Three books in Alicia Giménez-Bartlett's internationally acclaimed Petra Delicado series, Dog Day, Prime Time Suspect and Death Rites, are published in English by Europa Editions.

Wise wishes among tricks of the trade

He was small and lean, dressed in an anorak, cord trousers and trainers. His eyes smiled slyly; his large ears were pricked. He looked like a small, smart laboratory rat, one that would always find its way out of the maze. We took him to a nearby bar where they served food. It was important that he feel relaxed and confident before we started questioning him. I thought it would be like the classic pauper's story, that he would seize on the food and gulp it down till it was finished; but he only picked at it, leaving the plate almost intact. Classic alcoholic: no appetite. His approach to the beer was entirely different. He emptied the first glass in one gulp and his face changed, taking on a glimmer of life.

He smacked his lips and said: "God that's good. They only give you water in those fucking canteens. Why do they do that? A man needs a bit of fuel, especially in winter. Afterwards you get out of there and you want to put something in your body. If they'd only give me a little glass of wine or a beer with the food, I wouldn't need another drop. Can I have another?"

I agreed, but I knew that if he had an alcoholic's metabolism, he'd get drunk on very little. We needed to interrogate him quickly.

"Listen Anselmo, what's the man in the photo called? Who was he, where did he live? Tell us everything you know about him, even the little details."

"That's Tomas the Wise. Poor guy! I thought he must be dead, because I haven't seen him in days, but it seems wrong to me, you know? I'm a very ordered man."

"Tomas the Wise?"

"Everyone called him that because he was a clever man who knew how to solve problems and tell stories. He even knew Latin."

"Where did he live?"

"Here and there."

"Where did you see him?"

"Well, we slept in the same place – I don't recall where."

"Why don't you remember? Don't you always sleep in roughly the same place?"

"Yes, we always slept on a piece of wasteland in La Sagrera. Hey, where's my beer?"

We reminded the waiter. I noticed that his hands were trembling. He fell on the second glass as if it were his salvation. An impulse made him start talking again.

"You know, the only thing I'd ask for in life – if someone said to me 'Ask for what you want' – the only thing would be a boat filled with rice."

The three of us looked at each other in blank incomprehension. Garzon gestured minutely with his eyes, indicating that he would like to take over.

"We'll see, Anselmo. We were talking about Tomas the Wise, the poor bastard who's been murdered. You have to help us find out who did it, and to do that you need to tell us everything you know about him."

"Well, he gave me a present. He liked presents. And sometimes he bought me a beer."

"Was he good with money?"

"He had new boots but he told me that he didn't care, because money couldn't make you happy. You won't believe me, but my mother was very good at bowling. She always played in a very elegant bowling alley in Barcelona, and she ended up being the French champion. Not Spain, France!"

He looked at us proudly, one finger in the air, his eyes lively.

"Tomas, talk to us about Tomas."

"Tomas was as smart as King Alfonso the Wise. One day they wanted to steal his boots and he said 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.' Jesus Christ also said that. One day I saw Jesus Christ with my own eyes, he was dressed in yellow and his hair was curly and I..."

It was impossible that he could have got drunk so quickly. That disconnected, delirious way of speaking had to be his usual mannerism. Garzon tried to refocus him.

"Did you see Tomas with anyone, were there any men trying to find him?"

"One of my friends built himself a bath with taps shaped like snakes."

He kept getting further from our subject, apparently lost in an increasingly hallucinatory conversation. Perhaps if we followed the current, we'd end up coming back to what we wanted to know about.

"How interesting! You have a friend who can create such complex objects?"

"I'll show you the present that Tomas the Wise gave me. I have it here."

We stayed quiet, holding our breath, while the old man searched in his rucksack. He took out an absurd collection of objects, which he put on the table: a seashell, a pincushion, different coloured buttons... I thought that we were wasting time until suddenly he brandished a folded scrap of paper that looked as though it had been in the bag for some time. Opening it carefully, he handed it to me. I saw a handwritten mathematical formula, perhaps an equation, that with my scant knowledge of the subject I could not identify.

"Isn''t it beautiful? Tomas knew how to do this and one day he said to me, 'This is a little bit of knowledge that I'm giving you, because knowledge is very important in this world'."

I didn't know what to think. These were without doubt the calculations of a cultured person. I looked at Garzon. The Deputy Inspector grasped the man by his arm.

"Anselmo, this is going to lead us to Tomas's home. We're going to take you in the car with us, OK?"

"And what will you give me, a boat filled with rice?"

"Another beer, we'll give you another beer, and you'll lend us this bit of paper for a while."

Translated by Alice Waugh from the Petra Delicado novel Un barco cargado de arroz.



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