Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Chapter Eight
Next: Chapter Ten

Loud and deserted streets are rivers of darkness
that will lead to the sea.
Maples Arce
It was still raining the next day and Héctor lost Estrella again. The Cuban entered the Hotel Berlin through the front door, upon returning from his jaunt to Hichoacán, and never checked in, probably just headed out the back and walked through the parking lot. And if he wasn’t boarding a plane, not even Alicia could find him. Héctor declared himself defeated and went to his office to sit in a rickety armchair and watch the rain.
It was raining with particular fury, the wind whipping raindrops and gushes against the window, wanting to demolish the glass. The street was empty, the cars had surrendered to the attack of the downpour. Somehow, as he lit his umpteenth cigarette, Héctor felt at ease. The rain sent one inside oneself, created a thick curtain of outside, invited patience and the fireplace, solitude and reading, pleasant memories.
It wasn’t so bad, after all, breaking free of Luke Estrella. How many times had he said that in the last week? He rummaged through the strongbox for a multivolume novel by a German author that he had saved for a day like this. The book was called The Wizard and promised to tell the story of a strange character set in the final year of Nazi Germany. Next to the book were two old packs of cigarettes and four or five sodas, providentially placed there in anticipation of a day like this one. If he had a slight cold, the fantasy would be complete. Detectives with colds on rainy days. Worthy books, cigarettes, and soft drinks. A blanket would be nice.
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne sank down into the pink Mexican armchair that Carlos Vargas was finishing, opened to the first page of the book, and immersed himself fully in the stories of others. One’s own stories weren’t good for much.
He read for about an hour. Outside the rain had grown more intense. And if Estrella got lost for good, all the better. What an absolute and total wonder if the Cuban would vanish from his life. He read for another half hour.
The detective carefully contemplated the window. Then he placed the books, cigarettes, and soft drinks back in the strongbox and went out, carefully fastening his raincoat, convinced that getting wet would be useless, that he had no idea where to find Estrella, that it was absurd to go and get drenched this way. But he was also convinced that if he gave up, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne would break into a thousand pieces and no one would be able to put them back together.
The storm received him in the doorway, spattering his face with rain.
***
Dick appeared at the door of the house at dawn, emaciated but smiling broadly. Héctor sneezed to welcome him; he had a cold.
“I will never eat lobster in my life again, man,” he said in Spanish.
Héctor got back into bed. The ducks roamed freely around the reporter’s legs; he pulled a sweet roll out of his pocket and threw it in crumbs over the rug.
“You lost him, right?” Dick asked.
Héctor nodded. “But my guardian angel found him for me. A while ago my brother called and told me that some friends of his told him to tell me that he’d be eating lunch today in the Café de Paris.”
“How curious that we have guardian angels,” Dick said. “I called in to the magazine and they told me that Betancourt was at the Hotel Princesa, that my casual acquaintance in the State Department had left me a message.”
“Aren’t you surprised by how many people have an interest in our following Estrella-Betancourt?”
“I couldn’t care less if they’re manipulating me. I do that to other people every day. I want Betancourt. I want him tied and wrapped in a raspberry-colored bow…I need a couple of beers to finish pissing out the poison.”
“What was it? What did the doctors say?”
“They never figured it out. Who cares? But even if I don’t know who poisoned me, I want Betancourt more than before.”
Héctor agreed. So did the ducks.
***
The city was in electoral effervescence. Slowly it had been filling up with posters and graffiti proclaiming a list of candidates apart from, and clearly antagonizing, the PRIs. Every once in a while Héctor wanted to find the proof, in one of the painted graffiti, that his brother, Carlos, had been involved in the affair. Several had the style, if not Carlos’, then certainly of his generation of painters:
Men born to be henpecked vote PRI.
Would you lend your old bicycle to the PRI candidate for this district? Then why are you going to vote for him? Long live Cuauhtémoc!
With a little confidence, this time we’ll break free from that ball of rats. Cardenista Committee, District 11.
The neighbors on this block will not tolerate fraud. Enough!
From the taxi, Héctor contemplated the walls that spoke. Dick startled him.
“Does Cardenismo stand a chance?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy. Before devoting myself to Estrella, I was living on another planet. I don’t know, it seems like a real novelty. Usually, no one gives a damn about the elections. Everyone in my office is going to vote for Cuauhtémoc. Carlos, Gilberto, Villareal, otherwise known as El Gallo, the engineer. Me too, I think.”
They had spent the morning in a technical conference with Merlín Gutiérrez—El Mago—Belascoarán’s electrician and landlord. Gutiérrez had rented a suitcase of electrical devices for them and saturated them with instructions that Héctor believed he half understood.
The taxi left them two blocks from the Hotel Princesa on the side street off Reforma. They waited patiently for Estrella to walk out the door on his way to lunch, which occurred around 2:30. They entered looking like a hybrid between conspirators and bricklayers in search of work. For five thousand pesos, they found out which was the Cuban’s room. “Señor Esta, of course, Room 207.” For thirty-five thousand, they got a double room next door; for ten thousand more, the manager suffered a dizzying attack of amnesia. Then came the plumbing labor.
The bathroom mirror gave way to the other bathroom mirror in the adjoining room; they dismantled it with more patience than skill, and installed the microphone on the line of the air conditioner of their neighbor’s room.
“You think we’re going to hear something?”
“I’m sure we’ll hear him sing when he gets in the shower.”
Héctor started to sneeze loudly. Dick went to look for his suitcase and took out a bottle of gin, as if he thought the alcohol would ward off viruses.
“We’re very visible at this point, don’t you think we should disguise ourselves?” he asked the detective.
“Short of dressing as a Chinese peasant girl, I don’t know what I would do about this eye,” Héctor said, pointing to the patch.
***
In the afternoon, Estrella-Betancourt lay down to take a siesta. Around 5:30 the phone rang. Héctor, who was in the bathroom urinating, ran to the earphones that they had connected to the tape recorder.
“Whatever you want, my colleague,” the Cuban said into the phone. “No problem…Same time, same place…but, of course, my brother…”
Then he hung up and whistled parts of “New York, New York.” The faucet in the Cuban’s bathroom sink started flowing. Strange sounds. Was he brushing his teeth? A couple of soft knocks on the door, Estrella didn’t turn off the faucet, but he did leave the bathroom, closing the door. Muddled sounds, a woman’s voice saying something indecipherable in the distance. Dick entered the bathroom and with his eyebrows asked Belascoarán if something was happening next door. Héctor affirmed it and offered to share one of the earphones with the reporter. Finally a clear sound, the bathroom door opening:
“…to do a lot of things, my queen,” the faucet was turned off, “but I never stopped thinking about you. Even in my dreams.”
“You’re such a liar, Ramón,” a woman’s voice…
Ramón? And when had he met this one?
“I tell lies to the customs officers, my life, but how could I lie to you if you are a princess?”
“He’s an old-fashioned bastard,” Dick whispered. Héctor nodded.
“Come on, Ramón, order something from the bar.”
“I’ve got a little bar right here, doll, what do you want?”
“A piña colada with spiced rum.”
“She’s a moron,” Héctor said. Dick nodded.
“Aren’t you hot? Take off some of your clothes while I get some ice.”
“What nice pajamas, Ramón. Are they silk?”
“Yes, why the hell not, they have to be silk,” Héctor said.
“Let’s see, my love, let me unbutton your blouse.”
Ay! I’ll unbutton it, but don’t look at me like that, turn around.”
“She’s gone shy on him,” Dick commented.
“You’ve gone a little shy on me,” Estrella said.
“That’s it, don’t look at me and I’ll start handing you my things and you look at them and start imagining everything, okay?”
“She better be careful or Estrella will steal even her shoes,” Héctor said.
“Don’t you have a brassiere, my life?”
“I don’t need one, big man.”
“Look at the familiar way she’s treating him now; when they started they were using the formal usted,” Dick remarked, interested in the variations of the language.
“Your panties are pretty,” Estrella said.
“I wore them for you. Now you take off your pajamas without turning around, Ramón.”
“And the shoes, my queen?”
“Those I keep on, because if I don’t my legs will look fat, and I want to do it standing up.”
“Standing up, my life? I like it in bed.”
“That guy has balls,” Héctor remarked.
“But are you really going to please me?” she said.
“Hey, what the hell is this!” Estrella said, his tone suddenly changing.
“Don’t you like it?” she said.
“Fucking hell! I can’t believe it, you’re a guy.”
Ay, but not as much of a guy as you.”
“Get off me, stop screwing around.”
Ay, what’s wrong, Ramón?”
“You’re a man, shit!”
“Now they’ve screwed Estrella,” Héctor said.
“Now Estrella is screwed,” Dick said in Spanish, shaking his head in a gesture of sadness.
“You didn’t know?” said the woman who now turned out to be a man.
“See, Dick, what happens if you’re not careful,” Héctor said to the reporter, extracting the moral.
“Oh Christ!” Estrella said.
“Now that we’re here like this, all naked, I won’t tell anybody, couldn’t we take advantage of it?” he/she said.
“Fine, why not,” Estrella said. “But I get to stick it in you.”
“Fine, why not,” he/she said.
“See how everything works out in the end,” Dick said.
“Who would have thought it?” Héctor asked, taking off the earphones.
***
The meeting at who knows what time turned out to be at nine at night in the warehouse district. Héctor kept a prudent distance, but saw Estrella inspecting two big cargo trucks accompanied by a guy with a little mustache and a double-breasted suit. It was cold; Héctor left the twosome talking in the warehouses and went home to feed the ducks.
The birds were content and hadn’t missed him too much; they had learned how to climb up on the kitchen table on a path Alicia had made for them out of cardboard boxes, upside-down slippers balanced between benches, plates, and clothes hangers. Before long, they’d know how to use the neighbor’s microwave to make a sandwich and El Mago’s iron to warm the bed sheets on winter nights. OP had diarrhea, JJ liked the pâté (which proved Héctor’s theory that Mexican pâté was made of the liver of anything else—that, or the ducks were cannibals). Héctor watched them maneuvering around the kitchen table, changed the turbid water where they drank, swam, and pissed, and left to put some César Portillo de la Luz boleros on the record player.
There were a couple of letters thrown on the floor near the record player. Perhaps El Mago, his landlord, or Alicia had left them there. One had a Puerto Vallarta postmark. It was from the woman with the ponytail. Laconic: I’m on the way. How are the ducks behaving? You would have liked the ocean. Me.
Héctor had his doubts in that respect. Moreover, he thought, never again would he try to get to Hong Kong by swimming, there were more auspicious ways to travel.
The other one was anonymous and typed on an old type-writer, the ribbon fading from use and the dryness of the climate. It wasn’t as sparing as the missive from his woman.
The man you are following is involved in trafficking arms destined for the Nicaraguan contras. You can be sure of this fact, it is reliable. Since he cannot smuggle them in directly, he is using Mexican drug traffickers in a cross-operation. The price that someone has set in order to launch the operation from Mexico is that part of the arms be used here for another equally disturbing affair. Needless to say, you should be extremely cautious. Please destroy this note. It is sent by a few friends who share your same interests in this matter.
Héctor read the note twice and applied the flame of the lighter to it; he took advantage of the moment to light a Delicado. He let the paper consume itself in the ashtray. He smoked peacefully as a smile began to form on his face.
The guardian angels were working overtime.
***
Dick informed him that Estrella had spent the day in the hotel, answering phone calls in which no one made himself clear. He/she who liked to make love standing up had disappeared by dawn. Dick gave the detective a grocery list that included three six-packs of Tecate, two liter bottles of gin, and a lot of newspapers; if he could get the provincial papers, all the better. As he recited the list, the reporter sneezed violently. He seemed to have caught a cold.
“Let me go over the tape two or three times, maybe there’s something that makes sense in the idiot’s conversations. I have the impression we’re getting close to the date.”
“You be the detective, I’ll be the shopping lady,” Héctor said.
The difficult moment was crossing the hall. Between the door to his room and the elevators was Estrella’s room; it was possible that the Cuban would bump into him. So Héctor could not avoid putting his hand over his gun as he passed the door and got to the stairwell, went down a floor, then took the elevator from the fifth floor to complete the descent to the peaceful street.
This time everything worked out fine, but as he crossed Reforma, without waiting for the light as usual, dodging the cars, he got the impression that a couple of suits were on his back repeating his experiences. He jumped up on the median, avoiding a city bus, and looked over his shoulder. They were about ten feet away and the two were watching him, not the cars. He pulled out the .45, cocked it, and showed it to them. It was an act of calculated insanity. Anyone who saw him would think he was playing with his nephew’s early Christmas gift; no one draws a gun in the middle of Reforma these days, unless it’s a federal cop. Nonetheless, placed under the barrel of the .45, the two suits got the message and retreated the way they had come, jumping. Adding more glory to Héctor’s maneuver, one of them ran into a baker’s delivery boy’s bicycle and fell to the ground, ripping his pants. The detective no longer cared to know more and accelerated his pace.
His fears were metaphysical, essentially metaphysical. If he didn’t walk on the grass, he would live to be eighty-five. If the neon light didn’t touch him, he would have a son. If for one second he could avoid being hit by that Datsun’s fender, he would be immortal again, he said to himself, and leaped forward. The wake of the car, passing at forty miles an hour, didn’t even ruffle his hair. It was clear that he was immortal.
At least until next time.
Previous: Chapter Eight
Next: Chapter Ten