Today's Reading

Signor Speranza balanced his clean plate on the edge of the tub and fidgeted. He had not been in this particular bathroom for some time, as there had been no guests on this floor of the hotel for at least two years. He had chosen this spot for the junior inspector to work because it was out of the way, but, as he looked around, he frowned. A memory stirred. A leak? Had there been a leak? And if there had been, how had they fixed it? He studied the checked linoleum, which was unique to the third floor, and got a sudden flash of it, swollen around the base of the sink: an enormous, water-filled bubble. His hands went clammy.

"You know," he said, clearing his throat, "I wonder if you might prefer to see the pipes in the kitchen? It's cooler there."

The junior inspector looked up, surprised. "I have already taped, signore."

"Yes," sighed Signor Speranza. "I've seen you do that." They both gazed bleakly at the blue-taped square.

"Well..." said the junior inspector into the awkward silence. He bent over his bag, and at that precise moment Signor Speranza glimpsed, gleaming around his adversary's neck, a silver medallion imprinted with none other than the pallid image of St. Vincent Ferrer himself!

"Signore," whispered Signor Speranza, his voice trembling with emotion. "You're a friend of St. Vincent?"

The junior inspector glanced down at his medal and smiled.

Feeling that it was now safe to let his guard down, Signor Speranza dropped to a sitting position, propping his elbows on the rim of the tub. "I'm very impressed," he enthused. "You do not often find this kind of devoutness now, in young people."

The junior inspector nodded and pulled on a pair of goggles. "It's very important, signore. My father says people do not take care of things the way they used to. Someone has to pray for the pipes." Then he switched on the saw and began to cut into the plaster.

The junior inspector's words, along with the buzzing of the saw, seemed to bounce and ricochet off the porcelain sides of the bathtub and ring in Signor Speranza's ears. Someone has to pray for the pipes? He was reminded of a similar argument he had made to the village priest, Don Rocco, regarding vacuum cleaners. "How has the Vatican not considered the need for their protection, Father?" he had asked fretfully after yet another customer had failed to show up for their yearly service appointment, and a search of the otherwise "complete" Compendium had yielded nothing.

Signor Speranza gasped and put his hand to his mouth. He understood everything now. This upstart clerk was not praying that the nation's pipes might outlast their prescribed usefulness, as he himself had been doing. No! This dastardly pup had been praying instead for their deliverance!

At this instant of terrible reckoning, two things happened. The junior inspector, switching off the saw and pushing back his goggles, gently eased the freshly cut block of plaster from its place in the wall, sending a chalky shower of white dust onto the linoleum, and Signor Speranza, his black moustache trembling, recalled the means by which he had repaired the sink. It came to him as a kind of vision—Smilzo, in shirtsleeves, perched on the edge of the tub, chewing pack after pack of pink bubblegum.

It was the junior inspector's turn to gasp, as he shone his flashlight into the hole. "Signore!" he cried. "What is this?"

Resuming his earlier sangfroid, which at this point was the only thing he had left, Signor Speranza glanced into the hole, crossed his arms, and sniffed.

"I think it's Hubba Bubba."

Do You Want Me to Show You a Real Problem?

Signor Speranza was subdued after that. He stood there, in the bathtub, as the junior inspector filled out a form in triplicate and handed it to him.

"Here is the estimate, signore. The town will need to remit payment within sixty days or the commission will cut off the water."

Signor Speranza stared at the form. The junior inspector had written the total in blue ballpoint, and circled it. Seventy thousand euros. The numbers swam on the page. Seventy thousand. It might as well have been a million.

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