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He would have to pay, of course, and footing his uncle’s bill would not be cheap. The man had a voracious appetite and suspect table manners, but he was also exceptionally well connected, and Rišto felt he must grip the bull with both hands, no matter the cost. They agreed to lunch at Dab Pivnica, where he knew his uncle’s presence would be noticed and remarked on, a patina he certainly hoped would rub off on himself. As for the bill, he would explain that to Nikola later. This was, after all, a very serious business — which was distressing, of course, for here he was at the very beginning of his career, and already his future was in jeopardy. He shoved the thought away and concentrated instead on Milco, on some prized yet inexpensive gift he might bring. Sweet meats, perhaps, or rakija, blueberry-infused? Perhaps that, yes; Milco liked his liker. Rišto sighed, thinking it all out, planning his route to the restaurant so that he would still have time to purchase the rakija, and not from one of the tourist shops, either, where the price would be high. The whole scenario gave him a headache. Milco was an ace he had not expected to play for years to come.
Lunch was a disaster. Milco ate and ate and ate, and whenever Rišto began to bring up his reasons for meeting, and on such short notice, Milco gulped beer and turned the conversation to banalities like the price of Prilep tobacco and whether sport fishing in Lake Ohrid would ever again be permitted. Rišto humored the barbarian across the table for as long as he could, but in the end, over lingering kafe, cigarettes and baklava, Rišto finally succeeded in driving home his need. “This lot, this horse,” he said. “Who do I talk to?”
Milco’s jowled face broke into a festive smile. “That horse, Rišto, it cannot be moved.”
“It has been tried, of course.”
“Uncle, adje. Why can’t it be moved?”
“That plot of land belongs to the Kuševkas. I know — and I don’t care what those idiots at Housing told you, it’s not the Redžepovas.” He chewed and spit as he spoke, his mouth full to bursting and his free hand waving for emphasis. “Now, the Kuševkas are impossible to trace. The entire line is wiped out. But their wills, their estates, it’s all with the Roma. There was a debt, I’m not sure what kind, I don’t think anyone knows, but they agreed, the Kuševskas, to pass everything on to the Roma, bit by bit, plot by plot. And trust me, you will never get a gypsy to part with land.”
Rišto fought down his rising panic, the ghost-child of that same sensation he’d felt in university days when confronted with chemical models and disassembled motors. What sort of labyrinth had he stumbled into?
“You know how the Roma are with paperwork,” Milco went on, reaching for yet another sticky lump of baklava. “That horse might as well belong to their whole damn tribe. Communism is dead, yes, but we still have the Roma, and Rišto, it’s a sad fact, but it remains illegal to shoot them, even the men. So.”
With lunch complete at last and the memory of the check stuck fast in his craw, Rišto retreated to his office, slammed the door, and sat, fuming and accomplishing nothing for the remainder of the afternoon. At home, he said nothing to Nikola about what had happened, and having avoided the topic once, it could not be broached the next day, either. Friday, however, found him so surly and sour that he could bear it no longer, and he stormed home a half hour early, barging in and pulling Nikola from the stove — “Rišto, I have to cook!” — and dragging her to the couch, where he sat her down and told her everything. He expected her to cut him off at any moment, but she did not. He expected her to grow angry, to shriek at him, throw things. She did not. When at last he finished he sat quietly, his hands limp in his lap, and only then did Nikola speak, her voice calm and precise.
“Milco,” she said, “is a gangster. I don’t want you to see him again.”
“At least not without me there, too.” Then, after a moment’s pause, one in which he watched her pulse thrumming against her neck, she said, “I think Sašo. Sašo knows everyone. I know, he’s a Vlach, but he knows the Roma, too. I will ask him for help.”
“Nikola … ”
She held up a slim hand, obdurate. “You will let me do this. It is what I can offer.”
A week passed without any response from Sašo beyond coy assurances, and the time, for Rišto, was interminable. As if to rub salt in his wounds, the city enjoyed an outbreak of truly fine weather — dazzling sunlight, cool evenings, low humidity — in which both tourists and locals frolicked in the parks and on Makedonija Ploštad, the city’s finest public square. Trapped in his office, Rišto made phone call after phone call to track the owner of the horse and the land it stood on, and in between these futile bouts he bore down on his work, on the re-drafting of a set of documents pertaining to bus ridership and how to increase it lest poor Skopje fall prey to the traffic jams of Athens and other EU cities. But, bearing down did not produce effectual results. Each sentence, even revised and re-crafted, came out stilted, clunky. He could not fasten his mind to his work, and on Friday, he again gave up and left early, not caring who saw, and rode again to inspect the vacant lot and its single equine occupant.
He had half-expected to find the horse gone, a miracle of timing that he could claim as his own doing. But of course the horse was there, four feet planted solidly in clods of muddy earth, its tail batting the flies and its nose buried in yet another tuft of grass. Overhead, the sun emblazoned the sky, and on the bridge to Rišto’s right, the Balkan Express clanked northward, departing, as usual, twenty minutes late. He had taken that train many a time, back and forth from Niš, and he had little good to say about it except that it did, invariably, arrive. That, too, had been a blessing of debatable merit. A Macedonian in Serbia, once discovered, could never be sure of his reception. He had been routinely overcharged and underserved; several restaurants had ignored him so pointedly he had been forced to leave. Even the faculty at the university had treated him as little more than a token annoyance, something to fill out their enrollment. “Why don’t you go to some Western university?” asked one hoary old specimen, who’d borne an uncanny resemblance to Leonid Brezhnev. “Why are you slumming with us?”
Money, of course. Always money. Not that he had ever dared to say so. To be not only Macedonian but poor — poor as any Serb — would have been more shameful still.
The horse continued its determined grazing, oblivious to the now receding shriek of the train’s metal wheels grinding their way onto the main line with earsplitting complaints, and then it lifted its head, flicked its ears, and snorted. Rišto, who had begun to wonder how there could possibly be any grass left in the plot at all, frowned, uncertain as to what had disturbed the horse. Then his eye caught a whisper of movement at the back of the paddock, by the stable. Through the gate came a boy, a teenager, walking backwards and dragging behind him a hay bale, or what was left of it.
“Hey!” Rišto called, and he hurriedly leaped back onto his bicycle. “Zdravo! Hey!”