Authors: Mal Peet
AUSTINO WALKED FROM
the Pillory past the bars and video stores on the Plaza Jesus and joined the queue for the public elevator down to the port. In the crowded, plummeting car he was the only white person. Two children, their faces level with his knees, gazed up at him as if he were a plaster saint that had left its niche in the cathedral wall to go among the poor. At ground level he was swept by the tide of people out onto the forecourt. Faustino dimly remembered that the quickest route to the harbour was through the great grim building on the far side of the road, the food market. He dodged his way through the fried-fish sellers, the beggars, the blind hawkers of religious trinkets and lottery tickets. He survived the murderous traffic on the boulevard and, passing through the market’s great arched entrance, found himself in an avenue lined with raw flesh. On both sides of the aisle, flayed carcasses hung heads down from hooks, their eyes still wide from shock, their snouts bloody. Between them, festive swags of dark red sausages; below them, steel counters heaped with ears and feet, spongy tripes and slippery livers. Business was being conducted in a roar of argument and laughter. Faustino hurried through, keeping his eyes fixed on the exit, the archway that framed the blue level of the sea.
The open area between the market and the harbour was crowded with plastic tables and chairs. Faustino found a shaded place at the furthest edge of the throng. A waitress appeared beside him the instant he sat down. He ordered an iced coffee which, when it came, was better than he’d expected. Smoking, he watched the incessant comings and goings of the ferries carrying humans and other cargo between the islands that lay humped in the bay like grey whales.
Faustino began to relax, relishing the breeze from the sea and enjoying the small dramas and comedies taking place along the quays and jetties. So it irritated him greatly when a familiar and unwelcome rhythm disturbed his peace. At the far side of the café a small circular stage had been set up. A quartet of musicians stood beside it: two skinny guys in knitted Rasta hats playing hand drums, a kid with a tambourine, an older man tapping at the strings of a kora. The music they produced was light, but slow and monotonous; the kind of stuff you might play at a slightly jolly funeral.
Sighing, Faustino leaned back in his chair to watch. Half a dozen slim but muscular young men appeared from somewhere and stood alongside the musicians, solemn-faced. They wore pale blue singlets and shiny yellow tracksuit bottoms with a green stripe, and were barefoot. At a nod from the old kora player, two of them stepped onto the stage and went into their routine: fighting but not fighting, dancing but not dancing. A series of feints and ritual attacks, mostly made with the feet, the legs lifted high, the kicks made backwards, bodies cartwheeling and ducking, never making contact. Karate blows that landed on empty air. The performance was lithe and elegant and Faustino couldn’t help despising it. In his opinion, it was typical of the so-called “African culture” of the North: empty gestures accompanied by “ethnic” music. Pointless and backward-looking. Meanwhile, the streets of San Juan were haunted by rag-arsed children begging for money to feed their mothers’ crack habits. That was the real “culture” of the Deep North, and no amount of prancing about to tom-toms was going to fix that.
The two boys left the stage to be replaced by another pair. Faustino returned his gaze to the sea.
A voice from a neighbouring table said, “
“I know,” Faustino said, not looking round.
“From a West African word meaning ‘combat’. On the plantations fighting was forbidden. So the slaves disguised their traditional ways of fighting as dancing. The owners didn’t know the difference. Only the slaves knew who were the winners and who were the losers.”
Faustino said, “Very interesting.” Turning, he saw that the tour guide was no longer wearing his identity tag. His face was bisected vertically by the shadow of the awning. Like an elegant mask, half copper, half ebony. Faustino noticed for the first time that it had an imperfection: the man’s lower lip had a kink in it, above a short pale scar. Someone, it seemed, had found his handsomeness irritating and had tried to spoil it.
Edson Bakula smiled. “You find it tedious.”
Faustino shrugged. “Have you been following me? To give me another history lesson?”
“No. I usually stop off here between shifts. I live over there.” He made a gesture towards nowhere in particular. “May I join you, Señor Faustino?”
Faustino pushed the free chair away from the table with his foot. “Be my guest. So, you know my name?”
“Yes. I read the papers. Some of us can, you know. And I saw you on television being interviewed when El Gato announced his retirement. Very interesting. I got the impression that there were things you chose not to talk about.”
Faustino watched the young man’s eyes but said nothing.
Bakula smiled again. “No,” he said, “you are quite right. None of my business. I apologize.”
Faustino forgave him with a gesture.
“I would like to thank you again,” the guide said. “For coming to my assistance. For volunteering to be chained.”
“It didn’t look like anyone else was going to.”
“No. People find it a bit embarrassing. For one reason or another. But the Tourism Office insists that we try to do it.”
Maybe, Faustino thought. Or maybe you enjoy it.
“So, Señor, you are here to investigate Brujito’s Sensational Disappearance?” Edson Bakula spoke the phrase as if it were a newspaper headline.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not. I’m … on holiday. It’s damp down south at this time of year. I’m here to soak up the sunshine. And the history and the, er, culture, of course.”
The guide nodded seriously, as though he had not heard the irony. He tipped a hand towards the building behind them.
“The market was originally the slave hospital, did you know that? Built in 1724. Restored in 1980. It is an official historical monument.”
Faustino tried to sound interested. “Hospital? I’m surprised they bothered with that kind of thing.”
“It wasn’t a hospital in the modern sense of the word. More like the kind of place where you fatten up cattle before they go to market. By the time the slaves got off the ships – the ones that survived the voyage – most were too weak to fetch a decent price. They didn’t have the strength to climb up to the city. Most of us had to be carried ashore.”
Faustino noted the word
. “Yes, a terrible business,” he said; then, in an attempt to change the subject, “May I buy you a drink? Or do you have to be somewhere?”
“No, I have plenty of time. Thank you. A mixed juice, please.”
Faustino turned to signal a waitress and found himself looking closely at an impressively muscled torso. It belonged to a great slab of a man holding a collecting tin. He tipped it, and coins slooshed.
display,” he said, smiling pleasantly.
Faustino felt in his pocket for change, trying not to sigh.
AUSTINO SAW THE
new stadium almost half an hour before he reached it. It gleamed above the industrial haze like some intergalactic research craft crouched on the surface of a gaseous planet. When the Estadio Flora signs began, he made a series of hair-raising, horn-blasting manoeuvres and got into the inside lane. From the top of the slip road the vastness of the stadium became apparent; it had to be, Faustino thought, at least the size of the Maracanã in Rio, or the Nou Camp in Barcelona. And Deportivo San Juan was only a middle-ranking club; where the hell had the money come from to build this place? Gilberto da Silva had deep pockets, but not that deep, surely. Did the old boy wake up in a cold financial sweat at nights? Probably not; the very rich are not like the rest of us. And even if he did, it was probably worth it to keep his wife onside. Faustino now noticed – it made him smile – that it wasn’t only the stadium that was named after her; the broad approach road he was now on was the Avenida Flora.
He parked, as he’d been instructed, in the service area, realizing why this had been necessary. A large mob of reporters was gathered at the grandiose front entrance, the loggia. Two TV trucks with satellite dishes on their roofs, radio cars, a snack van doing good business. No, he wouldn’t want to shove through that lot, explaining to his so-called colleagues how come he could walk through those pearly gates when they couldn’t.
The door had the number 116 on it. Faustino buzzed and then spoke into the intercom. A burly man in a DSJ sweatshirt checked his ID and led him along a narrow corridor which emerged onto the rear of the main reception area. Air conditioning like a pure mountain breeze. Waiting for the lift, Faustino enjoyed observing the sweaty pack of press hounds outside the smoked-glass doors. On the third floor he stood in the deserted VIP lounge, gazing out through its glass wall. The pitch below him was perfect, a lustrous two-tone carpet of green stripes. In the stand opposite, the black seats among the red formed DSJ in vast letters. The retractable roof soared above him, a great glass bat wing with steel sinews.
“My God,” he said, aloud.
A voice came from behind him. “Yeah. Kinda impressive, isn’t it?”
Cesar Fabian, the DSJ physio, was a well-built, slightly paunchy man in his mid-fifties with cropped grey hair and deep creases in his forehead like cracks in baked earth. His handshake was surprisingly gentle, considering the size of his hands.
“I thought it would be more pleasant to talk here, rather than in the poky hole they call my office.” He glanced at the unattended chrome and leather bar. “I guess I could find someone to make us some coffee.”
“It’s okay,” Faustino said. “I’m fine.”
The two men settled themselves into sternly modern armchairs. Faustino took his new and very expensive disc recorder from its case and laid it on the glass-topped table. Scowling at its tiny enigmatic buttons he said, “You happy to talk to this gizmo, Cesar? Basically, I’m looking for anecdotal stuff. You know, the kind of thing that’ll give me a picture of Gato when he first joined DSJ, when he came to live with you and your wife. What it was like having this kid from the jungle landed on you.”
“Sure,” Fabian said. “Mind you, when you first phoned, I assumed you wanted to talk about the Brujito business.”
Faustino sighed. “Yeah. It’s a hell of a story. I consider it extremely inconsiderate of the young man to pull this stunt while I’m otherwise engaged.”
“Is that what you think it is? A stunt?”
Faustino shrugged. “Reading between the lines, that’s what most of my esteemed colleagues seem to think. Are they wrong?”
“Yeah,” Fabian said with emphasis. “They’re wrong. I’m ninety-nine per cent certain of that. The kid doesn’t do stunts. Not off the pitch, anyway. He’s not like that.”
There was a suppressed heat in Fabian’s voice. Faustino sat back from the recorder.
he like, Cesar? You know him well?”
“Well enough to know that his disappearance isn’t some kinda scam or him throwing a moody. He’s a straight up-and-down kid. Quiet, kinda shy. A country boy. No big ego thing about him at all. All the superstar crap in the media hardly touched him.”
Faustino raised an eyebrow. “Really? All the girls and the partying and—”
“Garbage,” Fabian said, almost angrily. “Absolute bullshit. Just the tabloids and idiot TV stations doing what they always do. The kid’s only just eighteen, for Chrissake. And he’s religious.”
“Is he? What, devout Catholic, you mean?”
Fabian grunted softly, tilting his head. “Well, you know. That crazy upcountry stuff … but it kinda blends into regular religion, yeah. Whatever, he’s serious about it. Like, before a big game there’s this pai he needs to talk to—”
“Yeah, you know. Priest, shaman, whatever you wanna call it. Some old guy. It’s cool. Most footballers are superstitious, as you know. Have to put the left boot on first, can’t have anybody whistling in the changing room, that kinda thing. But apart from that the kid just loves to play football. It’s all he seems to think about. It’s not exactly normal, maybe not even completely healthy, but that’s how he is. There’s no way he’d be involved in some sort of … I dunno.”
“Okay,” Faustino said. “That’s pretty much the conclusion I’d come to. So? The cops say it’s not a kidnap, which is the other obvious thing.”
Fabian pulled the corners of his mouth down and exhaled through his nose.
“The cops. Well… You know, the fact is that in this part of the world kidnapping’s the second most popular sport after football. Well, I exaggerate, but not much. It’s like you only have to be
famous” – he held up his thumb and forefinger, two millimetres apart – “to be kidnapped. Or your husband or your kid or whatever. Last month, some girl who reads the weather on the TV, for Chrissake, had to pay to get her daughter back. You know what? I sometimes worry about my wife. And I’m a nobody.”
Faustino made a sympathetic face.
“But,” Fabian added, “I’m not convinced it was a kidnap.”
Fabian looked over his shoulder and then down at Faustino’s piece of Japanese technology.
“That thing running, Paul?”
“Er … no. The little orange light there? It’s meant to turn green when it’s recording. Why?”
He had no need to ask, really. Obviously the da Silvas had imposed a vow of silence on their staff. That was one reason why the newspapers were running on the spot and the gaggle of reporters at DSJ’s front door had that look of peasants besieging a rich city. But Cesar Fabian clearly had something to get off his chest. And it was a fairly big chest.
“Okay, Cesar. This is off the record. I’m not working on the story anyway. But how come you don’t think Brujito was kidnapped?”
“In the first place,” Fabian said, “it’s gone on too long. These things are usually worked out, one way or another, in three or four days. And no one saw the kid being bundled into a van or anything. Know why? Because he wasn’t. He left the ground by the home-team entrance, alone. Two security guys saw him go. So did the CCTV cameras. They also filmed him walking away from the stadium, heading for the pedestrian bridge over the avenida.”