A question of belief, p.16
A Question of Belief, p.16Donna Leon
Brunetti took out his wallet and removed his warrant card. He held it out to the woman and said, ‘Signora Zinka. I’m Commissario Brunetti, and I’m here to ask questions about Signor Fontana and his mother.’ He watched to see how much she understood. She nodded but did not move. ‘I am not interested in anything else, Signora. Do you understand?’ Her posture seemed to grow less rigid, so he stepped aside, still outside the door, and indicated Vianello, who stood beside him, also careful to remain in the hallway. ‘Nor is my assistant, Ispettore Vianello.’
Silently, she took a few hesitant steps in their direction. The child turned to her and said, ‘Come on, Zinka. Come and talk to them. They won’t hurt us: they’re policemen.’
The word stopped the woman’s forward motion, and the look that swept her face suggested that life had taught her to draw different conclusions about the behaviour of the police.
‘If you don’t want us to come in, Signora,’ Brunetti began, speaking slowly, ‘we can come back later this afternoon, or whenever you tell us Lucia’s mother will be home.’ She took another step closer to the child, though Brunetti had no idea of whether she was seeking or offering protection.
He looked down at the child. ‘What school do you go to, Lucia?’
‘Foscarini,’ she said.
‘Ah, that’s nice. My daughter went there, too,’ he lied.
‘You have a daughter?’ the little girl asked, as if this were not something policemen were meant to have. Then, as if this would catch him out, she asked, ‘What’s her name?’
‘That’s my best friend’s name, too,’ the girl said, smiling broadly, and stepped back from the door. With surprising formality, she said, ‘Please come in.’
‘Permesso,’ they both said as they stepped inside. It was then that Brunetti became aware of the air conditioning, which fell on him with a sudden chill after the heat of the day.
‘We can go to my father’s office. That’s where he always takes visitors if they’re men,’ she said, turning away from them and opening a door on the right. ‘Come on,’ she encouraged them. Vianello closed the door to the apartment, and the two men followed the child down the chilly hall. At the entrance to the office, Brunetti said to the woman, ‘It would help us if we could talk to you, too, Signora, but only if you’re willing. All we want to know about is Signora Fontana and her son.’
The woman took another small step towards them and said, ‘Good man.’
‘You knew him?’
She nodded again.
The child went into the room and said, this time drawing the last word out, ‘Come on, silly.’ She crossed the room, hesitated beside a large desk, then pulled out the chair behind it and sat in it: her shoulders barely topped the desk, and Brunetti could not stop himself from smiling.
The woman saw his smile, looked across at the child, then back at Brunetti, and he watched her assess the scene and his response. ‘I really do have a daughter, Signora,’ he said and walked over to take one of the chairs in front of the desk. Vianello took the other one.
The woman came into the room but remained standing, halfway between the desk and the open door, a position that offered her the opportunity to try to snatch the child to safety, should that become necessary.
‘Where’s your Mummy?’ Vianello asked.
‘She works. That’s why we have Zinka. She stays with me. We were supposed to go to the beach today – we have a cabina at the Excelsior – but Mamma says it’s too hot today, so we stayed home. Zinka was going to let me help make lunch.’
‘Good for you,’ Vianello said. ‘What are you going to make?’
‘Minestra di verdura. Zinka says if I’m good, I can peel the potatoes.’
Brunetti turned his attention to the woman, who appeared to be following the conversation with no difficulty. ‘Signora,’ he said with real warmth. ‘If I hadn’t promised to ask only about Signora Fontana, I’d ask you to teach me how I could convince my daughter that I might let her clean her room.’ He smiled to show her the joke; her face softened, and then she smiled in return.
The illegality of what he was doing suddenly descended on Brunetti, but heavier was the weight of the seaminess of it. She was just a child, for heaven’s sake: how great was his need to know, if he would sink to this?
He turned to the woman. ‘It’s not right to ask Lucia any more questions, I think. So perhaps we should let you both get back to your minestra.’ Vianello gave him a surprised glance, but he ignored it and said to the girl, ‘I hope it cools down enough for you to go to the beach tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, Signore,’ she said with learned politeness, then added, ‘Maybe it’s not so bad if we can’t go. Zinka hates the beach.’ Then, turning to her, she asked, ‘Don’t you?’
The woman’s smile reappeared, broader now. ‘The beach doesn’t like me, either, Lucia.’
Brunetti and Vianello stood. ‘Could you tell me when I might find the Marsanos at home? We’ll come back then.’
She looked at the little girl and said, ‘Lucia, go down to kitchen see if I left glasses there, please?’
Happy to obey, the girl jumped down from the chair and left the room.
‘Signor Marsano won’t tell you things. Signora no, also.’
‘Tell me what, Signora?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Fontana was good man. Fight with Signor Marsano, fight with upstairs people.’
She used the word for battle, so Brunetti asked, ‘Word fight or hand fight, Signora?’
‘Word fight, only word fight,’ she said, as though the other possibility frightened her.
‘They call names: Signor Fontana say Signor Marsano not honest, same with man upstairs. Then Signor Marsano say he is bad man, go with men.’
‘But you think he was a good man?’ Brunetti asked.
‘I know,’ she said with sudden force. ‘He found me lawyer. Good man at Tribunale. He help me with papers, for staying.’
‘For staying in Italy?’ Brunetti asked.
‘They aren’t there, Zinka,’ the girl shouted from the end of the corridor, then, as she approached, she asked, in that long-drawn-out voice of the impatient child, ‘Can we go back to work now?’
Zinka smiled as the girl appeared at the door and said, ‘One minute, then we work again.’
‘Could you give me the name of the lawyer, Signora?’ Brunetti asked.
‘Penzo. Renato Penzo. Friend of Signor Fontana. He is good man, too.’
‘And Signora Fontana,’ Brunetti asked, sensitive to the child’s impatience and the woman’s growing uneasiness, ‘is she a good woman, too?’
The woman looked at him, then down at the child. ‘Our guests go now, Lucia. You open the door for them, no?’
The child, sensing the possibility of getting back to work on the potatoes, all but ran to the front door. She pulled it open and went out on the landing, where she leaned over the railing, looking down into the stairwell. Brunetti saw how nervous it made the woman to see her there and started towards the door.
He stopped just inside it. ‘And Signora Fontana?’ he asked.
She shook her head, saw that Brunetti accepted her reluctance to talk, and said, ‘Not like son.’
Brunetti nodded in return, said goodbye to Lucia, and went down the steps, followed by Vianello.
Remembering the heat that awaited them outside on the embankment, Brunetti lingered in the courtyard and asked Vianello, ‘You ever hear of this Penzo?’
Vianello nodded. ‘I’ve heard his name a few times. He does a lot of pro bono work. Comes from a good family. Public service; all that stuff.’
‘With immigrants, the pro bono?’ Brunetti asked, remembering now what he had heard about the lawyer.
‘If he’s working with that woman upstairs, then it would seem so. She’s certainly not being paid enough to afford a lawyer.’ Viane
‘Uh-huh,’ Brunetti agreed. He looked at his watch and was surprised to discover that it was not yet one-thirty. ‘If I call the Tribunale and find out he’s there today, do you think you have the energy to make it that far without collapsing?’
Vianello closed his eyes, and Brunetti wondered if he should prepare himself for melodrama, though Vianello had never been a source of that sort of thing. The Inspector opened his eyes and said, ‘We could take the traghetto from Santa Sofia. It’s the shortest way, and it’s only on Strada Nuova and in the gondola that we’d be in the sun.’
Brunetti called the central number of the Courthouse, was passed to the secretary, and learned that Avvocato Penzo was to appear with a client in court that day. The case was scheduled for eleven, in aula 17 D, but things were going very slowly, so the udienza would probably not have begun before one, though there was no sure way of knowing that without going to the courtroom. Brunetti thanked her and broke the connection. ‘Court’s running late today,’ he told Vianello.
Vianello opened the portone and took a look outside, turned back to Brunetti and said, ‘Sun’s in the sky.’
Twenty minutes later, they entered the Tribunale without being asked to show identification of any sort. They made their way up to the second floor, then down the corridor toward the courtrooms. From the windows on their left, they saw through offices and out the windows that gave a view to the palazzi on the other side of the Grand Canal.
The air was motionless, as were the people who leaned back against the walls or sat in the corridor. All of the chairs were taken; some people had turned their briefcases into chairs or hassocks and sat on them; one man perched on a pile of string-bound legal files. The doors to the offices were all open to allow air to circulate, and occasionally people emerged from them and made their slow way down the crowded hallway, stepping over feet and legs, moving around slumped bodies as best they could.
At the far end they found aula 17 D. Here, as well, the door stood open, and people moved in and out at will. Brunetti stopped a clerk he recognized and asked him where Avvocato Penzo was: his case was being argued now, the clerk said, then added, ‘against Manfredi’, a lawyer known to Brunetti. They walked inside, and in the same instant both of them removed their jackets. Not to do so was to risk their health.
At the far end of the room, the judge sat on a dais that was itself set on a raised platform. He wore his cap and robe, and Brunetti was amazed that he could endure it. He had once been told that, during the summer, some judges chose to wear nothing but their underwear under the gowns: today he believed it. The windows to the canal were open, and the few people in the room all sat in the chairs nearest to them, except for the lawyers, who stood or sat facing the judge; they too were dressed in their formal black robes. One woman lawyer sat at the end of the row of chairs farthest from the windows with her head fallen against the back of the chair. Even from a distance, Brunetti could see that her hair looked as though she had just stepped from the shower. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open: she could as easily have been unconscious as asleep, overcome by the heat as dead.
Like magnets to a file, he and Vianello moved towards the windows and found two empty chairs. There was some sort of sound system in the room, and there were microphones in front of the judge and on the lawyers’ tables, but there was something wrong with the connection, for the voices that emerged from the two speakers set high on the walls were distorted to incomprehensibility by static. The court stenographer sat just beneath the judge: she was either able to understand through the noise or close enough to the voices to hear them. She typed away at her machine as though she were on some other, cooler, planet.
Brunetti watched, familiar with the scene and the actors in it. He told himself he was on a plane and this was another scene to observe without headphones. He watched the theatrical tossing back of the sleeve of a gown, the wide arc of an arm as the speaker hammered home a conclusive argument, or chased away a fly. The other lawyer splashed a look of astonishment across his face; the first lawyer shot his hands up in the air, as if incapable of finding a better way to express his disbelief. Brunetti let himself wonder if the judges ever tuned out the sound and simply observed the gestures, if they learned to discern the truth or falsity of what was being said by the gestures that accompanied the unheeded words. Further, in a city this small, each of those lawyers had a reputation according to which his honesty could be calibrated, and so perhaps all an experienced judge needed to do was read the name of the accusing and defending lawyers to know where truth lay.
After all, much of what was being said was lies, or at least evasions and interpretations. The business of the law was not the discovery of the truth, anyway, but the imposition of the power of the state upon its citizens.
Brunetti’s eyes returned to the woman lawyer, who had not moved, and then the heat overcame them, and they closed. A nudge from his left startled him awake. He looked at Vianello, who turned his eyes in the direction of the judge’s table.
Two gowned figures approached the judge, who leaned forward and said a few words which did not come through, in however distorted a fashion, the loudspeakers. As if wanting to cooperate with Brunetti’s conceit that this was all a mime, the judge tapped the face of his watch. The two lawyers spoke simultaneously; the judge shook his head. He reached to the left and gathered up some papers, stood, and walked from the courtroom, leaving the lawyers in front of the dais.
They turned to face one another and spoke briefly. One opened a case file and showed the other a paper. The second lawyer took it and read it, both of them undisturbed by the sound of chairs being pushed back as the spectators got to their feet and started to file out of the courtroom. Brunetti and Vianello also stood, the better to let people move past them, then sat again when their row was empty.
The second lawyer moistened his lips, then raised his eyebrows in a gesture of reluctant acceptance. He took the paper and went back to where his client was sitting. He placed the paper on the desk in front of the man and pointed to it. The other man placed a finger on the paper and moved it back and forth along the lines, as if expecting his finger to transmit the text to him. At a certain point, his finger gave up and his hand fell flat on the surface of the sheet covering – accidentally or intentionally – the text that he had just read.
He looked at his lawyer and shook his head. The lawyer spoke, and the man glanced away. Time passed, the lawyer said something else as he grabbed up the paper and took it back to his colleague. He handed him the now-wrinkled sheet of paper, and the two lawyers turned and left the room, leaving the second lawyer’s client sitting alone at the table.
Brunetti and Vianello got to their feet and moved towards the door. ‘The loser was Manfredi,’ said Brunetti, ‘so that means Penzo won.’
‘I wonder what was on the paper,’ Vianello said.
‘Manfredi’s as crooked as they come,’ Brunetti said in a voice heavy with long experience, ‘so it was probably something that proved he or his client has been lying.’
‘And Penzo can prove it.’
‘One would like to think,’ said Brunetti, reluctant to believe in the integrity of a lawyer until he had had direct experience of the person. ‘Let’s talk to him.’ They found the lawyer at the end of the corridor, where he stood looking out of a window, his robe tossed on the windowsill, his arms lifted from his body in what Brunetti was sure was a vain attempt to find relief from the heat. Seeing Penzo from the back, Brunetti was struck by how thin the man was: hips no wider than a boy’s, his shirt puffed in damp, empty folds from shoulder to waist.
‘Avvocato Penzo?’ Brunetti said.
Penzo turned, a look of mild inq
‘Sì?’ he inquired, glancing from Brunetti to Vianello and back again, recognizing them immediately as policemen. ‘What is it?’ the lawyer asked politely, and Brunetti liked that he did not make a joke about their being policemen, as many people would.
As if he had not noticed Penzo’s expression, Brunetti said, ‘I’m Commissario Guido Brunetti, and this is Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello.’
Penzo turned, retrieved his robe from the windowsill, and draped it over his arm. ‘How may I help you?’ he asked.
‘We’d like to talk to you about a client of yours,’ Brunetti said.
‘Of course. Where shall we do it?’ Penzo asked, glancing around the corridor. It was no longer crowded now, during lunchtime, but there were still people walking by now and again.
‘We could go to Do Mori and have a drink,’ Brunetti suggested. Vianello breathed an audible sigh of relief, and Penzo smiled in agreement.
‘Could you give me five minutes to get rid of this,’ Penzo said, raising the arm that held the robe, ‘and I’ll meet you at the entrance?’
It was agreed and Brunetti and Vianello turned away towards the stairs.
As they walked down, Brunetti asked, ‘Who do you think he’s calling?’
‘His wife, probably, to say he’ll be late for lunch,’ Vianello said, declaring his partisanship for the lawyer.
Neither of them spoke again until they stood outside. The sun had blasted all life from Campo San Giacometto. The florist’s and the two stands that sold dried fruit were closed; even the water trickling from the fountain looked beaten down by the heat. Only the stall that huddled under the protection of the long arcade was open.
A Question of Belief by Donna Leon / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes