The bag seller cried out and threw one arm out in front of him. His body completed its half-circle, then sprawled to the ground beside his bags.
Like gazelles who panic and take flight at the first sign of danger, the other black men froze for an instant and then exploded with frightening energy. Four of them abandoned their wares and took off, running for the calle that led towards San Marco; two paused long enough to grab four or five bags in each hand, then disappeared over the bridge that led towards Campo San Samuele; the four remaining men left everything and fled towards the Grand Canal, where they alerted the men whose sheets were spread at the bottom of the bridge, over which they all ran, separating at the bottom and disappearing into the calli of Dorsoduro.
A white-haired woman was standing in front of the trader's sheet when he collapsed. When she saw him fall, she called out to her husband, who had been separated from her, and knelt beside the fallen man.
She saw the blood that seeped out from under him, staining the sheet red. Her husband, alarmed by her cry and her sudden sinking to the ground, pushed roughly through their friends and knelt beside her. He moved to put a protective arm around her shoulder, but then he saw the man on the sheet. He placed his hand at the man's throat, kept it there for long seconds, then removed it and got to his feet awkwardly, his knees reluctant with age. He bent and helped his wife to stand.
They looked around and saw only the people in their group, all gaping back and forth between each other's confused faces and the man who lay at their feet. On either side of the broad street extended the rows of outspread sheets, most still covered with neatly positioned bags. As the crowd in front of them turned away one by one, the buskers stopped playing.
It was another few minutes before the first Italian approached, and when he saw the black man, the sheet, and the blood, he pulled his telefonino from the pocket of his coat and dialled 113.
The police arrived with a speed that astonished the Italian bystanders as much
as it scandalized the Americans. To Venetians, half an hour did not seem a long
time for the police to organize a boat and a squad of technicians and officers
and reach Campo Santo Stefano, but by that time most of the Americans had
drifted away in exasperation, telling one another that they would meet back at
the hotel. No one bothered to keep an eye on the crime scene, so by the time the
police finally did arrive, most of the bags had disappeared from the sheets,
even from the one on which the body lay. Some of those who stole the dead man's
bags left red footprints on his sheet; one set disappeared towards Rialto in a
The first officer on the scene, Alvise, approached the small crowd that still stood near the dead man and ordered them to move back. He walked over to the man's body and stood, looking down at him as if confused as to what to do now that he could see the victim. Finally, a lab technician asked him to move aside while he set up a wooden stanchion, and then another, and then another until they ringed the sheet. From one of the boxes the technicians had brought to the scene he took a roll of red and white striped tape and ran it through slots in the tops of the wooden stanchions until a clear demarcation had been created between the body and the rest of the world.
Alvise went over to a man who was standing by the steps of the church and demanded, 'Who are you?'
'Riccardo Lombardi,' the man answered. He was tall, about fifty, well-dressed, the sort of person who sat behind a desk and gave orders, or so thought Alvise.
'What are you doing here?'
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. 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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