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XI Analytical Approaches

Don’t be silly. The flag is impossible, hence it can’t be waving. The wind is waving.

Douglas R. Hofstadter

The sound of the telephone made her jump. Unhurriedly, she removed the solvent-soaked plug of cotton from the corner of the painting on which she was working – a stubborn bit of varnish on a tiny area of Ferdinand of Ostenburg’s clothing – and put the tweezers between her teeth. Then she looked distrustfully at the telephone by her feet on the carpet, wondering if, when she picked it up, she would once again have to listen to one of those long silences that had become the norm over the last couple of weeks. At first she’d just held the phone to her ear without saying anything, waiting impatiently for some noise, even if only breathing, that would indicate life, a human presence, at the other end, however disquieting that might be. But she found only a void, without even the dubious consolation of hearing the click of the phone being put down. It was always the mystery caller – male or female – who held out longest. Whoever it was simply stayed there, listening, showing no sign of haste or concern about the possibility that the police might be tapping the phone to trace the call. The worst thing was that the person who telephoned her had no idea that he was safe. Julia had told no one about the calls, not even Cesar or Munoz. Without quite knowing why, she felt ashamed of them, humiliated by the way they invaded her privacy, invaded the night and the silence she had so loved before the nightmare began. It was like a ritual violation, without words or gestures, repeated every day.

When the phone had rung for the sixth time, she picked it up, and was relieved to hear Menchu’s voice at the other end. Her relief lasted only a moment, however, for Menchu was extremely drunk. Perhaps, Julia thought with some concern, she had something stronger than alcohol in her blood. Raising her voice to make herself heard above the buzz of conversation and music, half of her phrases stumbling into incoherence, Menchu told Julia that she was at Stephan’s and then recounted some confused story involving Max, the Van Huys and Paco Montegrifo. Julia didn’t understand, and when she asked her friend to explain again what had happened, Menchu burst into hysterical laughter. Then she hung up.

The air was heavy, cold and damp. Shivering inside her cumbersome three-quarter-length leather coat, Julia went down to the street and hailed a taxi. The lights of the city slid across her face in flashes as she nodded now and again in response to the taxi driver’s unwanted chatter. She leaned her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. Before leaving, she’d switched on the electronic alarm and locked the security door, turning the key twice in the lock. At the downstairs door she couldn’t help casting a suspicious glance at the grid next to her bell, afraid of finding another card there. But she found nothing. The invisible player was still pondering his next move.

There were a lot of people at Stephan’s. The first one she recognised was Cesar, sitting on a sofa with Sergio. The young man was nodding, looking charming, his tousled blond hair over his eyes, as Cesar whispered something to him. Cesar was sitting with his legs crossed, smoking. The hand holding the cigarette rested on his knee; he waved the other in the air as he spoke, close to his protege’s arm but never quite touching it. As soon as he saw Julia, he got up and came to meet her. He didn’t seem surprised to see her there at that hour, with no make-up on and wearing jeans.

“She’s over there,” he said, pointing to the interior of the club with a neutral look on his face that revealed, nonetheless, a certain amused anticipation. “On one of the sofas at the back.”

“Has she been drinking a lot?”

“Like a fish. And I’m afraid she’s oozing white powder from every orifice. She’s been making suspiciously frequent visits to the Ladies; she can’t need to pee that often.” He regarded the ash on his cigarette and gave a wicked smile. “She made a scene a while ago at the bar: she slapped Montegrifo. Can you imagine, my dear? It was really” – he savoured the idea like a connoisseur, before uttering the word out loud – “delicious.”

“And Montegrifo?”

Cesar’s expression became cruel.

“Fascinating, darling, verging on the divine. He left in that stiff, dignified way of his, with a very attractive blonde on his arm, a bit common but well-dressed. She was so embarrassed, the poor thing, as well she might be. You couldn’t really blame her.” He smiled with intense malice. “I have to admit, Princess, that the chap has style. He took the slap very coolly, without batting an eyelid, like tough guys in the films. A very interesting man, that auctioneer of yours. I must admit he behaved impeccably. Cool as a cucumber.”

“Where’s Max?”

“I haven’t seen him tonight, I’m sorry to say.” Again that perverse smile appeared. “Now that really would have been fun. The icing on the cake.”

Leaving Cesar, Julia walked into the club. She greeted several acquaintances without stopping to talk, and saw her friend Menchu sitting slumped on a sofa, alone. Her eyes were glazed, her short skirt was hitched up and she had a grotesque tear in one leg of her tights. She looked ten years older.

“Menchu.”

She looked at Julia, barely recognising her. Mumbling incoherently, she shook her head and let out the short, uncertain laugh of the drunk.

“You missed it,” she said after a moment, her voice slurred. “That bastard – standing right there he was, half his face bright scarlet.” She pulled herself up and rubbed her reddened nose, oblivious to the inquisitive, scandalised looks of people at nearby tables. “Stupid arrogant sod.”

Julia felt everyone’s eyes on her; she could hear muttered comments and she blushed.

“Do you think you can manage to stand up and get out of here?”

“I think so. But first, I must just tell you…”

“Tell me later. Let’s go.”

Menchu struggled to her feet, clumsily pulling down her skirt. Draping Menchu’s coat over her shoulders, Julia got her to walk towards the door in a relatively dignified manner. Cesar came over to them.

“Everything OK?”

“Yes. I think I can manage.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Out in the street Menchu swayed, and someone yelled an obscenity at her from the window of a passing car.

“Take me home, Julia. Please.”

“Yours or mine?”

Menchu looked at her as if she had some difficulty recognising her. She was moving like a sleepwalker.

“Yours,” she said.

“What about Max?”

“It’s all over with Max. We had a row. It’s finished.”

They got a taxi and Menchu hunched up in the back seat. Then she burst into tears. Julia put an arm around her trembling shoulders. The taxi stopped at a traffic light and a brilliant shop window lit up Menchu’s ravaged face.

“I’m sorry. I’m a…”

Julia felt embarrassed, uncomfortable. It was just grotesque. Damn Max, she said to herself. Damn the lot of them.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, interrupting.

She saw the taxi driver observing them curiously in his rear-view mirror, and when she turned back to Menchu she caught an unusual look in her eyes, a brief flash of unexpected lucidity, as if there was still a place inside untouched by the fumes of alcohol and drugs. She was surprised to see something of infinite depth, of dark significance. It was a look so inappropriate to the state Menchu was in that Julia felt disconcerted. When Menchu spoke, her words were even stranger.

“You don’t understand anything,” she said, shaking her head in pain, like a wounded animal. “But whatever happens… I want you to know…”

She stopped abruptly, as if biting back the words, and her gaze became lost once more in the shadows, leaving Julia perplexed. It was too much for one night. All she needed now, she thought, feeling a vague apprehension that augured no good, was to find another card by the entry bell.

*****

But there was no card that night, and she could devote herself to looking after Menchu, who seemed to be moving in a fog. Julia gave her two cups of coffee before putting her to bed. Feeling like a psychiatrist seated by her couch, she gradually managed, with great patience, to reconstruct out of the incoherent babblings exactly what had happened. At the worst possible moment, Max, ungrateful Max, had got it into his head to go off on a trip, some stupid story about a job in Portugal. She was having a bad time and his going off like that seemed a selfish dereliction of duty. They’d argued, and instead of resolving the problem in bed, as they usually did, he’d slammed the door on her. Menchu didn’t know if he intended to come back or not, but she didn’t give a damn either way. Determined not to be alone, she’d gone to Stephan’s. A few lines of coke had helped to clear her head, leaving her in a state of aggressive euphoria. With Max forgotten, she sat in her corner drinking very dry martinis and eyeing a gorgeous guy who’d noticed her. Then the mood of the night suddenly changed. Unfortunately for Paco Montegrifo, he turned up too, accompanied by one of those bejewelled bitches he was seen with from time to time. The matter of the percentages was still fresh in her mind and she thought she detected a certain irony in the way he greeted her. As they say in novels, it was like a knife being turned in the wound. She delivered a single slap, thwack, a real humdinger, that caused a great stir amongst the clientele. A huge uproar ensued, end of story. Curtain.

Julia put a blanket over Menchu and sat by her for a while. She finally got to sleep at about two in the morning. Sometimes she flailed about and uttered unintelligible words, her lips pressed together, her hair all over her face. Julia looked at the lines around her mouth and lips, at the black smudges where tears and sweat had made her make-up run. It gave her a pathetic look: the look of an ageing courtesan after a bad night. No doubt Cesar would have drawn some scathing conclusion, but Julia didn’t feel like thinking about Cesar. She found herself praying to life to give her the necessary spirit of resignation to grow old with dignity when her turn came. It must be terrible, at the moment of shipwreck, not to have a solid raft on which to save oneself. She realised that Menchu was old enough to be her mother, and felt ashamed at the thought, as if in some way she’d taken advantage of her friend’s sleep in order to betray her.

She drank what remained of her coffee, cold now, and lit a cigarette. The rain was once more beating down on the skylight, the sound of solitude, she thought sadly. It reminded her of that other rainy night, a year ago, when she’d ended her relationship with Alvaro and knew that something had broken inside her for ever, like a faulty mechanism beyond repair. And she knew too that, from then on, the bittersweet solitude that filled her heart would be her one sure companion as she walked what roads were left for her to follow, beneath a heaven in which the gods were slowly dying amidst great gales of laughter. That night she had crouched beneath the shower, steam curling about her like scalding mist, her tears mingling with the water falling in torrents on her drenched hair and her naked body. That clean, warm water had washed Alvaro away a year before his physical and definitive death. And by one of those strange ironies of which Fate is so fond, that was how Alvaro had ended his life, in a bathtub, with his eyes wide open and his neck broken, beneath the shower, beneath the rain.

She dismissed the memory, saw it vanish, amongst the shadows in her studio. Then she thought about Cesar and moved her head slowly to the rhythm of a melancholy, imaginary music. At that moment, she would have liked to lean her head on his shoulder, close her eyes and breathe in the delicate smell of tobacco and myrrh that she’d known since she was little, the smell that meant Cesar. And to relive with him all those stories in which you knew beforehand there would be a happy ending. How far away they seemed, those days of happy endings, incompatible with any kind of mature lucidity! It was hard sometimes to look at herself in the mirror and know that she was in eternal exile from Never-Never-Land.

She switched off the light and sat on the carpet in front of the Van Huys, seeing the people in the picture in her imagination and hearing the distant rumble of the tides of their lives washing around the game of chess that had lasted throughout time and space and still continued to be played – like the slow, implacable mechanism of a clock that has defied the centuries – a game whose outcome no one could foresee. Then she forgot about everything – about Menchu, about her nostalgia for time past – and instead felt a now familiar shiver run through her, a shiver of fear, which was also obscurely, unexpectedly consoling. A kind of morbid expectancy. Like when she was a child and sat curled up against Cesar to hear a new story. Perhaps Captain Hook had nor disappeared into the mists of the past after all. Perhaps now he was simply playing chess instead.

When she woke up, Menchu was still asleep. She dressed with a minimum of noise, left a set of keys on the table and went out, carefully locking the door behind her. It was almost ten o’clock, and the rain had given way to a murky mix of fog and smog that blurred the grey outlines of the buildings and made the cars driving along seem ghostly, the reflections from their headlights fragmenting on the asphalt into infinite points of light that wove an atmosphere of luminous unreality about her as she walked along with her hands in the pockets of her raincoat.

Belmonte received her in his wheelchair, in the room with the mark left by the Van Huys. The inevitable Bach was playing on the gramophone and Julia wondered, as she took the dossier out of her bag, if the old man put it on deliberately each time she visited. He expressed regret at the absence of Munoz, the mathematician-cum-chess-player, as he called him with an irony that did not go unnoticed, and carefully read the report Julia had brought, which gave ail the historical facts about the painting, Munoz’s final conclusions regarding the enigma of Roger de Arras, photographs of the different phases of the restoration work and the colour brochure, just printed by Claymore’s, giving details of the painting and the auction. He gave occasional satisfied nods and sometimes glanced up at Julia before immersing himself once more in the report.

“Excellent,” he said when he’d finished and closed the dossier. “You’re a remarkable young woman.”

“It wasn’t just me. As you know, a lot of people have worked on this… Paco Montegrifo, Menchu Roch, Munoz…” She hesitated. “We also consulted art experts.”

“You mean the late Professor Ortega?”

Julia looked at him, disconcerted.

“I didn’t know you knew about that.”

The old man gave a sly smile.

“Well, as you see, I do. When his body was found, the police got in touch with my niece, her husband and me. An inspector came to see me; I don’t remember his name… He had a big moustache and he was fat.”

“His name is Feijoo, Inspector Feijoo.” Julia looked away, embarrassed. Damn, she thought, useless bloody police. “But you didn’t say anything about this last time I was here.”

“I was waiting for you to tell me. If you didn’t, I assumed you must have your reasons.”

There was a note of reserve in his voice, and Julia understood that she was on the point of losing an ally.

“I thought… I mean, I’m sorry, really I am… I was afraid I might upset you with such news. After all, you…”

“Do you mean because of my age and my state of health?” Belmonte clasped his bony freckled hands over his stomach. “Or were you concerned that it might influence the fate of the painting?”

Julia shook her head, not knowing what to say. Then she smiled and shrugged, with an air of confused sincerity which, as she perfectly well knew, was the only response that would satisfy the old man.

“What can I say?” she murmured, sure that she’d hit the target when Belmonte also smiled, accepting the climate of complicity she was offering him.

“Don’t worry. Life is difficult and human relationships even more so.”

“I can assure you mat…”

“You don’t have to assure me about anything. We were talking about Professor Ortega. Was it an accident?”

“I think so,” Julia lied. “At least, so I understand.”

The old man looked at his hands. It was impossible to know whether he believed her or not.

“It’s still terrible… don’t you think?” He gave her a long, serious look in which vague disquiet was apparent. “That sort of thing, by which I mean death, always shocks me a little. And at my age it ought to be the other way round. It’s odd how, against all logic, one clings to life in inverse proportion to the quantity of life one has left to look forward to.”

For a moment, Julia was on the point of entrusting him with the rest of the story: the existence of the invisible player, the threats, the dark feelings weighing her down, the curse of the Van Huys, whose mark, an empty rectangle beneath a nail, watched over them from the wall like an evil omen. But that would mean providing explanations she didn’t feel strong enough to embark upon. She was also afraid of alarming the old man still further, and needlessly.

“There’s no need to worry,” she lied again, with aplomb. “That’s all under control. Like the painting.”

They smiled at each other, but it was forced this time. Julia didn’t know whether Belmonte believed her or not. He’d leaned back in his wheelchair and was frowning.

“There was something about the painting that I wanted to tell you.” He stopped and thought a little before going on. “The other day, after you and your chess-playing friend visited me, I was thinking about the Van Huys. Do you remember our discussion about a system being necessary in order to understand another system and that both would need a superior system, and so on indefinitely? And the Borges poem about chess and which god beyond God moves the player who moves the chess pieces? Well, I think there is something of that in this painting. Something that both contains itself and repeats itself, taking you continually back to the starting point. In my opinion, the real key to interpreting The Game of Chess doesn’t follow a straight line, a progression that sets out from one beginning. Instead, this painting seems to go back again and again, as if turned in upon itself. Do you understand what I mean?”

Julia nodded, listening intently to his words. What she’d just heard was a confirmation of her own intuition, but expressed in logical terms and spoken out loud. She remembered the list she had made, amended by Munoz to six levels containing each other, of the eternal return to the starting point, of the paintings within the painting.

“I understand better than you might think,” she said. “It’s as if the painting were accusing itself.”

Belmonte was puzzled.

“Accusing itself? That goes some way beyond my idea.” With a slight lift of his eyebrows, he dismissed her apparently incomprehensible remark. “I was talking about something else.” He pointed to the gramophone. “Listen to Bach.”

“We always do.”

Belmonte gave her a conspiratorial smile.

“I hadn’t planned to be accompanied by Johann Sebastian today, but I decided to evoke him in your honour. It’s the French Suite No. 5, and you’ll notice that this composition consists of two halves, each of which is repeated. The tonic note of the first half is G and it ends in the key of D. All right? Now listen. Just when it seems that the piece has finished in that key, that trickster Bach suddenly makes us jump back to the beginning, with G as tonic again, and then slides back again to D. And, without our knowing quite how, that happens again and again. What do you think?”

“I think it’s fascinating.” Julia was following the musical chords intently. “It’s like a continuous loop. Like those paintings and drawings by Escher, in which a river flows along, then becomes a waterfall and inexplicably goes back to the beginning. Or the staircase that leads nowhere, only back to the start of the staircase itself.”

Belmonte nodded, satisfied.

“Exactly. And it’s possible to play it in many keys.” He looked at the empty rectangle on the wall. “The difficulty, I suppose, is to know where to place oneself in those circles.”

“You’re right. It would take a long time to explain, but there is something of that going on in the painting. Just when it seems the story has ended, it starts again, but goes off in another direction. Or apparently in another direction. Because perhaps we never actually move from the spot we’re in.”

Belmonte shrugged.

“That’s a paradox to be resolved by you and your friend the chess player. I lack the necessary information. As you know, I’m only an amateur. I wasn’t even capable of guessing that the game could be played backwards.” He gave Julia a long look. “Unforgivable of me really, considering what I’ve just said about Bach.”

Julia pondered these new and unexpected interpretations. Threads from a ball of wool, she was thinking. Too many threads for one ball.

“Apart from the police and me, have you had any other visits recently from anyone interested in the painting? Or in chess?”

The old man took a while to reply, as if trying to ascertain what lay behind the question.

“Neither the one nor the other. When my wife was alive, people often came to the house. She was more sociable than me. But since I was widowed I’ve kept in touch with only a few old friends. Esteban Cano, for example. You’re too young to have known him when he was a successful violinist. But he died, two years ago now. The truth is that my small circle of friends has gradually been disappearing.” He gave a resigned smile. “There’s Pepe, a good friend. Pepin Perez Gimenez, retired like me, who still goes to the club and drops by from time to time to have a game of chess with me. But he’s nearly seventy and gets terrible migraines if he plays for more than half an hour. He was a great chess player once. And there’s my niece.”

Julia, who was taking out a cigarette, stopped. When she moved again, she did so very slowly, as if any excited or impatient gesture might cause what she’d just heard to vanish.

“Your niece plays chess?”

“Lola? Yes, very well.” The old man gave an odd smile, as if he regretted that his niece’s virtues did not extend to other areas of her life. “I taught her to play myself, years ago; but she outgrew her teacher.”

Julia was trying to remain calm. She forced herself to light her cigarette calmly and exhaled two slow clouds of smoke before she spoke again. She could feel her heart beating fast.

“What does your niece think about the painting? Did she approve of you selling it?” A shot in the dark.

“She was very much in favour of it. And her husband was even keener.” There was a bitter note in the old man’s voice. “No doubt Alfonso has already worked out on which number of the roulette wheel he’s going to place every last cent he gets from the Van Huys.”

“But he hasn’t got it yet,” Julia pointed out.

The old man held her gaze and a hard light appeared in his pale, liquid eyes, but it was rapidly extinguished.

“In my day,” he said with unexpected good humour and only placid irony in his eyes now, “we used to say you shouldn’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

“Has your niece ever mentioned anything mysterious about the painting, about the people in it or the game of chess?”

“Not that I remember. You were the first one to talk about that. For us, it had always been a special painting, but not extraordinary or mysterious.” He looked thoughtfully at the rectangle on the wall-“Everything seemed very obvious.”

“Do you know if, before or at the time when Alfonso introduced you to Menchu Roch, your niece was negotiating with someone else?”

Belmonte frowned. That possibility seemed to displease him greatly.

“I certainly hope not. After all, the painting was mine.” The expression on his face was astute and full of a knowing mischief. “And it still is.”

“Can I ask you one more question, Don Manuel?”

“Of course.”

“Did you ever hear your niece and her husband talk about consulting an art historian?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t recall them doing it, and I think I’d remember something like that.” Suspicion had resurfaced in his eyes. “That was Professor Ortega’s job, wasn’t it? Art history. I hope you’re not trying to insinuate…”

Julia realised she’d gone too far, so she produced one of her best smiles.

“I didn’t necessarily mean Alvaro Ortega, but any art historian. It’s not such an odd idea that your niece might have been curious to know the value of the painting, or to find out its history.”

Belmonte looked at the backs of his freckled hands with a reflective air.

“She never mentioned it. And I think she would have, because we often talked about the Van Huys. Especially when we used to replay the game the people in the painting are playing. We played it forwards, of course. And do you know something? Although White appears to have the advantage, Lola always won with Black.”

She walked aimlessly about in the fog for almost an hour, trying to put her ideas in order. The damp air left droplets of moisture on her face and hair. She passed the Palace Hotel, where the doorman, in top hat and gold-braided uniform, was sheltering beneath the glass canopy, wrapped in a cloak that made him look like someone out of nineteenth-century London, in keeping with the fog. All that was missing, she thought, was a horse-drawn carriage, its lantern dimmed by the grey mist, out of which would step the gaunt figure of Sherlock Holmes, followed by his faithful companion, Watson. Somewhere in the murk the sinister Professor Moriarty would be watching. The Napoleon of crime. The evil genius.

Lately she seemed to have come across far too many people who played chess. And everyone had excellent reasons for their links with the Van Huys. There were too many portraits inside that wretched painting.

Munoz: he was the only person she’d met since the mystery began. When she couldn’t sleep, when she was tossing and turning in her bed, he was the only one she did not connect with the nightmare images. Munoz was at one end of the ball of wool and all the chess pieces, all the other characters, were at the other. But she couldn’t even be sure of him. She had indeed met him after the mystery began, but before the story had gone back to its starting point and begun again in a different key. It was impossible even to know with absolute certainty that Alvaro’s death and the existence of the mystery player were part of the same movement.

She stopped, feeling on her face the touch of the damp mist wrapped about her. When it came down to it, the only person she could be sure of was herself. That was all she had to go on with, that and the pistol she still carried in her bag.

She made her way to the chess club. There was sawdust in the hallway, umbrellas, overcoats and raincoats. It smelled of damp, of cigarette smoke, and had the unmistakable atmosphere of places frequented exclusively by men. She greeted Cifuentes, the director, who rushed obsequiously to meet her, and, as the murmurs provoked by her appearance in the club died down, searched amongst the chess tables until she spotted Munoz. He was concentrating on a game, sitting motionless as a sphinx, with one elbow on the arm of his chair, his chin resting on the palm of that hand. His opponent, a young man with thick glasses, kept licking his lips and casting troubled glances at Munoz, as if he were afraid that at any moment the latter might destroy the complicated king’s defence which, to judge by his nervousness and his look of exhaustion, it had cost him an enormous effort to construct.

Munoz seemed his usual calm, absent self; rather than studying the board, his motionless eyes seemed to be merely resting on it. Perhaps he was immersed in those daydreams of which he had spoken to Julia, a thousand miles away from the game taking place before his eyes, while his mathematical mind kept weaving and unweaving infinite, impossible combinations. Around them, a few onlookers were studying the game apparently with more interest than the players themselves. From time to time, they mumbled comments or suggested moving this or that piece. What seemed clear, given the tension around the table, was that they expected Munoz to make some decisive move that would sound the death knell of the young man in glasses. That justified the nervousness of the latter, whose eyes, magnified by the lenses, looked at his adversary like a slave in the amphitheatre at the mercy of the lions, pleading for clemency from an omnipotent emperor in purple.

At that moment, Munoz looked up and saw Julia. He stared at her for several seconds as if he didn’t recognise her, then came to slowly, with the look of someone waking from a dream or returning from a long journey. His face brightened as he made a vague gesture of welcome. He glanced back at the board, to see if things there were still in order, and, not hastily or as if he were merely improvising, but as the conclusion of a long reasoning process, moved a pawn. A disappointed murmur arose around the table, and the young man in glasses looked across at him, first with surprise, then like a prisoner whose execution has been cancelled at the last moment, and then with a satisfied smirk.

“That makes it a draw,” remarked one of the onlookers.

Munoz, who was getting up from the table, shrugged.

“Yes,” he replied, without looking at the board. “But if I’d moved bishop to queen 7 it would have been checkmate in five moves.”

He went over to Julia, leaving the others to study the move he’d just mentioned. Discreetly indicating the group around the table, Julia said in a low voice:

“They must really hate you.”

Munoz put his head on one side and his expression could as easily have been interpreted as a distant smile or a look of scorn.

“I suppose so,” he replied, picking up his raincoat. “They tend to gather like vultures, hoping to be there when someone finally tears me limb from limb.”

“But you let yourself be beaten… That must be humiliating for them.”

“That’s the least of it,” he said, but there was no smugness or pride in his voice, just a kind of objective contempt. “They wouldn’t miss one of my games for anything.”

Opposite the Prado, in the grey mist, Julia brought him up to date regarding her conversation with Belmonte. Munoz heard her out without comment, not even when she told him about the niece’s interest in chess. He seemed indifferent to the damp weather as he walked slowly along, listening carefully to what Julia said, his raincoat unbuttoned and the knot of his tie half undone as usual, his head bent and his eyes fixed on the scuffed toes of his shoes.

“You asked me once if there were any women who play chess,” he said at last. “And I told you that, although chess is essentially a masculine game, there are some reasonable women players. But they are the exception.”

“The exception that proves the rule, I suppose.”

Munoz frowned.

“No. You’re wrong there. An exception doesn’t prove anything; it invalidates or destroys any rule. That’s why you have to be very careful with inductive reasoning. What I’m saying is that women tend to play chess badly, not that all women play chess badly. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Which doesn’t detract from the fact that, in practice, women have little stature as chess players. Just to give you an idea: in the Soviet Union, where chess is the national pastime, only one woman, Vera Menchik, was ever considered to have reached grand master level.”

“Why is that?”

“Maybe chess requires too much indifference to the outside world.” He paused and looked at Julia. “What’s this Lola Belmonte like?”

Julia considered before answering.

“I don’t know how to describe her really. Unpleasant. Possibly domineering. Aggressive. It’s a shame she wasn’t there when you were with me the other day.”

They were standing by a stone fountain crowned by the vague silhouette of a statue that hovered menacingly above their heads in the mist. Munoz ran his hands over his hair and looked at his damp palms before rubbing them on his raincoat.

“Aggression, whether externalised or internalised,” he said, “is characteristic of many players.” He smiled briefly, without making it clear whether he considered himself to fall outside that definition or not. “And the chess player tends to be someone who’s frustrated or oppressed in some way. The attack on the king, which is the aim in chess, that is, going against authority, would be a kind of liberation from that state. From that point of view the game could be of interest to a woman.” The fleeting smile crossed his lips again. “When you play chess, people seem very insignificant from where you’re sitting.”

“Have you detected something of that in our enemy’s games?”

“That’s a difficult question to answer. I need more information. More moves. For example, women tend to show a predilection for bishop mates.” Munoz’s expression grew animated as he went into details. “I don’t know why, but those pieces, with their deep, diagonal moves, possibly have the most feminine character of all the pieces.” He gestured as if he didn’t give much credence to his words and were trying to erase them from the air. “But until now the black bishops haven’t played an important role in the game. As you know, we have lots of nice theories that add up to nothing. Our problem is just the same as it is on a chessboard: we can only formulate imaginative hypotheses, conjectures, without touching the chess pieces.”

“Have you come up with any hypotheses? Sometimes you give the impression that you’ve reached conclusions that you don’t want to tell us about.”

Munoz tilted his head a little, as he always did when confronted by a difficult question.

“It’s a bit complicated,” he replied after a brief pause. “I have a couple of ideas in my head but my problem is just what I’ve been saying. In chess you can’t prove anything until you’ve moved, and then it’s impossible to go back.”

They started walking again, between the stone benches and the blurry hedges. Julia sighed gently.

“If someone had told me that one day I’d be tracking a possible murderer with the help of a chessboard, I’d have said he was stark, staring mad.”

“I told you before that there are many links between chess and police work.” Munoz’s hand moved chess pieces in the void. “Even before Conan Doyle, there was Poe’s Dupin method.”

“Edgar Allan Poe? Don’t tell me he played chess too.”

“Oh, yes, he was a very keen player. There was an automaton known as Maelzel’s Player which almost never lost a game. Poe wrote an essay about it around 1830. To get to the bottom of the mystery he developed sixteen analytical approaches and concluded that there must be a man hidden inside the automaton.”

“And is that what you’re doing? Looking for the hidden man?”

“I’m trying to, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. I’m not Poe.”

“I hope you succeed. It would certainly be to my advantage. You’re my only hope.”

Munoz shrugged and said nothing for a while.

“I don’t want you to get your hopes up,” he said after they’d walked on a little further. “When I began playing chess, there were times when I felt sure I couldn’t lose a single game. Then, in the midst of my euphoria, I was beaten, and that failure set my feet firmly back on the ground.” He screwed up his eyes as if he could make out someone ahead of them in the fog. “There’s always someone better than you. That’s why it’s useful to keep yourself in a state of healthy uncertainty.”

“I find it terrible, that uncertainty.”

“You have reason to. However fraught a game becomes, each player knows that it’s a bloodless battle. After all, he consoles himself, it is only a game… But that’s not so in your case.”

“And you? Do you think he knows about your role in this?”

Munoz looked evasive again.

“I don’t know if he knows who I am. But he must know that there’s someone capable of interpreting his moves. Otherwise, the game would make no sense.”

“I think we should pay Lola Belmonte a visit.”

“I agree.”

Julia looked at her watch.

“Since we’re near my place, why don’t you come up for coffee? Menchu’s staying with me, and she should be awake by now. She has a few problems.”

“Serious problems?”

“So it seems, and last night she was behaving very strangely. I’d like you to meet her… Especially now.”

They crossed the avenue, dazzled by car headlights.

“If I find out that Lola Belmonte is behind this whole thing,” Julia said unexpectedly, “I’ll kill her with my bare hands.”

Munoz looked at her, surprised.

“Assuming that my theory of aggression is correct,” he said, and she saw that he was observing her with new respect, “you’d make an excellent player if you ever decided to take up chess.”

“I already have taken it up,” Julia replied, peering rancorously at the shadows drifting by her in the fog. “I’ve been playing for some time now, and I don’t enjoy it one bit.”

She put her key in the security lock and turned it twice. Munoz was waiting by her side on the landing. He’d taken off his raincoat and folded it over his arm.

“It’ll be a mess,” she said. “I didn’t have time to tidy up this morning.”

“Don’t worry. It’s the coffee that matters.”

Julia went into the studio and raised the large ceiling blind. The foggy brightness from outside slipped into the room, dusting the air with a grey light that left the farthest corners of the room in shadow.

“Still too dark,” she said and was about to switch on the light when she saw the look on Munoz’s face. With a sudden feeling of panic, she followed the direction of his gaze.

“Where have you put the painting?” he asked.

Julia didn’t reply. She felt as though something had burst inside her, deep inside, and she stood utterly still, her eyes wide, staring at the empty easel.

“Menchu,” she murmured finally, feeling as if everything were spinning about her. “She warned me about this last night, only I couldn’t see it.”

Her stomach contracted and she felt the bitter taste of bile in her mouth. Absurdly, she glanced at Munoz and then ran towards the bathroom, but, feeling faint, stopped and leaned against the doorway of her bedroom. That was when she saw Menchu. She was lying on her back on the floor at the foot of the bed. The scarf that had been used to strangle her was still around her neck. Her skirt was pulled grotesquely up to her waist, and the neck of a bottle had been thrust into her vagina.


X The Blue Car | The Flanders Panel | XII Queen, Knight, Bishop



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