By Dorothy Blanchard
If he could have seen what lay ahead that day, Juan, a pickpocket, would have remained in the city. Instead, he hitched a ride to the Mexican pueblo where tourists flocked to the tianguis, the open market. Passing a fruit stand where an old man patiently piled oranges in neat little pyramids, he snagged one of his wooden fruit crates. Tilted against a shady wall, it made a place to rest while he continued to stalk his prey. But a little boy kept poking his head around the wall, drawing away his focus. He raised a fist to scare him off, but his cherubic face caused him to drop his arm, and toss a few pesos his way. The boy swooped down on them and ran off.
To his annoyance, a new distraction arose. The old man shouted at him to return his crate. Juan gave him the single digit salute. Nodding, the old man turned to a huge, burly fellow squatting on the curb trimming onions with a dirty, long-bladed knife. He lumbered toward Juan.
In his rush to move on, Juan nearly bumped into a stout, middle-aged woman in a bright flowery dress, limping by in flimsy sandals never intended for Mexican cobblestones. A large open straw handbag dangled on her arm. He tailed her until she stopped at a silver jewelry stand where he got a good look at her bulging wallet. He was moving in for the grab and run when she took him by surprise by plopping down upon a small metal table piled high with bright gauzy dresses.
The rickety contraption collapsed, sending dresses aloft like frightened birds and the woman to the ground. Shoppers and merchants rushed to her aid, Juan among them. In seconds, he had disappeared into the crowd—with her wallet.
Slinking away as quickly, he felt a sudden nausea and weakness. He was shocked to see his shirt covered with blood. He lifted it and discovered a jagged knife wound. Disoriented, he staggered into an alley and sank to the ground. He tried to concentrate. A vague memory of a familiar thug with a knife appeared, then the flash of a knife. At the sound of footsteps, he froze. But rather than the guy he feared, he found himself looking up into the face of the small boy.
They studied each other in silence. Juan wondered if the boy had followed him by himself. He needed to return to the city to a doctor quickly. He decided upon a plan.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Angel,” said the boy, pronouncing it Ahn-hel.
“Want to make some money, Angel?”
The boy nodded. He slipped a fifty peso note from the woman’s wallet and waved it in the boy’s face. He sent the boy for a taxi with a threat of what he’d do to the boy if he told anyone else where he was. He doubted the boy would realize he was in no shape to carry out the warning.
But he did give a sigh of relief when the boy returned with the taxi. He handed the boy his fifty pesos, knowing he’d lift it from his pocket before he left. The rest of the money he stuffed into his pocket and gave the wallet containing the credit cards to the boy. A puzzled frown creased the boy’s small brow.
Juan knew the return of the credit cards, valued more than the cash, made things easier on him in the long run. Then he told Angel to look for the fat lady and tell her that he had found her wallet in the street. With a wink, he told him that she would give him a reward.
The boy waited while Juan staggered to his feet and then fell before he could reach the taxi. He rushed to Juan’s side, and after several awkward attempts, he managed to get Juan to his feet and into the taxi.
As the taxi pulled away, Juan reached for the stolen money to console himself.
It was gone! His gut felt like a hollow pit. His heart pounded, pouring blood from his wound. The kid! He thrashed and cursed but before long, he drifted into a sense of calm. His heartbeat slowed. His anger faded. Oddly, he began to laugh. The little rug rat. He had outsmarted him. He hadn’t even found the fifty pesos. With a sigh, his head fell back against the back of the seat.
In the pueblo, Angel removed the fifty pesos from his tennis shoe, slipped it back into the wallet with the rest of the stolen money, and stepped inside his humble home. His grandmother was visiting from California. He laid the wallet in her lap and went outside to play.
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