Aldo Caviglia strode towards the Campo Dei Fiori and entered a small cafe located in one of the side roads leading to the Cancelleria, determined to count his gains, then dump the evidence. This particular hole in the wall was a place he’d always liked: too tiny and local to be of interest to tourists, and one that kept to the old tradition of maintaining a bowl of thick, sticky mixed sugar and coffee on the bar so that those in need of a faster, surer fix could top up their caff? as much as was needed.

All the same, Caviglia had added a shot of grappa to his cup, also, something he hadn’t done for some months. This chill, strange winter day seemed to merit that, though it was still only twenty to eleven in the morning.

Within five minutes he was inside the tiny washroom, crammed up against the cistern, struggling, with trembling fingers, to extract what was of value from the bulging leather purse.

Caviglia never took credit cards. Partly because this would increase the risk but also, more important, out of simple propriety. He believed people should be robbed once and once only — by his nimble fingers and no others. That way the pain — and there would be pain, which might not merely be financial — would be limited to a few days or possibly a week. Nor would Caviglia look at the private, personal belongings which people carried with them in their daily lives. He had done this once, the first time he had been reduced to thieving on the buses to make ends meet. It had made him feel dirty and dishonourable. His criminality would always be limited to stealing money from those he judged could afford it, then passing on the excess to the kind and charitable nuns near the Pantheon. As a Catholic in thought if not in deed, he was unsure whether this was sufficient to guarantee him salvation, if such a thing existed. But it certainly helped him sleep at night.

Caviglia attempted to remind himself of these facts as he wrestled with the wallet in the extraordinarily narrow and confined space in which he found himself, increasingly aware that the large shot of grappa in his coffee cup had not been a good idea. Then the worst possible thing happened. The wallet folded in on itself under the pressure of his clumsy fingers, turned over, and spilled everything — notes, coins, credit cards, and what looked like a European driving licence — straight onto the grubby toilet floor.

He lowered himself onto the seat and felt like weeping. Nothing could be left here. Every last item would have to be retrieved from the dark, grimy corners beneath the little sink, packed away again, and rushed to the nearest litter bin. If a single item belonging to the woman was found, he would surely be identified by the youth behind the bar. There had been two cases against him already, occasions when his concentration had lapsed and he had tried to ply his trade in the presence of an undercover officer. A third would mean jail and with it the loss of the little apartment the two of them had shared as a couple for more than thirty years. Everything that was of value to him might disappear if he left one stray item behind on the floor of this toilet in a tiny cafe built into little more than a cave behind the Campo dei Fiori.

With a sudden determination to put the situation right, he set about his work, recognising a growing inward conviction, one he had noticed but never acknowledged before: his time as a Roman street thief was coming to an end. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, he would be back walking round the bakeries, looking to return to the world of early-morning heat and dust, and the fragrant smell of rising bread.

After a minute he looked at what he’d collected; there was no alternative in the circumstances. The woman’s wallet contained just under four hundred euros in cash and a few coins, several membership tickets for cinema and arts clubs, three credit cards, a passport size photo of a handsome, though unsmiling, dark-haired young man with a closecropped beard, and, to Caviglia’s shock, a single condom in a shiny silver sheath. Her driving licence gave her name as V?ronique Gillet and an address in the 3?me arrondissement in Paris. The same name was also on an identity card for the Louvre Museum. She was, it said, a senior curatorial assistant in the D?partment des Peintures. The photograph was many years older than that on the driving licence, which showed a lovely young woman, perhaps in her student days, with shoulder-length lighter hair and a fuller, more contented face. She had an almost palpable air of happiness about her. It made his heart ache.

And you’re sick, Caviglia thought immediately, feeling a stiff, cold weight of self-loathing begin to form in his stomach.

Something else had fallen out of the wallet, too, a small pink plastic box, one that had puzzled him at first, and now, to his despair and mortification, was beginning to make sense.

He reached beneath the foot pedal for the water tap on the basin and retrieved it. The front had the universal emblem for medicine, a symbol Caviglia had come to know and recognise during his wife’s illness. The caduceus, a kindly doctor had called it. Two serpents writhing round a winged staff. With a deepening sense of foreboding, he opened the lid. Inside was a collection of transparent foils containing tiny red pills, almost the colour of her hair. A date and a time were written beneath each tablet. He peered at them. The next was to be taken at eleven-thirty, just forty minutes away. And the next after that at three o’clock, then again four hours later. Whatever ailment the woman suffered from required, it seemed from the medication, six doses a day, at very exact intervals.

A small card sat next to the foils. He took it out and read there, in a very precise female hand, written in French, English, German, and simple Italian, This medication is very important to me. If you find it, please call me on the number below, at any time. Even if I am unable to collect it, I will at least know I need to find some more. I will, naturally, be grateful.

Aldo Caviglia leaned back on the flimsy plastic toilet seat and felt stinging tears — of rage and shame and pity — begin to burn in his eyes. The woman’s face hung suspended in his memory, pale and damaged and in need. All because an idle old man would rather steal wallets on the 64 bus than go out and earn an honest living.

He scooped up what he could of her belongings, gathered them into his pockets, and stormed out of the cafe without pausing to utter a customary farewell. He had no phone but he knew where she was. Caviglia strode across Vittorio Emanuele without stopping, holding his arms outstretched, like a cross, like a figure in one of those church paintings he admired so much, utterly oblivious to the discordant chorus of angry horns and the stares of the astonished locals watching from the pavement.


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