The most fascinating quality about things
is that they change so quickly that one keeps
thinking of them the way they were before.
Paco Ignacio Taibo I
Héctor knew from past experience that creatively tailing someone requires double the hours that the guy invests in getting around. Because you have to touch what the guy touches, you have to go back over his steps to find out what size shoe the man wears who crossed paths with him on the terrace; what he spoke about with the pale blonde, and who she sleeps with; the name of the waiter and how much the bill was. If you didn’t work like that, the whole thing turned into a silent movie, indecipherable, because the actors are usually bad, weak, always veering from the already incomprehensible script. It was either that, or technology: to close the distance with telephoto lenses and wireless microphones placed on the tail of a cat or the neckline of a trapeze artist swinging between the lamps.
Resolve the contradiction, he said to himself. Approach fully or back off and return two or three times over the guy’s tracks. Héctor was eclectic and didn’t have access to technology beyond a pair of rubber sandals that didn’t squeak.
That’s why the first day was a failure.
Luke Estrella moved through Mexico City without much hesitancy, including knowing a few codes that are usually reserved for natives and denied to tourists, like not hailing the taxi in front of the hotel, but walking a couple of blocks and stopping one as it passed, which would certainly be cheaper; like wrapping your big bills inside smaller ones; like you don’t need coins for the public phones because even though the instructions order you to insert one, after the earthquake the phone company disconnected the payment system due to the emergency situation and it’s still that way. Estrella hardly even paused before crossing the streets, he didn’t make unnecessary turns. This guy knew Mexico City; what’s more, he had been here within the last year. He didn’t look at the crumbled buildings from the earthquake with any particular interest, he wasn’t interested in the park plaza fire-eaters, he wasn’t surprised by the street booksellers.
After a peaceful, solitary night in the hotel (he even ate in his room, a suite on the sixteenth floor), Estrella had spent the day in a dance without much meaning around the streets in the center of Mexico City: a visit to Aurora Jewelry on Alameda, from which he exited without having bought a thing; a long walk up and down San Juan de Letrán, ending in the purchase of a couple of postcards in the post office, which he filled out right there, put the stamps on and deposited in one of the mailboxes (air mail/international); he went up to the top floor of the Latin American Tower and spent half an hour contemplating the artificial gray fog that covered the city from the southwest to the north. Later, another walk toward Mexico City’s minuscule Chinatown, down narrow Dolores Street. He ate there in a mediocre restaurant where even the waiters were Mandarin. The woman at the table next to him, a plain blonde about forty-five years old, made a little conversation with him, but Héctor, three tables away, couldn’t pick up anything of importance, beyond Estrella’s blowing her off, after a few polite smiles. The Cuban-American spent two hours in the afternoon in a shoe store buying boots. Three pairs, one of them very expensive crocodile leather, which he had sent to the hotel, and later he sat down to read the papers in the Alameda, his back to the statue of Benito Juárez. When it started getting dark, he went back to the hotel and did not reappear.
Estrella had spent his day blissfully and Héctor felt like an idiot.
Too innocent to be true. Either he was waiting for a contact, or someone was helping him figure out if he was being tailed; if that were the case, Héctor could have been easily identified; he had taken no precautions other than concealing himself from the Cuban.
Around twelve at night, Belascoarán dropped into the hardest armchair in his office, the one in which he couldn’t fall asleep due to the springs that stuck out and jutted into his butt, and he decided he didn’t like Luke Estrella one bit, but he didn’t like Héctor Belascoarán Shayne much either.
Estrella, if what Alicia had told him were true, was a son of a bitch. If he’d never heard the story, he would have known it just from seeing the way he walked through the city without touching it, without letting it touch him, the way he looked at things with no affection; he smiled too much, he couldn’t spare a friendly look for the people selling single Kleenexes. Estrella was minding his own business, Estrella was waiting, Estrella was killing time. And Héctor, who knew a lot about death, felt betrayed after a day of useless pursuit.
If a detective orthodoxy happens to exist, a heterodoxy must also exist, a kind of heresy. That is why, after his tenth filtered Delicado, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne got up from the armchair with the popped springs, and at about three in the morning went back out again, stopped a taxi in front of the door to his office, and asked to be taken to the Hotel Presidente Chapultepec.
He registered as Manuel Lombadero, native of Barcelona, paying with American Express traveler’s checks that he had countersigned and that he couldn’t remember how had gotten into his coat pocket. Maybe he’d put them there during one of his many paranoid ravings and signed that strange name, which he recognized as the production assistant of a Spanish mystery movie. Life was already sufficiently bizarre and he was insisting on making it still more grotesque. The reception manager swallowed the tried-and-true excuse that he’d lost his luggage in the airport and Héctor let himself be led to a room on the sixteenth floor, three doors down from Estrella’s.
Once he was alone, Héctor carefully checked the bathroom and terrace, turned on the TV to a station broadcasting pure static, and fell asleep without undressing.
He never found out whether what woke him was his gun driving into his ribs, the start of the morning programming on Channel 13 (whose slogan had been touched up by Carlos Vargas: It’s already morning/to Channel 13 I’m turning/the more I see/the more it grows on me), or destiny. He’d slept three or four hours and was inundated by that feeling of unreality produced by exhaustion.
He heard muffled screams in the hallway. Héctor poked his head out cautiously and saw a bleeding man reaching his arms out to him. A persecuted man recognizes the look of fear in other faces; that might be why, without thinking about it, Héctor extended a hand toward the man and tugged at him to pull him inside the room. He kicked the door shut without stopping to look if anyone was coming after this bloody character.
The guy fell on his knees, looked at Héctor, and, through the fog of the blood that covered his left eye and trickled down his face to his chin, tried to form a faint smile.
“Hello, I am Dick,” he stammered, in English.
“I’m not,” said Héctor, who had always wanted to start a dialogue that way, with the absolute worst timing, as in every crime movie he’d ever seen.
The man rolled over slowly and remained on the floor, calmly staining the dark blue rug with his blood.
There were two dry knocks on the door behind the detective. Héctor turned mechanically and opened again. Before him stood Estrella, draped in silk pajamas.
“Pardon me, sir, an associate of mine had an accident, hurt himself; you see, he was a little drunk, out of it, you say here…” Estrella said as he tried to enter. He didn’t meet the detective’s eye.
Héctor placed himself between the door and the fallen gringo, but Luke Estrella had penetrated the room enough to see him.
“What happened to him…?”
“No one has entered this room,” Héctor said, “aside from that friend of mine who is sleeping on the rug.”
Héctor drew his .45, cocked it, and pressed it against the Cuban’s forehead.
“And furthermore, my friend doesn’t like to have his sleep disturbed.”
“Sorry to bother you,” Estrella said, retreating; then he stared at Héctor as if wanting to memorize his face. A good dose of hatred in the eyes, Héctor thought as he closed the door. A small shiver ran up his spine.
The gringo tried to get up, but reeled and landed back flat with his head on the rug.
The best place to hold a business meeting: Chapultepec Lake. The center of the lake to be exact. Rowing between the contaminated swans, which increasingly grow to resemble the faces of Treasury Department functionaries on the verge of retiring. Possible on a gray day, impossible on a sunny day like that one.
Héctor had left the hotel carrying the gringo on his shoulders down a freight elevator, surrounded by dirty sheets, used condoms from the weekend, and tiny bottles bled dry to the last drop from the minibar.
With the gringo on his back, even though it was only five in the morning, Héctor couldn’t walk down Reforma without sooner or later having to explain himself, so he climbed into a taxi and dashed off to look for an all-night drugstore. The driver, completely understanding, lent more to the attempt at an explanation than the detective did.
“No doubt, it was the cops who screwed him, right, kid? They’re pigs, all of them!”
When they got to the Gigante Pharmacy, open twenty-four hours a day, specializing in that nocturnal toothache, in that sudden gastritis, in the fall of the body’s sugar level, in the providential bottle of aspirin to keep a piece of your head from falling off, the night manager refused to come within a foot and a half of the gringo and only after twenty pleas from the detective did he agree to sell him bandages, hydrogen peroxide, and adhesive tape. Dick was starting to turn purple. He had a cut four or five inches long above his left eye, a small gash on his neck, and his lips were torn. Héctor sat him down on the curb of the parking lot and revealed his healing skills, which he had picked up from a movie about Florence Nightingale, the nurse-angel of the Crimean War. He had watched it six or seven times.
When the gringo asked for a cigarette in his Spanish full of mangled r’s, Héctor decided to take him for a walk in Chapultepec. The sun was rising, a few reddish clouds circled around in the sky. It was a strange morning color.
The boat rentals, patronized by truant high school students during the week, didn’t open for nearly another hour, so the detective whiled away the time by walking his gringo around the outskirts of the zoo and the Museum of Modern Art. Finally, sitting in the boat, as the North American rowed, Héctor tried to cash in on the favor and posed a question:
“And how did you earn that prize on your face?” the detective said, sticking his hand in the water and contemplating the wake his fingers were making.
“Who are you?”
“No, the one who heals is the one who asks the questions,” Héctor answered in his engineering-manual English, substantially better than Dick’s Spanish.
“I’m a reporter,” the gringo answered, switching to English and dropping the oars. He searched through the pocket on the top part of his New York Yankees jacket and took out some crumpled-up press credentials from Rolling Stone magazine.
Beyond the bruises and bandages, he had a sad face, a timid look, black hair, and a sharp nose. Héctor figured they were more or less the same age.
“What business do you have with Luke Estrella?”
“Who is Luke Estrella?”
“The Cuban who broke your face.”
“Oh, Betancourt…I wanted to interview him.”
“Yeah, that much one can see,” Héctor said. One bold swan started following the wake Belascoarán’s fingers were leaving in the water. Héctor quickly withdrew his hand. You never knew what kind of mutations the Mexico City climate could produce in swans.
“And who is this Betancourt? What does he do?”
“Who are you? What do you do?” the gringo answered.
“Hell, it’s a very long story,” Héctor said.
A boat with a bunch of teenagers pulled up to the spot where the reporter and the detective had stopped theirs. The swans approached. Héctor figured the students must have left a trail of stale bread or corn. The swans of the lake, so different from the ducks at home, seemed gloomy, carnivorous, sad.
“That always happens to me when I come to Mexico, all the stories are long, very long, and no one seems to have enough time to tell them.”
“I suspect that not even gringo reporters have the patience anymore.”
“If we keep fucking around about our stories, the current will take us to the Panama Canal,” Dick said, showing his first smile of the morning through his split lip. “I need at least two beers to decide between exchanging my story for yours or telling you a pile of shit.”
“I could have a couple of Cokes while I decide if I should put you back in the hall where I found you and figure something out while watching the Cuban smash your face in again.”
“While I row, we could start by agreeing on what our Cuban’s name is.”
“Luke Estrella,” Héctor said.
“Gary Betancourt,” Dick said.
“It seems to me we’ll end up knowing him by more names.”
Dick started rowing in search of beer. The disappointed swans abandoned the boat’s wake.