The Washington Post
Blood from a Stone (Guido Brunetti Series #14)by Donna Leon
From the bestselling author of The Waters of Eternal Youth, a Guido Brunetti mystery
Guido Brunetti, the hero of Donna Leon’s internationally bestselling crime series, is back, in a novel that combines an ingenious plot with an alluring portrait of contemporary Venice. On a cold December night, a Senegalese man who sells/i>/b>/b>
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From the bestselling author of The Waters of Eternal Youth, a Guido Brunetti mystery
Guido Brunetti, the hero of Donna Leon’s internationally bestselling crime series, is back, in a novel that combines an ingenious plot with an alluring portrait of contemporary Venice. On a cold December night, a Senegalese man who sells counterfeit fashion accessories is killed on the Campo Santo Stefano. What first appears to be a straightforward clash between rival dealers soon raises questions: What was a penniless foreigner doing with a fortune in diamonds? And why does Brunetti’s boss want him off the case? Fans of Donna Leon will be thrilled with Blood from a Stone, as Brunetti delves into the secrets of Venice’s immigrant community and continues to uncover corruption in the upper echelons of the government.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
"One of the best of the international crime writers is Donna Leon, and her Commissario Guido Brunetti tales..." —Rocky Mountain News
Read an Excerpt
Two men passed under the wooden arch that led into Campo Santo Stefano, their bodies harlequined by the coloured Christmas lights suspended above them. Brighter light splashed from the stalls of the Christmas market, where vendors and producers from different regions of Italy tempted shoppers with their local specialities: darkskinned cheeses and packages of paperthin bread from Sardinia, olives in varying shape and colour from the entire length of the peninsula; oil and cheese from Tuscany; salami of all lengths, compositions, and diameters from Reggio Emilia. Occasionally one of the men behind the counters shouted out a brief hymn to the quality of his wares: 'Signori, taste this cheese and taste heaven'; 'It's late and I want to go to dinner: only nine Euros a kilo until they're gone'; 'Taste this pecorino, signori, best in the world'.
The two men passed the stalls, deaf to the blandishments of the merchants, blind to the pyramids of salami stacked on the counters on either side. Lastminute buyers, their number reduced by the cold, requested products they all suspected could be found at better prices and of more reliable quality at their local shops. But how better to celebrate the season than by taking advantage of shops that were open even on this Sunday, and how better to assert one's independence and character than by buying something unnecessary?
At the far end of the campo, beyond the last of the prefabricated wooden stalls, the men paused. The taller of them glanced at his watch, though they had both checked the time on the clock on the wall of the church. The official closing time, seventhirty, had passed more than a quarter of an hour before, but it was unlikely that anyone would be out in this cold to check that the stalls ceased trading at the correct time. 'Allora?' the short one asked, glancing at his companion.
The taller man took off his gloves, folded them and put them in the left pocket of his overcoat, then jammed his hands into his pockets. The other did the same. Both of them wore hats, the tall one a dark grey Borsalino and the other a fur cap with ear flaps. Both had woollen scarves wrapped around their necks, and as they stepped beyond the circle of light from the last stand, they pulled them a bit higher, up around their ears, no strange thing to do in the face of the wind that came at them from the direction of the Grand Canal, just around the corner of the church of San Vidal.
The wind forced them to lower their faces as they started forward, shoulders hunched, hands kept warm in their pockets. Twenty metres from the last stall, on either side of the way, small groups of tall black men busied themselves spreading sheets on the ground, anchoring them at each corner with a woman's bag. As soon as the sheets were in place, they began to pull samples of various shapes and sizes from enormous sausageshaped bags that sat on the ground all around them.
Here a Prada, there a Gucci, between them a Louis Vuitton: the bags huddled together in a promiscuity usually seen only in stores large enough to offer franchises to all of the competing designers. Quickly, with the speed that comes of long experience, the men bent or knelt to place their wares on the sheets. Some arranged them in triangles; others preferred ordered rows of neatly aligned bags. One whimsically arranged his in a circle, but when he stepped back to inspect the result and saw the way an outsized dark brown Prada shoulder bag disturbed the general symmetry, he quickly reformed them into straight lines, where the Prada could anchor their ranks from the back left corner.
Occasionally the black men spoke to one another, saying those things that men who work together say to pass the time: how one hadn't slept well the night before, how cold it was, how another hoped his son had passed the entrance exam for the private school, how much they missed their wives. When each was satisfied with the arrangement of his bags, he rose to his feet and moved back behind his sheet, usually to one corner or the other so that he could continue to talk to the man who worked next to him. Most of them were tall, and all of them were slender. What could be seen of their skin, their faces and their hands, was the glossy black of Africans whose ancestry had not been diluted by contact with whites. Whether moving or motionless, they exuded an atmosphere not only of good health but of good spirits, as if the idea of standing around in freezing temperatures, trying to sell counterfeit bags to tourists, was the greatest fun they could think of to have that evening.
Opposite them a small group was gathered around three buskers, two violinists and a cellist, who were playing a piece that sounded both baroque and out of tune. Because the musicians played with enthusiasm and were young, the small crowd that had gathered was pleased with them, and not a few of them stepped forward to drop coins into the violin case that lay open in front of the trio.
It was still early, probably too early for there to be much business, but the street vendors were always punctual and started work as soon as the shops closed. By ten minutes to eight, therefore, just as the two men approached, all of the Africans were standing behind their sheets, prepared for their first customers. They shifted from foot to foot, occasionally breathing on to their clasped hands in a futile attempt to warm them.
The two white men paused just at the end of the row of sheets, appearing to talk to one another, though neither spoke. They kept their heads lowered and their faces out of the wind, but now and then one of them raised his eyes to study the line of black men. The tall man placed his hand on the other's arm, pointed with his chin towards one of the Africans, and said something. As he spoke, a large group of elderly people wearing gym shoes and thick down parkas, a combination that made them look like wrinkled toddlers, flowed around the corner of the church and into the funnel created by the buskers on one side, the Africans on the other. The first few stopped, waiting for those behind to catch up, and when the group was again a unit, they started forward, laughing and talking, calling to one another to come and look at the bags. Without pushing or jostling, they assembled themselves threedeep in front of the line of Black men and their exposed wares.
The taller of the two men started towards the group of tourists, his companion following close behind. They halted on the same side as the church, careful to stand behind two elderly couples who were pointing at some of the bags and asking prices. At first the man whose sheet it was did not notice the two, since he was attending to the questions of his potential customers. But suddenly he stopped talking and grew tense, like an animal scenting menace on the wind.
The black man at the next sheet, aware of his colleague's distraction, turned his attention to the tourists and decided instantly that he would have good luck with them. Their shoes told him to speak English, and he began: 'Gucci, Missoni, Armani, Trussardi. I have them all, ladies and gentlemen. Right from factory.' In the dimmer light here, his teeth glowed with Cheshire cat brilliance.
Three more of the tourist group insinuated their way past the two men to stand with their friends, all excitedly commenting on the bags, their attention now evenly divided between the items on both sheets. The taller man nodded, and as he did, both moved forward until they were standing just a halfstep behind the Americans. Seeing them advance, the first trader pivoted on his right foot and started to arch himself away from the sheet, the tourists, and the two men. As he moved, the men took their right hands from their pockets with a smooth, practised ease that called no attention to itself. Each held a pistol, their barrels extended by tubular silencers. The taller of the two was the first to fire, though the only sound the gun made was a dull thwack, thwack, thwack, accompanied by two similar noises from the pistol of his companion. The buskers had worked their way towards the end of the allegro, and their music plus the shouts and squeals of the encircling crowd all but covered the sound of the shots, though the Africans to either side turned instantly towards them.
Momentum continued to carry the bag seller away from the people in front of his sheet; then gradually his motion slowed. The men, their guns now in their pockets, backed through the crowd of tourists, who politely moved out of their way. The men separated, one moving towards the Accademia bridge and the other towards Santo Stefano and Rialto. Quickly they disappeared among the people hurrying in both directions.
The bag seller cried out and threw one arm out in front of him. His body completed its halfcircle, then sprawled to the ground beside his bags.
Like gazelles who panic and take flight at the first sign of danger, the other black men froze for an instant and then exploded with frightening energy. Four of them abandoned their wares and took off, running for the calle that led towards San Marco; two paused long enough to grab four or five bags in each hand, then disappeared over the bridge that led towards Campo San Samuele; the four remaining men left everything and fled towards the Grand Canal, where they alerted the men whose sheets were spread at the bottom of the bridge, over which they all ran, separating at the bottom and disappearing into the calli of Dorsoduro.
A whitehaired woman was standing in front of the trader's sheet when he collapsed. When she saw him fall, she called out to her husband, who had been separated from her, and knelt beside the fallen man.
She saw the blood that seeped out from under him, staining the sheet red. Her husband, alarmed by her cry and her sudden sinking to the ground, pushed roughly through their friends and knelt beside her. He moved to put a protective arm around her shoulder, but then he saw the man on the sheet. He placed his hand at the man's throat, kept it there for long seconds, then removed it and got to his feet awkwardly, his knees reluctant with age. He bent and helped his wife to stand.
They looked around and saw only the people in their group, all gaping back and forth between each other's confused faces and the man who lay at their feet. On either side of the broad street extended the rows of outspread sheets, most still covered with neatly positioned bags. As the crowd in front of them turned away one by one, the buskers stopped playing.
It was another few minutes before the first Italian approached, and when he saw the black man, the sheet, and the blood, he pulled his telefonino from the pocket of his coat and dialled 113.
The police arrived with a speed that astonished the Italian bystanders as much as it scandalized the Americans. To Venetians, half an hour did not seem a long time for the police to organize a boat and a squad of technicians and officers and reach Campo Santo Stefano, but by that time most of the Americans had drifted away in exasperation, telling one another that they would meet back at the hotel. No one bothered to keep an eye on the crime scene, so by the time the police finally did arrive, most of the bags had disappeared from the sheets, even from the one on which the body lay. Some of those who stole the dead man's bags left red footprints on his sheet; one set disappeared towards Rialto in a bloody trail.
The first officer on the scene, Alvise, approached the small crowd that still stood near the dead man and ordered them to move back. He walked over to the man's body and stood, looking down at him as if confused as to what to do now that he could see the victim. Finally, a lab technician asked him to move aside while he set up a wooden stanchion, and then another, and then another until they ringed the sheet. From one of the boxes the technicians had brought to the scene he took a roll of red and white striped tape and ran it through slots in the tops of the wooden stanchions until a clear demarcation had been created between the body and the rest of the world.
Alvise went over to a man who was standing by the steps of the church and demanded, 'Who are you?'
'Riccardo Lombardi,' the man answered. He was tall, about fifty, welldressed, the sort of person who sat behind a desk and gave orders, or so thought Alvise.
'What are you doing here?'
Surprised at the policeman's tone, the man answered, 'I was walking by, and I saw this crowd, so I stopped.'
'Did you see who did it?'
It occurred to Alvise only then that he had no idea what had been done, only that the Questura had received a call, saying that a black man was dead in Campo Santo Stefano. 'Can you show me some identification?' Alvise demanded.
The man took out his wallet and extracted his carta d'identità. Silently, he handed it to Alvise, who glanced at it before handing it back. 'Did you see anything?' he asked in the same voice.
'I told you, officer. I was walking by, and I saw these people standing around here, so I stopped to look. Nothing more.'
'All right. You can go,' Alvise said in a tone that suggested the man really had no choice. Alvise turned away from him and went back to the crime team, where the photographers were already packing up their equipment.
'Find anything?' he asked one of the technicians.
Santini, who was on his knees, running his gloved hands over the paving stones in search of shell casings, looked up at Alvise and said, 'A dead man,' before returning to his search.
Not deterred by the answer, Alvise pulled out a notebook from the inside pocket of his uniform parka. He flipped it open, took out a pen, and wrote 'Campo Santo Stefano'. He studied what he had written, glanced at his watch, added '20.58', capped the pen, and returned both notebook and pen to his pocket.
From his right, he heard a familiar voice ask, 'What's going on, Alvise?'
Alvise raised a languid hand in something that resembled a salute and said, 'I'm not sure, Commissario. We had a call, saying there was a dead man here, so we came over.'
His superior, Commissario Guido Brunetti, said, 'I can see that, Alvise. What happened to cause the man to be dead?'
'I don't know, sir. We're waiting for the doctor to get here.'
'Who's coming?' Brunetti asked.
'Who's coming where, sir?' Alvise asked, utterly at a loss.
'Which doctor is coming? Do you know?'
'I don't know, sir. I was in such a hurry to get the team here that I told them at the Questura to call and have one of the doctors sent.'
Brunetti's question was answered by the arrival of Dottor Ettore Rizzardi, medico legale of the city of Venice.
'Ciao, Guido,' Rizzardi said, shifting his bag to his left hand and offering his right. 'What have we got?'
'A dead man,' Brunetti said. 'I got the call at home, saying someone had been killed here, but nothing more than that. I just got here myself.'
'Better have a look, then,' Rizzardi said, turning towards the tapedoff area. 'You speak to anyone?' he asked Brunetti.
'No. Nothing.' Talking to Alvise never counted.
Rizzardi bent and slipped under the tape, placing one hand on the pavement to do so, then held the tape up to make it easier for Brunetti to join him. The doctor turned to one of the technicians. 'You've taken pictures?'
'Sì, Dottore,' the man answered. 'From every side.'
'All right, then,' Rizzardi said, setting down his bag. He turned away, took out two pairs of thin plastic gloves and gave one pair to Brunetti. As they slipped them on, the doctor asked, 'Give me a hand?'
They knelt on either side of the dead man. All that was visible was the right side of his face and his hands. Brunetti was struck by the very blackness of the man's skin, then bemused by his own surprise: what other colour did he expect an African to be? Unlike the black Americans Brunetti had seen, with their shading from cocoa to copper, this man was the colour of ebony buffed to a high gloss.
Together, they reached under the body and turned the man on to his back. The intense cold had caused the blood to congeal. Their knees anchored the sheet, so when they moved him, his jacket stuck to the cloth and pulled away from both his body and the pavement with a sharp sucking sound. Hearing it, Rizzardi let the man's shoulder fall back on to the ground; Brunetti lowered his side, saying nothing.
Points of bloodstiffened cloth stood up on the man's chest, looking like the whorls a pastry chef's fantasy might create on a birthday cake.
'Sorry,' Rizzardi said, either to Brunetti or the dead man. Still kneeling, he bent over and used a gloved finger to touch each of the holes in his parka. 'Five of them,' he said. 'Looks like they really wanted to kill him.'
Brunetti saw that the dead man's eyes were open; so too was his mouth, frozen in the panic that must have filled him at the first shot. He was a handsome young man, his teeth gleaming in striking contrast to that burnished skin. Brunetti slipped one hand into the righthand pocket of the man's parka, then the left. He found some small change and a used handkerchief. The inside pocket contained a pair of keys and a few Euro bills in small denominations. There was a ricevuta fiscale from a bar with a San Marco address, probably one of the bars in the campo. Nothing else.
'Who'd want to kill a vu cumprà?' Rizzardi asked, getting to his feet. 'As if the poor devils don't have enough as it is.' He studied the man on the ground. 'I can't tell, looking at him like this, where they got him, but three of the holes are grouped pretty near the heart. One would have been enough to kill him.' Stuffing his gloves into his pocket, Rizzardi asked, 'Professional, you think?'
'Looks like it to me,' Brunetti answered, aware that this made the death even more confusing. He had never had to trouble himself with the vu cumprà because few of them were ever involved in serious crime, and those few cases had always fallen to other commissarios. Like most of the police, indeed, like most residents, Brunetti had always assumed that the men from Senegal were under the control of organized crime, the reason most often offered to explain their politeness in dealing with the public: so long as their manner did not call attention to them, few people would trouble to ask how they so successfully managed to remain invisible to and undisturbed by the authorities. Brunetti had come over the years no longer to notice them nor to remember when they had displaced the original Frenchspeaking Algerian and Moroccan vu cumprà.
Though there was an occasional roundup and examination of documents, the vu cumprà had never attracted sufficient official attention to become the subject of one of ViceQuestore Patta's 'crime alerts', which meant there had never been a serious attempt to address the patent illegality of their presence and their profession. They were left to ply their trade virtually untroubled by the forces of order, thus avoiding the bureaucratic nightmare that would surely result from any serious attempt to expel hundreds of undocumented aliens and return them to Senegal, the country from which most of them were believed to come.
Why then a killing like this, one that had the stamp of the professional all over it?
'How old do you think he was?' Brunetti asked for want of anything else to say.
'I don't know,' Rizzardi answered with a puzzled shake of his head. 'It's hard for me to tell with blacks, not until I get inside them, but I'd guess in his early thirties, maybe younger.'
'Do you have time?' Brunetti asked.
'Tomorrow afternoon, first thing. All right?'
Rizzardi leaned over and picked up his bag. Hefting it, he said, 'I don't know why I always bring this with me. It's not as if I'm ever going to have to use it to save anyone.' He thought about this, shrugged, and said, 'Habit, I suppose.' He put out his hand, shook Brunetti's, and turned away.
Brunetti called to the technician who had taken the photos, 'When you get him to the hospital, would you take a couple of shots of his face from different angles and get them to me as soon as you've got them developed?'
'How many prints, sir?'
'A dozen of each.'
'Right. By tomorrow morning.'
Brunetti thanked him and waved over Alvise, who lurked just within earshot. 'Did anyone see what happened?' he asked.
'Who did you speak to?'
'A man,' Alvise answered, pointing in the direction of the church.
'What was his name?' Brunetti asked.
Alvise's eyes widened in surprise he could not disguise. After a pause so long that anyone else would have found it embarrassing, the officer finally said, 'I don't remember, sir.' At Brunetti's silence, he protested, 'He said he didn't see anything, Commissario, so I didn't need to take his name, did I?'
Brunetti turned to two whitecoated attendants who were just arriving. 'You can take him to the Ospedale, Mauro,' he said. Then he added, 'Officer Alvise will go with you.'
Alvise opened his mouth to protest, but Brunetti forestalled him by saying, 'This way you can see if the hospital has admitted anyone with bullet wounds.' It was unlikely, given the apparent accuracy of the five shots that had killed the African, but at least it would free him of Alvise's presence.
'Of course, Commissario,' Alvise said, repeating his semisalute. The officer watched as the two attendants stooped to pick up the body and place it on the stretcher, then led them back to their boat, walking purposefully, as though it was only through his intervention that they were sure of reaching it.
Turning, Brunetti called to a technician, who was now outside the taped circle, taking a closeup photo of the heel prints that led towards Rialto. 'Is Alvise the only one who came?'
'I think so, sir,' the man answered. 'Riverre was out on a domestic.'
'Has anyone tried to find out if there were any witnesses?' Brunetti asked.
The technician gave him a long look. 'Alvise?' was all he said before returning to his photos.
A group of teenagers stood against the wall of the garden. Brunetti approached them and asked, 'Did any of you see what happened here?'
'No, sir,' one of them said, 'we just got here now.'
Brunetti moved back to the cordoned area, where he saw three or four people. 'Were any of you here when it happened?' he asked.
Heads turned away, eyes glanced at the ground. 'Did you see anything at all?' he added, asking, not pleading.
A man at the back peeled himself away and started across the campo. Brunetti made no effort to stop him. As he stood there, the others dissolved until there was just one person left, an old woman who held herself upright only with the help of two canes. He knew her by sight, though she was usually in the company of two mangy old dogs. She balanced her right cane against her hip and beckoned him towards her. As he approached, he saw the wrinkled face, the dark eyes, the white bristles on her chin.
'Yes, Signora?' he asked. 'Did you see something?' Without thinking, he addressed her in Veneziano rather than Italian.
'There were some Americans here when it happened.'
'How did you know they were Americans, Signora?' he asked.
'They had white shoes and they were very loud,' she answered.
'When it happened?' he insisted. 'Were you here? Did you see?'
She took her right cane and lifted it to point in the direction of the pharmacy on the corner, about twenty metres away. 'No, I was over there. Just coming in. I saw them, the Americans. They were walking this way, from the bridge, and then they all stopped to look at the stuff the vu cumprà had.'
'And you, Signora?'
She moved her cane a few millimetres to the left. 'I went into the bar.'
'How long were you in there, Signora?'
'Long enough for what?' he asked, smiling at her, not at all annoyed by her oblique answer.
'Barbara, the owner, after about eight, she takes all the tramezzini that haven't been sold, and she cuts them up into little pieces and puts them on the counter. If you buy a drink, you can eat all you want.'
This surprised Brunetti, unaccustomed as he was to such generosity from the owners of bars; from the owners of anything, for that matter.
'She's a good girl, Barbara,' the old woman said. 'I knew her mother.'
'So how long do you think you were in there, Signora?' he asked.
'Maybe half an hour,' she answered, then explained, 'It's my dinner, you see. I go there every night.'
'Good to know, Signora. I'll remember that if I'm ever over here.'
'You're over here now,' she said, and when he didn't respond, she went on: 'The Americans, they went in there. Well, two of them did,' she added, lifting the cane again and pointing at the bar.
'They're in the back, having hot chocolate. You could probably talk to them if you wanted to,' she said.
'Thank you, Signora,' he said and turned towards the bar.
'The prosciutto and carciofi is the best,' she called after him.
Brunetti hadn't been in the bar for years, ever since the brief period when it had been converted into an American icecream parlour and had begun to serve an icecream so rich it had caused him a serious bout of indigestion the one time he had eaten it. It had been, he recalled, like eating lard, though not the salty lard he remembered from his childhood, tossed in to give taste and substance to a pot of beans or lentil soup, but lard as lard would be if sugar and strawberries were added to it.
His fellow Venetians must have responded in similar fashion, for the place had changed ownership after a few years, but Brunetti had never been back. The tubs of icecream were gone now, and it had reverted to looking like an Italian bar. A number of people stood at the curved counter, talking animatedly and turning often to point out at the nowquiet campo; some sat at small tables that led into the back room. Three women stood behind the bar; one of them, seeing Brunetti enter, offered him a friendly smile. He walked towards the back and saw an elderly couple at the last table on the left. They had to be Americans. They might as well have been draped in the flag. Whitehaired, both of them, they gave the bizarre impression that they were dressed in each other's clothing. The woman wore a checked flannel shirt and a pair of thick woollen slacks, while the man wore a pink Vnecked sweater, a pair of dark trousers, and white tennis shoes. Both apparently had their hair cut by the same hand. One could not say, exactly, that hers was longer: it was merely less short.
'Excuse me,' Brunetti said in English as he approached their table. 'Were you out in the campo earlier?'
'When the man was killed?' the woman asked.
'Yes,' Brunetti said.
The man pulled out a chair for Brunetti and, with oldfashioned courtesy, got to his feet and waited until Brunetti was seated. 'I'm Guido Brunetti, from the police,' he began. 'I'd like to talk to you about what you saw.'
Both of them had the faces of mariners: eyes narrowed in a perpetual squint, wrinkles seared into place by too much sun, and a sharpness of expression that even heavy seas would not disturb.
The man put out his hand, saying, 'I'm Fred Crowley, officer, and this is my wife, Martha.' When Brunetti released his hand, the woman stretched hers out, surprising him with the strength of her grip.
'We're from Maine,' she said. 'Biddeford Pool,' she specified, and then, as though that were not enough, added, 'It's on the coast.'
'How do you do,' Brunetti said, an oldfashioned phrase he had forgotten he knew. 'Could you tell me what you saw, Mr and Mrs Crowley?' How strange this was, he the impatient Italian and these the Americans who needed to go through the slow ritual of courtesy before getting down to the matter at hand.
'Doctors,' she corrected.
'Excuse me?' said Brunetti, at a loss.
'Doctor Crowley and Doctor Crowley,' she explained. 'Fred's a surgeon, and I'm an internist.' Before he could express his surprise that people their age were still working as doctors, she added, 'Well, we were, that is.'
'I see,' Brunetti said, then paused and waited to see if they had any intention of answering his original question.
They exchanged a look, then the woman spoke. 'We were just coming into what you call the campo, and I saw all these purses on the ground and the men selling them. I wanted to have a look and see if there was something we could take back to our granddaughter. I was standing just in front, looking at the purses, when I heard this strange noise, sort of like that fitt, fitt, fitt your coffee machines make when they turn that nozzle thing to make the steam. From my right, three times, and then from the left, the same noise, fitt, fitt, twice that time.' She stopped, as if hearing it all over again, then went on. 'I turned to see what the noise was, but all I could see were the people beside me and behind me, some of the people from the tour, and a man in an overcoat. When I looked back, that poor young man was on the ground, and I knelt down to try to help him. I think I called for Fred then, but it might have been later, when I saw the blood. At first I was afraid he'd fainted; not being used to the cold, or something like that. But then I saw the blood, and maybe that was when I called Fred; I really don't recall. He did a lot of time in the Emergency Room, you see. But by the time Fred got there, I knew he was gone.' She considered this, then added, 'I don't know how I could tell, because all I could see was the back of his neck, but there's a look about them, when they're dead. When Fred knelt down and touched him, he knew, too.'
Brunetti glanced at the husband, who picked up her story. 'Martha's right. I knew even before I touched him. He was still warm, poor boy, but the life had gone out of him. Couldn't have been more than thirty.' He shook his head. 'No matter how many times you see it, it's always new. And terrible.' He shook his head and, as if to emphasize his words, pushed his empty cup and saucer a few centimetres across the table.
His wife put her hand on top of his and said, as if Brunetti weren't there, 'Nothing we could have done, Fred. Those two men knew what they were doing.'
She couldn't have been more offhand about it: 'those two men'.
'What two men?' Brunetti asked, striving to keep his voice as calm as possible. 'Could you tell me more about them?'
'There was the man in the overcoat,' she said. 'He was on my right, just a little bit behind me. I didn't see the other one, but because the noise came from my left, he had to have been on the other side. And I'm not even sure it was a man. I just assume that because the other one was.'
Brunetti turned to the husband, 'Did you see them, Doctor?'
The man shook his head. 'Nope. I was looking at the things on the sheet. I didn't even hear the noise.' As if to prove this, he turned to the side and showed Brunetti the beige snail of the hearing aid in his left ear. 'When I heard Martha call me, I didn't have any idea what was going on. Truth to tell, I thought something might have happened to her, so I pushed right past those people to get to her, and when I saw her down on the ground like that, even though she was kneeling, well, I won't tell you what I thought, but it wasn't good.' He paused as if in pained memory and gave a nervous smile.
Brunetti knew better than to prod him, and after a few moments, the man spoke again. 'And, as I said, as soon as I touched him, I knew he was gone.'
Brunetti turned his attention back to the woman. 'Could you describe this man for me, Doctor?'
Just at that moment the waitress came by and asked if she could bring them anything. Brunetti looked at the two Americans, but both shook their heads. Though he didn't want it, he ordered a coffee.
A full minute passed in silence. The woman looked at her cup, mirrored her husband's gesture in pushing it away, looked back at Brunetti, and said, 'It's not easy to describe him, sir. He was wearing a hat, one of those hats men wear in movies.' To clarify the description, she added, 'The kind of thing they wore in movies in the Thirties and Forties.'
She paused, as if trying to visualize the scene, then added, 'No, all I remember is a sense that he was very tall and very big. He was wearing an overcoat; it might have been grey or dark brown, I really don't recall. And that hat.'
The waitress set Brunetti's coffee in front of him and moved away. He left it untouched, smiled across at her and said, 'Go on, please, Doctor.'
'There was the overcoat, and he had a scarf; maybe it was grey and maybe it was black. Because there were so many people standing around, all I saw was the side of him.'
'Could you give me an idea of his age?' Brunetti asked.
'Oh, I couldn't be sure of that, no more than to say he was an adult, perhaps your age,' she said. 'I think his hair was dark, but it was hard to tell in that light, and with his hat on. And I wasn't paying much attention to him at that point, not really, because I didn't have any idea of what was going on.'
Brunetti thought of the victim and asked, conscious of how it would sound, 'Was this man white, Doctor?'
'Oh yes, he was European,' she answered, then added, 'but my sense of him was that he looked more Mediterranean than my husband and I do.' She smiled to show she meant no offence, and Brunetti took none.
'What, specifically, makes you say that, Doctor?' he asked.
'His skin was darker than ours, I think, and it looked like he had dark eyes. He was taller than you, officer, and much taller than either one of us.' She considered all of this and then added, 'And thicker. He wasn't a thin man, officer.'
Brunetti turned his attention to the husband. 'Do you have any memory of seeing this man, Doctor? Or of seeing someone who might have been the other one?'
The whitehaired man shook his head. 'No. As I told you, my only concern was my wife. When I heard her shout, everything else went out of my head, so I couldn't even tell you which people from our group were there.'
Brunetti turned back to the woman and asked, 'Do you remember who was there, Doctor?'
She closed her eyes, as if trying to recall the scene yet again. Finally she said, 'There were the Petersons; they were standing to my left, and the man was behind me on the right. And I think Lydia Watts was on the other side of the Petersons.' She kept her eyes closed. When she opened them she said, 'No, I don't remember anyone else. That is, I know that we were all there in a bunch, but those are the only ones I can remember seeing.'
'How many people are in your group, Doctor?'
The husband answered, 'Sixteen. Plus spouses, that is,' he immediately corrected. 'Most of us are retired or semiretired doctors, all from the Northeast.'
'Where are you staying?' he asked.
'At the Paganelli,' he answered. Brunetti was surprised that a group that large could find room there, and that Americans would have the good sense to choose it.
'And this evening, for dinner? Is the group scheduled to eat somewhere in particular?' Brunetti wondered if he could perhaps locate them all and talk to them now, while whatever memories they had would still be fresh.
The Crowleys exchanged a glance. The man said, 'No, not really. This is our last night in Venice, and some of us decided to eat on our own, so we don't have any plans, not really.' He gave an embarrassed smile and added, 'I guess we're sort of tired of eating with the same people every night.'
'We were just going to walk around until we saw a place we liked and eat there,' his wife added, smiling across at her husband as if proud of their decision. 'But it's awfully late now.'
'And the group?' Brunetti persisted.
'They're booked to eat at some place near San Marco,' the woman said.
Her husband interrupted, 'But we didn't like the sound of it, all that local colour stuff.'
'You said it was your last night here,' he began, and they nodded. 'What time do you leave tomorrow morning?'
'Not until ten,' she said. 'We take the train to Rome, and then we fly out on Thursday. Home in time for Christmas.'
Brunetti pulled their bill towards him, added the cost of his own coffee to it, and put fifteen Euros on the table. The man started to object, but Brunetti said, 'It's police business,' and that lie seemed to satisfy the doctor.
'I can recommend a restaurant,' he said, and then added, 'I'd like to come and talk to you, and to these other people, in your hotel tomorrow morning.'
'Breakfast's at seventhirty,' she explained, 'and the Petersons are always right on time. I'll call Lydia Watts, when we get back if you like, and ask her to come down at eight so you can talk to her.'
'Is your train at ten or do you leave the hotel at ten?' Brunetti asked, hoping to be spared the need to be on the other side of San Marco by seventhirty in the morning.
'The train, so we have to leave the hotel at ninefifteen. There's a boat coming to take us to the station.'
Brunetti got to his feet and waited while the man helped his wife into her parka and then put on his own. Wearing them, the old people doubled in size. He led the way to the door, and held it open for them. Outside, in the campo, he pointed to the right and told them to walk along Calle della Mandorla to the Rosa Rossa and to tell the owner that Commissario Brunetti had sent them.
They both repeated his name, and the man said, 'Sorry, Commissario. I didn't hear your rank when you came in. I hope you didn't mind being called officer.'
'Not at all,' Brunetti said with a smile. They shook hands, and Brunetti stood and watched them until they had disappeared beyond the corner of the church.
When he returned to the place where the man had been killed, he found a uniformed officer standing beside one of the stanchions. He saw Brunetti approach and saluted. 'You alone here?' Brunetti asked. He noticed that all of the sheets and the few bags that had remained had disappeared and wondered if the police had taken them back with them.
'Yes, sir. Santini said to tell you he didn't find anything.' Brunetti assumed this meant not only shell casings, but any traces of whoever might have killed the man.
He looked at the enclosed area and only then noticed an oval mound of sawdust in the centre. Without thinking, he asked, nodding towards it with his chin, 'What's that?'
'It's the, er, blood, sir,' the man answered. 'Because of the cold.'
The image this conjured up was so grotesque that Brunetti refused to consider it; instead, he told the officer to call the Questura at midnight and remind them that he was to be relieved at one. He asked the young man if he wanted to go and have a coffee before the bar closed and then stood and waited for him.
When the uniformed man was back, Brunetti told him that, if he saw any of the other vu cumprà, he was to tell them that their colleague was dead and ask them to call the police if they had any information about him. He made a particular point of telling the officer to make it clear to them that they would not have to give their names or come to the Questura and that all the police wanted from them was information.
Brunetti used his telefonino to call the Questura. He gave his name, repeated what he had just told the crime scene officer, emphasizing that callers were not to be asked their names, and instructed that all calls relating to the shooting were to be recorded. He called the Carabinieri and, unsure of his authority, asked their cooperation in treating any relevant calls they might receive with the same discretion, and when the maresciallo agreed, asked if they would record their calls as well. The maresciallo observed he was very doubtful that any information would be volunteered by the vu cumprà but nevertheless agreed to do so.
There seemed little else for Brunetti to do, so he wished the young officer a good evening, hoped it would get no colder, and, having decided it would be faster to walk, turned towards Rialto and home.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
"One of the best of the international crime writers is Donna Leon, and her Commissario Guido Brunetti tales..." —Rocky Mountain News
Meet the Author
A New Yorker of Irish/Spanish descent, Donna Leon first went to Italy in 1965, returning regularly over the next decade or so while pursuing a career as an academic in the States and then later in Iran, China and finally Saudi Arabia. It was after a period in Saudi Arabia, which she found ‘damaging physically and spiritually’ that Donna decided to move to Venice, where she has now lived for over twenty years.
Her debut as a crime fiction writer began as a joke: talking in a dressing room in Venice’s opera-house La Fenice after a performance, Donna and a singer friend were vilifying a particular German conductor. From the thought ‘why don’t we kill him?’ and discussion of when, where and how, the idea for Death at La Fenice took shape, and was completed over the next four months.
Donna Leon is the crime reviewer for the London Sunday Times and is an opera expert. She has written the libretto for a comic opera, entitled Dona Gallina. Set in a chicken coop, and making use of existing baroque music, Donna Gallina was premiered in Innsbruck. Brigitte Fassbaender, one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our time, and now head of the Landestheater in Innsbruck, agreed to come out of retirement both to direct the opera and to play the part of the witch Azuneris (whose name combines the names of the two great Verdi villainesses Azucena and Amneris).
- Venice, Italy
- Date of Birth:
- February 28, 1942
- Place of Birth:
- Montclair, New Jersey
- B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Story was well done but content disturbing. Unfortunately it's politics and life.
We have read every one of the books in this series and can't get enough. We especially enjoy the references to Venice after having visited there. These are not the typical mystery novels and we like the way the main character is portrayed.
In Venice, two men kill an illegal alien from Senegal, who was selling counterfeit designer luggage. The police shock the locals by ¿speedily¿ arriving at the crime scene in a half hour, but the American tourists who witnessed the homicide had already given up. Most of the evidence at least with resalable value like the African¿s merchandise has been stolen from the Campo San Stefano Square where he was killed. --- Commissario Guido Brunetti leads the official investigation and almost immediately believes it was a professional hit not just a robbery or an economic cleansing by storekeepers who complain about these foreign street peddlers. Brunetti also knows how his wife, a left wing professor, will lecture him that the crime is another example of the social malice and failures of the current system. The case will enable the Commissario to avoid much of her oration, but will send him into the dregs of Venice as he uncovers clues with the help of his computer hacking expert Elettra. --- The Brunetti police procedural series provides some of the best the sub-genre offers combing a strong mystery with a deep social issue. The current tale focuses on the illegal immigrant problem impacting Italy and other western nations, but places the complexities within a delightful who-done-it. His family especially his spouse shows the Commissario is more than just a super cop. However, as always the star of Donna Leon¿s latest thriller is Venice, a city the author pays homage to while her hero tramps it cold damp streets. --- Harriet Klausner