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About the Author: Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, most recently 3rd LAW: MIXED MAGICAL ARTS, a YA urban fantasy, and over one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He is a two-time Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at

“This is not a request; it is an order from the Minor Council and you have but to comply, Signore Vacarro.”

As he spoke, Magistrato Orsatti leaned forward on the great, oaken desk that dominated the room, as if he could lend the weight of his body to his words. Now he sat back, almost sinking into the thick cushions of the chair. Both desk and chair dwarfed the man, but, though he was slight in stature, as chief bureaucrat of Genoa’s ruling families’ council, his power was outsized.

“It has already been a full day since the murder of Maestro Cambiaso and every further moment that slips past is unacceptable. Do you understand me, signore?”

Despite his position, his influence, the magistrato was clearly worried in a way that was out of proportion to the death of a minor artist, whether suspicious or not. Politics were of little interest to me, but there was no one in the Republic unaware that the newly elected Doge took power in a week’s time. A new administration often brought changes at every level of government—there were always favors to hand out and family members in need of meaningful work. A ranking bureaucrat with no recent achievements had little hope of retaining his position.

“Sergente.” It was the first word I spoke since being ushered into Orsatti’s office.

“What?” the magistrato asked, forgetting to hide his annoyance at what must have seemed a non sequitur.

“My rank. Sergente Alberto Vacarro of the City Watch, reporting as ordered, Magistrato Orsatti.” I bowed from the shoulders, giving the other man the bare minimum respect required. My rank, of course, was nothing to his, but I wanted to remind him that I wasn’t a lackey—not the lords’ council’s and not his personally. I worked for the city and its people, not Orsatti, the great families, or even the Doge. If there was work to be done, if there truly was a murderer loose in the city, I would gladly perform to the best of my ability, but I would not give up any of the dignity I was due.

The other man glared his consternation. For a long moment, I thought he would order his guards to have me removed. Finally, he looked down, pulled a piece of foolscap from the corner of the desk, clearing his throat as he did. He ran a finger down the paper, mumbling to himself. I had heard that Orsatti liked to put everything down in writing, to break problems into their component parts and treat them as mathematical equations to be solved by known formulae. Unfortunately, human motivations are not nearly so clean-cut.

“To recap,” Orsatti began, as if I hadn’t spoken, “Annibale Cambiaso, an artist of some small note, was found dead in his studio yester noon, a palette knife still lodged in his throat.” The magistrato rubbed, perhaps unconsciously, at the right side of his throat while tapping his left index finger against a line on the paper. He looked up. “Aged forty-four, reasonably successful, if not well-known. Patrons included middle-class merchants hoping to better themselves socially and a few minor members of the families. Recently, his income mostly came from an art school he conducted.”

“How long since he opened this school?”

Orsatti consulted his notes. “About six months.”

“How many students?” I asked.

“Four.” No hesitation this time; he must have read ahead.

“Young men?”

“Mostly, though one was actually older than Cambiaso.”

That was unusual. I said so.

Orsatti, past forty himself, looked irritated. “Can’t a man better himself at any age?”

“Of course.” I hid my smile, but I won a point and we both knew it. “It’s simply that most artists begin younger. May I see the list of names, please?”

Reluctantly, as if not wanting to concede even that much, Orsatti pushed his notes across the desk. I stepped forward, adjusted the paper’s orientation. The four men were unknown to me, but I recognized one of the family names as an offshoot of an offshoot of the new Doge’s clan. Part of the mystery was solved, at least.

This story appears in our MAY 2023 Issue
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