It takes his eyes a moment to adjust. At first, all he can see are tall windows high overhead, shafts of light like columns. Noise fills in what eyes cannot see: the hubbub of negotiation and exchange, the squawking of chickens, the multitudinous laughter and chatter and singing and hustle and bustle of life.
And among that hustle and bustlea bustle, a hustle that should not be there. He sees it now as well as hears it, just a few stalls ahead. Figures tumbling, voices raised in protest. His quarry.
Through a gap in the crowd he sees the thief. He's scattering people and produce behind him in an attempt to obstruct his pursuer. No point going down that aisle. Mollel looks left and right, plumps for right, rounds a stall, and starts to run down a parallel row. Although he's keeping up with his prey, he's not going to catch him this way. Ahead, he sees sacks of millet stacked loosely against one of the stalls. It's his chance. He bounds up, one, two, and is atop the stall, balancing on the boards that bound the millet.
A howl of protest rises from the woman behind the stall as she swipes at his legs with her scoop. Get down from there!
But he is already gone, leaping to the next stall, hoping the rickety wood will take his weightit doesand run, leap, againit does.
A better view from here, and a clearer run despite the efforts of stallholders to push him, grab him, drag him to earth. He rises above the hands, above the stalls, intent only on the pursuit.
The fresh, clean smell of peppers and onions cuts through the dusty dryness of millet. Easier to negotiate. Mollel bounds across the stacked vegetables, skipping, skimming, recalling chasing goats across mountain scree when he was a child. Momentum is everything. Each footstep expects you to fall. Cheat it. Be gone.
Outraged yells fill his ears, but he feels that the great hall has fallen silent. There is no one in it but him and the fleeing man. Distance between them measured in heartbeats: arm's reach; finger's grasp.
And then the thief is out the door.
Mollel suddenly finds himself standing on the final stall, surrounded by furious faces. They barrack him and block him; hands reach for his ankles. He sees the back of the thief's head about to melt into the crowd outside the market. He sweeps his arm down, feels hair and hardnesscoconutsbeneath his feet. Another goat-herding trick: if the animal is out of reach, throw something at it.
The coconut is out of his hand before he even thinks about it. It describes a shallow parabola over the heads of the stallholders, through the square, bright doorway. He even hears the crack, and he relaxes. He has time now to produce his card and clear the way to the doorway, where a circle has formed.
The crowd is now eager, anticipatory. The rear doorway of the City Market is inhabited by butchers' stalls, and the metallic smell of blood is in the air.
The people part before him, and Mollel steps into the ring. The thief is on his knees, dazed, gold handbag dropped to the ground, one hand rubbing the back of his head. The smashed coconut has already been snatched by a pair of children in front of the circle who suck on the sweet flesh and grin at Mollel. Free food and a floor show. What more could you want?
You're coming with me, says Mollel. The thief does not respond. But he staggers groggily to his feet.
I said, says Mollel, you're coming with me. He steps forward and takes the thief by his upper arm. It is wider than Mollel can grasp and as hard as rock. He hopes the guy's going to remain concussed long enough to drag him downtown. If only he had cuffs
and then the arm wheels away from his, Mollel just having time to step back to take a little force out of the blow that lands on the side of his head. No concussionthe faintness feignedthe thief now alert and springing on his heels. A lungemissedat Mollel. The crowd cheers. He is strong but top-heavy, this fighter, and the policeman judges that a swift shoulder ram would push him once more to the ground. Mollel seizes his chance, head down, body thrown at his opponent's chest, but he misjudges the timing, and the thief parries him easily. Mollel feels a sharp, agonizing pain in his headeverywherestabbing and yanking, the pain of capture, and of submission.
Excerpted from Hour of the Red God by Richard Crompton. Copyright © 2013 by Richard Crompton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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