9683

 

To Kill an Idiot

 

by Roberto Fox

                       

I was sitting in my favorite chair with the balcony window open having my morning coffee and media lunas. An unlighted pipe rested next to a pouch of Captain Black tobacco. I leafed through La Nación, one of the three newspapers I more or less read every morning, the other two being Ambito Financiero and the English language daily The Buenos Aires Herald. I closed La Nación and put it aside. Then I filled the pipe, lighted it with a match and contemplated the green expanse of the Palermo Park golf course outside my open picture-window. Someday l’ll have to take up golf, I thought, not for the first time, and I’m still thinking it. How many people would give their right arm to live where I do. The only players down there that early were some Koreans. It was too early for the Argentines. From my fourth floor vantage point I could see a huge black cloud front approaching from the River. From below, the golfers wouldn't be able to see it and would soon be soaked by a typical spring storm. I hoped it would hurry so I could see the show. 

I’m thin to the point of gauntness, but that’s genetic and has nothing to do with my health, which has always been excellent. My face, when viewed from the side, is ruggedly handsome, if I may say so, despite or because of a large nose that starts out straight from between my eyes and suddenly slopes downward to form a hook before returning to my upper lip. From the front I

look like a hatchet about to chop. Sometimes I scare myself when shaving. As I lapse into deeper thoughts I could be taken for a contented man, which indeed I was at such moments. I was developing an idea I had upon waking that morning about how to solve a plotting problem with the newest children's book I was writing. 

The doorbell rang and I frowned. The tone of the ring told me that someone was right outside the door and not downstairs. Buenos Aires isn't quite as crime-ridden as some other South American cities, but it’s getting there and one has to take certain precautions. I barely know my neighbors and the portero wouldn't dare ring my bell so early on a Sunday unless it was an emergency. I stood up and considered getting my revolver, shook my head, smiled at myself and went to the door. I lifted the metal cover of the peephole and looked into the hall. A man and a women stood there.

"Yes?"

"Señor Roberto Fox?” the woman asked.

“Yes.”

“Can we talk with you, Mr. Fox, it's urgent," she said in accent-free English.   

I’d seen her occasionally in the elevator or crossing the park and had wished to know her better. But we’d never said more than good morning to each other. I had also seen the man in and around the building, but had no idea who he was.

"Yes, of course," I answered. "Give me a moment to put something on."

It was a balmy spring day and I was in shorts and slippers. I went into the bedroom and changed to slacks and a polo shirt, ran a comb through my hair and returned to the hall. I looked again through the peeper, behind and around the two visitors, then opened the door to let them in.

The woman was obviously distraught, no makeup, long black hair hastily combed. The man was shorter than she, bald, bow-tie, worried.

"I was just having breakfast," I said once they we all standing in the living room. "Would you like some coffee?"        

            She didn't seem to hear me. The man nodded. "I think we could use some - if it's no trouble." His English was accented.

            "Not at all, the water's still hot. I'm afraid it's instant though. Please sit down." I’m rather proud of my kitchen and regretted that they wouldn't see it. I'd taken down most of the wall that separated it from the park and installed another picture window there. The cleaning woman had been in the day before and it sparkled. There was a breakfast nook that I only used in winter.

"We've come about a death, Mr. Fox," the woman said. I missed a beat, mentally shrugged, and continued into the kitchen. Two minutes later I placed a tray with two steaming coffee cups on the table in front of my guests. "Not a pleasant subject to start off a Sunday morning, is it?" I said, easing back into my chair. "What death?"

"I'm sorry to bother you on a Sunday, Mr. Fox, it's just that...well...it's so important to me. I…”

"That's all right. You're both from the building, aren't you?"

"Yes sir, I'm Dr. Fernandez, from 2B."

"And I'm Gabriela Bauzá, 4B."

"You talk like an American," I said. "Name's not though."

"Yes, my maiden name is Jones. My ex-husband is Chilean, he's the director of LAN Chile here."

"I see, OK, what death?"

"A woman who works for me, her son was killed yesterday, I'd like you to find out who did it, the police don't give a damn, they say it was a hit and run accident, but...

"Why did you come to me?" I interrupted.

She seemed surprised at the question. "I was told you were once an FBI agent and now you're a private detective."

"Who told you that?"

"I did, Mr. Fox," the man said.

"Ah, and how did you come to that conclusion?"

"Why...why, I thought everyone in the building knew it. I was surprised that Señora Bauzá didn't." He looked at his coffee cup and leaned forward to pick it up, looked up at me and said, "It's true, isn't it?"

"Not quite," I said, not hiding my annoyance. "I used to be with the FBI, yes, and I do some occasional investigations, sometimes for them, sometimes for other government agencies, I very seldom take private clients. I'm a writer now."    

"But you handled a case for Mrs. Bennington, didn't you?" Gabriela Bauzá said.

I felt my blood rise. I dislike being questioned, especially by people who already know the answers. Mrs. Bennington was the wife of an American businessman. Her Argentine lover had been murdered and she'd suspected her husband. I accepted the case for a ridiculously high fee--to compensate for the low level of royalties I earn from my books--and was able to prove that the murderer was the lover's gay lover. Gabriela Bauzá probably knew her, although she’s no longer in Argentina.

"Yes," was all I said, glaring at her.

 "May I tell you about the death of Gerardo Galvéz, Mr. Fox?"

"Yes, but as a guest, not as a client."

She glared back at me. "I'm not interested in being your guest, Mr. Fox." She took an envelope from a pocket in her shorts, opened it and laid five hundred dollar bills on the table. "I want to be your client."    

"If you were my client, Mrs. Bauzá, you would be paying a thousand dollar retainer fee - plus value added tax." I said this smiling though, beginning to find the woman interesting. She certainly had lovely legs. "Now if you want to tell me about Gerardo Galvéz, go ahead. If not, please be my guest and drink your coffee."

She made an obvious effort not to tell me to go to hell, sighed, and said, "Will a check do? I don't have one with me but I can get one right away."

I shrugged. "Usually, but let's hear the story first."

            "Gerardo was my employee's son--" She began.

            "What kind of employee?"

            "Maid."

            "Live-in?"

            "No. But last night she stayed over with her son because workmen had been in my apartment for the past few days and I wanted her to start early cleaning up."

            "OK, go on."

            "The boy’s body was found last night on the Costanera. The police say it's a hit and run case and aren't interested in investigating further."

            "You mean finding the driver?"

            "No." She took her first sip of coffee and dabbed her lips with a napkin. All to calm down and collect her thoughts.  "Please let me finish."

            "Right, sorry, interrupting is a weakness of mine."

            "One of few, I assume."

            "Oh, definitely.

            "Sorry, I couldn't resist. May I smoke?" She had noticed the pipe on the table and took a pack of cigarettes from her seemingly bottomless bag before I had a chance to nod. I struck a match to light her up and she backed off slightly from the flame.

            "Matches are better than lighters for pipes," I explained.

            She took a deep drag and continued: "We don't believe the hit and run story." She paused, waiting for my "Why not?" but I didn’t say it. "You see, Gerardo lived with his mother in Don Torcuarto and never went more than a hundred yards from his home without her. He would never have gone to the Costanera here in the city alone. But since we practically live in the park, she let him go for a walk last night. We saw no danger, it’s well lighted, there are also always some police patrolling and … "

            “How old was he?"

            She hesitated a moment. "About sixteen. He was retarded and depended completely on his mother."

"Is that the only reason?" I asked her. "I mean that you're so sure it couldn't have been an accident?”

“He was found on the Costanera.”

            “That’s not so far.”

            “It is for Gerardo. I already told you he would never stray so far from his mother, or from me if she’s not around.”

“Anything else?”

"An autopsy would prove that it wasn't an accident," she said.

            "Perhaps. But why are you so sure before the autopsy."

            Dr. Fernandez coughed. "Er, I saw the body and it didn’t look like he was hit by a car." He straightened his bow tie, which hadn't been crooked. "I'm not a forensic expert, but I think I can tell if someone has been hit by a car and killed. No bruises, broken bones, bleeding, nothing like that."

            "The police refused," Gabriela Bauzá said. "They think he's not worth it."

            Dr. Fernandez shook his head. "We'd need a budget like Miami's to perform autopsies on every juvenile delinquent killed in Buenos Aires, is what the sub-comisario said. Most irresponsible"    

I sighed audibly, stood up and walked to the picture-window. The rain had started, but the Koreans kept playing. I had intended to get some work done on the book before the idea escaped me. Well, I thought, I’ll note it down and work on it later. I returned to the table.

            "Where is the body now?"

            "At their home, in Don Torquarto," Gabriela answered. "He's to be buried tomorrow morning.”

            "Do they have a phone?"

            "Yes..that is, no, but she can be reached from a neighbor's phone."

            "All right," I said, relighting my pipe, "please call her and tell her not to bury the body yet."

            She stood up quickly and looked around for the phone. "It's in the bedroom," I said. "Come, I'll show you."

            "Oh."

            "What?"

            "The number. I—"

            "In your bag?" I suggested.

            "Uh, yes, it could be there." She rummaged through the bag and finally withdrew an address book. Once in the bedroom, she sat on the bed and dialed without looking at the book. The neighbor had to go next door to fetch Gerardo's mother, so it took a while. While they were waiting, she asked me what she should give as the reason for delaying the burial.

            "Tell her the police want to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death," I said, smiling. She looked right at home sitting on my bed.

            "Er, excuse me," Dr. Fernandez said from the doorway. "I think I'll be going if you don't need me any longer. I have to.."

            "Oh, I'm so sorry, doctor," she said. "Thank you so much, I appreciate your help enormously."

            As Fernandez bowed out, someone came on to the other end of the telephone line. Gabriela Bauzá told Gerardo Galvéz's mother in Spanish not to bury the boy. Then she had to explain why not. "Please do what I say, Gladys", she added, “I know what's best." When she hung up the receiver she sighed, looked up at me and said, "She thinks it's God's will or something."

            "Maybe it is," I said and sat on the bed next to her. Her eyes opened wide, but she didn't move, not wanting to show fear.

            "Shall we go back into the living room?" I said. “Beds with beautiful women sitting on them distract me from business." I stood up and walked out of the room. After a moment she followed. I stood gazing out the rain-splattered picture window with my hands clasped behind my back like a latter-day Ahab searching angrily for his leviathan nemesis. Gabriela Bauzá entered the room and stood watching me.

            "Sit down, please," I told her. When I turned to face her with my hatchety frown, she crossed her legs and lighted a cigarette with one of my matches, determined, it seemed, not to be intimidated.

            "If you want me to help you," I growled, "you'll have to tell me the truth."

            "What do you mean?" she said. "Do you think I've been lying to you?"

            "Only by omission, but that amounts to the same thing"

            She didn't answer, only her eyes were interrogative.

            "I have some questions, things that bother me. First of all, why didn't you go to some lawyer instead of me. The police may ignore a poor mother who lives in a villa miseria, but not the gringa wife, even ex-wife, of LAN Chile's manager backed up by a good lawyer. Secondly, your Spanish is perfect Argentine colloquial, putting my own to shame. Your English is almost but not quite perfect American, but there's something funny about it. So: are you American or Argentine? And thirdly, why the hell are you so interested anyway? You aren't even sure of the boy's age. The mother, and father if there is one, want to bury the body and be done with it, but not you."

            I approached the table, lighted up my pipe and sat down across form her, making an effort to glare into her eyes rather than smile at her lovely tanned legs. She stared back, arranging her thoughts, then spoke.

            "I should have been aware that I was dealing with a reincarnated Sherlock Holmes. Congratulations, Mr. Fox. It's unfortunate that Dr. Fernandez didn't seem to want to be your Watson."

I grinned, checked but not mated.

"I'm both Argentine and American – born and raised here, but studied in the States. I'm so interested because I hate injustice. I also knew the boy well, and he was a loving human being despite being mentally handicapped. In fact, he was like a son to me – or a nephew. His mother has worked for me since he was small, and he often stayed over for the weekend. So you see, I loved him. And he was totally innocent. He found a cheap condom still in it’s wrapper outside the last time he was here a week ago and he asked me what it was. I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally I told him it was something people use to keep healthy, but only grown-ups, and he should throw it away. But I don’t know if he did." She continued to meet my glare.

"Hm. We’re getting there, maybe, slowly but surely."

She stuffed out her cigarette and stood up. "Go to hell!" she said in Spanish. "I'm truly sorry I took you away from your kids games. Goodbye and rot!"

"Sit down, goddamn it," I said calmly. "I need everything if I'm going to help you. Don't you understand that?"

She started for the door, stopped, and her shoulders started to shake from suppressed sobs. I went to her, put his arm around her shoulders and turned her back towards the table. "Come on," I said, gently now. "Sit down and we'll talk it over. I promise not to bite."

She let herself be led back to the table, where I handed her a large paper napkin. "Here, use this, that bit of a hankie won't do in a flood." She smiled wanly and blew her nose in the napkin. Then she nodded.

I went to a walnut cabinet on which stood a TV, opened the door and took out a bottle of brandy. "It's early, but the occasion calls for it." I poured her a stiff one into a brandy glass, then helped myself.

"I did go to a lawyer, my own.” She paused, then: “Have you seen that?” She pointed to La Nación, still lying one on the table. She flipped to the front page and pointed to a headline near the bottom which I had missed. María Jiménez Found Dead in Palermo Park. I read the article quickly. Jiménez was a famous actress whose body had been found the night before in the lake of the park - the one I had been looking at through my picture window. According to the newspaper the initial accidental drowning hypothesis was in doubt, "as revealed by unofficial sources". Nothing else, the news was too fresh.

“Gerardo was also there,” Gabriela Bauzá said. “What if the same person who murdered María Jimenez also killed Gerardo?”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, maybe he saw something. It’s too hot for my lawyer, he knows Jiménez had connections higher up than him or me and he doesn’t want to get involved. He suggested I go to a private investigator, and Dr. Fernandez told me about you and…”

            I reached behind the sofa and came up with a cordless phone. I winked at her unspoken surprise that she had had to go into my bedroom to phone. Had she been fat with a wart on her nose, it is fairly likely that the interview would have ended long ago. But I was intrigued, not only by her beauty, also her deep strong voice which sounded like Katherine Hepburn. Often things happen at appropriate moments. I’ve been living alone for several years now and have begun to have that lonely feeling. I like women, no question of that, and I attract them, but twice I mistook mutual attraction for love and got married, an error I was resolved never to repeat.

I dialed Detective Comisario Alberto Contreras's home number. It rang ten times before a sleepy voice grunted into the other end.

            "Sorry to wake you, Alberto." I pressed the receiver to my ear so Gabriela wouldn't hear the obscenities. "I need a favor. A retarded kid named Gerardo Galvéz was found dead last night on the Costanera. The police verdict is hit-and-run, but I'm not so sure. I need an autopsy". I knew that Contreras would complain that they had too few autopsy people, that he was overworked and had no time for trivial shit, but I also knew that it was all an act, that he would arrange for the autopsy, for we owe each other too much. Alberto Contreras is one of the few honest cops in the Argentine Federal Police, which isn't an easy thing to be. We work together and Alberto gets the police-side credit. I listened a while, then said, “No, it's got to be now, Alberto...yes, this is urgent too…Yes, I can imagine that they’re busy. By the way, Alberto," I said with my eye on the front page of the newspaper, "are you involved in the María Jimenez investigation?"

            "Sure I am," Alberto said, obviously surprised. "Why?"

            "According to La Nación she didn't drown after all."

            He grunted noncommittally, which I took for an affirmative.       

            "What was the cause of death then?"

            "Not sure. They're working on it."

            "The forensic people?"

            "Look, Roberto, she's important."

            "Was."

            "Right, was. And your idiot friend isn't - wasn't."

            "He could be more important than you think, Alberto."

            "Talk straight, zorro."

            Alberto knows two words of English, one being four-lettered and the other my last name. He had been greatly amused when someone informed him that it meant zorro in Spanish. He pronounced the four-letter one “fahck” and my name “Fohx”.

            "What was the cause of death?"

            He sighed as loudly as one can over the phone. "It looks like she could have been strangled. Now what the hell are you driving at, Roberto?"

            I glanced at my client, whose eyes could have penetrated the Great Wall of China. "When will you be in your office?"

            "I was on my way there when you called."

            "I'll see you there in an hour. Would you like a tip?"

            "Depends on the tip."

            "What a vote of confidence. I'll give it to you anyway. Have the body brought to the same forensic team that's working on María Jimenez."

            "Puta! How many forensic teams do you think we have?"

           "I'll go with you," Gabriela said firmly when I hung up.

            "No," I replied with equal firmness. “The police won't allow it. I want to know things they won't tell me if you're present."

            "What things?"

            "Look, do you want me to help you or not?"

She looked down at the park. Dark, bottle-shaped clouds full of water and lightning were approaching. "Yes. Will you tell me afterwards?"

            "Of course." Which meant eventually, but eventually all things will be known, maybe including the meaning of life.

            I smiled and she smiled back, a little. Then I stood up and took her hand. "I have to change now. I'll let you know as soon as I know something."

            "I'll be waiting," she said as she left, and I knew that was for sure.

 

Alberto Contreras was conferring with two other detectives in his two-by-four office when I entered two hours later, knowing that for Alberto one hour meant two. He nodded to them and they left.

            "What do you have on the María Jimenez case, Alberto?" I asked him, taking the offensive before he could. 

            "She was strangled before being thrown into the river," he said, putting his feet up on a scarred desk. I sat down across from him without being invited. "No water in the lungs?"

            "That's right." He offered me a cigarette, though he knew I smoke a pipe. I took it out and went through the ritual of filling it and lighting up. That's one good thing about South America: you can still smoke, anywhere. “Faint marks on the neck in the right places?"

            He nodded. "By the way, they should be picking up the idiot's body any minute now."

            "He was handicapped due to brain damage at birth," I said. "So let's call him Gerardo."

            "Oh sure, sorry," Alberto, who under the tough cop exterior had a good heart, mumbled.               

            "I think the forensics will find the same marks on his neck."

            "I believe it if you say so and I'll believe it more when I see their report. What else do you know, Roberto Zorro?"

            "Nothing. You?"

            "Ditto."

            "List of friends, lovers, etc.?" Alberto Contrero shoved a paper across the desk. It contained a long, tightly-spaced list of names and telephone numbers typed with an ancient police typewriter.

            "She knew a lot of people," I said as I glanced through it.

            "Yes, important ones, too."

I saw what he meant, especially as the President of the Nation's name and direct line were on it.

            "No addresses?"

            "She only had phone numbers. We're getting the addresses".

            I ran my finger down the list of telephone numbers. On the reverse side I stopped at a number and slid to the left to a name: "Alberto." I smiled. "Where do you live, Alberto?"

            Alberto swung his feet off the desk, rose and came to my side.

            "Devoto. Why?" He looked at the name my finger was on. "That's not my number, as you well know." Not much sense of humor, but a good cop. I ran my finger down the rest of the list and came back to Alberto.

            "So what's with Alberto?" Alberto asked.

            "Look. These people all live in the northern suburbs or Recoleta. You can tell by the first telephone digits."

            "Of course. They're all loaded."

            "Except Alberto and this other one who is her accountant, right?"

            "Where's that - 784?" he asked, meaning the first three digits of his namesake's phone number.

            "It's my neighborhood."

            "I thought you were loaded, too, zorro." A pretty poor joke, so I ignored it. Relative incomes are nothing to joke about.

            "It's also near the park where Jimenez’s body was found."

            "Go on."

            "My impression is that most of the people who go to the park and the lovers' lane live near it." Alberto knew by then what I was getting at, but he let me continue. "The only ones on this list who live near the park are Alberto and the accountant."

            "It's not much."

            "It's all we've got, unless you know something you're not telling me." 

            "You think this Alberto maybe murdered María Jimenez in the lovers lane and the...whatsizname, Gerardo saw him so he killed him, too?"

            "It's possible."

            "Anything's possible". Contreras dialed his contact at the telephone company and inquired for his namesake's full name and address. He whistled softly through his teeth while we waited, less than a minute. He hung up and read the information he'd jotted on a pad: "Dr. Alberto Palazzo, La Pampa 356, apartment 4C." He stood up. "Coming?"

            "Sure."

            "Wait here. I'll get a search warrant."

            "Just like that?"

            "This case is hot, man." He walked out and put on his jacket in one fluid motion.

 

No one answered apartment 4C's downstairs doorbell so Alberto rang the portero’s bell. A voice squawked from the intercom: "Hola."

            "Policía," Alberto squawked back.

            "What do you want?"

            "To talk to you, hombre."

            Unintelligible muttering and a click. A minute later the portly, gray haired portero was standing behind the glass door staring at us suspiciously -- an occupational disposition. Albert flashed his badge and he opened the door.

            "Have you seen Dr. Palazzo recently?" Alberto asked him after shouldering his way in.

            "Dr. Palazzo?"

            "Apartment 4C."

            "Oh." He thought a moment, which appeared to be a laborious task. "I don't see him often."

            "When was the last time?"

            "I don't remember."

            "Maybe you'll remember down at the station." It wasn't an idle threat. Alberto's grimace was horrific.

            "Maybe a week ago, I really don't know."

            "Get the key," Alberto said. "We're going in."

            "I wouldn't do that if I were you," the portero said.

            What impudence! I was afraid Alberto would kill him on the spot. But he only smiled, what passes for a smile with Alberto, and took the search warrant from his pocket, showed it to the portero and told him again to get the key - fast.

            As we rode up alone in the elevator to the fourth floor Alberto said: "I got a hunch that this Palazzo - if that's his real name, which I doubt - is a big fish."

            "Because of what the portero said?"

            "Yes, like a threat. He's probably calling him now, but he better hurry up or I'll break his fucking door down,"

            "The portero's or Palazzo's"?

            "Both."

            The portero didn't take long though. He opened 4C and we walked into an expensive but austerely furnished apartment. A large photograph over a mahogany desk depicted two middle-aged army officers shaking hands. I recognized one of them as the President during the military dictatorship. The other looked familiar but I couldn't immediately place him. Alberto glanced at the photo and opened a humidor on the desk. “Havanas,” he said, and closed it. Then he opened the top desk drawer. He took out a pad of blank writing paper. The name embossed in the upper-left hand corner was Brig. General Alberto Leandro Campos. Of course. The head of the Southern Military Command during the military government, who had control over the archipelago of concentration camps where thousands of dissidents, and others, were tortured, raped and murdered during the "dirty war" back in the seventies.

            "Meet Dr. Palazzo," Alberto said dryly, pointing to Campos. "He's retired but still pulls a lot of weight around here."

            We went through the apartment. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen. One door was locked. Alberto looked at the portero hovering behind us, who shrugged. Alberto went back to the desk, rummaged in the open drawer, found nothing and tried the bottom one. Locked. He fished a jackknife-like instrument from his pocket and worked on the lock, finally getting it open. The only thing inside was a key. He crossed to the locked door and opened it. We gaped: a kinky torture chamber with a padded operating table, rings inserted in the walls, 57 varieties of whips, a straight-jacket, women's black underwear, leather boots, cattle-prods, the works. The walls and windows were painted black. Alberto flicked a switch on the wall and red, green, yellow strobe lights blinked on transforming the place into an inferno. Alberto inspected each item one by one. I watched him without entering. The portero stared down at his frayed slippers.

            Finally Alberto came out, approached the trembling portero and pushed him into a chair. "I want you to tell me everything you know about this place right now, off the record," he said. "We'll decide what you say on the record later. If you cooperate I'll protect you. If you don't it's your funeral."

            The portero might not have known any more than we did about the place - but then he might have.  And Alberto is good at scaring people.

            "It's not what it seems," the portero stammered. Alberto looked fierce and said nothing. "It's..It's not the general who tortures people here."

            "Who does, then?"

            "They torture him," he blurted out.

            "Women?"

            "Yes."

            "Did you ever see María Jimenez, in person?"

            The portero stared at him. The question was impeccably leading.

            "Sí, señor," he answered, barely audible.

            "When?"

            "Several times."

            "Here?"

            "Si, señor."

            "When was the last time?"

            "Yesterday."

            "Did she come in with the general?"

            "I don't know. I only saw her leave."

            "Was she alive?"

            "I...I don't know."

            "Why don't you know?"

            "The general told me to help him carry her down to the garage. I had to do it. He ordered me to." 

            "What did he say about her?"

            "That she was drunk." 

            "Did you smell alcohol?"

            "No, but I don't smell very well."

            "Then what?"

            "We put her in the front seat and fastened the safety belt and they drove away. That's all I know."

            "What else?" Alberto insisted.

            "He told me never to mention it, never, or I would be dead, that he would kill me."

            "Did you believe him?"

            "Yes. I still believe him."

            "Nothing will happen to you," Alberto said. He didn't ask if he believed him.                          

Alberto walked around the room twice, frowning, then took his cellphone from his belt and pushed some buttons. He told the police sergeant who answered to send two cops over to seal the apartment. Then he addressed the portero: "Are you married?"

            The portero shook his head: "Widower."

            "I'm arresting you as a material witness for your own protection. Remember, I'm protecting you. You have nothing to worry about." I wondered about Alberto's ability to protect anyone under the circumstances.           

The portero packed some things and we dropped him off at Federal Police Headquarters, where Alberto ordered him kept in a special VIP cell with maximum security. Alberto wanted to get his statement down on paper and signed right away, a procedure which no outsider could witness, so I said I'd take a walk and return in an hour. The walk gave me time to consider the strength of the case against General Campos. I decided it was too weak. When I returned I had to wait another twenty minutes in his office before Alberto came in with two chipped coffee mugs which he placed on his chipped desk.

            "You know", he said, "Campos liked to kill prisoners himself, with his bare hands."

            "Women?"

            "Anybody".

            "Why do you think he killed María Jimenez?"

            "I don't know. Maybe she objected to a particularly beastly act he wanted her to perform." He grinned beastily, lit a cigarette and perfunctorily offered me one, which I accepted this time. "You may be right about Gerardo. He probably saw Campos dump her in the lake so he strangled him as well, expertly, put him in his car and drove to the Costanera where he threw him out, figuring the police wouldn't take the trouble to find out the real cause of death."

            "He was right there," I said, just to rub it in a bit.

            "He was pretty sure of himself," Alberto said, ignoring my sarcasm, "being who he is."

            "It could be tough to prove without an established motive," I said.

            Alberto shrugged. "Maybe."

            "I'm just playing Devil's advocate, Alberto. What have we got?" I was puzzled and annoyed by his attitude. We didn't have very much and he knew it.

            "The portero."

            "It's his word against Campo's. And who knows if he’ll testify"

            "The playroom."

            "Could be irrelevant - depending on the judge."

            "The car," he said, pulling on his cigarette and grinning malevolently.

            "What car? What are you talking about?"

            "The portero told me the general went to Mar del Plata today and left his car in the garage. So I sent Gomez over there to give it the once over."

            "Gomez," I repeated. "If there's anything to find, that gnome will find it."

            "He already has," Alberto said. "Nothing of María Jimenez, but some blonde hairs which could be Gerardo's. The forensic people are looking at them now."

            "How do you know he was blonde?"

            Alberto grinned. "Wasn't he?"

            "I don’t know, but If Campos was so careless, why nothing of Jimenez?"·

            "Our little concierge is a gold mine of information. He remembered a plastic sheet spread on the front seat where she was placed. Probably Campos didn't bother taking precautions with Gerardo, just threw him in the back seat."

            "How did you know Gerardo was blonde, Alberto?" I insisted.

            "Because the hair they found was blonde, Zorro mio. And it looks like he was strangled."

            "That doesn't surprise either of us," I said as I fumbled in my pockets for matches to light my pipe, having snuffed out the cigarette after the first puff. "And the pressure was applied in the same way as it was to Jimenez, right?"

            "Yes," he confirmed, frowning. "But there's something else and it worries me." He took out another of his noxious black tobacco cigarettes from a crumpled pack, offered me one despite the pipe in my mouth, and lighted up. I only accepted his lighter, which is an inefficient way to light a pipe. I assumed that what was worrying him was the same thing that was worrying me: the army's reaction to a double homicide charge against one of its heroes.

            "So what's the something?" I finally had to ask because he was puffing away looking at the ceiling.

            "A beat up condom, still sealed in its package, was found in the car. Cheapest brand. Not what you'd expect Campos to use."

            When I told him that it was Gerardo's he whooped and said, "That nails it then."

            "Except for Campo's connections," I said. We both knew that for the government to accuse a general of Campo's stature of being a sexual deviate and the murderer of Argentina's most popular actress (she won an Oscar a few years back for her performance in the Best Foreign Film), not to mention a demented youth, was tantamount to saying Maradona was a fairy, the Falkland Islands weren't Argentina's and Peron was a pimp. The army would be so offended it could result in a coup d'état. Neither the judge not the President would want the case to go to court. 

            "That's not my problem," Alberto growled. "I know who the killer is and I can prove it. If they want to let him go that's their business." He threw his cigarette butt onto the floor and stamped on it with considerable emphasis. "I'm going to see the Chief," he said as he threw on his jacket with the fluid motion and headed for the door. "I'll call you later."

            I wasn't at all surprised when Albert informed me by phone of the Police Chief's reluctance to arrest General Campos. He told Alberto to keep the case under wraps until he spoke with the Minister of Justice, who would certainly wish to consult the President before making a decision.

            "So what are you going to do now?" I asked him.

            He swore mightily, throwing in his one English four-letterer for good measure and hung up.

           

I was frying some eggs when the doorbell rang. I let Gabriela in. She looked at me with those beautiful, totally intense black eyes. I told her everything without even asking her to keep it quiet, which I knew would have been useless.

            "They'll never convict him," she said. "They won't even arrest him."

            "They might," I said without much conviction. "The detective is very determined."

            She strode back and forth across my living room for a good minute before she stopped and said, "Unless -- May I use your phone? I want to call a friend of mine." She took a small address book from her skirt pocket, opened it to the first page and dialed a well-known radio/TV news program personality. Bit of a muckraker, but as brave as they come. Some people have the damnedest friends. 

            The next evening at five minutes to ten I called Alberto.

            "Turn on the Pepe Alivaro show," I told him. "Gabriela Bauzá knows everything and will tell all." I could hear his heavy breathing. "I couldn't avoid this, Alberto. She's a very persistent woman -- Alberto?"

            "I'm listening."

            "This will help your case considerably, you know."

            "Um-hum."

            "Enjoy the show." 

            "Fox, this is a--"

            I hung up. Whatever he might have had to say would only be for the benefit of eavesdroppers anyway. Gabriela and I are leaving tonight for Miami. Once she's safely stashed away with some friends of mine in Daytona Beach I'll return to Buenos Aires and give Alberto the affidavit she swore before a notary public and assure him that she'll be back for the trial, if there is one, and I think there will be with the world watching. Argentina is trying to clean up its act in order to attract foreign investments. Whether Campos will be convicted or not is another question. A lot of people are afraid of him. But not Alberto Contreras, who will hang tough, even if he loses his job for it. If he does, well, I could always use a good partner. And nobody and nothing can stop Gabriela Bauzá, except a bullet. But if they don't know where she is they can't harm her, can they? Even I intend to work up the courage of my convictions. All in all, there's a pretty good chance of justice being done. I'll have to take good care of myself for a while, but I'm used to that. I'm picking her up at the TV station, which is just a few blocks from here, right after the broadcast. Our bags are ready and waiting in my hallway.

            At some point I intend to tell Gabriela that if Gerardo hadn't seen Campos kill the famous María Jiménez, he would have gotten away with it. So Gerardo's death wasn't completely in vain. It may be scant comfort, but at least it's something.          

            I pour myself a scotch on the rocks, light my favorite pipe, turn on the TV and sit back to watch Gabriela tell the truth, a pretty rare phenomenon around here. I assume that Detective Alberto Contreras is doing the same, only with a cigarette. And in the ostentatious building which occupies a valuable piece of real estate in downtown Buenos Aires, the Club Militar, perhaps the other Alberto is tuned in as well. He smokes Havana cigars.


 

© Frank Thomas Smith