My thoughts were back in Frank's editorial office in Schenectady, stacked high with newspapers and cardboard boxes full of spiral notebooks. I was staring at his desk, coffee rings worked deep into the surface over decades of bad housekeeping. He was giving me some sanctimonious, preachy lecture about how the Herald had to take risks if we were ever going to be a real paper, and how this friend of a friend of his, some South American guy, was giving me one hell of an opportunity.
"After all," Frank said, "you always wanted to be a real investigator, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but… South America, Frank? That's a dictatorship."
"Dictatorships," he corrected me. "There's more than one country down there, you know." I was somewhat shocked that he knew that much about geography, even if I wasn't up on my history. "Besides," he continued, "you've still got high school Spanish, haven't you? And you had that girlfriend, the looker. Not the fat one from Niskayuna. The one with the funny name, like some make of car. What was she, anyway?"
The question irritated me. 'What was she?' he'd asked. Like Mercedes was an object, not a person. And her name was perfectly normal, anyway. "Mercedes is Filipina. She's from the Philippines," I added for good measure, since it was way too easy. "And… and I don't think that they speak the same type of Spanish in the Philippines as they do in South America, Frank."
"You look like you could fit in. Wasn't one of your grandparents Mohawk? You'll do a damn sight better than I could. Nobody would give me the time of day down there."
I resisted the urge to tell him that there was probably a damn good reason why people would avoid him, and that it wasn't necessarily because he could be the whitest guy imaginable, in all senses of the word. I also figured telling him that the name was Kahnyen'kehàka, not Mohawk, would be a completely lost cause. "My gram was from the reservation up near Massena, but the other three were all WASPs like your folks. And I probably would do better down there, but listen, this is my first time doing this shit. I'm not James Bond."
He leaned in, lighting a cigarette. Of course, he didn't offer me one as well. I hadn't really expected one. After a moment of smoking, he tilted his chair back again, waving his cigarette as if he were conducting me to play in his orchestra. It wasn't too far from the truth. "You want the job or not?"
It was probably close to midnight when I slunk out through the shattered remains of what had once been a café. I had to wait at the door, though. There were still plenty of people on the street, and plenty of places on the block were visibly still open, lit up in a display of garish neon. I hadn't known the store owners, so I didn't take this personally. Besides, if I had to find one kid, I couldn't complicate it with trying to rescue whole families. That would have to be Walter Cronkite's department, once he heard about what things were like down here.
I waited at the door until I figured I could ease my way into the foot traffic without attracting anyone's attention. Trying my best to look casual, I shoved the flashlight into the pocket of my windbreaker and strolled amongst the throngs of people. It would be a long night, I knew.
Back at the hotel room, I set the flashlight on the kitchen counter, set the insignia with my notes, which I remembered to lock up this time, and flopped on the bed. I wasn't in the mood for any more soccer. The television stayed off. Visions of what had happened to the owners of the Café Trenzada danced in my head, as much as I would have liked them to go away.
The next two days passed in boredom. Luisa was busy; Néstor was in La Plata but keeping tabs on the situation over here; no updates on Roberto were forthcoming. Nobody had even gotten me soccer tickets, and so I was forced to endure enough telenovelas to make a guy swear off anything having to do with women. Luisa had told me that they were less popular here than on the rest of the continent. If that was the case, I was never going to turn on a TV anywhere else.
I managed to buy the jacket I'd had my eye on, at least, and walked down to the Plaza de Mayo to confirm my suspicions about the insignia that I'd grabbed. I didn't want to linger around Trenzada too much, but I kept an eye on it from a block away. That panel van I'd been looking out for showed up two days later, and some obvious plainclothes agents swept through the place and cleaned up all the broken glass. I wondered if they dusted for fingerprints, too, but figured it didn't matter. My prints weren't on record in the States, let alone down here, and even if they found the prints, they wouldn't be able to match them to me.
In the middle of stuff soapy enough that my aunt would have watched it and told me all about it in excruciating detail, the phone rang. I didn't think to turn the television off before picking up the phone, and so I got Luisa laughing in my ear. Fantastic.
"You're watching a telenovela?"
"Not intentionally." It wasn't that much of a lie. "Problems, Luisa?"
She hesitated. "No – not problems. Just a situation of sorts. There's someone that I want you to meet. We'll have dinner over on Florida tomorrow."
"Are you paying?"
She sounded taken aback by the question, but agreed that she would. That was good enough for me. The more I could avoid Frank's complaints about the bills and all the money he had to wire me, the better off everyone was, especially me.
I looked back up on the screen. Dramatic crying, with a soft fade-out, followed by a commercial for laundry detergent. At least it wasn't the mate commercial again. That stupid jingle was stuck in my head: Something about drinking Cruz de Malta from Mendoza to Salta. Since 1874, no less.
Luisa was still talking. " – and dress nicely, all right?"
"Why? Are you meeting with Videla?"
I expected that would get a rise out of her, and I could hear her frustrated if nonverbal exclamation on the other side of the line. "If you're going to be like that, then stop by my apartment before Darío comes." She sounded like she was stressed at that point. "I'll give you the seal of approval. I'm… I'm inviting you to meet him for a reason."
Not knowing what that reason was kept me wondering. If I was coming to lunch, then it was all right if the person knew I was American. Still, I knew most of the people in Luisa's little so-called students' group, since Néstor had told me who they were, and there hadn't been a Darío mentioned in the ranks.
Much to my disappointment, I figured that the leather jacket was out of the question, if we were dining on Calle Florida. That street was even ritzier than Santa Fe. I'd brought a real sports jacket and slacks down here, but I hadn't worn them yet. I decided this Darío fellow was worth that negligible amount of effort, and decided to shave and run a comb through my hair as well. Luisa had better be proud of me.
The harsh light of the bathroom mirror was unforgiving, but I figured it was the best possible place to size myself up. I probably passed for a local. Most Argentines have brown hair and brown eyes, anyway, even if the people in the telenovelas I had been watching were all weirdly blond and Aryan. I looked a bit haggard, but figured that would be easily overlooked. Not too suspicious, just enough so that this Darío wouldn't think I was gullible. The sports coat fit me well, which was good, considering it was only the third one that I owned.
Maybe Darío was her friend at the stadium. I really did want to see a game before I left; some of the more positive things I've heard down here involved soccer, and considering it wasn't too popular back home, I figured I should catch a game.
Part of me wondered if I should call Néstor and tell him about this meeting with Darío Whoever-He-Was, but Néstor was already so worked up about Roberto and ESMA that I didn't want to give him further cause for concern. I could handle this on my own, and if it turned out badly, Néstor would hear about it anyway.
Darío Simeone was tall and pale. Compared to him, I looked like a Chilean immigrant trying to sell mate gourds or Evita relics in the San Telmo marketplace. I felt self-conscious from the moment we were introduced, but I managed to get through dinner without shooting my mouth off. We took refuge from the shoppers in a patch of parkland just three blocks away from the restaurant.
"You know, Luisa's told me a lot about you."
Even though she was made up nicely and clad in a dress, Luisa wasn't quite refined enough to avoid shooting me a dirty look at that. She walked a little faster towards the park that stretched before us, as if trying to leave me behind.
Darío didn't notice the look that she gave me, and I wasn't sure if I was disappointed about that. "And she's told me a little about you, too. You're American, right? From New York? I've never been there. I have some distant relatives in Miami, though."
"Well, I've never been to Miami, so we're even." I figured he didn't want to hear about my trip to Disney World when I was eight, and fell silent, sizing him up. He was lean and athletic, and I wondered if he was actually a soccer player. I could see Luisa hooking up with someone from the Juniors, considering how crazy the two known members of the Herrera family were for the sport. He was well-spoken, though, and his confidence was more than just that of a man who's good at sports and makes a good amount of money playing them. So I had to ask: "What do you do anyway? Can I call you Darío?"
He nodded. "At the moment, nothing. I run a communications venture that was supposed to take off in the next few months, but given how the country's going, it's on hiatus."
So he was rich, then, and not because of sports. At least I was right about that. I felt proud, somehow, like the observation was something not many people would have noticed. "I thought you were a football player," I admitted.
He grinned broadly at the comment. "Luisa thought that, too. In fact, I think that's why she agreed when I asked her out. And no, before you ask, I'm not related to Cholo." Noticing the confused look on my face, he added, "Carmelo Simeone. He played for the Juniors when I was a teenager."
"Must've helped," I remarked.
"Then, and now," Darío agreed, jabbing a thumb at the girl who waited for us.
Quite a few feet before us, Luisa hadn't heard any of this. She had already settled in the park, and was unstringing the thermos of mate, sticking the metal straining straw into the drink. We both hustled to catch up to her; I had to move a little more than Darío did.
The park was fenced in by wrought ironwork, and a few plaques here and there proclaimed some historical event or another. No dogs allowed, either, and the grass was much cleaner than it would have been back home in the Stockade. You can see the Mohawk River from the Stockade, though, and all I could see around us was architecture from all eras of local history. People everywhere, too. Maybe that was why Buenos Aires felt so much smaller than it really was – so many people in a portside city.
"Juanito, do you want some?"
For Christ's sake, she was calling me that again. "Yeah, thanks, Luisa," I replied, taking a sip from the metal straw stuck into the mate thermos. I'd gotten used to that custom by now, although it had weirded me out the first time to drink from the same straw as everyone else who wanted a drink. By now, quite a few weeks into my visit, I don't think my hands even shook. I took a swig of the drink and passed it to Darío.
The hot drink was an acquired taste, too, but by now I'd managed to chug it down without thinking about it. The particularly bitter tinge to the yerba mate, through grass and field herbs and I don't know what, was just a background taste by now. For some reason, though, I could taste every inch of the acrid aftertaste of the drink, and I had to gulp it down with a visible swallow. It was funny, though, because if it was a case of nerves, it was an anomaly. I didn't feel nervous at all.
Luisa smiled as I downed the drink, giving me a nod of approval. I figured I'd passed some test I hadn't been aware of, and decided to push a little more. Luisa hadn't heard this information, anyway, and if Darío was all right in her book, he would have to be all right in mine. It could even help, considering he had cash to spare. "You know, guys, there was a café near my hotel that got smashed, and I think the owners got grabbed."
Darío remained silent and just blinked, more out of surprise than out of concern. It was the reaction I had expected; the reaction of the world-weary after hearing another vague report about something happening to strangers. However, Luisa looked shocked. "I – I thought I read about it. Trenzada, right?" At my nod, she shook her head, her eyes wide. "Shame, even all the way up there. Seems an odd place for a target, though."
"That's what I was thinking. I mean, you guys in Boca are used to having shit blow up, but – " I ignored the aggrieved noise that Luisa made at the curse. " – but the rich folks aren't. So what's the plot?"
By now, Darío had finished with the mate and passed it back to Luisa. He shrugged. "Maybe someone wants a little attention."
It was a bit of black humor, and I appreciated the joke, even if Luisa didn't. "That's another thing, too. I mean, I figured whoever did it would want publicity, but I didn't think they would want that much publicity."
"By 'whoever,' you mean the army," Luisa volunteered.
I shrugged. "Don't quote me on it."
Darío had grown tired of that line of the conversation. He skipped the mate gourd this time when it came around again. His focus was on me, but it didn't feel threatening, just curious. "And you're here to report on events like that? With a last name like yours, you and Luisa here can't be related. Besides, you don't look anything like one another."
He was right. Luisa didn't look much like me, even without the bottle-blond hair. She was pretty enough, but in a bland, young way that was all about softness. She looked sunny and Italian, a look I couldn't possibly share. Now, though, she didn't look terribly pretty, from the way her brow furrowed a warning at me. It made sense. No matter how likeable Darío seemed to be, he was still only an acquaintance.
"I'm here," I said carefully, "to report on what needs to be reported. If that's events like that, so be it."
Darío laughed heartily at my obfuscation, not at all shy to let on that he thought I was hiding something. For a moment, I wondered if he might actually call me on it. Fortifying myself with more mate from the communal gourd didn't seem to do much good. He didn't say anything like that, though, and I felt relief cascade through me as he spoke: "That's the only news people around here have heard about for months now, Yanqui. What else could the news possibly be?"
The name was friendly enough, and I had to admit that he had a definite point. My hands splayed in the grass to prop myself up, and I shrugged. "Well, here's hoping that I don't have to write on anything worse."
"Salud," Luisa muttered. "To Roberto."
At least the mate was going to a good cause. I drank more and, thank God, it went down more easily by now.