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  • Published: 1 October 2018
  • ISBN: 9781787461093
  • Imprint: Arrow
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $19.99

The Temptation of Forgiveness



Having left the apartment smack on time so as to arrive at the Questura on time for a meeting with his superior, Brunetti found himself seated towards the rear of a Number One vaporetto, glancing idly through a copy of that morning’s Gazzettino. Subconsciously aware that they had just left la Salute, starting to cross to Vallaresso, he heard the boat’s motor slip into reverse. A Venetian system of batlike echolocation told him they were still some distance from the left bank of the canal, so the sound of the boat reversing was out of place: perhaps the Captain was trying to avoid something in the water ahead of them.

Brunetti lowered the paper, looked up, and saw nothing. Or, more accurately, he saw no farther than a sober grey wall he recognized instantly as an approaching bank of fog. It was hard to believe his eyes, so clear had the sky been when he’d left his home twenty minutes before. While he had been reading about the latest failure of the MOSE floodgates to function – after more than thirty years of plans and peculation – someone appeared to have draped a thick grey cloth in front of the vaporetto.

It was November; fog was thus to be expected, and the temperature was no warmer than it had been for the past week. Brunetti turned and looked at the man sitting on his right, but saw that he was so rapt by whatever showed on the screen of his phone that he would not have noticed seraphs had they descended and flown in close formation on either side of the boat.

They slowed to a stop a few metres from the grey wall, and the motor slipped into neutral. From behind him, Brunetti heard a woman whisper, ‘Oddio’, her voice filled with mild surprise, not fear. Brunetti looked towards the riva on his left and could see the Hotel Europa and Palazzo Treves, but apparently Ca’ Giustinian had been devoured by the same dense mist that stretched across the Canal Grande in front of them.

The man beside him finally looked up from his phone and stared straight ahead, then returned his attention to the small screen in his left hand. Brunetti folded his paper and turned to look behind them. Through the back door and windows, he saw boats coming in their direction, others moving away from them towards the Rialto Bridge. A Number Two pulled out from the Accademia stop, starting towards them, but then it slowed and appeared to stop.

He heard the klaxon before he saw the taxi swerve around the stationary Number Two and tear towards them. As it passed the larger boat, Brunetti saw that the pilot was talking to a blonde woman who stood behind him. Just as they passed Brunetti, her mouth opened in what might have been a gasp, or a scream, forcing the driver to turn and face forward. Expressionless, he swung the tiller, swerved around the front of Brunetti’s vaporetto and plunged into the curtain of fog.

Brunetti pushed past his neighbour and out on to the deck, listening for a crash from in front of them, but all he heard was the disappearing noise of the taxi. Their own engine throbbed back into life and they began to edge forward. From where he stood, Brunetti could not see if the radar on the roof of the cabin was turning, but surely it had to be or they would not be venturing to move at all.

Then, as easily as if they were aboard a magic boat in a fantasy novel, they slipped through the grey curtain, and sunlight was restored to them. Inside the pilot’s cabin, the sailor, completely relaxed, half leaned back against the window, and the Captain looked ahead, hands on the tiller. On the embankment, the palazzi, freed of their foggy wrappings, moved calmly to the left as the vaporetto approached the Vallaresso stop.

Behind him, the cabin door slid open and passengers slipped past him and bunched together in front of the railing. The boat docked, the sailor slid back the metal railing, people got off, people got on, the sailor slid the railing closed, and the boat departed. Brunetti looked back in the direction of the Accademia, but there was no sign of fog. Boats approached them and moved away: ahead lay the bacino; on the left, the Basilica, the Marciana, and the Palazzo stood quietly in their appointed places while the morning sun continued sweeping up last night’s shadows.

Brunetti looked into the cabin, wondering if those inside had seen the same thing he had, but he had no memory of which of them had been aboard when he saw the fog. He would have had to ask them, but anticipation of their looks kept him from doing so.

Brunetti touched the top of the railing, but it was dry, as was the deck. He was wearing a dark blue suit, and he felt the sun warm his right sleeve and shoulder. The sun glowed; the air was fresh and dry; the sky was cloudless.

He got off at San Zaccaria, forgetting his newspaper behind and, as he watched the boat pulling away, leaving behind any hope of verifying what he had seen. He walked slowly down the riva, grew tired of pondering the inexplicable, and instead concentrated his thoughts on what he would have to do when he got to the Questura.

The previous afternoon, Brunetti had received an email from his superior, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, requesting that he come and have a word with him the following morning. No explanation had been given, which was normal; the language was polite, which was not.

Most of Vice-Questore Patta’s behaviour was predictable for a man who had progressed through government bureaucracy. He seemed busier than he was; he never missed the opportunity to claim for himself any praise given to the organization for which he worked; he had a black belt in shifting blame or responsibility for failure to shoulders other than his own. What was not to be expected in someone who had, with such ease, shimmied up the pole of organizational success was the fact that he had, for decades, remained in the same place. Most men who attained his rank continued to rise, zigzagging from province to province, city to city, until perhaps a late-career promotion took them to Rome, where they tended to remain, like thick clots on the top of yogurt, cutting off light, air, and the possibility for growth from those below them.

Patta, like a Cambrian trilobite, had dug himself into place at the Venice Questura and had become a sort of living fossil. Beside him, petrified in the same layer of silt, was his assistant, Lieutenant Scarpa, another native of Palermo who had come to prefer these pastures new. Commissari came and went, three different Questori had been in charge during Patta’s time in Venice; even the computers had been twice replaced. But Patta remained, a limpet attached to his rock, as the waters washed over him and away, leaving him intact and in place, his faithful Lieutenant at his side.

And yet, neither Patta nor Scarpa had ever demonstrated any enthusiasm for the city, nor any special fondness for it. If someone said that Venice was beautiful – perhaps even going so far as to say it was the most beautiful city on earth – Scarpa and Patta would exchange a glance that expressed, but did not state, disagreement. Yes, they both seemed to be thinking, but have you ever seen Palermo?

It was Patta’s secretary, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, who greeted Brunetti as he came into the office from where she guarded that of the Vice-Questore. ‘Ah, Commissario,’ she said. ‘The Vice-Questore called a few minutes ago and asked me to tell you he’d be here soon.’

Had Vlad the Impaler apologized for the dullness of the stakes, the message would have been no more astonishing. ‘Is there something wrong with him?’ Brunetti asked without thinking.

She tilted her head to one side to consider his question, began to smile and then stopped. ‘He’s been spending a lot of time on the phone with his wife lately,’ she said and then added, ‘Difficult to tell: he says very little in response to whatever it is she says to him.’ She had somehow managed to place a type of listening device – Brunetti did not want to know more – in her superior’s office, but he thought it best not to display any knowledge of this.

‘When he talks to Scarpa, they go over by the window.’ Did that mean the device was on his desk or that Patta suspected something and saw to it that he and his assistant spoke in voices too low to be heard? Or did they just like the view?

‘What?’ Brunetti asked, eyebrows raised. Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuffs. It fell with the liquid grace of silk.

She placed the outstretched fingers of one hand over those of the other and made a grille covering part of her desk. ‘I’ve no idea what’s troubling him.’ Brunetti sensed that this was a question but did not understand how it could be: if anyone knew what Patta was up to, it was Signorina Elettra. She went on, eyes still on her hands. ‘He isn’t nervous when he talks to his wife. He listens but tells her to do whatever she thinks best.’

‘And with Scarpa?’

‘With him he does sound nervous.’ She stopped, as though to reflect on this and then added, ‘It could be that he doesn’t like what Scarpa’s saying. The Vice-Questore cuts him short. One time he even told him not to bother him with more questions,’ she said, forgetting how unlikely it was that she would be able to hear any of this from her office.

‘Trouble in paradise,’ Brunetti said, straight-faced.

‘So it would seem,’ she agreed. Then she asked, ‘Do you want to wait for him in his office, or should I call you when he comes in?’

‘I’ll go upstairs. Call me when he gets here.’ Then, unable to resist a parting remark, he added, ‘I wouldn’t want the Vice-Questore to find me rifling through his drawers.’

‘Neither would he,’ said a deep voice from the doorway.

‘Ah, Lieutenant,’ Brunetti said easily, directing a happy smile at the man lounging against the jamb of the door to the office. ‘Once again, we are two hearts that beat as one in our concern for the best interests of the Vice-Questore.’

‘Are you being ironic?’ Scarpa asked with a thin smile. ‘Or perhaps sarcastic, Commissario?’ The Lieutenant paused briefly and then added, by way of explanation, ‘Those of us who did not have the advantage of a university education sometimes have trouble telling the difference.’

Brunetti waited a moment to give the question the consideration it warranted, then answered, ‘In this case, I’d say it’s merely hyperbole, Lieutenant, where the obvious exaggeration is meant to render the entire statement false and unbelievable.’ When Scarpa did not respond, Brunetti added, ‘It’s a rhetorical device used to create humour.’ Scarpa said nothing, so Brunetti continued, smiling all the while, ‘In philosophy – one of those things we studied at university – it’s called the “Argumentum ad Absurdum”.’ Realizing he had gone quite far enough, Brunetti stopped himself from adding that it was a rhetorical device he found especially suitable to his conversations with the Vice-Questore.

‘And it’s meant to be funny?’ Scarpa finally asked.

‘Exactly, Lieutenant. Exactly. It is so clearly absurd to think that I would in any way abuse the Vice-Questore’s trust that the mere suggestion is enough to provoke laughter.’ Brunetti broadened his mouth as if his dentist had asked him to show his front teeth.

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

Smile intact, even broader than it had been, Brunetti turned to Signorina Elettra and said, ‘I’ll be in my office, if you’d be kind enough to call me when the Vice-Questore arrives.’

‘Certainly, Signor Commissario,’ Signorina Elettra agreed and turned to Scarpa to ask, ‘What might I do for you, Lieutenant?’

Brunetti started towards the door. Scarpa did not move, still stood effectively blocking the exit. Time stopped. Signorina Elettra looked away.

Finally the Lieutenant stepped towards Signorina Elettra’s desk, and Brunetti left the office.

The Temptation of Forgiveness Donna Leon

In the twenty-seventh novel in Donna Leon's bestselling crime series, a suspicious accident leads Commissario Guido Brunetti to uncover a longstanding scam with disturbing unintended consequences.

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