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from “The Black Minutes”

Up until now, the most important nightmare I've had in my life I had when I was traveling by bus on a highway lined by pines. I haven't been able to decipher its meaning, at least, not entirely.

It was nighttime, but I couldn't sleep. Every time I started to nod off, the headlights of cars coming from the opposite direction or the jolting of the bus jarred me awake. I knew I was finally asleep when I no longer heard the engine's drone and the oncoming headlights turned soft and blue and stopped being a nuisance.

I was having an agreeable dream, one that was even, up to a certain point, musical, when I sensed that a sarcastic person, someone who knew me well enough, had sat down in the seat behind me. The visitor waited until I'd grown accustomed to his presence; then he sat up, leaned forward and said, breathing down my neck:

"Isn't it true that in the life of every man there are five black minutes?"

The idea frightened me so much that I woke up, and since there was no one in any of the seats around me, I spent the rest of the night drinking water, watching the moon and trying to calculate if I'd already complied with my quota of black minutes.

That's how I arrived in Paracuán.

1.

There are two kinds of police in the world: those who like to work and those who don't. I liked my job, agent Chávez liked his job, and of course Chief García liked to investigate and solve a problem, but his best detective did not--and he was the one who received the crime report first. He tried getting rid of it like a hot potato, but there are leads that seem to inflame your skin and don't leave you in peace until you investigate them. They say that a kind of obsession takes us over, like that of a dog dreaming about the scent of his prey, even when they tell him the hunt is over.

Well, I have to start somewhere. On the March 17, 1977, Vicente Rangel González, nearly thirty, a native of the port, who lived in a house by the river, a musician turned detective, was the one to whom it fell to look into the crime. Rangel had spent six years on the force and the last four resigning. He was always saying he was going to resign, but every time he was on the verge of doing so he got involved in some difficult case and ended up putting off his exit again.

The day it all began el Chicote--the receptionist, watchman, car-washer and errand-boy for the entire department--passed him the call:

"It's for you."

"My uncle?"

"No, you wish. Someone reporting a crime."

That bit about the uncle was something of a joke between them, if you could say that Vicente Rangel liked jokes . . . . In truth, he didn't.

He picked up the heavy black telephone in the middle of the office. On the other end of the line someone was desperately shouting:

"Hello? Hello? Hello?"

"Headquarters . . ."

"All right, finally. This is licenciado Rivas calling from the Bar León. We found another girl, like the one in El Palmar."

"One moment," he said, and he covered the mouthpiece with his hand:

"Where's el Travolta?" he asked el Chicote.

"He hasn't come in."

"And why'd you pass this call to me?"

"Lolita told me to."

Two desks away, Lolita was chewing her nails. She was the chief's secretary.

"Hey Lolita. What's going on? This case belongs to el Travolta."

"But he's not here, you know he's always late. Why don't you go?"

"Is it an order?"

"Well . . . yes. No? Which would you prefer?"

Rangel exhaled deeply, and then filled his lungs with the hot, heavy, un- breathable air; then he uncovered the mouthpiece and said with as much authority as possible:

"Are you the manager?"

"Yes."

"Don't touch anything and don't let anybody leave. They'll be right over..."

"Do you know where we are?"

"Sure, man, they're on their way."

Everyone knew where the Bar Leon was: in front of the central plaza. It was one of the oldest bars in the port, as old as the second founding of the city, at the end of the nineteenth century. Although its golden age was past - sometime in the thirties, just before the second World War - its air of a grand bar fallen on hard times still attracted tourists and, above all, a sparse but loyal clientele of neighbors and government office employees who worked nearby.

Rangel noted the time. It's a quarter past two, and good, he told himself, let it be on the record that I didn't want to go. As he hung up the phone, Rangel had to admit that felt nervous. Could it be the same guy? he wondered. He felt as if the palms of his hands were on fire again and he told himself: Motherfucker, I bet it is. He thought of applying the medicinal ointment prescribed by Dr. Rodríguez, but he wasn't sure. He didn't want anyone to see him using it, to him ointments and make-up seemed like fag stuff, nothing to do with a tough cop, about to turn thirty, but it was true that Dr. Rodríguez Caballero was the best specialist in the state. Okay, he told himself, what harm is there in using just a little bit? He was opening the box, he'd already pulled out the ointment, was about to rub some onto his left hand, when he realized that he was being watched, by a guy in a checked-shirt, wearing thick coke-bottle glasses; a lowly type but very clean, who was waiting in a chair by the entrance to the corridor, maybe just another aspiring Gofer, like so many others who turned up there. Annoyed, the detective put the ointment away in his pocket.

Vicente Rangel González pulled out the twenty-two-caliber pistol he'd paid for in ten installments, undid his belt and put on the holster. He preferred the twenty-two to the heavy regulation forty-five that the department offered. As it was a small city, there weren't enough firearms for everybody, and the few they had were kept in Chief Garcia's office, under double lock in a case, but the Chief wasn't there and he had the key. Rangel didn't like to carry a weapon and was sure he wouldn't need it, but he brought it anyway: Don't want that guy to find me first. When he'd closed the holster he conveniently and discretely scratched himself, and when the itch had diminished he turned to el Chicote and ordered:

"Tell the specialists, and send me Cruz Treviño, or Crazyshot or the Fat Wolf. Tell them do a complete search of the plaza and the docks."

"What? Can you say that again?"

Rangel would have liked to give an explanation, but he couldn't discard the possibility that the man in the checked-shirt was a newspaper spy, and so he made a gesture that said, "Don't ask," and went out of the room.

El Chicote silently obeyed. Experience had taught him not to argue with nervous policemen, and so he picked up the yellow pages, looked up the Loncheria Las Lupitas and set to work trying to track down Crazyshot.

Rangel crossed the gravel parking lot, trailing a dusty wake that accompanied him to the car. As he'd feared, the metal was broiling: waves of heat rose from the hood. Fuck, he said, if only he had air-conditioning. He stuck the key into the red-hot lock, rolled the window down, turned the driver's seat cushion around, and got in. Before he could reach across to lower the right-side window, he was already sweating, rivers flowing down his face. I surrender, he thought. Turning on the car he burned his fingers again, so he pulled out a handkerchief and a red bandanna from the glove compartment, draped one over the steering wheel, with the other covered the stick shift, and drove in the direction of the bar. Back then the department only had three vehicles: la Julia - a covered pick-up, adapted for transporting "suspects" - and two patrol cars painted in the official colors; one was used by Chief Garcia, and other was driven by el Travolta. All the other agents had to use their own cars - if they had them, as was the case with Vicente Rangel.

He looked at the thermometer. One hundred and three degrees, and it wasn't going to get cooler. Since buying the Chevy Nova he'd tried to avoid driving at the hottest hours, during the port's interminable midday, when the buildings seemed to be boiling and hazy mirages rose from the pavement. He had the impression that he was entering another reality, the epicenter of fear. To distract himself from such macabre thoughts, he turned on the radio, where the announcer was suggesting that it was the Martians who were overheating the earth: "First they're going to finish off the ozone layer, and then deforest the planet, and then they're going to melt the north pole icecaps and flood the cities. Amidst cruel sufferings, they plan to extinguish the human race." Fucking Martians, he thought, they must be putos.

As he passed Tiberius' Bar he slowed down to see if Travolta was there, but no luck. Fucking fatso, he thought, and on top of everything else, he's going be angry.

He took the Port Boulevard to Palmar Avenue and covered the route in ten minutes. He only had to stop for the light at the Texas Curve, and as there was trailer truck in front and he had no siren, he had no way of making himself heard. Okay, he told himself, I can wait a moment. In truth he didn't want this job and he still held out the hope that el Chicote would find el Travolta, and he'd be relieved of the investigation. Thirty seconds later he felt sure that it wouldn't be that way, at least not right away, and that there was no way out of these circumstances: Who cares, he thought, let the fatso be mad, so what. One more stripe on the tiger.

He looked at the enormous billboard for Refrescos de Cola, where a woman lifted a glass of petroleum colored liquid, overflowing with ice. While he waited for the light to change, like the good anti-imperialist he was, he dedicated evil thoughts to the company and even to the model in the ad, Fucking asshole gringos, and Fucking bitch in hot pants, she must be a big whore. Every time he saw a cola drink he associated it with the war in Vietnam, the tension in the Middle East, the Cold War, the fall of Salvador Allende in Chile. Since he'd joined the police force, these explosions of overt rancor had become less frequent, but they persisted. His internationalist conscience wouldn't die. But there had to be some explanation for that stuff about the girl .

He reached the Bar León in six minutes--back then, you could traverse the whole city in half an hour--and as he approached, he recognized Dr. Riadura's car, which meant that Rivera would be there too. In the mornings they gave classes in chemistry and biology at the Jesuits' school; in the afternoons, or in case of an emergency, they were the only forensics specialists in the city.

Strangely. Ramirez was waiting for him in the street. He looked seasick, his eyes were red, and Rangel thought, this guy can't take anything, looks like whatever he saw made an impression on him:

"Finished?"

"Getting some air."

"Hurry up, because the ambulance is coming," and as a large group of curious onlookers was forming, he ordered, "Open a space in front of the door, don't let anyone in or out."

Before he could take another step the photographer confessed.

"Señor Rangel . . . "

"Yes?"

"The manager let one individual leave."

Rangel nodded. "An individual? The manager? I'm going to see that asshole right now, fuck him for obstruction of justice." He was about to resume walking but the voice of intuition halted him. He knew Ramirez well enough to notice that he was hiding something.

"Do you who he is?"

Rangel guessed that he did, judging by the specialist's hesitation.

"It was Jack Williams . . . He came with his secretary and four gringos."

Son of a whore! An influential person. He didn't like dealing with influential people, and the person who had left without waiting for them was the son of the richest man in the port: the legendary Jack Williams, owners of the local Refrescos de Cola bottling plant. Ramirez was sweating, and it wasn't on account of the 103 degree in-the-shade heat.

"Where's the body?"

"At the back, in the bathroom. The doctor is there."

He was about to go into the bar but the photographer gestured for his attention.

"Hey."

"Yes?"

"I finished the roll."

The agent pulled a bill from his wallet.

"Bring me a receipt, cabron. And hurry it up."

When he stepped through the doorway he had to wait a moment to get used to the dark. Three dark bulks approached him, growing less diffuse . . . the manager must be the one with the biggest belly. No need to pull out his badge - there never was - and much less now: nobody wanted to be in that place.

The manager's name was Lucilo Rivas. Rangel recognized him immediately, he'd seen him many times at a distance, whenever he went to the bar as customer. He always wore tight-fitting, light-colored suits, at least one size too small. Seeing him, the manager gave signs of recognizing a regular customer. It was as if he was saying: Well, damn, I didn't know he was a detective. They called him "The Chatterbox," but now he was silent. Well, fuck it, Rangel said to himself, this asshole is going to give us a hard time.

"Is everyone here?"

"If they'd left without paying, I would have noticed."

"That's what we're going to find out. Do you have all the day's receipts?"

The manager's expression changed. There you go, thought Rangel, he didn't like that one bit.

"We just started."

"Don't dick me around, no way they took their checks with them. You must have some record."

More taciturn than ever, the manager pulled opened a drawer and turned over the receipts. Rangel took the one on top and found what he was looking for. Junior had paid with a credit card:

Grupo Refrescos de Cola de Paracuán John Williams, Jr Subdirector general

Rangel didn't own a credit card. How was he going to have one, if he could never get to the end of the month with money in his pocket? For him the cards were like titles of nobility, glimmers of an impossible country, a dream as remote as a Ford in your Future.

"What?" the voice of the manager had broken his concentration.

"I said I let him go because he was in such a hurry. He was with some gringo investors and had to show them around the city."

Rangel shook his head:

"You and I are going to continue this conversation. What you did is enough for me to haul you in . . . I'll take this," he took the receipts. "Who found her?"

The bartender gestured towards a young man who looked liked a bureaucrat, seated at the bar, pale as a ghost. "Oh man," said Rangel, "he's going to faint."

As per usual, Raúl Silva Santacruz had gone to have lunch at the Bar León at two on the dot. Every third day he came with two colleagues during the hour when they gave away free snacks, he'd order one or two beers and in exchange they'd serve him a broth of dried shrimps, or crab or pork tacos, or a rice stew. The 17th of March, 1977, he finished his two beers, shared one last dumb joke with his friends, and went to urinate. It was two-forty. Although the bar had urinals in back, usually flooded miasmas, Silva Santacruz preferred to go through the door behind the bar and use the other, better ventilated bathroom. It was a room with white tiled walls about four meters high, a rectangular communal urinal, and two stalls, each with a toilet, illuminated by a large window. That day, as he stepped towards the urinal, Raúl Silva Santacruz noticed an object on the floor in front of one of the stalls. He thought of the vagrants who hung around the plaza and thought, Asshole bums, they just come in here to make a mess. It was common for the vagrants to come into the bar to use the bathrooms and then they left behind their soda bottles, french-fry cartons, the needles they used to shoot up, bread bags. He was about to lower his zipper when he noticed that the discarded object was a diminutive shoe. He lifted his gaze a few inches and discovered, just inside the door to the toilet, a tiny little foot.

The discovery provoked a crisis. Although the bartender served him a shot of liquor in a tequila glass, his movements remained slow and swaying, as if he were following the rhythms of a waltz. Rangel would have preferred it if the witness wasn't drinking, but he couldn't reprimand him: if he weren't on duty he would also have a shot of rum. He didn't like the job that lay ahead of him one bit, but there was no avoiding it.

A lightning-flash illuminated the inside of the restaurant and the agent knew that the journalists had arrived: in this case the Albino, always the first on the scene. For some time until the present date, Rangel always felt uncomfortable whenever he came upon the Albino, and every time he went to investigate a homicide, he knew he was going to find him. Asshole carrion bird, who knows who tips him off, he thought, he must have an informer in the department, otherwise there's no explanation for how he's always the first one there. It wasn't that the Albino was a bad person, but it still perturbed Rangel to watch him at work: he was the silent type, with white hair and white eyebrows, always dressed all in white amidst the seas of blood. If at least he made some effort to be amiable, he thought, but he only stirs things up . . . . After him it wasn't long before la Chilanga turned up, a graduate of the Carlos Septién García School of Journalism, expelled from the Ibero for her leftist ideas. Whenever she was denied access to a crime scene, la Chilanga usually launched into long and painful harangues, full of Marxist vocabulary that Rangel didn't always understand: Fourth class Materialists, shitty dogs, you're the armed branch of the bourgeois government. Rangel didn't know how to treat her: She takes advantage of being a woman, beautiful, feminist, educated, and she's taken my measure, fucking bitch, she should stay in her house. To Rangel it was obvious that reporters were an impediment to police work. If it were up to him he'd forbid them from getting mixed up in investigations, but not everybody thought the same. The Chief liked to show-off, and Crazyshot liked to show off, and el Travolta, don't even talk about it, he was practically a vedette, a showgirl. And then the Albino tried to cross the security perimeter - in reality, just a pair of chairs in the entranceway to the bar, put there by Ramirez - Listen cabron! Rangel shouted at him, "Get out of here! " But the Albino stayed quiet, as if he were dead, or as if he were an animal who couldn't understand human language, and Rangel gave the order to lower the shutters. A minute later the waiters had shut out the light from the street and the detectives were immersed in darkness, in the most literal manner.