Melchor is still in his office, simmering on the low flame of his own impatience waiting for the night shift to end, when the phone rings. It’s the duty officer at the front desk. Two dead at the Adell country house, he announces.
“The printing company Adells?” Melchor says.
“That’s right,” the officer says. “Do you know where they live?”
“Out on the Vilalba dels Arcs Road, no?”
“Have we got anyone there?”
“Ruiz and Mayol. They just phoned in.”
“I’m on my way.”
Until that moment, the night had been as calm as usual. In the hours before dawn there is hardly anyone left in the station and, as Melchor turns off the lights, closes his office door and runs down the deserted stairs, pulling on his jacket as he goes, the silence is so intense that it reminds him of those first days in Terra Alta, when he was still addicted to the roar of the city and the silence of the countryside kept him awake, condemning him to sleepless nights he fought with novels and sleeping pills. That memory brings back the forgotten image of the man he was four years earlier, when he arrived in Terra Alta; it also brings back an obvious fact: that he and that individual are two different people, as distinct as a criminal and a law-abiding man, as Jean Valjean and Monsieur Madeleine, the split and contradictory protagonist of Les Misérables, his favourite novel.
When he reaches the ground floor, Melchor checks out his Walther P99 and a box of ammunition from the armoury, telling himself it’s been too long since he last read Les Misérables and that he’ll have to resign himself to missing breakfast with his wife and daughter that morning.
He gets into his Opel Corsa and, while he pulls out of the station garage, he phones Sergeant Blai.
“You better pray that whatever you have to tell me is important, españolazo,” the sergeant grunts, his voice still drenched in sleep. “Or I’ll string you up by your balls.”
“There are two dead at the Adells’ house,” Melchor says.
“The Adells? Which Adells?”
“The printing Adells.”
“I’m not joking,” Melchor says. “A patrol car just called it in. Ruiz and Mayol are already there. I’m on my way.”
Suddenly awake, Blai begins to give him instructions.
“Don’t tell me what I have to do,” Melchor interrupts him. “Just one thing: should I call Salom and the forensics team?”
“No, I’ll make the calls,” Blai says. “We’ve got to tell everyone and their dog. You take care of preserving the scene, sealing off the house—”
“Don’t worry, Sergeant,” Melchor cuts him off again. “I’ll be there in five.”
“Give me half an hour,” Blai says and, as if no longer talking to Melchor but to himself, grumbles: “The Adells, for Christ’s sake. What a shitstorm this is going to be.”
Without turning on the siren or his flashing lights, Melchor drives full speed through the streets of Gandesa, which at that hour are almost as deserted as the stairs and corridors of the police station. Occasionally he passes a cyclist in cycling gear, or a runner in running gear, or a car that might be returning from a long Saturday night or just beginning a long Sunday. Dawn is breaking in Terra Alta. An ashen sky heralds a morning without sun and, when he reaches the Piqué Hotel, Melchor turns left and leaves Gandesa on the road to Vilalba dels Arcs. He accelerates there, and a few minutes later turns off, taking a hundred-metre-long dirt track that leads to a country house. It is surrounded by a high stone wall crowned with broken glass and almost completely covered in ivy. The brown metal gate is open and, parked in front of it is a patrol car, its blue lights blinking in the dawn; beside it, Ruiz seems to be consoling a middle-aged woman, who sits on a stone bench, crying.
Melchor gets out of his car and says: “What’s happened here?”
“I don’t know,” the patrolman says, pointing to the woman. “This lady is the cook here. She’s the one who phoned. She says there are two dead people inside.”
The woman is trembling from head to foot, sobbing and wringing her hands, her face bathed in tears. Melchor tries to calm her and asks her the same question he asked Ruiz, but the only response he gets is a look of terror and an unintelligible stammer.
“And Mayol?” Melchor says.
“Inside,” Ruiz says.
Melchor tells him to tape off the entrance and stay with the woman until the others arrive. Under the gaze of two closed-circuit cameras, he goes through the gate and walks briskly along a path through a well-tended garden—past mulberry and cherry trees that dot the lush lawns, and beds of geraniums, peonies, lilies and roses, jasmine climbing the walls—until around a corner the facade of the old three-storey farmhouse you can see from the crossroads appears in front of him, with its big wooden door, its trellised balconies and open attic windows. Mayol is leaning against one of the door jambs, with his legs slightly bent and both hands holding his pistol. The dark blue of his uniform stands out starkly against the dark ochre of the facade. When he sees Melchor he beckons him over.
Melchor pulls out his pistol while he studies the baroque pattern of a tire track in the earthen drive that widens out into a parking area in front of the half-open front door.
“Have you been in?” he asks Mayol.
“No,” Mayol says.
“Is there anyone inside?”
“I don’t know.”
Melchor notices that the lock on the door is undamaged. Then he sees that Mayol is pouring with sweat and has fear written all over his face.
“Stay behind me,” he tells him.
Melchor kicks open the big door and enters the house, followed by Mayol. Cautiously, he inspects the ground floor, which is in semi-darkness: a front hall with a coat stand, a large chest, armchairs and glass cases of books, an elevator, a bathroom, two bedrooms with wardrobes, made-up beds and ceramic water jugs, a well-stocked larder. Then he goes up to the first floor by a stone staircase that leads to a large living room lit only by a ceiling lamp. What he sees there plunges him, for long drawn-out seconds, into an overwhelming sense of unreality, which he is only yanked out of by Mayol’s agonised groan as he throws up on the floor.
“My God!” the patrolman splutters as he spits out a disgusting mush of bile and bits of food. “What’s happened here?”
It is the first murder scene Melchor has encountered since he arrived in Terra Alta, but he saw many before that and he doesn’t remember anything like this.
Two bloody masses of red and violet flesh face each other on a sofa and armchair soaked in a lumpy liquid—a mixture of blood, entrails, cartilage and skin—which has spattered the walls, the floor and even as far as the fireplace. Floating in the air is a violent smell of blood, of tormented flesh, of supplication, and a strange sensation, as if those four walls had preserved the howls of agony they’d witnessed; at the same time, Melchor believes he senses in the room—and this is perhaps what disturbs him most—a certain aroma of exultation or euphoria, something he doesn’t have words to define but that, if he did have them, he might describe as the festive slipstream of a macabre carnival, or a demented ritual, or a joyful human sacrifice.
Fascinated, Melchor moves toward that double horrifying mess, trying not to step on any evidence (on the floor are two pieces of torn cloth drenched in blood that had almost certainly been used as gags), and, when he reaches the sofa, he can tell that the two blood-soaked shapes are the meticulously tortured and mutilated bodies of a man and a woman. Their eyes have been gouged out, their fingernails torn off, their teeth pulled out, their ears cut off, their nipples also, their bellies have been sliced open and their guts have been ripped out and scattered around them. He has only to see their whitish grey hair and their bare, flaccid limbs (or what’s left of them) to realise that these were two very elderly people.
Melchor feels as though he could contemplate that spectacle for hours under the weak glow of the ceiling light.
“Is it the Adells?” he says.
Mayol, who has stayed a few metres away, approaches, and he repeats the question.
“I think so,” the patrolman says.
Melchor has occasionally seen the Adells in photographs in the local papers and regional publications, but never met them in person, and beneath the butchery he’s not able to recognise what he remembers.
“Stay here and don’t let anyone touch anything,” he tells Mayol. “Sergeant Blai should be here any minute. I’m going to take a look around.”
The house is enormous, and seems to be full of bedrooms. It has been renovated in a way that Melchor thinks comes straight out of an architectural journal, preserving the old structure and modernising everything else. Between the first and second floor, in a small room that might once have been a storeroom, Melchor finds a panel with several blank monitors; it’s the security room, and all the alarms and cameras have been switched off.
On the second floor he comes into a vast rectangular hall with six doors, two of which are wide open. Beyond the first is a master bedroom where chaos reigns: the bed has been stripped of sheets, pillows, duvet and mattress, which lie piled up and torn in a corner; the bedside tables, chests of drawers and wardrobes have been searched and the contents dumped on the floor; chairs, stools and armchairs have been thrown all over the place, bedclothes, shirts, trousers, dresses, underwear and bits of plastic, glass and metal that—Melchor verifies after examining them—are the remains of destroyed mobile phones, SIM cards removed; there are medicine bottles, lotions, creams, shoes, slippers, magazines, newspapers, printed papers, smashed cups and glasses, empty jewellery cases; a beautiful wood-and-ivory crucifix, an oil painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and several silver-framed family photographs have been torn off the walls and smashed against the elaborate floor tiles. It is clear that this is the old couple’s bedroom and, as he observes the disorder, Melchor wonders if the murderers were simply thieves, or if they were looking for something that they may have found, or may not have.
In the next room he discovers another corpse, a big-boned woman with straw-coloured hair and very white skin, sitting on the floor beside the unmade bed. Her back leans against a partition wall and her head has fallen against her shoulder. She is wearing a cream-coloured nightdress and a blue dressing-gown, and her eyes are wide open as if she’s seen the devil. A perpendicular trail of dry blood runs to her nose and mouth from a hole in her forehead the size of a ten-cent piece.
Melchor inspects the other four rooms—a living room and three more bedrooms—but he finds nothing out of the ordinary. On the top floor he realises almost immediately that the intruders did not get that far and looks out of a window. Seeing that five cars are now parked outside the gate, he decides to go back downstairs.
Blai and Salom are contemplating the corpses of the old couple when Melchor joins them. Three forensics officers, their backs turned, are silently preparing their equipment and instruments. Blai asks: “Are there any more dead?”
The sergeant is forty-five years old, but looks younger. He’s wearing tight jeans and a striped T-shirt that shows off his biceps and pectoral muscles and, beneath his bald pate, his direct, clear blue eyes observe the carnage with a mixture of incredulity and disgust.
“One,” Melchor says. “A woman. They shot her, but didn’t torture her.”
“That must be the Romanian maid,” Blai surmises. “The cook says she lived in.”
“The old folks’ room has been ransacked,” Melchor goes on. “Well, I think it’s their room. There are bits of mobiles on the floor, deliberately destroyed. Have you seen the tire tracks in the garden?”
Blai nods without taking his eyes off the Adells.
“It’s the only strange thing,” Melchor says. “Everything else reeks of professionals.”
“Or psychopaths,” Blai suggests. “If not demonic possession. Who else could come up with something like this?”
“That’s what I thought when I first saw it,” Melchor says. “A ritual. But I don’t think so anymore.”
“Why?” Blai says.
“The door hasn’t been forced,” he says. “The security cameras and alarms were switched off. They’ve smashed the mobiles and taken the SIM cards so we can’t see what calls the old folks made. And they’ve tortured them expertly. It might be a robbery, they may have taken jewellery and money, although I haven’t come across a safe. But does this butchery fit with a robbery? Maybe they were looking for something and that’s why they tortured them.”
“Maybe,” Blai says. “Anyway, being professionals doesn’t mean they aren’t psychopaths. Or that this wasn’t a ritual. What do you think, Salom?”
The corporal seems hypnotised by the corpses of the two elderly people, apparently unable to believe his eyes. The impact has robbed him of his usual serenity: he is a little pale, a little shaken, breathing through his mouth; a tiny tremor quivers on his upper lip. He’s a little overweight, with a bushy beard and somewhat old-fashioned glasses, all of which makes him appear much older than Blai, even though there’s barely a couple of years between them.
“I wouldn’t say straight off that it’s the work of professionals either,” he says. “Maybe you’re right, it could have been a couple of whack jobs.”
“Did you know them?” Blai says.
“The old folks?” Salom says, pointing vaguely at the mutilated bodies. “Of course. Their daughter and son-in-law are friends of mine. Lifelong friends.” Turning to Melchor, he adds: “Your wife knows them too.”
There is a silence, during which Salom finally manages to control his trembling lip. Blai lets out a resigned sigh before announcing: “Well, I’m going to call Tortosa. We can’t deal with all this on our own.”
While the sergeant speaks to the Territorial Investigations Unit in Tortosa, Melchor and Salom stand contemplating the slaughter a moment longer.
“Do you know what I’m thinking?” Melchor says.
Salom is gradually pulling himself together. Or that’s the impression he gives.
“About what you said the day I arrived here.”
“What did I say?”
“That nothing ever happens in Terra Alta.”
With the help of two colleagues on the investigation team, Melchor has just discovered that all the house’s alarms and security cameras have been off for a day and a half, disconnected at 10:48 on Friday night. A patrolman leans his head into the converted security room.
“Deputy Inspector Gomà has arrived from Tortosa,” he tells Melchor. “Deputy Inspector Barrera and Sergeant Blai want you to come down.”
Copyright © 2022 by Javier Cercas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.