Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Chapter Five
Next: Chapter Seven

I have lived long enough to not be sure of anything.
Nicholas Guild
Estrella—Betancourt—Valdés-Vasco, of course, had disappeared. Héctor wasn’t even pissed off; in fact, he’d expected it. In the afternoon, the Cuban had packed his bags and checked out of the Presidente Chapultepec. These things happened to stupid detectives. And Héctor deserved it.
And now how the hell was he going to find him again? In a place like Mexico City, with its twenty million desperate survivors, we are all a needle in a haystack. Estrella-Betancourt still hadn’t kicked up any dust, he’d left no traces of any kind of relationships, he’d revealed no contacts, hadn’t fallen in love with anyone, had shown no predilection for beef tacos or a certain park bench. So it was impossible to look for him. He had simply vanished in a city that takes pleasure in anonymity. Héctor knew it would be a waste of time to try to trace his steps by the taxis in front of the hotel, or the bellhop.
There was one revolting option that Héctor pondered in silence under the casual vigilance of the gringo reporter, who seemed to possess a remarkable ability to take things calmly when he was drinking beer. A goddamn awful possibility because it basically consisted of inverting the game. When you can’t find someone in Mexico City, you can scream that he is a son of a goddamned bitch over the local sound system of Azteca Stadium and repeat it over the amplifiers at a Tri rock concert and then broadcast it on spots on Radio One Thousand, and then he will probably start looking for you. And that didn’t strike Héctor as terribly funny. Inverting the roles, knowing that the other will play the game only in the remote case that it interests him, and therefore with an advantage. Becoming the waiting one, the target silhouette again…He had had too many dark experiences in the recent past to be able to commit to that without a couple of metaphorical scorpions crawling across his back. He decided to give Dick a piece of his mind. They were eating hamburgers in the Sanborn’s on Aguascalientes as they contemplated the fifteen-year-old idiots of golden youth.
“And why exactly do you want Estrella-Betancourt? Are you serious about writing a story on CIA retirees?”
“Because I’m sure that there’s a conflict between a faction of the senatorial committee and the CIA, and that’s why they pushed me onto Betancourt, to shed some light on it. None of the deserter business, there’s an operation running in Mexico, and it must be dirty enough for these guys to be interested in my lifting the shroud a little. Why do you want him?”
“I suspect the guy deserves to go sit his ass on a concrete bench in a Mexican jail; I like Alicia’s theory.”
“I’ve got a little money from the magazine for this kind of thing. Can I hire you to find him?”
“I’ve got a little cash from an inheritance, can I hire you to write an article, making you the target for him to find?” Héctor answered.
The detective and the reporter exchanged smiles.
“What the hell could he be doing in Mexico?”
“Almost anything.”
“In your little papers, your clips, your reports from friends of friends, was there any Mexican connection, some name that would link him to Mexico?” Héctor asked.
“Nothing,” Dick responded, distracted as he contemplated the recently crossed legs of a woman two tables down. Héctor followed his gaze.
“What are you planning to do, then?” Héctor asked, discarding the possibility of playing bait.
“Nothing,” Dick said, getting up to approach the pair of legs smiling at him. “I guess I’ll take a vacation in Mexico, a week or two. An alcoholic vacation. I just got divorced and I was in Alcoholics Anonymous because my ex-wife wanted me to. Now I can have the luxury of being a public drunk again. And you?”
“I’ll take a vacation, too. A teetotaler vacation,” Héctor replied.
When he opened his eyes, he discovered he was surrounded by absolute darkness, different from the darkness of night locked in his room. There was no reflection of the street lamps, no noise of cars. When he moved his arm, he bumped into a wall. Sizing things up with his toes, he quickly met new borders. It was a tiny room. He felt for his gun in the holster under his arm, but all he was wearing were pajama tops. Being disarmed worried him. He pushed his hand gently in the only direction left to explore. The door opened. A few feet away, the window let in the neon light off the street. He had been sleeping in the closet.
“Absolute shit,” he said to himself. He was completely twisted, his thighs were prickling from the rug chafing his naked skin. One of the ducks appeared at the door and Héctor almost killed it with one involuntary stamp of the foot. He tripped over his own shoes and, howling because he had stubbed the little toe of his left foot, went to lie down on the bed.
That was the only thing missing, he said to himself as he tried to control the pain with psycho prophylactic birthing methods. Tense-relax-tense. At what point had he decided to sleep in the closet? Who was the other self who was disorganizing his life? The pain in his toe was beginning to subside. Christ, at least it’s not fractured, Héctor thought, regaining a positive attitude.
“And besides, it’s not a bad night’s sleep in that stupid closet. I have to put a pillow in there,” he said out loud, now brimming with neopositivism.
He walked to the kitchen, opened a can of Alaskan crab and started eating it in spoonfuls. The clock in the kitchen showed 4:30. Halfway through the food, he stretched and went to the bathroom to get a towel and dry off his ass. As positive as the detective might be, there was still a sticky, icy sweat that ran down his spine. The sweat of a variety of mingled fears.
The ducks parked outside the bathroom door, making little sounds. Héctor followed them to the plate in the middle of the hall rug. They had tipped it over and it was full of droppings. He partially cleaned up the mess using the magazine Plural, an issue dedicated to the poetry of Outer Mongolia, then he filled the plate with water and gave them a cup of bread crumbs. He assumed correctly that the ducks were not interested in the Alaskan crab; still, he let them smell it and snub it. They were a couple of pretty stupid ducks, but not as stupid as one paranoid detective he knew who fell asleep in his bed and woke up in a closet.
He watched dawn break from the roof of the building while contemplating the doves eating stale tortillas, and the sun that appeared between the Scop Tower and the Mexican Aviation Tower. People who aren’t what they were before always go around saying that sunrises aren’t what they used to be. Héctor abstained from such a banality, and limited himself to thinking that something had broken between him and the city, that in some incomprehensible way the city was slipping through his hands before his eyes. “You can’t die without losing things,” he said to himself.
When he went down the stairs on the way to his office, he found Alicia sitting in front of the door to his building.
“I thought you didn’t want to let me in,” she told him, in the volatile accent of a Mexican who’s been exchanging words six thousand feet above the ocean, who’s lost phrases and found other new ones in airports and duty-free shops.
“I lost him,” Héctor said, opening the door and motioning to invite her in.
“You’ve found him again,” the woman said with a smile. “He’s leaving for Acapulco at nine thirty on the Mexican flight.”
“Can you feed the ducks?” Héctor asked as he jumped down the steps, and threw her the keys.
Héctor couldn’t help it. He loved the bay. He looked and looked and it was still the best beach in the world. He even liked the hotel towers that hemmed in the sand and pushed it against the sea. La Roqueta, an island that seemed to have been placed there for the benefit of tourist excursions; the little sailboats; the colorful parachutes; the yachts; the nonexistent gringas (it seemed they were all Canadians now); even the surges of walking salespeople. The burning sun, the jungle around the corner on the highway going up, the sea so blue it seemed like a lie, the postcard afternoons (photographic fiction imitating reality) on Pie de la Cuesta, the waves to combat them on Condesa Beach, the grilled jumbo shrimp, the sound of the mariachis in the lobby of a hotel.
He didn’t give a shit if Acapulco had been condemned by practically everyone. It was no longer the weekend paradise of Mexico City’s middle class, now strangled by inflation. The ecologists were dissing the beaches and the ocean, which they denounced as being so polluted that even a petroleum worker would be repulsed to swim in it. The golden youth had emigrated to the Mexican Caribbean, leaving Acapulco in its antiquated, passé corner. The international tourists had gone to Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo to pursue the fantasy of “the night of the iguana.” Even Acapulcans said it wasn’t what it used to be; only in Carlos Fuentes’ novels, with his ravings of the 1950s transported to the present, did the bay seem alive. Carlos Fuentes was one of the few serious guys left in the country, maybe because he lived outside it.
In the mountains the destitute people clustered together and contemplated the beaches, which, even as a shadow of what they were, continued to reveal the world of the inaccessible others; but Héctor, always in solidarity with border cities, with final cities, with the ruins of others that reminded him of his own, remained in love with Acapulco. He was thinking: in a few years it will be an archaeological model and the masses will come down from the mountains to take it over, and then I will like it even more; when a legion of five-year-old mulattoes holding the hands of their teachers, dressed in old-fashioned, blue one-piece bathing suits, go into the sea on the beach of the twin towers or the Ritz. When the Hotel Pierre is a museum of old people and fewer old pirates.
He thought all this from a beach at a distance, as he let the sun scorch him and warm his scars. Through the binoculars he studied alternately a big-bottomed French woman in a tiny blue bikini and Luke Estrella.
Acapulco was driving him crazy and he’d only been beachgoing for two days. He had given in to gluteal contemplation. The asses fascinated him. In these strange moments when he was lamenting being one-eyed (because, say what you will, with one eye you see less than with two), Héctor Belascoarán, sunbathing detective, had compiled a catalogue of asses, democratically, without putting some before others, relishing them without debate. The sharp high asses of the skinny blondes; the rounded ones of the Japanese in black bikinis playing around a few feet from his hammock; the monumental ass of the Jamaican mulatto that bubbled over the material of the bikini, trying to escape on both sides; the heart-shaped asses of the University of Nuevo León professors celebrating their divorces; the low but wide ass of the cross-eyed Australian incessantly eating oysters. Resplendent asses, full of sun, oscillating to varying rhythms, rising and falling, moving in alternating buttocks, rising with a single bump of the hip, winking at the impartial observer. He was contemplating them like an expert in a museum of modern art; Héctor assumed the attitude of a privileged spectator.
All this was possible because Estrella wasn’t giving him too much trouble. Alone, solitary, silent, sunbathing, getting wet when he had to to cool off the skin, eating a lot, taking long siestas on the terrace off his room, which Héctor observed through his binoculars every once in a while from inside his room. Calm, waiting for something. Smiling condescendingly at the looks that a few single women directed his way from time to time. Marvelous, Estrella. He wasn’t being a drag, and Héctor, instead of despairing because the investigation wasn’t going anywhere, had devoted himself to the rapture of buttocks. He had seen thousands in those two days. And perhaps the time had come to initiate a world competition, assigning points to their proprietors: so many points for the shape, so many for visual impact, so many for the erotic message, so many for the insinuation some of the bathing suits offered, so many for the vulgarity of the movement. He could do it in categories: flyweight, bantamweight, and heavyweight. Or he could establish an all-around…
Héctor swallowed a swig of his Coca-Cola with lime and then pointed the binoculars toward Estrella. He was facing the ocean, sitting in a folding chair, his eyes closed, his face getting direct sun, his eyes hidden behind the inevitable dark glasses. Héctor turned forty-five degrees and contemplated the ass of a woman selling contraband Colombian clothes who was passing through Acapulco on one of her business trips between Houston and Barranquilla. She was wearing a gold suit and her entire right cheek had escaped from the brief bikini bottom, a round cheek, lamentably paler than her thighs, lamentably with a small rash, probably the result of sweat. He deducted two points, although the movement was frankly good.
With a little luck, Estrella had come to Acapulco to simply sit in the sun.
“Room 604 received two calls yesterday. The first time he wasn’t in his room and they left him a message that he was invited to a dinner party tonight,” the Hotel Maris receptionist told him. Héctor put a twenty-thousand-peso bill on the counter.
“Do you have change?”
The receptionist went to the cash register and returned with a couple of one-thousand-peso bills and a little piece of paper folded with them. Héctor thanked her with a smile.
The detective walked toward his hotel, which was on the same beach only five hundred feet away. On the way he studied the paper. It had six figures: 11-57-04. A few minutes later, in the solitude of his room, he dialed the number.
“Attorney Garduño’s residence,” answered a woman’s voice.
Héctor hung up. With the aid of the phone book, he discarded five Garduño’s and matched the sixth with the phone number. An address near the Convention Center was the booty.
He was in the shower, getting ready for a dinner to which he had not been invited, when he heard knuckles knocking on the door.
Héctor looked in his suitcase for his gun. He hadn’t been able to carry it those last few days, it didn’t fit in his bathing suit. He loaded the cartridge and approached the door with a slight tremble in his legs. He chewed on his mustache.
“Hello, it’s me, Dick,” said the reporter’s face, less black-and-blue than it had been a couple of days ago.
“Come in, old man,” Héctor answered, flinging the gun onto the bed.
“Did you find him?”
Héctor nodded. He felt an obligation to inform the reporter that Estrella wasn’t really that important, that what was going on in Acapulco in terms of asses was major-league, but he restrained himself and simply said, “Tonight we’re going to a dinner party, pal.”
It was a party of five, but the five were deeply surrounded by assistants, lackeys, secretaries, bodyguards. It was a masculine and well-armed society, to judge by the bulges under the arms of the aides. Through the binoculars, Héctor tried to identify each of the participants in the dinner, to distinguish them. There was the old man with very short white hair, a crew cut over a dark, pockmarked face. There was the young North American (Anglo, no doubt), in a white sport jacket with wide lapels designed by a phantom cousin of Christian Dior; there was the young guy with the pointed nose, swarthy, in dark glasses, who almost never spoke, whom the bodyguards treated with respect; there was the middle-aged man, silent now, who had argued bitterly with Estrella shortly after the introductions were made and who was indubitably Garduño, the owner of the house, because he had received the guests, ordered the servants to bring drinks, and moved around the house like the only possible proprietor.
“Let me guess,” Dick said, snatching the binoculars from Belascoarán. They were leaning against a car, under partial cover from the trees, on a small hill behind the house at the end of a dead-end road in the still not fully constructed resort. “The old man with white hair traffics in ancient Mexican coins.”
“You’re wrong, old friend. He’s a military man or a navy officer, probably retired. And yes, he is Mexican. What do you say about the gringo?”
“His name is Jerome and he is the CIA’s chief of operations in Central America. He usually lives in San José, Costa Rica.”
Héctor looked at his friend with more respect than usual.
“The long-nosed young guy in dark glasses?”
“Is he Nicaraguan? His face looks familiar,” Dick said.
“If he’s Nicaraguan, he’s been living in Mexico for a while. Look at the way he loves the hot sauce, he smokes Mexican cigarettes, he’s got those good manners of the 1950s middle class, he’s wearing a Roberts suit. But you might be right, those are the contras of the middle class.”
“Can you see the label from here?”
“No, man, I’m guessing.”
Héctor took back the binoculars and focused his gaze on Estrella. After the initial clash with the owner of the house he’d kept quiet, watching and half smiling, as if this weren’t about him, eating abundantly and drinking all the wine poured into his glass. In that instant Dick left the detective, walked among the weeds toward the car, and came back with a Minolta endowed with an enormous telephoto lens. He started snapping the men dining on the terrace a hundred yards away. The smell of the sea was swept in by a gentle breeze.
“I’m turning into a man without passion. A few years ago, curiosity would have forced me to creep in through the garden until I got under the terrace, to see if I could fish out some scrap of conversation,” Belascoarán said in Spanish.
“What the hell are they talking about?” Dick asked, not having understood the detective’s spiel.
“The weather, the natural beauty of Acapulco. It’s a group of amiable investors who want to launch a new travel agency. Are you sure the gringo is CIA?”
“We’ve met,” Dick said, not going into the story.
“The skinny guy they all treat with so much coddling, the one with the pointy nose. I don’t like the way he smiles one bit,” Héctor said.
“Me neither.”
“He arrived in a blue car, a Ford. With three gunmen. We could wait for him beyond the bend, on the side of the Diana statue.”
“Shouldn’t we wait to see how this ends?”
“Dessert was over a while ago.”
The woman was dancing naked on the table. Every once in a while, her sex shook six inches away from the pointed nose of the man they had followed. The music was a tropical beat but the woman had lost it a good while ago and danced following who knows what internal sounds, possibly from indigestion. The cabaret was a democratic hovel in the center of the city, where two friendly cops searched the clients at the door (to disarm them) and the greatest spectacle was a couple of dogs screwing in the entrance. At least that seemed to interest the customers more than what was happening on the table. The cops in blue had given a military salute to the man with the pointy nose, who was now counting bills, the woman’s sex swinging close to his face not seeming to distract him. The bills did not come floating through the air to the table. Every so often, some timid gorilla approached the man, handed him a wad, as if apologizing for the affront, not daring to sit down with him.
“Who is it?” Dick asked.
“From his manners, he has to be the chief of the Judicial Police,” Héctor answered, feeling a long shiver run up his spine.
“What shit are we getting mixed up in?” the gringo reporter asked, throwing back a swig of his double tequila.
“I have no idea, but my good eye is starting to blink.”
“Do you feel sick?”
“No, I’m fine, I think it’s just fear,” the detective said, finishing his Pepsi in one long gulp.
A sweaty fat man approached their table, put his hands between the empty glasses, and offered them a photo album.
“You can choose, boss. They’re the best around. House calls, too. They come to your room with a bottle. Clean, they bring your condom, two condoms in case you’re a multiple screwer. They do everything. Everything, boss!”
Héctor flipped through the pages of the photo album curiously. It could easily have been a family album with pictures of weddings and sweet sixteen parties, bachelor parties, and Grandma’s golden wedding anniversary. But they were sad photos of naked teenagers with looks and poses that hoped to evoke eroticism and rather seemed more like material for a book by Lévi-Strauss.
“I’ve got machines, dogs, hags, boys, pregnant women. Everything, I’ve got everything, all you have to do is ask, boss.”
Héctor passed the album to the gringo reporter, wanting nothing to do with the affair. The man with the pointy nose finished counting, looked around the joint, made a gesture and the music vanished. A busboy put a bottle of tequila in the hands of one of the assistants, who in turn brought it to the boss’ table. From a back room, through a curtain, came three guitarists, playing the tune of a bolero.
The woman who was dancing naked came down off the table. The music of the guitars seemed to have muted all the other noises in the room. The fat man grabbed his album without insisting. Then the man with the pointy nose stood up, stuck the rolls of bills in his pants pockets, and motioned to the guitar players. They segued into “Nosotros,” and he started singing along. He was out of tune.
You don’t ask too many questions in a city where you don’t have friends. You mull over each thing, you add up little facts, you don’t get big stories. Two days later, as he drank an iced coffee on the terrace of his hotel and contemplated the light in Estrella’s room and the sky of the Acapulco bay, full of dancing stars, the detective told the North American reporter the five names he had found in two days of snooping around. Two days, in fact, in which the gringo had disappeared on him. There wasn’t much, not much at all. The five guys who had been dining that evening.
Estrella-Betancourt. Attorney Roberto Garduño, lawyer for transnational hotel companies; divorced two months earlier from a girl of golden youth, the daughter of the owner of a watch factory; jai alai player, local champion; owner of two discos. The skinny, long-nosed man was named Julio Reyes and he was not the commander, just the group chief of Acapulco’s Judicial Police; a fan of romantic music; winner of two or three radio contests; he was not from Guerrero, he was born in the south, in Chiapas, near the border; there was talk that he had once cut off a man’s head with a machete; prostitutes loved him, he didn’t give them a hard time, he didn’t touch them, once he’d been in love with one of them who fled for the border, they said he dedicated his best songs to her. A gringo from the CIA called Jerome. A retired admiral, Julio Pacheco, who was now the proprietor of a coconut farm for the manufacture of oil on the Costa Grande of Guerrero.
“I was always afraid of riding a bike,” Dick said, sipping his coffee. “I went straight from crawling to cars. Very North American, that. Still, I would trade all the Pontiacs, Fords, and Chevrolets I have ever driven for a good bike ride. You long for what you’ve never had.”
Héctor studied the reporter. When had he gotten drunk and with what?
“I have a son I haven’t seen in a year and I’ve always wanted to buy him a bike, but his mother won’t let me. I think I owe my obsession with bicycles to that. See, I’m a father without a son. Psychiatrists don’t understand shit about all that. Mine tries to persuade me to lose weight instead of persuading me to just buy a bike once and for all.”
Héctor walked to the bathroom, reconstructing the reporter’s movements, and found two empty gin bottles in the sink. Motherfucker, another lunatic. In the middle of a conversation, he went into the bathroom and drank gin straight from the bottle.
“And now they make them with the handlebars in the shape of horns, but before…” He swung around to see Héctor carrying the cadaver of the gin. “You drink the same brand?”
Héctor shook his head.
“Do you know that joke about the guy who picked up a girl in the woods and she sat on the handlebars of the bike and when they got into town she thanked him for the ride on the handlebars of the bike and he said to her, ‘No, this bike doesn’t have handlebars’?”
Dick didn’t wait for the detective to smile; he turned around, stumbling into the base of one of the beds, and rummaged through his carpetbag. He took out a new bottle, sparkling…The light in Estrella’s room went off. Héctor walked to the door.
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
The hotel orchestra playing by the pool was engrossed in a nameless bossa nova. He walked along the beach, barely lit by the moon, toward the neighboring hotel. He went up the stairs leading to the pool, they were grilling lobster under a gazebo. A new orchestra was playing another bossa nova. Héctor pricked up his ears, trying to hear the one they were playing back at his hotel; suddenly it seemed very important to know whether it was the same one. He couldn’t tell. Estrella was sitting by the side of the pool, dangling his toes in the water, frolicking. Héctor stayed close to where he could smell the lobsters cooking in their own juice. Estrella was a theatrical guy, with his white linen suits and his sky blue shirts, his dark glasses even on moonless nights, his curly hair with a few silver strands, his rhythmical gestures that made him seem like a retired rumba dancer.
The whole thing was amusing. If he wanted to follow Alicia’s suggestions, all he had to do was reintroduce Estrella to his friend Julio Reyes, the group chief of the Judicial Police in Acapulco, and tell him that the Cuban had stuck his nose in some foul play. No, it wasn’t funny at all. In this country, all that remained was Apache justice. First he would have to know, then he would have to find the roads on which God’s justice would reach Luke Estrella and punish him for going around torturing a woman who liked Armando Manzanero’s boleros and all that, while evading another guy who sang José Feliciano boleros in brothels.
A waiter approached the chair where Estrella was reclining and took his order. Shortly thereafter, he returned with two cocktails. Héctor walked, bordering the pool on the opposite side looking for a new place of observation; he found it on a few deck chairs near where they stored the towels. He reclined on one of them, still in the darkness. Estrella was toying with his cocktail now. A woman in a radiantly white evening gown passed beside him, it had an extraordinarily low back, closing the dress almost at the birth of her buttocks. She shot a look at Héctor, sitting in the darkness in his dark blue bathing suit and his black T-shirt, his left eye covered by the patch. The look was prolonged for an instant in a friendly, languid, complicitous smile. The woman circled the edge of the pool. When she approached Estrella, he stood up with the two cocktails in his hands. The woman stopped and started conversing with him. They knew each other. Héctor waited for the Cuban to besiege her with flattery. Nothing like that came to pass. Estrella didn’t even shoot a glance at the naked back when the woman looked for a chair to sit down next to him; he limited himself to pulling out a small book from one of the pockets of his white suit and took a few notes about what the woman was telling him. Héctor felt a sharp pang of fear. Why had the blonde with the low back smiled at him?
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Next: Chapter Seven