XII Queen, Knight, Bishop
I’m not playing with lifeless black and white pawns. I’m playing with flesh-and-blood human beings.
The judge didn’t order the body to be taken away until seven o’clock, by which time it was dark. All afternoon the house had been filled with the comings and goings of policemen and court officials, with flashlights flickering in the hallway and in the bedroom. At last, they carried Menchu out on a stretcher, zipped up inside a white plastic cover, and all that remained of her was the silhouette drawn in chalk on the floor by the indifferent hand a policeman, the one who’d been driving the blue Ford when Julia drew her pistol on him in the Rastro.
Inspector Feijoo was the last to leave; he’d stayed on for nearly an hour to complete the statements made earlier by Julia and Munoz, and also by Cesar, who had come as soon as he heard the news. The policeman, who’d never been near a chessboard in his life, was patently bewildered. He kept looking at Munoz as if at some bizarre animal, but nodded with wary gravity at the latter’s technical explanations, every now and then turning to Cesar and Julia as though wondering whether this were just some huge practical joke concocted by the three of them. Occasionally, he jotted down notes, tugged at his tie and gave another uncomprehending glance at the typewritten characters on the card found by Menchu’s body. Munoz’s interpretation of the symbols had merely succeeded in giving Feijoo a splitting headache. What really interested him, apart from the oddness of the whole situation, were details about the quarrel Menchu and her boyfriend had had the previous evening-This was because – as policemen sent to investigate had reported back during the‘ afternoon – Maximo Olmedilla Sanchez, twenty-eight years old, single and a male model by profession, was nowhere to be found. Furthermore, two witnesses, a taxi driver and the porter in the building opposite, had seen a young man answering his description leaving Julia’s building between twelve and twelve-fifteen that day. According to the pathologist’s first report, Menchu Roch had been strangled, from the front, having first been dealt a mortal blow to the throat, between eleven and twelve. The detail of the bottle in the vagina – a large bottle of Beefeater gin, almost full – to which Feijoo made repeated and extremely crude reference (revenge for all that chess nonsense his three interviewees had thrown at him), he interpreted as concrete evidence, in the sense that everything pointed to a crime of passion. After all, the murdered woman – he’d frowned and put on a suitably grave face, making it clear that people generally get what they deserve – was, as both Julia and Cesar had just explained, not a person of irreproachable sexual morality. As to how this murder was linked to the death of Professor Ortega, the connection was obvious, given the disappearance of the painting. He ventured a few more explanations, listened attentively to the replies that Julia, Munoz and Cesar gave to his further questions, and finally said good-bye, after arranging to see them at the police station the following morning.
“As for you, Senorita, you’ve nothing more to worry about.” He paused on the threshold, with the dignified expression of a public official fully in charge of the situation. “We know who we’re looking for now. Good night.”
When she’d closed the door, Julia leaned back against it and looked at her two friends. She had dark shadows under her now dry eyes. She’d cried a lot, out of grief and rage, tormented by her own impotence. Immediately after finding Menchu’s body she’d wept, quietly in front of Munoz, then, when Cesar had arrived, looking pale and harassed, with the horror of the news evident on his face, she’d embraced him as she had when she was a child, her tears had become sobs, and she’d lost all control, clinging to Cesar, who could only murmur futile words of consolation. It wasn’t just her friend’s death; it was, she said, her voice breaking as hot tears streamed down her face, the unbearable tension of the last few days, the humiliating certainty that the murderer was playing with their lives with absolute impunity, confident that he had them at his mercy.
At least the police interrogation had had one positive effect: it had restored her to a sense of reality. The stubborn stupidity with which Feijoo refused to see the obvious, the false affability with which he’d accepted – without understanding anything, without making the slightest attempt to understand – the detailed explanations they’d given him about what was going on, had reinforced her belief that she had nothing to hope for from that direction. The phone call from the officer dispatched to Max’s and the discovery of the two witnesses had confirmed Feijoo in his idea, typical of the police, that the simplest motive is usually the most likely. The chess story was, of course, interesting, something that would doubtless fill out the details of the incident. But as far as the substance of the matter went, it was purely anecdotal. The detail of the bottle proved it. Pure criminal pathology. “Because, despite what you read in detective novels, Senorita, appearances are never deceptive.”
“There’s no doubt about it now,” said Julia as the Inspector could be heard going down the stairs. “Alvaro was murdered, like Menchu. Someone’s obviously been after the painting for a long time.”
Munoz, standing by the table, was looking at the piece of paper on which, the moment Feijoo had left, he’d noted down the contents of the card found by the body. Cesar was sitting on the sofa where Menchu had spent the night, staring in stupefaction at the empty easel. When he heard Julia speak, he shook his head.
“It wasn’t Max who did it,” he said. “There is absolutely no way an imbecile like him could have thought all this up.”
“But he was here. At least in the building.”
Cesar bowed before the evidence, but without much conviction.
“There must be someone else involved. If Max was, so to speak, the hired help, someone else was pulling the strings.” He slowly raised one hand and tapped his forehead with his index finger. “Someone with brains.”
“The mystery player. And now he’s won the game.”
“He hasn’t won it yet,” said Munoz, and they turned towards him in surprise.
“He’s got the painting,” Julia pointed out. “If that isn’t winning.. ”
There was a gleam of absorbed fascination in Munoz’s eyes; their dark pupils seemed to see, beyond the four walls of the room, the mathematical meeting in space of complex combinations.
“With or without the painting, the game goes on,” he said, and showed them the paper:
“This time,” he added, “the murderer doesn’t suggest one move, but three.” He went over to his raincoat and took out his pocket chess set. “The first is obvious: Q x R, the black queen takes the white rook. The taking of the white rook represents Menchu Roch’s murder, just as, in this game, the white knight symbolised your friend Alvaro and, in the painting, Roger de Arras.” Munoz arranged the pieces on the board as he talked. “Therefore, so far in this game, the black queen has taken only two pieces. And in reality,” he glanced at Cesar and Julia, who’d gathered round to study the board, “each of those two pieces represents a murder. Our opponent identifies himself with the black queen; when another black piece takes a white piece, as happened two moves back when we lost the first white rook, nothing happened. At least, not as far as we know.”
Julia pointed to the paper.
“Why have you put question marks by the next two moves by White?”
“I didn’t put them there. They were on the card; the murderer has foreseen what we will do next. I assume those signs to be an invitation for us to make those moves, if you do this, I’ll do this‘, he’s saying to us. And if we do that” – he moved some pieces – “the game would look like this.
“As you can see, there have been important changes. Having taken the rook on b2, Black foresaw that we would make the best possible move we could, that is, move our white queen from square e1 to e7. That gives us an advantage: a diagonal line of attack threatening the black king, who is already fairly limited in his movements by the presence of the white knight, bishop and pawn nearby. Assuming that we would make the move we’ve just made, the black queen moves up from b2 to b3 to support the king and to threaten the white king with check. The latter has no alternative but to withdraw to the square to his right, as in fact we have done, fleeing from c4 to d4, out of reach of the queen.”
“That’s the third time he’s had us in check,” said Cesar.
“Yes. And one could interpret that in several ways. It could be a case of third time lucky, for example, since the third time he has us in check the murderer steals the painting. I think I’m beginning to understand him a little. Including his peculiar sense of humour.”
“What next?” asked Julia.
“Black then takes our white pawn on c6 with the black pawn that was on b7. That move is protected by the black knight on b8. Then it’s our turn to move, but our opponent makes no suggestion on the card. It’s as if he’s saying that what we do next is up to us, not up to him.”
“And what are we going to do?” asked Cesar.
“There’s only one good option: to keep playing the white queen.” He looked at Julia as he said this. “But playing the queen also means we risk losing her.”
Julia shrugged. All she wanted was for it to be over, whatever the risks might be.
“The queen it is then.”
Cesar was leaning over the board, his hands behind his back, as if he were subjecting the questionable quality of a piece of antique china to particularly close scrutiny.
“That white knight, the one on b1, doesn’t look too safe either,” he said in a low voice, addressing Munoz. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I know. I doubt Black will Jet him stay there much longer. His presence, threatening Black’s rearguard, provides the main support for an attack by the white queen. There’s the white bishop on d3 too. Both of those pieces near the queen could prove decisive.”
The two men looked at each other in silence, and Julia saw a current of sympathy grow between them that she’d not seen before. It was like the Spartans’ resigned solidarity in the face of danger at Thermopylae, when they heard the distant sound of the Persian chariots approaching.
“I’d give anything to know which of the chess pieces we are,” remarked Cesar, arching an eyebrow. His lips curved. “I’d really rather not be that horse.”
Munoz raised a finger.
“It’s a knight, remember. That’s a much more honourable name.”
“I’m not worried about the name.” Cesar studied the piece with a worried expression. “He looks as if he’s in a spot of danger there, that knight.”
“Is it you or me, do you think?”
“I confess I’d rather take the part of the bishop.”
Munoz put his head on one side, thoughtfully, without taking his eyes off the board.
“Me too. He’s in a safer position than the knight.”
“That’s what I meant, my dear.”
“Well, I wish you luck.”
“And the same to you. And the last one to leave turn out the lights.”
A long silence followed, which Julia broke, addressing Munoz.
“Since it’s our turn to play, what’s our next move? You mentioned the white queen…”
Munoz gave a desultory glance at the board. All the possible combinations had already been analysed in his mind.
“At first I thought of taking the black pawn on c6 with our pawn on d5, but that would give our opponent too much of a breathing space. So we’ll move our queen from e7 to e4. We have only to move our king next time and we have the black king in check. Our first check.”
This time it was Cesar who moved the white queen, placing her on the corresponding square, next to the king. Julia noticed that, despite his apparent calm, his fingers were trembling slightly.
“That’s it,” nodded Munoz. And the three of them looked again at the board.
“And what will ‘he’ do next?” asked Julia.
Munoz crossed his arms, without taking his eyes off the chessboard, and stood thinking. When he replied, she knew that he hadn’t been considering the move, only whether or not he should put it into words.
“He has several options,” he said vaguely. “Some are more interesting than others. And more dangerous too. From this point on, the game branches off in several directions. There are at least four possible variants. Some would involve us in a long and complex game, which might well be his intention. With others the game could be over in four or five moves.”
“Which do you think?” asked Cesar.
“I’ll reserve judgment on that for the moment. It’s Black’s turn to move now.”
He picked up the pieces, folded the board and returned it to his raincoat pocket. Julia looked at him with some curiosity.
“It’s odd, what you said a while ago. I mean about the murderer’s sense of humour. When you said that, you’d begun to understand it. Do you really find some humour in all of this?”
“You could call it humour, or irony if you prefer,” he said. “But our enemy’s taste for puns is undeniable.” He placed one hand over the piece of paper on the table. “There’s something you may not have realised. Using the symbols Q x R, the murderer links the death of your friend with the rook taken by the black queen. Menchu’s surname was Roch, wasn’t it? And that word, like ‘rook’, has its origins in the word ‘rock’.”
“The police called this morning.” Lola Belmonte gave Julia and Munoz a sour look, as if she held them directly responsible for that intrusion. “This is all…” She searched unsuccessfully for the word, turning to her husband for help.
“Most unpleasant,” said Alfonso, who then immersed himself once more in his blatant contemplation of Julia’s bosom. It was clear that, police or no police, he had only just got out of bed. The dark circles under his still puffy eyes emphasised his habitual air of dissipation.
“It was worse than that.” Lola Belmonte had at last found the word she wanted and leaned her bony form forwards in her chair. “It was ignominious. Do you know So-and-so? Anyone would think we were the criminals.”
“And we’re not,” said her husband with ironic seriousness.
“Don’t be stupid.” Lola Belmonte gave him a spiteful look. “This is a serious conversation.”
Alfonso gave a short laugh.
“It’s a waste of time. All that matters is that the painting’s disappeared and with it our money.”
“My money, Alfonso,” said Belmonte, from his wheelchair, “if you don’t mind.”
“Just a manner of speaking, Uncle.”
“Well, be more accurate in future.”
Julia stirred the contents of her cup. The coffee was cold, and she wondered if the niece had served it like that on purpose. They’d turned up unexpectedly in the latter part of the morning on the pretext of keeping the family informed of events.
“Do you think the painting will be found?” asked the old man. He’d received them dressed casually in sweater and slippers but with a friendliness that made up for the niece’s sullen scowl. He was disconsolate now. The news of the theft and of Menchu’s murder had come as a great shock to him.
“The matter is in the hands of the police,” said Julia. “I’m sure they’ll find it.”
“I understand there’s a black market for works of art. And that they could sell it abroad.”
“Yes, that’s true, but the police have photographs. I gave them several myself. It won’t be easy to get it out of the country.”
“I can’t understand how they got into your apartment. The police told me that there’s a security lock and an electronic alarm.”
“It could have been Menchu who opened the door. The chief suspect is Max, her boyfriend. There are witnesses who saw him leaving by the street door.”
“We’ve met the boyfriend,” said Lola. “He came here with her one day. A tall, good-looking young man. Too good-looking, I thought… I hope they catch him quickly and give him what he deserves. For us” – she looked at the empty space on the wall – “the loss is irreparable.”
“At least you can claim the insurance money,” said her husband, smiling at Julia. “Thanks to the forethought of this lovely young woman…” He seemed suddenly to remember, and his face grew appropriately grave. “Although, of course, that won’t bring your friend back.”
Lola Belmonte gave Julia a spiteful look.
“That would have been the last straw if, on top of everything else, they hadn’t insured it.” She stuck out a scornful lower lip. “But Senor Montegrifo says that, compared with the price it would have got at auction, the insurance money is a pittance.”
“Have you spoken to Paco Montegrifo already?” asked Julia.
“Yes. He phoned early this morning. He almost got us out of bed with the news. That’s why we were fully informed when the police got here. He’s such a gentleman.” The niece looked at her husband with ill-concealed rancour. “I always said this business got off to a bad start.”
Alfonso made a gesture of washing his hands of the matter.
“Poor Menchu’s offer was a good one,” he said. “It’s not my fault if subsequently things got complicated. Besides, Uncle has always had the final say.” He looked at Belmonte with exaggerated respect. “Isn’t that so?”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said the niece.
Belmonte looked at Julia over the top of the cup he’d just raised to his lips, and she caught in his eyes the self-contained gleam she knew well by now.
“The painting is still in my name, Lolita,” he said, after carefully drying his lips on a crumpled handkerchief. “For good or ill, stolen or not, it’s my concern.” When his eyes met Julia’s again, there was genuine sympathy in them. “As for this young lady” – he smiled encouragingly, as if it were she who was in need of cheering up – “I’m sure her part in all this has been irreproachable.” He turned to Munoz, who had not as yet opened his mouth. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Munoz was slumped in an armchair, his legs stretched out and his fingers interlaced beneath his chin. When he heard the question, he blinked a little and put his head on one side, as if they’d interrupted him in the middle of a complicated meditation.
“Undoubtedly,” he said.
“Do you still believe that any mystery is decipherable using mathematical laws?”
“I certainly do.”
That short exchange reminded Julia of something.
“There’s no Bach today,” she said.
“After what happened to your friend and the disappearance of the painting, it’s not a day for music.” Belmonte seemed lost in thought and then he smiled enigmatically. “Anyway, silence is just as important as organised sound. Wouldn’t you agree, Senor Munoz?”
For once, Munoz was in agreement.
“Absolutely,” he remarked with renewed interest. “I think it’s rather like photographic negatives. The background, which has apparently not been exposed, contains information too. Is that what happens with Bach?”
“Of course. Bach uses negative spaces, silences that are as eloquent as notes, tempi and syncopations. Do you cultivate the study of empty spaces within your logical systems?”
“Naturally. It’s like changing your point of view. Sometimes it’s like looking at a garden which, when viewed from one place, has no apparent order, but which, viewed from another perspective, is laid out with geometric regularity.”
“I’m afraid,” said Alfonso, giving them a mocking look, “it’s too early in the day for me to cope with such scientific talk.” He got up and walked over to the bar. “A drink, anyone?”
No one replied. With a shrug, he prepared himself a whisky, went across to the sideboard and stood leaning on it as he raised his glass to Julia.
“A garden, eh? I like it,” he said and took a sip of his drink.
Munoz, who appeared not to have heard the remark, was looking at Lola Belmonte now. Rather like a hunter lying in wait, only his eyes seemed alive, with that thoughtful, penetrating expression Julia had come to know well, the only sign that behind the facade of apparent indifference there was an alert spirit watching events in the outside world. He’s about to pounce, Julia thought with considerable satisfaction, drinking a little of her cold coffee in order to disguise the knowing smile on her lips.
“I imagine,” said Munoz slowly, addressing Lola, “that it’s been a hard blow for you too.”
“Of course it has.” Lola gave her uncle an even more reproachful look. “That picture is worth a fortune.”
“I didn’t mean just the economic aspect of the matter. I believe you used to play the game shown in the picture. Are you a keen player?”
Her husband raised his whisky glass.
“She plays very well. I’ve never managed to beat her.” He winked and took a long drink. “Not that that means much.”
Lola was looking at Munoz with some suspicion. She had, thought Julia, an air that was at once prudish and rapacious, exemplified by her excessively long skirts, her bony, clawlike hands and the steady gaze underlined by an aquiline nose and aggressive chin. Julia noticed that the tendons on the backs of Lola’s hands kept tensing and untensing as if full of repressed energy. A nasty piece of work, Julia thought, an embittered, arrogant woman. It wasn’t hard to imagine her spreading malicious gossip, projecting onto others her own complexes and frustrations. A blocked personality, oppressed by her circumstances, whose only reaction to external authority was, in chess terms, to attack the king; cruel and calculating, she was out to settle a score with something or someone, with her uncle, with her husband, perhaps. Possibly with the whole world. The painting could be the obsession of a sick, intolerant mind. And those slender, nervous hands were certainly strong enough to kill with a blow to the back of the neck, to strangle somebody with a silk scarf. Julia had no difficulty imagining her in dark glasses and a raincoat. She couldn’t, however, establish any link between her and Max. That would be taking things to absurd extremes.
“It’s quite unusual,” Munoz was saying, to meet a woman who plays chess.“
“Well, I do.” Lola Belmonte seemed wary, defensive. “Do you disapprove?”
“On the contrary. I’m all for it. You can do things on the chessboard that in practice, in real life I mean, are impossible. Don’t you agree?”
A look of uncertainty flickered across her face.
“Maybe. For me it’s just a game. A hobby.”
“A game for which you have some talent, I believe. I still say that it’s unusual to meet a woman who can play chess well.”
“Women are perfectly capable of doing anything. Whether they’re allowed to is another matter, of course.”
Munoz gave a small, encouraging smile.
“Do you prefer playing Black? They tend to be limited to defensive play. It’s generally White who takes the initiative.”
“What nonsense! I don’t see why Black should just sit back and let things happen. That’s like being a wife stuck at home.” She glanced scornfully at her husband. “Everyone takes it for granted that it’s the man who wears the trousers.”
“Isn’t that true?” asked Munoz, the half-smile still on his lips. “For example, in the game in the painting, the initial position seems to favour White. The black king is under threat. And, at first, the black queen can do nothing.”
“In that game, the black king doesn’t count at all; it’s the queen who has to do all the work. It’s a game that’s won with queen and pawns.”
Munoz reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of paper.
“Have you ever played this variant?”
Visibly disconcerted, Lola Belmonte looked first at him and then at the piece of paper he put in her hand. Munoz let his eyes wander about the room until, as if by chance, they came to rest on Julia. The glance she returned to him said, “Well played,” but the chess player’s expression remained utterly inscrutable.
“Yes, I think I have,” said Lola after a while. “White either takes a pawn or moves the queen next to the king ready for check in the next move.” She looked at Munoz with a satisfied air. “Here White has chosen to move its queen, which seems the right thing to do.”
“I agree. But I’m more interested in Black’s next move. What would you do?”
Lola narrowed her eyes suspiciously. She appeared to be looking for ulterior motives. She returned the piece of paper to Munoz.
“It’s some time since I played that game, but I can remember at least four variants: the black rook takes the white knight which leads to an uninspiring victory for White based on pawns and queen. Another possibility, I think, is knight takes pawn. Then there’s bishop takes pawn. The possibilities are endless. But I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”
“But what would you do,” asked Munoz implacably, ignoring her objection, “to ensure a Black victory? I’d like to know, as one player to another, at which point Black gains the advantage.”
Lola Belmonte looked smug.
“We can play the game any time you like. Then you’ll find out.”
“I’d love to and I’ll take you up on that. But there is a variant you haven’t mentioned, perhaps because you’ve forgotten it. A variant that involves an exchange of queens.” He made a brief gesture with his hand, as if clearing an imaginary board. “Do you know the one I’m referring to?”
“Of course. When the black queen takes the pawn that’s on d5, the exchange of queens is inevitable.” As she said this, a cruelly triumphant look flickered across her face. “And Black wins.” Her bird-of-prey eyes looked disdainfully at her husband before turning to Julia. “It’s a shame you don’t play chess, Senorita.”
“What do you think?” asked Julia, as soon as they were out in the street.
Munoz cocked his head slightly to one side. His lips were pressed tightly together and his gaze wandered absently over the faces of the people they passed. Julia noticed that he seemed unwilling to reply.
“Technically,” he said at last, “it could have been her. She knows all the game’s possibilities and she plays well too. Very well, I’d say.”
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“It’s just that there are certain details that don’t fit.”
“But she comes close to the idea we have of him. She knows the game in the painting inside out. She has enough strength to kill a man or a woman, and there’s something unsettling about her, something that makes you feel uncomfortable in her presence.” She frowned, searching for the word that would complete the description. “She just seems such a nasty person. What’s more, for some reason I can’t understand, she feels a particular antipathy towards me. And that’s despite the fact, if we’re to take what she says seriously, that I’m what a woman should be: independent, with no family ties, with a certain amount of self-confidence… Modern, as Don Manuel would say.”
“Perhaps that’s exactly why she hates you. For being what she would like to have been but couldn’t. I don’t remember much about those stories you and Cesar are so keen on, but I seem to recall that the witch ended up hating the mirror.”
Despite the grim circumstances, Julia burst out laughing.
“That’s quite possible. It never occurred to me.”
“Well, now you know.” Munoz had managed a half-smile. “You’d better avoid eating apples for a few days.”
“And I have my princes. You and Cesar. Bishop and knight. Isn’t that right?”
Munoz wasn’t smiling any more.
“This isn’t a game, Julia,” he said. “Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t,” she said and took his arm. Almost imperceptibly, Munoz tensed. He seemed uncomfortable but she kept hold of his arm as they walked. In fact, she’d come to admire this strange, awkward and taciturn man. Sherlock Munoz and Julia Watson, she thought, suddenly full of immoderate optimism that only faded when she remembered Menchu.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked Munoz.
“About the niece.”
“Me too. The truth is, she’s exactly what we’re looking for. Although you don’t agree.”
“I didn’t say that she might not be the woman in the raincoat, just that I don’t see her as the mystery chess player.”
“But there are things that fit perfectly. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that such a mercenary woman, only a few hours after the theft of an extremely valuable painting, should suddenly forget her indignation and start calmly talking about chess?” Julia let go of Munoz’s arm and looked at him. “She’s either a hypocrite or chess means much more to her than you’d think. Either way, it looks suspicious. She could have been pretending all along. She’d had more than enough time since Montegrifo phoned to prepare what you would call a line of defence, working on the assumption that the police would question her.”
“She could indeed. After all, she is a chess player. And a chess player knows how to make use of certain resources. Especially when it comes to getting out of compromising situations.”
He walked on for a while in silence, studying the tips of his shoes. Then he looked up and shook his head.
“I still don’t think it’s her,” he said at last. “I always thought that I would feel something special when I came face to face with ‘him’. But I didn’t feel anything.”
“Has it occurred to you that perhaps you idealise the enemy too much?” asked Julia. “Couldn’t it be that, disillusioned with the reality of the situation, you simply won’t accept the facts?”
Munoz’s narrowed eyes were devoid of expression.
“It had occurred to me,” he murmured, looking at her in his opaque way. “I don’t reject that as a possibility.”
Despite Munoz’s laconic reply, Julia knew there was something else. In his silence, in the way he put his head on one side and looked without seeing her, lost in hermetic thoughts that only he was privy to, she felt certain that something else, which had nothing at all to do with Lola Belmonte, was going round in his head.
“Is there something else?” she asked, unable to contain her curiosity. “Did you find out something in there you haven’t told me about?” Munoz declined to reply.
They dropped by Cesar’s shop to tell him the details of the interview. He was waiting for them impatiently and rushed to greet them as soon as he heard the bell on the shop door.
“They’ve arrested Max. This morning, at the airport. The police phoned half an hour ago. He’s at the police station in Paseo del Prado, Julia. And he wants to see you.”
Cesar shrugged, as if to say that, whilst he might know a lot about blue Chinese porcelain or nineteenth-century painting, the psychology of pimps and criminals in general was not one of his specialities, thank you very much.
“What about the painting?” asked Munoz. “Do you know if they’ve found it?”
“I doubt it very much.” Cesar’s blue eyes revealed a glimmer of concern. “I think that’s precisely the problem.”
Inspector Feijoo did not seem pleased to see Julia. He received her in his office but neglected to invite her to sit down. He was obviously in a filthy mood and he came straight to the point.
“This is all a little irregular,” he said brusquely, “seeing that we’re dealing here with someone supposedly responsible for two murders. But he insists that he will make no proper statement until he’s spoken to you. And his lawyer” – he paused, as if about to spit out exactly what he thought of lawyers – “agrees.”
“How did you find him?”
“It wasn’t difficult. Last night we issued his description to everyone, including border crossings and airports. He was identified this morning at passport control in Barajas airport as he was about to board a flight to Lisbon with a false passport. He didn’t put up any resistance.”
“Has he told you where the painting is?”
“He hasn’t said anything at all.” Feijoo raised one plump, stubby finger. “Oh, except that he’s innocent. But that’s a phrase we often hear; it’s pretty much par for the course. But when I showed him the statements the taxi driver and the porter had made, he crumpled, and just kept asking for a lawyer. And that was when he demanded to see you.”
He accompanied her out of the office and along the corridor to a door where a uniformed policeman was standing guard.
“I’ll be here if you need me. He insisted on seeing you alone.”
They locked the door behind her. Max was sitting on one of the chairs placed on either side of a wooden table in the middle of a windowless room with dirty padded walls. It was completely bare of any other furniture. Max was wearing a rumpled sweater over an open-necked shirt, and his hair, no longer caught back in a ponytail, was dishevelled, a few locks hung loose over his eyes. His hands, resting on the table, were handcuffed.
He looked up and stared at her. He had dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep and he seemed uncertain, as if he had reached the end of a long, vain enterprise.
“At last, a friendly face,” he said with heavy irony, and indicated the other chair.
Julia offered him a cigarette, which he lit avidly, moving his face close to the lighter she held out.
“Why did you want to see me, Max?”
His breathing was fast and shallow. He was no longer a handsome wolf, but a rabbit cornered in its burrow, listening to the sound of the ferret getting nearer and nearer. Julia wondered if the police had beaten him, but he didn’t seem to have any bruises. They don’t beat people up any more, she said to herself. Not any more.
“I wanted to warn you,” he said.
“She was already dead, Julia,” he said in a low voice. “I didn’t do it. When I got to your apartment, she was already dead.”
“How did you get in? Did she open the door?”
“I’ve told you; she was already dead… the second time.”
“The second time? You mean there was a first?”
Max leaned his elbows on the table, resting his unshaven chin on his thumbs, and let the ash fall from his cigarette.
“Hang on,” he said with infinite weariness. “It’s best if I start at the beginning.” He raised the cigarette to his lips again, half-closing his eyes against the smoke. “You know how badly Menchu took that business with Montegrifo. She was pacing round her house like a caged animal, muttering all kinds of insults and threats. ”They’ve robbed me!“ she kept shouting. I managed to calm her down, and we talked it over. The idea was mine.”
“I have contacts with people who can get almost anything out of the country. I suggested that we steal the Van Huys. At first she went crazy, hurling abuse at me and talking about your friendship. Then she saw that it wouldn’t actually hurt you. Your responsibility was covered by the insurance, and as for your share of the profits… well, we’d find a way of compensating you later on.”
“I always knew you were a son of a bitch, Max.”
“Maybe I am, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that Menchu agreed to my plan. She had to get you to take her home with you. Drunk or high on drugs… To be honest, I never thought she’d do it as well as she did. The next morning, I was to phone and see if everything was ready. So that’s what I did, and I went over there. We wrapped up the painting to camouflage it and I took the keys Menchu gave me. I was to park the car in the street and come up again to pick up the Van Huys. The plan was that after I left with the painting, Menchu would stay behind to start the fire.”
“In your apartment.” Max laughed mirthlessly. “That was part of the plan. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry!” Julia thumped the table in stunned indignation. “Good God, you have the nerve to tell me you’re sorry!” She looked at the walls and then at Max. “You must both have been completely mad to think up something like that.”
“We were perfectly sane, actually, and nothing would have gone wrong. Menchu would have faked some kind of accident, a discarded cigarette, for example. And with the amount of solvents and paint in your apartment… We’d decided that she should stay there until the last minute and then leave, choking on the smoke, hysterical and calling for help. Before the firemen managed to get there, half the building would be in flames.” He made a face of crude apology and regret. “Everyone would assume that the Van Huys had gone up in flames along with everything else. You can imagine the rest. I’d sell the painting in Portugal to a private collector we were already negotiating with… In fact, the day we met in the Rastro, Menchu and I had just seen the middleman. As for the fire, Menchu would have accepted responsibility; but since she was your friend and it was an accident, the charges wouldn’t have been that serious. A charge brought by the owners, perhaps, but nothing more. What delighted her most, she said, was the thought of Montegrifo’s face when he found out.”
Julia, incredulous, shook her head.
“Menchu wasn’t capable of doing something like that.”
“Menchu, like all of us, was capable of anything.”
“God, you’re a bastard, Max.”
“At this stage, what I am isn’t terribly important.” Max’s face took on a look of defeat. “What does matter is that it took me quite a while to bring the car round and park it in your street. The fog was really thick and I couldn’t find a parking place. That’s why I kept looking at my watch; I was worried you might turn up any minute. It must have been about quarter past twelve when I went upstairs again. I didn’t ring. I opened the door with the key. Menchu was in the hall, lying on her back, with her eyes wide open. At first I thought she must have fainted out of sheer nervousness, but when I knelt down by her side I saw the bruise on her throat. She was dead, Julia, and she was still warm. I panicked. I knew that if I called the police, I’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do. So I threw the keys on the floor, closed the door and went racing down the stairs. I couldn’t think. I spent the night in a pension, absolutely terrified. I didn’t sleep a wink. Then in the morning, at the airport… Well, you know the rest of the story.”
“Was the painting still in the house when you found Menchu dead?”
“Yes. That was the only thing I noticed apart from her. It was on the sofa, wrapped up in newspaper and tape, just as I’d left it.” He gave a bitter laugh. “But I didn’t have the guts to take it with me. I was in enough trouble already.”
“You say Menchu was in the hall? Yet she was found in the bedroom. Did you see the scarf round her neck?”
“There was no scarf. She had nothing round her neck, and her neck was broken. She’d been killed by a blow to the throat.”
“And the bottle?”
“Don’t you start on about that bloody bottle. All the police keep asking me is why I stuck that bottle up Menchu’s cunt. I swear I don’t know what they’re talking about.” He put what remained of his cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply, nervously, giving Julia a suspicious look. “Menchu was dead, that’s all. Killed by a single blow and nothing else. I didn’t move her. I was only there for about a minute. Someone else must have done that afterwards.”
“Afterwards? When? According to you, the murderer had already left.”
Max frowned, trying to remember.
“I don’t know.” He seemed genuinely confused. “Perhaps he came back later, after I left.” Then he turned pale as if he’d just realised something. “Or perhaps…” Julia saw that his cuffed hands were trembling. “Perhaps he was still there, hidden. Waiting for you.”
They’d decided to share the work. While Julia visited Max and subsequently recounted the story to the Inspector, who listened to her without even trying to disguise his scepticism, Cesar and Munoz made enquiries amongst the neighbours. The three of them met in an old cafe in Calle del Prado in the evening. Max’s story was scrutinised from all angles during a prolonged discussion round the marble table, the ashtray overflowing and the table crowded with empty cups. They leaned towards each other, like conspirators, talking in low voices.
“I believe Max,” concluded Cesar. “What he says makes sense. After all, the story about stealing the painting is just the sort of thing he’d do. And I can’t believe he was capable of doing the rest… The bottle of gin was too much, my dears. Even for a man like him. On the other hand, we know that the woman in the raincoat was also around. Lola Belmonte, Nemesis or whoever she turns out to be.”
“Why not Beatrice of Ostenburg?” asked Julia.
Cesar looked at her reprovingly.
“I find that kind of joke completely uncalled for.” He shifted nervously in his seat, looked at Munoz, whose face was a blank, and then, half-joking, half-serious, held up his hands, as if warding off ghosts. “The woman who was prowling round your building was flesh and blood. At least I hope she was.”
He had discreetly interrogated the porter in the building opposite, whom he knew by sight. From him, Cesar had found out a few useful facts. For example, around twelve, just when he was finishing sweeping the hallway, the porter had seen a tall young man, his hair in a ponytail, come out of the front door of Julia’s building and walk up the street to a car parked by the kerb. Shortly afterwards – and Cesar’s voice grew hoarse with sheer excitement, as it did when he was recounting some high-class bit of social tittle-tattle – perhaps half an hour later, when the porter was taking in the rubbish bin, he’d passed a blonde woman wearing dark glasses and a raincoat. Cesar lowered his voice as he said this, looking around apprehensively, as if the woman might be sitting at one of the nearby tables. The porter, it seems, didn’t get a good look at her because she was walking up the street, in the same direction as the young man. Nor could he say with certainty that the woman had come out of Julia’s front door. He’d simply turned round with the rubbish bin in his hand and there she was. No, he hadn’t told the policemen who questioned him that morning because they hadn’t asked him about that. He wouldn’t have thought of it, the porter confessed, scratching his head, if Don Cesar hadn’t asked him. No, he didn’t notice if she was carrying a large package. He’d just seen a blonde woman walking along the street. And that was that.
“The street,” said Munoz, “is full of blonde women.”
“All wearing dark glasses and a raincoat?” commented Julia. “It could have been Lola Belmonte. I was with Don Manuel at the time. And neither she nor her husband was at home.”
“No,” said Munoz, “by midday you were already with me, at the chess club. We walked for about an hour and got to your apartment about one o’clock.” He looked at Cesar, whose eyes responded with a flicker of mutual intelligence that did not go unnoticed by Julia. “If the murderer was waiting for you, he must have had to change his plans when you didn’t turn up. So he took the painting and left. Perhaps that saved your life.”
“Why did he kill Menchu?”
“Perhaps he wasn’t expecting to find her there and eliminated her as an inconvenient witness,” Munoz said. “The move he’d planned might not have been queen takes rook. It’s possible it was all a brilliant improvisation.”
Cesar raised a shocked eyebrow.
“Calling it ‘brilliant’ is a bit much, my dear.”
“Call it what you like. Changing the move like that, on the spur of the moment, coming up with an instant variant appropriate to the situation and placing the card with the corresponding notation next to the body…” The chess player reflected on this. “I had a chance to have a look at it. The note was even typed, on Julia’s Olivetti, according to Feijoo. And there were no fingerprints. Whoever did it acted with great calm, but also with speed and efficiency. Like a machine.”
Julia suddenly remembered Munoz, hours before, while they waited for the police to come, kneeling by Menchu’s corpse, not touching anything and saying nothing, studying the murderer’s visiting card as coolly as if he were sitting before a chessboard at the Capablanca Club.
“I still don’t understand why Menchu opened the door.”
“Because she thought it was Max,” suggested Cesar.
“No,” said Munoz. “He had the key, which we found on the floor when we arrived. She knew it wasn’t Max.”
Cesar sighed, turning the topaz ring round and round on his finger.
“I’m not surprised the police are hanging onto Max for all they’re worth,” he said, sounding demoralised. “There aren’t any other suspects. And at this rate, soon there won’t be any more victims left either. If Senor Munoz continues to stick strictly to his deductive systems, it’s going to end up – I can see it now – with you, my dear Munoz, surrounded by corpses, like the final act of Hamlet, and being forced to the inevitable conclusion: ‘I am the only survivor, therefore, according to strict logic, discounting all impossible suspects, that is, those who are already dead, the murderer must be me…’ and then giving yourself up to the police.”
“That’s not necessarily so,” said Munoz.
“That you’re the murderer? Forgive me, my dear friend, but this conversation is beginning to sound dangerously like a dialogue in a madhouse. I never for one minute thought…”
“I don’t mean that.” The chess player was studying his hands, holding his empty cup. “I’m talking about what you said a moment ago: that there are no more suspects.”
“You don’t mean,” murmured Julia, “that you’ve got someone else in mind?”
Munoz looked at her for a long time. Then he clicked his tongue, put his head a little to one side and said:
Julia protested and begged him to explain, but neither she nor Cesar could get a word out of him. Munoz was gazing absently at the empty stretch of table between his hands, as if he could see in the marbled surface the mysterious moves of imaginary chess pieces. From time to time the vague smile, behind which he shielded himself when he preferred not to be drawn into things, would drift across his lips like a fleeting shadow.