Authors: Donna Leon
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Fiction, #General, #Political, #Mystery & Detective, #Police, #Brunetti; Guido (Fictitious Character), #Venice (Italy), #Mystery Fiction, #Nuns, #Nursing Homes, #Monasticism and Religious Orders for Women, #Police - Venice - Italy
Donna Leons mastery of plot, her understanding of Venetian manners and mores, and above all her philosophical, unfailingly decent protagonist have made the Commissario Brunetti mysteries bestsellers around the world, including an ever-growing American audience. In "The Death of Faith," Brunetti comes to the aid of a young nursing sister who is leaving her convent following the unexpected death of five patients. At first Brunettis inquiries reveal nothing amiss, and he wonders whether the nun is simply creating a smoke screen to justify abandoning her vocation. But perhaps she has stumbled onto something very real and very sinistersomething that puts her life in imminent danger.
* * * *
The Death of Faith
[Commissario Brunetti 06]
By Donna Leon
* * * *
È sempre bene
Il sospettare un poco, in questo mondo.
It’s always better, in this world,
To be a little suspicious.
Cosi fan tutte,
* * * *
Brunetti sat at his desk and stared at his feet. Propped on the bottom drawer of his desk, they each presented him with four horizontal rows of tiny metal-circled round eyes that looked back at him in apparent, multiple reproach. For the last half hour, he’d divided his time and attention between the doors of the wooden
that stood against the far wall of his office and, when those ceased to hold his attention, his shoes. Occasionally, when the sharp corner of the top of the drawer began to cut into his heel, he crossed his feet the other way, but that merely rearranged the pattern of the eyes and did little to eliminate their reproach or relieve his boredom.
Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta had been on vacation in Thailand for the last two weeks — gone there on what the staff of the Questura insisted on calling his second honeymoon — and Brunetti had been left in charge of what crime there was in Venice. But crime, it seemed, had boarded the plane with the Vice-Questore, for little of any importance had happened since Patta and his wife (newly restored to his home and — one trembled — his arms) had left, save for the usual break-ins and pickpocketing. The only interesting crime had taken place at a jewelry store in Campo San Maurizio two days before, when a well-dressed couple pushed in their baby carriage, and, new father blushing with pride, asked to see a diamond ring to give to the even shyer mother. She tried on first one, then another. Finally, selecting a three-carat white diamond, she asked if she could go out and look at it in the light of day The inevitable followed: she stepped outside the door, flashed her hand in the sunlight, smiled, then waved to the father, who dipped his head into the carriage to rearrange the covers and, with an embarrassed smile to the owner, stepped outside to join his wife. And disappeared, of course, leaving the baby carriage and doll behind, blocking the door.
However ingenious, this certainly did not constitute a crime wave, and Brunetti found himself bored and at a loss, uncertain about whether he preferred the responsibility of command and the mounds of paper it seemed to generate or the freedom of action that his inferior status usually afforded him.
He looked up when someone knocked at his door, then smiled when it opened to present him this morning’s first sight of Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary who seemed to have taken the Vice-Questore’s departure as an invitation to begin her work day at ten, rather than the usual eight-thirty.
Commissario,’ she said as she came in, her smile reminding him, fleetingly, of
gelato all’ amarena
— scarlet and white — colours matched by the stripes of her silk blouse. She came into the office and stepped a bit to the side, allowing another woman to come in behind her. Brunetti glanced at the second woman and was briefly conscious of a square-cut suit in cheap grey polyester, its skirt in unfashionable proximity to low-heeled shoes. He noticed the woman’s hands clasped awkwardly around a cheap imitation leather handbag, and turned his eyes back to Signorina Elettra.
‘Commissario, here’s someone who would like to speak to you,’ she said.
‘Yes?’ he asked and looked at the other woman again, not much interested. But then he noticed the curve of her right cheek, and, as she turned her head and glanced around the room, the fine line of her jaw and neck. He repeated, this time with more interest, ‘Yes?’
At his tone, the woman turned her head toward him and gave a half-smile and, with it, became strangely familiar to Brunetti, though he was certain he had never seen her before. It occurred to him that she might be the daughter of a friend, come to seek his help, and he thought that what he recognized was not her face but its reflection of her family.
‘Yes, Signorina?’ he said, rising from his chair and waving a hand toward one that stood on the other side of his desk. When he spoke, the woman gave a quick glance at Signorina Elettra, who responded with the smile she reserved for those nervous of finding themselves in the Questura. She said something about having to get back to work, and let herself out of the office.
The woman moved around to the front of the chair and sat down, pulling her skirt to one side before she did so. Though she was slender, she moved gracelessly, as if unaccustomed to wearing anything other than low-heeled shoes.
Brunetti knew from long experience that it was best to say nothing, that he should wait, face calm and interested, and sooner or later his silence would spur the person in front of him into speech. As he waited, he glanced at her face, away, then back again, trying to remember why it was so familiar to him. He sought some sign of a parent in her face, or perhaps a sales-girl he knew from a shop, unrecognizable now she was not behind the familiar counter that would have identified her. If she did work in a shop, he found himself thinking, it would certainly not be one that had anything to do with clothing or fashion: the suit was a dreadful box-like thing in a style that had disappeared ten years ago; her haircut was simply hair that had been cut very short, and done too carelessly to be either boyish or stylish; her face was absolutely bare of make-up. But, as he took a third glance, he realized that she could be said to be in disguise, and what was hidden was her beauty. Her dark eyes were widely spaced, the lashes so long and thick that they needed no mascara. The lips were pale, but full and smooth. The nose, straight, narrow, and faintly arched, was — he could find no better word for it — noble. And beneath the awkwardly cropped hair, he saw that her brow was wide and unwrinkled. But even his consciousness of her beauty brought memory no closer.
She startled him by asking, ‘You don’t recognize me, do you, Commissario?’ Even the voice was familiar but it, too, was out of place. He cast about in vain to recall it, but he could be certain only that it had nothing to do with the Questura or with his work.
‘No, I’m sorry, Signorina. I don’t. But I know that I know you and that this isn’t where I’d expect to see you.’ He smiled a real smile, one that asked her understanding of this common human predicament.
‘I wouldn’t expect most people you know to have reason to be in the Questura,’ she said, but then she smiled to show that she meant it lightly and did understand his confusion.
‘No, few of my friends ever come here voluntarily, and, so far, none of them has had to come involuntarily.’ This time he smiled to show he could joke about police business, too, and added, ‘Fortunately.’
‘I’ve never had anything to do with the police before,’ she said, looking around the room again, as if afraid that something bad would happen to her now that she did.
‘Most people never do,’ Brunetti offered.
‘No, I suppose not,’ she said, looking down at her hands. With no introduction, she said, ‘I used to be immaculate.’
‘I beg your pardon.’ Brunetti was utterly at a loss, suddenly wondering if something was seriously wrong with this young woman.
‘Suor’Immacolata,’ she said, glancing up at him and smiling that soft smile which had for so long glowed at him from under the starched white wimple of her habit. The name put her into place and solved the puzzle: the haircut made sense, as did her evident awkwardness with the clothing she wore. Brunetti had been conscious of her beauty since the first time he saw her in that rest home where, for years, his mother had found no rest. But the nature of her religious vows and the long habit that reflected them had hedged her round as if with a taboo, and so Brunetti had registered her beauty as he would that of a flower or a painting, and he had responded to it as a viewer and not as a man. Now, freed of restrictions and disguise, her beauty had slipped into the room, however much her awkwardness and cheap clothing tried to hide it.
Suor’Immacolata had disappeared from his mother’s nursing home about a year ago, and Brunetti, upset by his mother’s desperation at the loss of the sister who had been most kind to her, could learn only that she had been transferred to another of the order’s nursing homes. A long roll of questions ran through his mind, but he discarded them all as inappropriate. She was here: she would tell him why.
‘I can’t go back to Sicily,’ she said abruptly. ‘My family wouldn’t understand.’ Her hands abandoned their hold on her purse and sought comfort from one another. Finding none, they placed themselves on her thighs. Then, as if suddenly conscious of the warmth of the flesh under them, they returned to the hard angles of the bag.
‘Have you been . . .’ Brunetti began and then, failing to find the correct verb, settled for a pause and the lame finale, ‘ — long?’
‘Are you staying here in Venice?’
‘No, not here, out at the Lido. I have a room in a pensione.’
Had she come to him, he wondered, for money.
If so, he would be honoured and glad to give it to her, so vast was the debt incurred by her years of charity to him and to his mother.
As if she’d read his mind, she said, ‘I have a job.’
‘In a private clinic on the Lido.’
‘In the laundry.’ She caught his swift glance at her hands and smiled. ‘It’s all machines now, Commissario. No more taking the sheets down to the river and beating them on the rocks.’
He laughed as much at his own embarrassment as at her answer. That lightened the mood in the room and freed him to say, ‘I’m sorry that you had to make this decision.’ In the past, he would have added her title, ‘Suor’Immacolata’, but there was no longer anything he could call her. With her habit had gone her name and he knew not what else.
‘My name is Maria,’ she said, ‘Maria Testa.’ Like a singer who paused to follow the lingering sound of a note that marked the change from one key to another, she stopped here and listened to the echo of her name. ‘Though I’m not sure it’s mine any longer,’ she added.
‘What?’ Brunetti asked.
‘There’s a process you have to go through when you leave. The order, that is. I suppose it’s like deconsecrating a church. It’s very complicated, and it can take a long time before they let you go.’