At four in the afternoon, the little neighborhood restaurant was empty. The only waiter, toward the back, divided his attention between a pile of plates in front of him and the television perched in the corner of the room. Eyes glued to the screen, he took a plate, sprayed some alcohol on it, wiped it off, and stacked it on another pile next to the first one. He did it unhurriedly, at the pace of the TV movie. Once he was done, he separated the plates into two perfectly equal piles; the movement forced him to tear his eyes away from the screen. Then he moved on to the silverware. He took the pieces out of a plastic box to his left, sprayed them with the cleaner, and, after carefully wiping them, tossed them into another box to his right. This task was harder to coordinate with the TV because the box was divided into compartments for spoons, forks, and knives, and it was almost impossible to select the right compartment without looking.
The repetitive, monotonous sound of the silverware being tossed into the box added to Espinosa's irritation, and made it harder for him to concentrate on the conversation.
"I don't do odd jobs."
"I know you don't, Sergeant."
"But that's what you're proposing."
"I need help."
"Why don't you hire a private investigator?"
"I don't know any. I know they exist; I see their ads in the papers-they seem more interested in catching people cheating on their wives."
"And what do you want me to investigate?"
"Who got killed?"
"I don't know yet."
"You don't know him?"
"No, he's not dead yet."
h"Not dead yet?"
"Well, there's no body. Nobody's been killed . . . yet."
With every passing minute, Espinosa regretted more deeply that he had agreed to this meeting.
"You've been bugging me for a week about this? You want me to investigate the murder of someone-you don't know who-who isn't even dead? Are you screwing around with me?"
"No, Sergeant. Please, I know it looks weird . . ."
"It looks weird?"
"And can you tell me where, and why, this murder is going to take place?"
"N . . . No . . . I'm so sorry."
"And naturally you don't know who the murderer is going to be."
"You're planning on committing murder?"
"Not if you put it so . . . clearly."
"Clearly? Son, the only thing missing in all this talk is clarity."
"You're right, sir. Maybe I should explain, even though it's not all that clear even to me."
"If it's not too much trouble, of course."
"I understand your irritation, Sergeant."
"So please get to the point."
"A psychic saw that I would commit a murder before my next birthday. There's less than two months to go."
"I mean, not one of the ones who wear turbans . . ."
"Last year, some friends from work were with me in a bar celebrating my birthday. One of the people there, who wasn't with us, offered to give me a birthday present: a reading of my future. I'm completely skeptical about that kind of thing, but it seemed like fun and my friends kept at me, so I agreed. The guy made a few general predictions, the kind all psychics make, and then finished by saying that before my next birthday I would kill somebody and that the murder wouldn't be an accident."
"And you believed him?"
"I had to. He didn't have any reason to be telling me something like that."
"And how long before your next birthday?"
"Less than two months."
"And you want me to find out whom you're going to kill?"
"Yes, sir, if you will. I can't pay very much."
The kid spoke calmly. His diction was clear, and Espinosa could see in his eyes that he'd been suffering for a long time.
Espinosa recovered his usual tone: calm, deliberate, devoid of irony or irritation.
"Our meeting began badly. My fault. Let's go to the station, and we can resume our conversation there. It won't be anything official, unless you want it to be." He stood up, left some money on the table in exchange for the nothing they had consumed, and invited the kid to follow him with a friendly gesture.
It was winter, which meant, in Rio de Janeiro, that the days were pretty, the sky blue, and the temperature pleasant. The light was softer, shadows less sharply defined, and the colors less vibrant than in summer. It wasn't more than a ten-minute walk to the station. Espinosa figured the kid couldn't have been more than thirty. Medium height, pleasant face, dark hair. Like Espinosa, when he talked he looked his companion in the eyes, which made even small talk seem intense. When they arrived, he paused in front of the arch that covered the entrance to the building.
"You don't have to say anything against your will; if we don't make an official record of our conversation, it won't be anything more than a conversation."
Despite his deep voice, Espinosa spoke softly. He didn't have to talk the guy into coming in. The old three-story building on the Rua Hilário de Gouveia, in the middle of Copacabana, was only two blocks from the beach. The entrance was always open, but the windows on the facade were always closed, to shut out the noise outside. Despite its age and function, the building was in a reasonable state of repair.
From the way the kid looked around, it was clear that everything in there was new to him. He seemed a little more comfortable in Espinosa's office.
"When you first called you said your name was Gabriel."
"Why do you believe in the psychic's prediction?"
"Because he'd never seen me before and he didn't have any motive for making such an accusation. And the way he said it didn't leave any reasonable doubt. At least not for me. I was terrified. To say that I took it seriously is an understatement. I panicked. My friends thought it was a riot."
"So what do you think?"
"I don't think anyone should play soccer unless they have some talent for the sport."
"That's not exactly what I wanted to find out."
"Sorry. What did you want to find out, sir?"
"If you want to kill anyone."
"Nobody . . . in particular."
"And in general?"
"In general . . ."
The leftover material from the curtains was just enough to make a cushion for the windowsill. The fact that it was on the ground floor was her favorite feature of the apartment. The window facing the street was high enough to protect her from indiscreet glances, and just large enough for Dona Alzira to use it as a perch. At the end of the afternoon, she sat there waiting for her son to turn the corner from the Rua do Catete onto the Rua Buarque de Macedo. Gabriel had his father's pleasant face and strong body, but he was much more intelligent. She'd never seen him drunk or heard about him getting involved with hookers. He'd had the same job ever since he had gotten his degree in business administration, and thanks to him they'd gotten a mortgage on the apartment. The two-bedroom flat was dark, and despite her daily efforts to keep it clean, it was insistently invaded by roaches from the trash cans in the central patio. Nothing helped; every morning when she got up to make her son's breakfast, Dona Alzira found, on the floor of the kitchen or even the living room, one or two of those disgusting insects lying on its back, still moving its legs.
None of this affected in the least her joy in living with her son and taking care of him. Since she was short, she had ordered a little wooden stepstool so that she could easily climb up onto the windowsill. Her eyes weren't good enough for her to see all the way to the corner; she could make out the movement of the cars on the Rua do Catete but she couldn't distinguish them clearly. As for the pedestrians, she couldn't even tell if they were men or women. So she couldn't exactly see her son turning the corner, but amid the crowds of people who were constantly turning onto Buarque de Macedo, she always knew beyond a shadow of a doubt which one was her Gabriel. She could identify him long before she could actually see him-from his size, from the way he walked-until he finally came into focus. It felt like her own life was taking shape.
On that afternoon, at the appointed hour, she took up her post, already savoring the pleasure of seeing him turn the corner. After fifteen minutes, a slight uneasiness came over her, starting at her neck. After another fifteen minutes the uneasiness became pain. She came down the ladder, checked to see that the phone wasn't off the hook (he never failed to call when he was running late), that it was plugged in, that she hadn't misread the clock. When, almost forty minutes late, after she'd confused him with countless men, she saw her son emerge from the crowd, she had almost passed out. Her worries didn't seem to be unfounded; Gabriel was walking more slowly than usual. His shoulders were slumped, and he was looking at the ground. What she was seeing was more than mere fatigue. She made the sign of the cross.
As soon as she heard the key slide into the door, she pulled herself together; she didn't want her son to see that she'd been upset.
"Gabriel, honey, did you have to stay late at work?"
"There must have been a problem with the subway because of the new line they're building, right?"
"No, Mother, there was no problem with the subway."
"All right . . . I don't want to nag."
She mutely scanned her son's face, trying to decipher the minuscule signs that were, to her terror, growing less intelligible with each passing day. She couldn't have said exactly when it had started, what she called her son's area of darkness. Up until then, she had thought of him as made up of pure light, clear and transparent as crystal. Last year, she'd started noticing the first shadows; and that evening, when he turned the corner, her son had seemed frighteningly opaque.
"Mom, I already told you not to worry if I'm late; things happen . . ."
"Nothing happened, Mother. Everything's fine."
"If you have to say that everything's fine, that means something's wrong."
"Mother . . ."
"I know something's bothering you. I'm sure of it. Is it a woman?"
"Mother . . ."
"Sorry. I don't have any business meddling in your life."
"Mom, of course you do. You always have. I just don't want you getting all worried for no reason."
The furniture in the living room was heavy and dark. The chairs were covered with purple velvet. There was a Last Supper and two scenes of the countryside at dusk. It wasn't a very cozy room. They rarely used it; it was really no more than a passageway from the kitchen to the bedrooms. The constant foot traffic had forced Dona Alzira to cover the rug with transparent plastic, in order to ensure that the floral motif remained visible. While they were talking, she touched her son's shirtsleeve. They seldom touched each other's skin; even their hands rarely made contact. Gabriel bypassed his mother, lightly touching the shawl on her shoulder, and went into his room, closing the door. She interpreted the gesture as clear evidence that something was wrong, though when he came home he always went into his room and closed the door. Even with the door closed, Dona Alzira "saw" her son take off his work clothes, put on the shorts she'd given him for Christmas, plug in his earphones, and lie down to listen to classical music. At least it wasn't disco.
While she was fixing up the little table in the kitchen for dinner, she thought again about whether she should talk to Father Crisóstomo about her son. Ever since her husband had died, when Gabriel was nine, she'd taken Father Crisóstomo as her confessor and family counselor. He would know, just as he always did, what was happening with her Gabriel and what to do about it. But she was afraid that direct intervention from a third party could threaten the relationship she had with her son. She couldn't stand to see her boy leave home; if she had to lose him, she'd rather it be by death, hers or his. God forgive her such feelings, but they were exactly what she thought; she would risk eternal damnation in order not to lose her son while she had breath in her body. They ate dinner in silence.
He wasn't sure he'd made the best decision. At first, the sergeant had seemed irritated, unhappy to have agreed to meet with him; suddenly, without warning, he had apologized and become understanding and sensitive. Which aspect of the officer's personality should he trust? Both? The first was so disagreeable that it had irremediably polluted the second. Now he wondered if he'd done the right thing by going to the police. He thought that cops were like priests: even if you haven't done anything, they think you're guilty. He took off his earphones in order to concentrate better as he reviewed every moment of the conversation. He wasn't so much worried about the cop's words. It was the tone, his mood he was trying to reconstruct. The initial moments, hostile and punctuated with irony, didn't count as a real conversation. He didn't remember what he had said to make the cop's attitude change, or what had happened to make him invite him back to the precinct. At any rate, the second part of the conversation was indisputably better than the first. There was still something he didn't quite get, though. The sergeant didn't promise to investigate; he hadn't even bothered to take down his name, address, telephone number, things like that, and yet he seemed sympathetic to Gabriel's problems. In fact, Gabriel felt like someone who goes to the doctor because he's suffering from some deep affliction and leaves the doctor's office without a prescription, only the doctor's kind words.
He replaced the earphones and stretched out on the bed. His room was a lot smaller than his mother's, but he used every inch of the space. There wasn't a single empty space on his wall, which was entirely taken up, hidden by his wardrobe, shelves for books and CDs, his desk; even his bed was up against the wall, in a kind of niche between the shelves. He didn't have enough room to move around in; he couldn't take two steps, and if he stood in the middle of the room and stretched out his arms, he would bump into something. That was one of the reasons he took walks at night, which inevitably made his mother upset and suspicious. The room was a perfect expression of himself: functional, but without any free space.
The sergeant had been unmoved by the offer of payment. In fact, he'd seemed irritated by the suggestion. That was the moment when the meeting had started going downhill, and if Gabriel hadn't been so determined to stick to the subject, the meeting would have been a complete disaster-though he suspected it had been a disaster anyway. What kind of investigation could be done if the investigator doesn't even bother to write down the name of the person he's investigating, much less his address or his place of employment? Did he think Gabriel was crazy, and decide not to confront him? Maybe inviting him back to the station had been a way of shrugging him off more easily. That possibility was the worst, because it automatically voided everything the man had said. Gabriel would have to talk to him again to find out if that was true.
In spite of the earphones, he could still hear the banging on the door. He got up, annoyed by the interruption, opened the door, and came face-to-face with his mother, who was brandishing a tray.
"Coffee. I just made it."
Without a word, Gabriel took the cup, placed it on his table, and turned back to close the door. He didn't like being disturbed in his refuge, but he was moved by his mother's small kindnesses. It was her way of apologizing for needling him. But if he showed her that he was touched, she might set up a full bar at his door.
He focused anew on his conversation with the sergeant. He remembered that the man's change in attitude had taken place when Gabriel had answered his question about whether he believed in the psychic's prediction. Strange, that the cop was more interested in a personal opinion than in any concrete facts. He hadn't actually provided him with any concrete facts. He'd only spoken of his intuitions, which is why the officer might have written him off as one of those lunatics who hang around police stations complaining about imaginary persecutors.
The difference between the lunatics and Gabriel was that Gabriel knew that what was threatening him wasn't imaginary; he wasn't confusing reality and fantasies-he knew exactly what was real and what was not. His feeling about the oracle was real, and that was why he sought out the sergeant: not for an objective fact, but for a subjective yet concrete impression. He wasn't crazy-he was sure of that. At least, he wasn't any crazier than anybody else. He had some problems, that was true, but nothing that made him crazier than normal. His relationship with his mother was one of those difficulties, but he was pretty sure he could straighten that one out soon enough.
When he looked at the coffee, he noticed that it had gone cold. If he gave it back to his mother untouched, she would take that as a slap in the face, and he didn't want to add anything else to the slightly hostile climate created by his late arrival. He was twenty-nine; he shouldn't have to make excuses to his mother for being a few minutes late. But then again, it wasn't all her fault. If he hadn't always been so punctual she wouldn't have gotten used to waiting for him at the window every afternoon. And in any case, he was the one who had led her to expect a phone call whenever he was running late. He couldn't just take away the security he'd given her. He opened his bedroom door, trying not to make noise, went to the bathroom, dumped the coffee into the toilet, and flushed. Before he could close his door again, he heard his mother's voice from the neighboring room:
"The coffee wasn't good, son?"
Espinosa lived only a few blocks from the station, which allowed him to walk to work. He took different routes: one, more direct, if he was in a hurry; others, if there was something he wanted to check out along the way. Tonight he left the station later than usual-he'd had to make up for the time he'd spent with the guy. It was already dark when he passed the reception desk on the ground floor and said good night to the people on the night shift. The heavy traffic on the Rua Barata Ribeiro, only a few feet away, made no impression on him; it was just the audiovisual background to his thoughts.
He started walking home without paying attention to what was going on around him, automatically weaving his way through the people approaching from the opposite direction. Moments like this were taken up by intense mental activity; his body worked like an automaton. Shoulders stooped, hands in pockets, he kept his eyes on the ground. He thought of himself as intelligent, but not brainy. His fantasies were just as important to him, if not more important, than his thoughts, and the two frequently got confused. His rational thoughts were often transformed into a series of flickering images.
He was most impressed by the guy's character: both absurd and truthful. To ask the police to investigate a murder that he himself would commit at some unknown date-a murder of an unknown victim-was completely absurd. And that was precisely what made the story ring true. Nobody would do something like that otherwise, unless they were crazy or acting in bad faith. And the boy's anguish seemed real enough. Espinosa had decided not to do anything, in case the kid wanted to keep the case private. He was a police sergeant, not a private investigator. Besides, how could he justify an investigation based on a pure fantasy, without a single fact to its name?
Espinosa had managed to transfer one of his old colleagues to his precinct. His colleague had been seriously wounded during an investigation they had jointly conducted, and now he was back on duty. The doctors had suggested that he refrain from violent encounters for a while. Welber was a cop Espinosa believed in completely. Maybe Gabriel's case would be a way for Welber to ease himself back into the service. But for that, there would have to be a case, and he wasn't at all convinced there was.
He turned left onto the Rua Anita Garibaldi, heading toward the Peixoto District, where he lived. Even though it was called a district, it was in truth only a small neighborhood, a few blocks of low-rise buildings around a central square, right in the middle of Copacabana. It would be a nice way to put his friend back to work. If Welber hadn't headed toward the door to intercept the kidnapper, Espinosa himself would have taken the bullet that almost cost his friend his life. He stopped to buy some beer and smoked ham, to give himself another option for dinner. He wasn't sure why he believed the kid. Even if he did believe him, that didn't mean that anything was going to happen, or that the psychic's prediction was going to come true. He'd never heard of a birthday-party clairvoyant making a prediction that came to pass, except when they said things like "You will travel abroad" or "You will soon meet the woman of your life." A trip abroad was an old psychic standard; and Espinosa thought that every woman in one's life could turn out to be the woman of one's life. It was true, however, that he'd never heard of a spiritualist making a prediction involving murder. Especially at a party. It must have been some pervert who hated birthdays. One advantage of giving the case to Welber was that he and Gabriel were the same age, which would facilitate communication between them. That is, if the detective felt like taking the story seriously.
At that hour, the square was practically deserted. Espinosa kept walking down the sidewalk, avoiding the earthen pathways through the square. He crossed the street that surrounded the square and entered the three-story building where he'd lived since he was ten years old, when his parents were still alive. He went to the top floor. He'd speak to Welber the next day. It wasn't exactly a case, but it was an opportunity for Welber to familiarize himself with the kind of people who show up at the Twelfth Precinct. He went up the two flights of stairs carrying the beer bottles, the ham, and a loaf of bread. There were still enough TV dinners in the freezer, but there wasn't enough variety: tagliatelle Bolognese, spaghetti Bolognese, or lasagna Bolognese. Everything else had already been eaten.
He had always been fond of the French window in the living room, which opened onto a little balcony with a cast-iron railing. The Venetian blinds, which extended from the floor almost to the ceiling, were a holdover from days when buildings were built to be pleasant to live in. He left his shopping bag in the kitchen, opened the blinds, closed the windows to keep out the cold, turned on a lamp, and sat softly on the sofa. Since leaving the station he'd tried not to move too abruptly, as if that would help keep his ideas from bumping into one another.
He wasn't entirely sure why he'd agreed to meet with the guy, and he was even less sure why he'd already given the case semiofficial status. It didn't do any good to sit on the sofa, staring at buildings and contemplating the landscape. A series of tasks, like taking a shower, making sandwiches for dinner, sorting his clothes for the wash, would divert his attention from the story for a while.
An hour later, though, his mind was still on the same questions; of the jobs he had laid out for himself, the only thing he'd done was take a shower. Then he remembered he hadn't put the beer in the refrigerator. He got dressed and went out to eat somewhere with better service.