Prologue

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André must have misheard the old man.

"I'm sorry, what?" he asked, leaning into his laptop on the edge of the oak table.

His ears didn't need the extra six inches of proximity to hear better. They worked perfectly fine, unlike some other parts of his body. The move was just a visceral reaction to what he thought he heard, which couldn't at all have been what the specials collections librarian for Latin and Italian manuscripts had really said three seconds earlier.

For Pete's sake, a guy tripping on Oxy back home in Biloxi could have spewed something less absurd while shouting at passers-by on a street corner. André hadn't chosen to pursue his PhD at Harvard so he could be confronted with similar nonsense, and he hoped to god that Antonio d'Alessi was joking. But as the spry septuagenarian with white hair and bushy eyebrows reappeared out of a stack, his expression was unwaveringly stoic.

"That's right, son," Tony said, turning over in his hands a dusty tome with worn, gilded lettering while fervently nodding. "Zombies used to be a thing."

André sat back in his wheelchair and sighed. This dude was dead serious. "You must be shitting me," he said, ignoring decorum and getting real like his mamma taught him.

Tony chuckled and pulled out a chair, its wooden legs scraping against the marble floor of the closed reading room. Restricted to scholars with permission from none other than the university's president herself, the walls were high and ornate, the lighting low and cozy, and the air cold and musty.

André knew the place well. He'd spent many hours over the last three years perusing its rare, centuries-old books to anchor his research. Only the University of Padua or perhaps the Vatican would have had comparable primary sources for his needs. If he was lucky, one day he'd get a grant to make the expensive trip overseas. But for now, he was more than happy to continue exploring the secrets the Houghton Library had to reveal. Even then, he seriously doubted the existence of the 'living dead' was going to be one of them.

"Do you think I would make such an allegation without cause?" Tony asked, cocking a brow that more strongly resembled a hairy caterpillar than a mundane facial feature.

A pang of worry rumbled in the pit of André's stomach, and it wasn't because he'd only had two tall lattes that day to sustain him. No, he didn't think the old man would say anything unfounded. In all the time since they'd been acquainted, never had the librarian provided an erroneous lead, a false citation, or an unsupported claim. Why would he do so now?

It had begun with what André thought was an innocuous question: why were Renaissance scribes suddenly making errors in Venetian death ledgers of the early 1600s? He'd seen names written in fancy, quill-ink script scratched out before-perhaps deletions of prior misidentification or misrepresentation-but never were they followed by the recording of the exact same names just a few weeks later. Yet here were two instances separated by just five rows right in front of him.

He showed Tony the page in question, and the old man pulled his wire-rimmed glasses from atop his head down to the bridge of his nose to get a better look. After reviewing the entries of January 13, 1630 from the parish records of the Chiesa di San Polo, he made a puzzling observation.

"Ah, yes. That was around the time when some people in La Serenissima died twice," Tony had said with a shake of his head. "Bad business. Bad business, indeed."

André considered himself to be highly knowledgeable about the Northern Adriatic. He first linked his family's roots back to the Veneto region during his undergraduate days, spurring his interest in the subject. But it was Tony's passion and insight into the recorded history of the Renaissance that allowed André to pursue scholarly work around the arrival, lives, and impact of Africans specifically in the lagoon city of Venice during the Seventeenth Century.

But if this same man now insisted on using some type of supernatural mumbo-jumbo to explain simple discrepancies in record keeping, then maybe he was turning into an unreliable reference point. Then again, maybe he'd just misheard.

"I'm sorry, what?" André had asked for clarification right as Tony ducked back into a stack of ancient ledgers and journals.

And now here he was, sitting adjacent to an old man who had just exerted that zombies used to exist. How as he supposed to react to that? It wasn't like André wasn't at least curious. He was a historian, after all.

"All right. Show me the receipts," he said, tapping his hand on the table.

Tony took a deep breath and sighed. After putting on thin, cotton gloves, he opened the old book as though he knew the exact page he was looking for. Turning it around, he pushed it toward André and pointed to a section of writing. "The Sisters of Nazareth kept meticulous records, but I wouldn't bother much with those prior to the summer of 1629. Even then, things don't get interesting until the first months of 1630. Just look for the entries related to the plague doctor's daughter."

"

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