Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Leonardo Padura Fuentes
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-84195-642-2
First he spat, then he expelled the remainder of the smoke from deep within his lungs and finally he threw the tiny cigarette butt into the water, flicking it with his fingers. The burning sensation on his skin brought him back to reality, and, once back in the world, he thought how much he would have liked to know the real reason for his being here, looking out to sea, preparing to undertake an unpredictable journey into the past. He then began to convince himself that many of the questions he would have to ask would have no answers; but it reassured him to remember how it had been the same with many other questions that had pursued him throughout his life, and he accepted the gloomy fact that he was going to have to live with more doubts than certainties. Perhaps that was why he was no longer a policeman, he said to himself, as he put another cigarette between his lips.
The pleasant breeze coming from the little cove proved to be a blessing in the midst of the summer heat, but Mario Conde had chosen that short stretch of seafront, shaded by some ancient casuarina trees, for reasons connected with neither the sun nor the heat. Sitting on the wall, with his feet dangling down towards the rocks, he enjoyed the sensation of freedom from the tyranny of time, imagining how good it would be to spend the rest of his life in that exact spot, devoting his time just to thinking, reminiscing and watching the calm, peaceful sea. And if a good idea occurred to him he might even start writing, since in his personal paradise Conde had turned the sea, with its smells and sounds, into the perfect setting for his spirit. There abided, fixed in his imagination like a tenacious shipwrecked sailor, the sweet image of himself living in a wooden house, looking out over the sea, given over to writing in the mornings and to fishing and swimming in the afternoons. Reality had been battering this dream for some years now with typical fervour, and Conde couldn't understand why he still clung to the image, which had been so vivid and photographic at first, but from whose rather poor impressionist palette he could now barely make out the lighter patches or faded brightness.
So he stopped trying to find an explanation for that afternoon: he just knew that he had had to return to that little cove at Cojímar so grounded in his memory. In fact, everything had begun in that very place, facing the same sea, beneath the same casuarina trees, amongst the same old indelible smells, that day in 1960 when he had encountered Ernest Hemingway. The exact date eluded him (as had so many good things in life) and he couldn't be sure if he had still been five or if he was already six, although at the time his grandfather Rufino was already taking him along to the most varied of places, from cockpits and the bars in the port, to the domino tables and the baseball stadiums - those cherished spots where Conde had learnt some of the most important things a man must know. That unforgettable afternoon they had watched some cockfights in Guanabacoa, and his grandfather, who had won his bets, as he usually did, decided to reward them by taking young Mario to visit the small town of Cojímar, so that he could have what he insisted was the best ice cream in Cuba, made by the Chinaman Casimiro Chon, with fresh fruit in old wooden sorbet bowls.
Conde thought that he could still remember the creamy taste of the mamey fruit ice cream, and his delight in watching the manoeuvres of a beautiful yacht with a black hull and brown woodwork, from which two huge fishing-rods stuck out skywards, making it look like an amphibious insect. If his memory was accurate, Conde had watched the yacht as it gently approached the shore, making its way between the flotilla of dilapidated fishing-boats anchored in the cove and dropping its anchor next to the jetty. At that moment a reddish-haired, shirtless man jumped from the yacht onto the concrete quay, caught hold of the rope that another man, hidden beneath a dirty white cap, threw to him from the vessel. Pulling on the end of the rope the red-haired man pulled the yacht up to a post and moored it there with a perfect knot. Perhaps his grandfather Rufino pointed something out to him, but Conde's eyes and memory had already fixed upon the other person - the man wearing the cap - who wore round-framed glasses with green lenses and had a thick, grey beard. He watched him as he jumped ashore and paused to say something to the man already standing on the quayside. Conde would live with the belief that he had seen how the two men shook hands and, without letting go, spoke for a while - perhaps a minute, perhaps even an hour - he couldn't remember. Then the old man with the beard embraced the other and, without casting a glance behind him, went along the quay towards the shore. There was something of Santa Claus in that old, rather dirty-bearded man with his large hands and feet; he walked with assurance, but somehow sadness emanated from him. Or perhaps it was just an unfathomable, magnetic premonition, foretelling the nostalgia lying in wait in a future that the boy could not even imagine.
When the man with the grey beard climbed the concrete steps and reached the pavement, Conde saw how he tucked his cap under his arm. He took a small plastic comb from his shirt pocket and started to smooth down his hair, combing it backwards over and over again, as if this repeated action were essential. For a moment the man was so close to Conde and his grandfather that Conde caught a whiff of his smell: a mixture of sweat and the sea, of petrol and fish, an unhealthy, engulfing stench.
His grandfather had said this, but Conde had never figured out if he had been referring to the man or the weather, for at that stage in his recollection what he remembered and what he'd been told later became confused, the man walking past him and thunder heard from afar. So Conde usually cut off the reconstruction of his only encounter with Ernest Hemingway at that point.
'That's Hemingway, the American writer,' added his grandfather after the man had walked past. 'He likes cockfights too.'
Conde imagined turning the remark over in his mind as he watched the writer walking over to a shiny black Chrysler parked on the other side of the street, and from the car window, without taking off his green-lensed glasses, he seemed to wave goodbye to him and his grandfather, although perhaps he extended his farewell much further than them, to the cove with the yacht and the red-haired man whom he had hugged, or to the Spanish watchtower constructed to defy the passage of time, or perhaps even at the furthest part of the Gulf Stream ... But the boy had already caught the farewell gesture in mid-air and, before the car moved off, he returned it with his hand and voice.
'Adiós, Hemingway,' he shouted, and received in reply a smile from the man. Some years later, when he himself discovered the painful need to write and began to choose his literary idols, Mario Conde knew that that had been Ernest Hemingway's last trip across a stretch of sea that he had loved like few other places in the world, and he understood that the American writer could not have been saying goodbye to him, a tiny insect that had landed on the sea front at Cojímar, but that he had at that moment been bidding farewell to several of the most important things in his life.
'Want another?' asked Manolo.
'OK,' replied Conde.
'A double or a single?'
'What do you think?'
'Cachimba, two double rums,' shouted Inspector Manuel Palacios, with one arm raised, addressing the barman who began to serve the drink without removing the pipe from his mouth. The Watchtower wasn't a clean bar, let alone well-lit, but there was rum, silence and few drunkards, and from his table Conde could carry on watching the sea and the worn stones of the colonial tower to which the place owed its grand-sounding name. Unhurriedly, the barman walked over to their table, placed the drinks on it, and collected the empty glasses, picking them up between his dirty-nailed fingers, and looked at Manolo.
'Who the fuck do you think you are?' he said, slowly, 'I don't believe a word about you being a policeman.'
'For God's sake, Cachimba, don't get so fucking worked up,' said Manolo, trying to calm him down. 'I was only joking.'
The barman glared at him and moved away. He had already looked at Mario with loathing when he had asked him if they served a 'Papa Hemingway' there, the daiquiri the writer used to drink, made of two measures of rum, lemon juice, a few drops of maraschino and a lot of finelycrushed ice, but no sugar at all. ('The last time I saw a piece of ice was when I was a penguin,' the barman had replied.)
'So how did you know I was here?' Conde asked his former colleague after knocking back half his drink in one go.
'I'm not a cop for nothing, am I?'
'Don't steal my lines.'
'They're no good to you now, Conde ... you're not a cop any longer,' said Inspector Manuel Palacios with a smile. 'It's quite simple. I know you so well, I expected you to be here. I don't know how many times you've told me that story about the day you saw Hemingway. Did he really wave goodbye to you, or is that something you made up?'
'You find out, that's what you're a cop for.'
'You pissed off with me?'
'Don't know. I just don't want to get involved in this ... but at the same time I do want to get involved.'
'Listen, you get as involved in it as you want, and when you want to, walk away. After all, there's not much point to it anyway. It's almost forty years since ...'
'I don't know why the hell I agreed to it ... but then, I couldn't help myself even if I'd wanted to.'
Conde finished his drink, feeling sorry for himself. Eight years out of the police force is a long time and he would never have imagined it would be so easy to return to the fold. Recently, as he supposedly spent time writing, or at least trying to write, he had found himself spending much of the day buying old books all over the city in order to supply the bookstall of a dealer friend of his from whom he received 50 per cent of the profits.
Although the business was not that profitable, Conde liked the job for its peculiar advantages; he enjoyed the personal stories concealed behind the decision to get rid of a library that might have been built up over three or four generations, and he liked the time lapse between purchase and sale, during which he could read anything he liked as it passed through his hands. The essential drawback of the business operation, however, was evident when Conde suffered small cuts to his skin when he handled good old books damaged, at times irreparably, by carelessness and ignorance or when, instead of taking certain tempting volumes to his friend's bookstall, he decided to keep them in his own bookcase, an incurable symptom of the terrible infirmity of bibliophilia. But that morning, the day after a fierce summer storm, when his former colleague had phoned him and told him the story of the dead body discovered at Finca Vigía and offered to hand the investigation over to him if he wanted it, a visceral reaction had forced Conde to look painfully at the blank sheet of paper in his prehistoric Underwood typewriter and agree, even though he'd barely heard the first details of the case.
That summer storm had also lashed the district where Conde lived. Unlike hurricanes, these ferocious downpours, gales and flashes of lightning could arrive with no prior warning at any time in the afternoon to perform a swift, macabre dance over parts of the island. Their power, capable of devastating banana plantations and over-running drains, very rarely did any greater damage, but this particular storm had shown no mercy on Finca Vigía, once Hemingway's Havana home. It tore some of the tiles from the roof, cut off the electricity, demolished part of the fence around the courtyard and brought down an ancient, dying mango tree which had certainly been there before the building of the house back in 1905. Among the tree's exposed roots there had emerged some bones, which the experts had quickly identified as belonging to a man, Caucasian, about sixty years old, with the first signs of arthritis and an old, badly-healed fracture of the patella. He seemed to have been killed thirty or forty years ago, probably the late '50s, by two shots, almost certainly from a rifle. He had received one of the shots in the chest, seemingly through the right side, which, in addition to going through several of his vital organs, had severed his sternum and his vertebral column. The other bullet seemed to have entered his body through his abdomen, since it had fractured a rib in the dorsal area. Two shots fired from a powerful weapon, apparently at close range, causing the death of a man who, now, was nothing more than a bag of crumbling bones.
'Do you know why you agreed?' Manolo asked him, with a satisfied glance. Then, going crosseyed, 'because a sonofabitch will always be a sonofabitch, however much he goes to confession and attends church. Once a cop, always a cop. That's why, Conde.'
'Why don't you tell me something useful instead of all that shit? With the information I've got, I can't even start to -'
'Because there isn't anything else and I doubt there will be either. It was forty years ago, Conde.'
'Be straight with me, Manolo ... who cares anything about this case?'
'You really want to know? As things stand, just you, the dead man, Hemingway and I don't think anyone else ... Look, as far as I'm concerned it couldn't be clearer. Hemingway had a filthy temper. One day someone fucked him around too much and he let him have two shots. Then he buried him. Nobody had any interest in the dead man at the time. Then Hemingway shot himself in the head and that was an end to the story. I called you up because I knew it would interest you and I want to leave an interval before closing the case. When I close it and the news gets out, the story of a dead man buried at Hemingway's house is going to make headlines halfway around the world ...'
'And naturally, they're going to say that Hemingway killed him. And if it wasn't him, who did kill him?'
'That's what you're going to find out. If you can ... Look, Conde, I'm up to here with work,' he said as he brought his hand up to his eyebrows. 'Things here are getting bloody nasty: every day there are more hold-ups, cases of embezzlement, muggings, prostitution, pornography ...'
'Pity I'm not a cop any more. I love pornography.'
'Shut up Conde: pornography involving children.'
'This country's gone crazy ...'
'That doesn't sound like you ... Do you think I've got time to investigate Hemingway's life, someone who killed himself a thousand years ago, to find out if he's guilty or innocent?'
Conde smiled and looked out at the sea.
'Know something, Manolo? I would love to find out that it was Hemingway who killed that guy.