If you've ever read Daphne du Maurier's short story Don't Look Now (or seen the movie adaptation) you'll know what a perfect setting Venice is for a dark, broody, atmospheric story of the macabre. Imagine the echo of footsteps, whispers in the dark, the gentle lap of water of the canals, endless alleys that twist and turn and sometimes go nowhere so disorienting for someone who doesn't know the city and a fog settling in just as the sun sets. Well, Stella Duffy, winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger puts that same setting to very good use in "Come Away With Me" from The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries.
Caroline and Pete have been together for a while. More than twenty years her senior they enjoy close relationship, so much better than 'The Bloke Before', her former lover John. Pete, a film editor of the old school, often works late but is thoughtful and considerate. But they've got a playful side, too, and occasionally play little games that verge on the ever so slightly scary. So when Caroline arrives home on the night of their anniversary to find a half bottle of champagne and a note waiting for her, she's not surprised.
Two and a half glasses of champagne later she proceeds upstairs to read the note and discovers that Pete has left a ticket to Venice for her and an open suitcase to pack a few things for a return visit to a city they both love. Another note informs her a taxi will be picking her up shortly to take her to the airport. He's working late but will join her later in Venice. The anticipation of their time together is part of the fun. Another one of their games.
"She has an hour to pack, bring clothes for two days, bring clothes for warm days and slightly chilly nights by the water. Bring herself. Bring love. Bring five years of them."
More notes follow on each leg of the journey. Instructions on what to do, what to expect, more champagne, a pill to help her sleep during the flight. Everything is for her pleasure. She must simply sit back and relax and enjoy the journey. And so she does.
"The ride, the water, the waves, the wind are successful in their conspiracy to please; Caroline is wide awake and delighted."
She has arrived. Someone is there to meet her and take her to her hotel, which turns out to be a very small place, out of the way, but perfect for their rendezvous. Only Pete is delayed again and again. A text and then another asking her to be patient, he will soon be on his way. She decides to make the best of it, and play the tourist, something Pete with his finer tastes abhors. A long night alone stretches into the next day, but she expects to see him at dinner.
But the day drags on and she begins to weary of being alone. The city and its residents don't seem to be so welcoming all of a sudden. Does she see her former lover, John, in one of the plazas? Or maybe it is only a trick of the mind, being tired and not knowing anyone. John is over, a relationship finished and in the past.
"Caroline is now with Pete and this is lovely gesture on his part, but actually she is starting to feel a little lonely. It is dark and colder than she expected and Pete's surprises, his games, are all very well, but she prefers to play with him rather than for him. She will explain this tomorrow perhaps, over breakfast, that she is grateful for his romantic gesture, and maybe, anyway, it would be more fun to be together than apart, in touch than not."
Another day passes and still she is alone, and now when she returns to the hotel it seems only forbidding to her and depressing. During the day she doesn't mind being alone, but now at night she is uncomfortable. Why does there never seem to be anyone about in the hotel? Where is the man from the reception desk? And when will Pete finally arrive? An eerie story is about to become ever more frightening. Is Caroline just being paranoid, or is something awful happening?
The CWA judges called this "a complex game of cat and mouse" that was "haunting and memorable". And surprising, too. I enjoyed all the stories nominated for the award, though sadly I won't be able to read the remaining two as my library exhausted all their sources and I can't get my hands on Outsiders which contains the other two (am trying to curtail my book buying for a while and I would have to order from the UK to get a copy). Still, all in all it was an excellent ride when it comes to stories of suspense this month and last.
Next week I'll be back to my Persephone Collection of Short Stories as I wind down my month of mystery and crime.