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I remember that I love Renata whenever she starts to take an interest in another man. This occurs occasionally and always unexpectedly. It always ends sooner or later and I am always relieved. It comes around in vague cycles – I suppose that I could chart them on a calendar if I was minded to.

Every once in a while our agency sends us to work at an Edinburgh University campus restaurant. Renata enjoys chatting to the students as they queue for dinner, and I recently became aware that she was taking an interest in one young man in particular.

I was somehow conscious that this student was an American even before his voice confirmed it. There was an indefinable freshness about him where Europeans are instead only shabby, as if he had carried a little of the clear air from the prairie across the Atlantic with him. His skin was the colour of richly milky coffee, but he was otherwise gaunt and lanky and scowling. His scowl had become bland and automatic; something that he could now nod at people in greeting. It seemed plausible that he scowled in his sleep. On the few occasions when I saw him smile, it was as ghastly as being shown a flesh wound.

His name was Felipe. I never considered him a threat, and I suppose that Renata was attracted by his sadness and yearned to mother him. I would later learn that he was Mexican, although wealthy Mexicans are basically Americans.

Renata had been invited to a party over at the university halls. If a member of the restaurant staff catches the right student’s eye, they will be selected to ornament a party. I decided to invite myself as well, but Renata warned about the gravity of such a faux pas. So I pulled a few strings behind her back. My friend Pablo sells MDMA at university parties and when I petitioned the hosts of this one for an invitation, they behaved as if the party was inconceivable without our attendance.

Renata was canoodling with Felipe in the corridor and she did not see us arrive. I drifted within earshot.

“If I giwe you the money, can you gemme some…?” It appeared that Felipe and Renata were one of those couples who have a compulsion to coo and simper at each other like small children. My body turned to ice as Felipe whimpered to Renata with the repulsive, stilted coquetry of a ventriloquist’s dummy. It made that stiffly scowling face seem even more like a mask. His head dipped into Renata’s and they were frozen in each other’s eyes.

“If baby is a good boy…” she breathed.

I had a feeling that Felipe would always carry around a wallet stuffed with banknotes. He was flipping through them now.

“Here… Baby’ll be waiting.”

Renata busied herself with her mission and Felipe turned back to the party without interest. Across the room some students were on their feet in a circle, messily undressing and daring each other to go further. Finally, one sniggering guy who had snorted vodka out of his nose went too far and everybody whooped, exhilarated and aghast. He was pink and flabby, and looked oddly unremarkable. Like a blank door with a plain knob.

We had all noticed the anorexic girl who was alone at the edge of the party, like a princess lingering around a forest pool. Everybody would give her an encouraging remark, but nobody was going to talk to her. There was horror now that she began to disrobe too. Despite the general retreat, helpful hands tried to steer her thin arms, which were so light that they might have been carved out of wood, back into her clothes. Her head was now bobbing in the confusion; a sudden spark of sense floating above the smoke.

My gaze was ripped away sharply and I jumped at the sight of Felipe scrambling back, as swift as a wild animal after being touched by a human finger. His eyes were bulging.

I scooped him up by the arm and sat him down on a sofa. It was one of those surprise moments in a party when jealously-guarded sofas are unexpectedly abandoned. “Are you okay, son?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Look after my seat. I’ll find you some vodka…”

I slipped the shot into trembling fingers. “I can see she is a girl now,” he confided. “But I thought she was…”

“You thought that she was death?”

Felipe grunted. “We call her the bony lady.”

All sorts of jokes were swooping down like seagulls upon a dropped chip, but there was a moment of wisdom and my head was clear. I still struggled for the correct tone. “I think I’ve read about it… You make requests?”

He eyed me cautiously, his lips pursed, before deciding to gamble on me. “My family is very rich… but my father wants me to become a doctor. He has sent me far away from the family business.” Felipe shrugged, despairing politely at what he evidently held to be a senile decision. “I want death to take my father, so that then I can make it big.”

I pressed my glee down, like a coat over dancing knees. Renata had made truly the most humungous mistake. “Well, I wish that I could drink to the death of your father.”

The naked student was now deep in conversation. Somebody had placed a paper cup over his penis but he appeared not to have taken offence. The anorexic girl was gone and I dolefully prayed for her to be okay.

I found Pablo in the corridor. The only time that he ever looks serious is when at these parties, probably because his pockets are stuffed with vast quantities of cash. “Follow Renata and that guy she’s with and see what they do with your drugs.” Pablo shook his head as if to say “another time!” “It’s interesting!” I pleaded.

There were few sensible people to talk with at this party and it was not long until Pablo and I were reunited again. He looked at me in disgust. “Fugging weird!”

Felipe had led Renata and Pablo through a labyrinth of hushed corridors to his bedroom. He showed them a space under his bed where a neat shrine had been laid out around the shrunken, pinched figurine of a skeleton in golden robes. It was about the size of those toys which you used to find floating in packets of breakfast cereal. The skeleton was too meek and willowy to be male. She kept vigil over her shrine like a tiny heron which had scratched together a ramshackle nest out of strings of beads and parched flowers. Felipe plopped the sandwich bag of ecstasy in front of the saint and then winked at Pablo, looking surprisingly mischievous. The duvet fell back into place, concealing the shrine. Felipe indicated that they should wait outside.

Outside, Pablo regarded Felipe with impatience. Felipe and Renata ignored him, whispering together.

When they returned to inspect the skeleton, the drugs were gone. Pablo would not give Felipe the satisfaction of a response, and they walked back to the party in silence.

“Fugging kids,” Pablo hissed. “Maybe the drugs will make them more mature.”

The next morning I inquired about the party. “Oh, young Felipe was there,” Renata reported. “Such a gentleman. So sweet.”

“Pablo says that he’s rather creepy…” I hazarded.

“He’s a smart, pleasant, considerate young man.”

“I’m wewy happy for you.”

“What did you say?”

I blinked. “I’m very happy for you.”

Many moons ago my editor James had acquainted me with Dr Sarah Neilson, a research fellow in child sexual abuse at Edinburgh University. I phoned her that afternoon with a tip.

“Does he have any access to children?” she asked warily.

“He’s done half the journey. He’s a practicing Satanist.”

She gave an unimpressed growl. “Since Savile has exploded, I have over thirty thousand cases on my books, and each of them wants to be investigated at once. Mexican sounds low risk. Are you sure there’s not a black element? Witchdoctors or amateur exorcists?”

“He’s not quite a witchdoctor. Too suave.”

She cackled. “They don’t all dance around in loincloths.”

“Promise me you’ll look into it.”

“No promises. But if I have a day free.”

Weeks passed and I lost track of Felipe, as if he was a TV soap which I was not taking the care to keep up with. Whenever the agency sent Renata and I to the campus restaurant, Felipe was still scowling in the dinner queue, the crispness of huge American landscapes still fresh around his face and collar like a perfume with a bite. No doubt he and Renata still met from time to time, and conspired to coo at each other like babies. Then Pablo phoned me one night to tirade against Felipe. He had just returned from the halls.

“That fugging kid – I sold him enough ecstasy for a wedding! Before I leave he shows me a new statue of the grim reaper in a fugging dress. It’s much bigger now and it stands on a chest of drawers. And he winks and says we have to go outside, and when we go back in the drugs are gone and the reaper has fallen over off the drawers on to its face. And I say that you shouldn’t fug about and play magic tricks with more money than his overseas fees worth of drugs. Hoder!”

“What did he say to that?”

“He didn’t listen. He was upset that his statue had fallen over, and when he tried to put it back on the drawers it wasn’t very stable and it kept slipping about. And then later the guy phones me with a load of shit he’s picked up on the internet about my drugs being full of flour.”

“A commendable safety precaution. You wouldn’t give a clueless teenager hundreds of pounds worth of pure ecstasy.”

Pablo hissed. “I make sure these kids have a good time. At the moment I’m like Tesco to these kids. If one of them starts saying that I’m full of shit, they will all drop me.”

“Felipe keeps to himself. You’re still Tesco, Pablo.”

A week later Pablo left a message on my voicemail. Felipe apparently wanted help moving his shrine to a new location, but Pablo always steers clear of manual labour with the prissiness of a cat avoiding water. It was more in my line. He left me Felipe’s number and I duly contacted him.

I hired a transit van for the day. At the halls, Santa Muerte loomed over Felipe’s bedroom taller than a wardrobe. There was something awful about the thing – it looked more haggard than is customary even in a skeleton. It seemed doubtful that it was being really fattened up like a turkey. I wanted to ask Felipe whether his father was dead yet, but I sensed that he would consider this impertinent. Today I was just the removal man.

Felipe had swathed the idol’s skull in silken scarves and he was now winding a dustsheet around its golden robes. I was finally obliged to attract his attention.

“There’s no way that it’s feasible to manoeuvre this statue out of the room. Indeed, I cannot see how you ever got it in here in the first place.”

But Felipe had been waiting for me to say this. He was now rooting about under his bed and I was amazed to be handed a hard hat. Next he was dragging out a long cobwebbed limb.

It was a sledgehammer. “Er… is Pollock Halls okay with this?” I ventured.

I stood back to watch. Felipe was a slight man, but the wall around the doorway of his room was flimsy and a glancing peck from his sledgehammer caused it to rattle visibly. The wall was scathed and then gashed and then it finally caved in after a series of judicious clouts. The doorframe went too and the masonry above it. Outside, a circle of students had gathered in the corridor. “Jesus Christ defeated Death,” one girl exclaimed in an odd, shaking voice. “In your despair, you have backed a loser.”

The ceiling was squealing. Perhaps five floors of student accommodation were going to fall down into my arms. The giant parcelled saint was laid out horizontally. It slithered through the hole in the masonry and we then conducted it down the corridor. Behind us there was a staccato cough and the students in the corridor were obscured behind a cloud of fluttering plaster. The building was listing gently.

Next we were driving along country lanes. There were some woods outside Dalkeith where Felipe believed that Santa Muerte could repose undisturbed.

I had taken the precaution of working for Felipe under an assumed name. When I met Renata for lunch at the Metropole cafe the following afternoon, she leaned across the table with her eyes gleaming intrepidly to relate what Felipe had done now. He had vanished. Wasn’t that brilliant?

“I gather that to mean that he’s now living with you?”

Abruptly, she was less chirpy. Felipe had incurred the displeasure of the university; he had missed prosections and defaulted on his rent at the halls. When the accommodation authorities had charged in to recapture his bedroom, exorbitant structural damage had ranked amongst the spoils. There were now stories darting around the campus. The warden had found a pile of dead crows in Felipe’s bed and a fox’s jaw in a pillowcase. Renata had woken in the small hours of the morning to hear Felipe talking somewhere in her apartment. As the tides of sleep had lifted her up and washed her back out to the ocean, she had felt radiant. The following morning, the remains of a meal were laid out beside the kitchen stove.

I must have stunk of scepticism and she gazed at me sadly. “You just don’t seem to click, do you?”

I like to think of myself as being more liberal than Pablo and for this reason I was not yet disposed to dismiss Felipe as a “fugging kid.” “He’s different to me, Renata, and different to you too. A sort of barbarian, I suppose.”

Renata made a face. Yet the world had suddenly come to a stop – my phone was ringing.

“Mr Tycienski!” It was Dr Neilson. “I’m over at the city mortuary. It’s carnage down here!”

My reaction to this would be almost blurted out in a single word, but then I glanced snidely at Renata. “Does this concern my tip?”

“Do you know of his whereabouts?”

“Possibly. Is he in trouble?”

“Somebody has stolen a mortuary official’s security access – most likely during the last cadaver delivery to Little France. Last night, the mortuary was broken into and every body was decapitated. They’re missing seventeen heads.”

“That’s a lot of heads.”

“It’s a lot of aggravation. Relatives not unreasonably think that their loved one is incomplete without the head.”

“And they won’t know if they’re being given the correct body for cremation if the face isn’t there.”

“Am I amusing you Mr Tycienski?”

“Certainly not…” Renata’s own phone had gone off and our voices were now clashing over the table. When relating what I knew of Felipe to Dr Neilson, I raised my voice and Renata notched up hers in response. I spoke louder, striving to drown out Renata’s voice and plunge my own down her phone to flood the whole world of whoever was calling her. Her voice repelled me and our voices became tangled up, a mishmash of jarring, clattering spikes. I finally hung up, defeated now that I was silenced. Renata was finished moments later.

She was the picture of utmost woe. “He’s gone!”

I could say it this time. “Felipe?”

“He’s about to fly back to Mexico.”

“His father’s died?”

She gazed at me dumbfounded and for a moment I thought that I had been caught out. “How do you know?”

“I know everything,” I harrumphed, looking away. “Did he die violently?”

“In a gunfight with the army. It was a freak accident – he was caught in friendly fire. Oh nobody loves me!” Renata’s grief was incalculable but we both knew that it was mostly self-pity. “All men are pigs. And you!” she eyed me spitefully. “You are a great big pig! Nobody loves me! You don’t even love me!”

My editor James recently lost his flatmate’s terrier in the woods outside Dalkeith. It was trotting about in the undergrowth, and when he looked again, it was gone. There was something not quite right about that wood, James maintained. He found himself creeping stiffly, mesmerised by the stillness which winked over every briar and bramble. There were no rattling magpies and no woodpigeon chanting in its thick, sleepy voice, “It’s your fault, you know!” In fact, no birdsong at all.

Schoolchildren will float creepy stories about every unfrequented place, but their anecdotes concerning the woods outside Dalkeith correspond vividly, and often on precise details. Something tall and gangly and haggard is said to stalk amongst the trees and you can hear it coming from across the woods. One story recounts how a ring of boys had bought some drugs at Bilston Glen and then decamped to the woods to party. Although they had arrived early in a summer’s evening, they had been plunged into darkness as abruptly as if somebody had flipped a switch. For a moment, they had an impression of standing helplessly in the pitch black, simply waiting. The next morning, when they recovered, all of the drugs had vanished from their rucksack.

[R. Andrew Chesnut talks about Santa Muerte here. Tychy previously wrote about the same themes in “Memento Vitae.” Ed.

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