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Authors: Leighton Gage

Dying Gasp

BOOK: Dying Gasp




Blood of the Wicked
Buried Strangers



Leighton Gage

2010 by Leighton Gage

All rights reserved.

First published in the United States by

Soho Press, Inc.

853 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gage, Leighton.

Dying gasp / Leighton Gage.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-56947-613-0 (hardcover)

1. Silva, Mario (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Police—Brazil—

Fiction. 3. Missing persons—Fiction. 4. Brazil—Fiction. 5. Snuff

films—Fiction. 6. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

PS3607.A3575D95 2010



10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Tony, Patrick, and J. Michael,

more and better friends than any guy has a right to have.

“. . . escape will elude them; their hope will become

a dying gasp.”

OB 11:20


Chapter One


HE BOMB ABOARD THE number nine tram claimed seventeen lives. Sixteen were passengers.

The seventeenth was the driver of a nearby postal truck. Mail from his shattered vehicle littered the cobblestones in front of the Museum of the Tropics and fluttered, like tiny flags, from the branches of the linden trees.

An hour later, in a shaky VHS video delivered to the studios of Al Jazeera in Dakar, a masked man, posing in front of a green banner, took responsibility for the outrage. A group calling themselves Justice for Islam, he said, had acted “in reprisal for Dutch support of the American crusaders’ continuing occupation of Iraq.” The Dutch had withdrawn their last troops from Iraq long since, but that was something the terrorists chose to overlook.

The incident took place on a glorious April day, chilly but without the usual breeze. The absence of wind ensured that much of the scattered mail stayed in the area of the blast instead of littering the neighboring streets and being blown into canals.

As soon as the authorities liberated the area around the truck, postal employees moved in and gathered up what they could. The salvaged mail was stuffed into canvas sacks and carried away to the Central Post Office on the Oosterdokskade, where a team under the leadership of Postal Inspector Marnix Gans started sorting it.

Some of the letters and packages were relatively undamaged. These were immediately fed back into the system and sent on their way. Some pieces had suffered the effects of the explosion, the resulting fire, and the water that had been used to put the fire out. Wherever addresses were still legible, tape was used for repairs and that mail, too, was sent on its way. Finally, Gans’s team got down to the hard part: trying to piece together fragments and subjecting charred remnants to ultraviolet and infrared lights in an attempt to decipher addresses unreadable to the naked eye.

A few of the mystery envelopes had the same characteristics. They were square, made of a manila paper almost as strong as cardboard and lined with a protective plastic permeated with tiny bubbles. One of them had been torn open by the explosion. It contained a digital video disk. The DVD itself was neither damaged nor labeled. There was nothing else inside the envelope.

Jeroen Velder, the only sorter on the team who was still young enough to be taken for a student, gathered the envelopes containing DVDs, put them into one of the plastic sorting boxes, and deposited the box on the desk of Inspector Gans.

“What’s this?” Gans said.

. Fourteen of them, all alike. All DVDs, I suppose.”


“One of the envelopes is torn, mijneer. I didn’t want to open the others without permission.”

“Quite right. No return address either, eh?”


Always “mijneer,” never “Marnix.” Unlike most youngsters of his generation, Velder expressed proper respect for his superiors. As long as Marnix Gans was in charge, Velder’s future prospects were bright.

Gans stared at the contents of the box. What he obviously needed was a DVD player. But if his superiors drew the conclusion that Gans wanted the player as a permanent addition to the employee’s lunchroom, with the attendant risk that Gans and his buddies might fritter away their time in there watching American movies, the authorities would feel compelled to look into the matter. Approval of the requisition, if it came at all, could take weeks.

Gans was a proponent of order, a man who took deeply to heart his mandate to rapidly dispatch the queen’s mail. The thought of having those DVDs hanging around for weeks, maybe months, was anathema to him. Yet it was strictly against the rules to take anything home. If a piece of mail not his own was found on his person when he was leaving the building, he’d be in trouble.

Gans decided he’d take the risk. He’d bring the DVD back to his house, pop it into his player and see if the content could give him a clue to the addressee or the sender.

As was his custom, Gans left promptly at five, the damaged envelope containing the DVD in the pocket of his nylon ski jacket.

Sun in Amsterdam, rare in April, seldom brings warmth. As Gans walked the few hundred meters westward toward the entrance to the Central Station, a cool breeze was blowing from the east. He pulled up his hood, tightened the cord at his throat, and reflected that if the wind had been blowing earlier in the day they wouldn’t have recovered half of what they did.

He caught his usual train and disembarked in Haarlem at 5:31. He went to the rack at the back of the station, unlocked his bicycle, and pedaled home to his apartment on the Ambonstraat, arriving well before dark. He locked his bike in the storage shed and climbed the two flights of stairs. The television in the flat below was blaring in some unintelligible language. He thought it might be Turkish. His was a mixed neighborhood with more than its share of unassimilated immigrants. An exotic meal, something offensive to his sense of smell, was being prepared in the kitchen of the apartment next door. He wrinkled his nose.

Gans was a Haarlemer born and bred. He resented the invasion of his territory by swarthy-skinned foreigners, and he especially resented them after the events of the day. Noise, foul smells, and now a bomb on the streets of Amsterdam. Could it get any worse?

His immaculately clean little flat of just over forty-five square meters was divided into four spaces: a small bedroom, an even smaller kitchen, a truly tiny bathroom (with a shower, no bathtub), and a reasonably spacious living area with a balcony. The balcony he seldom used, because it was usually too cold and overlooked the playground of a school where the kids were always shouting at each other in whatever damned language they spoke back home in Northern Africa or wherever they came from.

Gans took off his jacket and hung it on the peg to the left of the door. Then he went into the kitchen, piled some
boeren Kool
—chopped cabbage—onto one of his microwave-resistant plastic plates and added a piece of smoked sausage. While he was waiting for it to heat, he remembered the DVD and returned to the hall to fetch it. Then he went back into the kitchen and picked up some utensils, a bottle of Oranjeboom, a glass, and a paper napkin. The utensils and the napkin he put on the coffee table. The beer he poured into his glass. The DVD he loaded into his player, pressing the pause button to make sure it wouldn’t start until he was ready.

Five minutes later, his dinner in one hand and his half-empty glass of Oranjeboom in the other, Gans went back into the living room and sat on the couch. He put down the food and drink, picked up the remote control, and hit the PLAY button.

Fourteen minutes after that, Marnix Gans stumbled into his bathroom and vomited everything he’d just eaten into the toilet.

Then he called the police.

Chapter Two


AMPAIO PUSHED AWAY from his desk, distancing himself from his chief investigator. “They’re doing

“Raping Nardoni five or six times a day,” Mario Silva repeated, “which is exactly the reason I put him there.”

Sampaio, the director of the Brazilian federal police, held up a faultlessly manicured hand. The gesture reminded Silva of a traffic cop.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Are you telling me you
the man to be sexually abused?”

“More than ‘expected,’ I
on it.”

“Explain yourself.”

Silva looked out of the window. A buzzard was flying lazy circles over the roof of the Ministry of Culture across the way.

“I’m waiting, Mario.”

Silva narrowed his eyes, redirecting his attention to his boss.

“The other prisoners in that cell aren’t there by chance,” he said. “They’re all animals, just like Ercilio Nardoni, but they’re a different breed. They don’t go after children; they prey on other men.”

“If we treat felons the way you’re treating him,” Sampaio said, “there’s no difference between them and us. Frankly, Mario, there are times when I find these methods of yours revolting. You’re my Chief Investigator, not judge, jury, and executioner. The old days are gone. This is a democracy now. People, even the worst kind of people, have rights. Take a lead from the Americans.”

“If we had the Americans’ forensic capabilities, we might be able to use their methods.”

“All right, we don’t. And I admit we have to do some things differently, but it still doesn’t justify the torture of prisoners.”

“Not even in a case like Nardoni’s?”

“Not even then. I want you to—”

the bastard’s lying,” Silva said, before his boss could complete the thought. “I just need his confession. Technically, we’re not laying a finger on him. What’s happening to Nardoni is being perpetrated by the other lowlifes in his cell. You have total deniability.”

“I’m not talking about deniability. I’m talking about what’s right. It’s demonic to put pressure on someone that way.”

“He’s a demonic man, Director. My intention is to leave him there until you specifically order me to return him to solitary.”

“Then I specifically order you to—”

“And before giving me that order, I’d like you to reflect on what he did. Not what I
he did, but what I am absolutely, positively
he did.”

Sampaio stopped short, closed his mouth, opened it again, closed it again. The action made him look rather like a fish.

“You don’t have to remind me,” he said at last. “I remember well. But you don’t need his confession. You have evidence. You have photographs.”

Either Ercilio Nardoni, or his late roommate, Clovis Borges, always made Polaroid photographs of the faces of their terrified victims. They’d kept those trophies, along with the stuffed animals, along with the cotton panties stamped with cartoon characters and teddy bears, along with the little pieces of jewelry—rings just big enough for little girls’ fingers, crucifixes with chains just long enough for little girls’ necks.

“The photographs will be useless in court,” Silva said.


“Nardoni claims they belonged to Borges. He claims Borges did all the raping and all the killing. We can’t prove otherwise. They used condoms. They washed the corpses. The trophies were wiped clean of prints.”

“That confounded Borges,” the director said petulantly, “you shouldn’t have killed him.” There was a time when Sampaio would have said “goddamned,” not “confounded,” but not any more.

“Self-defense,” Silva said.

“I read your report.” Sampaio leaned forward and looked Silva in the eye. “But we’re alone in my office, Mario, just the two of us. Did Borges really threaten you with that pistol?”

Silva didn’t blink. “Of course he did.” He waited for the director to say something more. When he didn’t, Silva continued, “If Nardoni doesn’t confess, he isn’t going to be convicted, and if he isn’t convicted, he’s going to go out and do the same thing all over again. With that in mind, does your order still stand? Do you want me to take him out of that cell before he signs a full confession?”

The director finally said, “Leave him where he is. Let’s move on. There’s something else I want to talk to you about.”

He picked up a pencil and started to toy with it. Sampaio fumbled with pencils when he was about to say something his listener wouldn’t like. This time, he appeared to be going for the world record.

Silva braced himself.

“How can I put this?” Sampaio said, temporizing.

Silva glanced around Sampaio’s recently redecorated office. His boss had retained his big wooden desk and the two flags that flanked it. There was still a portrait of the president of the republic to the left of the window, but now it was lower and situated off to one side, ceding precedence to an image of Jesus.

Jesus held his right hand in the air, as if he were administering the Boy Scout oath. From Silva’s perspective, it looked like He was administering it to Nelson Sampaio.

The director was, of course, anything but a Boy Scout. The oath he’d set his sights upon was of an entirely different nature. For almost three years, Sampaio had been angling to secure himself a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, and now he’d hatched a scheme to do it. That scheme involved embracing a new religion; but for a man with as much ambition as Sampaio, that was no obstacle.

It hinged on a statistic: since the previous election, Evangelicals in Brazil had been multiplying like rabbits. They now formed a very significant voting bloc. Given a choice, Evangelicals voted for other Evangelicals, and there was no Evangelical running in Sampaio’s home district. With the election only five months away, the votes in São Paulo were still up for grabs. All Sampaio had to do was to declare that he’d been born again in Jesus—and make sure he made the announcement early enough to get the word out.

He’d already made the declaration.

Hence the redecoration of his office. Devotional plaques with excerpts from the Scriptures were a feature of the décor, beginning with the Ten Commandments and running through the Twenty-Third chapter of Luke: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Silva was studying the scrollwork around that one when his boss began to speak. “You know I don’t hold with people who apply political pressure for personal objectives, or to obtain favorable treatment,” he said.

Silva didn’t know any such thing. He regarded the statement as an outright lie.

“But this time,” Sampaio continued, “I’ll have to make an exception. Not for me, of course, but for the good of this department. Do you know
Roberto Malan?”

“Not personally, no,” Silva said, “but I know of him. Isn’t he a deacon in your . . . uh, church?”

“A bishop, actually,” Sampaio said, “but that’s not the point.”

“So what
the point?”

“The point,” Sampaio said in a steely voice that implied he didn’t like Silva’s attitude, “is that he’s head of the Appropriations Committee in the Chamber of Deputies.”

“Ah,” Silva said.

The new budget was coming up for discussion. There were hundreds, probably thousands, of ways the pie could be sliced, and every head of every department in Brasilia was busily engaged in efforts to get a bigger piece of it. Sampaio was just like all the others.

“I see,” Silva said. “So there’s something we might be able to do for Deputado Malan, and in return he may look favorably on our budget proposal for the next fiscal year?”

“Exactly,” the director said. “You’re always talking about having more money to invest in resources. Look at this as a chance for us get some of those fancy forensic tools you go on and on about. One hand washes the other, you know.”

“What does Malan want?”

“His granddaughter’s missing. He wants us to find her.”


The director looked down at his desk, and then went back to fumbling with the pencil. When next he spoke, it was with a touch of embarrassment.

“Probably not,” he said. “Most likely, she’s just a runaway. She’s fifteen, and she’s done it before.”

Silva raised his eyes to the ceiling. The director looked up just in time to notice.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “I know it’s not normally a job for the federal police.”

“Normally?” Silva said. Then, when it became clear that Sampaio didn’t intend to respond, “How about ‘never’?”

Sampaio dropped his pencil and rested his forearms on his desk.

“Stop being difficult, Mario. Look at it from the deputado’s point of view. It’s not just a missing girl; it’s also a political thing. The deputado has to get her back before it’s known she’s gone. Otherwise, people might start asking themselves what she’s running away from, might draw the conclusion that there’s something dysfunctional about the household of the deputado’s son and daughter-in-law, or odd about the deputado himself, which of course there isn’t.”

“Which of course there isn’t,” Silva echoed. “With all due respect, Director, I can’t imagine that Deputado Malan has so little influence with the cops in . . . where’s he from again?”


“In Recife, that he can’t get them to find her and be discreet about it.”

“That’s just it. They tried, and they
find her. Malan knows we’re better at that sort of thing than the locals. He wants us to look into it.”

“And if we say no?”

“We’re not going to say no,” the director said. “I’ve already told him yes. He’s waiting for your call.”

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