The Cleaner: Alexander

For a long time now, the end had been the beginning. That was how Donovan Tavera had come to see his work, and that’s what he was thinking as he walked down the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City on a spring day in early 2021. The morning was stifling; a choking hotch-potch of heat, gasoline, dirt and dust. But, as we walked, I noticed that Donovan seemed unmoved by his surroundings. His broad shoulders swung back and forth, and his long grey hair, scraped back into a sleek ponytail, glinted in the sunlight. His face was long and stoic, like an Easter Island statue.

Donovan’s job was death. The 48-year-old Mexican knew people thought him strange – so many people, from mocking friends to snooping journalists, had asked him why he did what he did. But Donovan knew he had always wanted to be where he was. He was the person who took the call that no one else would; the person who came to your house, your flat, your shop, to take care of your problem. Donovan would later tell me he was a man who banished old and hurtful memories and salvaged normality from chaos.

Above us, the torrid, drugging sun beat down on the avenue’s looming skyscrapers, its glimmer swiping at my peripheral vision. Men in boxy black suits, muttering into phones, swaggered past en route to their corporate towers. Everything about them seemed to shine: their slick hair, their shimmering watches, their buffed brogues.

Donovan, too, prided himself on how he looked, especially when he had to meet a client for the first time. That day, he was wearing a camel-coloured jacket, a white dress shirt, loose-fitting jeans and pointy black shoes. Sometimes, when he felt the occasion called for it, he would even put on a tie. For Donovan, it was all about being professional, about acting appropriately in each given situation.

Donovan spotted the person he was supposed to meet: a young, skinny man, wearing baggy jeans and chunky, oversized white trainers, who was prowling the pavement outside a glass-fronted shop. Donovan stuck out his right arm to shake hands. The man nodded back, fiddling with his fingers and scratching the inside of his calf with the heel of his shoe. “Hi, you’re Donovan, right,” he said. “My colleague spoke to you, I think. You know, we were national news because of this. I mean, I still can’t believe it … Do you think you’ll take long? I think it should be quick, no?”

“Show me where it is and I’ll be able to tell you more details,” Donovan said.

“Right, right, sorry. This way, follow me.”

The young man fumbled with the chunky padlock and chain that secured the large glass door. He pushed it open with some effort and rushed by the stacks of trainers and the tall mirrors. He took us past the counter to a small hallway with a stairwell that led to the first floor. There, he stopped abruptly, standing unnaturally straight, like an exclamation mark.

“Look,” he said. “That’s where he died.”

The first thing we saw was the blood. It was everywhere: on the floor, the walls, the mirrors, underneath the skirting board. A thick, carmine-coloured puddle showed the spot where the body had once been.

Donovan had seen many crimes like this one. There had been so much violence in his life. Once, he might have asked himself why it had to happen and what it all meant. Now, he rarely had time for such thoughts. He was focused on the facts, on getting the job done. A man had been murdered in a shootout at a high-end shoe store in the centre of Mexico City, and he had to clean up.

As Donovan stood beneath the showroom’s numbing fluorescent light, next to the stacks of gleaming shoes, listening to the chatter of the shop manager, he began to imagine the crime.

“Three robbers entered through the main door; the youngest one – medium height, dark hair – he pulled out his gun,” the young man said.

Donovan saw the thief with the gun. He saw the pistol held aloft, heard the shouts, the shoppers’ screams; he saw them duck and shake.

“That’s when another guy, I don’t know who he was – they say he was an ex-policeman or bodyguard – whipped out his own gun and shot at the thief,” the manager continued.

Donovan pictured the vigilante and watched him draw his gun. He listened to the first shot, then the second. He saw the third hit the victim in his sternum, and the fourth in his shoulder. He imagined the body crumpling and flopping down the stairs like a slab of meat. A bloody hand sliding down the wall, the lifeless thud on the wooden floor.

Donovan followed the blood splatters and stains like a narrative. Each pattern was key to revealing the next scene of the grisly play. In the denouement, Donovan knew he would find his solution, his perfect cleanup strategy. 

He played the crime out like this, he told me, because he had to live it to undo it. He had to simulate every last droplet of blood and bodily fluid, every displaced skull fragment, so that he could find them later and turn chaos into normality. Donovan saw his job as editing violence from the everyday, to hide death from sensitive eyes. As he made his way through the showroom, back to the main door, he knew he would need no more than four hours to do the job.

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