One of the boys near the portone broke away from the group he was talking to and approached Brunetti and Vianello. 'What can I do for you?' he asked, though, from the tone, he might as well have been demanding what they were doing there. Strong-featured and darkly handsome, he was almost as tall as Vianello, though he couldn't have been out of his teens. The others followed him with their eyes.
Provoked by the boy's tone, Brunetti said, 'I want to speak to the person in charge.'
'And who are you?' the boy demanded.
Brunetti didn't respond but gave the boy a long, steady glance. The young man's eyes didn't waver, nor did he move back when Brunetti took a small step towards him. He was dressed in the regulation uniform dark blue trousers and jacket, white shirt, tie and had two gold stripes on the cuffs of his jacket. In the face of Brunetti's silence, the boy shifted his weight then put his hands on his hips. He stared at Brunetti, refusing to repeat his question.
'What's he called, the man in charge here?' Brunetti asked, as if the other had not spoken. He added, 'I don't mean his name, I mean his title.'
'Comandante,' the boy was surprised into saying.
'Ah, how grand,' Brunetti said. He wasn't sure whether the boy's behaviour offended his general belief that youth should display deference to age or whether he felt particular irritation at the boy's preening belligerence. Turning to Vianello, he said, 'Inspector, get this boy's name,' and moved toward the staircase that led to the palazzo.
He climbed the five steps and pushed open the door. The foyer had a floor patterned with enormous diamonds made from boards of different woods. Booted feet had worn a path to a door in the far wall. Brunetti crossed the room, which was unexpectedly empty, and opened the door. A hallway led toward the back of the building, its walls covered with what he assumed to be regimental flags. Some of them bore the lion of San Marco; others carried different animals, all equally aggressive: teeth bared, claws unsheathed, hackles raised.
The first door on the right had only a number above it, as did the second and third. As he walked by the last of them, a young boy, certainly not more than fifteen, came out into the hall. He was surprised to see Brunetti, who nodded calmly and asked, 'Where's the office of the Comandante?'
His tone or his manner sparked a Pavlovian response in the boy, who jumped to attention and snapped out a salute. 'Up one flight, sir. Third door on the left.'
Brunetti resisted the temptation to say, 'At ease.' With a neutral, 'Thank you', he went back toward the staircase.
At the top, he followed the boy's instructions and stopped at the third door on the left. Comandante Giulio Bembo, read a sign next to the door.
Brunetti knocked, paused and waited for an answer, and knocked again. He thought he'd take advantage of the absence of the Comandante to have a look at his office, and so he turned the handle and entered. It is difficult to say who was more startled, Brunetti or the man who stood in front of one of the windows, a sheaf of papers in his hand.
'Oh, I beg your pardon,' Brunetti said. 'One of the students told me to come up and wait for you in your office. I had no idea you were here.' He turned towards the door and then back again, as if confused as to whether he should remain or leave.
The man in front of the window was facing Brunetti, and the light that shone in from behind him made it almost impossible for Brunetti to distinguish anything about him. He could see, however, that he wore a uniform different from that of the boys, lighter and with no stripe down the side of the trousers. The rows of medals on his chest were more than a hand span wide.
The man set the papers on his desk, making no attempt to approach Brunetti. 'And you are?' he asked, managing to sound bored with the question.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Leon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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