Authors: Ricardo Piglia
International praise for Ricardo Piglia:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â .Â Â Â INTERNATIONAL RÃMULO GALLEGOS NOVEL PRIZE, 2011
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â .Â Â Â NATIONAL CRITICS PRIZE, 2011
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â .Â Â Â THE BEST NOVEL IN SPANISH OF THE YEAR2010,CHOSEN BY55CRITICS AND JOURNALISTS OFEl PaÃs
“Piglia demonstrates perfect mastery of his art. Nothing is there just for the sake of it.”â El PaÃs
“Ricardo Piglia is an extremely important literary figure. He has inherited Borges' quizzical intelligence, enthusiasm for the tireless exploration of literature and attraction to hidden depths. Piglia's fictions trace inventive parabolas over the past nightmarish events of his country.”â The Independent
“Ricardo Piglia, the rebel classic.”âJ.A. MASOLIVER RODENAS,La Vanguardia
“One of the sharpest minds on the latino-hispanic-american scene todayânot just in Argentina.”â El Cultural
“Argentine writer Piglia is the most perceptive contemporary reader of that nation's literature and perhaps its best practitioner.”âSILVIA GIL DE CWILICH,Publishers Weekly,onFormas Breves
“Latin American noir at its bestâand further evidence of Piglia's remarkable versatility and skill.”â Kirkus ReviewsonMoney to Burn
“One of Latin America's most highly regarded novelists. Piglia brings into play a swirl of tales mixing dark truths with hallucinatory adventures.”âGWEN KIRKPATRICK, author ofThe Dissonant Legacy of Modernismo, onThe Absent City
“Piglia is Argentina's most important novelist, a compelling writer and committed intellectual who relentlessly deals with the complicated relationships between politics and fiction. And Sergio Waisman is an exceptionally gifted translator with a wonderful ear and eye for the reverberations of Spanish in English.”âFRANCINE MASIELLO, author ofBetween Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina,onThe Absent City
ALSO AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH BY RICARDO PIGLIA:
The Absent City
translated by Sergio Waisman
translated by Daniel Balderston
translated by Sergio Waisman
Money to Burn
translated by Amanda Hopkinson
Deep Vellum Publishing
2919 Commerce St. #159, Dallas, Texas 75226
Deep Vellum Publishing is a 501C3
nonprofit literary arts organization founded in 2013.
Copyright Â© 2010 by Ricardo Piglia
c/o Guillermo Schavelzon & Asoc., Agencia Literaria
Translation & Introduction copyright Â© 2015 by Sergio Waisman
ISBN: 978-1-941920-17-6 (ebook)
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CONTROL NUMBER: 2015946455
Work published within the framework of SUR Translation Support Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Argentinian Republic.
Obra subsidiada en el marco Programa SUR del
Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto de la RepÃºblica Argentina.
Cover design & typesetting by Anna Zylicz Â·annazylicz.com
Text set in Bembo, a typeface modeled on typefaces cut by Francesco Griffo for Aldo Manuzio's printing ofDe Aetnain 1495 in Venice.
Distributed by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution.
Experience is a dim lamp that only lights the one who bears it.
WHAT'S IN A TITLE? FROM“BLANCO NOCTURNO”TO“TARGET IN THE NIGHT”
Ricardo Piglia was born in AdroguÃ©, in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1941. One of Latin America's most important living writers, Ricardo Piglia is known for his sophisticated combination of formal experimentation and political and cultural engagement. The author of fourteen books of fiction and non-fiction, Piglia's work has been translated, among others, into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Chinese, Arabic, Hungarian, and Portuguese, as well as English.Target in the Nightwas originally published in Spanish in 2010 asBlanco nocturno, and in 2011 it won the RÃ³mulo Gallegos Award and the National Critics Prize, two of the most prestigious awards given to a single work of Spanish-language literature in the world. In 2015, Ricardo Piglia was awarded the Formentor Prize, which recognizes a lifetime contribution to literature, previously awarded to Borges, Beckett, Bellow, and Gombrowicz, and most recently Fuentes, Goytisolo, MarÃas, and Vila-Matas.
Target in the Nightis a kind of literary thriller set in the pampas of Argentina. Tony DurÃ¡n, a Puerto Rican mulatto from New Jersey, arrives in a small town in the province of Buenos Aires with a suitcase full of American dollars. All indications are that DurÃ¡n comes in pursuit of two beautiful women, the Belladona sisters,whom he met in Atlantic City, and with whom he formed a hasty trio. But the Belladona sisters may not have been the real, or at least not the only, reason for DurÃ¡n going to Argentina. A few weeks after DurÃ¡n's arrival in the small Argentine town, a murder ensues. Inspector Croce, the local, somewhat-rambling genius detective, investigates the crime. A writer fromEl Mundo, a newspaper in Buenos Aires, is sent to the remote area to cover the story; the journalist is Emilio Renzi, the author's well-known alter-ego figure, who appears in most of Piglia's fictions.
AsTarget in the Nightunfolds, the investigations by Croceâand by Renziâuncover a series of hidden associations that lead to further inquiry. The story involves a powerful local family, a corrupt public prosecutor, and the relationships that Inspector Croce and the investigative journalist Renzi have and develop with the town residents. The initial enigma drives the narrative, and the different storylines in the novel all hinge around the initial crime. But there is also a larger mystery that lies as if hidden beneath the town and the text. The mystery at the heart ofTarget in the Nightis an actual mystery and a pretext for the telling of a complex family storyâwhich turns out, in many ways, to be the story of Argentina.
Experimenting with form, innovating with narrative, recounting gripping tales that revolve around a central plot,Target in the Nightstarts as a detective novel, and soon turns into much more than that. Piglia takes the genre of the detective story and transforms it into what can be called, using Piglia's own term, “paranoid fiction.” Everyone in the novel is a suspect of a kind, everyone feels persecuted. In Piglia's paranoid fiction, individualsare accused ofâand some commitâcrimes, but the category of a “criminal” no longer applies only to isolated individuals. Groups with power over other groups maneuver to conserve or gain more power through hidden as well as overt moves. No one understands what is happening, the clues and testimonies are contradictory, and suspicion is always in the air, because the versions of the story change with every point of view. As we follow Croce and Renzi throughTarget in the Night, the potentialâand the intrigueâof the story expand with the many voices interwoven throughout the narrative. Important in Piglia's book is the exploration of what is left unsaid, of what is hidden but cannot be forgotten. The initial crime is a point of departure for a series of unpredictable events and a fascinating inquiry into the machinations of society and storytelling in a small town in Argentina. Machinations that have everything to do with contemporary fictionâand with contemporary reality.
Ricardo Piglia'sTarget in the Nightis deeply rooted in its nation's literary tradition, and in a certain RÃo de la Plata kind of Spanish (castellano rioplatense). The context of a small town in the pampas, the language used by the narrator and spoken by the characters in the novel, and the foundational importance of the Argentine countryside in the history of Argentine literature make translatingTarget in the Nighta big challenge. At times,Target in the Nightechoes some of the Argentine greats that came before Piglia: Macedonio FernÃ¡ndez, Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt, Manuel Puig, Rodolfo Walsh. At others, the novel resonates with Modernists like Joyce and Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Brechtand Kafka, as well as the narrative worlds of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and William Burroughs, or the hardboiled mysteries of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. These are some of Piglia's influences inTarget in the Night, crossed and reworked in a thoroughly original style in the remote Argentine landscape where the mystery takes place.
How do you translateBlanco nocturnoâa novel so rooted in Argentine tradition, a novel where the Argentine landscape and ways of speaking are so importantâinto English? How does one go fromBlanco nocturnotoTarget in the Night? One of the most difficult things to translate aboutBlanco nocturno, in fact, is the title itself. In Spanish,Blanco nocturnohas several meanings, and there is no obvious way to reproduce those multiple meanings in EnglishâTarget in the Nightcomes at the end of a complex process that always seems to create as many or more questions as answers.
“Blanco nocturno,” translated literally, would be “Nocturnal White,” which does not make much sense in English. White Nocturne was a possibility, and it was never far from Target in the Night. But “blanco” in Spanish is not just “white.” The most important meaning of “blanco” in the context of the novel is probably “target.” “Tiro al blanco” is target shooting; “dar en el blanco” is to hit the target. Whileblancodoes mean white, it also means blank, as in a blank space. Tony DurÃ¡n, the mulatto Puerto Rican from New Jersey, the strange foreigner who travels to a small town in the Province of Buenos Aires, is a dark man at the center of a dark mystery. He is also a target from the moment he sets foot in the Argentine town. Or perhaps DurÃ¡n has gone to the town with a secret target in mind. These possibilities emerge from the titleand from a number of scenes in the novel that work by juxtaposing opposites: black and white, day and night, past and future, presence and absence, tradition and innovation.
I considered a number of titles as I worked on the translation, before arriving atTarget in the Night. The centrality of the target, as well as the feel of the story, outdid the lyricism of White Nocturne. Nocturnal Target, or Night Target, were not far off. White Night would have overly simplified things, although it would have kept theblanco-nocturnobinomial. Night Blanks, or Blank Night sounded mysterious, but too ambiguous. Night Vision, although intriguing, would have changed the meaning too much. Likewise, I considered A Shot in the Dark, but found it to be off the mark. Conrad Aiken has a lovely poem entitled “White Nocturne,” and while there are some very beautiful passages in Piglia's novel, and while there is definitely something poetic aboutBlanco nocturno,the novel has a jazzy, driving feel to it, a noirish hook much closer toTarget in the Night.
In many ways,Blanco nocturnois the brilliantly untranslatable title of this brilliant novel. There may be better options, but now that the translation is complete and the novel has begun this version of its afterlife,Target in the Nightis starting to feel very much like the right title in English. With any luck, some readers will be reminded of Fitzgerald's masterfulTender Is the Night. Readers, of course, are the ones who will decide what they think ofTarget in the Night, including the title.
Target in the NightânÃ©eBlanco nocturnoâis the third book of Piglia's that I have translated into English, and there is, I hope, moreto come. From the moment I first read Piglia in Spanish, I felt an almost unexplainable need to say the same (to speak the same voice) that I was readingâbut to say it (to speak it) so it could be heard (so it could be read) in English. It is a great honor to be one of Piglia's translators. It is also a great challenge, full of responsibility as well as potential. How does a literary tradition like Argentina's, one influenced by so many travelers and outsiders, a tradition with so many translations and rewritings as part of its own national formationâhow does such a tradition travel abroad, beyond its own borders? How do you translate a writer like Ricardo Piglia, who is so immersed in the language and the tradition in which he writes? How to translateBlanco nocturnofrom the Argentine countryside into English in the U.S. and arrive atTarget in the Night? A lot of hard work and conjecture; in the end, the translation becomes a kind of answer.
The first book I translated by Ricardo Piglia wasNombre falso, published in English (by Latin American Literary Review Press) asAssumed Name. From the beginning, I liked the play with names, attribution, authorship, and property found in that book, and in translation. When I translated Ricardo Piglia'sLa ciudad ausente(published, by Duke University Press, asThe Absent City) I felt, at times, as if my work as a translator was a direct and natural projection of the machine at the center of the novel, with its ceaseless output of stories that are reworkings and recombinations of other stories, in turn reproduced and circulated throughout a city somehow composed of the stories themselves. A mechanism of narrating as if projected from the original itself, though clearly of another sort.
WithBlanco nocturno, I felt transported to the small town in the Argentine pampas, even as I was trying, paradoxically, almost impossibly, to transport the novel to another place, in another tongue:Target in the Night. I was submerged in the mystery and the investigation and the various characters and relationships, and then released in the second half of the novel by the lyricism of the narrative and the expanding imagination of Luca (one of the Belladona brothers) working in his factory with the stuff that dreams are made of. As with the other projects, I communicated with Piglia as I worked on the translation, and as always he was extremely generous in his responses. At one point, I had a question about Inspector Croce's dog, which roams around town and sometimes goes out to Luca's factory, as if chasing an invisible trail. Piglia answered my query by e-mailâ“[Cuzco] es un perro vagundo de tamaÃ±o chico, mutt estarÃa bien” [(Cuzco) is a small street dog, mutt would be fine]âand added: “Sigo imaginariamente tu traducciÃ³n” [I am following your translation imaginarily]. AsBlanco nocturnowas becomingTarget in the Night, changing languages and being reimagined in the North, so to speak, I imagined Piglia following my translation far away in the South, in the dark distance, fading yet always present, leading even as I wrote my version, letting go so others might find the story and take the intrigue where it needed to go.
Because the scene of translation almost always remains invisible, the processes that take place in that scene often remain unknown. Somewhere between creative writing and scholarly research, between invention and investigation, the scene of translation emerges as a third space, mysterious and unexplored, in betweenlanguages and texts, suspectedâand suspect. Something happens in the scene of translation; there is a potential found there and few places else that deserves to be unveiled. A movement between reading and writing as much as it is a movement between languages and cultures, translation offers insights into all manner of questions about authorship and originality, voice and identity, communication and understanding, cultural borders and linguistic movement. Translating a text is an odd experience: you produce an entire text that is yours,youwrite it, you put it down on paper, you undertake your stylistic and syntactic decisionsâbut when you are done, you signsomeone else's nameto it instead of your own. Or equally startling, you sign your namein addition tosomeone else's; thus the text gains a double, or a phantom authorship. By signing your words over to someone else, by putting another's name to your language, you willingly sacrifice yourself. Handing over your identity card, if you will, it is as if you were making yourself invisible. Many say that such self-erasure is the necessary duty of the translator, whose task it isâallegedlyâto serve the original at all costs.
But translation is also always at least partially selfish, because translation is a mode of reading that is by definition one of appropriation. Translation may be an attempt at careful reproduction, translation may involve a hermeneutic motion the end goal of which may be to restitute signification so that the target might successfully recreate the meaning of the source in an analogous text, but we know that translation always distorts and transforms, as it seeks to say the same in another language. Literary translation requires humility, and also daring, and passion. Somewherebetween performance and copying, between building bridges and destroying originals; somewhere between theft and plagiarism, on the one hand, and altruism and empathy, on the other.
Is it possible to speak the same voice in another tongue? A nearly impossible task, in which one ends up remaining nearly invisible. For some, the less one sees of the translator in the text, the better. And yet the translation we read is written by the translatorârewritten by the translator, I should say. When we read a translation, we know that we are reading a text that is actually two texts: the version we have in our hands, and the version that came before, both there somehow, encoded in the same book. Seeking to speak the same voice in another tongue.
In the end, the original we so covet (Blanco nocturno, in this case) is perceivedâheard, felt, intuitedâin the translation itself, reflected and distorted, refracted, literally reworded, in an attempt to say the same (to speak the same voice) in the target language (Target in the Night, now). What is found in the scene of translation? Fleeting glances of the other in the same, sliding mirrors and shifting floors, moving targets in darkened spaces. Almost enough to make us think of alchemy, forbidden formulas, melodies forgotten yet not entirely lost, a deceptive shape hovering in the fogâlike the distant horizon fading in the Argentine countryside at dawn.
On the relationship between translation and the novel, Piglia has said: “HabrÃa que reflexionar sobre quÃ© quiere decir leer mal; quÃ© tipo de efecto puede producir una lectura que se desvÃa de lo que en principio pueden ser los sentidos dados del textoâ¦La traducciÃ³n es el espacio de los grandes intercambios y de las circulaciones secretas.” [We should think about what it means to mis-read. What kind of effect is producedby a reading that deviates from what may have been, at first, the assumed meanings of the textâ¦Translation is the space of great exchanges and secret circulations.]
A space of great exchanges and secret circulations. An organic machine that reads in one language and writes in another. What's in a name? What meanings and implications are hidden in the town where Croce and Renzi pursue their investigations? A paranoid fiction, full of potential. What isTarget in the Night? I leave it to the reader.
Kensington, MD, July 2015
Tony DurÃ¡n was an adventurer and a professional gambler who saw his opportunity to win the big casino when he met the Belladona sisters. It was a mÃ©nage Ã trois that scandalized the town and stayed on everyone's mind for months. He'd show up with one of the two sisters at the restaurant of the Plaza Hotel, but no one could ever tell with which because the twins were so alike that even their handwriting was indistinguishable. Tony was almost never seen with both at the same time; that was something he kept private. What really shocked everyone was the thought of the twins sleeping together. Not so much that they would share the same man, but that they would share each other.
Soon the rumors turned into stories and elaborate tales, and before long no one could talk about anything else. People went on about it throughout the dayâin their homes, or at the Social Club, or at Madariaga's Store and Tavern. Everyone had a detail to add, commenting as easily as if they were talking about the weather.
In that town, like in all the towns in the Province of Buenos Aires, more news was batted around in a single day than in any large city in a week. The difference between regional and national news was so vast that the residents could retain the illusion thatthey lived an interesting life. DurÃ¡n had come to enrich that mythology, and his figure reached legendary heights long before the time of his death.
You could take Tony's comings and goings through the town and draw a map from them. An outsider's ramblings along the elevated sidewalks, his walks to the outskirts of the abandoned factory and the deserted fields. He deciphered the order and hierarchies of the place in short order. The dwellings and houses stand clearly divided according to the social level of the inhabitants. The territory seems to have been drawn by a snobbish cartographer. The wealthy live at the top of the hill, and in a circle of about eight blocks is the so-called historical center of town,1which includes the square, the town hall, the church, and the main street with the stores and the two-story houses. Finally, sloping down on the other side of the railroad tracks, are the poorer neighborhoods where over half of the darker-skinned population lives and dies.
Tony's popularity and the envy he aroused among the men could have led to anything. But in the end his downfall was simply a matter of chance, which is what had brought him here in the first place. It was incredible to see such an elegant mulatto in that town full of Basques and Piedmontese gauchos, a man who spoke Spanish with a Caribbean accent but looked as if he came from theprovince of Corrientes or from Paraguay, a mysterious foreigner lost in a lost town in the middle of the pampas.
“He was always happy,” Madariaga said, looking in the mirror at a man pacing nervously along the store's stacked bottles, a riding whip in his hand. “And you, Inspector, will you have a gin?”
“Grappa, maybe. But never on duty,” Inspector Croce replied.
Tall, of indefinite age, with a red face and gray moustache and hair, Croce chewed pensively on an Avanti cigar as he paced back and forth, hitting the legs of the chairs with his riding whip. As if he were shooing away his own thoughts, crawling along the floor.
“How could no one have seen DurÃ¡n that day?” Croce asked, and everyone in the country store looked at him silently, guiltily.
Then he said that he knew that everyone knew but that no one was talking, and that they were thinking up a bunch of lies and going round and round the obvious to try to find a fifth leg to the cat.
“I wonder where that expression comes from?” Croce said, stopping to think, intrigued. He got lost in the zigzag of his thoughts, flashing like lightning bugs at night. He smiled, and began pacing again. “Just like Tony,” he said, remembering. “An American who didn't look like an American, but he was an American.”
Tony DurÃ¡n was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His parents moved to Trenton when he was five years old, and he was raised in New Jersey as a typical American. The only thing he remembered from the island was that his grandfather was a gamecock breeder who used to take him to the fights on Sundays. He also remembered that the men would cover their pants with newspapers to protect their clothes from the spraying blood of the fighting cocks.
When he arrived and found a secret cockfighting ring in the town of Pila, and saw the country laborers wearing sandals and the little pygmy roosters strutting around in the sand, he laughed, saying that that's not how it was done. But in the end he got excited about the suicidal fierceness of a Bataraz rooster that used its spurs like a lightweight boxer uses his hands to come out swinging. Quickly, deadly, ruthless, going straight for his rival's death, his destruction, his end. When he saw the rooster, DurÃ¡n started betting and got worked up about the cockfight, as if he were already one of us (one of us, as Tony himself would have said, in English).
“He wasn't one of us, though, he was different, but that's not why they killed him. They killed him because he looked like what we imagined that he had to be,” the Inspector said, as enigmatic as always, and as always a bit crazy. “He was nice,” he added, looking outside at the countryside. “I liked him,” the Inspector said, stopping in his tracks, near the window, leaning back against the wall, lost in his thoughts.
At the bar of the Plaza Hotel, in the afternoons, DurÃ¡n would recount fragments from his childhood in Trenton, about his family's gas station off of Route One. How his father got up before daybreak because someone had turned off the highway and was honking his horn, how you could hear laughter and jazz from the radio, how Tony looked out the window, half asleep, to see the expensive cars speeding by with happy blond women in ermine jackets in the back seats. A bright vision in the middle of the night confusedâin his memoryâwith fragments from a black and white film. The images were secret and personal and didn't belongto anyone. He didn't even remember if the memories were his. Sometimes Croce felt the same about his own life.
“I'm from here,” the Inspector said all of a sudden, as if he had just woken up. “And I know all the cats around here, and I've never seen one with five legs, but I can imagine this young man's life perfectly. He seemed to come from somewhere else,” Croce said calmly, “but there is nowhere else.” He looked at his young assistant, SaldÃas, who followed him everywhere and always agreed with him. “There is nowhere else, we're all in the same boat.”
DurÃ¡n was elegant and ambitious and so good at dancing theplenain the Dominican clubs of Spanish Harlem that he became the emcee of the Pelusa, a dancehall on East 122nd Street in Manhattan. This was in the mid 1960s, and he had just turned twenty. He climbed quickly because he was quick, because he was fun, because he was always willing and because he was loyal. Before long he was working the hotels in Long Island and the casinos in Atlantic City.
Everyone in town remembered how amazed they were when they heard the stories that he told at the bar in the Plaza Hotel, drinking gin-and-tonics and eating peanuts, chatting in a low voice as if he were sharing secrets. No one was sure if those stories were true, but no one cared about a detail like that. They listened, grateful that he was confiding in provincial folk like them, people who still lived where they were born, where their parents and their grandparents were born, and who only knew about the lifestyle of guys like DurÃ¡n because they saw them on the Telly Savalas detective show on Saturday nights. He didn't understand why they wanted to hear the story of his life. His story was thesame as anyone else's, he said. “There aren't that many differences, when you get down to it,” DurÃ¡n used to say. “The only thing that changes is who your enemy is.”
After a time in the casinos, DurÃ¡n broadened his horizon, particularly with women. He developed a sixth sense that allowed him to determine a woman's wealth, to differentiate rich women from female adventurers who were looking for a catch of their own. Small details would grab his attention, a certain caution when betting, a deliberately distracted look, a carelessness in their dress and a use of language that he immediately associated with abundance. The more money, the more laconic the woman, that was his conclusion. He had the class and skill to seduce them. He'd tease and string them along, but at the same time he treated them with a colonial chivalry he had learned from his Spanish grandparents. Until one night in early December 1971, in Atlantic City, when he met the Argentine twins.
The Belladona sisters were the daughters and granddaughters of the town founders, immigrants who had made their fortune from the lands they owned in the area of CarhuÃ©, at the end of the Indian Wars. Their grandfather, Colonel Bruno Belladona, came with the railroad and bought lands now administered by a North American firm. Their father, the engineer Cayetano Belladona, lived in the large family house, retired, suffering from a strange illness that kept him from going out but not from controlling the town and county politics. He was a wretched man who cared only for his two daughters (Ada and SofÃa). He had a serious conflict with his two sons (Lucio and Luca), and had erased them fromhis life as if they'd never existed. The difference of the sexes is the key to every tragedy, Old Man Belladona thought when he was drunk. Men and women are different species, like cats and vultures. Whose idea was it to make them cohabitate? The males want to kill you and kill each other, while the women want to go to bed with you, climb into the nearest cot with you at siesta time, or go to bed together, Old Man Belladona would ramble on, somewhat deliriously.
He'd been married twice. He had the twin girls with his second wife, Matilde Ibarguren, a posh lady from Venado Tuerto who was a certifiable nut. The two boys he'd had with an Irishwoman with red hair and green eyes who couldn't stand life in the countryside and had run away, first to Rosario, and then back to Dublin. The strange thing was that the boys had inherited their stepmother's unhinged character, while the girls were just like the Irishwoman: red-haired and joyful, lighting up the air wherever they went. Crossed destinies, Croce called it, the children inherit their parents' crossed tragedies. SaldÃas the Scribe carefully jotted down all the observations that the Inspector made, trying to learn the ins and outs of his new position. Recently transferred to the town by order of the Public Prosecutor's Office, which was trying to control the overly rebellious Inspector, SaldÃas admired Croce as if he were the greatest investigator2in Argentine history. Assistant Inspector SaldÃas took everything that Croce said entirely seriously; and the Inspector would, in jest, sometimes call him Watson.
In any case, their storiesâAda and SofÃa's on the one hand, Lucio and Luca's on the otherâremained separate for years, as ifthey belonged to different tribes. They only came together when Tony DurÃ¡n was found dead. There had been a monetary transaction; apparently Old Man Belladona had been involved with some transfer of funds. The old man went to QuequÃ©n every month to oversee the shipments of grain that he exported, for which he received a compensation in dollars paid to him by the State under pretext of keeping internal prices stable. He taught his daughters his own moral code and let them do whatever they wanted, raising them as if they were boys.
Ever since they were little the Belladona sisters were rebellious. They were audacious, they competed with each other all the time, with tenacity and delight, not to differentiate themselves, but to sharpen their symmetry and to learn to what extent they were really identical. They'd go out on horseback and explore the night like viscachas, in winter, in the frost-covered countryside. They'd go along the ravine and into the swampy ground crawling with black crabs. They'd bathe naked in the rough lake that gave its name to the town and hunt ducks with the double-barreled rifle their father bought them when they turned thirteen. They were very developed for their age, as they say, so no one was surprised whenâalmost overnightâthey stopped going hunting and horseback riding and playing fÃºtbol with the country laborers, to become young society ladies who sent out to have their identical clothes made in an English shop in the capital. With time they went to study agronomy at the university in La Plata, following the wish of their father, who wanted them in charge of the fields soon. People said that they were always together, that they passed their exams easily because they knew the countrysidebetter than their teachers, that they shared their boyfriends, and that they wrote their mother letters to recommend books and to ask her for money.
Around that time the father suffered the accident that left him half paralyzed, so the sisters abandoned their studies and came back to town. There were several versions of what had happened to the old man. That his horse had thrown him when he was surprised by a swarm of locusts from the north, and that he spent the whole night lying in the middle of the field, his face covered with the insects and their razor-sharp legs. That he suffered some kind of stroke when he was screwing a Paraguayan at Bizca's brothel and that the girl had saved his life, almost without realizing it, because she went on giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Or also, that one afternoon he discovered, or so people said, that someone very close to him had been poisoning him. He didn't want to believe it might be one of his sons. Apparently, someone had been adding a few drops of the liquid used to kill ticks in the whiskey he drank at the end of every day, at dusk, on his flower-filled balcony. By the time they realized what it was, the poison had done part of its job, and from that point on the old man couldn't walk anymore. In any case, before long the family was not seen around town anymore. The father because he stayed in his house and never went out; and the sisters because, after taking care of their father for a few months, they grew bored of being locked in and decided to go abroad.
Unlike all their friends who were going to Europe, the sisters went to the United States. They spent time in California, then crossed the continent by train on a trip that took several weekswith long stops in various cities along the way, until they reached the East Coast around the beginning of the northern winter. They spent the trip staying in large hotels, gambling wherever they could along the way, living the life and playing the part of South American heiresses in search of adventure in the land of upstarts and the nouveau riche.
This was the news about the Belladona sisters that reached town. The information arrived with the evening train that left the mail in large canvas bags on the station platform. It was Sosa, the post office agent, who reconstructed the itinerary of the young women from the postmarks on the envelopes addressed to their father. Complemented by the detailed stories of the travelers and businessmen who came to the bar of the Plaza Hotel to recount what was rumored about the twins among their fellow students in La Plataâto whom they would boast on the telephone, apparently, about their North American conquests and discoveries.
Then, toward the end of 1971, the sisters reached the New York area. In a casino in Atlantic City they met the pleasant young man of uncertain origin who spoke a Spanish that seemed to come straight out of a television series. At first, not realizing there were two of them, Tony DurÃ¡n went out with both sisters, thinking there was just one. This was a system the sisters had always practiced. It was like having a double do the disagreeable (and the agreeable) tasks for you, which is how they took turns with everything in life. In fact, people in town used to say, each sister only went through half of school, half of their catechism, and even half of their sexual initiation. They were always drawing straws to see which of them was going to do whatever they had to do.Is that you, or your sister? Was the question everyone asked when one of the two showed up at a dance, or at the dining room of the Social Club. DoÃ±a Matilde, their mother, would often have to clarify which was SofÃa and which was Ada. Or the other way around. Because their mother was the only one who could tell them apartâby their breathing, she said.
The twins' passion for gambling was the first thing that attracted DurÃ¡n to them. The sisters were used to betting against each other, and he became part of the game. From that point on he dedicated himself to seducing themâor they dedicated themselves to seducing him. They were always together (dancing, dining, listening to live music) until one of the two would insist on staying a bit longer to have another drink at the bar in the hotel, while the other would excuse herself and go back to the room. He would stay with SofÃa; with the twin who said she was SofÃa. Everything worked out for a few days.
Then, one night, when he was in bed with SofÃa, Ada came in and started undressing in front of them. That was the start of the stormy week they spent in the motels of Long Island's South Shore, in the freezing winter, sleeping together, the three of them, enjoying the bars in the resorts that were nearly empty in the off-season. The three-way game was hard and brutal and the cynicism was the hardest thing to bear. Perdition and evil make life fun, but conflicts evenutally arise. The two sisters would plot behind Tony's back and make him say too much; he, in turn, would plot with the women, trying to turn one against the other. SofÃa was the weakest, or the most sensitive, and the first to give up. One night she left the hotel and flew back to Buenos Aires.DurÃ¡n continued traveling with Ada. They went back to the same hotels and to the same resorts, until one night they decided that they, too, would go to Argentina. DurÃ¡n sent her ahead and came a few days later.
“But did he come for them? I don't think so. And he didn't come for the family money, either,” Inspector Croce said, stopping to light his cigar. He leaned against the counter while Madariaga cleaned glasses behind the counter. “He came because he was never at peace, because he couldn't keep still, because he was looking for a place where he wouldn't be treated like a second-class citizen. That's why he came, and now he's dead. In my time things were different.” The Inspector looked around the tavern, but no one said anything. “We didn't need a half-Latino, half-mulatto, fake gringo coming here to complicate life for a poor country Inspector like me.”
Croce was born and raised in the area. He became a policeman during PerÃ³n's first government, and had been in charge of the district ever sinceâexcept for a brief period after General Valle's revolution in 1956. The Inspector went gray overnight, that year, when he found out the military had executed the workers who had risen up asking for PerÃ³n's return. The week before the uprising Croce had been rallying the local police stations, but when he learned the rebellion had failed he wandered through the countryside speaking to himself for days, without sleeping. By the time they found him it was already as if he were someone else. His hair white, his head agitated, he locked himself in his house and didn't come out for months. He lost his post that time, but he was reinstated during Frondizi's presidency in 1958 and has keptit ever since, despite all the political changes. He was supported by Old Man Belladona who, as they say, always defended him, although they weren't particularly close.
“They want to catch me slipping up somehow,” Croce said, smiling. “They have me under surveillance. But it won't work, I won't let them.”
He was legendary, much loved by all, a kind of general consultant in town. Everyone thought Inspector Croce had a bit of a screw loose, especially when people saw him riding through the countryside in his one-horse cart. Always the lone ranger, he'd detain cattle rustlers and horse thieves, or round up bums and rich kids from the large ranches when they came back drunk from the bars near the port. His style sometimes provoked scandals and grumbling, but he got such great results that everyone ended up thinking that his was the way every country Inspector should behave. He had such extraordinary intuition, he was like a psychic.
“He's a bit off,” everyone said. A bit off, maybe, but not like Madman Carousel, who circled around town all dressed in white, talking to himself in an incomprehensible tongue. No, a bit off but in another way, like someone who can hear a song in his head but can't quite play it on the piano. An unpredictable man who ranted at times, had no set rules, but was always right and always remained impartial.
Croce got it right so often because he seemed to see things that others didn't. He caught a man who had raped a woman, once, because he saw the perpetrator coming out of the same movie theaterâtwice. It turned out that the man had raped a woman in the theater whereGod Bless Youwas playing, but the clue thathad led Croce to the arrest hadn't meant anything to anyone else. Another time he discovered that someone was a rustler because he saw the man taking the early-morning train to BolÃvar. If he's going to BolÃvar at that time of day, it's because he's going there to sell stolen loot, Croce said. Said and done.
Sometimes they'd call him from one of the surrounding towns to solve an impossible case, as if he were a criminal faith healer. He'd ride over in his one-horse cart, listen to the different stories and testimonies, and come back with the case solved. “The priest did it,” he said once in the case of a set of farm fires in Del Valle. A Franciscan pyromaniac. They went to the parish and found a trunk full of fuses and a can of kerosene in the atrium.
His whole life was dedicated to his job. After a strange love affair with a married woman, Croce remained unattached, although everyone thought he had an intermittent relationship with Rosa, EstÃ©vez's widow, the woman in charge of the town's archives. He lived by himself on the edge of town, on the other side of the tracks, where the police station operated.
Croce's cases were famous throughout the province. His assistant, SaldÃas the Scribe, a student of criminology, had fallen under the Inspector's spell, too.
“Fact is no one really understands why Tony came to this town,” Croce said, and looked at SaldÃas.
The assistant took out a little black notebook and reviewed his notes.
“DurÃ¡n arrived in January, on the fifth of January,” SaldÃas said. “Exactly three months and four days ago.”
1Â Â Â The town is toward the south of the province of Buenos Aires, 340 kilometers from the capital. A military stronghold and the location of troop settlements during the time of the Indian Wars, the small town was really founded in 1905 when the railroad station was built, the plots of the downtown area were demarcated, and the lands of the municipality were distributed. In the 1940s the eruption of a volcano covered the plains and the houses with a mantle of ash. The men and women defended themselves from the gray dust by covering their faces with beekeeping and fumigation masks.
2Â Â Â Investigator was the name used, at the time, for a plainclothes policeman.
On that day, in the still glare of summer, a stranger was seen getting off the northbound express. Very tall, with dark skin, dressed like a dandy, with two large suitcases that he left on the train platformâand a fine leather brown bag that he refused to let go of when the porters approachedâhe smiled, blinded by the sun, and gave a ceremonial bow, as if that was the way people greeted each other around here. The ranchers and laborers talking in the shade of the casuarina trees responded with a surprised murmur, as Tonyâin his sweet voice, in his musical languageâlooked at the stationmaster and asked where he could find a good hotel.
“Would you be so kind as to tell me, sir, where there might be a good hotel near here?”
“The Plaza is right over there,” the stationmaster said, pointing to the white building on the other side of the street.
He registered at the hotel as Anthony DurÃ¡n, showing his U.S. passport and using his traveler's checks to pay a month in advance. He said he had come for business, that he wanted to make some investments, that he was interested in Argentine horses. Everyone in town tried to figure out what type of business he might have with horses. They thought that maybe DurÃ¡n was going to invest in the stud farms in the area. He said something vagueabout a polo player in Miami who wanted to buy ponies from the Heguy Ranch, and something about a trainer in Mississippi who was looking to race Argentine stallions. According to DurÃ¡n, a show jumper named Moore had been here before him, leaving convinced of the quality of the horses bred in the pampas. That was the reason he gave when he first arrived. A few days later he started visiting the local corrals and checking out the colts and fillies grazing in the pastures.
At first it looked as if he had come to buy horses. Everyone became interested in himâthe cattle auctioneers, the consignees, the breeders, the ranchersâthinking there was some kind of profit to be made. The gossip buzzed from one end of town to the other like a swarm of locusts.
“It took us a while,” Madariaga said, “to catch on to his connection to the Belladona sisters.”
DurÃ¡n settled in at the hotel in a room on the third floor facing the plaza and asked to have a radio installed (a radio, not a television). He asked if there was anywhere in the area where he could get rum and frijoles, but he quickly got used to the local food in the hotel restaurant and to the Llave gin that he had sent up to his room every afternoon at five.
He spoke an archaic Spanish, full of unexpected idiomatic expressions (copacetic, what's the deal, in the thick of it) and bewildering words in English or in ancient Spanish (obstinacy, victor, frippery). It wasn't always possible to understand the words he used, or how he put sentences together, but his language was warm and soothing. Also, he'd buy drinks for anyone who listened to his stories. That was his moment of greatest esteem, and that's howhe started to circulate, to become known, to visit the most varied of places, and to become friends with the young men in town, regardless of their level on the social scale.
He was full of stories and anecdotes about that strange outside world that people in the area had only seen in the movies or on TV. He had lived in New York, a city without any of the ridiculous hierarchies of a small town in the province of Buenos Airesâor at least where they weren't as visible. He always looked happy. Everyone who spoke to him or ran into him on the street felt important because of how he listened to them. How he agreed with them. One week after being in town, he had established a warm and sympathetic aura about him, and he became popular and well known even among people who hadn't met him.3
He had a certain ability to win over the men, and this seemed to draw the women to his side as well. They talked about him in the ladies room in the coffee shop, and in the halls of the Social Club, and in endless telephone conversations on summer afternoons. The women were the ones, of course, who started saying that Tonyhad actually come to town after the Belladona sisters.
Until finally, one afternoon, he walked into the bar of the Plaza Hotel with one of the two sistersâwith Ada, they say. They sat at a table in a far corner and spent the afternoon talking and laughing softly. It caused an explosion, a show of joy and malice. That very night was the start of the hushed comments and the stories full of innuendos.
They were said to have checked in at the Inn on the road that leads to the town of Rauch. And that the sisters used to receive him in a small house of theirs, in the vicinity of the closed factory that stood like an abandoned monument some ten kilometers from town.
It was all rumors, provincial chatter, stories that only served to further elevate his prestigeâand that of the sisters.
The Belladona sisters had always been ahead of their time, they were the precursors of everything interesting that happened in town: the first to wear miniskirts, the first not to wear bras, the first to smoke marijuana and take the pill. It was as if the sisters had decided that DurÃ¡n was the right man to help them complete their education. An initiation story, then, like in those novels in which young social climbers conquer frigid duchesses. The sisters weren't frigid, or duchesses, but DurÃ¡n was a young social climber, a Caribbean Julien Sorelâas Nelson Bravo, the writer of the society pages for the local paper, eruditely put it.
At this point the men changed from looking at him with distant sympathy to treating him with blind admiration and calculated envy.
“He used to come here, peaceful as could be, and have a drinkwith one of the sisters. Because at first (people say) they didn't let him into the Social Club. Those snobs are the worst, they like to keep everything hidden. Simple folks, instead, are more liberal,” Madariaga said, using the word in its old sense. “If they do something, they do it out in the light of day. Didn't Don Cosme and his sister Margarita live together for over a year as a couple? And didn't the two JÃ¡uregui brothers share a woman they got in a brothel in Lobos? And didn't that old guy Andrade get involved with a fifteen-year-old girl who was a pupil in a Carmelite convent?”
“Surely,” one of the patrons said.
“Of course if DurÃ¡n had been a blond gringo everything would've been different,” Madariaga said.
“Surely,” the patron repeated.
“Surely, surelyâ¦Shirley got put in the clink,” Bravo said, sitting at a table near the window toward the back of the tavern. Stirring a spoonful of bicarbonate in a glass of soda water. For his heartburn.
DurÃ¡n liked living in a hotel. He'd stay up all night, wandering the empty hallways while everyone slept. And sometimes he'd talk with the night concierge, who went around trying the doors at all hours, or took brief naps on the leather chairs in the large reception hall downstairs. Talking is a figure of speech, though, because the night porter was a Japanese man who smiled and said yes to everything, as if he didn't understand Spanish. He was small and pale, slicked down, very servile, always wearing a bow tie and jacket. He came from the countryside, where his family ran a flower nursery. His name was Yoshio Dazai,4but everyonein the hotel called him the Japo. Apparently, somehow, Yoshio was DurÃ¡n's main source of information. Yoshio was the one who told DurÃ¡n the history of the town and the real story of Belladona's abandoned factory. Many wondered how the Japanese porter had ended up living like a cat by night, shining a light on the hotel's key cabinet with a small lantern, while his family grew flowers in a farm out in the country. Yoshio was friendly and delicate, very formal and very mannered. Quiet, with gentle, almond-shaped eyes, everyone thought the Japanese night porter powdered his face and that he went as far as applying a touch of rouge, a soft palette really, on his cheeks. He was very proud of his straight, jet-black hair, which he himself calledraven's wing. Yoshio became so fond of DurÃ¡n that he followed him everywhere, as if he were his personal servant.
Sometimes, at daybreak, the two would come out of the hotel together and walk down the middle of the street, across town to the train station. They'd sit on a bench on the empty platform and watch the dawn express speed by. The train never stopped, it raced south toward Patagonia like a flash. Leaning against the lighted windows, the faces of the passengers behind the glass were like corpses at the morgue.
It was Yoshio who, one early February day at noon, handed DurÃ¡n the envelope from the Belladona sisters inviting him to visit the family house. They had drawn a map for him on a sheet of notebook paper, circling the location of their mansion on thehill in red. Apparently he was invited to meet their father.
The large family house was up the slope in the old part of town, at the top of the hills looking over the low mountains, the lake, and the gray, endless countryside. Dressed in a white linen jacket and matching shoes, DurÃ¡n walked up the steep road to the house in the middle of the afternoon.
But they had DurÃ¡n come in through the back service door.
It was the maid's mistake, she saw that Tony was a mulatto and thought that he was a ranch hand in disguise.
He walked through the kitchen, through the ironing room and the servants' rooms, and into the parlor facing the gardens where Old Man Belladona was waiting for him, thin and frail like an old, embalmed monkey, his eyelids heavy, his legs knock-kneed. DurÃ¡n very politely bowed and approached the Old Man, following the respectful customs used in the Spanish Caribbean. But that doesn't work in the province of Buenos Aires, because only the servants treat gentlemen in that way here. The servants (Croce said) are the only ones who still use the aristocratic manners of the Spanish Colonies, they've been abandoned everywhere else. And it was those gentlemen who taught their servants the manners that they themselves had abandoned, as if depositing in those dark-skinned men the customs they no longer needed.
So DurÃ¡n behaved, without realizing it, like a foreman, or a tenant, or a farmhand slowly and solemnly approaching his master.
Tony didn't understand the relationships and hierarchies of the town. He didn't understand that there were areasâthe tiled paths in the center of the plaza, the shady sidewalk along the boulevard, the front pews of the churchâwhere only the members of theold families could go. That there were placesâthe Social Club, the theater boxes, the restaurant at the Jockey Clubâwhere you weren't allowed to enter even if you had money.
People asked themselves, though, if Old Man Belladona wasn't right to mistrust. To mistrust, and to show the arrogant foreigner from the beginning the rules of his class, of his house. The Old Man had probably wondered, as everyone wondered, how a mulatto who said he came from New York could show up in a place where the last black people had disappearedâor had dispersed until they blended completely into the landscapeâfifty years earlier, without ever clearly explaining why he had come here, insinuating rather that he had come on some kind of secret mission. They said something to each other that afternoon, it came out later, the Old Man and Tony. It seems he had come with a message, or with an order, everything under wraps.
The Old Man lived in a spacious parlor that looked like a racquetball court. They had knocked down several walls to make room for him, so Old Man Belladona could move from one end to the other, between his tables and desks, speaking to himself and spying out the window at the dead movement on the road beyond the gardens.
“They're going to call you Sambo around here,” Old Man Belladona told him, smiling caustically. “There were a lot of blacks in the RÃo de la Plata area during colonial times, they even formed a battalion of mulattos and Negros, very determined, but they were all killed in the War of Independence. There were a few black gauchos, too, out on the frontier, but in the end they all went to live with the Indians. A few years back there were stilla few blacks in the hills, but they've died off. They're all gone now. I've heard there are a lot of ways of differentiating skin color in the Caribbean, but here the mulattos are all sambos.5Do you understand, young man?”
Old Man Belladona was seventy years old, but he seemed so ancient that it made sense for him to refer to everyone in town as young. He had survived every catastrophe, he ruled over the dead, everything he touched disintegrated, he drove the men in the family away and stayed with his daughtersâwhile his sons were exiled ten kilometers to the south, in the factory they built on the road to Rauch. Right away the Old Man told Tony DurÃ¡n about the inheritance. He had divided up his possessions and ceded his property before dying, but that had been a mistake. Ever since it had been nothing but wars.
“I don't have anything left,” Old Man Belladona said. “They started fighting, and they've nearly killed me.”
His daughters, he said, weren't involved in the conflict, but his sons had gone about it as if they were fighting over a kingdom. (“I'm never coming back,” Luca had sworn. “I'll never set foot in this house again.”)
“Something changed at that point, after that visit, and that conversation,” Madariaga said from behind the bar, to no one in particular, and without clarifying what the change had been.
It was around that time that people started to say that DurÃ¡n was acarrier.6That he had brought money, which wasn't his, tobuy crops under the table. People started saying that this was his business with Old Man Belladona. That the sisters were only a pretext.
Quite possibly, it wasn't that rare, except that people who carried money under the table tended to be invisible. Men who looked like bankers and traveled with a fortune in dollars to avoid the Tax Office. There were a lot of stories about tax evasion and the trafficking of foreign currency. Where it was hidden, how it was carried, who had to be greased. But that's not the point, it doesn't matter where they hide the money, because they can't be discovered if no one says anything. And who's going to say anything if everyone's in on it: the farmers, the ranchers, the auctioneers, the brokers who trade in grains, everyone at the silos who keeps prices down.
Madariaga looked at the Inspector in the mirror again. Croce paced nervously from one end of the tavern to the other, his riding crop in his hand, until he finally sat at one of the tables. SaldÃas, his assistant, ordered a bottle of wine and something to eat. Croce continued his monologue, as he always did when he was trying to solve a crime.
“Tony DurÃ¡n came with money,” Croce said. “That's why they killed him. They got him excited about the country races and the horse from LujÃ¡n.”
“They didn't need to get him excited, he was already excited before he got here,” Madariaga said, laughing.
Some people say that a country race was set up especially for him and that he became obsessed about it. But it would be more accurate to say that the horse race, which they had been preparing for months, was moved up so Tony could be there. And that some saw in this the hand of fate.
Tony quickly realized that there were several kinds of very good horses in the province, basically falling into three categories: the polo ponies, very extraordinary, bred mostly in the area of Venado Tuerto; the purebred locals, from the stud farms near the coast; and the short-distance racers, which are very fast, with great pickup, flashing bursts, nervous, used to running in pairs. There are no other horsesâor racesâlike these anywhere else in the world.
DurÃ¡n began to learn the history of the races in the area.7Right away he realized there was more money at play here than at the Kentucky Derby. The farmers and the ranchers bet big, the laborers gamble their entire salary. The country races are set up with much anticipation, and people round up their money for the occasion. Some horses accumulate a kind of prestige, everyone knows that they have won so many races in such and such places. Then a challenge is made.
The town's horse was a dapple gray that belonged to Payo Ledesma, a very good horse, retired, like a boxer who hangs up his gloves without ever having lost. A rancher from LujÃ¡n with an undefeated sorrel had been trying to challenge him for some time. It seems at first Ledesma didn't want to accept, but that hefinally rose to the challenge, as they say, and accepted the call. Which is when someone looked over and got Tony involved. The other horse, the one from LujÃ¡n, was namedTÃ¡cito, and he had quite a history.TÃ¡citowas a purebred that had been injured and now couldn't run more than three hundred meters at a time. He had started out in the racetrack in La Plata and had won in the Polla de Potrillos, but then one rainy Saturday afternoon, in the fifth race at San Isidro, he'd had an accident. On one of the turns he broke his left leg and was left damaged. He was the son of one ofEmbrujo'ssons. They wanted to put him out to pasture and just breed him, but the horse's jockeyâand trainerâstepped in and took care of him. Until, slowly, the horse was able to run again, damaged and all. Apparently they convinced the rancher in LujÃ¡n to buy him and he had won every country race in which he had raced since. That was the story everyone told about him. The horse was truly impressive, a sorrel with white feet, surly and mean. He had ears only for his jockey, who spoke to him as if he were a person.
The horse was brought to town in an open pickup. When they let him out in the field the folks who had gathered watched from a respectful distance. A horse of great height, with a blanket on its back and one leg bandaged, spirited, surly, darting its wide eyes from fright or anger, like a true purebred.
“Yah,” Madariaga said. “Ledesma's dapple gray against the undefeated sorrel from LujÃ¡n. Something happened there.”
3Â Â Â Tony's older brother had died in Vietnam. The sun reflected off of his glasses as he was crossing a stream in the forest near the Mecong Delta, making him visible to a Vietcong sniper who killed him with a single shotâfired from such a distance that it went unheard.He died in battle, but his death was so unexpected and so peaceful that we thought he had died of a heart attack, said the condolence letter signed by Colonel Roger White, the ranting author in charge of writing these letters on behalf of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. The troops referred to Colonel White asthe fucking poet. After the shot, the squad fell back into the rice fields, fearing an ambush. Tony's brother was carried away by the current. They found him a week later, devoured by dogs and scavenger birds. Colonel White didn't say anything about these circumstances in his condolence letter. As grace for his brother's death, Tony wasn't called up into the army. They didn't want two dead brothers in the same family, even in a Puerto Rican family. His brother's remains came back in a sealed, lead coffin. His mother was never certain that the bodyâburied in the military cemetery in Jersey Cityâwas really her son's.
4Â Â Â The son of an officer of the Imperial Army who died hours before the signing of the Armistice, Dazai was born in Buenos Aires in 1946. Raised by his mother and his aunts, as a child he understood only feminine Japanese (onnarashii).
5Â Â Â Sambos, mestizos of mixed Indian and black blood, were considered the lowest rung on the social ladder of the River Plate region.
6Â Â Â “Tax evasion is due, primarily, to the activities of so-calledcarriers, known as such because they carry cash in briefcases. They offer better prices to suppliers, to the owners of the winter pastures, and to agricultural producers in general. They trade under the table and make out receipts to inexistent firms” (La Prensa, February 10, 1972).
7Â Â Â The best-known short-distance racer in the history of Argentina wasPangarÃ© azul, property of Colonel Benito Machado. This horse won every race in which it ever participated. It died hanged in its stall due to some trainer's carelessness.
It was a cool Sunday afternoon. Men from the farms and estancias from throughout the district lined up against the fence that separated the track from the surrounding houses. A couple of boards were placed over a pair of sawhorses to set up a stand to sell empanadas, gin, and a coastal wine so strong it went to your head just by looking at it. The fire for the grill was already lit, there were racks of ribs nailed on a cross, and entrails stretched out on a tarp laid out on the grass. Everyone was gearing up as if for a big fiesta; there was a nervous, electrified murmuring through the crowd, typical of a long-awaited race. There were no women in sight, only males of all ages, boys and old men, young men and grown men, wearing their Sunday best. Laborers with embroidered shirts and vests; ranchers with suede jackets and scarves around their necks; young men from town with jeans and sweaters tied at their waists. Large numbers of people milling about. The betting started right away, the men holding bills in their hands, folded between their fingers, or behind the headbands of their hats.
A lot of men from out of town came to watch the race, too, and they were all gathered toward the end of the track, at the finish line, near the bluff. You could tell they weren't from the area by how they moved, cautiously, with the uncertain step of someonenot on home turf. The loudspeakers from the town's advertisement companyâAds, auctions, and sales. The voice of the peopleâplayed music first, then asked for a round of applause for the judge of that afternoon's race: Inspector Croce.
The Inspector arrived wearing a suit and a tie and a thin-brimmed hat. He was with SaldÃas the Scribe, who followed him around like a shadow. Some scattered applause sounded.
“Long live the Inspector's horse!” a drunk yelled.
“Don't get smart with me, Cholo, or I'll throw you in jail for contempt,” the Inspector said. The drunk threw his hat in the air and shouted:
“Long live the police!”
Everyone laughed and the atmosphere eased up again. Croce and the Scribe very formally measured the distance of the track by counting the requisite number of steps. They also placed a linesman on either side, each holding a red towel to wave when everything was set.
During a break in the music, a car was heard driving up at full speed from behind the hill. Everyone saw DurÃ¡n driving Old Man Belladona's convertible coupe with both sisters beside him in the narrow front seat. Redheaded and beautiful, they looked as if they hadn't gotten enough sleep. While DurÃ¡n parked the car and helped the young ladies out, the Inspector stopped, turned around to look at them, and said something softly to SaldÃas. The Scribe shook his head. It was strange to see the sisters together except in extraordinary situations. And it was extraordinary to see them there at all because they were the only women at the race (except for the country women selling empanadas).
DurÃ¡n and the twins found a place near the starting line. The young women each sat on a small canvas folding chair. Tony stood behind them and greeted people he knew, and joined in making fun of the out-of-towners who had crowded together at the other end of the track. His thick, black hair, slicked back, shone with some kind of cream or oil that kept it in place. The sisters were all smiles, dressed alike, with flowery sundresses and white ribbons in their hair. Needless to say, had they not been the descendants of the town owner, they wouldn't have been able to move about with so much ease among all the men there. They, the men, looked at the Belladona sisters out of the corner of their eyes with a combination of respect and longing. DurÃ¡n was the one who'd return the looks, smiling, and the men from the countryside would turn around and walk away. The two sisters also immediately started betting, taking money out of a diminutive leather purse that each carried around her shoulder. SofÃa bet a lot of money on the town's dapple gray, while Ada put together a stack of five-hundred and one-thousand bills and played it all on the sorrel from LujÃ¡n. It was always like that, one against the other, like two cats in a bag fighting to get out.
“Fine, that's fine,” SofÃa said, and raised the stakes. “The loser pays for dinner at the NÃ¡utico.”
DurÃ¡n laughed, joking with them. People saw him lean forward, between the two, and reach toward one of the sisters, and warmly tuck a rebellious strand behind an ear.
Then everything froze for an endless instant. The Inspector motionless in the middle of the field; the out-of-towners quiet as if asleep; the laborers studying the sand on the track with exaggeratedattention; the ranchers looking displeased or surprised, surrounded by their foremen and farm hands; the loudspeakers silent; the man in charge of the grill with a knife in his hand suspended over the flames of the barbeque; Calesita the Madman circling slower and slower until he too stood still, barely rocking in place as if to imitate the swaying of the canopies over the carousel in the breeze. (Carousel: a word Tony taught Calesita one time when he stopped to speak with the town's madman in the main square.) It was a remarkable moment. The sisters and DurÃ¡n appeared to be the only ones who continued on, speaking softly, laughing, he still caressing one of them, the other pulling on the sleeve of his jacket to get him to bend toward her and hear what she had to whisper in his ear. But if everything had stopped it was because, on the other side of the row of trees, the rancher from LujÃ¡nâCooke the Englishmanâhad shown up, tall and heavy as an oak. Next to him, swaying his hips as he walked with a studied smugness, his riding crop tucked under his arm, was the small jockey. Half yellowish-green from drinking so muchmate, he looked at the men from the country with disdain because he had raced in the hippodromes in La Plata and San Isidro, and because he was a professional turf racer. The story had reached the town of how the jockey had lost his license when he jostled a rival coming out of a curve at full speed. The move apparently forced the other horse to roll, badly killing the jockey, crushed underneath the animal. People said that he spent time in jail at first, but was later released when he claimed that his horse was spooked by the whistle of a train pulling into the station in La Plata, directly behind the racetrack. People said that he was cruel and quarrelsome, that hewas full of tricks and wiles, that he was responsible for two other deaths, that he was haughty, tiny, and mean as pepper. They called him el Chino because he was born in the District of Maldonado, in the Oriental Republic of Uruguayâbut he was so cocky and arrogant, he didn't seem like someone from Uruguay.
One-Eyed Ledesma's dapple gray was ridden by Little Monkey Aguirre, a trainee of at most fifteen years who looked as if he'd been born on a horse. Black beret, scarf around his neck, espadrilles, baggy trousers, thick riding crop, Little Monkey. In front of him, the other jockey, diminutive, dressed in a colorful vest and jodhpurs, a glove on his left hand, his scornful eyes two wicked holes in a yellow plaster mask. They looked at each other without saying anything: el Chino with his crop under his arm and the black glove on his hand, like a claw, and Little Monkey kicking stones out of the way, as if he wanted to clear the ground, stubborn, fussy. His way of focusing before a race.
When everything was ready, they set about mounting their horses. Little Monkey took off his sandals and got on barefoot, putting his large toe through the rope of the saddle, Indian style. El Chino used short stirrups, up high, English style, half-standing on his horse, both reins in his gloved left hand, while he patted the horse's head with his right and whispered in the horse's ear in a distant, guttural tongue. Then they weighed them, one at a time, on a maize-weighing scale that lay flat on the ground. They had to add weight to Little Monkey; el Chino had about two kilos on him.
They decided the horses would take off with a running start and then race a distance of three blocks, barely three hundredmeters, from the shadow of the casuarina trees to the embankment of the downhill slope, near the lake. One of the linesmen laid out a yellow sisal string at the starting line, which shone in the sun as if it were made of gold. The Inspector stepped to the line and waved his hat to indicate that everything was set. The music stopped, silence settled over everything again, the only sound the soft murmur of a handful of people placing the last few bets.
The racehorses took off in a trot from underneath the tree covering. There was one false start and two different attempts to get the horses lined up again. Finally, they came running up from the back in a light gallop, perfectly even, picking up speed, expertly mounted, nose to nose, and the Inspector clapped his hands loudly and shouted that it was a fair start. The dapple gray seemed to jump forward and right away took a head's length lead over el Chino, who was riding draped over his horse's ears, without touching him, his whip still under his arm. Little Monkey came up whipping his animal wildly. Both ran as fast as a light.
The loud cheers and insults formed a chorus that surrounded the track. Little Monkey led for the first two hundred meters, at which point el Chino started hitting his sorrel and quickly closed in on him. They raced to the end, neck and neck. When they crossed the finish line Ledesma's dapple gray had a nose on the sorrel from LujÃ¡n.
El Chino jumped off of his horse, furious, and immediately shouted that it had been a false start.
“The start was fair,” the Inspector said, unfazed. “Little Monkey won, at the finish line.”
A ruckus started up. Amid the confusion, el Chino startedarguing with Payo Ledesma, owner of the winning horse. First he insulted him, then he tried to hit him. Ledesma, who was thin and tall, put his hand on el Chino's head and kept him at an arm's length, while the small, enraged jockey kicked and swung his arms in vain. Finally, the Inspector intervened. He yelled until el Chino calmed down, dusted himself off, and turned toward Croce.
“I get it. The horse is yours, right?” el Chino asked. “No one in this town beats the Inspector's horse, is that it?”
“Inspector's horse my ass,” Croce said. “You jockeys. When you win everything's fine and dandy, but when you lose the first thing you do is claim that the race was fixed.”
Feelings ran high, everyone was arguing. The bets hadn't been paid yet. The sisters stood up on their small canvas seats to see what was going on. They balanced themselves by each holding on to one of DurÃ¡n's shoulders. Tony stood between them, smiling. The rancher from LujÃ¡n seemed very calm, holding his horse by its bridle.
“Relax, Chino,” he said to his jockey, and turned to Ledesma. “The start wasn't clear. My horse was cut off and you,” he said, looking at Croce, who had lit a small cigar and was smoking furiously, “you saw it and still gave the sign for a fair start.”
“In that case, why didn't you speak up earlier and say that it was a false start?” Ledesma asked.
“Because I'm a gentleman. If you claim that you won, that's your business, I'll pay the bets. But my horse is still undefeated.”
“I disagree,” the jockey said. “A horse has his honor, he never accepts an unfair defeat.”
“That little doll-man is crazy,” Ada said, with astonishment andadmiration. “Really stubborn.”
As if he could hear them all the way from the other end of the field, el Chino looked at the twins up and down with audacity, first at one and then the other. He turned to face them, insolent and vain. Ada raised her hand and formed the lettercwith her thumb and index finger, smiling, to indicate the small difference by which he had lost.
“That little guy is all cocked and ready to crow,” Ada said.
“I've never been with a jockey,” SofÃa said.
The jockey looked at both of them, bowed almost imperceptibly, and swayed away, as if one of his legs was shorter than the other. His whip under his arm, his little body harmonious and stiff, he walked to the pump by the side of the house and wetted his hair down. While he was pumping the water, he looked at Little Monkey, sitting under a tree nearby.
“You beat me to it,” he said.
“You talk too much,” Little Monkey said, and they faced each other again. But it didn't go any further than that because el Chino walked away. He went to the sorrel and spoke to him, petting him, as if he were trying to calm the horse down, when he was the one who was upset.
“I'll say it's okay, then,” the rancher from LujÃ¡n said. “But I didn't lose. Pay the bets, go on.” He looked at Ledesma. “We'll go again whenever you want, just find me a neutral field. There are races in CaÃ±uelas next month, if you want.”
“I thank you,” Ledesma said.
But Ledesma didn't accept the rematch and they never raced again. They say the sisters tried to convince Old Man Belladonato buy the horse from LujÃ¡n, including the jockey, because they wanted the race to be restaged, and that the Old Man refusedâbut those are only stories and conjectures.
March arrived and the sisters stopped going swimming at the pool in the NÃ¡utico. After this, DurÃ¡n would wait for them at the bar of the hotel, or he'd say goodbye to them at the edge of town and walk to the lake, making a stop at Madariaga's Tavern to have a gin. He was seen at the bar of the hotel almost every night, he kept up a tone of immediate confidence, of natural sympathy, but slowly he started growing more isolated. That's when the versions of his motives for coming to town started changing, people would say that they'd seen him, or that he'd been seen, that he'd said something to them, or that someone had said somethingâand they'd lower their voices. He looked erratic, distracted, and he seemed comfortable only in the company of Yoshio, while the latter appeared to become his personal assistant, his cicerone and his guide. The Japanese night porter was leading him in an unexpected direction that no one entirely liked. They swam naked together in the lake during siesta time. Several times Yoshio was seen waiting for DurÃ¡n on the edge of the water with a towel, and then drying Tony vigorously before serving him his afternoon snack on a tablecloth stretched out under the willows.
Sometimes they'd go out at dawn and fish at the lake, rent a boat and watch the sunrise as they cast their lines. Tony was born on an island in the Caribbean, and the interconnected lakes in the south of the province, with their peaceful banks and their islets with grazing cows, made him laugh. Still, he liked the emptylandscape of the plains, beyond the gentle current of the water lapping on the reeds, as they saw it from the boat. Expanding fields, sunburnt grass, and occasionally a water spring between the groves and the roads.
By then the story had changed. No longer a Don Juan, no longer a fortune seeker who had come after two South American heiresses, he was now a new kind of traveler, an adventurer who trafficked in dirty money, a neutral smuggler who snuck dollars through customs using his North American passport and his elegant looks. He had a split personality, two faces, two backgrounds. It was impossible to reconcile the versions because the other, secret life attributed to him was always new and surprising. A seductive foreigner, an extrovert who revealed everything, but also a mysterious man with a dark side who fell for the Belladona sisters and got lost in the whirlwind that followed.
The whole town participated in fine-tuning and improving the stories. The motives and the point of view changed, but not the character. The events themselves hadn't actually changed, only how they were being perceived. There were no new facts, only different interpretations.
“But that's not why they killed him,” Madariaga said, and looked at the Inspector again in the mirror. Nervous, his riding crop in his hand, Croce was still pacing from one end of the tavern to the other.
The last light from the late March afternoon seeped in, sliced by the window grilles. Outside, the stretched-out fields dissolved like water in the dusk.
They spoke from late afternoon until midnight, sitting on the wicker chairs on the porch facing the back gardens. Every so often SofÃa would get up and go into the house to refresh the ice or get another bottle of white wine, still talking from the kitchen, or as she went in or out the glass door, or when she leaned on the railing of the porch, before sitting down again, showing off her suntanned thighs, her bare feet in sandals with her red-painted toesâher long legs, fine ankles, perfect kneesâwhich Emilio Renzi looked at in a daze as he followed the girl's serious and ironic voice, coming and going in the eveningâlike a tuneâonly occasionally interrupting her with a comment, or to write a few words or a line in his black notebook, like someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and turns on a light to record on any available piece of paper a detail from a dream they have just had with the hope of remembering it in its entirety the next day.
SofÃa had realized long ago that her family's story seemed to belong to everyone, as if it were a mystery that the whole town knew and told over and over again, without ever managing to completely decipher. She had never worried about the different versions and alterations, because the various stories formed part of the myth that she and her sister, the Antigones (or was it the Iphigenias?) of the legend didn't need to clarifyâ“to lower themselves to clarify,” as she said. But now, after the crime, amid all the confusion, it might be necessary to attempt to reconstructâ“or understand”âwhat had happened. Family stories are all alike, she said, the characters always repeatâthere is always a reckless uncle; a woman in love who ends up a spinster; there is always someone who is mad, a recovering alcoholic, a cousin who likes to wear women's clothing at parties; someone who fails, someone who succeeds; a suicideâbut in this case what complicated everything was that theirfamily story was superimposed with the story of the town.
“My grandfather founded the town,” she said disdainfully. “There was nothing here when he arrived, just the empty land. The English built the train station and put him in charge.”
Her grandfather was born in Italy and studied engineering and was a railroad technician, and when he arrived in Argentina they brought him out to the deserted plains and put him at the head of a branch line, a stopâa railroad crossing, reallyâin the middle of the pampas.
“And now sometimes I think,” she said later, “that if my grandfather hadn't left Turin, Tony wouldn't have died. Or even if we hadn't met him in Atlantic City, or if he had stayed with his grandparents in RÃo Piedras, then they wouldn't have killed him. What do you call that?”
“It's called life,” Renzi said.
“Pshaw8!” she said. “Don't be so corny. What's wrong with you? They picked him out on purpose and killed him, on the exact day, at the exact hour. They didn't have that many opportunities. Don't you understand? You don't get that many chances to kill a man like that.”
8Â Â Â SofÃa liked to use the onomatopoeias she always saw reading comics throughout her childhood.
The cleaning lady found DurÃ¡n dead on the floor of his hotel room, stabbed in the chest. She heard the phone ringing inside and went in when no one picked up, thinking the room was empty. It was two in the afternoon.
Croce was drinking vermouth in the bar of the hotel with SaldÃas then, so he didn't have to go anywhere to start the investigation.
“No one leaves the premises,” Croce said. “We'll take their statements before they can go.”
The occasional guests, the travelers, and the long-term lodgers stood around in groups of three or four, or sat on the leather chairs in the reception hall, whispering to each other. SaldÃas set up at a desk in the office of the hotel manager and called them in one at a time. He made a list, wrote everyone's personal and contact information, asked them exactly where in the hotel they had been at two o'clock, and told them that they remained at the disposal of the police and could be called back as witnesses anytime. Finally, he separated the ones who had been close to the scene of the event, or who had direct information about the murder, and asked them to wait in the dining room. The rest could go on about their normal activities, pending further notice.
“Four people were close to DurÃ¡n's room at the time of the crime. They all say they saw someone suspicious. They should be questioned.”
“We'll start with them.”
SaldÃas realized that the Inspector was hesitant to go up and see the body. Croce didn't like the expression of the dead, that strange look of surprise and horror. He had seen plenty of them, too many, in all sorts of positions and from the oddest causes of death, but always with the same look of shock in their eye. His hope was always to be able to solve a crime without having to examine the corpse. Too many corpses, dead bodies everywhere, he said.
“We have to go upstairs,” SaldÃas said, and used an argument that Croce himself had used in similar circumstances. “It's better to look at everything before talking to the witnesses.”
“True,” Croce said.
Tony had been staying in the best room in the hotel. It faced out to the street corner and was isolated at the end of the hallway. DurÃ¡n, dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. He seemed as if he were about to smile. His eyes were open in a look that was at once frozen and terrifying.
Croce and SaldÃas stood before the body with that strange sort of complicity that forms between two men who look at a dead man together.
“Don't touch him,” Croce said. “Poor devil.”
The Inspector turned his back on the body and carefully started to examine the floor and the furniture. Everything in the room was in order,at first sight.Croce walked to the window facingthe square to see what you could see from the street, and also to see what you could see from the room if you looked out. The killer had probably stopped at least for a moment to look out the window and see if anyone could see what was happening inside the room. Or maybe there had been an accomplice downstairs who gave him a sign.
“He was killed when he opened the door.
“He was pushed back in,” Croce said, “and was killed right away. First he recognized the person who came in. Then he was surprised.” Croce walked back to the body. “The knife wound is very deep, very precise, it's the kind of blow used to kill a calf. A perfect strike, the killer used a local knife technique. Brought down from above, with force, the edge of the blade facing in, between the ribs. A clean blow,” he said, as if he were narrating a movie he had seen that afternoon. “There was no noise, just a moan. I'm sure the killer held him up so he wouldn't fall too hard. There's not that much blood. You hold the body up, like a sack of bones, and by the time you set your victim down, he's already dead. Short and chubby, the killer,” Croce concluded. He could tell from the wound that an ordinary blade had been used, it would be like many of the kitchen knives used in the country to slice beef. A carving knife, there were thousands of them in the province.
“I'm sure they threw the weapon into the lake,” the Inspector said, with a lost look in his eye. “A lot of knives at the bottom of the lake. When I was little I used to dive down there, and I'd always find oneâ”
“Knives and bodies. It's a cemetery down there. Suicides, drunks,Indians, women. Corpses and more corpses at the bottom of the lake. I saw an old man once, his hair long and white, it had kept growing. It looked like tulle in the clear water.” He paused. “The body doesn't rot in the water, the clothes do, that's why dead bodies float naked among the weeds. I've seen pale corpses on their feet with their eyes open, like big, white fish in an aquarium.”
Had he seen it, or dreamt it? He would suddenly have visions like that, Croce would, and SaldÃas would realize that the Inspector was already somewhere else, just for a moment, speaking with someone who wasn't there, chewing furiously on his extinguished cigar stub.
“Not that far away, out there, in the nightmare of the future. They come out of the water,” he said enigmatically, and smiled, as if he had just woken up.
They looked at each other. SaldÃas held him in high esteem and understood that Croce would sometimes get suddenly lost in his thoughts. He'd be gone for a moment and always come right back, as if he had psychic narcolepsy. DurÃ¡n's body, becoming whiter and more rigid, was like a plaster statue.
“Cover the deceased,” Croce said.
SaldÃas covered Tony DurÃ¡n with a sheet.
“They could have thrown him out in a field, left him for the vultures. But they wanted me to see him. They left him on purpose. Why?” Croce looked around the room again, as if seeing it for the first time.
There was no other sign of violence except for a poorly closed drawer, from which a tie was slightly sticking out. Perhaps it was closed quickly and, when he turned around, the killer didn't seethe tie. The Inspector pushed the drawer shut with his hip, sat on the bed, and let his gaze drift through the skylight on the ceiling.
SaldÃas took inventory of what they found. Five thousand dollars in a wallet; several thousand Argentine pesos stacked on the dresser, next to a watch and a keychain; a pack of Kent cigarettes; a Ronson lighter; a package of Pink Veil prophylactics; a U.S. passport issued to Anthony DurÃ¡n, born February 5, 1940, in San Juan. There was a cutout from a New York newspaper with the results from the major leagues; a letter written in Spanish by a woman;9a photograph of the nationalist leader Albizu Campos speaking at a function, the Puerto Rican flag waiving behind him. A photograph of a soldier with round glasses, in a Marine uniform. A book of poetry by PalÃ©s Matos, a salsa long-play by Ismael Rivera, dedicated toMy friend Tony D.There were a lot of shirts, many pairs of shoes, several jackets, no journal or datebook. SaldÃas listed off the items to the Inspector.
“What a corpse leaves behind is nothing,” Croce said.
Such is the mystery of these crimes, the surprise of a man who dies unprepared. What did he leave unfinished? Who was the last person he saw? The investigation always starts with the victim, heis the first trace, the dark light.
There was nothing special in the bathroom: a jar of Actemin, a jar of Valium, a box of Tylenol. In the dirty-clothes wicker hamper they found a novel by Ben Benson,The Ninth Hour, a map from the Automobile Club with the roads of the Province of Buenos Aires, a woman's bra, and a small, nylon bag with American coins.
They went back to the room. They had to prepare a written report before the body was photographed and taken to the morgue for the autopsy. A fairly thankless task that the Inspector delegated to his Assistant.
Croce paced back and forth from one end of the room to the other, making observations in starts, constantly moving, muttering, as if he were thinking out loud in a kind of continuous murmur. “The air is strange,” he said.Tinted, a kind of rainbow against the sunlight, a blue light. What was it?
“See that?” he asked, his eyes fixed on the light in the room.
He pointed at the traces of a nearly invisible dust that seemed to be floating in the air. SaldÃas was under the impression that Croce saw things at an unusual speed, as if he were half a second (half a thousandth of a second) ahead of others. They followed the trail of the light blue dustingâa fine mist swayed by the sun, which Croce saw as if it were footprints on the groundâto the far end of the room where there was a hanging on the wall, a black cloth square with yellow arabesques, a kind of Batik or tapestry from the pampas. It looked shabby, not like an actual decoration, it was clearly covering something. The corners of the tapestry flapped slightly in the wind that blew through the open window.
Croce removed the hanging with a letter opener that hung off of his keychain, and found that it was hiding a double-hung internal window. Opening it easily, they saw that it led into a kind of pit. There was a rope. A sheave.
“The service pulley.”
SaldÃas looked at him, not understanding.
“They used to serve food up to the room, if the guest ordered it. You'd call and they'd send it up through here.”
They leaned over the opening. Between the ropes they could hear the murmur of voices and the sound of the wind.
“Where does it lead?”
“To the kitchen, and the basement.”
They moved the rope on the sheave and raised the box from the small pulley up to the edge.
“Too small,” SaldÃas said. “No one would fit.”
“I don't know,” Croce said. “Let's see.” He leaned over again. Through the cobwebs, he could see a faint light below, and at the bottom a floor with checkered tiles.
“Let's go,” Croce said. “Come on.”
They went down the elevator to the ground level and down a further flight of stairs to a blue hallway that led into the basement. They found the old, out-of-service kitchens and the boiler room. To the side there was a door that opened into a large closet with blue-tiled walls and an old, empty refrigerator. At a turn at the end of the hallway, behind a grille, was the telephone switchboard. On the other side, a half-opened, iron door connected to a storage room filled with items from lost-and-found and old items of furniture. The storeroom was wide and tall, with a black-and-whitetiled floor. A window at the back wall, closed with a double-paned shutter, was the base of the service pulley with the cables connecting up to the higher floors.
The storage room contained the remainders from the hotel's past life, randomly piled up. Trunks, wicker baskets, suitcases, tacks with messages, rolled-up canvases, empty frames, clocks, a 1962 calendar from the Belladona factory, a blackboard, a birdcage, fencing masks, a bicycle without its front wheel, lamps, lanterns, ballot boxes, a headless statue of the Virgin, a crucifix (whose eyes seemed to follow you around), sleeping cots, a wool carding machine.
There was nothing especially noticeableâexcept, in a corner, for a fifty-dollar bill on the floor.
Strange. A brand-new bill. Croce put it in a clear envelope with the other evidence and looked at the issue date. A fifty-dollar bill. Series 1970.
“Whose is it?”
“Could be anyone's,” Croce said. He looked at one side of the bill and then the other, as if he were trying to identify who had dropped it. Accidentally? They paid for something and it fell out. Maybe. He saw General Grant's face on the bill:the butcher, the drunk, a hero, a criminal, the inventor of the strategy of razing the earth, he'd go in with the army from the North and burn down cities and the fields, he'd only go into battle when he outnumbered his opponents five-to-one, he'd have all prisoners executedâUlysses S. Grant, the butcher. Look where he ended up, on a dropped bill on the floor of a lousy hotel in the middle of nowhere. Croce stood there, thinking, the clear envelope in his hand. He showed it to SaldÃas as if it were a map. “See? NowI understand, my son. I mean, I think I know what happened. They came to steal from him, they went down the service pulley, they split up the money. Or they were putting it away? In their rush they dropped a fifty-dollar bill.”
“They came down?”
“Or they went up,” Croce said.
Croce leaned into the opening of the service pulley and looked up again.
“Maybe they just sent the money down and someone was waiting for it here.”
They went out the blue hallway. The telephone switchboard was off to one side, in a kind of cell, behind a glass screen and a grille.
They questioned the hotel's operator, a Miss Coca. Thin and slight, freckly, Coca Castro knew everything about everyone, she was the best-informed person in town, she was always invited to people's houses because everyone wanted to hear about what she knew. She made people beg. But in the end she always went and brought all the news and updates with herâand this is why she never married. She knew so much that no man dared. A woman who knows things scares men off, Croce said. She went out with import-export agents and men traveling through, and was a very good friend to the young women in town.
Croce and SaldÃas asked her if she had seen anything, if she had seen anyone go in or out. No, she hadn't seen anyone that day. Then they asked her about DurÃ¡n.
“Thirty-three is one of the three rooms in the hotel with a telephone,” the operator clarified. “Mr. DurÃ¡n asked especially for this.”
“Who did he speak with.”
“There were a few calls. Several in English. Always from Trenton, New Jersey, in the United States. But I don't listen to the guests' conversations.”
“And today, when he didn't pick up. Who was calling? Around two in the afternoon. Who was it?”
“A local call. From the factory.”
“Was it Luca Belladona?”
“I don't know, they didn't say. It was a man. He asked for DurÃ¡n, but he didn't know the room number. When no one answered, he asked me to try again. He waited on the line, but no one picked up.”
“Had he ever called before?”
“DurÃ¡n had called there a couple of times.”
“I have the records. You can take a look.”
The operator was nervous, in a murder case everyone believes the police are going to make their life complicated. DurÃ¡n was a darling, he had asked her out twice. Croce immediately thought that DurÃ¡n wanted information from her, that was why he would have asked her out, she could have told him things. She had refused out of respect for the Belladona family.
“Did he ask you anything specific?”
The woman seemed to roll up and retreat, like a spirit in an Aladdin's lamp, until you could only see a red mouth.
“He wanted to know who Luca spoke with. That's what he asked me. But I didn't know anything.”
“Did he ever call the Belladona sisters at home?”
“A few times,” Coca said. “He spoke with Ada about everything.”
“Let's call them, I want them to come identify the body.”
The operator dialed the number of the Belladona house. She had a satisfied expression on her face, as if she were the protagonist of an exceptional situation.
“Hello, yes, this is the Plaza Hotel,” she said. “I have a message for the Belladona Misses.”
The sisters arrived late in the afternoon and quietly entered the hotel. The occasion was such that they had decided to break the taboo, or superstition, which had kept them for years from being seen together in town. The sisters were like replicas, the symmetry between them was so similar it was almost sinister. Croce had a familiarity with them that came not only from seeing them around town occasionally.
“Who told you?”
“Cueto, the public prosecutor. He rang us up,” Ada said.
They went up to identify the body. Covered with the white sheet, it looked like an item of furniture. SaldÃas pulled the sheet back. DurÃ¡n's face had an ironic sneer now and was already very pale and stiff. Neither sister said anything. There was nothing to say, all they were supposed to do was identify the body, and it was him. Everyone knew it was him. SofÃa shut his eyes for him and walked to the window. Ada looked as if she had been crying, or maybe it was the dust from the street burning her eyes; she looked at the objects in the room distractedly, the open drawers. She was tapping her foot nervously in a motion that didn't mean anything, like a spring bouncing outdoors. The Inspector lookedat the movement and, without intending to, thought about Regina Belladona, Luca's mother, who used to make that same motion with her foot. As if the bodyâas if a part of the bodyâwas the site where all desperation gathered.The crack in a crystal glass.Croce would suddenly receive strange sentences like these, as if someone were dictating to him. Even the feeling that someone or something was dictating to him wasâfor himâevidence of their significance. He grew distracted. When he snapped back to, he heard Ada speaking, she seemed to be answering some question from his assistant, the Scribe. Something referring to the telephone call to the factory. She didn't know if DurÃ¡n had spoken with her brother. Neither one of them knew anything. Croce didn't believe them, but he did not insist because he preferred to have his intuitions revealed when it was no longer necessary to confirm them. All he wanted to know from them was a few details about Tony's visit to their house.
“He came to speak with your father.”
“He came to our house because my father wanted to meet him.”
“Something was said about the will.”
“This shitty town,” Ada said, with a delicate smile. “Everyone knows we can split the inheritance whenever we want because my mother is incapacitated.”
“Legally,” SofÃa said.
“Toward the end people saw him with Yoshio frequently, you know the rumors.”
“We don't worry about what people do when they're not with us.”
“And we're not interested in rumors.”
As if it were a flash, Croce recalled a summer siesta: both sisters playing with newborn kittens. They must have been five or six years old, the girls. They had lined up the kittens, crawling along the tiles, warmed by the afternoon sun; each girl would pet a kitten and pass it to the other, holding them by their tails. A fast game, which went even faster, despite the kittens' plaintive meowing. Of course he had ruled out the sisters from the start. They would've killed him themselves, they wouldn't have delegated such a personal issue. Crimes committed by women are always personal, Croce thought, they don't trust anyone else to do it for them. SaldÃas continued asking questions and taking notes. A telephone call from the factory. To confirm he was there. At the same time. Too great a coincidence.
“You know my brother, Inspector. It's impossible, he wouldn't have called,” SofÃa said.
Ada said that she didn't have any news from her brother, that she hadn't seen Luca in a while. They weren't close. No one saw him anymore, she added, he lived shut away in the factory with his inventions and his dreams.
“What's going to happen?” SofÃa asked.
“Nothing,” Croce said. “We'll have him sent to the morgue.”
It was strange to be speaking in that room, with the dead man lying on the floor, with SaldÃas taking notes, and the tired Inspector looking kindly at them.
“Can we leave?” SofÃa asked.
“Or are we suspects?” Ada asked.
“Everyone's a suspect,” Croce said. “You better leave out the back.And please don't tell anyone what you saw here, or what we talked about.”
“Of course,” Ada said.
The Inspector offered to walk them out, but they refused. They were leaving on their own, he could call them anytime if he needed them.
Croce sat down on the bed. He seemed overwhelmed, or distracted. He wanted to see the notes SaldÃas had taken. He studied them calmly.
“Okay,” he said after a while. “Let's see what these scoundrels have to say.”
A rancher from Sauce Viejo declared that he had heard the sound of chains from the other side of the door, outside DurÃ¡n's room. Then he had heard clearly someone say, in a nervous, hushed voice:
“I'll buy it for you. You can pay me later, somehow.”
He remembered the words perfectly because he thought it sounded like a threat, or a joke. He couldn't identify who had spoken, but the voice was shrill, as if they were speaking in falsetto, or like a woman's voice.
“Falsetto, or like a woman's voice?”
“Like a woman's voice.”
One of the travelers, a certain MÃ©ndez, said that he had seen Yoshio walk down the hallway and squat to look through the keyhole of DurÃ¡n's door.
“Strange,” Croce said. “He squatted?”
“Against the door.”
“To listen, or to look?”
“He seemed to be spying.”
An import-export agent said that he saw Yoshio go into the bathroom in the same hallway to wash his hands. That he was dressed in black, with a yellow scarf around his neck, and that the sleeve of his right arm was folded up to his elbow.
“And what were you doing?”
“Relieving myself,” the import-export agent said. “I was facing away from him, but I could see him through the mirror.”
Another of the guests, an auctioneer from Pergamino who always stayed at the hotel, said that around two o'clock he had seen Yoshio leave the bathroom on the third floor and go downstairs, agitated, without waiting for the elevator. One of the maids from the cleaning staff said that at that same time she had seen Yoshio leave the room and head down the hallway. Prono, the tall, fat, hotel security man who had been a professional boxer and had retired to the town seeking peace and quiet, accused Dazai right away.
“It was the Japo,” he said, with the nasal voice of an actor from an Argentine cowboy movie. “A fight among faggots.”
The others seemed to agree with him. They all hurried to give their testimony. The Inspector thought that so much unanimity was strange. Some witnesses had even created problems for themselves with their testimony. They could be investigated, their statements had to be corroborated. The rancher from Sauce Viejo, a man with a flushed face, for one, had a lover in town, the widow of Old-Man Corona. His wife, the rancher's, was in the hospital in TapalquÃ©. The maid who said she saw Yoshio leave DurÃ¡n's room in a hurry couldn't explain what she was doing in the hallway on that floor when she should already have clocked off by that time.
Yoshio had locked himself in his roomâterrified, according to what everyone said, distraught by the death of his friendâand would not answer the door.
“Let him be for now, until I need him,” Croce said. “He won't go anywhere.”
SofÃa seemed furious, she looked at Renzi with a strange smile. She said that Tony was crazy for Ada, maybe not in love, probably just horny for her, but that there were other reasons why he'd come to town. The stories that people told about the trio, about the games they had played or imagined, they had nothing to do with the crime, they were phantoms, fantasies that she could tell Emilio about some other time, if the opportunity arose, because she had nothing to hide, she wasn't going to let a gaggle of old, resentful women tell her how she should liveâ“or with whom,” she addedâshe and her sister should go to bed with. Nor would they allow the prudish bastards of a small town, the fat, pious slobs who go straight from church to the Cross-Eyed Woman's brothelâor vice versaâlecture them about proper behavior.
Country people lived in two separate realities, with two sets of morals, in two parallel worlds. On the one hand they dressed in English clothes and drove around the pampas in their pickup trucks waving at the laborers as if they were feudal lords, and on the other they got mixed up in all the dirty dealings and shady arrangements with the cattle auctioneers and exporters from the Capital. That's why when Tony arrived people knew that there had to be another play involved, in addition to the sentimental story. Why would an American come all the way here if not to bring money for some kind of business?
“And they were right,” SofÃa said, lighting a cigarette and smokingin silence for a while, the cigarette's ember glowing in the afternoon dusk. “Tony had an errand to carry out, that's why he came looking for us. Once he found us, he went with us to the casinos in Atlantic City, stayed in the luxury hotels, or in flea-ridden motels by the side of the road, we had fun living the life, while they finished arranging the affair with which they had entrusted him.”
“An errand?” Renzi asked. “What affair? Did he already know about that when he found you and your sister in the U.S.?”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “In December.”
“In December, that's not possible. What do you mean in December? But your brotherâ”
“Maybe it was January, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, who cares? He was a gentleman, he never spoke out of turn, and he never lied to us. He only refused to go into certain details,” SofÃa said, and resumed her litany, as if she were a child singing in a church choir. Renzi had a flash with that image, the little redheaded girl in church, singing in the choir, dressed in white â¦ “And on top of everything, Tony was a mulatto. The fact that my sister and I were turned on by him scared the farmers around here to no end. You know they actually started calling him Zambo, like my father had anticipated.”
Tony's death could not be understood without talking about the dark side of the family, especially Luca's story, the other mother's son, my half-brother, SofÃa was saying. Renzi tried to get her to slow down. “Hold on, hold on,” Renzi said, but SofÃa became irritated and continued, or went back to restart the story somewhere else.
“When the factory collapsed, my brother didn't want to sell. I shouldn't say that he âdidn't want to,' it was more like he wasn't able to. He couldn't imagine the possibility of giving up, of giving in. Understand?Imagine a mathematician who discovers that two plus two is five, and to keep everyone from thinking that he's crazy, he has to adapt the entire mathematical system to his formula. A system wherein two plus two, needless to say, is not five, or threeâand he's able to do it.” She served herself another glass of wine and added ice, and stayed still for a moment; then she turned to face Renzi, who looked like a cat, sitting on the couch. “You look like a cat,” she said, “plopped down on that couch like that. And I'll tell you something else,” she continued. “That's not what it was like, he's not that abstract, imagine a swimming champion who drowns. Or better yet, picture a great marathon runner who's in first place, only five hundred meters from the finish line, when something goes wrong, he gets a cramp that paralyzes him, but he keeps going, because he never thinks about giving up, no way whatsoever, until finally, when he crosses the line, it's already nighttime and there's no one else left in the stadium.”
“What? What stadium?” Renzi asks. “What cat? No more comparisons, please. Tell it straight, will you?”
“Don't rush me, hold on. We have time, don't we?” she said, and stood motionless for a moment, looking at the light coming in through the back window, from the other side of the patio, between the trees. “He realized,” she said after a pause, as if hearing a tune in the air again, “that everyone in town had plotted to get him out of the way. Two plus two is five, he thought, but no one knows it. And he was right.”
“He was right about what?”
“Yeah,” she said. “The inheritance from his mother. Understand?” she said, and looked at him. “Everything we have is inherited, that's the curse.”
She's delirious, Renzi thought, she's the one who's drunk. What was she talking about?
“We've spent our lives fighting over the inheritance, first my grandfather, then my father, now the two of us, the sisters. I always remember the wakes, the relatives arguing at the town's funeral parlor while they cried over the deceased. It happened with my grandfather and with my brother Lucio, and it's going to happen with my father, and with the two of us, too. The only one who kept his distance and didn't accept any part of the bequest and made himself what he is, by himself, is my brother Luca. Because there is nothing to inherit except death and the land, and the land must not change hands, the land is the only thing of any value, as my father always says, and when my brother refused to accept what was his, that's when all the conflicts started which led to Tony's death.”
9Â Â Â “Tony, you know I'm not looking for love anymore, not of any kind. I've passed my twenty-five summers, oh Lord, and I will not live with love again, nor with tenderness. I have looked for it, for love, yes, but the times that I've found it, it has gone poorly. You know that a girl at first believes everything she hears, men [illegible] a girl like me who is so naÃ¯ve and has so much understanding. A man shows up with âI love you,' he promises villas and castles, he hollers two or three times, and then, to hell with me. When I left Lalo, I was the biggest flirt, one tease after another and then I'd light it up, I was the worst. When an American came around I'd go crazy,Honey, Honey, he'd have me and the next day, it was like he didn't even know me [the next page is missing].”
Yoshio was in the small quarter where he lived, in a kind of oversized closet near the elevator shaft, facing the hotel's inner courtyard. Pale, his eyes tearful, slight and thin like a porcelain doll, he was holding a small, lady's embroidered handkerchief in his hand. When Croce and SaldÃas entered, he remained calm, as if the sorrow of DurÃ¡n's death was greater than his own misfortune. On one of the walls in his room there was a picture of Tony on the beach by the lake, half-dressed. Yoshio had it framed and had added a line in Japanese. It said, he told Croce,We are as our friends see us. On another wall there was a picture of the Emperor Hirohito on horseback reviewing the imperial troops.
The idea that someone might dislike him, that he might be criticized or looked down upon, was unbearable for Yoshio. That was the defining quality of his work. The only thing servants have, if they want to survive, is the acceptance of others. Yoshio was overwhelmed, he was going to have to leave town, he could not comprehend the consequences of what had happened. What does it mean to be accused of a crime? How can one bear to know that everyone thinks that you're a criminal? The witnesses had condemned Yoshio. Many of them were his friends, but they were acting in good faith: they had seen him, they said, at thescene of the episode, at the time of the crime. There was no way for him to account for himself, accounting for himself would be the same as acknowledging his guilt. He knew the secrets of all the guests in the hotel. He was the night porter. But his discretion didn't do him any good, because nothing can save a servant from suspicion when he falls into disgrace. A servant must be invisible, his visibility is his worst sentence.
Yoshio spoke Spanish slowly, using many popular expressions, for his was the world of radio. He showed them his portable Spica as if it were a gem, the small radio fit in his hand and had a patterned leather cover and a headphone that he could put in his ear so he could listen without bothering anyone. He was a Nikkei: an Argentine of Japanese origins. He was very proud, he didn't want people to think that his fellow countrymen were only florists or dry cleaners or billiard-room barkeeps. Japanese industrial technology was gaining ground, producing small, perfect machines (Yashica cameras, Hitachi recorders, and Yamaha MiniMotos filled the cover of the magazine that the Embassy had sent him and which he showed to his guests). He always listened to X8 Radio SarandÃ, the Uruguayan station that played Carlos Gardel tangos around the clock. Like all Japanese, Yoshio loved the tango; guests would sometimes hear him singing “Amores de estudiante, A student's love,” as he walked down the empty hallways of the hotel, imitating Gardelâbut pronouncing the r's as if they were l's in the verseflores de un dÃa son.
They found two small balls of opium toward the back of the closet.
“I'm not innocent,” he said. “Because no one is innocent. I havemy transgressions, but they are not the ones that others attribute to me.”
“No one is accusing you â¦ yet,” Croce said, addressing him informally. Yoshio realized that the Inspector distrusted him, like everyone else. “There's no need to get defensive ahead of time. Tell me, what did you do today?”
He had woken up at two in the afternoon, like always, he had had breakfast in his room, like always, he had done his exercises, like always, he had prayed.
“Like always,” Croce said. “Did anyone see you? Can anyone vouch for you?”
No one had seen him, everyone knew he was off from his nighttime duties in the afternoon, but no one could vouch for him. Croce asked him when he had last seen DurÃ¡n.
“Not seen him today,” Yoshio answered, imitating gaucho-speak. “I haven't seen him the whole blessed day,” he corrected himself. “I'm the night porter, I'm a porter and I live by night and I know the secrets of everyone's life in the hotel, and everyone who knows that I know fears me. Everyone in the hotel knows that at the time Tony was killed I am always asleep.”
“And what do they fear, the ones who fear you?” Croce asked.
“Children pay for the sins of their parents. Mine is having slanted eyes and yellow skin,” Yoshio replied. “And that's why you're going to find me guilty, for being the most foreign of all the foreigners in this town of foreigners.”
Croce slapped him in the face with the back of his right hand, unexpectedly, hard. Yoshio's nose started bleeding, and he closed his eyes without making a sound, affronted.
“Don't get contrary with me, and don't you lie to me,” Croce said. “Write down that the suspect hit himself against the corner of the open window.”
SaldÃas, shocked and nervous, jotted down a few lines in his notebook. Yoshio dried his blood on his small, embroidered handkerchief. He was on the verge of crying.
“It wasn't me, Inspector. It wasn't me, it wouldn't ever be me,” Yoshio was standing stiff, livid. “Iâ¦I loved him.”
“It wouldn't be the first time that someone is killed for that reason,” Croce said.
“No, Inspector. He was very good to me, he was a friend, he honored me with his trust. He was a gentlemanâ”
“So why was he killed?”
Croce moved about the room restlessly. His hand hurt. He had done what he had to do, he wasn't there to feel sorry for anyone, he was there to interrogate a criminal. Sometimes he got carried away with an excess of anger that he couldn't control, the servant-like humility of the Japanese man exasperated him. But the slap across the face had forced him to react, and now Yoshio was starting to give his real version of events.
He said that DurÃ¡n was unhappy, that just yesterday he had insinuated that he intended to leave soon, but he had certain affairs to resolve first. He was waiting for something, Yoshio didn't know what. That is all the Japanese man declared, in his own way he explained everything he knew, without actually saying anything.
“You're going to need a lawyer, my man,” the Inspector said to him, and became pensive. “Let me see your hand.” Yoshio looked at him, surprised. “Like this,” Croce said, turning Yoshio's palms faceup. “Squeeze my arm. Harder. That's as hard as you can squeeze?” Yoshio looked at him, confused. The Inspector released his hands; Yoshio kept them like that, in the air, like two dead flowers. “We'll take him to the station,” Croce said. “There'll be trouble, for sure, when we take him out of the hotel.”
And there was. The neighbors crowded around the hotel entrance, as soon as they saw Yoshio they started insulting him, calling him a “murderer,” and trying to strike him.
An old man named UnzuÃ© threw a rock that hit Yoshio on the forehead. Calesita the Madman started spinning in place and screaming obscenities. Souto's sister rushed up, pushed against SaldÃas's arms (who was trying to cover Yoshio), bent her gray face forward, and spit on the criminal's face.
“Murderer!” the woman yelled, hatefully but with an impassive look, as if she were reciting a line, or sleeping.
Prosecutor Cueto showed up in the middle of the mess. He told everyone to settle down, assuring them that he was there to make sure justice was carried out. He was a man of about forty years, thin and tall, although from a distance he looked deformed. There was a moment of calm, and the Prosecutor went into the hotel to speak with Inspector Croce.
“What does the police have to say?” he said as he walked in. When Yoshio saw the Prosecutor come in, he turned away and stood facing the wall.
Cueto had a stealthy way of moving, at once violent and sly, and he insulted everyone as a matter of principle. He produced a stiff smile and brought his left fingers together as if he were about to ask something.
“And what does the pansy Jap have to say for himself?”
“Nothing's settled yet. Yoshio's been detained, we're going to take him to the station as the leading suspect. Which doesn't mean that he's guilty,” Croce explained.
Cueto looked at him with a false expression of surprise, and smiled again.
“Give her a good beating first, that'll get her talking. A simple procedural suggestion, Inspector. You know.”
“Our opinion has already been formed,” the Inspector said.
“Mine too, Croce. And I don't understand that plural of yours, âour.'”
“We'll be writing up the report and we'll present the charges tomorrow. You can proceed with your work after that.”
“Can you tell me,” Cueto said, addressing SaldÃas, “why you didn't investigate that mulatto as soon as he arrived? Who was he? Why did he come here? Now we have this whole scandal to deal with.”
“We don't investigate people without cause,” Croce said.
“It's true, he didn't do anything illegal,” SaldÃas added timidly.
“That's exactly what you're supposed to find out. A guy shows up out of nowhere, he settles here, and the two of you don't know anything? Now that's strange.”
He's pressuring me, Croce thought, because he knows something and he wants to see if I know what he knows, too. And he wants to shut the case quickly by declaring it a sex crime.
“Whatever happens will be your responsibility, Croce, do you understand?” Cueto said, and went outside to harangue the crowd of people on the sidewalk.
He never called him Inspector, as if he didn't recognize the title. In fact, Cueto had been waiting for months for a chance to retire him, but he hadn't found the way yet. Maybe now things would change. From the street they could hear shouts and angry voices.
“We're heading out,” Croce said. “You think I'm afraid of those idiots?”
The three of them walked out and stood outside the hotel entrance.
“Murderer! Degenerate Japo! Justice! We want justice!” the people around the door shouted.
“Get out of the way. I don't want any trouble,” Croce said, moving forward. “Anyone comes close, you get a night in jail.”
The crowd moved back as they moved forward. Yoshio refused to cover his face. Proud and diminutive, very pale, he walked through a sort of corridor that was formed from the front of the hotel to the car as the people shouted and yelled insults at him.
“Folks, we're close to solving the case, I'd ask for your patience,” the Prosecutor said, having immediately taken over the scene.
“We'll take care of it, boss,” one man said.
“Murderer! Faggot!” they shouted again, and started pushing in.
“That's enough,” Croce said, taking out his weapon. “I'm taking him to the station and he'll stay there until he has his trial.”
“You're all corrupt!” a drunk yelled.
A myopic, nervous man approached. He was the editor ofEl PregÃ³n, the local newspaper.
“You have the guilty party, Inspector.”
“Don't write what you don't know,” Croce said.
“Are you going to tell me what I know?”
“I'm going to throw you in jail for violating the confidentiality of the investigation.”
“Violating what? I don't follow, Inspector,” the myopic said. “It's the usual tension between power and the press.” He shrugged, turning toward the crowd to make sure everyone heard him.
“The usual tension of stupid-ass journalists,” the Inspector said.
The editor ofEl PregÃ³nsmiled, as if the insult were a personal triumph. The press would not allow itself to be intimidated.
Inspector Flies Off the Handleâwould be the headline, for sure. What did “off the handle” mean? Croce wondered for a moment, while SaldÃas took advantage of the confusion to get Yoshio into the back of the car.
“Let's go, Inspector,” he said.
What they called the police station was a rural outpost with one guard posted inside. It was basically a hovel with a room set aside to lock up the bums who endangered the crops by lighting fires near the fields to heat up theirmate, or who slaughtered animals from the ranches in the area to make themselves a little barbeque.
Croce lived in another room in the same small building. That nightâafter leaving Yoshio locked up in the cell with the guard at the doorâhe went out to the vine-covered patio to drinkmatewith SaldÃas. The light from the oil lamp illuminated the dirt patio and the near side of the station.
In the Inspector's mind, the hypothesis that a Japanese night porter, quiet and friendly as an old lady, would kill a fortune-hunting Puerto Rican did not add up.
“Unless it was a crime of passion.”
“But in that case he would've stayed in the room, hugging the body.”
Croce and SaldÃas agreed that if Yoshio had let himself be driven by anger or jealousy, he wouldn't have behaved as he did. He would have stumbled out of the room with the knife in his hand, or they would have found him sitting on the floor, staring at the dead man's face in shock. Croce had seen a lot of cases like that. This didn't seem to be a case of violent emotion.
“Too much stealth,” the Inspector said. “And too visible.”
“The only thing missing was someone taking a picture of him while he was doing the killing,” SaldÃas agreed.
“As if he were sleeping, oracting.”
An idea seemed to push against the external tissue of Croce's brain. Like a bird trying to get into a cage from outside. His thoughts would escape sometimes, flutter away, so he would say them out loud.
“As if he were sleepwalking, or a zombie,” he said.
As if by instinct Croce understood that Yoshio had been caught in a trap that he didn't quite comprehend. A mass of facts had fallen upon him from which he would never be able to free himself. The weapon hadn't been located, but several eyewitnesses had seen him enter and leave DurÃ¡n's room. It was an open-and-shut case.
The Inspector's mind had become a flock of mad thoughts flying too fast for him to catch. Like the wings of a pigeon, the uncertainties about the guilt of the Japanese night porter flapped fleetingly inside the cage, but not the conviction about his innocence.
“For example, the fifty-dollar bill. Why was it down there?”
“He dropped it,” SaldÃas said, following his train.
“I don't think so. They left it on purpose.”
SaldÃas looked at him, he didn't understand. But he trusted Croce's power of deduction, so he sat still, waiting.
There was over five thousand dollars in the room which hadn't been taken. It wasn't a robbery.So we'd think that it wasn't a robbery. Croce started pacingin his mind, out in the field, to clear up his ideas. The Japanese had been the barbarians in World War II, but after that they'd been model servants, servile and laconic. There was a prejudice in their favor: Japanese never commit crimes. This was an exception, a detour. That's what it was about.
“Barely 0.1% of crimes in Argentina are committed by Japanese,” Croce said, target shooting in the dark, and fell asleep. He dreamt that he was riding a horse bareback again, like when he was little. He saw a hare in the lake. Or was it a duck? Up in the air, he saw a figure, like a frieze. And against the horizon he saw a duck that turned into a rabbit. The image appeared very clearly in the dream. He woke up and kept talking, as if resuming the paused conversation. “How many Japanese do you think live in our province?”
“In the province I don't know, but in Argentina10,” SaldÃas improvised. “Out of a population of 23 million inhabitants, there must be some 32,000 Japanese.”
“Let's say there are 8,500 Japanese in the province, 850 in the district. They might be dry cleaners, florists, bantamweight boxers,acrobats. Maybe a purse maker or two with slender hands, but no murderers.”
“The strange thing is he didn't escape down the shaft of the service pulley. The witnesses saw him enter and leave the room through the door.”
“True,” SaldÃas said, and specified, in a bureaucratic tone, “he didn't use his physical particularities to assist him in the crime.”
Yoshio was delicate, fragile, he looked as if he were made of porcelain. Next to DurÃ¡n, who was tall and mulatto, they made a very strange couple. Is beauty a moral trait? Maybe beautiful people have better character, they are more sincere, everyone trusts them, people want to touch them, see them, feel the tremor of their perfection. Besides, they were too different. DurÃ¡n, with his Caribbean accent, seemed like he was always at a party. Yoshio, on the other hand, was laconic, furtive, very servile. The perfect servant.
“You saw that man's hands, right? Small and weak. What kind of pulse, what kind of heart, would he have to stab somebody like that? As if he'd been killed by a robot.”
“A doll,” SaldÃas says.
“A gaucho, good with a knife.”
Croce immediately deduced that the crime must have had an instigator. Once he discarded the theory that would have solved the case at onceâin other words, a crime of passionâhe realized that someone else had to be implicated. All crimes are crimes of passion, Croce said, except crimes for hire. There was a call from the factory, that was strange. Luca never speaks with anyone, and even less by telephone. He doesn't go out. He hatesthe countryside, the quiet of the plains, the sleeping gauchos, the owners who never work and just sit under the eaves of their houses staring at the horizon, or let time pass in the shade of their balconies, go out to fuck the local girls in the shed between the bags of maize, play dice through the night. He hates them. Croce can see the tall, abandoned factory building with its rotating beacon light, as if it were an empty fortress.The empty fortress. It's not that he heard voices, the sentences simply reached him as if they were memories.I know him as if he were my son. Like lines written in the night. He knew very well what they meant, but not how they entered his head. Certainty is not the same as knowledge, he thought. It's the precondition for knowledge. General Grant's face was like a map, a footprint on the ground. A very scientific job. Grant, the butcher, with his kidskin glove.
“I'm going out for a bit,” Croce said all of a sudden. SaldÃas looked at him, a little afraid. “You stay and keep guard, we don't want those worthless bums to come and do anything outrageous.”
Luca had purchased some land outside the town, on the edge, in the deserted plains, a plot, as his father called it, and started building the factory there, as if it were the construction of a dream, a construction imagined in a dream. They had planned and discussed it when they were working in the workshop at the back of the house, in their grandfather Bruno's studio, and their grandfather had helped them, influenced by his European readings11and his research into the design of the ideal factory.Luca and Lucio used the workshop as if it were a laboratory for their technical entertainments, that's where they built their racing cars, that was their schooling, a rich-boy's hobby. SofÃa seemed exhilarated by her own voice and by the quality of the legend.
“It took my father a while to understand. Because before, when they used to go out to the fields and work on the agricultural machines, he didn't have any problems with them, they'd follow the harvest about, spend long stretches of time out in the country, they'd come back dark as Indians, my mother would say, happy to have them outdoors for months, out with the harvesters and the baling machines, living the clash of two antagonistic worlds.”12
Her father did not realize that the plague had arrived, that it was the end of Arcadia, that the pampas were changing forever, that the machinery was becoming more and more complex, that foreigners were buying up the land, that the owners of the estancias were sending their earnings to the island of Manhattan (“and to the financial paradise of the island of Formosa”). The Old Man wanted everything to stay the same, the Argentine pampas, the gauchos on horseback, even though he,too, of course, had started to transfer his dividends abroad and to speculate with his investments, none of the landowners were born yesterday, they all had their advisors, brokers, stock transfer agents, they went wherever their capital took themâalthough they never stopped yearning for the peace of their homeland, the quiet pastoral customs, their paternal relationship with the workers.
“My father always wanted them to love him,” SofÃa said, “he was tyrannical and arbitrary but he was proud of his sons, they were going to carry on the family name, as if the last name had a meaning unto itself, anyway, that was my grandfather's thinking and then my father's, they wanted their last name to go on, as if they belonged to the royal English family, that's what they're like here, they believe in all that, even though they're all dirty-footed gringos, descendents of Irish and Basque peasants who came here to dig ditches because the locals wouldn't do it, the foreigners were the only ones willing to roll up their sleeves and dig.13There was an English ditch-digger, she recited as if she were singing a bolero, who claimed to be from Inca-la-perra. They must have been Harriots or Heguys, digging ditches in the fields, now they act like aristocrats, they play polo in the estancias and flaunt last names that actually came from Irish peasants and rural Basques. Everyone here is a descendent of gringos, especially my family, but they all think alike and want the same things. My grandfather the colonel, for starters, boasted that he was from the north, from Piedmont, unbelievable, he looked down at the Italians from the south, who in turn looked down on thePoles and the Russians.”
The colonel was born in Pinerolo, near Turin, in 1875, and he didn't know anything about his parents, or his parents' parents. One story even has it that his papers were falsified and that his real name was ExpÃ³sito, that Belladona was just the word spoken by the doctor who held him in his arms when his mother died in childbirth in a hospital in Turin. “Belladona, belladonna!” the doctor had said, as if it were a requiem. And that's the name they registered him with. Baby Belladona. His own son, the first man in the family without a father. And they called him Bruno because he was dark and he looked African. No one knew how he arrived in the Province of Buenos Aires when he was ten years old, with a suitcase, by himself, and ended up in a boarding school for orphans run by the Company of Jesus in Bernaconi. Intelligent, passionate, he became a seminary student and lived like an ascetic, dedicating himself to his studies and his prayers. He could fast and remain silent for days on end; sometimes the sacristan would find him praying in the chapel by himself and would kneel down next to him as if he were a saint. He was always a fanatic, as if he were possessed, intractable. His discovery of science in his physics and botany classes, and his readings of remote, forbidden works from the Darwinian tradition in the monastery library, distracted him from his theology and distanced himâprovisionallyâfrom God. This was how he told it himself.
One afternoon he went to his confessor and expressed his desire to leave the seminary and attend the College of Exact and Natural Sciences at the university. Could a priest become an engineer? Only of souls, the priest answered, and refused his request. Bruno rejected his confessor's ban and kept appealing, but after the Head of the Company refused to respond to his petitions or receive him in person, he wrote anonymousletters which he would leave under the pew in front of the altar. Finally, one rainy summer afternoon, he ran away from the monastery where he had lived half his life. He was twenty years old. With the little money he had saved, he rented a room in a boarding house on Medrano Street, in the neighborhood of Almagro, in Buenos Aires. His knowledge of Latin and European languages allowed him to survive, at first, as a secondary school teacher in an all-boys school on Rivadavia Street.
He was a brilliant engineering student, as if his true education had been in mechanics and mathematics instead of Thomism and theology. He published a series of notes on the influence of mechanical communications on modern civilization and a study on the laying of tracks in the province of Buenos Aires, and before completing his degree he was hired by the Englishâin 1904âto direct the works of the Southern Railroads. They put him in charge of the Rauch-OlavarrÃa Branch Line and the foundation of the town at the intersection of the old, narrow gauge from the north and the English gauge that continued as far as Zapala, in Patagonia.
“My brother grew up with our grandfather, he learned everything from him. He was an orphan too, or a half-orphan, because his mother abandoned my father when she was pregnant with Luca, as well as her older son, and ran away with her lover. Women abandon their sons because they can't stand it when they start to look like their fathers,” SofÃa laughed. “Who wants to be a mother when you're horny?” Smoking, the ember glowing in the dark was like her voice. “My father lives here, downstairs, he keeps us with him, and we take care of him because we know that he's been defeated on all counts. He never recovered from the psychotic decision that his wife made, according to him, to leave when she was pregnant and run away with a theatre company director who was intown for a few months stagingHamlet (or was itA Doll's House?). To live with another and have the baby with another. Whose child was it? He was obsessed, my father. He made his wife's life impossible. One afternoon he went out looking for her and found her, but she locked herself up in her car, so he started pounding on the windows and yelling and insulting her, by the main square, with people gathering around, delighted, murmuring and nodding in approval. That's when his Irish wife left, she abandoned both sons, and erased her tracks. Around here the women run away, if they can.”
Luca was raised as a legitimate son and treated in the same manner as his brother, but he never forgave his father, the one who claimed to be his father, for this indulgence.
“My brother Luca always thought that he wasn't my father's son. He grew up sheltered by Grandfather Bruno, he'd follow him everywhere, like an abandoned puppy. But that's not why he finally confronted my father, that's not why. And that's also not why they killed Tony.”
10Â Â Â The first Japanese immigrant arrives in Argentina in 1886, a certain Professor Seizo Itoh from the School of Agriculture in Sapporo. He takes up residence in the Province of Buenos Aires. In 1911, Seicho Arakaki is born, the first Argentine of Japanese origin (Nikkei). The last Argentine census (1969) records the presence of 23,185 Japanese and descendents.
11Â Â Â Bruno Belladona was very influenced by the treatiseField, Factories and Workshops(1899) by Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, the great Russian geographer, anarchist, and free-thinker. Kropotkin proposed that the development of communications and the flexibility of electric energy should establish the basis of a manufacturing production decentralized into small, self-sufficient units, set up in isolated, rural areas, outside the conglomeration of large cities. He defended the production model of small workshops with their large potential for creative innovation, because the more delicate the technology, the greater the need for human initiative and individual skill.
12Â Â Â “Once,” SofÃa told him, “they took apart the engine of one of the first mechanical threshing machines and left the bolts and nuts to dry on the grass while they started looking at the blades. All of a sudden, a rhea came out of nowhere and ate the nuts shining in the sun. Gulp, gulp, went the rhea's throat as it swallowed several nuts and bolts. Then it started walking backwards, sideways, its eyes bulged out. They tried to lasso it, but it was impossible, it would run like a light, then stop and turn back toward them with such a crazy look, it seemed offended. Finally they had to chase down the ostrich in a car to recover the parts of the machine it had swallowed.”
13Â Â Â In the old days, they used to separate the different estancias by digging ditches between them to prevent the cattle from one to cross over into the other. This work of digging trenches in the pampas was done by Basques and Irish immigrants. The local gauchos refused to do any kind of task that meant dismounting from their horses; they considered despicable any work that had to be done “on foot” (cf. John Lynch,Massacre in the Pampas).
The Inspector got in his car and headed out of town on the road parallel to the train tracks, and turned onto the highway. The night was cool, peaceful. Croce liked to drive, he could let himself go, see the countryside all around him, the cows chewing quietly, hear the even rumbling of his car's engine. Through the rearview mirror he saw night falling behind him, a few lights in the distant houses. He didn't see anyone along the highway, except for a cattle truck coming back from Venado Tuerto, which honked its horn as it passed him. Croce flicked his high beams and thought that the trucker probably recognized him, so he got off the highway and took a dirt road that also led to the lake. When he arrived, he maneuvered carefully between the willows and parked close to the shore, turned off the engine, and let the shadows and the murmur of the water wash over him.
On the horizon, like a shadow rising on the plains, was the tall building of the factory with its rotating fog light sweeping across the night. A beacon mounted on the roof made its way around and around, illuminating the pampas with gusts of light. Rustlers used this white brightness as a guide when they had to lead their herd before dawn. The ranchers in the area had filed complaints. “We won't be responsible for the peasants stealing animals fromthose bums,” Luca always answered, and the demands would go no further.
Maybe they had killed Tony to settle a gambling bet. But no one killed over something like that around there, otherwise the entire population would have gone extinct years ago. The most anyone had done was to burn a wheat field, like the Dollans did with Schutz, the German, when he bet an entire harvest on a dice game, lost, and refused to pay. They all finally ended up in jail. It's not well thought of to kill someone because they owe you money. This isn't Sicily, after all. Not Sicily? It was like Sicily because everything was settled in silence, quiet towns, dirt roads, armed foremen, dangerous people. Everything very primitive. Workers on one side, owners on the other. Did he not hear the president of the Rural Society say at the hotel bar, just last night, that there was nothing to worry about even if elections were brought back?We load the workers from the estancias into the trucks and tell them who to vote for. That's how it's always been. What could a small town inspector do? Croce was being left on his own. His old friend, Inspector Laurenzi, was retired and living in the south. Croce remembered the last time they were together, in a bar in La Plata.It's a big country, Laurenzi told him.You see cultivated fields, empty plains, cities, factories, but no one ever understands people's secret hearts. And that's a surprise, because we're cops. No one's in a better position to see the extremes of misery and madness.Croce remembered Laurenzi clearly, his thin face, a cigarette always hanging from the corner of his mouth, his neat moustache. And crazy Inspector Treviranus? Treviranus had been transferred from the Capital to Las Flores and soon afterwards dismissed, as if he'd been responsible for the deathof that imbecile amateur sleuth who'd spent all his time looking for Yarmolinski's murderer. Then there was Inspector Leoni, as bitter as the others, at the police station in TalpaquÃ©. Croce had called him on the telephone because he thought his case might have originated there. Just a hunch. People from the old guard, Peronists who'd been involved in all sorts of trouble, poor Leoni, they'd killed one of his kids. There are very few of us left, Croce thought, smoking by the lake. Cueto the Prosecutor wants to throw Yoshio in jail and shut down the investigation. An open-and-closed case, that's what everyone wants. I'm a dinosaur, a survivor, the Inspector thought. Treviranus, Leoni, Laurenzi, Croce, sometimes they'd get together in La Plata to reminisce over old times. But did old times exist? Croce hadn't lost his senses yet, anyway, he was sure he was on the right track. He'd solve this case, too, and he'd do it the old-fashioned way.
He sat in his car with the engine off and smoked in the dark, looking at the light that periodically shone over the water. The light from the beacon on top of the factory seemed to flicker, but it actually rotated in large circles. Croce suddenly saw an owl shake out of its lethargy and fly with a smooth flapping of its wings, chasing the white light in a circle as if it were the herald for dawn.Minerva's bird is confused, too, lost. They weren't voices that he heard, the phrases just reached him as if they were memories.The white eye of night. A superior criminal mind. He knew exactly what they meant, but not how they got into his head. General Grant's marked face was a map.A very scientific job. Grant, the butcher, with his kidskin glove. Croce watched the small waves from the lake dissolve among the rushes at the shore. In the quiet, he heard thecroaking of the frogs, the metallic sound of the crickets; nearby, a dog barked, and then another, and then another; a few minutes later the barking drifted and faded into the night.14
He was tired, but his fatigue had become a kind of sleepless lucidity. He had to reconstruct a sequence, move from the chronological order of facts to the logical order of events. His memory was an archive, his recollections burned like stars in the closed night. He never forgot anything having to do with a case until he solved it. Later everything was erased. But during the investigation, he lived obsessed with the details that went in and out of his conscience.He arrived with two suitcases. He carried a brown leather bag in his hand. He didn't want anyone to help him with that. They pointed out the hotel across the way. Why was that fifty-dollar bill on the floor? Why did they go down to the basement?That's what he had. And the fact that a man the size of a cat had climbed into the old service lift. His thinking was implacable, he grew exasperated, he postponed the final conclusion forever.I don't have to try to explain what happened, I just need to make it comprehensible. I have to understand it myself, first.
Instinctâor, better yet, a certain intimate perception that didn't quite bloom into consciousnessâtold him that he was about to find a way out. Whatever it was, he decided to move. He started his car and turned on the lights. Several frogs jumped into the water and a creatureâan armadillo? a guinea pig?âstood frozenin a clearing, near the willow trees. Croce backed the car up a few meters, turned around, and headed into the open countryside. He drove along the edge of the Reynal Estancia until he reached the asphalt. As he drove for several leagues by the bordering fence, he saw chimango buzzards perched silently on the posts and animals grazing on the other side.
Croce followed the light from the factory, the white gusts in the sky, toward the dark mass of the building on top of the hill. The road led to the warehouse entrance for the delivery trucks. The Belladona brothers had gotten the road paved to speed up the transports that came and went from the company to the highway to CÃ³rdoba, site of IKA-Renault headquarters. But the plant had collapsed overnight. The brothers had settled the severance pay for the factory workers after the turbulent negotiations with the SMATA Union. Hounded by their debts, the demands to liquidate, and the accumulating mortgage payments, they were forced to bring production nearly to a halt. It had been a year now since the dissolution of the firm and his brother's death, and Luca had shut himself in the factory, having decided to carry on and keep working on his inventions and his machines on his own.
Croce approached the industrial complex, a row of sheds and galleries facing the parking lot. The meshed-wire fence was drooping in several places, and Croce drove in through one of the broken gates. The cement lot appeared to be abandoned. Two or three isolated lights poorly illuminated the place. Croce parked his car in front of some tracks, between two cranes. A very tall plume could be seen to the side, in the darkness, like some prehistoric animal. He preferred to enter through the back, he knew it wasunlikely that anyone would open the front door for him. There was light in the windows of the upper levels of the factory. Croce made his way in through one of the partially open metal shutters and down a corridor that led to the central garage. The large machines were all quiet; several partially assembled cars were still elevated above the service pits in the assembly line; a tall pyramid of striated steel, painted brick red, rose up in the middle of the work floor; off to a side there were gears and a large, grooved wheel, with chains and pulleys to take small wagons filled with materials into the metal construction.
“Holy Mother of God,” Croce yelled toward the ceiling.
“How do you do, Inspector? Do you have a search warrant?”
The happy, relaxed voice came from up above, where a heavy man leaned out from a balcony on the upper level. Nearly two meters tall, his face reddened, his eyes light-blue, Luca was wearing a leather apron and an iron mask with a glass visor hanging around his chest, and he was holding an acetylene soldering iron in his hand. He seemed jovial and pleased to see the Inspector.
“How are you, Gringo? I was just passing by,” Croce said. “You haven't been to see me in a while.”
Luca came down an elevator, illuminated by the light from the upper level, and walked toward the Inspector, wiping his hands and wrists on a rag that smelled of kerosene. Croce was always moved to see Luca because he remembered him before the tragedy that had turned him into a hermit.
“We can sit here,” Luca said, indicating a couple of benches and a table toward the back of the garage, near a one-cylinder gas stove. Luca put a pot of water on and started preparing themate.
“As La Peugeot's French friend RenÃ© Queneau used to say,Ici, en la pampÃ¡, lorsqu'on boit de matÃ© l'on devientâ¦argentin.”
“I can't drinkmate,” Croce said. “It's bad for my stomach.”
“No gaucho would ever say that.” Luca was having fun. “Come on, have a little bitter one, Inspector.”
Croce held themategourd and drank carefully through the tin straw. The hot, bitter drink was a blessing.
“Gauchos didn't eat barbequed beef,” Croce said, all of a sudden. “They didn't have teeth. Can you imagine them, always on horseback, smoking black tobacco, eating crackers, they'd lose their teeth right away and couldn't chew meat anymore. They only ate cow tongue, and sometimes not even that.”
“They lived on pudding with maize and ostrich eggs, poor country folk.”
“A lot of vegetarian gauchos.”
They went back and forth, cracking jokes, like every time they met, until little by little the conversation became more focused and Luca grew serious. He was absolutely convinced that he would succeed. He started talking about his projects, about the negotiations with the investors, about how he was resisting his rivals and how they wanted to force him into selling the factory. He didn't explain exactly who his enemies were. Croce could just imagine them, Luca told him, the Inspector knew who they were even better than Luca did, it was the same culprits as always.I know him as if he were my son. Luca knew that he was completely cornered, he was fighting on his own, he didn't have any strength left, he needed funds, he had contacts in Brazil, in Chile, businessmen interested in his ideas who might advance him the money hedesperately needed. He was yoked with debt, especially by his upcoming mortgage payments. “When it rains, the banks take away your umbrella,” Luca said. Nobody would toss him a rope, they wouldn't give him a hand, no one in town, or in the district, or in the entire province. They wanted to foreclose the mortgage and auction off the plant, take over the building, speculate with the land. That's what they wanted. Lousy dogs! He had to pay his debts with dollars purchased on the black market and sell what he produced with dollars at the official exchange rate. He was on his own in the whole country, everyone around him, his neighbors, the dirty pigs, and the military too, had turned against him. Speculators. They'd broken his dead brother's will, that was the saddest part of it, the thorn in his heart. Lucio was naÃ¯ve, that's why he had died. In dreams, at night, he sometimes saw the destruction reach the roofs of the houses in town, like in the big floods of '62. He'd be riding on a horse, bareback, under a bright moon, lassoing what he could save: furniture, animals, coffins, church saints. That's what he had seen. But he also saw a car driving through the countryside and he was sure that it was his brother, coming back to his side to help him. He saw him clearly, driving like mad, like always, pedal to the metal, rumbling through the plowed fields. Luca was quiet for a moment, a peaceful smile on his frank face, and then he added, in a low voice, that he was sure that the same people who were after him had done in DurÃ¡n.
“I'd like to clear up one point,” Croce said. “You called him at the hotel.” It didn't sound like a question, and Luca the Gringo became serious.
“We asked Rocha to call him.”
“He was looking for us, they said.”
“But you didn't speak with him.”
Rocha appeared at that point, at the door, like a shadow, under an arcade. Slight and very thin, timid, with black welding goggles pushed up on his forehead, he was smoking, looking down. He was the great technician, Luca's main assistant, his right-hand man, the only one who seemed to understand Luca's projects.
“No one picked up the phone,” Rocha said. “I spoke with the telephone operator at the hotel first, she transferred me to the room, but no one answered.”
“What time was that?”
Rocha was thoughtful, the cigarette hanging from his lips.
“I couldn't sayâ¦One-thirty, two.”
“Closer to two or to one-thirty?”
“To one-thirty, I think, we'd finished lunch, but I hadn't slept my siesta yet.”
“Good,” Croce said, and turned back to Luca. “And you never saw him?”
“Your sister saysâ”
“Which one?” Luca looked at the Inspector, smiling. He made a gesture with his hand, as if he shooing an insect away from his face, and stood up to heat more water for themate.
Luca seemed restless, as if he had started to feel the Inspector was actually hostile and maybe even suspected him.
“They say that DurÃ¡n had an arrangement with your father.”
“I don't know anything about that,” Luca cut him off. “Youshould ask the Old Man himself.”
They kept talking a little longer, but Luca had closed up and barely spoke anymore. Shortly afterward he excused himself, saying he had to keep working, and asked Rocha to see the Inspector out. He placed the iron mask with the protective visor on his face and walked away, taking large steps down the glass-covered hallway toward the workshops.
The Inspector knew this to be the cost of his profession, he had to ask the questions that might help him solve the case, but no one could speak with him without feeling accused. And was he accusing him? Croce followed Rocha out to the parking lot and got in his car, certain that Luca knew something that he hadn't told him. He drove slowly through the lot toward the gates that opened outâbut then, unexpectedly, the factory's reflectors shifted, shining bright white, catching Croce and holding him in its glow. The Inspector stopped the car and the light also stopped, blinding him for a moment. He sat still in the middle of the brightness for an endless instant until the lights moved on and Croce started driving his car again slowly out toward the road. In the night's darkness, with the tall light intermittently illuminating the countryside, Croce realized the terrifying intensity of Luca's obsession. He saw Luca's gesture again, his hand in the air as if shooing an insect from his face, an invisible pest. He needed money, how much money?He carried a brown, leather bag in his hand.
He had decided to return to town on the main road, but before he reached the station, he turned toward the corrals and parked his car in the alley behind the hotel. He lit a cigarette and smoked, trying to calm down. The night was peaceful, the only lights thestreetlights in the square and a few lighted windows on the upper floor of the hotel.
Would the service entrance be open? He could see the door on the right, the railing and the stairs leading down to the basement for deliveries. It was close to midnight. The alleyway was dark. He got out of his car, turned on his flashlight, and followed the beam to the door. He used the picklock he always carried with him. The lock clicked open.
He went down an iron stairway and into the tiled hallway, past the telephone switchboard in the shadows, and found the door to the storage room. It was open. He stopped in front of the piles of unorganized items and abandoned objects. Where would they have hidden the bag? They must have come in through the service lift and looked around to see where they could hide it. Croce figured the murderer didn't know the place ahead of time, that he would have been moving quickly, that he would have been searching to leave what he was carrying.But why?
The storage area was a vast underground room, about fifty meters long, with vaulted ceilings and tiled floors. There were chairs off to one side, boxes to another, there were beds, mattresses, picture frames. Was there an order? A secret order, accidental. He had to look not just at the objects, but at the way the objects were distributed in the space. There were couches, lamps, suitcases piled up toward the back. Where could someone who has just come down an old, dusty service lift hide a bag? When the person came out of the chute he would be partially blinded by the light, in a hurry to go back upâby pulling on the sheave and the ropesâto the room with the dead body, and leave the room out the door andinto the hallway, as the witnesses had said. Is that how it was? Croce followed the images that appeared to him like a gambler betting against the house who doesn't know what the next card will be, but betsas if he knew. The Inspector suddenly felt tired, without any strength.A needle in a haystack. Maybe the needle wasn't even in the haystack. Still, he had the strange conviction that he'd find the trace. He had to think, follow an order, track what he was looking for in the confusion of the abandoned objects.
14Â Â Â People in small towns turn off the lights in their houses early in the evening, at which point everything turns gray, because the landscape under the moon is gray. The only way you know then that there is a house in the middle of the plains is by the barking dogs, one barks and then another, and then another, the barking can be heard in the vast shadows in the distance.
Inspector Croce Manipulates Evidence, was the leading headline in the localEl PregÃ³nnewspaper the next morning. The story contained information that shouldn't have been made public, mentioning aspects of the investigation that should have been protected by the secret nature of police activities.Official sources confirm that Inspector Croce returned to the Plaza Hotel late last night and went down to the storage room full of lost objects, later departing with several items that might be part of the investigation.How had the news gotten out, why were the facts presented like that? These questions no longer worried Croce.Exclusive statements by General Prosecutor Cueto, the newspaper said. An interview, photographs. Ever since he'd been placed in charge of the Prosecutor's Office, Cueto had been building a campaign in the press against him. As the main reporter at the newspaperâone Daniel Otamendiâhad written, Croce was Cueto'sbÃªte noir. “I just learned that I have a rival who cares that much about me,” Croce said.
Cueto didn't care about him, he just wanted to get Croce out of the way, and he knew that the key was to use the press to discredit him. The Prosecutor maintained that Croce was an anachronism, he wanted to modernize the local police force, and he treated Croce as if he were a rural cop, a sergeant in charge of a card game.The problem was that Croce solved all his cases.
The Inspector wasn't intimidated by the leading headlines in the newspaper, but he was worried. The news of the murder of an American in the province of Buenos Aires had taken a national character. News was contagious, reporters would start flooding in like a leak through the roof of a country house.
That same morning, in fact, people had seen a reporter arriving from Buenos Aires. It was the special correspondent from the newspaperEl Mundo. He'd gotten off the bus from Mar del Plata looking sleepy, smoking, wearing a leather jacket, had walked around a bit, and had finally gone into the Madariaga Store and Tavern and ordered coffee with milk and croissants. He was impressed by the round, white coffee mug and the foamy milk, and by the small, crispy, homemade croissants. Whenever someone from out of town arrived, people left a kind of buffer zone around him, as if everyone were studying him, so the reporter ate breakfast on his own, at the side table near the window with the bars facing out to the patio. The young man looked surprised and alarmed. At least that's the impression he gave, because he changed seats twice and was seen speaking with one of the regular customers, who leaned forward and pointed outside toward the Plaza Hotel. Then, through the window in the tavern, they saw the town's police car pull into town.
Croce and SaldÃas parked the car, got out, and walked along the square to the offices ofEl PregÃ³n. They were followed at a respectful distance by the same entourage of curious townspeople and children who had taken the stranger to the tavern. The newspaper offices were on the second floor of the old AduanaSeca building, a large area occupied by the telephone operator, the secretary, and two writers.
Everyone expected a scandal at the newspaper, but the Inspector walked calmly into the newspaper's offices, took off his hat, greeted the staff, and stopped at the editor's desk. This was Thomas Alva Gregorius, a short, myopic man who wore a woven capâthe famous Tomasito-wool capsâbecause he was going bald and was depressed about it. Born in Bulgaria, Gregorius's Spanish was imaginative; he wrote very poorly and only stayed on at the newspaper because he was the right-hand man for the prosecutor Cueto, who manipulated him as if he were a ventriloquist's dummy.
Croce addressed Gregorius across his desk:
“Who tells you all those stories, eh?”
“That's confidential information, Inspector. You were seen going down into the hotel basement, and come out carrying several items. It's a fact, so I publish it,” Gregorius replied.
“I need some photographs from the archives,” Croce said.
He wanted to check something from one of the papers from a few weeks ago. Gregorius went directly to the secretary's desk and approved the Inspector's request. The secretary looked at the myopic editor, who looked back at her through his eight-diopter glasses and winked okay.
Croce took the newspapers given to him to a back counter and leafed through them until he found what he was looking for. He began studying the details on one of the pages with a magnifying lens. It was a photograph of the horse races in the town of BolÃvar. He may have been searching for certain facts and trustedthat a picture would allow him to see what he hadn't been able to see when he was there in person. We never see what we see, he thought. After a while, he got up and spoke with SaldÃas.
“See if you can get the negative for this photograph at the lab. Talk to Marquitos, he keeps archives of all the pictures he takes. I want the negative this afternoon. We need to have this right here blown up.” He drew a circle with his finger around one of the faces in the photograph. “Twelve by twenty.”
The reporter from Buenos Aires walked in. He seemed half-asleep, curly hair, round glasses. He was the first reporter from a Buenos Aires newspaper to come to town since the floods of '62. He approached the front desk and spoke with the secretary, who directed him to the editor's office. Gregorius was waiting for him at the door, a friendly smile on his face.
“Ah, you're the correspondent fromEl Mundo,” Gregorius said, helpfully. “You must be Renzi. Come on in. I always read your articles. It's an honor â¦”
Another typical small-town brownnoser, Renzi thought.
“Yes, of course, how do you do? I wanted to ask you for a typewriter and the teleprinter to send my articles, if I have anything.”
“So you came because of the news.”
“I was in Mar del Plata, they sent me because I was nearby. This time of year everything's flat. What's happening around here?”
“An American has been murdered. A hotel employee did it. Everything is solved already, but Inspector Croce is not convinced. He's stubborn, he's crazy. We have everything: the suspect, the motive, the witnesses, the dead body. The only thing missing is the confession. The Inspector there,” Gregorius said, gesturingtoward the table where Croce and SaldÃas were looking at the photograph in the newspaper. “That's the Inspector, the other one is his assistant, Deputy SaldÃas.”
Croce raised his head, the magnifying glass in his hand, and looked at Renzi. A strange flare of sympathy flashed on the Inspector's narrow face. Their eyes met but neither said anything. Then the Inspector seemed to look through Renzi, as if he were made of glass, and glared scornfully at Gregorius.
“Hey, Gregorio, I need to get a blow-up of this photograph,” he said in a loud voice. “I'll leave it with Margarita.”
Renzi didn't like the police, in this he was like everyone else, but he liked the Inspector's face and his way of talking, his mouth slightly askew. A straight shooter, Renzi thoughtânot shooting straight himself, for he was using a metaphor to say that the Inspector had spoken to the editor of the newspaper as if he were some dumb neighbor and as if the secretary were his friend. And that's what they were, Renzi imagined. What they are, rather. Everyone knows everyone in these towns. When he looked up again, the Inspector was gone and the secretary was walking away with SaldÃas, carrying an open newspaper.
“You can set up here, then, at my desk, if you need to type anything. The teleprinter is in the back, Dorita can help you. You can use our telephone, too, if you'd like, it'll be our pleasure.” He paused. “If it's possible, I would ask only that you mention our small, independent newspaper,El PregÃ³n. We've been here since the times of the Indian Wars, my grandfather founded the paper to keep the agricultural producers connected. Here, let me give you my card.”
“Yes, of course, thank you. I'll send something tonight, before they go to press in the Capital. I'll use your telephone now, if I could.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Gregorius said. “Go on, certainly, go on,” he said, leaving Renzi alone in his office.
After dealing with the long-distance operator, Renzi was able to get through to the newsroom in Buenos Aires.
“How's it going, Junior? This is Emilio, let me speak with Luna. I'm calling from this shitty little town. How's everything there? Any women asking for me? Any recent suicides in the newsroom?”
“Did you just get there?”
“I was going to call you from the bar, but you can't imagine what an ordeal it is to make a phone call from the provinces. Anyway, let me speak with Luna.”
After a pause and a series of rustling, rattling noises, like wind blowing against a chicken coop wire fence, the thick voice of Old-Man Luna came on the line. Luna was the newspaper's editor.
“Come on kid, remember, we're ahead of the game here. There was a small mention on Channel 7, but we can beat everyone to the scoop on this. The town's not the story. The story's that an American was murdered out in the countryside.”
“A Puerto Rican.”
“Same shit.” There was a pause. Renzi could picture Old-Man Luna lighting a cigarette. “Apparently the Embassy is going to step in, or the Consulate. Just imagine, what if he was killed by some guerrilla group.”
“Stop kidding around, Mr. Luna.”
“See if you can make something up that we can use, everything'sunder water around here. Send a photograph of the dead man.”
“No one really knows why he came to town exactly.”
“Go with that,” Luna said. But, as usual, he was already onto something else, he did ten things at once and said more or less the same thing to everyone. “Hurry up, kid, we'll be going to press soon,” he yelled. Then there was a strange silence, like a hollow, and Renzi realized that Luna was pressing the mouthpiece of the telephone against his body and speaking with someone else in the newsroom. He held on, in case there was anything else.
“And where am I supposed to get a photograph?” But Luna had already hung up.
Everyone atEl PregÃ³nwas watching a television, set up on a sliding cart off to one side of the room. Channel 7, from the Capital, had requested a coaxial connection with the channel from the town. The local newscast was going to be shown nationwide. On the screen, behind the gray stripes that went up and down repeatedly, was the front of the Plaza Hotel, with the prosecutor, Cueto, entering and coming back out, very active, smiling. He was explaining, giving his version of the events. The camera followed him to the corner. There, looking directly into the camera with a smug little smile, the prosecutor concluded that the case was solved.
“Everything has been cleared up,” he said. “But we have some differences with the old policeman in charge of the investigation. The issue is a procedural matter that will be settled in court. I've asked the judge in OlavarrÃa to declare preventive custody for the accused and have him transferred to the prison in Dolores.”
The channel resumed its local programming, covering thepreparations for a horse-and-duck polo match between the civilian and the military teams at the summit near the town of Pringles. Gregorius turned off the television and walked Renzi to the door of the newspaper offices.
The reporter fromEl Mundochecked in at the Plaza Hotel, rested for a while, and went back out to take a look around town and interview a few of the residents. No one would tell him what everyone knew, or what was so well known to everyone that it needed no explanation. They all looked at him sarcastically, as if he were the only one who didn't understand what was going on. It was quite a strange story, with different angles and multiple versions. Like any other, Renzi thought.
By the end of the afternoon Renzi had gathered all the available information and was ready to write his article. He returned to his hotel room, looked over his notes, and made a series of diagrams, underlining several phrases in his black notebook. Then he went down to the dining room and ordered a beer and French fries.
It was after midnight when he went back to the offices of the local newspaper, knocked on the iron shutters, and was let in by the night guard, Don Moya, who always hobbled around with an odd-looking limp, having been thrown in '52 by a horse that had left him with a bum leg. Moya turned on the lights of the empty newsroom for him, and Renzi sat at Gregorius's desk and typed out the article on a Remington with a missinga.
He wrote his first story in one fell swoop, looking at his notes, trying to make it what his editor Luna called a colorful article with a hook. He started with a description of the town becausehe realized that this would be of interest in Buenos Aires, where almost all the readers were like him, city people who thought the countryside was peaceful and boring, sparsely populated with folk who wore Basque berets, smiled like idiots, and said yes to everything. A world of simple, honest people who spent their lives working the land, faithful to the Argentine tradition of the gaucho and loyal friendships. Renzi realized that it was all a farce, in just one afternoon he had heard more mean and hostile comments than he could have imagined. In one version DurÃ¡n was what is known as a carrier, someone who brings in undeclared money to negotiate, on behalf of a fictitious company, the prices for the purchase of the harvest to avoid paying taxes.15Everyone had told Renzi about the bagful of dollars that Croce had found in the storage room in the basement of the hotel. This was probably the main clue needed to solve the crime. The most interesting aspect, of courseâas is often the case in these mattersâwas the dead man. Investigating the victim is the key to every criminal investigation, Renzi wrote, and to this end everyone who had interacted or had business with the deceased had to be questioned. Renzi maintained the suspense, centering the affair on the foreigner who arrived in the small town without anyone knowing why exactly. He alluded vaguely to a romance with one of the daughters of one of the main families in town.
The investigation would have to begin with those who had a motive to kill the victim. Renzi soon understood, however, thateveryone in town had motives and reasons to kill Tony DurÃ¡n. First of all, the sisters, although according to Renzi it was strange to think that they would want to kill him. They would have killed him themselves, as several residents told the reporter. And it's true, because in this town, honestly, one of the hotel managers said, women don't hire anyone else to do their dirty work for them, they go and wipe whoever it is out themselves. At least that's what's always happened around here in crimes of passion, the interviewed reported proudly, as if defending some grand local tradition.
Renzi wrote that, according to sources, the leading suspect, a hotel employee of Japanese origins, had been detained, and that Inspector Croce had discovered a leather bag, brown, with nearly one hundred thousand dollars in fifty- and one hundred-dollar bills, in the storage room in the basement of the hotel. Apparently, Renzi added, the suspect lowered the satchel with the money from the room with a service lift used in the past to send meals up forroom service. None of this had been officially reported, but several sources in town mentioned these facts. We note, he concluded, that officials have not confirmed or rejected these statements. The editor of the local newspaper (and Renzi took the opportunity to nameEl PregÃ³n) has criticized the way the investigation was being carried out by the authorities. Who was the money for? And why had they left it in a storage room full of lost objects instead of taking it with them? These were the questions with which the article closed.
Renzi made a few corrections with a red pen he found on the desk, and dictated the article over the telephone to his newspaper's typist, repeating every punctuation point, coma, period, paragraphbreak, colon, and semicolon. The article opened with a description of the town seen from above, as if it were the chronicle of a traveler arriving in some mysterious territory. This appealed because it lent the town a concrete existence, and for once it wasn't mentioned merely as an appendix of the neighboring, larger town of Rauch.
Coming across the hills, the entire town can be seen below, from the lake from which it draws its name to the large houses on the surrounding hills.
It was a brief article, with aspaghetti-westerntitle,Yankee Murdered in Western Town, different from the title Renzi had called in. People read it the following day, with the main events synthesized in a ridiculous order (the hotel, the dead body, the bag with the money), as if the reporter from Buenos Aires, after going around asking questions, had allowed himself to be misled by all his informants.
He seemed nervous, out of it, the night guard Moya said, adding that after hearing him dictate the story, he walked him to the door and saw him head toward the Social Club for a drink. He was accompanied at that point by Bravo, the society reporter, who suddenly appeared as if he had been awakened by the sound of the metal shutters of the newspaper offices.
SofÃa was silent for a while, watching the afternoon light waning in the garden, then resumed the somewhat maddened rhythm of the story she had heard and repeated, or imagined, many times before.
“My father made himself out to be an aristocrat. That's why he sought out my mother, for her family name. She's an Ibarguren,” SofÃa said. “My father married for love the first time around, with Regina O'Connor,but as I was saying before, she left him for another. My father never recovered, he couldn't conceive of anyone abandoning him or treating him with contempt. Deep down he always doubted if my brother was really his, he treated him with extreme deference, like one would a bastard. And also, unlike my brother Lucio, my brother Luca was always hostile, and this hostility became a kind of demonic pride, an absolute conviction, because when his mother abandoned them and left town, my father rescued him, and brought him back, and since then he's lived with us, at home.”
Renzi stood up.
“What do you mean, where did he rescue him from?”
“He brought him home and raised him, he didn't care where he came from.”
“And the theater director? Was he the father, the possible father?” Renzi asked.
“It doesn't matter, because his mother always said that Luca was my father's son, that you could tell a mile away. Unfortunately, he's your father's son, Regina used to say, you can tell right away because he's so forlorn, and a lunatic. If he wasn't his son, he wouldn't have gotten into the situation he's in now, his mother said, just about killing himself, ruining his life over an obsession.”
“What is this, a melodrama?” Renzi asked.
“Of course, what did you expect? They brought him home and raised him like the rest of us, and he never saw his mother again. She finally moved back to Dublin, she lives there now and doesn't want anything more to do with us, or with this place, or her sons. The Irishwoman. My father still has a photograph of her on his desk. That woman, she was out of place here, can you imagine? She was too standoffish to be an Argentine mother, she could ride a horse better than any gaucho,but she hated the country out here. âWhat kind of shit do these shits think?' she used to say. She blamed the countryside for everything, the infinite tedium of the countryside, people wandering down the empty streets of the small town like the walking dead. Nature only produces destruction and chaos, it isolates people, every gaucho is a Robinson Crusoe riding on a horse like a shadow. Isolated thoughts, solitary, light as baling wire, heavy as a bag of maize, no one can get out, everyone's tied to the deserted fields, they head out on horseback to inspect their property, to see if the fence posts are in good shape, if the animals have stayed near the watering spring, if the storm's comingâand in the late afternoon, by the time they come back home, they've been made dumb by the boredom and the emptiness. My brother says he can still hear her curse at night, that sometimes he speaks with her, that he always sees her. She couldn't have stayed in this town, the Irishwoman. When she ran away, pregnant, my father made life impossible for her, he wouldn't let her see her other son, by court order, everyone consented to punishing her. He wouldn't let her see Lucio, she would send messages, presents, she would plead, she'd come to the house, but my father would have servants throw her out. Sometimes he'd tell her to wait in the square and he'd pass slowly by in the car so she could see her son, little Lucio looking at her through the window without waving, his eyes full of surprise.” SofÃa paused, and smoked pensively. “She was pregnant with Luca (two hearts beating in one body, thump thump) and Lucio looking at her through the rear window of the car, can you picture it? Finally she left the kids and went back to her own country.”
She's putting me on, Renzi thought, she's spinning a yarn to hook me in.
“When she finally escaped forever from this damned country, asshe used to call it, she went back to Dublin, where she works now as a teacher. Every once in a while we get a letter, always addressed to her sons, written in a Spanish that gets stranger and stranger with time. No one has ever written back to her. Because her two sons have not forgiven her for abandoning them, and this served to unite them under a common sorrow. No son can forgive his mother for abandoning him. Fathers abandon their sons without any problems, they just leave and never see them again, but a woman can't do that, it's forbidden, that's why my sister and I, if we ever have children, we're going to abandon them. And they'll wave at us, standing in a square when they're small, the little kids, while we drive by in our cars with a different lover. How do you like that?”
She stopped, looked at Renzi with a smile glowing in her eyes, and served herself more wine. Then she went back to the living room and took a while. When she came back out, she was exhilarated, her eyes were shining, she was rubbing her tongue over her gums and balancing two plates with cheese and olives.
“In my family the men go crazy when they become fathers. Look at what happened to my old man: he could never get out from under his doubt. He was certain only of the paternity of my older brother, Lucio, he was the only one who obeyed his desires, except in his marriage.”
Only then did Renzi realize that SofÃa was going inside more and more frequently. He followed her into the living room and saw her bent over a glass table.
“What do you have there?” Renzi asked.
“Sea salt,” she said, leaning forward, smiling, holding a rolled-up, one-peso bill to her nose.
“Well, well, will you look at the country girl,” Renzi said. “Can I have a line?”
15Â Â Â “There are bogus societies that transport 30,000 tons of grain under the table per month. That is equivalent to 3,000 trucks. Just ten or twelve people can run such an operation. âSome juridical reports charge $30,000 to create such a society,' several sources stated to this reporter” (Renzi's article).
Bravo and Renzi left the newspaper offices and walked down the empty streets of the town. It was a stormy night; a warm wind was blowing from the plains. Renzi realized with disgust that he had stepped on a beetle, which made a dry crack as he crushed it under his shoe. Clouds of mosquitoes and moths flitted about the corner streetlights. After a while, a stray dog appeared in front of them, slightly deformed, its tail between its legs. A bit lame, it began to follow them with its crooked walk.
“That's the Inspector's dog, he leaves him untied and the mutt roams about all over town at night like a ghost.”
The dog stayed close for a while, but finally lay down at a doorstep along the way. The two men walked on, the wind rustling the branches in the trees and raising the dust in the street.
“Here we are, Emilio,” Brazo said. “This is the Club.”
They stood in front of a two-story house, French style but understated. A bronze plaque announced to anyone who went close enough to read the miniscule print that this was the Social Club, founded in 1910.
“Not just anyone can come in here,” Bravo said. “But you're with me, you can be my guest tonight.
“My work as the society page reporter consists of setting a highbar and keeping people on one side separate from those on the other side. My readers can't come in here, so they have to read the paper. How to cross the line; or better yet, how to make the jump from one side to the other, that's what everyone wants to know. DurÃ¡n, the deceased, a mulatto, a black man reallyâbecause out in the province there are no mulattos, you're either white or you're black. Anyway, DurÃ¡n, black and all, was finally able to go in.”
By then the two of them had also entered the hall. Bravo greeted people he knew as they walked past the bar and took a seat at a table off to a side, near the windows, facing the gardens outside.
“Everyone is now saying that Tony had brought a bunch of money with him when he arrived. But nobody can explain why he brought it, or what he was waiting for. Americans can bring as much money into the country as they want to, they don't have to declare anything. The military set up the arrangement during the time of General OnganÃa,” Bravo told Renzi, as if he were sharing a personal secret. “Liquid capital, foreign investment, it's considered legal. Who covers the economy atEl Mundo?”
“Ameztoy,” Renzi said. “According to him, PerÃ³n is controlled by European companies.”
Bravo looked at him, amazed.
“European?” he remarked. “But that's antediluvian, from the time of the Ã±aupa.” Like everyone in the provinceâas Renzi realized after his conversations and interviews from that dayâBravo used arcane words and out-of-date expressions deliberately to try to seem more genuinely from out in the country. “The freedom to move currency was imposed by the Americans as a conditionto bringing in foreign investment. Now it's used to deal money under the table to make deals on the harvests.”
“And that's what DurÃ¡n was doing,” Renzi said. “Moving money.”
“I don't know, that's what people say. Don't go and cite me as a source, Emilio, I'm the town's social conscience. I say what everyone thinks but no one dares to say.” He paused. “Snobbery is the only way to survive in these places,” he added, and went on to explain why he was accepted in such a rarified atmosphere.
Bravo, at thirty, looked like an old man. It wasn't that he had aged prematurely, but that old age was part of his life, his face was covered with scars because he'd been in an automobile accident. He was an excellent tennis player as a youth, but his career was interrupted soon after he won a junior tournament at the Law Tennis Club in ViÃ±a del Mar, and he never recovered from his unfulfilled expectations. He had so much natural talent for tennis that people called him Stumpyâjust like Carlos Gardel was called the Muteâand, like everyone with a natural talent, when he lost his giftâwhen he was no longer able to use his giftâhe became a kind of spontaneous philosopher who looked at the world with the skepticism and clarity of Diogenes in the garbage can. He hadn't been able to accomplish anything with the gift he was given, except to win the final of that junior tournament in Chile over Alexis Olmedo, the Peruvian tennis player who'd go on to win Wimbledon years later. Bravo was forced to retire from the circuit before even entering it due to a strange lesion on his right hand that kept him from playing. That's when his decadence and old age began. He returned to his hometown, where his father,a hacienda auctioneer, got him the position at the newspaper as the society page reporterâbecause he still had an aura about him of having played tennis on thecourtsat a time when only the upper classes played the white sport.
“No one can imagine,” he said to Renzi, after they had a few drinks and entered the stage of frank confessions, “what it's like to have a talent for something and not be able to use it. Or at least to think that one has a talent for something and not be able to use it.”
“I know,” Renzi said. “When it comes to that, half of my friends (and I myself) suffer the same illness.”
“I can't play tennis anymore,” Bravo complained.
“Usually my friends have so much talent that they don't even need to do anything.”
“I understand,” Bravo said. “Can you imagine how big of snobs they are here, they think of me as one of their own because I trained with Rod Laver.” He paused, waiting for Renzi's smile. Bravo was rambling a bit, drinking the free whiskey he was served whenever he came to the Club. “Sometimes, when I need money,” he said all of a sudden, “I go and playpaletaagainst country folk who don't know who I am, and I always win. There's nothing more different from a tennis court than the walls of a Basquepelotagame, but the key is still to see the ball, and my eyesight is just fine. I could play left-handed, with my hands tied, and I'd still win. In CaÃ±uelas I beat Utge,” he said, as if he had defeated Shakespeare in a poetry contest.
Bravo paused again, and went on, as if he felt the need to continue telling Renzi his secrets. He told him that sometimes he thought he could hear the crisp sound of a tennis ball catchingthe line, but that so much time had passed since his experience on the courts that it would take him a while to identify the sound. A sound that to this day still moved him.
Renzi thought again that Bravo was ranting a bit, but he was used to it. It wasn't unusual for reporters to digress and ramble when they spoke to keep from saying anything. Personal secrets and false news, that was the genre.
“You can't imagine the deals the military are making before they leave,” Bravo said. “They're going to sell everything, even their tanks. Everyone here is sure that PerÃ³n is coming back and that the soldiers are going back to their barracks. They're making as many deals as they can before the tortilla is flipped over. Speaking of which, should we order something to eat? They make a Spanish tortilla here you just can't find in Buenos Aires.”
Bravo ordered another whiskey. Renzi was hungry, so he took Bravo's suggestion and ordered a Spanish tortilla and a bottle of wine.
“Which wine would you prefer, sir?” asked a waiter with the face of a bird, looking at Renzi with a strange mixture of distance and disdain.
“Bring me a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc,” Renzi said. “And a bucket of ice.”
“Of course, sir,” the waiter said, with the manners of an idiot who believed he was the son of Count Orlov.
Bravo lit a cigarette, and Renzi saw that his right hand shook. It was a little deformed, with an ugly protuberance at the wrist. Renzi thought that Bravo was using his right hand as if he were forcing himself to do so, as if he were still in physical therapy.Renzi pictured the electrical machines, the metal clips and thin wires attached to the hand to stretch the nerves and the joints.
“Can you imagine being a society page reporter in a town like this? People tell you the news on the telephone before events occur, if you don't promise them you'll publish it, they don't do it. First they make sure it'll make the news, then the action happens,” Bravo said. “Everything is arranged in here, in the Club. That woman back there, at the round table, that's one of the Belladona sisters.”
Renzi saw a young redhead, tall and arrogant, leaning distractedly toward the man speaking next to herâone of those men whose heads look too small for their bodies, lending them a sinister appearance, as if their human torso ended at the face of a snake. It was the Prosecutor, Renzi recognized him from television. The young woman was speaking now, resting back in her chair, her left hand between her breasts, as if she were trying to keep warm. She's not wearing a bra, Renzi thought, the best little tits in the Argentine pampas. He saw her shake her head no, without smiling, and jot something down on a piece of paper. Then she said goodbye with a quick kiss on the cheek and walked toward the staircase leading downstairs, her gate confident and seductive.
“It started a while ago,” Bravo said, and began telling the story. “Cueto got one of the first Harley Davidsons in Argentina, and when he showed up in town with the machine, all Ada Belladona wanted was to get a ride on his motorcycle. He went out with her, gave her a ride around the main square, and immediately they had an accident. Ada broke a leg, Cueto came out unscathed. He always said that the key to driving a motorcycle was knowinghow to fall. That was his theory. The first thing an athlete does, he said, is learn how to fall. He asked her before she got on and she told him that she knew how to fall. But when the motorcycle grazed one of the flowerbeds on the edge of the square, the machine dragged the girl's leg along for nearly fifty meters. She wasn't left paralyzed by sheer chance, she had a cast from her hip to her toes. The work of an artist, I think they found a sculptor to do it. Aldo Bianchi or one of those, she used to say, showing off her cast, which ended in a kind of plaster sandal with the stylized form of a siren's tail. And she used it to lean on it like that. It was incredible, she was as crazy as Cueto was, that young woman, she loved to dance, and one summer night, they went to this place in Mar del Plata, Club Gambrinus. Inside, everyone asked her, What happened to you? Are you okay? She just said that her leg had been crushed by a horse and kept getting up to dance. She'd stick her white, bright leg into the ground, with that shape like the tail of a fish, and spin her body around and around the plaster cast. Like Captain Ahab.”16
Renzi liked how Bravo told stories. It was clear he had told this one so many times, polishing it along the way, that it was now smooth as a pebble. Of course a story can always be improved, Renzi thought, absent-minded. Bravo, in the meantime, had gone on to something else, picking up again on the conjectures about DurÃ¡n. He thought Tony had gotten close to the Belladona sisters to gain access to the Social Club. With them he could enter, alone theywould never have let him in.
“I would have liked to have warned Tony not to come around here,” Bravo said.He uses the pluperfect of the subjunctive, Renzi thought. He was so tired these were the kind of thoughts that popped into his head, thoughts once typical for him, when he was in college and he used to spend his time analyzing grammatical forms and verbal conjugations. Sometimes he wouldn't understand what people were telling him because he'd get distracted analyzing syntactical structures as if he were a philologist enraged by the distorted uses of contemporary language. Recently it had been happening less frequently to him. But sometimes, when he was with a woman and he liked her way of speaking, he'd suddenly want to sleep with her because he was so excited by her use of the perfect preterit indicative. As if the presence of the past in the present justified just about any passion. In this case, it was only his fatigue and the strangeness that he felt being in that town in the middle of nowhere. When he heard the noises around him from the bar again, he realized that Bravo was telling him the story of the Belladona family, a story that seemed like any other story of an Argentine family in the countryside, but more intense and crueler.
“I'm sick of this trash,” Bravo said all of a sudden, completely drunk by this point. “I want to move to the Capital. Do you think there'd be any work for me atEl Mundo?”
“I don't recommend it.”
“I'm getting out of here, for sure. I can't stand it anymore. And I don't have much time left.”
“I want to be in Buenos Aires when PerÃ³n returns.”
“You don't say,” Renzi said, waking up all of a sudden.
“Definitely. It's going to be a historic day.”
“Don't get so carried away,” Renzi said. He thought that Bravo wanted to be like Fabrizio, the character inThe Charterhouse of Parmawho went to Paris when he heard about Napoleon's return so he could be there to welcome the general home. When he finally goes to Paris, Fabrizio spends his time surrounded by a group of enthusiastic young men of aseductive sweetnesswhoâa few days later, as Stendhal writesâsteal all his money.
Then they saw Cueto walking toward them, a snooty little smile on his face.
“What do the rented consciences of our homeland have to say?”
“Join us?” Bravo asked.
Cueto had the dry, stringy, vaguely repulsive body of an older man who does a lot of exercise and maintains a kind of pathetic youthfulness.
“Just for a minute, sure,” Cueto said.
“Have you met Renzi?” Bravo asked.
“You write forLa OpiniÃ³n, right?”
“Noâ¦” Renzi said.
“Ah, then you're a failureâ¦” Cueto flashed him a knowing smile and picked up the bottle of wine. He emptied a glass of water into the bucket of ice, served himself some wine, and offered to refill Renzi's glass.
“No, I better not have any more.”
“Don't ever stop drinking while you're still able to think that it's better if you don't have anymore, as my aunt Amanda used to say.” Cueto savored the wine. “First rate,” he said. “Alcohol is oneof the few simple pleasures we have left in modern life.” He looked around as he spoke, as if he were looking for someone he knew. There was something strange about his left eye, a fixed, bluish look, which made Renzi anxious. “There was an incredible news story yesterday, but of course you journalists never read the papers.”
Two young guerrilla women had killed a conscript at an air force base in MorÃ³n.17They had gotten out of a Peugeot and walked up to the sentry box, smiling at the guard, with a 45 hidden in aSiete DÃasmagazine. When the young soldier refused to turn over his weapon, they shot him dead.
“He resisted, the paper said. Just imagine if he's going to resist? He must have said, Girls, what are you doing? Don't take my rifle, they'll throw me in jail. His name was Luis Ãngel Medina. He could have been from the Province of Corrientes, who knows, a little dark conscript, they were fighting for him, the women, fighting on behalf of the dark oppressed of the world, but they went and killed this one.” He served himself another glass of wine. “They're cooked, both of them, they'll have to stay together from now on, right?” Cueto said. “Live in hiding in some farm in Temperley, stuffed in a hole, drinkingmate, the two Trotskyitesâ¦”
“Okay,” Renzi said, so furious that he started speaking in too-loud a voice. “Inequality between men and women ends as soon as a woman takes up arms.” He went on, trying to be as pedanticas possible in his alcoholized haze. “In traditional societies, the termnobilis, ornobilitas, indicated a free person. By definition this means the right to bear arms. What happens if women are the ones who bear arms?”
“Would you look at that,” Bravo said. “Everyone's a soldier! A soldier of PerÃ³nâ”
“No, a soldier of the People's Revolutionary Army!” Cueto said. “They're the worst, first they go out and kill at random, then they put out a communiquÃ© about the poor of the world.”
“Ethics is like love,” Renzi said. “If you live in the present, consequences don't matter. If you think about the past, it's because you've already lost your passion.”
“You should write these great nocturnal truths.”
“In reality,” Renzi said, “the greatest sacrifice is to abide with the second ethic.”18
“The second ethic? Too much for me. Excuse me, my dear journalists, but it's getting late,” Cueto said, and started to get up.
“What we need is a female serial killer,” Renzi continued. “We don't have any women who kill men serially, without a motive, just because. There should be some.”
“For now, women only kill one husband at a time,” Cueto said, still looking around the room.
He had already washed his hands of them, he was fed up with their load of ridiculous abstractions. Cueto was sitting at the table with them, but he was essentially gone.
“I'm going, too, my friend,” Renzi said. “I traveled through the night to get here, I'm done in.”
Bravo walked with him through the night shadows of the town for a few blocks. They stopped at the edge of the main square.
“He wanted people to see him with Ada Belladona. I don't understand,” Renzi said.
“He's courting her, as they say around here. He used to be the attorney for the factory, the attorney for the Belladona family, actually. When the whole mess started between the two brothers, he split off. Now he's the public prosecutor. He'll go far.”
“There's something strange with the way he looks.”
“He has a glass eye, he lost it playing polo.” Bravo got in his car and leaned out the window. “Were you trying to get him to bite? He's a pretty dangerous guy, you know?”
“I've been wiping my ass with dangerous guys like that ever since I can remember.”
Bravo honked his horn to say goodbye, or as a sign of disapproval, and headed off toward the highway. He lived on the outskirts of town, in a residential neighborhood, up in the hills.
Renzi kept walking on his own, enjoying the cool evening. The municipal truck was watering down the empty streets, settling the dust. It smelled of wet earth, everything was peaceful and quiet. Many times, when he traveled long-distance by bus, he feltlike getting out in some town in the middle of the highway and just staying there. Now he was in one of those towns and he had a strange feeling, as if his life were suspended.
But his life was not suspended. When he reached his room and started taking off his clothes, the telephone rang. It was Julia from Buenos Aires.
“You need to stop, Emilio,” she said when he picked up the receiver. “Everyone's asking me about you. Where'd you go? I had to call the newspaper to locate you. Look at the hour. A letter arrived here for you, from your brother.”
Renzi tried to explain that he couldn't come by to pick up the letter because he was working in a small, lousy town in the province of Buenos Aires, but he realized that Julia didn't believe him. She hung up on him mid-sentence. She must have thought that he was lying to her, that he'd taken off and holed up with some chick in a hotel somewhere, he was sure of it.
Several friends had told him that she'd been saying that he was sinking. After his father's death, which he had no intention of re-opening, he had decided to separate from Julia. But he hadn't changed his address yet, and people were still looking for him at his ex's. He would've liked to have been like Swann, who in the end discovers that he's been consumed by his desire for a woman who wasn't truly worth it. But Renzi was still so connected to Julia that six months after leaving her, just hearing her voice was enough to make him feel lost again. He loved Julia much more than he had loved his father, but the comparison was ridiculous. For the moment he was trying not to make connections between unrelated events. If he could keep everything separate he would be okay.
He looked out the window in his room toward the square. On the street he saw the lame dog, walking crooked. It moved in short jumps, until it stopped under a corner streetlight. Bravo had said it was the Inspector's dog. Renzi saw the dog lift its leg to urinate and shake its yellow fur as if it were soaked. Renzi lowered the curtain and got in bed and dreamt he was attending Tony DurÃ¡n's funeral in a cemetery in Newark. It was actually the cemetery in AdroguÃ©, but it was in New Jersey and it had old tombstones and markings near the sidewalk on the other side of an iron fence. A group of solemn women and mulattos were saying their farewells. Renzi walked up to the open grave and saw the lead coffin, shining in the sun, being lowered into the earth. He picked up a handful of dirt and threw it in.
“Poor son of a bitch,” Renzi said in his dream.
When he woke up he remembered he had dreamed, but not the dream.
16Â Â Â Soon after this, Ada bought herself a Triumph 220. Since then, she rides around town on her motorcycle all the time, scaring the locals and the birds in the corrals. The dogs run after her, barking as if possessed, chasing behind her on the motorcycle.
17Â Â Â “Today the remains of the soldier Luis Ãngel Medina were laid to rest in the cemetery of San Justo, having been shot to death yesterday by two women from an extremist commando group. It would have been Medina's last guard duty, since he was about to complete his military service and would have been discharged the following Friday. However, because of a routine assignment, he was destined to cover the post at which he met his death precisely on that fatal day” (La RazÃ³n, March 14, 1972).
18Â Â Â In his notes for a book on Dostoevsky (1916), speaking about political crime, G. LukÃ¡cs cites Bakhtin:Murder is not allowed, murder is an absolute, unforgivable sin. He certainly cannot be, but hemustbe executed.The authentic revolutionary, like the tragic hero, faces evil and accepts its consequences. Only a crime comitted by a man who knows resolutely and beyond all doubt that murdercannotbe sanctioned, under any circumstance, is naturally moral. In this fashion LukÃ¡cs distinguishes between the firstâor Kantianâethic, which outlines responsibilities according to the immediate needs of society, and the second ethic, which focuses on transcendence. LukÃ¡cs cites Kierkegaard'sFear and Tremblingon this point:Direct contact with transcendence in life leads to crime, madness, and absurdity(Note by Renzi).
Croce had a blurry photograph of an unknown man with an outstanding warrant published in the local newspapers, but no one really understood what was going on. Even SaldÃas started to express his doubts, timidly. The Scribe quickly went from blind admiration to concern to suspicion. Croce didn't pay any more attention to him and, instead, left him out of the loop, ordering him to dedicate his time to typing up a report with the new theories about the crime.
That's when the prosecutor Cueto took center stage and started making decisions designed to put a stop to the scandal. He maintained that Croce's hypotheses were wildly ridiculous and served only to hinder the investigation.
“We don't know what the alleged suspect that Croce is looking for has anything to do with the murder. No one around here knows that man, he has no connection to the victim. We're living through some pretty chaotic times, but we will not allow an old country inspector to go around doing whatever he wants.”
He had the state police transfer Yoshio right away to the jail in Dolores, for his own safety, as he said, while he proceeded with his own prosecutorial investigation. They hadn't found the murder weapon, but there were eyewitnesses who placed the suspect at theplace and time where and when the crime had been committed. Cueto did everything necessary to close the case and label it a sex crime. In a low voice, to whoever wanted to hear, the Prosecutor assured people that the Inspector could no longer be trusted and that he had to be removed. In the meantime, Croce continued to go about town as always, waiting for some new development. No one really knew what he was thinking, or why, or why he believed that Dazai wasn't guilty.
One night, at dinnertime, Renzi ran into Croce at the Madariaga Tavern. Sitting at the table by the side window, the Inspector was eating a rump roast with French fries, drawing small figures on the paper tablecloth with a pencil while he ate. Every once in a while he'd stop moving and stare into space, holding up his glass of wine.
In his work as a reporter, Renzi occasionally covered police stories, and he'd met a number of inspectors. Most were thugs without any morals who just liked having their position on the force so they could get women to sleep with them (especially the prostitutes) and acquire an upper hand into as many shady deals as possible. But Croce seemed different. He had the peaceful air of a paisano you could trust, Renzi thoughtâand all of a sudden he remembered the opinion that the editor at his newspaper, Luna, had about police inspectors.
“Who wouldn't want to be an inspector?” Old-Man Luna said to him one night. “Don't be so naÃ¯ve, kid. Inspectors are the real heavies. Over forty, they've already put on some weight, they've seen everything, most have a few kills under their belts. Inspectors are men who've lived a lot, they have a ton of authority, they spend their time with delinquents and political strongmen,always out at night, in cathouses and bars, getting whatever drugs they want, making easy money because everyone greases them: bookies, dealers, mafiosos, neighbors. They're our new heroes, kid. Always armed, they can get in anywhere, form a gang, knock down doors. They're specialists of evil, the damned, their job is to make sure idiots sleep at night, they do the dirty work on behalf of the beautiful. Moving between the law and the world of crime, they fly in between. Half and half, if someone changed the balance on them they wouldn't be able to survive. They're the guardians of our security. Society delegates to them the role of taking care of what no one wants to see,” Luna told him. “They do politics all the time, but they never get in as politicians, when they get involved in politics it's to take down some mid-level puppet, a mayor, a representative or two, but they never go any higher. They're clandestine heroes, always tempted to run themselves, but they never do. If they did they'd be done, they'd become too visible,” Luna told him that night over dinner at El Pulpito, schooling him, once again, on real life. “They do what they have to do and they endure beyond all the changes, they're eternal, they've always been thereâ” Luna hesitated at that point for a moment, Renzi remembered, then continued: “There's been famous police inspectors ever since the times of Rosas, sometimes they lose, like anyone else, they get killed or retired or sent to jail, but there's always another one right behind them to take their place. They're malevolent, my dear, but the level of evil in them is minimal compared to the men who give them their orders. Cops will give it to you straight, they're the ones in the trenches,” Luna concluded. “So don't be crazy, just write what they tell you.” I'mgoing to do what he said, Renzi thought, remembering Old-Man Luna's advice when he saw Croce gesturing for him to come over.
“Join me for something to eat?” Croce asked.
“Yes, sure,” Renzi said. “It'll be a pleasure.”
He sat at the table with Croce and ordered a strip of short ribs and a lettuce and tomato salad, without onions.
“This store and tavern was the first thing built in town. The migrant laborers used to eat here at harvest time.” Renzi realized right away that the Inspector needed company. “When one is an inspector one starts to believe that one has managed to reduce the scale of death down to a personal dimension. And when I say death I mean murder. Somebody can be killed by accident,” Croce said, “but you can'tmurdersomeone by accident. If Mrs. X hadn't walked back home yesterday, for example, and if she hadn't turned at a certain corner, could she have avoided being murdered? She might have died anyway, that's true, but murdered? If death isn't the intended goal, it's not murder. That's why there's always a decision, and a motive. Not just a cause, but a motive.” He stopped. “Which is also why a pure crime is rare. If there's no motive, it's an enigma: we have the dead body, we have the suspects, but we don't have the cause. Or the cause doesn't correspond to the execution of the murder. This seems to be the case now. We have the dead body and we have a suspect.” He paused. “What we call motivation could be an unseen meaning, not because it's a mystery, but because the network of determinations is too vast. We have to concentrate, synthesize, find the fixed point. We have to isolate an item of fact and create a closed field, otherwise we'll never be able to solve the enigma.”
Drawing small figures on the tablecloth, the Inspector reconstructed the facts for himself, but also for Renzi. He always needed someone to speak to, someone to help him break out of his internal discourse, the words that went around and around in his head like a tune. When he spoke with someone he was forced to choose certain thoughts, it was impossible to say everything, he always tried to have his interlocutor reflect with him and arrive at his own conclusions even before him. That was how he could trust his reasoning, because someone else would have thought it with him. In this he was like everyone who was too intelligentâAuguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmesâand needed an assistant to think with him, and to keep him from falling into delirium.
“For Cueto the criminal is Yoshio and the motive is jealousy. A private crime, no one else is implicated. Closed case,” Renzi said.
“It seems to me that Cueto is always saying that things that appear to be different are really the same, while I'm interested in showing that things that appear to be the same are really different.I'll teach them differences.19See?” he asked. “It's a duck, but if you look at it like this, instead, it's a rabbit.” Croce drew the outline of the duck-rabbit. “What does it meanto seesomething such as it is? It's not easy.” He looked down at the drawing he had sketched on the tablecloth. “A rabbit and a duckâ¦
“Things are what we know them to bebeforewe see them.” Renzi didn't understand where the Inspector was going. “We see thingsaccording tohow we interpret them. It's called foresight: to know beforehand, to be forewarned.20Out in the country, you follow the trail of a calf, you see the footprints on the dry earth, you know the animal is tired because the tracks are light, you orient yourself because the birds land to peck on the trail. You can't just randomly look for footprints, the tracker must first know what he's looking for: human, dog, puma. Then he can see. I'm like that too. You have to have a base first, only then can you can make inferences and deductions. That's why you see what you know,” he pointed out, “and why you can't see what you don't know. Discovering something is seeing what no one else has perceived yet in another way. That's the point.” Strange, Renzi thought, but he's right. “On the other hand, if I don't think of him as the criminal, his actions, his behavior, they don't make sense.” He paused, thinking. “Understanding,” he said when he snapped out of it, “is not discovering facts, or extracting logical inferences, and even less constructing theories. Understanding is simply a matter of adopting the right point of view to perceive reality. A sick man doesn't see the same world that a healthy man sees,” Croce said, losing himself in his thoughts again, but snappingright out of it this time. “A sad man doesn't see the same world as a guy who's happy. Likewise, a policeman doesn't see the same reality as a journalistâbegging your pardon,” he added, smiling. “I know reporters write with the solid intention of learning about the matter later.” He looked at him with a smile. Although he agreed, Renzi couldn't respond, he had food in his mouth. “It's like a game of chess, you have to wait for your opponent to make a move. Cueto wants to close the case, everyone in town wants the case to be closed, and I'm waiting for the evidence to break. I already have it, I know what happened, I saw it, but I can't prove it yet. Look.” Renzi moved closer to see what Croce was looking at. It was a group of people on a horse in a photograph from the newspaper. Croce had circled the figure of a jockey. “You know what asimileis.”
Renzi looked at him.
“It's all about distinguishing what something is from what it appears to be,” Croce continued. “Noticingsomething means stopping there, in front of it.” Croce stopped, as if he were waiting for something. The telephone rang then. Madariaga answered, looked at Croce, and made a cranking motion with his hand.
“A call from the police station in TapalquÃ©,” he said.
“Aha,” Croce said. “Good.” He got up and walked to the counter.
Renzi saw him nod his head yes, serious, and move his hand in the air as if the person on the telephone could see him.
“And when was this?
“Is there anyone with him?
“I'm on my way. Thanks, Leoni.”
Croce went up to the counter. “Add the dinner to my tab, myBasque friend,” he said to Madariaga, and started toward the exit. He stopped at the table where Renzi was still sitting.
“There's been news. You can come along if you'd like.”
“Perfect. I'm taking this with me,” Renzi said, grabbing the paper with the drawing.
Night would have to finally fall before SofÃa would clear up for himâ“it's an expression”âthe story of her family, between their comings and goings to the mirror on the table in the living room with the white lines, which gave them both a few long minutes of exhilaration and clarity, of instant happiness, followed by a sort of dark grief which in the end SofÃa valorized by saying that it was only during those moments of coming downâ“in the comedown”âthat it was possible to be sincere and tell the truth, leaning over the glass table with a rolled-up bill to snort the uncertain whiteness of the salt of life.
“My father,” SofÃa said, “always thought that his sons would marry country girls from good families with good last names. He sent my brother Lucio to study engineering in La Plata, because that's what he had done, and when he got there Lucio rented a room in a boarding house on Diagonal 80 which was run by a chronic student, a guy named Guerra. At the boarding house, on Fridays, they'd have this young woman come for the weekend, she rode over on a moped, the Vespa girl, they called her, she was really nice, an architecture student, living the life, as they say. Bimba, is the name she went by. A fun girl, she'd get there on Friday and stay through Sunday, she'd sleep with the six students who lived in the house, one at a time, of course, and sometimes she'd cook them meals or sit with them and drinkmate,play cards, after doing them all.
“One afternoon, Lucio burned his hands in an explosion in the lab atthe college and had to get his hands bandaged like a boxer, and Bimba took care of him, she looked after him, he couldn't do anything on his own because of his hands. The following week, the next time she came back on Friday, she went straight to my brother's room, changed his bandages, shaved and bathed him, spoon-fed him, and they chatted and had a great time. That same weekend Lucio asked her to stay with him, he offered to pay by himself what all the others paid together so that she would please not go with the others, but Bimba laughed and stroked his hair, she listened to his stories and his plans, and then she went off to bed with the other guys, in the other rooms, while Lucio suffered, lying on the bed, his bandaged hands in the air and his head full of horrible images. He'd go out to the patio, hear laughing, happy voices. They call Lucio âBear' because he's enormous and because he always looks sad, or kind of spaced out. Ever since he was a little kid his problem was always his innocence, he was always gullible, too trusting and too good. That night, when Bimba was in bed with Guerra, where she continued her rounds after Lucio, my brother could hear them laughing in bed, and he lost it. He got up, enraged, his hands bandaged, he kicked Guerra's door in and stormed into the room and knocked over the bedside table and the lamp that was on it. Guerra got up and started hitting Lucio, beating himâand my brother, as weak as he was, with his hands completely unusable, he fell to the ground right away and didn't defend himself, and Guerra kept kicking and insulting him, he wanted to kill him. At that point, Bimba jumped on Guerra, naked, and started scratching and yelling at him to leave Lucio alone, until finally they had to call the police.” SofÃa paused. “But the extraordinary thing,” she went on, “is that my brother quit college, he left everything and came back to town and married Bimba. He brought her home, he imposed her onthe family and had kids with her, everyone knows that she used to be a working girl, and my mother is the only one who won't speak with her, she's always pretended that she was invisible, but no one else cares because Bimba is wonderful, she's so much fun. My sister and I love her, she's the one who taught us everything there is to know about life, and she's the one who took care of Lucio during all these lean times and kept the house running with the few savings still remaining from the years of grandeur. My father liked her, too, she must have reminded him of the Irishwoman. Still, he was disappointed, he wanted his sons and his sons' sons to be, as he said, country men, owners of estancias, men of influence and wealth, men with weight in local politics. He could have been a governor if he had wanted to, my father, but he never wanted to get into politics, he just wanted to control it from behind, and maybe what he imagined for his sons was a future as owners of large estancias, as senators or caudillos, but his sons went in a different directionâand Luca, after their confrontation over the factory, never wanted to see him or even step in this house ever again.”