He ran his hands roughly over his face, as if to wipe away the sight, but when he opened his eyes again the dark shape was still there. He backed away from it and, driven by the fear of what might happen to him if he took his eyes from the bat, he moved slowly in the direction of the door of the bathroom, towards where he knew he would find the switch for the long bars of neon lighting. Befuddled by a mixture of terror and incredulity, he kept his hands behind him, one palm flat and sliding ahead of him on the tile wall, certain that contact with the wall was his only contact with reality.
Like a blind man, he followed his seeing hand along the wall until he found the switch and the long double row of neon lights passed illumination along one by one until a daylike brightness filled the room.
Fear drove him to close his eyes while the lights came flickering on, fear of what horrid motion the bat-like shape would be driven to make when disturbed from the safety of the near darkness. When the lights grew silent, the young man opened his eyes and forced himself to look.
Although the stark lighting transformed and revealed the shape, it did not entirely remove its resemblance to a bat, nor did it minimize the menace of those trailing wings. The wings, however, were revealed as the engulfing folds of the dark cloak that served as the central element of their winter uniform, and the head of the bat, now illuminated, was the head of Ernesto Moro, a Venetian and, like the boy now bent over the nearest sink, racked by violent vomiting, a student at San Martino Military Academy.
It took a long time for the authorities to respond to the death of Cadet Moro, though little of the delay had to do with the behaviour of his classmate, Pietro Pellegrini. When the waves of sickness abated, the boy returned to his room and, using the telefonino which seemed almost a natural appendage, so often did he use and consult it, he called his father, on a business trip in Milano, to explain what had happened, or what he had just seen. His father, a lawyer, at first said he would call the authorities, but then better sense intervened and he told his son to do so himself and to do it instantly.
Not for a moment did it occur to Pellegrini's father that his son was in any way involved in the death of the other boy, but he was a criminal lawyer and familiar with the workings of the official mind. He knew that suspicion was bound to fall upon the person who hesitated in bringing a crime to the attention of the police, and he also knew how eager they were to seize upon the obvious solution. So he told the boy indeed, he could be said to have commanded him to call the authorities instantly. The boy, trained in obedience by his father and by two years at San Martino, assumed that the authorities were those in charge of the school and thus went downstairs to report to his commander the presence of a dead boy in the third floor bathroom.
The police officer at the Questura who took the call when it came from the school asked the name of the caller, wrote it down, then asked him how he came to know about this dead person and wrote down that answer, as well. After hanging up, the policeman asked the colleague who was working the switchboard with him if they should perhaps pass the report on to the Carabinieri, for the Academy, as a military institution, might be under the jurisdiction of the Carabinieri rather than the city police. They debated this for a time, the second one calling down to the officers' room to see if anyone there could solve the procedural problem. The officer who answered their call maintained that the Academy was a private institution with no official ties to the Army he knew, because his dentist's son was a student there and so they were the ones who should respond to the call. The men on the switchboard discussed this for some time, finally agreeing with their colleague. The one who had taken the call noticed that it was after eight and dialled the interior number of his superior, Commissario Guido Brunetti, sure that he would already be in his office.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Leon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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