Bellini and the Sphinx

Bellini and the Sphinx

by Tony Bellotto

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Overview

Included in CrimeReads's list of February's Best International Crime Fiction

Included in Chicago Review of Books's list of Winter's Best Thrillers

Included in CBC Radio's The Homestretch's Fall 2019 Mystery Selections

"Bellini and the Sphinx is the American debut for the wildly popular Sao Paulo-based crime series written by Bellotto, the celebrated Brazilian guitarist and writer. His private eye, Remo Bellini, is a conscious homage to Philip Marlowe and the classic noir American detectives, but with an identity all his own and a milieu, the streets of Sao Paulo, that are as alive and mysterious as any you'll come across in the genre. American readers have waited too long for this, but they'll finally get the chance to visit Brazil through Bellotto/Bellini's eyes."
--Literary Hub

Included in CrimeReads's List of The Most Anticipated Crime Books of 2019

"Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, Bellotto's series opener introduces Remo Bellini, a private eye in the tradition of Spade and Marlowe but distinctively Brazilian...Bellotto's detective, less ironic and more earnest in his angst than his American counterparts, proves a compelling guide to the passionate world of São Paulo."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Previously published in Brazilian rock musician Bellotto's native country, the São Paolo–set noir follows private detective Remo Bellini, who is investigating the disappearance of several women connected to the underworld and the related murder of a famed surgeon. Bellotto says he modeled his PI on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and that the plot, which involves prostitutes and live-sex performers, evokes two classically intertwined themes: sex and death."
--Publishers Weekly

"Private detective Remo Bellini plunges into the underworld of São Paulo in search of [a] missing dancer at the behest of her married lover, a renowned surgeon, who soon turns up dead."
--Publishers Weekly, Included in Spring 2019 Announcements / Mysteries & Thrillers

"The dialogue and interactions between [Remo and Dora Loba] are fantastic, and lent some much-needed lightness to the story. Both of these characters are well-drawn and thoughtful, so I do hope that these books continue to be translated for us English readers."
--I've Read This

"Bellini is a classic private eye, having fallen into the career from a failed attempt at the law...If a reader were interested in knowing what hard-boiled detective fiction is all about, this would be a good place to start."
--The Cyberlibrarian

"Bellini and the Sphinx is an enjoyable light ride, with enough variety to keep readers interested."
--The Complete Review

"Tony Bellotto has written his novel in the best noir tradition. The book, in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, grips the reader from beginning to surprising end. Bellini and the Sphinx is a landmark in Western crime fiction."
--Paulo Lins, author of City of God

Who is the missing dancer Ana Cíntia Lopes? Why did her coworkers, Camila and Dinéia, disappear? What does the voluptuous prostitute Fatima want? Who killed renowned surgeon Dr. Samuel Rafidjian? And what is the role of the hulking live-sex performer known as the Indian?

To confront the puzzle of several sphinxes, most of them female, private detective Remo Bellini plunges into the underworld of São Paulo. Little by little, the mysteries unravel in a surprising fashion, until the solving of the final enigma leaves Bellini perplexed, with a bitter taste in his mouth.

Translated from Brazilian Portuguese into English by Clifford E. Landers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617756627
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Tony Bellotto is the author of the best-selling Bellini mystery novels, which have been released as major feature films and translated widely, establishing him as the preeminent writer of Brazilian detective fiction. He is also a guitarist and songwriter for the famed Brazilian rock band Titãs (the Titans), which has released twenty albums and sold over six million albums. Bellotto writes for the newspaper O Globo and hosts a television show. He is the editor of Rio Noir and São Paulo Noir, both published by Akashic Books.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

MAY 17

Thursday

1

Before I was awake I could already hear the annoying sound of a telephone ringing insistently. I was floating in an intermediate state between deep sleep and wakefulness and arose to hear my own voice grunting in an attempt (futile) to say hello.

I recognized Rita's high-pitched voice yelling from the other end of the line: "Bellini! Where've you been? Dora wants to see you at two o'clock sharp."

"What time is it?" I asked with a yawn.

"Ten till noon. I've been calling all morning. Where were you?"

"Sleeping," I replied, and she knew that a phone call wasn't always enough to make me open my eyes.

I said goodbye with a "Be there right away," leaped out of bed, took a cold shower, shaved.

I walked down Peixoto Gomide to the August Moon, at the intersection with Alameda Santos, and sat down in one of the sidewalk chairs. Antonio, the waiter, served me my usual salami sandwich with provolone cheese on French bread, cold beer on tap, and a short and bitter espresso, no sugar. "What's up?" he asked.

"Possibly a new case. I don't know yet ..."

"Adultery?"

"Must be."

The sky was a blue that can only exist in May. I took a taxi to the Itália Building, where Dora Lobo commanded her investigations.

Routine cases of adultery made up the greatest part of our work, which was mostly boring (I dozed off for a few seconds during the ride).

I went into the office on the fourteenth floor. Rita greeted me with her ironic and inevitable "good morning." I caught Lobo in her private office, enjoying two of her favorite habits: smoking an American Tiparillo cigarette and playing Paganini at high volume.

It was a good sign.

2

I had been working for Dora Lobo, Detective Lobo as she was known, for a year.

She told me to sit, turned down the volume of the Paganini using the remote control lying on her desk, and after a deep drag put out what was left of the cigarette.

"Yesterday, in the early afternoon, I received a phone call from a man who wanted to meet me in 'absolute confidentiality,' as he repeated several times, 'after eight at night.' He identified himself as 'Dr. Rafidjian, pediatric surgeon.' At eight thirty he showed up, a very tall, thin guy with a long, melancholy face, somewhere between forty-five and fifty, extremely shy. Know who he made me think of?"

"No."

"Don Quixote. Kind of stooped over, he was carrying a doctor's bag and an umbrella. He sat down, resting the bag and the umbrella on his knees, and asked me in an almost inaudible voice, 'Do you guarantee me absolute confidentiality?' I answered, 'Confidentiality is the primordial condition for the exercise of an investigation.'"

Dora and her phrases, I thought, while she opened a drawer and took out a printed sheet of paper and slid it across the desk for me to take a look. It was the contract.

"The man begged: 'I need you to discover the whereabouts of a young woman. A girl barely eighteen named Ana Cíntia Lopes. She was a dancer at the Dervish, a nightclub on Rua Augusta. A little over a month ago she simply disappeared.' Desperate at the girl's sudden vanishing, Don Quixote decided on his own to interrogate employees and customers of the Dervish in search of her whereabouts. The investigation was a dead end; to his surprise, no one there knew an Ana Cíntia Lopes."

3

"How could anyone at the Dervish not know her if you yourself said she worked there as a dancer?"

"I implore you to respect my constraints. Because of my reputation I have always avoided frequenting such places. Speaking frankly, Mrs. Lobo, I've never been inside the Dervish or any other nightclub. Therefore, it was Ana Cíntia herself who told me she worked there as a dancer."

"Then you admit she lied?"

"Maybe ..."

"Lied when she said her name was Ana Cíntia, or when she claimed she worked at the Dervish?"

"I don't know, and that's why I'm here. To find out."

"Mr. Rafidjian, be more clear! How did you meet Ana Cíntia if you never set foot in the Dervish or any other such establishment?"

"I never went in, but for some time now I've been an uncommitted voyeur ..."

"What do you mean?"

"I would park my car on the opposite side of the street and study the movement of people in front of the Dervish. Whenever I had some free time between visits with patients, I was there in my car, observing. That was how I noticed a dark-complexioned young woman with brown eyes filled with indescribable sadness. I always saw her. Going in, coming out, or just standing on the sidewalk. I fell in love before she even knew I existed. One day I worked up the courage to ask her to get into my car and go for a drive ..."

"And then?"

"She accepted."

4

Rafidjian and Ana Cíntia started meeting periodically, at times previously agreed upon by telephone. This went on for six months, more or less. At the beginning of April they set up a meeting as usual in front of the Dervish. Ana Cíntia didn't show up. After that, Don Quixote had no word of her: the girl had disappeared without a trace.

Dora stared at me in silence after recounting the exchange. I looked at her hair, still luxuriant for a woman of sixty. The picture of a successful woman: independent, living alone, subtly ambiguous (single), discreetly egocentric (only child), and absolutely proud of an intelligence as intimidating as a gun pointed at your forehead.

"Obviously, before Rafidjian left, I put him through a series of questions: Where did Ana Cíntia live? Did she have friends? Relatives here in São Paulo or another city? Was she in danger — did she feel threatened? Enemies? Pimps, protectors? Did she use drugs? To each of these the doctor shook his head. Finally, he said: 'I know nothing about her. I do know she's pure, ingenuous, childlike, and why not say it, a bit diabolical ...' After that odd comment he said good night and that was all."

I shifted my gaze to the Persian carpet spread under the desk and asked, "Is there a photo of the girl?"

"No, just a vague description: brown shoulder-length hair, dark eyes and thick eyebrows, a squarish face, and a slim body with muscular legs. No distinguishing moles, marks, or scars."

Dora got up, went to the cabinet, poured herself a glass of port. She offered me a Scotch, which I didn't refuse. We toasted, drank. She went to the window, looked down at the cars moving along Avenida Ipiranga.

"I guess I should begin by gathering some information over on Rua Augusta," I concluded. "Starting tonight at the Dervish. Keep me informed."

She returned to her desk and consulted her appointment book. "Call Iório, in the Fourth Precinct." She shoved a sheet of paper toward me with a phone number. "He's a friend and knows the area well." She picked up the remote and Paganini came back at full volume. Then she extended her hand and dismissed me by pointing the wineglass in my direction. "Good luck, Bellini."

Bellini. My name is Remo. Remo Bellini. It so happens that I detest that name Remo, and there's a good reason for it. Let me explain: on a certain fifth of June I was expelled from the womb of Livia Bellini along with my twin brother Romulo. The idea of baptizing the newborns with the names of the legendary founders of Rome came from Tulio Bellini, our father.

Tulio, at the time a young criminal lawyer just starting his career, was overflowing with paternal pride at learning he had sired two identical beings, male and primogenitary.

For a short time, however. Unexpectedly, as is its style, fate threw a bomb at Livia and Tulio: Romulo, unable to resist, succumbed to an attack of pneumonia two days after birth.

That's when my problems began.

5

I was forming a mental image of Ana Cíntia Lopes as I stepped into the taxi. "Avenida Paulista, corner of Peixoto Gomide."

On the radio, a baritone with a modulated voice was singing an aria. Opera singers always made me think of my father. I can still hear his voice saying: If Romulo had survived, I'm certain I wouldn't have to live with so many disappointments. Of course he blamed me for almost all of them. Or: If a word to the wise is sufficient, you would need four or five. A pity that most of the time, ten or eleven aren't even enough. At the same time, phrases like that instilled in me a secret desire to redeem Romulo's absence, fueled an unspoken rivalry between the two of us (as if death, in a terrible mistake, had taken the wrong brother, the one born to fulfill paternal expectations).

I was alone then, unprotected, besieged by a father who attributed to me his disappointments, and by the silent specter of my brother, bearing on my shoulders two ridiculous names that were nothing more than the cold expression of the pedantry of Tulio Bellini: Romulo and Remo.

Gradually I became Remo the Two-in-One.

That sounds strange, even funny, but it faithfully expresses how I felt for much of my childhood, a two-in-one. And it also explains why, from an early age, whenever I was asked my name I would just reply, "Bellini." By freeing myself of Remo I also freed myself of Romulo, and was able to live a normal life with a normal name: just Bellini.

In the old Baronesa de Arary building, where I rented a kitchenette, I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Muddy Waters on tape. My neighbor, an elderly spinster, banged on the wall several times to complain about the noise, at one point waking me from a confused dream in which a dog was growling at me but I didn't feel the slightest fear.

6

At the Dervish I asked a barman with an opaque gaze if any dancer had disappeared in the last few weeks. He pointed me toward a guy sitting at a table: "That's a question for Khalid. Ask him." Khalid was a solid man, a little past fifty, with abundant hair and a black mustache.

"Khalid's your boss?" I asked.

"Khalid and his brother Tufik are the managers. But before you get too excited, be careful. He's a weird guy."

I went over to the table where the Bedouin (Khalid looked like a Bedouin) was sitting lost in thought, smoking a Bahian cigar and staring into infinity.

"Mr. Khalid?"

He looked at me gently. "Yes, son?"

"I'm looking for a missing dancer. Her name is Ana Cíntia Lopes."

"Police?"

"No. Lobo Private Investigations."

"Have a seat. Want something to drink?"

"No thank you."

"Ana Cíntia Lopes." He thought for several seconds while blowing cigar smoke in my direction (a Suerdieck, I supposed). "I don't know her."

"Have any of the dancers suddenly disappeared?" I pressed.

Khalid raised his eyebrows in an expression of powerlessness, then bared his teeth in a smile. "They disappear all the time, don't they?" Assuming a complicitous air, as if we were simply two old buddies catching up in a bar, he went on: "They're always making trouble, but like we say around here, they're a necessary evil. Where would the fun be in life without them? You tell me, Mr. Detective, where would the fun be in life without them, huh?"

That "huh" carried unexpected aggressiveness. I felt I should respond, though I had little desire for that kind of conversation.

"Right ... no fun."

Khalid gave another derisive smile. "The name doesn't matter, there are so many of them! And deep down they're all alike. Why bother with one of them when deep down they're all alike, huh?"

That "huh" was even more unsettling.

"They're all alike, that's it," I said.

"Ana Cíntia, Ana this, Ana that ... For every one that vanishes five more show up the next day. Maria Something-or-Other, Maria From-Somewhere, Maria Don't-Know-Who ... What difference does the name make? Ha ha ha ... What difference does the name make if what we're looking for in all of them has the same name: pussy!"

7

There was something hysterical in Khalid. He continued his explanation about women: "Take it from me, women are an illusion. And dancers even more so. Don't believe your own eyes, don't believe your own nose, don't believe your own senses. And above all, don't believe your own dick!" Khalid sucked on his cigar lewdly, smoke mixing with the incessant gush of words from his mouth. "Women are like champagne: they seem real but they only exist as long as there's music in the air. I can prove it."

The conversation was becoming too philosophical for my taste. "Sir, I'm only trying to find out if any of the dancers disappeared recently —"

"Forget that nonsense, son. Looking for a dancer ... a waste of time! I'm gonna prove to you that woman are an illusion. Close your eyes."

"What?"

"Close your eyes, detective!" he ordered, pointing his cigar in the direction of the stage where naked dancers gyrated to music.

I closed my eyes. (Don't contradict a crazy man, he might be armed, Dora would say.)

"And now, what do you sense?"

"I hear lousy music and can smell a cigar."

"A cigar? Don't play me for a fool, detective. You smell pussy. And you know what? They all smell the same."

"Honestly, Mr. Khalid —"

"Don't get me wrong," he interrupted. "What I mean is that you couldn't distinguish an Ana ... Ana ..."

"Cíntia," I supplied.

"An Ana Cíntia from a Maria de Fatima by the smell of their ... vaginas. Women are all the same. Keep your eyes closed and try not to breathe for a moment ... Do it!"

I closed my eyes again and pinched my nostrils, asking myself what I was doing there.

"And now, detective, what do you sense?"

"I hear busic," I said, with my nostrils still shut.

"You see? Women don't exist. They're an illusion. Like champagne, like music!" He now placed his hand on mine. "Don't cause any trouble in my house, huh? The customers don't like it." He smiled with infinite goodness. "Now, with your permission, Khalid is leaving. Good luck, son."

He got up and vanished into the darkness of the Dervish.

For several minutes I was unable to react. Gradually, the pile-driving reverberation of the strident music brought me out of my lethargy. I observed the mechanical movement of the dancers onstage; one of them smiled lasciviously at me.

If that was an illusion, at least it was an illusion with large, succulent breasts.

8

Her hair was long and black like an odalisque, and her eyes shone like a snake's. (I don't know if a snake's eyes actually shine, but at that moment in my imagination they did).

I remained seated at the table where Khalid had just taught me some of the secrets of female nature. The place smelled musty. I asked the waitress for a beer. For someone who said women were an illusion, he kept a large number of them at his service. She poured the beer from a dark bottle, filling the glass till the foam spilled out. She smiled. I took a slow sip, pointed the glass toward the dancer, and used it to trace an imaginary ellipse, inviting her to the table. She responded with her hands while soundlessly moving her lips, miming the word later. And then she went on dancing, looking at me with those lascivious eyes.

After ten minutes, she sat down beside me.

"Something to drink?" I asked.

"Anything."

I ordered more beer.

"What's your name?"

"Fatima, and yours?"

"Bellini."

A few seconds of silence.

"Fatima, I think you can help me."

"I can?" She smiled ambiguously.

"Not the way you're thinking."

"No? Are you sure?"

"Fatima, I'm not sure of anything. Never have been. Don't ask me if I'm sure of a single thing."

"Oh." She frowned, made a wry face, then said, "So tell me, Bellini, how can I help you?"

"I'm looking for a girl named Ana Cíntia Lopes."

"Who?"

Maybe Khalid was right, and Ana Cíntia was just an illusion of Dr. Rafidjian's.

"Ana Cíntia!" I said impatiently. "Or some other name — whatever. But she works here, or used to work here."

"Not by that name. No." With suspicion in her eyes, she asked, "Are you a cop?"

"Do I look like a cop?"

She stared at me intensely and then said: "Yes."

"I look like a cop? Me? Well, you know what you look like?"

Fatima's eyes widened as she awaited the answer.

"A whore."

"But I am a whore!"

9

Yes, I have problems with being mistaken for a cop. The provocation of calling her a whore hadn't worked, so I resumed the conversation on a softer note.

"I'm a private detective, Fatima."

"And what's the difference between a private detective and a police detective?"

"The same as between the bathroom in my house and a public urinal."

"But I've never seen the bathroom in your house," she said.

"Okay, Fatima, I get the feeling you don't want to help me."

"No, I'm just kidding ... I understood what you meant. You feel you're morally better than a cop, is that it?"

"That's it."

"Then tell me what this Ana Cíntia is like."

I took some time to formulate the reply: "I don't know."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Bellini and the Sphinx"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Tony Bellotto.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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