Excerpt of "17 Stone Angels"
Enrique Boguso had never been a very thorough criminal, but he tried to compensate for his poor planning skills with a brutal decisiveness. He styled himself a bold improviser, able to coolly murder his way through the occasional untidy situations that resulted from his less-than-meticulous preparation. As insurance, he provided information to the police and they turned their attention elsewhere. Finally, though, he’d gone too far, committing a crime of such singular horror that even the police lost their patience.
An aficionado of the Repression and its death squads, Boguso read avidly the human rights reports and often imitated their methodology in his own crimes. On his fateful night, the twenty-five year old and a friend had broken into the house of a bricklayer in Quilmes with the information that he had a fortune stashed in his wall. Boguso had brought an electric prod and other accouterments of the dictatorship and proceeded to torture the family one by one, strapping them to the bed with a black hood over their head. But the story, its thousands, the nights of cocaine and whores it promised, had been illusory. The criminals turned up two hundred pesos in the course of murdering both parents, and in a dispute over the spoils, Boguso’s partner had shot him in the leg. They’d arrested him at the hospital the next day, sentenced him to perpetual chains in a remarkably speedy trial, and now he awaited his final disposition in a holding cell at Comisaria 33, in Quilmes.
Number 33 had a reputation for a yielding a good sum, and a few years ago Fortunato had passed up the chance to buy a spot as its comisario for only 75,000 pesos. The Comisaria had recently undergone a complete facelift. Its century-old walls had been re-plastered and re-painted and a second floor was under construction, with new showers, lockers, a kitchen and a bunk room. One sparkling white cell, which the Comisario referred to as “the honeymoon suite,” had been freshly installed for preferential prisoners, still unused. The Comisario proudly showed off the new interrogation room, one of a very few that had a two-way mirror for observation.
“Epa!” Fortunato exclaimed. “Estilo Hollywood!”
“And we had to do it all ourselves, without a penny from Central,” the Comisario said, with a touch of rancor. Vast areas of the police expenses were paid with money that came from nowhere and flowed through the station without the encumbrance of accounting. Comisario 33 had spent, by the Comisario’s reckoning, more than a hundred thousand pesos on restorations, but these would never become official and no government assessor would ever ask questions. That the police could consistently operate with a fraction of the budget truly necessary gave them a certain degree of indulgence among the politicians who controlled the official purse. It was a little arrangement between la Institución and the government.
Despite the industriousness of the workmen, the calabozos where the prisoners were temporarily held had escaped improvement. They lay at the back of the building, running along a narrow hallway of grim unpainted concrete blocked off from the rest of the station by a heavy grid of iron. The acid stench of urine and excrement swelled out of the cells and through the iron bars, and Fortunato instinctively breathed through his mouth. In a long file were six steel doors with little rectangles cut out at eye level. A small strip of bars at the top and bottom let in a modicum of air and the only light. The cells were dark and wet, cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer.
For Boguso, this calabozo was a privileged resting place, one he paid dearly for. Boguso had spent years as a buchon for the police, and he knew that once he was transferred to the prisons where his informing had sent so many others, the definition of “life imprisonment” would likely be short. Five hundred pesos per month paid to the Comisario had kept his hopes alive for some sort of permanent arrangement, but the money would run out soon and Boguso had lately noted signals of distraction from his not always faithful wife.
Bianco had already set things up between Fortunato and the Comisario of #33, who now unlocked the grate to the calabozos. As they walked along the dim putrid corridor of cells, Fortunato heard various shufflings in the dark behind the iron panels: four young thieves had been arrested the night before and their arrest records were making the long slow trip from Central. The Comisario opened the cell at the end of the line and in the rancid gloom Fortunato saw Boguso hunched up on the concrete platform that served as a bed. A few pieces of a disgusting white substance that Fortunato recognized as soggy bread sat on the urine-soaked floor below him.
The Comisario adressed him in an impersonal, cattle-like tone. “Stand up, Boguso.”
The prisoner slowly came to his feet and Fortunato got a better look at him. The wild black curls Fortunato had seen in the paper had been shaved to a bristle, and the eyes focused on them with the instinctive flinch of a victim. His hands hung limply together in their cuffs and a wet stain spread down his thigh.
“Clean him up,” Fortunato said.
Upstairs in the new interrogation room, Fortunato gave him a cigarette, sent one of the sub-inspectors for a maté and a kettle of water. “Sweet or bitter?” he asked Boguso politely.
“Sweet,” he said, and then, perhaps emboldened by his freshly scrubbed state. “With a slice of lemon.”
“Con limon,” Fortunato repeated, and the Comisario tactfully followed the sub-inspector out the door.
Fortunato flicked his lighter and lit Boguso’s cigarette. Boguso had to raise both hands to bring it to his mouth and Fortunato could see a ring of sores on his wrists beneath the manacles. “They’re keeping you in cuffs?” he solicited, as if surprised. The Comisario had already told him that they’d had some problems with Boguso throwing his excrement at one of the guards.
Boguso nodded, his eyes turned down at the table.
“That doesn’t seem necessary. Maybe I could talk to the Comisario for you.” He let Boguso take a few more puffs of the cigarette, let him fill up with the good feeling of the nicotine. He noticed that Boguso had a nervous twitch in his left eyebrow. “Do you know why I’m here?”
“I have no idea,” the killer told him.
“I’m here to help you.”
Boguso laughed, but his game face couldn’t completely surface from the weeks of solitary confinement.
“You’re not such an easy person to help, Enrique. You made yourself half-unpopular with your last stunt. The hoods, the electric prod . . . ” he shook his head. “The newspapers spent a river of ink on how your crime was the harvest of the Dictatorship.”
A weird pride slopped across Boguso’s features. “I read them.”
“The human rights groups had a fiesta with that escapade. And the people who weren’t crying about human rights were asking why we didn’t just shoot you when we arrested you. Then Berenski reported that you were a buchon, protected by the police, and that made everybody look bad.” Fortunato leaned back. “No, amigo, you shit yourself with that last one. And you shit on the Institution.”
“It was Tello’s idea to kill them. I told him–”
Fortunato held up his hand. “No, Enrique, let’s not enter into that theme again. It already is. What I’ve found in life, though, is that even when you think you’re at the bottom, it can always get worse.” The murderer looked skeptical. Fortunato shrugged. “They send you to Rio Negro,” nodding his head almost sadly, “it’s worse.” The naked, fresh-shaved face flinched very subtly, but Fortunato noted it. “They’ll kill you there,” he said sympathetically. “No. They’ll rape you, and then they’ll kill you. Did you read that last report in the paper? Some poor buchon bled to death through his asshole.” He sighed, threw his hands gently to the sides. “As I said, Enrique. I can help you. But I need a little favor.”
Boguso looked at him warily.
“There was a gringo killed a few months ago in San Justo, and we need to find the killer. It’s political. Something of pressure on the government,” he swirled his hand airily. “You know how they are.”
“They’re hijos de puta!”
“They’re very hijo de puta, but for whatever reason, the gringos took an interest. It would be helpful if you could illuminate the case for us.”
The pigeon seemed to search his information, then said slowly: “You want me to denounce someone?”
“Yes. I want you to denounce Enrique Boguso.”
Boguso’s mouth fell open. Even his long history of relations with the police hadn’t prepared him for the bizarre demand. “You want me to take responsibility for a murder I didn’t even do?”
Fortunato watched Boguso try to grasp it. The eye seemed to be twitching a little bit faster. “Look,” the older man reasoned, “is it such an extra burden? Your first one was when you were sixteen and once you got your clean adult record you did it again. After this last pair, I don’t think one more fake one will make much difference. It’s already perpetual chains, no? We give you the expediente to study, you sing your little story for the judge, the gringos write their report and everybody’s happy.”
“And me? How am I happy?”
“Well, Enrique. You help us and we help you. Isn’t it always like that? I think we could improve your accommodations, at least. Keep you someplace a little cozier, with conjugal privileges. And in a few years, when all the noise goes away, who knows? Someone might find a technical error in your conviction. Or you might escape somehow, or get pardoned.
“It’s way crazy, hombre.”
Fortunato hesitated, letting a long philosophical pause elapse before he spoke slowly and distantly. “Yes, son. It’s crazy. But it’s a crazy world, no? A world of illusion, where the best actor rules.” He sighed. “Think about it.”