I was White and had fianchettoed my bishop. Berta was mounting a strong center pawn position.
"This is the office of Paulo Mendes," my voice said on the answering machine, giving whoever had called thirty seconds to leave a message. The guy said his name was Cavalcante-Meier, as if there were a hyphen between the two names, and that they were trying to frame him for a crime but–click–his time ran out before he could say what he planned to do.
"Every time we're in a close game some client calls," Berta said. We were drinking Faísca wine.
The guy called back and asked me to call him at home. A number in the South Zone. An aged voice answered, its vocal cords reverential. It was the butler. He went to get the master.
"There's a butler in the story. I already know whodunit." Berta didn't think it was funny. Besides being hooked on chess she took everything seriously.
I recognized the voice from the answering machine: "What I have to say has to be in person. Can I come by your office?"
"I'm at home," I explained, and gave the address.
"So much for the game, B.B. (Berta Bronstein)," I said, dialing.
"Hello, Dr. Medeiros, what's the situation?"
Medeiros said the situation wasn't serious but was no laughing matter either. Medeiros thought about nothing but politics. He'd held some position or other at the start of the revolution and despite having the biggest office in town had never shaken off the nostalgia of power. I asked if he knew a Cavalcante Meier.
"Everybody knows him."
"I don't. I even thought the name might be a phony."
Medeiros said the man owned plantations in São Paulo and the North, exported coffee, sugar, and soybeans, and was an alternate senator for the state of Alagoas. A rich man.
"What else? Does he have any weaknesses, is he involved in any shady financial transactions, is he a sexual pervert as well as a landowner?"
"You think the whole world's no good, don't you? The senator is a very highly respected public figure, a business leader, a model citizen, unimpeachable."
I reminded him that J. J. Santos, the banker, had also been unimpeachable and that I'd had to rescue him from the clutches of a crazed transvestite in a motel in the Barra.
"You got a Mercedes out of it. Is this how you show your gratitude?"
I hadn't "got" the Mercedes, I had extorted it, the way bankers do with their interest rates and management fees.
Medeiros in a mellifluous voice: "What's the problem with Cavalcante Meier?"
I said I didn't know.
"Let's finish the game," Berta said.
"I can't meet the guy naked, can I?" I said.
I was getting dressed when the bell rang, three times in ten seconds. An impatient man, accustomed to doors that opened quickly.
Cavalcante Meier was thin, elegant, fiftyish. His nose was slightly crooked. His eyes were deep set, brownish green, and intense.
"I'm Rodolfo Cavalcante Meier. I don't know if you know me."
"I know you. I have your file."
"Yes." I saw him looking at the glass in my hand. "Care for some Faísca?"
"No thanks," he said, evasively. "Wine gives me a headache. May I sit down?"
"Planter, exporter, alternate senator for Alagoas, services rendered to the revolution," I said.
"Irrelevant," he cut me off, sharply.
"Member of the Rotary Club," I said, to rattle his cage.
"Just the Country Club."
"A leader, a man of integrity, a patriot."
He looked at me and said firmly, "Don't joke with me."
"I'm not joking. I'm a patriot too. In a different way. For example, I don't want to declare war on Argentina."
"I have your file too," he said, imitating me. "Cynical, unscrupulous, competent. A specialist in extortion and fraud cases."
He spoke like a recording; he reminded me of a laugh box that you wind up and it makes a sound that's neither animal nor human. Cavalcante Meier had wound himself up, his voice that of a plantation owner talking to a sharecropper.
"Competent yes, unscrupulous and cynical no. Just a man who lost his innocence," I said.
He rewound the laugh-box. "Have you seen the papers?"
I answered that I never read newspapers and he told me that a young woman had been found dead in the Barra, in her car. It had been in all the papers.
"That girl was, uh, my, er, connected to me, do you know what I mean?"
Cavalcante Meier said nothing.
"It was already over. I thought Marly should find someone her own age, get married, have children."
We lapsed into silence. The telephone rang. "Hello, Mandrake?" I turned off the sound on the answering machine.
"Yes, and then?"
"Our relationship was very discreet, I'd even say secret. No one knew anything. She was found dead on Friday. Saturday I got a phone call, a man, threatening me, saying I had killed her and that he had proof we were lovers. Letters. I don't know what letters they could be."
Cavalcante Meier said he hadn't gone to the police because he had political enemies who would take advantage of the scandal. Besides, he knew nothing that could help clear up the crime. And his only daughter was getting married that month.
"My going to the police would be a socially and ethically useless gesture. I'd like you to find that person for me, see what he wants, defend my interests in the best way possible. I'm willing to pay to avoid scandal."
"What's the guy's name?"
"Márcio was the name he gave. He wants me to meet him tonight at ten at a place called Gordon's, in Ipanema. He'll be on a motorcycle, wearing a black shirt with 'Jesus' on the back."
We agreed I'd keep the appointment with Márcio and negotiate the price of his silence. It could be worth a lot or worth nothing.
I asked where he'd heard about me.
"Dr. Medeiros," he said, getting up. He left without shaking hands, with just a nod of his head.
I went to look for the laugh box. I rummaged through the closet, the bookshelf, the drawers, until I found it in the kitchen. The maid loved to listen to the laughter.
I took it to the bedroom, lay down, and turned it on. A convulsive and disturbing guffaw, stuck in the glottis, purple, as of someone with a funnel stuck up his anus whose deadly laughter had gone through his body to come out his mouth, clogging lungs and brain. This called for a bit more Faísca. When I was a boy, a man sitting in front of me in the movie theater had a laughing fit so severe that he died. From time to time I remember that guy.
"Why're you listening to that awful noise? You look like you're crazy," Berta said. "Shall we continue the game?"
"I'm going to read the papers now," I said.
"Shit," Berta said, knocking the chessboard and pieces to the floor. An impulsive woman.
All the newspapers were on the night table. Young secretary killed in her car in the Barra. A bullet in the head. The victim still had her jewelry and documents. The police ruled out robbery. The victim was in the habit of going straight to work from her house and returning early. She didn't go out much at night. No boyfriend. The neighbors said she was friendly and shy. Her parents said she would go to her room to read after coming home from work. She read a lot, her mother said, she liked poetry and novels, she was gentle and obedient, without her our life is empty, meaningless. The papers ran several photos of Marly, tall and thin, with long hair. Her expression seemed sad, or was that my imagination? I'm an incurable romantic.
Finally I went back to play with Berta. Playing Black, I opened with king's pawn. Berta copied my move. I moved my knights, Berta following me, creating symmetrical positions that would bring victory to the more patient player, the one who made fewer mistakes, in other words Berta. I'm very nervous, I play chess to irritate myself, to blow up in camera; on the outside it's too dangerous, I have to stay calm.
I tried to recall Capablanca's game with Tarrash, St. Petersburg, 1914, which featured a four-knight opening and the springing of a terrible trap, but what trap was it? I couldn't remember; my head was full of the biker at Gordon's.
"It's no use giving me that victorious gloating look," I said, "I'm going to have to leave now."
"Now? In the middle of the game? Again? You're a coward, you know you're going to lose so you run away."
"That's true. But besides that I have to see a client."
Berta raised her arms and began to pin back her hair. A woman's armpit is a masterpiece, especially when she's thin and muscular like Berta. Her armpit also smells very nice, when she doesn't use deodorant, that is. A sweet and sour odor that turns me on. She knows it.
"I'm meeting a motorcyclist at Gordon's."
"Ah, a motorcyclist."
"There's a Hitchcock at eleven on TV."
"I don't like television, I detest dubbed films," Berta said in ill humor.
"Then study the Nimzovitch opening; it offers some good positional traps. I'll be back soon."
Berta said she'd wait for me, adding that I had no consideration for her, no respect.
When I stopped in front of Gordon's, still in the car, I saw the biker. He was a short, husky young man with dark brown hair. He was arguing, insolently, with a girl. Her hair was so dark it looked dyed. Her face was very pale, unlike the suntanned girls who hung out at Gordon's. Perhaps her pallor made her hair look darker and her hair in turn made her face look paler, which in turn–While I amused myself with this proposition, thinking about the Quaker Oats I used to eat when I was a child–a Quaker holding a box of oatmeal that showed another Quaker holding a box of oatmeal, etc., ad infinitum–the girl got on the back of the motorcycle and they left quickly down Visconde de Pirajá. I couldn't follow them; my car was blocked. I got out, went to the counter in Gordon's and ordered a Coke and sandwich. I ate–slowly. I waited an hour. They didn't return.
Berta was in bed asleep, the television on.
I called Cavalcante Meier.
"The apostle didn't show up," I said. There was no point telling what had happened.
"What are you going to do?" He spoke in a low voice, his mouth close to the phone. My clients always talk that way. It bothers me.
"Nothing. I'm going to bed. We'll talk tomorrow." I hung up.
I kissed Berta lightly on the lips. She woke up.
"Tell me you love me," Berta said.
I woke up in the morning with an urge to have some Faísca. Berta didn't like me to drink so early, but Portuguese wine does no harm at any time of day or night. I turned on the answering machine and found a message from Cavalcante Meier.
"Have you seen the papers?" Cavalcante Meier asked.
"I just got up," I lied. "What time is it?"
"Noon. Have you read the papers? No, of course you haven't yet. The police say they have a suspect."
"They always have a suspect, who's usually innocent."
"Since I'm innocent I may be the suspect, following your logic. Another thing. That guy Márcio called. He says he's coming to my house this afternoon."
"I'll be there. Introduce me as your personal secretary."
"What time did you start in on the wine?" Berta asked, coming into the living room.
I explained to her that Churchill used to get out of bed, have some champagne, smoke a few cigars, and win the war.
I read the papers, smoking a dark Suerdieck panatela. Marly's death got a lot of space but there was nothing new. No mention of a suspect.
I called Raul.
"That crime with the girl in the Barra. What's the word on it?"
"Which girl? The one who was strangled, the one who got run over, the one shot in the head, the one–"
"Shot in the head."
"Marly Moreira, the secretary at Cordovil & Meier. My boys are on the case."
"They say there's a suspect. Know anything about it?"
"I'll check it out."
Cavalcante Meier lived in Gávea Pequena. I stopped the car at the gate and honked. A private guard came out of the gatehouse. He wore a pistol in his belt and the look of someone who didn't know how to use it. He opened the gate.
"Are you Dr. Paulo Mendes?" he asked.
"Go on in."
"You ought to ask for some identification."
Disconcerted, he fingered his kepi, then asked for my ID. These false professionals are everywhere these days.
I went up a tree-lined drive with bushes on both sides, over a well-kept lawn. English grass, without a doubt. The butler opened the door. He was as old as I had expected, with hate in his expression and a back bent from long years of licking boots. In his reverential voice he inquired my name and asked me to wait.
I paced back and forth in the marble vestibule. A large staircase led to the second floor. A young woman came down the stairs, a Dalmatian at her side. She had blonde hair and was wearing jeans and a tight-fitting knit blouse. I couldn't take my eyes off her. As she came up to me, she asked impersonally, "Are you waiting for someone?" Blue eyes.
"Mr. Cavalcante Meier."
"Does Daddy know you're here?" She looked through me as if I were made of glass.
"The butler went to tell him."
Without another word, she turned her back, opened the door, and left, with the dog.
Once when I was a teenager I saw a beautiful woman walking down the street and fell instantly and overpoweringly in love. She came past me and we continued in opposite directions, me with my head turned, watching her walk away agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue, until she was lost in the crowd. Then, on a despondent impulse, I turned around, away from that passerby, and banged my head against a lamppost.
I stood there looking at the door the girl had gone through, fingering the scar on my forehead, which time had not erased.
"Please come with me," the butler said.
We went through an enormous room with a large round table in its center, surrounded by velvet chairs. Then another, with armchairs and large paintings on the walls.
Cavalcante Meier was waiting for me in his book-lined office.
"Who's the girl with the dog?" I asked. "The pretty blonde."
"My daughter Eve. She's getting married on the twenty-third, as I told you."
Cavalcante Meier was smartly dressed, like the first time. His hair was neatly combed, parted on the side, not a single hair out of place. He looked like Rudolph Valentino in Camille, with Alia Nazimova.
I asked if he'd seen the film. No, he wasn't even born when the film was shown. Nor was I, but I liked to go to art theaters.
"Do you have any connection to Cordovil & Meier?"
"It's my export firm."
"Then the dead girl was your employee?"
"She was the secretary of my international marketing director."
A shadow passed over Cavalcante Meier's face. Few actors can make a shadow pass over their face. Everett Sloane could; Bogart couldn't. Grimaces are something else.
The telephone rang. Cavalcante Meier answered.
"Leave it to me," he said.
I heard the noise of a motorcycle. It stopped for a time and then I heard it again. Cavalcante Meier appeared to attach no importance to the sound and instructed the butler to show in immediately the person who had just arrived.
Márcio, the biker, came into the room, wearing the same arrogant expression I'd seen at Gordon's. Up close, it looked like a badly fitting mask.
"You said we'd be by ourselves. Who's this guy?"
"The talk's just between the two of us. Lose him."
"He stays," Cavalcante Meier said, controlling his anger.
"Then I'm outta here," Márcio said.
"Wait, take it easy. I don't want any trouble. I can wait outside," I said.
I quickly left for the large hall. From the window I saw Eve sitting on the lawn, the Dalmatian at her side. The sunlight filtering through the branches made her hair even more golden.
The office door opened and Márcio went hurriedly past without looking at me. I heard the noise of the motorcycle. At the same instant the girl rose quickly to her feet.
"Everything's taken care of," Cavalcante Meier said, at the door to his office.
"How so?" I asked, without leaving the window. Eve ran across the lawn, followed by the dog, and vanished from my field of vision.
"I came to an understanding with that fellow. I won't have any further need of your services. How much do I owe you?"
"Who was it said that language exists to conceal thought?" I said, coming away from the window.
"I don't know and don't care. How much do I owe you?"
I turned my back on him. The butler was in the vestibule. He gave the impression of skulking behind doors eavesdropping on all the conversations.
I got my car. There was no sign of Eve. The guard opened the gate for me. I asked him if the biker had stopped along the drive before going into the house.
"He stopped near the pond, to talk to Miss Eve."
The guard looked at something past the hood of the car. I looked also and saw a pale girl with dark hair standing about twenty yards away. It was the girl I had seen on the back of the motorcycle at Gordon's. When she saw I was looking at her, she began walking slowly away.
"Who's that girl?" I asked.
"The boss's niece," the guard said. Her name was Lilly and she lived at her uncle's house.
The telephone in the gatehouse rang. The guard went to answer it. When he returned he opened the gate. I approached with the car.
"Has that guy on the motorcycle ever been here before?"
"I don't know anything," the guard said, turning away. He must have received orders not to talk to me.
I got home, opened the refrigerator, took out a bottle of Faísca. There was a note on the table: You could have used Wurtzberg's gambit. All you had to do was sacrifice the queen, but you never do that. I love you. Berta.
I called Wexler, my partner.
"I'm not coming in to the office today."
"I know," Wexler said. "You're going to play chess with a woman and drink wine. I work my butt off while you lay women."
"I'm working on a case Medeiros put me onto."I told him the whole story.
"Nothing will come of it," Wexler said.
I called Raul. He had set up dinner at the Albamar with the detective handing the Marly case.
"Downtown?" I complained.
"That's where Homicide is. His name is Guedes."
Guedes was a young man, prematurely balding, thin, with brown eyes so light they looked yellow. He ordered a Coke. Raul drank whiskey. They didn't have Faísca, so I ordered Casa da Calçada. I prefer something with more age to it, but there are times when a well-chilled young wine is just the ticket.
"Marly was wearing a gold Rolex, a diamond ring, and had a hundred dollars in her purse," Guedes said.
"That helps," Raul said.
"It helps, but we're still in the dark," Guedes said.
"The newspapers say you have a suspect."
"That's to throw them off the scent."
"Have you come across the name of her boss at Cordovil & Meier, the head of marketing?" I asked.
"Arthur Rocha." Guedes's suspicious yellow eyes scrutinized my face.
"I saw his name in the papers," I said.
"His name wasn't in the papers." Guedes's eyes burned into mine. There was no way I was going to bullshit this guy. He seemed like a decent enough cop.
"I did a little job for the president of the firm, Senator Cavalcante Meier."
"I took down Arthur Rocha's statement myself. He swore he didn't know anything about the secretary's private life," Guedes said.
"You think he's telling the truth?"
"We turned his life inside out. The girl was killed on a Friday, between eight and nine p.m. At eleven Rocha was in Petrópolis, at the home of friends. He's not interested in women; his thing seems to be flaunting his wealth. He had a riding area built at his place in Petrópolis, and I hear he can barely mount a horse. Get the idea? The lesser big shots have their tennis courts and pools. Besides all that, he has a riding area and horses for his friends to use."
"If a director earns that much, just imagine the president," Raul said.
"He's probably not on salary; he must be a partner. We're on a salary–Raul and me I mean, not you, Mr. Mendes."
"Hey, no need for formalities. Call me Mandrake," I said.
"They say you're a rich lawyer."
"Don't I wish."
"Mandrake's a genius," Raul said, already halfway through the bottle of whiskey. "A real sonofabitch. He had my wife. You remember that, Mandrake?"
"I'm still suffering because of it," I said.
"I forgave you, Mandrake," Raul said. "And that bitch too."
"His wife went down for the troops. They weren't married any longer. That's the story."
"The crime, in principle, conforms to the pattern of a crime of passion," Guedes said, uninterested in my conversation with Raul. "Arthur Rocha is incapable of falling in love or killing for passion, or money, or anything. But I still think he's lying. What do you think?"
"When I investigate a crime even my own mother is a suspect," Raul said.
Guedes was still looking at me, waiting for an answer.
"People kill when they're afraid," I equivocated, "when they hate, when they envy."
"Right out of the Farmer's Almanac," Raul said.
"I know he's lying," Guedes said.
Alone in my car, I told the rear-view mirror, "Everybody's lying."
The next day Marly's death had dropped off the front pages. Everything wearies, my angel, as the English poet said. The dead must be renewed, the press is an insatiable necrophile. An item in the society pages caught my attention: the marriage of Eve Cavalcante Meier and Luis Vieira Souto would not be held next week. Some of the columnists lamented the calling off of the nuptials. One exclaimed, "What will be done with the mountain of presents the once-future couple has already received from every corner of the country?" Truly a grave problem.
I got the car and went to Cavalcante Meier's house. I stopped a hundred yards from the gate. I put a Jorge Ben cassette in the tape deck and kept time with him on the dashboard.
The first to show was the Mercedes. Cavalcante Meier in the back seat. The chauffeur in navy blue, white shirt, dark tie, black cap. I waited another half hour and the gates opened, and a Fiat sports car came roaring through like a shot.
I followed it. The car took the curves at high speed, tires squealing. It wasn't easy to keep up with it. This is the day I die, I thought. Which one of my women would suffer the most? Maybe Berta would stop biting her nails.
The Fiat stopped in Leblon, in front of a small building. The girl got out of the car, went in a door marked Bernard: Aerobics for Women. I waited two minutes.
A carpeted waiting room, walls covered with reproductions of Degas ballerinas and dance posters. A bleached, heavily made-up receptionist in a pink uniform said hello from behind a metal-and-glass table and asked if I wanted something.
"I'd like to enroll my wife in the aerobics class."
"Certainly," she said, getting a card.
I scratched my head and said I didn't want my wife going to just any class, maybe I'm old fashioned but that's my way.
The receptionist smiled with her whole mouth, the way only people with all their teeth can, and said I'd come to the right place, an academy frequented by ladies and young women from society. She emphasized the word "society." Her nails were long and painted dark red.
"What is your wife's name?"
"Pérola . . . Uh, er, is the teacher a man or a woman?"
A man, but there was nothing to worry about, Bernard was very respectful.
I asked if I could see a little of the class.
"Just a tiny bit," the blonde said, getting up. She was my height, with a willowy body, small breasts, really solid.
"Do you work out too?"
"Not me, this is the body God gave me. But it could be Bernard's work; he can perform miracles."
She glided in front of me till she came to a door with a mirror on it, which she opened slightly.
The women were following the pounding rhythm of music from speakers spread around the floor. In quick succession they bent their trunks forward, their heads down, stuck their hands backwards between their knees, then straightened their bodies, raised their arms again and began to repeat the entire process.
There were about fifteen women, in leotards. Most were blue but there was also red, pink, and green. In the middle of the room stood Bernard, also in a leotard, holding a swagger stick. He must have been a ballet dancer; he was certainly proud enough of his firm buttocks.
"Don't bend your knees, Pia Azambuja! Pull in your buttocks, Ana Maria Melo!"
Smack! The swagger stick rapped Ana Maria Melo's fanny.
"Follow the rhythm, Eve Cavalcante Meier! Don't stop, Renata Albuquerque Lins!" Bernard used the students' full names; they were the names of important fathers and husbands.
The receptionist closed the door.
"You've seen everything, haven't you?"
"Does he always hit the students?" I asked.
"It's just a tap, it doesn't hurt a bit. They don't mind. They even like it. Bernard is marvelous. When they come here the students are full of cellulite, flabby, have bad posture, awful skin, and Bernard gives them the body of a beauty queen."
We filled out my wife's card.
"My wife's an American. Pearl means Pérola."
I don't know what I see in making jokes nobody gets, but I do it all the time.
I paced back and forth in front of the Fiat, playing White, controlling the center: K3, Q3, KB4, K4, Q4, QB4, KB5, K5, Q5, QB5, K6, and Q6. Power and focus of action. Giuoco Piano. Sicilian. Nimzo-Indian.
Eve came out with her hair wet, wearing long cotton pants and a knit blouse, her arms bare. She carried a large handbag.
"Hello." I planted myself in her path.
"Do I know you?" she asked coldly.
"From your father's house. He hired me as his lawyer."
"Oh . . . ?"
"But he already fired me."
"Oh . . . ?" She spoke brusquely but made no move to leave. She wanted to hear what I had to say. Women are curious as cats. (Men are like cats too. Whatever.)
"Someone was trying to involve him in the death of Marly Moreira, the girl they found in the Barra with a bullet in her head."
"Is that it?"
"A blackmailer named Márcio claims he has papers that incriminate your father."
"The police suspect him. I have more to say, but not here in the street."
When the waiter came she ordered mineral water. God, Bernard, and Strict Dieting had created that marvel. I ordered Faísca. We sat there in silence.
"If my father is in danger you should speak to him. I don't see what good it does to talk to me."
"Your father released me from his service."
"He must have had some reason."
I told her of the interviews I'd had with Cavalcante Meier, my trip to Gordon's, the meeting between her cousin Lilly and Márcio the biker. Her expression remained unreadable.
"Do you think my father killed that girl?" A scornful smile.
"I don't know."
"My father has a lot of shortcomings. He's vain and weak, and worse, but he's not a murderer. Anybody can take one look at him and see I'm right."
I mentally ran through the faces of all the murderers I'd known. None of them looked guilty.
"Somebody killed the girl, and it wasn't a robbery."
"It wasn't my father either."
"Márcio the biker stopped to talk to you in the garden when he went to see your father."
"You're mistaken. I don't know who that person is."
I looked into her innocent face. I knew that she knew that I knew she was lying. Eve had a face by Botticelli, un-Brazilian on that sunny day, which perhaps made her more attractive to me. I don't like suntanned women. It's a device. The skin knows its color, like the hair, the eyes. It's stupid to use the sun as a cosmetic.
"You're very pretty," I said.
"You're an unpleasant, ugly, ridiculous person," she said.
Eve got up and left, walking the way Bernard had taught her.
I went home, turned off the answering machine. Berta had gone to her place. All my life I've either not dreamed or forgotten most of what I dreamed. But there were two dreams I always remembered, always those two and no others. In one I dreamed I was sleeping and dreamed a dream I forgot upon waking, leaving the feeling of having lost an important revelation. In the other I was in bed with a woman and she touched my body and I experienced her sensations as she touched my body, as if my body weren't of flesh and blood. I woke up (in reality, outside the dream) and ran my hand over my skin and felt as if it were covered with cold metal.
I woke up to the sound of the doorbell. Wexler.
"What've you been getting into? Do you know who's after you? Detective Pacheco. Are you involved with the commies now?"
Wexler told me that Pacheco had come by the office early that morning, looking for me. Pacheco was famous across the entire country.
"He wants you to go down to the station and have a talk with him." I didn't want to, but Wexler convinced me. "Nobody gets away from Pacheco," he said.
Wexler went with me. Pacheco didn't keep us waiting long. He was a fat man with a pleasant face which belied his unsavory reputation.
"Your activities are under investigation," Pacheco said with a sleepy air.
"I don't know why I'm here; I'm corrupt, not subversive." Another joke.
"You're neither one nor the other," Pacheco said in a tired voice, "but it wouldn't be hard to prove you're both." He looked at me like someone looking at his naughty kid brother.
"A friend told me you've been bothering him. Stop doing it."
"May I ask your friend's name? I bother a lot of people."
"You know who he is. Leave him alone, joker."
"Let's go then," Wexler said. His father had been killed before his eyes in the Warsaw ghetto pogrom in 1943, when he was eight. He could read people's faces.
"Be careful with that Nazi," Wexler said in the street. "Look, just what kind of mess are you involved in?"
I told him about the Cavalcante Meier case. Wexler spat vigorously on the ground–when he's angry he doesn't swear, he spits on the ground–and grasped my arm firmly.
"You have nothing to do with the case. Drop it. Those Nazis!" He spat again.
I called Berta.
"B.B., you open with the Ruy Lopez and I'll beat you in fifteen moves."
It was a lie. Black has real problems with that opening when the players are equal, as was our case. I just wanted someone near who loved me.
"You look awful," Berta said when she arrived.
My face is a collage of several faces, something that began when I was eighteen; until then my face had unity and symmetry, I was only one. Later I became many.
I set the bottle of Faísca beside the chessboard.
We began to play. As agreed, she opened with the Ruy Lopez. By the fifteenth move I was in a tight spot.
"What's going on? Why didn't you use the Steinitz defense to leave the king file open for the rook? Or the Tchigorin defense, developing the queen side? You can't be that passive against a Ruy Lopez."
"Look, Berta, Bertie, Bertola, Bertette, Bertier, Bertiest, Bertissima, Bertina, B.B."
"You're drunk," Berta said.
"We're not going to play any more."
"I want to hug you, rest my head on your breasts, feel the warmth between your legs. I'm tired, B.B. And I'm in love with another woman."
"What? Are you pulling a Le Bonheur on me?"
"A mediocre film," I said.
Berta threw the chessmen on the floor. An impulsive woman.
"Who's the woman? I had an abortion because of you, I have a right to know."
"The daughter of a client."
"How old is she? My age? Or are you already looking for younger ones? Sixteen? Twelve?"
"Is she prettier than me?"
"I don't know. Maybe not. But she's a woman I'm attracted to."
"You men are such childish, weak braggarts! A fool, you're a fool!"
"I love you, Berta," I said, thinking of Eve.
When we went to bed I thought of Eve the entire time. After we made love Berta fell asleep, belly upwards. She snored lightly, her mouth open, torpid. Whenever I drink a lot, I only sleep for half an hour, and I wake up feeling guilty. There was Berta, her mouth open, sleeping like the dead. Sleeping is such a weakness! Children know that. That's why I don't sleep much, the fear of being unarmed. Berta was snoring. Strange, in such a gentle person. The sun was coming up, with a fantastic light somewhere between red and white. That called for a bottle of Faísca. I drank it, showered, got dressed, and went to the office. The watchman asked, "The bed catch on fire last night, sir?"
I sat down and did the final brief for a client. Wexler arrived and we started talking about inconsequential matters, things that wouldn't get us excited.
"It must be hell being the son of Portuguese immigrants," Wexler said.
"What about the son of a Jew killed in a pogrom?" I asked.
"My father was a Latin professor, my mother played Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms on the piano. Your father fished for cod, your mother was a seamstress!"
Wexler went to the window and spat.
"Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Belsen, and Buchenwald. The five B's of the piano," I said.
He gave a painful look, an expression only Jews can achieve.
"Forgive me," I said. His mother had died at Buchenwald, a young and pretty woman in her photo, with a sweet, dark-complexioned face. "Forgive me."
The day ended and I decided not to go home. I didn't want to face Berta, the answering machine, anyone or anything. All I could think of was Eve. My passions are brief but overwhelming.
A cheap hotel on Correa Dutra Street, in Flamengo. I got the key, went up to the room, lay down, and stared at the ceiling.
There was one bulb, a dirty globe of light, which I turned on and off. The street sounds blended with the silence into an opaque, neutral mucus. Eve. Eve. Cain killed Abel. Someone's always killing someone else. I spent the night tossing in bed.
In the morning I paid the hotel and went for a shave and haircut.
"The Steinitz defense," I told the barber, "isn't really that effective. The rook's mobility is limited; it's a powerful piece, although predictable."
"You're right," the barber said cautiously.
"The Tchigorin defense jeopardizes the queen, something I never do," I continued. "Everything's wrong, the idiotic lyrics of the national anthem, our positivist flag without the color red–what good is the green of our forests and the yellow of our gold without the blood of our veins?"
"It's scandalous," the barber said.
While the barber talked about the cost of living, I read the paper. Márcio Amaral, also known as Márcio the Suzuki, had been found dead in his apartment in the Fátima section. One bullet in the head. In his right hand was a .38 Taurus revolver with one spent cartridge in the cylinder. The police suspected homicide. Márcio the Suzuki was said to be involved in the drug trade in the city's South Zone.
"I don't care any more. Screw them all, that bastard of a senator and his ice queen daughter, the pale shadow, the dead secretary and her gabby parents, the biker, Guedes–they can all go to hell. I've had it."
The barber looked at me uneasily.
There was a note for me in my apartment: Where have you been hiding? Are you crazy? Wexler wants to talk to you, urgently. I'm at the store. Call me. I love you. I miss you like mad. Berta.
I still liked Berta, but my heart no longer beat faster when I heard her voice or read her messages. Berta had become the perfect person to marry, when I was old and decrepit.
I called Berta, set up a meeting for that night. What else could I do? I dialed Wexler.
"I thought Pacheco had you," Wexler said. "Raul is looking for you. Says it's important."
Raul's telephone rang and rang and rang. He answered just as I was about to hang up.
"I was in the bathroom. Guedes really wanted to talk to you. Stop by Homicide," he said.
I told Raul about Pacheco's threats. Raul said to be careful.
At Homicide Guedes saw me right away.
"I'll play straight with you," he said. "Read this."
The handwriting was rounded, the dots over the i's little circles. Rodolfo, don't think you can treat me like this, like an object you use and then throw away. I feel like doing crazy things, having a talk with your wife, raising a scandal in the company, going public in the newspapers. You have no idea what I'm capable of. I don't want an apartment any more, you can't buy me the way you do everybody else. You're the man of my life, I never had another, I didn't want to and I still don't. You've been avoiding me, and that's no way to end a relationship like ours. I want to see you. Call me, right away. I'm really out of my head and nervous. I might do anything. Marly.
"Well?" Guedes said.
"You have any ideas?"
"What idea could I have?"
"What do you make of the letter?"
"Has the handwriting been analyzed?"
"No, but I'm sure it's Marly Moreira's. Know where the letter was found? On one Márcio Amaral, commonly known as Márcio the Suzuki. The person who killed Márcio searched the room, possibly looking for the letter, but forgot to look in the victim's pockets. That's where the letter was."
"An amateur," I said.
"A real amateur. They tried to fake a suicide without knowing the tricks. No sign of gunpowder on Márcio's fingers, the bullet's path was downward; lots of mistakes. The killer was standing and the victim was seated. I think I know who the murderer is. An important man."
"Be careful. Important men can buy everybody."
"Not everybody's for sale," Guedes said. He could have said he was incorruptible, but the ones who really aren't for sale, like him, don't brag about it.
"Senator Rodolfo Cavalcante Meier killed Marly," Guedes went on. "Márcio, we don't know how, got hold of the letter and started blackmailing the senator. To cover up the first crime, the senator committed a second one, killing Márcio."
I was looking at a decent man doing his job with dedication and intelligence. I felt like telling everything I knew, but I couldn't. Cavalcante Meier wasn't even my client, he was a disgusting millionaire and maybe a vile murderer as well, but even so I couldn't turn him in. My job is to get people out of the grasp of the police; I just can't bring myself to do the opposite.
"Well?" Guedes asked.
"The senator wouldn't have to kill anyone himself. He'd find somebody to do the job for him," I said.
"We're not in his home state," Guedes said.
"We also have hit men here who'll kill for next to nothing."
"But they can't be trusted. The police get hold of them, rough them up a bit, and they spill their guts. They're not mafiosi working under some code of silence," Guedes said. "Besides, you agreed that both crimes were the work of an amateur."
I repeated that I knew nothing about the crimes and that my opinion was off the top of my head.
"Raul said you could help," Guedes said, disappointed, as I left.
I set up the chessboard and put a bottle of Faísca in the ice bucket.
"I don't feel like playing chess or drinking wine," Berta said.
"What is it, honey?" I asked, knowing only too well.
"The only way I'll stay with you is if you give up that girl."
"There's nothing between us. How can I give up what doesn't exist?"
"You care about her, that exists. I want you to stop caring about her. You once told me you only care about those who care about you, that you only care about those you love. I want you to care only about me. Otherwise, good-bye, no more chess games, no balling any time you feel the urge, no wine binges. I hate wine, you idiot, I drink it because of you. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it."
"What about chess?"
"Chess I like," Berta said, wiping her tears. Berta was a protagonist in my life, instead of her own.
I promised to make an effort to forget Eve. I let her beat me using the Blemenfeld countergambit. To tell the truth she'd have won anyway, since the whole time I was asking myself how Marly Moreira's letter had fallen into the hands of Márcio the Suzuki. P-Q4, N-KB3. Cavalcante Meier would surely have kept it in a safe place. N-KB3, BP-Q3. Why didn't he destroy it? Maybe he never received it, maybe someone intercepted it. P B4, P B4. In that case it had to be someone in his house, assuming the letter was sent to his house; it might have gone to his office. I had a hunch it was the house. The butler? I laughed. P-Q5, P-QN4. "You're laughing, are you?" Berta said, "In a few minutes you'll see." PxKP, BPxP, it was Berta's turn to laugh. Someone in security, or the wife, whom I'd never seen, or the daughter, or the niece. As Raul said, you have to suspect even your own mother. PxP, P-Q4. "Mate!" Berta said.
"B.B.," I said, "not even Alekhine could have played so brilliantly."
"You just played badly," Berta said.
I was willing to forget Eve, as I had promised Berta, but when I got to Cavalcante Meier's house it was Eve who opened the door, and my enthusiasm returned. I had first gone to the office, where they told me the senator was at home, sick. I had a newspaper in my hand with a story about the death of Marly Moreira. The case was back on page one. Ballistics had proved that Márcio the Suzuki was shot with the same gun that killed Marly. Detective Guedes had said in an interview that a big name was involved and that the police were close to arresting him, whatever the consequences. There was also talk of drug dealing.
"I want to speak with your father."
"He can't see anyone."
"It's in his interest. Tell him the police have the letter. Just that."
She looked at me with her impassive doll's face. Her healthy skin had the appearance of porcelain, rosy cheeks, red lips, bright blue eyes, a luxuriant growing thing in the prime of life. She was like a color slide projected in the air.
"He can't see anyone," Eve repeated.
"Look, girl, your father's in a bind and I want to help him. Tell him the police have the letter."
Cavalcante Meier received me wearing a short red velvet robe. His hair had been carefully combed and oiled, recently.
"The police have the letter," I said. "They know it was sent to a certain Rodolfo and think you're that Rodolfo. Fortunately the envelope hasn't been found, so they can't prove anything."
"I tore up the envelope," he said. "I don't know why I didn't destroy the letter too. I kept it in a drawer in the table by my bed."
"A banker's failing, keeping documents," I said.
"I didn't kill Marly. I haven't the faintest idea who did."
"I'm not sure I believe that. I think it was you."
He looked like Jack Palance, Wilson the gunslinger pulling on his black gloves and saying "Prove it" to Elisha Cook Jr., just before he whipped out his Colt and shot him in the chest, then threw him face down into the mud furrowed by wagon wheels.
"There are a lot of Rodolfos in the world. I can prove I never saw the girl in my life. Do you know where I was at the time the crime was committed? Having dinner with the Governor. He can confirm it. You're a man consumed by envy, aren't you? You hate people who made it in life, who didn't end up as jailhouse lawyers, don't you?"
"I don't hate anyone. I merely feel contempt for scum like you."
"Then what are you doing here? After money?"
"No, after your daughter."
Cavalcante Meier raised his hand to hit me. I stopped his hand in midair. His arm had no strength to it. I released his hand. He was a piece of filth, a courtly exploiter of people, sybarite, parasite.
Raul was waiting for me at the office.
"Guedes has been taken off the Marly Moreira case by order of the Commissioner, as of today. He gave interviews against regulations. They think he's bucking for promotion. He's been transferred to a precinct in the sticks. He can't open his trap."
Guedes wasn't out for promotion. He believed Cavalcante Meier was guilty and wanted to go public before they could cover it up. He believed in the media and in public opinion. Naive, but that kind of person often achieves incredible things.
"So how's it going?" Wexler asked.
"Ah, Leon, I'm in love!"
"Aren't you always? Berta is a nice girl."
"It's a different one. Senator Cavalcante Meier's daughter."
"You want to screw every woman in the world," Wexler said in recrimination.
It was true. I had the soul of a sultan out of the thousand and one nights; when I was a boy, at least once a month I would fall in love and cry myself to sleep. As an adolescent, I began dedicating my life to screwing. The daughters of friends, the wives of friends, women I knew and women I didn't know–I screwed everybody. The only one I didn't screw was my mother.
"There's a girl in the outer office who wants to speak to you," Dona Gertrudes, the secretary, told me. Dona Gertrudes was becoming uglier by the day. She was starting to get a humpback and mustache, and I had the impression that she looked cross-eyed at me, one eye in each direction. A saintly woman. On second thought, was she really?
Eve, in the outer office. We stood there reading each other's expressions.
"Do you play chess?" I asked.
"Will you teach me?" I asked.
I held myself in check so I wouldn't fly around the room like a June bug.
"It wasn't my father, I know it wasn't."
"I love you," I said. "From the first day I met you." Her look was like a blowtorch.
"I was pretty shaken myself that day."
We were holding hands when Wexler came into the room.
"Raul is here. I told him you were busy. You want to talk to him?"
"It must be something to do with the Marly case. Yes, I'll talk to him. Wait here," I told Eve.
I was at the door when Eve said, "Save my father."
I turned. "You have to help me do that."
"You can begin by not lying to me any more."
"I won't lie again."
"What did you say to Márcio the Suzuki at your house? Where did you know him from?"
"Márcio supplied cocaine for my cousin Lilly. But she kicked the habit about six months ago. That day I asked Márcio if Lilly had gone back to snorting and he said no. I was afraid he was there to bring drugs for her."
"Where did Lilly get the money to buy the stuff?"
"Daddy gives Lilly anything she asks for. She's the daughter of his brother who died when Lilly was a child. Her mother remarried and wanted nothing to do with her, so Lilly came to live with us when she was eight."
"Why did you say you know your father didn't kill Marly and Márcio?"
"My father couldn't kill anyone."
"So it's just a feeling, a simple assumption?"
"Yes," she said, refusing to meet my eyes.
Raul was pacing back and forth in Wexler's office.
"Guedes says he's going to publicly name the senator as the murderer and that he doesn't care what happens."
"Guedes is crazy," I said. "We can't let him make that blunder."
Raul and I went looking for Guedes. Eve went home. I promised to call her later.
Guedes was at the morgue, talking to a technician friend of his. He was working on his statement to the press.
"Cavalcante Meier didn't do it," I said.
"Two days ago you didn't know the first thing about the case, now you show up with total insight."
I told him part of what I knew.
"If it wasn't Cavalcante Meier, who was it?"
"I don't know. Maybe a drug dealer."
"I went through Marly Moreira's life with a fine-tooth comb. There's not the slightest chance she was involved in dealing drugs. And both were killed by the same person. Your reasoning is full of holes."
I attempted to defend my point of view. I mentioned Cavalcante Meier's alibi. After all, the testimony of the Governor couldn't be ignored.
"They're all corrupt. Just wait, when the Governor leaves office he'll become a partner in one of Cavalcante Meier's businesses."
"Guedes, you're going to come out of this looking real bad."
"It doesn't matter. What've I got to lose–my job? I'm sick of being a cop."
"Accusing an innocent man is slander; it's a crime."
"He isn't innocent. I have my proof." Guedes's eyes blazed with rectitude, justice, integrity, and probity. "Did you know that Senator Cavalcante Meier is the registered owner of a .38 Taurus revolver, the same caliber as the bullets that caused the deaths of Marly and Márcio?"
"Lots of people keep a .38 in their house. When's the press conference?"
"Tomorrow at ten a.m."
I arrived at the house in Gávea just as night was falling.
"What happened?" Eve asked. "The look on your face–"
"Where's your father?"
"In his bedroom. He's not feeling well."
"I have to speak to him. It's important."
I got a surprise when I saw Cavalcante Meier. His hair was uncombed, he hadn't shaved, and his eyes were red, as if he'd been drinking too much, or crying. The look of Jannings, Professor Rath, in The Blue Angel, struggling to hide his shame, surprised by the world's incomprehension. Lilly was at his side, her face paler than ever, her skin looking as if it had been whitewashed. She held a purse in her hand. Her black dress heightened her phantasmagoric beauty.
"I did it," Cavalcante Meier said.
"Daddy!" Eve exclaimed.
Cavalcante Meier didn't ring true. I've been to enough movies to know a bad actor when I see one.
"I did it, I already said I did. Tell your policeman friend to come pick me up. Get out of my house!"
He came toward me as if to attack. Eve held him back.
"Go away, please go away," Eve begged.
As I left, Lilly went with me. She stopped next to my car.
"Okay if I come along?"
Lilly sat beside me. I drove slowly through the dark tree-lined gardens and toward the entrance.
"He's lying," I said. "It must be to protect someone. Maybe Eve."
Lilly's body began to tremble, but no sound came from her throat. As we passed a lamppost I saw that her face was wet with tears.
"It wasn't him. Or Eve," Lilly said, so low I could barely make out the words.
So that was it. I already knew the truth, and what the hell good did it do me? Is there really any such thing as guilty and innocent?
"I'm listening, you can begin," I said.
"I discovered I loved Uncle Rodolfo two years ago, not as an uncle, or father, which is what he'd been to me till then, but as one loves a lover."
I said nothing. I know when a person is about to bare their soul.
"We've been lovers for six months. He's everything in my life and I'm everything in his."
"Is that why you killed Marly?"
"Did he know?"
"No. I told him today. He tried to protect me. He loves me as much as I love him."
In the half darkness of the car she looked like a fluorescent statue bathed in black light.
"I can tell you how it happened."
"My uncle told me he was having problems with a girl he'd had an affair with and who worked for one of his firms. She was threatening to cause a scandal, to tell my aunt everything. My aunt is a very sick woman, and I love her as if she were my mother."
I had never seen her. Rich families have inviolable secrets, secret faces, dark complicities.
"She never leaves her room. There's always a nurse at her side; she could die at any time."
"My uncle received the letter, on a Monday I think. Every night, around eleven, I would go to his room, then leave early the next morning before the maids came to straighten up."
"Did Eve know about this?"
"Go on," I said
"That day Uncle Rodolfo was very nervous. He showed me the letter, said that Marly was crazy, that the scandal could kill Aunt Nora and ruin him politically. Uncle Rodolfo is a very good man, he doesn't deserve anything like that."
"Go on," I said.
"Uncle Rodolfo showed me the letter from that Marly woman and then left it on the night table. The next day I took the letter, found that woman's phone number, and called her. I said who I was and that I had a message from Uncle Rodolfo. We arranged a meeting for after office hours. I chose a deserted beach where I swim sometimes. She was arrogant and said to tell Uncle Rodolfo not to treat her like dirt. When the old lady dies, she threatened, that bastard will have to marry me. I had Uncle Rodolfo's revolver in my bag. It only took one shot. She fell forward, moaning. I ran and got my car, found Márcio and asked him to sell me some coke. I did a few lines at his place, the first time in six months. I was desperate. I dozed off, and Márcio must have gone through my bag and taken the letter while I was asleep. When Uncle Rodolfo told me you were meeting Márcio at Gordon's, I got there first so you wouldn't find him. I made up a story that Uncle Rodolfo had sent the police after him."
"Please stop calling him uncle."
"That's what I always called him, and I'm not going to change now. Márcio was furious, and went to Uncle Rodolfo's house the next day. You know that part, you saw it all."
"I met Márcio in the garden, when he was leaving. He told me Uncle Rodolfo was going to pay him off but that he wasn't going to return the letter. I set up a time with him to buy some cocaine; I'd already made up my mind to get him out of the way. Márcio was in an easy chair watching television, already spaced out on coke and whiskey. I went up to him and shot him in the head. I felt nothing, except disgust, as if he were a cockroach."
"You didn't find the letter. It was in Márcio's pocket."
"I searched everywhere, but I'd never look in his pocket. Touching him would make me sick," Lilly said.
"What happened to the money?"
"It was in a suitcase. I took it home. It's in my bedroom closet."
I stopped the car. She was holding her purse tightly between trembling hands.
"Give that to me," I said.
"No!" she answered, clutching the bag to her chest.
I tore the bag from her grasp. The Taurus was inside: two-inch barrel, mother-of-pearl handle. Her eyes were a bottomless abyss.
"Leave the gun with me," Lilly asked.
I shook my head.
"Then take me back so I can be with Uncle Rodolfo."
"I have to find Guedes. Take a cab. And I'd hire a lawyer right away."
"Everything's ruined, isn't it?"
"Unfortunately it is. For all of us," I replied.
I put her in a taxi and went looking for Guedes. I thought about Eve. Farewell, my lovely. The long good-bye. The big sleep. There was no one inside my body. The hands on the steering wheel seemed to belong to someone else.
Translation of "Mandrake." Copyright Rubem Fonseca. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.