I got out of the car and Ruibérriz drove off to make his inquiries. There were no shops or cinemas or bars in that area, a boring, tree-lined residential street, with barely any lighting, with nothing you could use as a pretext or to distract yourself while you were waiting. If a neighbor saw me, he would doubtless take me for a marauder, there was no reason why I should be there, alone, silent, smoking. I crossed to the other side of the street just in case I could see anything of the upper story from there, the only one where the windows were unobstructed. I did see something, but only briefly, a large woman, who was not Estela, passing and disappearing and passing again in the opposite direction after a few seconds and then disappearing again, obscuring my view still more after she had gone, since, when she left the room, she switched off the light: as if she had just gone in there for a moment to pick something up. I crossed the road again and approached the gate as stealthily as an old-fashioned thief; I pushed and it gave way, it was open, people leave it like that when there's a party going on or if a lot of people come and go. I continued to advance so carefully that had I been treading on sand there would have been no footprints, I moved slowly toward one of the windows on the ground floor, the one to the left of the front door from where I was standing. As with nearly all the windows, the blind was down but the slats were open to let in the warm breeze that had slackened now, that is, they weren't shut tight. I found myself in the situation I had foreseen in the car, with my eyes glued to a crack at about eye level, looking, peering, trying to make out something through the tiny gap and through the transparent white cloth that made it even harder to see. That room too was only dimly lit, a large part of it lay in shadow, it was like trying to get to the bottom of a story from which the main elements have been deliberately omitted and about which we know only odd details, my vision blurred and with only a restricted view.
But I thought I saw them and I did, both of them, Estela and the coarse man one on top of the other, outside the beam of the light, the niceties were over, on a bed or perhaps it was a mattress or the floor, at first I couldn't even make out who was who, two dark, intertwined masses of flesh, someone was naked in there, I said to myself, the woman would have uncovered those breasts that I so needed to see, or perhaps not, perhaps not, she might still have her bra on. There was movement or was it struggle, but hardly any sound emerged, no grunts or cries or groans of pleasure or laughter, like a scene from a silent movie that would never have been shown in decent cinemas, a grim, muffled effort of bodies doubtless entering upon what was just another stage in the proceedings--the fuck--rather than a surrender to genuine desire, his body felt no more desire than hers did, but it was difficult to say where the one began and the other ended or which was which, given the darkness and the veil of the curtain, they were just a grotesque shape, how could I possibly not be able to distinguish the body of a young woman from that of a coarse man? Suddenly a torso and a head with a hat on loomed into view, they entered the beam of light for a moment before plunging down again, the man had donned a cowboy hat in order to have a fuck, good grief, I thought, what a jerk. So he was the one who was on top or above, when he rose up, I thought I also saw his hairy, swarthy, unpleasant torso, broad and undelineated, not exactly athletic. I looked through the slat below to see if I could catch a glimpse of the woman and her breasts, but I couldn't see anything and so returned to the slat above, hoping that the man might grow tired and want to rest underneath, it was odd not knowing if it was a bed or a mattress or the floor, and even odder how muffled the sound was, a silence like a gag. Then I noticed a new single-mindedness about the sweating, two-headed beast into which they had been momentarily transformed, they're going to change position, I thought, they're going to change places in order to prolong this stage of the proceedings, which is just that, another stage, since the participants remain the same.
I heard the bolt on the door and scuttled off to the left, just managing to disappear around the corner of the house before I heard a woman's voice saying goodbye to some people who were leaving ("Bye then, come back and see us again sometime," as if she were an American): a literary critic I know by sight, with a pure primate face and wearing red trousers and hiking boots, another jerk, if that was a whorehouse it didn't surprise me in the least that he should visit it, he always has to pay, like his friend, a fat guy with a graying crew cut, a head like an inverted egg, and a reptilian mouth, wearing glasses and a tie. They swaggered out and ostentatiously slammed the gate shut, no one would see them, the street was empty and dark, the second guy sounded as if he came from the Canaries, another jerk to judge by his appearance and his behavior. When I could no longer hear their footsteps, I returned to my post, a couple of minutes or three or four had passed and now the man and Estela were no longer intertwined, they had not changed position, but they had stopped, the end or a pause. The man was standing up, or kneeling on the mattress, the beam of light illuminated him more than it did her, reclining or sitting, I could see the back of her head, the coarse man grabbed her head with his two hands and made her turn it a little, now I could see both their faces and his erect body with its proliferating hair and his ridiculous hat, it seemed to me he was starting to squeeze Estela's face with his two thumbs, how strong two thumbs can be, it was as if he were caressing her, but hurting her too, as if he were digging into her high cheekbones or giving her a cruel massage that went ever deeper, becoming more and more intense, he was pushing into her cheekbones as if he wanted to crush them. I felt alarmed, I thought for a moment that he was going to kill her and he couldn't kill her because she was already dead and because I had to see her breasts and talk to her about something, ask her about the spear or the wound--the weapon wasn't left impaled in her, someone had pulled it out--and about my friend Dorta who had received her blood on that spear. The man eased the pressure, let her go, he squeezed his knuckles and cracked them, muttered a few words, then moved away, perhaps it was nothing, perhaps it was just the reminder some men like to give women that they could hurt them if they wanted to. He took off his hat, threw it on the floor as if he no longer needed it, and picked up his clothes from a chair, he would be the one to leave. She lay back, absolutely still, she didn't appear to be hurt, or perhaps she was used to being treated violently.
"Víctor!" I heard Ruibérriz's voice calling to me quietly from the other side of the gate. I hadn't heard him arrive, or his car.
With my head turned toward the house--sometimes it's hard to make yourself look away--I went to meet him as daintily as I had come, I took him by the sleeve and dragged him over to the other sidewalk.
"So," I said, "what did you find out?"
"The usual, it's a whorehouse, open all hours, they advertise in the newspapers, superchicks, European, Latin American, and Asian, they say, among other things. I warn you there'll be hardly a soul in there. In the phone book it's listed under the name of Calzada Fernández, Mónica. So the man will be the one to leave, if he hasn't already."
"He must be about ready to, they've finished and he's getting dressed. A couple of customers with pretensions to being literary types have just left, they probably fancy themselves as real Renaissance men," I said. "We'll have to skedaddle in a minute, but I'm going in there as soon as he comes out."
"What, have you gone mad? You're going to follow in the footsteps of that hick? What is it with you and that woman?"
I again tugged him by the sleeve and dragged him farther off, beneath the trees, where we would be invisible to anyone coming out. A lazy neighborhood dog barked and immediately fell silent. Only then did I answer Ruibérriz.
"It's not at all what you're thinking, but I have to get a look at her breasts tonight, that's all that matters. And if she is a whore then all the better, I'll pay her, I'll have a good look at them, we might talk for a bit, and then I'll leave."
"You might talk for a bit and then leave? You can't be serious. She's nothing very special, it's true, but she's worth more than just a look. What's with her breasts?"
"Nothing, I'll tell you tomorrow, because there may well be nothing to tell anyway. If you want to follow the guy in the car when he leaves, fine, although I don't think you need to bother. If not, thanks for the research and now please go, I'll be all right on my own. Is there nothing you can't find out?"
Ruibérriz looked at me impatiently despite that final bit of flattery. But he usually puts up with me, he's a friend. Until the day he ceases to be.
"I don't give a damn about the guy, or her for that matter. If you're okay, then stay, you can tell me about it tomorrow. But be careful, you're not used to these places."
Ruibérriz left and this time I did hear his car in the distance while the door of the house opened (maybe the woman again said "Come back and see us again sometime," I couldn't hear from where I was). I saw that the coarse man was outside the house now, I heard the noisy gate. He walked wearily in the opposite direction--his night of pretense and effort over--I could approach now behind him while he disappeared off among the black foliage in search of his car. I felt intensely impatient, and yet I waited a few moments longer, smoking another cigarette before pushing open the gate. There was still a light on in the bedroom where the encounter had taken place, the same lamp, the blind still lowered, but with the slats open, they didn't air the rooms immediately.
I rang the bell, it was an old-fashioned bell, not chimes. I waited. I waited and a large woman opened the door to me, I'd seen her on the third floor, she was like one of our aunts when we were little, Dorta's aunts or my aunts, fresh from the 1960s even down to her platinum blonde, flying-saucer hairstyle or her makeup, courtesy of eyebrow pencil, powder, and even tweezers.
"Good evening," she said interrogatively.
"I'd like to see Estela."
"She's having a shower," she said quite naturally, and added guilelessly, displaying an excellent memory: "You haven't been here before."
"No, a friend of mine told me about her. I'm just passing through Madrid and a friend of mine spoke well of her."
"Ah," she said, drawing out the vowel, she had a Galician accent, "I'll see what we can do. You'll have to wait a moment, though. Come in."
A small room in near darkness with two sofas facing each other, you walked straight in there from the hallway, all you had to do was to keep walking. The walls were almost empty, not a book or a painting, just a blown-up photo stuck on a thick piece of board, like they used to have in airports and travel agencies. It was a photograph of white skyscrapers, the title left no room for doubt, Caracas, I've never been to Caracas. I immediately thought, perhaps Estela is Venezuelan, but Venezuelan women don't have saggy breasts, at least they don't have that reputation. Perhaps Estela didn't either, perhaps she wasn't the dead woman and it was all just a mirage born of alcohol and the summer and the night, a lot of beer with a dash of lemon juice and too much heat, if only it was, I thought, stories already absorbed by time should not subsequently change, if in their day they've been filed away without explanation: the lack of any explanation ends up becoming the story itself, if the story has already been absorbed by time. I sat down, Aunt Mónica left me alone, "I'll go and see how long she'll be," she said. I awaited her return, I knew that she would return before the person I wanted to see. And yet that isn't what happened, the lady didn't come back for ages, she didn't come back at all, I felt like looking for the bathroom where the prostitute was having a shower and simply going in and seeing her without waiting any longer, but I'd only frighten her, and after I'd smoked two cigarettes, she was the one who came down the stairs with her hair uncombed and wet, wearing a bathrobe but still in her street shoes, open-toed, her nails painted, the buckles loose as the only sign that her feet were also at home, off duty. Her bathrobe was not yellow, but sky blue.
"Are you in much of a hurry?" she asked point-blank.
"Yes." I didn't mind what she understood by that, after a while, she would understand everything, and she would be the one obliged to give me an explanation. She looked at me with absolutely no curiosity, without really looking, not like Gómez Alday did, but like someone who, given her situation, expects no surprises. She was an imperfectly pretty woman, or, rather, she was pretty despite her imperfections, at least in the summer.
"Do you want me to get dressed or am I all right like this?" she said, immediately calling me "tú," perhaps she felt she had the right to when she knew I was in a hurry. To get dressed in order to get undressed, I thought, just in case I wanted to see the second part.
"You're fine as you are."
She said nothing more, she gestured with her head toward one of the doors on the ground floor and walked toward it like a clerk going to look for a file, she opened the door. I stood up and followed her at once, she must have noticed my evident impatience, it didn't seem to frighten her, rather it made her feel superior to me, she was condescending in her manner, a big mistake if it really was her and she had to answer for a night that was now old and perhaps forgotten. We went in, it was the same room, still unaired, in which she had just been grappling with the coarse man, there was an acidic smell, but it was much more bearable than one might have supposed. A fan turned on the ceiling, through my slat I hadn't been able to see it. There was the cowboy hat, thrown on the floor, perhaps for use by clients with complexes or with a head like an inverted egg, the hat was for hire too. There had been a cowboy element in Dorta's last night too, he had spoken to me of some peculiar crocodile-skin cowboy boots.
She sat on the bed that was neither a mattress nor a bed, one of those low Japanese affairs that I can't remember the name of, I believe they're fashionable.
"Did she tell you how much it is?" she asked. The question was lackluster, mechanical.
"No, but it doesn't matter, we can discuss that later. There'll be no problem."
"With the lady," said Estela. "You discuss it with the lady." And she added: "Right, what do you want? Apart from it being quick."
"Undo your bathrobe."
She obeyed, she untied the belt, allowing me to see something, but not enough. She seemed bored, even irritated, if before there had been no desire, now there was tacit rejection. Her accent was Central American or Caribbean, doubtless hardened by several years in Madrid.
"Open it more, right open, so that I can see you," I said, and my voice must have sounded odd, because she looked at me properly for the first time, slightly apprehensively. But she undid the bathrobe, so wide that she revealed even her shoulders, like an old-fashioned movie star at a gala performance, not much of a gala performance tonight, there they were, those breasts so familiar in black and white, I recognized them in color too without a moment's hesitation, despite the darkness, the provocative, shapely, but, nevertheless, saggy breasts, they would give in the hand like bags of water, she was too poor to consider plastic surgery, for two years I had looked at them, all bloodstained, in a slowly fading photocopy, more often than I should have, more often than I had imagined I would when I made my extravagant, macabre request to Gómez Alday, he was an understanding man. On her breasts, where the skin was not quite as dark as elsewhere, there was no wound or cut or scar or gash, her skin was uniform and smooth, unmarked apart from her nipples, too dark for my taste, one gets used to knowing at a glance what one likes and what one doesn't.
I was immediately assailed by far too many thoughts, the woman alive and therefore still alive, the look of pain in the photo, the screwed-up eyes and the gritted teeth, those closed eyes were not the eyes of a dead woman because the dead no longer struggle and everything ceases when they expire, even pain, why had it not occurred to me that her expression was of someone alive or of someone dying, but never of someone dead? And why the underwear, why was her corpse wearing underwear, why preserve one item of clothing when you've gone that far, only someone still alive keeps her underwear on. And if she was alive, my best friend might be alive too, Dorta the joker, Dorta the resigned, what kind of joke had he played on me, making me believe in his murder and in his condemnation, what kind of joke was that if he were still alive?
"Where did you get those cigarettes from?" I asked.
"What cigarettes?" Estela was immediately on the alert, and to gain time she said once more: "What cigarettes?"
"The ones you were smoking before, in the restaurant, the ones that smell of cloves. Let me see the pack."
She instinctively closed her bathrobe, without tying the belt, as if to protect herself from discovery, this was a man who had watched her and followed her from La Ancha or perhaps before that, perhaps all night. My voice must have sounded rather nervous and angry, because she pointed to a handbag left on a chair, the chair that had borne the clothes of the coarse man.
"They're in there. A friend gave them to me."
I'd made her feel afraid, I saw that she was afraid of me and that she would therefore do whatever I asked her to. There was no more superiority or condescension, just fear of me and of my hands, or of a sharp weapon that might pierce or tear her. I picked up the bag, opened it, and took out the slim red and gold and black pack, with its design of curved rails in relief and its message, SMOKING KILLS. Kretek.
"What friend? The one who was with you? Who is he?"
"I don't know who he is, he wanted to go out to supper tonight, I've only been with him once before."
How I hate men who hurt women and now I hated myself--or I did afterward--when I grabbed Estela's arm and snatched open her bathrobe again, leaving her unprotected, and I ran my thumb between her breasts as if I wanted to draw something out of there, I did so several times, pressing hard and saying:
"Where's the wound, eh? Where's the spear, eh? Where's all the blood, what happened to my friend, who killed him, you killed him. Who put his glasses on him, tell me, you did, whose idea was it, yours?"
I held her immobilized with her arm twisted, twisted up her back, and with my other hand, with my strong thumb, I was pressing against her sternum, up and down, crushing it, or rubbing it, feeling on either side the actual touch of those breasts I had seen so often with my tactile eyes.
"I don't know anything about what happened, they didn't tell me," she said, whimpering, "he was already dead when I got there. They just called me in to do the photos."
"They? Who did? When?"
You never know what your thumbs might do, someone who might have been watching me through the slats in the blinds would have felt alarmed, other people's thumbs seem unstoppable or uncontrollable and as if it will always be too late. But this was my thumb. I realized that there was no need to frighten her anymore or hurt her anymore, I stopped, I let her go, I noticed that my thumb was hot from the rubbing, as if momentarily on fire, she would feel that same burning sensation between her breasts like a warning and a reminder, she would tell me everything she knew. But before she spoke, before she recovered and spoke, the idea had already crossed my mind, why had they found him the following night, so late and after such a long delay, the two corpses that were only one, perhaps in order to plan and prepare it all and take the photos, and who took those photos that were never published, not even the one of her, not even her face half-covered by her hair, pulled forward by her own living hand, just pictures of my friend Dorta in better times, it was a setup, that hair slightly covering her face, the news just said what the police had said, there was no evidence from neighbors and I alone saw the photos, and only in Gómez Alday's office, only a judge would have seen them otherwise.
"The police called me. The inspector called me, he said he needed me to pose with the body of a man who had died a violent death. You have to do all kinds of things sometimes, even lie down next to a dead man. The dead man was already dead, I promise you, I didn't do anything with him."
Dorta was dead. For a few moments he had returned to life in my suspicious mind, not so very strange really: habit and the accumulated past are enough for the feeling of presence never to fade, not seeing someone can be accidental, even insignificant, and there isn't a day when I don't remember my childhood friend with whom no woman ever did anything, either alive or dead, that worried Estela, the poor thing: "The dead man was already dead, I promise you"; and there was no mingling of blood, no semen, no anything, it had all been invented by Gómez Alday to tell me or any other interested party or busybody so that I would absorb it in time, newspapers soon tire and they didn't give that many details, they said only that sex had taken place between the two corpses before they had become corpses.
"They made a fine mess of you, didn't they? Those great gobs of blood and everything."
"Yes, they put tomato ketchup on my chest and waited for it to dry and then they took the photos later. It didn't take long, it was hot, it soon dried, the young man did it. They gave me a few thousand pesetas and told me to keep my mouth shut." She made a gesture with her thumb closing her mouth, as if with a zip. She went on talking, but she was less frightened now, she wouldn't stop talking because of that, although she would have noticed that the expression or thought "poor thing" had passed through my mind, we all notice that, and that makes us feel easier. "It happened ages ago. `If you talk, I'll have you flogged and send you back to Cuba in a slave ship,' he said, the inspector that is. And now what will happen, now what, they'll send me back to Cuba."
"The young man," I said, and my voice sounded even odder, she might not yet be entirely safe from me, "What young man. What young man?"
"The boy who was there with him all the time, he was doing his military service, he had to get back to the barracks, they talked about that." And Gómez Alday, I thought, had had the nerve to say that the spear-thrower might be someone used to sticking bayonets in people, may your heart rot full of iron, even though we're not at war, just another sack, a sack of flour sack of feathers sack of meat, kretek kretek. "That's all I know, I arrived and left again in the evening, with my money and the cigarettes, I stole those from the house on my way out, when they weren't looking, two cartons. I've still got three or four packs left, I smoke them slowly, it impresses people, they still smell really strong."
Her motive for smoking them was not very different from Dorta's, they had something in common, he and Estela. I sat down beside her on the low bed and I stroked her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," I said. "The dead man was my friend and I saw those photos."
Ruibérriz de Torres is right far too often, he knows us all too well. After all, every now and then, over a long period of time, I had seen that pained face and those still, dead, bloodstained breasts, and I was glad to see them moving and alive and newly showered, although my friend, on the other hand, was still dead and there had been so much deceit. It was also a way of paying her and recompensing the woman for the bad time I'd given her, although I could also have just given her the money anyway, in payment for the information. But then again, I wouldn't be able to sleep until it was time for offices and police stations to open, although some police stations stay open all night.
I left money in the waiting room on my way out, perhaps too much, perhaps too little, Aunt Mónica would have gone to bed hours ago. When I left, the woman was sleeping. I don't think they'll be sending her back to Cuba, as she feared.
Gómez Alday looked even better than the last time I'd seen him, nearly two years before. He had improved with time, they'd promoted him, he must have been feeling more at ease. Now that I knew that he did not share my foolish masculine pride, I realized that he looked after himself, those of us who do have that pride take rather less care of ourselves; I had neither the time nor was I in the mood for friendly questions. He didn't refuse to see me, he didn't get up from his revolving chair when I went into his office, he merely looked at me with his veiled eyes that showed no great surprise, only, perhaps, annoyance. He remembered me.
"So what's new?" he said.
"What's new is that I've spoken to Estela, your dead woman, and not through her photograph either. I'd like to know what you have to say to me now about your spear-thrower."
The inspector passed one hand over his Roman head, on which the hair seemed to be growing ever thicker, he obviously earned enough money to pay for his implants, I thought for a second, inopportune thoughts surface all the time. He picked up a pencil from his desk and drummed with it on the wood. He wasn't smoking now.
"So she decided to talk, did she?" he replied. "When she arrived she was called Miriam, if, that is, you're talking about the same Cuban whore."
"What happened? You're going to have to tell me. You didn't want to go and question those fairies, why waste time? I don't know how you had the nerve to call them that."
Gómez Alday gave a faint smile, there was perhaps even the ghost of a blush. He seemed about as alarmed as a boy who's been caught lying. A white lie, something that will have no consequences beyond that telling off. Perhaps he knew that I wouldn't go to anyone else with the story, perhaps he knew that even before I did. He took some time to reply, but not because he wasn't sure what to say: it was as if he was considering whether or not I deserved to hear his confession.
"Well, you have to put up a front, don't you?" he said at last, and paused, he was still not sure. Then he went on: "I don't know if you're familiar with those boys, your friend probably told you something about them. If they're very young, they have no sense at all of loyalty or propriety, they're anyone's for a night, they can be seduced with a few flattering remarks, never mind if it's someone famous or they're promised a tour of a few expensive places. They hang around, they have nothing else to do, they hang around waiting to be seduced. They're much vainer than women, you know." Gómez Alday stopped, he was talking as if none of what he was saying had the least importance, as if it belonged to the remote past, and it's true that the past becomes more remote more quickly all the time. "Well, going back to the one I was with at the time. Your friend picked him up one night, in the street, I was on duty. I don't want to speak ill of him, he was your friend, but he went too far with the boy, that wretched spear, and the boy got frightened, your friend's little games got him rattled, you said as much, I remember, it happens sometimes, there are things people wish they'd never started, they can wish that for all kinds of reasons, and they get frightened by anything unexpected. He lost his nerve and bashed your friend on the head, and then he speared him, as if he was sticking a bayonet in him. He wasn't a bad boy, really he wasn't, he was doing his military service, I haven't heard from him for some time, they come and go, they're not in the least bit sentimental, not like pimps or husbands. He phoned me, he was terrified, we had to set something up to avoid suspicion falling on him." Gómez Alday seemed momentarily vulnerable and weak, the past becomes suddenly remote when the person who constitutes our present disappears from our life, the thread of continuity is broken and suddenly yesterday seems a long way away. "What can I say, what could I do but help him out, what would be gained by ruining two lives instead of just one, especially if one of those lives was over and done."
I sat looking at his rather corpulent body, he seemed tall even when sitting down. He had no difficulty holding my gaze, his somnolent eyes would never have blinked or looked away, those misty eyes would have stared me down into hell itself. There was no longer any sign of weakness in that face, it was gone in a moment.
"Who put his glasses on him?" I said at last. "Whose idea was it to put them on?"
The inspector made an impatient gesture, as if my question made him think that I hadn't, after all, deserved either the explanation or the story.
"Who cares?" he said. "Don't talk to me about pranks in the middle of a homicide case. Just ask the questions that matter."
I did as he said. "Didn't anyone want to see the body of that unusually lively dead woman? The judge, the pathologist?"
"Don't be so naïve. Here and in the morgue we do as we like. We investigate what we want to and nobody asks any awkward questions. We had a long apprenticeship, forty years doing exactly as we pleased without ever having to answer to anyone, we can't just throw that away. I mean under Franco, perhaps you don't remember. Although it's much the same anywhere, there's no shortage of learning opportunities."
Gómez Alday wasn't entirely lacking in humor. He wasn't the kind of person you should ask such a question, but I did:
"Why did you go to such lengths for that boy? You were taking a hell of a risk even so."
There was a brief flash in those sleepy eyes, then he did what he had done once before: he spun around in his seat and turned his back on me, as if bringing to a close his sporadic dealings with me. I stared at the broad nape of his neck as he said: "I risked everything." He fell silent for a moment and then added casually: "Haven't you ever been in love?"
I turned and opened the door to leave. I didn't reply, but I seemed to recall that I had.
For Luis Antonio de Villena
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