Mallon might have said, Because you tried to steal from me. But he was still conscious of the flush of joy he'd felt when his blow struck home-when he knew he'd hurt the man. It lingered in the faint tingling of his skin, an edgy sense of buoyancy, vitality. Where that joy came from he couldn't say, though he knew that its roots were deeper than some clumsy failed larceny.
Fat drops of rain begin to patter on the awning.
"How are you?" Mallon said. "Can you walk?"
The pickpocket turned away as if insulted by the hypocrisy of Mallon's concern. He leaned against the store window with both hands, and his head sank lower as his shoulders rose and fell. A gray-haired woman inside the store rapped on the glass and made a shooing motion. When the pickpocket ignored her she rapped harder and kept rapping. He really was a little man; she glared down at him like a schoolmarm scolding a guilty child.
"I have to go," Mallon said. "I'm sorry." He looked up at the sky. He'd have liked to call Silvestri, tell him he was on his way, but his cell phone was back at the hotel and there was no public telephone in sight. "I'm soriy," he said again, and stepped into the rain and walked quickly up the street.
One of the ubiquitous Bangladeshi umbrella hustlers was working the corner, and Mallon had just shelled out seven euros when he heard a woman shouting. He didn't want to look back but did. It was the signora from the shop, pushing and batting the pickpocket away from the window while he hunched and covered his head like a boxer trying to get through the last seconds of a round. Mallon slipped his billfold back into his jacket pocket and took the umbrella the Bangladeshi had opened for him. He hesitated, then turned back.
The pickpocket was out on the sidewalk now, in the rain. The woman stood just under the awning with her arms crossed over her chest.
"Excuse me, signora," Mallon said, comingup to them. "This man isn't well. He needs to rest a moment."
"I know these people," she said. "We don't want them here."
The rain fell in sheets, running down the pickpocket's shiny scalp and face. Strings of water hung like a fringe from the hem of his leather jacket, dripping onto the sagging pants and dainty shoes.
"Here," Mallon said, and offered him the umbrella, but in response he only gave Mallon a hurt look and lowered his head again, as if refusing to conspire in the pretense that there was any mercy to be found in nature or man. Mallon bumped him in the shoulder with the handle of the umbrella. "Go on-take it!" he said. And finally, with a beaten, unwilling look, the pickpocket did. He stood between Mallon and the signora, panting softly, holding the umbrella at a careless angle. Oblivious to the water sliding down it onto his back.
he seemed unable to move. So too the signora, steadfast in her icy pose. Mallon stepped under the awning, not so much to get out of the rain as to break free of this tableau.
And that was when he saw a taxi round the corner with a light glowing on its roof. It was absurd to hope for an empty cab in rain like this, most likely the driver had simply forgotten to turn the light off, but Mallon ran out waving his arm and the cab veered sharply to the curb, sending a comber of water over his shoes. He opened the door but couldn't help looking back. The pickpocket had lowered the umbrella to the ground upside down and was leaning on the shaft, head hung low, neck bared to the sky. The signora remained on guard.
"Wait," Mallon told the driver, then went back and grabbed the pickpocket's sleeve and pushed him into the cab. He closed the umbrella and tossed it onto the floor at his feet. "Okay," he said, "where do you live?"
"No Gypsies!" the driver snapped. He was twisted around, glowering at the man.
"Gypsy? Look, he's not well. I'll pay," Mallon added.
The driver shook his head. "No Gypsies." He was a thick-shouldered guy with a long jaw, a hawkish beak, and heavy black eyebrows. His shaved head was blue with stubble. "Get him out," he said. Mallon was thrown by his anger and the dissonant paleness of his eyes, and before he could reply the driver seized the pickpocket's jacket and gave him a shake. "Out, you!"
"No." Mallon slid onto the seat next to the pickpocket. "He needs to get home," he said. "I'll come along."
The driver stabbed a finger at Mallon. "Out."
Mallon looked at the driver's nameplate: Michele Kadare. "It's the law," he said, bluffing. "If you don't take us, Signor Kadare, I'll report you and you'll lose your license. Believe me-I am quite serious."
The driver fastened those pale eyes on him, the windshield wipers scraping jerkily across the glass, then turned and put his hands on the steering wheel. His meaty fingers were as white and hairless as chalk. He raised his eyes to the rearview mirror and exchanged stares with Mallon. "Okay, Mr. American," he said. "You pay."
The driver proceeded in silence across the river and on through snarls of traffic. The pickpocket had given no address; in halting Italian he said to follow Via Tiburtina toward Tivoli, that he would direct him from there. Then he leaned back into his corner with his eyes half closed, wheezing raggedly. He might've been hamming it up a bit, but Mallon was much bigger and had hit him very hard. He saw no choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The rain slackened to drizzle, and a sulfurousyellow light suffused the air. Mallon could feel his wet socks turning warm. Now and then the driver looked at him in the mirror. Kadare. Not an Italian name. Mallon had once read a book by an Albanian writer named Kadare, so maybe he was from Albania. That would make sense, somehow, just as it had made sense when the driver called the pickpocket a Gypsy, which explained the signora's saying "these people," and also Mallon's jittery apprehension about the man-an inkling of some mysterious difference that both put him on edge and intrigued him. But how did the driver and the signora know the man was a Gypsy? It wasn't as if he had a violin in his hand and a ring in his ear. Mallon could spot Gypsy women, with their kerchiefs and long bright skirts and their bold, flatfooted way of moving down a sidewalk, but the men eluded him. To his eye the pickpocket could have been Portuguese or Indian or even one of those swart little Neapolitans. But the signora and the driver had known instantly, jolted by some ancient Old World instinct, an alarm in the blood, only a tingle of which reached Mallon from what his forebears must have brought from Ireland and Poland and Russia.
Generally he felt himself well rid of all that peasant malarkey-salt over the shoulder, garlic hanging from the lintel, the terror of black birds and spilled wine and a stranger's gaze-though he sometimes wondered whether, in passing through the American filter, his blood had grown not clear but watery, as if some essential agent of character, of self, was bound up in these old instincts and had been leached out along with them.
The pickpocket's wet leather jacket gave off a faint pissy smell. Mallon rolled the window down a few inches and was overcome by the freshness of the air. He closed his eyes, savoring the play of the breeze over his face. When he opened them again he caught the driver watching him in the mirror.
"Are you from Albania?" Mallon asked.
The driver tapped the meter. It was already up to eighteen euros, and they still hadn't reached Via Tiburtina. "Cash only, Mr. American. No magic American credit cards."
"How much farther?" Mallon asked the pickpocket, who was holding both hands to his chest and rocking back and forth. He stared straight ahead and didn't answer.
Kadare. Could be Albanian. The book Mallon had read concerned a boy waiting to be killed by a rival clan after shooting one of their sons in revenge for the murder of his brother. The blood feud went back so far that no one could even remember its cause, but men continued to die for it and, more, to live for it. It gave them clear paths of duty and honor, as well as the power of martyrdom over their women; it imbued mean lives and deaths with tragic purpose. But what Mallon remembered best was the boy's blooming alertness as the knowledge that he would soon be killed settled ever deeper. He quickened to the sun in his face and the smell of lamb's fat dripping on coals, the glow of white boulders on the crags that loomed all around him. He wandered deserted roads and was never alone: Death beside him filled him with life until his cup ran over and he gave up his place to another murdering boy.
Mallon had liked the book, though guiltily. He'd resisted his fascination with this violent backward culture, and disapproved of the idea that having death at your elbow gave meaning and beauty to life. He felt quite sure that most people would prefer safety from assault, not to mention decent shelter and food on the table, to exquisite intimations of mortality-if such sensations even existed. They were a fiction of religious and romantic pathology, that's what Mallon had thought, until he started having them himself.
His daughter began complaining of headaches not long after her eleventh birthday and was found to have a brain tumor. She'd survived it, and her tests had been negative for the three years since, but there had been times during Lucy's long course of radiation and chemotherapy when both Mallon and his wife had been sure they were going to lose her. Chiara grew bitter. She moved through the days in a cold rage, saying nothing, eating almost nothing, withdrawing into the guest room, where she'd slept since the month after Lucy's diagnosis. She often said that she wished she'd never been born.
Not Mallon. During his daughter's sickness he had become intensely conscious of life as something good in itself, his own as well as hers. This took the form of patience rather than cheer or even hope, and he'd known better than to offer it in answer to Chiara's despair, but he could see that she somehow sensed it anyway and resented it, as she'd come to resent so much about him since Lucy got sick-his composure, his ability to keep working, his voice and touch, even his newfound pleasure in food, which he would not be frowned out of and indulged to the point that for the first time he got a little paunchy.
One leaden January afternoon, walking a lakeside path after leaving the hospital, Mallon had looked up and watched the dark waves race toward shore and understood that his wife no longer loved him. Would she ever love him again? He didn't think so, and time had proved him right. Though Chiara tried to include him in her happiness when Lucy came home for good, she just didn't like having him around. Mallon thought that shame was at the root of her unease, for she had treated him badly, yet he knew Chiara wouldn't recognize that; she was smart and highly educated, a curator of rare manuscripts at the University of Geneva, but personal analysis bored her, especially the analysis of her own emotions. She trusted in their essential validity and accepted their rule without question. Though Mallon had prized this quality when she defied her family by throwing over an approved fiance to marry him, it now made his case hopeless.
They had been separated for over a year. She kept the apartment. He'd rented a studio nearby, so he and Lucy could visit back and forth as the spirit moved them. That was the idea. In practice Chiara's coldness to him became so painful that he rarely went there and had to wait for Lucy to come to him, which she did less often than he wished. He couldn't blame her. She was busy with school and friends and boys and her choir-with everything he'd prayed she would live to enjoy.
As a project evaluator for his agency, Mallon had always had to fight for time at home. Lately he'd been less resolute. In the last two months he'd spent just nine days in Geneva between stints in Zimbabwe and Uganda, where he'd lived in expensive hotels with broken air-conditioning and empty swimming pools, sandbagged machine-gun positions near the entrance, and an obvious tap on the phone. The local project managers wore him out with PowerPoint presentations and meetings with regional government officials. In their new Land Cruisers they drove him to sites where great things were just about to happen, afterward laying on long speechy dinners and sometimes a tribal spectacle of some kind.
And nothing was going to change-not really. Those struggling, malnourished people he glimpsed through the tinted windows of speeding cars would be in the same fix when the next evaluator came through, already under pressure to sign off on failing or bogus projects so as not to mortify those who'd approved them in the first place.
The people would be in the same fix, there'd just be more of them; but at least they weren't ridiculous. That condition was reserved for the managers, with their Benson & Hedges cigarettes and Carrier lighters and gold Rolex watches and Armani cologne and the smooth European liquor they forced on Mallon with watchful, uncertain pride. And in his opinion they were ridiculous precisely because he and others like him, visitors from the greater ridiculousness, had made them so-creating an entire class of anxious, alienated charlatans out of fat checks and aspirations so stupidly good, so uncomfortable with reality, that only deceit could satisfy them. And for this Mallon had left a good job at Nestle, embarrassed by his success in a world where the pursuit of money and its blessings now seemed almost virtuously straightforward.
They were on Via Tiburtina. The driver tapped the meter-forty-one euros-and gave Mallon a pale stare in the mirror. The traffic moved at a crawl except for the motorinos whining up the shoulder and daring the narrow gaps between lanes. The road was lined with gas stations and strip malls, discount furniture stores and car dealerships strung with fluttering pennants. Plastic bags scudded along the road, snagged on cyclone fences. If not for the passing glimpse of a Roman wall or remnant arches of an aqueduct in a distant field, Mallon could have thought himself back in Illinois.
The pickpocket leaned forward and croaked something.
"Where?" the driver said.
The pickpocket pointed to a supermarket on the other side of the road.
The driver jerked the cab into the turn lane and waited for a break in the traffic. None came. He didn't swear, didn't say a word, though Mallon could see the muscles working in his jaw and felt sure that he was nerving himself to take a chance. "Wait," he said, but just then an oncoming truck slowed down for them and the driver shot across the road and into the parking lot. The pickpocket directed him around to the rear of the store, where an unpaved road led out of the lot and past a long line of metal storage sheds and then a fenced compound filled with rusting machinexy and great wooden spools of cable. The driver was going too fast for the road; the cab floated queasily between deep, jarring potholes.
"Farther," the pickpocket said. "A little farther."
And then the road gave out onto a field of mud. At the far end, several small trailers and campers had been drawn up beside an unfinished apartment block, windows empty of glass, balconies unrailed.
water stains streaking the cement walls. Indifferent to the rain, two boys were bouncing on a mattress in the middle of the field, watched by a bunch of other kids sitting on the shells of two wrecked cars. They jumped down and ran shouting toward the cab as it followed a crunching path through a waste of metal drums and tires and sodden newspapers and weirdly bright plastic bottles. A shaggy, swaybacked pony had his muzzle buried in a cardboard box. He shied away as the parade went past, throwinga kick to cover his retreat. One of the boys jumped onto the hood of the cab and grinned at the driver: strong white teeth in a muddy face. The driver stared dead ahead.
The pickpocket ignored them too. He had the aloof, preoccupied air of a man in the back of a chauffeured limousine. "Over there," he said, and gestured languidly toward the apartment block. The cab slowed to a stop and the boy on the hood slid down and raised his fists like a champion and his friends laughed and bumped him with their hips.
The pickpocket got out of the cab. One of the boys called out to him, "Miri!"-and others joined in, "Miri! Miri!"-but he gave no sign of hearing. When Mallon got out with him to say a last word of some kind, the pickpocket turned away and took a few steps, then stopped and bent his head like a mourner. Mallon went over to him. "Wait a moment," he said to the driver, taking the pickpocket's elbow.
"No. Pay now. Forty-eight euros."
"Just wait. Keep your meter on, you'll get paid."
The entranceway was covered with plastic sheeting. The pickpocket pushed it aside and Mallon followed closely, helping him into the lobby-a raw cement cave littered with broken tiles that gleamed in the light of a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling. An old Gypsy woman was bent over a steaming metal tub set above a camp stove, rubbing a cloth against a washboard. She straightened up and looked at Mallon. Her dark face was webbed with deep wrinkles and folds from which her little eyes gleamed as from a hiding place. Her head was pulled low, her shoulders raised almost to her ears, frozen in a shrug. In a croaky voice she said something Mallon didn't understand. The pickpocket drooped and murmured pathetically. The old woman tossed the cloth into the tub and wiped her hands on the front of her dress and led them across the lobby and down a dark hall to a doorway over which a blanket had been hung. She held back the blanket, and Mallon let go of the pickpocket's elbow. "Okay, you're home," he said, and the pickpocket ducked inside without a word.
The old woman, still holding the blanket, jerked her head toward the doorway.
"No, I can't," Mallon said.
"Avanti," she said impatiently, her teeth flashing gold.
Mallon went in.
Mallon went in amazed at his own docility and bilious with dread. Why? What did he expect, his gut knotting up as he passed the threshold? Certainly not this room-the muted light, the neatly made bed in the corner, the glossy yellow sofa and matching chair, the artificial palm tree. Not this room, and not the two beautiful children gaping up at him. One was a girl of eight or nine, the other a boy a little older, both of them thin and dark and large-eyed. They stood on either side of the pickpocket, the girl hugging his arm and leaning against him. The children moved back as the old woman brushed past Mallon and took the pickpocket by the shoulders of his leather jacket and stripped it off with a series of rough jerks that made him stagger. Without the jacket he looked even smaller, smaller and rounder. Growling, she nudged him toward the bed and said something to the girl, who helped him lie down and then knelt to slip off his little shoes.
The old woman looked on, one hand at her hip. Then she turned to Mallon. "Sit!" she said. Before he could answer she pointed at the yellow chair and waited until he obeyed. Then she said, "Stay!" and left the room.
The pickpocket lay on his back, sighing deeply. The girl studied Mallon from the foot of the bed, the boy from beside the large window at the end of the room. The window had been covered with plastic that diffused a pearly gray light. The girl had long thin arms with big bony elbows and wore a T-shirt with a panda on it. Mallon smiled at her. "Your papa? " he asked, nodding at the pickpocket.
No answer, but she took a step toward Mallon.
The boy and girl looked at each other, and she laughed an outright adult sort of laugh and then pulled the collar of her T-shirt up over her mouth like a veil.
The old woman called out from somewhere. The girl dropped her eyes demurely and joined her hands across her waist and crossed the room in short mincing steps as if imitating a woman with bound feet. The boy continued to stare. Mallon thought of stealing away, but the chair was deep and soft, and before he could collect the will to push himself out of it the girl returned and stood right in front of him with a bowl of unwrapped chocolates and a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola. Though Mallon shook his head no, she kept offering these gifts, holding his eyes with hers and nodding all the while, so that to refuse seemed impossible. He took the Coke. It was warm and filled his mouth with foam but he made a show of appreciation, tipping his head back and closing his eyes before setting the bottle down on the floor.
The pickpocket groaned and rolled toward the wall, mumbling to himself. The girl turned to look at him and then at the boy, who drifted over to the other side of Mallon's chair. The girl leaned back against Mallon's knee, bouncing off him rhythmically, impersonally, as a child will do when caught by some distant thought or object of interest. Out of pure instinct he put his arm around her waist and pulled her onto his lap, then looked at the boy standing there alone and gathered him up too. This felt entirely natural, apparently to them as well; light and noodly, they settled against him, heads on his chest. From above they looked identical. Apleasant, loamy smell rose up from their hair. The pickpocket rolled onto his back again and started to snore. "Miri," the boy whispered, then began to imitate him with wickedly accurate smacks and snorts. The girl was shaking. She put her hands over her mouth but laughter exploded through her fingers.
Mallon let his head fall back. He was tired and the chair was comfortable and the boy and girl were warm and familiar against him. He closed his eyes. The boy didn't keep up the funny stuff for long. He grew still and so did the girl. Mallon could feel them breathe, young, shallow breaths, oddly synchronous. The idea came to him that maybe they were twins. Dully considering the mystery of twins, he remembered for the first time in years a pair of boys he'd grown up with-Jerry and Terry, or was it Jerry and Larry?-but lost his thread and was content to let it go and be afloat, carried along by the pickpocket's snores until he could almost hear them as his own. Later, he wondered how long this lasted. Not long, he guessed, though when he felt the children leave him and grudgingly opened his eyes he was as fresh as if he'd slept for hours.
The old woman was standing in front of the chair. "That man out there wants you," she said.
They were back on Via Tiburtina, still a good distance from central Rome and his hotel, the fare up to one hundred sixteen euros, when Mallon clapped his hand to his chest. The driver caught the motion and raised his eyes to the mirror. Mallon, looking out the rain-glazed window, let nothing show. The moment passed. He yawned ostentatiously, then under the pretense of shifting and stretching he patted himself down and confirmed that his billfold was gone.
They drove on into lashing rain and the glare of headlights. It was only just past six but the sky was black and flickered with lightning. Mallon's mouth was dry. He took a breath so deep that the driver glanced up again when he let it out.
"I have a problem."
The driver's eyes snapped back and forth between the road and the mirror.
"I've lost my wallet."
"My wallet is gone."
"You are saying you have no money?"
"Not with me, no. I can get some at the hotel. The manager will advance it against my bill."
The driver leaned forward, peering into the slant of rain, and flicked on the turn signal.
"I may not be able to get it tonight, but I can get it tomorrow, for sure. It depends on whether the manager is in. Signor Marinelli. He knows me." Mallon sounded to himself like a prattling fraud, but he added, "I will payyou."
"You knew," the driver said.
"What? What did you say?"
No answer. The driver eased the cab onto the shoulder of the road and brought it to a stop. There was something terrible in his deliberateness, his silence, the rigid set of his neck. He sat there, hands on the wheel, looking straight ahead. "Mr. American," he said, and made a noise between his teeth. Cars went by. The rain drummed on the roof. Mallon wanted to say something but was afraid to-as if the drivers hatred were a gas that would blow at a word. He felt he'd somehow lost the right to speak.