"That guy over there, sitting with the blonde, that's Nando Barragán."
Word runs quickly through the dimly lit bar. It's him, Nando Barragán. A hundred eyes steal furtive glances at him. Fifty mouths speak his name.
"There he is. He's one of them."
Wherever the Barragáns go, they are followed by murmuring, cursed through clenched teeth, secretly admired, deeply hated. They live on constant display. No longer allowed to be themselves, they have become what people say and think about them, living legends, constructed from the lies told about them. Their lives are no longer their own, but have become public domain. They are idolized, repudiated, imitated, and, most of all, feared.
"Sitting there at the bar, that's the boss, Nando Barragán."
The words glide across the dance floor, passing from table to table, and are multiplied in the mirrors on the ceiling. The palpable fear is diminished somewhat by the black lights, but a sharp tension cuts through the clouds of smoke, disrupting the tempo of the boleros coming from the jukebox. Couples stop dancing. The beams of light from the mirrored balls glow blue and violet, warning of danger. Palms become sweaty and hair on the backs of necks stands up. Ignoring the whispers and detached from the commotion that his presence produces, Nando Barragán, huge and yellow-skinned, smokes a Pielroja cigarette as he sits on a tall stool at the bar.
"What color is his skin?"
"Burned yellow, just like his brothers'."
His face is pocked with holes as if he had been attacked by birds, and his nearsighted eyes are hidden behind black Ray-Bans with reflective lenses. A greasy T-shirt shows beneath his guayabera shirt. From a heavy chain over the ample chest, hairless and glistening with sweat, a solid gold cross of Caravaca, heavy and powerful, hangs ostentatiously.
"The Barragáns all wear the cross of Caravaca. It's their good luck charm. They use it to ask for money, health, love, and happiness."
"They may ask for all four things, but the cross brings them only money. The others, they've never had and they never will."
Next to Nando, on another stool, a corpulent, formidable blonde crosses her legs provocatively. She is squeezed tightly into a black elastic bodysuit, a disco mesh, through which a large amount of mature skin and a satin bra, size 40C, can be seen. Her colorless, plain eyes are heavy with mascara, eyeliner, and shadow. She throws her head back and her long blond hair whips her back like stiff straw, revealing black roots. Moving with the sensuality of an alley cat, she has the mysterious dignity of an ancient goddess.
Nando Barragán looks at her adoringly and his crude warrior's heart melts drop by drop, like a holy taper burning on an altar.
"The years have been kind to you. You're beautiful, Milena. Just like you always were," he says, then punishes his throat with the raw smoke of his Pielroja.
"And you, all covered with gold," says the blonde, her voice hoarse and sensual. "When we met you were poor."
"I'm still the same man."
"They say you have cellars full of dollars, all piled up. They say your dollars are rotting, that you have so many you don't know what to do with them."
"They say a lot of things. Come back to me."
"You went with that foreigner to get away from here. You went so far you forgot all about me."
"It was a bad memory. They say you leave only widows and orphans behind. What evil things have you done to make so much money?"
The man doesn't respond. He downs a shot of whiskey and chases it with Leona Pura. The sparkling bubbles of the clear soda bring back a vague memory of children playing baseball in the dirt, with broomsticks for bats and bottle caps for balls.
The Monsalve gang enters and all hell breaks out. Nando Barragán and the blond woman are still at the bar, their backs to the entrance, and the burst of shrapnel throws them into the air.
"Nando and the blonde were talking and kissing, with their legs intertwined, when they were shot. I was there, in the bar, and I saw it with my own eyes."
No. That night Nando never touched Milena. He treats her with the respect that men have for the women who have left them. He talks to her, but he does not touch her. All he can do is look at her longingly.
"How do you know how he looked at her if he was wearing sunglasses? It's just talk. Everybody says what he thinks, but nobody really knows anything."
People are not so naive, they know what's going on. Nando's suffering was plain to see, like a faded aura around his body. When he's with Milena he loses his reflexes. He can't sense the danger lurking around him, because it's overshadowed by a deep anxiety that makes him forget everything but her. And he trembles. She's the only person who's ever made him tremble. She's the only one who ever said no to him.
Excerpted from Leopard in the Sun by Laura Restrepo. Copyright © 2000 by Laura Restrepo. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.