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Authors: Eric van Lustbader

Angel Eyes

BOOK: Angel Eyes
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SANCTUARY

BUENOS AIRES/SAN FRANCISCO

 

Whenever Tori Nunn was bored, she went to Buenos Aires. Partly it was because Buenos Aires was a place she had never worked, so, essentially, no one knew her-what she had been. Partly, it was because in Buenos Aires, sitting beneath the natural awning of the jacarandas, their clattering shade striping her face, she could at last forget Greg. But perhaps more than anything else, she came to this incomplete city because here she could begin again to define herself, as if now even her own shadow had become unrecognizable.

Here, in Buenos Aires, inhabited by the portenos - the port dwellers, as the city's natives were known-controlled by the alta sociedad, there was a mix of stupendously beautiful, sensual people who were exhaustingly proud even as they were consumed by shame at being South Americans. They were, like college dropouts, inevitably embarrassed by themselves and their place in the world. When they went to New York, they always said, "I am flying to North America."

This is what made the portenos interesting to Tori: their inner hurt was protected by their cultural traits in the same way a tortoise is protected by its shell. The patrons of the Cafe la Biela and the nearby Cafe de la Paix proved this to her. They might

smell of imported suntan oil, of perfumes by Calvin Klein and Jean Patou, just as their city might smell of auto fumes and mate, the local herb tea, but beneath it all, Tori knew, the portenos and their streets were redolent of cigar smoke and marzipan.

This was their history, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote it, as then-forefathers had lived it, where illusion, like the rich smoke from rolled tobacco, had come to create the past even as it obscured the present. In the decade after the Second World War, the fathers of these exquisite portenos had amassed their wealth by selling their slaughtered cattle and the fruits of their Pampa to a starving Europe. But by the middle of the fifties the excesses of the Perons had bankrupted the country, throwing Buenos Aires and, indeed, all Argentina into chaos. Escalating terrorism from the far right and left began to tear the country apart. The result was the coming to power of a succession of repressive military juntas.

But the country's frightening, two-year bout with hyperinflation-12,000 percent per year-riots, and civil unrest had toppled a succession of elected governments. Despair had gripped the nation until some months ago, when a coalition led by Las Dinamicas, the two most powerful women in Argentine politics, managed to win control of the government. Their party, the Union of the Democratic Center, had pledged to end Argentina's long history of authoritarianism by instituting reforhis granting extensive individual liberty and an end to the crippling control of the government in business. "The beginning of a free market economy," went their successful campaign slogan, "is an end to hyperinflation." The first priority had been to convert the official currency into American dollars, which had the effect of immediately stabilizing the runaway Argentine inflation.

Through all this Moody history, the portenos survived and, perhaps, even flourished, for it is said that every Argentine heart beats most strongly for myth, and myth cannot exist save as a balm against pain and suffering.

But myth was too often illusion. And the truth of illusion-me truth that no porteno can truly face-is that no matter how dazzling its exterior may be, there is nothing inside.

Tori knew this, knew the portenos almost as well as they knew themselves. Thus she was comfortable here in their city, strolling down their wide boulevards, sunbathing amid cocoa flesh on their beaches, surrounded by their aura of failure and by then-very real sensuality and sense of style.

These people carried their pain as she did-deep inside them-though often through the chic facade in which they had wrapped themselves she could discern the stench of their desperation.

Tori lifted her arm, ordered another hot chocolate, the richest, thickest in the world. With it, she knew, would come a silver tray of small sweets, an array as heady, as opulent as the smoldering stares of the chantas who came to the cafes with their thistresses to while away an hour or two between bouts under the sheets.

A small breeze, redolent of this city's peculiar perfume, stirred the long branches of the jacarandas, and Tori felt the caress of their tears patter across her shoulders, the excess water of these beautiful semi-succulent trees.

The chantas-Buenos Aires' wheeler-dealers-interested Tori most of all. She had even allowed one or two to seduce her now and again, but in the end they had found her too much even for them, disconcerted by her habit of watching them intently during the most intimate throes of sexual congress.

"What are you doing?" they would ask her at those moments. "This is a time for release, not concentration."

They did not understand-and she would not tell them-that for her sex with them was to be observed, that by doing so she could pierce their chic shells, feel the texture of their shame and hurt, comparing it with her own. This concentration that so puzzled them was to her as sweet and richly flavored as was her hot chocolate at the Cafe la Biela.

But this "strangeness," as the chantas called it, was hardly the only reason they held her in awe. They had heard stories that she had climbed barefoot the massive Iguazu Falls six hundred miles to the northeast, had, in fact, helped the male members of her party when their strength flagged or they were in trouble. They had heard she was courageous, indefatigable-which was, after all, why they sought to seduce her.

In her strangeness-the enigma of such brute strength and stamina in a female-the chantas sought answers to the mysteries that obsessed them: who were they, where did they come from, why were they such failures?

Tori sipped her chocolate, consumed a sweet in one voracious bite. Somewhere, along the Avenida Quintana, a man played a bandoneon, squeezing out a typical tango melody, infused with the bittersweet essences of Latin macho, unrequited love, and blood vengeance.

The Avenida Quintana, filled with swaggering portenos and cliques of rabid Japanese tourists, was one of the main streets of the swank residential Recoleta district. The Recoleta had been born near the end of the last century due to a plague of yellow fever in the city's southern districts that caused the aristocracy to move north. Years ago, when me Recoleta was home to slaughterhouses, its streets ran red with the blood of cattle during the heavy winter rains. Now winter brought only melancholy, and a gathering sense of dissolution. Then, Buenos Aires was to be avoided.

By the time she had finished her second cup of hot chocolate, Tori decided it was time to go. The sun was low in the sly, turning the Recoleta's blocky white high rises the color of blood oranges. Blue shadows lay in the street like the dead, or unwanted reminders of' 'the disappeared"-those people taken by the military in its zeal to ferret out a group of young radical terrorists. In those days-the seventies-to be a teacher, a union member, or merely to be known as an intellectual, was to risk being drawn into el proceso, a trial without either lawyer or jury; it was to risk being "disappeared."

Her thoughts turning by moments more and more morbid, Tori gathered up her purse and small shopping bag. But before she could rise, she saw Estilo. He was a German-Argentine chanta, one of the few who had sought out her company but not her bed. He was different in other ways, as well. He was a square-jawed man in his early fifties with long steel-gray, slicked-back hair, a patrician mustache, and a sense of style no full-blooded German ever had. his manner was often brusque, but he told the truth more often than other chantas, and for this Tori forgave him everything.

Estilo made his way toward her table. He was smiling, surprised and happy to see her. He had with him a younger man, slim-hipped, wide-shouldered. The man, handsome, with the rugged outdoorsy face of an estanciero-a rancher-was most likely in his mid-thirties, roughly the same age as Tori. He was dressed in a pair of baggy silk trousers and a washed silk shirt, open at the neck, under a trim linen sport coat. He had the thick black hair, the heavy-lidded eyes of the Latin porteno.

Estilo caught her appraising look. "My darling Tori!" he exclaimed, clamping her in a fervent embrace.' 'Why didn't you tell me you were coming? I would have made preparations!"

' 'I didn't know myself until the last minute,'' Tori said.' 'You know how my life is."

Estilo gave her a rueful look. "Too chaotic for someone in so early a retirement." He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "I keep telling you to find a line of work that interests you.'' He smiled, showing large, nicotine-stained teeth. "And if not, you have a permanent invitation to join my business."

"Just what is your business?" Tori asked.

Estilo threw his head back and laughed, then he grabbed at the sleeve of the younger man, pulled him down to a seat next to him at Tori's table. "Tori Nunn, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Ariel Solares. Ariel is a norteamericano who spends a majority of his time here. his most fervent desire is to become a porteno, no, Ariel?"

"My friend exaggerates, as usual," Ariel Solares said. "Actually, I wish to understand the porteno. I come to Buenos Aires to soak up the air of the mythical yesterday." He took a deep breath, let it out. "Can you not smell it, perfuming the air like a rose?" He shrugged. "My own past-my whole life up until now-could not be more prosaic, so I visit Buenos Aires to let this city touch me, perhaps in some way to change me.''

"Nonsense," Estilo said. "You come here to do business." But Tori could see that he was impressed with what Ariel had said. Estilo, like all portenos, was drawn to myth and all its fascinating ramifications. For him, ancient gods dwelled in the rain forests and in the Pampa, and, because they had been written about, spirits inhabited his city, sitting like gargoyles upon the cornices of the modern buildings. This was the power of myth.

"You speak of Buenos Aires as if it were Lourdes," Tori said, suddenly wanting to draw Ariel out. "As if it had mystical healing powers." It did for her, why not for him?

Ariel Solares cocked his head. "Well, I never thought of it in just that way, but perhaps there is some truth in what you say. But 'healing,' I don't know whether that is quite the correct word. I am not sick, merely bored."

"But, my friend, surely boredom is a form of sickness," Estilo said, his gaze swinging from Ariel to Tori. "A personall people-need a purpose. Without one, life becomes meaningless, and further sickness-of a deeper, more serious nature-will surely follow."

Now Tori knew that Estilo was speaking directly to her, and she averted her eyes. The tango music, drifting along the avenue, had turned bitter, introspective, a harbinger of the last burst of violence and fury that was, inevitably, to come.

"I'm quite all right," Tori said softly, not looking at either man, but rather into the heart of the dark tango.

"Of course you are, my darling," Estilo said, patting her hand affectionately. He had big hands, blunt and strong. "I did not mean to infer otherwise"-although Tori knew that was precisely what he had meant to do. "I merely assumed your boredom needed alleviating. In that event, I would be delighted if you joined me tonight at my home." his mustache arched as he smiled.' 'A very private party. If you aren't a friend of mine, you aren't coming." He paused a moment, then said, "Ariel will be there."

Tori turned her head, looked again at the younger man, his skin burnished by the sun and the wind. She could imagine him riding the infinite pampas or, bending slightly, his hair swept back by the wind and the speed of his mount, swinging a polo mallet at Palermo Fields. But there was something different about him; he was not a typical porteno, or even trying to be, and these things intrigued her.

"All right," Tori said.

"Wonderful!" Estilo beamed at her as he rose. "Until tonight, then!"

For a moment Ariel sat facing her, his coffee-colored eyes staring into hers. Then he took her hand, kissed it lightly, and was swept away by Estilo.

After the men were gone, Tori sat and sipped a brandy. It was, to her mind, a melancholy drink, invoking intimations of broken promises, lost dreams, the ashes of desire.

When at last she rose, the tango had finished its haunting tale, and only the unlovely noises of the restless city remained.

 

Estilo's home was an apartment that took up the entire top floor of an anonymous-looking high rise in the Recoleta. It was just a few blocks from the cemetery, the ne plus ultra address in all of Buenos Aires, which perhaps told you as much about the portenos as you needed to know: the dead possessed a presence that made them in some subtle, mystical sense less dead than the dead of other cultures.

The vast apartment which snaked from east to west was furnished in Italian high fashion, which was to say with equal amounts of chic and money. Each piece of furniture exhibited low, sleek lines and the distinctively patterned fabrics of Ungaro and Missoni.

The place had been designed by Estilo's current thistress, Adona, a stunning black-haired Argentine woman from the alta sociedad-the cream of porteno society-who, in some ways, reminded Tori of herself. She had wanted more from her relationship with Estilo, and had insisted that he take her into me jungles of South America, where many of his dangerous business dealings took place. Adona was as good at dispelling distrust as she was at disarming Estilo's enemies.

BOOK: Angel Eyes
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