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Death in a Strange Country

[Commissario Brunetti 02]

By Donna Leon

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Volgi intorno lo squardo, oh sire, e vedi qual strage orrenda nel tuo nobil regno, fa il crudo mostro. Ah mira allagate di sangue quelle pubbliche vie. Ad ogni passo vedrai chi geme, e l’alma gonfia d’atro velen dal corpo esala.

Gaze around you, oh sire, and see what terrible destruction the cruel monster has wrought in your noble kingdom. Look at the streets swamped in blood. At every step you see someone groaning, the spirit leaving a corpse swollen with horrible poison.


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The body floated face down in the murky water of the canal. Gently, the ebbing tide tugged it along towards the open waters of the laguna that spread out beyond the end of the canal. The head bumped a few times against the moss-covered steps of the embankment in front of the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, lodged there for a moment, then shifted free as the feet swung out in a delicate balletic arc that pulled it loose and set it again drifting towards the open waters and freedom.

Close by, the bells of the church chimed four in the morning, and the waters slowed, as if ordered to do so by the bell.

Gradually, they slowed even more, until they reached that moment of utter stillness that separates the tides, when the waters wait for the new tide to take over the day’s work. Caught in the calm, the limp thing bobbed on the surface of the water, dark-clad and invisible. Time passed in silence and then was broken by two men who walked by, chatting in soft voices filled with the - easy sibilance of the Venetian dialect. One of them pushed a low cart loaded with newspapers which he was taking back to his newsstand to begin the day; the other was on his way to work in the hospital that took up one entire side of the vast open campo.

Out in the laguna, a small boat puttered past, and the tiny waves it raised rippled up the canal and toyed with the body, shifting it back up against the embankment wall.

As the bells chimed five, a woman in one of the houses that overlooked the canal and faced onto the campo flung open the dark-green shutters of her kitchen and turned back to lower the flaming gas under her coffee pot. Still not fully awake, she spooned sugar into a small cup, flipped off the gas with a practised motion of her wrist, and poured a thick stream of coffee into her cup. Cradling it in her hands, she walked back to the open window and, as she had every morning for decades, looked across at the giant equestrian statue of Colleoni, once the most fearsome of all Venetian military leaders, now her nearest neighbour. For Bianca Pianaro, this was the most peaceful moment of the day, and Colleoni, cast into eternal bronze silence centuries ago, the perfect companion for this precious, secret quarter-hour of silence.

Glad of its sharp warmth, she sipped at her coffee, watching the pigeons that had already begun to peck their way towards the base of the statue. Idly, she glanced directly below her, to where her husband’s small boat bobbed in the dark-green water. It had rained in the night, and she looked to see if the canvas tarpaulin that covered the boat was still in place. If the tarpaulin had been pulled free by the wind, Nino would have to go down and bail the boat out before he went to work. She leaned out, providing herself a clear view of the bow. At first, she thought it was a bag of rubbish, swept from the embankment by the night’s tide. But it was strangely symmetrical, elongated, with two branches sweeping out on either side of the central trunk, almost as if it were...

‘Oh, Dio,’ she gasped and let her coffee cup fall into the waters below, not far from the strange shape floating face down in the canal. ‘Nino, Nino,’ she screamed, turning back towards their bedroom. ‘There’s a body in the canal.’

It was this same message, ‘There’s a body in the canal’, that woke Guido Brunetti twenty minutes later. He shifted up onto his left shoulder and pulled the phone onto the bed with him. ‘Where?’

‘Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In front of the hospital, sir,’ answered the policeman who had called him as soon as the call came into the Questura.

‘What happened? Who found him?’ Brunetti asked, swinging his feet out from beneath the covers and sitting up on the edge of the bed.

‘I don’t know, sir. A man named Pianaro called to report it.’

‘So why did you call me?’ Brunetti asked, making no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice, the clear result of the time indicated on the glowing face of the clock beside the bed: five-thirty-one. ‘What about the night shift? Isn’t anyone there?’

‘They’ve all gone home, sir. I called Bozzetti, but his wife said he wasn’t home yet.’ As he spoke, the young man’s voice grew more and more uncertain. ‘So I called you, sir, because I know you’re working day shift.’ Which, Brunetti reminded himself, began in two and a half hours. He said nothing.

‘Are you there, sir?’

‘Yes, I’m here. And it’s five-thirty.’

‘I know, sir,’ the young man bleated. ‘But I couldn’t find anyone else.’

‘All right. All right. I’ll go down there and have a look. Send me a launch. Now.’ Remembering the hour and the fact mat the night shift had already gone off duty, he asked, ‘Is there anyone who can bring it?’

‘Yes, sir. Bonsuan just came in. Shall I send him?’

‘Yes, right now. And call the rest of the day shift. Tell them to meet me there.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the young man responded, his relief audible at having someone take charge.

‘And call Doctor Rizzardi. Ask him to meet me there as quickly as he can.’

‘Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?’

‘No, nothing. But send the launch. Right now. And tell the others, if they get there before I do, to close things off. Don’t let anyone get near the body.’ Even as they spoke, how much evidence was being, destroyed, cigarettes dropped on the ground, shoes scuffed across the pavement? Without saying anything further, he hung up.

Beside him in the bed, Paola moved and looked up at him with one eye, the other covered by a naked arm against the invasion of light. She made a noise that long experience told him was an inquisitive one.

‘A body. In a canal. They’re coming to get me. I’ll call.’ The noise with which she acknowledged this was an affirmative one. She rolled onto her stomach and was asleep immediately, certainly the only person in the entire city uninterested in the fact that a body had been found floating in one of the canals.

He dressed quickly, decided not to spend the time shaving, and went into the kitchen to see if there was time for coffee. He opened the lid of the Moka Express and saw about an inch of coffee left over from the night before. Though he hated reheated coffee, he poured it into a saucepan and put it on a high flame, standing over it and waiting for it to boil. When it did, he poured the almost-viscous liquid into a cup, spooned in three sugars, and downed it quickly.

The bell to the apartment sounded, announcing the arrival of the police launch. He glanced at his watch. Eight minutes before six. It must be Bonsuan; no one else was capable of getting a boat here that quickly. He grabbed a wool jacket from the cupboard by the front door. September mornings could be cold, and there was always the chance of wind at Santi Giovanni e Paolo, so near to the open waters of the laguna.

At the bottom of the five flights of stairs, he pulled open the door to the building and found Puccetti, a recruit who had been with the police for fewer than five months.

‘Buon giorno, Signor Commissario,’ Puccetti said brightly and saluted, making far more noise and motion than Brunetti thought seemly at that hour.

Brunetti answered with a wave and headed down the narrow calle on which he lived. At the edge of the water, he saw the police launch moored to the landing, blue light flashing rhythmically. At the wheel, he recognized Bonsuan, a police pilot who had the blood of countless generations of Burano fishermen in

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