X The Blue Car
“That was a dirty trick,” said Haroun… “Show me another… one that is honest.”
Beneath the brim of his hat, Cesar arched a peevish eyebrow as he swung his umbrella and looked about with the disdain, tempered by the most exquisite boredom, in which he usually entrenched himself when reality confirmed his worst fears. The Rastro, it must be said, did not look terribly welcoming that morning. The grey sky threatened rain, and the owners of the stalls set up along the streets occupied by the market were taking precautions against a possible downpour. In some places, walking became a tortuous process of dodging people and skirting the canvas and grimy plastic with which the stalls were hung.
“In fact,” he said to Julia, who was looking at a pair of battered brass candlesticks displayed on a blanket on the ground, “this is a complete waste of time. I haven’t found anything decent here for ages.”
This wasn’t quite true, and Julia knew it. From time to time, thanks to his expert eye, Cesar would unearth from the pile of discarded junk in the old market – drawn from that vast cemetery of dreams swept out into the street on the tide of many an anonymous shipwreck – some forgotten pearl, some tiny treasure that chance had chosen to conceal from the eyes of others: an eighteenth-century crystal tumbler, an antique frame, a diminutive porcelain objet d’art. Once, in a shabby little shop selling books and old magazines, he’d found two beautiful chapter headings delicately and skillfully illuminated by some nameless thirteenth-century monk, which, once restored by Julia, he had sold for a small fortune.
They slowly made their way to the upper part of the market, to the short row of buildings with peeling walls and gloomy inner courtyards connected by alleyways with wrought-iron gates, that were home to those specialist antiques shops more or less worthy of the name -although Cesar wore a look of prudent scepticism when he spoke of them.
“What time did you arrange to meet your dealer?”
Cesar shifted his umbrella – a very expensive piece with a beautifully turned silver grip – to his other hand, pushed up his cuff and studied the face of his gold watch. He was looking very elegant in a light brown felt hat with broad brim and silk band, a camel’s-hair coat draped over his shoulders and a handsome cravat at the open neck of his silk shirt. He always dressed perilously close to the limits of good taste, though without ever overstepping the mark.
“In about fifteen minutes.”
They browsed amongst the stalls. Under Cesar’s mocking gaze, Julia picked up a painted wooden plate showing a yellowing landscape rather crudely done, a rural scene with an ox cart moving down a path edged by trees.
“Surely you’re not going to buy that, my dear?” Cesar said, enjoying his own disapproval. “It’s revolting. Aren’t you even going to haggle?”
Julia opened her shoulder bag and took out her purse, ignoring Cesar’s protests.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” she said as the plate was being wrapped for her in a few pages from an illustrated magazine. “You’ve always said that people, comme il faut, never discuss the price of anything: you pay on the nail and walk away with your head held high.”
“That rule doesn’t apply here.” Cesar, looking about with an air of professional detachment, wrinkled his nose at the plebeian sight of junk-laden stalls. “Not when you’re dealing with people like this.”
Julia put the package into her bag.
“Even so you might have had the decency to buy it for me. When I was a child, you bought me anything I fancied.”
“I spoiled you horribly when you were a child. Anyway, I refuse to pay good money for trash like that.”
“You’re getting mean in your old age, that’s your problem.”
“Be silent, viper!” The brim of his hat cast a shadow over his face as he bent to light a cigarette outside a shop crammed with dusty old dolls. “One more word and I write you out of my will.”
Julia watched him climbing the flight of steps as he left for his meeting. He did so with great dignity, keeping the hand that held the ivory cigarette holder slightly raised, and wearing the half-disdainful, half-bored air of one who does not expect to find very much at the end of the road, but who, for aesthetic reasons, takes pains to walk that road as elegantly as possible. Like a Charles Stuart climbing to the scaffold almost as if he were doing so as a favour to the executioner, with his already rehearsed “Remember” on his lips and in the hope that he would be beheaded in profile, as he appeared on the coins struck in his image.
Clutching her bag, as a precaution against pickpockets, Julia threaded her way amongst the stalls. There were too many people in that part of the market, so she decided to go back to the steps and the balustrade overlooking the square and the market’s main street, where people were milling about beneath endless rows of awnings and plastic sheets.
She had an hour before meeting Cesar again, in a small cafe on the square, between a shop selling nautical instruments and a second-hand clothes shop that specialised in army surplus. Below the balustrade, sitting on the edge of a stone fountain full of fruit peel and empty beer cans, a young man with long blond hair and a poncho was playing Andean melodies on a rudimentary flute. She listened to the music as she let her gaze drift over the market. After a while she went back down the steps and stopped at the shop window full of dolls. Some were clothed, others were naked; some were dressed in picturesque peasant costumes or complicatedly romantic outfits complete with gloves, hats and parasols. Some represented girls and others grown women. The features of some were crude, others were childish, ingenuous, perverse. Their arms and hands were frozen in diverse positions, as if surprised by the cold wind of all the time that had passed since their owners abandoned or sold them, or died. Girls who became women, thought Julia – some beautiful, some plain, who had loved or perhaps been loved – had once caressed those bodies made of rags, cardboard and Porcelain. Those dolls had survived their owners. They were dumb, motionless witnesses whose imaginary retinas still retained images of scenes long since erased from the memories of the living: faded pictures sketched amongst mists of nostalgia, intimate moments of family life, children’s songs, loving embraces, as well as tears and disappointments dreams turned to ashes, decay and sadness, perhaps even to evil. There was something unbearably touching about that multitude of glass and porcelain eyes that stared at her unblinking, full of the Olympian know-ledge that only time possesses, lifeless eyes embedded in pale wax or papier-mache faces, above dresses so darkened by time that the lace edgings looked dull and grubby. And then there was the hair, some combed and neat, some dishevelled, real hair – the thought made her shiver – that had belonged to real women. By a melancholy association of ideas, a fragment of a poem surfaced in her mind, one that she’d heard Cesar recite long ago:
If they had kept all the hair of all the women who have died…
She found it hard to look away from the window, the glass of which reflected the heavy grey clouds darkening the city. And when she did turn round, ready to walk on, she saw Max, wearing a heavy navy blue jacket, his hair, as usual, tied back in a ponytail. He was looking down the steps as if fleeing from someone whose proximity troubled him.
“What a surprise!” he said, and gave her that handsome, wolfish smile that so enchanted Menchu. They exchanged a few trivial remarks about the unpleasant weather and the number of people at the market. He gave no explanation for his presence there, but Julia noticed that he seemed jumpy, slightly furtive. Perhaps he was expecting Menchu, since he mentioned that they’d arranged to meet near there, some complicated story about cheap frames which, once restored – Julia had often done it herself – could be used to set off canvases on display at the gallery.
Julia didn’t like Max, and she attributed to this the discomfort she always felt with him. Quite apart from the nature of his relationship with her friend, there was something that displeased her, something she’d sensed the first moment they met. Cesar, whose fine, feminine intuition was never wrong, used to say that, beautiful body aside, there was an indefinable, mean-spirited quality about Max that surfaced in his crooked smile and in the insolent way he looked at Julia. Max’s gaze could never be held for long, but whenever Julia forgot it and then looked back at him again, she would find his gaze stubbornly fixed on her, crafty and watchful, evasive yet insistent. It wasn’t one of those vague glances, like Paco Montegrifo’s, that wander about before calmly returning to rest once more on the object or person claiming his attention; it was the kind of glance that turns into a stare when the person thinks no one is looking and grows shifty the moment he feels he’s being observed. “It’s the look of someone intent, at the very least, on stealing your wallet,” Cesar had said once about Menchu’s lover. Julia had simply responded to Cesar’s spiteful remark with a disapproving frown, but she had to admit that he was absolutely right.
There were other murky aspects to him. Julia knew that those glances contained something more than mere curiosity. Confident of his physical attraction, Max often behaved, in Menchu’s absence or behind her back, in a fashion that was both calculated and suggestive. Any doubts she’d had about that had been dispelled during a party at Menchu’s house, in the early hours of the morning. Conversation had been flagging, and her friend had left the room to get more ice. Leaning towards the low table where the drinks were, Max had picked up Julia’s glass and raised it to his lips. That would have meant little if he hadn’t then replaced it on the table, looked at her, licked his lips and smiled with cynical regret that circumstances prevented him intruding further upon her person. Needless to say, Menchu was completely unaware of this, and Julia would have cut out her tongue rather than report something that would merely have sounded ridiculous when put into words. So she had adopted the only attitude she could with Max: an evident disdain on occasions when she found speaking to him unavoidable and a deliberate arm’s-length chilliness whenever they met face to face without witnesses, as now, in the Rastro.
“I don’t have to meet Menchu until later,” he said, dangling before her that self-satisfied smile she so detested. “Do you fancy a drink?”
She looked at him hard then shook her head slowly, pointedly.
“I’m waiting for Cesar.”
Max knew full well that he was no favourite of Cesar’s.
“Pity,” he murmured. “We don’t often get the chance to meet like this. On our own, I mean.”
Julia merely arched her eyebrows and looked around as if Cesar were about to appear at any moment. Max followed the direction of her gaze and shrugged.
“I’ve arranged to meet Menchu over there in half an hour, by the statue of the soldier. If you want to, we could meet for a drink later on.” He left a long meaningful pause before adding: “The four of us.”
“I’ll see what Cesar says.”
She watched him as he walked off into the crowd, his broad shoulders swaying, until he’d disappeared from view. As on other occasions, she was left with the uncomfortable feeling of having been unable just to let things be, as if, despite her rejection of his offer, Max had again managed to violate her inner self. She was irritated with herself, although she didn’t know quite what she should have done. There were times, she thought, when she would give anything to be strong enough simply to punch Max in his handsome, self-satisfied stud’s face.
She wandered amongst the stalls for about a quarter of an hour before going to the cafe. She tried to distract herself with the comings and goings about her, with the voices of the sellers and the people round the stalls, but to no avail. Once she’d forgotten Max, the painting, and Alvaro’s death, the game of chess returned like an obsession, posing unanswerable questions. Perhaps the invisible player was also near at hand, in the crowd, watching her as he planned his next move. She looked about suspiciously and pressed her leather bag to her, the bag containing Cesar’s pistol. It was all terribly absurd, or perhaps it was the other way round, absurdly terrible.
The cafe had a wooden floor and old wrought-iron-and-marble tables. Julia ordered a cold drink and sat next to a misty window, trying not to think about anything, until Cesar’s blurred silhouette appeared in the street outside. She went out to meet him, in search of consolation, as seemed only fitting.
“You get lovelier by the minute,” said Cesar, affecting an admiring tone and standing ostentatiously in the middle of the street, with his hands on his hips. “How ever do you manage it, my dear?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, taking his arm with a feeling of infinite relief. “It was only an hour ago that I left you.”
“That’s what I mean, Princess.” Cesar lowered his voice as if he were whispering secrets. “You’re the only woman I know capable of becoming more beautiful in the space of sixty minutes. If I knew how you did it, we could patent it. Really.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“And you, my dear, are gorgeous.”
They walked down the street towards Julia’s car. Along the way, Cesar brought her up to date on the success of the operation he’d just conducted: a Mater dolorosa which, to a fairly undiscerning buyer, could be safely attributed to Murillo and a Biedermeier writing desk signed and dated in 1832 by Virienichen, a bit battered but authentic, and nothing that a good cabinet-maker couldn’t put to rights. Two genuine bargains acquired at a very reasonable price.
“Especially the writing desk, Princess.” Cesar was swinging his umbrella, delighted with the deal he’d made. “As you know, there’s a certain social class, blessings be upon them, who cannot live without a bed that once belonged to Empress Eugenie or the desk where Talleyrand signed his perjuries. Well, now there’s a new bourgeois class of parvenus who, in their attempts to emulate them, feel they simply have to have a Biedermeier as the supreme symbol of their triumph. They come to you and ask you straight out, without specifying whether they want a table or a desk; what they want is a Biedermeier whatever the cost and whatever it is. Some even believe blindly in the historical existence of poor Mr. Biedermeier and are most surprised when they see that the piece of furniture is actually signed by someone else. First, they give me a disconcerted smile, then they nudge each other and immediately ask if I haven’t got another Biedermeier, a real one.” Cesar sighed, no doubt deploring the difficult times in which he lived. “If it wasn’t for their chequebooks, I can assure you that I’d be tempted to send a few of them chez les grecs.”
“I seem to remember that on occasion that’s exactly what you have done.”
Cesar sighed again, with a pained grimace.
“That’s my daring side, my dear. Sometimes my character just gets the better of me; it’s the scandalous old queen in me, I suppose. A bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as well hardly anyone these days speaks decent French.”
They reached Julia’s car, parked in an alley, just as she was telling him about her encounter with Max. The mere mention of the name was enough to make Cesar frown.
“I’m only glad I didn’t see him, the pimp,” he remarked crossly. “Is he still making treacherous propositions?”
“Nothing serious. I suppose that deep down he’s afraid Menchu would find out.”
“That’s where it would hurt the little rat. In the wallet.” Cesar walked round the car towards the passenger door. “Look at that! They’ve slapped a fine on us.”
“They haven’t, have they?”
“Oh, yes, they have. It’s stuck under the windscreen wiper.” Irritated, he banged the ground with his umbrella. “I don’t believe it. Right in the middle of the Rastro and the police spend their time giving out fines instead of doing what they should be doing, arresting criminals and other riffraff. It’s a disgrace!” He repeated it loudly, looking about him defiantly: “An absolute disgrace!”
Julia removed the empty aerosol can someone had placed on the bonnet of the car and picked up the piece of paper, which was in fact a small card, about the size of a visiting card. Then she stood utterly still, thunderstruck. The shock must have shown on her face, because Cesar, alarmed, hurried round to her side.
“You’ve gone quite pale, my dear. What’s wrong?”
When she spoke, she didn’t recognise her own voice. She felt a terrible desire to run away to some warm, secure place where she could hide her head and close her eyes and feel safe.
“It isn’t a fine, Cesar.”
She held out the card, and Cesar uttered a word no one would expect to hear from him. Because there, in a now all too familiar format, someone had typed the sinisterly laconic characters:
Pa7 x Rb6
As she stood, stunned, she felt as if her head were spinning. The alley was deserted. The person nearest to it was a seller of religious images, who was sitting on a wicker chair on the corner, about twenty yards from them, watching the people walking past the merchandise she’d laid out on the ground. “He was here, Cesar. Don’t you see? He was here.”
She realised that there was fear in her words but not surprise. Now – and the realisation came in waves of infinite despair – she was not afraid of the unexpected, her fear had become a kind of gloomy sense of resignation, as if the mystery player and his close, threatening presence were becoming an irremediable curse under which she would have to live for the rest of her life. Always supposing, she thought with lucid pessimism, that she had much life left to live.
Ashen, Cesar was turning the card round and round. He could barely speak for indignation:
“The swine… the blackguard.”
Julia’s thoughts were suddenly distracted from the card. What claimed her attention was the empty can she’d found on the bonnet. She picked it up, feeling, as she bent to do so, as though she were moving through the mists of a dream. But she was able to concentrate long enough on the label to understand what it was. She shook her head, puzzled, before showing it to Cesar.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“An aerosol for repairing flat tyres. You stick it in the valve and the tyre inflates. It’s got a sort of white paste in it that repairs the puncture from inside.”
“What’s it doing here?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
They checked the tyres. There was nothing odd about the two on the left. Julia walked round the car and checked the two on the right, which also seemed fine. But just as she was about to drop the can on the ground, she noticed that the valve on the back tyre was missing its cap. In its place was a bubble of white paste.
“Someone’s pumped up the tyre,” said Cesar, after staring at the empty container. “Perhaps it was punctured.”
“It wasn’t when we parked it,” said Julia, and they looked at each other, full of dark presentiments.
“Don’t get in,” said Cesar.
The seller of religious images had seen nothing. There were always a lot of people around and, besides, she was busy with her own affairs, she explained, laying out sacred hearts, statuettes of San Pancracio and sundry virgins. As for the alley, she wasn’t sure. A couple of locals had been past in the last hour, possibly a few other people.
“Do you remember anyone in particular?” Cesar had taken off his hat and was bending towards the seller, his overcoat over his shoulders and his umbrella under his arm. The image of a perfect gentleman, the woman must have thought.
“I don’t think so.” She wrapped her woollen shawl more tightly round her and frowned as if struggling to remember. “There was a lady, I think. And a couple of young men.”
“Do you remember what they looked like?”
“Just young men, you know the type: leather jackets and jeans…”
An absurd idea flitted across Julia’s mind. The limits of the impossible had, after all, broadened considerably in the last few days.
“Did you see someone in a navy blue jacket? A man about thirty with his hair in a ponytail?”
The seller did not remember having seen Max. She’d noticed the woman, though, because she’d stopped for a moment as if she were going to buy something. She was blonde, middle-aged and well-dressed. But she couldn’t imagine her breaking into a car; she wasn’t the type. She was wearing a raincoat.
“And dark glasses?”
Cesar looked at Julia gravely.
“It’s not even sunny today,” he said.
“It could have been the same woman who delivered the documents.” Cesar paused and his eyes hardened. “Or Menchu.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Cesar shook his head, glancing at the people walking past.
“No, you’re right. But you yourself thought it might be Max.”
“Max… is different.” Her face darkened as she looked down the street, as though Max or the blonde in the raincoat might still be around. What she saw froze the words on her lips and shook her with the force of a blow. There was no woman answering the description, but amongst the awnings and the plastic sheeting of the stalls was a car, parked near the corner. A blue car.
From where she was standing, Julia couldn’t tell if it was a Ford or not, but the jolt of emotion she felt propelled her into action. To Cesar’s surprise, she left the seller of religious images, walked a little way along the pavement and then, skirting a couple of stalls, stood staring over at the corner, on tiptoe in order to get a better look. It was a blue Ford, with smoked-glass windows. Thoughts crowded into her head. She couldn’t see the numberplate, but there had been too many coincidences that morning: Max, Menchu, the card on the windscreen, the empty spray can, the woman in the raincoat and now the car that had become a key element in her nightmare. She was conscious that her hands were trembling and she thrust them into her pockets at the same moment she felt Cesar’s presence behind her.
“It’s the car, Cesar. Do you know what that means? Whoever it is, is inside.”
Cesar didn’t say anything. He slowly took off his hat, perhaps thinking it inappropriate for whatever might happen next, and looked at Julia. She had never loved him so much as she did then, his lips pressed together, his chin up, his blue eyes narrowed and in them a rare glint of steel. The thin lines of his meticulously shaven face looked tense; his jaw muscles twitched. His eyes seemed to say that, man of impeccable manners with little inclination for violence he might be, but he was no coward. At least not where his princess was concerned.
“Wait for me here,” he said.
“No. Let’s go together. You and me.” She looked at him tenderly. Once, when she was a child, she’d kissed him playfully on the mouth. At that moment she felt an impulse to do so again; but this wasn’t a game they were playing now.
She put her hand in her bag and cocked the derringer. Very calmly, Cesar put his umbrella under his arm, went over to one of the stalls and, as if he were selecting a walking stick, grabbed a huge iron poker.
“May I?” he said, pressing the first note he found in his wallet into the astonished stallholder’s hand. He then looked serenely at Julia again and said: “Just this once, my dear, allow me to go first.”
They set off towards the car, using stalls as cover. Julia’s heart was beating hard when she at last got a glimpse of the numberplate. There was no doubt about it: a blue Ford, smoked-glass windows and the letters TH. Her mouth was dry, and she had an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach as if it had contracted in upon itself. That, she said to herself quickly, was what Captain Peter Blood used to feel before boarding an enemy ship.
They reached the corner, and everything happened fast. Someone inside the car lowered the driver’s window to toss out a cigarette. Cesar dropped his umbrella and his hat, raised the poker and walked round to the left side of the car, prepared, if necessary, to kill the pirates or whoever was inside. Julia, her teeth gritted and the blood pounding in her temples, started to run. She took the pistol out and stuck it through the window before the driver had time to wind it up again. In front of her pistol appeared an unknown face: a young man with a beard, who was staring at the gun with terrified eyes. The man in the passenger seat jumped when Cesar wrenched opened the door, the iron poker raised threateningly above his head.
“Get out! Out!” shouted Julia, almost beside herself.
His face deathly pale, the man with the beard raised his hands with his fingers wide, in a gesture of supplication.
“Calm down, Senorita!” he stammered. “For God’s sake, calm down! We’re the police.”
“I recognise,” said Inspector Feijoo, clasping his hands together on his office desk, “that so far we haven’t been terribly efficient in this matter…”
He smiled placidly at Cesar, as if the police’s lack of efficiency was justified. Since we’re in sophisticated company, his look seemed to say, we can allow ourselves a certain amount of constructive self-criticism.
But Cesar seemed ill-disposed to accept this.
“That,” he said disdainfully, “is one way of describing what others would call sheer incompetence.”
It was clear from Feijoo’s crumbling smile that Cesar’s remark was the last straw. His teeth appeared beneath the thick moustache, biting his lower lip and he began an impatient drumming on the desk with the end of his cheap ballpoint. Cesar’s presence meant that he had no option but to tread carefully, and all three of them knew why.
“The police have their methods.”
These were empty words, and Cesar grew impatient, cruel. The fact that he had dealings with Feijoo didn’t mean that he had to be nice to him, still less when he’d caught him in some funny business.
“If those methods consist of having Julia followed while some madman out there is on the loose, sending anonymous messages, I would rather not say what I think of such methods.” He turned towards Julia, then back to the policeman. “I can’t believe that you consider her to be a suspect in the death of Professor Ortega. Why haven’t you investigated me?”
“We have.” Feijoo was piqued by Cesar’s impertinence, and had to bite back his anger. “The fact is, we investigated everyone.” He turned up his palms, accepting responsibility for what he was prepared to acknowledge had been a monumental blunder. “Unfortunately, these things do happen in this job.”
“And have you found out anything?”
“I’m afraid not.” Feijoo reached inside his jacket to scratch an armpit and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “To be perfectly honest, we’re back at square one. The pathologists can’t agree on the cause of Alvaro Ortega’s death. If there really is a murderer at large, our only hope is that at some point he makes a mistake.”
“Is that why you’ve been following me?” asked Julia, still furious. She was clutching her bag in her lap. “To see if I make a mistake?”
The Inspector looked at her grimly.
“You shouldn’t take it so personally. It’s purely routine. Just police tactics.”
Cesar arched an eyebrow.
“As a tactic it doesn’t strike me as being either particularly promising or particularly efficient.”
Feijoo gulped down the sarcasm. At that moment, thought Julia with wicked delight, he must be deeply regretting any illicit dealings he’d had with Cesar. All it needed was for Cesar to open his mouth in a few opportune places and, with no direct accusations being made and with no official paperwork involved, in the discreet way that things tend to be done at a certain level, the Inspector would find himself ending his career in a gloomy office in some far-flung police department, as a pen-pusher with no prospect of extra income.
“I can only assure you,” he said at last, when he’d managed to digest some of the rancour which, as his face plainly revealed, was still stuck in his gullet, “that we will continue our investigations.” He seemed to remember something, reluctantly. “And of course the young lady will be put under special protection.”
“Don’t bother,” said Julia. Feijoo’s humiliation was not enough to make her forget her own. “No more blue cars, please. Enough is enough.”
“It’s for your own safety, Senorita.”
“As you see, I can look after myself.”
The policeman looked away. No doubt his throat still hurt from the bawling out he’d given the two policemen for letting themselves be surprised. “Idiots!” he’d screamed at them. “Bloody amateurs! You’ve really dropped me in the shit this time and, believe me, you’re going to suffer for it!” Cesar and Julia had heard it all while they were waiting in the corridor at the police station.
“As for that…” he began now, after waging what had obviously been a hard battle in his mind between duty and convenience, and crumbling before the weightier demands of the latter. “Given the circumstances, I don’t think that… I mean that the pistol…” He swallowed again before looking at Cesar. “After all, it is an antique, not a modern weapon in the real sense of the word. And you, as an antiques dealer, have the correct licence.” He looked down at the desk, doubtless remembering the last piece, an eighteenth-century clock, for which, only weeks before, Cesar had paid him a good price. “For my part, and I’m speaking here for my two men involved as well…” Again he gave that treacherous, conciliatory smile. “I mean that we’re prepared to overlook certain details of the matter. You, Don Cesar, may reclaim your derringer as long as you promise to take better care of it in future. As for you, Senorita, keep us informed of any new developments and, of course, phone us at once if you have any problems. As far as we’re concerned, there never was any gun. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” said Cesar.
“Good.” His concession over the gun seemed to give Feijoo some sort of moral advantage, so he appeared more relaxed when he spoke to Julia. “As for the tyre on your car, I need to know if you want to make a complaint.”
She looked at him, surprised.
“A complaint? Against whom?”
The Inspector waited before replying as if hoping that Julia would guess his meaning without recourse to words.
“Against a person or persons unknown,” he said. “On a charge of attempted murder.”
“Alvaro’s, you mean?”
“No, yours.” His teeth appeared beneath his moustache again. “Because whoever is sending you those cards has something more serious than chess on his mind. You can buy an aerosol like the one used to fill your tyre, once he’d let the air out, in any shop selling spare parts. Except that this particular aerosol was topped up with a syringeful of petrol. That, with the gas and the plastic stuff already in the container, becomes highly explosive above certain temperatures. You would only have had to drive a few hundred yards for the tyre to heat up sufficiently to produce an explosion immediately underneath the petrol tank. The car would have burst into flames with both of you inside.” He was smiling with evident malice, as if his telling them that was a minor act of revenge. “Isn’t that terrible?”
Munoz arrived at Cesar’s shop an hour later, his ears sticking out above his raincoat collar and his hair wet. He looked like a scrawny stray dog, Julia thought as she watched him shaking off the rain at the door. He shook Julia’s hand, an abrupt handshake, without warmth, a simple contact that committed him to nothing, and greeted Cesar with a nod of the head. Doing his best to keep his wet shoes away from the carpet, he listened unblinkingly to what had happened in the Rastro, moving his head every now and then in a vaguely affirmative gesture, as if the story about the blue Ford and Cesar’s poker held no interest for him whatsoever. His dull eyes only lit up when Julia took the card out of her bag and placed it before him. Minutes later he had laid out his small chess set, which recently he’d never been without, and was intent on studying the latest position of the pieces.
“What I don’t understand,” Julia said, looking over Munoz’s shoulder, “is why the empty spray can was left on the bonnet. We were bound to see it there. Unless the person who did it had to leave in a hurry.”
“Perhaps it was just a warning,” suggested Cesar from his leather armchair beneath the stained-glass window. “A warning in the worst possible taste.”
“It was a lot of trouble to go to though, wasn’t it? Preparing the aerosol, letting the air out of the tyre and then pumping it up again. Not to mention the fact that she risked being seen while she was doing it… It’s pretty ridiculous,” she added, “but have you noticed how I’m referring to our invisible player in the feminine? I can’t stop thinking about the mystery woman in the raincoat.”
“Perhaps we’re going too far,” said Cesar. “When you think about it, there must have been dozens of blonde women in raincoats in the Rastro this morning. Some might have been wearing dark glasses. But you’re right about that empty can. Leaving it right there on the car, in full view. Really grotesque.”
“Not so grotesque perhaps,” said Munoz, and they both looked at him. Sitting on a stool, with the small chessboard laid out on a low table, he was in his shirtsleeves, which had been shortened with a tuck just above the elbow. He’d spoken without raising his head from the chess pieces. And Julia, who was by his side, saw at one corner of his mouth that indefinable expression she’d come to know well, halfway between silent reflection and the suggestion of a smile, and she knew he’d managed to decipher the latest move.
He reached out a finger to the pawn on square a7, without touching it.
“The black pawn that was on square a7 takes the white rook on b6,” he said, showing them the situation on the board. “That’s what our opponent says on the card.”
“And what does that mean?” asked Julia.
“It means that he’s declined to make another move which, in a way, we were afraid he might. I mean, taking the white queen on e1 with the black rook on c1. That move would inevitably have involved an exchange of queens.” He glanced up from the pieces and gave Julia a worried look. “With all that that would imply”
Julia opened her eyes wide.
“Do you mean he’s declined to take me?”
Munoz’s face remained ambivalent.
“You could interpret it like that.” He studied the piece representing
the white queen. “And, if that’s the case, what he’s saying to us is: ‘I’m quite capable of killing, but I’ll only do it when I want to.” “
“Like a cat playing with a mouse,” murmured Cesar, striking the arm of his chair. “The man’s an utter villain!”
“The man or woman,” Julia said.
Cesar clicked his tongue.
“No one’s saying that the woman in the raincoat, if she was the one in the alley, acted on her own. She might be someone’s accomplice.”
“Yes, but whose?”
“That’s what I’d like to know, my dear.”
“Anyway,” said Munoz, “if you forget the woman in the raincoat and concentrate on the card, you might reach a different conclusion about the personality of our opponent.” He looked at each of them in turn before pointing to the board, as if he considered it a waste of time to seek answers anywhere but there. “We know he has a twisted mind, but it turns out that he’s also extremely smug. He, or she, is also arrogant. He’s playing with us.” He indicated the board again, urging them to study the position of the pieces. “Look, in practical terms, in pure chess terms, taking the white queen would have been a bad move. White would have had no option but to accept the exchange of queens, taking the black queen with the white rook on b2, and that would leave Black in a very bad position. Black’s only way out then would have been to move the black rook from e1 to e4, threatening the white king. But the latter would have protected himself simply by moving the white pawn from d2 to d4. Then, seeing the black king surrounded by enemy pieces with no possible help, checkmate would have been inevitable. Black would lose the game.”
“Do you mean,” asked Julia, “that all that business with the can left on the car and the threat to the white queen is just a bluff?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”
“Because our enemy has chosen the move I would have made in his place: taking the white rook on b6 with the pawn that was on a7. That eases White’s pressure on the black king, who was in an extremely difficult position.” He shook his head admiringly. “I told you he was a good player.”
“And now?” asked Cesar.
Munoz passed a hand across his forehead and looked at the board thoughtfully.
“Now we have two options. Perhaps we should take the black queen, but that would force our opponent to carry out an exchange of queens,” he said, looking at Julia, “and I don’t like that. We don’t want to force him to do something he’s already decided against.” He shook his head again as if the black and white pieces confirmed his thoughts. “The odd thing is that he knows that’s how we’ll think, which has its advantages, because I see the moves he makes and sends to us, whereas he can only imagine mine. Yet he can still influence them. Up until now, we’ve been doing what he wants us to do.”
“Have we any choice?” asked Julia.
“Not so far. But later we might.”
“So what’s our next move?”
“We move our bishop from f1 to d3, threatening his queen.”
“And what will he or she do?”
Munoz paused before answering. He sat unmoving before the board, as if he hadn’t heard the question.
“In chess too,” he said at last, “there’s a limit to the forecasts one can make. The best possible move, or the most probable one, is the one that leaves one’s opponent in the least advantageous position. That’s why one way of estimating the expediency of the next move consists simply in imagining that move has been made and then going on to analyse the game from your opponent’s point of view. That means falling back on your own resources, but this time putting yourself in your enemy’s shoes. From there, you conjecture another move and then immediately put yourself in the role of your opponent’s opponent, in other words, yourself. And so on indefinitely, as far ahead as you can. By that, I mean that I know where I’ve got to, but I don’t know how far he’s got.”
“According to that reasoning,” Julia said, “isn’t he most likely to choose the move that will do most damage to us?”
Munoz scratched the back of his neck. Then, very slowly, he moved the white bishop to square d3, placing it near the black queen. He seemed absorbed in deep thought while he analysed the new situation.
“One thing I’m sure of,” he said at last, “is that he’s going to take another of our pieces.”