A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
Named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press
Madrid 1939. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a sergeant in the Guardia Civil, a rank rare for a man not yet thirty, but Tejada is an unusual recruit. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has interrupted his legal studies in Salamanca. Second son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, he is an enthusiast for the Catholic Franquista cause, a dedicated, and now triumphant, Nationalist.
This war has drawn international attention. In a dress rehearsal for World War II, fascists support the Nationalists, while communists have come to the aid of the Republicans. Atrocities have devastated both sides. It is at this moment, when the Republicans have surrendered and the Guardia Civil has begun to impose order in the ruins of Madrid, that Tejada finds the body of his best friend, a hero of the siege of Toledo, shot to death on a street named Amor de Dios. Naturally, a Red is suspected. And it is easy for Tejada to assume that the woman caught kneeling over the body is the killer. But when his doubts are aroused, he cannot help seeking justice.
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Sir! There's been a murder, sir!" Guardia Adolfo Jiménez stamped up to the flat surface that his commanding officer was pleased to call a desk and gave a stiff-armed salute.
Unfortunately, Jiménez's last stamp shook loose the battered copy of La España del Cid that was holding up the fourth " leg of the table, and several papers cascaded over the edge. Lieutenant Ramos steadied the remaining papers, and looked up at the young guardia with a glare. "Well, have you arrested someone for it?" he demanded impatiently.
"No, Lieutenant!" Jiménez saluted again, but was careful not to stamp.
The third man in the room unobtrusively stooped, and began to gather the fallen papers from the floor. He glanced at them as he rose, trying to figure out which pile each belonged in: a requisition for two hundred rounds of ammunition, a handwritten denunciation of someone named Mén-dez, a schedule of assignments to night patrol, and two typed memos from the division commander. After a moment, he carefully shuffled them into a stack, and placed them randomly on the table.
"Well, damn it, why are you coming to me then?" the lieutenant asked. "You're supposed to be restoring public order. Go and restore it. Thanks, Tejada," he added, as the papers were replaced.
"We think the murderer's a Red, Lieutenant," Jiménez explained.
Sergeant Tejada reflected that saying a Red was a murderer was rather like saying that the sun rose in the east. "Why do you think that, Guardia?" he asked.
Jiménez forgot himself and stamped again, causing both of his superiors to dive for papers. Then he looked chagrined. All of the recruits looked up to Sergeant Tejada Alonso y León. Not many men who started out as guardias were made officers, even with the rank of sergeant, before their thirtieth birthday. And Tejada had entered the Guardia late on top of that, coming from a university instead of from one of the military academies.
"The victim was a guardia civil, sir. Rank of corporal, sir."
"Hell!" Lieutenant Ramos's attention was caught. "One of our battalion?"
"Don't think so, sir. He had no identification on him. Just the uniform."
"Poor bastard." The lieutenant was shuffling papers furiously. "I'll send around a memo to the other posts, and ask them who's gone missing. Goddamn it, where's the carbon paper? Oh, thanks, Tejada." He unearthed an ancient portable typewriter and began to insert the sheet that the sergeant had offered. "Go take a look, will you? And arrest anyone in the neighborhood who seems suspicious. If they're Reds, put them up against a wall. Take Jiménez with you."
Tejada saluted, somehow managed to stamp without shaking any papers, and left without speaking. Jiménez followed him, excited to have been assigned to accompany the sergeant. Outside the temporary barracks, really a dormitory abandoned by the university and commandeered a few months earlier, Tejada turned. "Where are we going?"
"It's over near Atocha Station, sir. A little street called Amor de Dios."
Tejada's mouth curled briefly. "Not a very appropriate name. Lead the way, Jiménez."
It was not a long walk, and they passed very few people. It was nearly eight o'clock, and those who had food were cooking dinner. Those who did not were preparing for bed. An evening stroll had become a dangerous custom, and in a city without fuel, darkness meant bedtime. The few people on the streets slid away from the two red-collared guardias, as the north pole of one magnet turns from the north pole of another.
Tejada liked the silence. It was almost like being in the country, with the shadows falling so naturally, and no glare of streetlights to block out the moon rising ahead of them over the city. A breeze was blowing at their backs . It's peaceful, he thought, and then was surprised. It had been a long time since he had thought of peace in the present tense. The streetlights would come back, of course. But he hoped that the streets would stay like this at night: cool, silent, empty except for those on legitimate business. No demonstrations, he thought, as they passed through a deserted plaza with the gutted and flame-blackened ruins of a townhouse sitting silently on their left hand. No rabble-rousers. No rock throwing. No general strikes. No petty crime. Maybe now an honest man will be able to walk the streets without fear. His mouth tightened as he remembered their errand. The streets were not quite peaceful yet. But they would be. Tejada was under no illusions as to what Lieutenant Ramos had meant by "put them up against a wall." Rough and efficient justice was still necessary in Madrid. Maybe in a few years it would be possible to prettify it with legal niceties again.
Jiménez broke in on his reverie. "It's just at the end of this street, Sergeant."
Tejada nodded, but did not reply. Jiménez was too much in awe of the sergeant to offer further comments. So there was no sound except the echo of their boots as they approached the intersection of Amor de Dios and Fray Luis de León. Tejada sometimes wondered afterward what would have happened if they had made more noise.
Maria Alejandra was already breathing in great gasps when she reached her home, and the climb to the third-floor apartment took away any breath she might have had left for crying. She fumbled with the key and tore through the darkened living room to the kitchen at the back.
The kitchen was empty except for Tía Viviana. Tía Viviana wasn't really a relative, but as far as Alejandra was concerned, she was almost as good as her mama. She told jokes and knew good songs, and best of all, she was never afraid of anything. Alejandra loved the way Tía Viviana greeted her every afternoon with, "Hola, Aleja," slurring the words together so that it sounded like the name of a princess in The Arabian Nights: "La'leja." Tía Viviana looked up from her mending now.
"La'leja," she said. Then, dropping the patched clothing on the kitchen table and kneeling quickly, "Aleja! What's the matter?"
Maria Alejandra leaned against her shoulder and sobbed. She had seen dead people before. The year after the war started, her grandfather Palomino had died of pneumonia and she had gone to the wake. She and her mother had been on their way to the Merellos' bakery when the bomb had hit it, and they had seen Señor Merello and Danilo, who had been three grades ahead of her, carried out of the rubble. But something about the dead man lying alone in the street terrified her. Perhaps she could only bear seeing a certain number of dead, and the guardia in the Calle Amor de Dios had been the corpse that had broken the camel's back.
Viviana rocked the little girl back and forth, and crooned to her. "It's all right, sweetheart. It's all right." As pieces of Aleja's story emerged, the young woman's voice gained strength. "It's all right, precious. If he was a guardia then it's all right. Let them fight among themselves. Don't cry, sweetheart. He wasn't a Republican, I'm sure. Don't cry." She kept up the flow of soothing words until Aleja was calm again, and then Viviana distracted her with chores and songs and fantastic stories about princesses and ghosts and imaginary kingdoms where all the children ate roast pork every night. After a few hours, when she could think of nothing else to amuse the girl, Viviana asked if she had homework.
Alejandra required only a little coaxing to begin her work but as she retrieved her book bag she gave a stricken cry. "My notebook! I dropped it. By the man I saw."
Viviana frowned, once again concerned. "Are you sure, Aleja? You didn't put it in your bag?"
A quick search and more tears confirmed that Aleja had indeed lost the notebook. Her aunt frowned in thought for a moment. Aleja's homework for the night was a trivial thing, but Aleja's mother placed great value on the child's education. And Aleja's notebook had been only half-filled. Paper was rationed, and God alone knew when they'd be allowed more now. At the beginning of the term — in another life — the teachers had emphasized that all students must take special care of their materials. Viviana bit back the impulse to snap at her almost-niece for carelessness. It wasn't fair for a child to see so much of war. It wasn't fair to ask her to go and retrieve a notebook from the place where she had practically seen a man die. It was neither fair nor safe. There was a curfew, and Aleja would not be able to return before it went into effect. But to lose the notebook. ... Another loss, Viviana thought, and choked back tears. How much more can we lose now? Can we keep losing when there's nothing left? She was brought back to herself by a warming flash of anger. There was no reason to lose it. She knelt by Aleja and gave her a quick hug. "Don't cry. Tell me exactly where you left your notebook, and I'll go and get it. It's probably still there. When she comes in, tell your mother where I've gone."
She left hurriedly, without bothering to change her clothes. The wind whipped her hair away from her face, and she wished that she had thought to tie it back. It was nearly long enough to braid now. I should cut it again, she thought automatically, smoothing flyaway strands behind her ears. She shivered slightly. It was too cold for spring. Too cold and too silent and too deserted. She tried to remember summer afternoons, when the streets were choked with people and it was impossible to find a table at cafés that had already turned on their colored lanterns. Before the cafés had closed. Before the shelling. Before the war.
She reached the spot Aleja had described. Yes, there was the man, his life's blood clotted around him on the cobblestones. He had undoubtedly been a guardia civil. Viviana glanced at his uniform, saw the red collar of the Nationalists, and sighed with relief. Funny, with those collars, that they were called the Blues. So she had not lied to Aleja. He had been a Fascist. One of the victors, Viviana thought, though it still hurt to admit it. She was not ashamed of having lost: the army, the rich landowners, the church with all its wealth, the old aristocrats with all their power, had been behind the Nationalists. And their German and Italian friends had provided them with all the arms and soldiers that they could well have afforded to purchase anyway. It was amazing the Republicans had held out for so long, even with the help offered by the Soviets for the sake of the Communists who had supported the Republic. Viviana knew she had no reason to be ashamed of the fight she had put up. But it was grief and not pride that made her want to deny that the Republic was dead. She had fought for a new way of life: for a world where people shared things in common and no one starved so that rich men could become richer; a world where women were equal to men; where every new acquaintance was greeted with the familiar "tú," like a friend, instead of the servile "usted," like a servant to a master. Viviana had not fought purely to win. That was what made losing so hard. I'm damned if Aleja loses her notebook though, she thought. Whatever happens to us all now, she's got to go to school. She's not going to be a chambermaid or a factory girl all her life, at the mercy of some señorito's busy hands! We can't let them spit on her even if they do bring back the old ways! She scanned the ground. Yes, there, barely a foot from the dead man's out-flung hands, was Aleja's notebook. It had fallen open, facedown on the stones and one corner was slightly stained with blood. She knelt to pick it up, with a rush of relief, and quickly leafed through its pages. No harm done.
It was not the sound of footsteps that alerted her. It was the way they suddenly speeded up, as if someone had broken into a run. She looked up and saw two men approaching from the street opposite. They were silhouetted against the setting sun, but Viviana had seen this particular silhouette before, and the shape of their three-cornered hats and of the rifles sticking over their shoulders was all too clear. Viviana straightened rapidly and whirled, prepared to run.
She was too late. Behind her came a shout: "Guardia Civil! Hands above your head!"CHAPTER 2
Tejada had expected to find the street deserted. He could hardly believe his luck when he caught sight of a figure kneeling in the street beside the corpse, apparently taking something from the dead man's hands. He gestured Jiménez to silence with one hand and drew his pistol with the other. Then he advanced as quickly and quietly as possible before challenging the crouching figure. Their quarry froze for a moment when he shouted and then turned slowly, hands in the air. Beside him, the sergeant heard Jiménez murmur, "Christ, it's a woman!"
Tejada inspected their prisoner. The sun was shining full in her face, as brightly as an interrogator's lamp, and he had a good view. She was thin-faced, and the blue overalls that she wore looked too large for her. They looked like the uniforms of the Red militias, and they were much stained and mended. The wind lifted her hair off her neck and outlined her skull. Hunger and grief had bitten lines into her face but Tejada had considerable experience with both besiegers and besieged, and he guessed her to be in her early twenties. A few years older than Jiménez, and a few years younger than himself. She squinted into the sunset at him, with a familiar look of sullen resignation. "Decent women are at home at this hour," he said mildly.
"I had an errand to run." She spoke calmly.
"She's a miliciana, sir," Jiménez broke in with some excitement. "I've heard about them. The Reds have their women fight for them. I've heard they're worse even than the men. And whores too, terrible. They...."
"Thank you, Guardia," Tejada interrupted, without taking his eyes from the woman. "I'm interested in this errand, Señorita." And then, as she attempted to push her bangs back from her eyes. "If you move again, I'll shoot."
She bit her lip, and said nothing.
"Guardia," Tejada said, still in the same conversational tone. "Will you please keep her covered?" He waited until Jiménez's pistol was trained on the woman and then returned his own to its holster. "I'm inclined to agree with my colleague," he continued, carefully giving the prisoner a wide berth, and then approaching her from behind. "You are a miliciana. Drop that, please," he added, clamping one of his hands over the hand that held a battered notebook and grabbing the prisoner's forearm with the other. "Or I'll break your wrist. Thank you. Now, as I was saying, I don't think we're in any doubt as to what you are. But I'd like to know why you were fool enough to come back here after killing a guardia."
"I didn't kill him." The woman's voice was firm but she gasped slightly as Tejada pulled her arms behind her back.
"It's in your best interest to tell the truth, Señorita." The sergeant began to twist one arm.
The woman's breath hissed between her teeth. "The truth?" she repeated, her voice suddenly contemptuous. "The truth is that I wouldn't have offered him a glass of water in hell but I didn't kill him. I wish I had."
She would probably break down and tell the truth when they got her back to the post, Tejada thought dispassionately. Of course, it would be too late then. It would not bring the man she had killed back to life. Tejada felt the beginnings of distaste. He had no problem with interrogation for information, but there was no question as to her guilt.
The woman was carefully obeying his command to stand still. The wind was whipping her ragged hair into a dark halo, and her bangs must be blinding her, but she remained inanimate. Loose strands brushed the sergeant's face, triggering an unpleasant recollection: in the beginning of the war, a little village had defied the command to surrender and held out for another two days under shelling before its defenders finally ran out of ammunition. Most of the Red troops had been killed in the fighting, and only a handful were left as prisoners, including two women. Tejada had guarded the men until the firing squads were ready for them, and seen to it that they had access to an army chaplain. Once the executions were over, he cleaned up the office in the Guardia Civil post that the Reds had tried to destroy. When he emerged into the autumn sunset, a knot of laughing men had drawn his attention. "Join us, sir?" one of his comrades greeted him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death of a Nationalist"
Copyright © 2003 Rebecca Pawel.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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