A homicide investigation takes an uncanny turn in this short story by Luiz Carlos Lisboa.
Listen to Luiz Carlos Lisboa read "His Very Last Case" in the original Portuguese.
"Walt! Walt! Walter!" Janice repeated in an increasingly strained voice, running her fingers through the white hair of the man lying on the bed. Standing behind him, the maid and a male nurse watched the scene unfold, not moving. Somewhere in the neighborhood a car horn had begun sounding and took several minutes to be silenced. In the large bedroom, linens lay scattered on the floor, and the night table was piled with medicines beside an old wristwatch with a worn band. The woman ceased her appeal and stood up, supporting herself on the edge of the bed. No one there doubted any longer that Walter Morandi, the most respected and best-liked detective in Rio de Janeiro's Ninth Precinct, had died from the peptic ulcer that had plagued him for the last two years and had led to his recent retirement.
His body lay in wake overnight in the living room of his home. Various former colleagues from the precinct came by, as well as some relatives informed the next morning by Janice, his second wife. She dressed in black and ordered strong coffee and hors d'oeuvres served to those who would show up to say farewell to the deceased. At 11:30 that night, the small parlor of the house was filled with people speaking in soft tones, spilling out onto the narrow veranda where cigarettes could be smoked. Only detective Clemente remained steadfastly beside the coffin, looking at the face and hands of his dead friend, stark white and crossed over his chest. When Janice bent over to remove the gold wedding ring from his finger, Clemente observed the firm movements of her hands, adorned with the diamond wedding ring on her finger.
A fascinating couple, perhaps an enviable one, thought Clemente as he stood serene and motionless beside the coffin. Walter had always been his closest companion in the profession since his transfer from the Sixth to the Ninth five years earlier, a move arranged by the veteran Walter, who claimed he needed honest people at his side. Smart and honest people, he had added, speaking softly to avoid being overheard. They would have lunch together when there was something that couldn’t be said at the precinct, like the transfer of one of the police chief's fair-haired boys, or a request from higher-ups to pigeonhole an accusation against a certain colleague. But other than that, they seldom talked to each other, and Walter never knew what he, Clemente, thought about the world and life. While Janice left to go to the kitchen, he remembered that his colleague had never made a single comment about his married life or any reference, good or bad, to his much younger wife.
The coffin would not be closed until the next morning, and the funeral was set for 8 a.m. Clemente felt tired after a hard day at the precinct and wanted to go home right away. He left without saying good-bye to Janice and without looking around. He walked for a time through the streets of the neighborhood, half-deserted at that hour, and finally hailed a passing cab. At home he fell into a deep sleep and only the following afternoon remembered that by that time his friend must already be buried. He thought about Walter several times before nightfall, and at dinnertime there came to mind someone they had talked about regarding promotions in the force, but nothing he could recall in detail. His friend's hands, however, crossed over his chest in the coffin, formed a strangely persistent image in his memory, like the hands of Christ on a crucifix that he saw each Sunday in the church of St. Ignatius during Mass.
As for Walter, he still had not understood anything that was happening. It was as if he were in a dark, windowless room. He could hear distant voices, some of them vaguely familiar, and smell the aroma of coffee mingling with cigarette smoke. He had no notion of time or space, but he felt good, free of any discomfort. In his mind floated something like a buoy on a lightless sea, known but ineffable—a frosted glass, perhaps, kept in a cupboard, among other objects, including a few thin rubber tubes. It floated before him as if trying to remind him of something that escaped him however hard he attempted to grasp its significance.
He understood little of what he saw and heard, but in some way he knew he was very ill, perhaps anesthetized, or maybe he had fainted, because he felt no pain of any kind, floating in a very peculiar way without his body being supported anywhere. Swimming in air was what he seemed to be feeling. The voices he heard were whispers, he quickly noticed, and tried to attune his hearing to discern what those voices—a woman's, now quite clear, and a man's, somewhat hoarse—were saying. They fell silent for a moment, and then he heard them again.
"He’d been feeling bad lately and told me that twice he’d fallen in the street," said the woman's voice. He wasn’t sure who they were talking about, but it certainly wasn’t him. He heard the clink of spoons in cups, along with the same voices, as well as the creaking of the old rocking chair, his chair. So he was at home, that was good, but there was something frightening in that discovery: he must be blind, because everything around him was darkness. "Twice he’d fallen in the street"—the phrase echoed in his head. Or in his heart. He didn’t remember having fallen in the street, ever. Horrible cramps, yes, almost every day, and he had lost his appetite, but other than that his health had always been very good. "Fallen in the street." They couldn’t be talking about him.
He didn’t remember anymore how long he had heard those sounds in the darkened room where he found himself, when suddenly he saw a ray of light. It came from a point beyond his feet, which still floated somewhere he couldn’t identify, and the light extended in the direction of his head, as if it were a spotlight placed under a glass floor far below him. Dizzy from the effort of trying to make out words and interpret sounds, and half-blinded by the luminous ray from below, Walter felt himself drifting off. After a time, he yielded to the pleasurable sensation of sleep.
No one disturbed Walter's desk until the seventh-day mass, commissioned by the people at the precinct. Only Clemente and Pimenta, an old coffee break and billiards friend from payroll, showed up. Clemente saw to it that Janice was advised of the mass, but she sent word that she couldn’t attend because of a doctor's appointment. Upon returning from the mass they opened their dead friend's desk drawers to deliver her husband's personal effects to the widow. A letter in a sealed envelope caught Clemente's attention. Thinking it might be from some female admirer, he opened it at once. It was a report from a private detective, hired by Walter, detailing a complete week in Janice's life.
Clemente thought about destroying the letter immediately, but then promised himself to read it in its entirety and afterward burn it so Janice would never become aware of it. In the typically hypocritical language of such reports, in which the author attempts to show his objectivity and a certain understanding of human frailty, it stated that Janice frequently met a tall gentleman with a black mustache who carried a briefcase. The report went on to say that the usual rendezvous took place downtown, at the Casanova Motel on Rua do Riachuelo.
"The tramp," thought Clemente, running his gaze over the precinct's waiting room. He read the final conclusions of the report and stuck the letter in his pocket. He sat there for a time, recalling Walter's haste to get home so as not to leave his wife alone for long. Sometimes he would take a couple of theater tickets to surprise his spouse, who liked dramatic, sentimental plays, but at times she was not feeling well and he would go by himself. And there was the will, he now remembered, that Walter had changed to make Janice the sole beneficiary, leaving her, in addition to his police pension, the house in Petropolis that had once belonged to his grandmother. She would now have a nice place in the mountains to meet the guy with the mustache. "Tramp," he repeated as he opened the blotter.
Clemente was very busy that day and the next with two assault cases to investigate. An adolescent had attacked an elderly man for scratching the fender of his car on Rua do Passeio; in the other a young woman was raped at São João Batista cemetery as she left a funeral at nightfall. The rapist had already been charged with the same crime at the same place two years earlier. Between questioning, pulling up his rap sheet, and DNA testing the afternoon went by quickly, and Clemente didn’t have time to get to the ophthalmologist to have his eyesight checked.
Walter now knew that the sounds he heard were inside his house, and the images, he realized, were everything that he thought from one moment to the next there in the dark. This he could conclude with at least some certainty in the gloomy confines where he had spent the last several days. He tried to extend his arms and stretch his legs, but they wouldn’t obey him, if they existed at all, for he couldn’t see them in the blackness.
Once the sensation of normality had returned, he tried to regain control as far as possible, such as understanding the sounds he heard or perceiving the direction of the bright light he glimpsed around him. The woman's voice he could hear humming for some time now belonged to his wife, and the repertoire was also hers, beyond a doubt. Her voice had a jovial tone, he would call it almost happy, as if everything in her life had gone well, and yet there he was, in that condition he couldn’t explain, needing someone to tell him what was going on. Janice would surely come to his aid, if she knew where he was.
This nightmare, Walter persisted in believing, might actually be a stroke, paralysis, a catatonic state, perhaps a coma. Seen from inside, from the point of view of the one suffering, it was painful and frightening for a man who had always lived a healthy and methodical life to remain like this for long. But he felt no desperation, only an immense curiosity. He remained calm, calmer than he had ever been in his normal existence.
With tenderness and concern, he listened to Janice's song, intoned between closed lips in a manner that strangely recalled the old backyard of his house and the hazy figure of his mother. Despite this, deep inside that delight lay something that pained his heart, his soul, in the darkened space of his memory, something that, without his knowing what it was, enraged him.
That night, Clemente went to bed early because he was feeling very tense. He took two sleeping pills with a glass of milk. He didn’t want to think about the rapist still on the loose, perhaps nearby in the Copacabana night, or remember details of the forcible possessing of that terrified young girl. He tossed and turned in bed for an hour before finally falling asleep. He awoke at dawn, covered with sweat and still in the throes of the dream he had just experienced. It was Walter, speaking to him from the dark corner of a room, somewhere in the house where he had lived and where his wake had taken place a few days earlier. His dead friend had asked him to talk to Janice but hadn’t explained why. In the dream, his friend's flushed face trembled and perspired, and his hand gripped Clemente's arm tightly. Staring into his eyes, he repeated, "You have to, you have to speak to her . . . Don’t leave me like this." Clemente asked, half-aware he was dreaming, what he should say to her, but his friend couldn’t answer, merely repeating his appeal. Once he woke up, Clemente sat in a chair by the bed and pondered what such a dream could mean and whether dreams were sometimes more than dreams.
Shortly before ten o'clock, he looked up Walter's phone number and spoke with Janice. But when she answered, he felt it best to hold off, knowing how she was dealing with the loss of her husband, and asked whether she needed anything. She said she was coping well and remembered to ask Clemente about receiving the pension she was entitled to as widow of a police officer and whether she would get the full salary or only part. "I’ll find out and call you later," Clemente said. He hung up and leaned back in his leather chair. The dream, that face filled with despair; he couldn’t drive that vision from his mind. To him, death was the last stop, the end of everything and the beginning of nothingness, as he liked to tell his friends at the bar to see a trace of worry in their expressions. All those tough guys trembling in the face of death. But Clemente couldn’t stop thinking about Janice. He distrusted all women on principle, something he carefully concealed. He felt they always had their eye on a very practical outcome, in a desperate search that most of them didn’t even comprehend. As for men, to be honest he thought some of them were alienated or at least detached. For this and other philosophical reasons, Clemente was still a bachelor at over fifty.
He wanted to think about all this calmly, but there was a lot of paperwork to take care of at the precinct. At the end of the afternoon he inquired with Personnel about the pension and phoned Janice. Yes, he explained, she was entitled to her dead husband's full salary. She thanked him somewhat coolly and quickly rang off. "Must be on her way to meet somebody," he thought. Clemente remained in his office, alone, for some time, shuffling papers and pondering the dream about his dead friend. Despite a Catholic upbringing, he didn’t believe in the supernatural, but the closeness of death somewhat undermined his convictions. What mattered now was the loyal and true friend, his good faith betrayed, who appeared to him in a dream to speak of his horror at his own death. It might be more Shakespearean than anything else, but there was no way he could turn his back on that call.
Clemente shifted in his chair and recalled Walter's voice in the dream—"You have to, you have to speak to her . . ."—in the tone his friend used when he was wrestling with a thought of some kind. That wasn’t a usual thing with him; in the dream, the calm, almost imperturbable man was fearful of something. Nonsense, thought Clemente, sentimentality, the death of someone close messes with your head that way. But, "You have to . . ." and his eyes staring like that. He leaped out of the chair and stood beside the telephone, gazing at the apparatus. He dialed the number, not knowing what he was going to say. "Janice, Janice, it's Clemente . . ." He might appear out of control, but it didn’t matter. "I need to talk to you about Walter."
She didn’t answer for almost a minute. Then: "Go ahead," she murmured slowly.
"I want to speak to you in person, it won't take long." They agreed he would stop by early the next day before going to the precinct.
Much had changed for Walter in the meantime. He saw clearly the rooms of the house where he had lived with Janice for eight years. But he could not see his wife. He looked at the bedroom with its large bed where they had made love so many times, saw the small room where they shared an office, and the stove where he would heat up his coffee early in the morning while she was still sleeping. And in the poorly lit hallway upstairs he could sense something throbbing, like a small ache spreading through the walls and descending the staircase. Something lost in memory that showed itself, only to quickly hide. Now he saw the bathroom door and the knot in his heart worsened. Walter didn’t walk; it was as if he were flying, and now he saw the door much nearer, and passed through without opening it, and then was inside. It was there, in that corner, in the medicine cabinet with the enameled front, all the way in back, that his heart felt the most pain.
Next to some small bottles, a brush, cardboard boxes, a package wrapped in brown paper, was a frosted glass that seemed to stand out as Walter approached it. He tried to grasp it, but it was impossible; he had neither arms nor strength, only the will to enter it, the glass, and peer into it. There it was, that dark sediment accumulated around the bottom, the source of all his suffering. Walter wept without tears, felt rage without muscles, would have shouted to someone but had no voice with which to scream. Then he thought of his friend. He must call Clemente, if he could. But then he fell asleep, and everything vanished amid his deep slumber.
In the kitchen, Janice boiled water for coffee while talking with Clemente in the living room. "It's a daybook from the precinct, with a blue cover, and inside it has some old notes in a precise handwriting," he said, getting up from the sofa to make himself heard better in the kitchen. Janice nodded, looking at the living room out of the corner of her eye.
"I never saw that book here," she said. "If it's here it must be put away somewhere, because I’ve never seen anything like what you describe."
Clemente's palms were sweating; he didn’t know what else he could make up about that imaginary book. Nor did he know how he could get away from there without appearing crazy or ill intentioned. They sat in armchairs opposite one another in the small living room, silently drinking coffee. "I dreamed about Walter," he said. Janice raised her eyes, uneasy.
"You dreamed about him . . ."
As nothing more occurred to him, Clemente stood up. "Well, if you find the book, please give call me a call. I’m sure Walter told me he took it home to work on a report, and I thought maybe you could . . ." Janice nodded, her mouth tight. Clemente took a few steps toward the door.
Suddenly, he turned and said, "Excuse me, may I use your bathroom for a moment?" She stood there silent for several seconds and then pointed to the stairs. "It's up there, you can go on up. Pardon the mess." Clemente went up slowly and walked down the hallway. When he opened the bathroom door he again thought of his old friend, this time with great feeling. He went in, locked the door behind him, looked around, and stood there. A medicine cabinet painted white caught his attention as if it were the only thing in the small bathroom. He opened it and his hand reached inside, far inside, as if it knew the way. He brought out a frosted glass, took it closer to the light, and looked inside. "HCN, hydrogen cyanide, prussic acid," he said immediately, his lips trembling. "She couldn’t have known it's not enough to just wash the glass." He took a step back and saw his face, flushed and sweating, in the mirror.
Walter hugged his friend, but Clemente knew nothing of this because he was busy putting the glass in his pocket after wrapping it in a washcloth. With what Forensics would find, it was proof enough. Walter wept without tears, wanting to say so many things to the other man, but he had no words, no mouth, no tongue or body, only a thread of memory and a sensation of great joy in his heart. At that moment, he saw a deep tunnel before him, at the end a light that never wavered. He knew the time had come to let go of everything, to move toward that welcoming light.
© Luiz Carlos Lisboa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.