Dead In Madrid, And Looking For Your Own Murderer

A Pretty Face
Serpent's Tale
A Pretty Face
By Rafael Reig
Serpent's Tale
Paperback, 256 pages
List price: $14.95

Read An Excerpt

Raphael Reig

Raphael Reig's previous novel, Blood on the Saddle, was short-listed for the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, a prize for foreign crime fiction. hide caption

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Every woman knows what "a pretty face" means. It's right up there with "great personality" in the backhanded compliment department. "Great personality" means "ugly," and "pretty face" means the woman is, as Maria Dolores calls herself, "a fatty." Maria, the heroine of Spanish writer Rafael Reig's A Pretty Face, is also recently deceased. The story follows her ghost as she wanders around Madrid trying to solve her own murder.

Maria dies from a shot to the head on the day she finally gets some action after leaving her brilliant (or mad?) husband, a scientist who's on a mission to defeat death with his work on the K666 neuroprotein. The friend Maria slept with left some papers behind, and two men with guns showed up to collect them.

"I always thought that on dying my life would flash before me like in one of those film trailers with bits of the main scenes... No way," says Maria, who narrates A Pretty Face with exasperation and humor. Nothing about the afterlife is what she expects — there's no white light, no peace. The only person who greets her on the other side is halfwit Benito Viruta, the main character in the young-adult novels Maria writes. The last of her books was titled You're Crazy for Reading This, so you can guess how excited she is about Benito's presence.

Reig — whose 2006 novel Blood on the Saddle was short-listed for the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, a prize for foreign crime fiction — takes all of the traditional elements of noir and tips them on their head. The private detective her father hires might still be a scotch-drinking, world-weary mess, but Maria is not your typical noir dame. And though much of the dialog is hard-boiled, the story is set in a parallel version of Madrid, where the United States has invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish is outlawed and drug dealers are strung up as warnings to others.

Reig delights in keeping his readers on their toes. For such a brief book — it can be read in one afternoon — it covers a lot of ground, and all of the elements come together at the end. Reig is playing around in A Pretty Face — and inviting his readers to play along.

Excerpt: 'A Pretty Face'

A Pretty Face
By Rafael Reig
Serpent's Tale
Paperback, 256 pages
List price: $14.95

Chapter 1

It all ended one Thursday morning, 18 November 1999, without the century coming to an end and five days before my birthday. I'd have been thirty-seven.

It was almost twelve and I'd made a date at twelve on the dot to pick my mother up and go with her to the doc's. I'd been X amount of time trying to get out the house. At the last minute I always remembered something: my keys, my purse, the light on in the toilet. It made no difference, I knew: I'd be in the lift, at moment X plus one, when I'd realise I'd forgotten the most important thing of all.

Or what I'd forgotten would turn into the most important thing of all.

My life was like that.

I was pondering these things, with my coat on, the door open and going back in for my chequebook, when I heard the sound of footsteps.

It was two men, one in jeans and anorak, and another in a grey diplomatic-stripe suit but without a tie, belt or laces in his shoes, like a convict.

They were going into the house.

My house, I mean.

The one in the anorak had a gun in his hand.

The papers, the one in the suit demanded.

Do you wanna know what I did? I did the only thing I could, I gave him them on the spot of course. Just for the record, I wasn't thinking so much of saving my life (in short, this life) as of my mother, the poor woman, twinges in her lumbar vertebrae and waiting for me in the waiting room, sitting with her bag on her knees and her overcoat on since nine this morning.

After examining the folder, the one in the suit concluded: Mission accomplished.

What do we do with 'er? asked the one in the anorak.

The other man took a cell-phone from his pocket, punched in a number and asked for instructions.

Mission accomplished, but there's a hitch: the pillock had already handed over the papers to somebody else, he said.

I felt a greater curiosity to know who might be at the other end of the phone than to know his reply. The one in the suit listened attentively then said: Affirmative.

He hung up and turned to the one in the anorak: She knows too much, we gotta get rid of her.

OK, boss.

So the other one had to be a minion, the one who did the dirty work.

He pressed the barrel of the automatic against my temple and pulled the trigger.

I didn't hear the bang. I felt cold, as if a strand of frost were traversing my forehead and threading its way into my heart.

On yer way, Brains, the chief ordered.

My first thought was, now you've done it!

Question: was I maybe to blame for being the innocent victim of a dastardly murder?

Answer: negative.

So why couldn't I avoid blaming myself?

Now you've done it! This time you've really done it! my telltale psyche went on repeating.

Gorblimey! piped up a squeaky voice I instantly recognised, despite never having heard it outside my head.

It was the Cyclops Kid, his lazy eye covered with a patch and sticking plaster, his nails bitten to the quick and the right pocket of his trousers torn. He was looking at my corpse stretched out on the ground. One breast was sticking out the low neckline of my blouse. Through the hole in his pocket the abominable schoolboy was fondling himself as, biting his lip, he looked with his single eye at my lifeless body. Let's see your hands, you filthy pig! I shouted.

Benito Viruta, who else, the child of my imagination, the main character in my books, those that awaken so much enthusiasm in 'more demanding little readers.'

I wasn't doing nothing, I swear, teach.

Shut up, you. And put your hands where I can see 'em.

Si, senorita.

I closed my eyes, wheezed and looked at myself, laid out on the landing, with my bag across my chest, a breast in the air and my coat undone.

There I was, with my whistle-blowing psyche and sulky lepidoptera flitting around, Benito Viruta picking his nose on the sly and my motionless body stiffening and losing heat.

A good while went by before Maria Eugenia Pestana, she of 2º 1ª, alias The Pest, found me.

She took the pulse in my neck with two fingers.

The Pest had seen too many movies.

Then she brought a mirror she took from her bag to my mouth. I can't have steamed it up to her satisfaction because she began calling out: Nooooo! Oh no! No way do I want to see it! Don't make me see it! I don't want to see it!

My blood on the grey moquette, she must have been referring to.

The Pest had read too much Lorca for her GSEs.

She went bellowing down the stairs.

Nicolas the janitor came with a torch, a monkey wrench and a chammy leather (I still don't know why he considered such a rescue kit indispensable), and remained at my side until the authorities arrived, a judge and two policemen. They took photos and cordoned off my flat, but it disappointed me that they didn't draw the outline of my body on the floor with chalk as happens in the movies and like they did when Carlos Viloria died.

Finally, two employees in dark suits appeared and transferred me to the Funeral Services packet boat.

I closed my eyes and counted to twenty, like in the school playground, but with the opposite effect. When I opened them again I was sure of it. I was dead.

The End, I thought. The soundtrack went on getting louder while the credits appeared, with their 'In order of appearance: Mum, Her gynaecologist, Dad, Uncle Franky,' and so on until 'Hired killers, The Pest, Policemen, First funeral employee and Second funeral employee.'

I reconnoitred the deck. I must have been invisible because nobody took the least bit of notice of me.

I touched the helmsman's shoulder. Nothing. I thumped him on the ear with all I had. Useless. I stuck a finger in his eye. Negative. I pinched his nipple. Zilch.

Invisible and, what's more, intangible!

We descended Genova until the bike ferry and then headed north. In the distance I made out the watchtower lights of the marinas of the Compounds: Aravaca, Pozuelo, La Floridathe parapets of the powerful.

To the south, the other side of Puerto Atocha, behind the barbed-wire fence of the First Precinct, I saw the black smoke and the flickering of the flames. The fugitive addicts were burning tyres to keep warm as they waited for the end.

We were sailing along the Castellana Canal towards Rios Rosas. We left the Eduardo Dato Bridge and the triangular shadow of the Chopeitia Genomics pyramid astern.

Beneath the black water there must be the boughs of the trees and those pavements I trundled along as a youngster, before the oil ran out and they flooded Madrid to make it easier to get around. Since then, the Castellana Canal has divided the city in two, like that decision that splits a life down the middle: on one bank, ignorance; on the other, repentance.

On arriving at the mouth of Rios Rosas we veered to port and headed for Ciudad Universitaria.

I contemplated my mortal remains on the stretcher in the aft storeroom. It was the first time I'd seen myself from outside and it gave me a feeling a bit like hearing your voice tape-recorded: you just don't recognise yourself.

You have to bear in mind I was disfigured from being shot at close rage, plus the less flattering circumstances dying in itself involves, like the involuntary loss of bodily fluids, the relaxing of sphincters, the stiffness, the clothing that comes down, et cetera. Even so, I had to admit it: I was a fatty.

Yes, a fatty. I found it hard to say it for the first time without diminutives.

All my life I'd been the classic likeable little fatty.

Little fatty no, now was the time to recognise it: fatty. Period. Fatty. Full stop.

Pretty, they'd always called me.

"The lass's got a very pretty face," ever since I was little, a real pain, a torment, a torture like the ones we drew at school in our jotters.

Now in my head I had a hole as big as a fist through which you could see the encephalic mass, spongy and livid, still quivering, like the sunsets I filch from Machado & Company.

I use them to end chapters with and to arouse those chocolate-boxy thoughts that so impress my unwitting and more demanding little readers.

The contemplation of my brain set my teeth on edge, the way white styrofoam or the stuffing in pillows does.

In the Anatomical Forensic Institute a woman with plaits emptied my handbag onto the table. Kleenexes, a notebook, ballpoints, my reading glasses, diary... Missing, of course, was the chequebook that was to blame for the open door, for my lateness and hence for the dastardly murder I'd ended up being the innocent victim of.

On the radio was an English version of On a Misty Windowpane, the old Los Secretos song I always remembered in the Spanish of my childhood.

The paintings don't have colours.
The roses don't seem flowers,
There's no dawn chorus
Nothing's the same, nothing's the same,
Nothing's the same, nothing...

I thought about my underwear. I was wearing some discoloured knickers with the elastic gone. My mother had spent half her time warning me to always have my underwear in a perfect state of inspection because you never knew.

What if they take you in an emergency to a hospital, she used to say. A bit embarrassing when they find out you're wearing dirty knickers, my girl! You never know, Maria Dolores, you never know.

When I was very young, I indulged in necrological fantasies on the bathroom floor, knickers rolled up inside the jeans around my ankles. Imagining myself dead was the only way of getting to see myself from outside, as if someone else were involved, a third person, somebody who wasn't an interested party. I'd died suddenly, albeit painlessly, if you don't mind. In the forensic light of the fluorescent tube, I was inspecting the contents of my pockets, looking at my different cards, the calendar, a phone number scribbled on a cashpoint receipt, and thinking of myself as if I were some unknown who'd just died, a woman of whom I only knew what was before my eyes, on the outside.

That was what remained of me.

I used to imagine the reactions of my nearest and dearest, what they'd say, the tears they'd cry, how they'd learn to value me. My funeral turned into a big event, the news appeared in all the papers, even my best friends from school came, Marisol Mateos, Fátima Fernández and Maite Munárriz.

Then I realised I wouldn't be able to see it and in that case it wasn't worth the bother.

I returned from the dead, wiped myself with toilet paper, pulled the chain, hoicked my knickers and jeans up and went back to my room to read.

All the books I read were about me, I was always the only character, the same with Sinuhe the Egyptian as with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Time and again I was surprised by the coincidence that both Mika Waltari and Friedrich Nietzsche wrote exactly what I'd thought by myself.

Since then I've grasped that this always happens: we're only capable of recognising in others ideas that have already occurred to us.

Maria Dolores Eguibar Madrazo, pronounced the one in plaits reading my identity card syllable by syllable.

It didn't take her long to discover my civil status (married) and my address (Castelló, 13).

I was going to warn her I'd separated from Fernando five years ago and that I no longer lived in that house, but my voice wouldn't work.

Invisible, intangible and, what's more, inaudible. Being murdered was beginning to present a lot of drawbacks or a negative side.

When she opened the diary I felt completely and utterly silly. I'm the sort of person who always obeys without having to. Suffice it to say that like an idiot I fill in the 'Personal Data' pages in diaries. I'd doubted about doing it for another year, but in the end I'd again put that in the event of an accident they should advise Fernando Eguilaz, the man who was no longer my husband.

Fernando, the famous scientist, candidate for the Nobel Prize, was at home and, against all the odds, picked up the phone instead of letting the answer machine kick in.

I felt the urge to smoke, but I couldn't take the packet of Luckies that was on the table. My fingers went right through it. Intangibility was annoying. Would I be able to eat and drink? Would I be able to turn the pages of the newspaper or open a door? Would I walk through walls? Would I need to sleep, to go to the toilet? Would I be reflected in the mirror? Would I have periods?

I interrupted this eternal round of questions and paused to contemplate my state. In short, girls, what prettier pass could I have come to?

Luckily I was invisible to other people, seeing as I was naked. The most remarkable thing was I found myself thin. I didn't look like that supine corpse. Instead, I'd finally got to be the way I saw myself inside my head.

I was terrific, finally, with almost twenty pounds less.

This is one of the more comforting aspects, the positive side, of expiring.

Added to which, sans glasses I was seeing perfectly. Although, on the other hand, being invisible, intangible, inaudible and all, well, old girl, you tell me, it's much of a muchness being fat or thin, with a pretty face or as ugly as sin.

Distinguished forensic experts, muscular assistants, smiling orderlies, men in white coats or uniforms with stripes at my side without turning their heads.

I went down to the entrance to await the appearance, doubtless spectacular, of Fernando.

Towards Moncloa ashen-coloured clouds were banking. There were, as if let fall in no particular order, cypresses, holm oaks, a rocky place, two or three hills and various slopes to start rolling tyres down.

To my back, Benito Viruta, pretending to cover his good eye, was looking at me and breathing heavily, as if his face were glued to the windowpane, whilst muttering: Macho, macho, the teach is totally starkers!

That was all I needed, the posthumous company of the child of my imagination, that dirty, villainous lad, always with a bone-on and nothing better to do than bash the bishop through the hole in his pocket.

Take your glasses off this instant! I ordered.

Cripes, teach, the brat protested.

I saw my butterfly mind beat its wings and gain height. It left by the window and disappeared among those ragtag grey clouds.

In my insides I felt the knot of a strand of blood coming undone.

My Dasein! I cried out, as if I'd dropped a Duralex glass on the floor, the sort that always shatter like they were a bomb.

What's that, teach?

The Dasein? Being-in-itself or being-in-me, something like that, Benito, but let it go, you won't understand, which went for me, too.

The butterfly? Don't you worry, it has to come back, all you gotta do is wait.

I told you to take your glasses off. Come on, that's it.

He obeyed.

Without the specs, the only thing he was going to see were shifting shadows and fleeting shapes, like damp stains on the wall or fish in deep water, a blurry shoal on the move.

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