Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (5 page)

“Did they? I didn’t see that anywhere in the papers.”

“Yeah, well. I guess there are things Lord and Lady da Silva want kept quiet.”

“Right. Which is why you haven’t told me any of this.”

“Exactly.”

The two men sat in companionable silence for several moments. A maintenance man in a red jumpsuit walked through the lounge. When he had gone Faustino said, “I’m right in thinking you were in the dugout at that game, aren’t I? I mean, I’ve read the stories, watched the match on TV, but nothing much seemed to happen to the kid. Did you see anything?”

“No, not really. We were all over Atlético from the start, as you know. I mean, it was a game we were certain to win. Atlético should never have got as far as the semi-final in the first place. Morientes, like any good manager, gave our guys a real heavy talking-to before the game about being overconfident, staying tight at the back, all of that. But we were going to win for sure. And when Brujito scored our second, just before half-time, we seemed to have it wrapped up.”

“And at half-time,” Faustino asked, “in the changing room, Brujito was okay?”

“Sure. Quiet, like he usually is, but happy. It was a lovely goal that he’d scored, and the other players were, you know, fluffing his hair and hugging him and all that stuff. And when the buzzer went he was straight up on his feet, running on the spot, couldn’t wait to get out for the second half, same as usual. Then, fifteen minutes or so in, he just seemed to lose it.”

Faustino said, “The phrase I keep reading in the papers is that the boy ‘broke down’. Which usually means the player got some kind of injury out of nowhere, like a hamstring or something. Is that what happened?”

“No. Definitely not. Brujito screwed up the penalty, and everyone in the dugout – everyone in the city – was gutted. But there didn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with the kid. It’s just that he’d stopped playing. Morientes substituted him a couple of minutes later, as you know, and when he came off I went up to him and put his warmer round his shoulders and said something like, ‘Are you hurting, are you okay?’ and he shook his head. But instead of sitting down on the bench he went straight off down the tunnel towards the changing room.”

“What, like he was pissed off at being substituted?”

“No,” Fabian said, “nothing like that. He just seemed sort of … dazed. Anyway, Morientes gave me a look, and I sent my assistant, Werner, to check the boy out. He says that when he went into the changing room Brujito was squatting in a corner, just staring into space. Werner tried to talk to him, said it was like talking to a dummy. ‘Vacant’ was the word he used. So he left him there and came back to the pitch.”

“And you lost the game.”

“Yep,” Fabian said. “Four–two. It was like when Brujito was subbed the heart went out of us. When the final whistle went it was like all hell broke loose. Plastic bottles, coins, God knows what showering down on us, booing like I’d never heard before. Sounded like about a million animals in an abattoir. We hustled the players off the pitch fast as we could, and when we got to the changing room Brujito had vanished. His kit was in a heap in the corner where Werner had left him. Looked like he’d evaporated out of it. And no one has seen him since.”

Faustino rested his chin on his folded hands, thinking. When he looked up he caught Fabian glancing at his watch.

“Yeah, okay, Cesar. Thanks.” He poked experimentally at the recorder and the minuscule light turned green.

“So then, the business in hand. El Gato.”

“Gato, yeah. Jeez, I tell you what, Paul: I wish we had him now.” Fabian aimed a thumb up at the stadium roof. “Gilberto da Silva spent twenty million on that thing, to keep the rain off. He shoulda spent it on players. Our defence leaks like a damn sieve. Which reminds me.” He reached into a pocket and took out a long slim envelope. “Present for you. Two tickets for Sunday’s game. Directors’ box. We’re playing Espirito Santo, so at least there’ll be one decent side on the pitch.”

 

T
HE CLIMATE CONTROL
in the hire car wasn’t up to the job, and when Faustino got to his hotel he went up to his room, stripped to his underwear and stood akimbo in front of the air-conditioning unit for several minutes. Then he sat on the bed and began to play back his conversation with Cesar Fabian about El Gato. After ninety seconds he turned the machine off and stared at the far wall for a while. Then he reached for his phone. Maximo Salez’s answering machine gave a mobile number. At the third attempt, Faustino got a response from it.

“Yeah?”

“Maximo? This is Paul Faustino.”

“My God! Maestro! What have I done to deserve this honour?”

“You tell me. Max, listen. I want to talk to you. Where are you?”

“Er, I’m in a meeting at the moment, but…”

Yes, Faustino thought, a meeting between your mouth and a beer. The background to Salez’s voice was other voices and pole-dancer music.

“Okay, so how about an hour from now? I’ll come to the office.”

“What? You mean you’re in San Juan?”

“I’m afraid so. And Max, do you have a video of the DSJ–Atlético semi-final? I’d like to watch it.”

Maximo Salez was a thin, nervy man with poor skin and a taste for loud shirts. His writing was, usually, a mechanical recitation of jargon and clichés; but every now and again it would erupt, like a tropical flower after rain, into drunkenly poetic passages of description which
La Nación
’s sports editor would ruthlessly delete. He greeted Faustino with an ironic bow which failed to conceal his anxiety.

“Excuse the mess in here,” he said. “Things are a little hectic right now. Pull that chair over.”

His office was a miserable little hutch separated from the reception area by a glass wall. Salez clattered the venetian blind closed and the light turned grey. He sat himself down on a swivel chair that had seen better days and supported better men.

“Well, Paul. This is an unexpected treat. I didn’t know you were here in the Deep North. I thought you were on leave.”

Faustino took his time lighting a cigarette. When he considered that Salez had suffered enough he said, “I am. Relax, Maximo. You look like you’ve got piles. I haven’t come up here to take over the Brujito story.”

“Ah. Well, naturally I thought—”

“Although, of course, I
am
interested.”

“Right,” Salez said. “Of course. It’s a helluva thing. If you’ve got any thoughts—”

“I read your piece in yesterday’s edition. You seemed to buy the kidnap story.”

“Well—”

“And within hours of your filing the piece the police dismissed it as a hoax. At a news conference.”

“Listen, that don’t mean a thing. I mean, if the boy
has
been kidnapped, the cops
would
deny it, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t want us all over them like a rash while they were negotiating or whatever. Besides, Paul, you can’t believe a word the police say, not in this city. They’re all as bent as a dog’s back leg. Believe me, I know.”

Faustino’s expression did not suggest that he believed anything. Or anyone. Especially Max Salez.

“What about the idea that the kid had some sort of nervous breakdown, couldn’t take the pressure, maybe?”

Salez stuck his bottom lip out and shook his head. “Nah. I don’t buy it. Seems to me he doesn’t
have
any nerves. Either that or he’s too thick to know where they are. Hard to tell which.”

Faustino reflected, not for the first time, that stupidity and complacency were a very unpleasing combination. Especially in a so-called journalist.

“So you’re stuck with the kidnap theory.”

“Well, hey, I’m not
stuck
with it, Paul. I mean, young Señor de Barros is a very valuable piece of property. You know what DSJ paid for him? When he was sixteen years old? Nothing. A signing-on fee. Enough for a month’s supply of candy. And what d’you reckon he’s worth now? Ten million? Fifteen? If he was for sale, of course. Which as far as I know he isn’t.”

Faustino nodded slowly, as if Salez had just shared a rare and important snippet of information. He stubbed his cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray. While doing so he said, “Did you know that Brujito left the ground unaccompanied? That he just walked out of the home-team entrance like he normally would?”

Salez blinked. “Who says?”

“A reliable source.”

“Right,” Salez said, and clammed up.

“You know what, Maximo? You’re a very lucky man. I’d part with a few teeth to be covering a story like this. I’d be out on the street chasing up every lowlife I knew who might have heard even half a whisper.”

“Well, Jesus, Paul, what d’you think I’ve been doing? That’s what we’ve all been doing. Man, there isn’t a single scumbag in this city we haven’t waved our wallets at.”

“And?”


Nada
. Nothing.”

Faustino thought about that. “I assume, then, the conclusion you’ve come to is that if,
if
this is a kidnap, then it’s not the usual suspects. That right?”

Maximo Salez picked up a ballpoint pen and examined it as if it were the first one he’d ever seen.

“Yeah,” he said, eventually. “I guess so. Maybe.”

Faustino watched the other man’s face for a couple of seconds; then he said, “Let’s watch the video.”

 

T
HE
TV
ROOM
contained a small collection of soft and mangy chairs. The window ledge was lined with empty plastic bottles and beer cans.

Faustino said, “Let’s skip to the second half.”

The cameras had lingered on Brujito, even at times when he was not involved in the play. He was not – as certain magazines liked to point out – a particularly handsome youth, and he held his head lowered slightly, like a solemn but dangerous dog. He was short, for a player, with a rather heavy upper body. The same sort of build as Maradona or the young English striker Rooney; the build that gives you a low centre of gravity, making it hard for defenders to knock you off balance. He was the kind of boy that, if you saw him in the street, you would take to be slow-witted and slow-moving. And when he had played his first games for DSJ, opposing defenders had made the same mistake, and paid dearly for it.

Watching the screen, Faustino was again astonished by Brujito’s ability to switch from standstill to incredible speed without, apparently, any intervening period of acceleration. It was simply that at one moment he was strolling and the next he was at full power. Yes, he had a repertoire of skills and tricks that no boy of his age was entitled to; but Faustino understood that it was this extraordinary variation in pace that was the key to his game. In particular, he would brake suddenly, as if he had run out of ideas, or space. Got stuck. He would not look up, not seek support. It would tempt defenders to close in. It would distort their formation. Then, with what looked like nothing more than a shrug, a shuffle of feet, a sidestep, the ball would be gone. And so would he. There was, Faustino thought, something slightly spooky about it. Because even on replay you couldn’t see what he’d done. What you could see, though, was that whenever he received the ball, a ripple of panic spread through the Atlético defence.

But, as Cesar Fabian had said, early in the second half the boy seemed to lose the plot. He fluffed a number of simple passes. Twice in less than five minutes he was caught offside, stranded like a crab at low tide. A minute later, Cabral, the Atlético defender given the dread responsibility of marking the boy, took the ball from him with a half-hearted tackle. The camera caught Cabral looking over his shoulder as though he’d done something clever without knowing how.

“Weird, wouldn’t you say?” Salez said.

“Interesting,” Faustino said.

When Vadinho, the DSJ winger, was chopped down in the Atlético penalty area Salez pressed the
pause
button on the remote.

“Now, watch this,” he said. “Brujito has been crap for some time. I was at the game, okay, and I know that Morientes was ready to substitute him. He’d got Berger warming up along the touchline. Brujito must have known he was going to be taken off. Then there’s this penalty.”

Salez hit
play
.

“Vadinho fancies it himself, see? He carries the ball to the spot. But then Brujito comes up to him and they have this discussion. It’s obvious Brujito wants to take it. It’s also obvious Vadinho doesn’t want him to. I think that Vadinho thought Brujito was injured. We all did. Morientes did. It’s not on the video, but he was going ape from the dugout. But Brujito takes no notice. He insists on taking the penalty.”

“Which he was entitled to. He’d taken the last, what, four for DSJ? And left the keeper for dead in every one.”

“Yeah, Paul, but the point is that Brujito had gone off the boil. Look at him. He looks … I dunno, depressed, or something. So why does he want to take the kick? And, here we go, it’s got to be the saddest attempt I’ve ever seen. The keeper just takes it out of the air and says, ‘Thank you very much.’”

Faustino watched the Atlético supporters jeering and celebrating, then watched Brujito walk to the bench to be substituted. Humiliated.

“Max, rewind the tape, please. There’s a bit where Brujito is out on the left wing near the corner flag and Cabral is closing him down. Ten minutes before the penalty, something like that. No, not there. Forward. Now back a bit. Yes, here.”

Brujito had taken the ball down the left touchline, dangerously close to the corner flag. Cabral was crowding him, watching the ball, shielding it against the cross. Because from this position all Brujito could do was cross. Another Atlético defender had moved into the frame to cut off any move Brujito might try to make towards the centre. And Faustino understood that this was exactly what Brujito wanted: to draw another defender towards him. Because it left a gap into which a DSJ midfielder could run. And when that space opened, Brujito would, somehow, by some outrageous magic, get the ball into it, as he had done many times before. But he didn’t. Cabral slid in, won the ball and cleared it upfield.

“Go back again,” Faustino said, dragging his chair closer to the TV.

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