EXPOSURE

Mal Peet

Carnegie Medalist Mal Peet takes a searing look at the world of soccer and pop-celebrity culture — and the lives of three street kids caught in its glare.

When a black South American soccer star signs on to a team in the country’s racist south, headlines blare. And when he falls for the sensual Desmerelda, a stunning white pop singer and daughter of a wealthy politician, their sudden and controversial marriage propels the pair to center stage, where they burn in the media spotlight. But celebrity attracts enemies; some very close to home. And its dazzle reaches into the city’s hidden corners,

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Carnegie Medalist Mal Peet takes a searing look at the world of soccer and pop-celebrity culture — and the lives of three street kids caught in its glare.

When a black South American soccer star signs on to a team in the country’s racist south, headlines blare. And when he falls for the sensual Desmerelda, a stunning white pop singer and daughter of a wealthy politician, their sudden and controversial marriage propels the pair to center stage, where they burn in the media spotlight. But celebrity attracts enemies; some very close to home. And its dazzle reaches into the city’s hidden corners, exposing a life of grit and desperation the glitterati could never imagine. When a girl is found murdered, reporter Paul Faustino is caught between worlds as he witnesses the power of the media in making — and breaking — lives. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, this modern tragedy of desire and betrayal, incisively and compassionately told, is a truly enthralling work of crossover fiction.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Paperback
  • November 2016
  • 448 Pages
  • 0763687456

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$9.99

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About Mal Peet

Mal Peet (1947–2015) is the acclaimed author of the Carnegie Medal–winning novel Tamar as well as the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book Life: An Exploded Diagram and three Paul Faustino novels: Keeper, The Penalty,and Exposure, a winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. He is also the co-author of Cloud Tea Monkeys, Mysterious Traveler, and Night Sky Dragons, all of which he wrote with his wife, Elspeth Graham.

Praise

“Mal Peet has accomplished something amazing…he reveals the humanity that lies beneath two-dimensional celebrity….blending reality with fiction serves to further Peet’s provocative analysis of contemporary mythology and its impact on all participants – willing or not.”ForeWord  

“Contains a deft study of class played out through the intertwined stories, a reflection on race and a study of how the masses are opiated (with soccer and beauty), linked by Faustino’s keen observations. It adds up to a wonderful read. The author employs dramatic devices (a cast of characters; script-formatted dialogue) as homage to Othello.”Kirkus Reviews

“Soccer action takes a backseat to story lines about celebrity obsession, the plight of the underclass and political corruption. The story is prefaced with a cast list, the narrative divided into acts, and some passages are presented as if they were dialogue from a play. Teens who don’t know Shakespeare’s version can enjoy this without understanding the many allusions.”Publishers Weekly

Excerpt

1.1

The boy with all the dreadlocks had two lines of business: cars and the patio trade. He had been working his turf — the sidewalk along the front of La Nación’s building — for a few months now. Longer than most of his predecessors. The car thing was the usual, but he did it with politeness, even delicacy, and these were not qualities his victims would expect from one of his kind. So he surprised them, and it paid off. He had a plastic bucket without a handle, a squeegee, and, tucked into the waistband of his cutoffs, three large rags: a dirty one, a less dirty one, and a clean one.

The routine goes something like this:

A car pulls into a space. The boy does not go to it immediately, because he knows that if drivers see him before getting out, they will have crucial seconds to harden their hearts. He waits until the driver has locked the doors, then appears magically. And smiles.

“Good day, señor. You like me to wash your windshield?”

Sometimes — quite often, actually — the driver will hesitate, maybe shrug, dig a small coin out of his pocket. The victims who do this are the ones who look at him.

“Thank you, señor. I’ll watch your car for you, too. All part of the service.”

More often, the response to the boy’s offer is either non-existent or obscenely dismissive. But his smile does not waver.

“Okay, señor. No problem. But maybe you like me to keep an eye on the car for you?”

The driver looks at him, hard. Jabs a thumb up toward the heavily built uniformed man patrolling the patio. “That guy up there’s watching my car. And he’s watching you,
too.”

The smile achieves an even greater brilliance. “You mean the doorman? My friend Rubén? Yeah, Rubén’s cool. He’s sound. Just not so quick on his feet as he used to be, you know?”

The boy’s technique gets him about four results out of ten, and he calculates that this works out at an average of twenty-two centavos a hit. He is surprisingly good at arithmetic, considering the fact that the only way he could ever have been in school was through a window after dark.

Some days he gets his ass kicked, and this was one of those days. The car was a black Porsche 911. (The boy knew the makes and models of cars, even though he couldn’t read them.) The driver was a white guy with his hair shaved close to his skull so it looked like the shadow of a bat or something. The boy had known right away that it was a no-hope
hit, but went for it anyway because it was his solid rule that you do not choose; you go for everything. The man had ignored him, getting a briefcase out of the car. Checking his cell, then putting it away in the inside pocket of his suit jacket.

“Okay, señor. No problem. But maybe you like me to keep an eye on the car for you?”

The man with shadow hair sighed, drumming his fingers on the Porsche’s gleaming roof. Then he turned with surprising swiftness and kicked the boy. Who had somehow been expecting it and had flinched. The kick caught him high on the right buttock just below the hip. He found himself sitting on the sidewalk, his leg numb and useless. The man loomed over him, his eyes hot with anger that seemed inappropriate to the situation.

“Listen,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of wherever I go there’s some street rat hustling me, and I don’t need it, okay? Now, lemme make this plain to you, kid. I come back to this car and anything — anything — has happened to it, I’ll find you and pulp your stupid hairy head. Is there any part of that you don’t understand?”

“No, señor.”

“Good. Now get the hell away from my Porsche.” The boy scooted himself backward across the sidewalk, soaking the seat of his shorts in the water that had slopped from his bucket. When he was sure the man had gone, he lifted his face and gazed up at the concrete and glass perspective of the office building narrowing into the late afternoon sky. He felt dizzy, maybe because he was hungry.

Seven floors above the street, Paul Faustino was checking the text of an article that would appear on the front page of the next day’s edition of La Nación.

EXCLUSIVE: OTELLO WILL
SIGN FOR RIALTO

by Paul Faustino

The gossip mills and rumor factories can shut
down. I can now reveal that Otello, the man who
led this country to victory in this year’s Copa
América, will be a Rialto player within the week.
The terms of the transfer were agreed between
Rialto and Espirito Santo yesterday after Spain’s
Real Madrid withdrew from the contest for the
striker. The deal is unlikely to be on a cash-only
basis — Espirito has stolidly refused to lower
its evaluation of Otello from fifty million — but
details will not be disclosed prior to a formal
announcement at a press conference scheduled
for Thursday. My information is, however, that
Rialto’s popular young forward, Luis Montano,
will move to Espirito to offset the fee, thus adding
to the controversy that will inevitably attend
this affair. We can expect a bitter reaction, not
only from Espirito fans but also from many in
the North who will see Otello’s move south to the
capital as an act of betrayal.

Faustino leaned back in his chair and massaged his lower lip with his thumb and forefinger. This was a big, big story. It would warm the cockles of his editor’s heart — if she possessed such an organ. It would earn him a nice juicy bonus, too. He could not quite believe his luck, actually, so there was an uneasy edge to his glee.

Talk of Otello leaving Espirito had begun well before the Copa América. And in recent days the hum of rumor and speculation had swollen into the voice of a vast beehive. The tabloids and sports channels had been obsessed with it. Lacking any real information, they’d put out opinionated babble. Chaff. Faustino had been a journalist long enough to know that very often there is, in fact, smoke without fire. But he too had been pretty sure that Otello would make a move. He had to; Espirito was not a good enough club for him. They’d had another lousy season, ending up fourth from the bottom of the league, despite Otello’s twenty-three goals. Which meant that once again they wouldn’t be playing in the Copa Libertadores. Which in turn meant that Otello, the national captain, would go yet another season without playing an international club game. Ridiculous, obviously.

Faustino was not a gambling man, but he’d have put money on Otello joining one of the big European clubs: Manchester United, say, or Barcelona. But a move south, to Rialto? No way. Of all clubs, not Rialto.

And then, this morning, the call from Otello’s agent, Diego Mendosa, a man Faustino hardly knew.

Still scrawling notes, Faustino had said, “Why me, Señor Mendosa?”

“Pardon?”

“I was wondering why you chose to break the news to me, exclusively.”

“Because you are widely respected, Paul. All these rumors have caused my client a great deal of stress, as you can imagine. Only someone with your reputation can lay them to rest.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. Also, perhaps I would like to give the finger to certain other newspapers that have pissed me off.”

Faustino had laughed at that. “Yeah. Well, that’s honest.”

Afterward he’d wondered about that. In Faustino’s vocabulary, honest and agent were not words that normally went around holding hands.

He went back to his article.

Born in the North, and famously proud of his
African heritage, Otello has done much to silence
(in stadiums, at least) the racist jeers directed at
black northerners. His charity work, which includes
food banks and soccer academies in the slums,
has given him a status, a respect, way beyond the
usual scope of soccer stars. All of this, along with
his much-proclaimed loyalty to the North — he
has played for only two clubs in his career, both
of them north of the Río de Oro — means that his
transfer will have a seismic effect.

Faustino wondered if the word seismic was a bit over the top and decided that it wasn’t. He’d been at countless Rialto games and seen their supporters jeeringly wave fifty dollar
bills at the visiting fans, especially when the game was against a team from the North. Heard the call-and-response jokes.

What do you call a Northerner with a roof over his head?

A burglar!

Then there was the fact that the owners and directors of Rialto were hate figures in the North. Members of the New Conservative government, like Vice President Lazar and that evil little sod Hernán Gallego. Multimillionaires like what’s-his-name, the supermarket guy, Goldmann. And Nestor Brabanta, of course. And this was the club that the North’s great hero had decided to join. My God, he was in for a rough time.

Seismic, then. Nice word, anyway.

Faustino skimmed the rest of his piece. He’d soft-pedaled on the political/social/racial issues. Mendosa had asked him to, and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. First rule of journalism.

I for one am glad that he has faced reality and
joined a club that will put him center stage, where
he belongs. Let us welcome him to our city and
pray that the inevitable storms in the North soon
abate.

“You can be a sanctimonious jerk sometimes,” Faustino told himself, and deleted the last sentence. He was dying for a smoke.

     La Nación


To: Vittorio Maragall, Editorial
From: Paul Faustino

Hola, Vito —

Attached is copy for tomorrow’s Otello piece. It’s
up to you, but I suggest we go with a crop of the
photo we used on the front page July 25, Otello
holding up the cup with all that red and yellow
glitter stuff in the background.

I’ll be at La Poma until about 9. If you get away in
time, maybe I’ll grant you the honor of buying me
a drink.

P

1.2

Faustino waved a salute to Marta at the reception desk and clacked across the marble-paved lobby. Approaching the doors, he slowed to a more cautious pace. Doors was not, in fact, an appropriate word for the vast, complex, and untrustworthy arrangement of clear glass that baffled him at least four times a day. Beyond it, in plain sight, was the outside world, yet he knew from painful experience that reaching it was not a straightforward matter. There were central revolving doors, twice the height of any normal person (presumably because one never knew when a giant or a man on stilts might be expected), but Faustino absolutely refused to use them. For one thing, the evil genius who’d designed them had incorporated a variable speed mechanism, which meant that you never knew whether to adopt a mincing shuffle or run like hell. Usually you had to do both, but because of the cunning randomizing device, you never knew when to switch from one to the other, so even at ten in the morning you looked like a stumbling drunk on a treadmill. For another thing, Faustino was borderline claustrophobic and feared the doors coming to a complete halt and trapping him inside.

Off to the right and left there were conventional doors with enormous brass handles. However, you never knew whether or not these would respond to their inbuilt sensors and open automatically. If they didn’t, you could pull on them and sometimes they would open. At other times, you had to push. Just to make sure that nobody got complacent, only one functioned at any particular moment. There was no way of knowing which. You could enter through the right-hand door in the morning and find that the left-hand
one was the only way out in the afternoon. A few months earlier, Faustino had entered the building, checked his mail, and tried to leave by the same door fifteen minutes later. He had suffered what the paramedic had described as a “mild concussion.” Not to mention a hemorrhage of dignity.

So Faustino had developed an exit strategy. He would come to a halt a few paces from the glass wall and search his pockets for his car keys and cigarettes. Eventually he’d be spotted by Rubén, who would come to his rescue. On this particular evening, the doorman hauled the right-hand door open from the outside while Faustino stood fumbling in his jacket facing the left-hand one.

Gratefully liberated, Faustino walked out onto the wide, raised patio that fronted the building. From it, flights of steps led down to the sidewalk. On it, there was a short avenue of ornamental trees imprisoned in brutish concrete troughs, and in the shade of these trees were two rows of stainless-steel benches. It was part of Rubén’s job to shoo off any weary passerby who might have the impertinence to seek rest there. Clearly no one who walked along the Avenida San Cristóbal could have any legitimate reason to visit the offices of the country’s leading newspaper.

Rather than go directly to his car, Faustino sat and lit a cigarette. This was because two very attractive secretaries from the accounting department were sitting on the bench opposite. Also, he had recently — and very reluctantly — traded in his beloved Jaguar for a top-of-the-line Toyota Celica and was making an effort not to impregnate the new upholstery with tobacco smoke. He was distracted by a call from the street.

’Ola, Maestro! Wha’s happenin’?”

A wild head and wide smile showed above the level of the patio.

Faustino returned the smile. It was impossible not to. It was a smile that would melt an icicle from a hundred yards. He figured it must have taken a good deal of practice to perfect it, since sunny dispositions weren’t exactly natural among street kids.

Faustino had never been one of the boy’s car victims because, as the paper’s senior sportswriter, he had a reserved (and bitterly envied) space in La Nación’s underground garage, which sprouted CCTV cameras the way forest trees grow bromeliads. No, they’d met because of the errands side of the kid’s business. A couple of months back, Faustino had been coming down the steps from the patio, fishing a cigarette pack out of his pocket. The pack had been empty, and Faustino had crushed it in his hand and loudly uttered a curse. As if in response, the kid had appeared right in front of him, like a genie, just as the streetlights came on.

“What kind d’you smoke, Maestro?”

“What?”

“What kind of cigarettes d’you smoke?”

Faustino had squinted at him. The boy wasn’t carrying a bag.

“Why? Are you selling?”

The smile. “No, no, Maestro. But your car’s down there, and the kiosk’s up there.” Pointing up toward the traffic lights on the avenida. “I’ll fetch ’em for you.”

After a moment or two Faustino had said, “What’s all this ‘Maestro’ stuff ?”

The smile had faltered, then died. “Sorry, señor. I thought that was your name. That’s what the others call you.”

“What others?”

A shrug. “I dunno.”

There had been a sort of standoff.

Then Faustino had said, “Yeah, well. D’you know what ironic means?”

“No, señor.”

“Okay. Never mind. If I give you five dollars to get me two packs of Presidente filters, will you come back with them?”

The smile had returned like lights after a power outage. “Sure.”

“Any reason I should believe you?”

The boy had gestured toward the street. “I got a reputation to keep up.”

Faustino had been charmed by that, even though he considered himself immune to charm. And the kid had
come back with the cigarettes in less than five minutes and handed over the change.

“Keep it.”

“Many thanks, señor.”

“So what’s your name?”

“Bush.”

“Bush? That because you were found under one? Or because your mother’s a big fan of former American presidents who own oil wells?”

“Nah.” The boy had waggled his head while pointing at it with the forefingers of both hands. The crazy mane of dreadlocks bounced and fle . “It’s ’cause I look like one. I was born with a whole bunch of hair and it jus’ kept on goin’.”

Faustino had studied the kid while fumbling with the damn cellophane wrapping on the cigarettes. The Rasta hair, the longish Spanish face, the wide Indian cheekbones, the African coloring, the narrow nose from God knows where—Arabia, maybe—the good teeth. Some flecks of green in the eyes. Not tall; skinny but well muscled. The genes that had produced him had tumbled through the centuries like balls in the lotto machine and come up with a winning number. He was a good-looking boy. But someone
else had walked off with the money and all the luck.

“How old are you, Bush?”

Another shrug. “Seventeen?”

Well, yeah. Any street kid who could get away with it would say that. Because the dreaded Child Protection Order didn’t apply to anyone over sixteen. He might have been fourteen, fiftee—who knows?

But for whatever reason, Faustino thereafter bought his Presidentes via the kid. Add the change together, and over a week it came to about a dollar twenty. Enough for two chicken chili fajitas if you got them from one of the places down by the bus station.

The way Bush combined his two businesses impressed Faustino. The kid had eyes in the back of his head. Come the lunch break, he’d be cleaning the gunk and insects off a windshield while somehow monitoring the Nación staff who came out onto the patio for a bit of sun or a smoke or to say stuff they couldn’t get away with in the terrible open-plan Big Brother offices they worked in. And if Maya from
advertising just couldn’t hack her low-fat diet for one more minute, somehow Bush would know it and catch her eye, and in no time at all he’d have covered the four blocks to and from the deli and be delivering her a toasted ham and cheese. Fantastic, baby. Keep the change. Twenty centavos. When the cold-drinks machine in the lobby broke down, which was at least once a month, he would be on a roll. Ten centavos per Coke, average, on a crate of twelve.

Faustino also admired the way Bush respected Rubén, the way he allowed the doorman to maintain his authority. When Rubén was watching the trees and the steps on the right-hand side of the patio, Bush would do business from behind the trees on the left. And when Rubén was strolling down the left-hand
side of the patio, Bush would do business from behind the trees on the right. This spared kindly Rubén the embarrassment of evicting a street kid from the sacred patio, upon which the street kid should not have been allowed to trespass in the first place. It also meant that Bush’s customers appreciated Rubén’s way of doing things, and that was good for Rubén. Because after all, doormen, like street kids, were not exactly irreplaceable.

So now Faustino was not displeased to be interrupted in his contemplation of secretaries’ legs by Bush’s wide white grin.

“Hey, Bush. How’re you doing? Good day? Bad day?”

The kid rocked his right hand horizontally. “So-so. You know a big shave-head
guy drives a Porsche, a black one?”

“Nope, can’t say I do. Why?”

“He kicked my ass an’ spilled half a my water. I thought if you knew him, you might do him a bad turn.”

“I’ll look out for him.”

“Thank you, Maestro. Anything you’d like from the kiosk?”

From the way he said it, you’d think the kiosk was a limitless trove of rare delights.

“I’m fine right now,” Faustino said. He stood and stubbed out the cigarette in one of the concrete troughs, checked his watch. Because the Nación building was perched on one of the city’s five hills, it had more than its fair share of sky, and already, at the horizon, where the petrified forest of high-rises dissolved into vagueness, that sky had taken on a peculiar tan color. In less than half an hour the traffic, already thickening, would be a crawling, honking nightmare. Time to go. He descended to the sidewalk and Bush kept pace with him as he walked to the parking garage entrance.

“So, is Otello gonna sign for Rialto, or what?”

Faustino tapped the side of his nose. “You’ll have to wait till tomorrow’s paper comes out.”

Bush rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. Remind me, Maestro, how much a copy cost?”

“Forty-five.”

The boy shook his head and let out his breath to express sad incredulity. Faustino grinned and found a fifty in his pocket. He flipped it into the air. Bush twirled and caught it behind his back. When he raised his hand, the coin had vanished. Faustino slapped his palm against the boy’s.

“Ciao, Bush. Watch your step.”

“And you, Maestro. See ya.”

Faustino was still smiling as he went down the gloomily lit ramp. There was no way the kid could read, but what the hell.

1.3

The place Bush slept in but didn’t call home was only two miles (and a world away) from the offices of La Nación, but on this particular evening it took him well over an hour to reach it. Getting through the business district was never much of a problem. You hardly ever saw cops on foot there, and the gangs didn’t come that far west, as a rule. Things got trickier farther downtown. His shortest route was past the bus station, but he avoided it like the plague. It was a Mecca for crackheads, hustlers, and whores, and therefore a honeypot for cops. Plus, at least once every couple of weeks the feared Child Protection Force—otherwise known as the Rataneros, Ratcatchers—swept through it. There was an election looming, and the government would want to boast that they’d cleaned up the streets. So Bush gave the bus station a wide berth. He had several routes that made longish detours around it, and he used a different one every trip. The bucket and the squeegee marked him as someone who might be carrying cash, someone worth looking out for. In the past couple of months, he’d been mugged three times, despite his caution. Each time, he’d handed over the few centavos he kept in his pocket, and his attackers had failed to find the rest of the meager takings hidden in his waistband. But on the second occasion he’d been given a beating just for the pleasure of it, and it had left him with a painful bubbling inside his right ear that had lasted a week.

Now, on a narrow street between the vast blank side wall of the Church of All Saints and the back of a row of small shops, he heard from behind him a faint squeal of brakes, followed by the harsh popping of a motor. Turning, he saw a scooter with two guys on it, hustlers, both wearing bandido bandannas. For two long seconds he watched them watching him. Then the scooter snarled toward him, and he began to run, his head frantically mapping possible escape routes. He would be okay if he could get to the Carrer Jesús and across the one-way traffic. But that was too far to outrun a scooter. It was already within twenty yards of him. Just ahead, he saw a cat, alarmed by the commotion, leap from an overflowing trash can. Bush grabbed the rim of the can with his free hand and swung it into the middle of the street. The echoing snarl of the scooter paused, revved again. A yelled obscenity. More revving.

He ran on. The street made a turn beyond the end of the church wall, and there Bush found deliverance: a red-and-yellow barrier, a wheelbarrow, a couple of bags of cement, a wooden pallet. Two men relaying paving stones, another one supervising. All three looked up as Bush hurtled into view, and yelled curses at him when he vaulted the barrier and slapped a single footprint into their patch of wet cement. Their cries turned into a violent altercation when the scooter screeched sideways into the barrier, but by then Bush was gone.

On the far side of Jesús, where the flower sellers were already accosting early-evening strollers, Bush found a quiet space on the sidewalk and sat down on his upended bucket. Traffic noise surged and ebbed. Nearby, a street musician with one leg played mournful tangos on the accordion, leaning on a crutch.

Bush’s breathing steadied eventually. He was desperately thirsty, as well as hungry. It had not been a good day, but his late bonus, Maestro’s fifty centavos, would get him an ice-cold zumo. There was a place just down the street that did guava ones thick enough to be both food and drink. But he was worried about time, which was to say, he was worried about Bianca and Felicia. Well, about Bianca, anyway. In the end he bought the zumo and drank it too quickly, so that it made his throat ache and filled his chest with cold pebbles as it went down.

His flight had taken him off course, and now he would have to zigzag westward through the maze of little cafés and workshops of the artisan quarter. That was okay, because it was still busy at this time. And once he was on the other side, he’d hit the Avenida Buendía, and from there, if he jogged, he’d be home in fifteen minutes or so.

He hadn’t thought about the cops.

He emerged from an alley onto Buendía, walked thirty yards, and there they were. A cruiser and a big van blocking off half the street. Ratcatchers and ordinary cops working in pairs. They already had two older kids wearing baseball caps spread against a wall and were feeling them over. A smashed-looking girl—she couldn’t have been more than twelve—was being dragged toward the back of the van, her thin legs giving way every time she tried to kick the cop that had her by the hair and one wrist. An old woman with a foxy little dog under her arm was yelling abuse at the police; a man leaned in the doorway of a barbershop with his hands in his pockets, laughing at her. Bush took in all this in less than two seconds, then a sort of uh-oh feeling made him turn. Sure enough, the sidewalk was cut off in the opposite direction too; a cop saw him and pointed him out to his colleague.

“Hey, you, Rasta kid! Don’t you damn well move! Yeah, you!”

He couldn’t go back the way he’d come; they were already nearer the alley than he was. He put his bucket down, dropped his shoulders, and raised his open hands in a gesture of unconditional surrender. The cops’ approach slowed to a saunter. The older one grinned.

Bush grabbed the bucket and was across the sidewalk in two long strides. It was separated from the four lanes of almost solid traffic by a high curb not much wider than his foot. He ran along it toward the police van, leaning inward slightly, away from the suction of the vehicles that roared past only inches from him. The cops behind him were yelling at the ones ahead, but Bush figured that they’d be muffled by the blare of the traffic. He teetered past the front of the van and shit!—there was another cop, turning toward him, mouth open, arm going up. Nothing to do but raise his own arm, too skinny to be much use as a battering ram, but, praise be to God, it struck the cop’s shoulder and spun him away, and Bush was past and still running along the low parapet. A huge truck shoved air at him that felt solid as a wall, and he lost his balance. For a moment that was like a scream, he nearly fell the wrong way, knowing that he would die if he did so. But his body did a trick that had nothing to do with him, and he toppled away from the traffic and went down. He felt the palm of his free hand tear, then he was rolling over. He was back on his feet and running again before he felt the hot tickle of blood on his leg.

There was a subway station up ahead of him, and if he could reach it, he had a chance of disappearing among the rush-hour bodies. He looked back, expecting to see violently angry men in dark-blue uniforms close behind him. Instead, he saw ordinary people carrying shopping bags and briefcases and talking into cell phones. Some of these people glanced at him with condescending interest. He slowed, and immediately felt the pain in his leg. At the entrance to the subway, he took shelter beyond the stall of a newspaper seller and squatted, dragging in breath. His mouth tasted like dirty coins.

He checked himself over, starting with his money. It was all still there. A little under two dollars. His hand was scraped raw from the base of the thumb to the base of the little finger, and it burned. He picked little bits of grit out of the wound with the longest nail on his left hand. It would have been nice to pour cold water on it. In fact, imagining it was almost as good as doing it. The leg was okay.
The blood was already drying. It looked like a shiny brown spiderweb.

The light had switched from natural to electric. The day had gone. He had to get home. It was extremely important that he was not late, because of the girls. He was about five subway stops from the Triangle. If he could beg an unexpired day ticket, he could still be home in quarter of an hour. Actually, in his head, he did not use the word home. He used the word there.

He went down the steps and picked a spot where he would only gently interrupt the flow of travelers. He used his sad smile.

“Finished with your ticket, señora? Señor? Finished with your ticket, señora?”