O Trapaceiro (The Cheater)

O Trapaceiro (The Cheater)

By: James G. Boswell

Oi, Rafaela. Tudo bom?” said the smiling old man in the jail cell. “Hey, Rafaela. Everything good?”

Olá, Senhor Camarão. Tudo bem,” Rafaela said. “Hello, Mr. Camarão. Everything’s fine.”

“What news do you bring?”

“Mr. Camarão, you’ve been mayor of Araxá for as long as anyone can remember, and you have always won your re-election campaigns before. But now that the court has convicted you of graft–”

“Alleged graft,” Camarão said.

Rafaela paused and narrowed her eyes. She’d heard the audio recording of him soliciting bribes from construction firms, and so had everyone else in the city. The local news station had played it a dozen times. It was one of the main pieces of evidence prosecutors used during his trial.

“Now that the court has convicted you of… alleged graft, you can’t run for re-election this year. The city magistrate ruled today that no one can run for mayor while they’re serving a prison sentence.”

Meu Deus,” he said as he shook his head. “My God.”

“Look, Mr. Camarão, whether you’re corrupt or not makes no difference to me. You’re one of the most important mayors in the history of Brazil. Your social reforms saved my family and many others from poverty. They also served as a model for similar reforms all over the country. People love you!”

Muito obrigado. Thank you.”

De nada. You’re welcome. The next most popular candidate in this year’s election, Eduardo Mochila, is a fascist. If he’s elected, he’ll turn Araxá into a feudal city-state and start invading the countryside like a tiny dictator. We can’t let that happen.”

Tudo o que você disse é verdade,” Camarão said, nodding with a solemn expression. “Everything you said is true. But, if I can’t run for mayor from jail, then we need a proxy, a stand-in. We need someone the people can vote for based on the belief that it’s no different than voting for me.”

“But who?”

Você, minha querida,” Camarão said. “You, my dear.”

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Rafaela said as she poured cachaça into a glass with lime juice and sugar to make a caipirinha cocktail. “I’ve never run for an elected position in my life, let alone mayor of an entire city.”

Vitória said, “Rafaela, you’ve worked for Camarão for the past seven years. You know his policies better than anyone. When you go to the debate tomorrow night, people will see that you embody his legacy of social reform.”

Rafaela leaned against the counter in Vitória’s kitchen and sipped her cocktail. “I don’t know if I have what it takes to govern.”

“I trust you, Rafaela. Besides, you couldn’t be any worse than Mochila. He would send us back to the dark ages, but you’re like a beacon of light.”

Rafaela smiled and said, “Eu gosto. I like that. I’ll use it as my campaign slogan.”

Muito bom,” Vitória said as she smiled and gave her a thumbs up. “Very good.”

“What’s that stench?” Rafaela thought as she paced back and forth backstage at the Araxá community center. “It smells like rotten eggs.”

She held her breath as she flipped through the notes she’d prepared for the debate.

“You must be Ms. Rafaela Silva,” she heard a man’s lispy voice say behind her.

She turned around and saw Eduardo Mochila standing before her. She recognized him from his campaign advertisements.

Um prazer conhece-la,” he said as he went to shake her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The horrid smell in the air seemed to intensify as he drew closer. She gagged as she placed her hand in his.

“Please forgive the odor. I took a dip in the mineral springs at Barreiro Park before I came here. That’s the one next to the old luxury hotel outside of town. I find it helps me to relax before political events such as this.”

“It’s no problem at all,” Rafaela said, placing her hand in his. Her voice strained as she struggled not to breathe through her nose.

“I trust we’ll have a nice, civil debate tonight, yes?”

As he spoke, Mochila’s voice took on a menacing tone and his eyes darkened. His grip became stronger until he was crushing Rafaela’s hand.

A woman wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard walked up and interrupted them. She said, “Candidates, please take your places onstage. The debate begins in five minutes.”

Rafaela blinked in the sunlight that shined through her bedroom window. She sat up as she yawned and stretched, glancing at her digital clock on her headboard. She looked away for a moment, then jerked her head back and looked wide-eyed at the clock.

“It’s 8 a.m. already? I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and it didn’t go off! I have a campaign rally in half an hour!”

She swung her legs out of bed and placed her bare feet on the tile floor. When she did, she stepped on a thumbtack that had been lying there with its sharp point facing up.

Ai!” she said, grimacing with pain.

She sat down on the bed and examined her foot. Wincing, she pulled the thumbtack out and a small amount of blood began to flow from the wound.

Merda,” she said as she grabbed some facial tissue from a cardboard box on her headboard. She pressed the tissue against the wound until it stuck, then she rushed into her bathroom.

She opened her medicine cabinet and saw that all her makeup had disappeared.

Porra! Who could’ve taken my makeup? I don’t have time for this!”

She ran into her bedroom and grabbed her suit out of her closet. As she did, she noticed that it had wrinkles all over it.

O que é isso? What’s this? I had my suit dry-cleaned last night. It shouldn’t have any wrinkles at all!”

After she dressed, she grabbed an apple from the fruit basket in her kitchen and ran out her front door. Hustling over to her car, she noticed a peculiar bird perched on the tree in her yard. It had brown feathers and a white crest, and it stared at her as she hurried past.

When she bit into the apple, a disgusting taste like garbage filled her mouth. She spat it out and saw that a half-eaten worm wriggled around in the fruit’s rotten flesh. She vomited, then threw the apple away and hopped into her car. When she turned the ignition, it wheezed and didn’t start.

Vamos la,” she said, shaking with frustration. “Come on.”

She tried turning the ignition twice more with the same result. On the third try, it sputtered for a few moments and then started up. Then she backed out onto the road, muttering under her breath. Traffic was fierce, and what should’ve been a 15-minute drive to the farm she was using as a rally site took more than an hour.

“Where have you been?” Vitória said as Rafaela came running up to the side of the makeshift stage where a large crowd had gathered for the rally. “No, don’t say anything, just get up there. The voters won’t wait much longer.”

Rafaela took the stage and waved at the crowd which greeted her with lukewarm applause. Despite being shaken up by the morning’s events, she proceeded to deliver an impassioned speech with soaring rhetoric. It made the audience cheer and brought them to their feet several times. Any chagrin they felt for having to wait disappeared.

But, throughout her entire speech, a brown and white bird flitted back and forth in front of her. She noticed that it looked the same as the one she’d seen outside her door that morning. She couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed as if it was trying to distract her.

After the speech, Rafaela got in her car to leave. She turned the ignition and felt relieved when it started right up without any problems. Then she pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main road.

A red light appeared after she’d gone a few kilometers. She pressed down on the brake pedal, but the car didn’t slow down. The brakes didn’t work at all.

Vitória poured two cups of coffee and brought them over to her kitchen table. She set one down next to her chair, then placed the other one in front of Rafaela.

Eu não sei o que está acontecendo,” Rafaela said. “I don’t know what’s happening. Every day for the past week something crazy and awful has happened. It’s like my luck has turned against me. And the strangest part is that I keep seeing the same weird bird everywhere I go. This whole situation is making me nervous about the election. I’m thinking about dropping out of the race.”

Pobre menina, eu sinto muito,” Vitória said, “You poor thing, I’m so sorry. But you can’t drop out now. The polls show you’re even with Mochila. You could still win.”

“I know, but I’m so worried that somehow I’m responsible for these bizarre circumstances. What if I end up losing by a landslide and get humiliated? Or, worse yet, what if I get elected and then screw everything up?”

Rafaela looked at Vitória with a defeated expression and said, “Muito louco, né? Pretty crazy, huh?”

Vitória sipped her coffee as she thought for a moment, then said, “What was that about a bird?”

“There’s this brown and white bird that seems to be following me. I’ve seen it at my home, at the campaign office, and even in your bushes as I walked up to your house today.”

“This reminds me of something I heard about before. Are you familiar with the legend of the Saci-pererê?”

Rafaela gave her a quizzical look. She said, “You mean that children’s fairytale about a mischievous spirit?”

“Yes, the Saci focuses on someone to cause them as much grief as it can. It steals and breaks their things and is even known to hurt them.”

“You think the Saci is harassing me? Now you sound crazier than I do.”

“I didn’t say that, but you should talk to someone who knows more about the subject.”


“My mom is friends with an old lady who stops by sometimes for coffee and pão de queijo, cheese bread. She says that the woman is a bruxa, a witch, and that she lives in the woods next to the mineral springs at Barreiro. I bet she could tell you more about your streak of bad luck and why it’s happening.”

Rafaela took uneasy footsteps down the narrow dirt path through the woods. The old resort, Grande Hotel de Araxá loomed behind the trees. The smell of sulfur from the nearby Barreiro mineral springs hung in the air. The stars were beginning to show in the sky through the treetops.

She continued on the path until she could no longer see the hotel. Shadows from the trees took on sinister shapes. Unseen creatures scrambled through the underbrush.

After some time, she came across a tiny mud hut with a corrugated metal roof. Faint, wavering light came from underneath its shoddy wooden door.

She knocked, and after a few moments the door opened. Standing there was a frail-looking old woman with thin, stringy white hair. She looked Rafaela up and down with a blank expression. Then, without a word, she stepped back and beckoned Rafaela inside.

Rafaela entered and saw a small cot in one corner of the room and rudimentary stove in the other. A small fire burned inside the stove, and on top of it sat several pieces of earthenware filled with various herbs, powders, and oils. A dank, earthy smell mixed with the odor of sulfur inside the hut.

The woman sat on a small plastic chair next to the stove. Then she motioned for Rafaela to sit in an empty chair across from her.

Rafaela sat down and said, “Muito obrigado, Dona Oliveira. Thank you very much, Mrs. Oliveira. Vitória’s mom said I should meet with you.”

Sim, eu sei,” Mrs. Oliveira said. “Yes, I know. I spoke with her earlier today. She said you’d be coming.”

Eu entendo. I understand. My question might sound a bit crazy, but–”

“You’ve faced a string of bad luck recently, and you want to know what’s causing it.”

“Yes, that’s correct. Vitória suggested that it could be the work of a mischievous spirit, a Saci-pererê. But that’s preposterous, isn’t it?”

Mrs. Oliveira stared at her with the same blank expression for a few moments. Then she said, “It’s not preposterous at all. Please tell me more.”

“Well, strange and unfortunate things keep happening to me and I don’t know why. Some of them are mere inconveniences, but others are serious problems, even dangerous. For example, my brakes stopped working while I was driving the other day, and I almost crashed. Later, my mechanic told me that he didn’t see anything wrong with my brakes or the rest of my car.”

“That’s strange and unfortunate indeed. But it has a logical explanation,” said Mrs. Oliveira. “It’s possible that your brakes went bad and your mechanic is incompetent. It’s also possible that someone sabotaged your brakes out of political scorn. You’re running for mayor, correct?”

Rafaela’s expression became grim. She’d never considered the possibility that someone might want to kill her over the election. The idea made her feel sick to her stomach.

“There’s something else,” Rafaela said. “A bird seems to be following me, and it’s always there whenever bad things happen.”

Mrs. Oliveira sat up with interest and said, “Oh? Tell me, does this bird have grey and brown feathers with black streaks and a white crest?”

“Yes, what does it mean?”

Mrs. Oliveira sighed, then got out of her chair and went over to a cupboard next to the stove. She opened it and took out a glass bottle the size of her hand with a cork stopper in its neck. As she did, she said, “It means you have bigger problems than bad luck.”

Rafaela lay awake in her bed as light from the full moon shined through her bedroom window. The smell of tobacco emanated from the piles of dried tobacco leaves she’d thrown all over the floor. She was about to drift off to sleep when she heard the sound of someone striking a match.

She looked over to the other side of the room. There, she saw a person’s face illuminated by burning embers inside a pipe bowl. Beneath it, she saw the outline of a man’s body in the moonlight. He wore no clothes except for a shawl around his waist, and he stood on a single leg centered under his torso.

A shiver of fear ran down Rafaela’s spine, but she ignored it and sprang into action. She grabbed a knotted rope she’d been keeping under the covers and threw it in front of the man. Then she jumped out of bed and turned on the light.

The man said, “Droga,” and knelt down on his single knee. He began trying to untie the knots in the rope with a frantic look on his face.

While his attention was distracted, Rafaela grabbed a glass of water next to her bed and poured it on him. The water turned to steam when it touched his skin, hissing as it formed a small cloud inside the room.

The man cried out and stood up. He clenched his fists, pressed his arms against his body, and closed his eyes tight. It appeared as if he was straining against something.

He repeated this gesture several more times and then looked around, confused. It was as if he was expecting something to happen that didn’t. Then he saw Rafaela holding the empty water glass and growled with rage. With anger in his eyes, he hopped at her with his arms stretched toward her neck.

Right before he came into contact, Rafaela pulled Mrs. Oliveira’s glass bottle out of her pocket. She uncorked it then held it out towards the man.

He said, “Não!” and his body dissolved into dust which then swirled through the air into the bottle. Rafaela corked it and held it up in front of her face. The bottle now appeared to contain a tiny dust storm spinning around inside of it.

Rafaela took the bottle with her as she left her house and began walking through Araxa’s hilly, winding streets. Orange-colored streetlights illuminated her path through the darkness.

An hour later, she arrived outside of Mochila’s house. A two-meter wall of smooth concrete surrounded it, topped by a small fence made of metal wire. A sign with the outline of a lightning bolt hung on the side of the wall.

On a hunch, Rafaela took an empty beer can from the street and threw it at the wire. The can bounced off of it without even making a spark.

She jumped and grabbed the edge of the wall, then pulled herself up on top of it. She brushed against the harmless wire as she wriggled over to the other side and dropped down into the yard. From there, she snuck over to an open window and crawled into Mochila’s home.

As she entered, the stench of sulfur struck her like a brick in the face. She gagged as she crouched against the wall and waited for her eyes to adjust. Soon, she could see that she was in the house’s living room. She crouch-walked through the doorway into a dark hall that led into a small courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a wooden podium. Upon it sat a glass case with a red cap inside.

As Rafaela drew closer to the cap, the bottle in her pocket began to shake. She snuck over to the case and tried to open it but could find no way to do so. She shrugged, then pushed the case off the podium and it shattered all over the tile floor. The smell of sulfur intensified and she dry-heaved for several moments.

She began to uncork the bottle when she heard the sound of a gun cocking behind her. When she turned around, she saw Mochila pointing a pistol at her with a look of silent outrage.

“How dare you come into my home and start destroying my things?” he said. “I should shoot you where you stand.”

Rafaela put her hands up while holding the small glass bottle in her right hand. Mochila noticed it and a look of realization crossed his face. He held his hand out and took a step towards her as he said, “Give that to me.”

Rafaela dropped the bottle and it shattered on the ground next to the red cap. A giant whirlwind exploded from it, knocking both of them off their feet. As he fell, Mochila dropped his gun and it clattered down the hallway.

The wind was so strong that it pushed them up against the courtyard walls. Glass shards flew everywhere, and the howl was deafening. Rafaela covered her face with her arms.

The wind dissipated and the Saci materialized in the courtyard. He stooped down to pick up his red cap and then put it on his head. The instant it touched his scalp, the smell of sulfur in the air vanished. He made the same straining gesture as he had in Rafaela’s house, and his body changed into that of a brown and white bird. He then flew up into the night sky and disappeared.

Rafaela stood up and marched over to where Mochila was lying on the ground. She shook with rage as she hovered over him.

Você é um trapaceiro!” she said, pointing her finger at him. “You’re a cheater!”

“What do you mean?” Mochila said, his voice quivering with fear.

“Mrs. Oliveira, the witch who lives in the woods next to Barreiro, told me about the legend of the Saci-pererê. She said that if you steal his magic cap then he must do your bidding. You must have stolen his cap and then forced him to direct his mischief at me. You wanted to frighten and confuse me so that I’d doubt myself and drop out of the race. And you almost succeeded, too! He stole my things, he destroyed my property, and he almost killed me! This is what you must do to win an election? This is what you call being a politician?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mentiroso,” Rafaela said with disgust. “Liar. The legend also says that if you steal the Saci’s cap, a horrible stench will follow you no matter where you go. You reeked of sulfur for this reason, not because you went swimming in the mineral springs.”

Mochila let out a defeated sigh and said, “Sim, você está certo. Yes, you’re right. I happened upon the Saci during a walk in Barreiro before my election campaign began. I must’ve caught him by surprise, because it was easy for me to steal his magic cap and thus force him to do my bidding. When he asked me what my wish was, I told him I wanted to win the election more than anything else. I didn’t know that he’d torment you as you say he did. Eu sinto muito. I’m sorry.”

Rafaela relaxed as she considered his words, then held her hand out him. He grabbed it and she pulled him up.

“Mr. Mochila, it seems that while your wish to the Saci-pererê has disrupted my campaign, it hasn’t ruined it. You and I are still even in the polls.”

Sim, isso é verdade,” he said. “Yes, that’s true.”

“That means it’s only fair if I receive a wish as well, a wish that you must honor.”

“Understood. What do you have in mind?

“I wish that we have a fair election that represents the will of the people of Araxá without any further trickery. Agreed?”

Sim, eu concordo. Yes, I agree.”

Olá, Prefeito Silva,” Camarão said as Rafaela approached his jail cell, a smile beaming on his face. “Hello, Mayor Silva.”

“Hello, Mr. Camarão. It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise. Have you come to plan our strategy for governing the city now that you’ve won the election?”

“No, Mr. Camarão, I’m here to tell you that I’ll be moving forward without your help.”

O que?” he said as his face fell. “What?”

“I’ve decided that Araxá needs a new direction. One in which your social reforms continue but without your legacy of corruption. I hope you can understand.”

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