Battestini's niece, who held power of attorney for her aunt, declared that she had, the previous day, collected her aunt's pension at the post office and taken it to her: seven hundred and twelve Euros.

Given the state of the Romanian woman's body, no attempt was made to check for traces of Signora Battestini's blood. One of the men who had been in the compartment with her said that she had seemed very disturbed when she got on to the train in Venice but had grown noticeably calmer the farther they got from the city, and the other one said she had been careful to take the plastic bag with her when she went down the corridor to the toilet.

In the absence of other suspects, it was declared that she was the likely murderer, and it was decided that police energies could be better employed than in continued investigation of the case. It was not closed, merely left unattended: in the normal course of things, it would disappear for lack of attention and, after the sensational headlines which greeted the murder and the Romanian's flight had been forgotten, it would join them in oblivion.

The authorities attempted to establish at least the bureaucratic evidence relating to the murder of Maria Grazia Battestini. Her niece said that the Romanian woman, whom she had known only as Flori, had been with her aunt for four months before the crime. No, the niece had not hired her: that was all in the hands of her aunt's lawyer, Roberta Marieschi. Dottoressa Marieschi, it turned out, served as lawyer for a number of elderly persons in the city, and for many of them she procured maids and domestic helpers, primarily from Romania, where she had contacts with various charitable organizations.

Dottoressa Marieschi knew nothing more about Florinda Ghiorghiu than what was contained in her passport, a copy of which Dottoressa Marieschi had in her possession. The original was found in a cloth bag tied to the waist of the woman who had fallen under the train and, when cleaned and examined, it turned out to be false, and not even a very good forgery. Dottoressa Marieschi, when questioned about this, replied that it was not her job to recertify the validity of passports which the Immigration Police had accepted as genuine, merely to find clients for whom the persons bearing those passports – and here she took the opportunity to repeat the phrase, 'which the Immigration Police had accepted as genuine' – might be suitable.

She had met the Ghiorghiu woman only once, four months before, when she had taken her to Signora Battestini's home and introduced the two women. Since then, she had had no further contact with her. Yes, Signora Battestini had complained about the Romanian woman, but Signora Battestini was in the habit of complaining about the help that was sent to her.

Because the case remained in limbo, the niece could get no answer to her questions about the state of her aunt's apartment, whether it was still a protected crime scene or not. When she tired of the lack of response, she consulted with Dottoressa Marieschi, who assured her that the conditions of her aunt's will were sufficiently clear to guarantee her undisputed possession of the entire building. A week after Signora Battestini's death the two women met and discussed at length the legal status of the dead woman's estate. Assured by the lawyer's words, the niece went into the apartment the day after their conversation and cleaned it. Whatever she judged to be of potential value or importance was placed into cardboard boxes and taken up to the attic. The remainder of her aunt's clothing and personal possessions were put into large plastics- garbage bags and left outside the door of the apartment. The next day the painters went in, Dottoressa Marieschi having convinced the heiress that it would be best to buy some new furniture and rent the apartment to tourists by the week. She would see to the business of finding suitable tenants, and no, if the arrangements remained informal and payment was made in cash, she saw no reason why it would be necessary to declare this income to the authorities. After consulting once again with Dottoressa Marieschi, the heiress agreed to restore the apartments, with a view to charging high rents for them.

And so things rested, as little as three weeks after the death of Maria Grazia Battestini. Her worldly possessions sat in the attic, tossed carelessly into boxes by someone with no interest in them beyond the vague hope that some day, when she got around to taking a closer look at them, something in one of them might prove to be of value; and her apartment, newly painted, was already the subject of a very serious inquiry from a Dutch cigar manufacturer, who was interested in renting it for the last week of August.

3

Thus things stood, contentment shared equally among them: the police, who had effectively closed, though they had not solved, the case; Signora Battestini's niece, Graziella Simionato, who anticipated a convenient and welcomed new income; and Roberta Marieschi, who applauded herself for having so successfully retained the Battestini family on her list of clients. No doubt things would so have remained had it not been for the dominant household god of Venice, indeed of all towns and cities: gossip.

Late in the afternoon of the third Sunday in August, the shutters were pushed open on the windows of a second-floor apartment just off the Canale della Misericordia, not far from the Palazzo del Cammello. The owner of the apartment, Assunta Gismondi, was a graphic designer who had lived in Venice all her life, though she now worked primarily for an architect's studio in Milano. After pushing back the shutters to allow some air into the stifling apartment, Signora Gismondi, from the habit of years, looked across the canal at the windows directly opposite and was surprised to see the shutters of the second-floor apartment closed. She was surprised, though hardly disappointed.

She unpacked her suitcase, hung up some clothes and stuffed others in the washing machine. She looked through the post that had accumulated during the three weeks she had been in London, checked her faxes and read them, but because she had been in email contact with her lover, as well as with the employers who had sent her to London on the training course, she did not bother to turn on her computer to check for new messages. Instead, she took her shopping bag and went out to the Billa on Strada Nuova, the only place where she would be able to get enough food to prepare a meal for herself that evening. The idea of eating in another restaurant filled her with horror. She would rather stay home and eat pasta with olio e peperoncino than sit alone again and eat among strangers.

Billa on Strada Nuova was open, and Signora Gismondi was able to fill her bag with fresh tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, salad, and, for the first time in three weeks, find decent fruit and cheese that did not require the payment of a week's salary for even the smallest of portions. Back in her apartment, she poured olive oil into a frying pan, chopped up two, then three, then four cloves of garlic and let them simmer slowly, breathing in the scent with a joy that was almost religious in its intensity, happy to be home, among the objects, the smells and the sights she loved.

Her lover called half an hour later and told her he was still in Argentina, where things were a mess and getting worse, but he planned to be back in a week or so, when he'd fly up from Rome for at least three days. No, he'd tell his wife he had to go to Torino for business; she wouldn't care, anyway. When she replaced the phone, Assunta sat in her kitchen and ate a plate of pasta with a sauce of tomatoes and grilled eggplant, then ate two peaches and finished a half-bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Glancing out the window at the house across the way, she whispered a silent prayer that the shutters would never open again, in which case she would never request another favour of life.

The next morning, on her way to her favourite bar for a coffee and a brioche, she stopped at the newsagent's for the paper.

'Good morning, Signora,' the man behind the counter greeted her. ‘I haven't seen you for a while. Vacation?'

'No. In London. For work.'

'Did you enjoy it?' he asked, his tone making it clear that he had serious doubts as to whether that were possible.

She picked up the Gazzettino and read bold headlines that foretold imminent political collapse, ecological disaster, and a crime of passion in Lombardia. How sweet to be home. She shrugged in belated response to his question, as if to suggest the unlikelihood of enjoying work, no matter in what city, no matter in what land.

It was all right’ she finally equivocated. 'But it's good to be home. And you? Anything new?'

'You haven't heard, then?' he said, face suddenly alight at the pleasure of being the first to pass on bad

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