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Crime And Punishment

A novel excerpt by Russell Bittner

It might otherwise have been a short journey from the osterìa to their hotel, but they wanted to savor every step. Between the clip of the cobblestones underfoot and the hammer of the mid-day sun overhead, not to mention the wine and Grappa swimming languorously in between, Kit and Daneka somehow managed to bob and weave their way first through the piazza—already beginning to thin out as vendors exhausted their one-day provision of flowers, vegetables or fruit, and so packed themselves, their new supply of cash, and their remaining belongings into small spaces in some means or other of transport and headed back out to the country for an afternoon and evening of simple domestic quiet far from the oppressively crowded marketplace—and through the throng of hawkers, buyers, sellers, gawkers, children, babies, signorinelle with a plan, pensionati without a plan, tourists without a clue, cyclists, ventriloquists, artists, other lovers, dancers, necrophiles, necromancers, philosophers, and nut-cases—in short, a sampling of the whole human race with its various and crushing thoughts, desires, likes, dislikes, expectations, illusions, delusions, confusions, and smells—then rounded the corner into the Via dei Cappellari, at which point they spied the front door of their hotel.

Finally free of the crowd, Daneka felt the rush of open space and dropped her guard. As they walked out from between two parked cars into the street at a spot just diagonally opposite the hotel entrance, she craned her neck to give Kit a kiss on the cheek. At the same instant, a motor scooter approached on her outside flank. The driver navigated his scooter with the precision of a sharpshooter aiming through a scope at a two-inch target a hundred yards off: there was no allowable margin of error between the parked car on his right and Daneka on his left. His accomplice, another even younger kid, rode with one arm circling the driver’s waist. With his free arm, the accomplice swooped in like a falcon and snatched Daneka’s purse from her shoulder.

The scooter accelerated. It was already thirty yards off before Daneka realized she’d been robbed and hollered without reserve: “Al ladro!”

There was no need. A pair of shopkeepers at the far end of the street, out for a smoke and a chat, had seen the whole thing start to finish. As if reacting on instinct to a scenario they had witnessed many times before, they quickly armed themselves with the tools they used to roll their awnings up each day at the close of business, taking them in hand like javelins. One of the two men crossed the street to the opposite side. They waited, and when the scooter finally passed by, each thrust his tool, now a weapon, into its spokes. The fine, metal spokes of a kid’s motor scooter were no match for the angry iron spikes in the hands of two defenders of a woman’s virtue and property. The scooter upended, sending its two occupants off and up, then slid on gracefully and eventually came to a mangled stop. Its two occupants flew through the air like plastic bags scooped up by a sudden draft and slammed into the rear window of a parked car, shattering it. That same impact likely shattered several of their bones, but the shopkeepers paid no attention to the agony of the pair of young thieves. Instead, their eyes scoured the area for the location of Daneka’s purse.

They spotted and retrieved it, then walked the hundred yards from where it had lain to where Daneka stood and presented their booty. Kit marveled to see the quick transition. Just moments earlier, two warriors bent on vengeance if not precisely on murder; now, those same fierce warriors meek and apologetic, as if they had committed the crime, or had somehow been involved in its perpetration.

Daneka was equally quick to show her gratitude. What she said to them, or they to her, flew by Kit like gibberish. It was, in any case, clear she wanted to offer them something, some token of her appreciation. They refused. They were merely honorable men, behaving as honorable men should, in times that sorely tested notions of honor.

Eventually they bowed, welcomed both Kit and Daneka to Rome, wished them an enjoyable stay—if possible, without any further such unpleasantness—then shook hands and left. Kit knew his first attention should be to Daneka; after all, she’d been the victim. However, he couldn’t get his mind off the two kids.

“Are you all right, Daneka?” he finally asked.

“I thought you’d never ask!” she barked peevishly. It was rare for Daneka to complete a sentence or a question without first making sure that the caboose of “darling” was firmly attached at the end. Leaving it sidetracked suggested to Kit intentional negligence, or worse, anticipation of a wreck up ahead.

“Look, I know this kind of thing is distressing. I’m sympathetic. Really. But I’m also wondering about those two boys. They’re probably in bad shape. I need to do something.”

“Why do you need to do something about them? Why can’t you do something about me for a change? They’re fucking criminals, for Christ’s sake. They just didn’t get away with it this time.”

Kit was torn between Daneka’s clear yet callous logic and the need, his personal need to help two young kids, however he could, out of a life-threatening situation. As he glanced first at Daneka— apparently at least as angry with him as she’d been, moments earlier, with her two assailants—then up the street to where the halves of two bodies dangled out of the smashed rear window of a parked car, he remained torn. The upshot? He stood motionless, pinioned to the spot by the weight of his indecision.

As the same moment, he saw one of the shopkeepers violently kick the rear bumper of the car out of which the kids’ bodies half-hung, and he heard the same man give voice to his anger: “Cazzi napoletani!” he cursed, and Kit instantly recognized that other, larger, centuries-old prejudice of northerners towards southerners. They could indeed be gracious, chivalrous, in all manner, perfect gentlemen to a light-skinned woman whose personal sanctuary, whose private fucking property, had just been violated. But they could be equally quick, equally ruthless, equally pig-headed, and yes—he allowed himself to draw the mental comparison—equally red-necked in rushing to assign guilt to half the population of an entire country for one act of villainy committed by an isolated pair of individuals. And why? Because those two individuals were obviously poor, probably unskilled, untrained, ill-prepared, hungry, and, most obvious of all, darker-skinned.

Kit was as angry as everyone else, but he was angry for his own reasons, none of which had to do with Daneka, with the attempted theft, with the apprehension of the two criminals, or with the unfortunate outcome of that apprehension. He was simply angry at the world, at the way it operated, at the persistent and pig-headed wrongness of it.

Finally, he channeled anger into action and started off in the direction of the injured boys, though not knowing precisely what he was going to do or how he was going to do it once he got there. He was saved by the sound of an approaching siren. A small white car with a roof-mounted beacon and the word Polizia printed on the side ripped out of the Via Giulia and into the Via Cappellari, then screeched to a halt. Two officers in full battledress jumped out. What followed—at least from Kit’s perspective—resembled more vaudeville than police action.

Both officers immediately unholstered their guns. They looked to one of the by-standing shopkeepers for a clue as to where the miscreants might be lurking. They then crouched and made their way slowly towards the car whose rear window had, apart from the boys, borne the brunt of the damage in the whole incident. Each carefully unclipped a pair of handcuffs.

What the whole scene lacked, Kit decided, was flares, or at least some kind of high-intensity lighting in case the original siren—and the drama of two cops on the prowl for a pair of world-class terrorists—wasn’t sufficiently attention-getting to round up a couple of hundred spectators. In the meantime, Kit thought, these kids were probably bleeding to death.

When the officers finally made it to the back of the car and saw the kids’ condition, their first reaction was a clear sense of relief that they, themselves, were not in any danger. Each took out a cigarette and lit up. Kit couldn’t hear their conversation. But from their gestures to each other and their occasional glances at the two bodies, also from their obvious reluctance to retire the handcuffs, Kit could see that law enforcement, apart from the cigarettes, was still their first priority. They seemed, finally, to reach an accord, and divided the boys between them. Then each took his own set of cuffs and clipped one end to “his” boy’s ankle and the other end to the car’s bumper. They then walked off, Kit noted, in the direction of a caffè.

Law enforced. No emergency call. No administration of first aid. No examination of any kind to ascertain whether the boys were even still alive. Priorities. First: a cigarette. Second: their personal safety. Third: a cappucciono—maybe even a newspaper.

Kit was on the verge of taking matters into his own hands—whatever it might cost him to challenge the authority of a cop in a foreign country—however, at that moment, he heard a second siren and saw an ambulance turn the corner and pull up alongside the police car. Three emergency medical personal jumped out of the ambulance and ran to where the boys were located. All business, they set to work immediately to determine how serious the boys’ injuries were. They spoke in hushed, businesslike tones to one another, concerned only with saving a pair of lives clearly in jeopardy, and not giving a second thought to whether or not these particular lives were worthy of being saved.

Only when they’d made preparations to move the bodies to stretchers did one of the attendants notice the handcuffs. He gave his colleagues a blank, incredulous stare. Kit recognized a few of the expletives, but his Italian wasn’t fluent enough to understand and savor how each particular word or phrase condemned first the cops in their private parts; then the cops’ mothers in their private parts; then various acts between the cops’ mothers and a particular shepherd; and finally, similar acts between the same cops’ mothers and the shepherd’s goats. However, one thing was perfectly clear to him: love and respect between the medical establishment and those responsible for the enforcement of law and order in Rome might be lacking in something like vigor.

The same attendant went off in search of two of Rome’s finest. When the three of them returned moments later, Kit observed the officers’ expressions, which more closely resembled those he’d seen on the faces of babies just seconds after they’d left a little something in their nappies; the news might not yet have reached others’ noses, but it was most assuredly sticking in their own.

The officers unlocked the handcuffs. The attendants carefully moved the bodies onto stretchers, then moved the stretchers to the ambulance. The driver of the ambulance swung his vehicle into reverse, turned on his siren, then began to back out onto the Via Giulia. In an effort to save whatever small portion of face might yet be saved, the two officers moved to the center of the street and brought traffic to a halt so that the ambulance could exit safely.

It did, then left the scene quickly. The officers disappeared back into the caffé. The crowd dispersed and went about its business. Only as he turned to walk back to the hotel did Kit notice that Daneka had also disappeared.

 

Russell Bittner lives in Brooklyn, New York. His poems have been published on paper by The American Dissident, The Blind Man’s Rainbow, The Lyric, The Barbaric Yawp, TheInternational Journal of Erotica,Wicked Hollow, and Æsthetica. Additional poems will appear in 2006 in N.O.L.A. Spleen and in The Taj Mahal Review. His poetry also has been published in numerous online venues, and is forthcoming at 3 a.m., SouthernHum, and monthly through September at ALongStoryShort.net.

On paper, he currently has stories with the Edgar Literary Magazine,The International Journal of Erotica, and Beyond Centauri. In the dot.com world, his prose can be found at: DeadMule,writeThis,GirlsWithInsurance, SkiveMagazine, Bluefood, ThievesJargon,Quintessence,MannequinEnvy, UndergroundVoices, Pindeldyboz, Hackwriters,10,000 Monkeys, DeadDrunkDublin, ALongStoryShort, SouthernHum, SuffolkPunch, VoidMagazine, and the uncom.mon Yankeepotroast.org. An additional piece will appear in 2006 at SwillMag.com.

Russell completed his first novel, Trompe-l’oeil, in September of 2004. The first chapter will appear in Snow Monkey in the spring of 2006. He completed a second, much shorter novel-memoir, Girl from Baku, in June of 2005. The first six chapters of it are currently posted at DeadDrunkDublin.com, and serialization of the entire piece will begin with the June ’06 issue of Dispatch Litareview.com. Both, in the meantime, are going through agents faster than a greyhound goes through giblets.

Crime And Punishment is an excerpt from Russell's novel Trompe-l’oeil.

He can be most easily reached at RRB@POBox.com.

 

Photo "One of Many" courtesy of Chris Chidsey, Marlborough, U.K.

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