The Black Minutes
I had the most important nightmare of my life so far while traveling in a bus down a highway flanked by pine trees. I haven’t been able to figure out what it means, at least not entirely.
It was nighttime, but I couldn’t sleep. Every time I started to nod off, the headlights of oncoming cars or the jolting of the bus jarred me awake. I knew I was finally asleep when I couldn’t hear the engine drone anymore and the headlights turned soft and blue and stopped bothering me.
I was having a pleasant dream, one that was even, in certain respects, a musical one, when I sensed that a sarcastic person, someone who knew me fairly well, had moved into the seat behind me. The visitor waited until I was used to his presence; then he uncrossed his legs, leaned for-ward, and, breathing down my neck, said:
Isn’t it true that in the life of every man there are five black minutes?
The idea frightened me so much 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 reached my quota of black minutes.
That’s what I was doing when we pulled in to Paracuán, Tamaulipas.
There are two kinds of police officers in the world: those who like their job 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 case, but his best detective did not—and he was the one who received the crime report first. He tried to pass it on to somebody else, like a hot potato, but there are leads that get under your skin and don’t leave you in peace until you follow up on them. They say that a kind of obsession takes over, like a dog dreaming about the scent of his prey, even when the hunt is over.
Well, I have to start somewhere. On 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 in charge of following up on the crime report. Rangel had spent six years on the force, the last four trying to resign. 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 it off again.
The day it all began, El Chicote—receptionist, guard, car washer, and errand boy for the entire department —passed him the call. “It’s for you.”
“No, what do you think? It’s somebody reporting a crime.”
That bit about the uncle was something of a joke between them, if you could say that Vicente Rangel liked jokes. . . . He didn’t, really.
He picked up the heavy black telephone in the middle of the office. On the other end of the line, an exasperated voice was shouting. “Hello? Hello? Hello?”
“Finally! This is Licenciado Rivas at the Bar León. We found another girl, like the one in El Palmar.”
“One moment,” he said, and covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “Where’s El Travolta?” he asked El Chicote.
“He hasn’t come in.”
“Why’d you transfer the 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 let out a huge sigh and filled his lungs with the hot, heavy, unbreathable air; then he uncovered the mouthpiece and said, with as much authority as possible, “Are you the manager?”
“Don’t touch anything and don’t let anybody leave. They’ll be right over.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“Sure, man, they’re on their way.”
Everyone knew where the Bar León 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: a quarter past two, and let it be on the record that I didn’t want to go, he told himself. As he hung up the phone, Rangel had to admit he felt nervous. Could it be the same guy? he wondered. He felt like 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; ointments and makeup seemed like fag stuff to him, 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. OK, he told himself, what’s the harm in using just a little bit? He was opening the box, he’d already pulled out the ointment and was about to rub some onto his left hand, when he realized that he was being watched by a guy in a plaid shirt wearing thick cokebottle glasses, a lowly type but very clean, who was waiting in a chair by the entrance to the corridor, maybe just another aspiring madrina, like so many others who turned up there. They all wanted to be lackeys, gofers for the police officers. 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 caliber to the heavy regulation forty-five caliber 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 García’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 took it anyway; don’t want that guy to find me first. When he’d closed the holster he conveniently and discreetly scratched himself, and when the itch had diminished he turned to El Chicote.
“Tell the forensic guys, and send me Cruz Treviño, or Crazyshot and Fatwolf. Tell them to 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 plaid 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, so he picked up the yellow pages, looked up the Lonchería 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, flipped the driver’s seat cushion over, 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, covered the stick shift with the other, and drove in the direction of the bar. Back then the department only had three vehicles: La Julia—a covered pickup, adapted for transporting “suspects”—and two patrol cars painted in the official colors; one was used by Chief García and the other was driven by El Travolta, otherwise known as Joaquín Taboada, García’s second in command. 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 any 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.
Today he had the impression 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 it was the Martians overheating the earth: “First they’re gonna finish off the ozone layer and deforest the planet, and then they’re gonna melt the ice cap at the North Pole and flood the cities. Their plan is to mercilessly extinguish the human race.” Fucking Martians, he thought, they must be putos.
As he passed the Tiberius Bar he slowed down to see if El Travolta was there, but no luck. Fucking fat ass, he thought, and to top it all off he’s going be mad at me.
He took the Boulevard del Puerto to Avenida del Palmar and only had to stop for the light at the Texas Curve, and since there was a tractor trailer in front of him and he had no siren, he had no way of making himself heard. OK, he told himself, I can wait a second. Honestly, he didn’t want to take on this job and he still held out hope that El Chicote would find El Travolta and he’d be relieved of the investigation. Thirty seconds later he felt sure it wouldn’t happen that way, at least not right away. There was no way out of this situation. Who cares? he thought. Let the fat ass get mad, so what. One more stripe on the tiger.
He looked at the enormous billboard for Cola Drinks, with a woman picking up 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 thought mean things about the company and even about the model in the ad. Fucking gringo assholes 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 found dead.
He reached the Bar León in ten minutes—back then, you could traverse the whole city in half an hour—and as he approached, he recognized Dr. Ridaura’s car, which meant Ramírez 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, the forensic expert, Ramírez, was waiting for him in the street. He looked seasick and his eyes were red. This guy can’t take anything, Rangel thought. Looks like whatever he saw made an impression on him.
“Getting some air.”
“Hurry up, because the ambulance is coming,” he ordered, and added, as a large group of curious onlookers was forming, “Open a space in front of the door. Don’t let anyone in or out.”
Before he could take another step, Ramírez confessed. “Mr. Rangel?”
“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 stopped him. He knew Ramírez well enough to know he was hiding something.
“Do you know who it was?” Rangel guessed he did, judging by the forensic specialist’s hesitation.
“It was Jack Williams. He was 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’d left without waiting for them was the son of the richest man in the port, owner of the local Cola Drinks bottling plant. Ramírez 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.”
When he stepped through the doorway he had to wait a minute to get used to the dark. Three dark shapes approached him, with each step a little less blurry; the manager must be the one with the biggest potbelly. 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 a customer. He always wore tight-fitting light-colored suits, at least one size too small. Seeing him, the manager made it obvious he recognized him as a regular customer. It was like he was saying: Well, damn, I didn’t know he was a detective. They called him La Cotorra, the Chatterbox, but today he was keeping his mouth shut. Oh, goddamnit, 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 of today’s receipts?”
The manager’s expression changed. There you go, thought Rangel, he didn’t like that one bit.
“We just opened.”
“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:
Cola Drinks Group—Paracuán
John Williams, Jr.
Assistant General Manager
Rangel didn’t have a credit card. If he couldn’t even get to the end of the month with money in his pocket, how could he afford one? 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 he 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 toward a young man who looked like a bureaucrat, seated at the bar, pale as a ghost. “Oh, man,” said Rangel, “he’s going to faint.”
As 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 food; he’d order one or two beers and in exchange they’d serve him a dried shrimp caldo, crab or pork tacos, or a guisado with rice. On the 17 of March, 1977, he finished his two beers, shared one last dumb joke with his friends, and went to urinate. It was 2:40. 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 toward the urinal, Raúl Silva Santacruz noticed an object on the floor in front of one of the stalls. He remembered the homeless guys who hung around the plaza and thought, Fuckin’ bums, they just come in here to make a mess. It was normal for vagrants to come into the bar to use the bathrooms and then leave behind their soda bottles, french-fry cartons, and the needles they used to shoot up. He was about to lower his zipper when he noticed that the discarded object was a tiny shoe. He lifted his gaze a few inches and discovered, just inside the stall door, a little kid’s foot poking out.
What he found caused a nervous breakdown. 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 that the witness not drink, but he couldn’t reprimand him: if he weren’t on duty he would have had a shot of rum, too. 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 the journalists had arrived: in this case El Albino, the crime-beat photographer always first on the scene. For quite a while, Rangel had felt uncomfortable whenever he ran into El Albino, and every time he went to investigate a homicide, he knew he was going to find him. Fuckin’ vulture, 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 on the scene. It wasn’t that El 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 amid the sea of blood. If he’d just make some effort to be amiable, Rangel 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 a long and painful harangue, 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 used the fact that she was a woman, beautiful, feminist, and educated. Fucking bitch, she’s got me all figured out; she ought to stay in her house. To Rangel it was obvious that reporters got in the way of 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 El Albino tried to cross the security perimeter—in reality, just a pair of chairs in the entranceway to the bar, put there by Ramírez—“Listen, cabrón!” Rangel shouted at him, “get the hell outta here!” But El Albino stayed quiet, like he was playing dead or like an animal who didn’t understand human language. Rangel gave the order to lower the blinds. A minute later, the waiters had shut out the light from the street and the detectives were enveloped in darkness, in the most literal manner.
Copyright © 2006 by Martin Solares, English translation © 2010 by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.