Melchor burst into the place and, pushing his way through the customers, walked straight to the bar, sat on a stool and ordered a whisky. The bartender looked at him as if he had landed from outer space.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry,’ Melchor said, ‘I come in peace.’
‘That’s right. Are you going to pour me a whisky or not?’
The bartender was slow to answer.
‘Neat or on the rocks?’
It was past three in the morning, but the place was still quite busy. Several girls were dancing naked or half-naked on the illuminated catwalk that ran through the middle of the main room, bombarded with strobe lights, while a few men watched them with hungry eyes; here and there, other girls, alone, in pairs or groups, waited for the night’s last clients. Or the end of the night. ‘Like a Virgin’, an old Madonna song, was playing over the speakers.
‘If I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it,’ Melchor heard behind him.
While the bartender poured his whisky, the man who had just spoken sat on the stool next to Melchor’s. He was a bald, tough-looking, mixed-race guy in a dark suit, at least two metres tall. The police officer took a long pull of his drink and the guy pointed to it.
‘Have you kicked the Coca-Cola habit?’
‘Yeah,’ Melchor said. ‘I’m celebrating.’
The guy showed two rows of very white teeth.
‘You don’t say?’ he said. ‘And what are you celebrating? That the judge believed we were right and left you high and dry?’
‘The judge didn’t believe you, dickhead,’ Melchor corrected him. ‘He said only there wasn’t enough proof against you. But don’t worry, I’ll find it. Pour me another shot.’
The bartender, who had not left their side, still had the bottle in his hand, and poured Melchor another whisky. The big guy spun his stool around, rested his elbows on the bar and leaned back on it, watching the dancers on the catwalk and smiling. Melchor took another pull of whisky.
‘Do you know why I like this place so much?’ he asked.
The guy didn’t say anything. Melchor brought the glass back to his lips.
‘Because it reminds me of my childhood,’ he said, after he swallowed. ‘My mother was a hooker, you know. So I grew up in places like this, surrounded by whores like her and pimps like you. That’s what I’m celebrating: a homecoming.’
The Madonna song ended, and the man’s laugh resonated loudly through the growing silence of the brothel. On the sound system, Rosalía replaced Madonna, and two or three girls started dancing among the customers and their colleagues. The man placed one of his huge hands on Melchor’s shoulder.
‘That’s what I like to hear, poli,’ he said. ‘A man’s got to know how to lose.’ He stood up and, winking at the bartender and nodding towards Melchor, added: ‘On the house.’
Melchor carried on drinking without raising his eyes from his glass and, although all the girls knew him, none of them approached. When he ordered a third whisky, however, one of them sat down beside him. She was Spanish, dark-haired, mature, full-figured, wearing a black corset and bare breasted. She held a hand to her throat and asked for a glass of cava. The waiter warned Melchor:
‘Drinks for the girls aren’t part of the boss’s invitation.’
Melchor nodded his assent, and the bartender poured her cava. They drank as they waited for him to move away from them. When he went to serve someone at the other end of the bar, Melchor asked:
‘Are we going through with it?’
‘Of course,’ she answered.
‘You sure?’ Melchor insisted. ‘If they catch us, you’ll be in trouble.’
The woman looked indifferent.
‘I don’t get scared anymore, kid.’
Melchor nodded without looking at her.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Let’s wait a bit. When you see me go upstairs, you go with them. Leave the door open and tell them I’ll be right there.’
‘They’re really frightened. Do you want me to stay until you get there?’
‘No. Calm them down. Tell them nothing’s going to happen. Tell them I’ll be right there. And then open the other two doors, the ones to the balcony, and go home or come back here. No, you better go home.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Understood?’
Melchor nodded again, but this time he looked at her.
‘Be careful,’ she said.
‘You too,’ Melchor said.
The woman stood up and, leaving half the glass of cava on the bar, walked away.
Melchor kept drinking without talking to anyone except the bartender, without moving from his stool, except to go to the toilet. When the place was almost completely empty, the big guy reappeared and smiled unpleasantly when he saw Melchor.
‘You still here?’ he asked.
‘He’s had six whiskies,’ the bartender answered for him. ‘Too bad it wasn’t six Coca-Colas: he’d be dead.’
‘I need to see your boss,’ Melchor announced.
The big guy wrinkled his brow; his smile had disappeared, swallowed by his full mauve lips.
‘He’s not here.’
Melchor clicked his tongue.
‘You think I’m stupid? Of course he’s here. He never leaves till you’ve closed: he’s not going to let you steal the takings.’
The guy looked at him with a blend of curiosity and suspicion.
‘What do you want to see the boss for?’
‘That’s none of your business.’
‘Of course it’s my business.’
‘He says he’s come in peace,’ the bartender chimed in.
The big guy’s gaze jumped from the bartender to Melchor and from Melchor to the bartender, who shrugged.
‘I want to apologise,’ Melchor said. ‘For the trial. For the trouble. Well, you know.’
The guy seemed to relax.
‘Sure. That’s great. But you don’t have to see him for that. I’ll tell him. Consider yourself forgiven.’
‘I also want to make a proposal.’
The guy became wary again.
‘That’s for me to know …’
‘Then you can forget about talking to him.’
‘If you say so. But the proposal is a good one and he’ll be interested.’ He looked at the bartender and added: ‘I don’t think he’ll be pleased to hear you wouldn’t let me tell him about it.’
Now the big guy seemed doubtful; he looked back at the bartender and, scrutinising Melchor, after a few seconds stepped away, just far enough to speak on the phone without being overheard. When the call was finished, he gestured unenthusiastically for the policeman to follow him.
They crossed the deserted dance floor, and walked up two narrow flights of stairs, when they got to the second landing, the man opened a door and told Melchor to step inside. In the office on the other side was the boss, who did not stand up when he saw Melchor come in. He didn’t shake hands either. He was sitting behind a rickety old desk, with his hands in sight and a mocking glint in his eyes.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were here?’ he said, motioning to a seat in front of him. ‘I would have come down to say hello.’
Melchor did not sit down. The boss was an overgroomed man in his fifties, his hair slicked back, neat beard speckled with grey, hands swarming with rings; he was in shirtsleeves, wearing braces and a silver chain with a large gold medallion. His name was Eugenio Fernández, but, for reasons unknown to Melchor, everyone called him Papá Moon.
‘I hear you want to apologise,’ he said. ‘I also heard you’ve been drowning your sorrows in whisky. Well done. In any case, I already warned you that you were getting yourself into a mess. That’s the advantage of living in a democracy, kid: here we are all innocent until proven otherwise. Including me who does not read books, like you do. But I got this far. You won’t sit down?’
Melchor didn’t answer. Papá Moon directed a questioning look towards his henchman, who was standing behind the policeman and who shrugged. Behind him was a standard lamp, and in front, on the desk, a table lamp; they both cast a feeble light around the room. Fitted into a panel at the back, facing the desk, a flat-screen TV with the volume turned way down was showing an NBA basketball game.
‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ Papá Moon asked again.
‘I have a proposition for you,’ Melchor finally said.
‘That’s what Samuel told me,’ Papá Moon said. He swivelled around in his chair and opened his arms in a welcoming gesture. ‘I’m all ears.’
Melchor turned to look at Samuel for an instant and then back to his boss.
‘Don’t worry,’ Papá Moon tried to reassure him. ‘You can say whatever you like. Samuel is completely trustworthy.’
Melchor did not take his eyes off Papá Moon, who, after a couple of seconds, sighed and, moving his head slightly, indicated that Samuel should leave. After a moment’s hesitation, the big guy patted Melchor down; Melchor let him, as he was not armed; he only had a couple of pairs of handcuffs in his pockets. Then Samuel asked:
‘Are you sure, boss?’
Papá Moon nodded.
‘Start closing up,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll be right down.’
Reluctantly, the henchman left, closing the door behind him.
‘OK.’ The boss leaned back in his chair. ‘Let’s hear it.’
Melchor took two steps forward, leaned his knuckles on the desk and, stretching his torso across it, moved in very close to Papá Moon, as if he wanted to whisper something to him.
‘It’s about those young girls,’ he said.
The boss looked bored.
‘Still on about that?’
Melchor stared at him. Papá Moon asked: ‘What is it about the girls?’ There was another silence, until the man’s expression began to give way to a complicit smile. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ he said. ‘You like them too, don’t you?’
He was about to add something, but he couldn’t: Melchor head-butted him and, without giving him time to react, grabbed him by the back of the neck and smashed his skull against the desk, which crunched as if he’d broken it. Then he circled the desk, lifting Papá Moon up by the neck, and started hitting him again, first a punch to the stomach and then a kick to the testicles. Papá Moon fell to the floor with a shriek.
‘Don’t yell,’ Melchor warned him: he’d grabbed the silver chain and was pulling it tight against his Adam’s apple, as if wanting to choke him. ‘If you yell again, I’ll break your neck.’
Papá Moon was kneeling, gasping for breath.
‘Have you lost your mind?’ he managed to whimper, his face as red as a tomato.
Melchor banged his head again, this time against the side of the desk, then he slapped him. With the same hand that held the chain he twisted his arms behind his back while searching with the other hand until he found his mobile. He smashed it underfoot.
‘Where’s your pistol?’ he asked.
‘You’re breaking my arm.’
‘I said, where do you keep your pistol?’
Now Papá Moon’s face was slammed against the floor. When Melchor pulled it up again, a trail of blood was dripping from his nose onto his beard. Melchor repeated the question. The boss answered it and, without letting go of him, Melchor opened a drawer, took out a pistol and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then he forced Papá Moon to his feet.
‘This time you’ve lost the plot, poli,’ he managed to splutter. ‘Your career ends here.’
Melchor twisted his arm harder and put the barrel of the gun under his jaw.
‘We’ll talk about that later, boss,’ he said. ‘Right now we’re going to walk out of here and you are going to fucking behave yourself.’ Then he warned him, rubbing the pistol against his face: ‘If you shout, I shoot. If you do anything stupid, I shoot. Is that clear?’ Papá Moon kept quiet. Melchor twisted his arm again and the man nodded. ‘Very good,’ Melchor said. ‘Let’s go.’
by Javier Cercas
Translated by Anne McLean
From Prey for the Shadow
by JAVIER CERCAS
Translated by Anne McLean
Published by Maclehose Press (2023)
Javier Cercas is a Spanish writer, professor of Spanish literature and columnist for the newspaper El País. He has published twelve works of fiction, for which he has won many awards. His 2001 novel, Soldados de Salamina, has been translated into more than thirty languages and won eleven prizes, including The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Anne McLean is a Spanish literary translator. In 2004 she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, and again in 2009 for The Armies by Evelio Rosero. In 2014, her translation of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling was awarded the International Dublin Literary Award.
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