By walkie-talkie Bolha passed the order along to his managers: “Look alive there! It’s one bundle for Sergeant Gonçalves’s squad, two for Corporal Tenório, and the fireworks only if you don’t recognize the vehicle, understand?”
He found it funny for the people down below to refer to a raid as something positive. In the favela it was different. A raid had never saved anybody’s life. A police raid only sank the guy even deeper. And sinking wasn’t in Bolha’s plans. He’d gotten into trafficking through the front door, at the age of fourteen, as successor to his older brother after seeing him fall, never to rise again, his rifle clutched to his chest.
Since the time he was a kid, the older traffickers had watched him carefully, as if seeing some potential in him. They appreciated his fervor in kite battles and his ability with guns. Years later, by then manager of a drug cartel, he was cruel to adversaries and very good at bookkeeping. At eighteen, he was already setting out to conquer other areas, always of course within Cidade de Deus, his community of origin.
Bolha’s charisma and courage reflected positively on the dealings of the traffickers. Because of these talents there was no opposition when he was nominated to assume the role of head of the Cidade de Deus drug traffic. And the community fell in line. No one would dare object because Bolha gave large amounts of money to the church, brought the beer to funk parties, underwrote medicine for the neediest families, and was generous in handing out Christmas presents. His motto was, Take good care of the child of today, ’cause he’ll be the soldier of tomorrow. He assumed a regal posture, a benefactor of the favela. The dependable welfare-providing that he had learned so well from the old-time traffickers.
That Friday evening, things looked promising. The packaging was proceeding at full steam. Dozens of people were engaged in the task of cleaning and weighing the drugs on scales so they would be ready for retail sale during the late-night hours.
Friday nights in Cidade de Deus were famous the world over!
And as the hours went by, the favela boiled. To the sound of funk, half-naked women, playboys from street level, and junkies mingled in the narrow passageways, high on drugs, alcohol, and a permanent state of tension as if at any moment it could all fall apart.
In the face of such success, only one thing bothered Bolha: the decision of the Special Battalion to change the troops responsible for patrolling the favela, because the new cops, led by Sergeant Gonçalves, weren’t into bribery and raids were becoming more and more frequent. And with them, the bloody gunfights and the losses represented by captured weapons and drugs.
To complicate matters, sources had dried up. His contacts in the barracks had been removed, so he was no longer getting advance word of which garrison was going to strike. Without that information it was impossible to make plans.
Bolha was lucky to be able to count on Representative Saci. Not only Bolha, but the country’s entire trafficking circuit. Representative Saci had connections in Colombia and acted as middleman for a supply network of weapons and drugs. He said the guns came from FARC, the rebel army, but no one knew if that shit was true.
What was true was that Representative Saci was glib. A large, smiling guy always well dressed who wore nothing but linen. They said that in childhood he’d been in a car accident and had a fake leg. Bolha had never had the courage to ask, but he’d spent hours watching the representative’s leg and had never seen any difference. That shit must just be a rumor, he thought. Like that story about the guns he gets from FARC.
Bolha didn’t have time to complete the communication with the drug sites before he heard the rattle of the first burst of gunfire. With a rifle resting on the windowsill, a pistol in his hand, and his pockets filled with ammunition, Bolha assumed an alert position. He observed the confrontation outside through the scope on his AR-15. In ecstasy, he watched one of his soldiers, a skinny teenager, discharge all his rifle’s ammo into a military policeman. The pride he felt! One less worm in the world.
Losing no time, Bolha went up to the roof and braced himself against the water tank; framed in the crosshairs of his rifle was the head of a cop shielding himself behind a post. Fun to see the guy’s head explode and stain the air red—two thousand meters in one second! Bolha remembered the words of Representative Saci when he sold him that marvel. What a beauty. Those FARC guys really know how to live.
But his joy was short-lived.
Amid the adrenaline of the moment and the elegance of the headless body writhing on the ground, Bolha saw his soldiers in flight, running toward the interior of the favela. Those still carrying weapons shot into the air at random, disoriented. The majority simply fled in panic and dropped their guns on the ground, as if trying to avoid being caught red-handed. The police came behind, collecting the treasures abandoned in the middle of the road. Considerable battle reinforcement for the predators’ next invasion.
Fuck! Bolha thought. I’m on my own in this shit!
For some time he had known it was problematic not to have the payoff to the police on his books anymore. Suicide to go on operating in the favela without a contact inside the Battalion. And just as one thought leads to another, Bolha was surprised when he descended from the roof and, out of nowhere, found himself facing Representative Saci.
“What you doing here, congressman?”
“The civil police called me and said you needed help,” replied the representative, trying to be heard above the sound of gunshots. “But I didn’t know there was an operation here in Cidade de Deus. The entire police force is out there, Bolha!”
“I know that!” said Bolha, confused. He paced back and forth, not knowing what to do.
“You need reinforcements.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how many are still with me . . . My security men were all out there in front,” explained the trafficker. “I seen lots of my men running away, terrified. I don’t know nothing no more.”
“How much do you have to lose now?”
“Now? Beats me. Maybe some—”
Before he could complete the calculation, the representative’s body shook. His eyes widened and he raised his hands to his chest, where a huge stain was turning his shirt red.
“Shit, I’ve been shot, Bolha!” Saci shouted. “Get me out of here!”
The favela was now completely surrounded by police. Getting the representative out was the same as surrendering. Bolha tried to think of an escape, but it was difficult to find any trace of lucidity in his brain.
“My car . . . my car,” stammered the representative. “They won’t suspect my car.”
Bolha had seen thousands of people die. And the enormous amount of blood spurting from the representative’s chest left no doubt: he wouldn’t last long. An hour at most.
The problem was that his death created a major difficulty for Bolha, not only because he was a public figure, but also because the representative was much loved in the world of trafficking. If in any way his death were to be linked to Cidade de Deus, everyone would be after Bolha’s head. Even the militias, if he screwed up. Saci provided the best representation of the underworld in the government. No one would forgive Bolha for it.
“Stay calm, congressman,” said Bolha, “I’m gonna get us out of the favela.”
Finding strength from God knows where, Bolha lifted Saci onto his shoulders and carried him to the car, braving the crossfire. The favela was in tumult. Not a soul in the streets. Everyone huddled in some corner, fleeing the death that rampaged there.
Bolha opened the trunk, placed the representative inside, and promised to do his best to help him, though he knew that even his best would not be enough.
“Look, whatever happens—” Saci was out of breath and couldn’t finish.
When someone says “whatever happens” it’s because something is surely going to happen. Almost always something bad. Bolha needed to get Saci out of there as soon as possible; after all, who would be aware of his death in Cidade de Deus? Some innocent person, no doubt. For a screw-up that wasn’t going anywhere, this had already gone too far.
Bolha shut the trunk, got in the car, and drove off aimlessly. By then a hospital wouldn’t do any good. Bolha knew that what he carried in the trunk was now a corpse.
In the humid night, Bolha wiped his forehead to dry the sweat. He went through Barra, Recreio, and only in Grumari did he find what he was looking for: a vacant lot covered with brush. No houses nearby, no signs of civilization. The perfect spot to dump a body.
Bolha left his headlights on low and moved around to the trunk of the car. He had seen thousands of corpses in his lifetime, but the body of the representative all twisted inside there made him shudder. With great difficulty he managed to pull it by the legs and get half the cadaver out of the trunk.
Then something startling happened.
The right leg simply detached from the representative’s body. Bolha fell backward with the leg in his hands, while the rest of the body lay there in the trunk.
“Ugh!” Bolha clenched his teeth and felt bile rise in his esophagus, or his stomach, one of the two. He didn’t vomit because he was a badass dude. But after fifteen seconds of panic, he understood: Saci really did have an artificial leg.
Bolha examined the plastic leg he held; he had never seen one before. And, his eyes wide with surprise, he noticed there was a card stuck in the hollow of the leg. Bolha used his fingernail to remove the tape and tossed the leg into the undergrowth. It was a white magnetic card, resembling a credit card, except instead of a chip it had a bar code and the inscription H.L.S.201. Bolha lowered his head and closed his eyes. He was facing an enigma, he knew, but without the slightest idea of how to decipher it. Bolha couldn’t waste any more time. He urgently needed to get rid of the representative’s body and decide what to do with his own life. He couldn’t go back to Cidade de Deus. Not in this condition, poor and discredited. He needed a miracle, some kind of grand idea. That was what he had to concentrate on.
So, without time for the mystery at that moment, Bolha stuck the card in his pocket and went about dumping the body. He would do what must be done. He checked the representative’s pockets, took the dead man’s watch, gold chain, and wallet. Four hundred and thirty-seven reais and some change.
As for the documents, he didn’t know whether to leave them or not. Someone might come along before the police and steal them. But who would show up there in the middle of nowhere?
Uncertain, he decided to leave the representative’s ID. The other documents, he opted to take with him.
He put his hands under the dead man’s armpits and dragged him to a tree. He took the trouble to place the fake leg back into the linen trousers so that when the press arrived they wouldn’t photograph the representative missing a leg. As vain as the man was, he would have been embarrassed. Afterward, Bolha said a prayer he made up on the spot and when he felt there was nothing more to be done, he got in the car and drove far away to take care of the second part of his mission: getting rid of Saci’s automobile.
Bolha checked the time on the representative’s watch, almost three a.m. He felt it was an excellent time to park the car at the beach at Recreio and contemplate the sea. He felt almost relieved after dumping the body, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the card he had discovered inside the fake leg. It must have some value, some important meaning, because no one would hide anything like that on his person if it didn’t.
H.L.S.201. Bolha took the card from his jeans pocket and reread the inscription, racking his brain for an explanation. All he remembered was a crime film he had seen with his older brother the one time he had ever gone to the movies. At thirty-two, Bolha hardly noticed the years passing. Pressure, fear, and rebellion occupied his mind, leaving no time for joy and amusement. Except those connected to trafficking: women, funk parties, and drugs.
When the sun began to rise, Bolha took a dip in the ocean. It had been years since he’d last gone to the beach. He had forgotten the strength of the waves and how the saltwater stung the eyes. He would have stayed there longer if the day hadn’t brightened, bringing the first kiosk workers and the first society types strolling with their poodles on the sidewalk.
Bolha drove to a shopping center in Barra and abandoned the car in the parking lot. Then he stopped at a newsstand and joined the group of workers reading the headlines while waiting for the bus. “Under Heavy Fire, Police Retake Cidade de Deus” was the headline of a leading paper. Another, more provocative, said: “Drug Trade Driven Out of Cidade de Deus.”
It hurt to read that.
But although the papers mentioned his name, none carried his photo. The closest was an artist’s sketch so badly done that it elicited laughter from Bolha. He thought the drawing more closely resembled a well-known footballer than him. What a farce, he thought, with a mixture of triumph and disquiet.
But if the safety of anonymity calmed him, there was nothing encouraging about being driven from his own community in humiliation. Shit, he had done so much for Cidade de Deus, been so cautious, so careful to make sure the bloody battles took place far from the eyes of the media, and now he couldn’t even return home. From boss of the drug traffic he had been reduced to a homeless nobody. All he had was 437 reais, the congressman’s belongings, and that white magnetic card whose use he had yet to figure out.
Without guns, money, and prestige he was just like everybody else. And he no longer had a partner he could trust. With the death of Saci, everyone would be after his head. That was a fact.
Lacking any real plan, Bolha entered a store and bought some new clothes. As a safety measure he also bought a hat. He liked seeing pagoda singers on television wearing Panama hats. For a brief moment he found it cool to be a free man and able to wear whatever hat he wanted. But the mystery of the white card and H.L.S.201 came back into his mind like restless ghosts.
That was when he spotted an Internet café and had an idea.
“How much time do you want?” asked the girl behind the counter, indifferently, engrossed in her cell phone.
“An hour,” he replied.
Bolha didn’t hesitate. On the Internet he would surely make some progress. He sat erect in the chair, put on the earphones, and began his search with the same tenacity that James Bond had displayed in the film he’d seen.
First he tried H.L.S.201, then 201H.L.S., with spaces, without spaces, with periods, without periods . . . It was only when he tried H.L.S. by itself that things became clear.
HOTEL LAVRADIO STAR came up as the first search result.
“Of course!” Bolha said aloud. “Hotel Lavradio, room 201. That’s it.”
What Bolha held was the key to a hotel room—of that he had no doubt. His hands shaking at the magnitude of the discovery, he jotted down the address and left, with the card in his pocket and the unshakable idea in his head: he was going to find out what Saci had kept so hidden in his fake leg, even if it cost Bolha his own life.
Despite a traffic jam, it wasn’t too difficult to get downtown. The Hotel Lavradio Star was located on a square, though on Rua Constituição, not Lavradio.
Unnoticed, Bolha entered the hotel forthrightly as if he were any other guest. He nodded at the receptionist, but she kept her eyes on the computer. The security men also ignored him, and Bolha continued confidently to the wooden staircase. He knew that any tentativeness could cost him his life—or worse, his freedom, locked up in one of those maximum-security prisons in Mato Grosso.
On the second floor, he saw that 201 was at the end of the corridor, but before heading that way he noted the locks on the other doors. He saw exactly how to insert the card to open them.
And did so.
At the end of the corridor, standing before 201, he inserted the magnetic card in the slot and a small green light came on. Bolha smiled to himself. It had never been so easy. He looked to both sides, making sure no one was around. Then, feeling his body pouring liters of adrenaline into his bloodstream, he carefully turned the doorknob.
The grandeur of what he saw dazzled his eyes.
Bolha lost his breath.
He opened and closed his eyes.
His mouth agape, he succeeded in getting a bit of air into his lungs and exclaimed to himself, Thank you, Saint George!
It was the representative’s private arsenal. Guns, ammunition, and explosives of every kind. It was impossible to quantify at first sight, but with a quick glance he took in what the congressman kept there, in a third-rate hotel room: veritable treasures. Machine guns, shotguns, rifles, pistols, carbines, M16s, AK-47s, ParaFal 7.62mm assault rifles.
He guffawed with happiness.
With this arsenal, the only way Cidade de Deus wouldn’t be his was if he didn’t want it.
MV Bill (a.k.a. Alex Pereira Barbosa) is a rapper, writer, and activist. In 2005, with his coauthor Celso Athayde, he launched Cabeça de Porco. The following year he published a best-selling nonfiction work, Falcão: meninos do tráfico, which inspired a documentary. In collaboration with Celso Athayde, he created the NGO Unified Central of Favelas (CUFA). He is host of the programs Aglomerado on Brazilian TV and A voz das periferias and O som das ruas on FM radio in Rio.
Excerpted from Rio Noir, edited by Tony Bellotto. “The Return” copyright 2016 MV Bill, translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers. Used with permission of Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).