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Donna Leon

Friends in High Places

The ninth book in the Guido Brunetti series, 2000

… Ah dove Sconsigliato t’inoltri? In queste mura Sai, che non e sicura La tua vita

Where are you going so rashly?

You know that within these walls

Your life is not safe.

Lucio Silla

Mozart

1

When the doorbell rang, Brunetti lay supine on the sofa in his living room, a book propped open on his stomach. Because he was alone in the apartment, he knew he had to get up and answer it, but before he did, he wanted to finish the last paragraph of the eighth chapter of the Anabasis, curious to know what new disasters awaited the retreating Greeks. The bell rang a second time, two insistent, quick buzzes, and he put the book face down, took off his glasses and placed them on the arm of the sofa, and got to his feet. His steps were slow, regardless of the insistence with which the bell had sounded. Saturday morning, off duty, the house to himself, Paola gone to Rialto in search of soft-shelled crabs, and the doorbell had to ring.

He assumed it was one of the children’s friends, come in search of either Chiara or Raffi or, worse, one of the bringers of religious truth who delighted in interrupting the rest of the hard-working. He asked of life nothing more than to lie on his back reading Xenophon while he waited for his wife to come home with soft-shelled crabs.

‘Yes?’ he said into the answerphone, making his voice sound so unwelcoming as to discourage aimless youth and frighten off zeal of any age.

‘Guido Brunetti?’ a man’s voice asked.

‘Yes. What is it?’

‘I’m from the Ufficio Catasto. About your apartment.’ When Brunetti said nothing, the man asked, ‘Did you get our letter?’

At the question, Brunetti recalled having received some sort of official document a month or so ago, a paper filled with the catch phrases of bureaucracy, something about the deeds to the apartment or the building permits that were attached to the deeds: he couldn’t remember. He had done no more than glance at it and blanch at the formulaic language, before slipping it back into its envelope and dropping it into the large majolica platter that stood on the table to the right of the door.

‘Did you get our letter?’ the man repeated.

‘Ah, yes,’ Brunetti answered.

‘I’ve come to talk about it.’

‘About what?’ Brunetti asked, propping the phone under his left ear and bending to reach toward the pile of papers and envelopes that lay on the platter.

‘Your apartment,’ the man answered. ‘About what we wrote in the letter.’

‘Of course, of course,’ Brunetti said, leafing through papers and envelopes.

‘I’d like to talk to you about it if I might.’

Caught off guard by the request, Brunetti conceded. ‘All right,’ he said, pushing the buzzer that would open the portone four floors below. ‘Top floor.’

‘I know,’ the man answered.

Brunetti replaced the speaker and pulled a few envelopes from the bottom of the pile. There was a bill from ENEL, a postcard from the Maldives he hadn’t seen before and which he paused to read. And there was the envelope, the name of the issuing office in blue letters at the top left corner. He removed the paper, unfolded it and held it at arm’s length to bring the letters into focus, and read through it quickly.

The same impenetrable phrases caught his eye: ‘Pursuant to Statute Number 1684-B of the Commission of Fine Arts’; ‘With reference to Section 2784 of Article 127 of the Civil Code of 24 June 1948, subsection 3, paragraph 5’; ‘Failure to provide this issuing office with adequate documentation’; ‘Value calculated according to sub-paragraph 34-V-28 of the Decree of 21 March 1947.’ He ran his eye quickly down the first page and then turned to the second, but still he found only officialese and numbers. Schooled by long experience working in the Venetian bureaucracy, he knew something might be hidden in the last paragraph, and so he turned to that, which did indeed inform him that he could expect further communication from the Ufficio Catasto. He turned back to the first page but whatever meaning might lurk behind the words continued to elude him.

Close as he was to the front door, he could hear the footsteps on the last flight of steps and so opened the door even before the doorbell rang. The man in front of him was still moving up the steps and had already raised a hand to knock, and so the first thing Brunetti saw was the sharp contrast between the raised fist and the perfectly unassuming man who stood behind it. The young man, startled by the sudden opening of the door, had surprise splashed across his face. The face was long, his nose the thin beak so common to Venetians. He had dark brown eyes and brown hair that looked as if it had recently been cut. He wore a suit which might have been blue but might just as easily have been grey. His tie was dark and had a small, indistinguishable pattern. In his right hand he carried a worn brown leather briefcase; it completed the picture of every colourless bureaucrat Brunetti had ever had to deal with, as though part of their job training was the mastery of the art of rendering themselves invisible.

‘Franco Rossi,’ he said, shifting his briefcase to his other hand and extending the right.

Brunetti took it, shook hands briefly, and stepped back to allow him to enter.

Politely, Rossi asked permission and then stepped into the apartment. Inside, he stopped and waited for Brunetti to tell him where to go.

‘In here, please,’ Brunetti said, leading him back toward the room where he had been reading. Brunetti went over to the sofa, slipped the old vaporetto ticket he used as a marker inside his book, and placed it on the table. He gestured to Rossi to take a seat opposite him and himself sat on the sofa.

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