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Authors: Arturo Perez-Reverte

What We Become

BOOK: What We Become
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I
N NOVEMBER 1928,
Armando de Troeye traveled to Buenos Aires to compose a tango. He could permit himself that luxury. At forty-three, the man who wrote
“Nocturnes” and “Pasodoble for Don Quixote”
was at the height of his fame, and all the Spanish illustrated magazines published a photograph of him, arm in arm with his beautiful wife aboard the
Cap Polonio,
an ocean liner of the Hamburg Südamerikanische company. The most glamorous picture appeared in the society pages of
Blanco y Negro
: in it the de Troeyes are on the first-class deck, he with a trench coat draped over his shoulders, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other holding a cigarette, as he smiles at the people on the quayside waving him off; and she, Mecha Inzunza de Troeye, wearing a fur coat and a stylish hat that sets off her eyes, which the caption writer described enthusiastically as “splendidly deep and sparkling.”

That night, with the lights still twinkling on the distant coast, Armando de Troeye dressed for dinner. He was late in doing so, delayed by a slight but nagging headache. In the meantime, he in
sisted his wife go on ahead to the ship's ballroom and keep herself amused listening to the music. A meticulous fellow, de Troeye took his time filling the gold cigarette case he kept in the breast pocket of his tuxedo, and distributing among the other pockets some of the things he would need that evening: a gold fob watch, a cigarette lighter, two carefully folded white handkerchiefs, a pillbox for antacids, a crocodile-skin wallet containing calling cards, and a few low-denomination notes for tips. Afterward, he switched off the electric light, closed the door of the luxury cabin behind him, and attempted to sway with the gentle roll of the huge vessel as he walked across the thick carpet that muffled the distant thrum of engines propelling the ship through the Atlantic night.

Before crossing the threshold into the ballroom, as the headwaiter approached holding the dinner reservations list, de Troeye studied his own starched bib and cuffs and his shiny black shoes in the ornate foyer mirror. Evening dress always accentuated his elegant, slender appearance (he was of medium build, his face well-proportioned rather than attractive, enhanced by intelligent eyes, a trim mustache, and a mop of curly black hair with some prematurely gray streaks). For an instant, the composer's trained ear picked up the rhythm of the music the orchestra was playing: a slow, melancholy waltz. De Troeye smiled benevolently. The performance was merely passable. He slipped his left hand into his trouser pocket, and, responding to the headwaiter's greeting, followed him to the table he had reserved for the entire crossing in the most select part of the room. A few gazes followed him. An attractive woman with emerald earrings blinked in astonishment. People knew who he was. The orchestra was striking up another slow waltz as de Troeye sat down at the table, where a champagne cocktail stood untouched next to the fake, electric candle flame in a tulip glass shade. Among the couples swaying in time to the music on the dance floor, his young wife smiled at him. Mercedes Inzunza, who had arrived twenty minutes earlier, was dancing in
the arms of a slim, handsome young fellow in evening dress: the ballroom dancer, whose job it was to entertain the unaccompanied ladies in first class or those whose companions did not dance. After returning her smile, de Troeye crossed his legs, and with a somewhat affected air plucked a cigarette from his gold case and lit it.

1

T
he Ballroom Dancer

T
HERE WAS A
time when he and all his rivals had a shadow existence. And he was the best of them. He always kept flawless rhythm on a dance floor, and off it his hands were steady and agile, his lips poised with the appropriate remark, the perfect, witty one-liner. This made men like him and women admire him. In those days, in addition to the ballroom dances (tangos, fox-trots, Bostons) that helped him earn a living, he had mastered the art of verbal pyrotechnics and sketching melancholy landscapes with his silences. During many a long and fruitful year he had rarely missed his mark: it was rare for a wealthy woman of any age to resist his charms at one of the tea dances at a Palace, Ritz, or Excelsior Hotel; on a terrace on the Riviera; or in the first-class ballroom of a transatlantic liner. He had been the type of man one might come across in the morning in a café, wearing a tuxedo and inviting to breakfast the domestic staff from the house where he
had attended a dance or a dinner the previous night. He possessed that talent, or that shrewdness. Moreover, at least once in his life, he was capable of betting everything he had on the table at a casino and traveling home by tramcar, cleaned out, whistling “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” apparently unconcerned. Such was the elegance with which he could light a cigarette, knot a tie, or sport a pair of perfectly ironed shirt cuffs, that the police never dared arrest him, unless they actually caught him red-handed.

“Max.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You may put my suitcase in the trunk.”

The sun over the Bay of Naples makes his eyes smart as it bounces off the Mark X Jaguar's chrome plating, the way it did off the automobiles of long ago, driven by him and others. But all that has changed, and his old shadow is nowhere to be seen either. Max Costa glances beneath his feet, tries shifting slightly, to no avail. He can't remember exactly when it happened, but that hardly matters. His shadow has gone, left behind like so many other things.

He grimaces resignedly, or perhaps it is simply the sun in his eyes, as he tries to think of something real and immediate (the tire pressure for a half or fully loaded car, the ease of the synchronized gearbox, the oil gauge) to fend off that bittersweet pang that always comes when nostalgia or loneliness gets the better of him. Taking a deep, leisurely breath, he finishes polishing the silver statuette of a leaping cat above the front grille with a chamois cloth, then slips on the jacket of his gray uniform that was lying folded on the front seat. Once he has carefully buttoned it up and straightened his tie, he slowly mounts the steps, flanked by headless marble statues and stone urns, leading up to the front door.

“Don't forget the small bag.”

“I won't, sir.”

Dr. Hugentobler doesn't like the way that in Italy his employees address him as “doctor.” This country, he frequently says, is swarm
ing with
dottori, cavalieri,
and
commendatori.
I am a Swiss doctor. A professional. I don't want people mistaking me for a cardinal's nephew, a Milanese industrialist, or some such thing.

As for Max Costa, everyone at the villa on the outskirts of Sorrento simply calls him Max. This is paradoxical, because most of his life he used various names and titles, noble or otherwise according to the needs of the moment. But for a while now, ever since his shadow fluttered its handkerchief in a last farewell (like a woman who vanishes forever amid a cloud of steam, framed in the window of a sleeping car, and one is never sure if she is leaving at that moment or if she started to leave long before), he has been using his own name. A shadow in return for the name which, until his forced retirement (recent, and in some ways natural), has appeared in thick case files in police departments all over Europe and America. In any event, he thinks as he picks up the small leather bag and the Samsonite suitcase and places them in the trunk of the car, never, not even in his darkest moments, did he imagine he would end his days replying “Yes, sir?” when addressed by his first name.

“Let's be off, Max. Did you bring the newspapers?”

“They are on the backseat, sir.”

The clunk of two doors. Max Costa has donned his chauffeur's cap, taken it off, and put it back on again in order to install his passenger. Once behind the wheel, he leaves it on the seat beside him, and in a reflex of vanity glances in the rearview mirror before smoothing down his gray, still abundant hair. Nothing like the detail of the cap, he thinks, to highlight the irony of his situation: the absurd beach where the tide has washed him up after his final shipwreck. And yet, when he is in his room at the villa shaving before the mirror and registers the lines on his face like someone tallying the scars of love and war, each with a name of its own (women, roulette wheels, uncertain mornings, evenings of glory or catastrophe), he always ends up winking at himself in absolution, as though recognizing in that tall, no longer so slim, old man with
dark, weary eyes, the image of a former accomplice for whom any explanation is unnecessary. After all, his reflection seems to be saying in a tone that is familiar, gently mocking, and possibly a little spiteful, that, at age sixty-four and considering the dreadful hand life has dealt him of late, he can still count himself lucky. In similar circumstances, others (Enrico Fossataro, old Sandor Esterházy) were forced to choose between public charity or last moments spent writhing uncomfortably at the end of a necktie, in the bathroom of a miserable boardinghouse.

“Anything of importance happening in the world?” Hugentobler inquires.

A rustle of newspapers in the backseat of the car: pages leafed through absentmindedly. This was a remark rather than a question. In the rearview mirror, Max sees his boss's eyes directed downward, spectacles perched on the end of his nose.

“The Russians haven't dropped the A-bomb, have they?”

Hugentobler is joking, naturally. Swiss humor. When he is in a good mood, he often tries to joke with the servants, probably because he is a bachelor, without a family to laugh at his funny stories. Max gives a professional smile. Discreet and keeping the proper distance.

“Nothing much, sir: Cassius Clay has won another title, the astronauts on Gemini XI have returned safe and sound. . . . The war in Indochina is heating up as well.”

“You mean in Vietnam.”

“That's it. Vietnam . . . And in the local news: the Campanella Chess Contest is about to begin. Keller versus Sokolov.”

“Good heavens,” says Hugentobler, dismissive and sarcastic. “How sorry I am to miss that. . . . There really is no accounting for taste, eh Max?”

“How right you are, sir.”

“Imagine spending your whole life poring over a chessboard. That is how those chess players end up. Crazy, like Bobby Fischer.”

“Indeed.”

“Take the low road. We have plenty of time.”

The crunch of gravel beneath the tires ceases as they pass through the iron gate and then the Jaguar begins to roll gently along the asphalted road through groves of olive, gum, and fig trees. Max downshifts effortlessly as he comes to a sharp bend, at the end of which he glimpses the calm sea, glittering like polished glass, silhouetting the pine trees and houses clustered on the mountain, with Vesuvius on the far side of the bay. For a moment he forgets his passenger and concentrates on the pleasure of driving, the movement between two places whose location in time and space is of no consequence to him. The air wafting through the open window smells of honey and resin—the lingering aromas of summer, which in that part of the world always refuses to die, engaging in a sweet, ingenuous battle with the calendar.

“It's a beautiful day, Max.”

Max Costa blinks, collecting his thoughts, and once more glances up at the rearview mirror. Dr. Hugentobler is no longer reading the newspapers and has a Havana cigar in his mouth.

“Indeed, sir.”

“I'm afraid the weather will have changed by the time I return.”

“Let's hope not. You'll only be gone three weeks.”

Hugentobler lets out a grunt, accompanied by a puff of smoke. He is a placid-looking man with a pink complexion, who owns a private clinic near Lake Garda. He amassed a fortune in the postwar years dispensing psychiatric treatment to wealthy Jews traumatized by the Nazi atrocities: the sort who would wake up in the middle of the night believing they were still in the barracks at Auschwitz, with Dobermans snarling outside and SS men shepherding them to the shower rooms. Hugentobler and his Italian associate, Dr. Bacchelli, helped them wrestle with their phantoms, and to round out their treatment recommended a trip to Israel organized by the clinic, after which they were presented with an exorbitant bill that
allowed Hugentobler to maintain a house in Milan, an apartment in Zurich, and the villa at Sorrento with five cars in the garage. For the past three years, it has been Max's job to keep them serviced and to drive them, besides overseeing the general maintenance of the villa, whose other employees are a married couple from Salerno, the gardener and the maid, Mr. and Mrs. Lanza.

“Don't go straight to the port. Drive through the center of town.”

“Very well, sir.”

He glances at the accurate but inexpensive watch on his left wrist (a gold-plated Festina), and joins the traffic on Corso Italia, which is light at that hour. There is plenty of time for them to reach the motor launch that will ferry Dr. Hugentobler across the bay, sparing him the tortuous road to Naples' airport.

“Max.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Stop at Rufolos and get me a box of Montecristo No. 2s.”

Max Costa's working relationship with his boss began like love at first sight: the moment the psychiatrist laid eyes on Max, he disregarded his exemplary references (entirely fictitious, in fact). He was a pragmatist, convinced his professional instinct and experience would never mislead him about the human condition. Hugentobler decided that this fellow who dressed with an air of faded elegance and bore a calm, frank expression, exhibiting polite discretion in both word and gesture, was the living embodiment of honor and decency. Thus he would lend just the right note of dignity to the doctor's magnificent car collection (the Jaguar, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II, and three vintage cars, including a Bugatti 50T coupé). Naturally, Hugentobler does not have the slightest notion that his chauffeur once enjoyed cruising around in cars, owned by himself or others, every bit as luxurious as those he is now paid to drive. Had he known, Hugentobler would have been forced to revise a few of his opinions about the human condition, and to hire a driver
with a less elegant appearance but a more conventional résumé. But that would have been a mistake. Anyone familiar with the darker side of life understands that a man who has lost his shadow is like a woman with a dark past who marries: no one is more loyal, because she knows how much is at stake. However, it will not be Max Costa who at this stage of the game enlightens Dr. Hugentobler about fleeting shadows, tarts with hearts of gold, or the forced honesty of ex-ballroom dancers who turn into gentleman thieves. Even if they didn't always behave like gentlemen.

When the motor launch pulls away from the Marina Piccola jetty, Max Costa remains leaning for a moment against the breakwater surrounding the harbor, watching the vessel's wake cleave the blue surface of the bay. Afterward, he removes his jacket and tie, and, draping them over one arm, returns to the car, which is parked near the Guardia di Finanza building, at the foot of the cliff top where Sorrento is perched. He tips the youngster keeping an eye on the Jaguar fifty lire, starts the car, and drives slowly along the road that curves sharply as it climbs toward the town. As he enters Piazza Tasso, he rolls to a halt before three pedestrians, two women and a man, who are leaving the Hotel Vittoria, and watches idly as they cross a few inches in front of the car. They look like wealthy tourists, the type who vacation out of season so that they can enjoy the sun, the sea, and the mild weather, which lasts well into autumn, without the inconvenience of the summer crowds. The man, probably in his late twenties, is wearing sunglasses and a jacket with suede elbow patches. The younger of the two women is a pretty brunette in a miniskirt, her hair in a long braid down her back. The older woman has on a beige woolen cardigan, a dark skirt, and a crinkled tweed man's hat, beneath which her cropped, silver-gray hair is showing. She is quite elegant, Max observes, with a sophistication that comes not from her clothes but rather from the way
she wears them. A cut above the average woman to be seen in the villas and smart hotels in Sorrento, Amalfi, and Capri, even at this time of year.

Something about the second woman compels Max to follow her with his eyes as she crosses Piazza Tasso. Possibly her slow, relaxed bearing, with her right hand placed casually in the pocket of her cardigan, moving with the ease of those who have spent their lives sashaying across the carpets of a world that was theirs. Or perhaps what catches Max's attention is the way she tilts her head toward her companions to laugh at their conversation, or to utter words whose sound is muffled by the car's silent windows. In any case, for a split second, as fleetingly as someone recalling the confused fragment of a forgotten dream, Max is confronted with the ghost of a memory. With an image from the distant past, a gesture, a voice, a laugh. He is so taken aback that only the blast of a car horn behind makes him shift into first gear and crawl forward, still watching the trio, who have arrived at the other side of the sunlit square and are seating themselves at one of the tables on the terrace of Bar Fauno.

BOOK: What We Become
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