798

Unreliable Witnesses

 

by Roberto Fox – as told to Frank Thomas Smith

 

Raúl Castellano walks downhill on Nono’s main unpaved street, actually its only street. He holds a staff, a bamboo pole, in his right hand which he swings in a semicircle in front of him. He is of average height, fair but tanned, shirtless, sightless eyes staring ahead. He is extremely thin. Four dogs follow him, stopping occasionally to urinate or sniff trees and bushes they have sniffed and peed against a thousand times. They aren’t Raúl’s dogs, they just like to accompany him. They know they can count on him to walk the walk every day at the same time, like clockwork. When he reaches the bottom of the street where it flows into a paved road, he turns and retraces his path back uphill. He passes his own house and continues up onto a narrower path which skirts one of the “Nos” in “Nono” – two adjoining hills shaped – as seen from a distance – like a woman’s breasts, aptly named in the original aboriginal language. He keeps well to the left, tapping his bamboo staff against the side of the hill which had been carved out to make the path. To his right is a precipice that plunges down thirty meters to the rocks in a swiftly flowing stream. At the point of the cleft between the Nos he can go no farther, so he turns back. Then, suddenly, he is falling down, down the side of the No,he opens his mouth and screams, but there is no sound. Then it is no longer Raúl trying to scream but Roberto, Roberto Fox. He wakes up, startled, just before hitting the rocks…  

 

On his way home from Córdoba, Roberto Fox stopped by in Buenos Aires to say hello. I hadn’t seen him since he took a job as chief investigator for the International Air Transport Association in Geneva. He had a few hours time before heading to the international airport at Ezeiza. We chatted for a while about his job, which he quite liked except for the fact that he travelled so much that he was hardly ever in Geneva and decided that he would therefore never learn French. I took out my chess set and a bottle of Argentine tinto. But his heart wasn’t in the game and he soon conceded – which wasn’t like him. I asked what was bothering him and he told me why he had gone to Córdoba and what had happened there. He agreed to let me write it, if only in condensed form, with the condition that real names not be used.    

 

It would be hard to think of a less opportune moment for the telephone to ring. As Roberto Fox considered whether he should answer it or not, his erection wilted under the pressure of decision-making. He glanced at the clock on the end-table next to the phone: 2 a.m. An unusual time for anyone to call. But people in other continents sometimes forget time differences, or it could be that the matter was so urgent that the time didn’t matter. Fox wasn’t a telephone addict. Far from it. But something about this ring’s insistence told him that he must respond even if it meant being an insulting bore. Without withdrawing completely from the woman’s damp sex, he reached across the bed and lifted the phone, grunting, “uh, sorry” to her.

Roberto, soy yo, Claudia. Sorry about the time, what time is it there anyway? I was afraid of not finding you in…” She seemed to be trying to control her voice, stop from crying. The woman under Fox squeezed hard and his penis popped out.

“It’s all right, Claudia,” he said into the phone. “What’s wrong?”

“Raúl is dead Roberto.”

Fox half rolled was half pushed off the justifiably annoyed woman. He swiveled to a sitting position with his legs on the floor. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Claudia.” The caller wasn’t just any distraught person. She and Fox had been an inseparable couple until he was transferred to Geneva and she didn’t want to leave Argentina. They agreed that he would travel to Buenos Aires as often as possible until he was able to somehow arrange a transfer back. But the saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder is seldom true. Both were lonely in their abstinence and Fox was the first to break it, secretly. Claudia followed several years later by marrying a rugby player. Raúl Castellano, her brother and Fox’s friend, was already blind when he also married, a beautiful young American named Blanche. She became his eyes and his typist so he could continue his career as a journalist; he even published a widely read book about Argentinean dictatorships. Fox had only met her once, at the wedding where he was best man. He couldn’t help thinking what a pity it was that Raúl couldn’t see what a knock-out he’d married.

 “They say it was suicide …” Claudia paused to wait for the inevitable question.

“They say?

“Can you imagine Raúl committing suicide, Roberto?”

He tried to imagine it. Raúl was blind, which could be a reason. On the other hand he was a very upbeat guy, always knew he would be blind and had decided to live with it as best he could. And he had Blanche. No, it was hard to imagine suicide.

“So what do you think, Claudia?

“Could you come, Roberto?…You’re..you’re the only one who…”

“Who what, Claudia?

The woman in the bed with Fox squirmed out from under him and headed for the bathroom with her clothes under her arm. He didn’t notice.

“Who can find out what really happened.”

There was a pause in the conversation while Fox thought it over.  He had leave coming, at least a month. But he was scheduled to fly to Mexico City in two days time to attend a meeting of Latin American airline security reps. It was too late to cancel the meeting, but he could send his deputy, Gonzalez, who was more keen about the work than he was anyway. The Director General would squawk a little, but what the hell, Roberto Fox was himself a director – of Security and Fraud Prevention, so he would plead a personal emergency and just go. It would be the first time. Then there was Claudia. Why did she call him? Did she want to see him again? Maybe, but more likely because he was once an FBI agent and was still in the investigation business and she didn’t believe that Raúl had committed suicide. He knew, however, that people committed suicide all the time and their families were often in a state of disbelief. Still, there was Claudia. 

“Yes, I think I can go. Give me until morning to see how I can arrange it. I’ll call you, okay?”

“Someone die?” the woman said when she emerged, fully dressed, from the bathroom. Fox had forgotten all about her. She was a buxom Swiss who seemed to be dreaming that she was on skis when making love. A nice, sex-hungry Swissair flight attendant whom Fox had met when he was the only first-class passenger on a flight to Rio which had to make an emergency landing in Dakar. They had coitus interruptus in the head when the pilot announced the stop; so they continued in the Dakar hotel while the aircraft was being repaired. Fox knew she was too much for him, probably because of the muscles in her legs, but he was a glutton for that kind of punishment.

“Yes,” he said.

“A relative?”

“A friend.”

“I’m sorry. I have to go now.”

“It’s two in the morning.”

“I have to be home before nine anyway.” Her husband was a pilot due home around that time.

Fox considered flying to Buenos Aires with Argentine Airlines, but because of the time difference that would mean having to wait until the afternoon to phone the airline’s director in Buenos Aires. Swissair no longer went to Buenos Aires, so with them he’d have to make a connection in Sao Paulo, which wasn’t a good idea because his Brazilian visa had expired and if he missed the connection he’d be wandering around the airport like Tom Hanks. He decided that Lufthansa via Frankfurt would be the best option by the time he closed his eyes to sleep. The phone rang. It was Claudia again. “I forgot to tell you, Roberto, they no longer live in Buenos Aires. They moved to Traslasierra in Córdoba.

 

There is no waiting to land at Buenos Aires’ international airport. Sometimes just a wide turn to accommodate the wind. Traffic is scarce in the air, but not on the ground, where it’s chaotic. Roberto Fox cursed airline deregulation again after landing in fog after a sixteen-hour flight, exhausting even in Business Class. Not even Lufthansa has non-stop flights to Buenos Aires anymore. Everyone stops in Sao Paulo to insure that their planes are packed. He’d phoned Lufthansa’s head office in Cologne and spoke with the manager in charge of concessionary travel, and old friend, who arranged to have a free ticket waiting for him at the airport in Frankfurt, business class reservation confirmed, first class subject to space. First was full, so he went business.

After immigration and customs a forty-minute taxi ride to the domestic airport for the flight to Córdoba. Claudia picked him up at Ezeiza, the international airport, and filled him in on the details in the taxi (in English so the driver wouldn’t understand) and while waiting for the flight to Córdoba at Aeroparque, the domestic airport.

“Good luck,” the driver said with a smirk in English to Fox after he paid the fare.

“Raúl would never commit suicide,” Claudia told him after he’d checked in and they were in the bar sipping daiquiris. I talk to him at least once a week by phone and we’re in regular email connect. They have a beautiful place in the mountains and he was happy there.”

“Just tell me how he died, Claudia.” Gunshot, poison, slit wrists? he was thinking.

“They say he jumped off a cliff.”

Fox felt an urge to laugh, but held it back. Instead he said, “Seriously?”

 “He was found in the rocks of a stream below a cliff, so they – the police – simply assumed he’d jumped,” Claudia said.

“How high is the cliff?”

“I don’t know, I---“

“Didn’t you go there?

“I couldn’t, Roberto, Alfonso is in the hospital here.”

“Oh,” Fox said, “I’m sorry” - although he wasn’t. “Is it serious?” He had nothing against her husband, except that he was her husband.

“Yes, heart.”

Fox nodded, trying to look sad for a few moments, then said, “So what do you think happened?”

“I don’t know, but –” she took his hand and squeezed it. “I don’t trust her, Roberto.”

“Don’t trust who?” He was genuinely surprised, but knew who she meant.

“Blanche. Look, she appeared from nowhere, a backpacker from Iowa or someplace, beautiful and, well, poor.”

“And now?”

“Now she’s rich, or will be when she sells Raúl’s stock in the company.”

“I didn’t know he held stock,” Fox said, “already I mean.”

“Raúl and I are the only other partners, we hold twenty percent each. Father wanted to avoid squabbling after his death, so he did it that way.”

“How much is it worth?” Fox asked.

“Cementek is the second largest cement company in South America, Roberto, almost as big as the Brazilian Ricodur. Twenty percent is worth many millions.

“I see.” Fox stared at her almost accusingly. “So you think she killed him?”

“I don’t know what to think, I…I only know that he didn’t commit suicide, and she married a blind man, a helpless man, and she was poor and now she’s rich.”      

 

Upon arrival in Córdoba Fox had been traveling almost twenty-four hours, so instead of proceeding directly to Nono, a village two-hundred kilometers away on the other side of the Altas Cumbres, a pre-Andes mountain range, he rented a car at the airport, drove into the city – one of the oldest in the American hemisphere, once under the tutelage of the Jesuits – and checked into the Gran Dorá hotel. He had dinner at one of the world’s best restaurants, considering the prices, which wouldn’t get you a hamburger in Switzerland. The delicious meal, washed down with excellent Argentine red wine, cost him fifteen U.S. dollars. (It’s the exchange rate, stupid.) Back at the hotel he slept twelve hours like the proverbial log.

 

The road over the mountains is graced with spectacular scenery and cursed with hairpin curves, potholes and accidents. Like life, Fox thought. He  arrived in Nono after a three-hour drive. Blanche was waiting for him at the bus stop. (He had phoned her from Córdoba, saying he was in the city on business and had decided to spend the weekend in Traslasierra and visit her, if she had no objection; she said she would be delighted. What else could she say, he thought.) It was spring in Argentina – autumn in Europe – so temperatures were not too different, although Córdoba’s warm mountainous springtime was many degrees more pleasant. Blanche was wearing shorts and a T-shirt that read “Obama 2008” across her braless breast. She fell into his arms. She was a tall, dark-haired woman, not what one would call beautiful, but she had something, or a combinations of somethings, large widely spaced eyes that matched her hair, a lopsided smile which left you wondering whether she was laughing at you or with you. They separated and when Fox looked at her face he saw the old combination, this time with a dollop of grief.

“Thank you so much for coming, Roberto,” she said.

“Not at all, Blanche. If there’s anything I can do to help, well, you know I will – and there’s also the pleasure of seeing you again. That’s real.”

Fox followed Blanche’s car a few miles up a dirt road to her property. On it stood a large one-storey bungalow type house surrounded by several species of trees, including a huge algarrobo nearest to the house.

“You’re well hidden in this paradise, Blanche,” Fox said.

“Yes,” she said, “you’d have found me eventually I suppose, but it would have taken a while. Let me make some tea, you must be tired.”

“Not at all, it’s a lovely drive and not very long.” As he watched her enter the house he felt a stirring. But he wasn’t ready for paradise, not yet at least. He’d lived in cities all his life – Buenos Aires, New York, Berlin, Madrid. Even Geneva was too small for him.

“You’re looking well, Roberto,” she said after handing him a cup of tea. “Oh I almost forgot to show you your room.”

“Later, Blanche. Now tell me about Raúl.”

She smiled, then sighed. “Right to the point as always.”

“When I can’t avoid it,” Fox said.

“He walks…I mean he walked every day up to the Nono,” she explained. “The whole walk takes him two and a half hours, give or take a few minutes.” On Wednesday, ten days ago, he didn’t return. At first I didn’t worry because he could have fallen into conversation with one of the neighbors. You know how he loves…loved…to talk. But when he was an hour late I got into the car and went to look for him. I drove down to the road, back up and around the No to the cleft, but didn’t find him. I stopped in the taberna to ask if anyone had seen him. He doesn’t drink, as you know,” she said, forgetting about the past tense, “so I wasn’t looking for him there. But no one had seen him. Someone said I had better go to the police, that it was getting dark, not that that means anything to Raúl, but… well, where could he be? I went back home hoping he might have somehow returned in the meantime. But no, he wasn’t here. I was really nervous by then, so I called the comisaría in Villa Dolores, which is the nearest one. They said they’d send a patrol car as soon as one returned. That was two hours later, they took the same route I had, but it was completely dark by then and they didn’t find anything. He didn’t come home…at all.” Tears seeped from her eyes, but she wiped them away with the back of her hand.

“So when…?”

“The next morning,” she interrupted. “They went back to the No and looked down the precipice and saw his body smashed on the rocks below.”

“And they called it suicide?” Fox asked.

“Yes, although they admitted it could have been an accident. You see, they don’t understand how a blind man can be happy. They can only think of themselves, how they’d wish to be dead if they were blind.”

“An accident does seem more likely,” Fox offered.

“Raúl has been walking that path every day for years,” she said. “He always stays… stayed close to the wall side of the hill. And the path is wide enough for a car to pass. It just seems unlikely that he could have strayed far enough to to fall over.”

“But what other possibility is there?” A leading question if there ever was one.

“None, I guess.”

“Was there an autopsy?”

“No, the cause of death was obvious and the nearest place for an autopsy is in Córdoba, over 200 kilometers away. He was cremated the next day.”

Fox didn’t mention that an autopsy could have shown if had been dead before going over the side. No point now. Instead he said, “Another possibility would be…well–”

Blanche looked down at her hands and frowned. “Why did you come here, Roberto?”

While he was considering what to answer she said, “Did Claudia ask you to come?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Did she?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. She’s a jealous bitch.”

“Jealous?” Fox said, genuinely surprised.

“Of course. Don’t tell me you never noticed.”

Images flashed behind his eyes of his dates with Claudia when she insisted that Raúl come along, of her constantly hugging him and serving him things. Fox had never thought much about it, and it only occasionally bothered him when he had other things in mind. But after all Raúl was her brother. Besides, he was usually interesting company, although he tended to talk a lot.

“Do you mean that she was jealous of you?” he asked.

“When I came along she was no longer the only woman in his life.”

“I don’t think I quite follow you,” Fox said, honestly.

“You don’t want to follow me, Roberto, “and I don’t blame you. I’ll put it in black and white so you must follow: They had an incestuous relationship.”

Fox stared at her for a moment, then said, “I suppose you know that because Raúl told you?”

“Yes.”

When he recovered, Fox said, “Okay, but just for form’s sake, did Raúl have any enemies here?”  

“Everyone liked Raúl, except maybe the butcher.”

“Why was that?” Fox asked.

“You remember that Raúl was a vegetarian?”

“Yes, I remember that. And butchers aren’t vegetarians.”

“In Buenos Aires, shortly before we left to come here, he discovered macrobiotics. Do you know what that is, Roberto?”

“I’ve heard of it, Japanese, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and very strict. In reality it’s a philosophy, I mean not just a diet.”

“Go on.”

“Well, Raúl became very strict too, but around here that’s like trying to turn Muslims into Jews – or vice versa.”

“Do you mean he tried to convince the locals not to eat meat?”

“Yes, and their diet is – or was – about 90% meat and 10 % pasta.”

“Was?”

“Raúl was successful to a certain extent. He started writing brochures, but that had little effect, so he gave lectures about the benefits of whole rice and vegetables…”

“And about the evils of meat?”

“Yes, very much so. He was a very good talker, as you know, and he convinced some people, the women at least, and they do the cooking. Oh, they still have their asados, everyone has a grill and meat is plentiful and relatively cheap here, or if they don’t have money they just kill a calf. But now not every day.”

“Not very good for the butcher.”

“No, but he didn’t seem angry about it. He joked, trying to ridicule the idea. His best argument was that if the men didn’t eat a lot of meat they’d lose their virility. I say best because that’s something that really worries them. But Raúl had his experts to quote from and he was much more convincing than the butcher, But Roberto…”

“Yes?”

“I don’t mean to say that the butcher killed him because of that.”

“But the butcher’s business must have suffered.”

“I suppose it did, but…”

Fox stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda looking out at the quiet beauty before him. He thought that if there were no ugliness there’d be no beauty, a variation on his philosophy that good was not possible without evil. He agreed with Claudia that Raúl was not a likely candidate for suicide, but there might be some dark secret in his life that even she did not know about. An accident? Yes, despite her objections it was always a possibility. Murder seemed unlikely to Fox and the butcher an even unlikelier suspect. But it was the only one he had. Might as well go with it. IN his mind he’d already eliminated Blanche as a suspect, attributing Claudia’s suspicions to jealousy and grief.

He returned to his seat and said to her, “What about that staff you said he always used?”

“Yes, it’s in the garage, the police gave it to me.”

“Was it broken?”

“No, it was lying against the wall of the hill, that’s why I didn’t see it I guess. I wasn’t looking for it of course, I was looking for him.”

“And the police?”

“They didn’t see it the first time when it was night, but the next day they found it off to the side like I said.”

“They told you that?”

“Yes, why?”

Fox thought for a long moment, then he said, “If it was an accident he would probably not have released the staff and it would have gone over with him. Don’t you think so?”

Her eyes opened wider. “Yes, of course. That means…”

“Just to consider, and perhaps eliminate the possibility, Claudia…if he was about to commit suicide, what would he do with the staff?”

Now she stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda. She turned to him. “He would have kept it, he would have needed it to find the edge of the path, it wouldn’t have been against the side of the hill behind him.”

“And if someone had attacked him?”

“Well, he might have struggled and dropped the staff.

“Near the side of the hill?

“Yes, of course, that’s where he was.”

“So,” Fox paused, then said, “if we consider what the staff could mean, the fact that it was still there on the path and that it was found near the side of the wall, we could rule out both suicide and an accident.” She nodded. “It’s pretty thin, Blanche, no proof of anything.”

“No.”

“This butcher, is he a big man?”

“Oh yes,” she said, “not tall, Raúl is taller…I mean was taller, but Enrique – that’s the butcher – is stocky and looks very strong. He has huge hairy arms, like a…a…”

“Like a gorilla?

“Yes, like a gorilla, exactly…well, not exactly, but you know what I mean. He could pick up Raúl and throw him a mile, or at least off the cliff.”

At this point I can’t bring myself to leave out the somewhat embarrassing fact that Roberto and Blanche slept together that night, despite the latter being a recent widow. Just to defend Roberto’s sensibilities, however, I must mention that she climbed into his bed.

 

Let us remember that Roberto Fox is a professional investigator and knows that in order to come to a conclusion about a case, especially one lacking obvious evidence, he would need to get a gut feeling about the deed and the alleged perp. Therefore the following morning he told Blanche that he was going for a walk.

“You’re going to look at the place where Raúl…”

He nodded.

“Thank you for not asking me to accompany you,” she said. “I never want to see that place again. Just turn left at the main road and keep going up.”

He did go to the place, the No, where Raúl Castellano had fallen or was pushed to his death. He couldn’t determine the exact spot, but it didn’t matter, he just wanted a feel for the place. On the way he had passed the butcher shop, certainly the only one in Nono. He decided to stop in on the way down, not to question the butcher, just to get a feel for him.

A portly woman who looked as though she ate too much meat was the only customer when he entered. Half a cow carcass was hanging from a hook. The butcher was nothing like what Fox expected. He was large and brawny alright, but hardly a gorilla. He was rather handsome in fact, with a huge smile at his customer while he gave her the change from her purchase. Maybe this was a partner or relative, he thought. Until: “Enjoy the asado, Doña,” he said as she left. “Thank you, Enrique, we certainly will.”

“Caballero,” the butcher said to Fox, “what can I do for you?”

“Some asado meat,” Fox replied.

Cómo no. How much?”

“I’m not sure exactly, for two people.”

He laughed. “Big eaters or little eaters?”

Fox smiled back. “Medium eaters.”

“Right, but better too much than too little.” He took a long length of asado meat from beneath the counter and slapped it onto the chopping block. He chopped off what looked to Fox to be enough to feed a platoon. He smiled at Fox’s perplexity. “It shrinks when cooked,” he said. “You are at Doña Blanca’s, true?”

“How did you know?” Fox asked, surprised.

He laughed again. “I know.” He wrapped the meat in newspaper pages. “She needs a lot of meat, not having any for a very long time.”

“No,” Fox said, seeing an opening. “While her husband was alive she ate no meat.”

“Raúl was one ignorant pelotudo,” the butcher said, with a half grimace, half grin. “Look how skinny she is.”

Roberto Fox did not consider Blanche skinny, but tastes differ. “She seems healthy enough,” he said.

“Bah,” the butcher snorted “hardly any meat between her legs, tits hardly bigger than crab apples, tasty but not to be compared to our NoNo.”

Fox reddened at the brute’s insolence and didn’t trust himself to speak.

The butcher reached into a drawer behind him and brought out a photo of a woman with a huge butt and cow-like breasts copulating with a man who looked suspiciously like Enrique, but younger. “That’s what I call a healthy woman!”

“You seem to know a lot about Doña Blanca’s anatomy,” Fox said.

The butcher frowned. “Her what?”

“Her body.”

"Oh.” He leaned forward over the counter. “Amigo, yo conozco todo de su cuerpo.”

Fox resisted backing away and said, “How do you know everything about her body? Are you her doctor, too?

The butcher grinned. “In a way, yes. I made her a woman again. But that’s all over.” He raised a long knife and effortlessly sliced a piece from the cow carcass.

“Yes?” Fox waited for him to continue, sensing that he was the type who likes to announce his conquests, imaginary or not.

“Raúl was a pelotudo, but basically a buen tipo".

“He must have hurt your business,” Fox said.

The butcher looked at Fox questioningly. “Hurt my business? How?”

“He was a vegetarian and talked to the people here about how bad meat is for them.”

“Oh that. Nah, they listened and nodded, they didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but then they came here and bought more meat than ever – when they had the money, that is.” He stared at Fox. “This is Nono, hombre, not fuckin Buenos Aires.”

The package under Fox’s arm started to drip blood, so he started for the door. “Caballero!” the butcher called. Fox stopped in his tracks without turning. “Raúl was a pelotudo, but he didn’t deserve what he got from her. Fox turned and faced him. “What do you mean – from her?”

“Ask Ramón.”

“Who’s Ramón?” But the butcher ignored the question and began to slice the piece of carcass into chops.

Fox walked out of the shop onto the unpaved street. A car sped past raising a cloud of dust and earth. He turned his head away and thought, My god, what have I gotten into?

He headed back up the road towards the town’s taberna. Four men were sitting outside on a cement veranda drinking, although it was only ten in the morning. A half empty damajuana of cheap wine stood on their table. They stopped their conversation when they saw him approaching. Fox hopped onto the veranda – there were no steps – and greeted them. “Buen día, don” they mumbled, not quite in unison. Fox went inside and saw the proprietor, a stringy viejo of more Indian blood than usual for the area, counting coins behind a counter cluttered with pan casero and damajuanas. Gray hair hung limply in a braid down his back. He looked up at Fox with bloodshot eyes. “Caballero. What can I do for you?”

Fox thought of ordering a glass of wine, but for the sake of his stomach he desisted. He asked for a pack of Argentine cigarettes with black tobacco – a brand he knew. He hadn’t smoked in years, but he felt he’d earned one now. “Can you tell me where I can find Ramón?” he asked when paying.

The proprietor yelled out: “Anyone seen Ramón?”

One of the guys outside yelled back, “Passed recién with his peperina.”

“He goes to Villa Dolores to sell peperina, tries to hitchhike,” the proprietor said, ”but no one from around here picks him up ‘cause he smells so bad. Tourists do though – once. So he’s probably still on the main road to Dolores tryin’ to get a lift.”

Fox thanked him, and was about to leave and rush back to Claudia’s place to get his car when the proprietor said, again: “Caballero.”

“Yes?”

“Do you know Ramón?”

“No, never met him.”

“That’s what I thought.” He drew circles in the air next to his right ear.

 

He spotted Ramón on the paved road to Villa Dolores – a middle aged man who looked like he shaved with a scissor, in ragged clothes, the trousers held up by a string. He had his thumb up wagging towards Villa Dolores and wore an imbecile’s grin. He carried a shopping bag with green leaves protruding from the top, apparently peperina, used to make tea and to give flavor to the mate tea Argentineans so love. Fox pulled to the side of the road and watched Ramón trot towards him in the rear view mirror. His smile got bigger the closer he came, until Fox could see that he had only one tooth guarding the cavern of his mouth like a yellow-uniformed gendarme.

Mil gracia ,caballero,” he gushed, sitting next to Fox and emitting the sour odor of the long unwashed.

“Are you Ramón?” Fox said, smiling back at him.

"Sí, Ramón. Peperina?” He pushed the bag in Fox’s face.

“Maybe later. Did you know Sr. Castellano?”

His smile snapped shut and he pressed his chin to his chest.

“Raúl Castellano, Ramón, did you know him?” He said firmly, trying authority.

Ramón nodded, then gestured, stretching his hands out toward the windshield. “Push…Blanca.”     

The blood rushed to Fox’s head, he grabbed Ramón’s shirt almost ripping it and whispered, “Blanca? Doña Blanca?”

“Sí, sí,” Ramón squealed, “Doya Blanca..Ramón see…push.”

Fox released him and said, “Get out.”

“Villa Dolore?”

“Just get out before I throw you the fuck out,” Fox yelled at him in English. Ramón didn’t know a word of English, but he got the message and got out of the car mumbling at the injustice of it all. “Here, take this,” Fox said, and threw the bag with the asado meat out the window. Ramón picked it up, sniffed it, smiled toothlessly and said, “Mil gracia, caballero.”

Fox made a U-turn and drove back up to the butcher’s shop. “If you knew this why didn’t you go to the police?” he asked the butcher, slamming the door behind him.

“Ah, so you found Ramón,” the butcher said, wiping blood from his hands. “I’ll answer you directly. First of all, I hate the police and second they wouldn’t have believed me anyway. All I know is what the village idiot told me. What a witness, eh gringo? Unreliable.”

“He saw it…Ramón… How?”

“Ramón goes to the No every day. That’s where he picks his peperina, it grows wild there. Then he hitches to Villa Dolores and sells it on the street, even some verdulerias buy from him. He earns a few pesos every day, enough for him to live on, even to buy meat here sometimes, the cheapest cuts of course.” The butcher leaned over the counter and smiled at Fox. “Ramón sees everything that happens in Nono. He may not understand, but he sees.”

Fox almost stumbled leaving the store; he wanted to be far away from the butcher as soon as possible. He drove back to Blanche’s place slowly, trying to arrange his thoughts. He could simply tell her what they’re saying in the village – that she pushed Raúl off the cliff. What would she do? Look shocked, call it small town gossip, shrug it off? Did she sleep with the butcher? He could never bring himself to ask. He realized his problem was that he half believed Ramón, an idiot, but an innocent one. Why would he lie? Was he even capable of lying? Roberto Fox decided during that short drive to find out the truth.

After dinner, a rice and chicken casserole with an Argentinean red wine, over coffee, Fox said, “A delicious meal, Blanche, but you shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble.” She was wearing a low-cut, thin black frock that reached to her knees when standing, considerably further up when seated. She wore no make-up that Fox could detect, but she’d didn’t need any. She smiled at him over the rim of her glass. “No trouble, not when it’s for you, Roberto.” She sipped her wine delicately and sighed. “Actually it’s the first decent meal I’ve had since Raúl died.”

Fox saw his opening. “How did you and Raúl get along here, I mean with him being blind? I imagine it could have been difficult.”

“I won’t pretend that it wasn’t,” she said with a short-lived smile that seemed say that she grinned and bore it. “I had to do almost everything for him and when I couldn’t do it immediately he sometimes got angry. Oh, I knew it was frustration because of his condition, but it hurt anyway, once even physically…”

“Do you mean he actually hit you?” Fox asked, feeling he was getting close.

“Only once actually, with that damned staff. Look.” She stood up and lifted her dress revealing the outside of her left thigh with a bluish welt like spilled ink on it. “That was two weeks ago, it was much worse before. I told the doctor I fell. I don’t know if he believed me, but it doesn’t matter, all he could give me were pain killers.” She dropped her dress and sat down.

“But that was the culmination of a long process.” She didn’t continue, so Fox asked her what she meant.

“I haven’t told anyone, Roberto, and I won’t tell anyone but you. I was going to leave him.”

Fox became angry at such hypocrisy and the wine had gone to his head. “Fuck, Blanche, you could have left him instead of killing him. But that wouldn’t have been quite so lucrative, would it?”

She glared at him, picked up her glass and seemed about to throw it at him. Then she smiled, not warmly, more of a grimace. “You’ve been talking to my kindly neighbors I see. And you believe their nasty rumors.”

“I’ve also been talking to Ramón.”

She seemed stunned, then laughed, actually laughed. “You asshole, you fucking stupid asshole!”

“Thanks,” Fox said. “Nice to hear the real you for a change.”

“Yeah, the gringa bitch who pushes her blind husband off a cliff to get his money.”

Fox stood up. “Don’t worry, Doña Blanca, Ramón isn’t a reliable witness. I’m gonna get my stuff and get out of here.”

“Sit down, Roberto, if you want to know the truth,” she said calmly. He was about to say that he already knew the truth, but something in her eyes, which had now softened, made him ask himself, “What is truth”. He sat down.

“Ramón is a very reliable witness, he never lies and he sees everything.”

“That’s what everyone says–” Fox began.

“Just shut the fuck up and listen. I was going to leave Raúl. He was always smiling, the heroic sightless one, as he called himself. He’d become a fanatic about food, all that macrobiotic shit, but he went farther, much farther, he believed he..and I…could live on water alone, eventually. He said St. Francis did. Anyway, we were up there at the No, and I told him I’d had enough, that I was leaving, he could get a local woman to look after him cheaply. He was incensed, that’s when he hit me with his fucking stick. Wanna see the bruise again, Roberto? Does it turn you on? No?”

Fox just stared at her, wondering where she was going with that story.

“That’s when Ramón came into the fray, my shining knight. You see, Ramón and I are friends. I buy peperina from him every week and give him something to eat and mate tea. I’d even say that he loves me because I’m the only one around here who treats him like a human being. Do you believe that?”

Fox shrugged.

“No matter. When he saw Raúl hit me…he was up there gathering peperina…he rushed down and pushed Raúl away from me. Raúl was surprised, stumbled and fell over the cliff.”

Fox waited for that to sink in, then said, “Why didn’t you–

“Tell the police? You see Roberto, if they, or you for that matter, asked Ramón the right question, such as ‘Did you push Raúl off the cliff?’ he would have smiled his crazy smile and said ‘Yes—Ramón push.’ Get it, super dick? And they’d put him away in one of those horrible nuthouses they have in this country.”

“And you don’t want that. I see,” Fox said looking down at his hands. Blanche, I –“

“You were leaving, Roberto, so leave, now.”

“Okay, Blanche, but I just want to say that–”

“Get the fuck out!” she screamed at him.

 

Fog had wrapped the Altas Cumbres in its embrace and Fox had to drive slowly. He picked up a hitchhiker on the outskirts of Mina Clavero, the town that sits at the base of the winding road that rises above the valley. It was only when he stopped beyond the hitchhiker to wait for him that he realized he was a cop – a short stocky neckless guy with the obligatory black moustache hanging over his upper lip.
“Mil gracias, caballero,” he said with better pronunciation than Ramón’s.
“De nada, agente,” Fox said. “Going to Córdoba?”
The cop laughed. “Don’t I wish. No, up to El Condorito, we have a comisaría there, did you know?”
“No, I didn’t know,” Fox admitted. “That’s near the summit, isn’t it?”
“Almost sitting on it. I’m going up to relieve my compañero, gonna be up there three days.”
“And do you always hitchhike back and forth?” Fox asked, just to make conversation.
Oh no, we have a car, four-wheel drive, Ford,” the cop said. “But there’s some rough roads up there, so it’s in the mechanic’s in Mina Clavero right now; I’m from Mina myself, Jorge’s the name.”
“Roberto. Must be boring for three days,” Fox said. “I imagine not much happens.”
“Oh lotsa stuff happens, Señor Roberto. You’d be surprised how many people live in these hills, though you don’t see them from the road.”
“No, I had no idea.”
“There’s even a school with solar panels. There’s usually lotsa sun up there, but not today, I guess.”
“You don’t say. Modern.”
“Sí, señor.”
“But not much crime, although I guess there are accidents.”
“Accidents, plenty.” He laughed. “And crime.”
“Really? What kind?”
“Suicides mostly.”
Roberto woke up. “Suicides? Why suicides?”
“Just last week the body of a local guy was found at the foot of a cliff,” the cop said, without answering the question.
“But how do you know it was suicide?”
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Actually yes – unless you give me one.” He’d forgotten about the pack he bought, which was still in his pocket.
“I mean it could have been an accident,” Fox said after they both lit up, filling the car with noxious smoke.
“Not with a knife wound in his chest,” Officer Jorge laughed.
“You mean he stabbed himself then fell over the cliff?” Fox laughed along with the joke.
“Well, there was no knife,” the cop said. Fox glanced at him and saw that he was now serious. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said.
“Bueno, Señor Roberto, I’ll explain. Probably someone stabbed him and threw his body over. Who knows why – because of a woman, or some clan feud. Then someone from the dead guy’s family finds the body and goes and kills the guy who killed him. My compañero found the other body yesterday.
“Another suicide?” Fox asked. The cop didn’t notice the sarcasm. “Obviously, otherwise it’s an unsolved crime. But suicide means case closed.”
Fox, who had seen many strange things in his career, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “But an accident would also mean case closed,” he offered.
“It’s clear that you are not from around here,” Officer Jorge said. “These guys are like goats; they don’t fall off anything. No one would believe it.”
“I see.”

Near the summit he stopped at a café that specialized in views, but there was nothing to see and night had fallen, which made the road even more treacherous. He asked the proprietor if the fog reached all the way to Córdoba and was told that the fog ended on the other side.

“And it was true, Frank,” he told me. “After going down a few miles on the other side of the mountains, it was clear, starlight, moon…clarity.”

“I can understand why you couldn’t concentrate on chess,” I said. “What did you tell Claudia?”

“I phoned her, told her it was probably an accident.”

“That’s probably best,” I agreed. “She might have gone after Ramón, have him put away.”

Roberto Fox looked at his watch and stood up. “No, she did it.”

“She?”

“Blanche, she pushed him over.”

“But I thought…I mean her explanation sounds so reasonable. How can you know otherwise?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “I had this dream during the flight over.”
He told me the dream.
"She did Raúl in by force," Roberto said, "and she almost did me in with lies…but I woke up.”

“But a dream…” I started to object.

“I know,” Roberto said, “a dream is another unreliable witness.”  

 

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