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Alone in the Crowd
An Inspector Espinosa Mystery
By Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Benjamin Moser
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2007 Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
All rights reserved.
With one hand, the woman pressed her purse to her chest, while with her other hand she clasped a scrap of paper that she glanced at repeatedly. The electronic signboard above the bank tellers' windows at the branch of the Caixa Econômica displayed two numbers: the number of the customer being helped and the number of the window. She'd been sitting among dozens of other retired people and pensioners for more than an hour, waiting her turn. She knew that if she missed her turn she'd have to take another number (this had happened the previous month, when she'd gone to the bathroom). Staying focused on the signboard was especially difficult; she'd been staring at the number on the board and the number in her hand for so long, both had become meaningless. The murmuring of all the people around her bothered her, as did the conversations held close by. She always tried to sit next to someone younger, in case she needed assistance. She feared the elderly, solitary people who spoke of abandonment in monotonous voices. They disturbed her concentration.
"One seventy-two," said the woman in the next chair, turning toward her.
She looked at the paper and raised her hand. Shouting wouldn't help. Nor did they pay attention to her raised arm. She got up from where she was and rushed to the counter, where the teller called out the number once again and got ready to press the button that would summon the next customer, condemning her to having to take another number.
"It's hard to get through with all these people around," she told him breathlessly.
"All you have to do is wait close to the counter when the number ahead of yours is called," the teller said. "Your card, please."
She had temporarily forgotten the other reason she was there. She opened her purse and started looking for her Social Security card. For an hour and a half she'd been paying such close attention to the numbers that flashed on the screen and the number on the paper she held in her hand. She hadn't thought about the card.
"Next time, ma'am, please come with your card ready. You're holding up other people."
"Everyone who comes here knows they're going to be held up.... They already know they've lost their entire morning or afternoon."
"So what are you complaining about?"
"I'm not complaining. I've been waiting for an hour and a half without saying a word. Here's my card."
"Are you going to withdraw all of it?"
While she counted the money, she looked around as if afraid that someone was about to approach her. Around a hundred people, eager to get to their business with the bank, were looking at her, but nobody could hear what she was saying. She counted the money once again and handed it back to the cashier, who counted it in turn. Finally, he removed a few more banknotes from a drawer, adding them to the stack he handed back to her.
Back home, she didn't change clothes. She fixed a light meal and watched the TV news while she ate. Later, as soon as the midday heat started to let up, she planned to go out again, to the pharmacy and the supermarket. She also planned to stop by the police station. She'd lived on the same street, in the same building, for more than thirty years, and for the first time she thought she had a reasonable motive for going there.
At five o'clock, after making the trip to the pharmacy and the supermarket and still pushing her shopping cart, the pensioner walked through the gateway to the two-story building of the Twelfth Precinct in Copacabana and encountered the two or three steps that led to the reception area. After crossing that obstacle, she entered a police station for the first time, a bit disappointed. She had expected to find an intensely active and smoky environment, smelling of sweat and cigarettes, uniformed policemen dashing through with men in handcuffs, telephones ringing off the hook, people shouting. She didn't see anyone in uniform, or shouting, or handcuffed. She was greeted by a friendly girl in a setting that reminded her more of a post office than the police stations she'd seen in American movies.
"May I help you?" the girl said.
"Is this the police station?"
"Where are all the policemen?"
"Almost everyone who works here is a policeman, ma'am. Would you like to speak to anyone in particular?"
"I'd like to speak with the chief."
"He's in a meeting."
"Will it take long?"
"He's meeting with his team. It usually takes a while. Would you like to speak to Detective Welber, his assistant?"
"It's not the same thing.... Is that detective a foreigner?"
"No, ma'am, he's Brazilian."
"The name sounds foreign, but he's Brazilian. You'll like talking to him."
"It doesn't matter whether I'd like to talk to him, sweetheart, it's that I'd like to talk to someone more experienced."
"Detective Welber is very experienced. But if you don't think he's the right person to talk to, you can speak to Chief Espinosa as soon as the meeting's over."
"Espinosa ... that's the chief's name?"
"Is he Jewish?"
"Jewish? I don't know.... I don't think so.... Would that be a problem?"
"No. Not at all. Just curious."
"Well? What do you prefer, talking to the detective or waiting for the end of the meeting?"
"I've already spent so much time waiting this morning for my pension at the Caixa Econômica; I just waited on line at the supermarket to pay for my groceries; I waited at the pharmacy.... I live a block away — I'll go home and drop off these bags and then come back to speak with the chief."
"Whatever you prefer. What's your name?"
"Laureta Sales Ribeiro."
"You can find me when you come back, Dona Laureta."
"Thank you. See you in a minute."
* * *
It was almost six in the evening by the time Chief Espinosa ended the meeting with his investigative team. He hadn't yet left the room when the policeman on duty came in to say that a woman had been killed only a block from the station.
"She was here a half hour before —"
"Here at the station?"
"She wanted to talk to the chief."
"Did she know me?"
"No, sir. She just said she wanted to talk to the chief."
"There wasn't anyone available?"
"The receptionist suggested Detective Welber, but she wanted to talk to someone with more experience."
"How was she killed?"
"Run over. She was waiting for the green light to cross the street when she suddenly jerked forward. Some bystanders thought she'd been pushed. She managed to hang on until a fire department ambulance arrived, but she died on the way to the hospital."
"Did she have documents on her?"
"Her purse was filled with documents: address, credit card, health insurance, and money —"
"What was her name?"
"Laureta Sales Ribeiro."
"Did they interview any witnesses?"
"The policemen who got to the scene listened to the people talking about what had happened, but when they called them to testify, the witnesses said that as a matter of fact they hadn't seen anybody push the woman, that they'd just had the impression that she was thrown forward. Vague declarations, mostly from older people who, instead of telling us what they'd actually seen, made long speeches about the violence of the traffic, their fear of being robbed, the war with the drug traffickers, the absence of the police. Nobody felt like coming to the station; they all said that all they'd seen was the woman falling in front of the bus, and even then they couldn't say how she'd fallen or if she'd really been pushed."
"And the bus driver?"
"The only thing he saw was some white hair and then the thud of a body being hit. He was shocked and kept repeating that it wasn't his fault."
* * *
A team of investigators spent the rest of the evening retracing Miss Laureta's movements before and after she came to the police station. The accident had occurred during the busiest time of the afternoon, on one of the busiest corners of Copacabana, a few meters from the lobby of the building she lived in and only a block from the Twelfth Precinct.
The receptionist who had talked to Miss Laureta repeated countless times the dialogue she'd had with her. Espinosa wanted her to repeat every word and describe the lady's state of mind: if she seemed scared, anxious, afraid ...
"She didn't seem like she was any of that. She wasn't scared or frightened. She seemed more anxious than frightened. It didn't seem to be anything too urgent, and she decided herself to come back later. She didn't say anything about what brought her to the station in the first place."
"She might have witnessed some crime, she might have known some incriminating fact, she might have been threatened ..."
* * *
Going on Laureta's comment that she had been at the branch of the Caixa Econômica that morning to collect her pension, Inspector Ramiro and Detective Welber went to the closest branch the next day, three blocks from the station. The only photo they had was the one from the ID card they'd found at the scene of the accident. It was an old picture. It also listed her name. They went from window to window until they found the teller who had helped her. On the badge attached to his shirt were the words HUGO BRENO. He remembered having seen her a few times, and that the day before she had replied a bit harshly to an observation he'd made. He added that he understood the irritation of a senior citizen who had to wait more than an hour to collect what was owed to her. According to him, the only words they had exchanged had to do with the withdrawal she had come to perform.
"She was alone?"
"She was. At least nobody was with her when she came up to the counter."
"Did she seem afraid or scared?"
"No. As I said, she was irritated by the length of the wait."
The supermarket and the pharmacy she had visited were evident from the plastic bags found in her apartment, some of which still had her purchases inside. There was no record of any calls made that day from the cell phone found in her purse. They had asked the phone company for a list of the calls she had made from her landline. The doorman remembered that when she went out to the shops she had said that she would pay a visit to the station later.
"That's how she said it, that she'd pay a visit to the station later?"
"That's right. I thought it was funny too. Nobody pays a visit to a police station."
By noon the day after the accident, the two policemen had managed to piece together everything Laureta had done from when she'd left home that morning until the moment she was hit, at the end of the afternoon. A few lacunae, like routes and stops, were filled in by Chief Espinosa, in order to create a coherent picture. There was no sign of robbery: in the victim's purse her money, credit card, bank card, checkbook, and cell phone had not been touched. As a few witnesses had said, nobody saw her being pushed, if in fact she had been; what they did see was the sudden movement of her body. There was no exclamation. Nobody ran off. There was no strange activity: she simply threw herself, or was thrown, forward, as vehicles were moving swiftly past.
"There's nothing that points to a motive," Ramiro said. "She was a widow who lived alone, surviving modestly on her husband's pension, a peaceful lady who didn't have any problems with anyone."
"But nobody is thrown in front of a bus in broad daylight on a street corner densely packed with pedestrians, without anyone seeing a thing," Espinosa observed. "According to what our receptionist said, suicide is very improbable; we have to take into consideration the possibility that she was pushed. And we're only going to discover someone's motive for doing that when we find out what she was planning on saying here at the station a half hour before she died."
* * *
In the afternoon, Chief Espinosa put Welber in charge of talking to the employees who worked in Laureta's building and with the other people who lived on her floor. Espinosa thought that a widowed lady living by herself, without a maid, would tend to chat to certain people about her day-to-day life. Some of those facts might have something to do with what happened to her. Welber started with the neighbors. There were three apartments on her floor, besides her own. The one immediately next to hers belonged to a couple of landowners from Minas Gerais who kept the apartment for their occasional visits to Rio, roughly every two months — and they hadn't been there for more than a month. Of the other two apartments, one belonged to a very elderly man who was suffering from senility and was attended to by two assistants, who took care of him in shifts. They knew Laureta only by sight. They hadn't even heard that she had been run over.
"There is some doubt about whether it was an accident," Welber mentioned to one of the assistants.
"What do you mean, someone killed the old lady?"
"Possibly.... And she wasn't just an old lady. She was a woman who was still fairly strong."
"We hardly ever saw her. Every once in a while we'd run into each other in the elevator and say hello. Nothing more than that."
The third apartment housed two girls. They worked in a real-estate office and spent every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, away from home. Welber managed to talk to one of them at the real-estate office, but she had nothing noteworthy to add, even though she remembered her neighbor.
The building's employees, a few doormen and a janitor, sometimes received calls from Laureta, with requests to change a light bulb or to fix something. At those times, they sometimes would chat, but never about anything that suggested a threat or a particular concern. Laureta only had one girlfriend, whom Welber located, an acquaintance left over from the time when their husbands were alive and the couples spent time together. She was deeply shocked by the news of her friend's death. She had no idea why such a thing might have happened.
At the end of the afternoon, the team convened in Espinosa's office, where he learned that Welber's investigation hadn't turned up anything that could help explain the pensioner's death. Ramiro had had no more luck with the employees of her supermarket or the people who worked at the pharmacy or the shops close to her building. There was nothing in Laureta's daily life that pointed to why she would have sought assistance from the police. One aspect of the case did stand out: whatever her reasons for coming to the station, Laureta seemed to be more interested in the chief than in the resources of the station ... even though she didn't know him personally and didn't even know his name.
"She was probably looking for someone who not only was the boss but whose age she might have imagined was closer to hers," Espinosa said. "She must have thought that the reason she came to the station couldn't be understood by a less experienced policeman. When the receptionist said that Detective Welber had plenty of experience, Laureta insinuated that she wasn't talking about police experience. Another consideration is that she wanted to communicate something important, with regards to herself or to a third party, but she wasn't in a hurry. She may have supposed that nobody knew about the secret she was going to reveal to us. Yet someone did find out, probably on the same day that she was killed. The discovery could have occurred in the morning, in the bank, while she was waiting her turn. Maybe by someone she was talking to and who followed her as soon as she left the bank. In the afternoon, after she'd gone to the supermarket and the pharmacy, she entered the station, and the stalker got scared, thinking she was going to turn him in, but he must have been relieved when she was in here for only a short time. Because of her calm demeanor as she walked out, he must have thought that she hadn't talked yet. That's when he decided to kill her as soon as possible."
Excerpted from Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Benjamin Moser. Copyright © 2007 Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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