Authors: Arturo Perez-Reverte
“I got a lot further, as you know,” Mecha resumes. “I am referring to a particular kind of immorality. Immorality as a conclusion. As an acknowledgment of morality's sterile, passive injustice.”
Once again, she gazes, with indifference, at the ash on the floor. Then she looks up at the waiter, who informs them that the breakfast service is about to close, and asks if they would like anything else. Mecha stares at him as though she hasn't understood the question, or was far away. Finally she shakes her head.
“Actually, I failed twice,” she says when the waiter has left. “As an immoral wife with Armando and as a moral wife with Ernesto. Fortunately for me, my son came along and changed everything. I was given another possibility. A third way.”
“Do you remember your first husband more?”
“Armando? How could I forget him. His famous tango has haunted me all my life. As it has you, in a way. And it lives on.”
Max looks up from his empty coffee cup again.
“I eventually found out what we still didn't know in Nice,” he says. “That they killed him.”
“Yes. In a place called Paracuellos, just outside Madrid. They dragged him from the prison and took him there to shoot him,” she says, with an imperceptible shrug, accepting tragedies that occurred too far back in time, the scars conveniently healed. “A group of men dragged poor GarcÃa Lorca out and made a martyr of him. Another
lot did the same to my husband. Which of course turned him into a hero. And made his music famous.”
“Did you never go back to Spain?”
“To that sad, embittered country reeking of the sacristy and run by black marketeers and mediocre ruffians? No. Never.” She looks toward the bay and gives a sarcastic smile. “Armando was cultured, educated, a freethinker. A creator of marvelous things. If he were still alive, he would have despised those military butchers and their blue-shirted thugs with pistols on their belts, just as he would the numbskulls who killed him.”
She pauses, then gazes at him, inquisitively.
“What about you? What was your life like during that time? Is it true you returned to Spain?”
Max puts on a suitably serious face as he casts his mind back over those heady days: all those people with new money greedy for luxury, hotels returned to their previous owners, newly rebuilt towns and cities, businesses flourishing under the protection of the new regime: rich pickings for those who knew where to look. Max's cautious expression is his way of glossing over years of exploits and possibilities, vast sums of money changing hands, there for the taking by anyone with the courage or talent to go after it: the black market, women, hotels, trains, borders, refugees, worlds collapsing amid the ruins of the old Europe, one war following another, even more bloodthirsty one, with the feverish conviction that when it was all over, nothing would be the same.
“Once or twice. I went back and forth between Europe and the Americas during the Second World War.”
“You weren't afraid of U-boats?”
“Terrified, but I had no choice. Business, you know.”
She smiles, almost benevolently.
“Yes, I knowÂ .Â .Â . Business.”
He tilts his head, with deliberate candor, conscious she is watching him. They both know that the word is a simplification, although
Mecha has no idea to what extent. The truth is that during the war in Europe the Iberian peninsula was an extremely lucrative hunting ground for Max Costa. With his Venezuelan passport (he paid a great deal of money to acquire that nationality, which guaranteed him immunity in almost any situation), he employed his easy manner in restaurants, dance halls, tea dances, bars, and cabarets, in winter and summer resortsâfrenetic hubs of social life frequented by beautiful women and men with fat wallets. By that time Max had honed his professional skills to an extraordinary extent. The result was a run of resounding successes. The era of failure and decline, the disasters that would cast him into the pit of despair, were a long way off. The new Spain, under Franco, was generous: a string of profitable deals in Madrid and Seville; an elaborate three-way swindle between Barcelona, Marseille, and Tangiers; an extremely wealthy widow in San SebastiÃ¡n; and a jewelry heist that began in the Estoril casino and ended successfully in a villa in Sintra. During that episode (the lady concerned, not overly attractive, was cousin to the would-be heir to the throne, Juan Carlos of Bourbon), Max started dancing again, furiously. Even to Ravel's “Bolero” and the “Old School Tango.” And he must have danced devilishly well, for, once it was all over, the victim was the first to clear his name with the Portuguese police. Max Costa couldn't possibly be a suspect, she swore to them. He was far too much of a gentleman.
“Yes,” Mecha says distractedly, glancing back up at the balcony where the two youngsters are no longer standing. “Armando was different.”
Max knows she isn't really talking about Armando. She is thinking about the Spain that killed him, the country she never wanted to return to. Still, he feels a pang of resentment. A trace of old anger toward a man whose company he kept for only few days: on board the
and in Buenos Aires.
“So you said. He was cultured, imaginative, and a freethinker. I haven't forgotten the bruises on your body where he hit you.”
She notices the tone in his voice and gives him a disapproving look. Then she turns toward the bay, in the direction of Vesuvius's dusky cone.
“That was a very long time ago, Max. It's tasteless of you.”
He doesn't reply. He is content to look at her. Narrowing her gaze against the sun's glare has increased the number of fine wrinkles around her eyes.
“I married very young,” Mecha adds. “And Armando made me delve into my dark, inner places.”
“In a way, he corrupted you.”
She shakes her head before replying.
in a way
might hold the clue. It was all there before I met him. He merely placed a mirror in front of me. Guided me to those inner places. Or perhaps not; perhaps his role was simply to show them to me.”
“And you did the same with me.”
“You liked looking, as much as I did. Remember those hotel mirrors?”
“No. I liked to look at you looking.”
A sudden burst of laughter makes her sparkling eyes appear young again. Her face is still turned toward the bay.
“You wouldn't let go, my friend. You weren't that sort of fellow. On the contrary. Always so clean, despite your dirty tricks. So wholesome. So conscientious and true to your lies and betrayals. A good soldier.”
“For God's sake, Mecha. You wereÂ .Â .Â .”
“It doesn't matter anymore what I was.” She has turned abruptly to face him, all of a sudden serious. “But you are still a charlatan. And don't look at me like that. I know that look too well. Better than you could imagine.”
“I'm being honest,” Max protests. “I never thought I mattered to you.”
“Is that why you left Nice as you did? Without waiting to see
what happened? My God. As stupid as the others. That was your mistake.”
She has leaned back in her chair. She remains like that for a moment, as though searching for a precise memory in the aged face of the man before her.
“You were living in enemy territory,” she says at last. “In the midst of an ongoing war: I could see it in your eyes. In situations like that we women realize that men are mortal, passing through, returning from some front or other. And we are just that little bit more willing to fall in love with you.”
“I never liked wars. Men like me are usually on the losing side.”
“It doesn't matter anymore,” she says coldly. “But I'm glad you haven't lost your easy smile. That elegance you have maintained, like the last square at Waterloo. You remind me very much of the man I forgot. You have aged, and I don't mean physically. I suppose that happens to everyone who attains a degree of certainty. Do you have many certainties, Max?”
“Not many. Only that men doubt, remember, and die.”
“That must account for it. Doubt is what keeps people young. Certainty is like a malignant virus that infects us as we get older.”
“Memory, you said. Men remember, then they die.”
“At my age, yes.” He nods. “That's all.”
“What about doubts?”
“Not many. Only uncertainties, which isn't the same.”
“What do I remind you of?”
“Women I forgot.”
She seems to sense his irritation, because she tilts her head slightly, observing him with interest.
“You are lying,” she says at last.
“I willÂ .Â .Â . I promise you I will. Just give me a few days.”
He sipped his gin fizz and looked around at the other guests. Almost everyone had arrived, and there were no more that twenty or so. It was a black-tie dinner: the men in tuxedos, the majority of women in low-backed dresses. Not much jewelry, and discreet in almost every case, polite conversations that took place largely in French or Spanish. They were friends and acquaintances of Susana Ferriol. There were a few refugees from Spain, but not the kind habitually shown in the newsreels. The rest belonged to the international set, permanent residents of Nice and the surrounding areas. The aim of the dinner was for the hostess to introduce the Colls, a Catalan couple, to her friends. The Colls had managed to flee from the republican zone. Luckily for them, aside from their apartment in Barcelona in a building designed by GaudÃ, a tower in PalamÃ³s, and a few factories and warehouses that had been requisitioned by the workers, the Colls had sufficient funds in European banks to keep them going until things returned to normal. Minutes before, Max had overheard Mrs. Coll (full hips and big eyes, small and feisty) explaining breathlessly to several of the other guests how she and her husband had hesitated at first between Biarritz and Nice, finally opting for the latter because of its mild climate.
“Dear Suzi was kind enough to find a villa for us to rent. Right here, in Boron. The Savoy isn't bad, but nothing compares to having your own place. And with the Blue Train, Paris is only a step away.”
Max deposited his empty glass next to one of the picture windows that looked out onto the illuminated environs of the house: the circular, gravel driveway lined with leafy plants; the cars lined up beneath the palm trees and cypresses, gleaming under the street lamps; the chauffeurs gathered around the glowing tips of their cigarettes to the side of the stone steps (Max had arrived in the Chrysler Imperial belonging to Baroness Schwarzenberg, who was at present sitting in the main room conversing with a Brazilian movie actor). Beyond the trees in the garden, Nice was a glittering
arc around the dark stain of the sea, with the tiny prong of the JetÃ©e-Promenade like a jewel encrusted in its side.
“Another cocktail, sir?”
Max shook his head, glancing about as the waiter moved away. A small jazz band was playing in the main hall, welcoming the guests amid the scent from the myriad flowers arranged in blue and red glass vases. Dinner was in twenty minutes. In the dining room, visible through a glass door, twenty-two places were laid. According to the seating list propped on a lectern outside, Mr. Costa was near the far end of the table. After all, he was only invited as Baroness Schwarzenberg's companion, which counted for very little in society. When he was introduced to her, Susana Ferriol had addressed him with the precise smile and the appropriate words expected of an efficient hostess who knew how to behave (how nice to meet you, I'm so glad you could come), before inviting him in, introducing him to some of the other guests, guiding him toward the waiters, and forgetting about him for the moment. Susana Ferriol (Suzi to her friends) was dark-haired and extremely thin, almost as tall as Max, with a hard, angular face, from which shone a pair of intense black eyes. Her choice of evening dress was unconventional: she wore a flowing white trouser suit with a silver pinstripe that accentuated her thinness, and Max would have wagered his pearl cuff links that somewhere stitched into the lining was a Chanel label. TomÃ¡s Ferriol's sister weaved in and out of her guests, affecting a sophisticated languor of which she was doubtless overly conscious. As Baroness Schwarzenberg had remarked, leaning back against the car seat on the way, elegance could be acquired through money, education, hard work, and intelligence, but wearing it with ease, my dear (the glow from the street lamp lit up her spiteful smile), required crawling around on genuine Persian rugs from birth. For at least two generations. And the Ferriols' extreme wealth only went back one (their father had begun building his fortune during the Great War selling contraband tobacco in Mallorca).
“There are exceptions, of course. And you are one of them, my friend. I don't know many men who can cross a hotel foyer, light a woman's cigarette, or discuss wine with a sommelier the way you do. And I was born when Leningrad was still called Saint Petersburg. Imagine the things I have seen, and what I see now.”