We now know that locking yourself in serves for nothing, any disaster takes death to the safest refuge.
José Emilio Pacheco
When he woke up he was lying on the rug and the gringo reporter was staring at him; a bottle of gin (a new one?) affectionately rocking in his arms.
“You have nightmares,” Dick informed him.
“I suppose I do, I never remember them,” Héctor said, standing up and walking with difficulty to the bathroom.
“What’s your favorite song?”
“‘La Bamba,’ the new version by Los Lobos, it’s much better than the original version by Trini Lopez; although the truth is, I feel affection for that one…”
The detective stuck his face under the gush of water in the sink, not daring to look at it first. The water was cold. What the hell was he doing in Acapulco with a drunk gringo reporter for a roommate and pursuing a Cuban gusano who was a CIA agent? There were ten other equally exciting and idiotic possibilities. Start a bakery in the middle of Puebla, work as a peon in the new archaeological excavations of Teotihuacán, become a groupie of the Symphonic Orchestra of the State of Mexico and follow them to all their concerts. How wonderful! One day in Ocampo, another in Lerma, finally Toluca.
Dick started talking, staring into space.
“The heat drives me crazy. Not suddenly, slowly. I swear that when I got to Acapulco I had the most serious intention of lending you a hand with this story,” he said, moving his head from one side to another, as if saying no. “But I don’t know, it’s something superior to my strength. Strange stories start coming into my head. I remember a cousin of mine who takes care of dolphins at Sea World and I get jealous…”
“What are we doing here?” Héctor asked.
“Following my Gary Betancourt, the famous Sid Valdés-Vasco, in other words, your Luke Estrella,” the gringo said to the detective, flopping onto the bed and taking a good swig of gin. Neither his bed or Héctor’s was unmade; the detective had slept on the rug, the reporter had either spent the night standing up on the terrace or had gone out there before Héctor got back.
“That’s what I thought,” the detective said, putting on a Coca-Cola T-shirt.
“You wear imperialist T-shirts?” Dick asked.
“It’s Coca-Cola Mexico, made by honest Mexican workers in bottling factories in cities as healthy, Mexican, and productive as Iguala or Jalapa, or in rancid suburbs like Tlanepantla,” Héctor responded, thinking that insanity might be contagious.
“That bastard with the dolphins, he knows what life is,” Dick said before falling asleep, the bottle of gin miraculously safe in his clutch.
Héctor approached him and took it away, then went out on the balcony. Estrella was on his hotel terrace. Héctor went back into the room and got his binoculars. Was he looking toward his room? Impossible. He was over a hundred yards away. Damned Cuban, son of a fucking bitch, with those dark glasses you could never know what he was watching.
Maybe Dick was right, the dolphin guy lived a life straight out of the movies.
Héctor drew his nose to the bottle of gin, he smelled it cautiously. The aroma was sickly sweet. Maybe he could throw it down the toilet, then refill it with water and sugar and Dick wouldn’t notice. He remembered something his friend René Cabrera said. They were sentences that suddenly came to his memory. René was the best poet of his generation, but he had insisted on being a scientist, and was running around out there in the state of Veracruz doing anthropology. He left the room with the sentence dancing in his head: “How lucky are dwarfs, who see the world so beautifully and from below.”
Thumbing through brochures that offered love boat excursions, he waited patiently in the lobby of the neighboring hotel for Estrella to appear on the way to the dining room; when the Cuban did so, he took the elevator to the sixth floor. He sought out the woman who went around making up the rooms and approached her with a smile.
“I left my key downstairs, señorita, could you just open the door to 604 for me?”
The woman didn’t even look at him. Héctor blessed the rare honesty that still existed, and entered Estrella’s room without looking back. The notebook he was looking for was on the little night table. Before leafing through it, he noted the plane ticket in the open drawer of the bureau and the .45 sticking out of the half-open suitcase. The guy had five identical white suits, he discovered upon examining the closet. He must not believe in the virtues of Mexican laundry. The notebook was a small calendar, totally blank with the exception of one page toward the back on which three figures were written. He memorized them.
In his hotel room, Dick was asleep. Héctor shook him a little and read the three figures to him.
“What is this?”
“The wholesale prices of a quarter ounce of cocaine in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami one week ago.”
“Are you serious? Don’t tease.”
“That’s what I think, let’s see, say them again. They could also be the price of the rates for one line of advertising in the New York Times, Miami Herald, and Los Angeles Times.”
“Six hundred thirty-one, four hundred thirteen, five hundred eighteen.”
“Shit, I was right. I’m more alert asleep,” Dick said and he reimmersed himself in the nightmare the detective had interrupted. Héctor looked at him with absolute distrust.
Estrella met with two of the table companions of that night again in one of Garduño’s discos. A spot on the Costera, lit up by quartz reflectors that cast a “here I am” to the sky, and with music that deafened for a thousand feet around. Observing the variety of cars pulling up and parked in the back, it was clear that the place called Cleopatra was quite fashionable. Jerome, Estrella, and Garduño met at a table full of champagne bottles facing the dance floor and they were the only three serious members of the panel of judges for Miss Bikini Acapulco ’88. Héctor thought that if there were something to be understood here, no one had shown him the synopsis. What the hell were three guys suspected of hatching dirty business on an international scale doing acting as the jury for a beauty contest?
As the night progressed he consumed Coca-Colas at the bar like a desperate man, and Héctor hated them a little more. They were voting for the wrong one. In the first round, they disqualified his favorite, a girl from the Gulf with long, dark legs; in the second vote, they left the tiny blonde with elevated breasts in fifth place. They were a trio of bastards with bad taste who liked skinny Vogue cover girls.
For a while, the detective put the contest aside and studied them attentively. They seemed like the best friends in the world, they elbowed one another, whispered things in one another’s ears, poured one another’s drinks. These guys really loved each other, they acted like they’d just come from a high school prom where they had been the three most mafioso pals, the three inseparable monsters. When the winner lifted the bouquet of red roses and let Garduño put a banner on her saying “Señorita Bikini Acapulco ’88,” Héctor thought that this little girl would never know in whose hands the decision that created her triumph had been. Had she known, instead of going around showing off her breasts, she might have devoted herself to selling lottery tickets.
The detective decided to abandon the disco because he sensed that from the stage, as he embraced the winner, Garduño was watching him. Outside, the heat was sticky, it reeked, the trash was being picked up.
Dick wasn’t in the hotel room. There was a new empty bottle of gin in the toilet bowl. Héctor removed it so he could pee. Then he fell on the bed and opened a Philip José Farmer science fiction novel he had bought in the hotel lobby. At some point while reading he fell asleep.
The next day he woke up under the bed, two guns in his hands, his fingers wrapped like hooks around the triggers. Fortunately, he’d left the safeties on; otherwise he would have polished off every cockroach and mosquito in the room before being able to repent. He had to put both arms under a gush of water for some time, alternating hot and cold before he got his blood to circulate normally again.
He needed allies. He couldn’t keep exposing himself on Acapulco nights with his giveaway eye, they would end up poking out the good eye he had left and giving it to the sharks or the dolphins, which in this case were the same, no matter how well Dick’s cousin trained them. He pulled out the phone.
Macario Rendueles, the saxophonist, had been born in Acapulco. He started dialing long-distance to Mexico City. When he got his friend on the other end of the line, he discovered that he didn’t really know what to ask him. There were all kinds of noises on the phone.
“Belas, how the hell did you get lost in the pearl of the Pacific? Son of a bitch, the line is so bad. In this stupid city, at this point the rats talk on the phone while they eat the cables.”
“Do you know a countryman of yours named Roberto Garduño? A lawyer. You know anyone I can trust who can tell me how the underworld works around here?”
“It’s pure underworld there, pal, why do you think I grabbed my saxophone and split to roam different pastures? That city is cursed, man; can’t you see it’s pure set, pure papier-mâché, pure appearance for tourists. When the last plane takes off, they take down the decorations and the stupid beaches are left empty…” Macario said and he started playing the saxophone over the speaker phone. “What should I play for you, stupid Belas?”
“A free version of ‘Blue Moon.’ ”
“You earned an answer, my good man. Talk to Raúl Murguía, he told me something about that Garduño; the truth is I can’t remember very well now. He’s living in Tabasco, you’ll find him at the Museo de La Venta. Do you remember Raúl Murguía?” Macario Rendueles said, and he let loose with a new piece. Héctor gave him a shot for the first thirty seconds then hung up.
With the tune of “Love for Sale” dancing in his head, Héctor recalled Raúl Murguía. They had worked together a couple of years back. He was an anthropologist who had been affiliated with southeastern museums and, to halt the smuggling of small objets d’art, pyramid fragments, indigenous little idols, he had created a brigade of Mayans on motorcycles with shotguns: the Jacinto Canek Motorized Brigade. The thievery dropped, but they chased him out of his job because he scared the tourists. Half an hour later, he had him on the phone. The answer surprised him.
“Garduño? The one from Acapulco? Of course I know who he is. That guy is no more and no less than the fence of the most important stolen archaeological objects in this stupid country. That bastard knows every basement in Houston and Dallas where they have pieces from Mexican museums. Did you know that it’s in among millionaires in Texas to have some piece stolen from a Mexican museum? It has real cachet. One day, in the middle of a barbecue, you ask your buddies (also millionaires) if they want to see something. You lead them down halls and steel-plated doors, all half mysterious. You have to have an adequate basement for the secret museum and there, in a black velvet recess, is a Mayan stone bearing an inscription, or some silver Teotihuacán jewelry; the newspaper clips recounting the story of the robbery and the museum catalogue pages where the piece was originally are even framed. You have more than a museum piece, you have a pirated piece. That is very elegant. Shortly, they’ll appear in Town and Country. So that slug Garduño is the one who organizes the operations in Mexico, the big ones, not trash. One of these days Cuauhtémoc will win and we’ll mount an archaeological police force and we’ll screw him. You’ll see…Do you have something against him? Want me to stop by?”
“No, I don’t have anything, for now. Has there been some important robbery in the last few weeks?”
“Nothing that I know of, because those idiotic functionaries conceal them so as not to fry in public opinion. But there was something…The last one was the Museum of Anthropology job three years ago.”
“Is there anything to rob around Acapulco?”
“The beaches, man. Those bastards are capable of going to the beach every day with a little pail and stashing away the sand,” Murguía said.
Héctor went out to the balcony. An archaeological robbery? Estrella was on his terrace sunbathing. What was this guy up to? Héctor went to look for his binoculars. Estrella took off his dark glasses with a carefree gesture. This time, yes, Héctor had no doubt, the Cuban was looking at him. The detective backed into the inside of his room. The air conditioning was like ice, he said to himself. He went over to the controls and realized that that morning he hadn’t turned it on.
He lay down with his eye wide open to contemplate the ceiling of the room. In the end, it wasn’t bad under the bed, nor was it a bad idea, now that he’d come to his five senses, to put a couple of pillows down there.
“Do you want to meet Jerome up close?” Dick had asked him and Héctor hadn’t responded. The North American reporter took this for a yes.
If it had seemed a crazy whim then, now it was clear that it had been a case of absolute lunacy. For the second time, he was exposed. The first time when he put the .45 in the Cuban’s face to defend Dick and now, sitting by the pool of the Villa Vera drinking a Coke with lime while Dick contemplated the gringo in silence, a double gin on the rocks sitting between them.
“It’s a true pleasure to see you,” Jerome said, breaking the silence.
Dick nodded and with a gesture sent the waiter off for a new gin even though the first one hadn’t been started. Jerome could not focus his gaze, his eyes seemed to escape him and not fix on the focal point; either he was very tired or he was up to his ass in cocaine. He was wearing a white three-piece suit and was fiddling with his sunglasses. Sunglasses were starting to annoy Héctor, they seemed to be the required tropical uniform of the enemy.
“You have an operation under way in Mexico,” Dick asserted and, as if it weren’t very important, started sipping his gin and looking at a couple of women playing tennis listlessly a few yards away.
“If that were right, I’m not the most appropriate person to say so. I’ve retired, I’m in private business,” Jerome said.
“Private business doesn’t exist. Company business exists. And Company business, if my memory serves, is all dirty. You Reaganites think everything that doesn’t move or doesn’t speak, in whatever corner of the world you find yourself, is booty. Sometimes you don’t respect even that rule and you devote yourselves to slave hunting. You practice the art of patriotism mixed with the art of international commerce.”
“There’s nothing worse than a reporter who thinks he’s intelligent.”
“Come on, Jerome, tell me what you’ve got going in Mexico, and that way when the Democrats start crucifying your leaders, you can always jump out of the Roman Centurion uniform and say that you didn’t like the story and that’s why you leaked it to the press. How do you think I got here? Because another friend of yours tipped me off.”
“I don’t know how you showed up in Acapulco. But this is not Los Angeles. I’d be doing you a favor in advising you not to get involved in Mexican affairs. People are very touchy here.”
“You have an operation in play in Mexico. Jerome, tell me something beyond what I already know.”
“And what is it you know?”
“We reporters don’t leak information. I remind you of the rules: CIA agents leak information, reporters gather it and make scandals. Isn’t that right?”
“If you know something worthwhile, I suggest you sit down at the typewriter. I’ll be happy to read it. You probably won’t believe me, Dick, but I have been one of your closest readers,” Jerome said, standing up.
Héctor buried his head in his Coke. Maybe no one would realize he’d been there.
“And what do you do now, Jerome? I’d love to quote you exactly.”
The CIA agent turned his back on them, not bothering to respond, and moved away.
“Let’s go see the cop who sings boleros, the businessman who robs archaeological gems, and the sailor who farms coconut oil,” Dick said and drank down what remained of his gin in one gulp, then panted and finished off the other full glass. Héctor regretted not liking gin and drank his Coke shyly. This guy was absolutely crazy. So crazy, even Héctor’s own craziness paled. If he followed him in the dance, he’d lose even his style.
Héctor Belascoarán got in the ocean and started swimming toward the void. He had left the reporter in front of the hotel taxi stand. He wasn’t going to show his face again. He had plenty of logical reasons, he thought as he swam toward the center of the bay, but more than anything he had visceral reasons. The Genghis Khan method could have been useful at some point. You arrive, you tell them they’re a bunch of pricks, simply idiots, that you already know everything, and you wait for them to react. But it wasn’t very practical if you were trying to conserve your health. He suspended the rhythm of his strokes and started floating on his back. A wave, the product of a speedboat pulling a few bikini-clad waterskiers a hundred feet away, destabilized him for an instant, then calm returned and he closed his eye to escape the burning sun. Going out in the light was a stupid move, it put them on the alert, made them horny, agitated them, invited them to give you two shots in the face and rip your lung out with a kitchen knife; they liked you as a missing witness, a nameless cadaver, a stupid dead man without a wake. Héctor started swimming again. There hadn’t been sharks in Acapulco for years. If he continued on his course, with a little perseverance he could get to Hong Kong, adopt a new name, wait for the last fragment of the British empire to crumble and open a taco stand in socialist China. It wasn’t as absurd as it seemed at first glance.
He kept swimming.
Let’s see, let that bunch of world-trafficking pricks try to follow him. Just by the trace of his piss in the ocean. He accelerated the rate of his strokes.
The entire problem was having a plan, a destiny. Giving meaning to anything. Grit your teeth. You don’t have to open your mouth to think while swimming. He rested awhile, floating on his back. The beach was becoming tiny. There were no waterskiers or sailboats to bother him. There wasn’t even a Coast Guard vessel asking him for his documents to let him leave Mexico. It wasn’t such a stupid way of disappearing from any story. He started swimming again, now almost furiously, toward the Pacific Ocean.
One of his selves said to him: “Are you committing suicide?” The other answered: “So what if I am?” He kept swimming. He would never have to sleep under beds again.
Two hours later, a few robust Acapulcans from the municipal lifeguard service deposited him on the beach. Miraculously, they had saved him from drowning. One of his thighs was still stiff from the cramps and he had swallowed enough water to make his next two hundred Cokes taste salty. He was in a pretty good mood: if the Pacific Ocean, which was a bitch, hadn’t been able to kill him, that bunch of idiots never could. He tried to stand up with the aid of one of the lifeguards.
“Where the hell were you trying to go, kid? Out there is pure ocean.”
“To Hong Kong, pal,” the detective answered.
“See, jerk, I told you Hong Kong was that way,” the lifeguard said to his colleague, pointing to the sun setting over the ocean, staining the blue with an intense orange.
Héctor got into the elevator trying to shake the water out of his ear and remembering the three versions of his will that he had written in his head.
He opened the door to his room and stopped dead. Two guys were wrestling with Dick near the terrace, trying to throw him over. One of them was smashing an ashtray against the hand grabbing hold of the handrail; he couldn’t get it to let go. Héctor backed up a step, leaving the door open. They hadn’t seen him.
“Come on, asshole. Let go,” yelled one of the guys, wearing a sweatshirt with wide blue stripes, the kind made popular by the gondoliers of Venice. Dick drew himself up and threw a punch that hit him right in the lower abdomen.
The other character, a little chubby blond guy, pulled a knife.
“You’re not going to cut him, idiot, it has to be just a beating,” the guy in the Venetian shirt told him.
Héctor took a second step back. The struggle was drawing Dick close to the void. The tubby one put the knife away and kicked the reporter in the thigh. The latter doubled over, sliding across the floor. Héctor backed up a little more, staying out of the thugs’ view. He leaned his back against the wall. He counted to ten. Then he made up his mind and entered the room walking normally. He made it to the bedside table. They didn’t discover him until he had taken out the .38 and had it cocked.
“Look out, there’s the other one,” the tubby guy yelled.
The ersatz Venetian was distracted for an instant and Dick buried his head in his stomach. The guy buckled, Dick took the ashtray from his hand and hit him with it in the jaw; the guy started bleeding and slid to the floor. The tubby one had been hypnotized by Héctor’s gun.
“You have no idea the cheap thrill I’m going to get from killing, you, pal,” the detective said to him.
Dick was laid out on the terrace, recovering. Next to him, the man in the striped shirt was trying to stop the blood and ward off fainting by taking deep breaths.
“You were late, what were you doing?” Dick asked the detective.
“I was going to Hong Kong, my friend,” Héctor said, trying not to let the gringo notice that his hand was trembling. Turning to the thugs: “Who sent you? I’m counting to three, then I’m shooting, I don’t give a shit if your blood stains the bedspread.”
“The boss, Julio Reyes, it was a job, just an assignment, it’s not our thing. He wasn’t even going to pay us, it was something we owed him.”
“If we throw them, where will they end up?” Héctor asked Dick. Dick leaned over the terrace.
“If they jump hard, with any luck they’ll hit the pool; if they screw up the calculation, they’ll turn into shit against the asphalt.”
“Is there a risk they’ll fall on top of someone?”
“No, there’s nobody down there.”
“Well, now you know, it depends on your skill,” the detective said to Tubby, digging the barrel of the .38 into his stomach.
“This one doesn’t know how to swim,” the “second-rate” Venetian said, who had moved close to his companion in hopes of rescue, and was holding up his pants.
“That, you should have thought of before,” Belascoarán answered, pushing the fat one again.
“The best thing to do is for you to measure for him,” Dick said to the guy in Spanish.
Héctor helped the bleeding man in the striped T-shirt to a seat on the handrail.
“Don’t forget to take a running start,” Dick said, calculating by eye where they were going to fall and moving his head as if they didn’t have much hope.
“On your mark…”
“I suspect they’ll break a few bones.”
“It’s only six stories,” Héctor said as they went over the edge, aiming for the pool. He started trembling. He flung the revolver on the bed and tried to stop his hand from shaking by holding it with the other. A couple of giant tears came out and started to slide down his cheeks. Dick was trying to ascertain if they had broken the bones in his right hand with the blows of the ashtray and didn’t notice what was happening. When he looked at the detective, he realized that Héctor was on the verge of collapsing.
“Lie down on the bed. I’m going to look for a bottle of gin. I think they broke one of my ribs.”
“I don’t like gin,” Héctor said in the midst of his tears.
“Your loss,” Dick answered.
The magical assailants must have made it to the pool, because no one in the hotel mentioned them and because when Héctor and the reporter went downstairs they didn’t see anyone washing bloodstains off the cement. The small orchestra was rehearsing, tuning their instruments. Héctor wondered what bossa nova they would start with. “Corcovado” would be very good. They ordered two grilled lobsters to celebrate survival.
“Doesn’t yours taste a little strange?” the reporter asked.
“Mine was the first one you ate,” Héctor answered.
An hour later, they were in the emergency room in the government hospital in Acapulco; Dick was on the brink of death by poisoning. Héctor hadn’t been able to eat his lobster, his stomach was closed, and he had limited himself to drinking a couple quarts of pineapple juice.
As he roamed outside the intensive care unit, watching a group of doctors moving around the reporter’s body, filling it with probes every time he opened the door, Héctor, who no longer believed in accidents, decided that from that moment on he was going on a hunger strike. He had no intention of being poisoned.