Authors: Jason Webster
He pulled himself away from the railings and started to walk. He needed to stretch his legs, get some air back inside him after hours on the train and then in the hospital. Albacete was a small city, and the flat was no more than a fifteen-minute walk from where he was, but he decided to strike out into the streets in another direction first. Exercise, not more sitting and lying down, would set him up better for another night on duty.
It was gone seven and the shops were busy with last-minute buyers before eight-o’clock closing time. Cars were left double-parked with flashing emergency lights on as people dashed in and out of grocers’, stationers’ and the shops run by Chinese immigrants selling cheap plastic household goods. He was always surprised that there could be so much bustle in this small urban space. Just a few streets away, where the suburbs ended, the flat, featureless light brown fields of the Albacete basin – La Mancha – stretched for long distances. The city felt like an oasis in the desert, or an island many, many miles from any other civilised land mass, and yet you were almost unaware of this as the cars and the people created a bubble of noise and energy. As if to protect themselves, he thought. To protect themselves from remembering that they were afloat, lost, and alone.
It could almost have been a place worth visiting. There were a few interesting little corners, and a large, attractive public garden, known simply by locals as
, although it did have some official, more long-winded title. Yet in reality there was nothing to recommend the city – no riverbanks, no museums of note, no great public buildings. If anyone did associate it with anything, it was with knives: Albacete was, for reasons that no one could explain convincingly, a centre of knife manufacture, and knife shops, selling anything from mediaeval-style swords to fat short blades for cutting off a pig’s testicles, catered to the odd tourist who happened to have got lost and found himself in this unloved part of the country.
Albacete – caga y vete
, went the phrase. Albacete – shit there and get out. It was a motto Cámara himself had tried to live by.
Except that now he was back.
Not for long, he tried telling himself. But the truth was that he couldn’t be sure. Much depended on Hilario, and how he recovered. If he remained partially paralysed it would be too much for Pilar to look after him on her own. And there was no way they would ever get him into an old people’s home. Not that he really wanted that anyway, but the idea of Hilario sitting quietly in some television lounge surrounded by other OAPs was ludicrous. He’d either be trying to sleep with the nurses or digging a tunnel to get out before the sun had set on the first day.
So what would happen? Would he have to stay here in Albacete indefinitely, acting as a home help? They could move together, go elsewhere. But where? Madrid? Valencia? That would mean taking up his job with the police again.
And Alicia? What happened to her in this scenario? She’d texted him a couple of times during the day to see how things were going, and he thought about giving her a ring now, but he was still working things out. Time to think and digest first.
These had been a good few months with her. If circumstances had been different he would never have moved in like that with any woman. And he told himself that he hadn’t – not really. It was just that he didn’t have a home at that moment – the last one in Valencia had collapsed into a heap of rubble after work on a nearby metro line had sent cracks running up the walls. So really he’d only bedded down for a while, until he could set himself up again, and decide what he was going to do.
But weeks had passed, and vivified by an erotic energy that had quickly reignited between them – and which had surprised them both by its force – he had ended up staying in Alicia’s small attic apartment for the entire summer, enduring the intensity of the Madrid heat, splashing their bodies cool with water in between bouts of lovemaking.
When the heat began to lessen, and Madrileños returned from their beach holidays, he got a job working at a bar in the next street. The late shifts coincided well with Alicia’s work at the newspaper, and they usually got part of the morning together before she had to leave again. Then at weekends he tried taking photographs with a new digital camera he’d bought. Shots of the city, of faces in the street, of details that caught his eye – a griffin statue on top of a facade, a broken ‘No Entry’ sign, anti-capitalist graffiti on the walls. Nothing anyone else would be interested in seeing, perhaps, but he enjoyed watching the city through a lens for a while.
Yet the question remained: would he return to his job in the police? His boss in Valencia, Commissioner Pardo, had placed him on ‘indefinite’ sick leave at the end of the Sofía Bodí case back in July, but he knew that couldn’t last. It was late October already. Some time soon, he could tell, a phone call would come from someone in Personnel making enquiries about his state of health, hinting that his salary – or the
per cent of it that he was still getting paid – might not continue beyond the New Year. Money was tight; they were making big cuts. He would have to take a decision. But life with Alicia, enjoying a mini late adolescence, had drawn him in, and he was reluctant for it to end.
Except that now, it seemed, decisions were being made for him.
He checked the time: Pilar would be all right for another couple of hours at least.
He’d meandered through the city centre. The flat was close by now, but rather than continue down the avenue that took him almost to his old front door, he turned right and pushed up through streets lined with tightly packed dark-brick blocks of flats. On his left he saw the cemetery, while up ahead, where the street ended, metallic grey warehouses closed off the view, like city walls. Skirting around them, he skipped over some bollards and headed into the industrial area. The streets here were built for lorries and vans; pedestrians weren’t catered for, and so he had to walk close to the edge, standing out of the way as articulated trucks came bearing down, their headlamps shining brightly in his eyes, returning to their depots after a day out on the road.
After a few hundred metres he crossed the street and stepped over the kerb to strike out over a patch of wasteland. It was completely dark by now, and he had to watch his feet to avoid stepping in dog turds, but the street lamps on the far side of the plot dimly showed him where he was heading, while the blackness beyond marked the end of the city and the beginning of the La Mancha emptiness.
Old shoes, broken chairs, crushed empty yoghurt pots and shredded tyres littered the ground. They had never got round to building anything here. Some said there was a legal dispute over who owned it that had never been resolved. Others that no one wanted to buy: it was haunted. The memory of what had happened here over thirty years before had still not faded. Neither for him nor for the rest of the city.
There was the same feeling that he always had whenever he came this way, as though being hit on the head by a slab of ice. He could feel his cheek muscles tensing, the knot somewhere in his gut.
A dark green rubbish container stood on the far side. A curious place to put one, for a plot of land everyone used as a makeshift dump in the first place. But from the police tape that had been stuck around it, he concluded that that was where the girl’s body had been left.
Once he was about twenty metres away from it, he slowed his pace, looking closely at the ground, then back up at the container. Edging around it in a circle, gradually getting nearer, he kept glancing between the floor and the bin, checking for anything that might catch his eye. The problem in this littered environment was finding anything, any clue. The wealth of material almost obliterated the evidence. And if something was found that could be linked, there was a high chance of it being contaminated and unusable.
There was simply too much, and it was too dark to make anything out. What was he doing here, anyway?
He took a couple of steps forward and drew closer to the rubbish container. Blue-and-white tape had been wrapped around it a few times, as though marking territory, and then more had been placed around the top edge, to seal it down. The local
– the crime scene squad – would already have been round, but they might want to make more inspections in the morning. In the meantime it had to be kept closed. He was surprised they hadn’t placed a guard to watch over it for the night.
He leaned in, pulling at the tape to see if it would come off. He just wanted to see. Just needed to catch a glimpse of where the girl had been left. He had already caught the smell of the decomposing corpse that had been pulled out of here . . .
By the time he understood what the noise was, the squad car was drawing up behind him, screeching to a halt as it braked hard.
Cámara sniffed and turned round, but already a policeman was grabbing his shoulders, pulling him down to the ground and jerking his arm behind his back.
‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘Just hold on a minute.’
The other officer had jumped out of the car and was approaching with a pair of handcuffs.
‘Keep him down, Fuentes.’
‘I am not struggling,’ Cámara called up. ‘Calm down and let me explain. I’m police. Chief Inspector Cámara.’
There was a blow to the back of his head.
‘Disturbing a crime scene and impersonating a police officer. I’d keep quiet if I were you.’
But Cámara had blacked out.
HE KNEW THAT
smell, of stale metallic sweat born of fear and anger. The difference was that in the past he had always been able to walk away from it, to climb back up the steps to the ground floor, with a nod to the poor sods on guard duty, and away into the corridors and offices of his ordinary existence. Police station cells might change superficially from one city to the next, but they were the same in essence: rank, frustrating and filthy, a greying chill like the slime on a rotting fish seeping out of the brickwork and penetrating your skin.
He’d avoided them as best he could, leaving it wherever possible to others, further down the chain of command, to deposit and fetch men from the foetid dungeons. It was the stench more than anything else that seemed to reach into his stomach. Yet this time there was no walking away: he was on the other side of the square, grey iron bars, closing his eyes, his face, as much of himself as he could, against the oppressive weight of the tiny cell he had woken up in.
He heard movement outside, a key slotting into a hole.
Clarity of thought was eluding him that morning, but he felt certain the policeman now looking down at him as he sat on the bed was different from either of those who had brought him in. The lump on the back of his head still throbbed.
‘The commissioner wants to see you.’
Despite the fugginess, he noted the surprise, even a begrudging respect, in the officer’s voice as they went upstairs and he handed him back his money, keys and mobile phone.
He was taken to another room. Two glasses of coffee were on a tray on the main desk, next to a plate of
cakes and a couple of croissants. The officer indicated for him to sit down, then left, closing the door behind him. Cámara lifted his arm up and smelt at his clothes: the cell odour had come with him.
The office was well lit, with two large windows: he was in a corner room on what appeared to be the second floor of the Jefatura – the city’s main police station – judging by the treetops just visible from a busy street outside. Cupboards trimmed in light oak-effect panels sat beneath the windows, a half-open sliding door giving him a glimpse of the cardboard box files filling the space inside. On top, a couple of plaques for merit and service to the
squatted next to a photo of a smiling woman in her forties with dyed blonde hair.
Cámara stretched out in his chair, breathing life into his limbs. He was being made to wait. The officer who had brought him up from the cells had clearly mentioned a ‘commissioner’. In a small city like Albacete such high-ranking policemen were a rarity. Whoever was expecting him to share an impromptu breakfast was going to be a big fish.
Meanwhile, the coffee was going cold. Should he wait politely until his host appeared?
Bollocks to that. He was going to drink it while it was still hot.
The door opened as he chewed on his first mouthful of croissant.
‘Oh, good. You’ve already started. My apologies. I got waylaid.’
Cámara lifted a hand to wipe the crumbs from his mouth; there was something familiar about that voice.
He turned to see. A tall, slender man in a grey suit with a white shirt and red tie was walking towards him, both arms outstretched.
‘Max, Max, Max.’
‘If they’d said the next time I saw you I’d be fishing you out of the cells, you know what? Somehow I would have believed them.’
He patted Cámara on the cheek affectionately.
‘Getting into trouble. Always getting into trouble. I think that’s why I always wanted to play with you when we were kids. For you it comes naturally – for me it’s a lot more hard work.’
Cámara hadn’t seen Ernesto Yago for over twenty years. They’d both finished their law degrees at the local university and were going up to the national police academy at Avila. The same glimmer of guarded humour shone in his eyes, yet he seemed wrapped in his position and authority, and the cloth fitted him well, as though he had always known he was destined for high rank.
Yago?’ Cámara asked with a grin. ‘
Eres un hijo de puta
.’ You son of a bitch. ‘I’m not going to ask how many arses you had to lick to get here.’
‘Back in my home town too. You could do it as well, Max. Come home to Albacete. I could speak to a few people.’
Cámara laughed. It was just like Yago to hit a grey area between irony and innocent seriousness. And as ever Cámara found himself taking him at his word, yet wondering if he was the butt of the joke. Falling instantly back into patterns between them that he’d forgotten existed.