Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Chapter Nine
Next: Chapter Eleven

Let’s imagine it for a single instant:
The social classes in Kandinsky’s head.
The denial of the denial in Dick Tracy’s head.
Roque Dalton
There’s nothing like not knowing who is the victim and who is the executioner. Fear is not just about the worst foreboding of what is going to happen to you if you’re not careful, it also has to do with not knowing where you are or what your friends will say about you when they find you dead. Fear, therefore, is a kind of reflection, a kind of meditation. Useful, but not too practical.
Who was pursuing whom? Was Betancourt-Estrella playing with them? What damn purpose could all this have? Were the guys who had tried to follow him outside the hotel waiting for him somewhere? Did they have them identified, located, fitted with names, houses, addresses? Were they pretending they were following them but weren’t, rather that they wanted them to think that they were following them but that the detective and the reporter had managed to throw them off? Could they throw them off? Or did they really have them constantly under a microscope lens?
Héctor walked the last three blocks to the corner of his building, looking over his shoulders every two minutes. A nervous pain started throbbing in his left kidney. It was not nephritis, it was simple, vulgar terror.
The light in his apartment was on. Shit. As far as he was concerned, they could stay; let them, whoever they were, be in charge of feeding the ducks. Just when he was on the verge of going off to sleep in the Northern Bus Station, and with a little luck, catch one to Ciudad Juárez, Alicia leaned out the window. Friday watched over the deserted island, Crusoe said to himself. He went up the stairs more calmly, though conserving a small doubt in a corner of his head that made him draw the .45 and knock on the door of the apartment with it.
“I was feeding your ducks,” Alicia said, smiling, ignoring the gun.
“Yes, I already know that. By the way, you never had a sister.”
“And how did you come to that conclusion?” Alicia asked, looking at him affectionately. She seemed to have come straight out of the 1960s, ten minutes after a Joan Baez concert. A certain air of tie-dye, though not exaggerated. Her loose hair shimmered around her head as she moved about the room; she wore an embroidered white blouse and a very full white skirt.
“Nowhere. Around, adding things up.” Héctor went to the kitchen, looked in the refrigerator and discovered he had fewer than half a dozen Cokes left. He would have to go shopping. “You, who hired me and who feeds the ducks, could have at least stocked the refrigerator with Cokes.”
“On an expense account?”
“Something like that,” Héctor said, sitting on the rug. “Do you work for the Nicaraguans or the Cubans?”
“Do you really care? Would it change anything?”
“Sometimes I think I get into these jams out of curiosity. That when you forget how a story started, there’s always the curiosity of how it will end. Fine, then that’s why, out of curiosity.”
“For the Nics…And I had a sister. What I told you about Estrella is true, he killed her.”
“Did she work for the Nicaraguans, too?”
Alicia didn’t answer.
“Do you think you could get me one of those photos of Sandino, smiling, with that enormous hat, the ones they use on the anniversary posters…? I always wanted one,” Héctor said and walked over to the record player. Neither “Stardust,” nor boleros. Nothing less than Beethoven’s Ninth.
Alicia moved to the bedroom, taking off her blouse.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that I might have a venereal disease? You could ask, couldn’t you?” Héctor yelled after her.
Alicia turned in the hall and smiled at him. Héctor confirmed that her breasts were still lopsided. He turned up the volume as the Philadelphia Orchestra attacked the first chords and for a few hours, he said goodbye to fear.
***
“And this one, who’s this?” the woman with the ponytail asked, pointing at Alicia, who was sleeping naked and without covers beside the detective.
Héctor opened his healthy eye, noted the advancing storm, and said, “Her name is Alicia, this month she’s my boss, I work for her.” He rubbed the sleep from his eye, the fog was beginning to disappear.
The woman with the ponytail opened the window. The light blinded him totally.
“Don’t you get cold sleeping like that?” the woman with the ponytail asked Alicia.
She had entered suddenly carrying a couple of suitcases which she left beside the bed. One of her black boots kicked Héctor’s bare foot sticking out from between the sheets.
Alicia was waking up and was trying to cover a little of her nakedness as she did so. A breast escaped from the sheet.
“Where does that leave us? Who is this lady?” asked the woman with the ponytail.
“It’s my mom,” Héctor said.
“Your fucking mother,” the woman with the ponytail elaborated. Radiant, the freshness of the dawn on her face, no trace of road dust from the trip on her, smiling maliciously.
“Excuse me if I interrupted something,” Alicia said, looking on the night table for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there. “Excuse me, but last night when I arrived, there was no one else on this side of the bed.”
“Okay, my dear, the headlines have arrived, it’s time for the understudies to exit the stage,” said the woman with the ponytail and she started to undress.
Héctor started looking for the same cigarettes that weren’t there, not daring to look at either of the two women.
“I do not like waking up like this,” Alicia said, jumping out of the bed. She walked to the bathroom, gathering her clothes. Then she turned her head. “Good luck,” she said to Héctor.
“Belascoarán, if you tell me that you missed me, I’ll poke out your good eye with one kick,” the woman with the ponytail told Héctor.
“I missed you,” Héctor answered. The woman with the ponytail, beaming, was finishing undoing the last button of her pistachio green blouse and smiled, showing him simultaneously a lilac brassiere and two gleaming rows of teeth.
“Come on, move over,” she said, taking off her skirt.
Héctor finally found the cigarettes on the floor by his side of the bed, but lamentably they were tangled up in Alicia’s underwear. Humbly, he moved over and renounced smoking. For the moment.
***
“Three things, I have three things…” Dick said.
“When I left yesterday, two guys started following me…” Héctor began, but obviously Dick’s things were more important.
“Three things. One: It’s going to be the day after tomorrow, Friday. Two: The exchange is made in two trucks that arrive, two that receive. There’s a third truck that will go straight to Acapulco. Three: Estrella is an intermediary in the operation, but he has to put up the money.”
“What’s in the trucks? Where are they going to arrive? If he’s an intermediary, why does he have to pay?” Héctor asked. “And besides, two guys followed me yesterday.”
“That’s why you’re an entire day late, I already finished what was in the minibar while I was waiting for you, and I can’t let them restock it because I can’t let the maid in so she won’t see the mikes…Asshole,” Dick said.
“I didn’t see them. I was circling around outside the hotel today and I didn’t see them. But if they had something to do with Estrella and they recognized me, why didn’t they warn him so he could take off?”
“Estrella left the hotel last night, partner,” Dick said.
“To where?”
“I have no idea. Nor did I dare ask him. They came to get him and he left, without discussions, without talking about anything, without comment. They knocked on the door and said ‘Let’s go, Ramón,’ and they left. He didn’t come back all night. I think he took his bag, he travels light.”
“And why didn’t you dismantle everything and leave?”
Dick was thinking. “I suppose he left at the same time I was emptying the minibar…Did you bring the beer?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid they’re not cold.”
“And now what’s next?” Dick asked.
“I suppose that while you drink them, I’ll think it over. And I’m going to think it over somewhere else, I don’t like this hotel. Find me in the office or at home,” Héctor said, saying goodbye.
But he didn’t go to either place, he started walking along Reforma toward Chapultepec Castle. A couple of hours later, leaning against the stone balustrade of the old colonial pile, peering at a city that was trying to hide itself in the smog, he joined together a series of ideas:
Estrella disappeared with extraordinary ease, but they also found him very easily.
The operation would take place in the garage in the warehouse district. It was an ideal location for the trucks that would be swapped.
The sentimental life of the detective Belascoarán Shayne was as confused as always. He was absolutely in love with a woman who was no longer quite so much in love with him and who insisted on wearing her hair in a ponytail, as if she wanted to recover the grace of adolescence. And she did.
Estrella trafficked in arms for the contras, that was what was going to be exchanged in the warehouses. Arms for something. Drugs obviously, and Estrella was going to pay the drug people and distribute the arms. Where was the third truck going? What did the Acapulcan friends have to do with all this?
Who were the guardian angels? He had a vague idea, but he preferred not to go too far into that. They were out there, they existed, period.
The breasts of Alicia and of the woman with the ponytail blended together in his memory. That could be dangerously serious. At this point, Dick would be completely drunk. That could be serious, too, though not as much.
A retired detective was an intelligent detective. Detectives belonged to novels; when they escaped from them, they were caricatures that roamed the city phantasmagorically, not knowing what to do on windy afternoons like this one.
In two weeks, he had not managed to hate Estrella. He was a caricature of evil, of whom much was said, but the eternal distance between the narration and the character always remained. There were two Estrellas: one, the one from the movie that began with the assassination of Che and who would later become a character dedicated to nefarious machinations, one of which was killing his wife; and the other Estrella, the caricature whom they’d been following these two weeks and who had screwed a transvestite because it was better than jerking off. He wasn’t scared enough of him to hate him.
That led him to the problem of fear. Fear came and went. He was so damned dazed that his fear had become a collection of scattered sparks in the midst of a general sense of dullness.
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, detective, was a stranger. A stranger in motion. Stranger to everything, stranger to everyone, stranger to himself. He couldn’t quite recognize himself, he couldn’t quite love himself. And since he neither loved himself, nor stopped loving himself, he couldn’t be too careful. He was absolutely sure that in this story they were going to kill him.
An enormous crowd of protesters was marching toward the city center on Reforma Avenue. He watched it unfold little by little. Students? Land-grabbing colonists? Cardenistas? The murmur reached as far as the top of the castle. The city was not to blame for his being a stranger.
Estrella was a pig; a drug trafficker; a whitened mulatto, or rather a fake black, not truly black and therefore respectable; a torturer for pleasure; a murderer of women; a son of a bitch who wanted to ruin the Nicaraguans. If he could remember all this the next time he saw him, he would settle someone else’s bill, Héctor told himself. This protest could be against the PRI, it could be a Cardenista protest, it could be a protest against Estrella and his shit-eating friends who wanted to screw the Nics. Héctor lit a cigarette, sheltering the flame of the lighter, and left the castle to be in solidarity with the protesters.
***
Dick was clipping newspapers with a little pair of scissors with a black handle that had come out of a magic case. Very precisely, he stuck the clips in a notebook with orange covers. In the last few days in hotels, Héctor had seen him repeat the process again and again and he couldn’t resist his curiosity.
“What the hell are you cutting out?”
“Things that I read in the papers. I’m collecting them. No one will believe I was down here if I don’t.”
“What things?”
“Mexican stories. Look…” he said, handing him the photo album of clips.
Héctor started turning the pages. Teeth Lost While Leaving Wedding was the title under the one that recounted the story of a citizen who, after getting married in Pátzcuao to a woman by the last name of Jiménez, got a blow with a brick in the kisser from an unidentified hand on the very steps to the door of the church.
The Wall Fell on Top of Him While Doing What Was Necessary was the headline of the story of another native of the city of Oaxaca, last name Abardía, on whom a wall fell one stormy day while he was very peacefully taking a dump against the traitorous thing. In Search of a Good-Looking Girl Who Has Not Been a Whore read a classified in Monterrey’s El Porvenir and offered the phone number of a pharmacy and the last name Martínez to take references. There Has Been No Honeymoon as Próspero Won’t Let Go of the Pitcher was the headline of the story in a Chilpancingo daily, recounting how Próspero remained drunk eleven days after his marriage and no one could stop him from drinking. Priest Raped 40 Children and 1 Acolyte headlined the item in Alarma, and did not explain how the acolyte had also been had by the clergyman. Wounded in the Buttocks While Cutting Prickly Pears said the headline of a story which transpired in Zacatecas that explained that Carlos Aguirre had been shot in an intimate area by some hunters, although it didn’t explain why he was going around with his rear in the open air just to cut prickly pears.
Ceremoniously, Héctor returned the notebook.
“If we get out of this alive, no one’s going to believe they’re real anyway.”
Héctor looked out at the street through the window of his office. It was raining again.
“Don’t you have the urge to write?”
“Every urge in the world. I’m bored with this Mexican vacation. It’d be better if you’d give me a story soon,” Dick said, opening a beer and watching the foam spill over the top.
“Tomorrow night, in a warehouse. We should look for a spot to see everything clearly. If possible, a place where we can hear what they say.”
“I’m ready on my side, I can take a beer and drink it on the way. That’s why I love Mexican laws, they’ve got nothing against one drinking beer on the street.”
“That’s the one thing we’re missing,” Héctor said.
***
The woman with the ponytail was brushing her hair in front of the mirror and Héctor Belascoarán, sui generis Mexican detective, couldn’t stop watching the brush go up and down, constructing forms, making simulated waves that then disappeared, creating the tail that she would later proudly swing like the last car on the train. She sensed that something out of the ordinary was coming and she looked at Héctor in the mirror.
“Are you saying goodbye to me?”
“It’s a just-in-case goodbye.”
“What are you mixed up in this time? Even the ducks know something strange is going on.”
“Then why don’t you ask the ducks?”
“I asked them, they answered me and I didn’t understand shit…I asked you if you were saying goodbye; if that’s so, don’t say anything and let me leave first. That’s my role. I disappear. I am and I’m not…We could get married before disappearing.”
“Do you have any interest in inheriting my bookcase, my X-ray and blood analysis collection, my notebook of my dear old mother’s recipes?”
“Your Charlie Parker records.”
“I hereby give them to you. See? Now you don’t have to marry me. Anyway, the last time we decided to get married, neither one of us made it to the judge. The witnesses had to throw the party alone.”
“Are things going to get ugly?”
“I don’t know, the truth is I don’t know. Can I give you a task? If something accidentally happens to me, can you get on the motorcycle and run over a guy named Estrella? My brother, Carlos, might be able to tell you where to find him.”
“Is he the mulatto in the photos you’ve got around? The ones hanging in the kitchen?”
“That’s the one.”
She came out of the bathroom looking at the sunlight streaming through the window; on the way she picked up a cup of cold coffee she’d left there before.
“If we got married, I couldn’t be a conventional housewife. For example, you’d have to keep cooking while I recited López Velarde’s poems to you, and now for two. You’d have to cook for two. And what’s more, I throw my clothes on the floor when I undress. I always forget to buy gas, pay the light bill…”
Héctor stared at her. Shit, how he loved her. She was the ideal woman for a suicide pact. The risk was that if he proposed it, she was sure to say yes. They would have to be sane to get married. They would have to be absolutely crazy to live together.
They walked hand in hand along Ínsurgentes. They were starting to put up the Christmas windows. The rain began, first a few sparks of water, then a regular downpour; they got drenched. The detective’s cold came back. Héctor was getting nervous, this afternoon stroll seemed out of a movie with a happy ending. Fear sank into his body. This time, he was afraid of being afraid. They dined on hamburgers and french fries in a plastic dive on Ínsurgentes. They went into Sears and meticulously reviewed the record section, not looking for anything specific. Suddenly, Belascoarán slipped away while she was buying a camera.
As he walked he tried to erase his tracks, to lose the woman who was following him. Who was following him? He went into a theater. If the box-office woman had asked him his name, he would have given her a false one. He half watched the movie, as all one-eyed people do. He couldn’t really figure out what it was about.
***
The gentle tap the stewardess gave him on the arm woke him up. He smiled stupidly, trying to explain to the girl in the Mexicana uniform that she was part of a dream, but she’d gone off down the aisle. They’d begun their descent.
How the hell had he gotten on a plane? A plane bound for where? Why couldn’t he be here? Where was he supposed to be at that moment? If the ticket were to New York or Havana or Mérida, then he would be far enough away from the date on Friday afternoon with Dick to go spy on the swap of Estrella’s trucks. He looked for the ticket in his coat pocket. It was in the name of Francisco Pérez Arce, and it was a one-way ticket to Tijuana.
He tried to look out the window but a woman with a child was in the way. At any rate, his stomach told him they were descending. What day was today? The boy’s mom who was blocking the window had a paper on her lap. La Prensa. Friday. The whole day was Friday. And the time? He looked at his watch. 10:35. In the morning, of course, it was day. He hit himself on the forehead. Fine, hell, Tijuana was as good a place as any to set up a frog hatchery, a poultry farm, a grocery store chain, a publications distribution house, a chain of Ping-Pong parlors, a refuge for the demented, a home, a family. Three sons. Without doubt, he would name them Mickey, Donald, and Bugs. A late homage to the amount of shit he’d read on his way through college.
Almost unintentionally he turned his gaze back to the paper she’d let fall on her knees. Without wanting to, he’d seen something else as he stared at the date. He separated his gaze from the paper, looked in his coat pockets; surely he had a novel. No. His hand, without willing it to, picked up the paper and turned the pages. The woman stared at him balefully. There it was, damn it. There was a photo of Dick on page seventeen, a passport photo, but smiling. Beside it was another of the corpse. Gringo Reporter Murdered by 17 Bullet Wounds, 3 Fatal, said the seventy-two-point headline.
Dick would have liked to have clipped the item. He probably would have liked to begin his report with an item like that one. If the detective had escaped, he might be writing it right now. But he hadn’t escaped. He hadn’t said, “I’m going to escape, I’ll be back in a while.” If he had, he didn’t remember it. Are you less of a son of a bitch if you’ve got a bad memory? He had said to Dick, however, “See you in a while, I’ll be right back,” and he hadn’t gone back. Héctor Belascoarán felt his hands starting to tremble. He was not going to keep a date. He was not going to keep a date with a dead man.
The pilot’s voice announced that they were landing at the Guadalajara airport. Passengers going to Tijuana should remain on the plane a mere twenty minutes.
He’d be damned if he wouldn’t get there, he’d get there running, crawling he’d get there; on a bike in the middle of a storm he’d get there; on horseback or on a mule, he would get there. Nothing could impede him. Nothing could stop him. Scared to death, trembling, but he was going to show up at that date with his dead friend.
Previous: Chapter Nine
Next: Chapter Eleven