Nick thought he could see the hazy pink peaks of San Marco. How could he have ever considered taking the bus?
August asked her mother to take her photo. Lynn demanded that Magnus be included, which set both Magnus and August off in separate directions of resentment. As the rest of his family argued, John nudged Nick’s elbow. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Nicholas.” Nick saw no reason to lie. “Where are you from?”
Nick had two choices, and technically neither was a lie. He opted against New York. “Dayton, Ohio,” he said. Did any city on the planet sound more trustworthy?
“Ahhh,” John purred. “We’re from San Diego, but my company does a bit of business over in Cincinnati. I’ve heard wonderful things.”
“Cincinnati is very close to Dayton,” Nick replied, also not a lie. “Ohioans are good people,” John said, “kind people.” Nick had been told this fact his entire adult life by those who’d never stepped foot in Ohio. For some reason, the rest of the world felt the need to remind Ohioans of their inherent goodness. “What do you do for work, Nicholas?”
“I’m in antiques,” Nick said, not a total lie, although the truth would require flexing the past tense. “Mostly silver.”Nick turned to face him. He thought it might be smart to study the man he was swindling.
“Ahhh,” John purred again. “An antiquarian.” Nick turned to face him. He thought it might be smart to study the man he was swindling. In direct daylight, John’s freckles multiplied like cells in a petri dish. He was a blur even while standing still, the vast needlepoint of red-brown dots swirling around his fragile features. If anyone had to identify John in a lineup, they’d recognize him solely by his skin. Nick knew that the majority of white America must still see Clay the same way: as a blur of black skin. He wondered if Italy was different in that respect and if that was the reason it kept drawing his boyfriend back like a second home. Maybe there was less rage here all around. Nick hoped so.
“You know,” John whispered confidentially, “we’ve inherited a set of silver candlesticks from Lynn’s uncle. Eighteenth century. Boston maybe? That’s what he told us. Nothing too valuable, but you never know.”
“Not by Paul Revere?” Nick asked simply to gauge John’s knowledge on the subject. The man shrugged. “Candlesticks are very rare in eighteenth-century American silver. But you’re right, you never know.” John grinned at this thrilling possibility. Nick understood one of the fundamental laws of antiques: nearly every American household was certain it owned at least one genuine relic. In a young country with an unreliable memory bank, anything passed down more than two generations was treated as a museum-grade artifact. But it didn’t matter. Right now, Nick wasn’t in the business of candlesticks. He was in the business of gaining John’s trust. “If you send me some photos of them, I could take a look. I know a few collectors who might be interested. No promises, of course.” “Of course!” John dug into his shirt pocket and extracted a business card. “Email me directly.” He pointed to the address printed be- low his name, Jonathan Albert Warbly-Gardener. Nick slipped the card in his blazer pocket.
“Hey,” Lynn yelled over to them. “While you two are conducting business, you’re missing Venice!”
And they were. A tunnel of buildings had closed around them, mossy mosaics of brick and stone. The green-black waters of the canal lapped against rotted wood doors. The motoscafo passed through shotgun-thin alleys, under arched bridges so low Nick’s head almost skimmed their underbellies, through a parade route of tourists loitering on all sides, half like neon angels in cheap plastic rain ponchos, the other half dressed for heat that hadn’t yet arrived. Far above dangled balustrades and flowerpots and the exquisite embroidery of diamonds and crosses set in ancient, bloodshot marble. Every building was a new discovery. They stood together on the boat, struck silent in the religion of looking. Nick loved each detail that passed before his eyes: the seaweed shadows under the water’s surface; the gondola prows bobbing at their mooring stations like rooster heads; the flash of olive skin and clothespinned laundry in the highest open windows. Nick loved all of it. A part of him had expected to be disappointed by Venice; surely the city had been overhyped his whole life. Now he faced the far more unusual prospect of agreeing with common opinion: Venice was a symphony playing inside a shipwreck.
“Isn’t it something?” Lynn surmised.
The boat turned left onto the Grand Canal, affording the five passengers a view of an entire menagerie of palazzi across the wa- ter. The captain yelled over the cabin roof, “San Samuele?”
Before John could confirm the dock, Nick called to the captain, “Ca’ Rezzonico, primi!” It was vital to his already regrettable plan that he be dropped off first. The driver’s face creased in uncer- tainty. “Due stops,” Nick faltered, holding up two fingers. “Primi Ca’ Rezzonico. Then San Samuele. D’accordo?” The driver grunted and returned to the wheel.
John opened his mouth to counter Nick’s orders but closed it again. There were too many amphibious sights and sounds and close calls with lumbering tourist-laden vaporetti to sweat the question of who should be dropped off first. August shook her phone at Nick. “Can you—?” she asked. Peace had been restored in the Warbly-Gardener tribe.
The family of four posed against the butterscotch bench with the scrawl of centuries drifting behind them. Nick clicked three shots. When Lynn exclaimed, “You should have been in the picture with us, Nicholas!” he felt like he might throw up.
Nick knew there was no more waiting. He groped his pant pockets. “Oh no,” he gasped.
Lynn sat down on the bench. “Oh no, what?” she replied. “I can’t believe it.”
“Are you all right?” John asked in a concerned, fatherly voice.
Nick must have turned green. He felt green, or whatever color matched the disgust crashing over him for taking advantage of these people—good people, kind people. His only consolation was the fact that they’d never know. He was stealing a ride; that was the extent of his crime.
“I don’t have my wallet. Oh, Christ! I must have left it on the plane.”
Lynn slapped her palm against her heart. “Are you absolutely sure?”
Nick performed a second perfunctory groping of his pants and wormed his hands up his sides, careful to avoid his back pocket. He stared at the family with a sincere expression of panic.
“All my cash and credit cards.”
“Did you check your carry-on bag?” Lynn asked.
“Good thinking!” Nick replied. He opened his bag and made a show of rifling through it. Then he lifted his hands in defeat. “No, not there.” He threw John an apologetic look. “Let’s go directly to your stop, San Samuele. I can’t give you my half of the fare. I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” John rasped. “Don’t worry about that right now. The least we can do is drop you at Ca’ Rezzonico. You should call the airline immediately—”
“I will.” Nick patted the breast pocket of his blazer. “I have my phone and passport. I’ll call as soon as I get off the boat.”
“It had all of your money?” Lynn groaned. “You have no cash on you at all?” Hadn’t they already established this fact? Nick was beginning to resent the gullibility of the Warbly-Gardeners. He would have to continue performing this inept charade as long as they refused to give up hope.
“Have you checked the cushions in the cabin?” August suggested. “Maybe it fell out there?”
“I’ll look!” squealed Magnus, the only family member who didn’t seem unduly bothered by Nick’s loss. They heard the farting sounds of a child’s hands squeezing into leather crevices. “Nope,” came the report.
“Ca’ Rezzonico,” the captain shouted as the motoscafo tipped toward a rickety wood dock. A massive white palazzo loomed in front of him, set back from the water by a strip of pavement. Nick felt the weight of guilt lift just seeing the dock. He’d soon be free of them.
“Well, this is me,” Nick announced, lifting the strap of his carry-on bag over his shoulder. “Again, I’m sorry about my half of the ride.”
“Will you be okay?” Lynn worried. She climbed to her feet, only to be tossed off balance by the rocking waves. She stabilized herself against her husband’s chest.
“I’ll be fine. Thank you so much. It was really nice to meet you.” He meant it. They’d been baptized into Venice together, and he was grateful for their half hour of kindness. Maybe he’d run into them again in twenty years and admit he’d been too poor to afford the ride. It would be funny in twenty years.
Lynn whispered urgently into John’s ear. Nick couldn’t hear what she was saying and decided not to wait around to find out. The captain was already struggling to deposit his suitcase securely on the dock; the swaying of the boat was frustrating his efforts. Nick glanced beyond the sagging planks of Ca’ Rezzonico, where a long brick walkway telescoped into the city’s dark innards. He saw a figure advancing toward him, a mere pinprick expanding between two walls.
Nick crawled through the cabin and spun around to give one last wave to the family, only to find one of them missing. Instead, John was now ducking out from the cabin doors with a fan of orange euro notes in his hand.
“Nicholas,” John said severely. “Take this.” He waved the fifties, still crisp from the airport ATM.
“That’s not necessary. I’ll be okay.”
“No,” John persisted. “I insist. It’s only three hundred euros, but it should see you through until you make arrangements with your bank.”
“Honestly, I’ll be fine.” Nick’s foot searched blindly for the dock step. “Really, you’ve already helped too much. I don’t want to take any more.”
Lynn climbed out of the cabin and clung to her husband’s arm. “Don’t be crazy. We’re not going to leave you stranded in Venice without a cent. Take the money.” John shook the cash in accompaniment to her pleas. “It makes us happy to help you. We’d feel terrible if we didn’t!”
“I’d rather not,” Nick whimpered. “I don’t want it.”
“You can pay us back,” John reasoned. “You have my card.” “Please,” Lynn begged. “You’ll ruin our vacation if you don’t accept it!”
These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment,
These wonderful people. He lifted his eyes to escape them and gazed down the brick corridor beyond the dock. He recognized the beautiful orb of his boyfriend’s head and his loose, darting stride that favored the right hip. Nick felt his throat catch with adrenaline and love. Nothing else mattered, least of all this stupid test to see if he could scam a free boat ride. He noticed that Clay had undergone a slight change in appearance since he last saw him: his hair was clipped short against his scalp and he wore a preppy blue-and-white-striped button-down. They were both new men in Venice.
“Email me when you get your funds settled,” John instructed. “You can PayPal the money back to me. Don’t forget, we have that bit of business to discuss anyway.”
Accepting the money would be easier than arguing a case for refusing it. Nick opened his palm and slid the three hundred euros from the relentlessly generous Warbly-Gardeners into his jacket pocket.
“Did he take the money?” August asked as she too emerged from the cabin, banging her cast against the doorframe. Charity had become a family affair. Only Magnus remained in the back— Nick’s new favorite family member—writhing across the butter- scotch cushions like a child prince.
“Yes,” Lynn exhaled. “But we had to threaten him.”
“Um, if you’re going to be in Venice for the next few days,” August began, “we could—” But the invitation was interrupted by the captain’s peevish grunt. It was time for Nick to disembark. “Again, thank you. I really appreciate it,” Nick said as he took the captain’s hand and prepared for his leap onto the dock. He aimed for the shelf of wood next to his suitcase. But at the very moment he sprung, a wave struck the boat, pitching it downward. The impact muted Nick’s trajectory, and he barely managed to anchor a knee and two palms on the splintered planks.
From A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Christopher Bollen.