The Venice Sketchbook Page 1

Author: Rhys Bowen

Genres: Historical , Fiction


“I have an ulterior motive for visiting you, apart from saying goodbye. I wondered if you’d care to work for your country?”

When I looked surprised, he went on. “What I have to say from now on is all top secret, and you must sign a document to verify this.” He reached into his pocket and put a sheet of paper on my table. “Are you prepared to sign?”

“Before I know what is entailed?”

“I’m afraid so. That’s how it works in wartime.”

I hesitated, staring at him, then walked over to the table. “I suppose there is no harm in signing. I can still say no to what you propose?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Mr Sinclair sounded far too cheerful.

“Very well, then.” I scanned the document, noting that betraying the trust could result in prison or death. Hardly reassuring. But I signed. He took it back and slipped it inside his jacket.

“You have a fine view here, Miss Browning,” he said.

“I know. I love it.”

“And I understand you own this place.”

“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said.

“We do. I’m afraid we had to check into your background before making this request of you.”

“And that request would be?”

In the kitchen alcove the kettle boiled, sending a loud shriek that made me rush to the stove. I poured the water into the teapot, then returned to the living room.

“You are in a prime position to watch the movement of ships. You know the Italians have navy vessels stationed here. Now they might well be allowing the German navy to use this as a base from which to attack Greece, Cyprus, Malta. I’d like you to give us a daily account of shipping activity. If ships leave the harbour here, you tell us and we’ll have planes ready to intercept.”

“How would I tell you? Who would be left to tell?”

“Ah.” He turned a little red. “Someone will be sent to install a radio. It will be hidden so that nobody else knows about it. You can’t use it when that woman of yours is here. She cannot be allowed to see it. Is that clear?”

“Of course. Although she is not the brightest. She probably wouldn’t know what it was.”

“Nevertheless”—he held up a warning finger—“you will broadcast as soon as possible after you witness shipping activity.”

“To whom do I broadcast? And what do I say?”

“Patience, dear lady. All will be made clear,” he said.

I went back into the kitchen and poured two cups of tea, then carried them on a tray to where we’d been sitting. Mr Sinclair took a sip and gave a sigh of satisfaction.

“Ah, tea that tastes like tea. One thing I shall enjoy when I get home.”

I took a drink myself and waited.

He put the cup down. “Do you know Morse code?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“I’ll get a booklet over to you. Learn it as soon as possible. Along with the radio, you will receive a codebook. You will keep that hidden apart from the radio, in a place where nobody would think of looking. Your messages will be sent in code. For example, if you see two destroyers, you might say, ‘Granny is not feeling well today.’”

“And if the Germans break the code?”

“The codes will be changed frequently. You will not know in advance how you’ll receive a new booklet. Maybe a package from your auntie in Rome with recipes in it.” He shrugged. “Our secret service is highly resourceful. The good thing is that you will never have to make personal contact with anyone, so should you be questioned, you will not have to worry about betrayal.”

“That sounds so reassuring,” I said drily and saw the twitch of a smile on his lips.

He took another sip, then put down his cup once more. “One more thing,” he said. “You will need a code name for communication. What do you suggest?”

I stared out across the canal. A cargo ship was moving slowly past. Was I mad to agree to this?

“My name is Juliet,” I said, “so my code name could be Romeo.”

“Romeo. I like it.” He laughed.



Juliet, Venice, May 20, 1928

At last Aunt Hortensia and I have arrived in Venice, after a long, sweaty, smoky and exceedingly uncomfortable train journey. Aunt Hortensia does not believe in wasting money and declared that sleeping berths on a train ride are completely useless as the cars stop, start and shake so much that sleep is impossible. So we sat up, all the way from Boulogne, on the French coast, through France, then Switzerland and into Italy. By day it was awfully hot. One could not open the windows as smoke and cinders would blow in from the engine. And during the night there was a man opposite me who snored loudly, as well as his wife, who stank of garlic and body odour. I know I shouldn’t be complaining. I am fully aware of how awfully lucky I am at being taken to Italy for my eighteenth birthday. The girls in my form at school were most envious!

All that is behind us now. We are here. We came out of the Santa Lucia train station and stood at the top of a flight of steps.

“Ecco il Canal Grande!” Aunt Hortensia said in dramatic fashion, spreading out her arms as if she was on stage and had created the scene for my benefit. My Italian was limited to “please,” “thank you” and “good day,” but I understood that this was the Grand Canal. Only it didn’t look very grand. It was wide, to be sure, but the buildings on the other side were rather ordinary. And it looked dirty, too. The odour that greeted my nostrils was not particularly appetizing. It was a watery sort of smell with a hint of fish and decay. I didn’t have much of a chance to study my surroundings, however, as we were immediately besieged by porters. It was a little alarming to have men fighting over us in a strange language, snatching at our bags and trying to bundle us into a gondola, whether we wanted one or not. But as Aunt Hortensia confessed, we had no alternative. We could not have managed all that luggage on one of the water buses they call “vaporetti.” Of course, I was thrilled to be in a gondola, even though the gondolier was not a handsome young Italian who sang love songs, but rather a grim-faced man with a paunch.