The time difference plays this time in your favor. In London it’s barely ten o’clock in the morning and he starts making phone calls from the desk in his room at the Peninsula Hotel, with Hong Kong at his feet. To the director of the Barclays branch in Hampstead, to an investment house on the Island of Jersey, to the financier who manages the pension fund, to his ‘broker’ of the City … A nightmare. Andy has family money but his liquidity is limited and he does not want to ask his parents. He orders the sale of Treasury shares and bonds, he takes out everything he has at fixed interest, but still falls short. She puts her house as collateral, and in that way she gets a short-term loan-six months. After a couple of exhausting hours, waiting for answers and sending documents by fax, he ends up exhausted but with a clear conscience. For now he can not do more, the debts are being met. It starts to get dark. Black clouds, threatening rain, are superimposed on others of a pristine and angelic white, forming a game of colors that reminds him of a Braque painting.
Take the forced ‘China Morning Post’ folded under your arm. The place of the appointment is the most aromatic and colorful, full of wicker baskets with the most variegated spices. It smells like cinnamon, vanilla, mustard, pepper, saffron … everything and nothing at once. It’s nice
You do not even have to open your mouth. The clerk, unable to distinguish among so many other millions of Chinese, makes a slight gesture of recognition while dispensing an infusion. Andy returns it to him, and waits until he finishes charging a lady with whom he finds himself entangled in a brief but heated discussion, probably because of the price. Then, without saying a word, he takes out from a very old cash register a paper folded in four, and returns to his chores. ‘Congratulations, Mr Brotherton – it appears handwritten on the grid sheet. I confirm in the impression that he is a man of resources with whom business can be done. Go pick up your prize at ten o’clock in the rose garden of the Botanical Garden. Go unhurried and enjoy the beautiful view of Hong Kong. ‘
Andy would give anything for a double cut, like those served at the ‘Camomille Café’ in Hampstead, accompanied by his jug of hot milk and brown sugar. But the supply of the market is reduced to positions of asocial noodles that the natives devour with relish. The best option is a ‘MacDonald’s’ on the Queen’s Road, with the same tables, counters, uniforms and burger photos as in Leicester Square. He tries to read the newspaper but falls asleep. The liquid is disgusting, although at least it is hot.
He knows Chang’s instructions by heart. Wrinkle the paper and put it in the empty plastic cup, where there is still some coffee. Many stores have already opened at eight in the morning and look at shop windows to kill the time. Buy a bouquet of yellow roses for Laura, a red silk kimono with black dragons for Clara, some silver toothpicks for Julia, her secretary, and the new console ‘Nintendo’ for Nicky Horan, with the most violent video game that they sell in tips .
A thick fog covers the peaks of the skyscrapers and covers the mountain. He feels a few drops fall into his hair, as if the humidity was permanently suspended in the air of Hong Kong. The double-decker trams move in single file along the central lanes of the Harcourt Road, the executives hurry to their offices, the traffic is overwhelming, the drivers play the horn. A group of Filipino girls talk in corners and smoke under a porch after spending the night in sleeping bags, waiting for the women of the rich to pay attention to them and offer them bed, food and less than the minimum wage in the luxurious ones apartments of the High Levels * . Dozens of tourists queue at the funicular stop that climbs to the top of the ‘Peak’, although today visibility is almost zero. But it is your obligation, the guide specifies it. Andy has enough time to go on foot. The slope is very steep – more and more – and sweats copiously. The damn humidity. Laura will find it sticky and grossed out. Your heart beats strongly. He stops for a few seconds and looks up at the sky, the sun is making its way.
The former residence of the British governor, on Albert Road, retains the same colonial appearance, the same gate, the same gate, the same Rolls Royce at the door. Only the Union Jack is missing. Now the red flag of the People’s Republic is flying and is only used sporadically for official receptions. No Chinese official wants to occupy the building because the orientation of doors and windows is poor, the mirrors and stairs create confusion, and the evil spirits do not find the way out. In Hong Kong there are three things that are taken very seriously: money, horses and feng-shui * . But the English, of course, were never interested in it …
It stumbles suddenly with the southern entrance of the Botanical and Zoological Garden, at the top of some stairs that leave from the Garden Road. Andy comes panting to the top, his shirt soaked and his breathing ragged. He wipes his forehead with his handkerchief while he waits his turn to buy the ticket. The lady gives him a map and marks the rose garden with a circle. It is twenty past nine. Feel the dry, pasty mouth. Buy a beer in a beverage cart, despite how early it is. It opens the South China Morning Post for the second time this morning, but it can not concentrate on reading. Stories of Chinese immigrants, economic growth, the decline in housing prices in Hong Kong. New security measures, restrictions on civil liberties, demonstrations. An editorial makes the apology of Tony Blair, as if he did not have enough sycophants in England. The international section is reduced to a single page, with a Washington chronicle about the approval by the US Senate of the sale of a package of arms to Taiwan that the Chinese Communist Party denounces as a threat to the stability of the region. Andy folds the newspaper and throws it into the wastebasket along with the empty beer can. Ten minus twenty. Roam the trails of the park, admire trees with Latin names and hear the songs of birds finely caged behind metal nets that seem to touch the sky. How will Laura be? What can be said in these cases?
The time runs in slow motion. At ten minutes to five he can not take it anymore, he studies the map and takes the path that leads to the rose garden, a small garden surrounded by perfectly trimmed hedges, in true English style. He immediately discovers Laura, with her leg in a cast and a bandage on her wrist, sitting on a bench, perfectly groomed, wearing sunglasses even though she does not need them, her skin whitish, her hair a little longer and her highlights Redheads, very thin. She wears a cream-colored short dress, slightly low-cut, with a new look. He goes towards her, spreading his arms in welcome. He does not know whether to smile or act with solemnity. There is nothing worse than feeling guilty.
– How are you? Andy asks, while touching Laura’s arm affectionately.
She slinks away, as if repelled by physical contact.
– Your partners gave me this for you, “he says deadpan behind the dark glasses, handing him a white envelope he has in his hand. Can we leave here?
Andy would prefer anything. A scream, a slap, a cry, even the arrogant giggle of Mr. Chang. But Laura is cruel and punishes him with distance and indifference. He deserves it.
Laura does not protest, she does not ask, it’s like she’s drugged. Everything seems to give equal. Andy leaves her in his Peninsula suite, asks her to sleep, to rest, to ask for something to eat. The green tea with pastries that serve on the ground floor is wonderful, nothing to envy to the ‘Brown’s’ * of Mayfair .. It leaves a copy of the key. He has things to do and will return in four or five hours, he does not know exactly. The flight to Heathrow departs at midnight and they will keep the room until then. He explains that he shares the room with a friend, so he does not panic if a short, thin, hairy guy with black hair in a ponytail appears. She does not open her mouth. He can not even see his eyes, hidden behind his sunglasses. Close the sliding door that separates the two rooms and write a note to Dennis, explaining the situation.
It goes to the end of the subway line, where the New Territories and Hong Kong end. Cross the border with the rest of China, like all the workers who daily make the trip a couple of times, show their passport and nobody asks anything. Enter Shenzen, the paradise of cheap shopping, a ‘Las Vegas’ in Chinese version and without casinos, that city shredded, of skyscrapers of offices and shopping centers, where you buy and sell to the soul, the old frontier, until only a few years ago, between the United Kingdom and Asia, between capitalism and communism.
He goes to the counter of the Tourism and Exchange Office. In an electronic strip embedded in the wall the letters and numbers run with the price of the main currencies. Everything is modern, aseptic, unpolluted, the clean face of the new China. Andy takes out his address book and shows the address that Lin gave him, So Uk Market, place number 126. A young girl, with a fashion magazine haircut, white shirt and tie, displays a map and explains it in correct English, very serious, the best way to get there. Shenzen is small and squared. Ten minutes walking.
Andy was expecting a market like Hong Kong Central, dirtier and poorer, but So Uk is more of a typical Third World city mall, in an old three-story building with peeling paint. Escalators do not work. Trays with a wide range of imitation ‘Rolex’, slippers ‘Nike’ and ‘Adidas’ also lying, glasses ‘Police’ unable to fool the dumbest, clothes of poor quality, mops and all kinds of cleaning utensils, suitcases plastic, trinkets … Some positions are assigned number, although it is impossible for Andy to find a logical sequence, the 37 appears next to the 211, the 48 next to the 339. Fortunately the numbers are the same in Chinese than in English, and writes on a paper 126. They signal him to go up to the second floor of the market, and there he identifies a more modern chiringuito than the others, illuminated with neon lights and surrounded by a window, behind which there are several telephone booths. A sign announces in Western characters ‘Vodafone’, and next to ‘126’.
Does not agree with the indications received in writing from Lin. It was supposed to give an official shop of government ‘souvenirs’, ‘China Export’, with cultured pearl necklaces, chess boards with pieces of ivory, ceramic vessels made at the time of some remote dynasty, silk handkerchiefs … And that the owner would know immediately what it was about. It is not like this.
– You want? – welcomes a skinny boy dressed in an impeccable suit of western cut.
– News of the panda bear that wobbles on a bamboo pole.
– Excuse me … -said the man with the poker face-.
– Mr. Zhang Tuo? Is this number 126? Andy asks, a little broken, he sees clearly that he is not going anywhere.
– I think so, but I do not know any Zhang Tuo …
– Do you believe it or do you know it? He asks angrily.
– I know. We’ve only been here for a week.
– What was there before?
“No idea,” replied the Chinese mannequin, a young man who certainly knows more about David Beckham than about the Cultural Revolution, may even have a semi-detached house with private security in the suburbs. Would you like me to show you the latest mobile phone models with built-in modem ?. They connect to the Internet through an infrared system, take pictures that can be sent instantly and serve both in the United States and in Europe …
– You can do me a favor?. I will really appreciate it.
The Vodafone employee does not respond.
– Ask any neighbor if until recently there was an official gift shop here, ‘China Export’, or something like that …
Yes, there was, confirms the cloth salesman of position 434. What became of him? Will it have changed premises ?. A long and gesticulante parrafada that the boy of the mobile then translates into two words: no idea. Andy still does not understand the logic of So Uk’s market numbering, nor does the Chinese mind. He returns disappointed to the border, they stamp his passport, he climbs the subway and he undoes the road he walked. His fellow travelers are loaded with packages, he returns empty-handed. Look out the window, deep in thought, disappointed. Tie one, Andy, you can not always win. At least you have Laura healthy, even if she hates you.
Andy and Dennis travel together in the ‘business’ class of Singapore Airlines. Laura, alone, across the hall. He does not open his mouth on the whole trip. He does not eat, he does not drink, he does not sleep. At times he flips through a magazine, most of the time he remains with his head reclined on the seat, always wearing sunglasses, like a breastplate. But Andy observes the rhythm of his breathing and knows he does not rest. The plane lands in Heathrow like a nail, at six o’clock in the morning, after crossing the world in favor of time, in an eternal night, without sun, moon or stars.
Ask Laura, while they wait for the suitcases, where she wants to take her. Maybe she feels very alone at home and prefers a little company. -It gives me exactly the same-, he responds. “Do you want to stay with me for a few days?” Andy suggests. She does not respond, but emits a bitter, bitter, corrosive laugh. Choose to leave her in Notting Hill. At the moment there is nothing else I can do. He perceives her so far away that all he feels is guilt.
In Hampstead he finds everything clean and tidy thanks to the good work of Teófila. The bundle of accumulated correspondence rests on the entrance table. The answering machine’s pilot does not blink. The sun comes and goes at times. He closes the curtains in his room, pulls a shirt out of the drawer and wraps himself in the sheets. Cross your fingers to sleep.
It circles Oxford and takes the A44 road in the direction
The sun’s rays sneak through the slits of the curtains. He hesitates between turning around and continuing to sleep, or to stretch out. The electronic clock on the bedside table got stuck at 12.00 when the light went out and it did not help. Look at the wristband – a gold Omega from his grandfather – and he has to concentrate hard to read the hands. Three minutes to five! He rubs his eyes and jumps out of bed. Put the coffee pot on the fire and shower while the coffee comes out. Call Clara to propose another country trip, but her friend does not respond. He does not want to bother Dennis, who will probably spend the whole day in bed, unless his wife puts him to work in the greenhouse to make up for lost time. Find Reggie at the tennis club’s restaurant and ask for the road map.
It puts petrol to the BMW, that with its one hundred fifty thousand kilometers to slopes continues throwing of wonder. It circles Oxford and takes the A44 road in the direction of Evesham and Worcester, through fairytale towns, with black and white, thatched cottages, which have been there ever since Shakespeare recounted the adventures of King Lear. It recognizes the golf course of Chipping Norton and deviates towards the north by a county road. Put the odometer to zero to avoid passing. At the exit of a bend, you see a huge farm with several stables on top of the hill, an impeccable reference, and turn right onto an unpaved road. Continue two or three kilometers, with the herds of sheep as their only companion, until in the distance you can see a brick wall a couple of meters high crowned by glass rubble, so that no one can think of discovering the hidden secrets of the other side. It is the site you are looking for. The nearest town, a little further north, is called Great Rollright. Maybe I have a pub.
One sector of the wall goes into the fields, the other runs parallel to the rural road with closed-circuit television cameras every fifty meters. The car wobbles to the rhythm of the holes and tunnels, and Andy remembers that it does not have a spare wheel. Knock on woood. Somewhere there must be an entrance to the compound. It does not appear until a kilometer and a half beyond, a latticework iron gate with golden incrustations typical of Windsor Castle. In times it must have been the mansion of a nobleman with a lot of money and many millions, before the heirs auctioned it or the state kept it to collect the taxes. It’s not worth hiding, it’s been a while since the castle’s cameras have focused on it. Better to smile No security guards, no intercom or keypad that requires a key, just a slot to insert the magnetic edge of a card. Nothing is lost with trying. Andy takes out of his pocket the one that stole McCaulskey at the Hotel Locarno in Rome and slides it gently. Maybe nobody has bothered to cancel the square head card, never underestimate the uselessness of the bureaucracy, at whatever level. The two leaves of the gate welcome you slowly.
A wide avenue of land escorted by lime trees, oaks and spiky willows flows into a three-story granite building. In times it must have been the baron’s house, now it has so many satellite dishes on the roof that it looks like a branch of CNN. He circles it until he finds the parking lot in an esplanade in the back, crowded with cars. Park the BMW in a space next to the facade, in front of a sign that says ‘Director’. You have confidence with the director. They have known each other for many years, and will be happy to see you.
Enter the McCaulskey card in another slot and appear in a hallway with rustic hardwood floors, artificial light and prints of English cities on the walls. Small bronze plates with a letter and three numbers classify the doors of the offices, all closed. Nobody stumbles until arriving, guided by instinct, to the large central hall of the mansion, from which a wide spiral staircase leads to the upper floors. There he finds people, some civilian and others military. He hangs up his collar and asks for a boss in the army’s office, a girl in an army uniform who has a tray with a plate of cookies and a teapot in precarious balance. She looks at him strangely, but tells him to go up to the first floor.
The anteroom has two desks, both empty, although hangers hang a pair of khaki jackets with cape stripes. Knock with the knuckles a double door without getting any response. It enters directly and fits into the reclining black leather chair, with wheels, which undoubtedly belongs to the director. Take a look at the folders strewn across the desk, several with a red ‘Top Secret’ stamp. He rummages in the first one he fancies, a report on the probable strategy of Sinn Fein in the next round of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. The last page is a list of all observation towers and facilities of the Ministry of Defense in the county of South Armagh. Along with some of them someone has handwritten ‘susceptible to closure’. All very predictable, nothing that can not be read between the lines in the newspapers. He opens a large window and goes out onto the terrace, overlooking the avenue of willows that he has just traveled with the car. The fresh air hits him in the face.
He hears the noise of the door and turns around. Agatha Wilkinson looks at him in surprise, not knowing if he is dealing with a thief, a spy or a subordinate who exceeds his functions. Andy gives him a smile.
In college you presumed to be a good physiognomist …
She frowns and in seconds bursts into a merry laugh.
– Andrew Brotherton, of course! He exclaims, approaching and holding out his hand in an effusive gesture. What are you doing here?.
Andy points his finger at the ID card that hangs around his neck.
– I bring you a gift. One of your boys lost it in Rome, but he did not let me give it back to him personally. I suppose that fulfilling some very strict directive …
The owner of the office seems more fun than anything else, but remains silent. She is very tall and thin, broad shoulders, short black hair with bangs, suspicious look, the same pimple on the lip that bothered her so much when she was young. About the same age, although it seems older. It will be the responsibility of the charge. Wear a gray skirt just below the knees and a matching jacket. He takes it off and leaves it folded on the back of a chair.
– You want a drink? He finally asks. When was the last time we saw each other? I guess we have many things to tell us. Sit for a while …
– Many times I asked myself – Andy says – what would have become of that lanky girl who came running to put on bandages and to whom behind her back we called ‘the giraffe’ – she throws a loud laugh -. So serious, studious and disciplined, with the best grades of her class, daughter of a general and with a unique passion that no one could explain: rugby.
– So weird is it? Asks Agatha Wilkinson, with a radiant smile. A lot of people like sports …
– It did not respond to your personality, nor that you stopped studying on the eve of a match to do a hundred kilometers by coach and give first aid to a gang of hooligans who ran behind an oval ball – Andy replies, still standing, relaxed and cordial-.
She shrugs her shoulders.
– Things are never as simple as they seem and we all have our secrets – he responds with an air of premeditated mystery, without appearing the slightest discomfort with the situation.
– On the other hand – Judgment Andy – you fit as a glove to be the director of the Military Intelligence Service for Ulster …
– Shhhh … Do not say it out loud, “she interrupts holding a finger to her lips, still mocking. It is supposed to be top secret of state. Only the paparazzi and the ‘Hello’ photographer are missing here … You did not tell me what you wanted to take …
– Is there a pub nearby? Andy suggests. Where we can talk quietly, catch up and drink a beer for the old days, without being listened to by the microphones hidden in the vases …
Agatha Wilkinson lets out another laugh.
– That’s Paleolithic technology! If you knew what gossip we have now …
It’s already night when he returns to Hampstead, a little wiser than before. Agatha kept some letters, and even she does not know everything. But little by little he is filling in boxes in an increasingly surprising crossword puzzle. Answering questions, like for example who was the mysterious woman who played the baton on Victoria Street, with James’ body still on the asphalt. Laura was not hallucinating. It was Agatha Wilkinson, alias ‘the giraffe’ and director of the RUF, Military Intelligence for Ulster. Andy opens a can of tuna in oil and a package of Serrano ham black leg bought in ‘Garcia & Sons’ * , takes some toast out of the pantry and a can of beer from the refrigerator, and goes up with all this to the office. First leave a message to Clara to confirm the appointment the next day and propose that they meet at half past nine at the London Bridge station. He will go by metro and she in the car, in view of his phobia of public transport. On the desk, all the elements of his investigation are still displayed, to which he now adds the envelope that Laura gave him with the instructions of his new partner, Mr. Chang. Teófila knows from experience that here, in his sancta sanctortum, the dust is cleaned without changing a single paper. He is hungry and his fingers are stained with ham grease. He absentmindedly picks up one of the propaganda bulletins Nick Horan received in his office. Turn the pages, glaringly looking at restaurant ads, from three to four lawyers, from security companies and ‘spyware’ stores. A company offers sworn guards ‘with police experience and impeccable references’. An advertisement in the lower right corner of that page looks more fun to you: “Sometimes a single personality is not enough. On occasion we all need to become another person, change skin like a chameleon. If you want to be different, richer or poorer, more handsome or uglier, taller or shorter, think of ALTER EGO. The main film studios use our services. Twenty years of experience Give the bell in a bachelor party, weddings, anniversaries or the Halloween party. Surprise your wife and your coworkers. Have fun, call ALTER EGO.