I said goodbye forever to my best friend without knowing that I was, because the following night, after far too long a delay, he was found lying on his bed with a spear through his chest and with a strange woman by his side, also dead, but without the murder weapon impaled in her body, because the weapon was one and the same and they must have first stuck it in her, then pulled it out again in order to mingle her blood with that of my best friend. The lights were all on and the television too, and had doubtless remained so for the whole of that day, my friend's first day without life or the world's first day without his worldly presence in it after thirty-nine years, the lightbulbs incongruous in the harsh morning sun and perhaps less so against the stormy afternoon sky, but Dorta would have hated all that waste. I don't quite know who pays the bills for the dead.
He had a great bulge on his head from an earlier blow, it wasn't just a swelling or, if it was, it encompassed the whole of his forehead, the skin tight over his elephantiasic cranium, as if he had become Frankensteinized in death, a small bald spot on his hairline that hadn't been there before. That blow must have knocked him out, but it would seem that he didn't entirely lose consciousness, because his eyes were open and he had his glasses on, although the man who had then stuck the spear in him might have put them on afterward, as a joke, you don't need glasses when you know for certain that you're never going to see ever again: here you are, four-eyes, maybe these will help you find the road to hell more easily. He was wearing the bathrobe he always used as a dressing gown, he bought a new one every few months and this latest one was yellow, he should have avoided that color, as bullfighters do. He had his slippers on, the rigid, hard-soled variety that Americans wear, a kind of moccasin cut low on the instep, with no embellishments and with a very flat heel, you feel safer if you can hear your own footsteps. His two bare legs emerged from among the folds of his bathrobe, and, although he was a hairy man, I saw that his shins were hairless, some people do lose the hair on their legs there from the constant rubbing of their trousers, or from their socks if they wear long socks, sports socks they call them, and he always wore them, I never once saw a strip of bare skin when he crossed his legs in public. Enough blood had flowed for enough hours--with the lights on and busy witnesses on the TV screen--to soak the bathrobe and the sheets and to ruin the wooden floor. The bed, with no bedspread on it because of the heat, had not been disturbed, the sheets hadn't been turned down. He appeared pale in the photos, as all corpses do, with an unusual expression on his face, because he was a jolly man, always laughing and joking, and his face seemed serious, rather than terrorstruck or stupefied, with a look of bitterness, or perhaps--more surprising still--mere displeasure or annoyance, as if he had been obliged to do something not particularly momentous, but against his inclinations. Since dying always seems momentous to the person if he knows that he's dying, one could not discount the possibility that they had stuck the spear in him while he was still stunned from the previous blow, so he wouldn't have been aware of what was happening, and that might explain why he didn't react when they plunged the weapon into the breast of the unknown woman and pulled it out again. The spear was his, brought back some years ago as a souvenir from a trip to Kenya which he had hated and from which he had returned complaining, as he usually did from trips abroad. I'd often seen it, planted nonchalantly in the umbrella stand, Dorta had always intended to hang it up somewhere, one of those ornaments that catch your fancy when you see it in someone else's hands and which you like rather less when you get it home. Dorta didn't collect such objects, but, from time to time, he gave in to a capricious impulse, especially in countries he knew he would never go back to. Those who disliked him saw a certain irony in the manner of his death, for he was very keen on pointed metal walking sticks, of which he had quite a few. Not very original, rather pedantic.
The woman was almost naked, wearing just a pair of underwear, there was no trace in the house of any other items of the clothing she must have arrived in, as if the spear-thrower had scrupulously gathered them up after the murders and taken them away with him, nobody walks down the street or travels in a taxi like that, however hot it is, I mean not naked like that. Perhaps that was a joke too: I'm going to leave you there naked, you whore, that way you can go on being screwed all the way to hell. An unnecessary hassle for a murderer in any case, everything that remains accuses, everything that remains on our hands. The woman was about thirty, judging by her appearance and by the forensic report, and, judging by her appearance alone, she could have been an immigrant, Cuban or Dominican or Guatemalan, for example, she had bronzed skin, full, slightly cracked lips and prominent cheekbones, but there are a lot of Spanish women like that too, in the south and in the center and even in the north, not to mention the islands, people are less easy to classify than we might think. She had her eyes closed and an expression of pain on her face, as if she hadn't died immediately and had had time to make that involuntary gesture, the agony of the iron entering her flesh and having entered her flesh, her teeth instinctively clenching and her vision clouding, her nakedness experienced suddenly as a kind of extra defenselessness, it's different if a sharp weapon first has to penetrate fabric, however thin, than if it pierces the skin directly, although the results are identical. That's what I think anyway, not that I've ever been injured in that way, touch wood, fingers crossed. The woman was wounded beneath her left breast, both of her breasts looked as if they had gone soft, as far as I could make out and given that I was looking at them for the first time in photos, hardly ideal. But you get used to imagining the texture and volume and feel of women the first time you see them, especially in these deceitful times, if she'd been rich she would have had silicone implants, especially at her age, a kind of consubstantial softness impervious to passing time. Her breasts were smeared with dried blood. She had long, tangled, curly hair, and part of her hair covered her right cheek in a rather unnatural fashion, as if she had had time to pull her hair over her face in an attempt to cover it, a final gesture of modesty or shame regarding her anonymous posterity. In a way, I felt sorry for her, I had the feeling that her death was secondary, that it wasn't really to do with her or that she was only part of the decor. She had some semen in her mouth and, according to the report, the semen belonged to Dorta. It also said that some of her teeth were decayed, the teeth of a poor woman, or the victims of sweets. It also said that substances were found in both organisms, that was the word, substances, what exactly it didn't say, though I don't find it particularly hard to imagine.
Both were in a seated position, or rather they weren't lying down, but reclining, although in the case of my friend I was not spared one particularly unpleasant detail: the rusty spear had penetrated him with such force that the point, never honed or polished or even cleaned since it arrived from Kenya--but extremely sharp--had gone straight through his chest into the wall, leaving him pinned to the plaster like an insect. If someone had told Dorta about this, he would have shuddered to think of the plaster left inside the body when the spear was removed, someone had to take it out, it would undoubtedly have required more force than that used by the person who had impaled it in the two chests, one female, one male. The weapon had not been thrown from any distance, it had been thrust in from below, possibly at a run, possibly not, but if not, the person holding it must have been either very strong or accustomed to bayoneting. It was a large bedroom, there was enough space to take a run-up, the whole of Dorta's apartment was very large, an old apartment that had been renovated, a legacy from his parents, he only bothered about two areas, the living room and the bedroom, the place was too big for him. He had just turned thirty-nine, he bemoaned the fact that his fortieth birthday was just around the corner, he lived alone, but often invited people over, one at a time.
"The worst thing about ages is that they always seem so alien," he said to me the night of his death, during supper. His birthday had been a week before, but I hadn't been able to celebrate it with him then because he'd been away in London that day. I hadn't been able to make the traditional jokes, I was three months younger than him and, during those three months, I used to call him "Granddad." Now I'm two years older than he will ever be, I've turned the corner. "A few days ago, I read a newspaper article about a man of thirty-seven, and, in fact, the association of that age and the word `man' seemed quite appropriate, at least for that individual. For me, on the other hand, it wouldn't. I still unconsciously expect people to refer to me as `a young man,' and, of course, I expect them to call me `tú,' yet I'm two years older than the man in the article. I think only other people should have birthdays. No, I'd go further, just as in the past the rich would pay a poor person to do their military service or to go to war instead of them, it should be possible to engage someone to have our birthdays for us. Every now and then, we would have one ourselves, this year is mine, I'm bored with being thirty-nine. Don't you think that would be an excellent idea?"
It would never have occurred to either of us that, in his case, thirty-nine would be the fixed number with which he could bore himself until the end of time with absolutely no possibility of changing it. That was the kind of idea Dorta came up with when he was in good spirits and in a good mood, rather silly, mad ideas, a bit daft and invariably puerile, which was quite justified, at least with me, because we'd known each other since we were children and it's hard not to continue to behave with a person the way you would have behaved when you first met: we have a different repertoire for each person, the contents of which we are allowed to vary but not relinquish, if someone laughed once they will always have to laugh, otherwise, they will be rejected. And that is why I always called Dorta "Dorta" and that is how I remember him, at school you were known by your surname until you reached adolescence. With a friend like Dorta very little can be taken absolutely seriously because you're used to everything being pretend, introduced explicitly by those formulas that you later abandon when you go out into the world, "Let's play at . . . ," "Let's pretend that . . . ," "I'm the leader now" (you only abandon them verbally, in reality it all goes on the same). That's why I can talk of his death dispassionately, as if it were something that had not yet happened, but was part of the eternal waiting for all that is unlikely and impossible. "Imagine someone killed me with a spear." A spear, in Madrid. But sometimes passion surfaces--or possibly rage--for just those reasons, because I can imagine the anguish and panic that night of a person I still see as a nervous, resigned child whom I often had to defend in the playground, and who would later apologize and give me a book or a comic because he'd forced me to get into a fight with the heavies when there was no need for me to do so--not that he ever asked for my help, he just let himself be punched or pushed around, that's all. It's unforgivable that he should have died a violent death, even though he never knew what happened. But that's pure rhetoric, who doesn't know when he's dying? I wasn't there to see him and to go into battle for him, although it was a near thing.
His stay in London had coincided with an auction at Sotheby's of literary and historical items which some diplomatic friends had encouraged him to attend. They were selling all kinds of documents and objects that had belonged to writers and politicians. Letters, postcards, billets-doux, telegrams, whole manuscripts, rough drafts, files, photos, a lock of Byron's hair, the long pipe that Peter Cushing smoked in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Churchill's cigar butts, engraved cigarette cases, overelaborate walking sticks, tried and tested amulets. It wasn't an unusual walking stick that had aroused his capricious buyer's impulse during the bidding, but a ring that had belonged to Crowley, Aleister Crowley, he explained benevolently, a mediocre writer and a self-declared madman who called himself "The Great Beast" and "the wickedest man in the world," all his private possessions had 666 engraved on them, the number of the Beast according to the Apocalypse, nowadays rock groups with demonic pretensions play around with the number, but it's also to be found hidden in many computers, it's the joker's number. Crowley transformed his disciple Victor Neuburg into a zebra for making too many mistakes during an invocation of the Devil in the Sahara, so Dorta told me, and rode on his back all the way to Alexandria, where he sold him to a zoo which looked after the incompetent disciple or, rather, zebra for two years, until Crowley finally allowed him to resume his human form, he was a compassionate man at heart. Neuburg later became a publisher.
"A magic ring, that's how it was described in the catalogue, with a precious oval emerald set in platinum with the inscription `Iaspar Balthazar Melcior,' I wasn't sure the ring would fit, but even so I bid like a mad thing, way above my limit. The other bidders gradually fell away, apart from one guy with a Germanic face. He was well dressed, but he was wearing crocodile-skin cowboy boots, you can imagine the effect, the mere sight of them was enough to enrage you. I bid higher and he bid higher, steadily and without moving a muscle, anyway, he blocked my way each time, forcing me to make rapid mental conversions from sterling into pesetas only to realize that I was offering a sum of money that I didn't actually possess."
"Really? The magic ring couldn't have been that expensive, Dorta," I said mockingly. He didn't have much money, but he pretended he did, he behaved like a spendthrift and he rarely deprived himself of anything he fancied, at least not with witnesses present, meanness was a blight. Of course, the things he fancied were never excessive, they didn't require a large outlay, as people used to say, or so I thought, I don't know how much everything cost. Anyway, he had enough to pay for his vital pleasures.
"Well, yes, I could have gone a bit higher, but that would have meant making small sacrifices later on, which are the kind I hate most, it's the small sacrifices that make you feel really miserable. And it's so much harder to give things up in the summer. Anyway, the other man kept raising his nose again and again, like some malfunctioning crossing gate, until one of my companions grabbed me by the elbow and stopped me putting my hand up. `You can't afford it, Eugenio, you'll regret it,' he whispered, and I really don't know why he whispered, no one there understood Spanish. But he was right and I didn't pull away and I felt wretched, I immediately fell into a great depression, I'm still in it, and I had to put up with seeing that nose lift once more and look at me defiantly, as if saying: `I beat you, what did you expect?' He left at once, clattering out in his crocodile-skin cowboy boots. It was a terrible humiliation, Víctor, and it happened abroad of all places."
He called me Víctor, not by my surname, Francés, as he usually did. He only called me Víctor when he was feeling under the weather or he felt alone. I never called him Eugenio, ever. Dorta still had a lot of Dorta the little boy in him, but also a great deal of his mother and his aunts, whom I had often seen on the way out of school or in their various homes, invited there by their son or nephew. From time to time, he came out with some phrase that doubtless belonged to those innocent, antiquated ladies who had so dominated his world. He just came out with them, he didn't avoid them, indeed, he probably enjoyed perpetuating those ladies like that, verbally, through their lost turns of phrase: "and it happened abroad of all places."
"What the hell did you want the ring for anyway?" I asked. "You haven't started believing in magic, I hope. Or was there someone you wanted to transform into a giraffe?"
"No, don't worry. It just took my fancy, it amused me, it was unusual and it had a history behind it, if I'd worn it here lots of people would have asked me about it, it's all for the mill when you're trying to chat someone up in a bar. The only magic I believe in is other people's, not my own, of course; I've never been touched by magic once in my entire life, as you well know."
Perhaps that was the moment when I started talking during our last supper together, and he listened with interest, but seemed slightly cast down too; if he fell silent for too long, that usually meant he was worried about something or momentarily dissatisfied with himself or with his life, it happens to all of us from time to time, but it doesn't last if there are no serious grounds for it, concern about the uncertain future or about everyday regrets, for which there isn't much time, genuine regret requires both perdurability and time. When a friend dies we want to remember everything about the last occasion we saw them, the supper that we experienced as just another supper, but which suddenly acquires unmerited significance and insists on shining with a light not its own; we try to see meaning where there was none, we try to see signs and indications and perhaps magic. If the friend has died a violent death what we try to see are perhaps clues, without realizing that something might equally well not have happened that night, and then the clues would be false ones. I remember that, after supper, he was happily smoking some Indonesian cigarettes that he'd brought back from London and that tasted and smelled of cloves. He gave me a pack which I still have, it's a brand called Gudang Garam, a slim red pack, 12 KRETEK CIGARETTES, I don't know what kretek means, it must be an Indonesian word. The health warning doesn't beat about the bush, it says bluntly SMOKING KILLS. Of course it didn't kill Dorta, he was killed by an African spear. When I stopped regaling him with my anodyne tales, he again took over the talk with renewed energy, having returned from the bathroom, but he was no longer cheerful. With one forefinger he traced the little relief design on the box, it looked like a stretch of railway track, forming a curve, a railway landscape, to the left there were some childish houses with triangular roofs, perhaps a station, all in black, gold, and red.
"I don't think I'm going to have a very good time this summer," he said. It was already the end of July, later I thought how odd that he should think he had the whole summer still lying ahead of him that night. "It's going to be difficult for me, I'm a bit crazy at the moment, and the worst thing is that the things I always used to enjoy now bore me. Even writing bores me." He paused and added with a feeble smile, as if he had committed some impropriety: "My last book was a complete flop, much worse than you might imagine. I'm finishing something else as quickly as I can, you mustn't give failures time to stew, because they immediately impregnate and contaminate everything, every aspect of your existence, however remote, however removed it might be from the area where the disaster occurred, like a bloodstain. Although, of course, you then run the risk of having two failures on the trot and end up getting even more besmirched. Some people go under precisely because of that. Tonight I'm meeting the publisher who's signed a contract for my current book, even though I haven't finished it. I've arranged to have a drink with him, he's on a brief visit to Madrid and wants me to entertain him. He's a man entirely without scruples and he talks really slowly, an utter bore. But he doesn't know what I'm like yet and he enjoyed luring me away from the others. Well, the way things are, `luring' is just a manner of speaking. Soon I won't even be a name, what people call `a name that rings a bell,' a known author."
His nights only really began after supper. After the publisher would come the real fun, open-air cafés and discotheques and wandering around with other people until dawn or thereabouts, it wasn't so very odd that he should still have expected to be regarded as a young man. The truth is he looked older, I suppose, I find it hard to say, but people who knew us both were surprised to find we had been classmates, and it's not that I look particularly young for my age. He seemed worried, pessimistic, insecure, perhaps weighed down by the recent discovery that even something that takes a long time to come about may still not last, relative success in his case, which should have continued but instead came to a halt, all too soon, allowing him only a brief taste of the good life. I prefer not to comment on his novels, two years on no one reads them anymore, the author is no longer in the world to defend them and to continue evolving, although his violent death meant that the posthumous, unfinished work sold wildly at first, he made the non-literary headlines for a few weeks, and the unscrupulous publisher rushed the book out. I had no desire to read it by then.
After a while, there were no more headlines, no more small print, nothing, Dorta was immediately forgotten, his books worthless apart from their curiosity value, his murder unsolved and therefore abandoned, anything that does not advance or continue to evolve is condemned to a very rapid dissolution. The police either closed the file or not, I don't know quite how their bureaucracy works, but, from the very first, they didn't seem to me to have much interest in finding out anything--they're lazy people, the day of judgment is a long way off--once they knew that the strangest and most mysterious element had a simple explanation, the souvenir spear. However, the strangest or most mysterious element was not the spear, but the unknown woman by his side with his semen on her gums, because Dorta was homosexual--how can I put it--unwaveringly homosexual, and, looking back, I suppose he had been from that first day in the playground and in class, although neither he nor I, neither then nor for many years afterwards, knew the word existed nor what it meant. Perhaps the school bullies knew or, rather, guessed, which is why they were so horrible to him. I would go so far as to say that he had never been with a woman in his life, apart from the stray perverse kiss in adolescence, when nonconformity is a very serious matter if you don't want to be isolated, and when everyone is trying so hard both to attract attention and at the same time to be part of the group. His nights were often spent searching, but it wasn't women he was chatting up in those bars where anything was grist for the mill. He wasn't horny enough to make exceptions or to feel flattered if some woman came on to him or made him an offer, which was most unlikely, women can sense desire in a man, however sluggish and lukewarm, and no woman would ever have sensed any desire in him. That was the most peculiar thing about his death, more even than the violence, for he had been a victim of minor violence on a few previous occasions, I suppose going to bed with strange men who are always stronger and younger and poorer than yourself does have its risks. He never told me whether or not he paid for sex and I never asked, perhaps he had to as--much to his bemusement--he became "a man." I know that he gave them presents and indulged their every whim according to his means and his enthusiasm, a less crude way of buying someone than with actual money, rather old-fashioned really, respectable, courteous, and one that would have allowed him to deceive himself for a while. If he had been found lying next to a boy, it would all have seemed much less strange to me, to the extent--a very limited extent--that the death of anyone who has always been a part of our lives can be considered not to be strange. Not even the age of the Dominican/Cuban woman reflected his preferences, even a man of that age would have had little interest for Dorta, too old. I hesitated for a moment about whether I should say anything to the inspector who questioned me and showed me those posthumous photos. Dorta had been careful while his mother was alive, and was still fairly careful as long as his aunts were alive too, not that they ever knew anything about it; nothing was made explicit in his books, there were only hints. I think I hesitated about telling the inspector out of some sort of absurd masculine pride: perhaps it was no bad thing that he should believe that my best friend had spent his last night with a woman out of choice and habit, as if that was somehow more dignified or praiseworthy. I immediately felt ashamed of that temptation, I even thought that the woman might simply be another form of mockery, like the glasses: your cum in a woman's mouth for all eternity, you filthy queer. And so I told the inspector of this remarkable circumstance, about that whole inexplicable scene, Dorta in bed with a woman, the remains of his semen in the interstices of her decaying teeth or in the lines and cracks of her full lips. But the inspector looked at me reproachfully, sarcastically, as if I had suddenly been revealed to him as a bad friend or some kind of loony wanting to muddy Dorta's memory with these wild tales when Dorta was no longer there to defend himself or to say that I was wrong, Inspector Gómez Alday shared my masculine pride, except that he made no attempt to hide his.
"Really," I insisted when I saw his look, "my friend never once went with a woman in his entire life."
"Well, he obviously decided to go with one at his death, he nearly left it too late to try," he replied in a bad-tempered, dismissive tone. He lit each cigarette, low in tar and nicotine, with the butt of the previous one. "Just what are you trying to tell me? I find a guy who's been skewered by the husband or pimp of the wife or whore he took home with him to suck him off, and you tell me he was a fairy. Come on," he said.
"Is that how you explain it? A husband or a pimp? And why the hell would a pimp do that?"
"You don't know, eh, well, you don't know much, then. Anyone can go a little crazy sometimes. They send their women off and then go mad thinking about what they'll be doing with the client. And then they lash out and kill someone, some of them are very sentimental, I can tell you. It seems like an open-and-shut case to me, so don't come to me with these stories of yours, there wasn't even anything stolen, apart from her clothes, he was obviously a bit of a fetishist, this pimp. The only thing we don't know is who the stupid woman was, and we probably never will. No papers, no clothes, she looks like a Latin American to me, there's probably no record of her anywhere, the only one who'll know anything about her is the one who speared her."
"I'm telling you that there's no way my friend would have picked up a whore." The police are always intimidating, we end up talking to them the way they talk to us in order to ingratiate ourselves, and they talk like members of the underworld.
"Do you want to make work for me? Do you want me to have to go into those gay dives where men slow-dance together, and get my bum felt up, when the woman involved is nothing but a whore? Come off it. I'm not going to lose time or sleep over that. If your friend really did only fancy men, then you tell me what happened. And even if he did fancy men, on the night in question he obviously decided to get himself a whore, there can't be much doubt about that, sheer chance, most unfortunate. I couldn't give a damn what he did on every other night of his life, he could have been screwing his own grandfather for all I care." Now it was my turn to took at him reproachfully, but not in the least sarcastically. He might have to deal with things like that every day, but I didn't, and it was my best friend he was talking about. He was a tall, rather burly man with receding hair and somnolent eyes which, from time to time, seemed to wake up as if in the middle of a bad dream, flashing into sudden life before returning to their apparent sleepy state. He understood and added in a more patient, conciliatory tone: "Go on, then, you tell me what you think happened, give me your version of events."
"I don't know," I said, defeated. "But, as I said, it looks like a setup to me. You should check it out, it's your job."
Inspector Gómez Alday duly questioned the unscrupulous publisher with whom Dorta had had a drink in Chicote, he had turned up there with his wife, the three of them left at about two in the morning and went their separate ways. The waiters, who knew Dorta by sight and by name, confirmed the time. They bumped into another friend of mine, though only an aquaintance of Dorta's, who goes by the name of Ruibérriz de Torres, but he had only stopped to talk with them for five minutes at most, until the two women he was waiting for arrived. He saw them leave at about two o'clock as well, by the revolving doors, he waved to them, he said the publisher was a dimwit but that the wife was very nice, Dorta had hardly said a word, which was odd. The couple caught a taxi in Gran Vía and went back to their hotel, they admitted feeling alarmed when Dorta said that he would walk, he told them he was going on to somewhere else nearby, and they watched as he headed off up the street toward the Telefónica or Callao, along streets rife with a fauna that terrified them, being from Barcelona, they wouldn't have walked half a block. There wasn't a breath of wind.
At the hotel, just a routine inquiry, they confirmed the arrival time of the publisher and his wife, around a quarter past two: a bit ridiculous really, the publisher may have been unscrupulous, but he would never have gone that far. Dorta was killed between five and six, as was his last, unlikely pickup. Independently, I asked the few friends of Dorta whom I knew slightly, friends he went partying with and friends from gay bars, none of them had met up with him that night in any of his usual hangouts, "le tour en rose" as he used to call it. They in turn asked waiters who worked in the various bars, no one had seen him, and it did seem odd that he hadn't been to any of those places that night. Perhaps it had been a special night in all respects. Perhaps he had unexpectedly got entangled with some different people who hung out in different places. Perhaps they had kidnapped him and forced him to go with his kidnappers to his apartment. But they hadn't taken anything, although someone had made off with the woman's clothes, and she perhaps was one of the gang. The spear-thrower. I didn't know what to think and so I thought absurd things. Perhaps Gómez Alday was right, perhaps he had decided to pick up an inexperienced, desperate whore, an immigrant in need of money, with a husband who wouldn't approve and would be suspicious. A question of bad luck, very bad luck.
The inspector showed me the photos, which I merely glanced at. Apart from those showing the whole scene, there were a couple of close-ups of each corpse, what in the cinema is known as a close-medium shot. The woman's breasts were definitively soft, shapely and provocative, but nonetheless saggy, sight and touch become fused in the end, we men sometimes look at something as if we were touching it, and this can sometimes cause offense. Despite the screwed-up eyes and the look of pain you could see that she was pretty, although you can never be sure with a naked woman, you have to see her dressed as well, beaches are of little use in that respect. Her nostrils were flared, she had a small, round chin and a long neck. I glanced only quickly at the six or seven photos, but I nevertheless asked Gómez Alday if I could have a copy of the close-up of the woman; he gave me a surprised, distrustful look, as if he had uncovered some abnormality in me.
"Why do you want it?"
"I don't know," I said, lost. And I really didn't, it wasn't that I wanted to study it any further just then, a bloodstained body, a wound, the thick eyelashes, the pained expression, the sagging, dead breasts, it was hardly a pleasant sight. But I thought I would like to have it perhaps in order to look at it later, in a few years' time, after all, apart from the murderer, she was the last person to have seen Dorta alive. And she had seen him at very close quarters. "It interests me." It was a feeble, not to say grotesque, argument.
Gómez Alday gave me one of his scorching looks, it didn't last long, his eyes immediately resumed their usual sleepy appearance. I thought he must be thinking that I was a man with macabre tastes, sick in the head, but perhaps he understood both my request and the desire, we did, after all, share the same kind of pride. He got up and said:
"This is confidential material, it would be completely against the rules for me to let you have a copy." And as he was saying this, he placed the photo in the photocopier in his office. "But you might well have made a photocopy here in my absence, without my knowing, when I left the room for a moment." And he held out the sheet of paper with the blurred, imperfect reproduction, but a reproduction nonetheless. It would only last a few years, photocopies always fade, you forget how pale they become.
Now two of those years have passed, and only in the months immediately after Dorta's death did I continue thinking about that night, my sense of horror lasted rather longer than the delight and malice of the impatient press and forgetful television, there's not much you can do when there's no help, no new leads, and the media don't even serve as a reminder. It wasn't that I needed it personally, very few things fade in me: there isn't a day when I don't remember my childhood friend, there isn't a day when, at some moment, for some reason, I don't stop to think about him, you don't cease depending on people for the accidental fact that you can't see them anymore. I went over and over the conversation at our last supper together, and after a period spent endowing everything with significance, the razor edge of repetition made me see that nothing was significant. Dorta liked pretending to be an eccentric, but he did not believe in magic of any kind or in any beyond-the-grave experiences, not even in chance, no more than I do, and I hardly believe in anything. I soon concluded, if indeed I had ever doubted it, that the story of the auction in London was purely anecdotal, the sort of thing that he liked to invent or do simply in order to tell people about it afterward, me or others, the ignorant young men he idolized or his society ladies, knowing that they would be amused. The fact that he had bid for a magic ring belonging to that crazy demonologist Crowley proved it: it was so much more colorful to recount his struggle for that particular object than for an autographed letter belonging to Wilde or Dickens or Conan Doyle. A zebra. And yet he didn't succeed in buying it, it would have been even more absurd if the joke had cost him an unexpectedly large sum of money. Perhaps the Germanic gentleman in the cowboy boots never even existed, pure imagination.
A couple of months later--by then, the press were no longer interested and it was doubtful that the police would do anything more--a possibility occurred to me that was so obvious I couldn't understand why I hadn't thought of it before. I phoned Gómez Alday and told him I wanted to see him. He sounded bored and tried to get me to tell him about my discovery over the phone, he was very pushed for time. I insisted and he arranged to see me in his office the following morning, ten minutes, he warned me, that was all the time he could spare for some hypothesis that would only further complicate his life. He also warned me that, whatever it was, he would treat it with skepticism, it all seemed perfectly clear to him, it simply wasn't that easy to find the spear-thrower: there were a lot of fingerprints on the spear, doubtless mine as well, almost everyone who visited Dorta's house had touched it or picked it up or brandished it for a moment when they saw it protruding from the umbrella stand in the hall. The inspector was sporting a healthy tan and more hair, I wasn't sure whether he had taken advantage of the August break to have an implant or if it was just a more bouffant, artistic arrangement of his normal Roman coiffure. While I talked to him, his eyes remained opaque, like a sleeping animal whose pupils can be seen through its eyelids.
"Look, I don't know much about what my friend got up to, he told me things sometimes, but never went into detail. But I can't discount the possibility that he might have paid some of these boys he went with. Apparently some of them often pretended to be heterosexual, they would accept his offer just this once, or so they said, they took pains to make it absolutely clear that normally they only went with women. That night my friend might have taken a fancy to someone like that, and the guy might have said to him that either he got him a woman as well or there was nothing doing. I can just imagine my friend shoving the boy into a taxi and patiently trawling the Castellana. I think it might even have amused him, asking the boy what he thought of that one or this one, giving his own views as if they were two bosom buddies out on the town, a couple of cock-hounds on a Saturday night. Finally, they pick up the Cuban woman and the three of them go back to his place. The boy insists that Dorta screws her so that he can watch, or something like that. My friend's appetites are not unlimited, given his inclinations, but he lies back and lets the woman get on with it, just to please the boy and to get what he wants later on. The bloke gets hysterical when it's his turn to perform, he gets violent, he grabs the spear, which had taken his fancy when he first came into the apartment, or perhaps they'd already brought it into the bedroom, at Dorta's own suggestion, so that the boy could pose with it like a statue, Dorta liked playing games like that. And then the boy kills both of them, because he's feeling trapped, even though he'd agreed to the whole thing. It must happen all the time, mustn't it, people suddenly getting cold feet? They lose their nerve when they see that there's no turning back. You must know of such cases. I've given it a lot of thought and it seems perfectly possible to me, it would explain a lot of things which otherwise just don't fit."
Gómez Alday's eyes remained misty and lazy, but he spoke in a tone of irritation and scorn:
"A fine friend you are. What have you got against him, all you seem to do is to shovel more and more shit onto his corpse, honestly, the stories you dream up, you're sick in the head you are," he said. It wasn't that I knew a lot about these matters, but the inspector had never heard of these perfectly run-of-the-mill nocturnal deals and practices. The demands that were made. His masculine pride must be of a purer sort than mine, I thought. "But it isn't even any use to me as elaborate shit, you lack a certain piece of information that came to light a few days ago. Your friend did not, in fact, arrive home alone in a taxi, he was with the whore, and the two of them were already making a spectacle of themselves, according to the taxi driver, the woman had her tits out and your friend was egging her on. He came and told us this when he read about the murder and saw Dorta's photo in the newspaper. So the spear-thrower must have arrived later on: the pimp in pursuit of the whore or the wife, unless they were both, husband and pimp, wife and whore. Like I said before."
"He might have been in the apartment already," I said, stung by the unfairness of the reprimand. "When they failed to get it on, the guy probably forced my friend to go out hunting alone and bring him back a woman."
"Oh yes, and I suppose your friend would have gone out to trawl the streets, leaving the guy alone in the apartment?"
I thought about that. Dorta was fearful and cautious. He might go a bit crazy one night, but not to the point of allowing some hustler to rip him off while he went in search of a woman.
"I suppose not," I replied, exasperated. "I don't know, perhaps he phoned the hustler and had him come over later, the classified section in the newspapers is full of all kinds of different services at any time of day or night."
Gómez Alday gave me another of his fulminating looks, but this time it was more out of impatience than anything else.
"So what was the woman there for, tell me that? Why would he have taken her home with him, eh? Why do you insist on trying to put all the blame on a queer? What have you got against them?"
"I've never had anything against them. My best friend was what you've just said, I mean he often got called that. If you don't believe me, ask someone else, ask other writers, they'll tell you, they love a good gossip. Ask in the gay dives, to use your term. I spent my whole life defending him."
"I find it hard to believe that you were his friend at all. Besides, I've already told you that I'm only interested in his last night, not in any other night. That's the only thing that concerns me. Now, come on, get out of here."
I went over to the door. I already had my hand on the door handle when I turned around and said:
"Who found the bodies? They found them at night, didn't they, the following night? Who went up to the apartment? Why did anyone go up?"
"We did," said Gómez Alday. "A man phoned, he said we'd find them there rotting like two dead animals, that's what he said, two animals. Probably the husband got in a state thinking about his whore lying there with a great gaping wound in her and with no one knowing anything about it. He probably got all sentimental again. He hung up immediately after giving us the address, he wasn't much use." The inspector spun his chair around and turned his back to me as if, with that response, he was bringing any dealings with me to a close. I saw the broad nape of his neck as he said again: "Get out."
I stopped thinking about it, I assumed that the police would never clear the matter up. I stopped thinking about it for two years, until now, until one night when I'd arranged to have supper with another friend, Ruibérriz de Torres, not such an old friend as Dorta and very different, he always goes with women and they treat him well and he's not in the least bit timid, still less resigned. He's a complete scoundrel and I get on very well with him, although I know that one day he will make me the object of the same disloyalty with which he treats everyone, and that will be an end of our comradeship. He knows everything that's happening in Madrid, he goes everywhere, he knows or can arrange to get to know anyone you care to mention, he's a man of great resourcefulness, his only problem is that his criminal tendencies and his fraudulent desires are written all over his face.
We were having supper in La Ancha, on the summer terrace, sitting opposite each other, his head and body blocking my view of the table behind, a table I had no reason to be interested in until the woman sitting in the place occupied by Ruibérriz, that is, in the seat opposite mine, bent to the side to recover her napkin, snatched up by a sudden slight breeze. She leaned to her left looking straight ahead, as we do when we pick up something that is within our reach and when we know exactly where it has fallen. Nevertheless, she tried and failed and that was why she had to feel for some seconds with her fingers, all the time looking straight at us, I mean straight at where we were, because I don't think she was actually looking at anything. It was a matter of seconds--one, two, three, and four; or five--long enough for me to see her face and her long neck tensed in that minimal effort of search and recovery--her tongue in one corner of her mouth--a very long neck, perhaps made longer by the effect of her low-cut summer dress, a small, round chin and flared nostrils, thick eyelashes and thin eyebrows as if they had been penciled in, a full mouth and high cheekbones, and dark skin, whether naturally so or from the swimming pool or the beach it was difficult to say at first glance, although my first glance at someone may sometimes be like a caress, at others more like a glancing blow. Her hair was black and coiffed and curly, I saw a necklace or a chain, I noticed the rectangular neckline, a dress with shoulder straps, white like the dress, and heard the clink of bracelets. I barely noticed her eyes, or perhaps I just ignored them because I was used to not seeing them in the photograph, in which they were screwed up, closed tight in that grimace of pain, of someone who has died from a terrible wound. She did look like the woman in the photograph, so much so that I couldn't take my eyes off her, I immediately shifted my chair to one side, to my right, and since, even like that, I could still only half see her and then only intermittently--concealed by Ruibérriz and by her companion, both of whom kept moving--I simply changed places altogether on the pretext that the breeze was bothering me, and I went to sit--having moved my dessert plate as well as spoon, fork, and glasses--to the left of my friend, in order to enjoy an unobstructed view and I then quite openly stared. Ruibérriz realized at once that something was going on, he doesn't miss much, so I said to him, knowing that he would prove understanding about such an excess of interest:
"There's a woman over there whom I find absolutely fascinating. I know it's a lot to ask, but don't turn around until I tell you. More than that, I must warn you that if she and the man she's having supper with get up, I'm going to shoot off after them, and if not, I'll wait however long it takes for them to finish and then do the same. If you want you can come with me, otherwise, you stay and we'll settle up later."
Ruibérriz de Torres smoothed his hair flirtatiously. He had only to discover that there was an interesting woman in the vicinity for him to start oozing virility and getting terribly full of himself. Even though she couldn't see him nor he her; all a bit animalesque really, his chest swelled beneath his polo shirt.
"Is she that special?" he asked restlessly, dying to turn around. From then on it would be impossible to talk about anything else, and it was my fault, I couldn't take my eyes off the woman.
"You might not think so," I said. "But I think she might be special to me, very special indeed."
Now I could see her companion in three-quarter profile, a man of about fifty who looked rich and rather coarse, if she was a prostitute, he was obviously inexperienced and didn't know that you could get straight down to business, without the need for supper on a restaurant terrace. If she wasn't, then it was justifiable, what would be less so was that the woman had agreed to go out with such an unattractive man, although I've always found the choices women make as regards their flirtations and their love affairs a complete mystery, sometimes, by my lights, a complete aberration. One thing was certain, they weren't married or engaged or anything, I mean it was clear that they had not yet lain together, to use the old expression. The man was trying too hard to be pleasant and attentive: he was careful to keep filling her glass, he prattled on, recounting anecdotes or giving his opinions about things so as not to fall into the silence that discourages any contact, he lit cigarettes for her with a windproof lighter, like the ones you get in cars, Spanish men don't go to all that trouble unless they want something, they don't watch their manners.
As I continued to look at her, my initial confidence began to wane, as always happens: certainty is followed by doubt and uncertainty by ratification, usually only when it's too late. I suppose that, as the minutes passed, the image of the living woman became superimposed on that of the dead woman, displacing or blurring it, thus allowing for less comparison, less similarity. She behaved like a woman of easy virtue, which didn't mean that she was, she couldn't be, since, as far as I was concerned, she still lay beneath the desolation of the lights and the television left on all day and with the semen in her mouth and the hole in her chest. I looked at her, I looked at her breasts, I looked at them out of habit and also because they were the part of the murdered woman I was most familiar with, aside from her face, I tried to get some sense of recognition, but it was impossible, they were covered by her bra and her dress, although I could glimpse her cleavage beneath her neckline which was neither sober nor exaggerated. I was suddenly gripped by the indecent thought that I had to see what those breasts were like, I was sure I would recognize them if I saw them uncovered. It would be no easy task, especially not that night, when her companion would have exactly the same intentions and would not want to surrender his place to me.
Suddenly I smelled something, a sweet, cloying smell, an unmistakable aroma, I don't know if it was a change in the direction of the wind that wafted it to me for the first time--the wind swinging round--or if it was the first clove-scented cigarette that had been smoked at the table next to ours, a different, better-quality cigarette to be smoked with the coffee or the liqueur, like someone treating himself to a cigar. I glanced at the man's hands, I saw his right hand, it was playing with the lighter. The woman had a cigarette in her left hand, and the man then raised his left arm in order to gesture to the waiter, asking for the bill, his hand was empty, therefore, at that moment, the exotic smell was coming from her, she was smoking an Indonesian Gudang Garam that crackles as it slowly burns down, I had had a pack myself two years before, Dorta's final gift to me, and I had made it last, but not that long, a month after he'd given it to me it was finished, I smoked the last cigarette in his memory, well, each and every one of them really, I kept the empty red pack, SMOKING KILLS, that's what it says. How was it possible that she--if it was her--had made the cigarettes that my friend must also have given her that same night last so long?
Two years, those kretek cigarettes would be dry as sawdust now, an open pack, yet they still gave off a pungent perfume.
"Can you smell what I smell?" I asked Ruibérriz, who was beginning to get fed up.
"Can I look at her now?" he said.
"Can you smell it?" I insisted.
"Yes, is someone smoking incense or something?"
"It's cloves," I said. "Tobacco with cloves."
The man's gesture to the waiter allowed me to make the same gesture of writing in the air to another waiter and so be ready when the couple got up. Only then did I give permission to Ruibérriz to turn around; he did so and decided to accompany me. We followed a few paces behind the couple, I saw the woman standing up for the first time--a short skirt, open-toed shoes, painted toenails--and as we took those steps, I also heard her name, the name that she had never had for me or for Gómez Alday nor perhaps for Dorta. "You're a lovely mover, Estela," said the coarse man, not so coarse that he wasn't absolutely right in his remark, which was spoken more in admiration than by way of being an amorous compliment. Ruibérriz and I separated for a moment, he went over to the car in order to pick me up as soon as they got in theirs, they weren't traveling by taxi. When they did so, I got into our car and we drove off after them, keeping a short distance behind, there wasn't much traffic, but enough for them not to notice us. It was a brief journey, they drove to an area of suburban houses, the street was called Torpedero Tucumán, a comical address to send a letter to. They parked and went into one of the houses, a three-story house, lights were lit on every story, as if there were already plenty of people there, perhaps they were going to a party, supper followed by a party, that guy was really going to a lot of trouble.
Ruibérriz and I parked the car and stayed where we were for the moment, from there we could see the lights but nothing else, most of the blinds were pulled halfway down and there were lace curtains that didn't move in the wind, you'd have to go right up to one of the windows on the ground floor and peer through a crack, we might even end up doing that, I thought quickly. It immediately seemed to us, though, that it couldn't be a party, because there was no music drifting out through open windows, no sounds of anarchic conversations or laughter. The blinds were only up on two windows on the third floor and you couldn't see anyone in there, just a standard lamp, and walls without books or pictures.
"What do you think?" I asked Ruibérriz.
"I don't think they'll stay very long. There's not much fun to be had in that house, apart from the intimate kind, and those two aren't going to spend the night together, not there at least, whatever kind of place it is. Did you see who opened the door, did they have a key or did they knock?"
"I couldn't see, but I don't think they knocked."
"It might be his house, and if it is, then she'll be out again in a couple of hours, no longer than that. It might be her place, in which case, he'll be the one to come out, much sooner too, say about an hour. It might be a massage parlor, that's what they like to call them now, and then again he'll be the one to leave, but give him about thirty or forty-five minutes. Lastly, there might be a few select poker games going on, but I don't think so. Only then would they spend the night there, losing and recovering what they'd lost. No, I don't think it's likely to be her house. No, it can't be."
Ruibérriz knows all the different territories in the city, he has experience and a good eye. He doesn't need to ask many questions and he can find out anything or locate anyone with a couple of phone calls and perhaps a couple more made by his contacts.
"Why don't you find out for me whose house it is? I'll wait here, in case one or the other leaves unexpectedly. It wouldn't take you long to find out, I'm sure."
He sat there looking at me, his tanned arms resting on the steering wheel.
"What is it with this woman? What are you after? I didn't get a very good look at her, but I don't know that she's worth all this fuss."
"Not for you, probably, as I said. Just let me see what happens tonight and I'll tell you the whole story another day. I just need to know where she lives, where she hangs out or where she's going to be sleeping tonight, when she does finally go to bed."
"This isn't the first time you've asked me to wait for a story, I don't know if you realize that."
"But it'll probably be the last," I said. If I told him straight out that I thought I might be seeing a dead woman, it was quite likely that he wouldn't help me at all, things like that make him nervous, as they do me normally, we who hardly believe in anything.
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