The Ballroom Dancer
THERE WAS A time when he and all his rivals had a shadow existence. And he was the best of them. He always kept flawless rhythm on a dance floor, and off it his hands were steady and agile, his lips poised with the appropriate remark, the perfect, witty one-liner. This made men like him and women admire him. In those days, in addition to the ballroom dances (tangos, fox-trots, Bostons) that helped him earn a living, he had mastered the art of verbal pyrotechnics and sketching melancholy landscapes with his silences. During many a long and fruitful year he had rarely missed his mark: it was rare for a wealthy woman of any age to resist his charms at one of the tea dances at a Palace, Ritz, or Excelsior Hotel; on a terrace on the Riviera; or in the first-class ballroom of a transatlantic liner. He had been the type of man one might come across in the morning in a café, wearing a tuxedo and inviting to breakfast the domestic staff from the house where he had attended a dance or a dinner the previous night. He possessed that talent, or that shrewdness. Moreover, at least once in his life, he was capable of betting everything he had on the table at a casino and traveling home by tramcar, cleaned out, whistling “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” apparently unconcerned. Such was the elegance with which he could light a cigarette, knot a tie, or sport a pair of perfectly ironed shirt cuffs, that the police never dared arrest him, unless they actually caught him red-handed.
“You may put my suitcase in the trunk.”
The sun over the Bay of Naples makes his eyes smart as it bounces off the Mark X Jaguar’s chrome plating, the way it did off the automobiles of long ago, driven by him and others. But all that has changed, and his old shadow is nowhere to be seen either. Max Costa glances beneath his feet, tries shifting slightly, to no avail. He can’t remember exactly when it happened, but that hardly matters. His shadow has gone, left behind like so many other things.
He grimaces resignedly, or perhaps it is simply the sun in his eyes, as he tries to think of something real and immediate (the tire pressure for a half or fully loaded car, the ease of the synchronized gearbox, the oil gauge) to fend off that bittersweet pang that always comes when nostalgia or loneliness gets the better of him. Taking a deep, leisurely breath, he finishes polishing the silver statuette of a leaping cat above the front grille with a chamois cloth, then slips on the jacket of his gray uniform that was lying folded on the front seat. Once he has carefully buttoned it up and straightened his tie, he slowly mounts the steps, flanked by headless marble statues and stone urns, leading up to the front door.
“Don’t forget the small bag.”
“I won’t, sir.”
Dr. Hugentobler doesn’t like the way that in Italy his employees address him as “doctor.” This country, he frequently says, is swarming with dottori, cavalieri, and commendatori. I am a Swiss doctor. A professional. I don’t want people mistaking me for a cardinal’s nephew, a Milanese industrialist, or some such thing.
As for Max Costa, everyone at the villa on the outskirts of Sorrento simply calls him Max. This is paradoxical, because most of his life he used various names and titles, noble or otherwise according to the needs of the moment. But for a while now, ever since his shadow fluttered its handkerchief in a last farewell (like a woman who vanishes forever amid a cloud of steam, framed in the window of a sleeping car, and one is never sure if she is leaving at that moment or if she started to leave long before), he has been using his own name. A shadow in return for the name which, until his forced retirement (recent, and in some ways natural), has appeared in thick case files in police departments all over Europe and America. In any event, he thinks as he picks up the small leather bag and the Samsonite suitcase and places them in the trunk of the car, never, not even in his darkest moments, did he imagine he would end his days replying “Yes, sir?” when addressed by his first name.
“Let’s be off, Max. Did you bring the newspapers?”
“They are on the backseat, sir.”
The clunk of two doors. Max Costa has donned his chauffeur’s cap, taken it off, and put it back on again in order to install his passenger. Once behind the wheel, he leaves it on the seat beside him, and in a reflex of vanity glances in the rearview mirror before smoothing down his gray, still abundant hair. Nothing like the detail of the cap, he thinks, to highlight the irony of his situation: the absurd beach where the tide has washed him up after his final shipwreck. And yet, when he is in his room at the villa shaving before the mirror and registers the lines on his face like someone tallying the scars of love and war, each with a name of its own (women, roulette wheels, uncertain mornings, evenings of glory or catastrophe), he always ends up winking at himself in absolution, as though recognizing in that tall, no longer so slim, old man with dark, weary eyes, the image of a former accomplice for whom any explanation is unnecessary. After all, his reflection seems to be saying in a tone that is familiar, gently mocking, and possibly a little spiteful, that, at age sixty-four and considering the dreadful hand life has dealt him of late, he can still count himself lucky. In similar circumstances, others (Enrico Fossataro, old Sandor Esterházy) were forced to choose between public charity or last moments spent writhing uncomfortably at the end of a necktie, in the bathroom of a miserable boardinghouse.
“Anything of importance happening in the world?” Hugentobler inquires.
A rustle of newspapers in the backseat of the car: pages leafed through absentmindedly. This was a remark rather than a question. In the rearview mirror, Max sees his boss’s eyes directed downward, spectacles perched on the end of his nose.
“The Russians haven’t dropped the A-bomb, have they?”
Hugentobler is joking, naturally. Swiss humor. When he is in a good mood, he often tries to joke with the servants, probably because he is a bachelor, without a family to laugh at his funny stories. Max gives a professional smile. Discreet and keeping the proper distance.
“Nothing much, sir: Cassius Clay has won another title, the astronauts on Gemini XI have returned safe and sound. . . . The war in Indochina is heating up as well.”
“You mean in Vietnam.”
“That’s it. Vietnam . . . And in the local news: the Campanella Chess Contest is about to begin. Keller versus Sokolov.”
“Good heavens,” says Hugentobler, dismissive and sarcastic. “How sorry I am to miss that. . . . There really is no accounting for taste, eh Max?”
“How right you are, sir.”
“Imagine spending your whole life poring over a chessboard. That is how those chess players end up. Crazy, like Bobby Fischer.”
“Take the low road. We have plenty of time.”
The crunch of gravel beneath the tires ceases as they pass through the iron gate and then the Jaguar begins to roll gently along the asphalted road through groves of olive, gum, and fig trees. Max downshifts effortlessly as he comes to a sharp bend, at the end of which he glimpses the calm sea, glittering like polished glass, silhouetting the pine trees and houses clustered on the mountain, with Vesuvius on the far side of the bay. For a moment he forgets his passenger and concentrates on the pleasure of driving, the movement between two places whose location in time and space is of no consequence to him. The air wafting through the open window smells of honey and resin—the lingering aromas of summer, which in that part of the world always refuses to die, engaging in a sweet, ingenuous battle with the calendar.
“It’s a beautiful day, Max.”
Max Costa blinks, collecting his thoughts, and once more glances up at the rearview mirror. Dr. Hugentobler is no longer reading the newspapers and has a Havana cigar in his mouth.
“I’m afraid the weather will have changed by the time I return.”
“Let’s hope not. You’ll only be gone three weeks.”
Hugentobler lets out a grunt, accompanied by a puff of smoke. He is a placid-looking man with a pink complexion, who owns a private clinic near Lake Garda. He amassed a fortune in the postwar years dispensing psychiatric treatment to wealthy Jews traumatized by the Nazi atrocities: the sort who would wake up in the middle of the night believing they were still in the barracks at Auschwitz, with Dobermans snarling outside and SS men shepherding them to the shower rooms. Hugentobler and his Italian associate, Dr. Bacchelli, helped them wrestle with their phantoms, and to round out their treatment recommended a trip to Israel organized by the clinic, after which they were presented with an exorbitant bill that allowed Hugentobler to maintain a house in Milan, an apartment in Zurich, and the villa at Sorrento with five cars in the garage. For the past three years, it has been Max’s job to keep them serviced and to drive them, besides overseeing the general maintenance of the villa, whose other employees are a married couple from Salerno, the gardener and the maid, Mr. and Mrs. Lanza.
“Don’t go straight to the port. Drive through the center of town.”
“Very well, sir.”
He glances at the accurate but inexpensive watch on his left wrist (a gold-plated Festina), and joins the traffic on Corso Italia, which is light at that hour. There is plenty of time for them to reach the motor launch that will ferry Dr. Hugentobler across the bay, sparing him the tortuous road to Naples’ airport.
“Stop at Rufolos and get me a box of Montecristo No. 2s.”
Max Costa’s working relationship with his boss began like love at first sight: the moment the psychiatrist laid eyes on Max, he disregarded his exemplary references (entirely fictitious, in fact). He was a pragmatist, convinced his professional instinct and experience would never mislead him about the human condition. Hugentobler decided that this fellow who dressed with an air of faded elegance and bore a calm, frank expression, exhibiting polite discretion in both word and gesture, was the living embodiment of honor and decency. Thus he would lend just the right note of dignity to the doctor’s magnificent car collection (the Jaguar, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II, and three vintage cars, including a Bugatti 50T coupé). Naturally, Hugentobler does not have the slightest notion that his chauffeur once enjoyed cruising around in cars, owned by himself or others, every bit as luxurious as those he is now paid to drive. Had he known, Hugentobler would have been forced to revise a few of his opinions about the human condition, and to hire a driver with a less elegant appearance but a more conventional résumé. But that would have been a mistake. Anyone familiar with the darker side of life understands that a man who has lost his shadow is like a woman with a dark past who marries: no one is more loyal, because she knows how much is at stake. However, it will not be Max Costa who at this stage of the game enlightens Dr. Hugentobler about fleeting shadows, tarts with hearts of gold, or the forced honesty of ex-ballroom dancers who turn into gentleman thieves. Even if they didn’t always behave like gentlemen.
When the motor launch pulls away from the Marina Piccola jetty, Max Costa remains leaning for a moment against the breakwater surrounding the harbor, watching the vessel’s wake cleave the blue surface of the bay. Afterward, he removes his jacket and tie, and, draping them over one arm, returns to the car, which is parked near the Guardia di Finanza building, at the foot of the cliff top where Sorrento is perched. He tips the youngster keeping an eye on the Jaguar fifty lire, starts the car, and drives slowly along the road that curves sharply as it climbs toward the town. As he enters Piazza Tasso, he rolls to a halt before three pedestrians, two women and a man, who are leaving the Hotel Vittoria, and watches idly as they cross a few inches in front of the car. They look like wealthy tourists, the type who vacation out of season so that they can enjoy the sun, the sea, and the mild weather, which lasts well into autumn, without the inconvenience of the summer crowds. The man, probably in his late twenties, is wearing sunglasses and a jacket with suede elbow patches. The younger of the two women is a pretty brunette in a miniskirt, her hair in a long braid down her back. The older woman has on a beige woolen cardigan, a dark skirt, and a crinkled tweed man’s hat, beneath which her cropped, silver-gray hair is showing. She is quite elegant, Max observes, with a sophistication that comes not from her clothes but rather from the way she wears them. A cut above the average woman to be seen in the villas and smart hotels in Sorrento, Amalfi, and Capri, even at this time of year.
Something about the second woman compels Max to follow her with his eyes as she crosses Piazza Tasso. Possibly her slow, relaxed bearing, with her right hand placed casually in the pocket of her cardigan, moving with the ease of those who have spent their lives sashaying across the carpets of a world that was theirs. Or perhaps what catches Max’s attention is the way she tilts her head toward her companions to laugh at their conversation, or to utter words whose sound is muffled by the car’s silent windows. In any case, for a split second, as fleetingly as someone recalling the confused fragment of a forgotten dream, Max is confronted with the ghost of a memory. With an image from the distant past, a gesture, a voice, a laugh. He is so taken aback that only the blast of a car horn behind makes him shift into first gear and crawl forward, still watching the trio, who have arrived at the other side of the sunlit square and are seating themselves at one of the tables on the terrace of Bar Fauno.
He is about to turn into Corso Italia when the memory crystalizes with full force: a face, a voice. A scene, or a number of them. Suddenly Max’s surprise gives way to astonishment, and he slams on the brakes, inviting another blast from the car behind, followed by angry gesticulations from the driver as the Jaguar turns sharply to the right, braking once more before pulling up alongside the curb.
He removes the key from the ignition and sits there motionless, staring at his hands still resting on the wheel. Finally, he gets out of the car, puts on his jacket, and crosses the square beneath the palm trees, heading toward the terrace outside the bar. He is nervous. Afraid, perhaps, of confirming his suspicions. The trio is still there, talking animatedly. Max tries to stay out of view, pausing beside the shrubs in the landscaped area. The table is ten yards away, and the woman in the tweed hat is in profile, talking to the others, unaware of Max’s intense scrutiny. No doubt she was once extraordinarily attractive, he confirms, as her face still shows traces of a faded beauty. She might be the woman he thinks she is, he concludes tentatively, and yet he can’t be sure. There are too many other women’s faces in the way, both before and long since. Watching from behind the bushes for any details that correspond to his memory, Max reaches no satisfactory conclusion. Finally, aware that he will eventually draw attention to himself standing there, he circles the terrace and goes to sit down at a table at the far end. He asks the waiter to bring him a Negroni, and for the next twenty minutes he observes the woman in profile, studying each of her movements and gestures to compare them with those he remembers. When the trio leaves the table and crosses the square again toward the corner of Via San Cesareo, he has finally identified her. Or so he believes. He rises and follows them, at a distance. His old heart hasn’t beaten this fast for centuries.
The woman danced well, Max Costa realized. Easily and with a certain boldness. She followed him confidently when he tested her ability with a more complicated, inventive sidestep that a less nimble woman would have stumbled over. He guessed that she was about twenty-five. Tall and slender, with long arms, slim wrists, and legs that seemed to go on forever beneath her dark taffeta dress with violet overtones, cut low at the back. Thanks to the high heels she was wearing, which set off her gown, her serene face with its well-defined features was on a level with his. She wore her ash-blond hair crimped according to the prevailing fashion that season, and cut in a short bob that exposed her neck. As she danced, she kept her eyes fixed on a point above the shoulder of her partner’s tailcoat, where her left hand adorned with a wedding ring was resting. Their eyes had not met since he’d approached with a polite bow, offering to lead her in one of the slow waltzes they called a Boston. Hers were the color of liquid honey, almost translucent, enhanced by a perfect application of mascara (no more than was necessary, the same as with her lipstick) beneath the fine arc of her plucked eyebrows. She was nothing like the other women Max had accompanied that evening in the ballroom: middle-aged ladies reeking of musky perfumes such as lily and patchouli, or awkward young girls dressed in light-colored dresses with skirts below the knee, who bit their lips as they struggled to keep in step, blushed when he placed a hand on their waist or clapped to a hupa-hupa. And so, for the first time that evening, the ballroom dancer on the Cap Polonio began to enjoy his job.
Their eyes didn’t meet again until the Boston (called “What I’ll Do”) was over and the orchestra launched into a rendering of the tango “A media luz.” They had stood there facing each other for a moment in the middle of the half-empty dance floor. At the first bars, realizing she wasn’t intending to return to her table (where a man in a tuxedo, doubtless her husband, had just sat down), he opened his arms wide, and the woman instantly responded, impassive as before. She placed her left hand on his shoulder, extended her right arm slowly, and they began moving across the dance floor (gliding was the word, Max thought), her eyes once more gazing past the ballroom dancer without looking at him, even as she shadowed his movements with surprising precision, his slow, sure rhythm, while, for his part, he endeavored to maintain the proper distance, their bodies touching just enough to perform the figures.
“Was that all right?” he asked after a difficult figure eight, which the woman had followed effortlessly.
At this she finally afforded him a fleeting glance. Possibly even the semblance of a smile, which faded instantly.
In recent years, the tango, originally Argentinian but brought into vogue in Paris by the Apache dances, had been all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. And so the floor was soon filled with couples twirling more or less gracefully, linking steps, embraces, and releases, which, depending on the dancers’ ability, could be anywhere from passable to grotesque. Max’s partner, however, responded with ease to the most complex moves, adapting to the traditional, obvious steps as well as to the occasional embellishments which, increasingly sure of his companion, he would improvise, always in that slow, restrained style, introducing breaks and delicate side steps, which she followed effortlessly, without missing a beat. It was obvious she too was enjoying moving to the music, from the smile she graced Max with each time they performed a difficult turn, and from her bright gaze that would occasionally stop staring into space and alight for a few seconds, contentedly, on the ballroom dancer.
As they twirled around the dance floor, Max studied the husband with the steady eye of a professional hunter. He was accustomed to observing the husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and lovers of the women with whom he danced. Men, in short, who accompanied them with pride, arrogance, boredom, resignation, or other similarly masculine emotions. There was much useful information to be gleaned from tiepins, fobs, cigarette cases, and rings; from the thickness of wallets opened as waiters approached; from the quality and cut of a jacket, the pleat of a trouser leg, or the shine on a pair of shoes. Even from the way a tie was knotted. All these details allowed Max Costa to elaborate plans and goals to the rhythm of the music, or, expressed in more mundane terms, to progress from ballroom dancing to more lucrative prospects. Time and experience had finally persuaded him of the truth of the comment Count Boris Dolgoruki-Bragation (second lieutenant in the First Regiment of the Spanish Foreign Legion) had made to him seven years earlier in Melilla, a minute and a half after regurgitating an entire bottle of cheap brandy in the backyard of Fatima’s bordello:
“A woman is never just a woman, dear Max. She is first and foremost the men she once had, those she has, and those she might have. Without them, she remains a mystery . . . and whoever discovers that information possesses the combination to the safe. The access to her secrets.”
When the music had finished and he accompanied his partner back to her table, Max took a last, closer look at the husband: elegant, self-assured, in his forties. Not a handsome man, yet pleasant-looking with his dapper mustache, curly hair flecked with gray, and lively intelligent eyes that missed nothing, including what was taking place on the dance floor. Max had searched for his name on the reservations list before approaching the woman, when she was still unaccompanied, and the headwaiter had confirmed that he was the Spanish composer Armando de Troeye, traveling with his wife. They had a deluxe first-class stateroom and a table reserved in the main dining room next to that of the ship’s captain.
“It has been a pleasure, Madam. You dance magnificently.”
He bobbed his head in almost military fashion, a gesture that always pleased the ladies, as did the graceful way he took their fingers and drew them to his lips, but she responded to his gesture with a quick, cold nod before sitting on the chair her husband had pulled out for her. Max turned around, smoothing his sleek, black hair back from his temples, first with his right hand then his left, and moved away, skirting around the people on the dance floor. He walked with a polite smile on his lips, his gaze directed at the room, all five foot ten of him in his impeccable tailcoat (on which he had sunk the last of his savings before boarding the liner with a one-way contract to Buenos Aires), aware of the female interest coming from the tables where a few passengers were already standing up to make their way to the dining room. Half the room hates me right now, he concluded with a mixture of boredom and amusement. The other half are women.
The trio pauses in front of a store selling souvenirs, postcards, and books. Although in Sorrento some of the shops and restaurants and even a few of the luxury boutiques on the Corso Italia close at the end of the summer, the old quarter around Via San Cesareo remains a tourist haunt all year round. The street is narrow, and Max keeps a prudent distance, hovering outside a salumeria where a chalkboard propped on an easel in the doorway offers discreet protection. The girl with the braid enters the store while the woman in the hat stays outside talking to the young man, who has taken off his sunglasses and is smiling. He is dark-haired, good-looking. She must be fond of him, because on one occasion she strokes his face. Then he says something and the woman laughs out loud, the distinct sound reaching the ears of the man spying on them: a clear, forthright laugh that makes her seem much more youthful and awakens precise memories from the past that set Max aquiver. It is her, he concludes.
Twenty-nine years have passed since he last saw her. A light rain was falling then on a coastal landscape, in autumn: a dog was scampering across the wet pebbles on the beach, beneath the balustrade on Avenue des Anglais, in Nice. Beyond the white façade of the HÔtel Negresco, the city melted into the gray, misty landscape. All the years that have gone since then could confuse the memory. And yet, the ex-ballroom dancer, current employee, and chauffeur to Dr. Hugentobler is no longer in any doubt. It is the same woman—the identical way of laughing, of tilting her head to one side, her composed gestures. The casual elegance with which she keeps one hand in the pocket of her cardigan. He would like to move nearer, to see her face close up, but he does not dare. While he wrestles with his indecision, the girl with the long braid emerges from the store, and the three of them walk back the way they came, past the salumeria where Max has quickly taken refuge. From inside, he sees the woman in the hat go by, studies her face in outline, and is absolutely certain. Eyes like liquid honey, he notes with a shiver. And so, carefully, at a safe distance, he follows them once more across Piazza Tasso to the hotel.
He saw her again the next day, on the boat deck. It was pure chance, as neither he nor she had any business being there. Like the other employees on the Cap Polonio who were not part of the ship’s crew, Max Costa was supposed to steer clear of the first-class area and promenade decks. In order to avoid the passengers in teak and wicker deck chairs taking the sun as it shone on the starboard side (those playing skittles and quoits, or skeet shooting, occupied the port side), he decided to climb a ladder to another deck, where eight of the sixteen lifeboats stood lined up on their chocks alongside the liner’s three gigantic red-and-white smokestacks. It was a peaceful place, a neutral area few passengers used, for the lifeboats were an eyesore and blocked the view. The only concession to anyone wanting to go there were a few wooden benches. On one of these, as he passed between a hatchway painted white and one of the huge ventilation outlets that sucked fresh air into the bowels of the ship, Max recognized his dance partner from the previous evening.
It was a bright, clear day, pleasantly warm for that time of year. Max had left his cabin without a hat, gloves, or cane (he was dressed in a gray suit with a vest, a soft-collared shirt, and a knitted tie) and so as he walked past the woman he simply bowed politely. She wore a smart flannel suit: a three-quarter-length jacket and a pleated skirt. She was reading a book resting in her lap, and as he walked in front of her, momentarily blocking the sun, she looked up at him, her oval face framed beneath the narrow brim of her felt hat. Perhaps it was the glimmer of recognition Max thought he detected in her eyes that made him pause for a moment, with the discretion appropriate to the situation and to their respective positions on the ship.
“Good morning,” he said.
The woman, who was lowering her gaze again toward her book, responded with another silent stare and a brief nod.
“I am . . . ,” he blurted, feeling suddenly awkward, on shaky ground, and already sorry he had spoken to her.
“Yes,” she replied calmly. “The gentleman from last night.”
She said gentleman instead of dancer, and he was secretly grateful for it.
“I don’t know whether I told you,” he added, “that you dance magnificently.”
She was already returning to her book. A novel, he noticed, glancing at the cover, which she was holding half-open on her lap: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.
“Good-bye. Enjoy your reading.”
He moved on, unaware of whether her eyes remained glued to her book or if she was watching him leave. He did his best to walk nonchalantly, one hand in his trouser pocket. When he reached the last lifeboat, he paused beside it, took out a silver cigarette case (engraved with initials that weren’t his), and lit a cigarette. He took advantage of the gesture to cast a surreptitious glance toward the prow, to the bench where the woman was still reading, head down. Not interested.
Grand Albergo Vittoria. Buttoning up his jacket, Max Costa passes beneath the gold sign on the arched, wrought-iron gateway, nods at the security guard, and walks down the driveway bordered by ancient pines and every kind of tree and plant. The gardens are spacious, stretching from Piazza Tasso to the edge of the cliff, which looks out over Marina Piccola and the sea, and where the hotel’s three main buildings are perched. In the middle one, at the bottom of a small flight of steps, Max finds himself in the lobby, in front of the glass doors leading to the conservatory and the terrace, which (unusually for that time of year) is full of people enjoying an aperitif. To the left, behind the reception desk, is an old acquaintance: Tiziano Spadaro. Their association dates back to a time when the man who is currently chauffeur to Dr. Hugentobler was a guest in such places as the Hotel Vittoria. Many a generous tip, changing hands discreetly according to a set of unwritten codes, laid the basis for a friendship, which over time had become sincere, or complicit.
“Well, if it isn’t Max. You’re a sight for sore eyes. It’s been a long time.”
“Almost four months.”
“Good to see you.”
“And you. How is life?”
Spadaro shrugs (he has thinning hair, and his protruding belly strains under his black vest), reeling off the usual list of complaints about his job out of season: fewer tips, weekenders accompanied by aspiring young actresses or models, groups of loud Americans doing the Naples-Ischia-Capri-Sorrento-Amalfi tour, a night spent in each place, breakfast included, who are forever ordering bottled water because they don’t trust what comes out of the tap. Fortunately (Spadaro gestures toward the door to the bustling conservatory) the Campanella Cup has come to the rescue: the Keller-Sokolov duel has filled the hotel with chess players, journalists, and fans.
“I want some information. Off the record.”
Spadaro doesn’t remark “just like in the old days,” and yet his expression, surprised at first and then mocking, taken somewhat off guard, lights up with the familiar look of collusion. Close to retirement, with fifty years of experience behind him after starting as a bellhop in the Hotel Excelsior in Naples, Spadaro has seen everything. And that includes Max Costa in his prime. Or not yet past it.
“I thought you’d given all that up.”
“I have. This is different.”
The old receptionist appears relieved. Then Max asks him about an elegant older lady, accompanied by a girl and a good-looking young man, who entered the hotel ten minutes ago. Perhaps they are guests.
“They are, of course . . . the young man is none other than Keller himself.”
Max blinks absentmindedly. The girl and the young man are what least interest him.
“Jorge Keller, the Chilean grand master. Contender for the title of world chess champion.”
Max remembers at last, and Spadaro fills in the details. The Luciano Campanella Cup, held this year in Sorrento, is sponsored by the Turin multimillionaire, one of the biggest shareholders in Olivetti and Fiat. A great chess enthusiast, Campanella organizes an annual contest in landmark sites all over Italy, always in the most luxurious hotels, where he invites the most famous grand masters, whom he pays handsomely. The encounter takes place over four weeks, some months before the official contest for the world championship, and has come to be considered the unofficial world championship between the two best chess players of the moment: the titleholder and the most prominent challenger. In addition to the prize money (fifty thousand dollars for the winner and ten thousand for the runner-up), the prestige of the Campanella Cup resides in the fact that, so far, the victor of the contest has either gone on to win the world title or has retained it. Sokolov is the current champion; and Keller, who has beaten all the other candidates, is the challenger.
“That young man is Keller?” Max says, astonished.
“Yes. A pleasant lad, relatively normal, which is unusual in his profession. . . . The Russian is less friendly. Always surrounded by bodyguards and cautious as a fox.”
“What about her?”
Spadaro makes a dismissive gesture, the one he reserves for low-status guests. Those without much history.
“She’s the fiancée. And part of his team (the receptionist leafs through the hotel register to refresh his memory). Irina. Irina Jasenovic. The name is Yugoslav, but her passport is Canadian.”
“I meant the older woman. The one with the short gray hair.”
“Ah, she’s the mother.”
“Of the girl?”
“No. Of Keller.”
He bumped into her again two days later, in the ship’s ballroom. Dinner was to be a black-tie affair: the captain was honoring some distinguished guest, and a number of male passengers had exchanged their customary black tuxedo for a tight-fitting tailcoat, starched bib front, and white bow tie. The diners had gathered in the ballroom, drinking cocktails and listening to the music before going on to dinner. After the meal a few of the youngest or more fun-loving would return there and stay on until the small hours. The orchestra started with the usual slow waltzes and smooth melodies, and Max Costa danced half a dozen sets, almost all of them with young girls and married women traveling en famille. Max reserved a slow fox-trot for an Englishwoman, past her prime but not bad-looking, who was there with a girlfriend. He had seen them whisper and nudge each other whenever he swept past their table. The Englishwoman was blonde, plump, with a rather abrupt manner. Although perhaps a little vulgar (he thought he detected too much My Sin on her) and festooned with jewelry, she was not a bad dancer. She had pretty blue eyes, too, and enough money to make her attractive: the clutch bag on the table was of gold mesh, he confirmed at a glance as he stood before her to invite her onto the dance floor; and the jewels looked real, in particular the sapphire bracelet and matching earrings, the stones of which, once removed from their settings, would fetch five hundred pounds sterling. He had discovered from the reservations list that her name was Miss Honeybee. Widowed or divorced, the headwaiter, a man called Schmöcker (nearly all the officers, seamen, and permanent members of staff on the ship were German) had hazarded, with the assurance of someone having fifty Atlantic crossings under his belt. And so, after a careful study of the woman’s responses to his manners and proximity, and without making a single inappropriate gesture—maintaining proper distance and a professional aloofness throughout, and ending as he returned her to her table with a splendid, manly smile (met with a perfunctory “so nice” from the Englishwoman)—Max placed Miss Honeybee on his list of possibles. Five thousand sea miles and a three-week crossing could provide rich pickings.
That evening, the de Troeyes arrived together. Max was taking a breather next to the bank of palms alongside the stage, drinking a glass of water and smoking a cigarette. From there he saw the couple enter, preceded by the obsequious Schmöcker, with her walking slightly ahead. The husband had a white carnation in his black satin lapel, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a lighted cigarette. Armando de Troeye appeared indifferent to the interest he aroused in his fellow passengers. As for his wife, she looked as if she had just stepped out of the society pages of an illustrated magazine: she was wearing a long string of pearls with matching earrings. Slender, calm, walking confidently in high-heeled shoes to the gentle roll of the ship, her body etched long, straight lines onto her flowing jade gown (with an expert eye Max calculated it as costing at least five thousand francs on Rue de la Paix in Paris), which exposed her arms, shoulders, and back down to her waist, and was fastened around her neck by a fine strap, charmingly visible beneath her bobbed hair. Entranced, Max came to a two-fold conclusion. She was one of those women who at first glance appeared elegant, but when you looked again were beautiful. She also belonged to the select class of women born to wear gowns like that as if they were a second skin.
He did not dance with her immediately. The orchestra played a Camel Walk then a shimmy (the absurdly titled “Tutankamon” was still in fashion), and Max was obliged to satisfy the wishes of two energetic young girls, watched over from a distance by their parents (two amiable-looking Brazilian couples), who were intent upon practicing the dance steps, not without skill: right shoulder followed by the left forward then back, until they decided they were exhausted, and had almost exhausted him. Afterward, when the first beats of a black bottom started (the title of the song was “Love and Popcorn”), Max’s services were solicited by an American woman, still in her prime, somewhat ungraceful but more than adequately clothed and bejeweled, who turned out to be an amusing dance partner, and, when he accompanied her back to her table, discreetly slipped a folded five-dollar bill into his hand. Several times during this last dance Max came close to the de Troeyes’ table, and yet each time he directed his gaze there, the woman seemed to be looking elsewhere. The table was now unoccupied and a waiter was clearing away two empty glasses. Busy attending to his partner of the moment, Max had not seen them get up and leave for the dining room.
He took advantage of the dinner break, which was at seven, to enjoy a bowl of consommé. He never ate anything solid when he had to dance—another habit acquired during his time in the Legion, although the dance then was of a different nature, and a light meal was a healthy precaution in case of a bullet in the belly. After the soup he put on his coat and went out on the starboard promenade deck, to smoke another cigarette and to clear his head as he watched the crescent moon shimmering on the ocean. At a quarter past eight he returned to the ballroom, installing himself at one of the empty tables, close to the orchestra, where he chatted with the musicians until the first passengers began to float in from the dining room: the men on their way to the casino, the library, or the smoking room, and the ladies, younger people, and more game couples occupying the tables around the dance floor. The orchestra began tuning up, Schmöcker rallied his waiters, and there was the sound of laughter and champagne corks popping. Max stood, and, after making sure his bow tie was still straight and checking that his shirt collar and cuffs were in place, he smoothed down his tailcoat and scanned the tables in search of anyone requiring his services. Then he saw her enter, this time on her husband’s arm.
They sat at the same table. The orchestra struck up a bolero and the first couples took to the floor. Miss Honeybee and her friend had not returned from the dining room, and Max had no way of knowing if they would that evening. In fact, he felt relieved. With that vague pretext in mind, he threaded his way through the people swaying to the fluid rhythms of the music. The de Troeyes were sitting in silence, watching the dancers. When Max paused in front of their table, a waiter had just placed on it a couple of champagne glasses and an ice bucket out of which peeped a bottle of Clicquot. He bowed to the husband, who was leaning back slightly in his chair, legs crossed, one elbow on the table, and another of his perpetual cigarettes in his left hand, where, next to his wedding band, Max noticed a thick, gold signet ring with a blue lozenge. Then he looked at the woman, who was studying him with interest. She wore no bracelets or rings, apart from her wedding band, only the splendid string of pearls and matching earrings. Max did not open his mouth to offer his services, but simply gave another, more fleeting bow than the last, clicked his heels together in almost military fashion, and stood stock-still until she, with a slow smile and apparently appreciative, shook her head. Max was about to withdraw, when the husband slid his elbow off the table, carefully straightened the crease in his trousers, and peered at his wife through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“I’m tired,” he said in a lighthearted manner. “I think I ate too much at dinner. I’d like to watch you dance.”
The woman did not stand up immediately. She looked for an instant at her husband, who took another draw on his cigarette, squinting in silent approval.
“Enjoy yourself,” he added after a moment. “This young man is a magnificent dancer.”
Scarcely had she risen from her chair when Max opened his arms, discreetly. Holding her right hand aloft, he placed his free hand on her waist. The unexpected touch of her warm skin took him by surprise. He had noticed the cut of her evening gown exposing her back, but it hadn’t occurred to him, despite his experience of embracing ladies, that when dancing with her he would place his hand on her naked flesh. His unease lasted only an instant, concealed beneath his professional mask of composure, and yet his partner sensed it, or he thought she did. For a split second she looked straight at him, before her gaze wandered again across the dance floor. Max leaned gently to one side to begin the dance, and she responded with perfect ease. They began to circle amid the other couples. On two occasions he glanced at the necklace she was wearing.
“Are you ready to do a crossover here?” Max whispered after a moment, anticipating a favorable passage in the music.
Her silent gaze lasted a couple of seconds.
He removed his hand from her back, halting abruptly on the dance floor, and spun her full circle, first this way then that, sketching an arabesque around his still form. They came together again in perfect harmony, his hand resting once more on the supple curve of her waist, as if they had rehearsed the step half a dozen times. There was a smile on her lips and Max nodded, satisfied. A few couples had moved aside slightly to stare at them with admiration or envy, and she alerted him with a gentle squeeze of his hand.
“Let’s not draw attention to ourselves.”
Max apologized, for which he was rewarded with another indulgent smile. He enjoyed dancing with her. She was the perfect height for him, and he enjoyed feeling the curve of her slender waist beneath his right hand, the way she rested her fingers on his other hand, how easily she pivoted in time to the music, always with poise and finesse, maintaining the figure. With a hint of defiance, perhaps, and yet without any fuss, as when she had agreed to his spinning her around, doing so with all the elegance in the world. As they continued dancing, her eyes remained distant, nearly all the time staring into space, allowing Max to study her perfect features, the contour of her mouth colored with a subtle lipstick, her discreetly powdered nose, the neat arc of her eyebrows on her smooth forehead, above long eyelashes. She had a soft smell, a perfume he couldn’t quite identify, for it seemed to blend with her youthful skin: possibly Arpège. Max looked at her husband, who was watching them from the table, apparently paying little attention, as he raised his champagne glass to his lips, and then glanced again at the necklace, whose pearls of exceptional quality glowed faintly in the light of the electric chandeliers. Thanks to his own experience and a few unorthodox acquaintances, the twenty-six-year-old Max knew enough about pearls to distinguish between the button, round, teardrop, and baroque varieties, including their official or unofficial value. These were round pearls of the highest quality: almost certainly Indian or Persian. And worth at least five thousand pounds sterling: more than half a million French francs. That could pay for several weeks with a beautiful woman in the best hotel in Paris or on the Riviera. But, carefully administered, it could also keep him in relative idleness for a year or more.
“You really dance very well, Madam,” he repeated.
Almost reluctantly, her eyes focused on him once more.
“In spite of my age?” she said.
It did not seem like a question. She had clearly been watching him before dinner, when he was dancing with the young Brazilian girls. Max looked suitably shocked.
“Old? For heaven’s sake. How can you say such a thing?”
She continued studying him quizzically. Or perhaps with amusement.
“What’s your name?”
“Very well, Max. Go ahead, guess my age.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He had quickly collected himself, for he never lost his composure in front of a woman. She had a broad, dazzling smile, which he contemplated with feigned concentration.
She gave a loud, vivacious laugh. A healthy laugh.
“Correct,” she nodded, playing along good-naturedly. “However did you guess?”
“I have a talent for that sort of thing.”
She nodded, her expression half-mocking, half-pleased, or perhaps she was admiring the way he continued to lead her around the floor, amid the other couples, without their conversation distracting him from the music and the dance steps.
“And not just that,” she said, rather mysteriously.
Max searched her eyes for any added nuance in her comment, but once again they were staring blankly over his right shoulder. At that moment, the bolero came to an end. They separated, still facing each other as the orchestra prepared to launch into the next number. Max glanced again at the splendid pearls. For a moment he thought she had caught him in the act.
“That’s sufficient,” she said suddenly. “Thank you.”
The periodicals archive is on the upper floor of an old building, at the top of a marble staircase surmounted by a vaulted ceiling decorated with flaking paintings. The hardwood floor creaks when Max Costa, carrying three bound volumes of the magazine Scacco Matto, goes to sit down in a well-lit part of the room, beside a window overlooking half a dozen palm trees and the white-and-gray façade of the Basilica di San Antonino. On the desk he places a spectacle case, a notepad, a ballpoint pen, and several newspapers purchased at a kiosk on Vía de Maio.
An hour and a half later, Max stops taking notes, removes his reading glasses, rubs his tired eyes, and looks out at the square, where the evening sun is casting long shadows from the palm trees. By now, Dr. Hugentobler’s chauffeur has read almost everything published about Jorge Keller, the player who over the next four weeks will be challenging the world chess champion, Mikhail Sokolov, in Sorrento. There are several photographs of Keller in magazines, invariably sitting in front of a chessboard, and in some of them he looks very young: a mere boy tackling opponents much older than himself. The most recent one is from that day’s edition of a local paper: Keller is posing in the hotel lobby at the Vittoria in the same jacket he was wearing when Max saw him strolling through Sorrento that morning with the two women.
“Born in London in 1938, the son of a Chilean diplomat, Keller astounded the chess world when he maneuvered the American Reshevsky into a tight spot during a simultaneous exhibition in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago: he was fourteen years old at the time, and in the ten years that followed, he went on to become one of the most talented players of all time . . .”
Despite Jorge Keller’s meteoric rise to fame, Max is less interested in his professional biography than in other aspects of his family history, and he has finally unearthed some information about that. Both Scacco Matto and the newspapers covering the Campanella Cup agree on the influence which, after her divorce from her Chilean husband, the young chess player’s mother has had on her son’s career.
“The Kellers separated when their son was seven years old. Wealthy in her own right following the death of her first husband during the Spanish civil war, Mercedes Keller found herself ideally situated to offer her son the finest education. When she discovered his talent for chess, she sought out the best teachers, took the boy to every tournament both inside and outside Chile, and persuaded the Chilean-Armenian grand master, Emil Karapetian, to oversee his instruction. The young Keller did not disappoint her. He had no difficulty beating his peers, and under the supervision of his mother and Karapetian, both of whom still accompany him today, he progressed rapidly . . .”
After leaving the archive Max returns to the car and drives down to the Marina Grande, parking near the church. Then he makes his way to the Trattoria Stéfano, which is still closed to the public at that time of day. He has gone out in his shirtsleeves, cuffs turned up twice to expose his forearms, jacket slung over his shoulder, pleasurably inhaling the easterly breeze with a tang of salt and the shores of a calm sea. On the terrace of the small restaurant, beneath a bamboo canopy, a waiter is laying tablecloths and cutlery on four tables situated close to the water’s edge and the fishermen’s boats, beached amid piled-up nets and coils of fishing line.
Without looking up from the chessboard, Lambertucci, the restaurant owner, grunts in response to Max’s greeting. With the familiarity of a regular customer, Max strolls behind the little bar where the cash register is, sets his jacket on the counter, pours himself some wine, and approaches the table where Lambertucci is busy concentrating on one of the two chess games, which at the same time every day for the past twenty years he has been accustomed to playing with Captain Tedesco. Antonio Lambertucci, a lanky fellow in his midfifties, is wearing a none-too-clean T-shirt that reveals an army tattoo, a souvenir from when he was a soldier in Abyssinia before being sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in South Africa and later marrying the daughter of Stéfano, the previous owner of the trattoria. Lambertucci’s opponent, a black patch over the left eye he lost in Benghazi, gives him a somewhat scowling look. Being called Captain is not a joke: on the contrary, like Lambertucci a native of Sorrento, Tedesco won his promotion during the war, although the difference in rank between the two men lost significance over the three years of captivity both men endured, with nothing to do but play chess. Besides the basic moves, Max knows little about this game (he has learned more that day in the archive than during his entire lifetime), but these two seem like genuine chess lovers. They are regulars at the local chess club and know all about international tournaments, who the grand masters are, and lots more besides.
“So, how good is this Jorge Keller?”
Lambertucci gives another grunt, as he studies an apparently dangerous move his opponent has just made. Finally he makes his move, there is a rapid exchange of pieces, and then Tedesco nonchalantly says “checkmate.” Ten seconds later, the captain is putting away the pieces in their box while Lambertucci picks his nose.
“Keller?” he finally remarks. “Very promising. The next world champion, if he defeats the Russian. . . . He’s brilliant and not as eccentric as that other young man, Fischer.”
“Is it true he’s been playing since he was a child?”
“So I hear. As far as I know, he became a phenomenon after winning four tournaments between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. Lambertucci glances at Tedesco for confirmation and proceeds to enumerate on his fingers: “Mar de Plata, the international tournaments at PortoroŽ and Chile, and the challengers’ tournament in Yugoslavia, tremendous . . .”
“He beat all the big names,” Tedesco adds, equitably.
“Meaning?” says Max.
Tedesco smiles like someone who knows what he’s talking about.
“Meaning Petrosian, Tal, Sokolov . . . The best players in the world. His consecration came when he beat Tal and Sokolov in a twenty-game tournament.”
“No mean feat,” adds Lambertucci, who has fetched the carafe and is topping up Max’s glass.
“All the greats were there,” Tedesco concludes, narrowing his one good eye. “And Keller trounced them all without turning a hair: he won twelve games and drew seven.”
“So why is he so good?”
Lambertucci looks quizzically at Max.
“Have you got the whole day?”
“Yes. My boss has gone away for a few days.”
“In that case stay to dinner . . . eggplant parmigiana washed down with a nice little Taurasi.”
“Much obliged, but I have a few things to do at the villa.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen you show any interest in chess.”
“Well . . . you know how it is.” Max smiles wistfully. “The Campanella Cup and all that. Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
Tedesco narrows his one good eye again, pensively.
“You can say that again. Who’ll get their hands on it?”
“Why is Keller so good?” Max insists.
“He has a natural talent and is well taught,” replies Lambertucci. Then he shrugs and looks at Tedesco, leaving it to him to fill in the details.
“He’s a tenacious young fellow,” Tedesco says, mulling it over for a while. “When he was starting out, many of the grand masters played a conservative, defensive game, but Keller changed all that. He defeated them with his spectacular assaults, astonishing sacrifices of his pieces, daring gambits . . .”
“That’s still his style: bold, brilliant, heart-stopping endgames. . . . He plays like someone immune to fear, with terrifying casualness. Occasionally he makes seemingly sloppy, incorrect moves, yet his opponents are confounded by his complex strategies. . . . His ambition is to be world champion, and the contest here in Sorrento is considered a preliminary competition, a warm-up for the championship being held in Dublin five months from now.”
“Will you be attending the games here?”
“We can’t afford it. The Vittoria is reserved for moneyed folk and journalists. . . . We’ll have to follow the games on the radio and television, with our own chessboard.”
“And is it all as important as they say?”
“It is the most anticipated meeting since the Reshevsky-Fischer head to head in sixty-one,” Tedesco explains. “Sokolov is a hardened veteran, coolheaded and rather dull: his best games usually end in a draw. They call him the Russian Wall, just imagine. . . . The fact is there is plenty at stake. The prize money, of course. But politics as well.”
Lambertucci gives a shrill laugh.
“They say Sokolov has rented an entire apartment house next to the Vittoria, and is surrounded by advisers and KGB agents.”
“What do you know about the mother?”
“Keller’s. She’s mentioned in all the magazine and newspaper articles.”
Tedesco remains pensive for a moment.
“Well, only what I’ve heard: that she is his manager. That when she saw her son’s talent she got the best teachers for him. Chess is an expensive sport until you make a name for yourself. All that traveling, hotels, inscription fees . . . You need to have money, or to obtain money. It seems she had some. I believe she is in charge of everything: his team of trainers, his physical fitness. She even keeps his accounts. . . . People say he is her creation, but I think they exaggerate. Regardless of any help they get, players of genius like Keller create themselves.”
Their next encounter on the Cap Polonio took place on the sixth day at sea, before dinner. Max Costa had been dancing for half an hour with female passengers of various ages, including the American woman who tipped him five dollars, and Miss Honeybee, when the headwaiter Schmöcker led Mrs. de Troeye to her usual table. She was alone, as she had been on the first evening. When Max passed close by (at that moment he was dancing with one of the young Brazilian girls to “La Canción del Ukelele”), he saw a waiter bringing her a champagne cocktail while she lit a cigarette in a short ivory holder. She wasn’t wearing the pearl necklace this time, but one made of amber. Her black satin dress was cut away at the back, and her hair, smoothed down like a boy’s, sleek with brilliantine, a thin line of kohl slanting her eyes. Max glanced at her several times, unable to catch her eye. He exchanged a few words with the musicians as he went by, and when they obligingly struck up a tango that was all the rage (“Adiós Muchachos”), Max took his leave of the young Brazilian girl and walked up to her table during the opening bars. Bowing his head briefly, he smiled and stood there motionless as a few other couples got to their feet. Mecha Inzunza de Troeye looked up at him, and for an instant he feared she would turn him down. But a moment later he saw her deposit her cigarette in the ashtray and stand up. It took her an eternity to do so, and the action of placing her left hand on his right shoulder seemed unbearably languorous. Then the tango, already in full swing, swept them both up, and Max knew instantly that the music was on his side.
He realized yet again that she danced outstandingly. The tango did not demand spontaneity, but rather implicit intentions carried out swiftly, in sullen, almost resentful silence. And that was the way they moved, embracing and separating, performing calculated quebrados, and following a shared instinct that allowed them to glide effortlessly around the floor, amid couples tangoing with the obvious clumsiness of novices. As a professional, Max knew it was impossible to perform the tango without a skilled partner capable of following a dance whose flow would suddenly stop, the man slowing the rhythm, reenacting a struggle, in which, entwined around him, the woman would continually attempt to flee, only to yield each time, proud and defiant in her submission. Mecha Inzunza de Troeye proved to be that sort of partner.
They danced two tangos in a row (the second was called “Champagne Tango”), during which neither of them uttered a word, surrendering completely to the music and the pleasure of the dance, to the occasional brush of her satin against his flannel and to the heat Max could feel coming from his companion’s youthful body, the outline of her face and combed-back hair descending to her exposed neck and shoulders. And when in the pause between the two dances they stood facing each other (slightly breathless from their exertions, waiting for the music to start again, without her showing any sign of returning to her table), and he noticed tiny pearls of sweat on her upper lip, he pulled out one of his two handkerchiefs, not the one protruding from the top pocket of his tailcoat, but another, clean and ironed, from his inside pocket, and offered it to her spontaneously. She accepted the piece of folded white linen, scarcely dabbing her mouth with it before returning it to him, a little damp and smudged with lipstick. She did not even go over to the table for her bag, as Max had anticipated, to powder her nose. Max also wiped the sweat from his upper lip and brow (it did not escape her notice that he touched his lips first), then put away the handkerchief. The second tango started and they danced as before in perfect harmony, only this time her gaze did not stray across the ballroom. After faultlessly executing a particularly complicated turn or step, they would pause for an instant and look straight at each other, before breaking the stillness on the next beat, and turning once more around the dance floor. Once, when he halted abruptly, in midmovement, cool and aloof, she clung to him, suddenly, swaying to one side then the other with a mature graceful elegance, as though fleeing his embrace without really wanting to. For the first time since he had become a professional ballroom dancer, Max felt the urge to brush the nape of her slender, youthful neck with his lips. It was then that he realized, with a casual glance, that his dance partner’s husband was sitting at the table, legs crossed, a cigarette between his fingers, watching them closely, despite his apparent indifference. And when Max looked back at her, he discovered golden reflections that seemed to explode into silences of eternal, ageless women. Keys to all the mysteries men could not fathom.
The ship’s smoking room connected the first-class promenade decks on the port and starboard sides with the poop deck. Max Costa made his way there during the dinner break, knowing it would be almost empty at that hour. The waiter served him a double espresso in a cup bearing the Hamburg Südamerikanische crest. After loosening his white tie and starched collar, he smoked a cigarette next to the window, through which, amid the reflections of light within, the night outside was visible, the moon shining on the poop deck. As the dining room gradually emptied and passengers started to appear and fill the tables, Max got up to leave. In the doorway he stood aside to let a group of men holding cigars pass, among whom he recognized Armando de Troeye. The composer was unaccompanied by his wife, and as Max strolled along the starboard promenade deck, he searched for her among the groups of ladies and gentlemen wrapped in overcoats, mackintoshes, and cloaks, taking the air or contemplating the ocean. It was a warm evening, but the sea was beginning to get choppy for the first time since they had set sail from Lisbon, and although the Cap Polonio was equipped with state-of-the art stabilizers, the roll of the ship brought expressions of concern. The ballroom was quiet that evening, and many of the tables remained empty, including that of the de Troeyes. The first cases of seasickness were occurring, and the musical entertainment was cut short. Max barely had a couple of waltzes, and could finish early.
As he was about to descend to his cabin in second class, they bumped into each other next to the elevator, their reflections caught in the huge mirrors on the main staircase. She was wearing a gray fox fur cape and carrying a lamé purse. She was alone, on her way out to one of the promenade decks, and, with a swift glance, Max marveled at how steadily she walked in high heels despite the roll, for even the floor of a vessel that size took on a disconcerting three-dimensionality when the ocean was rough. Turning back, Max held the exterior door open for her until she was outside. She responded with a curt “thank-you” as she crossed the threshold. Max bobbed his head, closed the door, and walked back along the passageway, eight or ten steps. The last of these he took slowly, thoughtfully, before coming to a standstill. What the hell, he thought. Nothing ventured nothing gained, he concluded. Providing he trod carefully.
He soon found her, walking along the upper deck, and stopped casually in front of her, beneath the muted glow of lights covered in sea salt. Doubtless she had come up for some air to avoid feeling seasick. Most of the passengers did the exact opposite, shutting themselves away in their cabins for days on end, prey to their own churning stomachs. For a moment, Max was worried she would walk past, pretending not to see him. But instead she stood still, gazing at him in silence.
“I enjoyed our dance,” she blurted out.
Max managed to stifle his astonishment almost instantaneously.
“So did I.”
The woman went on gazing at him, perhaps quizzically.
“How long have you danced professionally?”
“For five years. But not all the time. The job is . . .”
“Amusing?” she interrupted.
They continued strolling along the deck, adapting their steps to the vessel’s slow sway. Occasionally they passed the dark figures or familiar faces of other passengers. The only parts of Max visible in the less illuminated areas were the white blotches of his shirtfront, waistcoat, and tie; the meticulous inch and a half of each starched shirt cuff; and the handkerchief in the top pocket of his tailcoat.
“That wasn’t the word I was looking for.” He smiled softly. “On the contrary. I was going to say part-time. It has its advantages.”
“Well . . . As you can see, it allows me to travel.”
By the light of a porthole he could observe that she was the one smiling now, approvingly.
“You do it well, for something that’s only part-time.”
“For the first few years it was more steady.”
“Where was that?”
Max decided to omit part of his employment history, to keep certain names to himself. Including the red-light district in Barcelona and le Vieux Port in Marseille. And the name of a Hungarian dancer, Boske, who used to sing “La petite tonkinoise” while shaving her legs, and had a penchant for young men who woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, troubled by nightmares that led them to believe they were still in Morocco.
“Luxury hotels in Paris in the winter,” he said, summing up. “And in the high season, in Biarritz and the CÔte d’Azur . . . I also worked in the cabarets of Montmartre for a while.”
“Ah.” She seemed interested. “We may have bumped into each other.”
“No. I would remember you.”
“What did you want to tell me?” she asked.
For an instant he couldn’t think what she was referring to. Then he realized. After bumping into her below, he had caught up with her on the promenade deck, appearing before her without any explanation.
“That have I never danced such a perfect tango with anyone.”
She was silent for three or four seconds, possibly contented. She had come to a halt (there was a lightbulb close by, screwed into the bulkhead) and was gazing at him through the briny blackness.
“Indeed? . . . Well. You are very kind, Mr. . . . Max, isn’t that your name?”
“Good. Believe me, I appreciate being flattered.”
“It isn’t flattery. You know that.”
She laughed. A frank, healthy laugh. The same one as a few evenings before when he had jokingly calculated her age as fifteen.
“My husband is a composer. I am surrounded by music and dance. But you are an excellent partner. It’s easy to follow your lead.”
“I wasn’t leading you. You were yourself. I know the difference.”
She nodded, thoughtfully.
“Yes. I suppose you do.”
Max placed his hand on the wet gunwale. Between rolls, he could feel the throb of engines deep inside the ship vibrating through the deck beneath his feet.
“Do you smoke?”
“Not now, thank you.”
“Be my guest.”
He fished the silver case out of his inside jacket pocket, took out a cigarette, and raised it to his lips. She watched him.
“Egyptian?” she asked.
“No, Turkish. Abdul Pashas . . . With a hint of opium and honey.”
“Then I’ll have one.”
He leaned forward holding the book of matches, and cupped the flame with his hand as he lit the cigarette she had inserted into a small ivory cigarette holder. Then he lit his. The wind quickly carried the smoke away, smothering the taste. She seemed to be shivering with cold beneath her fur cape. Max gestured toward the door of the nearby palm court, a conservatory-like room with a large light on the ceiling, furnished with wicker chairs, low tables, and potted plants.
“Dancing professionally,” she commented as they went in. “That seems like a strange occupation, for a man.”
“I don’t see the difference. . . . We make a living from it just as easily, as you can see. Dancing isn’t always about intimacy or amusement.”
“And is what they say true? That a woman expresses her true nature when she dances?”
“Sometimes. But no more than a man.”
The room was empty. She sat on one of the chairs, casually allowing her cape to slip open. Examining her reflection in the lid of a vanity case she had pulled from her bag, she applied a touch of pale red Tangee lipstick. Her sleek hair gave her face an alluringly angular, androgynous appearance, while the black satin dress, Max thought, clung to her body in a fascinating way. Aware that he was looking at her, she crossed one leg over the other, rocking it slightly back and forth, and propping one elbow on the arm of the chair, raised the hand in which she was holding the cigarette (her nails were long and manicured, painted the same color as her lips). Every now and then, she flicked the ash onto the floor, Max noticed, as if all the ashtrays in the world were nothing to her.
“I mean strange seen from close up,” she said after a while. “You’re the first ballroom dancer I’ve exchanged more than two words with: thank you and good-bye.”
Max had brought over an ashtray and was standing, his right hand in his trouser pocket. Smoking.
“I enjoyed dancing with you,” he said.
“Likewise. I would do it again, if the orchestra was still playing and there were people in the ballroom.”
“There’s nothing to stop you doing so now.”
She studied his smile as if analyzing an impertinence. But the professional dancer held her gaze, unflustered. You look like a good fellow, both the Hungarian woman and Boris Dolgoruki had told him, agreeing about that although they had never met. When you smile like that, Max, no one could ever doubt that you are a damn good fellow. Try to use that to your advantage.
“I’m sure you can imagine the music.”
Once again, she flicked her ash on to the floor.
“You are very forward.”
“Could you do that?”
It was her turn to smile this time, with a hint of defiance.
“Of course I could.” She blew out a puff of smoke. “I’m married to a composer, remember. My head is full of music.”
“How about ‘Mala Junta’? Do you know it?”
Max stubbed out his cigarette, then smoothed down his vest. She remained motionless for a moment: she was no longer smiling, and was watching him thoughtfully from her chair, as if to make sure he wasn’t joking. Finally, she left the cigarette holder smeared with lipstick in the ashtray, stood up very slowly, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on him, and placed her left hand on his shoulder and her right hand in his, as it hovered, outstretched. She remained like that for a moment, erect, tranquil, unsmiling, until Max, after gently squeezing her fingers twice to indicate the first bar, leaned slightly to one side, moved his right foot forward, and the couple started to dance in silence, closely embraced, looking straight at each other, amid the wicker chairs and potted plants in the palm court.
A twist (“Rita Pavone”) is playing on the white plastic portable Marconi. In the garden at the Villa Oriana there are palm trees and umbrella pines, and between them, leaning out the open window of his bedroom, Max can see across the Bay of Naples: the cobalt-blue background with the wide, dark cone of Vesuvius and the coastline stretching toward Punto Scutolo, with Sorrento on the cliff top and the two marinas with their stone jetties. Dr. Hugentobler’s chauffeur has been reflecting for some time, without taking his eyes off the view. Since eating breakfast in the quiet kitchen he has been standing by the window, mulling over the possibilities and probabilities of an idea that kept him tossing and turning all night, unable to make up his mind, and which, contrary to his hopes, the light of day hasn’t thrust from his thoughts.
At last, Max appears to collect himself and paces for a moment around the modest room on the villa’s ground floor. Then he looks out the window again, toward Sorrento, before going into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. After drying himself he looks at his face in the mirror with the care of someone trying to see how age has caught up with him since the last time he looked. He stands like that for a while, as if searching for someone in the distant past—wistfully studying his silver-gray hair, already thinning, his skin ravaged by time and life, the furrows on his brow and at the corners of his mouth, the white bristles on his chin, the drooping lids that deaden the gleam in his eyes. Then he feels his waist (the notches closest to his belt buckle are marked from where he has gradually loosened it) and shakes his head disapprovingly. He is dragging around a surfeit of years and pounds. And possibly of life as well.
He walks out into the corridor, past the door leading to the garage, and continues until he reaches the drawing room. Everything in there is clean and neat, with white dust sheets draped over the furniture. The Lanzas are spending their days off in Salerno. For Max this means absolute peace and quiet, with nothing to do besides keep an eye on the house, forward any urgent mail, and ensure that Dr. Hugentobler’s Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, and three vintage cars are all in working order.
Still pensive, he goes over to the cocktail cabinet in the drawing room, opens the door to where the drinks are kept, and helps himself to a small measure of Rémy Martin in a cut-glass tumbler. He proceeds to sip it, knitting his brow. Generally speaking, Max doesn’t drink much. Almost his entire life, even during the harsh, early years, he has drunk in moderation (perhaps the word should be prudently, or carefully), and, whether imbibed by himself or by others, he was able to turn alcohol into a useful ally rather than an unpredictable enemy; into a professional tool of his ambiguous trade, or trades, which, depending on the situation, could be as effective as a smile, a blow, or a kiss. In any case, at this point in his life, heading toward the inevitable scrap heap, an occasional glass of wine or vermouth, a perfectly shaken Negroni cocktail, still quickens heart and mind.
Finishing his drink, Max wanders around the empty house. He is still thinking over what kept him awake the previous night. On the radio, which he has left on, a woman’s voice rings out from the other end of the corridor. She is singing “Resta Cu’Mme” as if the words were truly making her suffer. Max becomes distracted for a moment, listening to the song. When it has finished he returns to his bedroom, opens the drawer where he keeps his checkbook, and verifies his bank balance. His meager savings. Just enough, he thinks, to cover the necessities. The basics. Amused by the idea, he opens his wardrobe and surveys the contents, imagining probable situations, before making his way to the master bedroom. Max is unaware of it, but he walks with a relaxed spring in his step. With the same agile, self-assured gait he possessed years before, when the world was still a dangerous, thrilling adventure: a constant challenge to his wit and ingenuity. He has finally made a decision, which simplifies things, joining past and present in a surprising circle that seems to make everything fall into place. In Dr. Hugentobler’s bedroom a golden glow is seeping in through the curtains. As Max draws them back, light floods the room, revealing the view over the bay, the trees, the neighboring villas clustered on the hillside. He turns toward the closet, takes down a Gucci suitcase from the top shelf, and opens it on the bed. Hands on hips, he contemplates his boss’s well-stocked wardrobe. Dr. Hugentobler and he have more or less the same neck and chest measurements, and so he selects half a dozen silk shirts and a couple of jackets. The shoes and trousers aren’t his size, because Max is taller than Hugentobler (he sighs: he will have to pay a visit to the expensive men’s shops along the Corso Italia), but a brand-new leather belt is, and he puts it in the suitcase together with half a dozen pairs of soberly colored socks. After a final glance, he adds a couple of silk neckerchiefs, three attractive ties, a pair of gold cuff links, a Dupont lighter (although he gave up smoking years ago), and an Omega Seamaster De Ville wristwatch, also gold. Back in his own room, suitcase in hand, he hears the radio again: now Domenico Modugno is singing “Vecchio frac” (“The Old Tuxedo”). Incredible, he reflects. As if this were a good omen, the coincidence makes the former ballroom dancer smile.
What We Become
“An intoxicating entertainment, pulsing with life.”— Booklist (starred review)
“Sparkling with witty dialogue, this elegantly translated thriller is enthusiastically recommended to sophisticated readers and those who wish to be.” – Library Journal (starred review)
In 1928, aboard the Cap Polonio—a lavish transatlantic cruise ship bound for Buenos Aires—Max Costa locks eyes with Mecha Inzunza across the first-class ballroom. They are an unlikely match. He is a thief, sleek and refined, hired to dance with unaccompanied passengers. She is the elegant wife of an accomplished composer, accustomed only to luxury. But as they embrace in a fiery tango, a steamy and dangerous love affair ignites—following them from the ship’s gentle sways in the Atlantic night to the seedy decadence of Buenos Aires. Yet as quickly as their affair begins, the two lovers are torn apart.
In Nice, 1937, Max and Mecha’s lives intersect for a second time and they rekindle their dalliance with ease. But in the wake of a perilous mission gone awry, Mecha looks after her charming paramour until a deadly encounter with a Spanish spy forces Max to flee.
Decades later in Sorrento at the height of the Cold War, Max once again runs into trouble—and Mecha. Their attraction is undeniable but with KGB agents on Max’s trail, the small glimmer of hope is becoming increasingly dim.
A mesmerizing tale of love and adventure, espionage and honor, What We Become is Arturo Pérez-Reverte at his finest, with elegant prose reminiscent of his beloved novel, The Club Dumas. Sweeping through time and across borders, What We Become proves that love, much like a great novel, is timeless and enduring.