It took almost a week for me to finally confirm what I already knew, when I read the newspaper one chilly Friday morning. I don’t usually much bother keeping up with the news - it’s always a minutely different iteration of the same basic tedium - but that day’s front-page story caught my eye almost immediately as I walked past a kiosk on my way to work.
You see, Madrid is most definitely not a violent city. We suffer from our fair share of crime, of course - namely systemic corruption and small-scale theft - but we are certainly not used to homicide (there remains, undeniably, the exception of domestic and gender violence, but that has never been a favourite topic of the vacuous masses and has thus never received the attention or media coverage it truly warrants). When people die here, they do so from old age, illness or unfortunate (sometimes deserved) accidents, and while all of these causes are interesting from a statistical point of view, none of them really makes for a good news story. A murder, on the other hand, is a bestseller waiting to happen. One becomes desensitised to corruption, political bickering and whatever irrelevant nonsense is taking place in the inane world of sports, but something as dramatic and exciting as an actual homicide is powerful enough to wrest us from our day-to-day stupor and grab our morbid attention. Thus, as I made my way up the Cuesta de San Vicente that crisp autumn morning, my eyes were inevitably drawn towards the front page of the newspapers lining the windows of the first kiosk I passed: MUERTE EN EL RÍO (“Death in the River”). My first instinctive impulse was to roll my eyes and assume it was just another desperate attempt to trap passersby’s gazes with sensationalistic lies, but then something in my mind clicked and I came to an abrupt stop, feeling a mixture of dread and twisted excitement. I started reading one of the papers hanging from the kiosk window until I noticed the salesman’s venomous stare, at which point I hastily handed over a couple of coins and made off with my copy, muttering a half-hearted apology. I found it hard not to read while I walked, but I knew that if I did, I would most certainly arrive late to work - and I was absolutely certain now that I would be the only employee showing up at the bookstore today.
I made it to the shop in record time, for my eagerness to sit down and learn what had happened to my colleague (there was no doubt in my mind that the front-page story was about him) turned my slow, deliberate morning commute into an energetic march. When I arrived, however, I saw someone walk over from the other side of the street, as if they had been waiting for me. I swallowed my irritation and greeted the stranger, who as far as I knew was a potential customer, and bade him wait a few minutes while I opened the store and got ready to help him. He replied that he was “not in a hurry” and that he would “wait as long as it took”.
I did not, in my haste, spare him more than a second’s glance, so I do not remember his face. When, just a few minutes later, once I had gotten everything in order, I looked out of the store’s window to see if the man was still there, he had vanished. I remember pulling a face, shrugging and sitting down to finally read the damned newspaper.
The article began by giving the time and place of the murder, which had happened two nights ago under one of the bridges that cross the Manzanares river, not far from my usual evening stroll route. The body was reportedly found hidden under a small mountain of disassembled, soggy cardboard boxes and some other, more disgusting pieces of debris. The jogger who had come across it apparently said that the stench had given it away - to which I remember thinking that the man must have possessed a rather prodigious sense of smell, to be able to distinguish the reek of a week-old body from the ungodly fetor that emanates from under some of those dank, filthy bridges. The article went on to describe how the body bore signs of struggle, and that the victim had received a spine-chilling total of seventeen deep, ragged stab wounds. The forensic report stated that the deceased had survived the knifing long enough to drown in his own fluids, as his violently ruptured lungs filled with blood. There were, so far, no leads on the killer.
As unsettled as I was by the horrific manner in which my colleague had met his end, I remember registering something else which pushed that unease aside: a bizarre feeling of guilt. I could not help but think about the dream I had had two nights ago, a dream in which I saw myself holding a knife and following a dark shape as it walked hurriedly along the bank of a miry river. The unbridled elation of plunging the blade hilt-deep between the shape’s shoulders, and the shock and instinctive repulse of waking up covered in sweat and realising what my subconscious mind had conjured up in my sleep.
I was glad that there were few customers that day. By the time I got home, my dream-born guilt had grown into a nigh-uncontrollable panic, an almost certain belief that somehow I had been responsible for my colleague’s death, and that sooner or later I would be tracked down and held accountable. I sat in front of the radio that evening, a glass of vermouth cupped in my shaking hands, trying to think of ways in which I might avoid any sort of unwelcome scrutiny. Then the radio started whining, and in one sudden, brutal blow, my train of thought was wrenched from its rails, tumbling down the steep cliffside of oblivion. Only one notion remained. A question, quivering like a feeble flame in a vast, sunless cavern.
Whose death would I bear witness to next?