1. The YBSQ Chick
She crossed Seneca Street toward the Diagonal. The traffic light changed from yellow to red at a devilish speed. Gloria clicked her tongue and uttered a curse, not a very harsh one, though. Papa used to say that well-spoken people could get anywhere, and he was totally right, of course, but the truth is that every once in awhile, a good swear, a big fat one, felt fantastic; and anyway, Papa wasn’t going to find out, that was for sure. A gust of dry wind struck her cheeks. The raindrops trickled lazily down the lapels of her raincoat. The damn traffic light, for some inexplicable reason, wasn’t in the same hurry to turn green. She now regretted that little bit of extra time she had wasted hanging out at the door to the workshop, gabbing with Rober, Sandra and Tito. Especially with Tito. He was so handsome in that green scarf his grandmother made him. A fresh burst of ill-tempered wind swept her smile away. If only she’d left sooner…at last, the traffic light changed. Her umbrella twisted, impotent against the fury of the wind. Gloria clung to the slippery handle with all her might, but her efforts were useless. The umbrella took on an awkward posture; it would most likely never work again, although perhaps Papa could fix it. Papa fixed everything. She wished Papa were there now. He would know what to do: Throw the umbrella away, or keep walking in the middle of the Diagonal, soaking wet? Out of the corner of her eye she saw the bus approaching. If she missed it, she’d have to take the subway, the Diagonal stop, the green line, and count eleven stops to Trinidad. Papa didn’t like it when she took the subway. Every once in awhile, a handful of mean-spirited boys picked on her. They called her subnormal, retarded, and other things like that. Papa explained that retarded people exist only in the minds of evil individuals.
“Look, honey, sub means beneath, do you understand? That is to say beneath the norm, but that’s a lie, Gloria. No one is beneath anyone else, or above. Do you see those stars, hon? When there’re a lot of them together they’re called constellations. People like me, for example, we’re in big constellations, because there’re a lot of us, and it’s a drag, everyone all packed together, you know? Then, there are other smaller constellations, made up of special people. That’s where you are.”
Gloria didn’t understand very well, but she liked how the bit about the special stars sounded. It was cool.
The bus pulled up in front of the bus stop, sending forth a swell of dirty water. The three or four people who were waiting at the transit shelter got on, anxious to take cover from the cold and the rain. Gloria decided she wanted to be with them, seated at the front of the bus, near the bus driver like always, so she dropped her umbrella, or really let the wind carry it away. She ran with her heart in her throat and a sharp pain hammering in her chest.
“Wait, please,” she murmured breathlessly at the back of the bus as it headed for the Diagonal. She called her father and left a message on his answering machine. She had barely gone a few feet when a voice she recognized emerged from the inside of a car.
“Hey, Gloria. What are you doing here so late?”
“I missed the bus, and I lost my umbrella.” she replied.
“Come on, get in. I’ll take you home.”
The man beamed a friendly smile and opened the car door so she could get in. Gloria placed her handbag on the back seat and closed the door with a slam.
Deputy Inspector Vazquez had had a bad night. The howling wind and the symphony of the awnings banging into each other had kept her awake all night. When she got up in the morning, the wind had swept away all traces of the storm, and the air was unusually pure, almost painfully pure. Too much sun, too much clean air, too many smiles. The world was ganging up on her, bent on that festival of happiness and good humor that proved almost repulsive. Even the radio announcers seemed more sickeningly sweet than usual. She changed the station, looking for a depressing news broadcast and found it. No jokes, no sappy tunes: tragedies, corruption, political tension, and a monotonous and gloomy voice. At last, something that was in tune with her mood.
“Report to the Commissioner’s office in half an hour.”
“Has something happened, sir?”
“The Commissioner will bring you up to date.”
Vazquez remained standing, with her trench coat half hung up, reflecting on what Robles had said, or better yet, on what he had not said. The ringing of the telephone interrupted her thoughts.
“Vazquez,” she answered.
“Miriam, don’t be so official. It’s just me.”
She huffed and puffed.
“Marcos, it’s a little early to start hassling me, don’t you think?”
“I’m calling in regard to what we spoke about, the house in Tossa. I think that….”
“We’ve already spoken about that.”
“I’d say we haven’t, Miriam.”
“I’d say you better start forgetting about it.” And she hung up violently. What a dumbass.
She wasn’t thinking about giving in, not one iota, no sir. Not the house in Tossa, no. That was the bastion of her resistance. The last stronghold. The only thing left, aside from a daughter, of their life together: fifteen years of reasonable happiness, three of them dreadful, which the passing of time tended to idealize in a bizarre fashion, a year and a half of push and pull, of frustrated reconciliations, proposals to straighten things out with attacks of sudden amnesia, and at the end, at the very end, the insane sensation of total bewilderment, a job suitable for UN peacekeepers to pile up the rubbish and disinfect the wounds. She would never accept selling the summerhouse so that her ex, what a stupid expression, and the pretty little girl that slept in his arms could have themselves a dream vacation. No freakin’ way.
The door opened and a uniformed agent stuck her body halfway through.
“Vazquez, the Commissioner is waiting for you in his office.”
“Thanks, Pilar. I’m on my way.”
At seven o’clock in the morning, Santana got out of bed, sick and tired of staring at the pigeons that swarmed around the rooftop terraces. Carefully, she moved Claudia’s arm. It was resting level with her hip. She watched her for a few seconds before sitting up. She was beautiful sleeping. Every time she watched her, asleep or not, she felt she was home.
Claudia stirred under the sheets.
“Are you leaving already?” she murmured in between dreams.
“Keep sleeping, babe.”
Santana leaned over to kiss her and found herself trapped in a warm and comforting embrace.
“Everything will go well, Rebeca,” Claudia whispered, curling up between the sheets to reclaim part of the warmth that Santana had taken with her.
“Yeah,” she said, trying to convince herself. “Everything will go well.”
Everything will go well. She kept repeating it in the shower, while she was getting dressed, while she swallowed in one gulp the too-hot coffee that burned her throat, and she was still repeating it, almost like a prayer, when she climbed the stairs at Police Headquarters. She had dreamed about this a million times. She had seen herself walking into Federal Police Headquarters, with the rank of Deputy Inspector, to form part of the homicide and missing person’s unit. Now that the dream had become a reality, she was overcome with that strange fear, that uncomfortable and sweaty angst that everything could go wrong. She was in the corps. She had earned it by her own hard work. She had made it through the Academy with flying colors, she had prevailed over the never-ending period of internships, but… what if she wasn’t ready for the job? Did she really have what it takes? The questions built up in her head, like an army of black clouds striking the sky by surprise.
“She’s extremely qualified,” the Commissioner explained. She has a degree in criminology, and psychology, and a couple of Master’s degrees. The references from her internships are excellent and her dossier from the Academy is impressive. Besides, it’ll do you good to have a female partner, Vazquez, to chat with about your things, you know… with so many men, you must miss female conversation, you know what I mean.”
Incredulous, Vazquez listened to Pinzon’s pitch with her eyes fixed on the tip of his cowboy boots. The Commissioner’s last wisecrack made her jump like a spring.
“With all due respect, Commissioner, I don’t need a female partner to talk to about my things. I have my friends, male and female, for that” she argued, rapidly calculating in her head the number of those presumed friendships with disheartening results. “What’s more, I have an excellent relationship with Navarro, and our rate of solved cases, if you allow me to remind you, is noticeably superior to that of half of the squad, sir.”
Pinzon adjusted his enormous paunch so it wouldn’t rub up against the desk and uttered one of his famous “In short” comments, which meant, as everyone at headquarters knew, that the conversation had ended, and naturally, the decision was made.
“Have Deputy Inspector Santana come in, please,” he ordered after pausing the appropriate amount of time. “Santana, come in,” Pinzon encouraged her, moving around the desk and proceeding to meet her with his hand outstretched. “Welcome.”
The first impression Miriam Vazquez had of Rebeca Santana was far from favorable, something she honestly had leaned toward before setting eyes on her, since the moment Pinzon had informed her of Santana’s arrival. The Commissioner glanced from one to the other, without relinquishing his conciliatory look, like a teacher waiting to win over two rival students. Vazquez, addicted to haute-couture to the point of earning herself the nickname “The Marquess,” had enough to discredit Santana’s style with a mere preliminary examination: dark jeans with that super store look, laced shoes that Vazquez wouldn’t have worn unless mandated at Mardi Gras, a tri-colored wool sweater, hand knit with more will than skill, and a tolerable suede coat that was really too much with the shearling cuffs and collar. For some reason, the outfit looked illogical, perhaps because the clothes were baggy on her, something that accentuated the sensation of physical weakness.
“Have they lowered the height requirement for getting into the squad?”
Vazquez’s impertinence caught Santana off guard, Pinzon as well, who gunned her down with his gaze.
“Vazquez,” Pinzon checked in time the probable interchange of cordialities, “if you are interested in the height of those who’ve recently joined the squad, you might want to collaborate on the entry exams, let’s say by measuring the height of the candidates. I’ll strongly recommend you for the task. Remind me to do so. And now, ladies. Ma’am and miss,” he rectified with a smile, “to work. Santana, Vazquez will show you to your desk and bring you up to date on everything. We’ll meet at eleven o’clock. You have work to do.”
“Sir, I have several ongoing…”
“Don’t worry, Vazquez. You’ll find Robles’ report on the desk, with a reorganization of your cases. In short…”
Throughout the morning, Santana discovered that not everyone at headquarters shared her partner’s bad blood. The guy Navarro whose position she so vilely usurped turned out to be really nice. Dark and handsome, closer to fifty than to forty, he always wore too much cologne and chewed gum incessantly. He counterbalanced any tacky effeminacy with an impeccable dark gray suit that would give any other person the appearance of being an undertaker, but which nevertheless fit him outstandingly well.
“Is she always like that?”
Navarro smiled and his black eyes shone affectionately.
“You have to handle her shrewdly.”
“Don’t worry, tomorrow I’ll bring some horse tranquilizers.”
Santana walked away to get a coffee. From the other side of the room, her partner had observed the conversation.
“What an idiot,” she blurted out to Navarro.
“Come on Miriam, she’s nice.”
“She’s a smart-ass.”
“At least she doesn’t have bad breath. I’ll swap you her for Crespo.”
“Things were good like they were.”
“Just drop it. You have to work with her, and it would be best to get along with her. This job is already tough enough without having a bad relationship with your partner.”
“Don’t lay in on me, Navarro, come on. Cheer me up.”
“When work’s over I’ll invite you to a beer.”
“That’s more like it.”
Before locating the coffee machine, Santana realized she had to use the bathroom. Where were the restrooms? Should she go downstairs or keep going down the hallway? She wasn’t about to ask her partner, not for anything. She’d find them herself. Or not. After walking around in a circle five times and cordially greeting the same uniformed agent, she decided she had gotten lost.
“Excuse me,” she said to the agent she had greeted five times. He was tapping away on a computer. “The restrooms?”
“Your first day, eh? It’s normal, this is a labyrinth at first.” He offered her a perfect smile. “I’ll take you there, if you let me invite you to a coffee.”
“I’ve already had three.”
“Well then you’ll have four.” He stretched out his hand and gave her another smile. “Bielsa, David to you.”
“Santana to you,” she replied shaking his hand.
The agent politely guided her to the restrooms.
“I’ll wait. I owe you a coffee, remember?”
“You don’t owe me anything.”
Bielsa’s wonderful smile disappeared as if jinxed. She lamented the excess of unjustified brusqueness.
“It’d be better to invite me to an herbal tea. I’m a little nervous.”
“We’re all nervous the first day.”
An interminable first day that finally reached its end. She left headquarters in a hurry, eager to recover and be herself once again after eight long hours making the effort to be what others wanted her to be: brilliant, clever, amiable. Now all she wanted to be was Rebeca, to temporarily abandon Deputy Inspector Santana, to shower, to hug her girlfriend and sleep. She didn’t need anything else.
At four in the morning the crime team cordoned off the perimeter of the scene with fluorescent tape. Several agents were working with the help of powerful floodlights, moving sluggishly between the mud and the puddles, wearing flashy yellow overcoats that gave them the appearance half way between garbage men and astronauts. Vazquez bent down, crossed under the tape, and greeted the agents she knew. There were a few she had never seen before. It never surprised her, the interest that forensic science had raised lately. Damn television.
“How’s it going?” she asked no one in particular.
“Ten minutes,” Ramirez requested with his back to her. Vazquez took his words as an act of faith.
Ramirez, a true scientific legend, had been working since well before DNA was discovered, and long before the arrival of the sophisticated laboratories and extreme technology exported from North America. The roaring of a motorcycle distracted Vazquez’s attention. Santana’s Harley-Davidson skidded majestically on the hill.
“I don’t see the coroner,” she replied, frozen stiff from the cold and sleepy as hell. “You must have arrived too early.”
“I live close by,” informed Vazquez.
Neither of them found anything further to say. For some reason, they both looked in the same direction, toward the green trash container that the police, dressed in their fluorescent yellow, were meticulously inspecting. Suddenly, the torpor, the cold, and the bad mood didn’t matter. They were mere trivialities compared to a cadaver thrown in that container. Vazquez stifled a yawn. Something in the way her partner spoke attracted Santana’s attention. She instinctively inspected her eyes. They were beautiful: brownish-green, framed by long eyelashes. But that’s not what interested her. It was her dilated pupils.
“You took something, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I drank a few cups of coffee.”
“And something else.”
“So now you’re also a toxicologist. Well, well.”
“No, but I know enough about it. I know,” she rubbed her gloved hands together, “that you took a sleeping pill and then you had to take something to clear your head, because you really didn’t expect to get up so early.”
Vazquez opened her mouth, but her reply didn’t leave her lips. She took a cigarette out of her pack and lit it.
“And I had to get stuck with the YBSQ girl.”
“YBSQ: young but sufficiently qualified. Shocking. Let’s see if you’re just as skilled at interpreting the crime scene, sweetie.”
Vazquez smoked six cigarettes. The sun stretched out from behind Tibidabo Mountain. The guys from the crime team finished processing the scene and left. The coroner made a fleeting appearance, rubbed his reddened nose, and barely responded to Vazquez’s questions.
“We’ll have to do an autopsy, don’t you think, Deputy Inspector Vazquez? I’m not going to hazard a guess that hasn’t the slightest basis. Come by the crime lab late tomorrow afternoon. I may be able to help you.”
“Is that possible, that you can help us, Guzman? Well, God help me! I’m not asking you for an appointment to have a molar pulled.”
“Don’t rush me. All dead people are a priority to someone. Everyone leaves someone behind. Have a good day, agents.”
“The guy’s a real philosopher. What a bitch. Well, girl. What do you see?
Santana refrained from saying “a dead girl.” That’s what her inexperienced eyes saw. And her police eyes? Vazquez was anticipating her mistakes as a lion lies in wait for its weekly banquet. She tried to concentrate, to remember everything she had learned, but she was drawing a blank. The only thing she had left to trust was her intuition, and she prayed that the gag reflexes that were overcoming her didn’t turn to retching. The wind pierced her bones. Tibidabo, a place she always associated with the Amusement Park, Sundays with her grandfather in the tunnel of terror, the planetarium at the Museum of Science, the elegant cocktail bars, the song Cadillac Solitario by Loquillo and Sabino Mendez. The magic and friendly mountain showed a dark and menacing face, as it mutated from Jekyll to Hyde. Her eyes filled with tears, and she coughed to hide them. Vazquez waited impatiently, shuffling her feet back and forth on the pavement to keep warm.
“The wounds on the neck and torso appear… I think they are post mortem.”
“Good,” Vazquez approved magnanimously. “Tomorrow Aristotle will confirm that, but yes, Santana, they are post mortem. What else?”
“I don’t know… There are… There are many wounds, aren’t there? What I mean is that at first it appears to be one thing, and then it’s another. I’m doing a terrible job of explaining myself.”
“An atrocious one. Go on.”
“Why all this bloodletting when she was already dead? It doesn’t make much sense. Assassins, for example, torture their victims when they’re alive for the pleasure of seeing them suffer, or they mutilate them post mortem to get rid of the body. Nevertheless, the victim didn’t suffer. It seems like she was killed by a blow to the head, so, why all this? It’s sloppy.”
“Sloppy and strange. Let’s go to headquarters. Robles informed me about a possible identification: Gloria Fuentes. A girl with Down syndrome. Her father reported her missing last night. With those features I’d swear it was her.”
“Does she have any identification on her?”
“The crime team didn’t find any. No handbag, no wallet. Nothing.”
Robles welcomed them, deploying his usual hyperactivity.
“Vazquez, Santana: meeting.”
Pinzon and Robles himself were there. The contrast between the two was dramatic: one bordering on obesity and the other on the edge of anorexia; one slow and deliberate, lazy like a great dane, and the other nervous and waiting anxiously like a stray cat. Santana recalled the Laurel and Hardy movies she had seen with her grandfather, and held back a smile.
“Let’s see now,” Robles began the explanation of the case with a shuffling of papers. “Yes. That’s it. Gloria Fuentes, twenty-four years old. Down syndrome. She disappeared last night. She left the Employment Workshop at eight o’clock, as she did every day. She hung around at the door for fifteen to twenty minutes talking with some friends, and then left in the direction of the bus stop at Diagonal and Via Augusta. At…,” he checked one of the documents, “twenty minutes to nine she left a message on her father’s answering machine. She told him she was going to take the subway. Her father is on his way here. He’ll be taken to the crime lab. They’re analyzing the cigarette butt that was found in the vicinity of the body. They know it’s urgent, but put some pressure on them.”
“Chief, do you think there is any connection to the Rosa Villena case?”
Robles and Pinzon exchanged looks. It was the Superintendent who responded in spite of the fact that Vazquez had directed the question to the Chief Inspector.
“It’s premature to suggest hypotheses, Vazquez. In any event, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring Santana up to date with the case background.”
“Two months ago, on September 22nd, Rosa Villena disappeared, a twenty-year-old woman deficient…”
“Handicapped,” Santana corrected almost without wanting to.
“Handicapped,” Vazquez repeated grudgingly, “in Santa Coloma, Gramanet. They found her two days later, in a swamp a few kilometers from her house, in a wooded area near the Torribera Psychiatric Hospital. Navarro and I were working the case. We have a sample of the semen, as the victim had sexual relations shortly before dying. We imagine the DNA corresponds to the assassin, but it doesn’t coincide with any of the delinquents on file. The case is still open.”
“For now,” intervened Robles, “work on the Villena and the Fuentes’ cases as independent, and if the identification of the body is positive, as I fear it will be, be on the look-out for a link, no matter how weak. Processing the sample will take time. We can’t just sit still waiting. Santana, take a look at the file on Rosa Villena. You never know, a fresh set of eyes, a fresh perspective. I want a preliminary report on my desk at nine o’clock. Your first impression.”
Just as Pinzon feared, the identification was positive. German Fuentes, Gloria’s father, fainted on the cold floor of the lab, and Santana was just about to follow in his footsteps. She miraculously restrained herself. Hours earlier, in the fresh air at Tibidabo, the impression hadn’t been as violent. There, in the impersonal and icy storage space, death turned brutal like a heavy blow, suffocating, irreversible. The rest of the day elapsed without any news. Santana spent the greater part of her time reviewing all the documentation that Navarro and Vazquez had compiled regarding the death of Rosa Villena. Meanwhile, Vazquez took Gloria’s father’s statement. Because of her inexperience, Santana wasn’t able to determine if the work was well done. Her colleagues had conscientiously gathered all of the evidence, interviewing a good number of people, but all that hard data, transcripts, forensic reports said nothing to her. The photos, on the other hand, spoke for themselves. More than speak, they spit with hostility at the face of whoever contemplated them. Rosa was not Rosa, she was no one, merely a jumble of bloody flesh twisted into an indecent posture, legs open at a strange angle, her panties down around her ankles. She tried to imagine her smile, but she couldn’t. She wondered what class of human being could do such a thing. Someone whom she herself and Vazquez had to stop. The idea seemed absurd, not because of Vazquez, whom she considered had as bad a personality as great detective skills, but because of herself, thrown into a mission that comfortably surpassed her. How would she face the monster?
Then she remembered her mother and knew she could do it.
She shook her head to shoo her mother out of her mind. Out, out. She inhaled slowly, trying to focus her attention on one spot and regulate her breathing. She needed a little pot, or better yet, she needed Claudia. The pot was closer. Claudia would still be a few hours. She needed to relax. She went to look for her pot. It did the trick. Without realizing it, she began to caress herself. She was very excited, sad and frightened. A strange combination. Virginia had a part in all of the ups and downs of her state of mind. She decided to call her. The up, the excitement, it increased when she heard her voice. She felt guilty and stopped masturbating. The valleys, the sadness and the fear, they calmed down after their conversation. Virginia was like mixing Prozac and tequila: a sedative when convenient, and hopeless when in shot glasses.
The photographs of Rosa Villena and Gloria Fuentes were identical and yet at the same time they were nothing alike. Vazquez stood up and walked a few steps away from the table to get some perspective. Often the best way to look is not to stare too closely, to let your impressions take over. She walked toward the window, her back to the photos. Air carrying the remains of a storm hung in her office. The engine of a car coming to a stop, a familiar laugh. She pulled the curtain aside. Vero was still dating the short-necked guy with the silver VW Golf. She witnessed a lengthy kiss and couldn’t suppress her unease. She adored Vero as a baby and, more so, Vero as a young girl. Surprisingly, she thoroughly understood Vero as an adolescent, but she couldn’t figure her out as an adult (as adult as one can be at nineteen). The scent of tangerine perfume slapped the room when Vero opened the door with a smile.
“Hi, hon. When are you going to introduce me to your boyfriend? Or do I, perhaps, frighten him? ”
“Of course he’s afraid of you. Just like all my boyfriends.”
“And that’s before they meet me.”
“No way, afterwards, Mom, they’re much more afraid of you then. How’s your new partner?
“A smart-ass who dresses like shit.”
“Give her a chance,” she responded laughing. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“Vero, be sure he doesn’t make you suffer too much, do you hear me?”
“Don’t worry. Everything will be straightened out soon.”
“You mean that he’ll be separated from his wife soon?”
“Yes,” she replied matter-of-factly, “exactly that.”
Vazquez turned back to the photos. There was a fundamental difference, she knew it; she knew it was there but she couldn’t see it.
1. The YBSQ Chick