“Yes, every once in a while.”
Justin Playfair to Mildred Watson
(They Might Be Giants)
Nostalgia goes through three phases. In the first one the memories are so close, so near, so three-dimensional that they can be evaded with a good dodging, a good feint that leaves them behind, writhing in the past. Then come the days in which the memory hurts like a bad headache and the scenes are relived and reheard like drums in the middle of the brain. Finally, the nostalgia becomes stupid, sad, painfully pleasant. Persistent, instead. The broken raindrops sliding down the glass, the wind rustling tree branches, a solitary swing swaying in the park, all the clichés of loneliness summon it. But that nostalgia, even with its tenderness, is no less obstinate, no less malevolently carcinogenic.
Héctor knew plenty about nostalgia, it had filled his head on the flight home. It all came at a gallop when the plane started to hover over Mexico City. The great spectacle of the unending sketch of colorful lights moved him and a couple of tears came out of his good eye. The erratic, geometric drawings, the great carpet of light, the green lines outlining the city, and the things growing with the descent, the towers, the parks, finally the jungle of rooftops.
The only problem was that nostalgia operated in a vacuum. You could not return to what did not exist. The city that had been his had escaped into the void at some point over the last months. You can’t return to what doesn’t exist, but you can long for what you had.
Apparently, he had returned to Mexico City to find himself in safe territory again, and he was discovering something he had always known. If any unsafe territory existed, this was it. The fears that accompanied him were born here.
Dick had remained in Acapulco, recovering, stuck in a Puerto Marqués hotel under a false name, posing as a rock singer in post-alcoholic reclusion and, in contradiction, accompanied by half a dozen liter bottles of gin, and the solemn promise that he wouldn’t drink them all on the first day. Estrella had stayed behind, too, and the truth is Héctor didn’t give a shit. Estrella himself would make sure that justice came to him and he’d wake up someday lying in a rotten alley with two shots in his back and an astonished expression on his face because, after all, even he was not immortal. Goodbye, Estrella.
It was drizzling. He took a cab. Mexico City seemed more hazy than usual through the windows. Héctor was returning to the same city that at times seemed to him like another one. The same city…When the car stopped in front of his house in the Roma neighborhood, the drizzle had turned into a downpour. Five feet out the door and he was drenched. As he shook off the water like a dog, he found a note stuck on the door to his apartment: I have to see you urgently. Carlos.
He went into the house to get a raincoat. On the refrigerator door, a new note: The ducks are fine. I feed them every day, they’re pigs. They’re under your bed. Alicia.
He opened the bedroom door without making a noise. The ducks detected him quickly and approached, quacking. Héctor smiled at them. If they were sleeping under the bed, he might have to sleep on top and for one damn time, for functional reasons, he would throw off all that stupid paranoia.
He went back into the rain.
Carlos was in the kitchen having a café con leche and dunking a couple of croissants in his cup. He laid out a photograph for Héctor.
“Where did this photo come from?” the detective asked.
“Do you recognize him? They told me you would recognize him.”
“Yes, I’ve been watching him for a week. He’s younger, but he’s the third from the right, next to the gringo carrying the M one and the soldier with the field radio…How old was he in this photo?”
“Count. It’s from nineteen sixty-seven.”
“Then twenty-eight…And the place? I’ve seen this place before, in other photos.”
“It’s a little village in Bolivia. Do you recognize the adobe school with the zinc roof? That photo must have gone around the world two thousand times in one week. It’s the Higuera school, the place they killed Che.”
“And what was Estrella doing there? What’s that uniform? According to you, what’s this guy in the photo’s name? Did he have something to do with Che’s death?”
“Yes, he had something to do with Che’s death. The photo is taken in La Higuera on October ninth of sixty-seven. His uniform is from the North American Rangers, who were training the Bolivian army. But he was not a Ranger, he was a CIA agent who’d been in Bolivia since August of sixty-seven with a North American passport. See what he’s got hanging from his shoulder?”
“Yes, it’s a camera…Is that a wide-angle lens?”
“No, it’s a macro; if you look closely, you can tell the camera is a Nikon. He photographed Che’s diary with that camera. He was taking pictures of the diary in the house of a telegraph operator named Hidalgo when the petty officer Terán entered the school and shot the two bursts that killed Che…Earlier, this man had interrogated Che alone. Che was wounded, lying on the ground, your friend slapped him, Che tried to get up, but he was wounded in the leg, the Cuban ran out of the room, he was afraid of him.”
“Where did you get the photo?”
“A friend gave it to me,” Carlos said. “A pal who knows this guy who before calling himself Lisardo in Bolivia was named Lázaro…” Carlos consulted a few notes he had on a little piece of paper, “…Barrios, and who was a bouncer in a cabaret in Havana and an informer for Batista’s police. And later he was Gary Betancourt, North American citizen and CIA agent. They told me that he’s called Luke Estrella now and that you would know a little about that.”
“Who told you?”
“A friend of a friend of the Cubes. The guy who gave me the photo and the message.”
“What’s the message?”
“That after Che was killed, the guy you’re following entered the house and cut the hands off the cadaver.”
“That’s the message?”
“That’s the message, that after Che was machine-gunned, the guy you are following entered the house and cut the hands off the cadaver.”
Héctor was thinking, looking at Luke Estrella, who seemed content in the photo.
“Are they following him?”
“You should know,” Carlos said. “I’m the messenger. That’s just how mysterious the affair is. A pal in whom I have a lot of trust comes along and says give a message to your brother. I listen to the message and I ask him where it’s from and he says: from the Cubes. You sure? I say, and he says definitely. I leave you a note and I give you a message. Now I’m starting to feel like lending you a hand and beating the hell out of one Gary Lisardo.”
Héctor picked up the photo and turned it over. Luke Estrella—Gary Betancourt—Lisardo—Vasco—Lázaro Barrios smiled at the camera, his white teeth blazed in the sun, his sunglasses raised over his forehead. Slightly defiant, arrogant, a lottery winner, trafficker of blanks in wartime occupation…Behind the group, you could make out the green spots of the mountains, over the tiles and the miserable stone walls of the houses. Che’s corpse must have been somewhere around there.
“Did they say anything else? Did they say they wanted to see me?”
“Just the message.”
Héctor walked over to his brother’s refrigerator to get a drink, but his head was in another place, in other years…
The ducks had worked the miracle: he was sleeping on top of the bed. That was the first thing he noticed. Then the phone rang.
“He’s arriving in Mexico City on the Mexicana flight out of Acapulco at twelve tonight,” Alicia said.
“Thanks,” Héctor answered.
“Would you like to speak to them?”
“No, I was just wondering if you found them well.”
There was a brief silence, then she hung up.
Héctor stayed in bed, just waking up. Estrella would haunt him, follow him to the end of the world. He could never liberate himself from the guy who took the bloody hands of Che Guevara for a ride in his suitcase. The time had come to visit the psychiatrist.
“Why don’t you whack him and the affair dies just like that?”
“Because if I whack him, I’m never going to find out why he came to Mexico. Besides, I suppose one can’t go around just killing people out there.”
“And besides, you’re afraid to execute a Christian cold, right?” Gómez Letras asked.
“It has occurred to me that they might kill me first,” Héctor replied.
“No chance, it’s enough that they shoot you full of holes every time.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“Why don’t you let me help straighten out this disaster you’ve got in your head. Maybe I’ll even understand it.”
They were in the Chinese café, the usual secondary base of operations. It was growing dark. Héctor hadn’t gone up to the office, he had sat down there to meditate and he’d met with Gilberto. The best officemate in the world, a guy who managed to make the weird seem normal. Gilberto would see to it that he never forgot that the country was real, that the stories that crossed through his life were real, that everything was so real that the only unreal thing was oneself. That reality was real even if it didn’t seem so.
“You’ve got a CIA guy running around Acapulco like a swine and the son of a bitch even steals a piece of pyramid to give to the gringos…That’s what those slugs do. They steal the pyramids little by little because they want to put them in San Antonio, that’s what my sister-in-law told me, and once they have them there, they’ll say the Aztecs first passed through the United States, and it was just a few second-rate Aztecs who went on to Mexico; a few paltry, sluggish Aztecs, the poor cousins of the ones who stayed up there, who are the top Aztecs…And then, you have that guy and you don’t know what to do with him…” Gilberto said.
Héctor nodded his head.
“But there’s more, right? Then let’s kidnap him and give him a hard time, like making him eat pure tamales, not giving him one beer, not anything, and we won’t let him take a shit and in five days that guy will tell us everything up to the name of the stupid mother of the grandma of the hero of the country of those guys, the Duke of Wellington, the one who screwed the French at Waterloo.”
Héctor sat there staring at him.
“What I think is that you don’t know what it is you want to do,” Gilberto suggested. Héctor tried to smile but couldn’t.
“That’s part of it,” Héctor replied.
“That’s what I thought. In any case, better to see it without knowing what to do than to suck cock the way you have been over the last few months.”
“At that, I leave the check for you,” Héctor said as he stood up.
“The detectives before were good, these days they’re worth pure dick,” Gilberto said as his goodbye.
Héctor didn’t take offense. On the street, he hailed a cab and left for the airport. Estrella seemed like a cunning bride who never let herself be trapped. As the taxi went through the viaduct, the detective tried fruitlessly to make his hands stop sweating.
This time, Estrella did not go from the airport to a hotel, but instead took a taxi that dropped him in front of an elegant house in Las Aguilas; a maid opened the door. From inside another taxi, Héctor believed that a few yards back, behind the maid, he could make out a familiar face. Who the hell did that face belong to? Fortunately, the taxi driver was a man of few words and did not engage him in chitchat; they waited together as a torrential rain fell over the car.
“That guy’s leaving now, boss,” the helpful taxi driver said, waking the detective with an elbow.
True, Luke Estrella was approaching a radio taxi accompanied by the owner of the house, who was covering him with an umbrella. Héctor tried to concentrate on the character following the Cuban. Chubby, with a mustache with upturned points. He’d come across him some other time, laterally, in as miserable a story as this one. His name was Ramón Vega and he was the publisher of the only significant chain of pornographic magazines in the country. Of course, he, too, was of Cuban origin.
“Shall we follow him?” the taxi driver asked, now fully playing his role.
“To his hotel, and then to sleep,” Héctor answered with a yawn.
Luke Estrella’s name was not Estrella, but Gary Betancourt, and in his time, he’d been Lázaro when he was a cabaret bouncer and Lisardo, temporarily, when he wore a Ranger uniform, without that impeding his having been Valdés-Vasco, known as Vevé in Dick’s complicated story.
But Estrella who wasn’t Estrella was launching a grand CIA operation in Acapulco, and also fixed the prices of cocaine, was the judge of a beauty pageant, had cut the hands off Che’s body, ate breakfast with a thief of archaeological pieces, and, by night, visited the czar of pornography, who was indeed a fellow countryman. He had an assistant chief of Acapulco’s Judicial Police and a retired sailor for accomplices, he wore white linen suits, five of which he kept in the closet, and he had murdered Alicia’s sister.
At this point in the résumé, Héctor wasn’t really sure whether he wanted to break both his legs with a baseball bat or offer him the job of planning management for Imevisión or Televisa, the Mexican television monopolies. No doubt he would run them well. He would probably also be very capable in managing the public relations for some PRI candidate for the Senate or he’d make a good manager of a chain of grocery stores. Estrella, the versatile; Estrella, the systematic; Estrella, the inscrutable, behind those stupid dark glasses.
Curiosity had its limits. If you abused it, it became depleted. If the doubts outnumbered the questions, you didn’t want to answer them anymore but rather forget the crossword puzzle, toss it for being too complicated, and busy yourself taking flowers to your neighbor on the seventh floor who was newly divorced, had a son still in the crib, and sobbed her heart out every night.
On the other hand, Héctor’s options as a pursuer were more than depleted. Unless Estrella had been trained in the Disney World spy school he had to have recognized him, and if even so he persisted in his maneuvers, it had to be because he didn’t give a shit if Héctor followed him. Estrella had to be sick already of seeing a one-eyed guy in a raincoat stepping on his shadow, and if he wasn’t, still worse, it meant that the stupid maneuver that the CIA was assembling in Mexico was so big (as if they were going to rob the statue of Tláloc, all eleven tons of it) that it had been previously agreed between the president of the Republic and the International Monetary Fund serving as the guarantor of the operation.
That’s what Héctor was thinking in an orderly way, in contrast to his usual chaotic jumble, as he waited for Estrella to board a Mexicana plane that would take him to Morelia. Alicia had advised him in the early hours of the morning and Héctor, more faithful to his routine than a public bureaucrat threatened with personnel cutbacks, showed up for the appointment. He hadn’t been able to sleep much in a night of lightning anyway. He had gotten it into his head that it was the night of the deluge and he wanted to see the flood that would do away with Mexico City once and for all.
It hadn’t been that bad: just a few collapsed houses, two hundred injured in a neighborhood where a drainage canal had overflowed, and two people were found dead after having been trapped inside an automobile on the Beltway.
Estrella didn’t even seem damp. Héctor decided to let him run around the country alone. Half an hour later he called Morelia and passed the Cuban’s information to a retired theater actor, a friend of his, and asked him to check it out in the name of the love of art. Surprisingly, his actor friend called him the next morning, said Estrella was returning to Mexico City and told him that his jaunt through Michoacán had been brief. From Morelia, he had traveled by car to the ocean, on barely passable highways. He’d stopped in a little fishing village near the Guerrero border and then had begun his return. The actor hadn’t followed Estrella, he’d limited himself to asking the chauffeur of the tourist taxi who drove him.
“And did he spend much time looking at the ocean, Marcelo?” Héctor asked.
“A good while,” his friend said over the phone. “He and the state chief of police, who accompanied him.”
“Shit,” the detective said to the phone after his buddy hung up.