Blackout

An Inspector Espinosa Mystery

Inspector Espinosa Mysteries (Volume 6)

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Henry Holt and Co.

Chapter One

Espinosa could clearly make out the sounds coming from the street and was fully aware that he was lying in his own bed, but he still hadn’t made up his mind to open his eyes. He tried to estimate the time: after six, for sure, so sixthirty was a good guess. He could have looked at the watch on his bedside table, which rested inches from his head, but that would mean accepting that he was technically awake. He kept his eyes closed. All he wanted at that time was, slowly, lazily, to enjoy the image of Irene coming up the two flights of stairs, arms full of bags, announcing what cheeses, wines, and bread she had brought; while he, at the top of the stairs, could look at her lightweight outfit hugging her thighs, her calves, and her breasts, insinuating more than showing. The imaginary scene wasn’t borrowed from the night before or from any night in particular, recent or remote; it was a foretaste of the meeting they would have that night. Which was why he was reluctant to open his eyes and meet the stupid reality of his watch. It read six-twenty when Espinosa decided to get up.

He was turning on the coffeemaker when the telephone rang.

"Morning, Chief, sorry to wake you."

"You didn’t. What happened?"

"A man was killed with a single shot at the end of the Rua Mascarenhas de Moraes, that steep part off of the Rua Tonelero. We thought you’d like to see the body before it’s removed."

"There’s nothing to like about it, Detective."

"Sorry, just a manner of speaking."

"And why did you think I would like to see it? Is the victim someone I know?"

"No, sir, it’s a homeless man, an old guy, with only one leg. . . . He was killed with a shot to his chest."

"A single shot?"

"Just one. Close range. In the heart. In the middle of a rainy night. He was stretched out at the end of the street . . . at that round end . . ."

"The cul-de-sac."

"Sorry?"

"It’s called a cul-de-sac . . . it’s French."

"Well, anyway, he had fallen beside that curb, and he was found by the doorman of the only building on that end of the street. I’m going to send a car to get you; it’s raining and it’s hard to get over there without a car."

"So how did he get there?"

"Exactly. . . . Nobody knows."

Even before the car went up the steep street, Espinosa recognized it. In his mind it wasn’t the Rua Marechal Mascarenhas de Moraes but Otto’s Street. That wasn’t the street’s original name, but when he was thirteen years old he and his friends always called it Otto’s Street. They never saw a sign bearing that name, nor knew anyone on the street named Otto, nor was Otto some teenage idol of theirs. For whatever unknown reason, one day one of them decided to refer to it as Otto’s Street, and the name stuck. Thirty years on, there he was, without the English bicycle that was the most incredible present his father ever gave him, recalling the intense emotion he felt before descending the street on that bicycle and feeling sadness at seeing the one-legged man, shot in the chest, fallen in the middle of the street. The geography was the same, but the stories were different.

The street was a steep, S-shaped road on the rocky flank of São João Hill, in Copacabana, entirely paved with cobblestones. Two sweeping curves along its four-hundred meter length demanded careful attention from both drivers and pedestrians. The street began on the Rua Tonelero and ended in a little square that had once offered perfect views of most of Copacabana and the sea. Now the views were blocked by an apartment building that had been put up on the far side of the street, turning the cul-de-sac into a dark, charmless hole. One side of the cul-de-sac was bordered by a natural stone wall, almost entirely covered by vegetation. Alongside this wall, there was an old cement staircase that began at the entrance to the cul-de-sac and followed the curve of the hill until disappearing into the neighboring trees. The access to the staircase, a little gate hacked into the rock, was obstructed by a robust wooden door. The other side of the little square, which once faced the sea, was completely blocked off by a high masonry wall and the five stories of the building. There was also an iron gate, much larger than the first, that led to a plot of land that followed the slope of the hill down to the Rua Tonelero, two hundred meters down, and that belonged to a religious educational institution. The cul-de-sac was used almost exclusively by the residents of the street.

The body was lying at a point where the sidewalk hugged the stone wall. The plastic sack stretched across the body was not long enough to cover the wasted shin and the single foot, from the big toe of which hung a sandal worn out at the heel. Two crutches had been placed on top of the plastic, holding it down.

The nearest building was only a few meters away, shoehorned into the space left by the neighboring constructions, luxurious mansions that had escaped the trend of tearing everything down to make room for apartment blocks. The garageman and the doorman employed there had already answered the questions from the policeman who had answered the call. The garageman, who had found the body, waited impatiently and curiously for the other cop, the one without a uniform who had arrived in a different car and seemed more important than the others, to call him over. But for the time being the policeman was more interested in the cobblestones, the curb, and in the little things he found on the ground and placed in a plastic bag. After that, he examined the dead man’s pockets, moving on to explore beneath his shirt and inside his shorts.

Finally, he took the crutches and examined them with the same care he had expended on the clothes. If he was looking for something in particular, he didn’t find it. The man had already been engaged in his search for more than an hour when a car arrived, the same one that had brought him there, and deposited two men who were also in plainclothes and carrying umbrellas. They greeted the other man immediately. Only then did they look in the direction of the garageman and head over to talk to him. The man who had been looking for things on the ground spoke.

"Good morning. I’m Chief Espinosa, from the Twelfth Precinct. This is Inspector Ramiro and Detective Welber. What is your name?"

"Severino."

"Are you the one who found the body?"

"Yes, sir."

"What time was it?"

"It was still dark. It must have been before five."

"And what were you doing outside, in the dark, while it was raining?"

"I’m the night doorman and also take care of the cars. I wash and drive them. When the garage is full I have to take one or two of the cars and park them outside, so that I can have the others ready in the order that the residents leave. It was when I took out the first car that the lights picked out the body lying on the ground. I immediately thought he was dead. If he had just been drunk, the rain would have woken him up."

"And then you went to make sure he was really dead?"

"I left the lights on and walked over. The rain had washed away the blood, but I could see the shot in the middle of his chest. I came back and called the police."

"You didn’t touch the body?"

"No, sir."

"While you were washing the cars, you didn’t hear a shot, or a car driving down the street?"

"It was raining hard, with thunder, and I didn’t leave the garage until it was time to arrange the cars."

"Was anyone else in the garage with you?"

"No, sir."

"Did you know the dead man?"

"I’d seen him around, but I don’t know who he is. I recognized him because of the leg . . ."

"Do you know what he was doing up here?"

"I think the people from the club might give him some food at the end of the day."

"What club?"

"The Horizon Club. It’s right over there, behind that building, near the turnoff."

"You mean that every day he climbs up this street with only one leg? Even in the rain?"

They were talking beneath the door of the building’s garage, and Severino repeatedly glanced inside the garage as he wrung the towel he used to dry the cars.

"Are you worried about something?" Espinosa asked.

"No, sir. It’s just that one of the residents could come by and ask for their car."

"That’s fine, Severino, thanks for your help. Detective Welber will take note of your name and phone number, in case we need to talk to you again. If you remember anything else, here’s my card—you can call me at any time."

The rain had temporarily relented and the three went back over to the body. Espinosa made a broad gesture with his arms, indicating the cul-de-sac.

"I went over this entire area, every cobblestone, and I didn’t find a single shell," he said. "The murderer could have used a revolver, not a pistol."

"Or he made sure to pick up the shell. . . . Which doesn’t sound like drug traffickers, since they don’t care about those details; besides, with them it’s rarely just a single shot. Soon the residents are going to start leaving for work. Make sure to ask them if they saw or heard anything, and come back later to talk to the ones who stay at home. Try the night owls and the insomniacs."

The police car that had responded to the doorman’s call was still parked beside the curb, the lights on the roof blinking, in front of the car from the Twelfth Precinct. If any other car tried to turn around there, the driver would have a hard time getting down the narrow street, since the cul-de-sac was blocked with yellow police tape. Espinosa knew the body wouldn’t be removed before noon, and that the forensic people wouldn’t have much to do there—the rain that had been pouring down all night had washed out the crime scene.

"I’ll see you back at the station. Keep the car. I want to go back on foot."

The twisting descent and the wet sidewalk forced Espinosa to pay attention so as not to slip while he was observing the neighboring houses. The club was at the corner of the hill, just off the street and protected by a wall with an entrance for cars and pedestrians. The club hadn’t existed in the days of his adventures on his bicycle. In fact, few houses remained from that time—most of them had been replaced by little apartment buildings that occupied almost the entire length of the hill. Espinosa kept going downhill, experimenting with hopping down the tightest, most dangerous curves on a single leg. He could imagine that even with crutches, it wouldn’t have been easy at all for the homeless man to climb up and go down the street. He kept walking, imagining what would lead a person with difficulty in walking to go beg in such a tough-to-reach spot, with little visibility, on a rainy night. As he walked the three more blocks to the Twelfth Precinct, he came up with a few answers to the question. None was satisfactory.

Neither the question nor the possible replies were anything like a real investigation, but they did increase the number of conjectures that told him that in his own head something was about to begin. He still couldn’t call it an investigation: it was more like an intellectual stew combining very acute observations, subtle rationalizations, and delirious ideas. He considered it to be something like prethought, and—to his own relief and that of his colleagues—it was a passing phase . . . though it could occasionally bear useful fruit.

He would try not to think about it until Welber and Ramiro got back, around lunchtime. Since he didn’t like to talk about cases he was working on while he ate, they probably wouldn’t discuss the subject until the afternoon, which didn’t mean that other ideas wouldn’t occur to him in the meantime.

Camila and Aldo had different ways of waking up in the morning. While she took her time, languidly, step by step, stretching like a cat, he got up brusquely, tensely, going directly from sleep to a state of absolute alertness. And on that Friday morning he got up first. It was six-thirty. He turned off the alarm, which was set for seven, got up without making noise, and went into the bathroom. When he returned to the bedroom, having already showered and shaved, Camila was in the middle of her waking ritual, which would last another half hour. They had been married for more than ten years and he had never ceased to be fascinated by the way his wife rose from sleep. No other, up till then, was her match in beauty and sensuality, though these traits were not immediately obvious. They slowly became apparent to the spectator, until he was hopelessly captured by the fascination of Camila. He then went to wake the children, whose morning style was completely different from their parents’. Neither languor nor tension but resistance: they struggled for the right to one more minute in bed despite their father’s kisses and words. Cíntia was like her mother in every way: pretty, charming, and as seductive as her nine years allowed her to be; Fernando, a year younger, was as intelligent as his sister but quieter. They studied full-time in a bilingual school. During the week they all ate breakfast together. When the school bus came to pick them up, it was still raining.

"Well?" said Camila as she scanned the newspaper.

"Well what?"

"Last night, during dinner, you were chatting up a storm . . . and on the way home you didn’t say a single word and went to sleep without so much as a good night."

"Sorry. It’s just that once the dinner was over I took off my costume. I was discouraged, tired of having to pretend that those spoiled kids were intelligent and interesting

when in fact they’re just talking dolls."

"But those talking dolls have the money to pay the best interior decorator in Rio de Janeiro."

"I did what they asked. The only thing I did was get rid of the obvious absurdities and add a few of my own ideas."

"So there you have it. That’s the magic of your profession: getting them to think that those were their ideas."

"Then they could cut out the dinner parties to show off their new house."

"But, honey, they also want to show off the new designer. We agreed, it’s good for their ego and it’s good for yours as well . . . and for your wallet."

"They didn’t even see the money! The money went straight from her father’s account to mine."

"Even better: from the source. But you still haven’t told me why you came home depressed. Was it something someone said?"

"I don’t know what it was, but it’s over now. Are you going to go to work now?"

"No, today I only have patients in the afternoon. This morning I’m going to take care of my body and my hair."

"We can go out for dinner, just the two of us, if you can find someone to stay with the kids."

Aldo and Camila lived in one of the most sought-after blocks in Ipanema, halfway between the beach and the lagoon and two blocks from the Jardim de Alá. Camila walked to her office and to everything she most required for her personal well-being. She didn’t need to have her girlfriends around to go shopping, work out, or check out the latest publications in the neighborhood bookstore. She only liked groups on birthdays and for small dinner parties; besides that, she liked to be alone or with her husband. The gym not only kept her body in shape but also cleared her head of the unpleasant aspects of daily life.

She liked to go after eight in the morning, when the first wave of visitors, who had to be at work by nine, were already gone and the group of people who got up later had yet to arrive. And the rainy morning didn’t seem to beckon people to leave home to go to the gym, or at least that’s what she gathered when she found that even the most popular machines were free. An hour of working out was exactly what she needed. When she left the gym, already showered, the rain had stopped and the shops were opening. She liked to wander through the shopping centers, entering stores, lingering in the bookstore, or trying on clothes, usually returning home empty-handed. By eleven she was at the hairdresser’s and at twelve-thirty she ate a salad on the terrace of a neighborhood restaurant. At two o’clock she saw the day’s first patient.

Aldo, as soon as he started booking clients as an interior architect (he didn’t like being called a decorator), rented an apartment and set up his office on the Avenida Atlântica, facing the sea, in an old building that made a very favorable impression on his clients. He worked with Mercedes, a young architect who had recently graduated, and two architecture students around twenty years old, Rafaela and Henrique, who served as interns. When he was working on more than one project or developing others, he brought in extra help. He wasn’t interested in a big office with a permanent team of specialists; he preferred to concentrate on a small group under his direction. He wanted people to come for Aldo Bruno, architect, rather than Bruno Interior Architecture Inc. or something along those lines. Moreover, the building was residential, and he couldn’t hang out a sign with the name of the firm. But nothing prevented him from affixing to the door a little bronze plaque the size of a business card, with his name engraved in elegant black letters. As far as the building knew, it wasn’t an architecture firm but a private studio.

His professional success had begun with a dinner Camila had given in her parents’ house to introduce her husband to a group of their friends she had selected, all of whom were very rich and whose children were around her age. The dinner was followed by brief encounters with their children, all of whom were interested in redecorating. The next time Camila invited them to their own home and left her parents out of it. The effort wouldn’t have succeeded without his talent, of course.

Around twelve-thirty, just as Camila was having lunch in Ipanema, Aldo left for lunch in the Japanese restaurant next to his building.

The weather improved over the course of the morning. Around noon there was already more blue sky than clouds. When Ramiro and Welber came back to meet the boss and head out to lunch, the strong sun was already drying the sidewalks. Ramiro told the story.

"Chief, nobody in the building or in the houses nearby heard or saw anything, but in one of the houses near the building, the third from the place where the body was found, there was a party or a dinner that wrapped up around two in the morning. We talked with the servants, since the owners were asleep. They had moved in that week, after months of work. Last night they gave a dinner to show the house to their friends and to honor the architect who did the house, a man named Aldo Bruno. There were fourteen people, besides the owners of the house."

"Of course the guests came by car," said Espinosa. "Seven or eight cars, five of which must have been parked on either side of the street and maybe two up in the cul-desac.

This morning I noticed that lots of residents park on the street, which leaves few places for visitors, and all of them have to turn around at the end of the street. If nobody saw anything, that means the crime occurred after the last guests had departed. Go back to the house after lunch and get the names and phone numbers of everybody who was at the dinner, and find out who were the last to leave."

They walked down the Rua Hilário de Gouveia and turned left onto the Avenida Copacabana, heading toward the trattoria on the Rua Fernando Mendes where Espinosa ate whenever he could escape the usual routine of sandwiches and milkshakes. Ramiro and Welber couldn’t eat in a restaurant every day, even when it was a cheap place like the trattoria. That was especially true for Welber, a lowerranking detective who was carefully saving money for a down payment on an apartment in the Zona Sul of Rio where he and his girlfriend, Selma, could move after they got married. Inspector Ramiro, head of the detectives, earned a bit more money, but he had a wife and kids. For the two cops, who lived in the Zona Norte and had a long commute to the Twelfth Precinct in Copacabana, eating out every day in a restaurant wasn’t sensible, especially since they were the kind of cops who didn’t accept certain types of favors from businessmen. But that was exactly the reason that they were perhaps the only ones Espinosa trusted unreservedly.

Since they didn’t talk about work during lunch, the conversation eventually led Espinosa to reminisce about his childhood adventures on the street where the crime took place.

"It was just after we’d moved from Saúde, downtown, to the Peixoto District. Funny . . . neither of the neighborhoods of my childhood were actually neighborhoods, but something like quasi-neighborhoods or little areas inside a real neighborhood. Anyway, my father bought an apartment in the Peixoto District, where we moved when I was nine. When I turned ten, I got a Raleigh bicycle, English made, which was the best present I ever got in my entire life. With it, I started to explore the area. At first, the Peixoto District itself, a world as protected as a medieval city, and unthreatening; as time went by, the world extended to include all of Copacabana. That’s when my friends and I discovered Otto’s Street. That’s what we called it. We decided to explore the place: we wanted to know where it ended up and then ride down it, controlling the speed of our bikes with the brakes and our nerves. We could only ride up to the first curve; after that, we had to push the bikes up. By the second or third try, we went up to the end of the street, which at the time had no buildings around it—only a low stone wall where we could sit to admire the marvelous view of Copacabana with the sea behind it. After that, it became our secret place, which, besides the view, offered the prize of the dizzying descent down to the Rua Tonelero."

"And they let you ride your bike around Copacabana when you were ten?"

"Well, as you know, my parents died in a car crash a few months after my birthday. I was raised by my grandmother, the only relative I had left. She didn’t let me leave the Peixoto District. But when I was thirteen she let me go to the nearby streets—that’s when we discovered Otto’s Street."

"So that’s why . . ."

"That’s why I’m interested in the victim."

Since Espinosa didn’t say anything else, the other two changed the subject and began discussing another recurring theme in their lunches: the advantages and disadvantages of living in Copacabana. Ramiro and Welber lived on the border of Grajaúand Méier, in the northern part of the city, "miles away from everything interesting in Rio," as Welber put it.

"Like what, for example?" Ramiro wanted to know.

"Jesus, Ramiro, the beaches, the bars, the restaurants, the shops, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, the nightlife . . . and the day life, too, of course, with those hot women in bikinis right in front of your face. . . . What do you want? The romance of the far reaches? This is the greatest! And it’s free! If you’ve got any doubts, walk out of the restaurant, go a hundred feet to the corner of the Avenida Atlântica, and look around. That’s all. Look around. Then try the same thing in Grajaú or Méier."

Back at the station, the conversation returned to business. There were two questions Espinosa thought demanded a response. The first: What would have led a man over fifty years old, poor, fragile, missing a leg, walking with the aid of crutches, to climb up that steep street on a rainy night? And the second: Who would have needed to go up that same street, on foot or by car, to kill, with such efficiency and precision, that poor guy? "I’d like you to return to the Horizon Club. Talk with the cleaning people and the kitchen staff. Someone’s got to know who the dead man was. Then go back to the house that was just refurbished, talk to the owners, and get a list of everyone who was there last night. And then, at the end of the afternoon, see if you can get any news from the Forensic Institute. Even if it’s off the record."

The visit to the club proved fruitful. The employees knew the victim and were sad about his death. They spoke of the subject openly.

"We don’t know hardly anything about him. Just that he was homeless and that he had trouble finding work because of his leg."

"Do you know his name?"

"Ever since he showed up here, we’ve called him Skinny. I don’t know his real name."

"And how did he end up here?"

"One of the employees who knew him said that when there were parties there was always a lot of food that got tossed out. And that if he showed up late at night, he could get him some. After that, he showed up whenever there was a party."

"What’s the name of this fellow? Can we talk to him?"

"His name is Joca. He doesn’t work here anymore."

"How did the homeless guy manage to climb up here with crutches?"

"Joca knew him from the Pavãozinho slum. He said that Skinny climbed up and down the hill on his crutches."

"How often did he come here, and how did he get in?"

"He only came every once in a while, every two weeks or so, and he didn’t come into the club. He waited for us to take the trash out to the gate and then he asked for something to eat. We filled up a plate for him and then he took it to eat somewhere else."

"He never mentioned if he had any family or anyone he hung around with?"

"He didn’t talk much. All we know about him was from when Joca still worked here."

"Did he have any enemies?"

"What do you mean?"

"Anyone who wanted to get back at him for any reason . . ."

"Who knows? I don’t think so. He was just a poor guy who didn’t threaten anybody."

"If you remember anything else, call me," Ramiro said. "The number’s on this card."

From the club Welber and Ramiro proceeded to the house that had hosted the dinner party, almost directly opposite the entrance to the club. There, the two policemen found their task more difficult. After having to badger the same servants they had spoken to that morning, they managed to get the lady of the house to appear at the gate. The woman who greeted them looked more like a teenager scared by the appearance of the police than the owner of a mansion.

"My husband just left" was the first thing she said, as soon as she saw the cops.

"Good morning, ma’am, I’m Inspector Ramiro and this is Detective Welber, from the Twelfth Precinct, and we need your help. . . . Afterward we’ll speak to your husband."

"The servants said there was a crime here on the street."

"That’s true."

"They killed a poor . . ."

"That’s right, they killed a homeless man . . ."

"Ah."

"With a shot to the chest."

"And what does that have to do with us?"

"You and your husband can help us determine the approximate time the crime was committed."

"How?"

"You gave a dinner last night for fourteen people."

"Seven couples."

"That’s what we figured. And every couple must have come in their own car . . ."

"That’s right. Nobody came in a taxi and nobody came together."

"Great. So there were seven cars parked here in the street. I suppose that the guests all left at different times?"

"Right. But I still don’t know what this has to do with the crime."

"Since the street is so narrow," Ramiro said, "the cars have to turn around at the end of the block, fifty meters from your house."

"That’s true."

"Well, the body was found up there at the end of the street. We want to know if any of the guests, when they were turning around, saw the man. Dead or alive. If he was alive, it would be easy to recognize him because he only had one leg and used crutches. If he was dead, same thing: he had fallen onto the sidewalk, next to the stone wall."

"And what do you want from me?"

"The guest list, and their telephone numbers."

"But I can’t do that!"

"Why, ma’am?"

"Because they’re my guests. I can’t give out their names to the police for some homeless man."

"A homeless man who was murdered, ma’am."

"I have to speak to my father or my husband."

"Whatever you want, ma’am."

The woman consulted her father and her husband over the phone; they consulted their attorneys, who made a series of recommendations to the couple and demands to the policemen, who only at the end of the afternoon got the list of the guests who had come to the dinner driving their own cars. Six men and a woman. One of the men didn’t know how to drive. Of the seven drivers, three, including the woman, had made the turn at the end of the street when they’d arrived, so that they would be facing the exit when they left. The four others drove into the cul-de-sac as they were departing. None saw the homeless man. Neither alive nor dead.

At the end of the afternoon, Freire, a researcher at the Carlos Éboli Institute of Criminology, called Espinosa. The two had entered the police force together—Espinosa as a detective and Freire as a researcher. Over the course of the two decades since then, they had become friends—a friendship that people who knew them found improbable, since Espinosa was a master of verbal elegance and Freire, for his part, eliminated all adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, and such, employing in his speech only nouns and verbs. Currently, moreover, he was tending to eliminate verbs as well. So when Espinosa picked up the phone, all he heard was:

"Thirty-eight."

Excerpted from Blackout by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Copyright © 2006 by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza.

Published in 2006 by Henry Holt and Company,LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.