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Tales from the back of the eyelids

Corruption

The dusty mining town of Santa María de la Concepcion lies on the edge of the Atacama desert some six hundred kilometres north of Santiago. It's not a place you would visit unless you had to: there's nothing there except rows of concrete houses, shabby bars, sleazy gambling joints and brothels. It was the kids' summer vacation, I was owed leave and I was all set to join them on the beach at Vina del Mar. But as I was packing my bag the D.A. called to say I had to go to this hole immediately to sort out a brutal rape and homicide case.

"Hombre, is this reasonable?" I protested down the phone. "It's just a homicide. People are getting murdered every day. Do you really expect me to cancel my holiday because some stupid girl doesn't know it isn't safe to stay out alone late at night?"

Of course it was no use. "It isn't just a homicide," the boss said. "This is big time: local government corruption linked to organised crime. And, by the way, the street dogs there bite. Make sure they don't sniff you out."

"Fine," I said snottily, and abruptly cut off the call. I phoned the kids and sadly took my beachwear out of my bag. An hour before dawn the next morning I boarded the bus at the central bus station. When I got to Santa María seven hours later, sweaty and creased, I was Felipe González, federal psychologist authorised to counsel victims of violent crime.

*

After a shower and a change of clothes at the hotel, I called a taxi and went to the church where the funeral was taking place. A large crowd - half of which was the press - was gathered outside the white building. I pushed my way through and bribed one of cops near the entrance to let me in. Isabel Ramos, the young woman, lay surrounded by flowers in an open coffin in front of the altar. She looked beautiful and very alive. In the front pew the mother, who was almost senseless with grief, was being comforted by other women of the family. Despite my twenty years in homicide this scene gets me every time. Why is there all this suffering?

When the service was over the mourners filed past the body to say their goodbyes. The mayor of Santa María, who was leading an official delegation and, as I found out later, knew the woman personally, bent over to kiss her on the cheek. Suddenly there was a piercing shriek. Isabel sat bolt upright in the coffin, and screaming, pointed at the mayor.

"He raped me! He raped me!" She yelled, her face wild with hysteria.

At first no one could quite believe their eyes but a few seconds afterwards the joy exploded. There was a rush to the coffin. Everyone hugged each other, and the mother and daughter held each other tightly, both shaking and wailing loudly, as tears streamed down their cheeks. The mayor stroked Isabel's hair and cried along with them. The girl must have been hallucinating when she awoke: the mayor definitely wasn't the rapist because she was a woman.

Isabel was taken to the sacristy and a doctor was called. I followed the group inside.

"Who are you? " challenged one of the relatives as I stood unobtrusively by the door.

I explained I was a counsellor, ready to give assistance. The uproar that followed caught me off guard. All at once everyone was shouting "government agent", and "snake". Punches flew, I was jostled, shoved, elbowed, kicked and then I was grabbed by the arms and was thrown out of the room.

I got up and brushed myself down. I don't mind being knocked about from time to time. It's part of my job description. What I don't like, though, is not being able to do my work. Especially when it's for no good reason I can understand. Why didn't they want to talk? What was eating those people?

I returned to my hotel chewing over what to do. As I took off my jacket I saw there was a visiting card in the outside pocket. Someone must have slipped it in during the scuffle. On it was printed the name Carmen Ramos, an address Via Diez 93, and scribbled underneath in blue pen, twice underlined, was the time 6pm.

*

It was almost dark when I stood in front of the house. After I knocked someone peered through a chink in the curtain. The bolt on the door was unchained and I was hurried in. Carmen Ramos was a stocky middle-aged woman and was, as she explained, Isabel's aunt. She was agitated.

"Did anyone follow you here?" She asked. I assured her no one had. She didn't invite me into the living room and we stood by the door.

Santa Maria was a dangerous town, she told me. Everyone was nervous. People were disappearing. Mostly it was the men. There was only a fraction of the men left in the town. Didn't I notice that apart from the priest I was the only man at the funeral? (I really hadn't thought about it at the time.) Something strange was going on in the mines. Every day four or five miners, and on bad days as many as ten, didn't come back. They were simply vanishing. No one had any idea what was happening to them. The men were taking weapons into the shafts and looked out for each other. But it was useless: some men always went missing. Those who could find work elsewhere had gone. The rest were just waiting and hoping they weren't the next to disappear.

I suggested to Carmen that we sit down to talk. She ignored me.

"No official wants to do anything," she went on. "And none of the relatives dare to do anything. Except Isabel – she dared and paid for it. On the morning she was attacked she told her mother she was going to the Municipalidad to demand that someone finds Julio, her fiancé. They found her lying naked on the pavement in front of a bar in the Distrito de Mala Calidad at two in the morning. The police said she was moonlighting as a prostitute." Carmen paused and then added angrily - "That's a lie!" 

"Can you get me into the Municipalidad?" I asked.

"Perhaps. Nicole, one of my nieces, works in the Departamento de Turismo."

"Good. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Bien," she said pushing me out the front door. Before I could say "Buenas noches" she had waved at me to scram.

*

At eleven the next morning Antonieta Salazar, the mayor, welcomed me to Santa María and her office. She was a fine lady who was impeccably polite and smiled a lot. She said she valued my work and was deeply sorry at the way I had been treated the day before. The only time she didn't smile was when I asked her about the disappeared. Who told me that? She asked. It was all nonsense, she said. The men leave to find better work elsewhere. Who could blame them? Sometimes they take their women with them, sometimes they don't and sometimes they don't even let their women know. That's always regrettable but the authorities are hardly entitled to interfere in purely domestic issues.

"In any case," she said, signalling the interview was over and shaking my hand, "I am ready to provide you with any assistance you may need."

*

Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in a café on the opposite side of the plaza, carefully watching the building I had just come from. A red blind on one of the first floor windows was slowly rolled down. Then it was pulled right back up again before being rolled down one more time. I settled the bill, got up, strolled across the plaza and walked into a side street. I circled the block and, doubling back, came to the rear entrance of the Municipalidad.

I knocked softly five times. A young woman opened the door. Nicole Ramos wasn't simply the dark haired girl of my dreams: she was even more perfect than that. And the admiration was mutual. There was no time, though, for gazing longingly into each others eyes: we had only half an hour before the staff returned from their break. All I could do was gaze longingly at her from behind as she led me up the stairs. We stopped at a door marked "Archive". I picked the lock with my penknife and we were in.

Inside there were long rows of filing cabinets stacked high. Where to begin? I ran my eyes along the row closest to me: "Permissions", "Planning", "Polonium"...

"Polonium?" I asked, puzzled.

"That's no secret," said Nicole. "Santa María's mines have the thickest polonium seams in the whole world. Polonium is our bread and butter."

"And perhaps your poison too," I said. I opened the drawer and took out papers and started photographing. When I was finished with that batch Nicole put the files back for me and I opened more drawers. Fifteen minutes later she was nervously looking at her watch. Five minutes after that she insisted: "Felipe, we have to go right now!"

We closed the drawers and left quickly. As I was fiddling with the lock on the door, we could hear the sound of footsteps coming towards us. I twisted the penknife again and the bolt clicked into place. We raced back down the stairs. Just before Nicole closed the outside door on me, she brushed her hand lightly over mine.

The date would have to wait, though. I had a case to crack.

*

Carmen Ramos called me that afternoon. She was worried. She had got a call telling her that if she couldn't keep her nose clean, it would be wiped for her. I told her to lock the doors and get some relatives to come round. Carmen swore and hung up.

I had wanted to tell her I'd go round to see her as soon as I could. I was going to go and see her anyway, as I needed her help to get into the mines. But first I needed to do some research on the internet.

"Polonium," I read, " symbol Po, atomic number 84, a radioactive element". Further on was written: "Polonium is highly poisonous: by mass it is 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. The common antidote for polonium poisoning is the chelating agent Dimercaprol."

I clicked the link and read: "Dimercaprol is the mainstay medication for heavy metal poisoning. It is, however, toxic itself and even at lower concentrations can have adverse effects such as nephrotoxicity, hypertension and endocrine dysfunction. Dosage must be adjusted to account for the patient's age, body mass and sex."

I was getting somewhere.

*

Carmen Ramos's front door was slightly open. I went inside. There had been a violent struggle: chairs were upturned, lamps were broken and pictures and plates lay smashed on the floor. Blood was smeared along the length of one wall. I found Carmen behind the couch, lying face down in a pool of blood - dead.

As I was bending over, I sensed someone was behind me. Instinctively I turned and lifted my hand. A heavy blow hit my forearm. I reeled forwards but managed to steady myself on the couch. Spinning around, I saw a masked figure in a black hoodie with a raised baseball bat. Young, athletic - and definitely a woman. I dodged as she swung. She missed and I hurled myself at her. Her fist came down on the bridge of my nose. Stunned, I let her slip out of my grasp.

She ran to the door and turned to face me, still welding the bat.

"Get your cojónes on the next bus out of this town – unless, that is, you want to choke on them!" She hissed. Then she flung the bat at me and disappeared into the night.

I sat on the couch and nursed my arm. Time for a change of scenery, I thought.

*

That night I stayed in the Hotel Luz Roja in the Distrito de Mala Calidad, a stone's throw from the pit's head. The smartly dressed woman at the front desk was astonished when I booked the room for the whole night and didn't want a girl. Times were bad, she complained as she led me to the room - not enough punters and too many girls. Times could be worse, I thought – the hotel looked sparkling rich with its shiny brass fittings and crimson carpets. I slept in a king size bed under a mirror ceiling.

At sunrise the next day I went into the bar on the opposite side of the street. It was a noisy, smoke-filled room where miners were drinking their morning pick-me-ups. I got chatting to one miner whose name was Pablo and bought him a beer. No one cared who went down and hardly anyone cared who came back up again, he said gloomily. If I wanted he could lend me the extra kit in his backpack. He didn't have a spare helmet but told me I could find one at the entrance.

No one checked us as we went into the pit's head and soon we were in the cage plunging down into the darkness. The tunnels at the bottom were a maze but the miners always worked together at one section at a time, to keep an eye on each other. It was hard to see how anyone could disappear without the others knowing about it. Then, about an hour later, I noticed one man putting down his tools and walking off.

"Where's he going?" I asked Pablo.

"Oh, that's ok," he said leaning on his pickaxe. "He's gone to take the antidote. He'll be back in a minute. You'll have to take it too when the green band on your sleeve turns red."

I followed the man down the tunnel. A few metres along he entered a door in the rock with a red cross sign. A short while later he came out again with a new band on his arm. I went inside. I found myself in a small room with an antidote dispenser in one corner. On a table in the middle there was an open box with unopened indicator bands. Nothing suspicious here, I thought.

When I came out I walked a little further down the tunnel. I came across two more doors next to each other in the rock. Toilets. I went back to Pablo.

"Why is there a ladies' toilet in the mines?" I asked him.

He seemed to find my question somewhat stupid. "We sometimes have female visitors," he said. "Managers come down here from time to time. Once in a while officials too."

That wasn't a satisfying answer. I asked Pablo to come with me to investigate.

When we were at the toilet I put my arm around his shoulders and, catching him unawares, pulled him through the door. "But this is the ladies!" He protested.

Different men have very different ideas of what women's lavatories must look like, but certainly none of the images they have in their heads match what we saw before us. The large room was decorated with flowery wallpaper and had no cubicles. In the middle, back to back, there were two rows of dressing tables with mirrors, laid out with lipsticks, mascaras, powders, creams and wigs. Along the walls there were racks full of women's clothes of all types. In the middle of the far wall there was a lift.

Pablo and I heard the door behind us opening. Quickly I pushed Pablo and we hid behind the racks. A miner walked in and gazed at the clothes. He went up to a frilly silk petticoat and gently rubbed the hem on his cheek. Then he took it off the hanger and caressed it on his arm like a baby. Finally he unzipped his overalls and started to put the petticoat on.

"Marcos! What the hell are you doing?" cried Pablo, coming out into the open. I came out after him.

Marcos looked confused, as if he had just woken from a hypnotic trance.

"I - I don't know," he stammered. " I saw the ladies' sign on the door, and I couldn't stop myself from going in. Then I saw all these wonderful clothes."

"You're a transvestite!" Said Pablo dismayed.

"I can explain," I interrupted. "Marcos is indeed a transvestite – although that word is now offensive. We should call him a cross-dresser. And there is nothing wrong with being a cross-dresser." Marcos and Pablo looked at each other uncertainly.

"What is wrong," I went on, "is to turn people into cross-dressers without their knowledge. And that's what has happened to Marcos. They do it with the green bands," I said pointing to my arm. "Every day someone plants a few faulty bands in the medical room. These bands turn red too soon which means that those who are wearing them overdose on the antidote. If you take too much antidote your body can't make enough testosterone. So you become less like a man."

I saw a flash of understanding on Pablo's and Marcos's faces.

"Pablo, Marcos, " I said. "Tell the rest of the men what's been going on and get them out of the mine and into the town. I'll join you as soon as I can. I'm going to see where this lift goes."

*

The lift played muzak and had a mirror for checking make-up. A minute later the doors opened to a bright hall with a glass ceiling. There was a crimson carpet on the floor and shiny brass fittings on the walls. I knew instantly where I was: the lobby of the Hotel Luz Roya.

"Why, hello darling!" said a deep voice as I came out of the lift. The voice came from a racily dressed lady reclining on a chaise longue nearby. She wasn't too convincing: she had dark shadows on her cheeks and very muscular legs. But she did give me a sweet smile.

My entrance aroused the interest of all the girls who had been lounging about the lobby. Some got up and walked coquettishly towards me. Other heads appeared over the balustrade on the first floor. I had an audience.

"Ladies," I announced. "I have come to free you and take you home."

"Free us? From what?" Said someone close to me.

"You have been drugged and tricked into this life of prostitution."

A couple of ladies threw their hands up in mock despair.

"What's wrong with this life? It's better than in the mines!" said one of them.

Most of the girls turned their backs and began to drift back to their chairs. As I wasn't a customer, I was a disappointment to them. I had to get their attention back.

I called out: "Which one of you is Julio Ortega?"

"I am Julia Ortega" answered a pretty young woman who was leaning over the balustrade on the first floor. "Why do you want to know?"

"Julia," I told her, "your family is desperate. They have no idea what happened to you. Isabel, your fiancée was almost killed trying to find you. She was beaten and left for dead on a street a couple of blocks from here. She will  risk her life again and again looking for you. Are you really going to let her die like that?"

My words seemed to affect everyone on the room. Some of the girls had tears in their eyes.

"And what about the rest of you?" I asked. "Your wives and children are in torment because they don't know whether you are alive or dead. And why are they suffering? Because you are being used by criminals. You can't leave, you can't see your families, you can't do anything you want. And the moment you're not useful to them they'll get rid of you. Are you going to let them get away with that?"

Julia Ortega spoke up. "He's right," she said. "We have to do something. For our families and for ourselves."

A murmur of agreement rippled through the hall.

"Come on girls," Julia cried. " Let's get out of here!"

There was a huge cheer and suddenly everything was a swirl. Girls streamed out of rooms leaving their bewildered, naked customers sitting in beds behind open doors. The reception desk was smashed up, windows and mirrors were shattered. Bottles began to fly. Furniture was thrown at the walls and the broken pieces were grabbed as weapons. Some foolhardy security guards rushed in to restore order and were savagely beaten. A heavy sofa was used as a battering ram on the barred entrance doors.

On the fourth or fifth heave the doors crashed open and the rioting ladies spilled out onto the street.

*

Instead of rebellion there was plunder and vandalism. The ladies were joined by Pablo's men pouring out from the pit's head and soon a large mob of miners and cross-dressing miners, in the whole spectrum of masculinity and femininity, were out of control, setting fire to vehicles, breaking shop windows, drinking and looting.

I asked Julia to come with me to find Pablo. We picked our way through the chaos and destruction, asking directions as we went. We found Pablo sitting in a wrecked bar with Marcos (who was still wearing his petticoat), enjoying free drinks.

"You must stop them," I told them. "You have to direct their anger."

Pablo gave a tipsy devil-may-care smile and waved his hand dismissively.

"Pablo," I said sitting down next to him, my hand on his shoulder. "If you don't get your people out of here, the police will come down here with semiautomatics and wipe you out."

It was as if an electric current had passed down my arm into Pablo's body. His face went taut and he jumped up.

"You are right amigo," he said. "We have to go." He turned and headed for the exit. The rest of us followed him outside.

Words were said to one group of the rioters in the street. The words spread to other groups and within a short while, almost miraculously, the noise had died down and the violence had stopped. A huge crowd gathered in front of us, waiting to be told what to do.

"Men!" Cried Pablo. "Ladies!" Cried Julia. "To the Municipalidad!"

The mass of people surged as one towards the centre of town with Pablo, Julia, Marcos and myself at the head. The mob was now disciplined. Only a few shop windows were broken along the way, and only those belonging to the worst capitalists.

*

The plaza was deserted. Unusually for that hour the entrance doors of the Municipalidad were closed and the roller shutters on the ground floor windows were down. It seemed we were expected.

We charged the building. Shots were fired from the upper storeys. We scattered into the side streets. No fatalities, although some wounded. It was decided to split in two groups – the bulk with Pablo would lay siege at the front, Julia and I with about thirty others would attack from the rear. The back entrance was smaller and the passage leading to it narrower, but there was cover from some refuse containers. Again, shots were fired as we approached. No one hurt. Julia and I reached the door. Just as I was about to prise the locks with an iron bar, the door opened by itself.

Nicole stood on the other side. I grabbed her hand and we ran inside. The others piled in after us.

We sped through the building to the front. There we caught the guards by surprise and overpowered them. Then we unbolted the wooden doors and pulled them open. Our comrades on the other side flooded in.

We met with little resistance. There was panic amongst the officials: some tried to barricade themselves in their rooms, others tried to hide in cupboards and a few were found shredding or burning documents. All were caught and hauled out, but only the most corrupt amongst them were beaten up.

Pablo, Marcos, Julia, Nicole, myself and a dozen or so others swept up the stairs to the mayor's office at the top of the building. Pablo kicked open the door and we burst in.

Antonieta Salazar was standing at the other end of the room pointing a pistol at us.

"It's over Antonieta," I said. "Put the gun down."

The mayor shrugged her shoulders and lowered the weapon. Then, without warning, she raised the gun again and wearing a bizarrely exaggerated grin, shouted: "Scum!", and fired.

Marcos slumped to the ground. We lunged forward. There was a struggle. Another shot rang out – Julia had managed to force the barrel upwards and the bullet went into the ceiling. The gun was knocked to the floor. Antonieta Salazar suddenly yanked herself out of our grasp. As she rebounded away from us, she spun backwards towards the window. The pane shattered. The mayor crashed through the glass and tumbled five floors down onto the paving stones below.

*

With the mayor's death, life for the citizens of Santa María de la Concepcion immediately improved. Federal troops marched into town minutes later and disarmed the police who were preparing to unleash a massacre. Antonieta Salazar's henchwomen at the Municipalidad were arrested. An interim administration was appointed and two months later new elections were held. At a stroke corruption was rooted out. Local government was no longer the fiefdom of one individual; it was accountable and began to provide the civic services it was supposed to. And, most importantly, there were no more disappearances.

Antonieta Salazar really did rape and try to kill Isabel. Years before Antonieta had been Antonio, a miner. Once, by mistake, Antonio had taken an overdose of antidote which had turned him into a her. That mistake gave her an idea which she was to exploit when she became mayor. Seeing as the mines were run by the Municipalidad, all she had to do was to organise the delivery of defective indicator bands. In this way she duped miners into working in the town's brothels.

Ever greedy, Antonieta soon wasn't satisfied with the money she was getting. The brothels had too many prostitutes, and, as the number of men dwindled, had too few customers. So Antonieta turned her attention to international trade and began trafficking miners to South East Asia. In a couple of years she had built up a massive organisation and great wealth. She was ruthless: anyone who she thought even remotely threatened her empire - such as Isabel - was disposed of. The miners were forced to work as sex slaves in appalling conditions, mostly in Thailand, with no chance of escape. After Antonieta's death many arrests were made in several countries and the entire network was broken up. Most miners have since been found and freed. Six, however, still haven't been traced, which is a cause of great distress to their families.

Unfortunately it was never proved who Carmen Ramos's murderer was. Even so, because all the hoodlums at the Municipalidad were given long prison sentences, I am sure that the culprit is paying for her crime.

Marcos survived. He spent three weeks in hospital where Pablo visited him daily. Pablo let him stay in his house after he was released and nursed him back to full health. In the spring of the next year Marcos and Pablo got married.

Isabel and Julia also married at around the same time and six months later they had a baby daughter. Julia tries not to think back to her time as a prostitute but has regrets when she does. She went back to work in the mines and at weekends organises naughty lingery evenings at the homes of other miners.

I didn't get to spend any time with the kids that summer. Instead I sat at the computer and wrote up my report on the investigation. That's while the D.A. and her friend the Chief Justice were enjoying a cruise around the Galápagos Islands on Señora Ecstasy's yacht. Yes, I was resentful. But that's the way of the world: subordinates always do the donkeywork. I can't let resentment get in the way of duty. The D.A. and I make a good team and, most importantly, together we do our bit in the fight against corruption.

As for Nicole and myself – in the end it didn't click. She became mayor at the next election and, from what I heard, ran the town cleanly and efficiently. I have my own life in Santiago and didn't want to move to Santa María. It was more than that, though. Nicole is a good woman and I love her in a certain sense of the word. Once I believed she was my missing half. But when she's not wearing her clothes (and anyone who has seen her like this would have to agree with me) she is, anatomically speaking, a man. I know looks aren´t important and that I ought to love her for her mind. Somewhere I must have a block. Still, whatever I do, however I try to think, she just isn't my cup of mate cocido.

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