Carlos Molina enjoyed taking a coffee each afternoon in the Bar Leon. He considered it a part of his business to see and be seen there; and Carlos had many business interests to occupy his time. In fact, to someone from outside the barrio, it might seem strange that a big shot like Carlos, who was doing so well that everyone could see it, would waste his time showing up every day at a place like the Bar Leon.
In spite of the grand name, the place was a dive, but in spite or because of this, it was where the people of the neighbourhood of a certain type came together. And if the Bar Leon was a small and murky pond, everyone knew that Carlos was the biggest fish who swam in it.
In the mornings, Carlos had to make arrangements for the movement of certain shipments of goods. It was a dull necessity that took up much of his working day; but he was a good organizer. Normally he’d be finished in time to make his entry at the Leon not long after two in the afternoon. Brushing his hair back with one hand and pulling at the cuffs of his latest suit, he’d exchange a few words with the barman and then proceed to the favoured table at the rear of the house where there was always a space for him. Most days, he’d be accompanied by one or more of his associates, but often he’d graciously invite one or other of the locals to sit with them for a while.
It wasn’t a big place and usually it was neither full nor completely empty. In the course of a day, you saw most of the same faces there at one time or another. It had always been that way at the Leon.
Naturally it was an honour to be invited to sit at the table of Carlos, but at the same time it made you nervous. His moods were not always predictable; and often you’d have the impression that he was after some piece of information though he never came out and asked for it directly. He was handsome, in a brutal way; and rather young to be so obviously needing to dye his hair black. Perhaps he dressed a little too smart for this neighbourhood, but at the same time Carlos commanded the respect of everyone.
The afternoon sun was hot and the day outside was bright. The air in the Bar Leon was older than the air in the street; dustier and heavier. It wasn’t easy for the light to penetrate the thick ancient glazing of the two small windows that faced onto the calle. The single public room was much deeper than it was wide and the rear of the bar backed onto the wall of another property. The table where Carlos held court was in permanent shadow; deep enough so that you couldn’t distinguish the features on the old framed photographs of long dead bullfighters that had hung on the smoke stained walls for as long as anyone living could remember.
The Leon wasn’t a place where policemen were welcome. Most of the local cops understood that, even though the clientele of the Bar Leon included several persons of interest to them. It was only right that each side of the criminal divide should have their own private places; and in any case the bar was quiet and strangers were not welcome. It was impossible that any informer would overhear something of use in this place.
This being so, Carlos could have resented the visit of Detective Oscar Garcia and the big bearlike sidekick who went everywhere with him as an intrusion on his privacy. There was tension in the air when these two walked into the bar. Everyone waited for Carlos to react. The two men might as well have been wearing uniform; it was so obvious that they were policemen. But on this day, Carlos chose to regard their presence as an amusing diversion laid on for his entertainment. In fact he believed that he had good reason not to take Oscar and the other seriously.
Carlos didn’t stand up to greet the policemen, but he called them over to his table and snapped his fingers for Diego to take their order. The two associates he was with looked a little nervous at being in such close proximity to a detective, but they knew better than to interfere with Carlos’s show.
– Detective Garcia, so good to see you again. You haven’t made inspector just yet then? Your bosses don’t appreciate real talent. And you Jose, hombre. Still following this one around. You’re getting bigger around the middle. You need to look after yourself more.
– Too much work to do Carlos, Jose replied amiably; chasing after snotnoses like you.
Carlos laughed. Diego brought fresh coffee. Carlos took his in a glass. He carefully unwrapped one of the sugar cubes that came with it and dipped the cube in the coffee for a brief time before dropping the remainder into his saucer. He tasted his coffee and put it down again.
– Mm. Not the best maybe; but I’m at home here and this is just how I like it. I remember you telling me once Oscar, that this place was a nest of wasps. Have you got over the sting from the last time you came here yet?
– We become accustomed to the occasional prick in our line of work, Oscar replied.
Carlos turned to his companions.
– The detective has been following me around for a few years now. I don’t even remember how it started. He has this fixed idea that my business interests may not be entirely legitimate. You know it’s always the same when someone from humble origins succeeds; for some people there will always be doubt. We shouldn’t blame the detective. He comes from a good family and he’s never wanted for anything. It’s hard for him to imagine an honest man getting on by hard work and enterprise.
– My father was a policeman, Oscar reminded him.
– Oh yes, a policeman. I think he was third or fourth in line after the city Chief. And yet you are still just a detective. But I remember now, gentlemen, when we first met, he told me that he preferred to work where he could catch men like me. He didn’t want to be an administrator. And yet, some years on, here I am and there he is.
– You were just a cheap crook moving stolen goods in those days.
– I wasn’t so cheap that you didn’t waste your time trying to link me to those warehouse raids. He even persuaded the prosecutor that there was enough evidence to charge me. But you couldn’t make anything stick, remember?
– You had an alibi for each of the jobs and it stood up every time, Oscar admitted.
– Rather embarrassing for you, Detective, when your case fell apart. I’d say you were stung quite badly on that visit to the wasp’s nest.
– So it seems.
Oscar had barely sipped his coffee, but continued to stir it patiently. The waiter set down a small dish at their table, filled with large green olives and garlic cloves. Carlos was warming to his theme and his smile was broader than ever. His friends grinned at his cutting remarks. The atmosphere was becoming more relaxed.
– I don’t bear grudges, everyone knows; Carlos shrugged his shoulders. It seems that we are always having misunderstandings of this kind. It must be that I am an innocent man, in spite of all this suspicion; or maybe I’m just too clever for him. The last time wasn’t so many months ago, no? Remember that business with Juanita?
– You don’t need to be clever to beat up a woman.
Carlos shrugged his shoulders again.
– What can I say? We are poor people and our natures are passionate. Not so restrained as the ricos like you Oscar, who don’t have blood in their veins. I was in love with the girl and she knew it. She took back the whole story after you charged me again, didn’t she?
– She wasn’t your girlfriend. Juanita only worked for you. And she changed her story after you threatened her.
Carlos turned to his friends with an expression of appeal.
– You see how it is boys? I would be within my rights to get upset about slanders like this that have no proof attached, if I wasn’t so easy going. And in the end it was just one more case that Oscar started but couldn’t finish. That isn’t good for your career you know.
– So where is this love of yours now? Jose asked him.
– We found her a job working in one of my packaging businesses, Carlos replied.
– I suppose she couldn’t go back to the other work, Jose said; after what you did to her face.
Carlos frowned: these comments were beyond the limits of civilised conversation and they didn’t make him look good with his friends. He put his hands on the table top and looked directly at Oscar.
– I think you need to remember, he said in a changed tone; that this is a wasp’s nest, not a beehive. You said it yourself. A bee can sting you only once, but a wasp will go on stinging if you don’t leave it alone. You’ve been stung twice already now.
Having regained dominance in the conversation, Carlos could afford to relax again. Neither Oscar nor Jose made any response to his comments. When he spoke again it was in the previous friendly way.
– In any case Detective, he continued; I hear that you’ve moved on. Now you’re specializing in missing persons and homicides. It’s true?
– Although you don’t seem to come across many actual murderers.
– That’s a fact, Oscar admitted.
– But at least you won’t have the time to chase after men like me, whose activities are purely business related. So we can be friends at last. I’m glad. We’ll have a little digestif to celebrate. Diego, three glasses of pacharan. I won’t insult you by asking you to drink with us while you’re on duty, but you can accept the sentiment, I’m sure.
– I’m not a sentimental man, Carlos.
– But you are, or else why would you be here?
Oscar showed him the briefest of smiles.
– Do you remember Paco Jimenez? he asked.
– That was a long time ago, he said. There was a young kid round here by that name once upon a time.
– He disappeared, Oscar reminded Carlos. He was a young kid as you say. Didn’t even have a record so we don’t have his fingerprints; just a smudgy photograph that his family gave the police when they reported him missing. It could be anybody on that photo. But when I looked into the case, the records showed that just before Paco went missing the local police had built up quite a file of evidence that showed he was the brains behind a string of robberies, some of them with guns involved. The other men involved were all much older but it was clear that Paco was the organizer even so. In fact the way they did it was very like those warehouse raids that you were talking about just now. Paco was looking at some serious jail time in the days when he went missing.
– Paco Jimenez is dead, Carlos said flatly.
– That’s right. He was murdered. The police never found a body, but they found his car, in a remote place. And they found some spent shells from the murder weapon. Eventually they found the gun. It was a classic organized crime hit. Clearly Paco was only the front for the real brains of the operation. He was only a kid after all. He must have got too greedy or let the others down in some way.
– A tragic story, Carlos nodded; but you are getting desperate already if you are digging up ancient history like that. And I don’t see what any of this has to do with me.
– I’ll get to that, Oscar told him. As I said, I’ve been looking at the records and it’s true we have no fingerprints of the murder victim. But there were clear fingerprints on the car and on the steering wheel. There was even a reasonable print on the gun that the killer had tried to rub off but without being careful enough. And of course we have your prints Carlos from the times you’ve been arrested and charged. Guess what? Those two sets of prints are a perfect match.
– This is bullshit.
– And we’ve been talking to some of your old friends. We have some statements. Jose remind me.
Jose stared into his empty coffee cup for a moment. Then he began:
– We know that two nights after the murder, you were in here bragging that you had killed Paco Jimenez and no-one would ever find his body. You weren’t so careful about what you said back in those days. One of the witnesses said you were just a loud mouthed kid who he didn’t take seriously.
Now Carlos’s face bore a hunted expression.
– This is so wrong, he complained. You can’t be serious. If you try to frame me for the murder of Paco you’ll get nowhere. You’ll make yourselves look more foolish than ever.
– I’m used to being proved wrong by you Carlos, Oscar replied. Do you have an alibi this time?
– No but, I’ll tell you now confidentially and just between us, to save you shaming yourselves. Everyone knows that I didn’t kill Paco Jimenez, because I am Paco; I mean I was. I just needed to make him disappear. What are you going to charge me with; wasting police time?
– Well, well, Oscar said, leaning back in his chair. You’re not under formal caution yet, so we can’t use that confession. And it’s true that the city records don’t show any trace of Carlos Molina before Paco Jimenez dropped out of sight. Maybe you’ll be able to persuade the judge or even the prosecutor that you don’t have a case to answer. We’ll see once you’re charged.
– That’s it, Carlos nodded. Everybody in the neighbourhood knows it.
– An unusual defence, Oscar said. There was no crime because the murder victim is in fact the accused. But while we are just chatting, I should warn you.
– Warn me of what?
– If you did turn out to be the person formerly known as Paco Jimenez; and only you can prove that I suppose; then you will probably know, but you might have forgotten, that there’s still a warrant for his arrest and enough evidence on file about that string of robberies to put him away for eight years minimum. Plus we have the confessions of the men who already served their sentences for those crimes linking Paco to them
– I don’t believe it. You can’t prove anything from what happened so long ago.
Oscar shook his head and tutted.
– Well, the evidence is kept you see. But you’re right. It might be hard to prove that you were ever Paco Jimenez, the wanted criminal. I’m only confident that we can prove that unless you are that man, you must have killed him. That’s why we are here today to charge you with the murder of Paco. As a friend, I’d suggest you think carefully about how you plead. Jose, would you make the arrest and remind the subject of his rights?