You reach a certain corner of the city, a certain hour, when you’ve taken a hit and there’s a man in your face, and it’s something else altogether. It’s not at all the town you know. You’ve learned to work its angles, even a street market in midsummer, the stink and caterwaul and the need to squint as a fishmonger raises a hose over his stall and casts a halo over the day’s catch. You’ve learned the code in the echo off the stones at 3 a.m. Could be some lonesome soul out trolling for company, could be you need to double-check the lock. You’ve grown accustomed to the compromises, lurching after aspiration and against the short leash of everything else. Yet you reach the right urban cranny, or rather the wrong one, where your head’s burning from someone else’s knuckles, where the guy’s actually got a knife out—then whatever you think you know, it’s a fairytale. What were you thinking, anyway? Sodom, Xanadu? If you’ve got a view, a terrazzo, a rooftop—if the attack left you facing away from the party and out over the city—everything you see appears rimed or studded with gold, that’s the pain, and even after the hallucination fades you’re left with something else entirely. Five stories below (or is it fifteen, for a woozy moment?), the hubs and spokes wink in and out of sight. You can’t rely on the streetlights. It’s no longer Naples, the place a native Italian would call your “adopted home.” That city’s disappeared. It’s gone to join the one you were born in: Mogadishu, another place that people were foolish enough to think they knew.
All of a sudden, all over again, you’re the alien. No clue.
Risto swayed at the rooftop, wondering if he’d have to fly.
It wasn’t as if he could call a cop. The man who’d swatted him was a cop, or as close to it as you were going to find up here. Here at the top of an abandoned palazzo, they’d set up a club for the night. Risto’s assailant was one of the bouncers. Up here, at penthouse level, the building had only two apartments, and now Risto found himself pinned against the railing of a terrazzo, and the rawboned creep who held him, just five, ten minutes earlier, had stood collecting the cover charge outside the apartment door. The place still had a door. There were doors enough, up here, that in one of the rooms they must’ve kept a whore. They must’ve had a card game going too, the crew that ran this dance-and-drinks arrangement, this party that floated from one condemned property to another. Whores and cards, that’s what brought in the real money. The take would be paltry at both the gate and the bar. What passed for a bar, and for a gate. Never mind that tonight they had a sweet setup, La Fenestrella. The penthouse had a real terrazzo, more than big enough for pushing and shoving and throwing a punch.
There could’ve been a garden up here, back before the spring earthquake. Could’ve been a grape arbor. Even with his back to the dance floor, Risto had a feel for its extent, the long way the DJ’s vibrations had to travel. Still, the drinks and cover wouldn’t bring in enough to keep the cops looking the other way. The club was asking five Euros, but Risto had seen a couple of girls pay no more than a smile. Himself, he’d glided in on the say-so of a couple of friends, veterans of the scene—Eftah and Giussi. As for this bouncer, he might’ve been paid in Ecstasy. La Fenestrella floated on the fringes and paid in crumbs, and that Risto should find himself in such a place was itself a wild hair.
He’d never expected such “security.” As the man muscled Risto to the rail, he’d kept grinding against Risto’s butt. Looking to tweak his high?
Risto himself may have started tweaking. He was cold sober and hetero and yet he’d choked out a wisecrack,You should try this on my friends. If the tough guy wanted to cop a feel, he should try Giussi especially, always quick to work the dancers. By the time Risto got smacked, Giussi had already made a pickup. Still, the bouncer could’ve tried his moves on Risto’s so-called “cousin,” Eftah. Eftah would’ve welcomed the attention, because the men who liked men tended to prefer his boyfriend. The cousin had got himself a willowy hothouse flower, Moroccan, while the crowd here was mostly mushroom-shaped. Out of the sub-Sahara, like Risto.
Not that he had the chance to make suggestions. His little quip was squelched and he’d wound up head and shoulders over the rail. At his back, the bouncer held one arm bent and pinned.
Below, the hubs and spokes winked and reeled. Was that the fish market where they gave good weight? Or over there, was that the dome of the Galleria? Ground Zero for folks with real money, the Galleria and its piazzas were safe; you could walk those blocks till deep in the night, and with that thought Risto found he could straighten up. He could brace his free hand on the rail and stand, facing out rather than down. After that, he took a moment to paw his head.
He’d made an easy target, no question. At his first job in Naples, he’d been the smallest brother on the docks, and tonight, years later, he was a doughboy compared to most of the crowd. Clubgoers here picked the local tomatoes and mucked out the buffalo barns; they did the heavy lifting for cut-rate construction. Risto might have the shoulders for fieldwork, but his fingers were something else, a keyboard jockey’s. On his job, what he needed most was a good eye.
Tonight, he ought to be the last person to raise difficult questions. Now that he had, though, and now that he’d regathered maybe half a brain, per carità, he ought to try and find some help. Try and find the friends who’d brought him. Working against his pinned wrist, Risto wormed this way and that against the rail. There, yes, Eftah. He gave a yell. Eftah might not be a cousin exactly, but up here he was family, and such a slab of immigrant beef he could’ve worked as a bouncer himself. He wore a party scent, flirtatious, citrus, but as he approached, the man at Risto’s back let go.
Everyone got some breathing room.
Risto sized up his adversary: a taller man, a Tutsi. His sharp corners were brought out by his jacket, a narrow-waisted, canary-yellow disco affair worn with the cuffs rolled. Plus a V-cut Afro, another throwback. But then, this “Papers” wanted people to look. He wanted customers, Papers, because he ran a business out of a pocket inside the back of his coat. That’s where the trouble had started.
Could’ve been worse. Papers had moves that suggested he’d done time in the military, a backhand blow that smarted as if his knuckle were a deadbolt. Also Risto wasn’t just the softie in this crowd; he was the newbie. Down in his art gallery, at the desk where he keyed in his checks and deposits, he might be Citizen Aristofano, a legitimate Italian. Tonight, in a club off the books, mostly for folks off the books, he was nobody. He was a few shades darker than most of the men and women here, and none of them had been so dimwitted as to pester an enforcer. No one would be impressed by Risto’s I.D. These two to either side, boxing him against the rail, they knew the drill. Tonight probably wasn’t the first time they’d gotten out the knives.
Workaday knives, and neither man put the weapon on display. Both kept it down at hip-level. A minute ago, a minute and a half, the bouncer had flourished his in Risto’s face, menacing, deliberate, but now Papers and Eftah might’ve been back in a pig farm outside Mogadishu. Might’ve been closing in on tonight’s butcherwork. Also both blades were serrated. Eftah’s was the classic, the handyman tool, and Risto’s cousin liked to boast that the make was Finnish. Papers held a switchblade, something that once must’ve been a showpiece, tiger-striped. By now, though, the handle was smudged, the plating nicked. Along the blade, serrations made you think of melon wedges.
Anyway, how could anything be a showpiece, in this broken-down venue? Show and art—what did they have to do with this brute corner and hour?
Risto knew the neighborhood. It sprawled across one of the Naples highlands, the outcroppings that hemmed in the old center and the bay. Not a bad neighborhood, for this city, though you couldn’t rely on the streetlights. Repairs were still catching up since the quake. Fifteen weeks ago, back in springtime, tremors had wracked the metro area. Italian authorities had rushed in, plus international agencies, NATO, the UN. They’d all rushed in. Since the last big quake, in 1980, they’d had plans in place, “contingencies,” and yet even now there remained pockets of wreckage. Even fifteen weeks past the Event, the sulfur lingered on the air, as if Vesuvius were a cookie cracked open just to drink in the smell. Tonight, down outside this palazzo, the most visible evidence of repair work had been the barricade at street level. Inspectors, post-quake, had declared the building too dangerous. But, follow-up? Infrastructure? PVC pipe blocked the front doors with a rig that suggested a jungle gym, and the crossbars were X’d with orange tape.
That was it. Naples had organized repair teams, Rome had sent emergency response units, NATO had trucked in uniforms, and the UN had whipped up fundraising. Still, five stories below, all you had was a ramshackle Do-Not-Cross. If there’d been a chain, a lock, anything, it was gone now. The warning tape flapped on the summer night. Strips of hard orange, kaboom: their flutter caught the light from a rewired block nearby. Risto thought of his gallery, of Chagall and his fireworks.
There’s your gallery, your business, the whole-cloth construction called law and order—in tatters against the dark.