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Book Extracts
A Man of Genius by Janet Todd

First Chapters

London

‘Annabella looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate.
Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of
the distorted features. The open eyes were stained so that they
glared through their own darkness. A smell of rotting meat.
‘By itself the face was unrecognisable, yet she knew it was
her father’s. What was a father? A man begot a body but not
a mind. She prodded the head with her foot. The blood must
have congealed for her boot remained clean.
‘Had she killed him? It wasn’t clear. She rather thought she
had. She was sure she’d not cut him up. She hadn’t the
strength. She would order the bits thrown in the Arno to mix
with filth from the city. She turned away.
‘How many people do you have to murder before it
becomes habitual? Before you cannot remember which corpse
is which and who is its dispatcher?
‘She wiped old blood off her hands with her handkerchief.
Her maid would wash it clean.’
He’d come silently into the room and read from behind her. He
smiled.
Ann felt the smile. ‘I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,’ she
said without looking up.

The Pursuit

1

She met Robert James in St Paul’s Churchyard. The bookseller
J. F. Hughes held a dinner once a week for his distinguished
writers and a few hacks. She was invited to leaven the party with what
a prized pornographer called ‘femality’. Mary Davies, who wrote
children’s primers for numbers and letters, was absent. Hers was a
more respectable trade than Ann’s gothic horrors but Mr Hughes
judged Ann less prissily genteel in men’s company.
An Italian was there. He said little except when talk veered
towards argument. Then he remarked there was a sundial near Venice
that claimed to count serene hours alone. How good, he added, to
take notice of time only as it gives pleasure.
‘That sundial had not the English art of self-tormenting,’ said
Richard Perry, an intense, gentle man introduced by Mr Hughes as a
reviewer and former bookseller.
‘It’s surely not so easy to efface cares by refusing to name them,’
said Ann.
Nobody pursued the point. Signor Luigi Orlando felt no need to
facilitate further.
Later, much later, she wondered why Robert James had been
invited. He’d published nothing of consequence beyond that amazing
fragment of Attila. Did Mr Hughes believe in his promise as fer vently
as his friends did? As he did?
At first he’d been silent and she hadn’t much remarked him.
During the introduction she’d failed to note his name, being too
engrossed in her own. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, and
wine and conversation flowed, he’d started to dominate the talk, to
catch and keep attention. He spoke animatedly. She knew who he was
then.

Lumen by Ben Pastor

Cracow, Poland. Friday, 13 October 1939 

The Polish words stencilled on the plaque read, “Take Good Heed”, and the Hebrew script below them presumably repeated the sentence. Coloured pictures illustrating the alphabet were pasted on the wall around the plaque. For the letter L, the picture showed a little girl pushing a doll carriage.  

Suddenly the odour of mangled flesh was sharp, crude. It came to his nostrils unexpectedly, so that Bora turned away from the wall and walked towards the middle of the room, where an army medic stood in gloves and surgical mask. Behind his figure, flooding the classroom with light, three wide open windows let in the afternoon sun and a lukewarm afternoon wind. 

Six desks had been joined by their narrow ends, two by two, and the uniform-clad bodies lay on top of them, over tarpaulin sheets. Blood had dripped down the ends of the desks, from the little spaces between sheets. The larger puddles were coagulating, and reflected the light of the windows on their surface. Bora stared at the reflection before stepping closer, nodding to the medic. 

After looking over each body, he pronounced a name in a low voice, a collected and controlled and forcibly boxed-in voice. The medic was holding a pad, and wrote down the names on it. 

When he lifted his eyes from the third body to the wall ahead, Bora met with the colourful print of the little girl pushing a doll carriage. It read, Lale. Dorotka ma lale 

 

“We thought you’d be best suited to identify them, Captain, since you were in the car right behind them.” 

Bora turned to the medic. He didn’t say anything. For a moment he looked up and down the medic’s grimy apron as if wondering what either one of them was doing here. What, indeed, any of them – dead and alive – were doing in a Jewish day school on Jakova Street in Cracow. 

He felt sweat run under his arms, down the middle of his back.  

Bora said, “Yes, I was.” 

Major Retz waited below in the army car. He was smoking a cigar, and the air in the car was hazy with it, because he had all the windows rolled up. When Bora opened the door to enter, a bluish cloud floated against him with an acrid odour of tobacco. He took his place in the driver’s seat. 

Retz said, “So, of course they were Lieutenants Klaus, Williams and poor Hans Smitt. Had they been wearing their identification disks, you wouldn’t have had to go up and look at them. How bad are they?” 

Bora started the engine, avoiding Retz’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “They’re in shreds from the midriff down.” He lowered his window, and with the motion of the car the smoke began to blow away. 

They drove down the deserted street into a square, Bora following the direction signs hastily put up in the last few days over the Polish names of streets and bridges. Retz made some trivial observations, and Bora answered in monosyllables. 

The afternoon light shone lavish and clear, it drew long shadows from the trees flanking the street and the tall city blocks. Overhead, the sky was thinly raked by aircraft flying east, delicate trails like pentagrams without notes. 

“That’s no way to go, is it – blasted on a mine.” 

Bora kept silent, so Retz cracked the window to toss the butt of his cigar out, and changed the subject. “How do you like Intelligence?” 

This time Bora looked up into the mirror. Retz wasn’t looking at him. His arrogant, crude face was averted, and there came the rustle of a large sheet of paper being unfolded. 

“I think I’ll like it.” 

Retz’s eyes met his. “Yes. They tell me you’re the student kind.” Bora thought Retz probably meant “studious”, but “student” was what he said. He felt a curious little surge of insecurity at that assessment of him. More crumpling of paper followed, and a badly refolded street map was tossed on the front seat from behind.  

“Our lodgings are supposed to be close to the Wawel Hill in the Old City. I’d hoped we’d lodge closer to headquarters, Bora, but that’s what we get for staying longer than most on the field of battle. I hope there’s indoor plumbing, and all that. Drive to the office, I want to check where exactly they’re going to house us.” 

 

14 October 

The German Army Headquarters on Rakowicka Street overlooked a formal garden, and, past the gate, across the sidewalk lined by trolley tracks, sat a grey Dominican church. Pigeons flew to its roof, alone and in pairs, fluttering.  

Bora listened to what Colonel Hofer was explaining to him. All the while, he thought that in comparison with Richard Retz, his commander was an introverted and sullen man. Hofer’s hands sweated, so that he wore talcum powder in his gloves to absorb the moisture. His palms retained a dusty appearance, like fish floured in anticipation of frying. Of an unclear age (Bora was young enough to misjudge the age of anyone older than himself but not yet white-haired), the colonel had a small nose; a womanly nose, almost, with wide nostrils, a sensitive mouth and narrow teeth. He wore spectacles only when he had to read something, but his squint gave the impression that he needed them even for simpler tasks, such as looking at people while talking to them.  

After an intense morning of briefing Bora on his duties, Hofer took him aside by the window, and for some time didn’t say anything at all. Fixedly he stared beyond the flowerbeds into the street, oblivious to Bora’s nearness. At long last, he focused his circled, watery eyes on the younger man.  

His eyes seemed weary, Bora thought, as in one who doesn’t sleep or sleeps poorly – something that could be said of all of them in the past furious weeks. Except that the young officers didn’t look, or probably didn’t even feel tired. 

With some envy, Hofer was drawing a similar parallel. Bora stood by him with a fresh, prim countenance, disciplined into not showing his eagerness but yet very eager, as his record showed. Hofer could shake his head at the enthusiasm, at the eagerness, but it was a time to encourage, not discourage those excesses. 

He said, “Captain, how familiar are you with the phenomenon of the stigmata?” 

Bora showed no overt surprise at the question. “Not very, sir.” He tried not to stare back. “They’re wounds like those received by Christ on the cross. Saint Francis of Assisi had them, and some other mystics.” 

Hofer returned his gaze to the street. “That’s true enough. And do you know how Francis and the others received them?” He didn’t give Bora time to answer. “It happened during ecstasy. Ecstasy did it.” He nodded to himself, with his fingernail scraping a little spot of dry paint from the glass. “Ecstasy did it.” 

Hofer walked away from the window and into his office. Bora stayed behind long enough to glance at the roofs of the Old City churches, rising to the left like distant ships’ forecastles behind uninspired new blocks. Directly ahead, pigeons still flew to and from the Dominican church, seeking the sunny side of the roof. Spain, only six months before, had been an exultation of crude and dazzling light.  

What did the stigmata have to do with anything? 

He thought no more of it until after the lunch hour, when the colonel again stopped by his desk. Bora had been familiarizing himself with the topography of southeastern Poland, and now stood up with a red pencil in his hand. 

Hofer took the pencil from him, and laid it on the desk.  

“Enough map reading for the day, Bora. Tomorrow you’ll go out on patrol. Your interpreter is Johannes Herwig, an ethnic German, and he’ll tell you the rest in the field. A good man, Hannes – we go back a few years. Come, now. I want you to take a ride downtown with me.” 

“I’ll fetch the Colonel’s car.” 

“No. Let’s use yours. I want you to drive.” 

At Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, a musty, waxy odour hovered in the convent’s waiting room. Light came in through a set of three windows lined in a row, high, small, squarish, with deep slanting sills from which one couldn’t look out, even on tiptoe. There were three doors and all of them were closed. The silence was so complete, Bora could feel absence of sounds like a void against his ears.  

Startlingly real against a blank side wall, a life-size crucified Christ hung in agony, his torso contorted and bleeding, eyes turned back to half-hide glass pupils under his lids. It reminded Bora of the bodies in the Jewish schoolhouse, and he nearly expected to see blood on the floor at the foot of the cross. But the tiles were spotlessly clean, like everything else. No marks on the walls, no fingerprints, no streaks on the floor. And that waxy, musty smell.  

Waiting for Hofer, who had disappeared into one of the rooms down the hallway, Bora paced the floor. The quiet orderliness of the room forced a comparison with the wreckage and noise of weeks past – villages torn open, fields rolling by, speeding by, convulsed by drifting smoke and the fire of big guns. Bora admitted now that he’d pushed through havoc with the mindlessness of a sexual rush, awed and drunk with it. All the more he marvelled at the sterile peace of this interior. 

He’d been waiting for over an hour (the light was changing in the small windows, turning pinkish and less strong) when one of the doors opened and a priest walked out of it. Their eyes met, and the two men exchanged a noncommittal nod of acknowledgement. The priest wore clergyman’s trousers, an unusual sight in this conservative country. He went past Bora, down a hallway and into another door.  

Later a nun came gliding by, was gone. The light in the little windows grew lilac as the shadow of the late afternoon filled the street. Bora measured the floor in slow steps, trying to tend his thoughts and boredom. At last the priest entered the waiting room again. 

He said, in English, “Colonel Hofer tells me you speak my language.” 

Bora turned rigidly. “Yes.” And, recognizing the American accent, he relaxed his shoulders a little.  

“He sent me to keep you company while he concludes his meeting with Mother Kazimierza.” 

“Thank you, I’m all right.” 

“Well, then – you can keep me company.” With an amiable smile, the priest took a seat on a lion-footed bench, but Bora didn’t imitate him. He remained standing, hands clasped behind his back. 

The priest kept smiling. He was a man in his fifties, or so Bora assessed, big-shouldered, big-footed, with wide freckled hands and extremely lively, clear eyes. His neck, Bora saw out of the corner of his eye, emerged from the Roman collar as a powerful bundle of muscles, like the neck of a wrestler. The combination of his alert glance and strong frame recalled the pictures of warring peasant saints, cross in one hand and sword in the other. 

But the priest was telling him, in the most unaggressive tone, “I’m from Chicago, Illinois. In America.” 

Bora looked over. “I know where Chicago is.” 

“Ah, but do you know where Bucktown is? Milwaukee  

Avenue?” 

“Of course not.” 

“‘Of course’? Why ‘of course’?” The priest’s face stayed merry. “Consider that for most of my parishioners the important landmarks are precisely Bucktown and Trinity church, Six Corner, the memory of Father Leopold Moczygemba —” 

“Are you teasing me?” Bora asked the question, but was beginning to be amused. 

“No, no. Well, what I meant is – you and I would be at war if I were British, but I’m of non-belligerent nationality.” 

It was true enough. Bora found himself relaxing more and more, because he was in fact tired of waiting and not unhappy to make conversation.  

“Who is Mother Kazimierza?” he asked. 

The priest’s smile broadened. “I take it you’re not  

Catholic” 

“I am Catholic, but I still don’t know who she is.” 

Matka Kazimierza – well, Matka Kazimierza is an institution in herself. Throughout Poland they refer to her as the ‘Holy Abbess’. She has been known to foretell events in visions, and has apparent mystic and healing powers. Why, several of your commanders have already visited her.” 

It came to Bora’s mind that Hofer left the office early every afternoon at the same time. Had he been coming to see the nun, and was he embarrassed to be driven to the convent by his chauffeur? Bora took a long look at the priest, who sat and continued to smile a cat-like smile at him. Friendly faces were not an everyday occurrence in Cracow. He thought he ought to introduce himself.  

“I’m Captain Martin Bora, from Leipzig.”  

“And I’m Father John Malecki. I was put in charge by His Holiness of a study regarding the phenomenon of Mother  

Kazimierza.” 

“What phenomenon?” 

“Why, the wounds on her hands and feet.” 

So. That’s what the stigmata had to do with Hofer’s talk.  

Bora was thoroughly amazed, but all he said was, “I see.”  

Father Malecki was adding, “I’ve been in Cracow these past six months. In case you were wondering, that’s how I happened to find myself here when you came.”  

It was as unadorned a way as Bora had heard anyone describe the invasion of Poland. 

“Yes, Father,” he spoke back with faint amusement. “We did come.”  

Later, it was impossible for Bora not to think that the colonel had been weeping. Hofer’s eyes were red when they came out into the street, and although he wore his visored cap, the congestion of his face was still noticeable. He laconically indicated that he wanted to return to headquarters. It was late in the evening, but he walked straight into his office and locked himself in. 

Bora gathered his papers for the trip on the following day, and then left the building.

Liar Moon by Ben Pastor

Verona, German-occupied Northern Italy

9 September 1943 

Si deve far coraggio, maggiore. 

Martin Bora was in too much pain to say he understood. 

Dobbiamo pulire le ferite. 

In too much pain to say he understood that, also. 

Courage. Cleaning the wounds. Blood throbbed in his lids, by quick flickers in the blind glow of eyes tightly shut, and at the back of his mouth, where his teeth clenched hard, another heartbeat scanned frantic time in his head. 

Coraggio, coraggio. Try to take heart.” 

A small pool of saliva rose under his tongue, until he had to swallow. The lifting of the stretcher so exasperated the agony in his left arm, the whole length of his body crumpled with it. All he could gather was a convulsed short breathing at the top of his chest, as in one who must cry, or cry out. 

They were laying him on the emergency-room table. Taking off his boots. His left leg seemed to tear open with the removal of the rigid leather, as if they were wrenching the bone from his knee. Lights burst over him, human voices travelled from great distances to him, at him, into him. 

Blood sprayed as medics cut and dug through the gore of his clothes, and Bora would not let go but grew hard and grim and desperate, trying to resist the pain. To fight it, as if one could fight this, when his whole left side felt crushed in a giant vice and there was no hope of pulling himself out without shredding arm and leg in the process. His left hand, torn already to filaments and gushing blood, gulped and gulped his life out – lungs, stomach, bones – all seemingly heaving from the severance at the end of his arm, a sick red jumble of what had filled his body until now. 

They were undoing his army breeches. Anxious hands reached into the blood-matted fleece of his groin, searched thigh and knee. His neck arched rigid in the strain of his back to rise. 

“Hold him down, hold him down,” a voice said. “You’ll have to hold him down, Nurse.” 

Joints braced as in a seizure, Bora was fighting pain, not being held down. 

He could not swallow nor could he say he could not swallow, and when someone gave him water – he knew his mouth was unclenching because breath surged out of it in spasms – it gurgled back up his throat to the sides of his face. 

They would work on his left arm next. He hardened for it, and still a paroxysm of pain wrenched his mouth open and he was racked into a fit of trembling but would not scream. He groped for the edge of the table, would not scream. Neck flexed back, hard, unable to close his mouth – it was hard, hard! – he struggled and butted his head against the hard surface and would not scream. 

“Put something under his head, Nurse, he’s battering it on the table.” 

The digging of hands into the meat of arm and groin and thigh accelerated and then halted. It began again slowly. Slowly. Digging, pulling, coming apart. Being born must be like this, a helpless nauseous struggle to get out in the overwhelming smell of blood – a butcher-shop smell – pain jagged immeasurably high in it. 

He would break. If he pushed through he would break into aborted flesh, and die if he didn’t. 

“Hold him down!” 

Then someone forcibly pried his right hand from the side of the table and clutched it. 

Bora could weep for the comfort that came with the hold, as if the act were his midwifery from death, delivering him from the mandible and womb of death. He stopped fighting, and was suddenly coming out of the vice. 

Lights blinded him, he saw blood quilting his stretchedout body and people working into the naked red quilt with shiny tools, wads of cotton. 

Out, out. He was coming out. 

The clasp wrested him to a threshold of agony, brought him forth, and pain was extreme, unbearable at the passage. Bora cried out only once, when birth from pain tore what remained of his left hand with it. 

In the morning, the sky was the battered colour of a bruise. The tall hospital window was made sad and livid by it, and in that bruised light Bora asked, unflinching, “Will there have to be a graft, or was there enough skin left?” 

“We were able to repair it with what skin there was, Major. We tried to shield the stump and remove enough nervous terminations so that it will not hurt too much later. I am very sorry.” 

Bora looked away from the surgeon. 

“What about my leg?” 

“If gangrene doesn’t develop, we hope to save it.” 

Suddenly Bora felt the need to vomit. Only it had nothing to do with anaesthesia this time, nor with pain. He said he understood, but would not look at his left arm. 

The Italian surgeon, who was high-ranking and old enough to speak his mind to a German officer, shook his head. “It didn’t help matters that you waited two hours to be evacuated.” 

“My wounded men came first. I lost two of them as it is.” 

“You lost three. Anyway, since you must be wondering, the metal fragments in your groin have not injured the genitals.” 

“I see.” Bora did not look up, staring at an indeterminate place on the bed. “Thank you.” 

The wretched odour of disinfectant and blood filled the room. His body smelled of them. “My wedding ring, where is it?” 

“Here.” 

Beyond the bed, everything was a livid off-white colour. The window had a veined marble sill, like mottled flesh. Small cracks in the wall beneath it drew the eyeless, approximate profile of a horse. 

“Will you accept something for the pain?” 

Martin Bora moved his head from side to side on the pillow, but was too weak to say that he wouldn’t.

Lago, 18.5 miles north-east of Verona

21 November 1943 

Two months later, when he opened his eyes in the dark, Bora found himself holding his breath. Thinking, he went up and down his limbs, checking with hesitation the usually aching areas of left arm and leg – regions in the dark, uncertain of boundaries as even one’s body is when awakening. 

It was seldom that he had no pain, and the grateful lassitude, derived from feeling nothing, had become a luxury in the past few months. Face up in bed, he avoided any motion that might endanger the precious, transitory balance, though not feeling was far from feeling well. It would be so, it would have to be so until his body forgave him for what had happened in September. 

The grenade attack had been unavoidable, but his flesh rejected it, and the truth of mutilation. He was still ashamed for helplessly lying on the butcher block of the emergency table, sewn in his wounds and bloodied as at birth for the length of his limbs, whose ordure a Sister of Charity sponged. The mortified nakedness of chest and belly and thighs and groin under the patient wipe of her virgin hands stayed with him. Forgiveness to himself would not come from simply surviving the agony of it as a wide-eyed animal, without crying out. 

So Bora woke holding his breath so as not to rouse pain, while outside of the room – outside the command post – the wind rode high and pushed ahead a moon thin as an eyebrow. 

By seven o’clock that morning, a keen, colder gale had blustered out of the north to empty the streets of Lago, a small town like many others, without a lake despite its name, lost in the fields of the Veneto region. Bora sat in his office minding paperwork, with an ear to the hum of vibrating telephone wires outdoors. He heard, too, the idling and then stopping of a motor car before the command, but had no curiosity to reach the window and find out who it was. 

Even when the orderly came to knock on his door, he did not stop writing. 

“Yes, what?” he limited himself to saying. After being told of the visitor, he added, “All right, let him in.” 

The newcomer was dark and wiry, with vivacious black eyes and a moustache like a caterpillar lining his upper lip. The sombre Fascist Republican Party mixture of field-grey and black formed a light-absorbing stain in the dim autumn day. Skulls and bundles of rods on the epaulets identified him as a member of the shock troops. 

Viva il Duce. 

Bora did not return the Fascist salute, and stared up in a noncommittal way from his chair. He set his face inexpressively enough, while “How can I assist you?” rolled out of him flatly. 

“Centurion Gaetano De Rosa, of the Muti Battalion.” 

The visitor spoke in the manner of training camp, projecting his voice across the office. 

“Major Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht,” Bora replied. And it took him aback that the little man addressed him in German next, in good German, with a pompous, selfconscious ring to the use of tenses as he introduced his reason for being there. 

It had to do with a murder, so at first Bora listened, sitting back in the chair with his left arm low and his right hand calmly fingering a fountain pen over the shiny desktop. 

“Why don’t you speak Italian?” he asked then, in Italian. 

“Why? Well, Major, I thought—” 

“There’s no need for you to go through any such effort. As you can see, I speak Italian too.” 

It was obvious that De Rosa was disappointed. Bora knew well enough these Fascists moonstruck with all things Germanic, who patterned themselves after his own people to the extent of sounding obnoxiously servile. He had learned to cut short all attempts to favour him with familiarity with German customs and places. And now he went straight to the core of the matter. 

“I appreciate your coming to me, Centurion De Rosa, but I don’t see how or even why I should offer assistance. The violent death of a Party notable is serious business. Your Verona police will be much better qualified than myself to conduct the investigation.” 

De Rosa was not easily outdone this time. “I thought you might answer that way, Major. That’s why I brought this along. Please read.” He handed an envelope to Bora, who sliced through its side with a penknife and began reading. Against the light from the window, De Rosa seemed to glow with pleasure at the sight of the letterhead, the squarish spread eagle of the German Headquarters in Verona. 

There was little arguing with the brief of presentation. Bora put the sheet down, glaring at the little man, and prepared himself to listen. 

Twenty minutes down the road from Lago, the few houses of Sagràte were buffeted by the pitiless wind. The naked bushes rattled like tambourines when Police Inspector Guidi got out of his old Fiat service car. 

Corporal Turco hastened to reach the door of the police command ahead of him, opened it, stepped aside and let him in. He had the encumbering figure of a Saracenblooded Sicilian, and when he joined Guidi inside, a wild whiff of clothes worn outdoors came with him. 

Arsalarma,” he let out in his dialect. “With one shoe missing, Inspector, he can’t have gone far.” 

Guidi did not bother to turn around. He removed from around his neck the bulky scarf his mother had hand-knit for him. “Why, Turco, haven’t you ever walked barefoot?” 

There wasn’t much else for Turco to say, since his first footwear had come with his induction into the army. He brought to Guidi’s desk the laceless, worn shoe they had just recovered, careful to place a newspaper under it before laying it down. 

“Without a shoe, and crazy, too,” he mumbled to himself. “Marasantissima. 

Guidi had started pencilling lines on a topographic map tacked to his office wall. In a wide semicircle that began and ended at the river, fanning out from its right bank, he enclosed the stretch of flat countryside they had searched the night before. It seemed much larger when one had to slog across it, he thought. 

Past the river, long and narrow fields, now mostly bare, ran to the guerrilla-torn piedmont, home to partisan bands. Guidi knew there were no farmhouses there to offer shelter to a fugitive – only fields, and irrigation canals bordering them and intersecting with deep ditches alongside endless hedgerows. His instinct told him he should continue to search this side of the river. Guidi marked with a dot the place where the shoe had been found, nearly halfway between Lago and Sagràte, where groves of willow trees flanked the county road. 

“Let’s give the men a chance to rest until tomorrow,” he told Turco. “Then we’ll see what else can be done. The carabinieri assured me they’ll continue the search on their own until sundown.” Guidi nearly laughed saying it, because Turco (who was far from daft, but loved theatrics) stared at the muddy shoe as though he could stare it into giving information. 

As for Bora, he sighed deeply to conceal his boredom at De Rosa’s narrative. Because the talk gave no sign of ending, “Colonel Habermehl is surely aware that I’m very busy,” Bora interjected at last. “I have no free time.” 

In front of him, Habermehl’s letter agreed that it was all a bother, but advised him to please the Verona Fascists. Bora knew the arguments by heart: this was northern Italy, four years into the war, and the Italian allies had become potential enemies. The Americans had landed in Salerno and were inching up the peninsula. Why not please the Verona Fascists, who remained pro-German? Habermehl asked “as a family friend, not out of rank”. But the rank was there, of course, and Bora knew better than to fall for the outward courtesy. 

“Look,” he told De Rosa. “If you wish me to get involved in this case, you must supply me with all information gathered by the Italian police and carabinieri to date. When did the murder take place?” 

De Rosa frowned. “Day before yesterday. Didn’t you read it in the Arena? It was the most important piece of news, it took up nearly the whole front page.” 

Bora had spent all day Friday at the hospital in Verona, where the surgeon was still extracting shrapnel from his left leg. He’d had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Italian newspapers. “I must not have paid attention,” he said. 

Promptly De Rosa pulled out a newspaper clipping, laying it square on the desk in front of Bora. 

Bora read. “Here it says that Camerata Vittorio Lisi was the victim of a stroke in his country villa.” 

“Well.” De Rosa gave him an unamused smile, a grimace really. “You understand that when it comes to a man of Lisi’s fame and valour, the public must be kept from scandals. Lisi was from Verona. All knew him, all loved him.” 

“All but one person at least, if he’s been done in.” Bora gave back the clipping, which De Rosa carefully folded again but left on the desk. “What chances are there that it was a political assassination?” 

“None, Major Bora. Lisi was not a controversial man. Solid, with a heart of gold.” 

“I’m not aware that partisans or political adversaries would be impressed by a Fascist’s golden heart.” 

De Rosa’s grimace caused the well-combed caterpillar on his upper lip to tremble. “With all respect, Major, I know the political climate of the region better than you do. I assure you it is Fascistissimo.” 

Bora was tempted to phone Habermehl with an excuse to avoid the incestuous little world of local politics. His urge might have been visible, because De Rosa spoke up. 

“Colonel Habermehl informs me that you have already solved difficult cases.” 

“By accident.” Bora minimized the report. “Always by accident.” 

“Not according to the colonel. He says you distinguished yourself in the case of a murder in Spain, and of a dead nun in Poland. And in Russia…” 

The silvery skulls on De Rosa’s uniform glinted dully. The angry eagle clutching a fascio on his chest pocket, and the fanaticism it stood for, was beginning to annoy Bora. He said, “All right. Tell me all that is known about Lisi’s death, and provide me with the dossier as soon as possible.” 

“May I at least sit down?” De Rosa asked tartly. 

“Sit down.” 

On that Sunday, Guidi’s mother was shelling peas into a colander set on her knees, rolling them out of their green casing with swift, hooked strokes of the thumb. These were the last peas of the season; it was amazing how they’d managed to ripen despite the cold nights. But how well they went with pasta sauce, and how Sandro liked them! 

Near the kitchen door, she could now barely make out the voices of the men talking in the parlour. Her son had a soft voice as it was. Only a few of the words he spoke to the German were comprehensible to her, and as for the German, he was even more controlled in his speech.  

Signora Guidi was curious, but sat shelling peas with the offended dignity of the excluded. 

Bora was saying, “No, thank you, I’m in a hurry.” 

Having refused to take a seat, he stood rigidly by the set dining-room table, opposite a mirrored credenza. On the credenza sat the black-ribboned photograph of Guidi’s policeman father, with the date 1924 penned at the bottom, preceded by a cross. 

“That’s what De Rosa said, Guidi. And although he came under some pretence of secrecy, God knows why, he did not expressly forbid me to talk it over with others, so here I am.” 

Compared to Bora’s impeccable German uniform, Guidi grew aware of his shirt-sleeved frumpiness, perhaps because Bora seemed to be appraising him. He could feel the scrutiny of his own unprepossessing lankiness, his melancholy features drawn under the limp, swept-back wave of his sandy hair. Bora, on the other hand, looked like steel and leather and immaculate cuffs. 

Perhaps he ought to feel flattered by the visit. “Major,” Guidi said, “is it proven that Lisi’s death was not an accident, first of all?” 

“It seems so. His wife’s sports car has a sizeable dent in the front fender. De Rosa is convinced it resulted from her purposely running into Lisi’s wheelchair. As I said, it happened in the grounds of the victim’s country place. Unlikely that he was struck by a passing motorist.” 

Absent-mindedly Guidi nodded. From the kitchen wafted the odour of frying onions, so he went to shut the door. “Are they keeping the widow under surveillance?” 

“Virtually house arrest.” 

“In the country?” 

“No, she lives in Verona.” Without stepping forward, Bora handed over a slim folder tied with a rubber band. “These are the notes I took after De Rosa’s visit.” 

While Guidi read, Bora took off his cap and placed it under his left arm. Italian officials made little money, he knew. Dated furniture, old school books lovingly arranged on the shelf, a rug brushed threadbare. The punctilious modesty of this room spoke of the ever-losing struggle of the middle class to keep respectable. More importantly, it might speak of Guidi’s honesty. 

From the credenza’s mirror, unbidden, the stern clarity of his own eyes met Bora. The finely drawn paleness of the face his wife called handsome looked to him new and hard, as if Russia and pain had killed him and made him into another. He took a step aside to avoid his reflection. 

Guidi said, “We’ll need the physician’s report and autopsy.” 

“I requested them.” 

From where he faced now, Bora noticed how the photograph of Guidi’s father occupied the centre of an embroidered doily, between two vases filled with artificial flowers. A regular home altar, complete with lit taper. Memory of his younger brother’s death hit him squarely (Kursk, only a few months ago, the crash site in the field of sunflowers, blood lining the cockpit), so that Bora moodily looked down. 

“When the housemaid came out after hearing the noise, the victim had been thrown several paces from his wheelchair. According to De Rosa, Lisi had only enough strength left in his arm to trace a ‘C’ on the gravel, and then lost consciousness. He had already slipped into a coma when help came, and was dead in less than twentyfour hours’ time.” 

Guidi closed the folder. “I don’t see how this detail particularly relates to his wife.” 

“Her name is Clara.” 

“Ah. But even then, it all remains circumstantial. Were there problems in the Lisi marriage?” 

Bora stared at him. “They were living apart, and their separation had been unfriendly. Apparently there were still occasional violent arguments between them. Naturally the widow denies all accusations, and insists she had nothing to do with the matter, although she was reportedly unable to offer an alibi for the afternoon of the killing. Without an eyewitness, there’s no way of knowing whether she drove to the country on that day or not. Whoever killed Lisi, though, arrived and left again within a few minutes.” 

Noise from the kitchen intruded. Guidi stole a look to the door, embarrassed that his mother was banging pots and covers as a not-so-subtle hint that lunch was ready. Bora’s dark army crop moved imperceptibly in that direction. 

“Well, Major, I have to think about it—” Bora interrupted him. 

“What do you intend by ‘thinking’? That you haven’t decided whether you’ll collaborate with me, or that you need time before offering me suggestions?” 

“I need to think of a plan of action. I’ll phone you at the command post this evening.” 

Bora, who had scheduled an anti-partisan night raid and would not be at the post, nevertheless said it was fine. 

Over the occasional banging of pots, “We’re agreed, then.” Guidi rushed to say, “What I meant to pass on, Major, is that an escaped convict is at large between Lago and Sagràte.” 

Unexpectedly Bora smirked. “Why, thank you. We’ll lock our doors at night.” 

“He was diagnosed by Italian army physicians as criminally insane, and carries a marksman Carcano besides.” 

“6.5 or 7.35 mm calibre?” 

“8 mm.” 

Bora frowned. “Ah. Those made for the Russian campaign. They have a brutal recoil. Well, for us it’s just one more bullet to dodge, Guidi.” 

“I did my civic duty by informing the German authorities.” 

After a particularly syncopated rattle of cooking pots, the kitchen became peaceful again. Guidi breathed easily. “Did De Rosa tell you why they want to keep the murder a secret?” 

Bora openly grinned this time. “For the same reason why there are no more suicides in Fascist Italy, and people just happen to stumble on the tracks while there’s an oncoming train. Perhaps there are no murders in Fascist Italy, either. It seems Lisi was of some importance. A comrade of the first hour, in Mussolini’s words.” Bora swept his army cap from under his arm and put it on, taking a rigid step toward the door. “Colonel Habermehl recommended my name to the Republican Guard because of what he terms my part in solving other small matters. It’s only natural I should contact you, since you are the professional in the field.” He opened the door, through which a field-grey BMW was visible, with driver waiting at attention. “My apologies to your mother for delaying your holiday meal. Goodbye.” 

Guidi waited until the army car left the kerb before calling out to his mother. “He’s gone, Ma.” Because she did not answer, he opened the kitchen door and peered in. “He left.” 

His mother had taken her apron off and was wearing her good shoes. “Gone? Why didn’t you ask him to stay for lunch?” 

“I thought you didn’t want the likes of him in the house, Ma.” 

“Honestly, Sandro! Now God knows what he’s going to think about us Italians, that we didn’t even invite him to lunch.”

The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex

1

Ropraz, in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport, two hours from Lausanne, perched on a high hillside above the road to Berne, bordered by dense forests of fir. Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. Avarice, cruelty, superstition – we are not far from the border with Fribourg, where witchcraft is rampant. They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam.

A loaded weapon is kept in the stable or cellar. With hunting or poaching as a justification, they cherish powder, shot, great traps with metal teeth, and blades sharpened on the whetstone. Fear lurks. At night prayers of conjuration or exorcism are said. They are severely Protestant, but cross themselves when monsters loom in the fog. Along with the snow, the wolf returns. It is not so long since the last one was killed, in 1881; its stuffed hide is gathering dust seven miles away, behind glass in the Vieux-Moudon museum. And then the fearsome bear that came from the Jura. It disembowelled some heifers not forty years ago, in the gorges of the Mérine. The old folk remember it; there’s no joking in Ropraz or Ussières. In Voltaire’s day, when he lived in the château down in the hamlet of Ussières, brigands would “wait” on the main road – the one leading to Berne and the German lands – and, later, soldiers returning from Napoleon’s wars would hold honest folk to ransom. You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. A ring in his ear, a crafty look, a knife in his boot.

Here there are no large shops, factories or plants; people have only what they win from the soil – in other words nothing. It is no kind of life. People are so poor that our cattle are sold to city butchers for meat. We make do with pig, and so much of it is consumed in every shape and form – smoked, rind removed, minced or salted – that we end up looking like it, with pink faces and ruddy jowls, far from the world, in dark coombs and woods.

In this remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy. For incest and brooding in unwed gloom on flesh for ever desired and for ever forbidden.

Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. In solitude, by night, the amorous romps of a few fortunate individuals and their moaning accomplices, satanic titillations, a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism. Endlessly construing the threat from deep within and from without, from the forest, from the cracking of the roof, from the wailing of the wind, from the beyond, from above, from beneath, from below: the threat from elsewhere. You bar yourself inside your skull, your sleep, your heart, your senses; you bolt yourself inside your farmhouse, gun at the ready, with a haunted, hungry soul. Winter stirs this violence beneath the lasting snow, a friend to the demented, the ruddy and bistre skies between daybreak and night-time deprivation, the cold and the gloom that strains and wastes the nerves. But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. And the full moon. And the nights when the moon is full, the prayers and rituals, the bacon rind rubbed on warts and wounds, the black potions against pregnancy, the rituals with crudely fashioned wooden dolls stuck with pins and martyrized, the spells cast by charlatans, the prayers to cure spots on the eye. Even today in sheds and attics you still find books of magic and recipes for brews of menstrual blood, vomit, toad spittle and powdered viper.

When the moon shines too bright, beware bric, beware brac. When the moon rises rathe, shut up serpent in sack. Hysteria swells. And fear. Who slipped into the loft? Who walked on the roof? Look to pitchfork and powder, before secrets of the abyss!

Tequila Blue by Rolo Diez

Chapter one
Snow White looks eighteen going on fifteen, with
her short skirt and plaits, breasts like apples and
110 pounds of a mixture of innocence and sensuality
all wrapped in tissue paper. There are only
four, not seven dwarfs, and they are not real
dwarfs, just very short men. Half-hidden behind
false white beards, their faces are vicious and disturbing.
The opening scene shows them having a
meal in a clearing in a wood. One of the dwarfs is
serving wine. He offers it to Snow White but
switches the bottle without her realizing it. The
four freaks wink and make obscene gestures to
one other. They watch lasciviously as the womanchild
sips from her glass. As she finishes her drink,
Snow White falls into what appears to be a catatonic
trance. The dwarfs pull a mattress out from
under the table. They lay Snow White down on it
and start undressing her.

Chapter two
Lourdes woke me at eight with a beer and a
sour look that I had no intention of responding
to. I twisted and turned in the bed until I was
more or less upright and could take the first
swig.
“I went to bed at four,” I told her. “This beer is
warm. I don’t want it frozen, but it should be cold.
I’ve told you a thousand times.”
Lourdes is the only person in the world who can
launch into four different topics at once:
“You told me you were leaving at eight; we
haven’t paid the kids’ school fees; there’s nothing
to eat; why do you have a family if you can’t be
bothered to look after them?”
Lourdes is thin, the nervous type, her beauty
ruined by her irritation. I contemplated a reply,
but it sank without trace in my desire to go on
sleeping.
“Put the beer in the freezer and call me again in
fifteen minutes.”
Lourdes walked off complaining, but I wasn’t
even listening any more. Cops like me can sleep
standing up, when we’re on duty, covering some
guy whose footsteps are bound to wake us up.
An hour later I was out of the house. The sun
hurt my eyes, and the fumes from Avenida
Revolucion clawed at my nose and throat.
I stopped off at a taco bar and had a quick
breakfast. A soup with bread and lots of chilli in it
– the perfect indigenous remedy to improve the
way a hung-over guy sees the world, the human
condition, and Mondays, to help persuade him he
has to go to the office – then chopped steak and
several coffees. The bar owner, Luis, wanted to
know the price on .38 revolvers and 9mm pistols.
“I’ve got someone interested in buying,” he said
with a wink. “I could order five or six, if there’s
something in it for me.”
“I’ll look into it,” I told him. “I’ll tell you
tomorrow.”
I was thinking of talking to Amaya, who can get
rods cheap. If each of us made a hundred thousand
on each gun, that would mean half a million
for us and we could still sell them at a reasonable
price. Not business for its own sake, but to fight
the debts that insisted on piling up at the end of
every month.
Red was not at the money exchange: he had a
business breakfast. And the envelope for my boss
wasn’t there either. That scumbag Red: the Commander
wasn’t going to be pleased at having to
wait. I’d left Red thirty thousand dollars on his
behalf, first-class Colombian stuff that even the
White House would accept. And he was supposed
to pay up today. He knew that, but here he was,
playing games with cops . . . as if we couldn’t screw
his business completely if we felt like it.
“What time is he coming?” I asked.
“He won’t be long,” his secretary said.
A nymphette, a looker. Hot stuff, but not as hot
as she thought she was.
Her office was all glass, wall-to-wall carpet,
paintings and diplomas. I undid my jacket. I was
sitting so that little miss pretty couldn’t see the
grease stain on my trousers. I used to be able to sit
with my jacket buttoned, but these days my stomach
seems determined to put on a display of forty
years of tacos and beer.
“Has he been in touch?” I said, putting on my
stern policeman look. I know these dames. If you
so much as let on you’ve noticed their attractions,
there’s no end to their little games of seduction.
Not because a tart like her gives a damn about
someone like me, but simply because it’s their way
of showing their power. The only power they’ve
got: flesh and their shiny veneer.
“No,” with a flutter of rings and bangles. “But
he usually comes in about now.”
“I need to talk to him urgently,” I said, handing
her my card. “Please tell him to call me as soon as
he gets here.”
“Yes, Mr Hernandez,” she said, looking at the
card.
I buttoned my jacket and stood up. I leaned
over to shake hands, and found myself staring
down a plunging neckline. She saw my look and
smiled.


*
When I got to the office they were serving coffee.
The Commander was having breakfast in the
Sheraton with a judge and a member of Congress.
Convinced that public relations are all about having
a full stomach and a full diary, the boss
doesn’t stint on breakfast. He devotes his mornings
to other people’s careers and tries to choose
the right people.
Maribel brought me coffee. She stroked my
hand and asked for my office contribution: fifty
thousand pesos.
“You owe the last two payments,” she said, her
voice as sweet and fake as her expression.
Maribel is as hot as her native Veracruz, and is
battling against time. Her hair is dyed and teased
at the salon. She has good legs, adolescent children
she prefers to keep hidden, a baker husband,
and the soul of a whore. Just because she’s
the boss’s secretary she thinks she can intimidate
and lay – or at least try to lay – all the males in the
office. I think of her every time I hear a feminist
banging on about the sexual harassment of
women in the workplace.
Maribel put on her best tropical smile and slid
out the tip of her tongue: a promise of fellatio that
set my stomach tingling.
All I had in my pockets was a fifty-peso bill. All I
had to face a long day, feed myself, and find
another ten of the same to calm Lourdes’s nerves.
Not to mention Gloria: I haven’t been to her place
in four days, and although she’s patient enough
and understands how difficult things can be, she’s
got kids and all the rest to take care of just like in
any family. If I hadn’t forbidden it, she’d be on
the phone to me right now.
Maribel’s knees closed in on mine. Laura and
the cleaning woman exchanged knowing smiles. I
didn’t move.
“Wait till tomorrow, I’ll pay you then,” I said.
“Poor you! You’ve got so many problems.”
When they come over all tender, tarantulas must
look exactly as she did at that moment. “How
about going out for a drink, then you can tell me
all about it?”
“The boss might arrive,” I said half-heartedly.
“We’ve got an hour,” whispered Maribel, with all
the naturalness of someone who behaves in a
Mexican police office as if she were Marlene Dietrich
in a Cairo cabaret. She accompanied her
words with increased pressure of her knees
against my left leg, which I had to push against the
floor to steady myself.
Seeing that the whole office was having fun at
my expense, and considering a gentleman should
never disappoint a lady, especially if he doesn’t
want to be thought of as a queer, I decided it
would be less costly to have an early-morning fuck
in a hotel at her expense than have to give her all I
had left to pay my contribution.
In the elevator Maribel gave me a playful
lipsticky bite that I returned as best I could.
“Beast!” she groaned with satisfaction.
“Don’t leave any marks!” I told her, imagining
Lourdes’s face twisted with jealousy, and her
mania for examining my neck and back for signs
of someone else’s nails and teeth. Lourdes is a
self-taught forensic expert, and I’m always the
man in the dock. We’ve had real arguments over
it, and it’s incredible how she spots these things!
On the way to the hotel in my hostess’s Caribe, I
was suddenly worried my trouser tool might not
be up to it, or might be up to it then duck out halfway
through the performance, or I might come
too soon, as occasionally happens, especially when
I have to examine a new body that’s poring over
mine. And even though Maribel was no stranger, I
was worried about my size. I’m forty years old and
see myself in the shower every day. Yet I’m still not
sure whether I’m hung like a horse and make
every woman swoon, as I sometimes think, or if
what I’ve got is nothing more than the tiniest
shrivelled up little bean in the world, not big
enough to satisfy a cat on a diet.
At the hotel I ordered a rum and mineral water
for my nerves and my thirst, both of which are par
for the course in rooms like this. Exciting sounds
were coming from the room next door, as if an
Aztec virgin were being sacrificed on an altar.
Interestingly, our bed was against the same wall:
either a hippie or a communist idea that struck
me as very clever. I soon changed my mind when it
was obvious Maribel’s interest in my charms
was transferred to the wall. She stuck to it like a
limpet. Naked and as wrinkled as an accordion, I
lit a cigarette. Groans and sighs accompanied me
all the way to the bathroom, where I pissed with
difficulty and found a glass. My professional
training led me to take it back into the bedroom,
place the top against the noisiest part of the wall
and gesture for Maribel to come over and press
her ear to it. Judging by the growing signs of
ecstasy on her face, this had the desired effect.
After I’d finished my cigarette, and given that a
naked man can’t stand around with his hands in
his pockets, I started to undress her. Far from the
pressures of offices and marriages, she let me get
on with it. I undid her blouse and her bra, nibbling
at her neck as I did so. I was still holding
the glass in one hand while with the other I
stroked her underarms, aroused her nipples with
my fingers, bit her shoulder blades, licked her
spinal column and at the same time encouraged
her clothes on their slow journey to the floor. I
lifted her skirt over her head. I took my time at
her waist, filled both hands with her buttocks
then started to take down her undies. Maribel was
groaning, purring, her ear still pressed to the
glass. I slid her pants down the narrow part of her
legs. Maribel lifted one red shoe and freed herself.
That was the moment I realized the gods
were rewarding me for being such an excellent
cop: I was going to make love to a woman whose
head was buried in her skirt; I was going to fornicate
with a woman who was listening to another
couple fornicating; I was about to fuck a woman
who still had her stockings and high-heeled shoes
on. Three sexual fantasies in a single fuck! My
prick flew up like an acrobat. I couldn’t remem-
ber ever having seen it so big and strong. I
pushed it between her buttocks and set about taking
her from behind. Maribel turned towards me,
smiled rapturously and whispered:
“My back’s incredibly itchy. You couldn’t
scratch it for me, could you, love?”
For the next seven minutes I scratched her
back, convinced no power on earth could ever
make me erect again.
Afterwards, when we got round to sighing and
then to silence after the sighs, she wanted the
whole works. Disaster. I only just managed to get
her to pay for the hotel and drinks. I’d been thinking
of touching her for a loan, but it hardly
seemed the right moment.

*
Back at the office, the boss had one of his “we’re
going to get a few things straight” faces on. To rub
it in, as usual, he kept on about what time it was
and how I had gone off with his secretary. He
wasn’t that bothered – in fact he was probably
grateful, because if someone else didn’t do it, he
would have to – but he was the boss, and had to
show who was in charge. Then he quickly turned
to what really interested him. No news from Red.
Purple veins stood out in the bags round his eyes
as he stared at me in a way I was well accustomed
to: I was to blame for everything. And even though
my role was simply as a go-between who had to
appear and collect the money from someone
who wasn’t there, we were talking about thirty
thousand dollars, so there was no way the
Commander was going to be reasonable about it.
“I’ll call him right now,” I said, playing the part
of Officer Hernandez to perfection. “And he’d
better have the money in his hand, or else!”
The boss’s wrinkles lost some of their creases.
He began to lecture me on the need to take strict
measures against traffickers whose only thought
was to get all the dollars they could out of the
country, who thought nothing of Mexico because
money was the only homeland they believed in.
He went on to describe Red himself, who, to judge
by the thoughts he expressed, was so unworthy
and unreliable he could not understand why he
had ever entrusted any dollars to him.
With his exhortation to behave with all the
firmness characteristic of the DO still ringing in
my ears, I left the boss’s office. “Get a move on
with that, because a gringo’s been killed in a row
between queers, and I want you to be in charge of
the case” were the last words I heard.
*
It was usually a case with a gringo or involving
people who could not be tainted with even the
slightest whiff of suspicion, the kind of thing that
could not be left to illiterate uniformed cops.
That’s what we in the DO are here for, to operate
with our sharp surgeon’s knife on the gangrenous
social body, to give precision treatment
to events which, left to inexpert hands, might
produce negative, even uncontrollable results.
And even though our critics – there are always
critics, because there’s more envy in this country
than there are husbands whose wives have been
fucking around – say our aims were drawn up by
the comic Cantinflas, we know what we’re worth.
When the Directorate of Operations was set up,
the old guard was up in arms. “All operations are
secret. Only senators and undersecretaries could
think of associating them with publicity.”
In private they said much harsher things.
Eighteen years on, they still think we’re a bunch
of pseudo-intellectual politicos on the make, and
even though we have a smaller budget than any
other department, none of the cops can forgive us
for being able to write our own names.
As I left the office, Maribel did not even deign
to look at me.
*
I called Lourdes from a payphone, and I have to
say that she had only herself to blame for her foul
mood. To calm her down, I told her I had the
money in my pocket, and a desk groaning under
piles of work; I suggested she get some things on
credit from the store and promised I’d settle
everything that evening. She asked me no less
than three times if I really had the money, if I
wasn’t just trying to pull the wool over her eyes,
and if this wasn’t simply another of my stories.
That woman’s ability to doubt everything defies
belief. I reassured her as best I could, then I got
angry and hung up.
I wanted to hear more pleasant sounds, so I
rang Gloria. No sooner did she hear my voice than
the tears started. She accused me of being cruel,
of abandoning her, of starving her children to
death. Although I know she can be a bit over the
top, I was annoyed that she seemed to be blaming
me for everything too. I can remember a time
when she made do with nothing, always had a
smile for me and was a quiet oasis where I could
rest whenever my wife was displaying her talents as
a harpy. Though they had never met, in five years
Gloria had become so similar to Lourdes they
were like sisters. I swore I’d call in at her apartment
that evening and promised to take money
and presents for the kids.
Red was still not in his office. The nymphette
told me in a singsong voice: “Doctor Rosenthal
has flown to Guanajuato, but he left a message for
you: he’s very sorry and asks you to forgive the
delay. He’s got your money, and he’ll settle everything
first thing tomorrow.”

Chapter three
Up in the sky above me I can see clouds and crows
sailing past. Bound hand and foot to a sacrificial
altar on the platform of a low pyramid, I watch as a
priest offers me extreme unction in a language I
do not understand. The priest is wearing a dagger
at his waist; a frothing green mist rises from the
goblet in his hands. It must be an acid or poison
that will dissolve my flesh like wax.
“This is the punishment for disbelievers,” the
priest tells me. “This is what you get for voting for
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.”
He tips the goblet. As the liquid falls onto my
face, its icy needles empty out my eyes then fill the
sockets, and the frozen fire slowly penetrates my
brain.
The urge to stay alive forced me upright in bed,
screaming and waving my arms in the air. I saw
Lourdes’s mocking, angry face and sat motionless
while she finished pouring the contents of the
beer bottle over my head.
Then Lourdes spoke, and her words made no
more sense than the priest’s litany.
“I’m tired of being your mother, Carlos!” she
said. “I’m tired of your betraying me with every
woman you meet! I’ve had it up to here and
beyond with all your lies! I’m sick and tired of how
useless you are, how you can’t even support your
own family! I’m leaving you right now. As soon as I
can, I’ll take the children. And do me a favour –
don’t say a word. Don’t even think of trying to
explain anything.”
“Hang on a minute!” Soaked and annoyed,
uncertain whether to slap her or try to talk, I
jumped out of bed.
Lourdes raised the bottle over her head.
“Come any closer and I’ll crush your balls!” she
threatened.
I collapsed onto a chair. I let my wife walk out
on me without lifting a finger. I understood that
her irrationality and egotism had leaped over all
the barriers of self-censorship and shame and
taken over every aspect of her character.
I went to the bookshelves – fifteen hundred
works, some of them classics inherited from my
father, others erotic novels or thrillers, or textbooks
from my school days, penal codes and other
legal volumes – took down Philosophy in the Boudoir
by the Marquis de Sade. I pretended to be enjoying
reading it until Lourdes slammed the door
behind her.
I lit a cigarette and got another beer from the
fridge. I walked round the flat drinking and smoking.
Lourdes had not even bothered to make the
kids’ beds while they were at school. On the
dining-room table I found a sealed envelope for
the children, marked “For Carlos and Araceli”.
God knows what she could have to say as she
abandoned them. I considered steaming the letter
open but in the end couldn’t be bothered. I had a
shower, then discovered that the bath towel was
missing. I was indignant that she could have been
so selfish as to take it. I was forced to wipe myself
dry using dirty clothes from the basket. I had a
shave and put on my brown suit, the only one of
my three outfits still relatively decent. Only the
previous day I had been thinking of getting
Lourdes to take my grey one to the dry-cleaner’s.
In my stomach, a third-world protest demonstration
was starting up to demand something more
substantial than tar and barley juice. A thorough
investigation of fridge and larder produced only
disheartening results. In my house everything,
absolutely everything, gets eaten, in unbelievable
amounts. They say that rats are the living beings
capable of eating the widest variety of substances.
I reckon an objective comparison between rats
and my family could lead to a change of opinion. I
found two half-rotten bananas, a bit of cheese so
old it was fit only for worms and cockroaches, a
carton of milk I decided to keep for my children
(they’re growing so they need it more than me,
besides which I hate the stuff), a few dried-out
frozen tortillas and a bottle of chipotle chilli sauce.
Fortunately, there were some beers. I always keep
one or two handy, so that I can have some cold
whenever I feel like it. I have to take care of this
myself, seeing how little I can count on Lourdes
for anything that might concern me.
I decided to eat some tacos near the office.
Before leaving the flat I called the money
exchange, where a male voice told me Doctor
Rosenthal was away on a trip and they had no idea
when he would be back. I put on my tough voice:
“This is Officer Carlos Hernandez, and I need to
speak to Rosenthal urgently, so please give me his
address and personal telephone number.” The
person at the other end was obviously worried and
answered: “One moment please”, then left me
hanging on for ten minutes. Eventually another
man came on the line, introducing himself as
Perez Blanco, the firm’s accountant. I pictured
him as someone who wore a well-pressed grey
suit, had thinning, neatly brushed hair, and used
tortoiseshell glasses. A dumb-looking asshole, one
of those unbearable pedants who think they have
the right to say and do whatever they like provided
they are unctuous and polite with it. He began by
saying he was at my service for anything concerning
the business. I pressed him for Red’s address
and phone number. As calm as could be, Perez
Blanco said he was very sorry but he did not have
Doctor Rosenthal’s address, as he had recently
moved, to San Angel, he believed. He added that
he would be delighted to give me the phone
number, but that unfortunately he did not have
it to hand. Besides which, he understood that
Doctor Rosenthal’s telephone was out of order
and had not yet been repaired.
“This is the police,” I explained. “I’ll give you
one minute to get the number and give it to me.”
“Yes. One moment.”
I could hear the accountant Perez Blanco
breathing heavily. Twenty seconds later, I was dialling
Red’s number. A velvety voice came on the
line to tell me: “The number you have dialled is
out of service; we regret any inconvenience this
may cause you.” I suggested something the velvety
lips could do for me that would be sure to end all
my inconveniences, then hung up.
I called the money exchange once more. I said
who I was and asked to speak to Rosenthal’s secretary.
The same male voice from my previous call
informed me that as of the day before Miss
Esparza no longer worked for them. I asked to
speak to Perez Blanco again and was told: “He’s
just gone out.” I didn’t have to pretend to be
angry when I asked whether Rosenthal himself
still worked for them, and the voice at the other
end – a spineless, pathetic sort, I surmised – was
not pretending either when he expressed concern
that no, Doctor Rosenthal was no longer with
them, although there were still some loose ends
for him to tie up. In fact, they were expecting him
to arrive, or at least to hear from him, during the
course of the day. I asked for his name – “Teodor-
GomezAtYourService” – so I barked “Tell him to
phone me today without fail.”

*
En route to the office I was furious. I was counting
on that money for Gloria’s expenses. I was a
bit behind in looking after her, and although
she never goes short Gloria likes to moan over
nothing. From her voice on the phone and some
of the things she had said to me, I could tell she
was on the verge of an attack of nerves.
It was twenty-five past ten, and I had an
appointment with the gringo’s wife at half past.
Just time to call in on Luis and sort out the sale of
the guns.
For half a mile I was stuck behind a stupid old
bat who shouldn’t even have been in charge of a
supermarket trolley. I had to switch my siren on
and run into her bumpers a couple of times for
her to get out of the way. As I sped past she looked
over at me in terror. I gave her the middle finger
in a classic suggestion she should go fuck her
ancestors.
“The deal’s done, Luis,” I told him when I
finally got to the bar. “The parabellums are eight
hundred dollars. I’ll let you have them for seven
hundred, so you’ll make a hundred on each. I’ll
bring them tomorrow. But I need a bit of an
advance to buy them.”
Luis looked at me suspiciously.
“That’s way over, Carlos,” he said. “I’ve been
offered some long-barrelled .38s for four hundred.
You’ll have to drop the price.”
I struggled with the sausage and potatoes lying
listlessly on my plate, took a good swig of coffee
and then started slowly in on my chocolate flan.
“Six bullets, short range, no precision: that’s a
revolver for you. Plus you’ve no idea where they’ve
come from. And God forbid, but if anyone is
caught some day with one of them in his hand,
you can bet your boots even the most stupid cop
will discover it was the very one used in the latest
unsolved murder. I’m offering you clean weapons,
with twelve bullets in the magazine as well as the
one in the chamber, with a decent range and top
accuracy. There’s no comparison.”
“I know. It’s the price that’s the problem. Can’t
you go any lower?”
“How much are you willing to pay?”
“No more than six hundred.”
I did a quick mental calculation. Perhaps I
could get Amaya down to five hundred then sell
them to Luis at six-fifty.
“Let me see,” I said. “It won’t be easy. I’ll need
an advance.”
“No way, Carlos, and for the same reason
there’s no contract. You bring the rods, and I’ll
pay in full. But get a move on. If I’m buying from
you, it has to be tomorrow.”
“I’ll get them to you today.”
If you feel humiliated and find you want to get
heavy with a friend, the best thing to do is to make
yourself scarce. Not to mention the fact that the
remains of my breakfast were staring up at me
from the plate.







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