The gaze of the beast - chapter 1
One — Third mezzanine
Thursday, February 14, 2008
He saw him, from the street, through the window of the bar. He was playing cards with three other old guys, surrounded by other spectators. He recognized him at once even though his hair had turned white and he had grown his beard. The old man was the soul of the bar, laughing and making people laugh, every hand of cards accompanied by the comments that others celebrated. From time to time, however, he let go of violent cough-seasoned complaints. He was always the same bastard.
All this resonated in Balasch's stomach. The jokes, the complaints, the screams were still familiar to him twenty-five years later and, slowly, he noticed another Balasch, a small and ancient one, complaining and shrinking inside him. He had long since overcome the fear of the violent and wanted to make him understand, but even so, the little voice inside him insisted on leaving.
"Antoni! You want to have my bar shut down?" yelled the owner after seeing the old man lighting a cigarette.
The man, sickly thin, stood up with a disgusted face, stepped on his cigarette and walked to the sink protesting in a low voice.
“Look, boy” his uncle had told him a few days earlier, “you have to talk to him. You have to stand in front of him and you have to forgive him.“
"Absolutely not! You watch too many therapist videos.”
"Your father is like that, to a large extent, because of the life he's had. You're who you are, because of what you've been through. You have a bad temper, like him. Even if you don't want it, somehow you two are identical."
And there he was, in the Fondo district of Santa Coloma, where he had played, studied and raised. Where he had suffered for a long time until his mother, he and little Clara had escaped from the man he intended to face.
He sat at the bar, asked for a beer and paddled. Waiting for her father to return, accompanying every sip, the voice insisted, like a mantra, that they had to leave.
His cell phone rang and, when he saw who was calling, he took to the street to answer. Sergeant Ros and a young woman who died in the Eixample demanded it.
From the street, he saw him return to the table and curse to the bar owner who was reprimanding him for smoking in the bathroom. He decided to let it be, for now. He moved his tall, thin, athletic body energetically to the service car he had borrowed from the police station. He started the engine, started the siren and the little coward who lived within thanked him. Pasqual Balasch left the Fondo neighborhood at full speed, surrounded by insecurities that came to him from afar.
It was half past seven in the afternoon when he parked at a corner in the Eixample right side, on the border with the neighborhood of Gràcia. The cold prompted him to fix his scarf and coat. He accredited himself in front of a uniformed policeman who led him through the noble wooden and multicolored glass door. Once inside, he gazed at the twisted iron and gleaming wood elevator, the grand marble stairs, and the walls painted in pink, sky blue and teal.
"Pasqual!" shouted Rafael Ramirez, homicide officer and ten years his junior, as he came down the stairs with a notebook in his hand, dressed in a long coat, jacket and tie.
When he came down, he asked him to follow him down a path Balasch found unusual. Behind the elevator was a narrow dark corridor leading to the inner courtyard of the block; then they had to climb, outdoors, an old metal staircase that he assumed that one day it was the service ladder.
"The sergeant?" he asked as he climbed the steps two by two.
He reached the mezzanine and paused for a few seconds to observe the courtyard. What was once the large balcony of an immense apartment had become, a victim of speculative crumbling, a way to access tiny apartments. In the courtyard, recovered as a public garden, a coconut tree stood out, reaching the first floors. The tree seemed to want to discover the intimacy of the neighbors who, in turn, populated windows and balconies and shamelessly cheated the comings and goings of the policemen. At the front door of mezzanine three, an old exit to the converted balcony, Rafa was waiting for him.
He took a look inside the apartment and saw the forensic officers.
"Who is the victim?"
"Verònica Prats, born in Barcelona on August 2, '75" replied Rafa looking at the notebook. "According to the ID, resident in Llibertat Street, 53 bis”.
“Who found it?"
"Salvador Tort, from the eighth mezzanine. He says he saw the door open, peeked to greet Verònica and saw someone at the bottom, in the room. The man, about 40, was standing in front of the bed and seemed to be muttering something. Suddenly, he realized that someone was watching him and rushed out. When he arrived at the door he said, according to the witness with a strong South American accent, "it's my fault" and he ran away. It was about six and a half in the afternoon.”
“Will he recognize him?"
"He says yes. I have sent him to the station to do a sketch”.
“According to the neighbor, Verònica lived here not two months ago. Another neighbor says she saw a well-dressed guy in a long coat come this way when she got out of the elevator, but she didn't see his face. It was about six in the afternoon.”
Montse Martí, the head of forensics, approached.
"How's it going?" asked Balasch.
"Come in, there's not too much mess. Ester is already inside."
He waved to Sergeant Ester Ros, forty-two, jacket, half mane and friendly smile.
"I keep interviewing the neighbors," Rafa said.
Balasch put on gloves and shoe guards and entered carefully.
The apartment was a linear succession of rooms with no corridors. It started with a hall that became a kitchen, with enough space for a four butane gas stove, a refrigerator, and four small wooden hinged cabinets that were beginning to suffer from metallic Alzheimer's. Fresh food, little, tried to escape the expiration date inside a refrigerator half a meter high. On the ground, small shards of glass seemed to indicate the assailant's method of entry. Inside the garbage can were fragments of a blue and white ceramic vase, some stained red.
"It's blood," Montse added.
It took no more than two steps to invade the dining room, where a round table engulfed a space wrapped in floral wallpaper. On the table there, abandoned, was a plastic bag with groceries and a purse. The television set, old, small and green, occupied a borrowed position in a corner of the solemn old buffet. Just one photo, of a smiling teenage girl hugging a woman, contributed some color to the black and white decorated space. On the other side of the dining room, in a corner, the bathroom door was like hidding, anticipating the smallness of the toilet.
"Pasqual," greeted the sergeant and then turned to the forensic head "Montse, update us."
"Glass scraps near the door would make you think of a robbery if it wasn't that no money or cell phone was taken."
"Recent calls?" Balasch asked.
Montse showed, in response, a bag of evidence containing a visibly broken phone.
"We are still working on it, but it's amazing that there aren't any on the front door handle, sofa or phone."
He pulled up his arm at the buffet and, asking permission with his gaze, took a spiral notebook. On the cover it said "History of Art" and contained what looked like class notes, all written in clear print of different colors. Among the spirals were pieces of paper. He took a look at the blank pages and stopped on one where he saw traces of writing.
"What's going on?" asked Montse.
"I'm not sure. Would you say that someone here wrote 'Mr. Judge’?”
Montse nodded with a smile on his lips and took note.
The bedroom was the only room with cozy dimensions: a double bed with a wooden headboard, a modern wardrobe and two matching bedside tables fit snugly. It seemed to him that that windowless space gave a sad meaning to the whole apartment: a lair to hide from the dangers of the outside world, a passageway where she could heal her wounds until she could come back to life with renewed strength. But that transit station had become the end of the line for the dead young woman on the bed.
The body was placed in such a balanced way that it seemed unnatural. It was in one half of the bed closest to the door and reminded her of the image of a modern Snow White waiting for Prince Charming's kiss. His face, however, looked lacked of hope: his left cheek showed obvious signs of violence. That face had stopped smiling a long time ago and I could never do it again.
Then he saw an old closet and his little self shrank in his stomach. Oak, two doors with reliefs, a drawer at the bottom, fodder and metal lock. Almost identical to what had been in the parents' room. Where his father had locked him up every time he punished him. That lair of fear where he had shared long hours of darkness and the smell of mothballs with coats and shoe boxes. From where she had heard her mother revolt against her husband without ever succeeding.
He opened the closet, and for a second he thought he saw a boy in shorts, sitting in the dark, with tears on his face. He turned to the victim and crouched down to look at her from the height of a child. At the bottom of her retina, for a moment only, he saw his unconscious mother lying on the bed. And he definitively ruled out the theory of a murderous thief.
The judicial entourage filled the chamber. Balasch put on a bad face when he saw Judge Peláez, a guy with a lot of common sense, but a real hard bone when it comes to approving search warrants or wiretaps. He was followed by Ximo Boronat, the coroner, with whom he had a close relationship for a long time.
The sergeant updated them as the judge's secretary feverishly took notes. When the judge authorized it, they retreated to a corner to let the coroner work. Balasch was mentally grateful for the extreme delicacy with which Ximo shook the back of Veronica's head. Instead, everything else he saw left him sympathetically worried. On the one hand, Ximo’s sloping position made his glasses slide down his nose, forcing him to raise his chin so that it would not fall back on him; on the other, the dubious taste in matching the doctor’s clothes: brown corduroy pants, a small rhombus knit vest, and a short-sleeved shirt.
"The crime was committed that afternoon, a maximum of three hours ago," he ruled. "She has a severe blow to his face, trauma to the back of her skull and I would say two broken vertebrae in her neck."
Balasch saw a man hitting Veronica's face as she lost her balance and even seemed to hear the vertebrae to break. A small chill ran down his back as he saw his mother's face instead of Veronica's.
"They hit her, she fell and broke her neck," Balasch said, pointing to a bloodstain on the nightstand.
"And how did she end up on the bed? Did they move it?" the sergeant said more than ask.
"Besides that," said Ximo, who was looking at the inside of his left ear, "there's blood here that I don't think can come from a neck wound."
Balasch's gaze asked without having to say anything.
"I'll be able to tell you more..." he said.
"When you've done the autopsy," Balasch said, trying to joke to clear his anxiety.
"Tomorrow at 11," Ximo reported.
They reviewed with the judge the list of actions to be carried out: interviewing the neighbors, checking Tort's alibi, visiting the address of the ID card, and processing the sketch, mobile phone, notebook, broken vase and blood from the ear.
Before leaving, Balasch dedicated one last look to the victim. He'd have to go and visit mum as soon as he could.