Authors: Donna Leon
The young people filed from the room, and Paola busied herself replacing papers and books in her
. The failure of her profession no longer troubled her to the extent it had years ago, when she had first realized how incomprehensible much of what she said, and probably of what she believed, was to her students. During her seventh year of teaching, she’d made a reference to the
and, in the face of general blankness, had discovered that only one of the students in the class had any memory of having read it, and even he was utterly incapable of understanding the concept of heroic behaviour. The Trojans had lost, hadn’t they, so who cared how Hector had behaved?
‘The times are out of joint,’ she whispered to herself in English and then started in surprise, realizing that someone was standing next to her, one of the students, a young girl, now probably convinced that her professor was mad.
‘Yes, Claudia?’ she asked, fairly certain that was the girl’s name. Short, dark of hair and eye, the girl had a creamy white complexion that looked as though she had never been out in the sun. She’d taken a class with Paola the year before, seldom spoken, made frequent notes, and done very well in her exams, leaving Paola with a vague overall impression of a bright young woman handicapped by shyness.
‘I wonder if I could speak to you, Professoressa,’ the girl said.
Remembering that she could be acerbic only with her own children, Paola did not ask her if that was not what they were doing. Instead, she clipped shut her briefcase and said, turning to face the girl, ‘Certainly. What about? Wharton?’
‘Well, sort of, Professoressa, but not really.’
Again, Paola refrained from pointing out that only one of these answers could be true. ‘What about, then?’ she asked, but she smiled when she asked the question, unwilling to make this usually silent girl reluctant to go on. To avoid any suggestion that she might be eager to leave, Paola removed her hand from her briefcase, leaned back against the desk, and smiled again.
‘It’s about my grandmother,’ the girl said, glancing at Paola inquisitively, as if to ask if she knew what a grandmother was. She looked towards the door, back at Paola, then back to the door. ‘I’d like to get an answer about something that’s bothering her.’ Having said that, she stopped.
When it seemed that Claudia was not going to continue, Paola picked up her briefcase and made slowly towards the door. The girl eeled around her and opened it, stepping back to allow Paola to pass through first. Pleased by this sign of respect and displeased with herself for being so, Paola asked, not that she could see it mattered much but thinking that the answer might provide the girl with a reason to give further information, ‘It is your mother’s or your father’s mother?’
‘Well, really neither, Professoressa.’
Promising herself a mighty reward for all the unpronounced replies this conversation, if that’s what it was, had so far cost her, Paola said, ‘Sort of an honorary grandmother?’
Claudia smiled, a response which seemed to manifest itself primarily in her eyes and was all the
for that. ‘That’s right. She’s not my real grandmother, but I’ve always called her that. Nonna Hedi. Because she’s Austrian, you see.’
Paola didn’t, but she asked, ‘Is she related to your parents, a great-aunt or something?’
This question obviously made the girl uncomfortable. ‘No, she’s not, not in anyway.’ She paused, considered, then blurted out, ‘She was a friend of my grandfather’s, you see.’
‘Ah,’ Paola replied. This was all growing far more complicated than the girl’s simple request had seemed to suggest, and so Paola asked, ‘And what is it that you wanted to ask about her?’
‘Well, it’s really about your husband, Professoressa.’
Paola was so surprised that she could only echo the girl’s remark, ‘My husband?’
‘Yes. He’s a policeman, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, he is.’
‘Well, I wonder if you’d ask him something for me, well, something for my grandmother, that is.’
‘Certainly. What would you like me to ask him?’
‘Well, if he knows anything about pardons.’
‘Yes. Pardons, for crimes.’
‘Do you mean an amnesty?’
‘No, that’s what the government does when the jails are full and it’s too expensive to keep people there: they just let them all out and say it’s because of some special event or something. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean an official pardon, a formal declaration on the part of the state that a person wasn’t guilty of a crime.’
As they talked, they had progressed very slowly down the stairs from the fourth floor, but now Paola stopped. ‘I’m not sure I understand much of this, Claudia.’
‘That doesn’t matter, Professoressa. I went to a lawyer and asked him, but he wanted five million lire to give me an answer, and then I remembered that your husband was a policeman, so I thought that maybe he could tell me.’
Paola let a quick nod serve for understanding. ‘Could you tell me exactly what it is you want me to ask him, Claudia?’
‘If there is any legal process by which a person who has died can be given a pardon for something they were put on trial for.’
‘Only put on trial for?’
The edges of Paola’s patience showed through as she asked, ‘Not convicted and sent to prison for?’
‘Not really. That is, convicted but not sent to prison.’
Paola smiled and placed a hand on the girl’s arm. ‘I’m not sure I understand this. Convicted but not sent to prison? How can that happen?’
The girl glanced over the railing and at the open door to the building, almost as if Paola’s question had spurred her to consider flight. She looked back at Paola and answered, ‘Because the court said he was mad.’
Paola, careful not to inquire about who the person might be, considered this before she asked, ‘And where was he sent?’
‘To San Servolo. He died there.’
Like everyone else in Venice, Paola knew that the island of San Servolo had once been the site of the madhouse, had served that purpose until the Basaglia Law closed the madhouses and either freed the patients or removed them to less horrendous locations.
Sensing that the girl would not tell her, Paola asked anyway. ‘Do you want to tell me what the crime was?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ the girl said and started down the steps. At the bottom she turned and called back to Paola, ‘Will you ask him?’
‘Of course,’ Paola answered, knowing that she would, as much now for her own curiosity as for any desire to do a favour for this girl.
‘Then thank you, Professoressa. I’ll see you in class next week, then.’ With that Claudia walked to the door, where she paused and looked up at Paola. ‘I really liked the books, Professoressa,’ she called up the stairway. ‘It broke my heart when Lily died like that. But it was an honourable death, wasn’t it?’
Paola nodded, glad that at least one of them seemed to have understood.
BRUNETTI, FOR HIS
part, gave little thought to honour that morning, busy as he was with the task of keeping track of minor crime in Venice. It seemed at times as though that were all they did: fill out forms, send them off to be filed, make up lists, juggle the numbers and thus keep the crime statistics reassuringly low. He grumbled about this, but when he considered that accurate figures would require even more paperwork, he reached for the documents.
A little before twelve, just as he was beginning to think longingly of lunch, he heard a knock on his door. He called out, ‘
,’ and looked up to see Alvise.
‘There’s someone to see you, sir,’ the officer said with a smile.
‘Who is it?’
‘Oh, should I have asked him who he was?’ Alvise asked, honestly surprised that such a thing could be expected of him.
‘No, just show him in, Alvise,’ Brunetti said neutrally.
Alvise stepped back and waved his arm in obvious imitation of the white-gloved grace of traffic officers in Italian movies.
The gesture led Brunetti to believe that no less a personage than the President of the Republic might be entering, so he pushed back his chair and started to get to his feet, if only to maintain the high level of civility Alvise had established. When he saw Marco Erizzo come in, Brunetti walked around his desk and took his old friend by the hand, then embraced him and patted him on the back.
He stepped back and looked at the familiar face. ‘Marco, how wonderful to see you. God, it’s been ages. Where have you been?’ It had been, how long, a year, perhaps even two, since they’d spoken, but Marco had not changed. His hair was still that rich chestnut brown, so thick as to cause his barber difficulty, and the laugh lines still radiated in happy abundance from around his eyes.
‘Where do you think I’ve been, Guido?’ Marco asked, speaking Veneziano with the thick Giudecchino accent his classmates had mocked him for almost forty years ago, when he and Brunetti had been at elementary school together. ‘Here, at home, at work.’
‘Are you well?’ Brunetti asked, using the plural and thus including Erizzo’s ex-wife and their two children as well as the woman he now lived with and their daughter.
‘Everyone’s good, everyone’s happy,’ Marco said, an answer that had become his standard response. Everything was always fine, everyone was always happy. If so, then what had brought him to the Questura this fine October morning, when he certainly had more urgent things to do running the many shops and businesses he owned?
Marco glanced down at his watch. ‘Time for
For most Venetians, any time after eleven was time for
, so Brunetti didn’t hesitate before assenting.
On the way to the bar at the Ponte dei Greci, they talked about nothing and everything: their families, old friends, how stupid it was that they so seldom saw one another for longer than to say hello on the street before hurrying off to whatever it was that occupied their time and attention.
Once inside, Brunetti walked towards the bar, but Marco put a hand on his elbow and pulled him to a bench at a booth in front of the window; Brunetti sat opposite him, sure he’d find out now what it was that had brought his friend to the Questura. Neither of them had bothered to order anything, but the barman, from long experience of Brunetti, brought them two small glasses of white wine and went back to the bar.
,’ they both said and took small sips.
nodded in appreciation. ‘Better than what you get in most bars.’ He took another small sip and set the glass down.
Brunetti said nothing, knowing that this was the best technique to induce a reluctant witness to speak.
‘I won’t waste our time, Guido,’ Marco said in a different, more serious, voice. He took the short stem of his wine glass between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and moved the glass in a small circle, a gesture instantly familiar to Brunetti. Ever since he’d been a small boy, Marco’s hands had always betrayed his nervousness, whether it was by breaking the points of his pencils during exams or plucking at the top button of his shirt whenever he had to speak to a girl he liked. ‘Are you guys like priests?’ Marco asked, glancing up for an instant, then back at the glass.
‘Which guys?’ Brunetti asked, honestly confused by the question.
‘Cops. Even if you’re a commissario. I mean, if I tell you something, can it be like it used to be when we were kids and went to confession: the priest couldn’t tell anyone?’
Brunetti sipped at his wine to hide his smile. ‘I’m not sure it’s the same thing, Marco. They weren’t allowed to tell, no matter what we told them, no matter how bad it was. But if you tell me about a crime, I’ll probably have to do something about it.’
‘What sort of crime?’ When Brunetti didn’t answer, Marco went on, ‘I mean, how big a crime would it have to be before you had to tell?’
The urgency in Marco’s voice showed this was not some sort of parlour game, and so Brunetti considered the question before he answered, ‘I can’t say. That is, I can’t give you a list of things I’d have to report. Anything serious or anything violent, I suppose.’
‘And if nothing’s happened yet?’ Marco asked.
Brunetti was surprised by this question from Marco, a man who had always lived in the real, the concrete. It was very strange to hear him posing a hypothetical question; Brunetti wondered if he’d even ever heard Marco use a complex grammatical structure, so accustomed was he to his use of the simple declarative.
‘Marco,’ he said, ‘why don’t you just trust me and tell me what it is and then let me think about how to handle it?’
‘It’s not that I don’t trust you, Guido. God knows I do; that’s why I came to talk to you. It’s just that I don’t want to get you into any sort of trouble by telling you something you might not want to know about.’ He looked in the direction of the bar, and Brunetti thought he was going to call for more wine, but then he looked back, and Brunetti realized Marco was checking to see if anyone could hear what they were saying. But the other men at the bar seemed busy with their own conversation.
‘All right, I’ll tell you,’ Marco said. ‘And then you can decide what to do with it.’
Brunetti was struck by how similar Marco’s behaviour, even the rhythm of his speech, was to that of so many suspects he had questioned over
years. There always came a point where they gave in and stopped resisting their desire to make it clear just how it was or had been or what had driven them to do what they had done. He waited.
‘You know, well, maybe you don’t know that I bought a new shop near Santa Fosca,’ Marco began and paused for Brunetti to respond.
‘No, I didn’t.’ Brunetti knew better than to give anything but a simple answer. Never ask for more, never request clarification. Just let them talk until they run themselves out and have nothing else to say: that was when you began to ask questions.
‘It’s that cheese shop that belonged to the balding guy who always wore a hat. Nice guy; my mother used to go to his father when we lived over there. Anyway, last year they tripled his rent so he decided to retire, and I paid the
and took over the lease.’ He glanced at Brunetti to see that he was following. ‘But because I want to sell masks and souvenirs, I’ve got to have show windows so people can see all the stuff. He just had that one on the right side where he had the provolone and scamorza, but there’s one on the left, too, only his father closed it up, bricked it over, about forty years ago. But it’s on the original plans, so it can be opened up again. And I need it. I need two windows so people can see all the junk and take a mask home to Düsseldorf.’