Extract: Earthly Remains by Donna Leon
During the interrogation of an entitled, arrogant man suspected of giving drugs to a young girl who then died, Commissario Guido Brunetti acts rashly, doing something he will quickly come to regret. In the aftermath, he begins to doubt his career choices and realises that he needs a break from the stifling problems of his work. Granted leave from the Questura, Brunetti is shipped off by his wife, Paola, to a villa owned by a wealthy relative on Sant’Erasmo, one of the largest islands in the Venetian laguna. There he intends to pass his days rowing, and his nights reading Pliny’s Natural History.
The recuperative stay goes according to plan and Brunetti is finally able to relax – until Davide Casati, the caretaker of the house, goes missing following a sudden storm. Nobody can find him – not his daughter, not his friends, and not the woman he’d been secretly visiting. Now, Brunetti feels compelled to investigate, to set aside his holiday and discover what happened to the man who had recently become his friend.
In Earthly Remains, Donna Leon shows Venice through an insider’s eyes. From family meals and vaporetti rides to the never-ending influx of tourists and suffocating political corruption, the details and rhythms of everyday Venetian life are at the core of this thrilling novel, and of the terrible crime at its heart.
Read on for an extract from the book!
After an exchange of courtesies, the session had gone on for another half-hour, and Brunetti was beginning to feel the strain of it. The man across from him, a 42‑year-old lawyer whose father was one of the most successful – and thus most powerful – notaries in the city, had been asked to come in to the Questura that morning after having been named by two people as the man who had offered some pills to a girl at a party in a private home two
The girl had washed them down with a glass of orange juice reported also to have been given to her by the man now sitting opposite Brunetti. She had collapsed some time later and had been taken to the emergency room of the Ospedale Civile, where her condition had been listed as ‘Riservata’.
Antonio Ruggieri had arrived punctually at ten and, as apparent evidence of his faith in the competence and probity of the police, had not bothered to bring another lawyer with him. Nor had he complained about the heat in the one-windowed room, though his eyes had paused for a moment on the fan standing in the corner, doing its best – and failing – to counteract the muggy oppression of the hottest July on record.
Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might.
Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear that this was only an informal conversation to provide the police with more background information about just what had happened at the party.
Registering this bumbling commissario’s badly disguised admiration for the stature of Ruggieri’s family, the famous people in the city who were their clients and friends, and the circle of wealth and ease in which Ruggieri travelled by right, it had taken the lawyer little time to lapse into easy condescension towards the older man.
Because the officer sitting next to Commissario Brunetti was wearing a uniform, Ruggieri ignored him, though he kept his sensors active to ensure that the younger man responded in a manner proper to the speech of his elders and betters. When the young man failed to react adequately to his self-effacing superiority, the lawyer ceased to use the plural when addressing the two men.
‘As I was saying, Commissario,’ Ruggieri went on, ‘it was a friend’s birthday party: we’ve known one another since we were at school.’
‘Did you know many people there?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Practically all of them: most of us have been friends since we were children.’
‘And the girl?’ Brunetti asked with faint confusion.
‘She must have come with one of the invited guests. There’s no other way she could have got in.’ Then, to show Brunetti how he and his friends safeguarded their privacy, he added, ‘One of us always keeps an eye on the door to see who comes, just in case.’
‘Indeed,’ Brunetti said with a nod of agreement, and in response to Ruggieri’s glance, added, ‘That’s always best.’ He reached forward to push the upright microphone a bit closer to Ruggieri.
‘Do you have any idea whom she might have come with, if I might ask?’
It took Ruggieri a moment to answer. ‘No. I didn’t see her talking to anyone I know.’
‘How was it that you started to talk to her?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Oh, you know how it is,’ Ruggieri said. ‘Lots of people dancing or standing around. One minute I was alone, watching the dancers, and the next thing I knew, she was standing beside me and asking me my name.’
‘Did you know her?’ Brunetti asked, in his best old-fashioned, slightly puzzled voice.
‘No,’ Ruggieri said emphatically. Then he added, ‘And she used “tu” when she spoke to me.’
Brunetti shook his head in apparent disapproval, then asked, ‘What did you talk about?’
‘She said she didn’t know many people and didn’t know how to get a drink.’ Ruggieri said. When Brunetti made no comment, he went on, ‘So I had to ask her if I could bring her one. After all, what else is a gentleman to do?’ Brunetti remained silent, and Ruggieri said hurriedly, ‘It didn’t seem polite to ask her how it was she didn’t know people there. But it did cross my mind.’
‘Of course,’ Brunetti agreed, quite as though it were a situation in which he often found himself. He put an attentive look on his face and waited.
‘She wanted a vodka and orange juice, and I asked her if she were old enough to have one.’
Brunetti conjured a smile. ‘And she said?’ he asked.
‘That she was eighteen, and if I didn’t believe her, she’d find someone else who would.’
Imitating a look he had often seen on the face of his mother’s aunt Anna, Brunetti brought his lips together in a tiny moue of disapproval. Beside him, Pucetti shifted in his seat.
‘Not a very polite answer,’ Brunetti said primly.
Ruggieri ran a hand through his dark hair and gave a weary shrug. ‘It’s what we get from them today, I’m afraid. Just because they’re old enough to vote and drink doesn’t mean they know how to behave.’
Brunetti found it interesting that Ruggieri again remarked on her age.
‘Avvocato,’ Brunetti began with every sign of reluctance, ‘the reason I asked you to come in and talk with us is that you’ve been said to have given her some pills.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Ruggieri said, sounding puzzled. Then he gave an easy smile meant to include Brunetti and added, ‘I’ve been said to have done many things.’
Smiling nervously in return, Brunetti went on, ‘The girl – I’m sure you’ve read – was taken to the hospital. The Carabinieri questioned a number of people and were told you’d been speaking to a girl wearing a green dress.’
‘Who were they?’ Ruggieri’s voice was sharp.
Brunetti held up both hands in a gesture bespeaking weakness. ‘I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to tell you, Avvocato.’
‘So people are free to lie about me and I can’t even defend myself against them?’
‘I’m sure there will be a time for that, Signore,’ Brunetti said, leaving it to the lawyer to work out when that might be.
Ignoring Brunetti’s answer, Ruggieri asked, ‘What else did they say?’
Brunetti shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. ‘I’m not at liberty to say that, either, Signore.’
Ruggieri looked away and studied the wall, as though there might be some other person hiding behind it. ‘I hope they said something about the girl.’
‘What about her?’
‘The way she was all over me,’ Ruggieri said angrily, the first strong emotion he’d shown since they entered the room.
‘Well, someone did say that her behaviour was, er, forward,’ Brunetti answered, letting the word stumble out.
‘That’s putting it mildly,’ Ruggieri said and sat up straighter in his chair. ‘She was leaning against me. That was after I brought her the drink. Then she started to move to the music, against my leg. She put the glass – it was chilled from the ice – between her breasts. They were almost hanging out of her dress.’ Ruggieri sounded indignant at the shamelessness of youth.
‘I see, I see,’ Brunetti said. He was conscious of the tension mounting in Pucetti beside him. The junior officer had recently questioned a young man accused of violence against his girlfriend and had produced a report that was professionally neutral.
‘Did she say anything to you, Signore?’
Ruggieri considered this, started to speak, stopped, then went on. ‘She told me she was hot because of me.’ He paused to let the other men understand fully. ‘Then she asked if there was some place we could go, just the two of us.’
‘Good heavens,’ said an astonished Brunetti. ‘What did you tell her?’
‘I wasn’t interested. That’s what I told her. I don’t like it when it’s that easy to get.’ Seeing Brunetti’s nod of agreement, the lawyer went on, ‘And no matter what these people told you, I don’t know anything about any pills.’
‘Was the girl you talked to wearing a green dress?’ Brunetti asked.
Eventually, the lawyer gave a boyish smile and answered, ‘She might have been. I was looking at her tits, not the dress.’
Brunetti felt Pucetti’s reaction. To cover the young man’s slow intake of breath, he slapped his hand to his mouth and failed to stifle his appreciative chuckle.
Ruggieri smiled broadly and, perhaps encouraged by it, said, ‘I suppose I could have taken her somewhere and done her, but it was hardly worth the effort. Nice tits, but she was a stupid cow.’
Brunetti and Pucetti had learned an hour before the interview that the girl had died in the hospital earlier that morning. The immediate cause of death was an asthma attack; the presence in her blood of Ecstasy provided another. Beside him, Brunetti heard the rough grind of the feet of Pucetti’s chair against the cement floor of the interrogation room. From the corner of his left eye, he saw Pucetti’s legs pull back as the young man got ready to stand.
Fear of what would happen gripped Brunetti’s heart, and his left arm shot up as a low grunt escaped him. This changed to a sharp whining sound that rose up the scale as if forced out by pain. Brunetti lunged crookedly to his feet, gasping for breath while pumping out the tortured whine.
The two other men froze in shock and stared at him. Brunetti pivoted to his left, propelled by a force that shifted his entire body. Arm still raised above his head, he collapsed towards Pucetti, his arm crashing down on Pucetti’s shoulder as the young officer rose from his chair.
Self-protection, perhaps, forced Brunetti’s hand to grab at Pucetti’s collar and yank the younger man towards him. Pucetti automatically braced his left palm flat on the table, arm straight, elbow locked, and took Brunetti’s weight as it fell across him. He turned and wrapped his right arm around the Commissario’s chest, steadied him, and started to lower him to the floor, fighting down his panic.
Pucetti shouted to Ruggieri, ‘Go and get help!’ From his place above Brunetti, feeling for his heartbeat, Pucetti saw the other man’s legs and feet under the table: they did not move.
‘But there’s nothing—’ Ruggieri started to say, but Pucetti cut him off and screamed again, ‘Get help!’ The legs moved; the door opened and closed.
Pucetti leaned down over his superior, who lay on his back, eyes closed, breathing normally. ‘Commissario, Commissario, can you hear me? What’s wrong? What happened?’
Brunetti’s eyes snapped open and he looked into Pucetti’s.
‘Are you all right, Commissario?’ Pucetti asked, struggling for calm.
In an entirely normal voice, as if making a point about proper procedure, Brunetti asked, ‘Do you know what would have happened to your career if you’d attacked him?’