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He remembered to wear black. The cheap, thin suit from Standa. Shiny office shoes. A pair of fake Ray-Ban Predators stolen from some Japanese tourist straight off the coach at Piazzale Roma.
Rizzo lit a cigarette and waited by the gatehouse at San Michele. It was the first Sunday in July. The lagoon was entering summer, the change marked by the chittering of swallows above his head and a torpid heat rising from the water. A spirited breeze rippled the cypresses that dotted the cemetery like exclamation marks. In the shade of an alcove to his right, discreetly hidden, was an ordered stack of empty pine coffins. Rizzo watched something move in a beam of sunlight catching the corner of the nearest casket. A small lizard, dots running down its spine, dashed into the patch of gold, paused, then scurried back into the cracked brickwork.
Some job, Rizzo thought. Getting paid for checking up on a corpse.
The cemetery supervisor came out of his office and stared at the cigarette until Rizzo stamped it out. The man was short and fat, sweating in his bright white cotton shirt. He looked about forty, with a thick head of greasy hair and a weedy moustache like a comb snapped in half then stuck above a pair of fleshy lips.
"You got the papers?"
Rizzo nodded and tried to offer him half a smile. The supervisor wore a sour look, as if he suspected something was wrong. Rizzo was twenty-five but could pass for thirty dressed like this. Still, he guessed he looked a little young to be claiming possession of some stray cadaver, as if it were luggage left to be retrieved from a locker at the station.
He pulled out the documents the Englishman had given him that morning in the big, palatial apartment behind the Guggenheim Gallery. Massiter said they'd work. They'd cost enough.
"You're a relative?" the supervisor asked, staring at the lines of fine type on the page.
"Cousin," Rizzo replied.
"No other family?"
"Huh." The man folded up the papers and stuffed them in his pocket. "You could have waited another four weeks, you know. Ten years, they get. To the day. Seen plenty of people coming here late. Not seen many turn up early."
The supervisor grimaced. "Sure. The dead got to fit themselves into your calendar. Not the other way round. Still . . ." He favoured Rizzo with a professional glance that might have harboured a grain of sympathy in it. "Least you're here. You'd be amazed how many of those poor things just never get claimed at all. Run up their decade in the ground and then we just take 'em to the public ossuary. No choice, you see. No room."
Everyone in Venice knew the score, Rizzo thought. If you wanted to be buried in San Michele, you had to follow the rules. The little island that sat between Murano and the northern shore of the city was full. The big names the tourists came to see could lie secure in their graves. Everyone else was on a temporary permit that lasted precisely ten years. Once the lease on that little plot of ground ran out, it was up to the relatives to take the bones elsewhere or leave the city to do the job for them.
The Englishman knew all about it too. For reasons Rizzo did not wish to know, he had fixed the disinterment papers early so he was the first to know what was in the box. Maybe there was someone else interested in this rotting corpse, someone who would stick to the ten-year deadline. Maybe not. Rizzo still didn't see the point. Was this to check there really was a body inside the casket? That had to be it. In truth, he didn't care. If the guy was willing to pay him two million lire just to flutter a couple of pages of forged paperwork around, he was more than happy. It made a change from lifting wallets in the crowds milling around San Marco.
"We have ways of doing this," the man said. "We like to do things nice and proper."
Rizzo followed him, past the tidy collection of shiny new coffins, out into the beating sun. They walked through the first section of the cemetery, where the dead had long-term residency, then on to an outlying area used for the relentless cycle of temporary burials. Green tarpaulins marked the areas where the current crop of bodies was being harvested. Each tiny headstone carried a photograph: young and old, frozen in a moment of time, looking at the camera as if they believed they would never die at all. They stopped by Recinto 1, Campo B, amid a fragrant ocean of flowers. The supervisor pointed to the headstone. On it was her name, reversed like all those in the cemetery: Gianni Susanna. Just turned eighteen when she died. The grave was empty, the earth freshly dug.
Her portrait sat in an oval frame attached to the marble headstone. Rizzo couldn't take his eyes off it. Susanna Gianni was as beautiful a girl as any he'd ever seen. The photograph must have been taken outside, on a sunny day, perhaps close to the time of her death. She didn't appear sick. She wore a purple T-shirt. Her long, dark hair fell to her shoulders. Her face and neck were tanned, her mouth set in a natural, open smile. She looked like a kid about to graduate from university, innocent, but with an expression in her gaze that said she'd been places, she knew a few tricks too. Rizzo closed his eyes behind the dark glasses and tried to still his thoughts. It was crazy, he knew, but he could feel himself hardening at the sight of this unknown girl who had died, of what he couldn't begin to guess, almost a decade before.
"You want the headstone?" The supervisor's voice cut through this sudden, half-scary, half-delicious reverie. "If you want it, you can take it away with the casket. I guess you organised a boat, huh?"
Rizzo didn't answer the questions. He pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his cheap jacket and held them in front of him, wondering if the man had noticed.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"Send the boatmen round. They know where to come."
"Where is she?" Rizzo repeated. The Englishman had been specific about what he wanted.
"We got a place." The supervisor said this with a sigh, as if he knew what was coming next.
Without a word, the man turned and headed for a deserted corner in the northern part of the cemetery. One of the big ferries destined for Burano and Torcello passed on the right. Gulls hung in the choppy air. A scattering of figures moved through the headstones, some with bouquets in their hands. Rizzo had been here only once before, with an old girlfriend, going to see her grandmama. The place spooked him. When he went, he wanted to go out in a puff of flame, a sudden fire inside the municipal crematorium on the mainland. Not lie around beneath the dry San Michele earth, waiting to be dug up a decade later.
They walked to a small, low building with a single tiny window. The supervisor fished a keychain out of his pocket and opened the door. Rizzo took off his sunglasses and followed him inside. Then he waited as the man threw the light switch, waited as his eyes adjusted to the abrupt transition from the piercing sunlight into the dark and then back into the thinner glare of the one fluorescent tube in the ceiling.
The coffin sat on a trestle in the middle of the room. The wood was a lifeless, flat grey colour. It was as if the thing, and what it contained, had been desiccated over the few years it had rested beneath the surface.
"Like I said," the man repeated, "send your men here. They'll know what to do. You don't want to watch. Believe me."
The Englishman had given his instructions.
The supervisor swore softly, folded his arms, and glowered into the dark corner beyond the casket. "No can do," he murmured. "What kind of game are you playing, kid?"
Rizzo reached into his pocket and pulled out two hundred euro notes. Massiter had known there might be incidentals along the way.
"Listen," he said. "The Giannis are a real close family. Just let me see my sweet little cousin one more time and then I'm on my way, OK?"
"Shit," the man said, then pocketed the notes and picked up a crowbar leaning against the wall. "You want me to take the lid off? Or do you feel so close to her you want to do that too?"
What Rizzo felt like was a cigarette. The tiny room was airless. A smell, musty and pervasive, was coming from the coffin. "Do it," he said, and nodded at the casket.
The man grunted, lifted the crowbar, and jammed it beneath the cover of the coffin. He barely looked at what he was doing. He'd popped these things a million times, Rizzo guessed. It was like working in a slaughterhouse or a morgue. After a while you never even thought about what was going on.
The iron worked its way around the wooden box slowly, lifting it just a few centimetres at a time, exposing the bent, rusty nails that held the thing together. The man completed a circle of the casket, then looked at Rizzo one final time.
"You sure about this, kid? A lot of you guys are real brave out there in the light of day, but it doesn't seem such a good idea when you're in here and it's time."
Rizzo didn't like being called "kid." Again he said, "Do it."
The supervisor carefully eased the bar beneath the cover, then pushed down, levering it open. The wood shattered into two pieces with a sudden, piercing crack. Rizzo jumped, in spite of himself. Dust and particles filled the air. Behind them came a persistent, noisome smell that was identifiably human in origin. Just one look, he thought. That was all the Englishman asked for.
He leaned over and peered into the casket. Her head was in the shadow cast by the corner of the box. The long hair was grey now, grey and fine and dry-looking. It hung down both sides of her skull, to which some flesh was still attached, like flaps of old brown leather. There was something in the eye sockets. He didn't want to look too closely. Around what remained of her shoulders were the straps of what must once have been a white shroud.
Rizzo thought he was going to stare at the skull and wonder where that lovely face had disappeared to. The nascent erection was all but gone now. He felt cold in the room. The air swam in front of him. He wouldn't be surprised if, pretty soon, he threw up. Not through horror and disgust, but from the insidious, choking atmosphere of the place. It was like standing in a cloud of human dust formed by every single being that had passed through the gates of San Michele over the centuries.
But he didn't look at the skull for long. Her arms were folded over her chest, long arms now reduced to a skeletal skinniness. To his surprise, they enclosed something, an object large enough to run from beneath her chin to the lower part of her body. He stared at it and knew the cemetery supervisor was doing the same. It was so out of place that it took a long time before he finally realised what this shape was. The corpse of Susanna Gianni, whoever she might have been, had been buried clutching an ancient violin case, her arms wrapped lovingly around the thing as if it were an infant.
The Englishman hadn't said anything about this. He just said to see the bones and then get going. It was a done deal, Rizzo thought, and no one could blame a man if he took a little incidental profit along the way.
He reached down, gently pried the grip of the dead arms from the case, then started to slide it out from underneath the cold, dry flesh.
The supervisor glowered at him. "You shouldn't be doing that."
Rizzo stopped and sighed. He was tired of this little man. He was tired of this place. Rizzo reached into his pocket and pulled out the small flick blade he took everywhere. Looking at the fat man, he pushed the button on the side, let the thin sliver of blade bite into the musty air, then grabbed him by the collar, watched the terror in his face grow. He thrust the tip into the fleshy underside of the man's left eyelid. The point lifted the flabby skin into a tiny pyramid, pricking through the surface just hard enough for Rizzo to see a tiny bubble of blood there.
"Do what?" he asked calmly. "I didn't do a thing."
The fat man froze and didn't speak. Rizzo reached into the man's jacket pocket, took out a cheap plastic wallet, and looked at the identity card. The caretaker lived in one of the public housing blocks north of him, in the Cannaregio. He could walk it in five minutes.
"Be smart," Rizzo hissed. "Or maybe I come back here and make you bury yourself. Huh?"
The supervisor's eyes had the flat, glazed look of terror. Rizzo pulled his arm away, let go of the man, then went back to the coffin, lifted the dead arms again, and removed the violin case. Using the sleeve of his cheap jacket, he brushed away the dust on the surface and saw her name there on a faded paper label. Then he slipped his fingers through the handle. The case swung solidly beneath his arm. There was something inside, for sure. Maybe it was just rocks. Even crazy people didn't bury their dead with treasure these days.
The fat man cowered in the darkness, peeing himself in all probability, wishing he was home with his equally fat wife, waiting to be fed. Rizzo grimaced, then pulled out another couple of 100,000-lire notes and stuffed them into the man's shirt pocket. "Your lucky day, friend. It's just a little family business. OK?"
The supervisor took out the notes and rustled them. The money gave him back some respect. They were now, in a sense, even. Rizzo could appreciate that. There wasn't enough respect in the world. He put his fake Predators back on his face, turned, and walked outside.
The voice rose up from behind him. "Hey! Where are the boatmen? They got to deal with this now."
Rizzo looked back from the door at the coffin and the squat little man standing next to it, still in the darkness. "What boatmen?"