(A/N: This is a story that's been rattling around my brain for a good two and a half years, which has gone through a full write in third person (but didn't work for certain points of dramatic irony and whatnot that I think can be solved in first-person). Please note, I speak Spanish fairly fluently but am not a native speaker. I lived in Buenos Aires for a while during law school, but am not a native to the city, either. I also was not alive in 1978, when the story is set. There may be small mistakes, but hopefully not huge or jarring ones. Enjoy!)
"I foresee that man will resign himself each day to new abominations, and soon that only bandits and soldiers will be left." – Jorge Luis Borges
At least it wasn't the Café Dorrego. Gossip from that place would have shown up in the papers. Here in the dim lighting and unconcerned crowd of some random joint near Plaza San Martín, I would at least stand a chance of anonymity. No matter that this place was much nicer than anywhere down by the port.
"You're sure you haven't heard the name?"
It was a dangerous question to ask again. González had told me already that he had no clue. Still, I needed to know how far I could press. How much respect did the local police have for foreigners, journalists, and especially foreign journalists?
The other man fixed me with a disgusted look, his brows drawn down and his lips pursed tight. I couldn't say that he was wrong to be fed up with the conversation. "Positive. If he was taken from La Boca, I'd have come across his papers."
"And you'd tell me if you came across them." I was careful to make it a statement, not a question. The government made a big show of being friendly with the American interests here, and even the Herald counted as an interest, as insignificant as it was back in the States. There was no need to poison the well: Not until I was good and ready.
"Of course I would have. We're talking in circles, you know. If I come across someone named Herrera, I will tell you. You can assure the girl of that… his sister. What did you say her name was?"
I hadn't said her name, but I didn't think there was any harm in telling him. If he wanted to find out, he could do so very easily. "Luisa Herrera."
He smiled and poured me another glass of booze, pushing it across with the largesse of a colonial governor . There was something weird in the offer, like somehow I had turned traitor by giving the cops Luisa's name. I didn't want any more to drink, suddenly, but I couldn't afford any real suspicion. I took a sip, and grimaced broadly enough that it must have passed as a smile. Hopefully.
"You know, John," González said, with less trouble handling my name than I would have expected, "it would have been very easy for you to go through other methods to find the Herrera boy – methods that would have caused trouble for you, this Luisa, and anyone else that might have been involved. It's good that you chose a cooperative method."
Too close to a threat for comfort. Almost every part of me wanted to challenge what González had said, wanted to cause trouble for the man himself. But some small vestige of my conscience, or perhaps my cowardice, overrode that. I drank some more booze, feeling that I had made a poor showing.
"What would you consider an uncooperative method?"
He looked entertained, rather than suspicious. "Surely you're not planning something?"
I hadn't been planning anything, but, since he had asked, the question made dozens of revolutionary possibilities swarm through my brain. I could publish something in the Herald that would have them fuming. I could start a riot: Soccer games at the Bombonera would have enough people, and I didn't think they needed much incitement to spill over into subversive actions like window-smashing and carjacking. I could have Luisa spread the word amongst her friends to have González taken out; I was sure she knew people who could do the job, even if she hadn't explicitly told me that.
I tightened my fingers on the glass, returning to the Retiro café. "I'm not that stupid."
González looked at me for a long, searching moment. He knew. It was clear from the way that he stared at me, a heavy-lidded gaze that saw right through my act. I wondered for a moment if mind reading was really possible. Then, his lips curved up, and he let out a burst of laughter loud enough to make the rich couple next to us look over in disdain.
If I had been sitting next to him instead of across the tiny table, I think he would have slapped me on the back. "Of course you're not that stupid! Leave the idiocy to the subversives and rebels, and the brains to good journalists like you."
I think I smiled. I must have, because his good humor was broad enough that he paid for my lunch as well as his own.
As we got ready to leave, he seized my arm lightly and repeated what he'd told me at the beginning. "The local police are at your service, you know. You need only ask and, provided we can help you, we certainly will."
It was bullshit, but it was pretty convincing bullshit. Maybe González even believed what he was saying. I nodded, murmured my agreement, and followed him out the door of the Café Gaita.
Spring in Buenos Aires meant that the flowerpots in the café window were starting to blossom in the sunlight. Down the street, I could see the Plaza San Martín starting to perk up some, too. A few flowers peeked out around the horsebacked statue of its namesake, and the ferns that lined the sidewalk were glistening from the brief late-morning rainfall. When I'd arrived here in August, it hadn't been too cold, but it had been dreary and rainy. These last few weeks had been good for the city in that sense. Life was beginning again.
But somewhere, in Núñez or La Plata, someone was dying. Maybe even in the fancy apartments across the street from the Café Gaita. The thought of that seized me with a sudden horror. Here I had spent the last two hours of lunch (businesslike and relatively brief by Argentine standards) chatting with someone I knew was a killer.
The police captain was still standing with me, too, rolling up his shirtsleeves to adjust to the sudden rush of spring humidity. However pleasant the temperature was, the air was stagnant and muggy, and I could feel perspiration start to gather at the base of my collar and under my arms. I wasn't sure how much of it was due to my own nerves, though.
"You're staying nearby, aren't you?"
I wondered if it was mere conversation, or actually an attempt to gather information. "Relatively near." There was no way in hell that I was giving him the hotel's name or address.
"Ah." González smiled. "I don't blame you for choosing a local place, then. As bad as this area is during lunchtime, La Boca is far worse. You've never seen so many people eat at once – not even back home in Manhattan."
I wanted to explain to him that I was from a different part of New York than the City, but I decided it was a distinction that didn't need to be drawn. It was like Luisa's cousin Néstor, sitting in the Schenectady office, telling me that he was from La Plata, not Buenos Aires. I hadn't even left the continent, so foreign cities made no difference to me at that point. I suspected that González felt the same way about the United States.
"I'm sure I haven't," I said. At least that was the truth. Luisa and I had only met twice before, and even then we had only gone to her apartment. As crowded as it was, and as noisy as the street below was, I certainly didn't think it encompassed the whole of La Boca. Not even a single percent. "Thank you for buying my lunch, Captain."
"Please, call me Raúl."
I didn't really want to, so I smiled and ignored the offer as best I could. "Thanks again, anyway, and I'll be in touch if I need your help." I wasn't sure if shaking hands was customary in Argentina, but it definitely was in the States, so I stuck out my hand for a shake.
González had a hand nearly half again the size of mine, with thick fingers crisscrossed with scars. Manual labor. He was a local porteño in a way that the richies in the café never could be. His handshake was firm and assured. If I hadn't already distrusted him, I might have even called it reassuring.
"A pleasure, Mr. Clark."
And he said that, too. 'Mister' Clark, not 'Señor' Clark. I wondered about it. There was a subtle distinction there that I couldn't quite identify, but didn't necessarily like.
Still, I pulled my hand away and watched him go. Once he had called a radio-taxi and was safely heading south towards the port, I rolled my shoulders, trying to ease the tension from them. It was funny. He hadn't threatened me, and he hadn't even come close. He had barely implied that he thought I was shady. But I could not shake the idea that he had asked one of his deputies to watch me for the rest of the day.
When I got back to the hotel, I used the payphone in the lobby to call home. Charges reversed, of course. Frank could yell at me about the phone bill all he wanted when I got back to the States, but for now, I needed to talk with him and limit how much money I spent on the chat.
His voice crackled over the line, distorted from the international call. "You found out anything for him yet?" It was a relief to hear English, even from as lazy a speaker as Frank. And, thank God, he wasn't dumb enough to use any names.
"Nothing. But I will."
"You told me that two weeks ago."
"Two weeks ago, I hadn't had this meeting." I hoped he remembered which meeting it was, since I couldn't risk elaboration. "Getting closer. Less than a month. Probably not even that." I looked around the lobby. Its furnishings were plush or gilt-edged, and well-kept, but everything seemed impossibly old. I wondered if the leatherette sofa had been here since the days of Evita. It didn't look like anyone had sat on it in the past twenty-five years. "All I need to do is find out where he is, and then put the screws on."
"And you haven't found out where he is."
"Jesus H., Frank. Cut a guy a break, will you?"
"Cut the company account a break, and you'll find I'm a saint. Listen, just be quick about it, will you?"
"Trying my best." 'You asshole,' I mouthed. It definitely needed to be said, but Frank didn't necessarily need to hear it.
"Sure. Be careful." And with a click, Schenectady was two continents away again.
After getting my room key and taking a five-floor ride in a rickety elevator that lurched around like a thing possessed, I was back in my room. The Pullman kitchen had been cleaned while I had been gone, and the bottle of imported gin had been put up on the kitchen shelf, instead of where I had left it by the bed. I wondered what the maids thought of that. Just another drunk tourist, probably.
Still, habit was hard to break, and I checked the papers that I had left in the desk drawer of the table. My notes were a bit shuffled, but none were missing. I'd gone to bed late last night and had woken up with one hell of a hangover, so it was probably just a momentary lapse in judgment.
I set the fan on high and turned on the TV to a replay of some random soccer match from last night, crisply broadcast but with chintzy commercials. River Plate versus some team I'd never heard of. It would make for good background noise to drown out my thoughts from the day. González had spooked me; I'm not too proud to admit that.
I wasn't going to get anywhere through him. I needed to find another way to get information. Maybe I could dig a ditch into the prison, like in the Great Escape – except instead of breaking out, I would be breaking in. The first problem with that, though, was that I didn't even know where the kid was being held. The second problem was that my dumb ass would be as good as dead if I even came within ten feet of the jail.
There had to be some way to go about it that wouldn't get me drugged into unconsciousness and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, or shoved away in a prison somewhere for the next twenty years. I just couldn't figure out what that method was. The naive part of me said that they wouldn't do anything to me, that "disappearing" mainly happened to locals and foreigners that didn't matter, and that I mattered plenty, since people knew I was here. That was stupid, though. I might have mattered in the States, but I was just another unimportant guy here.
Someone was shilling yet another brand of mate with a jingle worthy of temporary deafness, but I didn't catch the brand name. More important sounds rushed into my thoughts: The elevator's rattling stop, the sharp knock on the door and the call in Spanish, muffled by the thickness of the door:
"Bonaerense Police! Señor Clark, we'd like to have a talk with you. Will you come to the door, please?"