Who Killed Palomino Molero

1

“Sons of bitches.” Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. “Kid, they really did a job on you.”

The boy had been both hung and impaled on the old carob tree. His position was so absurd that he looked more like a scarecrow or a broken marionette than a corpse. Before or after they killed him, they slashed him to ribbons: his nose and mouth were split open; his face was a crazy map of dried blood, bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns. Lituma saw they’d even tried to castrate him; his testicles hung down to his thighs. He was barefoot, naked from the waist down, with a ripped T-shirt covering his upper body. He was young, thin, dark, and bony. Under the labyrinth of flies buzzing around his face, his hair glistened, black and curly.

The goats belonging to the boy who’d found the body were nosing around, scratching around the field looking for something to eat. Lituma thought they might begin to gnaw on the dead man’s feet at any moment.

“Who the fuck did this?” he stammered, holding back his gorge.

“I don’t know,” said the boy. “Don’t get mad at me, it’s not my fault. You should be glad I told you about it.”

“I’m not mad at you. I’m mad that anybody could be bastard enough to do something like this.”

The boy must have had the shock of his life this morning when he drove his goats over the rocky field and stumbled onto this horror. But he did his duty: he left his herd browsing among the rocks around the corpse and ran to the police station in Talara. Which was quite a feat because Talara was a good hour’s walk from the pasture. Lituma remembered his sweaty face and his scared voice when he walked through the station-house door:

“They killed a guy over on the road to Lobitos. I can take you there if you want, but we have to go now because I left my goats all alone and somebody could steal them.”

Luckily, no goats were stolen. As he was getting over the jolt of seeing the body, Lituma had noticed the boy counting his goats on his fingers. He heard him breathe a sigh of relief: “All here.”

“Holy Mother of God!” exclaimed the taxi driver. “What the hell is this?”

On the way, the boy had described, more or less, what they were going to see, but it was one thing to imagine it and quite another to see it and smell it..The corpse stank to high heaven. The sun was boring holes through the rocks and through their very skulls. He must have been rotting at a record pace.

“Will you help me get him down, buddy?”

“Why not?” grunted the taxi driver, crossing himself. He spit at the carob tree. “If someone had told me what the Ford was going to be carrying, I’d never of bought it. You and the lieutenant take advantage of me because I’m such a nice guy.”

Jerónimo had the only taxi in Talara. His old van, as big and black as a hearse, passed freely through the gate that separated the town from the zone where the foreigners who were employed by the International Petroleum Company lived and worked. Lieutenant Silva and Lituma used the taxi whenever they had to go anywhere too far to use horses or bicycles—the only transport available at the Guardia Civil post. The driver moaned and complained every time they called him, saying they made him lose money, despite the fact that the lieutenant always paid for the gasoline himself.

“Wait, Jerónimo, I just remembered we can’t touch him