It happened in a second. One moment he was behind his father, the next he was surrounded by a group of shrieking, cackling, masked ghouls with his father nowhere in sight.
He tried to break through but they linked arms and blocked his way. Three in monks' capes and skeleton masks leered into his face, giggling evilly. Two wearing blank white masks beneath pirate hats wriggled white-gloved fingers under his nose. A harlequin in a red and green mask and a velvet hat covered in bells tweaked his sleeve, and a hunched figure wearing a three-cornered hat and a long false nose grabbed his bag.
"Let go!" he yelled. "Let go, you idiot!"
The mask-wearers laughed and imitated his words as they whirled up the stone steps of the Rialto Bridge. At the top, the last dancer waved his cat-face mask at Rob. He was a teenage boy about Rob's age. "Idiot yourself," he shouted.
Clasping his zip-up bag tightly to his chest, Rob turned a slow circle, searching for his father. But the darkness that had fallen with their first steps off the vaporetto and the crowd hurrying towards the Piazza San Marco had swallowed Michael Vian up as if he had never existed.
"Leaving me stranded in a freezing cold, foreign city I didn't want to come to in the first place," muttered Rob.
"Scusi," said a masked man dressed in an 18th century velvet jacket, satin pantaloons, white stockings and buckled shoes. "Quale que dice?"
"I'm lost," answered Rob in English. But the man didn't understand. Reaching an old fashioned iron lamppost, Rob unfolded a map given to him by a tourist information official at the bus stazione and held it up to the light. He could see the cross that marked where the Hotel Canaletto was. But as the map showed only the main squares, campos as they were called, and not the small streets, lanes, or tunnels, it was of no help. Especially as he wasn't sure where he and the lamppost were.
On leaving the airport bus at Piazza Roma, which was the last place in Venice that a vehicle can go, his father had led him to the No.1 vaporetto stazione, or stazione di vaporetto as it was called in Italian.
"Welcome to the Grand Canal," he'd announced, as he paid for two vaporetto tickets with Euros, which to Rob looked like play-money. "It's the main route through the most wonderful city in the world."
So what! Thought Rob, who, after a twenty-hour flight, was well over travelling anywhere, even to the most wonderful city in the world.
"You're going to love it. No roads. No cars. Going everywhere by water," enthused his father.
No beach, no surfing, no footy, no cricket, no friends, continued Rob silently, while staring sullenly at the costumed crowd boarding the vaporetto. Grown-ups in fancy dress. Boring!
But then the packed-to-its-rails vaporetto chugged out into the most chaotic water-traffic jam Rob had ever seen, and he instantly changed his mind. Venice wasn't boring. It was insane. It was crazy. But above all, it was ear-splitting noisy.
Beneath a ceiling of hovering, squawking seagulls all jostling for space, there raced, chugged and put-putted junky ferries, speedy motorboats and water-taxis, slim-hulled gondolas, flat warehouse barges, rubbish-collecting boats, fishing boats, bakers' boats full of sacks of flour, restaurant owners' boats full of crates of wine, and builders' boats full of bricks and cement. All heading straight towards Rob and his father.
"Mad!" gasped Rob.
"Venetian peak hour," smiled Michael Vian. Then he pointed up at the marble bridge they were going under. "Scalzi Bridge was named after the barefooted nuns who used to live here. So what do you think so far, Rob? Or should I call you Roberto?"
Rob was about to say, as he had said ever since Italy had been mentioned, "No! Never! Over my dead body will I answer to Roberto", when a blue and white police boat with siren blaring sped towards them. Behind it raced a red and white ambulance boat.
"Wow! Fancy going to hospital in a speedboat," he gasped.
"Fancy being in one of those," laughed his father, pointing at a flotilla of gondolas rocking dangerously in the wake of the boats, their lanterns swinging wildly and their overcoated tourists squealing with fear. "Or living in one of those," he added, as twin waves washed against the pastel-coloured palaces bordering the winding Grand Canal.
Leaning over the vaporetto rail, Rob gazed open-mouthed at the nearest palace with its peach-pink facade, three floors of carved arches, and its four red and white striped mooring poles sticking out of the water.
Next came a green palace with rows of white balconies, fluted columns and arched windows. Each arch decorated with a grinning mask or the head of a roaring lion carved in marble.
"The Lion of Venice," said his father.
"Were there really lions here?"
His father shrugged. "A million years ago maybe. Or perhaps they were brought from Africa as a novelty."
By the time they'd passed the third palace, a white marble affair with a tower, a water-washed arcade of columns, and two upper galleries of arches lit by chandeliers, Rob understood why his father had thought Venice was the place to come to learn about architecture.
Not that this was the sort of architecture he'd meant when he told his parents that he wanted to study it when he left school. But then that had been a lie anyway. It was just something that had popped into his head to placate his father, who was in a roaring bad temper because Rob had dodged school again. This time to go to a cricket match.
"Watching sport will not get you a career," his father had yelled for the hundredth time that month.
Rob was about to argue, "What about sports commentators and journalists," but his mother's raised eyebrows warned him against it. So instead, right out of the blue, surprising himself and his parents, he'd said, "I was only there to look at the architecture."
Which wasn't true either. He had been there because his father had forbidden him to have anything to do with a gang, who, along with himself, had been caught by the police trying to steal a private school boy's money and visa card. Hiding from the gang at school was impossible, which is why Rob had gone to watch a cricket match instead.
"Say that again?" demanded his father.
So he'd told his parents how the cricket stadium had been rebuilt in its original Federation style, and that he had gone to study it for art class.
As his father's stunned look turned to pleasure, Rob had added for good measure. "I think I'll study architecture when I leave school."
That had done it. Without meaning to, he suddenly turned into the fourteen-year-old son his father had always wanted, and a second warning look from his mother said he was stuck with it. The next thing he knew, his father was suggesting Rob go to an art school in Venice for the six months that his father was there working as a consultant on the building of the city's lagoon floodgates.
"Have we reached the lagoon yet?" Rob asked, swinging round to look across the canal at another row of magical palaces glowing orange in the rays of the setting sun.
"The whole of Venice is in the lagoon--all one hundred and seventeen islands, one hundred and fifty canals and four hundred and nine bridges, some of them privately owned," lectured his father.
"So where will your floodgates go?"
"They're called "mobile flood barriers". They'll be built between the sandbanks that block the lagoon off from the sea."
"Do you think they'll work?"
Michael Vian's eyes became serious. "They'd better. Venice is sinking and the floods don't help. In some places the water bubbles up through drains and everyone has to wear gumboots and walk on raised walkways." He pointed at a palace. "A lot of the ground floors are permanently waterlogged."
Rob looked at the palace his father had pointed to. It had an obelisk at each end of its roof and an arched doorway with steps leading into the canal. "Do people really live in places like that?" he asked.
His father nodded. "Sort of puts our modest home into perspective, doesn't it?"
Rob thought of the small inner-city terrace where his mother and two sisters were "Holding the fort," as his mum called it. It could have fitted twenty times into the ground floor of the palace.
"Did our family ever own an Italian palace, Dad?"
Michael Vian shook his head. "The Vianelli family were poor fishermen from Naples. But there was some story about your mother's family owning a palace hundreds of years ago. But then, she is also supposed to be related to Marco Polo, so I don't really believe it."
Rob's eyes brightened. "Is mum really related to Marco Polo?"
His father laughed. "Who knows. Here's the Rialto Bridge vaporetto stazione. Time to get off."
They disembarked in front of a palace with two private gondolas tied to black and green mooring poles, pushed their way through a crowded lane that smelt of freshly baked pizza, and promptly lost each other.
Rob looked up from his map and glared at the oblong piazza with the statue in the middle. Where was the stupid hotel?
I'll have to ask someone, he thought, knowing he wouldn't. At least, not until he was really, truly desperate. "Which will be in about three minutes," he told the lamppost.
"Prego?" asked a passing figure wearing a wide-hipped dress of gold and green silk and a golden mask decorated with peacock feathers. "Did you say something?" she added in English.
"Yes," said Rob. "Where am I?"
"Campo San Bartolomeo," the figure answered with a twist of two lace-covered wrists.
"Where is the Hotel Canaletto?" yelled Rob, pushing through the crowd trying to keep up with the bobbing peacock feathers.
"Down there," gestured the masked girl as she disappeared into a crowd of cloaked figures.
Rob looked in the direction she'd pointed and saw two tunnel entrances and a lane that was so narrow a rollerblader would scrape his hips skating down it.
"Not that anyone could rollerblade on these cobbled streets," he grumbled.
Leaving his blades and skateboard behind had been only one of the many traumas he'd suffered when his father insisted that he could only take two bags.
"What about my sports gear? My cricket bat? What will I do in Italy?"
"Learn Italian. Learn architecture. Keep out of trouble!"
The first tunnel led him into a poorly-lit lane that ended at a humped bridge and someone's front door. Feeling frustrated and fed-up, Rob leant over the stone balustrade and told the almost invisible canal what he thought of dead-end bridges, people who built them, and fathers who forced their sons to come to foreign countries to learn subjects they weren't really interested in.
As if in answer, a funeral-black gondola with two ghoulishly masked creatures inside slid from beneath the bridge, and a white-masked gondolier sang up to him, "O solo mio."
"The white masks are the faces of the dead or of the lost souls," his mother had explained when she'd discovered that her husband and son would be arriving in Venice during Carnevale. "The masks with bird's beaks were worn during the plague to stop the wearer from becoming sick, and the long pointed noses and black hats and capes were worn by the plague doctors, who no-one liked because they robbed the dead of their jewellery."
"Great," sighed Rob, straightening up as the gondola disappeared under another bridge. "I'm lost in a city full of dead souls and plague doctors, and now it's beginning to rain."
That was when he heard the scuff of a shoe and realised someone else was on the bridge. Someone had crept up behind him without him noticing. He swung round as two hands were stretching towards him and was confronted by a tall black-caped figure wearing a white skeleton-mask.
"What..." he managed to shout, before a hand went over his mouth. An arm went round his waist and the figure tried to hoist him up and over the balustrade.
"Are you crazy?" Rob managed to yell, while struggling against being lifted. But the figure was strong and Rob was laden down with his bag. Dropping it, he kicked out at his attacker as hard as he could. His feet connected with the figure's body. The figure grunted but continued trying to lift him.
Knowing that any moment he could topple backwards into the canal, Rob grabbed hold of his attacker's cloak, determined to take him with him. Then a second gondola slid out from beneath the bridge, and its female passenger, looking up and seeing Rob struggling with the figure, began to scream.
At the fourth piercing scream, the figure let go of Rob, who slid from the balustrade to the pathway on the bridge. By the time he was on his feet, the figure and the gondola were gone. Like phantoms, he thought. A phantom attacker, a phantom gondola and a phantom screamer. This was one weird and scary city.
Snatching up his bag, he quickly retraced his steps. The Piazza appeared to be even more crowded than before, and he was bumped and pushed as he suspiciously eyed his second choice, the dark lane. What if the thief was waiting in there?
Two people came out of the lane and two stepped into it. Rob followed them. The lane lead to a myriad of small streets that were short on lights and long on shadows.
A man from a bakery sent him back to Campo San Bartolomeo. But he became lost and it took him fifteen minutes to find it again.
"This is ridiculous," he muttered, and turned into the second tunnel. This tunnel led under a house and then opened up into a cobbled pathway that twisted away beneath the foundations of more houses. Its walls were papered with flapping, torn posters, and Rob finally came to a tiny dogleg alley.
Weird city, he concluded, as he stepped into the unlit alley and the rain. He was turning a corner and wondering if the Americans he could hear walking behind him would think he was stupid if he put his bag on his head to stop from getting wetter, when he saw, gliding towards him, a tall black-caped figure with a blank-eyed, skeleton mask.
Without waiting to see if it was the same figure who'd tried to toss him off the bridge, he turned and ran. Taking the corner at top speed he bumped into the Americans. Rob gripped his bag tightly and flattened himself against the tunnel wall as the cloaked figure passed between him and the Americans. Suddenly a hand darted out and fingernails scraped across his face.
Rob swung away so fast he bumped his hip against a carved lion's head that was sticking out of the corner of the building. Then he was off again. He galloped along the narrow alley, over a second bridge, and into a busy street full of fairy lights and brightly lit mask shops. Without caring if the man in the shop doorway spoke English, he thrust the tourist map at him and yelled, "the Hotel Canaletto."
The man pointed to the left. "San Marco." Then to the right. "Rialto."
"No. No. Hotel Canaletto? I'm looking for Hotel Canaletto?"
Finally the man understood and answered in broken English. "Directo. Right before Umba-Umba shop, over piazza, left into street, round corner. Ecco! Hotel Canaletto."
"Thanks," said Rob, and started running again.
Then remembering the Italian his mother had taught him, he shouted back. "Grazie!"
He took a right before the Umba-Umba shop and entered a square with a well carved from stone. It was so dark now that he was wondering where the left turn was, when a burst of fireworks rising over the city lit up the entrance to a narrow street and a black-caped, white-masked figure standing near the well. This time the figure's long fingers were beckoning to him and pointing to the large black bag he was carrying. Rob dived into the narrow lane, raced around the corner, and...
"There he is," shouted Michael Vian, as Rob burst into a brightly lit square. A sign saying "Hotel Canaletto" was hanging over a small cream-coloured hotel.
Rob glanced over his shoulder. The figure hadn't followed him. Then he heard his father say proudly, "I told you he'd find his way."
Spinning around, Rob glared furiously at his beaming father. "I was lost! Why didn't you look for me? I was attacked by someone who tried to toss me into a canal and then someone else followed me!"
Michael Vian flashed his son a look of warning. "Stop exaggerating, Rob! And I did look for you. But you were gone. Now, come in out of the rain." Then, as Rob passed him, he whispered. "Don't cause any trouble. Getting lost looks bad enough."
Rob stamped into the hotel foyer. "I wasn't lost. I was in the middle of Campo San Bartolomeo."
Michael Vian shrugged at his surly son and at the pretty blonde-haired woman standing beside the reception desk. "You're here now, so don't make a fuss. This is Signora Gambergini, your mother's long-lost relative."
"Call me Patrizia," said the woman.
"Patrizia," continued Rob's father, "this is my highly imaginative son, Roberto Vian."
"Roberto!" cried Patrizia, diving upon Rob and kissing both his cheeks, leaving behind wet patches that he wanted to wipe off but didn't dare with his father staring at him.
"You look so Italian, caro," she continued. Then she smiled up at Michael. "Where did he get those black curls, those big black eyes and those long eyelashes?"
But before Michael could answer "From his mother", Patrizia was pinching Rob's cheeks the way his Nonna had when he was four years old. "Roberto, caro, we thought we had lost you to the Spirit of the Carnevale."
Pulling away, Rob asked, "The spirit of what?"
"The Spirit of Death. The plague doctor. The white-faced one who is always searching for new souls to put into his bag."
Rob nodded. "I saw him. He tried to push me into a canal."
Patrizia glanced questioningly at Michael, who quickly shook his head.
"Did he touch your face?" she asked, turning it into a joke.
"Yes. With his long fingernails."
"Oooooh," she said as she drew back in mock horror. Next she hugged him tightly. "The only cure for the touch of death is..." she paused, making them both wait, "Cake and coffee, or cake and ice-cream. Eh, Michael? Eh, Roberto?"
Michael Vian nodded while looking at Rob with eyes that said, "If you say you hate ice-cream, you've had it."
"You like Italian ice-cream, yes?" asked Patrizia. "It is very good when you are cold, no? It makes you warm."
Rob nodded, thinking despairingly that this was the long-lost cousin he was to spend the next six months with. He could just hear himself telephoning his mother and saying, "Dad is leaving me with a loony, Mum. She hugs me all the time and she gives me ice-cream in winter to make me warm and she pinches my face. And there are plague doctors who try to push tourists into the canals. I want to come home!"
"Your cousin Lucrezia is not here," Patrizia continued, while leading Rob to the stairway. "She has gone to Florians to have coffee with friends. Florians is a famous cafe where the English author Charles Dickens drank coffee. She will take you there when you have a costume."
Rob had never heard of Florians, and the only Charles Dickens book he'd heard of was "The Christmas Carol", and over his dead body was he going to wear a costume to go anywhere.
"Roberto, your room is on the top floor. Michael, yours is on the first floor. It has a nice view. But I am sorry,at the moment the bathroom is not working. Maybe tomorrow."
So how come I don't get a nice view? thought Rob, after Patrizia and his father had left him to unpack.
Not only was his view uninspiring (it looked down on the square with the well - minus the spooky figure with the bag), it was the smallest room he had ever seen. It had the narrowest bed, the tiniest chest of drawers which doubled as a desk, one chair squashed in under a window, and if he wanted a shower or the toilet, he had to go to the floor below...if the bathroom was working.
"So where in this shoebox do I hang my clothes?"
"Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness," said a voice from outside his door.
"Listening through doors is rude," he retorted sharply.
"Is not," argued the voice.
His door swung open. Standing in the doorway was the girl in the gold and green dress. Only this time she wasn't wearing a gold mask with peacock feathers.
Even with the thick white face powder, the heart-shaped beauty spot and the cherry-red lipstick, he could see that she was a miniature Patrizia Gambergini with the same blonde hair pinned on top of her head, the same aristocratic nose and the same large, laughing green eyes.
Sliding sideways through the doorway so that her wide-hipped dress wouldn't get stuck, the girl sat on his bed. "My mother said you that you were lost and that you were chased by the Spirit of Death. How exciting!"
"That's not what I call exciting," argued Rob. "It was scary."
The girl stared at him for a second then looked away so he couldn't read her expression. But Rob caught her look in the old mirror hanging over his bed.
Bet she's thinking I'm a cry-baby, he thought, glancing away quickly so she wouldn't see he'd caught her out. Bet she's thinking I'm a coward and that Italian boys wouldn't be scared...or at least, wouldn't admit they were scared.
Luca tried again, "Mama said he touched your face?"
"Twice. Once when he tried to toss me into the canal. And the second time when he passed me in an alley. I guess the first time he was trying to rob me. Or steal my bag and the second time he was just trying to scare me, or maybe they were two different people."
"Or he really was the Spirit of Death. Which means, if he touched your face, someone is going to die," said the girl in a spooky voice.
Rob looked startled. "You're kidding."
She laughed, "If kidding means joking. Of course I am. There is no such thing as the Spirit of Death. It's all superstitious nonsense. But you must be careful of pickpockets and thieves. They come to Venice especially for the Carnevale."
Then she held out her hand for him to shake. "I'm your second, third, or fourth cousin, Lucrezia. You can call me Luca. I am fourteen years and six months old, which means I am three months younger than you. My room is next door, so you can knock on the wall if you get frightened. All the family sleep up here so the rooms downstairs can be rented. And I've been sent to bring you down to eat."
"I don't get frightened," he answered sulkily, as he shook her hand, then he winced as he got to his feet.
"What is wrong?"
"I bashed my hip on a stone lion's head sticking out of a wall."
"A bocca di leone," she corrected. "Ancient letterboxes where people posted anonymous complaints about their neighbours so that the Great Council would investigate them."
"What's the Great Council?" asked Rob, following her down the stairs, taking care not to walk on the trailing hem of her dress.
"The Great Council ruled Venice."
"And did they take any notice of the complaints?"
Luca nodded. "If the complaint was true, such as the culprits had the plague and hadn't reported it, then they were thrown into one of the dank, dark pozzi, and left to die."
Rob made a "I'm scared" face behind her back, and then asked, "What are dank, dark pozzi?"
Luca stopped and thought for a second. "I think, in English, they are 'wells'."
"What if they were innocent?"
Luca smiled evilly before starting down the stairs again. "They were tortured and then thrown into jail until someone paid to have them released. Otherwise they became galley slaves."
"Galley? As in boat being rowed by many men in chains?" asked Rob as he followed her.
"Did anyone ever write a letter about the Spirit of Death and put it in a bocca di leone?"
Luca giggled. "They wouldn't have dared."
It was only later, when Rob was lying in bed going over everything, that he realised that even when Luca laughed about the Spirit of Death, her green eyes remained very serious.