Donna Leon

Beastly Things

Book 21 in the Guido Brunetti series, 2012

For Fabio Moretti and Umberto Branchini

Va tacito e nascosto, quand’avido e di preda, l’astuto cacciator. E chi e a mal far disposto, non brama che si veda l’inganno del suo cor.

When intent on his prey,

the clever hunter

moves silently and hidden.

And he who wants to do evil

is not eager

that the evil in his heart be seen.

Giulio Cesare



THE MAN LAY still, as still as a piece of meat on a slab, as still as death itself. Though the room was cold, his only covering was a thin cotton sheet that left his head and neck free. From a distance, his chest rose inordinately high, as though some sort of support had been wedged under his back, running the length of it. If this white form were a snow-covered mountain ridge and the viewer a tired hiker at the end of a long day, faced with the task of crossing it, the hiker would surely choose to walk along the entire length of the man to cross at the ankles and not the chest. The ascent was too high and too steep, and who knew what difficulties there would be descending the other side?

From the side, the unnatural height of the chest was obvious; from above – if the hiker were now placed on a peak and could gaze down at the man – it was the neck that was conspicuous. The neck – or perhaps more accurately the lack of one. In fact, his neck was a broad column running down straight from beneath his ears to his shoulders. There was no narrowing, no indentation; the neck was as wide as the head.

Also conspicuous was the nose, now barely evident in profile. It had been crushed and pushed to one side; scratches and tiny indentations patterned the skin. The right cheek, as well, was scratched and bruised. His entire face was swollen, the skin white and flaccid. From above, his flesh sank in a concave arc below his cheekbones. His face was pale with more than the pallor of death. This was a man who had lived indoors.

The man had dark hair and a short beard, grown perhaps in an attempt to disguise the neck, but there was no disguising such a thing for more than a second. The beard provided a visual distraction, but almost instantly it would be seen as camouflage, nothing more, for it ran along the jaw line and down that column of a neck, as if it did not know where to stop. From this height, it looked almost as though it had flowed down across the neck and off to the sides, an effect exaggerated by the way the beard grew increasingly white at the sides.

His ears were surprisingly delicate, almost feminine. Earrings would not have looked out of place there, were it not for the beard. Below the left ear, just beyond the end of the beard and set at a thirty-degree angle, was a pink scar. About three centimetres long, it was as wide as a pencil; the skin was rough, as though whoever had sewn the skin shut had been in a hurry or careless because he was a man, and a scar was nothing for a man to worry about.

It was cold in the room, the only sound the heavy wheeze of the air conditioning. The man’s thick chest did not move up and down, nor did he stir uncomfortably in the cold. He lay there, naked under his sheet, eyes closed. He did not wait, for he was beyond waiting, just as he was beyond being late or being on time. One might be tempted to say that the man simply was. But that would be untrue, for he was no more.

Two other forms lay, similarly covered, in the room, though they were closer to the walls: the bearded man was in the centre. If a man who always lies tells someone he is a liar, is he telling the truth? If no one is alive in a room, is the room empty?

A door was opened on the far side and held open by a tall, thin man in a white lab jacket. He stood there long enough for another man to pass in front of him and enter the room. The first man released the door; it closed slowly, giving a quiet, almost liquid click that sounded loud in the cold room.

‘He’s over there, Guido,’ Dottor Rizzardi said, coming up behind Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice. Brunetti stopped, in the manner of the hiker, and looked across at the white-covered ridge of the man. Rizzardi walked past him to the slab on which the dead man lay.

‘He was stabbed in the lower back three times with a very thin blade. Less than two centimetres wide, I’d say, and whoever did it was very good or very lucky. There are two small bruises on the front of his left arm,’ Rizzardi said, stopping beside the body. ‘And water in his lungs,’ he added. ‘So he was alive when he went into the water. But the killer got a major vein: he didn’t have a chance. He bled to death in minutes.’ Then, grimly, Rizzardi added, ‘Before he could drown.’ Before Brunetti could ask, the pathologist said, ‘It happened last night, some time after midnight, I’d say. Because he’s been in the water, that’s as close as I can come.’

Brunetti remained halfway to the table, his eyes going back and forth between the dead man and the pathologist. ‘What happened to his face?’ Brunetti asked, aware of how difficult it would be to recognize a photo of him; indeed, how difficult it would be even to look at a photo of that broken, swollen face.

‘My guess is that he fell forward when he was stabbed. He was probably too stunned to put out his hands to break his fall.’

‘Could you take a photo?’ Brunetti asked, wondering if Rizzardi could disguise some of the damage.

‘You want to ask people to look at it?’ It was not an answer Brunetti liked, but it was an answer. Then, after a moment, the pathologist said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’

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