The first time he appeared to Pablo was on the bus during the nine-thirty tour. It happened during a pause in the narration while they rode from the restaurant that had belonged to Emilia Basil (the dismemberer) to the building where Yiya Murano (the poisoner) had lived. Of all the tours of Buenos Aires the company offered, the murder tour was the most popular. It ran four times a week: twice by bus and twice on foot, two times in English and two times in Spanish. Pablo knew that when the company appointed him as a guide on the murder tour, they were giving him a promotion, even though the salary was the same (he knew that if he did well, sooner or later the salary would go up, too). He’d been quite happy about the change: Before, he’d been leading the “Art Nouveau of Avenida de Mayo” tour, which was interesting at first but got boring after a while.
He had studied the ten crimes of the tour in detail so that he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never gotten scared—they didn’t affect him at all. That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror. It was definitely him, no doubt about it. He was unmistakable: The large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy. The drab sweater and his low stature, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims. And then there were his enormous ears, pointed and affable. His name was Cayetano Santos Godino, but his nickname was El Petiso Orejudo: the Big-Eared Runt. He was the most famous criminal on the tour, maybe the most famous in Argentine police record. A murderer of children and small animals. A murderer who didn’t know how to read or add, who couldn’t tell you the days of the week, and who kept a box full of dead birds under his bed.
But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes? Pablo was positive it was him. The apparition was identical to the many photos of him that had survived. Plus, it was bright enough to see him well: The bus’s lights were on. He was standing almost at the end of the aisle, demonstrating with his rope and looking at the guide—at him, at Pablo—somewhat indifferently but undeniably.
Pablo had been telling the Runt’s story for a while (two weeks now), and he liked it a lot. The Big-Eared Runt had stalked a Buenos Aires so distant and so different from today’s that it was hard to be disturbed by the thought of such a character. And yet something must have left a deep impression on Pablo, because the Runt had appeared only to him. No one else could see the apparition—the passengers were talking animatedly and they looked right through him, they didn’t notice him.
Pablo shook his head, shut his eyes tightly, and when he opened them, the figure of the murderer with his rope had disappeared. Am I going crazy? he thought, and he comforted himself with some pseudo-psychology: Surely he was seeing the Runt because he’d just had a baby, and children were Godino’s only victims. Small children. On his tour, Pablo explained where, according to the experts of the time, the Runt’s predilection had come from: The Godinos’ first son, the Runt’s older brother, had died at ten months old in Calabria, Italy, before the family immigrated to Argentina. The memory of that dead baby had obsessed him. In many of his crimes—and his attempted crimes, which were much more numerous—the Runt imitated the burial ceremony. He’d told the detectives who interrogated him after he was caught: “No one comes back from the dead. My brother never came back. He’s just rotting underground.”
Pablo would tell the story of the Runt’s first simulated burial at one of the tour’s stops—the intersection of Calle Loria and San Carlos, where the Runt had attacked Ana Neri, eighteen months old, the daughter of his neighbor in the Liniers tenement. The building no longer existed, but the site where it had once stood was a stop on the tour, with a short contextualization to explain to the tourists what living conditions had been like for the recently arrived immigrants fleeing poverty in Europe: They were stuffed into rented rooms that were damp, dirty, noisy, unventilated dens of promiscuity. It was the ideal environment for the Runt’s crimes, because the unpleasantness and the disorder ended up driving all the children out into the street. Living in those rooms was so unbearable that people spent all their time on the sidewalks, especially the children, who roamed unchecked from a very early age.
Ana Neri. The Runt brought her to the empty lot, hit her with a rock, and once the girl was unconscious he tried to bury her. A policeman came upon him before he could finish, and the Runt quickly improvised an alibi: He said he’d been trying to help the child after someone else had attacked her. The policeman believed him, possibly because the Big-Eared Runt was a child, too: He was only nine years old.
It took Ana six months to recover.
And that wasn’t the only attack that involved a simulated burial. In September 1908, shortly after he dropped out of school—and after he started having fits of what seemed like epilepsy, though they never really figured out what caused the Runt’s convulsions—he brought another child, Severino González, to a vacant lot across from the Sacred Heart school. There was a small horse corral on the lot. The Runt submerged the boy in the animals’ water trough and then tried to cover it with a wooden lid. A more sophisticated simulacrum: an imitation coffin. Once again, a policeman passing by put a stop to the crime, and once again the Runt lied and said that he was actually helping the boy. But that month the Runt couldn’t control himself. On September 15 he attacked a fifteen-month-old baby, Julio Botte. He found him in the doorway of his house at 632 Colombres. He burned one of the boy’s eyelids with a cigarette he was smoking. Two months later, the Runt’s parents couldn’t bear his presence or his actions anymore, and they turned him over to the police themselves. In December he was sent to the juvenile detention center in Marcos Paz. He learned to write a little while he was there, but he was most notorious for throwing cats and boots into steaming pots in the kitchen when the cooks weren’t looking. The Runt served three years in the Marcos Paz reformatory. When he was released, his desire to kill was stronger than ever, and soon he would achieve his first, longed-for murder.
Pablo always ended the story of the Runt with the police interrogation after his arrest. It seemed to leave quite an impression on the tourists. He would read from a transcript to make it seem more immediate. The night the Runt appeared on the bus, Pablo felt somewhat uncomfortable repeating the killer’s own words with him standing there, but he decided to proceed as usual. The Runt just looked at him and played with his rope.
—Isn’t your conscience troubled by the crimes you have committed?
—I don’t understand what you are asking me.
—You don’t know what a conscience is?
—Do you feel sadness or regret about the deaths of the children?
—Do you think you have the right to kill children?
—I’m not the only one, others do it too.
—Why did you kill the children?
—Because I liked it.
This last response brought on a general discomfort among the passengers, who usually seemed happy when the tour moved on to the more understandable Yiya Murano, who poisoned her best friends because they owed her money. A murderer born of ambition. Easy to wrap your head around. The Runt, on the other hand, made everyone uneasy.
That night, when he got home, Pablo didn’t tell his wife that he had seen the Runt’s ghost. He hadn’t told his coworkers either, but that was only natural: He didn’t want any problems at work. It bothered him, though, that he couldn’t talk to his wife about the apparition. Two years ago he would have told her. Two years ago, back when they could still tell each other anything without fear, without mistrust. It was only one of so many things that had changed since the baby had been born.
His name was Joaquín and he was six months old, but Pablo still called him “the baby.” He loved him—at least, he thought he did—but the baby didn’t pay much attention to him. He still clung to his mother, and she didn’t help, she did not help at all. She had turned into a different person. Fearful, suspicious, obsessive. Pablo sometimes wondered if she might be suffering from postpartum depression. Other times he just got sulky and remembered the years before the baby with nostalgia and a little—well, more than a little—anger.
Everything was different now. For example, she didn’t listen to him anymore. She pretended to, she smiled and nodded, but she was thinking about buying carrots and squash for the baby, or about whether the skin of the baby’s hips was irritated from the disposable diaper or some spreading disease. She didn’t listen to him, and she didn’t want to have sex with him, because she was sore from the episiotomy that just wouldn’t scar over. And to top it off, the baby slept with them in the conjugal bed. There was a bedroom waiting for him, but she couldn’t bring herself to let him sleep alone. She was afraid of sudden infant death syndrome. Pablo had had to listen to her talk about that white death for hours while he tried in vain to calm her—she who had never been afraid before, who once upon a time had gone with him to scale high peaks and sleep in a mountain hut while the snow piled up outside. She who’d taken mushrooms with him, hallucinating for a whole weekend, that same woman now cried over a death that had not come and that maybe never would.
Pablo couldn’t remember why having a baby had ever seemed like a good idea. Now the child was all she could talk about—no more gossiping about neighbors, no more discussing movies, family scandals, work, politics, food, travel. Now she only talked about the baby and pretended to listen when other subjects arose. The only thing she seemed to register, as if it woke her up from a trance, was the name of the Big-Eared Runt. As if her mind lit up with the vision of the idiot assassin’s eyes; as if she knew those thin fingers that held the rope. She claimed that Pablo was obsessed with the Runt. He didn’t think that was true. It was just that the other murderers on the Buenos Aires horror tour were all boring. The city didn’t have any great murderers if you didn’t count the dictators—not included in the tour for reasons of political correctness. Some of the murderers he talked about had committed crimes that were atrocious, but they were still fairly common according to any catalog of pathological violence. The Runt was different. He was strange. He had no motive besides desire, and he seemed like some kind of metaphor, the dark side of proud turn-of-the-century Argentina. He was a foretaste of evils to come, a warning that there was much more to the country than palaces and estates; he was a slap in the face to the provincialism of the Argentine elites who worshipped Europe and believed only good things could come from the magnificent and yearned-for old country. The most beautiful part was that the Runt didn’t have the slightest awareness of this: He just enjoyed attacking children and lighting fires—because he was a pyromaniac, too. He liked to see the flames and watch the firefighters as they worked. As he later told one of his interrogators, “It’s nice to watch them fall in the fire.”
It was a story about the fire that made his wife fly off the handle: She’d gotten up from the table screaming at him that he was never to talk about the Runt around her again, ever, not for any reason. She had shouted it while clutching the baby like she was afraid the Runt would appear and attack him right there. Then she’d locked herself in the bedroom and left Pablo to eat alone. Under his breath, he told her to go to hell.
The story really was impressive; no cause for such a fuss, he thought, but it was pretty brutal. It had happened on March 7, 1912. A five-year-old girl, Reina Bonita Vaínicoff, daughter of Latvian-Jewish immigrants, was looking in the window of a shoe store near her house on Avenida Entre Ríos. The girl was wearing a white dress. The Runt approached her while she was absorbed in the sight of the shoes. He was holding a lit match in his hand. He held the flame to her dress and it caught fire. The girl’s grandmother saw her from across the street as she was engulfed in flames. The grandmother ran desperately to reach her, but she never even got near the girl: Mad with fear, she hadn’t noticed the traffic. A car ran over her and she died. Very strange when you consider the slow speed of cars in those days.
Reina Bonita died, too, but only after sixteen days of agonizing pain.
Poor Reina Bonita’s murder wasn’t Pablo’s favorite crime. He liked—because that was the word, what can you do?—the murder of Jesualdo Giordano, three years old. Without a doubt, that one inspired the most horror in the tourists, and maybe that’s why he liked it. He found it pleasant to tell the story and wait for the reaction, always shocked, of his audience. Plus, it was the crime they’d caught the Runt for, because he committed a fatal error.
As was his habit by now, the Runt brought Jesualdo to an empty lot. He strangled him by wrapping the rope thirteen times around his neck. The boy fought back with all his strength, he cried and screamed. The Runt told the police that he’d struggled to keep the boy quiet because he didn’t want to be interrupted as he’d been on other occasions: “I grabbed that kid with my teeth right here, near his mouth, and I shook him the way dogs do with cats.” That image distressed the tourists, who squirmed in their seats and murmured “My God” under their breath. But they never asked him to stop the story. Once he’d strangled Jesualdo to death, the Runt covered him with sheet metal and went out to the street. But something kept tormenting him, an idea burning in his mind. So after a while he went back to the scene of the crime. He was holding a nail. He drove it into the boy’s skull, though Jesualdo was already dead.
He committed his fatal error the next day. Who knows why, but he attended the wake of the boy he had killed. Later on he would say that he wanted to see if the nail was still in the head. He confessed this desire when they brought him in to witness the autopsy, after the dead boy’s father had pointed the finger at the Runt. When the Runt saw the cadaver, he did something very strange: He covered his nose and spat as if he were disgusted, though the body had not yet begun to decompose. For some reason—the police records of the time don’t explain it—the medical examiners made him remove his clothes, and the Runt had an enormous erection. He had just turned sixteen.
Pablo couldn’t tell that story to his wife. Once, he’d tried to tell her about how the tourists reacted to the Runt’s final crime, but before he could even begin the story he realized that she wasn’t listening to him. Instead, she started complaining, demanding they move to a bigger house when the baby was older. She didn’t want him to grow up in an apartment. She wanted a yard, a pool, a game room, and all in a peaceful neighborhood where the boy could play in the street. She knew perfectly well that such a place hardly existed in a city the size and intensity of Buenos Aires, and moving to a rich and tranquil suburb was far beyond their means. When she finished listing her desires for the future, she asked him to get a new job. “I won’t do that,” he said. “My degree is in tourism, things are going well for me. I’m not going to quit; it’s fun. The hours are good, and I’m learning.”
“The salary is miserable.”
“No, it’s not miserable.” Pablo was getting angry. As he saw it, he was earning good money, enough to decently maintain his family. Who was this woman, this stranger? Once upon a time she had sworn that as long as she was with him, she could live in a motel, in the street, under a tree. It was all the baby’s fault. The baby had changed her completely. And why? He was a charmless kid, boring, all he ever did was sleep, and when he was awake he cried almost nonstop. “Why don’t you go to work if you want more money?” Pablo asked his wife. At that she seemed to bristle, and she started shouting like she’d gone crazy. She screamed that she had to take care of the baby—what was he thinking, that she could just dump him with a babysitter, or with his crazy grandmother? My mother isn’t crazy, thought Pablo, and to avoid another shouting match he went out to the sidewalk to smoke. That was another thing: Since the baby had been born, she wouldn’t let him smoke in his own apartment.
The day after the argument, the Runt came back to the bus. This time he was closer, almost right next to the driver, who clearly couldn’t see him. Pablo didn’t feel any different, just a little uneasy; he was afraid one of the tourists would be able to see the ghostly Runt and would cause chaos on the bus.
When the Runt appeared, holding his rope, they were almost at the end of the tour, at the house on Avenida Pavón. That was where one of the Runt’s oldest victims had been found, after one of his strangest attacks. Arturo Laurora, thirteen years old, had been strangled with his own shirt; his body was found inside the abandoned house. He wasn’t wearing pants and his buttocks were bruised, but he hadn’t been raped. While Pablo told this story, the ghost of the Runt, standing beside him, appeared and disappeared, trembled, faded, as if he were made of smoke or fog.
For the first time in many nights someone had a question. Pablo smiled at the curious man with all the insincerity he could muster. Pablo thought the tourist must be Caribbean, judging by the way he pronounced the word clavo, nail. The man wanted to know if the Runt had driven a nail into any of his other victims’ heads. “No,” replied Pablo. “We only know of the one.”
“It’s very strange,” said the man, and he ventured that if the Runt’s criminal career had been longer, maybe the nail would have become his trademark, his signature. “Maybe so,” Pablo answered politely as he watched the spectral Runt disappear completely. “But I guess we’ll never know, huh?” The Caribbean man scratched his chin.
Pablo went back to his house thinking about the nail, and then about a math teacher he’d had in school. When he got a problem right she’d say “Pablito! You hit the nail on the head.” Then he thought about a tongue twister his mother had taught him when he was little: Pablito clavó un clavito. / ¿Qué clavito clavó Pablito? / Un clavito chiquitito. He opened the apartment door to find the tableau that had become so common in recent months: the television on, a plate with Ben 10 cartoons on it smeared with the remains of pureed squash, a half-empty bottle, and his bedroom light turned on. He looked in. His wife and son were sleeping on the bed, together.
Pablo walked to the room that he himself had decorated for his son before he’d been born. It was so empty he felt cold. The inert crib was dark. It was like a dead child’s room left untouched by a family in mourning. Pablo wondered what would happen if the boy died, as his wife seemed to fear. He knew the answer.
He leaned against the empty wall where several months ago, before the birth, before his wife turned into a different person, he’d planned to hang a mobile: a universe that would spin over the baby’s crib and keep him entertained during the night. The moon, the sun, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, the planets and satellites and stars shining in the darkness. But he had never hung it because his wife didn’t want the baby to sleep in his crib, and there was no way of changing her mind. He touched the wall and found the nail there, waiting. He yanked it out with one tug and put it in his pocket. He thought it would make a great prop, adding to the dramatic effect of his story about the Runt. He would take it from his pocket right when he was telling about Jesualdo Giordano’s murder, at just the right moment, when the Runt came back and drove the nail into the dead boy’s head. Maybe some naïve tourist would even believe it was the very same nail, perfectly preserved a hundred years after the crime. He smiled as he imagined his small triumph, as he lay down right there on the living-room sofa, far from his wife and his son, the nail still clutched in his hand.