(translated by David Bowles)
Independencia, Santiago de Chile.
She knew every noise in the house. The lethargic creaking of the pipes during the night, that constant tapping of plum tree branches in the backyard, the beams of the terrace swelling with temperature changes, the window frames when touched by the first rays of dawn. At the age of sixty-five, Elcira Ramirez recognized every sound of her home so well that she woke up immediately when a heavy and weary rhythm began to trace its way from the doorway to the interior of the first floor.
She stayed still, silent, in the dark, resting against the largest pillow on the bed. And she listened.
The noise didn’t just keep going down there: it was moving. There was no doubt: someone else was breathing in the house, someone stumbling around, wandering between the living room, the kitchen and the bedroom that had once been her son’s. Alone at home, with a stranger lurking. She remembered all the times her sister had offered to move in with her. “Some bad person might take advantage of you. Your son isn’t coming back.” Those had been her words.
Footsteps. Of course they were footsteps. The dragging strides of someone who seemed to review with care each detail of the aging geography of the house. Elcira felt her heart clench up, throbbing with an erratic but powerful rhythm, like the thunderous engine of that old car the owner of the corner store drove. A fear unlike any she had ever experienced in all the years since her husband had died and they had taken her son away. Two decades alone, two decades left abandoned, forgotten by powerful men of every kind.
An old woman and an intruder: the balance was not in her favor. Step, step, step, heartbeat, step, step, step; that was the math. She took a deep breath and focused her senses. The man (because he was a man—his heavy steps made that clear) had just entered her son’s bedroom, and there he waited, perhaps standing, perhaps sitting on the bed. Perhaps he was just a poor homeless fellow, looking for a place to sleep.
She stretched her left arm towards the nightstand and turned the lamp on: light and old photographs greeted her and gave her courage. What could be so terrible? For years she had battled those in command, facing armies and soldiers, all for the right to know where her son was. If those boots and rifles had never scared her, why should some sorry excuse for a thief (as she imagined it was) intimidate her now? She clenched her fists and jumped out of bed, found a thick housecoat, put on her slippers and grabbed the cane that had once been her husband’s, ready to strike a blow with it should the need arise. She ran through the possible scenarios. Don César was in the house next door, so all she had to do was shout loudly, break things, run out into the street. But what if he had a gun? He could go ahead and shoot her! At the end of the day, it had been a long time since she had anything to lose. Enough was enough.
She went down the stairs and walked bravely toward her son’s bedroom. As she reached the entrance, she caught a whiff of something damp and old, like some object that has been stored for ages and is suddenly pulled out into the light. With stealthy but sure steps, she entered the room, crossing the cane over her body, trying in vain to look intimidating.
And there, in the shadows, she recognized the silhouette of her son.
Sebastian. Her little boy, the boy the soldiers had taken away on that horrible October morning, the one she had sought for ages, the boy in the photo on posters soaked by water cannons, the boy who had suffered so long—there he was, sitting on the very bed where he had awakened for the last time.
The old woman hugged her little boy, weeping.
“Seba . . . Sebita . . . Sebastian . . . ” she stammered through tears.
He hardly responded to her embrace.
And he was so young, so pale, so innocent, as if all the years that had piled up upon her had been subtracted from her only beloved son.
She ate him up with her eyes, then smothered him with kisses.
He didn’t bother to smother her. He just ate her. Bite after bite.
And though she tried to call for help, to howl with horror and pain, she could not. Elcira Ramírez learned too late that when your own son rips out your tongue, you cannot scream.
Fifteen years later.
Headquarters of the PDI. Investigations Police of Chile.
“They’re looking for you, Sarge,” a detective told Amador Martinez. “That chick at the door? Tall blonde, hot? Says she needs to talk to you, that it’s important.”
Sergeant Martínez spent most of his days sealed up in an office, surrounded by towers of papers, documents and filing cabinets, engaged in the work he had chosen for his last ten years of service to the civil police.
“Who is she?” he said, his voice low.
“Some newbie from the DA’s office. Didn’t say anything else, just that she needed Sergeant Martinez.”
The ex-detective looked at her. The girl couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, younger, maybe. Blonde, more thanks to dyes than genetics. Straight hair with well-trimmed tips, glasses with thick frames, sporting heels and distant look. Daughter of a good family, from a wealthy neighborhood. If she matches that black skirt with that gray blouse, she wants respect, the chief inferred. And she’s fought for what she’s achieved. Women like that never find an easy path to success. There are too many men who’ll never stop seeing them as ornaments, nice dolls to watch while working. Times have changed, but old habits have not.
He adjusted his tie, looked for his jacket and went to meet her.
“Antonieta Baculic,” she introduced herself with professional seriousness. He added to his first impression an energetic handshake, which revealed constant weekly hours in the gym. She was beautiful for sure, but also kind of masculine. An only daughter perhaps, too involved in her career to think about having a partner and children.
“And the reason for this visit?” Martinez asked.
“Can we talk in a less . . . public place?” she asked, hesitating as if concerned that “public” might not be a suitable word for the situation.
“This way,” said the veteran detective.
Knowing that the eyes of all the men present were following her every move, Antonieta avoided any gesture of kindness and followed Martinez to a small conference room, next to the administrative offices. After closing the door, the chief offered her a seat.
“So,” he began again. “I’m listening.”
“My card,” Atonieta said, handing one to him. “I’ve written my cell number on the back.” Then she introduced herself as a new assistant district attorney for North Santiago and informed him that she was working on a “rather complex” case with the homicide division.
“And how can a desk jockey like me help you?” Martinez asked, curious.
Assistant DA Baculic opened her purse, took out a laptop, placed it on the table, and after opening it, searched the folders for a file. Then she turned the screen towards the chief.
“You weren’t always a desk-jockey,” she said.
The photo that appeared on the LCD was like a gut punch for Martinez. A man, his abdomen sliced wide open, completely empty inside, without the slightest trace of viscera or organs.
“It’s the fourth case in two months, but the higher-ups and the interior ministry have made some sort of deal with the press, so it’s all kept quiet. Just like fifteen years ago.” She stressed this last bit, and then, bluntly, she fired two questions in a row. “How many did you get? Twenty in a year, right? That’s what they call them over at homicide: Martinez’s Twenty.” She lowered her glasses and fixed her blue eyes on him.
She really was very pretty, the detective thought, trying to get his thoughts in order.
“That was a long time ago, ma’am. Don’t know about those things anymore.”
“I looked into your background, sergeant. I know you know a lot about this . . . ”
“Then,” Martinez said, raising his voice, “if you know so much, you get what happened to me. You want some advice? Leave this case alone. Let somebody else look into it. You’ll be better off that way.”
“You didn’t leave it alone.”
“That’s why I’m telling you to stop. Clearly you know what happened to me,” he said, cutting off the conversation. “Look, I have a ton of work. Mountains of case files to review and archive. And they don’t pay me overtime. Sorry.”
“Your superior . . . ”
“I don’t have a superior, Ms. Martinic.” His error was on purpose.
“Baculic,” she corrected, guessing the sergeant’s strategy.
“Baculic,” he stressed. “It’s been fifteen years since anyone gave me an order. If you’re so well informed, you know that was part of the deal. Now, with your permission . . . ” He pointed at the exit.
Antonieta Baculic left the main building at PDI HQ and climbed into the pearl gray Hyundai that was waiting outside for her. She was greeted by the woman behind the wheel, a homicide detective they had put at her service. The young cop was smoking while listening to news on the radio.
“Doesn’t want to cooperate?” she asked the prosecutor.
“Makes sense. I’d be hurt, too, if I was him,” the officer replied, tossing the cigarette butt out the window before starting the car.
Sergeant Martinez made his way down the main hallway of the second floor of the Legal Forensic Services building, arriving at the desk of the morgue manager, Don Luis. This fascinating character had spent some thirty years at his present post, always doing the same thing: watching for any cops who entered, preventing the dead from getting out, writing down names and ID numbers and spending the rest of the day reading cheap science fiction novels. He believed in UFOs and aliens, and his best memory of life was mankind’s arrival on the moon in 1969. Plus he had the lowdown on where to buy cheap books on the subject in flea markets and antique fairs. He looked up when he saw the sergeant approaching, his face wrinkling in a friendly smile that revealed the absence of a few teeth.
“Don Luis,” Martínez said in greeting, “it’s good to see you again.”
“And here I was, thinking the earth had swallowed you up,” joked the guardian of the dead.
“Oh, it did. But it couldn’t digest me.”
Don Luis responded with a forced laugh.
“What are you reading?” the cop asked him. Don Luis showed him the cover. Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken.
“I read that book when I was younger,” Martinez said. “Aliens in Egypt, Mesopotamia and pre-Columbian America. It was the first time I heard that the Nazca lines in Peru could be an airport. And I believed it. Now I don’t believe in anything.”
“It’s the truth,” said Don Luis. “I’ve seen it on the History Channel.”
“I don’t have cable.”
“You should. Broadcast TV is garbage. You learn stuff from cable. Hey, nice to see you,” he said, abruptly changing the conversation.
Don Luis dog-eared the page he was on and set the book down on the desk. Then he looked at Martinez again.
“I can guess why you came, Sergeant. To reminisce about old times.”
“You tend to go back to the places where you learned to love life, to paraphrase Silvio Rodríguez.”
“Shit, I don’t know anything about those goddamn communists.”
“It’s a beautiful song . . . ”
“Maybe so, but he’s a goddamn communist.”
“Did you know that Silvio Rodríguez is a passionate science fiction reader and has the largest collection of books on UFOs and aliens in Cuba?”
“Whatever. He’s still a commie traitor.” Don Luis seemed quite indignant about the subject.
“Hey, not looking for a fight. I just want to go in and check the new bodies. I hear that they’re similar to the ones in my case, you know which . . . ”
“No, they’re not similar,” interrupted Don Luis. “They’re identical.”
Martínez pointed at the door.
“And can I . . . g-go in?” he stammered.
“As far’s I know, Sergeant, this is more your house than mine.”
As soon as Sergeant Martinez had walked through the door that led into the morgue, Don Luis looked for a card he’d set aside in the third drawer of his desk. Picking up his cell phone, he dialed the number written on the back.
“Hello,” he said. Then he replied simply, “Yes. And you’d better hurry.”
For half an hour Martínez observed the four bodies that lay upon the worktables. One man and three women. The former forty years old or so, the women younger than thirty. All had been killed in the same way. The face ripped off and the abdomen torn open from throat to groin. The bones twisted outward as if burst from within. Not a single organ left inside. Completely dry, nearly rotten, the blood having evaporated or worse. Just like fifteen years ago. Just like his “twenty.” Just like when his successful career within the Investigations Police of Chile had gone down the drain.
“Your killer’s back, Sergeant,” broke in the voice of the same young woman Martinez had met a couple of days ago.
“Madame Assistant District Attorney,” the ex-detective replied, “I didn’t hear you come in.”
It was true. He had been so absorbed in examining the bodies that he’d only noticed the presence of Antonieta Baculic when she opened her mouth. In fact, the lawyer had been standing behind him for almost five minutes, watching him, perhaps studying his investigative method, perhaps trying to read the sergeant’s body language.
“I’ve watching you for a while,” she said.
“Over the years folks lose their instincts,” he suggested.
“Not everyone.” The young lawyer smiled, and Martinez reflected that Don Luis had lost one of his greatest virtues: his tight-lipped reserve.
“I was just curious,” he said to justify his presence there.
She twisted her lips into a smile again.
“Or you wanted to remember the past,” she said.
“That’s a good way to put it.”
“So what do you think, Martínez? Is your killer back or are we dealing with a copycat?”
“Ms. Baculic,” said the cop, “this is Chile. There are no copycats here. We’re in the headquarters of the PDI, not an episode of Law and Order.”
“Right. So your man has returned . . . ”
“Who told you it was a man?”
“Nobody. It’s just a saying. But was it?”
“We never knew what it was . . . Man, woman, animal . . . or something worse.”
“But always the same, right? The same MO, without fingerprints, like these poor souls.” The woman pointed at the bodies.
“What did you really come here for, Sergeant?” The assistant district attorney stepped closer.
“I told you, ma’am. Curiosity . . . that’s it. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
But before Amador Martinez could take a step towards the antechamber that led away from the morgue, Antonieta Baculic grabbed his arm.
“I’m trying to give you a chance to pay them back for what they did to you, Sergeant.”
“And I’m doing you a favor, Madame Assistant District Attorney,” the cop said sharply. “Get off this case. You’re a woman, so you can say that the deaths are too intense, take advantage of the inequities feminists are always railing about. Say that it affects your health, your hormonal cycle, some shit like that. You seem smart. You’ll come up with something. Seriously, forget the investigation. Drop the case, for your own wellbeing.”
“Look, Martinez. Things have changed these last few years.” She let go of his arm. “I know that you went through some bad stuff, that you disobeyed your bosses, so they ‘promoted’ you to this job as glorified clerk. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’ve been asking around.” She fixed her gaze on him. “You were a brilliant detective, you set the bar high for your colleagues. Everyone figured you’d have a brilliant career, climbing the chain of command, and you know it . . . ” She trailed off, leaving that unspoken potential hanging in the air. “But you wouldn’t let up on the whole Twenty case. So the word came down from on high, from where those sorts of orders always do. And you went from the street to the archives. You lost a lot . . . ”
“More than you can imagine.” Amador Martinez lowered his voice. “So don’t be stupid, you hear me? Besides, things haven’t changed all that much. They’re just better disguised. Do you have a husband, boyfriend?”
“Hrm, boyfriend? Something like that.”
“Plans for a future together?”
She didn’t answer.
“Look, I don’t give a shit one way or another, but if you love your . . . partner or whatever and whether you have plans with them or not . . . Fuck!” He raised his voice. “If you have a family, someone who loves you, someone you love, too . . . Stay on the shore. Don’t start diving in dangerous depths.”
“That’s the problem, Counsellor . . . It’s not a metaphor.”
Like almost every Sunday at nine pm, Amador Martínez was in the kitchen of his apartment, warming up a cup of coffee while he listened to sports commentators review that weekend’s best plays and goals on the television in the living room, which he had not turned off all the day. Thod routine had not changed in years, nor had the decor or furniture of the two-bedroom apartment, which after his divorce he’d begun renting in one of the old housing blocks on Seminario Street, a few blocks from the ritzy commune of Providencia. His landlady was a widow over seventy years old who had never once hassled him, not even he was late paying the rent.
The sergeant was not expecting anyone and he hadn’t odered take-out, so he was surprised to hear the intercom buzz. What did not surprise him was hearing the voice of assistant district attorney Baculic, calling from the street. She insisted on talking to him.
“Come on up.”
He noticed that the lawyer was dressed exactly the same as the day they had first met at PDI HQ downtown. It was obvious she had been working all day and had probably come straight from the scene of some crime. Or from Homicide Division, which was located only a couple of blocks east of his apartment, down Condell Street just before Rancagua Avenue.
After buzzing her into the building, he invited her into his apartment, offered her a seat and asked if she wanted anything to eat or drink. She just asked for water.
“You’re good, I see,” he said. “Found my address.”
“Not hard when you have some authority.”
Martinez chose not to add anything.
“Look, I’ll get straight to the point, because I figure neither of us have got the time for much else and we already did our introductions,” she managed to get out in one breath. “Last night there were two more deaths. Like your twenty, like the ones we saw in the morgue. Skinned, ripped open, guts gone. But these have one thing in common. Each corpse is linked to a soldier court-martialed for human rights violations. With your cases it was the other way around: they were linked to victims of the dictatorship. But there’s a shared MO. Something about the military regime.”
Martinez did not respond.
“I need you, Amador,” she went on, calling him by his name for the first time. “Nobody else has the experience. Listen to me, please. Don’t answer yet. I’ve got connections. I’m good at what I do. I can get you back into the field, get you out of that shithole full of paper, help you get vindication with the department. I’m giving you a chance to take back what they stole from you . . . ”
The former detective responded with a glance.
“Will you help me or not?”
“Then I guess I’ve wasted my time.”
The prosecutor got up, left the half-drunk glass of water on the coffee table, and walked to the door of the apartment. Amador waved a kind goodbye.
Sergeant Martinez waited to hear the elevator open and close at the end of the hall, then he slid the chain to lock his apartment door and returned to the kitchen. He had to reheat the water for coffee.
Amador spent the next two hours oblivious to what was happening on the TV screen, paying little attention to the analysis of the soccer championship and even less to the bad romantic comedy that began after the sports commentary. He toyed with Antonieta Baculic’s card in one hand, passing it from finger to finger, like a magician about to do a trick. A government seal, the emblem of the district attorney’s office, the woman’s name, a landline, and email address. On the back was scrawled a cell number. He dropped the card on the table and reflected on what had been swirling in his head since the afternoon he had met the assistant district attorney: the “devoured” had returned. Antonieta and her boys had no idea what they were getting into.
Unsolved crimes, like his “twenty” from 1995, that had happened and that apparently no one cared about. Now at least the bosses pretended to be supporting the new team. Baculic looked smart. He’d investigated her as well, and her background revealed considerable abilities. But she was too naïve to be suspicious of that fact that no one was pressing her to solve the case quickly, or that previous, similar murders were hardly mentioned in the press. But, yeah, fifteen years ago he hadn’t noticed those signs, either. By the time he’d caught on, it was too late.
He searched for his phone and dialed the first three digits of the prosecutor’s number, then decided not to make the call.
Antonieta Baculic told the detective she’d been assigned to turn off the engine. She got out of the four-door sedan, checked traffic both ways, and crossed quickly to the small park just on the other side of the intersection. She approached the other car, a Peugeot 305 that had been parked there for half an hour, and confronted the driver.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Get in,” Amador Martinez said, opening the passenger door.
“What are you playing at, Sergeant?” she continued, ignoring the cop’s invitation. “Do you think I’m stupid? You’ve been following me for days. I’ve seen you . . . When I asked you for help, you turned your back on me and now . . . Ten missed calls from you on my cell, and when I call back, you don’t answer. What’re you up to Amador? Do you really think . . . ”
“I don’t think anything. I was just worried about you. Don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“Nothing bad is going to happen to me. I’m not alone.” She gestured across the street at the government car.
Martinez dropped his gaze.
“They don’t kill them,” he said.
“Get in the car,” the veteran cop insisted. She opened the door and settled into the passenger seat.
“Go on,” she prompted.
“Just that. They don’t kill them: they eat them.” The young prosecutor had no time to react. “And there weren’t just twenty.”
“What are you saying, Martinez?”
“You heard me fine. There weren’t just twenty cases that I investigated. The total was seventy-seven. There are always seventy-seven, before 1995 and after 1995.”
“And now, too?”
“Yes, now, too. You’ll see. In a year and a half, the deaths will stop when the number of victims reaches seventy-seven. Hear me? Seventy-seven . . . ”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“From nowhere, Madame Assistant District Attorney . . . from experience . . . Go tell your superiors, mention that figure. If you dare to do it, you’ll see how they quickly they shut down the investigation. If later you need a shoulder to cry on, come find me.”
“This is why you made me cross the street?”
“Baculic . . . There are mics everywhere, as you should know. I do, at any rate. There’s no better place in Santiago to talk about this case than my car. Totally private.”
“What’s your angle in all this?”
“I told you the first time we talked. I want to help you.”
“Help me? How?”
“I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
Baculic opened the car door and started getting out.
“Seriously, Antonieta. Do what I told you. Tell your superiors about the seventy-seven and see what happens.”
She didn’t answer.
It was a week before Antonieta Baculic returned to the office of Sergeant Martinez. She didn’t greet anyone, she didn’t ask for permission: she simply went into the small conference room and slammed the door behind her The vein on her forehead stood out like a rooster’s claw above her glasses. She tossed won a couple of folders and faced the detective. She wanted answers, no more vague bullshit. What was all this about seventy-seven? With just a mention of that figure, an order arrived from above telling her to abandon the case because the matter had entered the jurisdiction of military police.
“I guess you also told them they’re getting eaten,” Martinez said.
“You guess wrong. I’m not that stupid.”
“Well, you should’ve said it. Maybe they’d have treated you with more respect. They bumped you off the case, didn’t they? Now you’ve gone from being the star of the DA’s office to just another grunt. A horrible feeling, huh?
“Don’t fuck with me. I want answers, Martinez!”
The former inspector smiled, looked for a scrap of paper and jotted something down with a black-ink pen.
“Lower your voice, Baculic. The walls have ears, like I told you.” He slid the paper across the desk. “I’ll pick you up at nine pm. Don’t breathe a word to anyone. Write your address down here.”
Antonieta looked at him, grabbed the pen and scrawled directions to an apartment building in Las Condes.
Uptown, Martinez thought.
When the digital clock on the dash of the old Peugeot 305 read 23:55, Amador Martínez parked his car next to the entrance to a small drive in the highest part of the Reina commune.
“The house at the back.” He pointed to a property with an ample front yard and windows with white wooden frames. “Come on. They’ve been waiting for us a good long while.”
Although that assistant district attorney Baculic was clearly nervous, it was also obvious that she trusted her companion. She had since the first time they’d spoken.
The door of the house opened, and a woman with white, almost glowing hair, came out to meet them. She was of an indeterminate age, frozen somewhere between forty and seventy. Her eyes, green and deep, stood out against pale skin with few wrinkles, except around the mouth. Antonieta reflected that she had very white teeth, more so than normal people.
The name of their hostess was Dominga Serrano. According to Martinez, she was a forensic pathologist, with several years of service in the PDI until her early retirement in the mid-nineties. She had also been a member of the Chilean army, with the rank of captain.
“If I may,” Antonieta said, jotting down the woman’s name in a notebook.
“Sure,” she agreed. “Write whatever you want. Record me if you prefer. It won’t make much difference.”
Antonieta preferred not to pursue the last sentence of the lady with almost glowing white hair, who went away to the kitchen for a moment, after offering coffee to her guests.
Contrary to the assistant district attorney’s expectations, it was Martinez who started:
“How’s your knowledge of Chile’s history?” he asked.
“Pretty good, I guess,” she said, playing along. “I studied law, it was my favorite subject at school.” That last part wasn’t true.
Dr. Serrano served coffee to her guests. She set down a tray with a sugar bowl and a plastic bottle of artificial sweetener. The assistant district attorney didn’t sweeten hers.
“What do you know about the Battle of the Concepción?”
“Flag Day. A group of young Chilean soldiers was massacred by thousands of indigenous and Peruvian soldiers. July 9th and 10th of 1882. Last battles of the War of the Pacific, Sierra Campaign, after the taking of Lima. The hearts of the heroes were laid to rest in the Metropolitan Cathedral,” the prosecutor answered confidently, “next to Santiago’s Plaza de Armas.”
Dominga Serrano looked at Martinez and smiled.
“Seventy-seven young soldiers, to be exact,” added the retired captain. “I imagine you’ve heard that number a lot in recent weeks.”
Antonieta looked at Martinez.
“And the hearts of the cathedral are not those of the heroes, as you called them. No one knows whose they are. Perhaps from some peasants in the San Felipe area, it is likely,” the doctor continued. “Listen, Ms. Assistant district attorney, what will be revealed to now may not be entirely . . . rational. We cannot ask you to believe every word you will hear, but I swear it is all true. You will understand that I have spoken very little about this, but for some reason Amador trusts you and not only for being a pretty young woman, I imagine.”
The last comment made Antonieta very uncomfortable. On any other occasion, she would have fired off a four-sentence speech about female objectification that she had prepared for situations like this, but she preferred to keep silent for the moment.
“All we ask, and I speak for us both, is that you listen without interrupting. There will be time to clarify your doubts and so forth.” She paused briefly and then went on. “This truth has been hidden for more than a hundred years in the high circles of the Chilean government. Many have died for it; others of us have paid the lesser price of betrayals and knives in the back.”
“Okay, I’m listening,” Antonieta put in, with a hint of mockery in her tone, something Martinez and Serrano accepted as part of the deal.
“In 1882 things were not easy for Chile.” The sergeant was the one who began the tale. “We had retaken control of Lima and won the war, but in the mountains Peruvian general Andrés Cáceres gathered a huge force of Indians and Black folks, who together with remnants of the local forces were preparing to reconquer the country and slaughter the Chilean troops. Defeat was imminent, despite whatever versions you might have read in history books. Cáceres had our backs against the wall and both our General Baquedano and President Aníbal Pinto knew it. They had to find a path to victory other than conventional warfare. Instead, they hit on something very different, something abominable and impossible in theory.”
Martinez drank some of his coffee before continuing.
“You probably know, Antonieta, that at the end of the nineteenth century the most popular religion in Chile was spiritualism and its various offshoots. Many authorities, especially members of the Ministry of War and Navy, sympathized with this cult. That’s how the legend of the Huitranalhue came to the government: dead men and women resurrected in a Mapuche rite conducted by four Calcú wizards that worshipped Ngenvilú, an old Mapuche demon. These creatures could be commanded by the will of whoever controlled them. An invincible force, unstoppable and practically immortal, the great secret of the three centuries of indigenous Araucanian resistance . . . The major drawback was that in order to move, they needed blood and flesh, the guts of the living.
“In March of 1882, the Chilean government made a deal with a group of Mapuche shamans from the Temuco area and Chilote warlocks from the Chiloé Archipelago in the Recta Province. In exchange for land and an end of hostilities in the south, the indigenous sorcerers agreed to give the Chilean government a battalion of undead. They only needed seventy-seven individuals to sacrifice and then revive.”
“Seventy-seven,” Serrano said, interrupting, “because seven is a holy number, the number of creation, and to repeat it is an act of mockery, blasphemy and defiance against God. That is, of course, if the beliefs of those wizards are accepted.”
Martinez continued. “That was how the Concepcion trap was conceived. Seventy-seven young men, almost children, sent like lambs to the slaughter, to be resurrected and then converted into the force that secured the final victory of Chile in the northern plains. The seventy-seven first swept through the hills, devouring almost half of the rural population of Peru, proving themselves an effective method of psychological warfare as well. The rumor that the Devil fought on the Chilean side wasn’t far from reality. Nobody dared take up arms against the ancestral power unleashed by our country. It was a curse, a virus, a myth made real and weaponized.”
“Some years later, they were used against Baquedano and his loyalists during the Civil War,” Dominga Serrano added, staring into her cup of coffee.
Antonieta shifted her gaze between the cop and the doctor. She said nothing.
“The seventy-seven have been serving the Chilean government for more than a hundred years,” said Serrano, “but they are not eternal. The spell has a scientific explanation . . . or something along those lines. It arises from a physical reaction to certain electrical and chemical stimuli caused by a specific mixture of clay and water. They ‘live’ for a very long time, but they continue deteriorating until they finally crumble into powder. As a result, in order to keep the seventy-seven going, there are hunts every now and again. Attacks on civilians to turn their bodies into useful shells for the Huitralnahue.
“Between 1973 and 1979, Pinochet personally ordered a complete revamping of the undead battalion. That’s why there were so many random detentions of young men who were barely linked to Allende’s Popular Unity Party or other leftist groups. A small percentage of our detained and disappeared are have actually become the most effective members of our military. Why do you think that neither the Soviets nor the United States tried to stop the governments of Allende and Pinochet? Yes, Counsellor, Allende also knew and paid dearly for this knowledge. Or do you believe the official version that the ’73 coup was politically motivated?” She raised her eyebrows. “There were those in the Popular Unity Party that wanted to use the Seventy-Seven to more seize land and nationalize mines more quickly, but Allende was opposed. Poor Salvador. That fool was more alone than anyone. There was no love lost on him from the Right, from the military, not even from his own people. The Communist Party wanted to kill him, you know. They tried, twice. Nonetheless . . . ”
She leaned forward, looking Antonieta in the eyes. “The leaders of the world fear us, Madame Assistant District Attorney. They respect us because of the seventy-seven sarcophagi buried two hundred meters below the La Moneda palace. Would you like to know the real reason why Argentina did not attack us in 1978? Or what Britain’s Chilean allies took with them to the Falklands in ’82? Ms. Baculic, the zeal that the rest of Latin America feels towards Chile has little to do with political reasons. Rather, they simply fear us, knowing that here the dead run and eat at the service of the tricolor flag.”
Antonieta wanted to interrupt now, but she bit her tongue. She had promised to hear the two out.
“In ’95, when the killing spree occurred that ruined the career of our friend here, Sergeant Martínez,” the doctor glanced at the detective, “the Coalition of Parties for Democracy was conducting its first tribunals against officers and soldiers involved in human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Some within the military panicked and simply released some of the undead so they would visit those parents and grandparents demanding their return.”
“My infamous twenty,” Martínez clarified. “But they also sent them against lawyers, doctors, priests, and so on. Folks that were asking too many questions. Now it’s different. They’re getting rid of old supporters of the military dictatorship, cleaning up the country, and using the opportunity to collect more . . . shells. Do you get it now? Why they took you off the case, why they don’t like you to ask too many questions? Not long from now, nobody will remember any of this.”
Antonieta looked first at Serrano, then at the sergeant. She twist her face into a condescending smirk.
“And who’s behind it all: Dracula?” she asked mockingly.
“When the doctor told me all this, I thought it was Dr. Frankenstein,” Martinez quipped, playing along.
“I’m out of here.” Antonieta stood, visibly irritated.
“Wait. Let me try to put this another way. Understand that there are governments within governments,” Serrano explained, “cabals of powerful and influential people, beyond the reach of votes and plebiscites. In any case, if you are interested or want to ask, in the highest echelons of your institutions—the police, the armed forces and the presidency—this story is well known. Hidden out of fear and because . . . well, put yourself in the President’s shoes. Some knowledge is best kept secret for the common good, even if it fucks you up for the rest of your life.”
“What am I supposed to do with all this information?”
Amador Martinez responded, “You wanted to know. I thought it was only fair. Didn’t want you to go through what I did.”
“So I’m just supposed to believe in . . . ” She stared him down. “Zombies? Aliens? The Loch Ness Monster?”
“Think back over the last month. Try to find something that makes more sense than what we’ve told you. Did they give any rational explanation for closing the case? How did your bosses react when you mentioned the number seventy-seven?
Antonieta Baculic didn’t answer. She looked around at the house and the two aging people sitting before her. Then she recalled Sergeant Martinez’s psychological report, a document she had read through before asking for his help. Emotional instability, it said right above a doctor’s signature. Talk about an understatement.
“Another coffee?” Dr. Serrano offered.
“Um, sure,” the assistant district attorney said.
“I’ll get it,” said the sergeant. “While we wait for the water to boil, show her the documents . . . and the photos. Maybe then she’ll really believe.”
“Wait. There are documents? Photos?” Antonieta’s eyes widened.
“My young friend, do you think we brought you here just so we could tell you a spooky story?”
Dominga Serrano got up and went to a cabinet set against the far wall of the dining room. Opening a locked drawer, she pulled out four folders that she then spread across the coffee table.
“Read and review to your heart’s content,” she said.
Martinez lit a burner on the kitchen stove and waited for the water to boil. And as he watched the steam rise through the teapot spout, he went to the patio door, lifted the latch, and left it ajar. Then he leaned against the cabinets and closed his eyes.
The hinges of the patio door creaked.
After that sound, the smell: fetid, damp, old, clayey.
And the weary, heavy footsteps.
Another door opened.
The scream of a pretty young woman.
“Of course there are documents, my dear. And something more,” he imagined Doctor Serrano saying while she pointed towards the entrance to the kitchen, where the creatures crafted by the very hands of the white-haired woman had come to join the party.
As for a second scream, the sergeant didn’t worry.
Without a tongue, you cannot cry for help.
With his eyes closed, Martinez listened.
Punching, slapping, scratching, murmuring, ripping, grotesque giggling …
And finally sucking.
Then he opened his eyes and stepped into the doorway. He always liked to watch the end of dinner, especially when the prey was so young and full of life.
Independencia, Santiago de Chile.
The two agents and the scientist arrived at Elcira Ramirez’s house. The door was open so getting inside was easy. They went to the first floor bedroom and found the undead man there, dozing beside the mutilated body of his mother. He’d ripped her belly wide open, devoured her organs and intestines, sucked out all her the blood, chewed on her tongue and brain. Gore had splattered everywhere, but it was nothing that couldn’t be cleaned up. The living cadaver lay next to its food, stomach swollen and round, like a newborn that has just been breastfed.
“On and on about how you loved your son, huh, you old bitch? Now you got him,” the older and fatter agent mocked.
Dr. Serrano, chief of the squadron, shut him up, and moved closer to inject the unit and return it to forced stasis.
“Make sure they come get him soon,” she told the men.
“Yes, ma’am,” one of the agents said, staring with fear at the pale, almost transparent skin of the creature.
“Relax,” the woman said. “This boy is not going to bother you, but I advise you not to touch him.”
She then took her things and went outside. She was being waited for at the corner.
When they were finally alone, the men sat down in the living room. They had the rest of the night and all day tomorrow to clean up. There was no hurry.
“Did I tell you about when we let them loose in Buenos Aires in ’78?” said the older agent to his companion.
“Fuckers almost ate the ghost of Carlos Gardel, but we won the war.”
“There was no war.”
“That’s what you think, kid. Want a cigarette?”
Originally published in Spanish from Cuentos Chilenos de Terror (anthology) and translated by David Bowles.