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Authors: Peggy Blair

Hungry Ghosts

BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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FOR RODDIE BLAIR (1916–2013)

Ah, if only I had brought a cigar with me!

This would have established my identity.

—Charles Dickens

The Inuit of the far north have dozens of words to describe snow, the quantity of snow that falls, its different hues and textures. Surprisingly, they have no word for snow itself.

To the Ojibway of Northern Ontario, snow is
goon. Goonikaa
means there is a lot of it.
Ishkwaapo
means it no longer falls.

Snow no longer fell from the night sky. It dropped in clumps from branches bent over by its weight. It rested in the boughs of pine trees that two centuries earlier would have been cut down and shipped to Halifax as masts for tall ships.

A hare stood frozen against a drift, ears alert.

Harsh winds had blasted snow into deep sculpted waves. Otherwise, there would have been enough
goon
to hide the woman's body until spring.

1

THURSDAY, MARCH 1, 2007

Inspector Ricardo Ramirez whistled as he
carried a battered kettle to the washroom on the thirteenth floor of the medical tower. He pushed open the swinging door and was startled to find a half-­naked man admiring himself in the cracked mirror above the sink. It took Ramirez a few seconds before he realized the man was dead.

The apparition turned to face Ramirez. He bent his elbows and held out his hands, palms up. Ramirez recognized the gesture, a kind of universal “why me?”

For years, Ramirez had been shadowed by ghosts. His Yoruba slave grandmother had prophesized that messengers would come, sent by Eleguá, the god of the crossroads. They began to appear shortly after Ramirez's promotion.

At first, he thought he was suffering from the same rare dementia that took his beloved grandmother's life. But on New Year's Eve, Hector Apiro found her decades-old autopsy report and told Ramirez she'd died of natural causes.

Ramirez was no longer sure what to believe. If the visions were real, then so were the
orishas
, and that conflicted with the Cuban government's official policy of atheism.

Besides, Ramirez had no way of knowing if his clean bill of health was accurate. After all, his friend had attempted a diagnosis without full disclosure. Ramirez hadn't told his best friend, or even his own wife, that he sometimes saw the ghosts of the murder victims from his unsolved files.

The dead man followed Ramirez back to Apiro's cramped office. The small pathologist was busy grinding coffee beans he had purchased on the
bolsa negra
that morning. Real coffee was the one treat that Apiro allowed himself daily, and he was always happy to share.

The dead man walked over to the window. He placed his hands shoulder-width apart on the ledge and stared out at the turquoise ocean.

Hector Apiro's office was not much larger than its occupant, but it had a spectacular view of the Malecón. Rolling waves smashed against the seawall, drenching scores of
turistas
who strolled along Havana's famous promenade.

The dead man shook his head sadly. Ramirez made note of his stylishly cut black hair, his white sleeveless undershirt and briefs, the thick braid of gold around his neck. That single piece of jewellery cost more than most Cubans earned in a decade. The fact he was wearing it suggested he hadn't been robbed.

There were no obvious causes of death—no blood, no bullet holes—only dark purple bruising on the side of the man's face and a red welt on his forehead. The ghost's clothing, what little there was of it, looked new.

The spectre turned slowly, as if he'd remembered something. He held out his hands, like a child showing his mother his clean fingernails. His nails were short, manicured. There was no wedding ring, no white line to suggest he'd ever worn one. Ramirez observed red
marks around the wrists, deep lines that cut into the man's flesh. The same raw impressions circled his ankles.

Ligature marks.

Ramirez exhaled. He handed Apiro the kettle to plug in. He removed the stack of well-thumbed medical textbooks that tilted crazily on one of Apiro's wooden stools and placed it carefully on the floor. While Apiro fussed about preparing the French press he used for his coffee, Ramirez sat down and pondered his latest vision.

The dead man had obviously come from a place with expensive shops and good hair stylists. He couldn't be Cuban, Ramirez decided. But a dead
extranjero
would be a problem, particularly one tied up and beaten before he died.

“Ready in a few minutes,
asere
,” said Apiro. “It smells wonderful, doesn't it?” The doctor lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I found the beans
por la izquierda.
” Through the left hand, on the black market. “I even saw a small piece of steak. I thought the vendor might charge me for admiring it.”

Apiro cackled, his laugh resembling the sound of a night gull. He seated himself in his worn swivel chair and reached for his pipe. The chair had once been upholstered, but the fabric had worn through. Tufting poked through its seams like the hair in old men's ears.

Apiro often joked that smoking could hardly stunt his growth at this late stage. Mother Nature had done that long before. Apiro suffered from—or, more accurately, lived with—achondroplasia. Dwarfism. For this reason, the stools in his office were short and his many medical degrees and certificates hung low on the stained plaster walls.

“So how is bachelorhood, Ricardo? Is Francesca enjoying her holiday?” Apiro struck a match. He put the pipe stem in his mouth and puffed until the tobacco caught. A coil of fragrant smoke rose to the ceiling. He pursed his lips as he exhaled, forming a series of perfect smoke rings that floated towards the open window. The dead man waved them away.

“I'm sure she is. But I'm slowly starving to death,” said Ramirez.

“You should learn how to cook,” Apiro said. “I'm teaching Maria.” When he was satisfied the coffee was strong enough, the surgeon poured some into a cracked mug and handed it to Ramirez. He reached beneath the pile of papers on his desk for a second mug and poured some for himself.

Ramirez accepted the drink gratefully. It was almost impossible to find genuine, unadulterated coffee in Havana. Their rations were cut with chickpea flour as effectively as if the government bureaucrats responsible had been coached by Mexican drug dealers.

Only
turistas
had easy access to real Cuban coffee. Sometimes they
were careless and left a foil bag in their luggage when they passed through airport security. Whenever that happened, Customs shared the treat with Major Crimes. Feed the horses, thought Ramirez, and the sparrows eat too. Spoils of Fidel Castro's war against capitalism. A war that could never determine who was right. Or who was left, for that matter. Only those left behind.

“I have to call Francesca tonight before the children go to bed,” Ramirez said. “I'm sure they're at the stadium now.” He sipped the hot coffee slowly, savouring its rich taste and smell. The ghost sniffed the air. He looked dejected.

“Was Edel able to find a baseball glove?” asked Apiro.

“No,” said Ramirez. “But the other boys will share.”

Ramirez's son had no equipment. His team played with balls made of rags and with sticks instead of bats. The fielders had no gloves; the catcher no mask.

“It's probably a good thing they're away,” said Ramirez. “There's a full moon this Saturday. It could be a busy weekend. And you know how much Francesca hates it when I have to work late.” The ghost shrugged helplessly, as if to say it wasn't his fault someone killed him.

Ramirez reached in his pocket and removed a cigar. He fumbled for a match.

“Here,” said Apiro, and slid one across his scratched wooden desk. “You know, Ricardo, there are quite a number of scientific studies on the question of whether there is a correlation between the full moon and aggression. The results are contradictory, although I remember from my days at the emergency ward that patients were unusually agitated whenever one appeared. A full moon, that is, not another study.” He shook his large head and chuckled. “These days, of course, the majority of my patients are rather more passive.”

Apiro was the pathologist on call to the Havana Major Crimes Unit. He often joked that being a surgeon was much easier when his patients were dead. Less fear of complications.

“I always assumed the crime rates went up during a full moon because the criminals could see better at night,” said Ramirez. He looked at the ghost again and wondered when his body would turn up.

About eight hours later, as he and Detective Espinoza watched security videotapes at the museum, two children playing on the beach answered that question.

2

Celia Jones looked out the kitchen
window at the mountains of snow that surrounded her parents' home. Her father was outside pushing the snow blower, trying to carve a path from the driveway to the side door. His breath formed clouds above his head. Jones inhaled deeply and again tried to mask her frustration. “What do you mean, we can't adopt her?”

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones,” said the woman from Children's Aid. “We can't process an adoption request for a child from a foreign country unless that country has a licensed agency in Ontario. Cuba doesn't have an adoption agency here. Those are the rules.”

“But this is insane,” said Jones, gripping the phone tightly. “The Cuban government would never establish an adoption agency in Canada or anywhere else for that matter. They have a policy against foreign adoptions. This was an exception. The acting president, Raúl Castro, signed the papers himself.”

“I'm sorry,” said the bureaucrat. “We can't work with an agency
that doesn't exist. The child entered Canada on compassionate medical grounds. When she's well enough to leave, she'll have to go back to her legal guardians.”

“But she
has
no legal guardians. Her father is a political dissident. He's stuck in a Cuban jail. Her only other relative was her grandmother, and she was murdered. That's why Beatriz was in the orphanage in the first place; she has health problems. No one else could care for her.”

“That makes her an unaccompanied minor, and I'm afraid that's out of our jurisdiction. She'll have to apply for refugee status if she wants to remain in Canada.”

“Refugee status? What does that involve?”

“She would have to prove to a federal immigration board she has a genuine fear of persecution if she's returned to Cuba.”

“Oh, for God's sake,” said Jones. “She's only three years old. How is she supposed to testify—with hand puppets?”

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones. You'll have to talk to the appropriate federal officials about those kinds of procedural matters. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

You could shove your procedure up your ass, thought Jones. “No, thank you. You've done quite enough.”

“Have a nice day.”

Jones was glad her parents had an old-style phone. She smashed down the receiver with a resounding thwack. Then she took another deep breath, picked it up, and called an old friend.

Paul Cloutier was an immigration lawyer and former classmate from McGill University's Faculty of Law.

“Well,” Cloutier said, after she'd filled him in. “I guess technically, she's right. An unaccompanied minor means a child who enters Canada without a legal guardian or parent and claims refugee status.”

“But she didn't come here to be a refugee, she came here so we could adopt her. As far as Cuba's concerned, she
has
been adopted,
but Ontario won't recognize Cuba's paperwork. The idiot I spoke to said Beatriz would have to leave Canada as soon as her surgery is over.”

“Well, I don't think they can do that. They're not supposed to return a minor back to a foreign country unless there's a legal guardian there to receive her. Wow, this is starting to sound like a law school exam, isn't it? It's a real catch-22.”

“What are we supposed to do? It's like she doesn't exist.”

“I think the biggest problem, Celia, is that she didn't leave the country illegally. The usual basis for a refugee claim is a fear of persecution if the claimant returns to their original country. If the Cuban government agreed to let her go voluntarily, that could be hard to prove.”

“How about the fact that if she's sent back there, she could die? She developed all these heart problems because of the American trade embargo. They didn't have the antibiotics they needed to treat her.”

“I know you won't like this, Celia, but that embargo applies to all Cubans equally. It's not targeted against this little girl specifically. In refugee law, that's a problem.”

“What about the political route?”

“I don't know how far you'd get. There are forty or so Cubans warehoused at Guantánamo Bay right now that Canada has refused to accept, even though the Americans keep asking. As far as Canada's concerned, they're on Cuban soil, which means they don't qualify as refugees under our laws. The U.S., needless to say, has a different position. They consider Guantánamo Bay to be an American territory, under their exclusive sovereignty.” Cloutier sighed. “Where is she now?”

“She's at home while Alex gets her strong enough for surgery. I'm up north at my parent's place for a few days, but I'll be back at work on Tuesday. Alex thinks we might have a month or two before she's ready. That's not much time to sort this out.”

Celia Jones wouldn't have left Ottawa at all if her father's call
hadn't been so desperate. He needed to find home care or a nursing home for her mother soon, he'd explained. Her condition had deteriorated to the point where he couldn't leave her alone while he looked for help.

“Don't worry, Celia,” Cloutier laughed. “This whole process is so cumbersome that by the time they get around to dealing with her, she'll be an adult.”

“Then we find a way to get around the law,” Alex said when she called him with the news. Normally, Alejandro Gonsalves was a happy, easy-going man. The tightness in his voice betrayed his anger.

“I can't do that, Alex,” Celia said. “I'm an officer of the court.”

“Celia, how do you think I got into this country? I broke Cuban laws when I left without an exit permit.”

A ninety-mile journey across the Straits of Florida took Jones's husband eighteen months. President Bill Clinton had agreed with Fidel Castro to “normalize” migration, but Alex was aboard a tugboat heading for Miami when the Americans changed their minds. They would no longer permit Cubans intercepted at sea to land on American soil. The Cubans en route weren't refugees anymore; they were illegal immigrants.

The Cuban Coast Guard sprayed the tugboat with fire hoses, then rammed it until it sank. Alex managed to keep afloat by grabbing onto a body until someone pulled him out of the water. He was detained at Guantánamo Bay, with thirty thousand other Cubans, while Castro and Clinton negotiated what to do with them. Clinton finally agreed to take the Cubans on stringent entry terms. From Miami, Alex made his way to Montreal, where he finished his medical training.

“I know how much this whole thing upsets you, Alex,” said Jones. “Believe me, I'm upset too. But there are laws.”

“We had laws too, Celia. Those laws put me in a detention camp.
Laws almost killed me. I won't let some crazy, arbitrary law take our daughter away.”

“We'll find a way to keep her,” Jones pleaded. “I know we will. We'll talk about the options when I get back. Please, Alex. I don't want to fight. I have enough to deal with, between this and my mother.”

Alex took a deep breath. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't even ask. How is she doing?”

“Not good.” She described her mother's new symptoms.

“Celia, that may not be Parkinson's. That doesn't usually cause mental confusion.”

“Then what could it be?”

“I don't know,” he hesitated, “but it sounds like Alzheimer's.”

BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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