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 armadio 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 takenplace 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.
“Buon giorno, 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.”
“I suppose they want to be sure that you are. Sure, that is,” Brunetti suggested.
“Yes. It can take months, perhaps years. You’ve got to give them letters from people who know you and who think you’re able to make the decision.”
“Is that what you’d like? Can I help you that way?” She waved a hand to one side, flicking away his words and, with them, the vow of obedience. “No, it doesn’t matter. It’s finished. Over.”
“I see,” Brunetti said, although he didn’t.
She looked across at him, her gaze so direct and eyes so startling in their beauty that Brunetti felt a tinge of anticipatory envy for the man who would sweep away her vow of chastity.
“I came because of the casa di cura. Because of what I saw there.”
Brunetti’s heart surged across the distance to his mother’s side, and he was immediately alert for any hint of peril.
But before he could form his terror into a question, she said, “No, Commissario, it’s not your mother. Nothing will happen to her.” She paused then, embarrassed at how that sounded and at the grim truth contained in her words: the only thing that could ever again happen to Brunetti’s mother was death. “I’m sorry,” she added lamely but said nothing more.
Brunetti studied her for a moment, confused by what she had said, but at a loss as to how to ask her what she meant. He remembered the afternoon of his most recent visit to his mother, wishing that he could somehow see the long-absent Suor’Immacolata, knowing that she was the only person who would understand the painful fullness of his soul.
But instead of the lovely Sicilian, he had found in the hall only Suor’Eleanora, a woman whom the course of years had turned sour and to whom the vows meant poverty of spirit, chastity of humour, and obedience only to some rigorous concept of duty. The fact that his mother could be, even if for an instant, in the care of this woman enraged him as a man; the fact that the casa di cura was considered to be one of the best available shamed him as a citizen.
Her voice pulled him back from his long reverie, but he didn’t hear what she said and so had to ask, “I’m sorry, Suora,” immediately conscious of how long usage had pulled her title from him. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
She began again, ignoring his use of her title.
“I’m talking about the casa di cura here in Venice where I was working three weeks ago. But it isn’t only that I left, Dottore. I left the order, I left everything. To begin my . . .” Here she paused and glanced out the open window, off to the facade of the church of San Lorenzo, seeking there the name of what she was about to begin. “My new life.” She looked across at him and gave a small, weak smile. “La Vita Nuova,” she repeated but in a tone she struggled to make lighter, as if conscious of the heavy melodrama that had slipped into her voice. “We had to read La Vita Nuova in school, but I don’t remember it very well.”
She glanced across at him, eyebrows pulled together in interrogation.
Brunetti had no idea where this conversation was going; first there was talk of danger, and now of Dante. “We read it, too, but I think I was too young. I always preferred La Divina Commedia, anyway,” he said. “Especially Purgatorio.”
“How strange,” she said with interest, which might have been real or only an attempt to delay whatever it was she had come to tell him. “I’ve never heard anyone prefer that book before. Why?”
Brunetti allowed himself a smile. “I know, because I’m a policeman, people always assume I’d prefer Inferno. The wicked are punished and everyone gets what Dante thought they deserved. But I’ve never liked it, the absolute certainty of the judgements, all that awful suffering. Forever.” She sat quietly, looking at his face and attending to his words. “I like Purgatorio because there’s still the possibility that things will change. For the others, whether they’re in Heaven or Hell, it’s all finished: that’s where they’ll be. Forever.”
“Do you believe that?” she asked, and Brunetti knew she wasn’t talking about literature.
“No part of it?”
“Do you mean if I believe that there’s a Heaven or a Hell?” She nodded, and he wondered if some lingering superstition kept her from uttering the words of doubt.
“No,” he answered.
After a very long pause, she said, “How very grim.”
As he had many times since he realized that this was what he believed, Brunetti shrugged.
“I suppose we’ll find out,” she said, but her voice was rich with possibility, not sarcasm or dismissal.
Brunetti’s impulse was again to shrug, for this was a discussion he had abandoned years ago, while still in university, laying aside the things of a child, out of patience with speculation and eager for life.
But a glance at her reminded him that she was, in a sense, just out of the egg, about to begin her own vita nuova, and so this sort of question, no doubt unthinkable in the past, must be current and vital to her. “Perhaps it’s true,” he conceded.
Her response was instant and fiery. “You don’t have to condescend to me, Commissario. I left my vocation behind me, not my wits.”
He chose neither to apologize nor to continue this accidental discussion of theology. He shifted a letter from one side of his desk to the other, pushed his chair back, and crossed his legs. “Shall we talk about that, instead?” he asked.
“About the place where you left your vocation?”
“The nursing home?” she asked unnecessarily.
Brunetti nodded. “Which one are you talking about?”
“San Leonardo. It’s over near the Giustiniani Hospital. The order helps to staff it.”
He noticed that she was sitting with her feet placed one beside the other, both flat on the floor, knees pressed together. She opened the bag with some difficulty and took from it a sheet of paper, unfolded it, and looked down at whatever was written there. “In the last year,” she began nervously, “five people have died at San Leonardo.” She turned the paper around and leaned forward to place it in front of him. Brunetti glanced down at the list.
“These people?” he asked.
She nodded. “I’ve given their names, their ages, and what they died of.”
He looked down at the list again and saw it gave exactly that information. There were the names of three women and two men. Brunetti recalled reading some sort of statistic that said women were supposed to live longer than men, but these had not. One of the women was in her sixties, the others in their early seventies. Both of the men were older. Two had died of heart attacks, two of strokes, and one of pneumonia.
“Why have you given me this list?” he asked, looking up at her.
Even though she must have been prepared for the question, she took some time to answer it.
“Because you’re the only one who might be able to do something about it.”
Brunetti waited a moment for her to explain that remark, and when she didn’t, he said, “I’m not sure what ‘it’ is.”
“Can you find out what they died of?” He waved the list in the air between them. “Other than what’s written here?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes. If what’s there isn’t true, is there any way that you can find out what they actually died of?” There was no need for Brunetti to think before he answered: the law about exhumation was clear.
“Not without an order from a judge or a request from the family, no.”
“Oh,” she said. “I had no idea. I’ve been—I don’t know how to say this—I’ve been away from the world for so long that I don’t know how things work any more, how things are done.” She paused for a moment and added, “Perhaps I never knew.”
“How long were you in the order?” he asked.
“Twelve years, ever since I was fifteen.” If she saw his surprise, she ignored it. “That’s a long time, I know.”
“But you weren’t really away from the world, were you?” Brunetti asked. “After all, you trained as a nurse.”
“No,” she answered quickly. “I’m not a nurse. Well, not a trained or professional one, at any rate. The order saw that I had a . . .” she stopped dead, and Brunetti realized she had found herself in the unaccustomed position of acknowledging a talent or giving herself a compliment and had no choice but to stop talking. After a pause that allowed her to remove any praise from her remarks, she continued, “They decided that it would be good for me to try to help old people, and so I was sent to work in the nursing homes.”
“How long were you there?”
“Seven years. Six out in Dolo, and then one at San Leonardo,” she answered. That would have made Suor’Immacolata, Brunetti realized, twenty when she arrived at the nursing home where his mother was, the age when most women are getting jobs, deciding on professions, meeting lovers, having children. He thought of what those other women would have achieved in those years, and then he thought of what life must have been for Suor’Immacolata, surrounded by the howls of the mad and the smells of the incontinent. Had he been a man with a religious sense, a belief in some higher being, perhaps Brunetti could have taken consolation in the ultimate spiritual reward she would receive in return for the years she had given away. He turned from that thought and asked, setting the list down in front of him and smoothing it with the side of his hand, “What was unusual about the deaths of these people?”
She paused a moment before she answered, and when she did, she confused him utterly. “Nothing. Usually we have a death every few months, sometimes more than that just after the holidays.”
Decades of experience in questioning the willing and the unwilling underlay the calm with which Brunetti asked, “Then why have you made out this list?”
“Two of the women were widows, and the other one never married. One of the men never had anyone come to visit.” She looked at him, waiting to be prodded, but still he said nothing.
Her voice grew softer, and Brunetti had a sudden fantasy of Suor’Immacolata, still in her black and white habit, struggling against the admonition never to spread slander, never to speak ill, even of a sinner.
“I heard two of them,” she finally said, “at one time or another, say that they wanted to remember the casa di cura when they died.” She stopped at this and glanced down at her hands, which had abandoned the purse and now held one another in a death grip.
“And did they do that?” She shook her head from side to side but said nothing.
“Maria,” he said, casting his voice intentionally low, “does that mean they didn’t do it or you don’t know?”
She didn’t look up at him when she answered. “I don’t know. But two of them, Signorina da Pré and Signora Cristanti . . . both of them said that they wanted to.”
“What did they say?”
“Signorina da Pré said, one day after Mass—there’s no collection when Padre Pio says the Mass for us, said the Mass for us.” Suddenly conscious of the confusion of tenses caused by her having left the order, she stopped. She reached a nervous hand up to her temple, and Brunetti saw her slide her fingers back, seeking the protective comfort of her wimple.
But instead, her fingers encountered only her exposed hair, and she pulled them away as though they had been burned.
“After the Mass,” she repeated, “as I was helping her back to her room, she said that it didn’t matter that there was no collection, that they’d find out after she was gone how generous she had been.”
“Did you ask her what she meant?”
“No. I thought it was clear, that she had left them her money, or some of it.”
Again, she shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“How long after that did she die?”
“Did she say this to anyone else, about the money?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t talk to many people.”
“And the other woman?”
“Signora Cristanti,” Maria clarified. “She was much more direct. She said that she wanted to leave her money to the people who had been good to her. She said it to everyone, all the time. But she wasn’t . . . I don’t think she was able to make that decision, not really, not when I knew her.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She wasn’t very clear in her mind,” Maria answered. “At least not all of the time. There were some days when she seemed all right, but most days she wandered; thought she was a girl again, asked to be taken places.” After a moment’s pause, in an entirely clinical voice, she added, “It’s very common.”
“Going back into the past?” Brunetti asked.
“Yes. Poor things. I suppose the past is better for them than the present. Any past.”
Brunetti remembered his last visit to his mother but pushed the memory away. Instead, he asked, “What happened to her?”
“She died of a heart attack about four months ago.”
“Where did she die?”
“There. At the casa di cura.”
“Where did she have the heart attack? In her room or in some place where there were other people?” Brunetti didn’t call them “witnesses,” not even in his mind.
“No, she died in her sleep. Quietly.”
“I see,” Brunetti said, not really meaning it. He allowed some time to pass before he asked, “Does this list mean you think these people died of something else? Other than what’s written by their names?”
She looked up at him, and he was puzzled by her surprise. If she had got so far as to come to see him about this, surely she must understand the implications of what she was saying.
In an obvious attempt to stall for time, she repeated, “Something else?” When Brunetti didn’t answer, she said, “Signora Cristanti never had any trouble with her heart before.”
“And the other people on this list who died of heart attacks or strokes?”
“Signor Lerini had a history of heart trouble,” she said. “No one else.”
Brunetti looked down at the list again. “This other woman, Signora Galasso. Did she have trouble with her health before?”
Instead of answering him, she began to run one finger along the top of her bag, back and forth, back and forth.
“Maria,” he said and paused after he said her name, waiting for her to look up at him. When she did, he continued, “I know it’s a serious thing to bear false witness against your neighbour.” That startled her, as if the devil had started to quote the Bible.
“But it is important to protect the weak and those who can’t protect themselves.” Brunetti didn’t remember that as being in the Bible, though he thought it certainly should be. She said nothing to this, and so he asked, “Do you understand, Maria?”
When she still didn’t answer, he changed the question and asked, “Do you agree?”
“Of course, I agree,” she said, voice edgy. “But what if I’m wrong? What if this is all my imagination and nothing happened to those people?”
“If you believed that, I doubt you would be here. And you certainly wouldn’t be dressed the way you are.” As soon as he said it, he realized that it sounded like deprecation of the way she was dressed, though his words referred only to her decision to leave the order and remove her habit.
Brunetti pushed the list to the side of his desk and, in a verbal equivalent of that gesture, changed the subject. “When did you decide to leave?”
If she had been waiting for the question, her answer could have come no more quickly. “After I spoke to the Mother Superior,” she said, voice rough with some remembered emotion. “But first I spoke to Padre Pio, my confessor.”
“Can you tell me what you said to them?” Brunetti had been away from the Church and all its works and pomps for so long that he no longer remembered just what could and could not be repeated about a confession or what the penalty for doing so was, but he remembered enough to know that confession was something people were not supposed to talk about.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Is he the same priest who says Mass?”
“Yes. He’s a member of our order, but he doesn’t live there. He comes twice a week.”
“From our chapter house, here in Venice. He was my confessor in the other nursing home, too.”
Brunetti saw how willing she was to be diverted by details, and so he asked, “What did you tell him?” She paused a moment, and Brunetti imagined she was remembering her conversation with her confessor. “I told him about the people who had died,” she said and stopped, looking away from him.
When he saw that she was going to say nothing further, Brunetti asked, “Did you say anything else, anything about their money or what they had said about it?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know about it then. That is, I hadn’t remembered it then, I was so troubled by their deaths, so that’s all I said to him, that they had died.”
“And what did he say?”
She looked at Brunetti again. “He said that he didn’t understand. And so I explained it to him. I told him the names of the people who had died and what I knew of their medical histories, that most of them had been in good health and had died suddenly. He listened to everything I had to say and asked me if I was sure.” In a casual aside, she added, “Because I’m Sicilian, people up here always assume I’m stupid. Or a liar.”
Brunetti glanced at her to see if there was some reprimand, some comment on his own behaviour hidden in this remark, but there seemed to be none.
“I think he just couldn’t believe it, that it was possible. Then, when I insisted that so many deaths were not normal,” she continued, “he asked me if I was aware of the danger of repeating such things. Of the danger of causing slander? When I told him that I was aware of that, he suggested I pray about it.” She stopped.
“I told him that I had prayed, that I had prayed for days. Then he asked me if I knew what I was suggesting, what a horror it was.” She stopped again and then added as an aside, “He was shocked. I don’t think he could understand the possibility. He’s a very good man, Padre Pio, and very unworldly.” Brunetti smothered a smile at hearing this said by someone who had spent the last twelve years in a convent.
“What happened then?”
“I asked to speak to the Mother Superior.”
“And did you?”
“It took two days, but she finally saw me, late one afternoon, after Vespers. I repeated everything to her, about the old people dying. She couldn’t hide her surprise. I was glad to see that because it meant Padre Pio hadn’t said anything to her. I knew he wouldn’t, but what I had said was so terrible, well, I didn’t know . . .” Her voice trailed away.
“And?” he asked.
“She refused to listen to me, said she would not listen to lies, that what I was saying would damage the order.”
“She told me, ordered me, under my vow of obedience, to keep full silence for a month.”
“Does that mean what I think it does, that you were not to speak to anyone for a month?”
“What about your work? Didn’t you have to speak to the patients?”
“I wasn’t with them.”
“The Mother Superior ordered me to spend my time in my room and in the chapel.”
“For a month?”
“Two,” she repeated. “At the end of the first month, she came to see me in my room and asked if my prayers and meditations had shown me the proper path. I told her that I had prayed and meditated—and I had—but that I was still troubled by the deaths. She refused to listen and told me to resume my silence.”
“And did you?” She nodded.
“I spent the next week in prayer, and that’s when I began to try to remember anything those people had told me, and that’s when I remembered what Signora da Pré and Signorina Cristanti had said to me, about their money. Before that, I wouldn’t let myself think about it, but once I did, I couldn’t stop remembering.”
Brunetti considered the wide variety of things she might have “remembered” after more than a month of solitude and silence. “What happened at the end of the second month?”
“The Mother Superior came to my room again and asked me if I had come to my senses. I said that I had, which I suppose is true.” She stopped talking and again gave Brunetti that sad, nervous smile.
“And then I left.”
“Just like that?” Immediately, Brunetti began to consider the practical details: clothing, money, transportation.
Strangely enough, they were the same details that had to be considered by people who were about to be released from prison.
“That same afternoon, I walked out with the people who had been there for visiting hours. No one seemed to think it was strange; no one noticed. I asked one of the women who was leaving if she could tell me where I could buy some clothing. All I had was seventeen thousand lire.”
She stopped speaking and Brunetti asked, “And did she tell you?”
“Her father was one of my patients, so she knew me. She and her husband invited me to go back to their home with them for supper. I had no place to go, so I went. To the Lido.”
“On the boat, I told them what I’d decided to do, but I didn’t say anything about the reason. I’m not sure I even knew, or know now. I wasn’t slandering the order or the nursing home. I’m not doing that now, am I?” Brunetti, who had no idea, shook his head and she continued. “All I did was tell the Mother Superior about the deaths, that it seemed strange to me, so many of them.”
In an entirely conversational tone, Brunetti said, “I’ve read that old people sometimes die in a series, with no reason.”
“I told you that. It’s usually right after the holidays.”
“Could that be the explanation here?” he asked.
Her eyes flashed in what Brunetti believed was anger. “Of course it could be. But then why did she try to silence me?”
“I think you told me that, Maria.”
“Your vow. Obedience. I don’t know how important that is to them, but it could be that they were worried about that, more than anything else.”
When she didn’t answer, he asked, “Do you think that’s possible?” She still refused to answer, so he asked, “Then what happened? With the people on the Lido?”
“They were very kind to me. After we had dinner, she gave me some of her clothes.” She swept her hands open to show the skirt she was wearing. “I stayed with them for the first week, and then they helped me get the job at the clinic.”
“Didn’t you have to show some sort of identification to get it?”
She shook her head. “No. They were so glad to find someone willing to do the work that they didn’t ask any questions. But I’ve sent to the city hall in my home town and asked that copies of my birth certificate and carta d’identita be sent to me. If I’m going to come back to this life, then I suppose I’ll need them.”
“Where did you have them sent, to the clinic?”
“No, to the home of these people.” She had heard the concern in his voice and said, “Why do you ask?”
He shook her question away with a quick sideways motion of his head. “Just curiosity. You never know how long that sort of thing can take.” It was a bad lie, but she had been a nun for so long that Brunetti did not believe she would easily recognize one. “Are you still in contact with anyone from the casa di cura or from your order?”
“No. No one.”
“Do they know where you’ve gone?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so. There’s no way they could know.”
“Would the people on the Lido tell them?”
“No, I asked them not to tell anyone about me, and I think they won’t.” Recalling his former uneasiness, she asked, “Why do you ask about that?” He saw no reason not to tell her this much, at least. “If there is any truth in . . .” he began, but then realized that he wasn’t at all sure what to call it, for certainly it wasn’t an accusation, really no more than a comment on coincidence. He began again.
“Because of what you’ve told me, it might be wise for you to make no contact with the people at the casa di cura.” He realized that he had no idea who these people were. “When you heard these old women talk, did you have any idea who, and I mean specifically, who they would leave their money to?”
“I’ve thought about that,” she said in a low voice, “and I don’t like to say.”
“Please, Maria, I don’t think you can choose any longer what you do and don’t want to say about this.”
She nodded, but very slowly, acknowledging the truth of what he said, though that didn’t make it palatable. “They could have left it to the casa di cura itself or to the director. Or to the order.”
“Who’s the director?”
“Doctor Messini, Fabio Messini.”
“Is there anyone else?” She considered this for a moment and then answered, “Perhaps to Padre Pio. He’s so good to the patients that many of them are very fond of him. But I don’t think he’d accept anything.”
“The Mother Superior?” Brunetti asked.
“No. The order forbids us to own anything. The women, that is.”
Brunetti pulled a piece of paper toward him. “Do you know Padre Pio’s surname?” Her alarm was palpable in her eyes.
“But you aren’t going to talk to him, are you?”
“No, I don’t think so. But I’d like to know it. In case it becomes necessary.”
“Cavaletti,” she said.
“Do you know anything more about him?” She shook her head. “No, only that he comes to hear confessions twice a week. If someone is very sick, he comes to give them the Last Rites. I’ve seldom had time to talk to him. Outside of the confessional, that is.” She stopped for a moment, and then added, “The last time I saw him was about a month ago, Mother Superior’s name day, February twentieth.” Suddenly her mouth drew closed and her eyes tightened, as if she had been struck by a sudden pain. Brunetti leaned forward in his chair, afraid she was going to faint.
She opened her eyes and looked across at him, raising a hand to ward him off. “Isn’t that strange?” she asked. “That I would remember her feast day.”
She looked away and then back at him. “I can’t remember my birthday. Just the feast day of L’Immacolata, December eighth.” She shook her head, whether in sadness or surprise, he couldn’t tell.
“It’s as if part of me stopped existing for all those years, got cancelled out. I can’t remember any more when it is, my birthday.”
“Maybe you could make it be the date you left the convent,” Brunetti suggested and smiled to show he meant it gently.
She met his glance for a moment and then raised the first two fingers of her right hand to her forehead and rubbed at it, eyes turned down. “La Vita Nuova,” she said, more to herself than to him.
With no warning, she got to her feet. “I think I’d like to leave now, Commissario.” Her eyes were less calm than her voice, so Brunetti made no attempt to stop her.
“Could you tell me the name of the pensione where you’re staying?”
“On the Lido?”
“And the people who helped you?”
“Why do you want their name?” she asked with real alarm.
“Because I like to know things,” he said, an honest answer.
“Sassi, Vittorio Sassi. Via Morosini, number eleven.”
“Thank you,” Brunetti said, not writing these names down. She turned toward the door and for a moment he thought she would ask him what he was going to do about what she had told him, but she said nothing. He got up and came around the desk, hoping at least to open the door for her, but she was too quick for him. She opened it, took one glance back at him, didn’t smile, and left the room.