not for lack of trying mind you. I offered her jewels, spices, and even a silk robe and still she refused. Have you ever heard of such a thing?” Coldi demanded of Bragadin. Rapallino waited for his assistant to respond, but turned to find Bragadin’s jaw resting on his breast.
“How could she refuse?” Rapallino said.
“Indeed, and yet she did. The few times I thought I was close, that gondolier of hers would get in the way. I don’t know why that boy won’t stay in his boat. You’d think he owned the girl the way he acts,” Coldi said.
And suddenly all was clear to Rapallino. He thanked the banker, did his best to reassemble Bragadin, and returned to his neighbors at Ca’ Carafa will all due haste.
* * * * *
After mooring the boat, Giulio lead Rapallino and Bragadin to the palazzo’s courtyard where they found Carafa and his daughter sitting down to their evening meal. Rapallino gently held Giulio’s arm when he tried to excuse himself to attend the gondola.
“Stay a moment. Your failure to speak has wasted enough of my time today,” Rapallino said with a smile.
“Do you have the answer?” Carafa asked.
“Of course. The father of your granddaughter will remember Angelina like the captain never would, love her like the prince never could, and provide for her in ways the banker’s money could never touch,” Rapallino said.
“I don’t understand,” Carafa said.
“You identified the gentleman yourself this morning, Don Carafa, but I was too concerned with being done with this case to solve it in the first place and therefore did not listen. There is one man who knows all Angelina’s hideouts, one man outraged on her behalf rather than against her, and one man who has sought to protect her honor at every turn. Do you deny it Giulio?” Rapallino asked.
“I do … I do not deny it!” Giulio said.
“Then it is settled. You shall marry Angelina, who has sent us on this wild goose chase to spare you her father’s wrath, you shall raise your daughter together, and, most importantly, you shall leave me in peace for the rest of the evening,” Rapallino said. Angelina sighed with such relief that she appeared to release nine months of tension from her body all at once.
“Never. You act as if I have no say in the matter,” Carafa said.
“You already had your say. Before we set out this morning, you promised that whoever the father was, you would be happy with their marriage and be done with it,” Rapallino said.
Carafa opened his mouth as if to protest, but merely caught his face in his hands and let his head sink deeply into his chest. “I am heartbroken.”
“Ack. There is no shame in a profession, signore. You had one yourself once. Plus there is clearly love between them,” Rapallino said.
“What? Oh no, not that, I’m sure he’ll be a fine enough son-in-law, but to lose such a wonderful gondolier? There is true tragedy in that,” Carafa said.
“We will leave you to work it all out. Many congratulations and blessings to you Signorina Angelina and your new family,” Rapallino said as the young couple embraced.
* * * * *
Out on Calle Rosso, Rapallino and Bragadin passed six men lugging a jewel encrusted chest bearing Prince Henrik’s seal as they made their way to Ca’ Carafa.
“That should soften the blow a bit,” Bragadin said.
“Carafa is very much the gentleman who will see one pearl as interchangeable for another. Now let us supper and do so at your rooms. I can’t bear to see what lies behind door No. 3 at the moment,” Rapallino said.
Alexis Larkin lives and writes in northern New Jersey. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in the Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction, Fat City Review, Barnstormer, Pea River Journal, Prompt Literary Magazine, and Treehouse.