Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (10 page)

 

B
AKULA LED THEM
into the labyrinth of streets and alleys behind the cathedral. The ways were narrow and crowded, filled with a soft cacophony of competing musics and the heavy odour of food frying in palm oil. At a door unmarked by any sign, Bakula halted and politely stood aside to allow Faustino to enter first.

Just inside, a very large and very black woman sat behind a counter watching a soap opera on a tiny portable TV set. She wore a white turban and a green T-shirt printed with a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Stretched across the vast balcony of her chest, Mandela’s face was distorted into something grinning and oriental, a cartoon Buddha. When she saw Bakula she raised her hand. Faustino figured that her upper arm was pretty much the same girth as his thigh, but the flesh on it didn’t tremble when she slapped her palm against Bakula’s in a lazy high five.

At the back of the shop a doorway, curtained with a rainbow of plastic ribbons, opened onto a small walled courtyard. A greeny-blue plastic tarpaulin had been rigged up as an awning; it cast a cool submarine light down onto the half-dozen white tables and the dozen white chairs. Bakula brought a third chair to the table in the far corner and they all sat down.

Faustino was damned if he was going to initiate any conversation, so he lit a cigarette, crossed his legs and surveyed his surroundings. The only other customers were two men sitting at the table closest to the door. One was tall and lean; the other – the older one with the bandanna on his head – was shorter and stockier. Both had muscles where normal people don’t. They paid no attention to Faustino and his companions; the younger guy was fiddling with a mobile phone while the other watched attentively, as if receiving a silent lesson in modern technology.

The voice of Bob Marley began to warble softly from a pair of wall-mounted speakers. Prima murmured along with the song, her eyes down, watching her feet.

The big Mandela-chested woman emerged from the shop carrying a tray. She unloaded it onto the table: a glass jug of what looked like mango juice, a Pepsi, three tumblers, a plate of fried bean rissoles, and a dish of innocent-looking green salsa which, Faustino knew, would light the fires of hell in his mouth if he were fool enough to taste it. Prima had no such qualms; she began to eat enthusiastically.

When the woman had returned to her soap opera, Bakula said, “Paul, I realize this will seem … strange.”

Faustino raised his eyebrows and harrumphed smoke from his nose.

“But I assure you that Prima is telling the truth. She believes her brother’s life is in danger. She came to San Juan to see if I could help.”

“Why you?”

Prima swallowed and said, “Auntie told me Edson’s one person in San Juan we can trust.”

“Really?”

Bakula said, “Prima’s aunt is someone I know quite well. Santo Tomas is a place I visit from time to time.”

“And where is that?”

“Half a day by boat, up the Rio Verde.”

“Ah,” Faustino said. “In the Cane Country.”

“Yes.”

Faustino turned back to the girl, caught her before she could put more food in her face. “And you say that’s where your brother is? In Santo Tomas?”

“Not exackly. Close by.”

“Okay. So why doesn’t he just come back to San Juan? Why’s he hiding out in the bush somewhere?”

She didn’t look at him. “He’s not hidin,” she said eventually. “He can’t leave.”

“What do you mean, he can’t leave? Are you saying he’s been kidnapped?”

She seemed unable to answer. She looked away and murmured something Faustino couldn’t catch.

“Yes,” Bakula said. “He’s been kidnapped.”

“Well now,” Faustino said pleasantly. “We seem to have a problem here. I happen to know that Ricardo walked away from the DSJ stadium unaccompanied. And in the cathedral, Prima, you told me that he came home and slept in the house, then in the morning went off somewhere – a graveyard, I think you said? And I assume he was alone, is that right?”

“Yeah,” Prima said sulkily. She glanced at Bakula. “But he said he was expected, tho.”

“I’m not an expert, of course,” Faustino admitted, “but that doesn’t sound like any kind of kidnap I’ve heard of. Actually, it sounds for all the world like someone doing something of his own free will.”

In the absence of an ashtray, he tapped ash onto the floor.

“You know, Edson, after a few years in my trade you develop a nose for bullshit. I can smell it now. I can smell it quite strongly, as a matter of fact. Why don’t you tell me what you want?”

Bakula did not seem offended. He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right, of course. We’re not telling you all of it. It does sound as though Ricardo was acting out of what you call free will. But he wasn’t. Prima thinks – I think – that he was terrified.”

“Terrified? Of what?”

Prima looked at him, then, and Faustino was dismayed to see that her eyes were wet.

“He think his spirit’s hex. But it ain’t so. I know it ain’t so.” She shook her head grievously. A teardrop landed on Faustino’s wrist. He resisted the desire to wipe it away but leaned away from her, discomforted.

“Is a shittin trick, man. Tell him, Edson. Tell him.”

Her voice was suddenly hard and fierce despite the tears. The two men at the far table glanced in her direction, then away again.

Bakula reached across the table and snapped the can of Pepsi open. Crack and hiss. He wrapped Prima’s hand around it, saying, “Shh. Be cool. Drink this. It’s all right.”

Behind and above the girl’s head a small green and yellow lizard scuttled to a new position on the wall and froze.

Prima sniffed, staring at the keyhole into her Pepsi.

Bakula said, “We need your help, Paul. The problem is, we are dealing here with things you don’t believe in.”

Faustino looked blank for a moment or two, then nodded wisely, as if at a gradual revelation.

“Oh, I
see
. So we aren’t talking about just any old kidnap here. We’re talking about voodoo kidnap. Is that right? Prima reckons her brother is bewitched?”

The girl made a sound,
“Huh,”
that was somehow contemptuous and despairing at the same time.

Bakula looked away briefly, then said, “
Bewitched
is not a word that we, I, would use, but…” He seemed affected by tiredness suddenly, and made a visible effort to overcome it.

“Ricardo’s aunt’s house is a Veneration house. You understand? A place of Worship. The children were brought up rather strictly. Ricardo is particularly devout. He believes, for example, that his skill as a player is a spiritual gift. Literally. And that anything harmful to his spirit will damage his ability. That’s been a source of strength for him. Until now. Prima thinks someone, some people, have convinced—”

Here Prima again muttered something that Faustino couldn’t make out, and Bakula laid his hand on her wrist to quieten her.

“Prima is sure that Ricardo believes his spirit has been separated from him. That he is being controlled. She is sure that nothing else can explain what happened.”

The plastic ribbons across the doorway rustled and another big man, wearing violet-tinted sunglasses, came into the yard. He joined the other two. Elaborate manual greetings were performed, and the man in the bandanna chuckled. It was a rich, attractive sound, a subterranean river running over dark stones. It seemed to Faustino that their company would be more fun than what he was stuck with. He thought, In four hours I’ll be on a plane out of here.

He said, “May I ask you a question?”

“Please do.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“We want you to write the story. To publish the truth in your paper.”

For a second or two it was as though Faustino had not heard. He sat back in his chair, smiling as if at some mildly amusing anecdote. Bakula watched him, expressionless. Prima sat hunched over her Pepsi, blinking at it; she looked like a hapless child trapped in a tedious adult conversation that had nothing to do with her.

“It’s a big story, Paul.”

Faustino stopped smiling. “Really? I had no idea.”

“I’m sorry. Of course, I mean—”

Faustino raised a hand, a halt gesture, then put it flat on the table and leaned forward.

“Go to the police, Edson,” he said, quietly and solemnly. “Really. If you believe what Prima has told you, go to the police. I don’t know how powerful this voodoo stuff is, but I wouldn’t mind betting that a SWAT team with a load of automatic weapons and a bunch of tear gas would sort it.”

Bakula sipped from his glass, then put it back down precisely on the wet ring it had left on the table. He gazed into Faustino’s eyes; in the filtered light under the awning the shaded half of his face was greenish.

Very calmly he said, “Paul, Ricardo has been missing for fourteen days. In all that time, no police officers have been seen in Santo Tomas, despite the fact they must know it’s where he comes from, and that Prima and his aunt live there. Why might that be, do you think?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Faustino said, then found that he did. The answer popped bright as sunrise – a sunrise that Bakula had conjured – into Faustino’s head. The police hadn’t gone up the river to look for Brujito
because they already knew he was there
.
Because they were responsible for him being there.

Bakula was still watching Faustino’s eyes; now he nodded slightly.

“Yes,” he said. “There is more to this than what you call mumbo-jumbo. It’s a bigger story than you thought.”

“I see.”

“And what that means, we think, is that Ricardo will not be set free. Even if the da Silvas agree to a ransom demand, no matter how big it is. Because of what he knows. Because he might talk. He
would
talk, I imagine. He’s not the most … sophisticated boy in the world.”

“He’s a fool to his own damn self,” Prima said softly.

“There are perhaps other ways of releasing Ricardo,” Bakula said. “But even then he would not be safe, especially if he returned to San Juan. Unless…”

“Unless what?”

Bakula nipped his lower lip thoughtfully, then said, “We are a long way from anywhere up here, Paul. Can you remember when you last saw national TV coverage of anything that happened in San Juan? Apart from football or carnival? When did
La Nación
last run a story about anything up here, before this?”

“The point being?”

“The point being that if a recently released kidnapped football star from San Juan suddenly turned up dead in an alley behind a crack house or floating face down in the river, it would get maybe a page on the first day, a paragraph on the second day, then nothing. Right?”

“Maybe.”

“No maybe about it. A national uproar, a great demand for justice? I don’t think so. And in this city there’s not exactly a long tradition of policemen arresting other policemen. Most of the Anti-Corruption Squad have been suspended for two years, charged with corruption.”

“I don’t think I like the way this is heading,” Faustino said.

“The reality is, Paul, that Ricardo’s life isn’t worth a toss unless the people who’ve got him get put away for a very long time. Along with the people protecting them. Believe me, that won’t happen unless the world is watching to see that it happens. We need the glare of publicity.”

Faustino grimaced at the cliché, but Bakula was undeterred. “
National
publicity. And for it to stay there, shining on the wicked until they are gone.”

“Oh, come on, Bakula.”

“I’m perfectly serious. That’s why we need your help. You have the power to summon them up, the media, the really big shots. The nationals. We do not. Who’s going to listen to
us
?”

Faustino felt a tingle in his lower body: excitement, perhaps, or perhaps just cramp. For a second or two his professional lust for a great story warred with his instinct for survival; but then he recalled Captain Varga’s icy smile, the photograph of Max’s waterlogged corpse. He shifted on the hard seat.

“Your faith in my influence is flattering,” he said. “And misguided. Let me tell you a few things, just to put you in touch with reality.” He held his hand up again, this time to count off points on his fingers. “First: I’m not your man. I am not a crime reporter. In fact, right now, I’m not a reporter at all. I’m working on a book, and that’s keeping me fully occupied. Second: Maximo Salez was covering this story, and he ended up with a knife in his chest. Whether the two things are connected or not, I have no intention of occupying the mortuary slab next to his. Third: last night I booked myself on this afternoon’s flight home, and I have
every
intention of being on it. Fourth, and last but not least, the fact is that I have no reason to believe a word you’ve told me. Call me a cynic, but saying something’s the truth don’t make it so.”

“I understand that,” Bakula said. “Which is why we want you to come to Santo Tomas with us.”

“You’re out of your mind,” Faustino stated. Calmly, as if it were a scientific fact. “And if you want my considered opinion, you’re getting into something way over your head. Stick to being a tour guide. You’re pretty good at that.”

He stood, and Prima looked up at him. The expression on her face was odd, Faustino thought; almost as though she felt sorry for him, rather than herself.

“Paul,” Bakula said. “Please reconsider. There are flights every day.”

“Yep, and I’m getting today’s. Good luck, and thanks for the hospitality.”

The three men at the far table got up and went to stand by the door. The curtains parted and they were joined by a fourth, equally powerful man, then by the huge proprietress. They all looked at Faustino, their faces full of solemn sympathy like people watching a disabled person attempt something overambitious.

“Bakula? What the hell is this?”

Bakula sighed. “I’m sorry, Paul.”

The woman smiled. A big arc of white teeth, apart from the canines, which were gold.

She said to Faustino, “Me sons. Mateo, Marcos, Lucas, Juan. You’ll be okay with them. They’ll watch over you. Nothing to worry ’bout.”

 

G
ENTLY, MARCOS DROVE
his minibus into a part of San Juan that Faustino hadn’t known existed and wouldn’t have gone to if he had: a swarming network of creeks and quays, of puddled streets and soot-smeared sheds. At one point, where Marcos took a sudden left, the vast and rusting hull of a ship reared up just beyond a row of ramshackle buildings. Men hung against it in terrifying cradles, welding. Sparks, small electrical blizzards, flurried among them.

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