Transient Desires

Donna Leon

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Transient Desires, by Donna Leon. Commissario Guido Brunetti is back in his thirtieth installment. But this time, he's not solving a crime in Venice, but slightly outside: a boating accident that leaves two American women hospitalized, and causes their two male Italian companions to flee.

After Duso left, Brunetti began to consider how best to go about questioning Vio’s uncle. He could present himself unexpectedly at the office of the transport company and ask to speak to Signor Borgato, or he could arrive with the full panoply of the law: visit not announced, police launch with an armed officer as well as the pilot, demands in place of suggestions. And certainly more trouble for Marcello.

Brunetti had always loathed, above all, bullies: he despised their arrogance, their contempt for people weaker than they, and their calm assurance that they were to have more of everything for the asking or taking. To oppose them was to provoke them, and to provoke them was to lose. To provoke Borgato was perhaps to endanger his nephew, Marcello.

He found the homepage of Borgato Trasporti and dialled the number. A man’s voice answered neutrally with the name of the company.

‘Good afternoon, Signore. This is Ingegnere Francesco Pivato from the office of Mobilità e Trasporti. I’d like to speak to Signor Borgato if he’s available.’

After what seemed a long time, the man said, ‘This is Borgato.’ ‘Ah, then good day, Signor Borgato,’ Brunetti said warmly, switching to Veneziano. ‘I’d like to speak to you about a problem

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that concerns you.’

After a moment’s silence, the voice asked, ‘What’s this about?’

Brunetti allowed himself a nervous laugh and said, ‘I’m not all that sure, Signor Borgato.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Borgato demanded in a belligerent voice.

‘I think this is something that the Polizia Municipale should be dealing with, and not us,’ Brunetti said, doing his best to sound prissy. ‘It has to do with the registration of a boat that belongs to you but that seems to have the same licence number as a boat registered to someone in Chioggia.’

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Again, a long time passed before Borgato responded. ‘That’s impossible,’ he said roughly, then, perhaps remembering who he was talking to, he changed tone and asked, ‘What do you want from me?’

‘That’s the question I asked when I spoke to our Director, Signor Borgato,’ Brunetti said, trying to sound exasperated. ‘He said it should be evident. But it’s not, so you’re the person I have to ask.’

‘Afraid of your boss, are you?’ Borgato jabbed at him. Brunetti decided that Ingegnere Pivato was probably accustomed to listening to provocation and so said, ‘I’m merely trying to close our file on this matter, Signore. It’s been dragging on for months.’ Brunetti was careful to speak with the beginning of tight-lipped annoyance. ‘I thought we could do that more quickly if I spoke to you directly.’ He waited a moment before continuing, ‘Or we’ll have no choice but to pass it on to a higher authority.’

Borgato considered that for a moment but came back with the sarcasm of the strong. ‘And just how do we do that?’

‘One way is to have you come to our office, Signore, and—’

‘That’s not going to happen,’ Borgato interrupted, as Brunetti had thought he would. ‘You can come out here if you want to see me,’ he added, again conforming to Brunetti’s expectations. To refuse to speak to a patent weakling would be to lose the chance to play with him, push him around a little, show the bureaucrats who was in control.

Brunetti allowed a muffled ‘ah’ to escape. He grabbed some papers that were on his desk and riffled loudly through them, then said, ‘I could come after lunch, Signor Borgato. About three?’ he inquired, being careful to sound uncertain.

‘I’m a busy man. Come at four,’ Borgato said and put down the phone.

Brunetti had promised Paola he would be home for lunch, so home he went. Both of his children were there, something that happened with lesser frequency as their school lives and the demands of friendship took up more and more of their time. He noted the birth of their friendships, as the names of classmates were introduced at the table, their qualities described or praised, their opinions introduced, always at first with enthusiasm, later with thought, sometimes with scepticism. He learned of the family lives of some of these children, for to him and to Paola they were still children. Most of the families were unexceptional as the parents lived out their middle-class lives: going to the office, travelling, acquiring.

He sometimes wondered what his children said of him and Paola to their friends. To be a policeman, regardless of rank and however unusual, was not to be a professional, not the way a doctor or a lawyer was. Paola’s full professorship, however, let her fit effortlessly into the ranks of the acceptable and respected. The social position of her parents, Brunetti understood, gave her an added footstool from which to view the world around her: she hardly needed university degrees to be well regarded.

When he tuned back to the conversation, he heard Chiara say, ‘I was on the bus from Mestre last week, and two boys started to shout at an old man. No reason; they just chose him and started saying he was useless and ought to do them a favour and die.’

‘How old was he?’ Paola asked, unable to moderate her surprise. ‘I don’t know,’ Chiara said. ‘It’s hard to say how old old people

are.’ She thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Maybe sixty.’ Brunetti and Paola glanced at one another but said nothing. ‘What happened?’ Raffi asked between bites of pasta.

‘He ignored them. He was reading a magazine.’

‘And so?’

‘The bus was pulling into Piazzale Roma, so we all knew the ride was almost over. I guess they did, too,’ she said reflectively. ‘Just as the bus got to the stop and the doors opened, one of them grabbed the magazine from his hands and tossed it in his face. Then they both ran out of the bus. Laughing.’

‘What did the man do?’ Brunetti asked.

‘I think he was too surprised to do anything. He just sat there. But then another boy picked up the magazine and handed it back to him. Then, looking at him directly, Chiara asked, ‘Can’t the police do anything about it?’

Brunetti set his fork down. ‘We’d have to be there, or someone would have to take a photo or film it, and the person they bother would have to make a complaint. And we’d have to identify the person who did it.’ He pulled his lips together and raised his eyebrows. ‘There isn’t much chance of catching them.’

‘They’ll only get worse,’ Raffi broke in to say. ‘I agree,’ added Paola.

‘I agree, too,’ Brunetti said. ‘But until we have evidence or the names of the boys . . .’ he paused and looked at Chiara, who nodded, ‘. . .doing it, it’s not likely that we can stop them.’

‘Thank God it’s not America,’ Chiara said. ‘And everyone has guns. It would be Far West every day.’

Brunetti, who read crime statistics and knew this was true, chose to say nothing.

As his appointment with Borgato was not until four, Brunetti found himself with too little time to go back to the Questura. So he took his copy of Tacitus into the living room and extended himself on the sofa to read of the death of Agrippina, one of the passages he remembered from his student days.

The index directed him to Chapter Fourteen, where he read with returning horror Tacitus’s description of Nero’s slapstick plan to drown his own mother: the boat fell apart, but did not fall on her. She swam to the shore, leaving her maid thrashing in the water to be killed in her place. So completely did the plan fail that the Emperor had no choice but to send three assassins to put an end to her.

Brunetti remembered then that there had been some sort of prophecy, and after a few paragraphs found it. ‘She consulted the Chaldeans and they prophesized that Nero would surely reign, and would surely kill his mother. To which Agrippina replied, ‘Let him kill me, so long as he will reign.’ Brunetti closed his eyes to think about this.

When he woke, he glanced at his watch and, seeing the time, hurried to their bedroom and found a badly scuffed pair of light brown shoes that he no longer liked but had failed to throw away. With them, he wore a grey suit that had seen better days and should have had narrower lapels. Before putting on the suit, he removed his shirt and clenched it in his hands to wrinkle it lightly and then put it on again. Next he chose a particularly unattractive green tie. In the back of the closet in the storeroom behind the kitchen he found an old trench coat he’d bought as a student and never had the will to throw away, even after he’d brushed against a greasy door hinge and left a stain on the left pocket that had refused to disappear. He found a briefcase he’d carried at university, leather dried and peeling, and put it under his arm.

Paola looked up from the papers she was grading when he came into her study to say goodbye. She removed her reading glasses and studied his appearance. ‘Carnevale doesn’t start until February, Guido,’ she said, then added, in a sweeter voice, ‘How clever of you to go as Hercule Poirot.’

Standing in the doorway, Brunetti ran his hands down the sides of the trench coat and turned a full circle. ‘I was trying for something closer to Miss Marple,’ he said.

‘Tell me it’s necessary for you to go out of this house looking like that,’ she said, ‘or I’ll try to stop you.’

‘I have to interview someone who thinks I’m a weakling and make him show me how superior he is.’

She replaced her glasses, said, ‘Then you go with my blessing,’ and returned her attention to the papers.

To avoid embarrassment, Brunetti had asked Foa to pick him up at the end of the calle beside the house: he was waiting when Brunetti arrived. Foa gave Brunetti a long look and reached out a hand to help him jump on board. The pilot said nothing, and Brunetti went down the steps into the cabin.

Foa cut through Rio San Trovaso and emerged into the Giudecca Canal. He pulled up at the Palanca stop to allow Brunetti to step up on to the embarcadero. ‘Would you like me to come back for you, Commissario?’ he asked. Before Brunetti could refuse, Foa said, ‘I’m not on duty this afternoon, so I can take this boat and dock it at the Questura and come back in my own.’ Again, anticipating Brunetti’s response, he said, ‘It’s much smaller and doesn’t have a cabin.’ Seeing Brunetti’s reluctance, the pilot said, ‘I’ll be back in forty-five minutes,’ revved up the engine, and started back in the direction of the Questura.

Brunetti walked along the riva and turned into the calle that would take him to Borgato’s place of work. A middle-aged woman with a round face sat at a desk in a small office to the right of the main door and looked up when he came in. Brunetti wondered if this could have been the woman who met Marcello Vio in Campo Santa Margherita.

‘Good afternoon, Signora. I have an appointment with Signor Borgato,’ he said in Veneziano. He pushed up the worn cuff of his left sleeve and looked at his watch. ‘At four,’ he said and bent his wrist as though he were going to show the watch to her. Instead, he set the briefcase beside him on the floor, careful to knock it over, then stooped to pick it up. It dangled from his right hand.

‘He’s out back, helping the men unload a boat. If you go out there,’ she said, waving towards a door behind her and to the left, ‘maybe you can talk to him.’

Brunetti nodded, then spoke his thanks and started towards the door. He found himself in a large, cement-floored passage with padlocked wooden doors on both sides. It led towards the back of the building and, presumably, a canal.

Brunetti counted three doors on either side, placed about four metres apart: the distance suggested separate storage rooms of considerable size.

As Brunetti had expected, the corridor led out on to a landing dock that ran along the back of the entire building. A transport boat was tied up beside it, both sides of its prow bearing the wounds of many years of service: the strip of metal meant to protect the top of the sides was battered and dented in many places, the wooden sides scratched and streaked with the paint of other boats.

A crane anchored to the dock was just then raising a large wardrobe, secured by straps and bands, from the wooden boards that created the deck of the boat. Slowly, wrapped and cradled, it floated up and over the dock, where two men waited for it, one in a flannel shirt and an older man in a dark blue sweater. The one wearing the shirt turned the wooden wardrobe effortlessly until its feet were aligned correctly to fit on to a loading platform sticking out from a small cargo fork-lift. The man waved his arm, and the wardrobe stepped four-footed on to the platform. He freed the straps and bands, while the man in the sweater climbed behind the wheel of the the fork-lift, moved it back- wards, turned, and came at full speed towards Brunetti.

Hurriedly Brunetti stepped aside, careful to raise his hands in fear, his briefcase waving on a level with his head. The man standing down in the boat laughed so hard at the sight of him that he had to bend over and prop his hands on his knees.

Brunetti lowered the hand holding the briefcase and hurried back into the corridor and back to the secretary, who looked up from some papers when he came in. ‘Is Signor Borgato wearing a dark blue sweater?’ he asked, hoping that he was.

Sì, Signore,’ she said.

‘Is there some place I can wait for him?’ Brunetti asked nervously.

‘He doesn’t let anyone into his office unless he’s there,’ she said. Then, pointing to a straight-backed chair on the other side of the room, she added, ‘You could wait for him there.’

Brunetti thanked her and went over to the chair. He set his briefcase beside it, took off his trench coat and draped it over the back, sat, and pulled up his briefcase. He opened it and removed some papers.

It was fifteen minutes before Borgato appeared, indeed the man in the blue sweater who had aimed the fork loader at Brunetti.

‘Pivato?’ he asked as Brunetti stood.

Brunetti put the papers in his briefcase, tried unsuccessfully to close it, grabbed up his trench coat, and stepped over to Borgato. Seeing Brunetti embroiled in coat and briefcase, Borgato extended his hand, which forced Brunetti to switch the briefcase to his left hand in order to shake Borgato’s. None of his bones were broken by Borgato’s handshake, but Brunetti made no attempt to muffle his groan.

Saying nothing, Borgato turned to the door on his left and opened it. ‘No calls, Gloria,’ he called back over his shoulder.

He closed the door after Brunetti and went to stand in front of his desk, leaning against it and facing Brunetti. He had the thickened nose of a drinker and the even thicker body of a man who had done hard physical work all his life. His eyes were a pale blue, striking in his sun-darkened face. Brunetti looked around and, seeing a chair, draped his coat over the back and stood his briefcase on the seat.

‘What’s this all about?’ Borgato asked in a not very friendly voice. He walked around his desk and sat.

Brunetti opened the briefcase, searched for a few moments, and pulled out two papers. He walked to the desk, leaned over it, and passed the first paper to Borgato. ‘This is the registration of your boat,’ he said.

Borgato took it and glanced at it. He read out a series of letters and numbers and said, ‘That’s my topo. It’s registered to me, under this number’—he slapped the back of his fingers against the paper for emphasis—’for seven years.’ He thrust the paper back towards Brunetti, who took it and handed another paper to Borgato, one that Signorina Elettra had managed to falsify that morning. This one stated that there existed another boat of the same type and size, with the same registration number and licence plate number as Borgato’s boat. The only difference was the owner’s name.

‘What is this shit?’ Borgato demanded, then jumped from his seat and tossed the paper in Brunetti’s direction.

‘I’m not sure that word is justified, Signor Borgato,’ Brunetti said in his most pedantic tone as he picked up the paper.

‘It’s justified if I’ve got a copy of the registration in my files.’ Then, the idea suddenly occurring to him, he turned to Brunetti and demanded, ‘Have you spoken to this Chiogiotto?’ he asked, reading out the name as though it were an insult: ‘Samuele Tantucci.’

‘Who?’ Brunetti asked, looking at the other man with a perplexity sure to push him closer to the edge of his patience.

Borgato turned, grabbed the second paper from Brunetti’s hand and shook it under his nose. ‘This one, you idiot, this Chiogiotto who has the same number. Have you even bothered to look at these papers? Have you spoken to him?’

Brunetti took the paper from Borgato and spent some time trying to remove the wrinkles the other man’s hand had made. When that was done, he returned to his chair and slipped both papers carefully back into his briefcase. He looked at Borgato and said, ‘I came here to try to do you a favour, Signore, not to be abused by you. If you don’t want my help to settle this matter now, then you can wait until the process goes a little bit further, and then, when the Guardia Costiera comes to ask the same questions, you might be sorry you didn’t pay attention when you had the chance.’ He took his trench coat and folded it carefully over his arm, took a firm grasp on the handle of his briefcase, and turned to the door.

He’d taken three steps when Borgato said, ‘Wait a minute.’

Brunetti took another step and reached for the handle of the door.

‘Please, Signore,’ Borgato said in an entirely different voice, all anger, all arrogance, gone.

Brunetti stopped. He turned back to him and asked, ‘Are you going to be reasonable?’

‘Yes,’ Borgato said. He walked to Brunetti’s chair and pulled it over to his desk. With something resembling a smile, he waved Brunetti towards it. ‘Have a seat and let’s go over this again.’ He tried to make his voice friendly, but it was clear this did not come easily to him.

Brunetti sat on the edge, trench coat over one arm, briefcase in his lap. Borgato went behind his desk and sat, looking at Brunetti.

‘What is it you want to know?’ Borgato asked.

‘Do you know this man in Chioggia—Samuele Tantucci?’

‘No.’ Borgato almost shouted the word but quickly got himself under control and repeated it in a lower voice. ‘No.’

Brunetti set his briefcase on the floor and said, ‘I see no reason why you can’t be told this. A boat with this number has been seen off the coast, at night, and reported to the Guardia Costiera.’

‘Who did that?’ Borgato snapped.

‘I’m not at liberty to say, Signore,’ Brunetti answered in his most officious voice. ‘All we were told is that your transport boat, this one,’ he said, leaning down to tap at the side of the briefcase where the information was, ‘was seen off the coast at night two months ago, and because it was not a fishing boat, it was reported to the Guardia Costiera.’

‘Fucking fishermen, can’t mind their own business,’ Borgato said angrily.

Brunetti allowed himself to nod. ‘The Guardia seems to be of the same mind and doesn’t want to be bothered about it, so they asked us to check on the licence plate duplication and let them know what’s going on. That way,’ Brunetti said with a softening of his voice, as though he were asking a colleague to understand and help him avoid spending more time on a bureaucratic tangle, ‘we can settle this and close the file.’ Then, speaking to himself, Brunetti muttered, ‘As if we don’t have enough to do.’

Borgato put his hands flat on his desk and held that position for a few seconds, then looked across at Brunetti and said, ‘Well, you can tell the Guardia that my boat was out at night because we had the motor overhauled at a place in Caorle, and when we got there in the afternoon to bring the boat back, it wasn’t ready, and we didn’t get it until after eleven—the fucking workers refused to miss their dinner—so we had to sit around in fucking Caorle until they ate and got back to work on the motors.’

‘Caorle?’ Brunetti asked. ‘Can’t people fix it here?’

‘The specialist for these motors is the company in Caorle: that’s where we bought them.’

‘Caorle?’ Brunetti repeated, making no attempt to disguise his astonishment. ‘That must take hours.’

As though it had just occurred to him, Borgato asked, ‘What time did this person say he saw the boat?’

Brunetti reached for his briefcase but pulled his hand back slowly. ‘I didn’t bring those reports with me. Do you remember when you started back?’

‘No,’ Borgato said. ‘Midnight? No later than that.’

Brunetti pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and hunted until he found a piece of paper. ‘Do you remember what day that was?’ he asked.

Borgato closed his eyes in thought and said, ‘I think it was during the second week of August, maybe the tenth because that’s when Lazio was playing, and we missed the game.’ Then, trying to make a joke, he added, ‘We didn’t stop to go fishing, that’s for sure.’

Brunetti gave a small laugh and wrote something on the back of the slip of paper – the receipt he’d received for a coffee in a bar the last time he’d worn the jacket – then stuffed it carelessly back in his pocket.

‘There’s just one more thing,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘Could you show me the original registration?’

‘Of course,’ said a suddenly affable Borgato. He went and stood in front of a shelf filled with thick file holders of different colours. After a moment, he pulled down a white one and set it on his desk.

He paged through it until he found what he wanted, turned the book to show the page to Brunetti and said, ‘Here it is.’

Brunetti opened the briefcase and pulled out one of the papers and compared it with the one in the folder, saying, ‘Very good.’ He nodded and put the paper back, then asked Borgato, ‘May I take a photo?’

‘Of course,’ Borgato offered with a rather dramatic wave of his hand.

Brunetti took out his phone and, remaining true to his role, fumbled with it a bit before turning on the camera. He took a photo of the page, moved the lens back about ten centimetres and took another one.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘A colleague of mine is seeing Signor Tantucci today, so all we have to do is send the photos he takes, and these photos to the licence office and let them sort it out.’ He considered what he’d just said and added, ‘That should be the end of it for you, Signor Borgato.’

The other man smiled for the first time. It didn’t help his appearance much. He came around and stood next to Brunetti for a moment before accompanying him to the door. He opened it, gave a handshake that was less a proof of virility than the other had been, and closed the door.

As he walked across the small office, Brunetti said, ‘Thanks for your help, Signora.’

‘Will you be coming back?’

‘Oh, no, not at all, thank heaven,’ Brunetti said, a bureaucrat pleased at having so easily settled what might have become a problem.

She smiled, and Brunetti left the office to go and meet Foa, who was waiting for him in his sandalo, sitting on one of the cross-planks with the Gazzetta dello Sport open on his lap. Brunetti knew the boat, slow and patient.

Brunetti stepped aboard, sat opposite Foa, and pulled his trench coat over his legs. The pilot wore jeans, a heavy sweater, and a blue windbreaker. ‘Where would you like to go, sir?’

‘Back to my home, Foa. I don’t think I want to go back to the Questura looking like this.’

‘I assumed that, sir,’ he said, revved the engine, and launched them back towards the Giudecca Canal.


Excerpted from Transient Desires © 2021 Donna Leon. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.


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