The Roma were always working. From the outside looking in, it appeared as though they weren’t doing anything–mere beggars taking up space on the already sparse amount of sidewalk. In the small vicinity of Leopardi, approximately thirty minutes outside of Naples, the gypsies ran an effective scheme for thievery, one shrouded in codes and signals dependent upon secrecy and nightcrawling. They separated into factions, each one with a specific role. One group would monitor a certain area of the neighborhood, while another would maintain a watchful eye further down the road, all too aware of the movements of each resident within the confines of the town. When they had memorized the schedules of everyone in Leopardi, a gypsy would mark a subtle white “X” near the gate or door of the property to indicate to another in his or her clan that the coast was clear to pillage and rob at his or her leisure.
The scam went on for months in Leopardi before the denizens, outraged and accusing of their fellow neighbors, caught on to what was really going on. The mystery began to unfold when Giovanni, a 17-year-old who awoke early each morning to perform his preparation duties for the pastries at the local pasticceria, walked out the gate of his house and happened to glimpse a rag-clad woman with matted black hair and piercing eyes like those of a jaguar. She dropped a piece of chalk as she sprinted down the road. Giovanni bent down to pick it up and noticed a half-finished “X” at the bottom of the gate’s foundation. He held the chalk bitterly in his hand, crushing it to smithereens upon receiving the epiphany of the true culprit behind the rash of robberies.
Upon arriving ten minutes late to the pasticceria, Giovanni’s boss, Tommaso, a gruff, bearded man with a stout, but slim build, barked, “You’re late! I already put the zeppole in the oven.” Giovanni, still in a daze, couldn’t be bothered to act concerned about Tommaso’s anger. He was plotting his revenge, mulling over how to proceed and who to tell about the cancer the gypsies had been spreading in their neighborhood for months now. His own rage outweighed Tommaso’s, the latter of whom could clearly see that this was not the time to goad Giovanni on.
“What’s wrong with you, eh?” demanded Tommaso.
Giovanni glared. “I know who has been stealing from our town.”
Tommaso regarded him gravely for a moment. “Well, who the fuck is it?”
Tommaso ceased seasoning a sfogliatella with powdered sugar and regarded Giovanni with the same sort of expression Drake possessed post-Madonna kiss at Coachella.
“What are you talking about? It can’t be the Roma. There aren’t enough of them here.”
“It’s them. I’ve seen their strategy in action.” Giovanni took a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and lit one as a customer came in. Signora Donino was a dark grey-haired woman who patronized La Burrosa every day to order the same thing to go: four zeppole and one macchiato. Three of the zeppole would go to her dogs, and one would go to her son. The coffee she kept for herself. Her usual frown was in full effect this morning, but it was more downturned than usual.
Tommaso made the mistake of asking, “Is there something wrong Signora?”
She gazed at him penetratingly. “I woke up this morning to find that my television was stolen. I think it might have been Maurizio, the landlord. He’s always lingering in my apartment, looking at my things.”
Giovanni glowered at Tommaso, who seemed to have already forgotten the news of the Roma’s diabolical tactics.
“Signora, that’s terrible! Have you told the police?”
“What can they do? Ask me a lot of questions? No, thank you.” She sipped from the macchiato Tommaso had automatically placed before her. “I’ll just have to get my son to buy me a new one.” She sighed and took another final gulp from the cup.
Giovanni was seething by now. He wanted to slap both of them across the face to wake them up to the overt reality that was at hand. The Roma had made fools of them all, had made them turn against one another as a method of distraction.
But Giovanni knew it was useless to try to convince Tommaso or Signora Donino of this. They were happier being gaslit than being open to the truth. As he watched them engage in further inane conversation and speculation, he devised a plan–something that he would have to carry out all on his own. He went about the rest of his day as though nothing had changed, and Tommaso became too engrossed in fulfilling the demands of their customers to even really remember what Giovanni had told him earlier that morning. Hence, Giovanni was given the proper amount of time to fully realize his method of vengeance.
After closing the store around two o’clock (it was lunch hour, after all, and no one was going to want pastries for the rest of the day), Giovanni returned home, where the half-completed “X” from before, he noticed, was now erased. Entering the kitchen, Giovanni could immediately smell the aroma of amatriciana sauce–a scent that briefly calmed him and then incensed him when he remembered that the gypsies were out to threaten the safety of his family. Before his mother, Alessia, could turn around from the stove to greet him, his sister, Giorgia, a 15-year-old who had recently discovered makeup and was therefore wearing too much, came bounding down the stairs.
“Giovanni, did you remember to pick up that lipstick I wanted?”
Giovanni looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and sadness. “I’m sorry Giorgia. I forgot. I’ll get it later today.”
Giorgia’s mouth formed a frown, but she did her best to conceal it as she began to set the table without being asked. Alessia tsked at Giovanni and said, “You know your sister needed that for her date tonight. I even gave you the money Giova’.”
“Does she really need a certain kind of lipstick to go out? It’s not like it’s going to stay on considering what she’ll be doing with him.”
Alessia batted Giovanni across the back of the head with her wooden spoon. “Don’t talk about your sister that way. And help her set the table.”
Giovanni scowled. It was times like these that he missed his father, Giorgio, who had left them for another woman in a neighboring town. He occasionally heard gossip about Giorgio whenever his new wife had another child. But apart from that, there was little he knew of his former patriarch. Giovanni’s reverie distracted him from the task of laying out the wine glasses on the tablecloth, which prompted Alessia to give him another whack across the head.
“Eh, are you going to finish the fucking job or not?”
Giovanni slammed down the glasses and soon after poured some wine into his.
Giorgia glared at him. “Aren’t you going to pour me some too?”
He rolled his eyes and did as he was asked. He was always doing what they–these women–asked. They had no idea what he knew of their fate, what he could let happen to them if he did nothing to stop the Roma from their plan to infiltrate the house. It was then that his idea changed. Why should he protect his mother and sister when all they did was ream him for the mere pleasure of the sport?
Although Giovanni’s original intention had been to pretend to leave the house after lunch, so as to throw the gypsies off the scent of his normal schedule, he instead decided to go to his room and take a nap. Only ten minutes of peaceful rest had passed when his sister prodded him in the stomach with her long nails. “Can’t you go get that lipstick now? I have to meet Patrizio at six.”
Giovanni growled, “No.” But then, a devilish stroke of genius stuck him just as Giorgia was about to throw a tantrum–he could tell by the way she was scrunching up her face and puckering her lips.
“You know what? Fine. I’ll go. What color was it again?”
Giorgia was momentarily blind-sided by his sudden willingness, but then found the words to say, “Red Cross.”
Giovanni sighed, as though he was acting put upon, when in reality, he knew this would be the last time he would see his sister.
He rose from the bed and put on his shoes. As he walked toward the exit with his phone in hand, his mother flashed him a dirty look as she peeled potatoes for that night’s dinner. “You need to get another job. You’re not making enough for us at that place.”
Giovanni nodded acquiescingly. “Yes, mamma. I’ll look today.”
He pecked her on the cheek and headed outside to make a fake phone call that he wanted the Roma to hear.
“Hey Tommaso, my mother and sister are out of town until next week. Do you mind if I stay with you? I can’t cook for myself,” Giovanni practically shouted. “Sure, sure, I’ll come over in a few minutes. See you soon.” With that, Giovanni ended his false call and was now perched outside of the gate to his house. He feigned not hearing the rustling in the bushes near him. But he knew that the woman from this morning, or one of her brethren, was there, waiting to pounce. He paused just long enough to envision his mother and sister hacked to pieces when they fought in vain to protect their paltry possessions from the Roma. They were doomed, and he was free.
He walked with a carefree air up the road and back to La Burrosa, where Tommaso was surprised to see him return so soon. “Is something wrong? You never come back to work at this hour.”
“No, lunch was finished so I just thought, might as well help you out.”
Tommaso nodded suspiciously. “All right, start making some dough.”
Giovanni worked happily for the next few hours, even whistling at times as he went about his tasks.
It was around 5:30 when Giovanni’s neighbor, Signora Treveste, came bounding in to the pasticceria to cry, “Giovanni, come quick. Your mother and sister–they’re…oh God–they’ve been hurt!”
Giovanni prevented his lips from curling into a smile as he ran out of the store with Signora Treveste. Tommaso followed after locking the door behind him.
Outside of Giovanni’s house, a huge crowd of townspeople had formed, in addition to the ambulance and police that were swarming around. Giovanni, assuming that he would need to identify the bodies, ran up to the ambulance with jubilance. When he got to it, he was shocked to find that it was not his mother or sister in the back, but three Roma men who looked as though they were knocking on death’s door.
Giovanni almost gasped in shock. He turned around and scanned the area, his eyes falling on Alessia and Giorgia chatting with their neighbors. He approached them slowly, overhearing the oration that was taking place.
“…and then he came at me with a knife, but I had a bigger one and a stronger will to keep what was mine. No one can take this house or the things and people in it away from me,” said Alessia.
At that moment, she locked eyes with Giovanni and smiled. “Giovanni, it’s okay. We’re not hurt.” She opened her arms to him. Giovanni went to her like a robot and let himself be taken into her embrace. Giorgia stroked Giovanni’s back and cooed, “No one is going to take us away from you.”
Tommaso, who had been talking to the police, went up to Giovanni and apologized, “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you before. It’s been the gypsies causing us problems this entire time.”
Alessia looked at Giovanni incredulously. “You knew about them and you didn’t tell anyone? What the fuck is wrong with you?” she demanded as she gave him a slap under the chin.
Giovanni ran his hand through his hair. “It’s, uh…mamma, no one believed me. Ask Tommaso. I tried to tell him and he ignored it.”
But Tommaso had walked away, leaving Giovanni to the harsh judgments of his mother and sister. Luckily, a policeman came up to Giovanni to save him momentarily from their caustic glares. “Giovanni? We need to ask you a few questions. Can you step over here with me?”
After Giovanni had finished confirming the methods of the Roma to the officer, he said, “Thank you. We can’t guarantee that they’ll go away now that we know about them, but at least we can help you with la sicurezza della tua famiglia.”
Giovanni bobbed his head mechanically. “Great, thanks.”
A month had passed since the incident. No further reports of robberies had been made. Giovanni had gotten a second job at a shoe store called Scarpe Diem to pay for, among other things, the installation of a security camera that Alessia and Giorgia had been adamant about having in front of their house.
He wasn’t sure why they needed it, considering that their harpy-like qualities could deflect anyone better than the presence of CCTV.
When he arrived home for lunch that day, he was bristled by the sight of the security camera knocked down from its perch and the door wide open. He went inside cautiously, the smell of pesto sauce luring him in more than the curiosity to know what was behind the strange scene outside. Upon entering, he saw a black-haired woman wearing his mother’s clothes at the stove, and Alessia and Giorgia stabbed to death on the ground next to it. Giovanni froze when the woman turned around. It was the same one who had tried to mark his house all those weeks before. “Ciao,” she said wistfully, as though she had been waiting for him her whole life.