THE BUSINESS OF CORPSE CONTRABAND
It was a special squad with a very special responsibility. They’d assigned it to a division trained in money matters, fiscal fraud and contraband, but what they did went far beyond the usual activities for these types of cases. This was a squad that dealt with dead people. Of course this is a bit unusual, in fact I should say it’s something entirely unique, although they didn’t deal with everyday cadavers. Instead, they handled very special ones – shall we say corpses with pedigrees?
Let’s get things perfectly straight: the members of this squad were not gravediggers nor forensics nor anything of that sort. Their role was actually to keep the cadavers from moving around, from one spot to another, and there was not exactly a job description for that. Besides, if those dead bodies refused to travel in first class it wasn’t because they couldn’t pay the price of the ticket but simply because they were discreet. That’s why they preferred the holds of airplanes or, as a worst-case scenario, they’d travel in the holds of shipping vessels. There were also some that moved around in a van, but that depended on the distance and the circumstances. Still, this whole business certainly didn’t have anything to do with zombies. We all know that’s for B-rated movies. The most famous dead people usually traveled with somebody and if on the outside chance they had to travel alone, the sender’s address and the recipient were always indicated very clearly on the package. You know, just in case anything happened. Some people knew there were insurance companies that offered extremely expensive policies on the sly because they could make out like bandits doing that. If everything went as planned…
Those men, carefully selected for the job, had as their one and only mission making sure everyone stayed in his or her place, and in this case it was clear those places were only supposed to be graves, niches or mausoleums. I really should point out that their work was not motivated by a simple Christian sense of charity, a sense of compassion, a desire for hygiene and cleanliness, or anything of that sort. They did it because they were professionals and because there was a lot of money floating around these cadavers that was not under the watchful eye of the Internal Revenue Service. That’s also why the squad existed, precisely since it was a business that involved millions of dollars that weren’t on the administration’s radar screen. Because the activity they were supposed to control was going on day in and day out, the feds were always trying to stop it. As a result, the squad’s work was by no means easy. Plus, the results weren’t always immediate.
It operated throughout the country and had a close relationship with the FBI, the CIA, Interpol and other groups of that sort where this type of merchandise was in demand. For reasons that will be explained further on, the squad’s base was in Los Angeles, but the agents didn’t have their own building and they didn’t wear any visible badges that distinguished them from their comrades in the force. They occupied a floor in the old Beverly Hills Commissary and their identity as an operative unit was kept strictly confidential. In general their colleagues looked at them in a condescending manner because of the business they had to deal with. We mustn’t forget that corpses smell…
One could say they suffered fewer risks than the other detectives because they dealt with dead bodies. Of course that’s not exactly a pleasant task, even though the dead don’t shoot. Nevertheless, the men and women of that special squad were passionate about their job. They didn’t have to put up with common delinquents and the persons they went after were rich, sometimes multimillionaires. They were bizarre folks who had a strange way of having fun. That’s why some of their best agents had been chosen. They were knowledgeable in the field of psychology, experts in pathology or forensic medicine and had nerves of steel. The least important requirement for these agents was their skill in using a weapon. Among the required activities, shooting was at the bottom of the list. They weren’t dealing with murderers at all. They were dealing with psychopaths and swanky perverts.
Trafficking in dead bodies had been fairly rare up until recent years and was considered to be part of what went on in your run-of-the-mill contraband, but once it was discovered that there was a lucrative trade involving large sums of money and motivated by the availability of very unique cadavers, the decision was made to fight against it in an organized manner. Those specialists didn’t have to worry about the option of organs for transplants, fetuses used to make cosmetics or even clandestine comings and goings of deceased individuals in order to avoid a complicated and serious bureaucracy, when the only thing the families wanted to do was bury them. There were others who dealt with those things.
Their biggest coup, their most spectacular success, was when they uncovered the business of Eva Perón’s corpse in an operation that had been internationally orchestrated. A cell of sentimental radicals had tried to get her body back to Argentina for their political benefit. Few people knew that it was hidden in that chalet on the outskirts of Madrid. So, acting quickly to intervene, the members of the squad kept it from being returned to its country of origin for a new purpose and saw that it got buried immediately. They were the only ones who knew the whole morbid story, the one about all the things that had been done to the mummified body of the mythical Evita. That’s a whole other topic, however.
Even though they really had a lot on their plate dealing with two cases linked to Russia, lately they’d been concentrating on the high-paying sale of film stars, which had a lot of current activity and involved astronomical amounts of dollars, equivalent to the money generated by drug cartels. The Russian side of the operation, coordinated with the ever-controversial KGB, was studying the possibility that the growing Moscow mafia intended to sell Lenin’s mummy to a big oil boss from Africa. There was also the suspicion that some time back this same organization had placed Stalin’s remains in the hands of a collector of historical souvenirs somewhere in America. The point was, they’d confirmed that the bloody dictator was not in his tomb and that was a real can of worms.
Fortunately, it turned out things had all fallen into place so the first case could be solved quickly. Of course this had to be done discreetly, which meant sacrificing the good publicity this would bring to the squad’s public image. The situation inside the country, with sectors of the old Communist regime putting pressure on Yeltsin’s tired administration, made it inadvisable to broadcast the affair. They were afraid news like that would cause an uncontrollable uproar, and would really upset a society that was already up in arms over the economic crisis, gangster activities, and the recent bloody mess with Chechnya.
The point is that they had to use absolute discretion in all their investigations and for very understandable reasons. It obviously wasn’t much fun to be laid to eternal rest and then, because you’d been famous, having to end up wandering about, going from one place to another, being traded around as if you were a baseball card. On the other hand, it wasn’t fair that just because of cases like these the cemeteries might no longer be able to be public places and the graves were being turned into bunkers made of reinforced concrete.
The squad was located in Los Angeles because this city was the center of the cadaver collectors’ operations. The collectors were a group of bold-faced liars and corporations working in the export business on an international level. Hollywood liked to brag about having as many stars in the ground as there were in the sky. Many of these stars, inaccessible during their lifetimes, were now within reach simply because they’d been laid to rest in cemeteries. Some graves had become real pilgrimage sites. Put a famous dead person in a cemetery and you’d have a money-maker for sure. Still, in spite of the abundant supply of what you might call slabs of cold meat, it wasn’t exactly easy for the members of the squad to get a grasp on the vague connections that would lead them to the providers and consumers of those delicatessen items.
Memorial Park was considered to be one of the most coveted spots to carry out this disgusting yet very popular activity. There were other cemeteries as well, but they were more modest. Those didn’t have the same reputation, even if they had the good fortune of receiving other stars who hadn’t left orders for their remains to be cremated. Like the majority of film personalities, they’d been careful to have themselves embalmed, and so the guarantee that their bodies would remain intact heightened the public’s interest in them while at the same time increasing their monetary value. In fact, the squad had a price list – it was mind-boggling – they’d confiscated from one of these odd organizations. The amounts were staggering. You could pay up to a million dollars for a banged-up old skeleton, as long as it belonged to a famous, well-known individual.
That third floor in Beverly Hills was not like the others in the building either as far as the access into its inner sanctum. It had the best communication technology and a small but sophisticated laboratory that allowed them to identify any remains that they’d confiscated in just a few hours. There was a computer that was ironically named Sky because of the data they kept in it regarding such celestial beings as the stars of Hollywood. It stored all their personal and clinical information along with the psychological profiles of dozens of personalities who’d earned their fame in Movie Land. Sky had a success rate of ninety-nine per cent.
Recently the equipment had not been used much because several members of the squad had been working for several months on a suspected operation in Westwood Memorial Park. That operation seemed to have been successfully stymied, but the agents suspected that it was just the opposite. These smugglers in particular used highly advanced technology, and were offering huge amounts of money to achieve their goals. It wasn’t always easy to crack a case because the traders also had good legal covers, seeing’s how they were able to make use of the best and most contentious lawyers. Despite having kept them under surveillance for some time, the squad’s findings hadn’t achieved the desired results. They had clues and some evidence, but after that the investigations had stalled.
Well, things were just about to change.
Translated from Galician by Kathleen March