VIII The Fourth Player
The chess pieces were merciless. They held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony. Because what else exists in the world besides chess?
Munoz half-smiled, in that mechanical, distant way that seemed to commit him to nothing, not even to an attempt to inspire sympathy.
“So that’s what it was all about,” he said in a low voice, matching his step to Julia’s.
“Yes.” She was walking along with her head bent, absorbed in thought. Taking her hand out of the pocket of her leather jacket she brushed her hair from her face. “Now you know the whole story. You have every right to, I suppose. You’ve earned it.”
He looked straight ahead, reflecting on that recently acquired right.
“I see,” he murmured.
They walked unhurriedly, side by side. It was cold. The narrower, more enclosed streets still lay in darkness and the light from the street lamps illuminated only segments of the wet asphalt, making it gleam like fresh varnish. Gradually the shadows grew less intense as a leaden dawn broke slowly at the far end of the avenue where the outlines of the buildings, silhouetted against the light, were shading from black into grey.
“Is there any particular reason,” asked Munoz, “why you’ve kept this part of the story from me until now?”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye before replying. He seemed interested, in a vague way, but not offended. He was gazing absently at the empty street ahead of them, his hands in his raincoat pockets and his collar turned up.
“I thought you might prefer not to get involved.”
As they turned the corner they were greeted by a noisily churning refuse collector, and Munoz helped her squeeze past the empty bins.
“What do you think you’ll do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Finish the restoration work, I suppose. And write a long report about its history. Thanks to you, I might even get to be a bit famous.”
Munoz was listening distractedly, as if his thoughts were elsewhere.
“What’s happening with the police investigation?”
“Assuming there was a murderer, they’ll find him eventually. They always do.”
“Do you suspect anyone?”
Julia burst out laughing.
“Good heavens, no!” She frowned as she considered the possibility. “At least I hope not.” She looked at Munoz. “I imagine that investigating a crime that might not be a crime is very like what you did with the picture.”
Munoz’s lips curved into a half-smile.
“It’s all a question of logic, I suppose,” he replied. “And that might be something that’s common to both chess players and detectives.” Julia couldn’t tell if he was serious or only joking. “Apparently Sherlock Holmes played chess.”
“Do you read detective novels?”
“No. Although the books I do read are somewhat like that.”
“What for example?”
“Books on chess, of course. As well as books on mathematical puzzles, logic problems, things like that.”
They crossed the deserted avenue. When they reached the opposite pavement, Julia gave her companion another furtive glance. He didn’t look like a man of extraordinary intelligence, and she doubted that things had gone well for him in life. Walking along with his hands in his pockets, his rumpled shirt collar showing and his large ears protruding above his old raincoat, he looked exactly like what he was, an obscure office worker, whose only escape from mediocrity was what chess offered him, a world of combinations, problems and solutions. The oddest thing about him was the gleam in his eyes that was quite simply extinguished the moment he looked away from a chessboard, and his way of bowing his head as if he had a heavy weight on the back of his neck, tilting his head forwards, perhaps to allow the outside world to slip by without encroaching on him any more than was absolutely necessary. He reminded her a little of the pictures of prisoners of war she’d seen in old documentaries, trudging along with their heads down. He had the unmistakable air of someone defeated before the battle has even started, of someone who, when he opens his eyes each morning, awakens only to failure.
Yet there was something else. When Munoz was explaining a move, following the twisted thread of the plot, there was in him a fleeting spark of something solid, even brilliant. As if, appearances to the contrary, there was in him the pulse of some extraordinary talent, logical, mathematical or whatever, that lent a certain assurance and undeniable authority to his words and gestures.
She realised that she knew nothing about him except that he played chess and was an accounts clerk. But it was too late now to get to know him better. His task was over and they would be unlikely to meet again.
“We’ve had an odd sort of relationship,” she said.
“In chess terms, it’s been a perfectly normal relationship,” he replied. “Two people, you and me, brought together for the duration of a game.” He smiled again in that diffuse way that meant nothing. “Call me if you ever want another game.”
“You baffle me,” she said spontaneously, “you really do.”
He looked at her, surprised, not smiling any more.
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” Julia hesitated slightly, unsure of her ground. “You seem to be two different people, so shy and withdrawn sometimes, with a kind of touching awkwardness. But as soon as anything to do with chess comes up, you’re astonishingly assured.”
“So?” His face inexpressive, Munoz seemed to be waiting for the rest of her argument.
“Well, that’s it really,” she stammered, a bit embarrassed by her lack of discretion. “I suppose all this is slightly absurd at this hour of the morning. I’m sorry.”
He had a prominent Adam’s apple, visible above the unbuttoned neck of his shirt, and he was in need of a good shave. His head was tilted slightly to the left, as if he were considering what she’d just said. But he didn’t seem in the least bewildered.
“I see,” he said, and made a movement with his chin as if to indicate that he had understood, although Julia was unable to establish exactly what he had understood. He looked past her as if hoping that someone would approach, bringing a forgotten word. And then he did something that Julia would always remember with astonishment. Right there, in half a dozen phrases, uttered as dispassionately and coldly as if he were discussing some third party, he summarised his whole life for her, or that’s what Julia thought he did, without pauses or inflections and with the same precision he employed when commenting on moves in a chess game. And only when he’d finished and fallen silent did the vague smile return to his lips, in apparent gentle mockery of himself, of the man he had just described and for whom, deep down, he felt neither compassion nor disdain, only a kind of disillusioned, sympathetic solidarity.
Julia just stood there, not knowing what to say, asking herself how the devil a man of so few words had been capable of explaining everything about himself so clearly. She had learned of a child who used to play chess in his head, staring up at his bedroom ceiling, whenever his father punished him for neglecting his studies; and about women capable of dissecting, with the meticulous skill of a watchmaker, the inner mechanisms that drive a man; and of the solitude that came in the wake of failure and the absence of hope. Julia had no time to take it in, and at the end, which was almost the beginning, she wasn’t sure how much of it he’d actually told her and how much of it she’d imagined for herself, supposing that Munoz had done anything more than just bow his head and smile like a weary gladiator, indifferent about the direction, up or down, of the thumb that would decide his fate. When he stopped talking – if, that is, he ever really spoke – and the grey light of dawn lit half his face, Julia knew with total clarity just what that small area of sixty-four black and white squares meant to this man: a miniature battlefield on which was played out the mystery of life itself, of success and failure, of the terrible, hidden forces that rule the fates of men.
She understood this, as well as the meaning of that smile that never quite settled on his lips. She slowly bowed her head, while he looked up at the sky and remarked how cold it was. She offered her pack of cigarettes; he accepted, and that was the first and almost the last time she saw Munoz smoke. They walked on until they reached Julia’s building. At that point it seemed that Munoz would depart for good. He held out his hand to shake hers and say good-bye, but Julia had seen a small envelope, about the size of a visiting card, stuck in the little grid next to her bell. When she opened it and looked at the card it contained, she knew that Munoz could not leave, not just yet, that a few other things, none of them good, would have to happen before they could let him do so.
“I don’t like it,” said Cesar, and Julia noticed that the fingers holding his ivory cigarette holder were trembling slightly. “I really don’t like the idea that there’s some madman out there, playing at being the Phantom of the Opera.”
As if those words were a signal, all the clocks in the shop started to chime, one after the other or simultaneously, in tones that varied from a gentle murmur to the grave bass of the heavy wall clocks. But the coincidence failed to make Julia smile. She looked at the Bustelli figure of Lucinda, absolutely still inside the glass case, and felt as fragile as it looked.
“I don’t like it either. But I’m not sure we have any choice.”
She looked away from the porcelain figure and across at the Regency table on which Munoz had set out his pocket chess set, once again reproducing the positions of the pieces in Van Huys’s chess game.
“If I ever get my hands on the swine…” Cesar muttered, casting a distrustful eye at the card Munoz was holding by one corner, as if it were a pawn he was not yet sure where to place. “It’s beyond a joke.”
“It’s no joke,” said Julia. “Have you forgotten about poor Alvaro?”
“Forgotten him?” Cesar put the cigarette holder to his lips and blew out smoke in short, nervous puffs. “I wish I could!”
“And yet,” said Munoz, “it does make sense.”
They looked at him. Munoz, unaware of the effect of his words, remained leaning on the table over the chessboard, with the card between his fingers. He hadn’t taken his raincoat off, and the light coming through the stained-glass window lent a blue tone to his unshaven chin and emphasised the dark circles under his weary eyes.
“My friend,” said Cesar, in a tone that was somewhere between polite incredulity and ironic respect, “I’m glad you can make some sense out of all this.”
Munoz shrugged, ignoring Cesar’s comment. He was clearly concentrating on the new problem, on the hieroglyphics on the small card:
Rb3?… Pd7 – d5+
Munoz looked at them for a moment longer, comparing them with the position of the pieces on the board.
“It seems that someone” – and with that word “someone” Julia shivered, as if, nearby, an invisible door had been opened – “is interested in the game of chess being played in the picture.” He half-closed his eyes and nodded, as though in some obscure way he could intuit the motives of the mystery player. “Whoever he is, he knows the state of the game and knows too, or thinks he does, that we’ve successfully solved its secret by means of retrograde analysis. Because he proposes playing on, continuing the game from the current position of the pieces as they stand in the picture.”
“You’re joking,” said Cesar.
There was an uncomfortable silence, during which Munoz glared at Cesar.
“I never joke,” he said at last, as if he’d been considering whether or not this was worth explaining. “And certainly not about chess.” He flicked the card with his index finger. “That, I can assure you, is exactly what he’s doing: continuing the game from the point where the painter left off. Look at the board.”
“See,” said Munoz, pointing to the card. “That Rb3 means that White should move the rook currently on b5 to b3. I take the question mark to mean that he’s suggesting we make this move. So we can deduce from that that we’re playing White and our opponent is Black.”
“How appropriate,” remarked Cesar. “Suitably sinister.”
“I don’t know whether it’s sinister or not, but it’s what he’s doing. He’s saying to us: ‘I’m playing Black and I’m inviting you to move that took to b3.” Do you understand? If we agree to play, we have to move as he suggests, although we could choose a better move. For example, we could take that black pawn on b7 with the white pawn on a6. Or
the white rook on b6…“ He stopped, absorbed, his mind plunged automatically into considering the various possibilities offered by the move he’d just mentioned. Then he blinked and returned with a visible effort to the real situation. ”Our opponent takes it as read that we accept his challenge and that we’ve moved our white rook to b3, to protect our white king from a possible sideways move to the left by the black queen and, at the same time, with that rook backed up by the other rook and the white knight, threatening the black king on a4 with check. I deduce from this that he likes taking risks.“
Julia, who was following Munoz’s explanations on the board, felt sure she detected in his words a hint of admiration for the unknown player.
“What makes you say that? How can you know what he does or doesn’t like?”
Munoz shrugged and bit his lower lip.
“I don’t know,” he replied after a brief hesitation. “Even‘ person plays chess according to who he is. I believe I explained that once before.” He placed the card on the table next to the chessboard. “Pd7 – d5+ means that Black now chooses to play by advancing the pawn he has on d7 to d5, thus threatening the white king with check. That little cross next to the figure means check. In other words, we’re in danger.
a danger we can avoid by taking their pawn with the white pawn on e4.“
“Right,” said Cesar. “That’s fine as far as the moves go. But I don’t see what all this has to do with us. What relationship is there between those moves and reality?”
Munoz looked noncommittal, as if they were asking too much of him. Julia noticed that his eyes again sought hers, only to slide away a second later.
“I don’t know exactly what the relationship is. Perhaps it’s a prompt, a warning. I have no way of knowing. But the next logical move by Black, after losing his pawn on d5, would be to put the white king in check again by moving the black knight on d1 to b2. In that case, there would be only one move White could make to avoid check whilst at the same time maintaining his siege of the black king, and that’s to take the black knight with the white rook. The rook on b3 takes the knight on b2. Now look at the position on the board.”
The three of them, still and silent, studied the new positions of the pieces. Julia would remark later that it was at that moment, long before she understood the meaning of the hieroglyphics, that she sensed the board had ceased to be simply a succession of black and white squares and become instead a real space depicting the course of her own life.
And, almost as if the board had become a mirror, she found something familiar about the piece of wood representing the white queen on e1 so pathetically vulnerable to the threatening proximity of the black, chessmen.
But it was Cesar who was the first to understand.
“My God,” he said. And those words sounded so strange on his agnostic lips that Julia looked at him in alarm. He was staring fixedly at the board, the hand that held the cigarette holder apparently frozen a few inches from his mouth, as if the realisation had been so sudden it had paralysed a gesture only barely begun.
She looked again at the board, feeling the blood beating silently in her wrists and temples. She could see only the defenceless white queen, but she felt the danger like a dead weight on her back. She looked across at Munoz, asking for help, and saw that he was shaking his head thoughtfully, the furrow between his eyebrows deepening. Then the vague smile she’d noticed on other occasions flickered briefly and humourlessly across his lips. It was the fleeting, rather resentful smile of someone who finds himself obliged, most reluctantly, to acknowledge his opponent’s talent. And Julia felt an explosion of intense, dark fear, for she understood that even Munoz was impressed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, barely recognising her own voice. The squares on the board swam before her eyes.
Exchanging a grave look with Munoz, Cesar said: “It means that the white rook’s move threatens the black queen. Isn’t that right?”
Munoz gave a lift of his chin.
“Yes,” he said. “The black queen, who before was safe, is now under threat.” He stopped. Venturing along the path of non-chess interpretations was not something he felt at ease doing. “That might mean that the invisible player is trying to communicate something to us: his certainty that the mystery of the painting has been resolved. The black queen…”
“Beatrice of Burgundy,” murmured Julia.
“Yes, Beatrice of Burgundy, the black queen, who, it would seem, has already killed once.”
Munoz’s last words hung in the air without expectation of any response. Cesar reached out a hand and, with the meticulousness of someone who desperately needs to do something in order to remain in touch with reality, delicately flicked the ash from his cigarette into an ashtray. Then he looked around as if he might find the answer to the questions they were all asking themselves in one of the pieces of furniture, one of the pictures or objects in his shop.
“You know, my dears, it really is an absolutely incredible coincidence. This just can’t be real.”
He raised his hands and let them fall in a gesture of impotence. Munoz merely gave a gloomy shrug of his shoulders.
“This is no coincidence. Whoever planned this is a master.”
“And what about the white queen?” asked Julia.
Munoz moved one hand towards the board where it hovered over the piece in question, as if not daring to touch it. He pointed to the black rook on c1.
“There’s a chance she could be taken,” he said calmly.
“I see.” Julia felt disappointed. She thought she would have felt more of a shock if someone had confirmed her fears out loud. “If I’ve understood you correctly, the fact of having discovered the picture’s secret, that is, the lady in black’s guilt, is reflected in that move of the rook to b2. And if the white queen is in danger, it’s because she should have withdrawn to a safe place instead of wandering around making life difficult for herself. Is that the moral of the message, Senor Munoz?”
“More or less.”
“But it all happened five hundred years ago,” protested Cesar. “Only the mind of a madman…”
“Perhaps we’re dealing with a madman,” said Munoz with equanimity. “But he played, or plays, damned fine chess.”
“And he might have killed again,” added Julia. “Now, a few days ago, in the twentieth century. He might have killed Alvaro.”
Cesar, scandalised, raised a hand, almost as if she’d made an improper remark.
“Now, hang on, Princess. We’re getting ourselves tied in knots here. No murderer can survive for five hundred years. And a painting can’t kill.”
“That depends on how you look at it.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. And stop mixing things up. On the one hand there’s a painting and a crime committed five hundred years ago… On the other hand there’s Alvaro, dead.”
“And the sending of the documents.”
“But no one has yet proved that the person who sent the documents also killed Alvaro. It’s even possible that the wretched man cracked his own head open in the bath.” Cesar raised three fingers. “Third, we have someone who wants to play chess. That’s all. There’s nothing that proves there’s any link among the three things.”
“That’s not proof. It’s just a hypothesis.” Cesar turned to Munoz. “Isn’t that right?”
Munoz said nothing, refusing to take sides, and Cesar gave him a resentful look. Julia pointed to the card on the table next to the chessboard.
“You want proof, do you?” she said suddenly, for she’d just realised what the card was. “Here’s a direct link between Alvaro’s death and the mystery player. I know these cards all too well. They’re the ones Alvaro used in his work.” She paused to take in the significance of her own words. “Whoever killed him could have taken a handful of his cards.” The irrational sense of panic she’d felt only minutes before was already ebbing away, to be replaced by a more precise, more clearly defined feeling of apprehension. She said to herself, by way of explanation, that the fear of fear, of something dark and undefined, was not the same as the concrete fear of dying at the hands of a real human being. Perhaps the memory of Alvaro, of his death in broad daylight with the taps turned on, helped to clarify her mind and free her of superfluous fears. She had quite enough on her plate as it was.
She put a cigarette to her lips and lit it, hoping the men would interpret this as a display of self-control. She exhaled the first mouthful of smoke and swallowed. Her throat felt unpleasantly dry. She urgently needed a vodka. Or half a dozen vodkas. Or a strong, silent, good-looking man, with whom she could find oblivion in sex.
“Now what do we do?” she asked, mustering all the calm she could.
Cesar was looking at Munoz and Munoz at Julia. She saw that Munoz’s eyes had become opaque again, devoid of life, as if he’d lost all interest until the next move claimed his attention.
“We wait,” said Munoz, indicating the board. “It’s Black’s turn to move.”
* * *
Menchu was very excited, but not about the mystery chess player. As Julia told her what had happened, Menchu’s eyes grew round, and if you listened carefully, you could have heard the clatter of a cash register ringing up totals. The fact is that, when it came to money, Menchu was always greedy. And at that moment, happily calculating future profits, she most definitely was greedy. And foolish, added Julia to herself, for Menchu had seemed almost unconcerned by the possible existence of a rnurderer with a taste for chess. True to her nature, her favourite method of dealing with problems was to act as if they didn’t exist. Disinclined to give her attention to anything concrete for any length of time, perhaps bored with having Max in her home in his role as bodyguard – thus making other sexual encounters difficult – Menchu had decided to look, at the whole business from a different angle. For her, it was now just an odd series of coincidences, or a strange, possibly harmless joke, thought up by someone with a peculiar sense of humour, whose motives were too ingenious for her to grasp. It was the most reassuring version of events, especially when there was so much to be gained along the way. As for Alvaro’s death, hadn’t Julia ever heard of judicial errors? Like the murder of Zola by that chap Dreyfus, or was it the other way round? And Lee Harvey Oswald and other such blunders. Besides, slipping in the bath could happen to anyone. Or almost anyone.
“As for the Van Huys, you’ll see: we’re going to make a pile of money out of it.”
“And what do we do about Montegrifo?”
There were only a few customers in the gallery: a couple of elderly ladies chatting in front of a large classical seascape in oils, and a gentleman in dark clothes who was flipping through the portfolio of engravings. Menchu placed one hand on her hip as if it were the butt of a revolver and said in a low voice, theatrically fluttering her eyelashes:
“He’ll fall into line, sweetie.”
“You think so?”
“Take my word for it. Either he accepts or we go over to the enemy.” She smiled, sure of herself. “With your track record and this whole fabulous story about the Duke of Ostenburg and his harpy of a wife, Sotheby’s or Christie’s would welcome us with open arms. And Paco Montegrifo is no fool.” She seemed suddenly to remember something.
“By the way, we’re meeting him for coffee this afternoon. Make yourself pretty.”
“We’re meeting him?”
“Yes, you and me. He phoned this morning, all sweetness and light That bastard’s got an amazing sixth sense when it comes to business.”
“Look, don’t drag me into this.”
“I’m not. He insisted that you come too. I can’t think what he sees in you, darling. You’re nothing but skin and bones.”
Menchu’s high heels – the shoes were handmade, extremely expensive, but the heels were just half an inch higher than strictly necessary – left painful marks in the beige carpet. In her gallery, amongst all the indirect lighting, pale colours and large open spaces, there was a predominance of what Cesar used to call “barbarian art”. The dominant note was provided by acrylics and gouaches combined with collages, reliefs made from bits of sacking and rusty monkey wrenches or plastic tubing and steering wheels painted sky blue. Occasionally, relegated to some far corner, you would find a more conventional portrait or landscape, like an awkward guest, embarrassing but necessary to justify the supposedly catholic tastes of a snobbish hostess. Nevertheless, Menchu made money from the gallery; even Cesar had (reluctantly) to recognise that, at the same time nostalgically recalling the days when every boardroom would have contained at least one highly respectable painting, suitably mellowed by age, set off by a heavy gilt wood frame, not the post-industrial nightmares so in keeping with the spirit – plastic money, plastic furniture, plastic art – of the new generations who now occupied those same offices, decor courtesy of the trendiest and most expensive interior designers.
As it happened, Menchu and Julia were at that moment contemplating a strange amalgam of reds and greens that answered to the portentous title Feelings. It had sprung only weeks before from the palette of Sergio, Cesar’s latest romantic folly, whom Cesar had recommended, although he had at least had the decency to keep his eyes modestly averted when he mentioned the matter.
“I’ll sell it somehow,” said Menchu, with a resigned sigh, after they’d both looked at it for a while. “In fact, incredible though it may seem, everything gets sold in the end.”
“Cesar’s very grateful,” said Julia. “And so am I.”
Menchu wrinkled her nose reprovingly.
“That’s what bothers me. That you justify your friend the antiquarian’s silly games. It’s time the old queen started acting his age.”
Julia brandished a threatening fist in front of her friend’s nose.
“You leave him alone. You know that, as far as I’m concerned, Cesar’s sacred.”
“Don’t I just. For as long as I’ve known you, it’s always been Cesar this and Cesar that.” She looked irritably at Sergio’s painting. “You ought to take your case to a psychoanalyst; he’d blow a fuse. I can just see you lying down together on the couch, giving him that old Freudian sob story. ”You see, doctor, I never wanted to screw my father, I just wanted to dance the waltz with Cesar. He’s gay, by the way, but he absolutely adores me.“ A real can of worms, darling.”
Julia looked at her friend without a trace of amusement on her face.
“That’s utter rubbish. You know perfectly well the kind of relationship we have.”
“Do I indeed?”
“Oh, go to hell. You know very well…” She stopped and snorted, irritated with herself. “This is absurd. Every time you talk about Cesar, I end up trying to justify myself.”
“Because, darling, there is something murky about your relationship. Remember, even when you were with Alvaro…”
“Now don’t start in on Alvaro. You’ve got Max to worry about.”
“At least Max gives me what I need… By the way, how’s that chess player you’re keeping so quiet about? I’m dying to get a look at him.”
“Munoz?” Julia couldn’t help smiling. “You’d be very disappointed. He’s not your type. Or mine, for that matter.” She thought for a moment, since it had never occurred to her to consider how she would describe him. “He looks like an office worker in some old black-and-white film.”
“But he solved the Van Huys problem for you.” Menchu fluttered her eyelashes in mock admiration, in homage to the chess player. “He must have some talent.”
“He can be brilliant, in his own way. But not always. One moment he seems very sure of himself, reasoning things out like a machine, the next he just switches off, right before your eyes. You find yourself noticing the frayed shirt collar, how ordinary he looks, and you think I bet he’s one of those men whose socks smell.”
“Is he married?”
Julia shrugged. She was looking out at the street, beyond the window display consisting of a couple of pictures and some painted ceramics.
“I don’t know. He’s not much given to confidences.” She considered what she’d just said and discovered that she hadn’t even thought about it before. Munoz had interested her less as a human being and more as a way of solving the problem. Only the day before, shortly before finding the card, when they were about to say good-bye, only then had she caught a glimpse of his life. “I imagine he’s married. Or was… He seems damaged in the way that only we women can damage men.”
“And what does Cesar think of him?”
“He likes him. I imagine he finds him amusing as a character. He treats him with somewhat ironic courtesy. It’s as if Cesar feels a pang of jealousy every time Munoz makes some particularly brilliant analysis of a move. But as soon as Munoz takes his eyes off the board, he’s ordinary again, and Cesar feels better.”
She stopped talking, puzzled. She’d just noticed, on the other side of the street, parked by the kerb, a car that seemed familiar. Where had she seen it before?
A bus passed, hiding the car from view. Menchu saw the look of anxiety on her face.
“Is something wrong?”
Disconcerted, Julia shook her head. The bus was followed by a delivery van that stopped at the light, making it impossible to see if the car was still there or not. But she had seen it. It was a Ford.
Menchu looked uncomprehendingly from Julia to the street and back. Julia had a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, an uncomfortable feeling she’d come to know all too well over the last few days. She stood absolutely still, concentrating, as if her eyes, through sheer force of will, could be capable of seeing straight through the van to the car. A blue Ford.
She was afraid. She felt the fear creep gently through her body, felt it beating in her wrists and temples. After all, it was quite possible that someone was following her. That they’d been doing so for days, ever since Alvaro and she… A blue Ford with smoked-glass windows.
Then she remembered: it was double-parked opposite the offices of the messenger service and had jumped a red light behind them that rainy morning. Why shouldn’t it be the same car?
“Julia.” Menchu seemed genuinely worried now. “You’ve gone quite pale”
The van was still there, stopped at the light. Perhaps it was only coincidence. The world was full of blue cars with smoked-glass windows. She took a step towards the gallery door, putting her hand into the leather bag she wore slung over her shoulder. Alvaro in the bath, with the taps full on. She scrabbled in the bag, disregarding cigarettes, lighter, powder compact. She touched the butt of the derringer with a sort of jubilant sense of comfort, of exalted hatred for that car, hidden now, that represented the naked shadow of fear. Bastard, she thought, and the hand holding the weapon inside the bag began to tremble with a mixture of fear and rage. Whoever you are, you bastard, even if it is Black’s turn to move, I’m going to show you how to play chess. And to Menchu’s astonishment, Julia went out into the street, her jaw set, her eyes fixed on the van hiding the car. She walked between two other cars parked on the pavement just as the light was changing to green. She dodged a car bumper, ignored a horn sounding immediately behind her and, in her impatience for the van to pass, was on the point of taking out her derringer when, at last, in a cloud of diesel fumes, she reached the other side of the street just in time to see a blue Ford with smoked-glass windows and a numberplate ending in the letters TH disappearing into the traffic ahead.