Book Extracts
Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo


Miranda, get your stuff!

Mole is sitting on the cot that won’t be his much longer, waiting to hear those words he’s dreamt about every sin-gle one of the one thousand four hundred and sixty-one nights he’s spent in that cell block. Now that the moment has arrived it feels unreal, and he’s afraid. Inside, you know when you’ve got to be on guard, when you might be attacked. Outside, you never know where it might be coming from, or what might go wrong. Chance is a bank robber’s worst enemy.

An air of mourning hangs over the Devoto Prison cell block. It’s always like that when a popular prisoner is released – wonderful, yes, but, on this side of the bars, not as cheerful as one might imagine. Prison promotes criminal behaviour, but it also leaves you numb. The same routine, day in and day out, slows down the re-flexes, clouds the understanding, and, at the same time, provokes anger. Experienced criminals know how risky it is to go right back into action. It’s all too common for an ex-con to end up dead shortly after getting out.

Mole is a rich inmate. He is guaranteed a supply of goods and money from the outside. If you’ve got money, you can get virtually anything you need in prison. Miranda knows how to mete out his generosity; he shares his wealth only with the cell block’s leader, The Prick. He lets him carry out the distribution however he sees fit and take credit for it. Everyone knows where the goods are coming from, but Mole would never tell. Discretion is a cardinal virtue among prisoners. That’s how you garner respect. The Prick protects him and lets him have his very own prison bitch. If you’ve got a little smarts and you command a lot of respect, you can stay out of trouble, mostly. Anyway, riots are the most dangerous. That’s when anything can happen, but the chances of getting killed during a riot are probably not much dif-ferent from those of getting run over by a bus or having a flowerpot fall on your head.

In a few short minutes those words will echo down the corridor: Miranda, get your stuff! Then he will begin the four hundred-yard trek that separates him from the street. He’ll stand up, pick up his bag – already packed – and walk down the aisle between the two rows of beds, without looking at or talking to anybody. Whatever he’s not taking with him has already been given away: this is the legacy he leaves. A few hours earlier he said goodbye to everyone he had to say goodbye to. Since then, he’s been slowly turning into a ghost. When you leave, you become the object of envy; when you walk out that door, you are the embodiment of everyone’s desire. That’s why you don’t leave the goodbyes till the last moment.

In the bed next to his, Andrés, who’s been his bitch for a while, is lying face down, stifling the cries that press on his throat like a tie tied too tightly around his neck. Andrés loves Mole, but the sorrow he feels is not only of lost love. Miranda was good and generous to him, he always treated him considerately, he never hit him or gave him to others. A lot of guys on the block want him, but nobody ever dared. He’s a green-eyed blond from Corrientes province, a guy who looks a lot like a girl. He’s got all the mannerisms of a young lady, he cooks like a dream and he refers to himself as a “she” in a sweet Guarani accent. He’s been inside since he was eighteen. His mother died when he was eleven, and the guy who claimed to be his father started taking advantage of him right away. One night, while the man was sleeping, Andrés tied his arms and legs to the bedposts and woke him up. He cut his penis off at the base and sat there watching him bleed to death. Then he turned himself in to the cops. At the trial, his lawyer – appointed by the court to defend the poor and the dispossessed – was too poor and too dispossessed and took the easy way out: he had him sign a confession, dictated to and written down with a large dose of animosity by the faggot-hating clerk at the police station. Nor did he bother to appeal the verdict that found Andrés guilty of first-degree murder or the sentence of life imprisonment. Miranda bought him from someone named Villar. After the transaction, Miranda made sure – without anybody finding out – that the seller got moved to a different block, just in case. A little later Villar got sick and died. Word had it that pancreatic cancer did him in.

Now Andrés is crying silently. He knows that as soon as Mole walks out that door, there will be a struggle over who gets him next. Two or three candidates are in the running, none of whom he likes. The future holds grief and suffering. Miranda tried to get involved, but The Prick advised him to keep his own counsel, to let things take their own course. He’s not a man to ignore good advice and, anyway: Who wants trouble when you’re about to get out, right? They said goodbye in a hidden corner of the prison yard. For the first and only time, Miranda let Andrés kiss him quickly on the lips… But no tongue action, okay… and that was the only time Andrés said to him: I love you and I’m going to miss you. Aw, man, don’t go there. Miranda patted him on his head as if he were forgiving a naughty little boy then turned his back on him. Andrés stood there for a long time watching him through the bars. Andrés’s whole body was shaking, anticipating his absence. The night before is always worse than the execution, dying much worse than death.

Miranda, get your stuff!

He stands up. He walks down the aisle between the beds, as dignified as a king and without looking at anybody, as if leaving were the most natural thing in the world. Everybody in the block stops what they’re doing to watch him. Only when the door closes behind him does The Prick’s powerful voice ring out in warning from the depths of the cell block.

I don’t want to see you back here. You hear me, Mole?

Miranda turns around and, even though he doesn’t believe in God, he gives him a sad smile and mumbles, God willing.

The Prick thinks he’d rather welcome him back than hear he was dead, and then it occurs to him that this thought might be a bad omen, but he doesn’t want to think much about it. Fate is fate, and everybody has his own to face.

The street greets him with a blast of cold air. Nobody’s there to meet him. No matter how much Susana – Duch-ess to him – insisted, he refused to tell her what day he was getting out. He’d also forbidden his lawyer from telling her. He’d only let her come once a month, a visit she never failed to pay and he never agreed to make more frequent. He liked her to be there, but it hurt when she left. Duchess is a good woman, and she’s a looker. Miranda thinks she deserves somebody better than him.

Before seeing her, he wants to find out three things: if he has AIDS, if he can still make it with a woman, and if Susana has somebody else. Any one of these circumstances would make it impossible for him to remake his life the way he’d dreamt it. AIDS would be the most definitive but also the easiest to find out about – his friend Dr Gelser would tell him how. About making it with a woman, that’s also an easy fix. Her name is Lía.

As he drives away from Bermúdez Street in the taxi he checks off his fears, one by one. Andrés promised he was healthy, and this was backed up by the fact that inmates with AIDS are put in a separate block, but you never really know. Villar’s sudden death had him wondering. If I test positive, nothing else makes any sense. If the test turns out negative, he’ll try with Lía. He’s afraid a woman won’t turn him on any more. Truth is, at first it was a question of habit, of satisfying his need to stick his flesh into another person’s body, but he’d surprised himself lately fantasizing about the night, about Andrés, about his fantastic blow jobs, about his body. He’d also started dreaming about his eyes, and that’s what had him most worried. Once he’s had the test he can deal with the third problem, Duchess, and find out if she has another man. The idea doesn’t make him mad – he’ll understand, he’ll have to understand – but the pain just might kill him. He feels the need to know the truth, and he doesn’t want to hear it from anybody else; he wants to see it with his own eyes. For a few days, he’ll watch her every move. He’ll hide near her house and find out everything. He’ll hide as only he knows how to hide.

He was the champion in his neighbourhood. None of the other kids could ever find him. When they played hide-and-seek it was like he’d been swallowed up by the earth; that’s how he got his nickname, Mole. His natural ability to blend into the landscape, that chameleonic talent he was born with, had served him well his entire criminal career. He had cultivated it and perfected it throughout his life, and many times it had saved him when the police had him surrounded. Very few people know that hiding is a skill that can be honed, that has rules and laws. If you want to hide effectively, the first thing you’ve got to do is ask yourself what your pursuer is looking for. A particular shape, a guy who’s so tall or so short, who weighs so much, has a certain colour hair, is fat or skinny, has a moustache or big ears, is dressed this way or that. Whatever. The pursuer’s eyes will quickly sort through everything they see, selecting anything resembling the image of the person they’re looking for that he has in his head.

Miranda liked to watch documentaries about animals with his son when he was a little boy. Scientists who studied frigate birds observed that the chicks automati-cally opened their beaks when the mother approached to feed them. They believed this was due to the chicks’ detection of their mother’s shape and colour. So they did an experiment to find out if the chicks would re-spond to only shape and colour. They made a doll that looked like the bird, they painted it black and placed a circle of red on its chest, just like the adult females. When they saw it, the chicks opened their beaks. The researchers kept simplifying the doll until it was nothing more than a black cardboard triangle with a red mark. The chicks kept responding in the same way. Shape and colour. That’s what they look for, what they recognize. The more urgent and intense the hunt and the more individuals that have to be evaluated, the fewer details get considered, and the image of the individual they’re pursuing gets pared down to a few outstanding features. The quicker and more complex the hunt, the less de-tailed the image. Mole always knew that, instinctively. As the years passed, and thanks to his observational skills, he elevated the practice of hiding to an art form, the art of completely changing his appearance with clothes, movements, body language. He is an actor who can look eighteen years old or seventy from one minute to the next; he’s the king of disguise. He also has certain innate characteristics that help: he is of average height and weight, and his face lacks any distinguishing features; it’s the face of any man, every man. His hair is straight and manageable, he can style it any way he wants. Only his eyes are distinctive, not because of their average brown colour, but because of the look in them: inquisitive, furtive, focused, intelligent, predatory – like the eyes of a hawk. But eyes can be easily hidden behind glasses, by looking away, by lowering the lids, and by employing that extremely rare ability to lie with them.

Night is falling when he boards the train that will take him to his hideout. The station is packed. The passengers waiting on the platform silently vie for a spot next to the edge and pray that the door will open right in front of them. The train slowly enters the station, blowing its whistle. The crowd, eager to get a seat and afraid of being pushed onto the rails, nervously jostle for posi-tion. Miranda stands in the back, neither too far away nor too close. When the train stops, the race to find a seat begins. Those closest to the doors rush headlong into the train; those further away climb in through the open windows. The second row of passengers push the first. In the third row are the old people, the pregnant women, the mothers with small children, the weak, the disabled, those who no longer want to fight. Miranda heads for the freight car. He gets in behind a group of punks dressed up for a party.