A Death in Valencia

Jason Webster

Minotaur Books


Sunday 5th July

The green-and-white Guardia Civil patrol boat looked out of place so close to the shoreline. Its sharp-cut lines and metallic sheen spoke of thrust and speed in a place where people sought the softening embrace of sand, the gentle peal of waves and the caress of the sun. Sitting there motionless, an invasive presence, it was unclear what was causing the greater disturbance: its own arrival, or what it had come for.

A couple of Policías Nacionales from the squad car accompanied him as he found an alleyway cutting through the row of cafés and paella restaurants and headed towards the beach. Along the promenade a few heads turned towards the sea trying to make out what was going on, but the terraces were filled mostly with early-evening drinkers, children eating ice cream, and overheated waitresses carrying heavy, laden trays through a tide of discarded straws and paper serviettes. Above their heads, palm trees arched into the humid blue sky, while yellow-and-white flags from the lamp posts rippled as they caught an unlikely breeze.

Ignoring the main entrance to the beach a few yards away, he skipped over the low wall and on to the sand. The presence of uniformed policemen among the bystanders seemed to confirm to most that whatever was going on was serious, and needed to be witnessed. Yet already different types were discernible, like competing currents of water: those moving away, not wanting to see; others flowing in. From underneath their mirror sunglasses, he saw the eyes of the officers with him darting over the array of exposed flesh as they grimly maintained their expressions of serious business-at-hand. He, too, was conscious of rounded forms, of browning skin and wet black hair streaking over naked shoulders. But there was only ever one body for him.

A second group of Policías Nacionales was standing on the shoreline. He felt sand seeping into his shoes as the officer in charge saluted and held out a hand to shake.

'Been there at least half an hour,' he said, nodding in the direction of the Guardia Civil boat.

On the deck, he could make out the captain standing with his legs wide apart, a green cap on his head and his eyes shaded by the black binoculars he was holding up with both hands. They were so close that the two groups of law officers could almost talk to one another without needing to shout, but he knew that so far there had been no communication. A stand-off. Whoever was first to breach the silence would later get the paperwork load describing every step of protocol, every detail of what happened next.

And all the responsibility if things went wrong.

The police officer handed him a pair of binoculars, the same Interior Ministry standard issue that was being trained on him at that moment. He'd already seen the body as he'd walked over the wide expanse of the beach, already sensed in his guts who it was, but nonetheless he focused the glasses on the floating, bloated form as it lay still in the tranquil Mediterranean waters, exactly halfway between the Guardia Civil boat and the Policía Nacional officers lining the shore, with a thousand sunbathers at their backs.

Half an hour, and still no one had made a move. The Guardia Civil captain would be wondering what would happen now that this more senior policeman had showed up. He'd be weighing him up, concluding, quite correctly, that being out of uniform he was a Judicial, an investigating cop. And from the way the others in his group deferred to him, he was almost certainly an inspector, perhaps even chief inspector, although on the young side. Still, superior enough to make a call on this, to break the impasse.

So whose was it? A body out at sea was Guardia Civil property. On land, here in the city, a stiff belonged to the Nacionales. And this one just couldn't decide which way it wanted to go. Caught between earth and water, floating in a legal grey area in the unmoving, shimmering blue. He glanced down at his feet: other detritus from the Mediterranean appeared to have less of a problem finding its way ashore. The usual collection of driftwood, scraps of plastic, seaweed and used contraceptives had found refuge on the pale brown sand, discarded rubbish and waste from the ships in the port just a few metres away.

He trained the binoculars again on the body. A light westerly poniente breeze was blowing across from the plains and flattening the sea, which stretched out ahead like a sheet of glass. No waves, no currents to push the body in either one direction or the other.

For a moment he became aware of the crowds behind them. There were the usual groups for a weekend in early July: couples, families, professional sunbathers, elderly men with their lives in plastic carrier bags and nowhere else to go, teenagers still feeling their way around their changing bodies, students pretending to revise for the September retakes. He saw that a large number of them had yellow-and-white rucksacks, the same colours as the flags further back: free gifts from the Church preparing for the Pope's visit later in the week to head the World Families Conference.

There was another sound, though, another group among all these: the sound of light giggling mixed in with the occasional cry. There were children on this beach, dozens of them. Some with their parents, others in a small group from the El Cabanyal district just behind them. For half an hour police officers had been standing here watching a dead body breaking the surface while kids were still splashing in the water only yards away.

He took one last look at the floater, then up at the Guardia Civil captain, a rage willing itself into life inside him. Strictly, this was a Guardia Civil job. The man should have sent a dinghy out there and pulled the body back out to the boat. But something about his posture, something about his appearance, made Cámara relent. There was a look about him he had seen before, something he'd caught sight of in his colleagues, and in himself on occasion, something that, at times at least, seemed to be growing more frequent: the frozen, almost death-like expression that came when real decisions had to be made, and responsibility taken. This wasn't bloody-mindedness on the captain's part, it was inertia brought on by the bureaucratic labyrinth he could see himself getting caught in if he took just one step.

Handing the binoculars back to the officer at his side, he slipped off his shoes and pulled the belt from around his waistband, folding his jacket and laying it on the sand.

'I'm going in,' he said. 'Send two others to come with me.'

A foreign backpacking couple were sitting up and watching from nearby. He walked over to them and through sign language and a few words of English, made them understand he wanted some toothpaste. Reluctantly, a white tube was handed over; Cámara checked the writing on the side, then slapped a thick amount just under his nose to create a protruding blue Hitler moustache. After ordering the two officers volunteered for the job to do the same, he gave the tube back to the bemused tourists.

Bodies fished from water stank. Most people simply couldn't cope with the putrid, rotten stench. Those with strong stomachs only managed to do so by disguising it with the one thing that worked: menthol.

By the time they'd reached the body and brought it closer to the shore, a first group of crime scene officers from the Policía Científica had arrived and were putting up screens to form an area of relative privacy. Meanwhile, the uniformed officers were moving people on, trying to empty the beach as best they could. Cámara and the two volunteers waited in the water for a couple of minutes for plastic sheets to be laid on the sand before finally the order was given for the body to be hauled out. As soon as it was clear what was happening, the Guardia Civil boat powered away in a white arc, heading towards the port.

Confirmation would come later, but it was already clear who they'd found, despite the effects of being in warm seawater for over a week. Pep Roures's distinctive ginger hair looked brighter than usual against the green-black marbling of his skin. Any doubt that it wasn't the fifty-year-old had been removed in Cámara's own mind by the sight of the tattoo still visible on the corpse's left shoulder: a paella dish, complete with green beans and bright yellow rice. Few artists, he imagined, were asked to scratch out one of those.

He stood to one side for a moment, feeling the salt water dry on his skin as he tried to forget the stench of decay that seemed to have penetrated his brain. First the científicos, then the médico forense and the investigating judge and his team from the City of Justice, would be showing up. The usual circus surrounding the dead-at least while they still mattered to people. Then they would all be gone and he'd be left alone.

With his murder.

His before the body had even been spotted here off the Malvarrosa beach. Pep Roures had disappeared from his home and restaurant in El Cabanyal seven days before, and from the start Cámara had known it was more than a simple missing persons case. Something about the man, something about what he'd seen of his place, told him Roures had never intended to vanish. Besides, La Mar was his life. They all knew him, they'd all eaten there at some point. The restaurant was virtually an institution among Valencians. Or a certain kind of Valencian. Where would Roures go to? No one had seen him. No one really knew if he had anywhere else to go. He was dead. An accident? Perhaps. They'd just needed to find the body.

Back up at the promenade, he spotted a green uniform breaking through the dark blue line of the Nacionales. The face was almost familiar now. Rubbing his hand through his hair a last time to shake off the water, and wiping the remains of the toothpaste from his top lip, he strode barefoot and shirtless over the sand. Others might have waited, let the bastard come all the way, but they'd be better off speaking out of earshot of their respective colleagues.

The Guardia Civil captain stopped a few yards short and saluted.

'Captain Herrero, of the Servicio Marítimo,' he said sharply.

'Cámara. Homicidios.' There was a pause while the other man waited for him to fill in the missing information. 'Er, chief inspector.'

Cámara held out a hand to shake before the captain could begin his prepared spiel excusing himself over what had happened.

'It's ours,' Cámara said as he sniffed at the salt water dripping from the end of his nose. 'I know the guy. Went missing a while back. I was already looking into it.'

Captain Herrero stood motionless, his brow glistening in the heat trapped under his cap. He was taller than Cámara, with a sinewy strength in his limbs. Late twenties, perhaps early thirties. Still young enough to care.

'He was practically on the beach already.'

'What's that?' Herrero said, seeming to come to life of a sudden.

'I said it's ours. You won't be hearing from me. Or from anyone in Homicidios.'

The captain let out a sigh.

'Half our lot are off sick,' he said, shaking his head. 'Depression. Can't cope with the new hours they've given us. Arse of a new general has come in changing all our rotas. Estamos jodidos.' We're fucked.

Cámara forced a sympathetic smile.

'We're not even treading water with the drug runs along the coast. The last thing we needed was--'

'It's OK,' Cámara said. 'Really. If you can fix things at your end, no one's going to hear from us about you spotting the body. Understood?'

Herrero looked him in the eye. Yes, something told him he could trust this half-naked police chief inspector.

'I owe you one.'

'Forget it,' Cámara said. 'Besides, el muerto es del mar cuando la tierra lejos está.'


'One of my grandfather's old proverbs: A dead man only belongs to the sea if land is far away.'

A DEATH IN VALENCIA. Copyright 2012 by Jason Webster.