Unto Us a Son Is Given

Donna Leon

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Unto Us a Son Is Given, Donna Leon's twenty-eighth mystery starring compassionate detective, Guido Brunetti, who is tasked with investigating the murder of his wife's elderly Godfather, the wealthy Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejeda, whose death suspiciously coincides with his decision to adopt his lover, a younger man who will become the rightful heir of his robust fortune.

‘Oddio,’ Brunetti exclaimed. ‘What’s he done?’

Article continues below

Il Conte raised his hands again, but this time to push away the idea. ‘No, it’s nothing like that. He hasn’t done anything.’

This answer left Brunetti confused as to why he was being asked to look at Gonzalo as a policeman and not as what he thought himself to be: something between a friend and a member of the family that had also taken Gonzalo in. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said.

Il Conte’s face hardened. ‘No one who knows him could.’

‘Tell me about it,’ Brunetti said.

Article continues below

Il Conte pulled his mouth tight and raised his eyebrows in an expression Brunetti could not read. ‘I don’t know what or who’s involved in it.’

After a moment’s reflection, he added, ‘I can’t even say for sure that anything’s going on.’

Brunetti quelled the impulse to inquire why, if that were the case, they were having this conversation. Instead, he asked, ‘Can you tell me what you’ve heard?’

Il Conte pushed himself to his feet, saying, ‘I think we need a drink.’ He went to the credenza, where he opened a bottle of whiskey without bothering to ask Brunetti what he’d like and brought back two short glasses, filled generously.

Brunetti took his, waited until his father-in-law was seated again, and raised the glass to his lips. How lucky he was that they kept nothing like this at home. How did a liquid this sharp and bitter manage to taste so wonderful?

Article continues below

‘His sister Elena called me,’ il Conte surprised Brunetti by saying. ‘She’s a retired doctor and lives in Madrid with her husband and son. Her other siblings and their children live there, too.’

‘You know her?’

Il Conte nodded. ‘We met a long time ago, the first time Gonzalo took me home with him when we were still in school. We’ve stayed in touch over the years.’

‘And the others?’ Brunetti asked, surprised to learn that Gonzalo had siblings and surprised that, in all the years they had known one another, no mention had been made of his family.

‘Another sister, María Pilar, and a brother, Francisco. Gonzalo doesn’t get on well with them, never has.’

‘Do you know them, too?’ Brunetti asked.

‘I’ve met them a few times.’

‘Tell me about them,’ Brunetti said.

‘There’s little enough to tell. The three of them own the company together. The other two married and each had one son.’ He smiled and then said, ‘Berets.’

‘Excuse me?’ ‘Well,’ il Conte clarified, ‘hats. But the major item has always been berets. Whenever you see anyone wearing one of those silly flat things, it was probably made by his family’s company. It’s one of the biggest in Spain.’ He reached for his glass and rolled it between his palms, staring at the surface before replacing it on the table without drinking. ‘And now their three sons work for the company and will inherit it.’

He picked up his glass and emptied it with one swallow, then sat, looking at the empty glass. ‘That’s what’s wrong,’ he finally said. ‘Gonzalo wants a son.’

‘What?’ Brunetti asked, raising his head involuntarily and spilling a bit of whiskey down the front of his shirt. He stared at the other man, as if he’d taken leave of his senses. ‘What did you say?’

‘He wants to adopt a son.’

‘He’s mad,’ said Brunetti, speaking before he heard anything more and thinking of similar cases, none of which had ended well. But he didn’t know what Gonzalo’s case was, did he? So he had no idea what it was similar to and should keep his mouth shut, shouldn’t he?

Il Conte gave him a level look and said, ‘You always were known for the moderation of your views, Guido.’

Brunetti’s face grew red. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’ He wiped at his shirt with his handkerchief, wondering what Paola would think when he arrived home stinking of whiskey.

‘But you did say it,’ il Conte responded, adding, ‘And you’re probably right.’

Brunetti considered what he had just been told: adopting a son. ‘Who?’ he asked.

Il Conte shrugged and reached for his glass. Seeing that it was empty, he went to the sideboard again and came back with the bottle. He poured them each a little and took a small swallow before setting the bottle on the table between them. Ignoring Brunetti’s question, he went on. ‘It was Lodo Costantini who told me about it,’ he said, naming a man who was both one of his closest friends and one of his lawyers. ‘He told me Gonzalo asked him a few months ago if his law firm handled adoptions. When Lodo asked him why he wanted to know, he said that it was for a friend of his who wanted to adopt an adult.’ He put his fingers over his mouth and shook his head, as if in disbelief of what he was saying.

‘Lodo didn’t believe a word of it, said he was sure Gonzalo was asking for himself. Even though it was only a question, Lodo still thought he couldn’t express his opinion, but then he heard from someone – he wouldn’t tell me who it was – that Gonzalo was in the process of doing it. So he thought he could tell me because Gonzalo’s my friend.’ Ah, thought Brunetti, how wonderfully Jesuitical our lawyers are.

Il Conte continued. ‘As you know, the law decides where most of his estate will go, regardless of his wishes.’ Before Brunetti could summon to mind the relevant law, il Conte went on. ‘It stays in the family, goes to his siblings, no matter how he might feel about them, no matter what sort of Philistines they might be.’ So neutral was il Conte’s tone that he might as well have been reading the recipe for plum cake. Then, in the same calm tone, he remarked, ‘I suspect it’s a law made for the convenience of the rich.’

Had this man’s daughter been there to offer him support, Brunetti would have inquired, ‘Aren’t they all?’ but her absence enjoined him to discretion and he did no more than nod.

Il Conte went on. ‘If, however, by the time of his death, he has adopted someone, that person will inherit the entire estate, just as if he were a natural son.’ He paused for a moment, and then added, ‘Even the title might pass to him.’

Il Conte went on. ‘If, however, by the time of his death, he has adopted someone, that person will inherit the entire estate, just as if he were a natural son.’ He paused for a moment, and then added, ‘Even the title might pass to him.’

Brunetti noticed that il Conte Falier, holder of one of the oldest titles in Venice, pronounced this last sentence with marked coolness. This being a problem with which Brunetti’s family had never been confronted, he contented himself with observing, ‘As you said, Orazio, this is a law made for the rich.’

‘If you and Paola hadn’t had children,’ il Conte said with audible patience, ‘it could eventually have been a problem for you.’ He glanced at Brunetti to see how he responded to this unwelcome truth before he added, ‘Your brother would inherit what you and Paola have.’ Brunetti was stunned by how casually his father-in-law spoke of him as joint owner of all that Paola would inherit. Il Conte gave Brunetti a chance to comment; when he did not, his father-in-law added, ‘He seems like a decent person, but if he weren’t, would you like it if he swooped it all up?’

Spoken by some other person, what il Conte had just said would surely have sounded irredeemably vulgar. Even as it was, Brunetti was tempted to reply that, being dead, he’d be unlikely to have an opinion on the worthiness of his brother to inherit the Falier fortune. The conversation had veered away from Gonzalo and into something close to superstition, which Brunetti had always thought was the reason people did not make wills.

‘Adoption’s enough?’ Brunetti asked.


Brunetti picked up his glass and held it to the light. He swished the remaining liquid from side to side, then around in a circle that rose towards the rim of the glass before he let it sink down again. Il Conte had said he didn’t like gossip, but everything Brunetti had just heard was on that level.

He took a sip and set the glass down. ‘Why are you telling me this, Orazio?’

Il Conte put his right hand to the side of his mouth and pushed the skin away and then did it twice more. The wrinkles played hide-and-seek each time, but always fell back into place. ‘I want to know,’ he finally said, ‘if he needs help of any sort, but I don’t know how to find out.’ He looked away from Brunetti and then back. ‘I thought you might know a way.’

‘Why don’t you simply ask him?’ Brunetti said, not because he was unwilling to help his father-in-law, but because asking Gonzalo directly seemed the easiest way to find out.

Il Conte raised his hands in protest, as at the suggestion of the unthinkable. ‘Gonzalo would be offended.’

‘At the idea of needing help?’

‘At the idea that I thought it.’

Brunetti was about to say that the time of luxury might be ending for Gonzalo. He was old and weak, and so there should be no loss of honour in being in need of help, but he realized in time that he was speaking to a man almost as old, though perhaps not as weak, as Gonzalo, who would certainly not like to hear any of this said.

‘What did you have in mind?’ Brunetti asked.

Il Conte was unable to disguise his confusion. ‘In mind for what?’

‘For me to find a way to help?’

Il Conte looked at him for a long time and then looked away. ‘I don’t know, Guido,’ he answered, obviously surprised by the question. ‘If I gave you the name of the young man?’

‘That he wants to adopt?’

‘Yes,’ il Conte answered. He picked up his glass and seemed surprised to see that it was empty again. He put it back on the table and turned to Brunetti. ‘Some years ago, perhaps ten, a young man lived with Gonzalo briefly.’

Brunetti pretended he was a piece of moss on a rock and sat and waited. Rain could fall, feet could walk past, animals might nibble at his edges. He would sit and wait. He did not cross his legs nor move his feet. His arms rested on those of the chair. His drink might well have been in a different room. Or on a different planet.

‘It was only a few months. Not here. In Rome.’

Brunetti stared at his feet and waited.

‘The young man was the son of a lawyer: good family, studied in France, seemed to have a great deal of money.’ Il Conte stopped suddenly, then said, ‘I know this sounds like more gossip, but it’s all true.’

He returned to his subject. ‘He was a wild person, this young man. He used drugs. He also sold them. To some of the people he met through Gonzalo. And then he was arrested at the airport in Bogotá with a suitcase full of cocaine.

‘The police let him call his father, but he refused to talk to him. The next morning, the father called Gonzalo and told him where the boy was. But by the time Gonzalo got in touch with the police, the young man had hanged himself in his cell.’ Il Conte paused here and studied Brunetti’s face before adding, ‘At least that was what the police said.’

Brunetti vaguely remembered the case and knew there had been no mention of Gonzalo, either in the newspapers or in anything official he’d ever read about the case.

‘How did he manage to stay out of it?’ he asked.

Il Conte gave the slightest of shrugs. ‘I don’t know. But it’s not hard to imagine, is it?’

No, not really, not for a man as well connected and wealthy as Gonzalo, Brunetti thought but did not say. One of the rules of his profession was never to reveal information to those with no official reason to know it. ‘We’ve never had a request – not from Rome or anywhere else – to keep an eye on Gonzalo. So whoever took care of him there did a good job.’

Il Conte picked up the bottle. Brunetti shook his head and put his hand over the top of his glass. Il Conte replaced the bottle and said, ‘I want to protect him from a similar mistake.’ Then, before Brunetti could ask, he said, ‘Yes, and I’m asking you to do it for me.’


From UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2019 by Donna Leon.

More Story
10 Thrillers That Explore Mental Health You cannot separate the mystery genre from representations of mental health. The homicidal madman, the split personality...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month