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Authors: Arturo Perez-Reverte

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BOOK: What We Become
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2

T
angos to Cry for and Tangos to Die for

H
AVE YOU GONE
mad?”

Tiziano Spadaro, receptionist at the Hotel Vittoria, leans across the desk to take a look at the suitcase Max has placed on the floor. Then he eyes Max from the bottom up: brown, Moroccan leather shoes; gray flannel trousers; silk shirt and cravat; navy-blue blazer.

“On the contrary,” the newly arrived guest replies evenly. “I just felt like a change of scenery for a few days.”

Spadaro strokes his bald head thoughtfully. His suspicious eyes meet those of Max, scouring them for hidden intentions. Dangerous connotations.

“Have you forgotten what a room costs here?”

“Of course not. Two hundred thousand lire a week . . . So what?”

“I told you: we have no vacancies.”

Max's smile is friendly and self-assured. Almost benevolent. In it there is a trace of old loyalties and unshakable belief.

“Tiziano . . . I have been staying in hotels for forty years. There is always a vacancy.”

Spadaro lowers his gaze grudgingly toward the polished mahogany counter. Max has put a sealed envelope containing ten ten-thousand-lira notes in the space between his hands. The hotel receptionist at the Vittoria contemplates it the way a baccarat player might hesitate before turning the cards he has been dealt. Finally, he moves his left hand slowly toward the envelope, brushing it with his thumb.

“Call me a bit later. I'll see what I can do.”

Max likes the gesture: fingering the envelope without opening it. Old codes.

“No,” he says gently. “Sort it out now.”

They remain silent while a group of guests walks past. The receptionist glances around the lobby: there is no one on the stairs leading up to the rooms, or at the glass door to the conservatory, where they can hear the murmur of conversation; and the concierge is busy at his post, placing keys in pigeonholes.

“I thought you had retired,” says Spadaro, lowering his voice.

“I have. I told you so the other day. I just want a break, like in the old days. Champagne on ice and some nice views.”

Spadaro looks at him suspiciously again, after a second glance at the suitcase and his elegant clothes. Through the window, the receptionist glimpses the Rolls-Royce parked at the top of the steps leading down to the hotel entrance.

“Things must be going very well for you now in Sorrento. . . .”

“Splendidly, as you can see.”

“Just like that?”

“Precisely. Just like that.”

“And your boss, the one at Villa Oriana?”

“I'll tell you about him some other time.”

Spadaro rubs his bald head again, weighing the situation. His years in the job have given him a bloodhound's sense of smell. This is not the first time Max has placed an envelope on the counter in front of him. The last was ten years ago, when Spadaro still worked at the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples. A priceless moretto brooch from Nardi's that belonged to an aging screen actress called Silvia ­Massari—a regular guest there—went missing from her room, which (courtesy of Spadaro) adjoined Max's. The disappearance took place while she was having lunch with Max out on the hotel terrace with its spectacular vista, after the two of them had spent the previous night and most of that morning engaging in autumnal yet vigorous intimacies. During the regrettable incident, Max only left the terrace and his companion's tender gaze for a few moments to wash his hands. Consequently, it did not occur to Miss Massari to question the integrity of his conduct, his splendid smile, and other tokens of affection. In the end, the affair was resolved with the interrogation and dismissal of a chambermaid, although there was no evidence against her. The actress's insurance dealt with the matter, and as Max was settling his account and handing out tips with the air of a perfect gentleman, Tiziano Spadaro received an envelope similar to the one before him now, only thicker.

“I didn't know you were interested in chess.”

“Really?” The old professional smile, broad and dazzling, the one he most favors from among his old repertoire. “Well, I was always something of an enthusiast. An intriguing atmosphere. A unique opportunity to see two great players . . . Better than football.”

“What are you plotting, Max?”

Max holds Spadaro's inquisitive gaze, unflustered.

“Nothing that will jeopardize your approaching retirement. I promise. And I have never broken a promise to you.”

A long, brooding pause. A deep wrinkle appears between Spadaro's eyebrows.

“That's true,” he admits finally.

“I am glad you remember that.”

Spadaro looks down at his waistcoat buttons and runs his hand over them pensively as though brushing off imaginary specks of dust.

“The police will see your registration card.”

“So what? . . . I was always clean in Italy. Besides, this doesn't involve the police.”

“Look. You're getting on a bit for some things . . . we all are. You shouldn't forget that.”

Without responding, impassive, Max continues to look at the receptionist, who is contemplating the envelope, still lying unopened on the polished wood.

“How many days?”

“I don't know.” Max shrugs. “A week will be sufficient, I think.”

“You think?”

“It'll be enough.”

The other man places a finger on the envelope. Finally he sighs and slowly opens the register.

“I can only guarantee you one week. After that we'll see.”

“Very well.”

With the palm of his hand, Spadaro rings the bell three times to call the bellboy.

“A small, single room, without a view. Breakfast not included.”

Max reaches into his jacket pocket for his identity papers. When he lays them on the desk, the envelope has disappeared.

Seeing the husband enter the bar in second class on the
Cap Polonio
took Max by surprise. He was enjoying a glass of absinthe and water and some olives, sitting next to one of the big sliding windows overlooking the promenade deck on the port side. He liked this spot, because it allowed him to observe the entire room (wicker
chairs replacing the plush, red-leather armchairs in first class) and also gaze at the ocean. The weather was still fine, sun all day long and clear skies at night. After the rough seas they had endured for the past forty-eight hours, the vessel had stopped rolling and the passengers were moving about the ship more easily, looking at one another instead of worrying about which way the deck was sloping. In any case, Max, who had crossed the Atlantic five times, couldn't recall a calmer trip.

A few of the passengers at the neighboring tables, almost exclusively men, were playing cards, backgammon, chess, or steeple­chase. Max, who was only an occasional, practical player (not even during his army days in Morocco had he been as passionate about gambling as other men were), nonetheless derived pleasure from watching the professional cardsharps who plied their trade on ocean liners. The ruses, bluffing, variety of reactions, and codes of behavior all reflected the complexity of the human condition so faithfully that they provided an excellent open school for anyone who knew how to look, and Max invariably learned some useful lessons. As on every ocean liner, there were cardsharps on the
Cap Polonio
in first class, second class, and even in steerage. The crew was aware of this, of course, as were the ship detective, the headwaiters, and the stewards, who were acquainted with a few of the regulars and kept an eye on them, underlining their names on the passenger list. A while back, on the
Cap Arcona
, Max had met a gambler called Brereton, who was reputed to have finished a legendary game of bridge in the tilting first-class smoking room on the
Titanic
before it sank in the frozen waters of the North Atlantic, and to have won substantially just in time to dive into the water and swim to the last lifeboat.

Max Costa was astonished to see Armando de Troeye in the second-class bar on the
Cap Polonio
that morning because it was unusual for passengers to cross the boundaries defined by their social status. However, his astonishment grew when the famous
composer—who was wearing a Norfolk jacket, a vest with a gold fob, plus fours, and a fedora—stood surveying the room from the doorway, and, on seeing Max, made a beeline for him, smiling affably as he sat down in the chair beside him.

“What are you drinking?” he asked, signaling to the waiter. “Absinthe? . . . Too strong for me. I think I'll have a vermouth.”

By the time the waiter had brought over his cocktail, Armando had already praised Max's skill on the dance floor, and was engaging him in polite conversation on the subject of ocean liners, music, and ballroom dancing. As the composer of “Nocturnes” (and other successful works such as “Scaramouche”
and
the ballet “Pasodoble for Don Quixote,” to which Diaghilev had brought international fame), de Troeye was someone Max saw as supremely self-­confident, an artist who knew who he was and what he represented. And while de Troeye maintained an attitude of worldly superiority in this second-class bar (the celebrated composer opposite the humble employee from a lower rung on the musical ladder), he was clearly making an effort to be friendly. Despite his obvious reservations, his manner was far from the superciliousness of previous evenings, when Max had danced with his wife in the first-class ballroom.

“I assure you I was watching you carefully. And you are close to perfection.”

“It is kind of you to say so. Although you exaggerate.” Max gave a courteous half-smile. “These things depend on one's partner, too. . . . Your wife is a marvelous dancer, as you well know.”

“Undoubtedly. I don't deny it. She is a remarkable woman. But the initiative came from you. You marked out the territory, so to speak. And that can't be improvised.” De Troeye picked up the glass the waiter had placed on the table and held it to the light, as though mistrusting the quality of a vermouth in second class. “May I ask you a professional question?”

“Of course.”

A tentative sip, then a satisfied expression beneath the trim mustache.

“Where did you learn to dance tango like that?”

“I was born in Buenos Aries.”

“You surprise me.” De Troeye took another sip. “You don't have an accent.”

“I was a youngster when I left. My father was from Asturias and emigrated there in the nineties. . . . Things went badly for him, and he ended up returning to Spain, where he became ill and died. Before that, he had time to marry an Italian woman, have children, and take them all back with him.”

De Troeye leaned over the arm of the wicker chair, attentive.

“How long did you actually live in Buenos Aires?”

“Until I was fourteen.”

“That explains everything. The authentic feel of those tangos. . . . Why are you smiling?”

Max shrugged, unaffectedly.

“Because there is nothing authentic about them. Real tango is different.”

The composer was genuinely surprised, or so it appeared. Perhaps it was nothing more than polite interest. The glass was hovering between the table and de Troeye's half-open mouth.

“Really . . . In what way?”

“It is faster, played by folk musicians from the poor neighborhoods. Lascivious rather than artful, to put it simply. Made up of
cortes
and
quebradas
danced by whores and lowlifes.”

The other man burst out laughing. “And it still is in some circles,” he added.

“Not really. Original tango changed a lot, above all when it became fashionable in Paris ten or fifteen years ago with the Apache dances of the underworld. . . . The upper classes started imitating them, and it came back to Argentina frenchified, transformed into a polished, almost respectable dance.” Max gave another shrug,
drained his glass, and looked straight at de Troeye, who was smiling affably. “I hope what I say makes sense.”

“Indeed. And it's most interesting. . . . You are a pleasant surprise, Señor Costa.”

Max did not recall telling de Troeye or his wife his surname. It was possible he had seen it on the staff list. Or looked for it there. He held that thought for a moment, without analyzing it too much, before continuing to indulge the composer's curiosity. He explained that, thanks to its Parisian stamp of approval, the Argentinian upper class, who had hitherto rejected tango as an immoral dance that belonged in the bordellos, instantly adopted it. Tango, no longer reserved for the hoi polloi from the slums, became the rage in dance halls. Prior to that, genuine tango, the tango danced in Buenos Aires by whores and ruffians from the poor neighborhoods, was frowned upon in polite society: it was something young well-to-do girls played in secret on their pianos at home, from sheet music brought to them by boyfriends and dissolute, carousing brothers.

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