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Authors: Peggy Blair

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BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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15

While her mother napped, Celia Jones
dialed the number on the medical appointment card she'd found behind a magnet on the fridge. A university switchboard operator answered. Jones asked for Maylene Kesler and was surprised to be put through to the Department of Environmental Genetics.

The receptionist managed to sound both weary and impatient at the same time. “I'm sorry, Dr. Kesler is out of town. Can I help you?”

“My name is Celia Jones. Dr. Kesler was at a clinic in White Harbour a few weeks ago. She tested my mother. She was supposed to call her back with the results. I was wondering if they're ready. Emma Jones?”

“Dr. Kesler has been in White Harbour for several days, Ms. Jones. She'll be meeting all the patients she examined in person to talk about her findings. I'm sure she'll call your mother to arrange a time to see her. She has dozens of appointments to line up.”

“Is there a number where I can reach her?”

“She has a private cell phone but I'm not supposed to give out the number. She's been very busy. You're not the first person who's called here looking for her.”

“Thanks,” said Jones, disappointed. She was about to hang up when a thought crossed her mind. “Does Dr. Kesler specialize in Parkinson's or Alzheimer's?”

“Dr. Kesler? No. She's an expert in envirogenomics.”

“Envirogenomics?”

“The effects of the environment on genes.”

Jones thought for a moment. “Is there someone I can speak to about her research?”

Dr. Martin Strasser took the call. “I'm sorry to hear about your mother's symptoms,” he said. “I'm afraid your husband's right; it doesn't sound like Parkinson's. I've been doing research into Alzheimer's for years. It's a terrible, devastating illness. But it doesn't usually affect Aboriginal people. We think there may be a protective effect of a gene or genes in the Native American population that the rest of us don't have.”

“My mother isn't Aboriginal, Dr. Strasser.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I thought she was. That's the focus of Dr. Kesler's work. Indigenous populations.”

“I'm confused,” said Jones. “If that's the case, why test my mother?”

“I have no idea,” said Strasser. “I know that she's looking into the environmental components of a number of cluster illnesses in that area, but I'm not completely familiar with the details of her research. Maybe she was testing non-Aboriginal people as a control population. But I'm afraid you'd have to ask her that yourself.” There was an undertone to his words. Celia Jones got the sense that Dr. Kesler wasn't particularly well liked.

“Okay. Well, thanks for your time, Dr. Strasser. Oh, before I let
you go . . .” Jones lowered her voice so her mother wouldn't overhear. “Are there any new treatments for Alzheimer's? Anything that can reverse it, or at least slow it down?”

“Not yet, I'm afraid. Although there is some new research in the United States that's quite exciting. There's a drug that balances the transport of heavy metals across cell membranes. It seems to reverse the effects of Alzheimer's in mice within days. I'm hopeful the manufacturers can get it to market eventually. And of course, that it will work as well in people as it does in rodents.”

“There's nothing we can do, then, if that's what she has?”

“We find that social interaction helps. Computer games, painting. Even jigsaw puzzles. And exercise. Some studies suggest that caffeine can delay the onset of symptoms. Make sure she drinks lots of tea and coffee.”

“Believe me,” said Jones, frowning, “she's trying.”

16

Inspector Ramirez remembered the first crime
scene all too well. Prima Verrier's skeletonized remains had been discovered almost exactly a year earlier. Her killer left her body in the woods beside the Avenida San Francisco, north of the nearly abandoned Parque Lenin, not far from its Chinese-built amusement park.

The late Detective Rodriguez Sanchez was dispatched to the wrong address. He wasn't remotely amused when Patrol mistakenly delivered him to Lennon Park downtown. A bronze statue of the dead Beatle sat on a wooden park bench even though John Lennon had never visited Cuba. A distressed security guard kept replacing and removing the statue's wire eyeglasses, insisting he knew nothing about a woman's body. Sanchez, of course, being Sanchez, didn't believe him. Luckily, by the time the error was discovered, the man wasn't badly injured.

Señora Verrier was only twenty-three when she was murdered. She was studying to be an engineer at the University of Havana and
worked as a prostitute to help feed her family. She'd gone out after class to meet a client and never came home. Her body was found by a cyclist riding a heavy Chinese-made bicycle, as he looked for a shortcut through the woods.

Ramirez had stood beside Apiro, horrified, while Detective Sanchez searched the tall grass for evidence.

“Are you sure it's a woman?” Ramirez asked. “I thought the skull would be smaller.”

“It's a myth that men have big heads, despite their egos,” the small surgeon laughed. “But the skull is actually not considered all that useful these days when it comes to determining gender. There are far too many subjective traits. The innominate bone of the pelvis is far more reliable. Of course, the fact that she's wearing a skirt, or at least what's left of one, helps.”

Apiro's technicians had used shovels and trowels to excavate the site—there was no fuel for backhoes. The digging was time-­consuming, perhaps the reason the killer had left his victim lying on the ground.

“When a body isn't buried, decomposition takes place quickly,” Apiro explained. “There are two hundred and six bones in the adult skeleton. Many are quite small. Fingers, toes, even teeth, eventually loosen and sink into the ground. Sometimes birds and animals carry them off. That's why we need to look under the topsoil.”

Along with a few small body parts, the technicians found a cigarette butt buried in the dirt. It was Sanchez who discovered the woman's purse in nearby vegetation, where it had been carried off by feral dogs. There were chew marks in the leather.

“If leather purses are good enough for dogs to eat, maybe we should start boiling them for soup,” Sanchez joked. “Purses, I mean. The dogs are too thin. They would have to taste better than whatever that meat substitute is in our rations. Remember in the Special Period, when they started calling it population meat? ”

“I always wondered what part of the population it came from,” said Ramirez.

From the ground where he was kneeling, Apiro snorted.

Despite a meticulous ground search, that was all they'd uncovered. No blood, no hair, no fibres, no fingerprints on anything, not even the victim's. The fact that the skeleton had pink teeth pointed to strangulation, Apiro explained at the autopsy: erythrocytes, or red blood cells, had been released into Prima Verrier's dentin.

But without a forensic trail to follow, there was nowhere to go. It was Ramirez's only cold case since taking over the Major Crimes Unit.

But now there was another victim. Ramirez's adrenaline surged—he might have a second chance.

“How long has she been dead?” Ramirez asked Apiro.

“Given the degree of decomposition, I'd say at least two weeks. I found arthropods in the remains, which may help narrow down that time frame. There's a visiting forensic entomologist at the Centre for Legal Medicine. Dr. Yeung. I'm sure she can help us identify them.”

“Arthropods?” said Ramirez.

“Blow flies,” said Apiro. He brushed one from his forehead. “I found what might be beetle larvae as well, but I'm not an expert.”

“What is a forensic entomologist?” Espinoza asked.

“They study the insects that colonize bodies,” Apiro explained. “They work back generationally to determine a time of death based on their life cycles.”

The ghost stepped away from Espinoza. She bent her index fingers, mimicking a camera. She pretended to snap several shots of the body. She stopped and shook her head sadly.

Ramirez turned to look up and down Airport Road. Traffic
was getting heavier as the sun rose. A steady stream of taxis and air-­conditioned tourist buses transported
turistas
to the José Martí International Airport. Every truck that drove by had passengers squeezed in the back, some holding bicycles.

“He took a chance, didn't he?” said Espinoza. “Leaving her this close to the highway. It's busy no matter what time of day.”

Ramirez nodded.

“I have one question for both of you,” the small pathologist said, straightening one of his short legs painfully as he stood up. “Where did he get the nylons?”

It was a good question, thought Ramirez, one so obvious he hadn't thought of it. But Hector Apiro lived with a prostitute. He was probably more conscious of the shortage of women's hosiery than any detective.

If Francesca was right, there were no nylons to be found in Havana, except in shops that catered to tourists at prices few Cubans could afford.

Ramirez looked at the dead woman. She bent her leg and posed for him, displaying her bare skin again. She wasn't wearing nylons when she was murdered, he thought. Apiro was right. They needed to know where the hosiery came from.

Apiro pulled the stocking over his gloved hand to reveal a narrow black seam at the back. “I don't think these are all that common anymore, are they?”

“I haven't seen one in years,” Ramirez said. He remembered stockings like this in old pin-up pictures and calendars. Shapely women wearing garter belts, leaning against the hoods of Chevrolets, back when the Chevys were new. The cars were still being driven, fifty years later, but the pin-up girls were in their seventies.

“Where's the other one?” asked Espinoza.

“Let's hope it's not tied around another victim's throat,” said Ramirez. “Fernando, when we get back to town, I want you to sign out a police car. Check the stores in the tourist hotels and malls and
see if any of them sell stockings like these. It shouldn't take long. There aren't many places left that carry women's clothing.”

Espinoza nodded. “I'll try the Avenida. And the Plaza de Carlos Tercero and the Galerías de Paseo in Vedado.” The Avenida de Italia on San Lázaro had once been a centre for fine apparel. But the stores no longer carried much stock.

“Good idea,” said Ramirez. “This woman is in the system. Get a copy of her photograph to take with you.” He hoped the photocopier hadn't run out of toner. “The sales clerks may remember seeing her with a client. We need to question the
jineteras
who work in the areas where she was arrested before. They may know something. This nylon had to come from somewhere. Let's hope it wasn't a gift from her elderly grandmother.”

17

Inspector Ramirez dropped Fernando Espinoza off
at police headquarters and drove to the Plaza de la Revolución to brief the Minister of the Interior.

The dead man sat in the back seat looking out the window. Every now and then he turned his head to follow an attractive woman with his eyes, rounding his lips, making a soundless whistle.

Ramirez had to agree. As much as he loved his wife, he was acutely aware of how many beautiful women there were in Havana. The young ones were dressed in tight, skimpy clothes and low-cut tops, but even the older ones showed off their legs. He could see them laughing and flirting and gesturing with their hands as they gossiped and haggled with street vendors. There was no doubt about it, as even the ghost in the back seat of his car could see, they were full of life.

Ramirez pulled into the plaza and parked his small blue car beside a row of ministry sedans, easily identified by their olive-green
licence plates. He walked up the wide concrete path into the imposing complex that housed the Ministry of the Interior. Its exterior had a huge steel outline of Che Guevara's head, a gift from the French government.

A stray dog, head down, its skin ravaged with mange, panted lightly on the sidewalk. It was completely indifferent to passersby, even one who stopped to place the remnants of a sandwich beside it on the ground.

Followed closely by the dead man, Ramirez walked down the hallway to the minister's office, past the familiar black-and-white photograph of Padre Rey Callendes in the Sierra Mountains ministering to the doomed supporters of President Batista. Callendes had collected and distributed child pornography. His crimes had provided Ramirez with a political advantage, one he planned to use as long as he could get away with it.

“I need to see the minister,” he told the minister's clerk. “It's important.”

“Do you have an appointment?” she said crisply, knowing he didn't. “The Major Crimes Unit is supposed to report to General de Soto.”

She emphasized the word
General
. It was one thing for the minister to contact Ramirez whenever he chose; another for the inspector to appear at his door uninvited.

Ramirez smiled. “I'll wait.”

He sat in a worn chair and picked up a copy of
Granma
. He rarely read it; the contents of the Communist Party newspaper were always the same. It focused on Cuba's great progress despite the embargo and bemoaned the moral depravity of the rest of the world. Today, however, two stories caught his eye.

Twenty-six American CIA agents were about to be tried in Italy for kidnapping and torturing a Muslim cleric in 2003. The ringleader, Seldon Lady, was Honduran-born and linked to Luis Posada. The trial was proceeding
in absentia
. Lady was believed to
be somewhere in Central America, working with the CIA on files involving Cuba.

The second article described the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique at Guantánamo Bay. The American vice-­president, Dick Cheney, was quoted as saying its use on prisoners was a “no-brainer.” The story repeated Fidel Castro's protests that the American detention camp at Guantánamo Bay was illegal and that the Americans had no right to torture enemy combatants on Cuban soil in violation of international law.

Guantánamo Bay was a constant source of friction to Castro. It had been leased to the Americans in 1903, but after the revolution Castro refused to cash the rent cheques; he claimed the lease was obtained under duress. The Americans insisted Guantánamo Bay was their sovereign territory and American soil. The uncashed cheques were said to be stuffed in Castro's desk drawer.

Before Ramirez had a chance to finish reading the article, the clerk waved him into the minister's office. She looked surprised, wary of his new-found power.

“Come in, come in, Inspector Ramirez,” said the minister. He seemed nervous. Ramirez wondered if the politician was like that normally or whether Ramirez was having that effect on him.

After Detective Rodriguez Sanchez's death, Ramirez had recovered an encrypted distribution list for child pornography from his laptop computer. Natasha Delgado was working her way through the aliases. But Ramirez believed that at least one of the names belonged to the man seated behind the polished mahogany desk.

The minister couldn't be sure exactly how much Ramirez knew, and that uncertainty had introduced new vigour into their relationship. The politician no longer saw Ramirez as a mere vegetable in the political food chain, but as a top-line predator.

Blackmail had its privileges, thought Ramirez. It equalized relationships in a way Marxism had never quite achieved.

“You're lucky I could see you,” the minister said. “I'm extremely busy. Our delegates are in Geneva this week, attacking the Americans for the immunity they've given Luis Posada and all the other anti-Cuba terrorists they shelter.”

It was widely believed that Posada, a CIA operative, was behind the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane. He was charged in Venezuela but acquitted after intense pressure by the United States. A new trial was ordered, but before it could be held Posada escaped to El Salvador, where he allegedly built another network as well as more deadly bombs. He really shouldn't have gone to all the trouble, thought Ramirez. These days Cuba's buildings collapsed by themselves. No bombs required.

“This won't take long,” said Ramirez. He described the incident at the museum.

The minister frowned. “I'm surprised I haven't heard screams from the Italian embassy. Is there anything to link this to Luis Posada?”

“I don't think so.”

“That's a relief,” said the minister. “I think Castro would shut down tourism altogether if he thought Posada's men were on the island.”

The previous November, one of Posada's supporters in Miami was found with machine guns and explosives. Rumours had quickly spread that there could be another Bay of Pigs invasion, supported by CIA agents operating out of Guantánamo Bay.

The minister removed a cigar from the humidor on the large polished desk. “Too bad the vandal didn't spray the abstracts; perhaps no one would have noticed. Have you made any progress in finding out who's responsible?”

“Not yet. But we're extremely shorthanded at the moment with Detective Sanchez gone. Detective Espinoza is good but lacks
experience.” Ramirez told the politician about the woman's body and his certainty that it was related to the Prima Verrier murder.

“How can there be a serial killer murdering prostitutes?” said the minister, wrinkling his forehead. “We haven't had prostitution for years, not since the crackdown.”

Ramirez raised his eyebrows.

“Don't be so literal, Ramirez,” said the minister. “You know what I mean. El Comandante will never acknowledge a problem that doesn't exist. It's like AIDS. We don't have any here either. He's very proud of that fact.”

“Yes,” said Ramirez, “but I hope he realizes that's why so many tourists come to Cuba in the first place.”

The minister frowned again, tapping his fingers on the top of his desk.

Fidel Castro had initially encouraged prostitution. He even invited Hugh Hefner to the island for a
Playboy
photo shoot called “The Girls of Cuba.” But when the Special Period turned out to be the normal course of affairs, Castro decided that
jineteras
posed a capitalist threat. He called them
peligrosas
—dangerous—and said they were too aggressive towards foreigners.

Thousands of women were loaded onto buses and sent to rehabilitation camps where the Federation of Cuban Women attempted to deter them from further sexual misconduct by making them muck out barns and pluck chickens. Ramirez sometimes wondered how
turistas
would react if they knew how much of the meat in tourist restaurants was prepared by prostitutes.

The minister narrowed his eyes. He sat down heavily in his worn leather chair. “What do you want?”

“I need at least one more person to help me investigate these crimes properly.”

The minister chewed on the end of his cigar. He was back in his comfort zone, wheeling and dealing.

“I can't give you another detective, Ramirez. There's no money
left in your budget. Besides, we have other priorities at the moment. Luis Posada's trial is about to begin in the United States. The last thing on Castro's mind right now are
jineteras
.” The politician snorted. “The Americans insist on sticking a fork in his eye with that stupid ticker display at the Swiss embassy. Billboards. That's where El Comandante's mind is these days. He wants Posada convicted.”

The minister waved his cigar in the air. “And now the Americans have the
cojones
to insult Castro's leadership. With all this going on, do you really think he cares about a few dead
jineteras
?”

“The
turistas
will notice if their girlfriends start disappearing,” said Ramirez. “They'll ask questions. This could hit the foreign media.” Although the complication for the minister wasn't when
jineteras
disappeared, Ramirez realized. It was when they showed up.

The minister looked at Ramirez for a moment. Then he smiled. That unexpected smile made Ramirez extremely uncomfortable.

“I'll give you Manuel Flores for a few days. He's working at the Centre for Legal Medicine this month, advising us on issues related to the Posada charges.”

“Manuel Flores?” said Ramirez. “I thought he was dead.”

BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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