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The Uncomfortable Dead

(What's Missing Is Missing)

by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Paperback, 300 pages, Akashic Books, List Price: $15.95 |


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NPR Summary

Co-written with Zapatista Army spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, this playfully structured mystery features Taibo's recurring one-eyed private eye Hector Belascoaran Shayne. Translated by Carlos Lopez.

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In heavily polluted Mexico City, crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II describes his exhausted detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne as looking out at his hometown and seeing "a city that was trying to hide itself in the smog." Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Sleuth Keeps His Good Eye On Mexico City's Crime

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Uncomfortable Dead

from Chapter 2

The afternoon was fading away; Belascoaran lit his final cigarette and gave himself the seven minutes it would last before leaving his perch. Over the last few months, he had begun to prefer seeing Mexico City from above. From the highest roofs and bridges he could find. It was less harmful that way, more like a city, just a single solid thing as far as the eye could see. He liked it and still likes it.

When he was about five and a half minutes into his cigarette, his office mate, Carlos Vargas the upholsterer, came whistling through the metal door that led to the roof. He was whistling that old Glen Miller piece that had become so famous at sweet-sixteen parties in Mexico City during the '60s. He was whistling in tune and with a great deal of precision to boot.

"You know, boss, I've got half a notion that these disappearances of yours up here on the roof might mean you've begun smoking grass on the sly. You've gone pothead, you're getting high and flying low."

"You're wrong and I'm going to show you," Belascoaran said, offering him the chewed-up butt of his filtered Delicado.

Carlos shook his head. "There's a progressive official looking for you."

"And what is a progressive official?"

"Same as the others, only they're not on the take, and this one's got a chocolate stain on his tie and a crippled dog."

Hector Belascoaran Shayne, independent detective, accustomed to absurd enigmas because he lived in the most marvelously absurd city in the world, climbed down the seven stories asking himself what the hell a "crippled dog" might mean in upholsterer's crypto-language, only to find out that "crippled dog" meant a goddamn dog with a splint on one of its front legs, a timid face, and ears hanging to the ground. The animal was resting serene and sad at the feet of this progressive official. Carlos paid them no mind and was already back in his own corner of the office stuffing a pink-velvet easy chair.

Belascoaran dropped into his seat and the wheels carried him elegantly, until he hit the wall. He stared at the progressive official and raised his eyebrows, or rather his eyebrow — ever since he had lost one of his eyes, he found it difficult to move the other eyebrow.

"Are you a leftist?" the official asked, and God only knows why, but Belascoaran did not find that icebreaker at all strange in these times when the nuns of the Inquisition were flying back on their broomsticks, conjured up by the administration of one Mr. Fox, who wasn't foxy at all.

He took a deep breath. "My brother says I'm a leftist, but a natural one, which means unawares," Hector said, smiling. "And that means I'm a leftist but I never read Marx when I was sixteen and I never went to demonstrations to speak of and I don't have a poster of Che Guevara in my house. So, well, yes, I'm a leftist."

The explanation appeared to satisfy the official. "Can you guarantee that this conversation will remain confidential?"

"Well, if God knows it, why shouldn't the world?" answered Hector, who hadn't guaranteed anything for a long time.

"Are you a believer?" the progressive asked, a bit taken aback.

"There's a friend of mine says he quit being Catholic for two reasons: one, because he thought that with so many poor people the Vatican treasures were a kick in humanity's balls; and two, because they don't let you smoke in church. And I imagine that goes for all religions. And I agree — the very idea of God annoys the shit out of me," Hector wound up very seriously.

Taking advantage of the moment of silence, Hector checked out the progressive official and found that, as opposed to what Carlos had said, the guy had no tie, although he did have a stain on his yellow shirt, a shaggy beard, and the glasses of the terminally short-sighted. He was tall, very tall, and when he got excited he shook his head sideways in a perpetual no. He looked like an honest man, the kind his mother used to call "a good person," referring always to workers, plumbers, milkmen, gardeners, and lottery hawkers. If memory didn't fail him, his mother had never said that any bourgeois, grand or petit, was "a good person." She must have had her reasons.

"There's a dead guy talking to me," the man said, breaking in on Hector's mental evaluation of him and his past.

Hector opted for silence. Just a couple of months before, he had gone to a video club and rented a series created by Alec Guinness based on a novel by le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced by the BBC, and for six continuous hours he had watched in fascination as Smiley-Guinness used the most effective interrogation technique in the world: putting on a stupid face (if the guy weren't British, Hector would say he was the biggest jerk he'd ever seen) and staring at people languidly, not too interested, like he was doing them a favor, and people would just talk and talk to him, and once in a while, a long while, he would drop a question, as if not really caring much, just to make conversation.

And the method worked.

"For about a week now I've been hearing messages on my answering machine from a buddy of mine, only this buddy died in 1969. He was murdered. And now he's talking to me, leaving me messages. He tells me stories. But I don't rightly know what it is he wants from me. And I think he's calling when he knows I'm not home so he can just leave a recording. Maybe it's a joke, but if it is, it's a hell of a joke."

Hector kept up his Alec Guinness face.

"My name's Hector," the man said.

"So's mine," Belascoaran replied, kind of apologizing.


"How about the dead guy?"

"His name's Jesus Maria Alvarado, and he was really something."

Hector went back into silent mode.

"So, how much do you charge?"

"Not much," Belascoaran said.

That appeared to quiet the man down ... the dog too.

"Here's the tape. You can listen to the whole thing in five minutes. You decide and we'll talk later."

"I don't have an answering machine in this office. If you can lend the tape to me, tomorrow we can — "

"No! Not tomorrow. In a while. Take my address," Monteverde said, handing over a piece of paper. "And here are some notes I prepared about how I met the dead man. I'll be at home ... I don't sleep."

"I don't either," Hector said.

And he watched as same-name Monteverde stood up and left the office, followed by his limping dog.

"That's one hell of a story!" said Carlos Vargas with a mouthful of tacks, shaking his hammer over the pink easy chair.

"The phrase that comes to mind is the one about reality getting extremely strange," Belascoaran answered.

Hours later, sitting at home, Hector listened to the voice of the dead man coming from the tape.

"Hello. I am Jesus Maria Alvarado. I'll call you back, buddy."

The voice did not sound familiar; it was gravelly and didn't reveal any anxiety, urgency ... nothing. Just a toneless voice offering a name. It was not cavernous or put through special effects; it wasn't intended to sound like a voice from the grave. What's a voice from the grave supposed to sound like? This talking to dead people ...

Excerpted from The Uncomfortable Dead by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Copyright 2005 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Translation copyright 2006 by Carlos Lopez. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.