When he saw the Indian woman appear at the door of the shack, Lituma guessed what she was going to say. And she did say it, but she was mumbling in Quechua while the saliva gathered at the corners of her toothless mouth.
"What's she saying, Tomasito?"
"I couldn't catch it, Corporal."
The Civil Guard addressed her in Quechua, indicating with gestures that she should speak more slowly. The woman repeated the indistinguishable sounds that affected Lituma like savage music. He suddenly felt very uneasy.
"What's she saying?"
"It seems her husband disappeared," murmured his adjutant. "Four days ago."
"That means we've lost three," Lituma stammered, feeling the perspiration break out on his face. "Son of a bitch."
"So what should we do, Corporal?"
"Take her statement." A shudder ran up and down Lituma's spine. "Have her tell you what she knows."
"But what's going on?" exclaimed the Civil Guard. "First the mute, then the albino, now one of the highway foremen. It can't be, Corporal."
Maybe not, but it was happening, and now for the third time. Lituma pictured the blank faces and icy narrow eyes that the people in Naccos--laborers at the camp and comuneros, the Indians from the traditional community--would all turn toward him when he asked if they knew the whereabouts of this woman's husband, and he felt the same discouragement and helplessness he had experienced earlier when he tried to question them about the other men who were missing: heads shaking no, monosyllables, evasive glances, frowns, pursed lips, a presentiment of menace. It would be no different this time.
Tomas had begun to question the woman, writing her answers in a little notebook, using a blunt pencil that he moistened from time to time with his tongue. "The terrorists, the damn terrucos, aren't too far away," thought Lituma. "Any night now they'll be all over us." The disappearance of the albino had also been reported by a woman: they never did find out if she was his mother or his wife. The man had gone out to work, or was on his way home from work, and never reached his destination. Pedrito had gone down to the village to buy the two Civil Guards a bottle of beer, and he never came back. No one had seen them, no one had noticed any fear, apprehension, sickness in them before they vanished. Had the hills just swallowed them up? After three weeks, Corporal Lituma and Civil Guard Tomas Carrefio were as much in the dark as on the first day. And now it had happened a third time. Son of a bitch. Lituma wiped his hands on his trousers.
It had begun to rain. The huge drops rattled the tin roof with a loud, unrhythmic noise. It was not yet three in the afternoon, but the storm had blackened the sky, and it seemed as dark as night. In the distance, thunder rolled through the mountains with an intermittent rumbling that rose from the bowels of the earth where the serruchos, these damn mountain people, thought that bulls, serpents, condors, and spirits lived. Do the Indians really believe all that? Sure they do, Corporal, they even pray to them and leave offerings. Haven't you seen the little plates of food by the caves and gullies in the Cordillera? When they told him these things at Dionisio's cantina, or during a soccer game, Lituma never knew if they were serious or making fun of him, a man from the coast. From time to time, through a crack in one of the walls of the shack, a yellowish viper bit at the clouds. Did the mountain people really believe that lightning was the lizard of the sky? The curtains of rain had erased the barracks, the cement mixers, the steamrollers, the jeeps, the huts of the comuneros among the eucalyptus trees on the hill facing the post. "As if they had all disappeared," he thought. There were some two hundred laborers, from Ayacucho and Apurimac, and especially from Huancayo and Concepcion in Junin, and Pampas in Huancavelica. Nobody from the coast, as far as he knew. Not even his adjutant was a coastal man. But though he was a native of Sicuani and spoke Quechua, Tomas seemed more like a mestizo. He had brought Pedro Tinoco with him when he came to Naccos. The little mute had been the first to disappear.
Carreno was a man without guile, though somewhat given to melancholy. At night he would confide in Lituma, and he knew how to open himself to friendship. The corporal told him soon after he arrived: "You're the kind of man who should have been born on the coast. Even in Piura, Tomasito." "I know that's a real compliment coming from you, Corporal." Without his company, life in this wilderness would have been grim. Lituma sighed. What was he doing in the middle of the barrens with sullen, suspicious serruchos who killed each other over politics and, as if that weren't enough, went missing too? Why wasn't he back home? He imagined himself at the Rio Bar, surrounded by beers and the Invincibles, his lifelong buddies, on a hot Piuran night filled with stars, waltzes, and the smell of goats and carob trees. A wave of sadness made his teeth ache.
"I'm finished, Corporal," said the guard. "The lady really doesn't know too much. And she's scared to death. Can't you tell?"
"Say we'll do everything we can to find her husband."
Lituma attempted a smile and gestured to the Indian that she could go. She continued looking at him, impassive. Tiny and ageless, with bones as fragile as a bird's, she was almost invisible under all her skirts and the shabby, drooping hat. But there was something unbreakable in her face and narrow, wrinkled eyes.
"It seems she was expecting something to happen to her husband, Corporal. 'It had to happen, it was bound to happen,' she says. But of course she never heard of terrucos or the Sendero militia. "
With not even a nod of goodbye, the woman turned and went out to face the downpour. In a few moments her figure dissolved into the lead-colored rain as she walked back to camp. For a long while the two men said nothing.
Finally, the voice of the adjutant rang in Lituma's ears as if he were offering condolences: "I'll tell you something. You and I won't get out of here alive. They have us surrounded, what's the point of kidding ourselves?"
Lituma shrugged. Usually he was the one who felt demoralized, and Carreno had to cheer him up. Today they had changed places.
"Don't brood about it, Tomasito. Otherwise, when they do come, we'll be in such bad shape we won't even be able to defend ourselves."
The wind rattled the sheets of tin on the roof, and little gushes of rain spattered the interior of the cabin. Surrounded by a protective stockade of sacks filled with stones and dirt, their quarters consisted of a single room divided by a wooden screen. On one side was the Civil Guard post, with a board across two sawhorses--the desk--and a trunk where the omcial record book and service reports and documents were kept. On the other side, next to each other for lack of space, stood two cots. The guards used kerosene lamps and had a battery-operated radio that could pick up Radio Nacional and Radio Junin if there were no atmospheric disturbances. The corporal and his adjutant spent entire afternoons and evenings glued to the set, trying to hear the news from Lima or Huancayo. There were lamb and sheep skins on the packed-dirt floor, and straw mats, a camp stove with a Primus burner, pots, some crockery, their suitcases, and a dilapidated wardrobe--the armory--where they stored rifles, boxes of ammunition, and a submachine gun. They always carried their revolvers and kept them under their pillows at night. Sitting beneath a faded image of the Sacred Heart--an Inca Cola advertisement--they listened to the rain for several minutes.
"I don't think they killed those men, Tomasito," Lituma said at last. "They probably took them away to the militia. The three of them may even have been terrucos. Does Sendero ever disappear people? They just kill them and leave their leaflets behind to let everybody know who did it."
"Pedrito Tinoco a terrorist? No, Corporal, I guarantee he wasn't," said Tomas. "And that means Sendero is right outside the door. The terrucos won't sign us up in their militia. They'll chop us into hamburger. Sometimes I think the only reason you and I were sent here was to be killed."
"That's enough brooding." Lituma stood up. "Fix us some coffee for this shit weather. Then we'll worry about the latest one. What was his name again?"
"Demetrio Chanca, Corporal. Foreman of a blasting crew."
"Don't they say things come in threes? With this one we'll probably solve the mystery of what happened to the other two."
The guard went to take down tin cups from their hooks and light the Primus.
"When Lieutenant Pancorvo told me back in Andahuaylas that they were sending me to this hole, I thought, 'Great, in Naos the terrucos will finish you off, Carrenito, and the sooner the better,' " Tomas said softly. "I was tired of living. At least that's what I thought, Corporal. But seeing how scared I am now, I guess I don't want to die after all."
"Only a damn fool wants to die before his time," asserted Lituma. "There are some fantastic things in this life, though you won't find any around here. Did you really want to die? Can I ask why, when you're so young?"
"What else could it be?" The guard laughed as he placed the coffeepot over the blue-red flame of the Primus.
The boy was thin and bony but very strong, with alert, deepset eyes, sallow skin, and jutting white teeth--on sleepless nights Lituma could see them gleaming in the dark.
The corporal ventured a guess, licking his lips. "Some sweet little dame must have broken your heart."
"Who else would break your heart?" Tomasito was visibly moved. "And besides, you can feel proud: she was Piuran too."
"A hometown girl," Lituma approved, smiling. "How about that."
The altitude did not agree with la petite Michele--she had complained of a pressure in her temples like the one she got at those horror movies he loved, and of a vague, general malaise--but, even so, she was stirred by the rugged, desolate landscape. Albert, on the other hand, felt marvelously well. As if he had spent his entire life at an altitude of three or four thousand meters, among sharp peaks stained with snow, and occasional flocks of llamas crossing the narrow road. The old bus rattled so much it sometimes seemed about to break apart as it faced the potholes, ruts, and rocks that constantly challenged its ruined body. The young French couple were the only foreigners, but they did not seem to attract the attention of their traveling companions, who did not even look around when they heard them speaking a foreign language. The other passengers wore shawls, ponchos, and an occasional Andean cap with earflaps as protection against the approaching night, and carried bundles, packages, tin suitcases. One woman even had cackling hens with her. But nothing--not the uncomfortable seat or the jolting or the crowding--bothered Albert and la petite Michele.
"Ca va mieux?" he asked.
"Oui, un peu mieux. "
And a moment later la petite Michele said aloud what Albert had also been thinking: he had been right at the Pension El Milagro in Lima, when they argued over whether to travel by bus or plane to Cuzco. On the advice of the man at the embassy, she had wanted to fly, but he insisted so much on the overland route that la petite Michele finally gave in. She did not regret it. On the contrary. It would have been a shame to miss this.
"Of course it would," Albert exclaimed, pointing through the cracked pane of the small window. "Isn't it fabulous?"
The sun was going down, and a sumptuous peacock's tail opened along the horizon. An expanse of dark green flatland on their left, with no trees, no houses, no people or animals, was brightened by watery flashes, as if there might be streams or lagoons among the clumps of yellow straw. On the right, however, there rose a craggy, perpendicular terrain of towering rocks, chasms, and gorges.
"Tibet must be like this," murmured la petite Michele.
"I assure you this is more interesting than Tibet," replied Albert. "I told you so: Le Perou, ga vaut le Perou!"
It was already dark in front of the old bus, and the temperature began to drop. A few stars were shining in the deep blue sky. "Brrr . . ." La petite Michele shivered. "Now I understand why they all wear so many clothes. The weather changes so much in the Andes. In the morning the heat is suffocating, and at night it's like ice."
"This trip will be the most important thing that ever happens to us, you'll see," said Albert.
Someone had turned on a radio, and after a series of metallic sputterings there was a burst of sad, monotonous music.
Albert identified the instruments. "Charangos and quenas. In Cuzco we'll buy a quena. And we'll learn to dance the huayno."
"We'll put on a costume party at school," fantasized la petite Michele. "La nuit peruvienne! Le tout Cognac will come."
"If you want to sleep a little, you can lean on me," Albert suggested.
"I've never seen you so happy." She smiled at him.
"I've dreamed about this for two years," he agreed. "Saving my money, reading about the Incas, about Peru. Imagining all this."
"And you haven't been disappointed." His companion laughed. "Well, neither have I. I'm grateful to you for urging me to come. I think the Coramine Glucose is working. The altitude isn't bothering me as much, and it's easier to breathe."
A moment later, Albert heard her yawn. He put his arm around her shoulders and leaned her head against him. In a little while, in spite of the jolting and bouncing of the bus, la petite Michele was asleep. He knew he would not close his eyes. He was too full of excitement, too eager to retain everything in his memory and recall it later, to write it down in the journal he had scrawled in each night since boarding the train in the Cognac station, and then, later still, to talk about it in detail, with only an occasional exaggeration, to his copains. He would show slides to his students with the projector he would borrow from Michele's father. Le Perou! There it was: immense, mysterious, gray-green, poverty-stricken, wealthy, ancient, hermetic. Peru was this lunar landscape and the impassive, copper-colored faces of the women and men who surrounded them. Impenetrable, really. Very different from the faces they had seen in Lima, the whites, blacks, mestizos with whom they had managed, however badly, to communicate. But something impassable separated him from the serranos, the mountain people. He had made several attempts, in his poor Spanish, to engage his neighbors in conversation, with absolutely no success. "It isn't race that separates us, it's an entire culture," la petite Michele reminded him. These were the real descendants of the Incas, not the people in Lima; their ancestors had carried the gigantic stones up to the aeries of Machu Picchu, the sanctuary-fortress he and his friend would explore in three days' time.
Night had fallen, and in spite of his desire to stay awake, he felt himself succumbing to a sweet lightheadedness. "If I fall asleep, I'll get a crick in my neck," he thought. They were in the third seat on the right, and as he sank into sleep, Albert heard the driver begin to whistle. Then it seemed as if he were swimming in cold water. Shooting stars fell in the immensity of the altiplano. He felt happy, although he regretted that, like a hairy mole on a pretty face, the spectacle was marred by the ache in his neck, his extreme discomfort at not being able to rest his head on something soft. Suddenly, someone shook him roughly.
"Are we in Andahuaylas already?" he asked in a daze.
"I don't know what's going on," la petite Michele whispered in his ear.
He rubbed his eyes and there were cylinders of light moving inside and outside the bus. He heard muffled voices, whispers, a shout that sounded like an insult, and he sensed confused movement everywhere. It was the dead of night, and a myriad of stars twinkled through the broken windowpane.
"I'll ask the driver what's happening."
La petite Michele did not let him stand up.
"Who are they?" he heard her say. "I thought they were soldiers, but no, look, people are crying."
Faces appeared fleetingly, then disappeared in the movement of the lanterns. There seemed to be a lot of them. They surrounded the bus and now, awake at last, his eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, Albert saw that several had their faces covered with knitted balaclavas that revealed no more than their eyes. And that glinting had to be weapons, what else could it be?
"The man at the embassy was right," murmured the girl, trembling from head to foot. "We should have taken the plane, I don't know why I listened to you. You can guess who they are, can't you?"
Someone opened the bus door and a blast of cold air ruffled their hair. Two faceless silhouettes came in, and for a few seconds Albert was blinded by their lanterns. They gave an order he did not understand. They repeated it, more emphatically.
"Don't be afraid," he whispered into la petite Michele's ear. "It doesn't have anything to do with us, we're tourists."
All the passengers had stood up and, hands on their heads, were beginning to climb out of the bus.
"Nothing will happen," Albert repeated. "We're foreigners, I'll explain it to them. Come on, let's get out."
They climbed down, lost in the press of passengers, and when they were outside, the icy wind cut their faces. They remained in the crowd, very close together, their arms entwined. They heard a few words, some whispers, and Albert could not make out what they were saying. But they were speaking Spanish, not Quechua.
"Senor, por favor?" He pronounced the words syllable by syllable, speaking to the man wrapped in a poncho who stood next to him, and a thundering voice immediately roared: "Quiet!" Better not open his mouth. The time would come for him to explain who they were and why they were here. La petite Michele clutched at his arm with both hands, and Albert could feel her nails through his heavy jacket. Someone's teeth were chattering: were they his?
Those who had stopped the bus barely spoke among themselves. They had surrounded the passengers, and there were a good number of them: twenty, thirty, maybe more. What did they want? In the shifting light of the lanterns, Albert and la petite Michele could see women among their assailants. Some in balaclavas, others with their faces bare, some armed with guns, others carrying sticks and machetes. All of them young.
The darkness was shattered by another order that Albert did not understand either. Their traveling companions began to search their pockets and wallets and hand over identification papers. Albert and his friend took their passports from the packs they wore around their waists. La petite Michele was trembling more and more violently, but to avoid provoking them he did not dare to comfort her, to reassure her that as soon as these people opened their passports and saw that they were French tourists, the danger would be over. Perhaps they would take their dollars. They weren't carrying much cash, fortunately. The traveler's checks were hidden in Albert's false waistband and with a little luck might not even be found.
Three of them began to walk among the lines of passengers, collecting documents. When they came to him, Albert handed the two passports to the female silhouette with a rifle over her shoulder, and said haltingly: "French tourists. We no speak Spanish, senorita."
"Quiet!" she yelled as she snatched the passports out of his hand. It was the voice of a young girl, sharp with fury. "Shut up!"
Albert thought how calm and clean everything was up there, in that deep sky studded with stars, and how different it was from the menacing tension down here. His fear had evaporated. When all this was a memory, when he had told it dozens of times to his copains at the bistro and to his students at school in Cognac, he would ask la petite Michele: "Was I right or not to choose the bus instead of the plane? We would have missed the best experience of our trip."
They were guarded by half a dozen men with submachine guns, who constantly shone the lanterns into their eyes. The others had moved a few meters away and seemed to be conferring about something. Albert assumed they were examining the documents, subjecting them to careful scrutiny. Did they know how to read? When they saw that they were foreigners, French tourists without much money who carried knapsacks and traveled by bus, they would apologize. The cold went right through him. He embraced la petite Michele and thought: "The man at the embassy was right. We should have taken the plane. When we can talk again, I'll ask you to forgive me."
The minutes turned into hours. Several times he was sure he would faint with cold and fatigue. When the passengers began to sit on the ground, he and la petite Michele imitated them, huddling very close. They were silent, pressing against each other, warming each other. After a long while their captors came back and, one by one, pulling them to their feet, peering into their faces, bringing their lanterns up to their eyes, shoving them, they returned the passengers to the bus. Dawn was breaking. A bluish band appeared over the rugged outline of the mountains. La petite Michele was so still she seemed asleep. But her eyes were very wide. With an effort Albert got to his feet, hearing his bones creak, and he had to help la petite Michele stand by supporting both her arms. He felt exhausted, he had muscle cramps, his head was heavy, and it occurred to him that she must be suffering again from the altitude sickness that had bothered her so much when they began the ascent into the Cordillera. Apparently, the nightmare was ending. The passengers had lined up single file and were climbing into the bus. When it was their turn, two boys in balaclavas at the door of the vehicle put rifles to their chests and, without saying a word, indicated that they should move to one side.
"Why?" asked Albert. "We are French tourists."
One of them approached in a menacing way, put his face up to his, and bellowed: "Quiet! Shhh!"
"No speak Spanish!" screamed la petite Michele. "Tourist! Tourist!"
They were surrounded, their arms were pinned down, and they were pushed away from the other passengers. And before they really understood what was happening, the motor of the bus began to gurgle and vibrate, its hulk to tremble, and they saw it drive away, rattling along that road lost in the Andean plateau.
"What have we done?" Michele said in French. "What are they going to do to us?"
"They'll demand a ransom from the embassy," he stammered.
"They haven't kept him here for any ransom." La petite Michele no longer seemed afraid: now she appeared angry and rebellious.
The other traveler who had been detained with them was short and plump. Albert recognized his hat and tiny mustache. He had been sitting in the first row, smoking endlessly and leaning forward from time to time to speak to the driver. He gestured and pleaded, shaking his head, moving his hands. They had encircled the man. They had forgotten about him and la petite Michele.
"Do you see those stones?" she moaned. "Do you see, do you see?"
Daylight advanced rapidly across the plateau, and their bodies, their shapes, stood out clearly. They were young, they were adolescents, they were poor, and some of them were children. In addition to rifles, revolvers, machetes, and sticks, many of them held large stones in their hands. The little man in the hat fell to his knees and swore on a cross that he formed with two fingers, raising his face to the sky. Until the circle closed in on him, blocking him from view. They heard him scream, beg. Shoving each other, urging each other, imitating each other, the stones and hands rose and fell, rose and fell.
"We are French," said la petite Michele.
"Do not do that, senor," shouted Albert. "We are French tourists, senor."
True, they were almost children. But their faces were hardened and burned by the cold, like those roughened feet in the rubbertire sandals that some of them wore, like those stones in the chapped hands that began to strike them.
"Shoot us," shouted Albert in French, blind, his arms around la petite Michele, his body between her and those ferocious arms. "We're young too, senor. Senor!"
"When I heard him start in to hit her, and she began whimpering, I got gooseflesh," said the guard. "Like the last time, I thought, just like in Pucallpa. Just your luck, you poor bastard."
Lituma could tell that reliving the scene agitated Tomas and made him angry. Had Carreno forgotten he was here, listening to him?
"The first time my godfather sent me to be Hog's bodyguard, I felt really proud," the boy explained, trying to calm down. "Just think: I'd be close to a big boss, I'd travel with him to the jungle. But it was a tough night for me in Pucallpa. And it would be the same damn thing now in Tingo Maria."
"You had no idea that the world is a dirty place," said Lituma. "Where have you been all your life, Tomasito?"
"I knew all about the world, but I didn't like that sadistic shit. I didn't, damn it. I didn't understand it. It made me mad, even scared. How could a man act worse than an animal? That was when I knew why they called him Hog."
There was a sharp whistling sound, and the woman cried out. Over and over again, he hit her. Lituma closed his eyes and pictured her. Plump, full of curves, round breasts. The boss had her on her knees, stark naked, and the strap left purple streaks on her back.
"I don't know which one made me sicker, him or her. The things those women do for money, I thought."
"Well, you were there for money too, weren't you? Guarding Hog while he got off beating up the hooker."
"Don't call her that, Corporal," Tomas protested. "Not even if she was one."
"It's just a word, Tomasito," Lituma said in apology.
The boy spat furiously at the night insects. It was late, and hot, and the trees murmured all around him. There was no moon, and the oily lights of Tingo MarÁa could barely be seen between the woods and the hills. The house was on the outskirts of the city, about a hundred meters from the highway to Aguatia and Pucallpa, and sounds and voices could be heard clearly through its thin walls. There was another sharp crack, and the woman cried out again.
"No more, Daddy," her muffled voice pleaded. "Don't hit me anymore."
It seemed to Carreno that the man was laughing, the same lecherous snigger he had heard the last time, in Pucallpa.
"A boss's laugh, the laugh of the man in charge who can do whatever he wants, the guy who'll fuck anything that moves and has plenty of soles and plenty of dollars," he explained, with an old rancor, to the corporal.
Lituma imagined the sadist's slanted little eyes: bulging inside their pouches of fat, burning with lust each time the woman moaned. He didn't find things like that exciting, but apparently some men did. Of course, he wasn't as shocked by them as his adjutant was. What could you do? This fucking life was a bitch. Weren't the terrucos killing people left and right and saying it was for the revolution? They got a kick out of blood, too.
"Finish it, Hog, you motherfucker, I thought," Tomas continued. "Get off, get done, go to sleep. But he went on and on."
"That's enough now, Daddy. No more," the woman pleaded from time to time.
The boy was perspiring and had trouble breathing. A truck roared down the highway, and for a moment its yellowish lights illuminated the dead leaves and tree trunks, the stones and mud in the ditch at the side of the road. When it was dark again, the little glowing lights returned. Tomas had never seen fireflies before, and he thought of them as tiny flying lanterns. If only Fats Iscariote were with him. Talking and joking, listening to him describe the great meals he had eaten, passing the time, he wouldn't hear what he was hearing, wouldn't imagine what he was imagining.
"And now I'm going to ram this tool all the way up to your eyeballs," the man purred, insane with joy. "And make you scream like your mother did when she gave birth to you."
Lituma thought he could hear Hog's slow little snicker, the laugh of a man on whom life has smiled, a man who always gets what he wants. He could imagine him with no problem, but not her; she was a shape without a face, a silhouette that never quite solidified.
"If Iscariote had been with me, talking to me, I would have forgotten about what was going on in the house," said Tomas. "But Fats was watching the road, and I knew that nothing would make him leave his post, that he'd be there all night dreaming about food."
The woman cried out again, and this time she did not stop weeping. Could those muffled sounds be kicks?
"For the love of God," she begged.
"And then I realized I was holding the revolver in my hand," said the boy, lowering his voice as if someone might hear him. "I had taken it out of the holster and was playing with it, fiddling with the trigger, spinning the barrel. Without even knowing it, Corporal, I swear."
Lituma turned on his side to look at him. In the cot next to his, Tomasito's barely visible profile was softened by the faint light of the stars and moon shining through the window.
"What were you going to do, you poor bastard?"
He had climbed the wooden steps on tiptoe and very quietly pushed at the front door until he felt resistance from the bar. It was as if his hands and feet were no longer controlled by his head. "No more, Daddy," the woman begged monotonously. Blows fell from time to time, and now the boy could hear Hog's heavy breathing. There was no bolt on the door. He just leaned against it and it began to give way: the creaking was lost in the sound of blows and pleading. When it opened wide with a sharp cracking sound, the wailing and beating stopped and somebody cursed. In the semidarkness Tomas saw the naked man turn around, swearing. A small lantern hung from a nail in the wall, making crazed shadows. The man was enveloped in mosquito netting, pawing at it, trying to get free, and Tomas looked into the woman's frightened eyes.
"Don't hit her anymore, senor," he implored. "I won't permit it."
"You said a dumb thing like that to him?" Lituma mocked.
"And to top it off, you called him senor?"
"I don't think he heard me," said the boy. "Maybe nothing came out of my mouth, maybe I was talking to myself."
The man found what he was looking for, and in a half-sitting position, still wrapped in mosquito netting and held back by the woman, he took aim, growling curses as if to encourage himself. It seemed to Tomas that shots were fired before he squeezed the trigger, but no, it was his gun that fired first. He heard the man howl at the same time that he saw him fall backward, dropping the pistol, cringing. The boy took two steps toward the bed. Half of Hog's body had slipped off the far side. His legs were still crossed on top of the sheet. He wasn't moving. He wasn't the one who was screaming, it was the woman.
"Don't kill me! Don't kill me!" she shrieked in terror, covering her face, twisting around, shielding her body with her arms and legs.
"What are you saying, Tomasito?" Lituma was stunned. "Do you mean you shot him?"
"Shut up!" the boy commanded. Now he could breathe. The tumult in his chest had quieted. The man's legs slid to the floor, dragging down part of the mosquito netting. He heard him groan very quietly.
"You mean you killed him?" Lituma insisted. He leaned on one elbow, still trying to see his adjutant's face in the darkness.
"But aren't you one of the bodyguards?" The woman stared at him, blinking, uncomprehending. Now there was utter confusion in her eyes as well as animal fear. "Why'd you do it?"
She was trying to cover herself, crouching over, raising a blood-stained blanket. She showed it to him, accusing him.
"I couldn't take it anymore," Tomasito said. "I couldn't stand him hitting you and enjoying it like that. He almost killed you."
"I'll be damned," Lituma exclaimed, bursting into laughter.
"What? What did you say?" The woman was recovering from the shock, and her voice was firmer. Tomas saw her scramble off the bed, saw her stumble, saw her silhouette redden for a moment as she passed beneath the light, saw her, in control of herself now and full of energy, begin to pull on clothes she picked up from the floor, talking all the while: "That's why you shot him? Because he was hitting me? Since when is that any of your business? Just tell me that. Who do you think you are? Who asked you to take care of me? Just tell me that."
Before he could answer, Tomas heard Iscariote running and calling in a bewildered voice: "Carreno? Carrenito?" The stairs shook as he pounded up them, and the door opened wide. There he was, shaped like a barrel, filling up the doorway. He looked at him, looked at the woman, at the rumpled bed, at the blanket, at the fallen mosquito netting. He was holding a revolver in his hand, shifting heavily from one foot to the other.
"I don't know," murmured the boy, struggling against the mineral substance his tongue had become. The partially obscured body was moving on the wooden floor. But not groaning anymore.
"You whore, what's going on?" Fats Iscariote was panting, his eyes bulging like a grasshopper's. "What happened, Carrenito?"
The woman had finished dressing and was slipping on her shoes, moving first one leg, then the other. As if it were a dream, Tomas recognized the flowered white dress she had worn that afternoon when he saw her get off the Lima plane in the Tingo Maria airport, where he and Iscariote had gone to meet her and take her back to Hog.
"Ask him what happened." Her eyes flashed and she moved her hand, pointing at the man on the floor, at him, at the man again.
"She was so angry I thought she was going to come at me and scratch my eyes out," said the boy. His voice had sweetened.
"You killed the boss, Carreno?" The fat man was dumb-founded. "You killed him?"
"Yes, yes,t' screamed the woman, beside herself. "And now what's going to happen to us?"
"Damn," Fats Iscariote said over and over again, like a robot. He didn't stop blinking.
"I don't think he's dead," stammered the boy. "I saw him move."
"But why, Carrenito?" The fat man leaned over to look at the body. He straightened up immediately and stepped back in dismay. "What did he do to you? Why?"
"He was hitting her. He was going to kill her. Just for fun. I got mad, Fats, I really lost it. I couldn't take all that shit."
Iscariote's moon face turned toward him, and he scrutinized him, craning his neck as if he wanted to smell him too, even lick him. He opened his mouth but said nothing. He looked at the woman, he looked at Tomas, and sweated and panted.
"And that's why you killed him?" he finally said, shaking his curly head back and forth as mindlessly as one of the giant heads at Carnival.
"That's why! That's why!" the woman cried hysterically. "And now what's going to happen to us, damn it!"
"You killed him for having a little fun with his whore?" Fats Iscariote's eyes shifted back and forth in their sockets as if they were made of quicksilver. "Do you have any idea what you've done, you poor bastard?"
"I don't know what came over me. Don't worry, it's not your fault. I'll explain it to my godfather, Fats."
"Stupid fucking amateur." Iscariote held his head. "You moron. What the hell do you think men do with whores, you prick?"
"The police will come, there'll be an investigation," said the woman. "I didn't have anything to do with it. I've got to get out of here."
"But she couldn't move," the boy recalled, his honeyed voice becoming even sweeter, and Lituma thought: "You mean you'd already fallen for her, Tomasito." "She took a few steps toward the door but stopped and came back, as if she didn't know what to do. Poor thing, she was scared to death."
The boy felt Iscariote's hand on his arm. He was looking at him regretfully, compassionately, not angry anymore. He spoke with great resolve:
"You better disappear, and don't show your face at your godfather's, compadre. He'll shoot you full of holes, who knows what he'll do. Go on, make yourself scarce, and let's hope they don't find you. I always knew this wasn't the job for you. Didn't I tell you that the first time we met?"
"A real friend," the boy explained to Lituma. "What I did could've gotten him in hot water, too. And still he helped me get away. A huge fat man, a face as round as a cheese, a belly like a tire. I wonder what's happened to him?"
He held out a plump, friendly hand. Tomas clasped it firmly. Thanks, Fats. The woman, down on one knee, was searching through the clothes of the man who lay motionless on the floor.
"You're not telling me everything, Tomasito," Lituma interrupted.
"I don't have a cent, I don't know where to go," the boy heard the woman saying to Iscariote as he went out into the warm breeze that made the shrubs and tree branches creak. "I don't have a cent. I don't know what to do. I'm not stealing."
He broke into a run, heading for the highway, but slowed to a walk after a few meters. Where would he go? He was still holding the revolver. He put it back in the holster, which was attached to his belt and concealed by his shirt. There were no cars in sight, and the lights of Tingo Maria seemed very far away.
"Believe it or not, Corporal, I felt calm, relieved," said the boy. "Like when you wake up and realize the nightmare was only a nightmare."
"But why are you keeping the best part to yourself, Tomasito?" Lituma laughed again. Along with the sounds of the insects and the woods, the boy heard the woman's hurried steps trying to catch up with him. He felt her beside him.
"But I'm not hiding anything, Corporal. That's the whole truth. That's exactly how it happened."
"He didn't let me take a cent," she complained. "That fat shit. I wasn't stealing, just borrowing enough to get to Lima. I don't have a cent. I don't know what I'm going to do."
"I don't know what I'm going to do either," said Tomas.
They stumbled on the winding little path covered with dead leaves, slipped in the ruts made by the rain, felt the brush of leaves and spiderwebs on their faces and arms.
"Who told you to butt in?" The woman immediately lowered her voice, as if regretting her remark. But a moment later she went on berating him, although in a more restrained way. "Who made you my bodyguard, who asked you to protect me? Did I? You fucked up and you fucked me up too, and I didn't even do anything."
"From what you're telling me, you were already hot for her that night," Lituma declared. "You didn't pull out your revolver and shoot him because the stuff he was doing made you sick. Admit that you were jealous. You didn't tell me the most important part, Tomasito. "
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