New times overtake me. Overtake my yearnings. — Piero
There's a dead Roman in the bathroom."
"When he's done pissing tell him to drop by and say hello," said Hector Belascoaran Shayne.
A late, lazy, hot afternoon lingered outside the window.
"This isn't a joke," said the upholsterer Carlos Vargas from the doorway.
Hector stared out at the clouds moving slowly over his piece of city. "Does he have a spear? Any Roman worth his salt's got to have a spear."
"I said he's dead!"
Hector got up from the leather swivel chair where he'd whiled away what was left of the afternoon, and looked carefully at his officemate.
The upholsterer leaned against the doorjamb, his face pale, distractedly swinging a small hammer in one hand.
With a limp that was due partly to an old wound and partly because he'd left one shoe behind him under the desk, Hector walked toward the door. He raised his left hand to his head and ran it roughly through his hair, as if to physically shake off his drowsiness.
"What about a helmet? Has he got a helmet?" Hector tried one last joke, but the upholsterer's expression didn't change.
Was there really a dead Roman in the bathroom?
Carlos led the way down the ruined hall, the afternoon light filtering through the doorway onto the peeling walls painted a malignant green.
"Yes, he's got a helmet," said Carlos as he pushed open the bathroom door.
A Roman foot soldier sat on the toilet, staring at the tile floor, his throat slashed.
Blood oozed slowly down the brass breastplate, over the short, pleated skirt, the hairy legs, and into one sandal. A helmet with a faded plume rested on his head. A long wooden spear leaned against the wall.
"They've gone too far this time," Hector muttered, cautiously lifting the Roman's chin. A four-inch gash cut across his throat.
"The sons of bitches who killed this guy."
The dead man looked at Hector through bugged-out eyes. He was about fifty years old, with a stubbly growth of beard above a thick double chin. Hector couldn't keep a shiver from running up his spine despite the absurdity of the situation.
He let go of the chin and the head sagged back toward the man's chest, partly covering the gash across his throat. There was blood on Hector's hand. He wiped it off on the Roman's skirt.
"So what do we do now?"
"We search him," said Belascoaran, inserting his hand behind the metal breastplate etched with dragons and swords and into the pocket of a shirt cut off at the sleeves to give the Roman an authentic, period look.
"Car keys, a hundred pesos, an advertisement for a tailor's shop, an electric bill ..." he recited as he brought the items out and stashed each one in his pants pocket.
"There's something in his sock," said Carlos, pointing.
Hector pulled a plastic-coated ID card from one of the dead man's incongruous socks and shoved it in his pocket without looking at it.
"Let's go, neighbor."
"Anywhere but here. I don't like this. You can't just let people go around killing Romans in your bathroom."
The upholsterer, hammer in hand, turned back toward the office. Hector got there before him.
The afternoon was starting to fade. He found his shoe under the wingback chair, collected his jacket from the coatrack, took his .45 automatic from his desk drawer, and slid it into his shoulder holster. They locked the office door behind them.
At that moment the elevator motor kicked into action.
"Quick! The stairs!"
"What if it's Gilberto?" asked the detective.
The two men eyed the metal grating. A song rose up from the elevator shaft, over the noise from the motor and the stillness of their held-in breath: a ranchera, sung loudly and off-key.
"It's Gilberto," said Hector. Carlos nodded.
"What's up?" asked the plumber—the third member of that strange community that occupied the fourth-floor office of the building on the corner of Bucareli and Artículo 123—as the elevator door slid open.
"Let's go," said Hector, pushing Gilberto back into the elevator, with Carlos right behind him.
"What's the big hurry? A guy comes into work feeling like getting something done for a change, and they won't even let him into his own office," Gilberto protested unsuccessfully.
"There's a dead Roman in the bathroom," said Carlos.
"Roman? Like a Roman orgy kind of Roman?" Gilberto Gómez Letras asked with sudden interest.
"He's got his fucking throat cut from here to here," said Carlos, with an appropriately emphatic gesture.
"Yeah, right. What're you guys trying to pull? Let's see ... what'd you do, go and hire a secretary behind my back and you've been up there balling her all afternoon ..."
Hector leaned silently in one corner of the elevator. Who would want to get him mixed up in a murder like this? And what for? What was the idea of killing a guy dressed up like a Roman soldier?
"... what's her name, Amber Eden, Graciela Putricia?"
The elevator door opened and the three men went out, Gilberto still trying to convince his friends to let him go up and meet the new secretary.
Dodging traffic, they crossed the street and went into a Chinese restaurant. Hector chose a booth where he could watch the door to their building. It was starting to get dark.
"Two cafes con leche, donuts, and a hot chocolate," said Hector to the restaurant's owner. "Now let me think for a minute."
"It's no joke, Gilberto, there really is a dead Roman up there."
"Yeah, right. So what's her name?"
"Forget it, Gilberto. You don't have what it takes. All you'll ever have is those hookers you like so much out in Nezahualcóyotl. You want a secretary, you got to show some class."
The traffic got heavier. A pair of shoeshine boys played soccer between the cars with a ball of wadded-up paper.
"There goes El Gallo. Go get him and bring him over here," said Hector. The upholsterer, who was sitting closest to the door, jumped up and ran out into the street. A car braked noisily.
A moment later, the sewer engineer Javier Villareal, alias El Gallo, sat in the booth with his three officemates.
"What's going on around here?"
"Will you believe me if I tell you there's a dead Roman in our bathroom?" asked Hector.
"What can I say? In the two years since I've been sharing an office with you, I've seen two shootouts, a case of poisoned soft drinks, and a kindergarten party. One time Gilberto rented it out as a practice space for a salsa band, and another time some old geezer tried to stab me with a knife. What's a dead Roman to me?"
"You guys aren't fooling, are you?" asked Gilberto.
"Hot chocolate and donuts," ordered El Gallo.
* * *
Early the next morning a motorcycle messenger delivered a manila envelope to Hector Belascoaran Shayne's apartment, pocketed his tip, and drove away. Hector stood watching after him in the open doorway, bleary-eyed, the envelope in his hand.
After gulping down two glasses of grapefruit juice mixed from a greenish powder, he sat down at the kitchen table and tore open the envelope: there was a half sheet of paper with the typewritten message, "Don't get involved," an airplane ticket to New York made out in his name, and a Polaroid snapshot of a man whose throat had been hacked open with a knife.
Death. All over again.
He spent the next ten minutes looking for his cigarettes. He finally found them under his pillow on his bed, then he shut the door to his apartment, which he'd left open, and went back to the kitchen table to stare at the photograph.
It was too early in the morning. This time of day always threw him off balance, the way it was so empty, sluggish, unreal somehow. It made it so that he didn't know who he was, couldn't recognize himself.
Even with his graying crew cut the dead man in the picture was still a little younger than the Roman had been. He had a square face and a hard jaw. That's all Hector could tell, with the head thrown backward like that. The man sat on a chair with his hands tied behind him to the chair back, with something that didn't look like rope. Wire maybe.
A cop, thought Hector, without knowing why. Maybe because of the crew cut, or the cheap gray suit that gave him the vague look of the secret police. Or a doorman in a four-star hotel. Or a loan shark.
What the hell did all this have to do with him? He wasn't working on anything, he'd spent the last two months in a kind of quasi-Buddhist contemplation of the downtown streets, going on endless, meandering walks, poking around tenement buildings, hunting for bargains in second-hand bookstores, watching the clouds or the traffic from his office window. Two months waiting for something that was worth getting excited about. And now this: two dead men and a plane ticket to New York to keep him from sticking his nose in where somebody thought it didn't belong. But if they didn't want him to get involved, then why the hell had they gone and dumped a dead Roman in his bathroom, and then sent him the photograph of this other guy?
The hot water heater was broken, but he went and took a shower anyway. He stood under the cold spray, and came to a decision that was out of character for him: he would wait one more day, and then decide whether to step aside, or to dig deeper into the story. Two minutes later he changed his mind.
"New York my ass!" he said, shivering with cold.
* * *
He walked cautiously down the hall and opened the door to the bathroom only to discover the obvious (who knows why, who knows how, but obvious enough in the end): the dead Roman had disappeared. All that was left was a brownish bloodstain on the floor, and a certain vague smell that Hector Belascoaran Shayne, independent detective, would forever after associate with the smell left behind by death.
He shut the door again and turned to look at his three officemates watching curiously from the far end of the hall.
"He's not there. Must have gone for a walk," Belascoaran said laconically.
"I never even got to see him," complained Gilberto.
"You didn't miss much. What good's a Roman with socks?" observed the upholsterer.
Hector left them in the hall and went into the office.
The night before, he'd kept watch from the Chinese restaurant across the street until after midnight, when fatigue had gotten the better of him and he'd gone home. All the same, it made him feel good; at least his intuition was still working.
He took his coat from the rack and was about to head out again when the telephone rang. El Gallo Villareal looked up from his drawing table, where he sat doodling a naked woman perched on a tall stool.
"Aren't you here kind of early, Gallo?"
"I wanted to see the Roman."
"Sorry to disappoint you," said Hector, picking up the phone.
On the other end, his sister, Elisa, asked him over for lunch. He said yes without thinking twice, then went down to the street.
He felt the cool air on his face as he left the building, and a muscle tensed near the scar that trailed away from his bad eye. It was always with him, unseeing, useless, reminding him how close a man could come, how easy it was, how quickly everything could go to hell, how tremendously screwed up this country was. Not to mention his job.
Methodically, he set about finding a witness to the dead Roman's disappearance. He came up empty-handed at the record store, the Chinese restaurant across the street, and with Doña Concha, the woman who cleaned their building. But he hit gold with Salustio, the one-eyed man who ran the newspaper kiosk on the corner.
At six A.M. two men had come out of the building carrying a box, "like for a small refrigerator," and loaded it into a moving van. At the same time the picture of the second victim had been delivered to the detective's apartment. But Salustio couldn't give him a description of the men or their vehicle. He said he was sorry.
"With just one eye I don't see too good at six in the morning, and with the hangover I had this morning, you're lucky I saw as much as I did."
Hector slipped off into the passing human torrent, hoping that the rhythm of his walking would help to put his thoughts in order. He lit a cigarette and set off at a brisk pace through the downtown streets.
What was going on? If they didn't want him to get involved, what were they doing sending him dead bodies? And what did the Roman have to do with it?
Ixtapalapa? The passion play? No, this was December, not Holy Week. No connection there.
He walked across the Alameda park, watching two small children tag along after a balloonman. At Avenida Hidalgo he joined a crowd gathered around a police van that had caught fire from a short circuit under the hood.
Two policemen were trying to put out the fire while the crowd watched. No one volunteered to lend a hand. Mexicans love a spectacle as much as they hate the law, he thought, as the fire flared up with a beautiful explosion of flame and fireworks. The hundred or so onlookers broke into applause, then started to retreat before the hateful stare of one of the policemen, who held a Mauser in his hands.
"Helluva show," said a lottery ticket seller.
"Too bad it didn't blow up and take those two sons of bitches with it," said a high school student loaded down with books, as he hurried past Hector to catch his bus.
"Too bad," said the woman who sold ears of boiled corn from a pushcart, whom the two cops had been shaking down when their van caught fire.
"Too bad," repeated Hector. He lit another cigarette and went off to keep his lunch date.
* * *
"You know him better than I do. You tell me. Should I be worried, or am I just imagining things?"
"What the hell do I know? I can't figure him out either. Him and his friends, they talk in a language I can't understand. They're dealing with bigger things than anything I could ever lay claim to. I've got nothing—"
"Okay, Hector, that's enough. The complaints window is closed for the afternoon," said Elisa, as she set the table with plates, glasses, salt and pepper shakers, paper napkins, and a tureen of hearty beef stew. Hector laughed, really laughed, for the first time in a couple of days. He'd been working so hard at keeping his emotions under control that his face had become frozen into a sort of crooked sneer.
"So he's been drinking. What else is going on?"
"Isn't that enough? What's he need to drink so much for?"
"What are you getting at, Elisa? Do you think he's in some kind of trouble? What is it?"
"I think he's gotten himself involved in something really heavy this time. I don't know anything for sure, it's just a feeling. The two times I saw him this week he seemed depressed, down, you know. Once he was drunk, and the other time I went by his apartment and he was sleeping. The whole place smelled like rum."
"Are you sure?"
"I didn't dare say anything. I mean, it's not my business, really ... I feel like an idiot, but I can't even talk to my own kid brother."
"The same thing happens to me when I try and talk to you, silly."
Elisa gave Hector a hug. Her freckles shone in the sunlight angling through the window into the small apartment.
"I asked him to come and have lunch with us. He said he was busy but he'd try and get here in time for coffee."
"Listen, if you can't talk to him, then forget it, because I'm a hundred times worse than you are. I'm sure that ..."
The doorbell rang as they were drinking coffee, remembering afternoons spent in the old house in Coyoacan, and their father, old man Belascoaran, with his leftist-inspired stories of life in the Wild West, Wild Bill Hickock, Billy the Kid.
"Jefe!" howled a blond, freckled shadow as it threw itself into the arms of a disconcerted, shy, but happy Hector Belascoaran Shayne.
After Marina came their brother, Carlos Brian. Three or four years younger than Hector, he had his mother's Irish genes, a thick mop of red hair, and extraordinarily blue eyes. Extraordinarily blue and extraordinarily tired, thought Hector, taking a second, closer look at his brother, while he tried to disentangle himself from Marina.
Excerpted from No Happy Ending by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Copyright 1981 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.