Book Extracts
Liar Moon by Ben Pastor

Verona, German-occupied Northern Italy

9 September 1943 

Si deve far coraggio, maggiore. 

Martin Bora was in too much pain to say he understood. 

Dobbiamo pulire le ferite. 

In too much pain to say he understood that, also. 

Courage. Cleaning the wounds. Blood throbbed in his lids, by quick flickers in the blind glow of eyes tightly shut, and at the back of his mouth, where his teeth clenched hard, another heartbeat scanned frantic time in his head. 

Coraggio, coraggio. Try to take heart.” 

A small pool of saliva rose under his tongue, until he had to swallow. The lifting of the stretcher so exasperated the agony in his left arm, the whole length of his body crumpled with it. All he could gather was a convulsed short breathing at the top of his chest, as in one who must cry, or cry out. 

They were laying him on the emergency-room table. Taking off his boots. His left leg seemed to tear open with the removal of the rigid leather, as if they were wrenching the bone from his knee. Lights burst over him, human voices travelled from great distances to him, at him, into him. 

Blood sprayed as medics cut and dug through the gore of his clothes, and Bora would not let go but grew hard and grim and desperate, trying to resist the pain. To fight it, as if one could fight this, when his whole left side felt crushed in a giant vice and there was no hope of pulling himself out without shredding arm and leg in the process. His left hand, torn already to filaments and gushing blood, gulped and gulped his life out – lungs, stomach, bones – all seemingly heaving from the severance at the end of his arm, a sick red jumble of what had filled his body until now. 

They were undoing his army breeches. Anxious hands reached into the blood-matted fleece of his groin, searched thigh and knee. His neck arched rigid in the strain of his back to rise. 

“Hold him down, hold him down,” a voice said. “You’ll have to hold him down, Nurse.” 

Joints braced as in a seizure, Bora was fighting pain, not being held down. 

He could not swallow nor could he say he could not swallow, and when someone gave him water – he knew his mouth was unclenching because breath surged out of it in spasms – it gurgled back up his throat to the sides of his face. 

They would work on his left arm next. He hardened for it, and still a paroxysm of pain wrenched his mouth open and he was racked into a fit of trembling but would not scream. He groped for the edge of the table, would not scream. Neck flexed back, hard, unable to close his mouth – it was hard, hard! – he struggled and butted his head against the hard surface and would not scream. 

“Put something under his head, Nurse, he’s battering it on the table.” 

The digging of hands into the meat of arm and groin and thigh accelerated and then halted. It began again slowly. Slowly. Digging, pulling, coming apart. Being born must be like this, a helpless nauseous struggle to get out in the overwhelming smell of blood – a butcher-shop smell – pain jagged immeasurably high in it. 

He would break. If he pushed through he would break into aborted flesh, and die if he didn’t. 

“Hold him down!” 

Then someone forcibly pried his right hand from the side of the table and clutched it. 

Bora could weep for the comfort that came with the hold, as if the act were his midwifery from death, delivering him from the mandible and womb of death. He stopped fighting, and was suddenly coming out of the vice. 

Lights blinded him, he saw blood quilting his stretchedout body and people working into the naked red quilt with shiny tools, wads of cotton. 

Out, out. He was coming out. 

The clasp wrested him to a threshold of agony, brought him forth, and pain was extreme, unbearable at the passage. Bora cried out only once, when birth from pain tore what remained of his left hand with it. 

In the morning, the sky was the battered colour of a bruise. The tall hospital window was made sad and livid by it, and in that bruised light Bora asked, unflinching, “Will there have to be a graft, or was there enough skin left?” 

“We were able to repair it with what skin there was, Major. We tried to shield the stump and remove enough nervous terminations so that it will not hurt too much later. I am very sorry.” 

Bora looked away from the surgeon. 

“What about my leg?” 

“If gangrene doesn’t develop, we hope to save it.” 

Suddenly Bora felt the need to vomit. Only it had nothing to do with anaesthesia this time, nor with pain. He said he understood, but would not look at his left arm. 

The Italian surgeon, who was high-ranking and old enough to speak his mind to a German officer, shook his head. “It didn’t help matters that you waited two hours to be evacuated.” 

“My wounded men came first. I lost two of them as it is.” 

“You lost three. Anyway, since you must be wondering, the metal fragments in your groin have not injured the genitals.” 

“I see.” Bora did not look up, staring at an indeterminate place on the bed. “Thank you.” 

The wretched odour of disinfectant and blood filled the room. His body smelled of them. “My wedding ring, where is it?” 


Beyond the bed, everything was a livid off-white colour. The window had a veined marble sill, like mottled flesh. Small cracks in the wall beneath it drew the eyeless, approximate profile of a horse. 

“Will you accept something for the pain?” 

Martin Bora moved his head from side to side on the pillow, but was too weak to say that he wouldn’t.

Lago, 18.5 miles north-east of Verona

21 November 1943 

Two months later, when he opened his eyes in the dark, Bora found himself holding his breath. Thinking, he went up and down his limbs, checking with hesitation the usually aching areas of left arm and leg – regions in the dark, uncertain of boundaries as even one’s body is when awakening. 

It was seldom that he had no pain, and the grateful lassitude, derived from feeling nothing, had become a luxury in the past few months. Face up in bed, he avoided any motion that might endanger the precious, transitory balance, though not feeling was far from feeling well. It would be so, it would have to be so until his body forgave him for what had happened in September. 

The grenade attack had been unavoidable, but his flesh rejected it, and the truth of mutilation. He was still ashamed for helplessly lying on the butcher block of the emergency table, sewn in his wounds and bloodied as at birth for the length of his limbs, whose ordure a Sister of Charity sponged. The mortified nakedness of chest and belly and thighs and groin under the patient wipe of her virgin hands stayed with him. Forgiveness to himself would not come from simply surviving the agony of it as a wide-eyed animal, without crying out. 

So Bora woke holding his breath so as not to rouse pain, while outside of the room – outside the command post – the wind rode high and pushed ahead a moon thin as an eyebrow. 

By seven o’clock that morning, a keen, colder gale had blustered out of the north to empty the streets of Lago, a small town like many others, without a lake despite its name, lost in the fields of the Veneto region. Bora sat in his office minding paperwork, with an ear to the hum of vibrating telephone wires outdoors. He heard, too, the idling and then stopping of a motor car before the command, but had no curiosity to reach the window and find out who it was. 

Even when the orderly came to knock on his door, he did not stop writing. 

“Yes, what?” he limited himself to saying. After being told of the visitor, he added, “All right, let him in.” 

The newcomer was dark and wiry, with vivacious black eyes and a moustache like a caterpillar lining his upper lip. The sombre Fascist Republican Party mixture of field-grey and black formed a light-absorbing stain in the dim autumn day. Skulls and bundles of rods on the epaulets identified him as a member of the shock troops. 

Viva il Duce. 

Bora did not return the Fascist salute, and stared up in a noncommittal way from his chair. He set his face inexpressively enough, while “How can I assist you?” rolled out of him flatly. 

“Centurion Gaetano De Rosa, of the Muti Battalion.” 

The visitor spoke in the manner of training camp, projecting his voice across the office. 

“Major Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht,” Bora replied. And it took him aback that the little man addressed him in German next, in good German, with a pompous, selfconscious ring to the use of tenses as he introduced his reason for being there. 

It had to do with a murder, so at first Bora listened, sitting back in the chair with his left arm low and his right hand calmly fingering a fountain pen over the shiny desktop. 

“Why don’t you speak Italian?” he asked then, in Italian. 

“Why? Well, Major, I thought—” 

“There’s no need for you to go through any such effort. As you can see, I speak Italian too.” 

It was obvious that De Rosa was disappointed. Bora knew well enough these Fascists moonstruck with all things Germanic, who patterned themselves after his own people to the extent of sounding obnoxiously servile. He had learned to cut short all attempts to favour him with familiarity with German customs and places. And now he went straight to the core of the matter. 

“I appreciate your coming to me, Centurion De Rosa, but I don’t see how or even why I should offer assistance. The violent death of a Party notable is serious business. Your Verona police will be much better qualified than myself to conduct the investigation.” 

De Rosa was not easily outdone this time. “I thought you might answer that way, Major. That’s why I brought this along. Please read.” He handed an envelope to Bora, who sliced through its side with a penknife and began reading. Against the light from the window, De Rosa seemed to glow with pleasure at the sight of the letterhead, the squarish spread eagle of the German Headquarters in Verona. 

There was little arguing with the brief of presentation. Bora put the sheet down, glaring at the little man, and prepared himself to listen. 

Twenty minutes down the road from Lago, the few houses of Sagràte were buffeted by the pitiless wind. The naked bushes rattled like tambourines when Police Inspector Guidi got out of his old Fiat service car. 

Corporal Turco hastened to reach the door of the police command ahead of him, opened it, stepped aside and let him in. He had the encumbering figure of a Saracenblooded Sicilian, and when he joined Guidi inside, a wild whiff of clothes worn outdoors came with him. 

Arsalarma,” he let out in his dialect. “With one shoe missing, Inspector, he can’t have gone far.” 

Guidi did not bother to turn around. He removed from around his neck the bulky scarf his mother had hand-knit for him. “Why, Turco, haven’t you ever walked barefoot?” 

There wasn’t much else for Turco to say, since his first footwear had come with his induction into the army. He brought to Guidi’s desk the laceless, worn shoe they had just recovered, careful to place a newspaper under it before laying it down. 

“Without a shoe, and crazy, too,” he mumbled to himself. “Marasantissima. 

Guidi had started pencilling lines on a topographic map tacked to his office wall. In a wide semicircle that began and ended at the river, fanning out from its right bank, he enclosed the stretch of flat countryside they had searched the night before. It seemed much larger when one had to slog across it, he thought. 

Past the river, long and narrow fields, now mostly bare, ran to the guerrilla-torn piedmont, home to partisan bands. Guidi knew there were no farmhouses there to offer shelter to a fugitive – only fields, and irrigation canals bordering them and intersecting with deep ditches alongside endless hedgerows. His instinct told him he should continue to search this side of the river. Guidi marked with a dot the place where the shoe had been found, nearly halfway between Lago and Sagràte, where groves of willow trees flanked the county road. 

“Let’s give the men a chance to rest until tomorrow,” he told Turco. “Then we’ll see what else can be done. The carabinieri assured me they’ll continue the search on their own until sundown.” Guidi nearly laughed saying it, because Turco (who was far from daft, but loved theatrics) stared at the muddy shoe as though he could stare it into giving information. 

As for Bora, he sighed deeply to conceal his boredom at De Rosa’s narrative. Because the talk gave no sign of ending, “Colonel Habermehl is surely aware that I’m very busy,” Bora interjected at last. “I have no free time.” 

In front of him, Habermehl’s letter agreed that it was all a bother, but advised him to please the Verona Fascists. Bora knew the arguments by heart: this was northern Italy, four years into the war, and the Italian allies had become potential enemies. The Americans had landed in Salerno and were inching up the peninsula. Why not please the Verona Fascists, who remained pro-German? Habermehl asked “as a family friend, not out of rank”. But the rank was there, of course, and Bora knew better than to fall for the outward courtesy. 

“Look,” he told De Rosa. “If you wish me to get involved in this case, you must supply me with all information gathered by the Italian police and carabinieri to date. When did the murder take place?” 

De Rosa frowned. “Day before yesterday. Didn’t you read it in the Arena? It was the most important piece of news, it took up nearly the whole front page.” 

Bora had spent all day Friday at the hospital in Verona, where the surgeon was still extracting shrapnel from his left leg. He’d had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Italian newspapers. “I must not have paid attention,” he said. 

Promptly De Rosa pulled out a newspaper clipping, laying it square on the desk in front of Bora. 

Bora read. “Here it says that Camerata Vittorio Lisi was the victim of a stroke in his country villa.” 

“Well.” De Rosa gave him an unamused smile, a grimace really. “You understand that when it comes to a man of Lisi’s fame and valour, the public must be kept from scandals. Lisi was from Verona. All knew him, all loved him.” 

“All but one person at least, if he’s been done in.” Bora gave back the clipping, which De Rosa carefully folded again but left on the desk. “What chances are there that it was a political assassination?” 

“None, Major Bora. Lisi was not a controversial man. Solid, with a heart of gold.” 

“I’m not aware that partisans or political adversaries would be impressed by a Fascist’s golden heart.” 

De Rosa’s grimace caused the well-combed caterpillar on his upper lip to tremble. “With all respect, Major, I know the political climate of the region better than you do. I assure you it is Fascistissimo.” 

Bora was tempted to phone Habermehl with an excuse to avoid the incestuous little world of local politics. His urge might have been visible, because De Rosa spoke up. 

“Colonel Habermehl informs me that you have already solved difficult cases.” 

“By accident.” Bora minimized the report. “Always by accident.” 

“Not according to the colonel. He says you distinguished yourself in the case of a murder in Spain, and of a dead nun in Poland. And in Russia…” 

The silvery skulls on De Rosa’s uniform glinted dully. The angry eagle clutching a fascio on his chest pocket, and the fanaticism it stood for, was beginning to annoy Bora. He said, “All right. Tell me all that is known about Lisi’s death, and provide me with the dossier as soon as possible.” 

“May I at least sit down?” De Rosa asked tartly. 

“Sit down.” 

On that Sunday, Guidi’s mother was shelling peas into a colander set on her knees, rolling them out of their green casing with swift, hooked strokes of the thumb. These were the last peas of the season; it was amazing how they’d managed to ripen despite the cold nights. But how well they went with pasta sauce, and how Sandro liked them! 

Near the kitchen door, she could now barely make out the voices of the men talking in the parlour. Her son had a soft voice as it was. Only a few of the words he spoke to the German were comprehensible to her, and as for the German, he was even more controlled in his speech.  

Signora Guidi was curious, but sat shelling peas with the offended dignity of the excluded. 

Bora was saying, “No, thank you, I’m in a hurry.” 

Having refused to take a seat, he stood rigidly by the set dining-room table, opposite a mirrored credenza. On the credenza sat the black-ribboned photograph of Guidi’s policeman father, with the date 1924 penned at the bottom, preceded by a cross. 

“That’s what De Rosa said, Guidi. And although he came under some pretence of secrecy, God knows why, he did not expressly forbid me to talk it over with others, so here I am.” 

Compared to Bora’s impeccable German uniform, Guidi grew aware of his shirt-sleeved frumpiness, perhaps because Bora seemed to be appraising him. He could feel the scrutiny of his own unprepossessing lankiness, his melancholy features drawn under the limp, swept-back wave of his sandy hair. Bora, on the other hand, looked like steel and leather and immaculate cuffs. 

Perhaps he ought to feel flattered by the visit. “Major,” Guidi said, “is it proven that Lisi’s death was not an accident, first of all?” 

“It seems so. His wife’s sports car has a sizeable dent in the front fender. De Rosa is convinced it resulted from her purposely running into Lisi’s wheelchair. As I said, it happened in the grounds of the victim’s country place. Unlikely that he was struck by a passing motorist.” 

Absent-mindedly Guidi nodded. From the kitchen wafted the odour of frying onions, so he went to shut the door. “Are they keeping the widow under surveillance?” 

“Virtually house arrest.” 

“In the country?” 

“No, she lives in Verona.” Without stepping forward, Bora handed over a slim folder tied with a rubber band. “These are the notes I took after De Rosa’s visit.” 

While Guidi read, Bora took off his cap and placed it under his left arm. Italian officials made little money, he knew. Dated furniture, old school books lovingly arranged on the shelf, a rug brushed threadbare. The punctilious modesty of this room spoke of the ever-losing struggle of the middle class to keep respectable. More importantly, it might speak of Guidi’s honesty. 

From the credenza’s mirror, unbidden, the stern clarity of his own eyes met Bora. The finely drawn paleness of the face his wife called handsome looked to him new and hard, as if Russia and pain had killed him and made him into another. He took a step aside to avoid his reflection. 

Guidi said, “We’ll need the physician’s report and autopsy.” 

“I requested them.” 

From where he faced now, Bora noticed how the photograph of Guidi’s father occupied the centre of an embroidered doily, between two vases filled with artificial flowers. A regular home altar, complete with lit taper. Memory of his younger brother’s death hit him squarely (Kursk, only a few months ago, the crash site in the field of sunflowers, blood lining the cockpit), so that Bora moodily looked down. 

“When the housemaid came out after hearing the noise, the victim had been thrown several paces from his wheelchair. According to De Rosa, Lisi had only enough strength left in his arm to trace a ‘C’ on the gravel, and then lost consciousness. He had already slipped into a coma when help came, and was dead in less than twentyfour hours’ time.” 

Guidi closed the folder. “I don’t see how this detail particularly relates to his wife.” 

“Her name is Clara.” 

“Ah. But even then, it all remains circumstantial. Were there problems in the Lisi marriage?” 

Bora stared at him. “They were living apart, and their separation had been unfriendly. Apparently there were still occasional violent arguments between them. Naturally the widow denies all accusations, and insists she had nothing to do with the matter, although she was reportedly unable to offer an alibi for the afternoon of the killing. Without an eyewitness, there’s no way of knowing whether she drove to the country on that day or not. Whoever killed Lisi, though, arrived and left again within a few minutes.” 

Noise from the kitchen intruded. Guidi stole a look to the door, embarrassed that his mother was banging pots and covers as a not-so-subtle hint that lunch was ready. Bora’s dark army crop moved imperceptibly in that direction. 

“Well, Major, I have to think about it—” Bora interrupted him. 

“What do you intend by ‘thinking’? That you haven’t decided whether you’ll collaborate with me, or that you need time before offering me suggestions?” 

“I need to think of a plan of action. I’ll phone you at the command post this evening.” 

Bora, who had scheduled an anti-partisan night raid and would not be at the post, nevertheless said it was fine. 

Over the occasional banging of pots, “We’re agreed, then.” Guidi rushed to say, “What I meant to pass on, Major, is that an escaped convict is at large between Lago and Sagràte.” 

Unexpectedly Bora smirked. “Why, thank you. We’ll lock our doors at night.” 

“He was diagnosed by Italian army physicians as criminally insane, and carries a marksman Carcano besides.” 

“6.5 or 7.35 mm calibre?” 

“8 mm.” 

Bora frowned. “Ah. Those made for the Russian campaign. They have a brutal recoil. Well, for us it’s just one more bullet to dodge, Guidi.” 

“I did my civic duty by informing the German authorities.” 

After a particularly syncopated rattle of cooking pots, the kitchen became peaceful again. Guidi breathed easily. “Did De Rosa tell you why they want to keep the murder a secret?” 

Bora openly grinned this time. “For the same reason why there are no more suicides in Fascist Italy, and people just happen to stumble on the tracks while there’s an oncoming train. Perhaps there are no murders in Fascist Italy, either. It seems Lisi was of some importance. A comrade of the first hour, in Mussolini’s words.” Bora swept his army cap from under his arm and put it on, taking a rigid step toward the door. “Colonel Habermehl recommended my name to the Republican Guard because of what he terms my part in solving other small matters. It’s only natural I should contact you, since you are the professional in the field.” He opened the door, through which a field-grey BMW was visible, with driver waiting at attention. “My apologies to your mother for delaying your holiday meal. Goodbye.” 

Guidi waited until the army car left the kerb before calling out to his mother. “He’s gone, Ma.” Because she did not answer, he opened the kitchen door and peered in. “He left.” 

His mother had taken her apron off and was wearing her good shoes. “Gone? Why didn’t you ask him to stay for lunch?” 

“I thought you didn’t want the likes of him in the house, Ma.” 

“Honestly, Sandro! Now God knows what he’s going to think about us Italians, that we didn’t even invite him to lunch.”

The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex


Ropraz, in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport, two hours from Lausanne, perched on a high hillside above the road to Berne, bordered by dense forests of fir. Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. Avarice, cruelty, superstition – we are not far from the border with Fribourg, where witchcraft is rampant. They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam.

A loaded weapon is kept in the stable or cellar. With hunting or poaching as a justification, they cherish powder, shot, great traps with metal teeth, and blades sharpened on the whetstone. Fear lurks. At night prayers of conjuration or exorcism are said. They are severely Protestant, but cross themselves when monsters loom in the fog. Along with the snow, the wolf returns. It is not so long since the last one was killed, in 1881; its stuffed hide is gathering dust seven miles away, behind glass in the Vieux-Moudon museum. And then the fearsome bear that came from the Jura. It disembowelled some heifers not forty years ago, in the gorges of the Mérine. The old folk remember it; there’s no joking in Ropraz or Ussières. In Voltaire’s day, when he lived in the château down in the hamlet of Ussières, brigands would “wait” on the main road – the one leading to Berne and the German lands – and, later, soldiers returning from Napoleon’s wars would hold honest folk to ransom. You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. A ring in his ear, a crafty look, a knife in his boot.

Here there are no large shops, factories or plants; people have only what they win from the soil – in other words nothing. It is no kind of life. People are so poor that our cattle are sold to city butchers for meat. We make do with pig, and so much of it is consumed in every shape and form – smoked, rind removed, minced or salted – that we end up looking like it, with pink faces and ruddy jowls, far from the world, in dark coombs and woods.

In this remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy. For incest and brooding in unwed gloom on flesh for ever desired and for ever forbidden.

Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. In solitude, by night, the amorous romps of a few fortunate individuals and their moaning accomplices, satanic titillations, a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism. Endlessly construing the threat from deep within and from without, from the forest, from the cracking of the roof, from the wailing of the wind, from the beyond, from above, from beneath, from below: the threat from elsewhere. You bar yourself inside your skull, your sleep, your heart, your senses; you bolt yourself inside your farmhouse, gun at the ready, with a haunted, hungry soul. Winter stirs this violence beneath the lasting snow, a friend to the demented, the ruddy and bistre skies between daybreak and night-time deprivation, the cold and the gloom that strains and wastes the nerves. But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. And the full moon. And the nights when the moon is full, the prayers and rituals, the bacon rind rubbed on warts and wounds, the black potions against pregnancy, the rituals with crudely fashioned wooden dolls stuck with pins and martyrized, the spells cast by charlatans, the prayers to cure spots on the eye. Even today in sheds and attics you still find books of magic and recipes for brews of menstrual blood, vomit, toad spittle and powdered viper.

When the moon shines too bright, beware bric, beware brac. When the moon rises rathe, shut up serpent in sack. Hysteria swells. And fear. Who slipped into the loft? Who walked on the roof? Look to pitchfork and powder, before secrets of the abyss!

Tequila Blue by Rolo Diez

Chapter one
Snow White looks eighteen going on fifteen, with
her short skirt and plaits, breasts like apples and
110 pounds of a mixture of innocence and sensuality
all wrapped in tissue paper. There are only
four, not seven dwarfs, and they are not real
dwarfs, just very short men. Half-hidden behind
false white beards, their faces are vicious and disturbing.
The opening scene shows them having a
meal in a clearing in a wood. One of the dwarfs is
serving wine. He offers it to Snow White but
switches the bottle without her realizing it. The
four freaks wink and make obscene gestures to
one other. They watch lasciviously as the womanchild
sips from her glass. As she finishes her drink,
Snow White falls into what appears to be a catatonic
trance. The dwarfs pull a mattress out from
under the table. They lay Snow White down on it
and start undressing her.

Chapter two
Lourdes woke me at eight with a beer and a
sour look that I had no intention of responding
to. I twisted and turned in the bed until I was
more or less upright and could take the first
“I went to bed at four,” I told her. “This beer is
warm. I don’t want it frozen, but it should be cold.
I’ve told you a thousand times.”
Lourdes is the only person in the world who can
launch into four different topics at once:
“You told me you were leaving at eight; we
haven’t paid the kids’ school fees; there’s nothing
to eat; why do you have a family if you can’t be
bothered to look after them?”
Lourdes is thin, the nervous type, her beauty
ruined by her irritation. I contemplated a reply,
but it sank without trace in my desire to go on
“Put the beer in the freezer and call me again in
fifteen minutes.”
Lourdes walked off complaining, but I wasn’t
even listening any more. Cops like me can sleep
standing up, when we’re on duty, covering some
guy whose footsteps are bound to wake us up.
An hour later I was out of the house. The sun
hurt my eyes, and the fumes from Avenida
Revolucion clawed at my nose and throat.
I stopped off at a taco bar and had a quick
breakfast. A soup with bread and lots of chilli in it
– the perfect indigenous remedy to improve the
way a hung-over guy sees the world, the human
condition, and Mondays, to help persuade him he
has to go to the office – then chopped steak and
several coffees. The bar owner, Luis, wanted to
know the price on .38 revolvers and 9mm pistols.
“I’ve got someone interested in buying,” he said
with a wink. “I could order five or six, if there’s
something in it for me.”
“I’ll look into it,” I told him. “I’ll tell you
I was thinking of talking to Amaya, who can get
rods cheap. If each of us made a hundred thousand
on each gun, that would mean half a million
for us and we could still sell them at a reasonable
price. Not business for its own sake, but to fight
the debts that insisted on piling up at the end of
every month.
Red was not at the money exchange: he had a
business breakfast. And the envelope for my boss
wasn’t there either. That scumbag Red: the Commander
wasn’t going to be pleased at having to
wait. I’d left Red thirty thousand dollars on his
behalf, first-class Colombian stuff that even the
White House would accept. And he was supposed
to pay up today. He knew that, but here he was,
playing games with cops . . . as if we couldn’t screw
his business completely if we felt like it.
“What time is he coming?” I asked.
“He won’t be long,” his secretary said.
A nymphette, a looker. Hot stuff, but not as hot
as she thought she was.
Her office was all glass, wall-to-wall carpet,
paintings and diplomas. I undid my jacket. I was
sitting so that little miss pretty couldn’t see the
grease stain on my trousers. I used to be able to sit
with my jacket buttoned, but these days my stomach
seems determined to put on a display of forty
years of tacos and beer.
“Has he been in touch?” I said, putting on my
stern policeman look. I know these dames. If you
so much as let on you’ve noticed their attractions,
there’s no end to their little games of seduction.
Not because a tart like her gives a damn about
someone like me, but simply because it’s their way
of showing their power. The only power they’ve
got: flesh and their shiny veneer.
“No,” with a flutter of rings and bangles. “But
he usually comes in about now.”
“I need to talk to him urgently,” I said, handing
her my card. “Please tell him to call me as soon as
he gets here.”
“Yes, Mr Hernandez,” she said, looking at the
I buttoned my jacket and stood up. I leaned
over to shake hands, and found myself staring
down a plunging neckline. She saw my look and

When I got to the office they were serving coffee.
The Commander was having breakfast in the
Sheraton with a judge and a member of Congress.
Convinced that public relations are all about having
a full stomach and a full diary, the boss
doesn’t stint on breakfast. He devotes his mornings
to other people’s careers and tries to choose
the right people.
Maribel brought me coffee. She stroked my
hand and asked for my office contribution: fifty
thousand pesos.
“You owe the last two payments,” she said, her
voice as sweet and fake as her expression.
Maribel is as hot as her native Veracruz, and is
battling against time. Her hair is dyed and teased
at the salon. She has good legs, adolescent children
she prefers to keep hidden, a baker husband,
and the soul of a whore. Just because she’s
the boss’s secretary she thinks she can intimidate
and lay – or at least try to lay – all the males in the
office. I think of her every time I hear a feminist
banging on about the sexual harassment of
women in the workplace.
Maribel put on her best tropical smile and slid
out the tip of her tongue: a promise of fellatio that
set my stomach tingling.
All I had in my pockets was a fifty-peso bill. All I
had to face a long day, feed myself, and find
another ten of the same to calm Lourdes’s nerves.
Not to mention Gloria: I haven’t been to her place
in four days, and although she’s patient enough
and understands how difficult things can be, she’s
got kids and all the rest to take care of just like in
any family. If I hadn’t forbidden it, she’d be on
the phone to me right now.
Maribel’s knees closed in on mine. Laura and
the cleaning woman exchanged knowing smiles. I
didn’t move.
“Wait till tomorrow, I’ll pay you then,” I said.
“Poor you! You’ve got so many problems.”
When they come over all tender, tarantulas must
look exactly as she did at that moment. “How
about going out for a drink, then you can tell me
all about it?”
“The boss might arrive,” I said half-heartedly.
“We’ve got an hour,” whispered Maribel, with all
the naturalness of someone who behaves in a
Mexican police office as if she were Marlene Dietrich
in a Cairo cabaret. She accompanied her
words with increased pressure of her knees
against my left leg, which I had to push against the
floor to steady myself.
Seeing that the whole office was having fun at
my expense, and considering a gentleman should
never disappoint a lady, especially if he doesn’t
want to be thought of as a queer, I decided it
would be less costly to have an early-morning fuck
in a hotel at her expense than have to give her all I
had left to pay my contribution.
In the elevator Maribel gave me a playful
lipsticky bite that I returned as best I could.
“Beast!” she groaned with satisfaction.
“Don’t leave any marks!” I told her, imagining
Lourdes’s face twisted with jealousy, and her
mania for examining my neck and back for signs
of someone else’s nails and teeth. Lourdes is a
self-taught forensic expert, and I’m always the
man in the dock. We’ve had real arguments over
it, and it’s incredible how she spots these things!
On the way to the hotel in my hostess’s Caribe, I
was suddenly worried my trouser tool might not
be up to it, or might be up to it then duck out halfway
through the performance, or I might come
too soon, as occasionally happens, especially when
I have to examine a new body that’s poring over
mine. And even though Maribel was no stranger, I
was worried about my size. I’m forty years old and
see myself in the shower every day. Yet I’m still not
sure whether I’m hung like a horse and make
every woman swoon, as I sometimes think, or if
what I’ve got is nothing more than the tiniest
shrivelled up little bean in the world, not big
enough to satisfy a cat on a diet.
At the hotel I ordered a rum and mineral water
for my nerves and my thirst, both of which are par
for the course in rooms like this. Exciting sounds
were coming from the room next door, as if an
Aztec virgin were being sacrificed on an altar.
Interestingly, our bed was against the same wall:
either a hippie or a communist idea that struck
me as very clever. I soon changed my mind when it
was obvious Maribel’s interest in my charms
was transferred to the wall. She stuck to it like a
limpet. Naked and as wrinkled as an accordion, I
lit a cigarette. Groans and sighs accompanied me
all the way to the bathroom, where I pissed with
difficulty and found a glass. My professional
training led me to take it back into the bedroom,
place the top against the noisiest part of the wall
and gesture for Maribel to come over and press
her ear to it. Judging by the growing signs of
ecstasy on her face, this had the desired effect.
After I’d finished my cigarette, and given that a
naked man can’t stand around with his hands in
his pockets, I started to undress her. Far from the
pressures of offices and marriages, she let me get
on with it. I undid her blouse and her bra, nibbling
at her neck as I did so. I was still holding
the glass in one hand while with the other I
stroked her underarms, aroused her nipples with
my fingers, bit her shoulder blades, licked her
spinal column and at the same time encouraged
her clothes on their slow journey to the floor. I
lifted her skirt over her head. I took my time at
her waist, filled both hands with her buttocks
then started to take down her undies. Maribel was
groaning, purring, her ear still pressed to the
glass. I slid her pants down the narrow part of her
legs. Maribel lifted one red shoe and freed herself.
That was the moment I realized the gods
were rewarding me for being such an excellent
cop: I was going to make love to a woman whose
head was buried in her skirt; I was going to fornicate
with a woman who was listening to another
couple fornicating; I was about to fuck a woman
who still had her stockings and high-heeled shoes
on. Three sexual fantasies in a single fuck! My
prick flew up like an acrobat. I couldn’t remem-
ber ever having seen it so big and strong. I
pushed it between her buttocks and set about taking
her from behind. Maribel turned towards me,
smiled rapturously and whispered:
“My back’s incredibly itchy. You couldn’t
scratch it for me, could you, love?”
For the next seven minutes I scratched her
back, convinced no power on earth could ever
make me erect again.
Afterwards, when we got round to sighing and
then to silence after the sighs, she wanted the
whole works. Disaster. I only just managed to get
her to pay for the hotel and drinks. I’d been thinking
of touching her for a loan, but it hardly
seemed the right moment.

Back at the office, the boss had one of his “we’re
going to get a few things straight” faces on. To rub
it in, as usual, he kept on about what time it was
and how I had gone off with his secretary. He
wasn’t that bothered – in fact he was probably
grateful, because if someone else didn’t do it, he
would have to – but he was the boss, and had to
show who was in charge. Then he quickly turned
to what really interested him. No news from Red.
Purple veins stood out in the bags round his eyes
as he stared at me in a way I was well accustomed
to: I was to blame for everything. And even though
my role was simply as a go-between who had to
appear and collect the money from someone
who wasn’t there, we were talking about thirty
thousand dollars, so there was no way the
Commander was going to be reasonable about it.
“I’ll call him right now,” I said, playing the part
of Officer Hernandez to perfection. “And he’d
better have the money in his hand, or else!”
The boss’s wrinkles lost some of their creases.
He began to lecture me on the need to take strict
measures against traffickers whose only thought
was to get all the dollars they could out of the
country, who thought nothing of Mexico because
money was the only homeland they believed in.
He went on to describe Red himself, who, to judge
by the thoughts he expressed, was so unworthy
and unreliable he could not understand why he
had ever entrusted any dollars to him.
With his exhortation to behave with all the
firmness characteristic of the DO still ringing in
my ears, I left the boss’s office. “Get a move on
with that, because a gringo’s been killed in a row
between queers, and I want you to be in charge of
the case” were the last words I heard.
It was usually a case with a gringo or involving
people who could not be tainted with even the
slightest whiff of suspicion, the kind of thing that
could not be left to illiterate uniformed cops.
That’s what we in the DO are here for, to operate
with our sharp surgeon’s knife on the gangrenous
social body, to give precision treatment
to events which, left to inexpert hands, might
produce negative, even uncontrollable results.
And even though our critics – there are always
critics, because there’s more envy in this country
than there are husbands whose wives have been
fucking around – say our aims were drawn up by
the comic Cantinflas, we know what we’re worth.
When the Directorate of Operations was set up,
the old guard was up in arms. “All operations are
secret. Only senators and undersecretaries could
think of associating them with publicity.”
In private they said much harsher things.
Eighteen years on, they still think we’re a bunch
of pseudo-intellectual politicos on the make, and
even though we have a smaller budget than any
other department, none of the cops can forgive us
for being able to write our own names.
As I left the office, Maribel did not even deign
to look at me.
I called Lourdes from a payphone, and I have to
say that she had only herself to blame for her foul
mood. To calm her down, I told her I had the
money in my pocket, and a desk groaning under
piles of work; I suggested she get some things on
credit from the store and promised I’d settle
everything that evening. She asked me no less
than three times if I really had the money, if I
wasn’t just trying to pull the wool over her eyes,
and if this wasn’t simply another of my stories.
That woman’s ability to doubt everything defies
belief. I reassured her as best I could, then I got
angry and hung up.
I wanted to hear more pleasant sounds, so I
rang Gloria. No sooner did she hear my voice than
the tears started. She accused me of being cruel,
of abandoning her, of starving her children to
death. Although I know she can be a bit over the
top, I was annoyed that she seemed to be blaming
me for everything too. I can remember a time
when she made do with nothing, always had a
smile for me and was a quiet oasis where I could
rest whenever my wife was displaying her talents as
a harpy. Though they had never met, in five years
Gloria had become so similar to Lourdes they
were like sisters. I swore I’d call in at her apartment
that evening and promised to take money
and presents for the kids.
Red was still not in his office. The nymphette
told me in a singsong voice: “Doctor Rosenthal
has flown to Guanajuato, but he left a message for
you: he’s very sorry and asks you to forgive the
delay. He’s got your money, and he’ll settle everything
first thing tomorrow.”

Chapter three
Up in the sky above me I can see clouds and crows
sailing past. Bound hand and foot to a sacrificial
altar on the platform of a low pyramid, I watch as a
priest offers me extreme unction in a language I
do not understand. The priest is wearing a dagger
at his waist; a frothing green mist rises from the
goblet in his hands. It must be an acid or poison
that will dissolve my flesh like wax.
“This is the punishment for disbelievers,” the
priest tells me. “This is what you get for voting for
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.”
He tips the goblet. As the liquid falls onto my
face, its icy needles empty out my eyes then fill the
sockets, and the frozen fire slowly penetrates my
The urge to stay alive forced me upright in bed,
screaming and waving my arms in the air. I saw
Lourdes’s mocking, angry face and sat motionless
while she finished pouring the contents of the
beer bottle over my head.
Then Lourdes spoke, and her words made no
more sense than the priest’s litany.
“I’m tired of being your mother, Carlos!” she
said. “I’m tired of your betraying me with every
woman you meet! I’ve had it up to here and
beyond with all your lies! I’m sick and tired of how
useless you are, how you can’t even support your
own family! I’m leaving you right now. As soon as I
can, I’ll take the children. And do me a favour –
don’t say a word. Don’t even think of trying to
explain anything.”
“Hang on a minute!” Soaked and annoyed,
uncertain whether to slap her or try to talk, I
jumped out of bed.
Lourdes raised the bottle over her head.
“Come any closer and I’ll crush your balls!” she
I collapsed onto a chair. I let my wife walk out
on me without lifting a finger. I understood that
her irrationality and egotism had leaped over all
the barriers of self-censorship and shame and
taken over every aspect of her character.
I went to the bookshelves – fifteen hundred
works, some of them classics inherited from my
father, others erotic novels or thrillers, or textbooks
from my school days, penal codes and other
legal volumes – took down Philosophy in the Boudoir
by the Marquis de Sade. I pretended to be enjoying
reading it until Lourdes slammed the door
behind her.
I lit a cigarette and got another beer from the
fridge. I walked round the flat drinking and smoking.
Lourdes had not even bothered to make the
kids’ beds while they were at school. On the
dining-room table I found a sealed envelope for
the children, marked “For Carlos and Araceli”.
God knows what she could have to say as she
abandoned them. I considered steaming the letter
open but in the end couldn’t be bothered. I had a
shower, then discovered that the bath towel was
missing. I was indignant that she could have been
so selfish as to take it. I was forced to wipe myself
dry using dirty clothes from the basket. I had a
shave and put on my brown suit, the only one of
my three outfits still relatively decent. Only the
previous day I had been thinking of getting
Lourdes to take my grey one to the dry-cleaner’s.
In my stomach, a third-world protest demonstration
was starting up to demand something more
substantial than tar and barley juice. A thorough
investigation of fridge and larder produced only
disheartening results. In my house everything,
absolutely everything, gets eaten, in unbelievable
amounts. They say that rats are the living beings
capable of eating the widest variety of substances.
I reckon an objective comparison between rats
and my family could lead to a change of opinion. I
found two half-rotten bananas, a bit of cheese so
old it was fit only for worms and cockroaches, a
carton of milk I decided to keep for my children
(they’re growing so they need it more than me,
besides which I hate the stuff), a few dried-out
frozen tortillas and a bottle of chipotle chilli sauce.
Fortunately, there were some beers. I always keep
one or two handy, so that I can have some cold
whenever I feel like it. I have to take care of this
myself, seeing how little I can count on Lourdes
for anything that might concern me.
I decided to eat some tacos near the office.
Before leaving the flat I called the money
exchange, where a male voice told me Doctor
Rosenthal was away on a trip and they had no idea
when he would be back. I put on my tough voice:
“This is Officer Carlos Hernandez, and I need to
speak to Rosenthal urgently, so please give me his
address and personal telephone number.” The
person at the other end was obviously worried and
answered: “One moment please”, then left me
hanging on for ten minutes. Eventually another
man came on the line, introducing himself as
Perez Blanco, the firm’s accountant. I pictured
him as someone who wore a well-pressed grey
suit, had thinning, neatly brushed hair, and used
tortoiseshell glasses. A dumb-looking asshole, one
of those unbearable pedants who think they have
the right to say and do whatever they like provided
they are unctuous and polite with it. He began by
saying he was at my service for anything concerning
the business. I pressed him for Red’s address
and phone number. As calm as could be, Perez
Blanco said he was very sorry but he did not have
Doctor Rosenthal’s address, as he had recently
moved, to San Angel, he believed. He added that
he would be delighted to give me the phone
number, but that unfortunately he did not have
it to hand. Besides which, he understood that
Doctor Rosenthal’s telephone was out of order
and had not yet been repaired.
“This is the police,” I explained. “I’ll give you
one minute to get the number and give it to me.”
“Yes. One moment.”
I could hear the accountant Perez Blanco
breathing heavily. Twenty seconds later, I was dialling
Red’s number. A velvety voice came on the
line to tell me: “The number you have dialled is
out of service; we regret any inconvenience this
may cause you.” I suggested something the velvety
lips could do for me that would be sure to end all
my inconveniences, then hung up.
I called the money exchange once more. I said
who I was and asked to speak to Rosenthal’s secretary.
The same male voice from my previous call
informed me that as of the day before Miss
Esparza no longer worked for them. I asked to
speak to Perez Blanco again and was told: “He’s
just gone out.” I didn’t have to pretend to be
angry when I asked whether Rosenthal himself
still worked for them, and the voice at the other
end – a spineless, pathetic sort, I surmised – was
not pretending either when he expressed concern
that no, Doctor Rosenthal was no longer with
them, although there were still some loose ends
for him to tie up. In fact, they were expecting him
to arrive, or at least to hear from him, during the
course of the day. I asked for his name – “Teodor-
GomezAtYourService” – so I barked “Tell him to
phone me today without fail.”

En route to the office I was furious. I was counting
on that money for Gloria’s expenses. I was a
bit behind in looking after her, and although
she never goes short Gloria likes to moan over
nothing. From her voice on the phone and some
of the things she had said to me, I could tell she
was on the verge of an attack of nerves.
It was twenty-five past ten, and I had an
appointment with the gringo’s wife at half past.
Just time to call in on Luis and sort out the sale of
the guns.
For half a mile I was stuck behind a stupid old
bat who shouldn’t even have been in charge of a
supermarket trolley. I had to switch my siren on
and run into her bumpers a couple of times for
her to get out of the way. As I sped past she looked
over at me in terror. I gave her the middle finger
in a classic suggestion she should go fuck her
“The deal’s done, Luis,” I told him when I
finally got to the bar. “The parabellums are eight
hundred dollars. I’ll let you have them for seven
hundred, so you’ll make a hundred on each. I’ll
bring them tomorrow. But I need a bit of an
advance to buy them.”
Luis looked at me suspiciously.
“That’s way over, Carlos,” he said. “I’ve been
offered some long-barrelled .38s for four hundred.
You’ll have to drop the price.”
I struggled with the sausage and potatoes lying
listlessly on my plate, took a good swig of coffee
and then started slowly in on my chocolate flan.
“Six bullets, short range, no precision: that’s a
revolver for you. Plus you’ve no idea where they’ve
come from. And God forbid, but if anyone is
caught some day with one of them in his hand,
you can bet your boots even the most stupid cop
will discover it was the very one used in the latest
unsolved murder. I’m offering you clean weapons,
with twelve bullets in the magazine as well as the
one in the chamber, with a decent range and top
accuracy. There’s no comparison.”
“I know. It’s the price that’s the problem. Can’t
you go any lower?”
“How much are you willing to pay?”
“No more than six hundred.”
I did a quick mental calculation. Perhaps I
could get Amaya down to five hundred then sell
them to Luis at six-fifty.
“Let me see,” I said. “It won’t be easy. I’ll need
an advance.”
“No way, Carlos, and for the same reason
there’s no contract. You bring the rods, and I’ll
pay in full. But get a move on. If I’m buying from
you, it has to be tomorrow.”
“I’ll get them to you today.”
If you feel humiliated and find you want to get
heavy with a friend, the best thing to do is to make
yourself scarce. Not to mention the fact that the
remains of my breakfast were staring up at me
from the plate.

Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista


That year, for the first time in ages, Thierry Blin

decided to play tennis again, with the sole purpose of

confronting the man he had once been: a competent

player who, without ever earning a place in any official

seeding, had given a few ambitious players a run for

their money. Since then the cogs had ground to a halt,

his shots had lost their edge, and the simple act of

running after a little yellow ball no longer seemed so

instinctive. Just to be clear in his own mind, he took

out his old medium-headed Snauweart racket, his Stan

Smiths and a few other relics, and made his entrance

cautiously at Les Feuillants, the club closest to him.

Having paid for his membership, he asked an attendant

whether he knew of anyone who was looking for an

opponent. The attendant pointed to a tall man who

was playing alone against a wall, returning the ball with

pleasing regularity.

Nicolas Gredzinski had been a member of the club

for two months now, but he still didn’t feel confident

enough to challenge a seasoned player, or sufficiently

patient to restrain his shots against a beginner.

Gredzinski was actually refusing to admit to himself that

his perennial fear of confrontation was being demonstrated

yet again, in these weekly two-hour tennis sessions;

he had a way of seeing hawkish tendencies in the

most peaceful situations. The fact that a stranger had

come and suggested knocking up for a while,

or evenplaying a set, was his one opportunity to get onto a

court for real. To gauge his opponent’s skill, he asked

a few questions to which Blin gave only guarded

replies, and both men headed for court number 4.

From the first few warm-up shots, Blin rediscovered

forgotten sensations: the felty smell of new balls, the

sprays of rust-coloured grit on his shoes from the clay

surface, the creaking sound of the strings as they

slackened with the impact of the first returns. It was

still too early to talk about the rest: the feel of the ball,

the gauging of distances, his position, the suppleness

of his leg movements. The priority was to return the

ball. To return it, come what may. He had to launch

into this dialogue and remember how to use the words,

even if his first sentences were not those of a great

speaker, let alone epigrammatic.

Gredzinski was reassured by the eloquence of his

forehand, but felt that his backhand was talking gibberish.

There had always been something forced about

it; he avoided using it as an attacking shot and preferred

taking his chances and lunging – at his own risk

– in order to end up playing a forehand. He had actually

succeeded in integrating this weakness into his

game, paradoxically creating a style. It only took a few

balls for him to make up for that slight delay in the

attack, and his backhand rediscovered that little flick

of the wrist which was far from a copybook move but

which usually proved to be successful. He surprised

himself by suggesting a match; however wary he was of

competition, he could already see himself emerging

from the trenches as a hero and striding towards the

enemy lines. “It was bound to come to this,” they both

thought, and it was actually the only way that Blin

could be absolutely sure, and that Gredzinski could

break free of his fatalism, which meant he didn’t see

tennis for what it really was: a game.

The first exchanges were courteous but unremarkable,

each of them wanting to review his argument

before the great debate. With his long straight shots

which kept Blin behind the baseline, Gredzinski was

trying to say something like: I could go on chatting like

this for hours. To which Blin replied with a succession of

precise, patient as you please s, alternating forehands and

backhands. When he lost his service, which put him

4–2 down in the first set, he decided to get to the point

by coming in unexpectedly for a volley, which clearly

meant: How about stopping this chitchat? Gredzinski was

forced to answer yes by serving an ace, taking him to

15–love. And the conversation became increasingly

heated. By systematically coming straight up to the

net after the return of serve, Blin threw all of his

opponent’s suggestions back in his face, flinging down

a Not a chance! or an Onto the next! or even a Hopeless! or

a Pathetic! with each definitive volley. It was a good tactic

and it saw him win the first set 6–3. Gredzinski never

seemed to think of things until it was too late; it was

while he was mopping his forehead as they changed

ends that he realized how he should have replied to

such peremptory attacks. He thought he might demonstrate

for the two or three onlookers who had come to

hang on to the wire mesh round the court. He now

started serving into the middle of the service box to

give his opponent as little angle as possible, then he

had fun sending his drives one way then the other,

playing Blin back and forth to the point of exhaustion

as if to say: You see . . . I too can . . . pick up the pace . . . you

madman . . . or you poor ignoramus . . . who wanted . . . to

make me look . . . like an idiot. The madman in question

fell into the trap and missed a fair few opportunities as

he ran out of breath and failed to follow his shots

through properly. Some of his net-skimming volleys

warranted a bit of attention and issued a strange

request, a sort of Let me get one in, at least. The second

set was beginning to look like a summary execution,

and the members of the Feuillants club, whether they

were players themselves or just there to watch, were

pretty sure which way it would go. There were now

almost a dozen spectators to applaud the risks

Gredzinski was taking and the rare replies from Blin,

who lost the set. Even so, Blin had a psychological

advantage that Gredzinski had always lacked, a profound

conviction of his own rights, a belief in his own

reasoning which forced him to play within the lines, as

if the principle was self-evident. Gredzinski couldn’t

help but be affected by this and it wasn’t long before

Blin was giving the questions and the answers, taking

the lead 5–2 in the third with victory in his sights. One

of the elementary laws of debating then came to poor

Gredzinski’s aid: a debater of limited skill can’t bear

having his own arguments thrown back in his face.

Accordingly he started using long shots with maximum

spin as if deciding to resume control of a conversation

with an inveterate talker. Strange though it may seem,

Blin lost a game at 5–3 and was quickly overwhelmed,

eventually letting Gredzinski re-enter the set at 5–5

with his service still to come. But Blin still had a few lines

of argument in his racket; he had a perverse way about

him, he was the sort who would never lie but just

wouldn’t tell the whole truth. Now for the first time

he played several magnificent backhands straight

down the line, and this saw him break the service of

Gredzinski, who turned to stone between the tramlines.

The latter had been prepared for anything except for

this show of bad faith from an opponent who, from the

very beginning of the match, had had the good grace

to proceed quite openly. Where had these backhands

straight down the line come from? It was dishonest! He

should have declared them at the outset, just as you

pronounce some profound truth to show exactly what

sort of man you are. The third set ended in a painful

tie-break which brought both men right back into the

match, and proved what each of them was capable of

when he felt threatened. Blin came up to the net to

volley three times in succession, and the last of these

was too much. Gredzinski replied with such a high lob

that you could clearly read the message in its parabola:

This sort of reasoning will always be way over your head.

That showed he had misjudged the other man, who

wasn’t afraid of sending drop shots from the baseline

just to see his opponent run: You have no idea how far

you are from the truth. Gredzinski ran as fast as he could,

sent the ball back onto the court and planted himself

in front of the net: I’m here and I’m staying! And he

stayed, towering, waiting for a reaction from the man

who’d just made him run flat out, the man who hated

using lobs, even in the direst straits – to him they were

a cheap trick, cowardly shots. He delved to the depths

of his racket to come up with a superb passing shot

which meant: I’m cutting you off at the knees. The beginnings

of a tear fogged over Gredzinski’s eye; not only

had he run several miles to get the drop shot in

extremis, but now he was floored by the most humiliating

rejoinder known to this demonic sport: the passing

shot down the line. The coup de grâce was dealt by a

handful of spectators who had become fascinated by

the quality of their game: they started clapping. One

of the longest standing members of Les Feuillants

climbed up onto the umpire’s chair to pronounce

coolly: “3–0, change ends.”

Gredzinski could see himself cracking his Dunlop

over the poor devil’s head; but all he did was change

ends, as he had just been reminded to do. Like any

other shy person who feels humiliated, he trawled

through his darkest feelings for some residual energy.

Blin, on the other hand, was celebrating the fact that

he had found himself again, the man he had been, the

man he might be again for some time, always agile,

mischievous and sure of himself when it really mattered.

He just managed to win the fourth point and

then lost the next with just as much effort. When one

of them said: I’ll be here to the end, the other would reply:

And I’ll be right there beside you, but neither of them had

managed to edge ahead. At five all, the two players

exchanged a last look before the final showdown. A

look which said the same thing, a feeling almost of

regret that they couldn’t find a gentleman’s agreement

or some way of pulling out, each with his honour

intact. The moment of truth had come, they were

going to have to go through with it. Gredzinski eased

the pressure and lost the next point, then the match,

delivering tired shots devoid of malice. As if to tell Blin

that victory comes to whoever hungers for it the most.


When they came out of the changing rooms they bypassed

the sodas and the club’s garden chairs to take

refuge in a bar near the Porte Brancion. They needed

somewhere worthy of their match, a reward for so

much effort.

“Thierry Blin.”

“Nicolas Gredzinski, pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands a second time, sitting on two tall

stools, facing hundreds of bottles of spirits lined up in

three rows. A barman asked what they would like to


“Vodka, ice cold,” Blin said without thinking.

“And for you, sir?”

The fact was that Gredzinski never knew what to

have in cafés, let alone in bars, where he hardly ever set

foot. Fuelled by a sort of complicity engendered by the

match, he looked at the barman with obvious delight

and said: “The same!”

Now that “the same” needs some consideration

because Gredzinski, despite distant Polish origins, had

never drunk vodka. He sometimes sipped at a glass of

wine with a meal, or a beer to freshen up when he left

work, but you could say he didn’t have a personal

relationship with alcohol. Only the enthusiasm and

the euphoria of the match could explain that “the

same” with which he surprised even himself.

Tennis was not truly a passion for either of them, but

no other sport had given them so much pleasure.

Leaning on the long wooden counter, they ran through

all the players who had made them dream. They very

quickly agreed: whether or not you were susceptible to

his game, Björn Borg had been the greatest ever.

“And his extraordinary list of wins is only the tip of

the iceberg,” said Blin. “You just had to watch him play.”

“That silence the minute he walked on the court,

do you remember? It hovered in the air, it didn’t

leave room for any doubt about the outcome of the

match. He knew it, you could see it in his face; but his

opponent would still try his luck.”

“Not one spectator ever asked themselves if he was

having a good day, if he’d recovered from the previous

match, if his shoulder was hurting or his knee. Borg

was just there, harbouring his secret, which – like any

real secret – shuts everyone else out.”

“Borg didn’t need luck. He even denied the whole

idea of chance.”

“The one unexplained mystery is his gloominess,

that little something in his features which was so

obviously sad.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say there was sadness but, quite the

contrary, serenity,” said Gredzinski. “Perfection can

only ever be serene. It shuts out emotion, drama

and, of course, humour. Or perhaps he had a sort of

humour, which involved robbing his opponents of the

last weapons they had left to defend themselves with.

When people tried to dismiss him as a machine returning

balls from the baseline, he’d retaliate by playing

extraordinarily cruel volleys.”

“Put Borg up against the biggest server in the world?

He’d start by inflicting a love game on him, all in aces!”

“Did Borg sniff out their weaknesses? Did he wear

them down? If he wanted to, he could step on the

accelerator and save more than an hour for an audience

keen to go and watch a less monotonous match.”

“As soon as he lost just one game, the journalists

started saying he was on the way down!”

“Whoever the other finalist confronting Borg was,

he could be a hell of a tournament winner. Being

number two to Borg meant being the best in the eyes

of the world.”

They stopped talking for a moment to bring the

small chilled glasses to their lips. Blin automatically

took a good swig of vodka.

Gredzinski, who was not prepared for it and had no

experience of the stuff, kept the drink in his mouth for

a long while to let it express itself completely, swirling it

round so as not to miss out a single taste bud, creating a

cataclysmic response all the way down his throat, and

closing his eyes until the burning passed.

“There’s only one shadow on the picture of Borg’s

career,” said Blin.

Gredzinski felt ready to take up a new challenge.

“Jimmy Connors?”

Blin was amazed. Gredzinski had responded with all

the confidence of someone who knows the answer.

And it wasn’t the answer but his answer, just his opinion,

a quirky idea intended simply to rock the so-called


“How did you guess? He’s exactly who I was thinking


And, as if it were still possible, the very mention of

Jimmy Connors inflamed them almost as much as the


“Are we allowed to love something and its exact


“Absolutely,” replied Gredzinski.

“Then you could say that Jimmy Connors was the

opposite of Björn Borg, don’t you think?”

“Connors was a destabilizing force, the energy of


“Borg was perfection, Connors was grace.”

“And perfection is often lacking in grace.”

“His constant willingness to pin everything on every

shot! His exuberance when he won and his eloquence

in defeat.”

“The sheer audacity of his despair, his elegance in

the face of failure!”

“How can you explain that he had every audience

in the world on his side? He was adored at Wimbledon,

adored at Roland-Garros, adored at Flushing

Meadow, adored everywhere. People didn’t like

Borg when he won, they liked Connors when he


“Do you remember the way he used to launch himself

into the air to strike a ball before it had even had

time to get there?”

“He made his return of service into a more deadly

weapon than the serve itself.”

“His game was counter-intuitive, it was even counter

to the rules of tennis. As if, ever since he was little, he’d

made a conscious effort to contradict his teachers in

every lesson.”

“We love you, Jimbo!”

They drank to Connors, and then drank again, this

time for Borg. Then they fell silent for a moment, each

lost in his own memories.

“We’re not champions, Thierry, but that doesn’t

mean we haven’t got a bit of style.”

“Sometimes even a bit of panache.”

“That backhand down the line, have you always been

able to do that?” Gredzinski asked.

“It’s not what it used to be.”

“I’d really like to have had a shot like that in me.”

“Your turns of speed are much more impressive than


“Perhaps, but there’s something arrogant about that

backhand that I’ve always liked. A thundering reply to

anyone with any pretensions, a trick which would

freeze the feet of the most insolent opponent.”

“I stole it straight from Adriano Panatta, Roland-

Garros, 1976.”

“How can you steal a shot?”

“By being pretty conceited,” replied Blin. “At fifteen,

you have a lot of nerve.”

“That’s not enough, unless you’re exceptionally


“I didn’t have that sort of luck, so I just had to sweat

blood and tears. I neglected all the other shots to

concentrate on that down-the-line backhand. I lost

most of my matches, but every time I managed to place

one of those shots I’d floor my opponent against all

expectations and, for those five seconds, I was a champion.

Now it’s disappeared from lack of use, but it’s

still quite a memory.”

“It can reappear, you know, and when your opponent

least expects, trust me!”

Gredzinski was surprised to find his glass empty just

as a strange feeling came over him, relaxing his whole

body. A sort of bright gap in the foggy sky that

hovered over him all the time. Without actually being

unhappy, Gredzinski had adopted a sort of restlessness

as his natural state. He had accepted a long time ago

now that every morning he would come across the cold

monster of his own anxiety, and nothing succeeded in

calming it except for feverish activity, which meant he

could never live in the present. All through the day

Nicolas struggled to stay one step ahead of it, right up

until those sweet few moments before he fell asleep.

This evening, though, he felt as if he was where he

wanted to be, the present was enough in itself, and the

little glass of vodka exhaling icy mist had something to

do with that. He surprised himself by ordering another,

and swore that he would make it last as long as possible.

The rest followed on from there; the words he was

uttering were certainly his own, his thoughts were freed

of any interference, and a peculiar memory came back

to him, like an echo of the one Blin had just described.

“There’s something beautiful and tragic about the

story of those five seconds; now I understand the

stealing. I had a similar experience when I was about

twenty-five. I shared an apartment with a piano teacher,

and most of the time – thank God! – she taught

while I was out. That piano was in the middle of everything,

our sitting room, our conversations, even our

timetables, given that we organized them around it.

Some evenings I actually hated it and, paradoxically,

I sometimes felt jealous of the pupils who laid their

hands on it. Even the worst of them managed to get

something out of it, but not me. I was useless.”

“What was the point in battling on with this piano if

it annoyed you so much?”

“Probably to insult it.”

“Meaning . . .?”

“Playing it myself was the worst revenge I could

find. Playing when I’d never learned how to, when I

couldn’t tell the difference between middle C and a B

flat. The perfect crime, really. I asked my flatmate to

teach me to play a piece by memorizing the keys and

the position of my fingers. It’s technically possible, it

just takes a lot of patience.”

“Which piece?”

“That’s where the trouble started! I aimed high and

my friend tried everything to stop me, but I stuck to my

guns: Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’.”

Thierry didn’t seem to know it so Nicolas hummed

the first few bars; they sang the rest together.

“In spite of everything, she was tickled by this impossible

task, and she set me to work on ‘Clair de Lune’

and, like a performing monkey, I eventually did it.

After a few months I could play Debussy’s ‘Clair de


“Like a real pianist?”

“No, obviously, she’d warned me about that. Yes, I

could create the illusion with a bit of mimicry, but

I’d always be lacking the essential ingredient: heart, a

feeling for the piano, an instinct which only comes

from a proper apprenticeship, a passion for music, an

intimacy with the instrument.”

“But, there you are, when you’re twenty you’ve got

nothing better to do than impress those around you.

And you must have done that a couple of times.”

“Only a couple, but each time it was an extraordinary

feeling. I’d play ‘Clair de Lune’ and adopt a brooding

expression. The piece was so beautiful that it kindled

its own magic, and Debussy would always turn up at

some point between two phrases. I was treated to

cheering, to smiles from a handful of young girls, and

– for a few minutes – I felt like someone else.”

Those last words hung in the air, just long enough

for their resonance to be felt. The bar was filling up,

people heading off for supper were being replaced by

new arrivals, and this melting movement brought a

new quality to the silence between Thierry and Nicolas.

“Well, at least you can say we’ve been young.”

Caught up in a surprising surge of nostalgia, Thierry

ordered a Jack Daniel’s, which reminded him of a trip

to New York. Nicolas was negotiating his vodka with

all the patience he’d promised himself but it was an

effort; several times he nearly downed it in one as he

had seen Blin doing, just to see how far this first inkling

of drunkenness might take him. Without knowing

it, he was experiencing the beginnings of a great love

story with his glass of alcohol, a story which was unfolding

in two classic movements: allowing oneself to be

overrun by the effects of that first thunderbolt, and

trying to make those effects last as long as possible.

“I’m thirty-nine,” said Thierry.

“I was forty a fortnight ago. Can we still think of

ourselves as sort of . . . young?”

“Probably, but the apprenticeship’s over. If you

think that life expectancy for a man is seventy-five,

we’ve still got the second half to go, perhaps the better

half, who knows? But it’s the first half that’s made us

into who we are.”

“What you’re saying is that most of our choices are


“We’ve always known we wouldn’t be Panatta or

Alfred Brendel. Over the years we’ve constructed ourselves,

and we may have thirty years ahead of us to

see whether we’ve got ourselves about right. But we’ll

never be someone else any more.”

It fell like a verdict, and they drank to the certainty

of it.

“Anyway, what’s the point in wanting to be someone

else, to live someone else’s life?” Gredzinski went on.

“Or to feel someone else’s joy and pain? If we’ve

become who we are, then the choices can’t have been

that bad. Who else would you have liked to be?”

Thierry turned round and swept his arm over the


“Why not that man over there, with the gorgeous girl

drinking margaritas?”

“Something tells me the guy must have a complicated


“Wouldn’t it appeal to you to be the barman?”

“I’ve always avoided work which involved contact

with the public.”

“Or the Pope himself?”

“Not the public, I’ve already said.”

“A painter whose work gets exhibited at the

Pompidou Centre?”

“That’s worth thinking about.”

“What would you say to being a hired killer?”

Nicolas raised an eyebrow in silence.

“Or just the man in the apartment next door?”

“None of the above, but why not me?” said Nicolas.

“The other me that I dream of being, the one I’ve

never had the courage to become.”

He suddenly had a sense almost of nostalgia.

For the pleasure of it and out of curiosity, they

each described this other me who was both so close and

hopelessly inaccessible. Thierry could see him wearing

particular clothes, doing a particular job; Nicolas

exposed his great principles of life and some of his

failings. Each of them had fun describing a typical day

for his other self, hour by hour, in such abundant detail

that they found it worrying. They were so thorough

that, two hours later, there really were four of them

there, leaning on the bar. The glasses had proliferated

to the damning point where the very idea of counting

them was almost indecent.

“This conversation’s becoming absurd,” said Nicolas.

“A Borg can’t become a Connors or vice versa.”

“I don’t like myself enough to want to stay as me at

all costs,” said Blin. “I’d like to spend the thirty years

I’ve got left as this other me!”

“I’m not used to this,” said Gredzinski waving his

glass, “but do you think we might be a bit drunk?”

“It’s up to us to go and find this someone else. What

is there to lose?”

Gredzinski, captivated, had buried his anxiety somewhere

in a desert and was now dancing on its grave. He

fished about for the only answer that made any sense

to him: “We might lose ourselves along the way.”

“That’s a good start.”

They clinked their glasses together under the jaded

eye of the barman who, given the time, was not going to

serve them anything else. Blin, who was far more lucid

than Gredzinski, suddenly affected a conspiratorial

expression; without even realizing it, he had steered the

conversation to arrive exactly here, as if in Gredzinski

he had found something he had spent a long time

looking for. His victory in the match now egged him on

to play another kind of match in which he would be

both his own opponent and his only partner, a competition

so far-reaching that he would have to gather

all his forces together, to reawaken his free will,

remember his dreams, believe once again and push

back the limits he was beginning to sense around him.

“I’ll need time – say two or three years to fine-tune

the tiniest details – but I’ll wager you that I will be that

someone else.”

This was a challenge Thierry was putting to himself,

as if Gredzinski was reduced to a pretext, at best a


“. . . It’s June 23rd,” he went on. “Let’s meet in three

years’ time, three years to the day, in this same bar,

at the same time.”

Far, far away, intoxicated by the momentum of what

was happening, Gredzinski let the drink guide him, a

form of autopilot which left him free to concentrate

on what mattered.

“If we meet . . . will it be the two of us or the other


“That’s what gives the challenge its spice.”

“And what’s at stake? If by some extraordinary

chance one of us manages it, he’d deserve some

incredible reward!”

For Blin, that was not the question at all. Conquering

this other him was the greatest stake in itself. He

wriggled out of it with a flourish. “On that evening,

June 23rd at 9 o’clock in exactly three years, whichever

one of us has won can ask absolutely anything of the


“. . . Absolutely anything?”

“Are there higher stakes in the world?”

From where Gredzinski was right then, nothing

seemed eccentric any more; everything and nothing

vied for attention. He was discovering his own capacity

for elation, a rare sensation pervading both his head

and his heart.

It was time for them to part, something indicated

the moment when they should leave. Neither would

have been able to say what.

“This may be the last time we ever see each other,


“That would be the best thing that could happen to

us, don’t you think?”

Night Bus by Giampiero Rigosi

Thursday, 1 April 1993, 7:30 p.m.–
Friday, 2 April 1993, 2:30 a.m.
Hearts do not grieve and can suffer
Hour by hour, even for an entire life,
Without any of us ever knowing,
With too much certainty, what is happening.
Camilo José Cela, La Colmena
In the parabolic mirror, he sees the silhouette
advancing. He holds his breath. Then the man takes
another step, and Francesco breathes again, relaxing
his shoulders. For an instant, he was afraid it was the
Bear. But though the stranger is tall and robust, he’s at
least four inches shorter, has grey hair and is wearing a
herringbone jacket that the Bear wouldn’t be caught
dead in.
As the bus approaches the stop, the man makes his
way among the other passengers until he reaches the
driver’s seat. When he leans towards him, Francesco
notices an intense odour of aftershave.
“Excuse me,” the man says, with a Roman accent.
“Could you let me know when we reach the stop closest
to the Teatro delle Celebrazioni?”
Francesco gives him an affirmative nod, while he
presses the button that opens the pneumatic doors.
People crowd on, permeating the bus with a smell of
sweat, fried potatoes and smoke.
“You have to get out at Arco del Meloncello, at the
end of Via Saragozza. I’ll let you know when we get
“Thanks. Then I’ll wait here,” the other says. He
takes a step back and settles himself by a window.
Francesco closes the door and glances in the lefthand
mirror. He sees a scooter approaching, driven by
an elegant-looking man in a brown overcoat that flies
out behind him. He lets the man go by, then presses
the accelerator and moves on again.
One of these days the Bear will present him with the
bill, and, as always, he’ll find himself without a penny
in his pocket, inventing ridiculous excuses, looking
out of the corner of his eye for a possible escape route.
He stops the bus at a pedestrian crossing. Among
the people going by is a tall girl with a backpack, from
which the head of a tiny infant sticks out. Passing in
front of the bus, the newborn looks up, staring at him
with an expression of astonishment.
Francesco leaves Strada Maggiore on the left and
turns onto Via Castiglione. Opposite is the Palazzo della
Mercanzia, with its tall gothic arcades and the white
balcony that stands out against the dark brick.
The anxiety of this evening is a new sensation, which
he can’t explain. His life is a total disaster, obviously,
but by now he should be used to it. How long has it
been since he’s had his head above water? And yet, one
way or another, he has always got by.
His gaze detaches itself from the street and slides
diagonally along the surface of the windscreen. The
dark silhouettes of the passengers, slightly distorted by
the convexity of the mirror, are reflected in the rectangular
frame. Cold neon light rains on their heads
and shoulders, but the bodies are immersed in a livid
obscurity, where forms commingle. That mass of figures,
swaying as they grip the support poles, has something
spectral about it.
The grey-haired man, holding on to a pole, lets his
eyes wander out the window. Sprawled on the seat
beside him is an acne-faced kid who is picking his nose.
Next to him, two women in their fifties chatter in loud
“So, in the end she decided to dump him?”
“She told him to go to hell, I’m telling you. She
packed her bags, threw them in the back of the
Volkswagen and went off.”
“Oh, so she took the Golf ?”
“What do you think she did? Walk?”
From the compressed-air tank comes a continuous
hiss that grows in intensity until, every four or five
minutes, it erupts, in a kind of elephant bellow. It must
be that the discharge valve isn’t properly calibrated.
The bus passes Piazza Galvani, which is swarming
with kids. At the bus stop, the first to get on is a stifflegged
old man, with a broad-brimmed hat and a cane.
He hooks the cane over one arm and climbs up the
steps, followed by a girl and boy entwined around each
other, who get on without a pause in their kiss.
Francesco presses in sequence the three buttons
that close the doors, lowers the turn-signal lever.
The man in the armchair has a thin, bony skull that
looks like an insect’s. His lips are rigidly set in a sadlooking
line. On the television in front of him the
images of a movie rush by. Four police cars, sirens blaring,
are following a big blue car with a good suspension
system, which one way or another always manages
to avoid being stopped.
The thin man is examining his fingers, looking for a
possible cut, or even just a small superficial scratch. He
pays closest attention to the area around the nails. It
must be the twentieth time that he has completed this
minute inspection, but still he’s not satisfied. He
rotates the hand an inch or so from his eyes, slowly,
then lays it again on the arm of the chair and returns
to the TV with his impenetrable expression.
Now the blue car seems done for. The police cars
have increased in number and are pursuing the
fugitives through an unpaved area that runs under a
viaduct. A little farther ahead you can see there’s a
sudden drop. Meanwhile steep banks of earth rise up
on both sides, keeping the car from making a U-turn.
Now it’s hemmed in and has to go straight towards the
The man with the face of an insect stares at the
screen, thinks again of the job he’s just done. He sees
the informer again, in profile, while he’s putting the
key in the door of his car. He seems to feel again
the pressure of the recoil in the palm of his hand. The
informer pirouetted against the car and slid to the
ground, his fingers searching for a hold; then he stiffened
on the asphalt, dying, with his head stuck under
the body of the car. To finish him off, he shot him in
the chest. He sees again the two gashes opening in the
man’s shirt, the body jolting as if hit by electric shocks.
Now that there seems to be no way out, the pursued
car suddenly accelerates and, with a sharp jerk of the
wheel, swerves. It skids, slips neatly between two pylons
and heads at top speed towards a truck trailer providentially
abandoned on the edge of the cliff. The bed
of the trailer creates a sort of trampoline. The girl next
to the driver is screaming, covering her eyes with her
Unfortunately it wasn’t just a matter of getting rid of
the man. He also had to retrieve an envelope. So, after
murdering him, he had to search the corpse. And at
that point he cursed himself for not having at least
brought a pair of gloves. He shifted the edge of the
jacket with the point of the silencer and stuck his hand
under the blood-soaked material. At that moment
there was a noisy rumbling from the dead man’s intestines.
It seems to him that he can still smell that sweetish
stench and feel the warm wet material under his
fingertips. After retrieving the envelope, he got away
in a hurry, rubbing his sticky fingers together. Panic
forced him to stop after barely twenty yards. The blood
was already starting to coagulate. He wiped the blood
off his fingers with his handkerchief, then threw it into
the first trashcan he saw.
The blue car hits the trampoline at full speed and, a
moment before the inclined platform starts to sink
under its weight, takes off towards the opposite bank
of the precipice. The car is thrust upward, but the one
pursuing car that tries the same manoeuvre finds itself
with a much lower launching pad and ends up at the
bottom of the ravine. Amid a roar of revving engines,
wailing sirens, squealing brakes and the clash of crumpling
metal, the television screen shows the blue car
landing with a series of bounces on the opposite side
of the ravine, while on the near side the six surviving
vehicles are crashing into one another to avoid going
over the edge.
The man with the face of an insect twists his mouth
in a grimace of disgust.
“How idiotic!”
Then he looks at the clock and presses a button on
the remote. In the room silence falls, while the images
continue to flicker on the screen. The man puts on his
slippers and gets up. He goes to a low glass table on
which a telephone sits.
He dials a number. One ring. Two. Three. Four.
The man can still see the television from there. His
lips are set in the usual bitter, suffering line. He is so
still that his face seems cut in stone. In his right eyelid
a tear has formed.
“Hello, signora? It’s Diolaiti. Is your husband at
While he waits, the receiver leaning against his ear,
he takes a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, delicately
wipes away the tear.
Well, yes, all in all not bad, thinks Leila, barefoot
before the mirror. She rotates her body, inclines her
head. Her dark hair, cut like a helmet, cascades from
one side, covering part of her face. Not bad, but time is
passing. She examines her legs, below the tight miniskirt.
They are slender, well-formed legs. Her feet, too,
are shapely. But Leila is in the mood for inspection.
She lifts up the miniskirt, and with the index finger
and thumb of both hands pinches the flesh on the
outer part of the left thigh. Some small indentations
appear on the skin. She squeezes harder, to see if the
cellulite holes increase in number and depth. The skin
turns red at the centre, whitens along the edge of the
pressure. The number of little indentations, however,
remains the same. Leila lets the edge of her skirt fall.
She takes a step forward, brings her face close to the
mirror. No doubt about it: here, too, a few signs are
starting to be visible. At the corners of her eyes, for
instance, and around the mouth. Not really wrinkles.
Rather, small superficial marks. But visible.
Time is passing, even if she doesn’t show her thirtythree
She backs away again. There she is: slim, well
proportioned, sexy. That mini, then, is particularly
flattering. It accentuates her shapely legs, with their
narrow calves. Her legs are very good; her bosom, on
the other hand, has always seemed to her too small,
even if that’s the reason it has remained high and firm.
Five-five and 117 pounds, you can’t complain. Especially
since, until now, staying in shape hasn’t taken
much of an effort. Until now.
She feels like smiling. She looks at herself in the
mirror again, examines the marks of time on the geography
of her skin, starts to worry about the future.
Thirty-three, the beginnings of cellulite in the upper
part of the thighs, six million in cash hidden in the
false bottom of a closet and another twenty-five in a
bank account. Nothing solid on which to rely, apart
from her ability to fend for herself. But security is not of
this world, thinks Leila, trying to get rid of the sticky
sensation that’s caught her.
She bends over, puts on low, black-leather boots. She
zips them up, then stands and with her palms
smoothes the creases in the miniskirt, which is tight
across her hips. She pinches the material of her body
stocking, to adjust the neckline. She opens the closet,
chooses a short, very soft black suede jacket. While
she’s putting it on she thinks that what she’d really
like, once and for all, is a good stroke of luck.
The large, squarish man sitting at the head of the
table pounds his fist down a couple of inches from his
“You’ll do what I say, and that’s it! Understand?”
His wife looks at him, frightened. She knows his
rages, and knows that nothing good can be expected.
Whereas the girl, it seems, couldn’t care less about her
father’s shouting.
“You think you can tell everyone what to do,” she
says. “Why don’t you try instead to understand that I
have my own life, and . . .”
“Your own life . . .” the man interrupts, with a threatening
look, but his daughter won’t let him continue.
“Yes, Papa, my own life! And you’d better not interfere
with it!”
“You be careful what you say! If I order you . . .”
“Do you hear yourself talking?” cries the girl. “I order
you! If you want to know, I don’t give a damn about
your orders!”
His daughter’s words have a surprising effect on the
man. He jumps to his feet with an agility that is surprising
in such a heavyset person, and in an instant has
come around the table. The girl, seeing him lunging
towards her, tries to get up, but the man stops her,
grabbing her wrist.
“Who do you think you’re talking to? One of those
imbecile friends of yours?”
The girl struggles, but the man tightens his grip.
“Ow, Papa, you’re hurting me!”
“I’m hurting you? You have no idea how much I can
hurt you!”
The wife, still sitting in her place, throws her napkin
on the table.
“For heaven’s sake, Giuseppe! Enough! What kind
of behaviour is this?”
The man turns his head, gives the woman an angry
glance. The daughter takes advantage of this to free
herself with a sudden tug, and, before he can manage
to grab her again, is in the hallway. She runs to her
room, the man follows but isn’t in time. The door
closes with a thud and the key turns rapidly in the lock.
“Elisabetta!” the man shouts, his nose an inch from
the door. “There’s no point locking yourself in. I can
knock down this door if I feel like it!”
He stands there, panting, in the yellow glow of the
ceiling light that reflects off his square, bald head,
shiny with sweat. Rage builds up inside him like steam
in a pressure cooker.
He raises one hand and slams the palm, hard,
against the surface of the door.
“Get that clown out of your head! Either you stop
going out with him or I’ll throw you out of the house!”
“Go away!” the girl cries, from inside. “Leave me
His wife, behind him, says: “Do you think it’s necessary
to treat her like this?”
“You be quiet,” he snarls at her, darkly. “It’s your
fault if our daughter is out of control.”
“Things can’t always go the way you want, Giuseppe.”
“I told you to keep your mouth shut.”
“Anyway, you’ll get nowhere like this.”
The man’s shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows,
revealing thick, muscular arms. His fingers fidget near
his hips. He turns towards his wife and glares at her.
She tries to meet his gaze, but there is something in his
look that scares her. She and her daughter have always
been afraid him. The woman tries to remember if she
felt that fear even before she married him, when they
went out together and he’d take her to the movies, to a
dancehall, a restaurant.
At that moment, the telephone rings, at the far end
of the hall. The woman, glad to have a reason to leave,
turns on her heels and heads towards the front
The man stands staring at his wife’s back as she walks
“Hello? Oh, it’s you. Yes, my husband is home. I’ll
get him right now.”
The woman reappears.
“It’s for you. That colleague of yours. Diolaiti.”
He snatches the phone out of her hand.
“Is that you, Diolaiti? Yes, go on. What’s up?”
At the other end of the line, the thin man with the
face of an insect puts the handkerchief back in his
“What do you mean, what’s up? We agreed that you
would call me at dinnertime, don’t you remember?”
“Oh yes, right, I’m sorry. I had something else on my
mind just then. So, how did the job go?”
Diolaiti raises one hand and examines it.
“Done,” he answers, while he studies the outlines of
his nails, one by one. “I’ve already seen the boss, and
he confirmed the Bologna job. Shall I come by and
pick you up tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow morning? Yes, fine.”
Diolaiti frowns.
“Tell me, Garofano, is something wrong?”
The heavyset man looks in the mirror above the
shelf, to inspect his balding head.
“No, nothing in particular. The usual family problems.
You want to know something, Diolaiti? You did
well, not to get married and bring children into the
world. They’re nothing but a big pain in the neck!”
Diolaiti is silent for a couple of seconds. He stares at
the figures moving across the screen of the television,
on the other side of the room.
“So, I’ll come by around nine tomorrow morning.
“Yes, of course. See you tomorrow,” says Garofano,
then he hangs up the phone and smooths the lock of
hair on his forehead with the palm of his hand.
Diolaiti puts down the receiver. He rubs one hand
over his stomach. These damn burning sensations
have come back to torture him.
He goes into the kitchenette, fills a glass under the
tap, drops an effervescent tablet into the water. He
goes back to the living room, sits down on the sofa and
stares again at the TV. He balances the glass on an arm
of the sofa. A tiny sliver of the tablet, which by now is
almost completely dissolved, eddies in the water in a
swirl of bubbles.
What was it the instructor was always saying during the
training course?
“The driver’s true eyes are the rear-view mirrors.
Never forget that, kids. It’s the mirrors that allow you
to keep an eye on the situation.”
He must have repeated it a million times. Francesco
recalls his oblong face, with the high forehead
and dirty-blond eyebrows, inclining downward,
that gave him the look of a whipped puppy. His
name was Marchetti and he had a habit of sucking on
“I’m telling you this for your own good. You have to
pay more attention to what’s going on behind you than
to what is in front of you. Keeping an eye on the street is
nothing. The hard part is not to be caught by surprise
by what’s happening behind you! It doesn’t take much
to crush a cyclist who’s caught between the curb and
the side of the bus.”
He rolled one of his mints around in his mouth and
leaned forward to smack the student who was driving
at that moment.
“Did you hear what I said? Check the rear-view
mirrors, damn it! Did you notice that scooter that’s
passing us?”
Francesco, in time, began to consider even more
useful the inside rear-view mirror, the one that allows
you to keep an eye on what is happening inside the bus.
The eye in the back of your head, as many of his colleagues
call it. It’s the inside rear-view mirror that
allows you to distinguish possible bores, old people
with precarious balance, beautiful girls. And, above all,
to intercept the pain in the ass. Cities are full of annoying
people who get on the bus solely to find someone
to torture with their confidences, complaints or misfortunes.
And that someone is there, just within reach,
all they have to do is settle in next to the driver and
ignore the sign that forbids them to speak to him.
In big cities people end up feeling alone, and it’s not
easy to find someone to unburden themselves to. The
psychiatrist’s couch has a steep price, while a ticket for
an hour’s ride on a public bus is cheap and can be
bought at any newsstand or tobacconist. For the most
part, people don’t really think they can improve their
lives and, in fact, have no intention of making an effort
to do so. They simply look for someone who will listen
to them. A friend, a Mormon, a counterman in a deli, a
bus driver. Understanding friends are extremely rare,
Mormons have the downside of giving advice, and
countermen are in a hurry to serve other customers.
Bus drivers represent the best solution. That’s why the
inside rear-view mirror has a fundamental importance.
It allows you to identify the pain in the ass before he
goes into action and offers the possibility of beating
him to the punch. Sometimes it’s sufficient to appear
to be in the middle of some manoeuvre or to grab the
radio and pretend to be engaged in a conversation
with the dispatcher. Francesco had taken the words of
his instructor to heart, and looking behind him
became one of his principal activities. Ever since
troubles and creditors had begun to pursue him, this
habit had been transformed into an obsession.
Francesco stops the bus at the signal at Porta
Saragozza. The flower seller is carrying the plants
inside the shop. The usual fifteen or twenty old ladies
have gathered to say their prayers, sitting on chairs
arranged on the broad pavement that separates the
Porta from the boulevards, where at eight in the evening
the traffic is beginning to thin out.
In Via Saragozza the traffic is moving pretty well,
and soon they come up to Villa delle Rose. As
Francesco approaches the portico, he turns to get the
attention of the grey-haired man.
“Here we are, get off here. That place opposite is the
Teatro delle Celebrazioni.”
“Thank you,” says the man.
In the side mirror Francesco sees the acne-faced kid
get out, followed by the old man in the broadbrimmed
hat and the grey-haired man. As soon as
they’ve got down from the last step he closes the doors
and starts off again.
Tomorrow he’s on the night shift, but tonight his
shift ends at one-fifteen. He could make a stop at the
bar, have a quick beer and see what’s happening.
Maybe sit at a table, just for a couple of hands.
He cracks the window to get a little air.
He has more or less 300,000 lire remaining. Ultimately,
what’s the risk? He doesn’t have far to go, with
300,000 to get to the end of the month and a few
dozen creditors hassling him for money.
The dark hills run by on his left. The yellow of a
flashing traffic light pulses in the night. Francesco
takes his foot off the accelerator. The fresh air hits his
face and he breathes in deeply. Well, yes, all things
considered, why not? With spring arriving, who knows,
maybe tonight the cards will go his way.
Andrea sticks the card in the slot in the telephone,
then presses the numbers.
The voice of the Secretary answers.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me,” says Andrea. “I want the confirmation for
tomorrow. Everything is set?”
“Of course. Exactly as you arranged it.”
“I want to be sure, I don’t want any surprises at the
moment of the handover.”
“Calm down, Fabbri. Everything will go as planned.”
“That will be best. Otherwise you know what could
“I’ve told you that you don’t have to worry.”
“Good, then I’ll just say goodbye. Give my regards to
the Minister.”
Andrea hangs up, checks the time on his wristwatch.
He takes a slow look around the place. He goes over to
the bar and sits on a stool a little apart. After a few
moments the bartender comes up to him.
“What can I get you?”
“A Coke,” Andrea answers. “And put a slice of lemon
in it.”
The bus moves off, and the man in the herringbone
jacket looks at the posters outside the theatre, on the
other side of the street. Next to him an old man in a
broad-brimmed hat walks slowly away, leaning on a
cane. He checks his watch. It’s still early. The concert
begins at nine-thirty, there’s plenty of time for a stroll
and a cigarette. He takes a pack of Marlboros out of his
jacket pocket.
He walks slowly under the portico, towards the Arco
del Meloncello. His knee is hurting again. Who knows,
maybe the weather is about to change.
It must be at least six years since he was in Bologna.
And that time too it was a brief stay. He turns to the
right, up the steps. One flight, and he is above the
arch, suspended over Via Porrettana. The cars pass
beneath him. From here, following the portico, one
can reach the sanctuary of San Luca. He went up there
often, many years ago. But not on a pilgrimage. He
smiles, blowing the smoke out of his nose. He went to
have sex with a student, on the backseat of the car,
hidden behind a stand of bushes, in a small space littered
with used condoms, cigarette butts and Kleenex.
It was ’75. The car was a blue Opel, fourth-hand. The
girl was called Sonia, and she was studying literature;
she was one of the hothead radicals who were around
in those days. She was twenty-one and came from
Pescara. He was fifteen years older, working for the
secret service, and had been transferred to Bologna
precisely to keep an eye on people like her. Not being
Bolognese was perhaps the only thing they had in
The quarrels, the shouting, the insults return to
mind. After they had talked a while, the blood would
go to Sonia’s head and she would say that he was a
servant of the state, a watchdog in the service of power,
that between them there could be nothing, and it was
better to cut off that absurd relationship. He listened,
but usually he didn’t get mad, he could even understand
the reasons for Sonia’s protests. But mainly he
was fascinated by the colour her face got, by the
Abruzzese accent that grew thicker, and by the odour
of her skin when she was angry.
Now, thinking back, he can’t believe there was a
time when he was discussing politics with a girl who
was a member of the radical left. One of the types the
police would have shot.
He throws the cigarette stub on the ground, crushes
it under his heel.
Good times, shit, yes. A student of the ultra-left
being fucked by a cop from the secret service, on the
backseat of a dilapidated car or in the toilet of a
He looks at his watch again. If this damn knee didn’t
hurt so much, he wouldn’t mind climbing up to the
top and seeing Bologna from on high. He puts his
hands in his pockets. Maybe another time. In threequarters
of an hour he will be comfortably seated, listening
to the notes conjured by the magic fingers of
Michel Petrucciani.
Down at the corner there’s a bar. He’ll be able to
order an espresso and smoke another cigarette, peacefully,
as he waits for the concert to begin.
Leila opens the door of her Y10. She throws handbag
and jacket on the right-hand seat, gets into the driver’s
seat and starts the car. At the intersection the signal is
red. She takes advantage of it to shift her head to the
side and glance at herself in the rear-view mirror. What
she catches is the part of her face that goes from her
dark bangs to the base of her nose. At the centre of the
rectangle, two grey-green eyes, vaguely oriental in
shape. The mascara is perfect.
She opens the handbag, grabs a Gauloise Blonde,
puts it between her lips. She clicks the lighter. She
inhales deeply, blows the smoke out towards the windscreen.
She sticks her hand in the handbag to make
sure once again that everything is there. The cloth for
fingerprints, the folded-up nylon knapsack, the latex
gloves. Behind her a horn beeps. She looks up, realizes
the light has already changed. She goes into first and
quickly releases the clutch.
At the end of Via Irnerio she turns right. While she
goes along the tree-lined avenue, she lowers the window
a couple of inches, to let out the smoke. Reaching
Viale Gozzadini, she puts on the indicator and shifts
left towards the centre strip. Red light. Then green.
She turns into Via Castiglione and takes it past the
Margherita gardens. The discotheque is at the top of
the hill.
The tyres squeal on the gravel of the car park. Leila
parks her car in a spot far from the entrance. Before
getting out she opens her lipstick and, looking at herself
in the rear-view mirror, runs it over her lips.