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Authors: Marco Malvaldi,Howard Curtis

Three-Card Monte

BOOK: Three-Card Monte
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Europa Editions
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
[email protected]
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2008 by Sellerio editore, Palermo
First publication 2014 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Original Title:
Il gioco delle tre carte
Translation copyright © 2014 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
ISBN 9781609452162

Marco Malvaldi


Translated from the Italian
by Howard Curtis

To Vittorio,
who in going into the light
has left us a little more in the dark

Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
, Act III, Scene III


f this was chaos, then Italy must be the most beautiful country in the world. That was what Koichi Kawaguchi thought soon after getting off Flight JL3476, which had picked him up at Narita Airport in Tokyo and brought him down, amid incomprehensible applause from the Italians on the plane, on one of the runways of Fiumicino Airport in Rome.

Koichi Kawaguchi had been apprehensive. This was the first time he had ever left Japan, not just to go to a conference, but in general, and he had heard that Italy was a beautiful but extremely chaotic and disorganized country. Moreover, Koichi was an almost pathologically nervous person. So the idea of being alone in an unknown airport, in a country where he did not speak the language, having to take a domestic flight that left just two hours after he landed from Tokyo, had been making him feel anxious for the past month.

But in fact things had gone better than expected.

To start with, as he left Narita he had recognized a few people who were going to the conference. Even though he did not know them personally, Koichi had seen a number of young men carrying, along with their other baggage, cylindrical plastic tubes, which identified them immediately as people going to a scientific conference.

At a conference, the younger delegates rarely talk or deliver papers. What they usually have is a so-called “poster session”: a short period of time in which every young would-be scientist explains personally, in a very informal way, to any delegate who stops in front of his poster what kind of research he has been working on. The poster in question is usually kept, carefully rolled, inside one of these aforementioned cylindrical tubes, which do not usually pass unnoticed—not, incidentally, because of their elegant design, but rather thanks to their perverse functionality: these contraptions seem to have been expressly designed for the purpose of getting caught in any opening that presents itself, such as between the legs of the inexperienced owner and his nearest neighbors. This unpredictable dynamic often leads to lots of tripping up, near-falls, and involuntary bag snatching, thus rather spectacularly breaking the monotony of the terminal.

Beyond their troublesome consequences at the mechanical level, the tubes had allowed Koichi to recognize potential conference delegates, and from the conversations of which he had caught snatches he had realized that they were going to the same conference.

That was why he had decided, with a typically Japanese mixture of shyness and resolution, not to lose sight of the group of compatriots and to follow them discreetly, but without introducing himself. It was his first journey abroad, and he wanted to savor it as much as possible by himself. In spite of that, he was quite determined to shadow his countrymen and to use them as guide dogs, especially on arriving at Fiumicino where, he was convinced, he would find himself facing a state of chaos worthy of Dante.

Instead of which, he had found the Roman airport surprisingly calm. No trace of that overflowing flood of yelling people, infiltrated by hordes of pickpockets greedy for wallets from the Land of the Rising Sun, which had characterized his waking nightmares for some weeks. No screaming, no clamor, in fact a surprisingly small number of people. Compared with the crowds at Shinjuku station on the Tokyo subway, into which he descended every morning, this was like the members of a soccer team spread out across the field compared with the people on the terraces.

His first impression of the airport was quite disappointing. It seemed a tad provincial: the few shops on the upper floor were ugly, and the restaurant-pizzeria-cafeteria and the two bars that competed with each other to feed the newly-landed traveler were not at all inviting.

And yet, unexpectedly, he liked the place.

He liked the apparent calm with which the Italians did things, the smile with which the police officer had checked his passport and wished him a pleasant stay—in surprisingly halting English for someone who worked in an airport. The inexplicable yet obvious satisfaction of the barman from whom he ordered a coffee, as if having a coffee at that hour and in that bar was the right thing to do for someone who knew the ways of the world. And the coffee, dark and concentrated, served in an already warmed-up cup, was very good.

There were other things he liked less, like the toilets. He had heard that the Italians were the cleanest people in Europe. Clearly, he had found himself thinking, the toilets at the airport must have been conceived for Germans. Spacious, certainly, but with incredibly wet and dirty floors, and a faucet that, if you turned it less than halfway, let out a wretched little drop every two or three seconds, or else, if you turned it more than halfway, was like opening the floodgates on a dam. And on top of that, the toilet seat, unlike that coffee cup, was not warmed up. In all public toilets in Tokyo, the toilet seats were warmed up. Obviously the Italians and the Japanese had different ideas about what needed to be warmed up.

Proceeding to the check-in hall, Koichi saw that the plane that should have been leaving just two hours after the flight from Tokyo had landed was comfortably delayed by two hours.

This calmed him further. In fact, it calmed him so much that he decided, fully in tune with the Italian spirit now, to go back to the bar and have another coffee.


“Coffee, please. What would you like?”

“A coffee for me too.”

“An orange juice for me. If I have another coffee I'll be climbing up the walls.”

That morning, when the barman at Galilei airport in Pisa had seen the three young men for the first time, they had definitely looked better. Now, at five in the evening, after waiting for seven hours in the airport's only terminal, they looked a little stricken. Their shirts, in spite of constant tucking in, stuck out asymmetrically from their pants, and one of the three had vast rings of sweat beneath his armpits. Their faces were haggard, and their desultory conversation consisted of grunts and generalized moaning.

“Anyway, this is the last time I let them fuck me over like this.”

“Of course it is. You said the same thing last year. And this is bound to be the last time we let them fuck us over like this anyway. I don't know about you two, but there's no way they're going to renew my grant.”

The man talking this way was the oldest of the three young men—if you can call someone of about thirty old—a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, with well-defined features and a number of earrings in his right earlobe. The grant he was referring to was the 238.56 euros a month for a year that he had been generously awarded the previous year by the Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry in Pisa, after obtaining his doctorate, to tide him over until—as his professor had said to him—“things improve and we can find you something a little more permanent,” or alternatively—as he himself put it—“one of those old codgers who pretend to be worried about us realizes that he's a hundred years old, retires to the country to grow turnips, and frees up a place, dammit.”

The two other young men, though, were still studying for their doctorates, and the position of all three, as always in the case of academics without tenure, involved unwritten burdens it was unthinkable to shirk. One of these was that if your department happened to organize a conference you had to be part, unofficially but compulsorily, of the organizing committee. What this meant, practically speaking, was that you had to attend to the needs of the external delegates arriving for the conference.

That was why, on the occasion of the Twelfth International Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry, the three of them had been conscripted by the secretary of the Department of Chemistry to fetch the various groups of foreign professors and students from the airport and escort them to their hotel. Having welcomed austere Scandinavian academics, heaved the trunks of elderly American female scholars, tracked down the lost baggage and children of hysterical Spanish researchers, also female, and guided herds of Japanese scientists to the capacious bus that would take them to the hotel, they were now almost at the end of their labors. There was only one person still to come, and he should be arriving on the last flight, after which the three of them would be free to go home. As often happens when a thankless task is nearing completion, they were all at the end of their tether.

“Well, let's hope this Dutch guy gets here soon,” said one of the other two, trying to put aside the matter of the grant, which would only have led to unpleasantness between them. In the course of the day, they had in fact talked a lot about their situation as academics without tenure. The conclusion they had reached was basically this: that researchers without tenure were regarded by the university and the Ministry as being pretty much like intestinal flora—in other words, parasites. Good parasites, necessary for the proper functioning of the organism (since they were the ones actually doing all the work in the labs), but kept alive on the residue of those resources that had been ingested and, in the last analysis, stuck in a situation that could objectively be described as crap.

“Does anyone know this Snijders?” asked the third. “We aren't going to have to run all over the airport after him like that Hungarian, are we?”

“No, no,” the tall young man said. “I know him, I've seen him before at a couple of conferences. You can't mistake him.”

“How come?”

“You'll see soon enough.”

“You'll see right now,” said the third with a smile. “Look, they've arrived. I can see movement.”

“Great! Let's go get the Kraut, and then we can go home.”

“He's Dutch.”

“Dutch or Swedish, who cares as long as he's the last of them?”

Once they had reached the terminal, the tall young man raised above his head a sign with the words
Twelfth Interna­tional Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry
written on it (by hand: you use the means at your disposal). Almost immediately, a man of about forty-five detached himself from the group of people coming out of the terminal. He was some way short of six feet tall and wore a khaki K-Way that gave particular prominence to the orange T-shirt under it, inserted as best it could be into a remarkably creased pair of beltless jeans that ended four inches above his calves, which in turn emerged from a pair of hi-tech trekking sandals. The man, who seemed to have no luggage apart from a backpack, walked up to them and raised a hand in greeting.

“Hello, Professor Snijders,” the tall young man said in Italian. “Did you have a good trip?”

“Oh, yes, a very good trip,” the man replied, also in Italian but with a strange and very marked accent.

Antonius Celsius Jacopus Snijders (Anton to his friends, which included a large number of people) didn't look like someone who worked as a professor. To tell the truth, he didn't like someone who worked at all, or had ever worked a day in his life. In reality, however odd he might look from the outside, Anton Snijders was an excellent lecturer and a good researcher, able to manage a team of some ten other researchers in a dignified and original way.

BOOK: Three-Card Monte
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