The Poisoned Pawn is the gripping, fast-paced sequel to the award-winning, critically acclaimed mystery The Beggar’s Opera. Evoking the crumbling beauty of Old Havana and featuring Inspector Ramirez, a man haunted by the victims of his unsolved cases, it’s perfect for fans of Donna Leon and Martin Cruz Smith who love exotic settings and unforgettable characters.
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HAVANA, DECEMBER 24, 2006
Hillary Ellis almost lost her balance as she bent down to pick up the passport she’d dropped on the tarmac. A soldier in camouflage fatigues watched her closely, cradling his machine gun. She avoided his eyes and walked quickly up the metal stairs to the airplane.
I need to stop shaking, she thought. All I have to do is get out of here and I’m safe.
“Welcome on board,” the flight attendant said as she checked Hillary’s boarding pass. “Your seat is by a window. In the thirteenth row. On the left-hand side.” Bad luck.
As Hillary sat down, a short black man walking towards her row eyed the empty aisle seat. He was not much larger than a child, although he leaned on a cane. It was hard to guess his age, but there was no mistaking his white collar. Damn. He looked at her as if she should have expected him, as if she should know him. When she didn’t respond, he removed his hat and said something in Spanish, offering her his hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, forcing a tight smile as he seated himself beside her, resting the cane against his knees, “I don’t speak any Spanish.” She reached for her purse and removed a book, signalling her desire to be left alone.
“Ah, my name is not Spanish, but African,” he said in perfect but accented English as he peered at the book’s cover. “I am sure you will enjoy the story of Katerina, the shrew who became an obedient wife. Although more frequently, from what I’ve observed, the opposite occurs. But don’t worry,” he laughed, “I won’t ask you to confess.”
Hillary flinched. He’s only making conversation, she thought. Calm down.
She flipped through The Taming of the Shrew without reading any of the pages. She’d be home by the early hours of Christmas Day. In the lawyer’s office on Wednesday, most likely. Her Christmas gift to herself, working out the finances, changing the locks. Moving forward with her new life. I did it. I didn’t think I had the guts.
The priest examined his seat belt, bemused. Hillary was surprised when the flight attendant didn’t lecture him to do it up before the airplane sped down the runway.
Once they escaped the ground, he looked across her and out the window but kept to himself. Thank God. The adrenalin was wearing off, but her hands still trembled despite the two rum-and-Cokes she’d tossed back in the airport. The hard part wouldn’t be guilt; she never felt guilty about anything. It would be pretending that she cared.
Her mother had coached her from childhood how to act, how to lie. “Don’t trust anyone,” she’d said from the moment Hillary began to toddle. “Not even me. Especially not your father.”
When the bar service started, the man’s eyes were closed. The stewardess looked through him to take her order. As she leaned over, Hillary caught a whiff of perfume that smelled like bitter almonds.
She handed the woman some change and asked her to make it a double. She checked the inflight movie. Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Two spouses secretly trying to kill each other. Startled, she turned it off.
The blue cartoon plane caterpillared its way home, inching across the overhead screen. Somewhere over Boston, she started to feel nauseous. She coughed and swallowed hard.
“Are you alright?” inquired her seatmate. He said something else she couldn’t hear. Her ears buzzed. Images in the cabin swooped; waves of dizziness, a rapid, irregular pounding in her chest.
“Airsick,” she said, struggling to breathe. When he produced an airsickness bag from the pouch in front of his seat, she was mortified.
“Try doing this,” he said, and mimed blowing into it. “It may help.”
She put the bag over her mouth and breathed in and out deeply. Maybe she was hyperventilating, her nerves catching up with her. If this was what Mike’s panic attacks were like, she owed him an apology. Too late now.
She unbuckled her seat belt and staggered to the washroom at the back of the plane. She splashed water on her face and neck, examined herself in the small mirror above the metal sink. For a woman approaching forty, she still looked damn good. But her cheeks were bright pink despite the sunblock, and her eyelids were swollen.
It must be the flight, she thought. Cucumber slices will fix those. Once I’m back in Ottawa, I’ll pamper myself. Buy a little black dress. I’ll feel a million times better once this flight is over.
But by the time the airplane landed, she wasn’t feeling anything at all.
JANUARY 1, 2007
Hector Apiro kneeled on the ground beside the body, careful to avoid the fluids pooled beside it. He lifted the woman’s stained cotton dress to check the colour of her bloated torso. He turned his head to avoid the smell.
“Happy New Year, Dr. Apiro,” said Detective Espinoza, squatting down to speak to the small physician. “How long do you think she’s been dead?”
Fernando Espinoza had been promoted to the Havana Major Crimes Unit a day or two earlier to replace Rodriguez Sanchez.
Espinoza probably didn’t expect to hit the ground running quite so quickly, thought Apiro. But the boy handled himself well. Unlike the dozen or so policías who flooded into the dark alley as soon as the call came in, the young detective managed to keep his stomach contents down.
Apiro made a mental note to have his technicians bring some brooms and mops along with the tarps they would need to move the body. He hoped they had some tucked away; good mops weren’t easy to find.
“And to you, Detective Espinoza. I’m surprised you’re not out celebrating.”
“And miss the excitement? Not a chance. Besides, the parties will go on for hours.”
Apiro smiled. The young man’s good-natured enthusiasm was infectious. Ricardo had made a good choice. But then, Inspector Ramirez was well-known for his skill at scavenging talent as well as supplies. “From the state of decomposition, I’d guess ten days. Maybe two weeks.”
The pathologist was finding it difficult to be more precise. The temperature had hovered at nearly thirty degrees Celsius for most of December. The record temperatures made it a challenge to measure the body’s internal temperature accurately.
A complicating factor was the woman’s race. Skin discolouration often proved helpful in ascertaining how long someone had been dead. After a few weeks of decomposition, the exposed skin of a Caucasian victim would have turned black. But this corpse was Afro-Cuban, almost ebony to begin with. Her face, arms, and legs were the same hue as the skin beneath her clothing.
Her eye colour wasn’t helpful either. Within seventy-two hours of death, everyone’s irises changed to brown and then black.
And so it goes, thought Apiro. Despite our differences, when it comes right down to it, we are all the same. Death is the great equalizer.
“I’m assuming she was stabbed to death?”
The surgeon looked at Espinoza and smiled kindly. It was a perfectly legitimate question, and the answer seemed obvious. But as a man of science, Apiro had learned to withhold judgment until he had all the facts.
“I don’t think she committed suicide, if that helps.”
The woman had an eight-inch knife sticking out of her chest cavity, or what was left of it. The knife was intact; it was the body around it that was collapsing.
“Funny that no one saw the body, if it’s been here that long.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily assume they didn’t,” Apiro said. He stood up painfully, his short legs aching, his knees sore from the concrete.
Apiro lived with achondroplasia—dwarfism. It left only his torso a normal size. His arms and legs were short, his head and hands large.
Despite his condition, Apiro had once been renowned internationally as one of Cuba’s leading plastic surgeons. Cuba had some of the best in the world, but they had to be creative, given their limited resources. Performing the occasional autopsy allowed Apiro to try new methods of cutting and stitching without costly operating rooms, nursing staff, and supplies. Besides, as he often joked, plastic surgery was simpler when there was no need for anaesthetic.
He snapped off his latex gloves and placed them carefully in his medical kit for sterilization and re-use.
“The people in this area have no love for the police,” he said to Espinoza. “Frankly, the only thing that surprises me is that no one took the knife.”
The occupants of the Callejón sin salida, or Blind Alley, were notoriously suspicious of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police. The feeling was mutual.
Blind Alley was supposedly constructed following spirited discussions between its creator, an artist, and the Cuban gods as to their requirements. It was an unofficial temple for the worshippers of Santería gods and a leading source for the marijuana and other plants used in their secret rites. But it was also a place where the screams of men and women frequently pierced the night as the orishas purportedly travelled through them.
Espinoza nodded. “Should I have Dispatch contact Inspector Ramirez? It’s the first homicide of the year.”
“Not unless you want to be demoted back to Patrol.” Apiro grinned. He made a note of the time for his report. 0056 hours, Monday, January 1, 2007. “It’s his day off.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Beggar’s Opera:
“Decaying but beautiful Havana provides the atmospheric backdrop for Blair’s absorbing debut, the first in a series introducing Ricardo Ramirez.” – Publishers Weekly
“Havana is as much a character as the people in Canadian author Blair’s fast-paced story.” – New York Post