Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (6 page)

Salez rewound the tape, little bursts of reverse action.

“What? Here?”

“Yeah,” Faustino said, squinting. “Hold it there.”

Brujito had the ball against the inside of his left foot. He was a couple of paces from the corner flag, hemmed in by Cabral, who was spreading his arms like a man trying to shepherd an unpredictable animal. The other Atlético defender was just coming into the shot from the left. But what interested Faustino was that Brujito was not looking at either of them. Nor was he looking at the ball. At that vital instant he seemed to be staring into the crowd, as if he had just been struck by something thrown at him and was wondering where it had come from.

“Paul? What?”

Faustino lifted a hand. “Wait.”

He studied the screen. Behind Brujito the electronic advertising hoarding was displaying a word fragment, the letters
esp
. Beyond it, in the space reserved for wheelchair users, were parked a heavy man wrapped in a DSJ flag and an open-mouthed boy clutching the arms of his chair; standing behind them was an oldish guy all in white – a medical person, perhaps. The rest of the image was a living mosaic of red and black. Red and black shirts, scarves, banners. Faces painted red and black stripes, red and black quarters. Heads tiny beneath red and black wigs. Masks. Like a congregation of witch doctors. And Brujito was looking somewhere into this mass. But at what?

Salez pressed the
play
button.

Cabral wins the ball and makes his hasty clearance but Brujito stays frozen, still looking away. Then the camera goes chasing the action and the moment is over.

Faustino was back in his car with the key in the ignition when he felt that familiar itch, almost a prickle, at the base of his brain. His on-board lie detector had a message for him. Something wasn’t right.

He ran through the adjectives that one could apply to Max Salez:
lazy, sad, seedy, unattractive, envious, provincial.
A fool. But even fools sometimes know things that other people don’t. So how about
shifty, evasive, defensive, secretive
? Yes, that was more like the Salez he had spent the last hour and a half with. The way he’d fiddled with that pen, saying, “I guess so. Maybe.” Not
embarrassed
. Not
inadequate
. No, the sneaky little bastard
knew
something.

From where he was parked Faustino did not have a good view of the building he had just left, and the entrance was continually obscured by people coming and going from the fast-food joint next door. Damn! Still, he sat, sweltering, for ten minutes and finally he was rewarded. There was Salez: no mistaking that horrible lime-green and orange shirt. Faustino put his sunglasses on. He started the car, and when Salez got into a yellow taxi Faustino pulled away from the kerb and followed it, keeping two cars between himself and the cab.

Ten minutes later it stopped in a nondescript square called Plaza Bandiera. Faustino passed it and parked, illegally, fifty metres ahead and on the opposite side. When the cab drove off, Salez walked a mere five paces to the window of a kitchenware shop and took an unlikely interest in the goods on display. Except that, every few seconds, he turned to scan the traffic. Faustino rummaged in his jacket pocket for his cigarettes, but before he could light one a police car, a blue and white saloon with the SJDP insignia, pulled up alongside the shop. Salez strolled, as casually as he could manage, to the front passenger window and leaned his head in. After a brief conversation he straightened up and looked around him. He appeared hesitant, undecided. Then, seemingly in response to something the driver said, he opened the rear passenger door and got in. The car moved off. It turned right and right again at the top of the square and came past Faustino. The driver was white, or nearly so, and not in uniform.

Faustino was not at all happy about tailing a cruiser belonging to the notorious San Juan Department of Police, so when he lost it at the complex traffic lights on Avenida San Pedro he was relieved. He swore and thumped the steering wheel, of course; but he was relieved. Until he realized that he didn’t know how to get back to his hotel, that the lights had changed, and that the traffic backed up behind him was blaring a fanfare from hell.

 

B
Y THE END
of the week Paul Faustino had come to like the slow ritualistic breakfast that was a feature of his hotel and (for the more privileged) life in the Deep North generally. In his real world, there was no way he would have started the day with fresh fruit juice and then embarked on a five-course meal that involved both scrambled eggs and chocolate cake. But then in his real world there was no such thing as breakfast; when you worked up to the wire, the one in the morning deadline, and then hit the bars, lunch was the first meal that you took. Or refused. Up here, though, the rhythm was different. Stoke up with calories early in the day, then eke them out, moving slowly through the heat and the humidity. Watch your step on the harshly cobbled streets, the tilted pavements.

Northern lethargy had gripped him gently. There was no reason, really, to stay on in San Juan. He’d got most of what he’d wanted, been where he needed to go, taken several pictures with his (almost) idiot-proof camera. He’d dined with the Fabians, and Ana Fabian had turned out to be both a fine cook and a rich source of human interest stories about the young El Gato. He’d had a few very expensive drinks with Milton Acuna, former director of football at DSJ and now a TV presenter. He’d had an informative, if difficult, lunch – the man had cancer – with Pablo Laval, the DSJ keeper whom Gato had displaced. It was disappointing that he had not managed to swing an interview with Flora da Silva. Understandable, in the circumstances, but disappointing nonetheless. Some other time, perhaps, when she was not busy negotiating with kidnappers. If that was what she was doing.

According to the press and TV, there had been no further developments in the Brujito story. Faustino found this both intriguing and frustrating. And slightly offensive: journalists ought not to be satisfied with nothing.
He
wouldn’t be, if he was on the story. But he wasn’t. All the same, it struck him as lazy and pathetic that the best today’s edition of
El Norte
could manage was a smeary snapshot of the da Silvas in the back of a chauffeur-driven car under the headline
FLORA AND GILBERTO: THE AGONY CONTINUES
. And no story. He was half tempted to ring the editor and give him a piece of his mind. To disturb his peace of mind. There was nothing in
La Nación
either. Salez appeared to have gone quiet, or maybe he’d sent in chunks of empty verbiage that Vittorio on the news desk had spiked.

There was the DSJ–Espirito Santo game tomorrow, of course. Probably without the lovely Flora da Silva to gaze at during the slow moments, and almost certainly no way of talking to her even if she was there. So he ought to pack, check out, drop the hire car at the airport, fly home. Nevertheless, he went back to the buffet table, poured himself more coffee and put another slice of cake onto his plate. He was about to sit down again when his phone burbled. He flipped it open; the caller ID showed
CROCODILE
.

He pressed the green button. “Carmen. What a delightful surprise. How are you? Are you missing me?”

The voice in his ear said, “What are you doing at this moment?”

Faustino’s boss was not famous for her small talk. He carried her out of the dining room into the patio garden where improbable flowers rioted in the shade.

“I’m just finishing breakfast.”

“At nine thirty?”

Damn the woman. “Life runs to a different timetable up here, Carmen.”

“So it seems. Did you watch your local news this morning?”

“Nope. Should I have?”

“A body was fished out of the docks. The docks at San Juan.”

“I don’t suppose that’s an unusual occurrence.”

“It was Maximo Salez.”

It seemed to Faustino that the flowers surrounding him trembled in a breeze he couldn’t feel. He leaned against the wall.

“Paul? Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, Carmen, I heard you. Thanks for breaking it to me so gently. How come you know it was Salez?”

“His wallet was still in his pocket. We had a call from the San Juan police a short time ago.”

“Christ.”

“Listen, Paul. I’m flying someone up there later. But I need something for this evening’s edition. I want you to get over to the San Juan police HQ and—”

“Carmen, Carmen. I’m on
leave
.”

“From work, Paul, not from life. You knew the guy.”

“Yeah, he was a jerk.”

Carmen d’Andrade said, “Yes. But he was one of our jerks.”

It was a newish building, but the textured concrete was already streaked with something that looked like soot, that universal feature of San Juan’s architecture. There were three officers at the duty desk. Faustino chose to approach the female one, which was probably a mistake.

“I’d like to speak to the officer leading the investigation into the death of Maximo Salez.”

She looked away from her computer screen, eventually.

“I bet you would,” she said.

“I am – was, I should say – a colleague of Señor Salez.”

“You are a reporter.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, but…”

She switched her stare back to her screen. “There will be a statement to the press later this morning. If you wish to wait, you may join your other ‘colleagues’ over there.”

Without looking, she gestured towards a glass partition at the far end of the lobby. Beyond it, a small group of bored men and women sat inside a cloud of cigarette fug.

Faustino held his ground for half a minute, but the policewoman refused to look at him. He moved a short distance along the counter and stood there, thinking, drumming his fingers. Then he sighed and took one of his business cards from his inside pocket, along with the envelope that Cesar Fabian had given him. He wrote a few words on the back of the card and put it into the envelope with the tickets, aware that the woman was watching him out of the corner of her eye. He sealed the envelope, then reached over and dropped it onto her keyboard.

“Señora,” he said, quietly. “I am here to give information, not gather information. I think it would be a good idea if you gave this to an investigating officer, now. I’ll wait for ten minutes. If no one wants to speak to me, I shall leave at the end of that time.”

Seven minutes later, Faustino was shown into an office spookily similar to that of the late Maximo Salez, except for the pistol in its shoulder holster slung over the back of the chair behind the desk. The athletic-looking black man with his head shaved smooth as a bowling ball introduced himself as Sergeant Artur Fillol. Faustino’s business card was lying on the desk next to the white envelope.

“Pleasure to meet you, Señor Faustino. Please, take a seat. I like the stuff you write in the papers. But I haven’t seen anything by you recently.”

“Thank you. And no, I’m taking a break.”

Fillol nodded. “So you’re not here in a, uh, professional capacity. You haven’t taken up crime reporting instead.”

“Not really.”

Fillol’s smile didn’t flicker but his eyebrows went up. “Not
really
?”

“Well, of course I’d like to know what happened to poor Max. And so would my editor. Max’s editor.”

The sergeant leaned forward and tweaked the football tickets halfway out of the envelope.

“And you thought these might help you find out before the rest of that mob out there?”

“Oh, the tickets. I completely forgot they were in there. Should be a decent game, don’t you think?”

Fillol sat back and regarded Faustino gravely. “How well did you know Salez? Were you friends with the guy?”

“No. I didn’t much like him, to tell the truth.”

“Nor did I,” Fillol said. “When’d you last see him?”

“Um, three days ago. The, er, fourteenth. At his office. We were discussing the Brujito thing.”

“Yeah,” Fillol said. “What time was this? What time did you leave?”

Before Faustino could answer, a voice from the doorway behind him said, “Artur? How long before you’re through here?”

The sergeant shrugged. “Not very long, I guess.”

The other man came into the room, past Faustino, not looking at him, saying, “I want to talk to everyone in fifteen minutes, upstairs. Have a look at these before you come.”

He dropped a file with yellow plastic covers onto Fillol’s desk. Then he did look over at Faustino and switched a smile on. “Excuse the interruption, Señor.”

The SJDP tag clipped to his lapel identified him as Captain Eduardo Varga. Faustino experienced a lurch of recognition. He’d seen the captain before. Driving a blue and white cruiser. Which was not something you’d expect a senior detective to be doing.

“No problem,” Faustino said generously.

When Varga had gone, Sergeant Fillol couldn’t resist having a peek at the file, and Faustino couldn’t help seeing the uppermost photograph.

“Dear God,” he said. “Is that Maximo?”

Fillol considered the question, then got up and closed the door that Varga had left open. He sat back down and slid the picture across the desk.

Salez looked deader than anyone had a right to. His arms and legs were unrealistically thin under the saturated clothes. The hair clung like seaweed to the grey face and the mouth was open; the fillings in his teeth were clearly visible. And some awful thing protruded from the front of the gaudy shirt.

Faustino felt his stomach shift, and his mouth filled with saliva. Stupidly he said, “He was stabbed?”

“That’s the theory we’re working on. The knife embedded in the chest seems to indicate something like that.”

Fillol slid two more photos towards Faustino. “This is the weapon. Seen anything like it before?”

The blade was wide and curved symmetrically to a point, like a leaf. The handle – wood, or maybe bone – was carved into the shape of two figures back to back. Outsized heads, or perhaps masks, with gashes for mouths: one smiling, one grieving. Crescent slits representing closed eyes. Each figure held what looked like some kind of staff with an axe head at the end of it.

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