Edward had the slyness you find among people who believe they can improve themselves. He came to the beach house for lunch every couple of days. He had dark curly hair that seemed rather thin given his youth. His forehead was narrow, as if it had been pinched by forceps. He had poor teeth and licorice breath, but some things seem not to matter. He listened to Helen’s graphic stories of being tortured with no sign of disbelieving them, and he sat outside the house as Mary painted several canvases of the same small area of beach. He didn’t pretend the paintings were any good. The water and sky were too blue, and she put in little scriptlike v’s that were supposed to be birds. Some mornings when Edward didn’t visit, Mary went into the village to shop.
Helen’s stories had a different effect on me. When she pointed to a scar along her ribs, I traced it with my index finger. She claimed she had not minded being disfigured. I took my cues from her, but we were careful not to embarrass Mary.
“When Edward inherits his father’s money,” my wife told me, “he will quit the police and buy a boat for smuggling.”
He might make a good smuggler, but his departure would be a loss to the police outpost. The senior man barely kept records. By making the rounds of small houses near the shore, where he chatted or ate lunch, Edward knew the district’s visitors. He told Helen he had met a couple of her old friends a year ago, cheated them at dominoes and then had run them off. “I’m sorry they won’t be back,” he said, after Helen informed him that one of the men had been arrested and she pantomimed his being hanged. Edward leaned over her intently, casting his own shade. “Please tell me. How long was it before the sentence was carried out?”
“Like a Hindu cremation,” Helen said, “the same afternoon.”
He waved his hand as if that were the way of the world: Innocuous smugglers hanged, a father lingering.
“I watched,” she said. “Piers got his hands around front and almost grabbed the rope while he called me names.”
“It’s not as if you enjoyed seeing your friend hang?”
“I hadn’t seen anything like it before,” Helen said.
I paid the landlord the next morning and stopped at the Europa on the way back to the beach. The senior policeman wasn’t at his table. The proprietor, who usually ignored foreigners, explained his absence. “Poor Garibaldi died in a whore’s arms.” He chuckled. “I think he was in her arms, heh? Suze is too sad to tell us.”
“Will Edward assume his duties?”
“We will see. I hope he takes over Garibaldi’s drinking. Otherwise I am ruined.” A hand rose, dismissing the seriousness of that outcome. “I will drink my own ouzo. Return to the army. I was a corporal in the last war.”
I told him I had been a lieutenant.
“I killed a lieutenant on our side. He was ambitious, a liability to the unit.”
“There are plenty of lieutenants to go around.” I said this not only to be agreeable. It was true.
“Would you care for an ouzo?”
I told him no, not before sundown, and went off on a tour of the other tavernas looking for Edward, who as it turned out was at the police outpost sorting bed licenses. He had a bottle of water on the desk, and a bowl of candy into which his hand kept dipping as if it had forgotten each foray. “I think there will be trouble. My commander sold licenses, then spent the money on women. Did you get a license for the finca?”
“I haven’t notified the people at our headquarters. A few days to make sense of things . . . then they can descend with auditors and what’s done will be on Garibaldi’s head. And what does he care?”
While Mary was on the beach, I twisted the shortwave dial and tried to get news of the war. Sitting cross-legged on my bed, Helen pretended not to be worried.
“The soldiers won’t get here before the weather changes,” she said. “A few weeks, don’t you think?”
I wanted to be more than a few weeks ahead of the vanguard. Everyone knows about drumhead justice. Besides, once the weather changed, and the marshes came back to life, it would be hard to reach the desert. I didn’t think our old sedan could travel muddy roads.
Seeing my concern, she folded up her skirt. She’d had too much experience with armies and police to be worried. As she gathered the fabric neatly at her waist, she said she doubted I had ever been an officer. “You screw me like a corporal,” she said.
Mary went into town shopping that evening. When she came back, she lit a lantern and crouched between us.
“I saw the big policeman’s body. They have him on ice at the Europa.” Her hair was a little wild, and there were bruises on her arms. “The proprietor charges two pesos to look. Edward paid for me. He told me he paid the whore to stick a knife in Garibaldi. You can see the wound.” She touched her chest.
“They had better get rid of the body,” I said. Then, though I was sleepy, I sat up. “Why did Edward want him killed?”
“Edward wants the bed revenue.”
I lay back down. “Edward is going to be disappointed. The army will be here in a few weeks. They’ll occupy all the beds.”
“Especially if the whore betrays him.”
“She’s a cousin.”
“We’ll see what that means.” I thought some more. “Personally, I would send her away before she talks.”
Around noon three days later, we found a small crowd gathered on the beach a few feet below the tide line. They were inspecting a body. It wasn’t recognizable as the police commander’s, and littoral scavengers had removed some of the evidence of a stab wound.
“A soldier,” a backpacker speculated.
Several people agreed. Military casualties had washed up before.
“Where is his uniform?” someone said.
“They rescue uniforms if it’s a sea burial,” a didactic voice responded. “Our forces don’t have enough uniforms that they can be wasted.” The speaker, a spindly older man with a short beard and ragged clothes, set about gathering driftwood to dispose of the corpse, since, he noted, no one could be certain the body wasn’t merely a fisherman’s. In the half mile of beach the onlookers were willing to explore, there wasn’t enough driftwood to make an adequate fire. No one volunteered petrol or kerosene. The older man arranged the wood over the corpse. Pieces of cement sacks were rolled under the arms. The paper burned brightly and the wood that was dry flared and crackled, but in the end there wasn’t enough fuel, the heat was above the body instead of below it, and Garibaldi’s rotund, cooked corpse lay dusted in ashes.
I left Helen and Mary and went back to the house and put a few of my clothes and books in the boot of the car.
When the women returned, they were both doubled-over at the absurdity of the antyesti. “They dragged him out to sea,” Mary said. “He’s lodged on a sand bar. He likes it here.” She stopped laughing. “I agree with him, but not on a sand bar.”
“You’ll like it less when the army arrives and they string Edward up.” I looked at her, wondering if it was possible to get a truthful answer. “Has he given you money?”
“Then you’ve probably nothing to worry about.”
That afternoon jet planes passed far overhead. One flew from the south, the other a few minutes later came from the west. I had no idea what they portended. The planes were very high up.
Mary was gone most of the next day. She said the young policeman needed help destroying bed licenses. This time when I listened to the radio there were different accounts of how far the military had advanced. One broadcast said the northern front had collapsed.
That evening Edward summoned me to the police outpost and laid out his thinking. “You seem like a nice enough fellow,” he said. “I will tell you what my investigation of Captain Garibaldi’s death has uncovered. First, I have found a witness who may testify that the Captain suspected you of being a deserter.” He held up a pinky finger, and I realized he intended to tick off his findings. “Second, it appears you’ve been traveling with a drug smuggler—this woman, what is her name, Helen? Third, the proprietor of the Europa saw you paying the prostitute whom we suspect of Garibaldi’s assassination. Unfortunately, she has vanished. But the circumstantial case against you appears strong.”
He had only three fingers in the air, but they were enough.
“We have about forty-eight hours before the Army arrives,” Edward said. “They’ll want to straighten things up quickly. I realize there may be another explanation for all this, but a harried major might not feel he has time to consider nuances.”
He opened his fingers to show he was being reasonable.
“It would be a shame if I were hanged,” I said.
Edward nodded. “I’m glad we agree. I see no need of arresting anyone before tomorrow.”
It was decent of him, and also practical.
He wasn’t clever enough to have worked it up on his own. In any case, when I got back to the finca, Mary’s belongings were gone, including the dreadful paintings, and of course so was she.
I loaded the car in a few minutes. At the last moment, Helen decided to come along. Despite her bravado, she didn’t like the talk of drug smuggling and hangings.
COPYRIGHT (c) 2018 (REGISTERED) JOHN C. BOLAND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.