the coffee that trailed down the front of his shirt. She knelt and placed the back of her fingers against the side of the cup, but it was cold to the touch.

Rising, she spoke to the two men who stood near the door, content to leave her to the business of death. ‘Have you called the police?’ she asked.

‘Yes, yes,’ Fasini muttered, not really hearing her question.

‘Signore,’ she said, speaking clearly and raising her voice so that there could be no question of his hearing her. ‘There’s nothing I can do here. This is a matter for the police. Have you called them?’

‘Yes,’ he repeated, but he still gave no sign that he had heard or understood what she said. He stood staring down at the dead man, trying to grasp the horror, and the scandal, of what he saw.

Abruptly the doctor pushed her way past him and out into the corridor. The assistant stage manager followed her. ‘Call the police,’ she commanded him. When he nodded and moved off to do as she had ordered, she reached into her pocket for the cigarette she had dropped there, fingered it back into shape, and lit it. She pulled in a deep breath of smoke and glanced down at her watch. Mickey’s left hand stood between the ten and the eleven, and his right was just on seven. She leaned back against the wall and waited for the police to arrive.

* * * *


Because this was Venice, the police came by boat, blue light flashing on the forward cabin. They pulled up at the side of the small canal behind the theater, and four men got out, three in blue uniform and one in civilian clothes. Quickly they walked up the calle, or narrow street, alongside the theater and continued through the stage entrance, where the portiere, who had been warned of their arrival, pushed the button that released the turnstile and allowed them to walk freely into the backstage area. He pointed silently to a staircase.

At the top of the first flight of steps, they were met by the still-stunned director. He started to extend his hand to the civilian, who seemed to be in charge, but forgot about the gesture and wheeled around, saying over his shoulder, ‘This way.’ Advancing down a short corridor, he stopped at the door to the conductor’s dressing room. There he stopped and, reduced to gestures, pointed inside.

Guido Brunetti, a commissario of police for the city, was the first through the door. When he saw the body in the chair, he held up his hand and signaled the uniformed officers not to come any farther into the room. The man was clearly dead, body twisted backward, face horribly distorted, so there was no need to search for a sign of life; there would be none.

The dead man was as familiar to Brunetti as he was to most people in the Western world, if not because they had actually seen him on the podium, then because they had, for more than four decades, seen his face, with its chiseled Germanic jaw, its too-long hair that had remained raven black well into his sixties, on the covers of magazines and the front pages of newspapers. Brunetti had seen him conduct twice, years before, and he had, during the performance, found himself watching the conductor, not the orchestra. As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clutched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all sign of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.

Brunetti turned his eyes away and glanced around the room. He saw the cup lying on the floor, the saucer not far from it. That explained the dark stains on the shirt and, Brunetti was sure, the horribly twisted features.

Still only a short distance into the room, Brunetti remained still and let his eyes roam, taking note of what he saw, uncertain about what any of it might come to mean, curious. He was a surprisingly neat man: tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman.

He reached forward and touched the back of the dead man’s wrist, but the body was cold, the skin dry to the touch. He took one last look around and turned to one of the men who stood behind him. He told him to call the medical examiner and the photographer. He told the second officer to go downstairs and speak to the portiere. Who was backstage that night? Have the portiere make a list. To the third, he said he wanted the names of anyone who had spoken to the Maestro that evening, either before the performance or during the intermissions.

He stepped to the left and opened the door to a small bathroom. The single window was closed, as the one in the dressing room had been. In the closet hung a dark overcoat and three starched white shirts.

He went back into the dressing room and across to the body. With the back of his fingers, he pushed aside the lapels of the dead man’s jacket and pulled open the inner pocket. He found a handkerchief, and holding it by a corner, he pulled it out slowly. There was nothing else in the pocket. He repeated the same process with the side pockets, finding the usual things: a few thousand lire in small bills; a key with a plastic tag attached to it, probably the key to this room; a comb; another handkerchief. He didn’t want to disturb the body until it had been photographed, so he left the pockets of the trousers until later.

The three policemen, satisfied that there was a certifiable victim, had gone off to follow Brunetti’s orders. The director of the theater had disappeared. Brunetti stepped out into the corridor, hoping to find him and get some idea of how long ago the body had been discovered. Instead he found a small, dark woman, leaning against the wall, smoking. From behind them came deep waves of music.

‘What’s that?’ Brunetti asked.

‘La Traviata,’ the woman replied simply.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘Does that mean they went on with the performance?’

‘ “Even if the whole world falls,”‘ she said, giving it that heavy weight and emphasis usually reserved for quotations.

‘Is that something from Traviata?’ he asked.

‘No; Turandot.’ she responded, voice calm.

‘Yes, but still,’ he protested. ‘Out of respect for the man.’

She shrugged, tossed her cigarette to the cement floor, ground it out with her foot.

‘And you are?’ he finally asked.

‘Barbara Zorzi,’ she answered, then amended it, though he hadn’t asked. ‘Dr. Barbara Zorzi. I was in the audience when they asked for a doctor, so I came back here and found him, at exactly ten thirty-five. His body was still warm, so I’d estimate he had been dead for less than half an hour. The coffee cup on the floor was cold.’

‘You touched it?’

‘Only with the back of my fingers. I thought it might be important to know if it was still warm. It wasn’t.’ She took another cigarette from her bag, offered him one, didn’t seem surprised when he refused, and lit it for herself.

‘Anything else, Doctor?’

‘It smells like cyanide,’ she answered. ‘I’ve read about it, and we worked with it once, in pharmacology. The professor wouldn’t let us smell it; he said even the fumes were dangerous.’

‘Is it really that toxic?’ he asked.

‘Yes. I forget how little is necessary to kill a person; far less than a gram. And it’s instantaneous. Everything simply stops—heart, lungs. He would have been dead, or at least unconscious, before the cup hit the floor.’

‘Did you know him?’ Brunetti asked.

She shook her head. ‘No more than anyone who likes opera knew him. Or anyone who reads Gente,’ she added, naming a gossip magazine he found it difficult to believe she would read.

She looked up at him and asked, ‘Is that all?’

‘Yes, Doctor, I think so. Would you leave your name with one of my men so that we can contact you if we have to?’

‘Zorzi, Barbara,’ she said, not at all impressed by his official voice and manner. ‘I’m the only one in the phone book.’

She dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, then extended her hand to him. ‘Goodbye, then. I hope this doesn’t become too ugly.’ He didn’t know if she meant for the Maestro, the theater, the city, or for him, so he merely nodded his thanks and shook her hand. As she left, it struck Brunetti how strangely similar his work was to

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