On Meetings

An excerpt from the book Fatal Remedies, a mystery novel by Donna Leon. It is set in Venice and stars a police comissario, Guido Brunetti.

There, in Lyons, Patta had exposed himself to the elements of the various nations which now made up united Europe: champagne and truffles from France, Danish ham, English beer and some very old Spanish brandy. At the same time he had sampled the various managerial styles on offer by bureaucrats of the different nations. At the end of the course he'd returned to Italy, suitcases filled with smoked salmon and Irish butter, head bursting with new, progressive ideas about how to handle the people who worked for him. The first of these, and the only one so far to be revealed to the members of the Questura, was the now weekly 'convocations du personnel', an interminable meeting at which matters of surpassing triviality were presented to the entire staff, there to be discussed and dissected and ultimately disregarded by everyone present.

When the meetings had first begun two months ago, Brunetti had joined the majority in the opinion that they would not last more than a week or two, but here they were, after eight of them, with no end in sight. After the second Brunetti had started bringing his newspaper, but that had been stopped by Lieutenant Scarpa, Patta's personal assistant, who had repeatedly asked if Brunetti were so little interested in what happened in the city that he would read a newspaper during the meetings. He had then tried a book, but he could never find one small enough to hold in his cupped hands.

His salvation had come, as had often been the case in the last years, from Signorina Elettra. On the morning of the fifth meeting, she had come into his office ten minutes before it was due to begin and asked Brunetti, with no explanation, for ten thousand lire.

He had handed if over and, in return, she'd given him twenty brass-centred five-hundred-lire coins. In response to his questioning look, she'd handed him a small card, little bigger than the box that held compact discs.

He'd looked down at the card, seen that it was divided into twenty-five equally sized squares, each of which contained a word or phrase, printed in tiny letters. He'd had to hold it closer to his eyes to read some of them: 'Maximize', 'prioritize', 'outsource', 'liaison', 'interface', 'issue', and a host of the newest, emptiest buzz-words to have slipped into the language in recent years.

"What's this?" he'd asked.

'Bingo,' was Signorina Elettra's simple answer. Before he could ask, she'd explained, 'My mother used to play it. All you have to do is wait for someone to use one of the words on your card - all the cards are different - and when you hear it, you cover it with a coin. The first one to cover five words in a straight line wins.'

'Wins what?'

'The money of all the other players.'

'What other players?'

'You'll see,' was all she'd had time to say before they were summoned to the meeting.

And since that day the meetings had been tolerable, at least for those provided with the small cards. That first day there had been only Brunetti, Signorina Elettra and one of the other commissarii, a woman just returned from maternity leave. Since then, however, the cards had appeared on the laps or within the notebooks of an ever expanding number of people and each week Brunetti felt as much interest in seeing who had a card as in actually winning the game. Each week, too, the words changed, usually in conformity with the changing patterns or enthusiasms of Patta's speech; they sometimes reflected the Vice-Questore's attempts at urbanity and 'multiculturalism' - a word which had also appeared - as well as his occasional attempt to use the vocabulary of languages he did not speak; hence, 'voodoo economics', 'pyramid scheme', and 'Wirtschaftlicher Ausfschwung'.

Brunetti arrived at the Questura half an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin ...


The meeting, when it finally convened, brought no surprises. At the beginning of the second hour, Vice-Questore Patta announced that, in order to assure that they were not being used to launder money, the various non-profit organizations in the city would be asked to allow their files to be 'accessed' by the computers of the police, at which point Signorina Elettra made a small motion with her right hand, looked across at Vianello, smiled and said, but very softly, 'Bingo.'

'Excuse me, Signorina?' Vice-Questore Patta was aware that something had been going on for some time but ignorant of what it could be.

She looked at the Vice-Questore, repeated her smile and said, 'Dingo, sir.'

'Dingo?' he enquired, peering at her over the tops of the half-glasses he affected for these meetings.

'The animal protections people, sir, the ones who put the canisters in the shops to collect money to take care of strays. They're a non-profit organization. So we should contact them as well.'

'Indeed?' Patta asked, not certain that this was what he had heard, or what he had expected.

'I wouldn't want anyone to forget them,' she explained.

Patta turned his attention back to the papers in front of him and the meeting continued. Brunetti, chin propped on his had, watched as six other people made small stacks of coins in front of themselves. Lieutenant Scarpa watched them carefully, but the cards, previously shielded by hands, notebooks and coffee cups, had all disappeared. Only the coins remained - and the meeting, which dragged itself tiredly along for yet another half-hour.

Just at the moment when insurrection - and most of the people in the room carried weapons - was about to break out, Patta removed his glasses and set them tiredly on the papers in front of him. 'Has anyone anything else to say?' he asked.

Anyone who might have spoken did not, no doubt deterred by the thought of all those weapons, so the meeting ended. Patta left, followed by Scarpa. Small piles of coins were slid down two sides of the table until they stood either in front of or directly across from Signorina Elettra. With a croupier's grace she swept them all off the side of the table into one cupped hand and got to her feet, signaling that the meeting really was over.