The Headhunter

The Future had reacted to Garza's victory with disbelief and resignation. The editorial page during the weeks following his inauguration was devoted to voicing outrage over the series of illegal arrests that were taking place. That morning would show how well founded their fears were.

Foul weather besieged the editorial office; the receptionist shivered, the Culture editor clamored for central heating and the city reporters took advantage of the cold to dress up in coats apparently snatched from an attic's reverie.

The cold demanded moderation. I greeted everyone with whom I crossed paths on the way to my desk with a slight bow, turned on my machine after activating the power surge monitor as recommended, and gradually began to neatly remove my hat, coat, gloves and scarf instead of tossing them on the carpet as I was wont to do.

I was preparing the first cup of coffee of the day when the editor-in-chief, Jaime Franco, appeared. He was wearing a sweater and smoking with notorious malaise. The ice-cold gale stabbed at us through the windows; it was nefarious to put people out on the street under these conditions and Franco had been sending reporters to and fro all morning. Knowing this had lent a compassionate air to his ironic scowl a few minutes ago. By the time he reached my side, the compassion was gone.

"Faber, the new administration called."

He sounded hurt.

"They promised to "purge" the media during their campaign. And they're going to start with us," he chewed on his cigarette in despair.

"And you're worried?"

"Tell me what you know about this or I'll waste you."

He exhaled his irritation like a malignant vapor. A shiver starting at the base of my spine died out halfway between my shoulder blades. Only children and fools enjoy cold weather: they ignore the fact that thousands of beggars are doomed to die in the blizzards they derive so much pleasure from.

A small clique had gathered silently around me. Sony, in a tight blouse and boots, her arms crossed, was covered with tattoos and body piercing like some biker chick. Jorge Ameca, who despised every word that came out of my mouth as a matter of personal conviction. Manu, upset, with rings under her eyes, slowly lit a cigarette. A coat cloaked her trembling body.

"What's all this about, Faber?" Ameca hissed "Did you sell our asses to Garza?" He snorted to demonstrate that not even this would impress him.

Sony surveyed me with round, sunken eyes.

"You're working for them, aren't you?" Her blood was boiling at a temperature that would have scorched anyone who drank it.

Manu didn't dare to say anything; she sucked on her cigarette and obstinately tried to catch my eye.

"I know they want to detain those suspected of having collaborated with subversives." My voice, high-pitched and soft, had emerged from the depths of my stomach where it had been trapped a moment earlier. "Just two or three people. I don't think they'll shut down the paper."

Behind his beard, Jaime Franco twisted his lips in a sneer of disgust.

"They won't shut us down? What a load of crap! They're not taking anyone away!"

Ameca had turned pale. Sony's mouth was open.

"You're a pig," she snarled. I couldn't meet her eyes. When she tried to deal me a backhanded slap, I grabbed her hand.

A scream alerted us to the fact that the commandos of the brand-new Security Division were coming through the door in black uniforms, their eyes covered with visors; they were dressed just like Sergio had ordered, in keeping with the boyhood fantasies of someone who had a thing for toy soldiers.

"We've got to stay calm. Alex is right. They won't take more than three or four of us," Manu interjected, recovering her usual authoritarian register, cutting off Franco and Ameca's retorts. "If there are rebels at the newspaper, we shouldn't cover for them. If we cooperate, Garza will have no alternative but to leave us alone."

Franco let himself fall into a chair. The uniformed men took up positions around the editorial office, rounding up the workers by threatening them with rifles and rewarding the shower of insults and demoralized resistance from the photographers with kicks and blows with the butts of their guns.

"Five or six people, Jaime, and maybe I can get them off the hook later on," I offered, assuming the Biblical tone of a snake.

Ameca had held onto my arm and was whimpering. Manu backed me up.

"We've got to be realistic, Jaime."

Sony, incredulous, could find no other reaction except complete fury. "Six or seven? And why not one hundred, two hundred, everyone? Who are they going to take away?"

The uniformed men surrounded us. Ameca had resigned himself to crying; Franco sighed like someone on the brink of death. I tried to win Sony over to my side, but squatting down, she hugged her thighs and ducked her head, incapable of hypocrisy, not even to save her own skin.

"Good morning, Franco. I'm the one who called you. I trust you are willing to give us your full cooperation."

Sergio Teufel appeared behind one of his thugs. He wore a coat to protect himself from the weather. His cologne and slicked back hair gave a seductive note to his conquering field marshal appearance.

"Ladies, gentlemen, good day. I am Sergio Teufel, Director of National Security."

His broad smile was intended to pacify, or perhaps to trigger panic. Manu clung to my hand. She perspired, licking her lips, waiting for her chance. Jaime Franco got down on his knees; the entire editorial office kneeled with him.

A television set someone had left on repeated the news with parrot-like insistence. The congressmen from the opposition had already been imprisoned, likewise all judges and magistrates who couldn't provide irrefutable proof of their loyalty. The police, trained and equipped with full arsenals thanks to the crime fighting campaigns promoted by Clean Hands, constituted a very useful tool for raids and shootouts. Their agents were quite zealous in proving to taxpayers that the money for their training had not gone to waste.

In the midst of this agitation, Sergio's presence in The Future building could be taken as a compliment. My colleagues were lying face down on the carpet, with a rifle barrel or police boot tickling their ribs. One commando, more brutish than the rest, had subdued Sony with a single kick. My first thought was that Sony was more than used to getting kicked -any other notion would have led me to lunge at the thug's neck and get myself mowed down as a result.

Abandoning all shame, Ameca sobbed, wracked by waves of violent spasms. A stain appeared on the white of his shirt and was soon accompanied by three more. A slow vomit flowed from his throat and ran down his chin and chest.

"Fascist faggots!" brayed the little hunchbacked man with disastrous skin who did the "On This Day" section. His revolutionary arrogance was met with a rifle barrel.

"We had hoped this visit might take place in a less crude fashion," Sergio commented. One look at the agent who had silenced our hunchback was enough to make him leave the room, contrite. He was replaced by another dolt who looked just like him.

Jaime Franco, curled up at the foot of a chair, managed to light a cigarette. The carpet monopolized his stare-a man is always fragile, no matter how conscientiously he has built up his own personality. When Franco required a better light for his tobacco, I kneeled down beside him. I could have placed one hand on his shoulder, as if he were my father, but then again I could have kicked him and made his impotence a bit more obvious. I blushed at the certainty that just this once in the editorial office, the scope of my will was limitless.

Sergio ordered us to sit down on the ground and place our hands behind our heads. Obeying him triggered a pinprick of omnipotence inside me: my docility was voluntary. I could walk up to a guard, ask for his shotgun and blow off the arms of the switchboard operator or that idiot from Sports who wore the national soccer team's jersey every other day. The men in uniform had clambered up on desks and chairs and were aiming at us with epic conviction.

"We will read out a list, a short list with the names of those people who are considered dangerous despite the fact that they work in such an...important newspaper," Sergio found the adjective humorous and celebrated it with a smile.

I discovered that Manu was watching him, aroused, vigilant beneath her coat, her tongue restlessly sliding against lips that murmured something inaudible. This is too much, I thought, Manu is turned on by this lunatic.

I knew I was jealous.

Sony turned towards me. She suspected with good cause that if the Security Division was asking for my input, her husband was fried chicken by now. She dragged herself to my side, until I felt the insinuation of her shoulder against my back.

"My children, Alex, my mother... What will they do to them? What will happen to them if I'm arrested?"

I didn't answer, maybe because the thought hadn't occurred to me, maybe because what I expected from Sony was either insults or recrimination.

A guard standing on the desk raised a piece of paper before his exceedingly close-set eyes. He had lifted his helmet visor in order to be able to see better and was blinking from the sudden glare. His voice was clumsy, monotone.

"The Security Division, in compliance with orders from the Presidency, announces that the following people will be detained as a preventive measure out of concern that they have committed or have been accessories to crimes or are susceptible to committing them in the future. It is understood that those arrested will be able to claim their right to a fair trial and that if found innocent, they will be released. I hereby proceed:

"Jaime David Franco, instigator of political crimes."

Murmuring was perceptible among the staff even beneath the order for silence, punctuated by the rifles.

"Jorge Maurilio Ameca, accessory to crime..."

More than his arrest, Ameca's previously unknown middle name amused me. Uh-oh, Maurilio, you're going to be put on a bread and water diet.

Franco had scarcely moved, having abandoned all hope, whereas Ameca's moans and contortions were reminiscent of an operetta ingénue. His expression begged to be captured on film, but the photographers were far from the scene, subdued by rifle butts.

Approximately another dozen names of people I liked or hated were mentioned; there were even some I hadn't really noticed before. It surprised me when Roberta, the secretary with an enormous ass, was accused of hiding dynamite in her backyard; I naturally assumed it was Sony's fate to be detained as "suspected of having harbored a subversive criminal;" the criminal being, of course, Joaquín "Joaco" Nava.

Having anticipated this didn't keep my hands from prickling all over, my guilty hands that had touched her but in the end were incapable of defending her. The thought of Sony in a dungeon, surrounded by rats or Amazon jailers, was unbearable. My omnipower had faded; sadness emerged.

She lowered her head.

"My mother's name is Trini. You know her. My children are named Luz and Aldo. Will they take Joaquín too?" her plea was genuine.

"My guess is that Joaquín is already dead."

I am destined never to forget the expression I saw on her face.

The guards discovered a kid in the storage room trying to slip past them towards the warehouses. It really wasn't such a bad idea. The warehouses were dark and filled with nooks and crannies. They killed him on the spot, no questions asked.

Sergio scanned the dozens of journalists kneeling before him. The last one to be arrested had already been dragged off down the hallway. He gave the order for the weapons to be lowered. He seemed chagrined.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we regret these incidents of bloodshed. We beg you, make no attempt to resist official orders. That would be foolish. Now I ask that you get up and return to your workstations in an orderly fashion."

Terrified, not venturing to gaze more than a yard beyond their own feet, the employees of The Future obeyed.

Then Manu said, "What are we supposed to do now?" in an excessively loud voice.

She had taken off her coat; her legs ajar like the doors of a promising gateway.

"In my opinion, you should print that the authorities arrested a group of delinquents at the newspaper; however, they reiterated their trust in the remaining workers and allowed them to go about their daily business."

Sergio was unable to take in that unexpected body, that hard and opportune voice, at a single glance. He smiled slowly at Manu while nodding his head.

"Naturally, the new management can count on the government's support, as long as it abides by the law."

"We abide by the law," Manu relished the words.

"Marvelous. Then we will be able to work together in peace, Miss...."

"Manu Martinez," I felt obliged to clarify. "Editor of the Crime section."

"Martinez. Marvelous. This takes care of a problem on my end. We prefer self-management, you understand me? Someone from my office will hand out a flyer announcing your new position...."

"I trust that he will do so quickly and leave," Manu said.

Sergio, strangely enough, was enjoying this.

"Of course. Just a formality," and then, cat-like, he held out a hand encased in a soft, leather glove.

"We'll be in touch."

I followed him out of the editorial office. Outside it looked like rain. Sergio seemed enthusiastic.

"You will have to visit your friends and get them to talk, Faber. We have arrested thousands of conspirators today, but they are only the beginning," he got into his long automobile. He opened the window a crack.

"That young lady seems like a nice girl."

"You should hire some bodyguards," I recommended, noticing that he was driving alone.

"That's not my style."

I had no choice but to say nothing in response to the voice I both respected and despised.

That same voice had awoken me at six a.m. earlier that day. Not even the telephone was capable of diminishing its ability to degrade.

"Faber, we start today. It's all go."

"Today? The arrests? Today?"

"Yes, yes, today. Everything's ready. We have to get started before anyone takes any precautions. A state of emergency was declared an hour ago. We expect a few thousand deaths today. That includes your paper, Faber, and I mean today."

"The paper?"

"We arrive at noon. Do me a favor and be there, just in case any of the suspects tries to pull something."

Some voices are capable of submerging us in the murky waters of panic.

The traitor maintains that his spying makes him more intelligent somehow. But once he has trafficked with his loyalty, he is condemned to never being taken for an honest man again.

The days following his betrayal are luminous in his otherwise ostrich-like existence: he shaves and puts on his best clothes, he converses affably with his masters and laughingly thanks them with a convert's exaggeration. He smiles at mirrors. Nonetheless he is condemned because he fears retribution at every turn, he knows that someday a torch-filled night will come, that his door will be marked at daybreak. He can't aspire to more than a few days of peace. His warped victory will catch in his throat once he has glimpsed the folly of the empire he helped prop up.

The traitor justifies his actions by invoking a litany of injuries received, planning his ghastly vengeance with childish rancor. It's useless: he is condemned.

There is no mercy for traitors among his old comrades. Likewise the new ones, who distrust their Judas, knowing full well he is expendable, cannon fodder. When the time comes they will exhibit his remains without any concern other than how to clean the mess off of the floor once he's died. And die he will.

He will find no compassion in the empty gaze of his former colleagues, or in the long nights that torment him. He will find no sympathy among his masters. He is condemned.

In the end, once he realizes that he is just a wretch living in the shadows of the beast that bought and tamed him, the traitor has an appalling, guilt-ridden tendency to suffer vertigo. With his thirty coins he buys a trashy novel that he reads until dawn, hoping the gates of the temple will open for him.