The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 16

“But if I may say so, my brother, I think you were cheated.”


“The shears are cheap. They won’t last. And the Cosmetics are of the poorest sort. On a shop girl one might use such inferior goods, but on the wife of Charles de Gaulle-”

“You’ll set her hair?”

“And make a fortune. What is all this fuss about the face powder?”

“It is forbidden to bring face powder into France.”

“But why?”

“There is a very high tariff. To protect the French manufacturers, you see.”

“But to make such a fuss over one tin? And I heard the fat one say that it has no smell and tastes sweet.”

“Go to sleep, Esteban.”

“There are many things that I do not understand.”

“Do you want to go to Paris?”

“With all my heart, friend.”

“Then go to sleep.”

He fell silent. His was a hurt silence at first. He wanted me to hold his hand and tell him how good it would be for him in Paris, how they would welcome him to the town, how he would set the hair of the world’s most important women. He was a madman and a nuisance, yet in his own disquieting way he was good company for a trip of this sort. He gave me an unusual amount of self-confidence. He was so utterly lost, so incapable of coping with any situation, that by comparison I felt myself wholly in command of things.

The donkey moved steadily onward. Smoke from Vicente’s cigar wafted back over us. The road we followed wound slowly uphill, leveling off now and then, circling in and out of the mountains, then climbing upward at a sharper inclination. I lay with my eyes closed and did my Yoga exercises from time to time, getting as much rest as I could. It was at times like this, times when one had to spend several hours doing nothing at all, that I envied those who slept. Esteban could close his eyes and lose touch with the world. He could blank out his mind to all but dreams and pass over several hours in an instant of subjective time. I had to lie there in the dark with nothing to do but wait.

This had not bothered me in years. Once I originally adjusted to going without sleep, I had always contrived to have something to do, someone to talk to, something to read or study. No matter how long one lives, awake or asleep, one can never know all that there is to know. There are, for example, several hundred languages spoken throughout the world. It would take the greater portion of a lifetime to learn them all. Alone in my apartment, stretched out on my bed listening to a stack of learn-while-you-sleep records, I could rest mind and body and add another language to my collection-and not grow bored.

Lying on a mound of hay, staring at the stars and listening to the sounds of the night and the snores of Esteban and the occasional incomprehensible chatter of Vicente and Pablo, was as bad in its own way as rotting for nine days in an Istanbul jail cell.

I thought of getting up, getting out of the wagon and running alongside the donkey for a while. Or perhaps I could sit with Pablo and Vicente and talk with them in Spanish. The donkey seemed to be moving at about six or seven miles an hour. We were twenty miles from the frontier, and with the circuitous route we were following it seemed likely that we would travel forty miles to go twenty. It would be dawn or very close to it before we reached the border, and I did not feel like lying in the straw for that long a time.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I stayed where I was.

I heard Pablo speaking Spanish. “I believe we may stop now. They have not moved or made a sound for some miles.”

“You are certain?”

“Call to them. See if they answer.”

Vicente called out, “Enrique? Are you asleep?”

I did not say anything. I heard Esteban shift in his sleep and wanted to hit him with something. He had to remain still now, or we were in trouble.

“They are sleeping, Vicente.”

“All right.”

The cart slowed, then stopped. I heard them drop down from the driver’s platform and come around to the rear of the cart.

“They sleep.”

“Can you be sure?”

A hand touched my foot, raised it a few inches, then let it fall. I stayed limp.

“They sleep, Vicente. It is time to take the powder. Later will be difficult.”

“But he said that he would let me carry it across the border for him.”

“He will think of something by then. Some trick.”

“You are right. Perhaps-”


“In one instant I could slash both their throats. I would draw two red lines upon their necks, and they would be no cause for worry. And then-”

I tensed in the darkness. I saw him in my mind, knife drawn, bending over us. I could kick out, I thought. Kick out hard and then jump backward and hope to throw myself clear. I could-

“And when their friends come? Surely you do not think that ones like this could carry something of such importance themselves. Their clothes are poor, and their shoes worn. The powder is worth a fortune.”

“They are couriers, then.”

“Couriers, yes. And if they do not arrive, there will be trouble, and men will come looking for them. But if they arrive without the powder, they will be in trouble themselves.”

“I do not know, Pablo-”

Keep talking, Pablo. I thought. Keep talking.

“It is all the more reason why we will make the switch now,” Pablo went on. “Then later we will ask to carry the powder across the border. This Enrique will argue with us. We will finally let him have his own way. Then, when he discovers the powder is gone, he will know that someone else must have taken it. That it was not we who did it.”

“Where is it?”

“In the case he carries.”


Hands fastened on the attaché case and took it gently from my loose grasp. The catch was opened. A few seconds later hands slid the case back where it had been, fastened once more.

“He will never know,” said Pablo.

“And the other?”

“Nor will the other.”

“The other is a madman.”

“I think not,” said Pablo. “I think they are very clever, these two, and that the other only pretends to be a madman. One may do well at times by pretending to be that which one is not.” The sentence sounded involved enough to be a word-for-word translation from the Basque. “I think the madman is the brains of the pair.”

“But the other does all the talking and carries the powder-”

“Of course,” said Pablo. “As I said, they are clever.”

I made a great show of waking up half an hour later, yawning, stretching, having a moment’s trouble orienting myself, then swinging down from the hay cart and walking alongside the donkey. I wondered how close Vicente had come to drawing a red line on my throat.

“When we cross into Andorra,” Pablo said, “you will want us to carry the powder for you.”


“Ah, it is necessary.”

“Perhaps. If we are under the straw, we will be safe, will we not?”

“One would hope so.”

“Then why should not the powder be safe with us?”

His explanation was involved and, I think, purposely unconvincing. If we were discovered, he said, he could bribe a guard to overlook the fact. But if the powder were found, there would be trouble, and so it would be better to let him take it. It would, he assured me, be quite safe in his hands.

“Are we close to the border?”

“Very close. An hour, perhaps two.”

I went back to the wagon. When we approached the Andorran border, Pablo stopped the cart again and made us burrow ourselves underneath the hay. He asked for the powder.

“If they search you,” I said, “and find the powder, you will be in great difficulty. But if they search us and find it, you can deny that you knew what we carried and thus save yourself from trouble.”

He let me outfumble him for the check. He and Vicente piled hay on us, and we lay there under the smelly hay while the wagon started up again. Esteban was still half asleep and very much confused. At first he tried to fight his way free of the hay. I finally managed to calm him down, but he obviously didn’t like it.

“I do not trust those men,” he said. “Do you?”

“Of course not.”

“No? I think they are thieves and entirely ruthless. I think they would kill us without a second thought.”

“I agree.”

“You do?”

“Vicente was going to kill you while you slept. But Pablo would not let him.”

“He was going to kill me?”

“With a knife,” I said. “He was going to slit your throat.”

“Mother of God-”

“But it’s all right now,” I assured him.

And it was. The border was easily crossed. Pablo and Vicente evidently did quite a bit of smuggling and were well known at that station. The wagon passed through without incident, continued on through the postage stamp republic of Andorra, and cleared French Customs on the other side. I felt a little sad about this. I was one of the few Americans actually to travel to Andorra and I saw nothing whatsoever of it, spending my entire passage through the country at the bottom of a load of hay. When one could neither see anything nor understand the language, I thought, one might as well have stayed home and watched it all on television.

I was a little worried about ditching Pablo and Vicente, but it turned out that they were more anxious to get away from us than we were to see the last of them. We had a ceremonial drink of wine together, and they went their way, and we went ours, walking north into France. In the first café we came to we ordered breakfast, and I opened the attaché case and drew out the little tin of face powder.

“I do not understand,” said Esteban.

“I bought this in Zaragoza,” I explained. “I bought a tin of face powder and spilled it out and replaced the powder with confectioner’s sugar and crushed aspirin. It was supposed to taste like heroin, and I guess it passed the test. You see, they would hardly have smuggled us across the border out of charity. There had to be profit in it for them, and a tin of heroin would represent a fairly elaborate profit.”

He was nodding eagerly.

“Do you remember when Pablo left the hut in Sort to obtain supplies? He ran off to buy a can of face powder. Then while you slept they switched cans with us. So we started with face powder and now we wind up with face powder.” I gave the can to Esteban. “For you,” I said. “For your salon in Paris.”

“Then we never had any heroin?”

“Of course not.”

“Oh. And they do not have heroin now, do they?”

“They have a dime’s worth of sugar and a nickel’s worth of crushed aspirin. That’s all.”


“If they sniff it,” I said, “they’re in for a big disappointment.”

Chapter 11

It was almost impossible to explain to Esteban that we were not going to Paris together. He insisted that brothers such as we could not be separated and he ultimately began to weep and tear at his hair. I did not want to go to Paris. There was a man I had to see in Grenoble, near the Italian border. I tried to put Esteban on a Paris train, but he would have no part of it. I had to come with him, he insisted. Without me he would be lost.

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