Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (19 page)

Sound came on now. Chanting. The guy in white. Chanting at the football kid. Who was, come to think of it, why he’d ended up here dying in the first place.

It was going to be the biggest thing ever just to lift the gun out of the puddle. Come on, hand. Come on.

The hand wasn’t listening. Like it didn’t belong to him any more.

He wanted to give up. Besides, there was a kind of pulp in the middle of his body that wanted to come out of his mouth, and he needed to deal with that.

Then, hey, look, the hand lifted. It was wearing a red sticky glove he’d never seen before and it had the gun in it. It all lined up: arm, hand, gun, cross hairs of light, the back of the man in white.

Pull the damn trigger. Pull, damn you to hell.

Something greater than physical tiredness had possessed Faustino. There was a limit to the number of brutal and irrational things a civilized man could put up with, and he’d gone beyond it. His world had shrunk to this nasty dark space. It wasn’t just a nightmare any more; it was an outrage. It had numbed him. He sat for a while on the chair, slumped, his forearms on his knees, his head hanging. He thought about lighting his last cigarette, as a small act of defiance, then decided he couldn’t be bothered.

The only sound from the shrine was Bakula’s chanting, rising and falling, pausing, rising and falling. Faustino ached, almost prayed, for it to stop. Wearily he got up and went to the window. When he’d last looked, Brujito had been on the floor at Bakula’s feet, twisting about and moaning gibberish in a horrible way; now he’d calmed down and got onto his knees. He looked happily drunk, swaying slightly from side to side and sort of hiccuping. Maybe this whole lunatic business really was coming to an end.

Then everything went mad again.

Someone – Mateo? Yes, Mateo – yelled,
“Lucas!”
Lucas began to turn away from the shrine, lifting his hand with the gun in it. A loud bang came from somewhere down to Faustino’s right, close to the vestry wall. Then both Lucas and Mateo were firing in that direction, four shots, maybe five. They came all in one deafening stammer.

Prima screamed something and groped her way along to the door, yanked at the bolt, dragged the door open; then she was out of the room and walking through the candlelight towards Bakula and Brujito. It seemed that they had done something to make her angry, because she was shaking her hands beside her face and saying, “No, no.”

For some reason that had nothing to do with making a conscious decision, Faustino also went to the door. There was a short drop on the other side which he failed to take account of. He tottered forward, stumbled over the body of the false priest, and fell. The hand he put down to save himself slid through the line of congealed blood and came to rest on the salt. Frightened and embarrassed, he got to his feet, ineffectually wiping his hand on the front of the slithery black jacket. A few feet away, the hoodless guy was curled up on the ground with his arms wrapped around his head. He was making small noises like a kicked dog. On the far side of him, Mateo and Lucas were standing over the other man, who was too awful to look at. The air was full of the bad-egg smell of shooting.

Over in the shrine itself, both Bakula and Ricardo were kneeling, awkwardly embracing like two inexperienced lovers. Bakula was resting his head on Ricardo’s left shoulder. Neither of them knew what to do with their hands. Bakula’s were tucked awkwardly in front of him. Ricardo’s made tentative attempts to settle on Bakula’s back but couldn’t, perhaps because of the dark stain that was slowly spreading on the white shirt. Juan stood in the background, bracing himself against one of the shrine’s uprights. The arm with the gun at the end of it hung by his side. He was looking down at the floor, desolate.

The gunfire might have made Faustino temporarily deaf, because only now did he become aware of the angry persistent hiss coming from the television set. The screen had dissolved into seething black and red pixels around two flickering white discs.

“Edson? Pai?” It was Prima’s voice.

Bakula must have heard her, because a second or two later his head lifted and his body moved slowly back, away from Ricardo’s. He raised his hands and stared at them, apparently fascinated by their redness.

Lucas said, “Oh, man,” and then he and Mateo put their guns away and went over; and because he didn’t know what else to do Faustino followed them, three big dark moths heading for the light.

Prima was kneeling beside Edson and her brother now. “Pai? Please.
Please
. Is it done? Is Rico okay?”

Bakula did not speak. He seemed to be holding his breath. Ricardo was staring at him, drop-lipped and wide-eyed. Faustino had seen that expression on the boy’s face before, on a video. It was, in a word, stupid. There was a good deal of blood on the front of his shirt.

Prima reached out and gripped Bakula’s shoulder. “Pai! Please!”

Mateo said, “Aw, Prima, girl. C’mon now. Leave it.”

She lifted her face to him. There was so much pain and ferocity in her eyes that he shrugged and looked away.

Bakula turned his head towards Prima. His eyes sought and found focus, and he smiled. It was a smile of enormous gentleness. His teeth were outlined in red. He said something that Faustino could not catch. Blood gathered inside his lower lip and spilled out where it was notched, running down the scar. Prima closed her eyes and nodded; it seemed she had heard what she wanted to hear. Bakula was trembling violently now, but reached forward and took hold of Ricardo’s shoulders, pulling him close, and kissed the boy on both cheeks, leaving a daub of red on each. Then he fell sideways against Prima. She struggled to bear his weight. His legs went flat on the floor and his head slid down onto her lap.

Mateo kneeled, tearing open the front of Bakula’s shirt.

“Jesus,” Lucas murmured.

Faustino caught sight of the exit wound and looked away, trying not to retch; but not before he’d glimpsed a raised pink cross, the welt of a healed burn, on the front of the man’s shoulder.

Mateo leaned closer. “Edson? Edson, can you hear me, man? There anything you wan’ us to do?”

But Bakula’s eyes were going out; they were already semi-opaque, like lightly frosted glass. It surprised Faustino that the pai had the strength to speak, but he did: a few words in some dead or distant language. He raised his hands slightly, cupping the fingers, touching some imaginary face, perhaps. His chin was bearded in blood. The last word was a cry that was harsh yet joyous, a fierce benediction.

“Blessing!”

The silence that followed was more profound than it should have been. It took Faustino a few seconds to realize that the hiss from the television set had ceased and the screen was a blank grey rectangle.

He walked away between the guttering candles, fumbling in his pocket for the creased cigarette packet. He paused in the doorway and looked back. Dimly illuminated, framed by the timbers of the shrine, the scene was a familiar one. The dead man slumped in the woman’s lap, the dishevelled white garments, the displayed wound, the dark huddle of grieving Apostles. He’d seen it many times, hung on many walls, during his priest-haunted childhood. Had turned his back on it, repelled and unbelieving. Had fled from it through the rooms and years and pages of his life.

He stood studying it for a moment or two, then lit up.

Epilogue: Faustino’s Cross

P
AUL FAUSTINO WAS
trekking across the glossily tiled lobby of the Hotel San Francesco (wondering yet again why a hotel lobby needed a grand piano) when the woman at the desk called his name.

“Signore Faustino? Scusi, Signore. Telefono.”

She held the phone in the air and pointed at it, perhaps imagining that it was an unfamiliar object to a South American.

“Grazie.”
It was one of the nine Italian words that Faustino knew.

“Paul. It’s Carmen. How’s Rome?”

“Old, and very expensive.”

“I imagine you must blend in perfectly, then.”

It was the first time in his life he’d heard his boss make anything resembling a joke. He was so startled that he missed the beginning of her next sentence.

“Sorry, what? There’s a delay on the line.”

“I said, excellent news. After six weeks of hassling by our lawyers, the San Juan Prosecutor’s Office has agreed to let us publish your account of the Brujito business. We got them on the public interest angle, in the end. It’s likely to be four months or more before Varga and co. come to trial.”

“Ah. Okay. That’s good.”


Good?
It’s a damn sight better than
good
, Paul. We’ve bust a gut on this thing. Are you all right?”

Faustino cleared his throat, brisked himself up a bit. “Yes. Sorry. I guess I just feel a bit outside of the loop. No, that’s great, Carmen.”

“Yes, it is. Your friend Sergeant – sorry –
Lieutenant
Artur Fillol has been very helpful, by the way.”

“Yeah. I imagine he must enjoy having us to talk to. It must get lonely, being a straight cop in San Juan. I’m glad he got a promotion, though.”

“He didn’t,” Carmen said. “He was already a lieutenant. In the Federal Office of Investigation. He was planted in Varga’s branch of the SJDP almost a year ago. Seems there was already a bad smell coming from there.”

“Well, well, well. Any other news? How’s Prima de Barros?”

“The girl? She’s okay, so far as I know. Fillol’s still got two of his men up there in Santo Whatsit. Witness protection, but it also keeps the competition away. Incidentally, did you know that the phoney priest guy, the one Bakula strangled, was her uncle? Her aunt’s brother? Paul? Are you still there?”

“Yes, sorry. No, I didn’t know that. She didn’t tell me that.”

“It’s a great angle, isn’t it? We’re making it into a pretty strong background story to the main piece. Get some family tragedy into the mix.”

“Carmen, I don’t… I think we should discuss this.”

But she wasn’t listening. She’d put her hand over the phone. Faustino could hear muffled conversation; she was talking to someone else.

“Carmen?”

“Paul, sorry. This will interest you, I think. The squad for the friendly against Brazil has just been announced. Ricardo de Barros is in it.”

“Ah. Good. That’s very good.”

“And perfect timing for us. I’ve always said that God is a
Nación
reader. Now, what’s your schedule?”

“Well, I’m having dinner with Luiz Falcao, who was assistant manager at Unita during Gato’s time here, then—”

“No, no. What I meant, Paul, is when are you coming back?”

Here it comes, Faustino thought.

“Um, Madrid Sunday, home Monday. Late. Why?”

“We’re putting the story out as a twelve-page special supplement the weekend after next. I’ve had a couple of people doing the background stuff, but the meat of it is the transcript of your tape. However, there are some gaps, and one or two things we don’t really understand.”

Faustino almost laughed. “You and me both, Carmen.”

There was a short icy silence which had nothing to do with the time it takes words to bounce off a satellite.

“Yes, well. Frankly, Paul, a good deal of it seems… Never mind. We can discuss it when you come into the office on Tuesday.”

“What? Hell’s teeth, Carmen. I’ll be shattered. Jet-lagged. Come on.”

“It doesn’t have to be early. Nine thirty will do.”

Faustino sighed and leaned back against the reception desk. The door onto the street opened and the San Francesco’s doorman guided a smartly dressed blind man towards the grand piano.

“Paul?”

“Yeah, Carmen. May I tell you something? Sometimes, just sometimes, you are the last person I want to hear from.”

“It breaks my heart to hear you say that, Paul. See you on Tuesday. And Paul? Take care. You don’t seem your old self.”

Faustino’s lack of a sense of direction was legendary among his colleagues.
He could get lost in a barrel,
they’d say, after he’d been found once again wandering the bland labyrinth of the
Nación
building, bemoaning the inhumanity of modern architects. So it was not surprising – even to Faustino himself – that within thirty minutes of leaving the hotel he had no idea where he was. He could have taken a taxi, but he had been told that strolling through Rome on a summer evening was one of life’s great pleasures. He had a street map in his pocket, but refused to look at it; he didn’t want to be mistaken for a mere tourist. For the same reason, he refused to ask for directions. Not that he would know how. Then there was the problem that, to his New World eyes, all those damn great Renaissance buildings looked the same. So the upshot was that he’d got his bridges muddled up, crossed the Tevere at the wrong place, and ended up in a piazza far from the one he’d been aiming for.

All at once he was overwhelmed by just how lost, how alone, he was. He’d experienced the same thing a number of times in the last few weeks. It was like a swift gathering, an inrush, of shadows; shadows that were almost memories. Of a little boy finding a doctor and a priest talking quietly outside his mother’s bedroom. Of looking up from play and finding everybody gone, the garden silent and inexplicably enormous. Of understanding for the first time the vast and terrible perspective of the stars.
Lost
was a poor word for such a feeling. Rather, it was as if all directions had been obliterated, the agreed limits of the world abolished. It made him want to beg like a dog for consolation.

It occurred to him that he might be looking a little peculiar. And yes, a young couple – so beautiful, both of them – watched him as they passed. For a dreadful moment it seemed they might stop and ask him if he was all right. If he needed help. He tugged the map from his pocket and fumbled it open. Useless. It was badly printed, blurry. Or could it be that he needed glasses suddenly? Anyway, maps were pointless if you didn’t know where you were in the first place. He was pretty sure he could find his way back to the river; if he walked straight on for a bit and took a right he would come to it and get his bearings.

He would have gone past the church – wouldn’t even have noticed that it was yet another church – if it hadn’t been for the interesting pair of human skulls that flanked its doorway. They were not particularly scary, as skulls go. The sculptor had carved them with open mouths and immense eye sockets so that, in this evening light, they looked like two shocked old ladies wearing sunglasses. Oddly, they sprouted uplifted wings resembling torn palm leaves, and dangling things rather like neckties made of flowers and small clusters of fruit. As a result, they struck Faustino as being both morbid and luxuriantly tropical. Perhaps he experienced a moment of homesickness; but for whatever reason, after the slightest of hesitations, he went inside.

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