Matthew Asprey Gear
Copyright © 2016 Matthew Asprey Gear. All rights reserved.
First published November 2016
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Although portions of this story are derived from real events, each character in it is fictional, a composite drawn from several individuals and imagination. No reference to any living persons or organisations is intended or should be inferred.
To the waiters of Buenos Aires
“I MUST EMPHASISE,” said Lewis, “that despite the, ah, emphasis of this convention, I do not consider my work to be ‘popular writing.’”
“What’s that, honey?”
“I consider it an anomalous categorization. Actually, I had misgivings about attending Zanesville PopCon for that very reason.”
The heavily seated woman flashed Lewis a fast-fading smile, not insincere, merely distracted, as she pawed through dozens of name badges heaped on the registration table.
“To presume one must be aiming for the lowest common denominator simply because one novelizes Roman history,” Lewis continued, “is wrong. Of course, there are numerous examples of this generic debasement, the pepla of postwar Italy, for instance—”
“I can’t find your name, honey,” she said.
“I’m Dr. Arthur James Lewis.”
“Oh, I see it!”
The badge was beyond easy reach. Flattening her right palm on the table, the woman elevated herself with grunts, cracking joints. Her obesity was contained within a green tentish dress with shimmering frills hanging from the sleeves. Once upright, frills ashimmer, she leaned across the table to pin the badge to the lapel of Lewis’s grandfatherly houndstooth jacket. He dropped his eyes and read upside down:
ARTHUR J. LEWIS
WESTERN WRITERS OF AMERICA
“You’ve made a mistake,” said Lewis. “I don’t write Westerns. Nor am I ‘of America’.”
Still on her feet, bent forward over the table, the woman used her right fist to mash open the convention program. She read: “‘Arthur J. Lewis was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1958.’”
“Actually,” said Lewis, “I was born in Gosford, New South Wales, in 1965. And I never initialize my middle name.”
She continued nevertheless: “‘“Arty” to his friends, he is the author of seventeen novels in the Showdown series.’”
“The biographies have been switched,” said Lewis. “A mishap!”
“‘Arty lives the same adventurous life as his fictional heroes. He’s worked as a cow puncher, rodeo rider, amateur boxer, undertaker, and greeting card salesman. He’s presently married to the love of his life, KFDB-TV’s weather girl Mary-Ellen Loane. They live with their four children and three fox terriers on a turkey ranch outside Amarillo, Texas.’” The woman looked up. “That not you?”
Well, these last few years Lewis had been made aware of a popular writer with essentially the same name, an American who sold a lot of Cowboy and Indian novels. It had the consequence of burying information about him, the Australian “Arthur Lewis, writer,” in internet searches.
“I guess we flew in the wrong Arthur J. Lewis,” the woman said. “Darn it.” As she fell back into her chair its leatherette cushion exhaled.
“Are you aware you flew me here from Krakow?” Lewis said. “And that I actually interrupted work on Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums in order to appear at Zanesville PopCon?”
“It would have been a whole lot cheaper for us to fly in the one from Texas.”
“Surely. But you invited me and I have the email to prove it. I expect full and immediate reimbursement of my expenses. Actually, it’s a matter of some urgency.”
She used her mobile phone to make a call to somebody she described as the convention’s ‘curator’ and flashed Lewis five fingers for five minutes. He picked up his suitcase and his leather satchel, slung his woollen topcoat over his arm, and went to find a computer to retrieve the email.
Certainly the invitation to Zanesville PopCon had surprised Lewis when it arrived in his inbox last summer. He had at first ruled out the possibility of attending, far too busy with Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums. There was no honorarium attached, merely expenses for travel, accommodation, and meals. Moreover, Ohio was hardly an enticing destination. But then with unexpected timeliness he had finished drafting Book IV, Chapter XXII, a natural break in his epic narrative of the Third Punic War. He re-read the invitation email (“…our tremendous admiration for your body of work…”), sent a formal acceptance, and booked an economy-class Transatlantic flight which pushed his last functional credit card a whisker from maxing out. He had been given assurance of prompt reimbursement by PopCon.
The blizzard continued its assault on Zanesville, rattling the enormous glass walls of the convention centre’s welcoming hall. Lewis had not thought it possible to find somewhere colder than his adopted home in Poland, but he had found it here, at the centre of what every American insisted on calling the ‘Polar Vortex’, a record-setting Artic freeze that made a mockery of what was supposed to be early spring. But at least in the United States one could have faith in indoor heating.
Lewis had to pass through the PopCon exhibition hall. Purported adults, costumed as superheroes, monsters, and aliens, took photographic self-portraits with their mobile telephones as they queued—at least half an hour a turn—for the autographs of washed-up television actors, obese comic book artists, a very former Bond girl, and the ubiquitous Sir Oliver Bleeck, elderly Shakespearean lately phoning in the role of Poseidon on the US cable programme Nautica Rising. Sir Oliver scowled at Lewis over the heads in the crowd and held aloft his Magic Marker, a much-diminished substitute for the trident. It wasn’t a friendly gesture.
The convention centre was a wing of the bland hotel where Lewis and the other guests were to be lodged. He stepped into the hotel’s empty ‘business centre’, and used one of the computer terminals to access his email account. He printed off the invitation to the convention and then looked at the new contents of his inbox. He’d left Krakow a mere nineteen hours ago; he was aghast to find twelve unread messages. Three pieces of correspondence were from commercial interests of complete irrelevance: an “interest-free” home loan, an illegal NFL betting website, penis-enlargement surgery. Lewis was tired of writing terse emails rejecting such offers out of hand. Other messages concerned his ongoing dispute with the state gas company that had left the family apartment chilly as a meat locker. His niece Ola had sent him an email headed: My baby is cold, Wujek Arthur. His wife Ludmilla had fired off three emails headed in succession:
Not happy, Lewis
Vladimir Putin also stops gas supply as collective punishment
And fuck, credit card is maxed again!!!???!!!?!?!!!!
Lewis decided to read those aggressive messages later. He clicked on Cicero’s Thought of the Day (he was a subscriber to this handy service). It read:
Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.
Lewis sighed. If you have a garden and a library, you need nothing else. How true! But how elusive that tranquil, serious place where he could work to complete Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums. Cicero never had to deal with Eastern European weather, a criminal gas company, a noisy and messy grandnephew. Cicero never had to deal with a Polish wife flinging another of her baseless accusations. Did it make a scrap of sense to equate the consequences of his dignified refusal to yield to PGNiG’s blackmail with a plot to “collectively punish” his own family? He would have to correct Ludka on this latest mischaracterisation of his motives. No, he wasn’t in the collective punishment business, regardless of his wife and niece’s irresponsibility, deafness to reason, and stubborn defiance. He had taken a hard line against the new satellite television and presented indisputable facts: it would degrade Jerzy’s infantile mental development, condemning him along with the rest of his sad generation to near-illiteracy; moreover, this thoughtless gift of the boy’s long-absent Turkish father was a frivolous indulgence in economically straightened times. The TV should be sold and the funds used for the family’s basic subsistence. (The women decided to keep the TV.)
Lewis logged out of his email account, but before he left the computer he glanced again at the online profile of Dr. Camila Weitensteiner, Honorary Fellow of Ancient History at the Universidad de Mendoza Norte in Argentina, surely the most attractive champion of his work thus far. She had ‘blogged’ about him. Further internet searches had revealed Dr. Weitensteiner as more than an academic and the author of Continuidad y articulación del relato en la historia de Polybio (Buenos Aires: Editorial Eudeba, 2008); she was also present manager of Finca Weitensteiner, a family winery that had produced malbec for generations. The monochrome staff profile photograph at the university website showed an unsmiling woman of about forty, straight-backed and serious in a black blazer; in contrast, a recent online article about the winery at Los Andes was illustrated by a breathtaking colour image of Dr. Weitensteiner in a sun-drenched vineyard. A coarse khaki work shirt was casually buttoned over her heavy breasts. Her brown hair hung long and loose. Her smile communicated wit, erotic daring, intelligence. He’d come to an undeniable conclusion: his research would benefit from a visit to Mendoza to discuss the controversial conditions of the detainment of Polybius in Rome.
But instead he was in Ohio, in a blizzard, surrounded by frivolous people.
Lewis walked back through the crowded exhibition hall. Pushing through, he inadvertently trod on the sneaker of a pre-adolescent boy dressed up as a bat.
“Watch the fuck out, man!” the boy growled, wrenching his sneaker free.
Lewis looked down upon him with his sternest frown. “When I was a boy I respected my elders.”
“Yeah? Well, you trod on my toe, asshole!”
Lewis put down his luggage and peered at the comic book in the boy’s hand. The cover showed a steroidal superhero transforming a woman into gold via an alchemic laser beam. Lewis removed the book from the boy’s grip and browsed the pages. He was shocked not so much by its vivid fantasy violence but by the utter heedlessness of its frivolity.
“This is what children are reading today?” Lewis said. “This material will rot your brain, Sonny Jim. I think I should have a word with your father.”
“Give it back!” The bat boy leaped into the air, snatching for the comic. He began to cry real tears. How pathetic. Lewis relinquished the comic book and returned to the registration table in the entrance hall. The obese registrar was still on the phone dealing with the identity mix-up, and held up another five fingers for another five minutes.
What a bloody joke.
Lewis left the invitation email on her table, put on his topcoat and braved the gusting snow along 21st Street until he reached the Shelter Island Bar. It was warm inside, the lights were low, the shadows populated by decrepit men and women in rowdy chatter. They looked like alcoholic hack writers and probably were. Lewis counted six wall-mounted televisions broadcasting a variety of close-captioned cable sports programs. Rock music blared. Shelter, perhaps, but far from an oasis of peace.
A short blonde man in a green turtleneck and overlarge grey blazer sat alone on a nearby barstool. He called for the barman to serve him a triple bourbon, then looked at Lewis and winked. Lewis smiled thinly and avoided further eye contact. Lewis dropped his luggage, hung his snow-sodden topcoat on the backrest of a barstool, and asked the barman for a cognac. Smile. I beg your pardon, sir? Lewis had to settle for whiskey. He sat and drank. The long journey from Krakow had drained him. He doubted he would be able to write for days.
The short man in the turtleneck came over with his drink.
“Arthur J. Lewis!” he slurred in a reedy cockney warble. He made a pistol out of his right hand. “Bang bang, you’re dead!”
“I beg your pardon?” said Lewis.
“Showdown at Virginia City! I’m a fan, Arty!”
“Oh, the name badge.” Lewis’s hand went to his lapel. “There’s been a mistake. I’m Arthur James Lewis and I write novels of Ancient Rome.”
“No, kidder, I’ve read your stuff. It’s westerns.” His pistol transformed into a hand offering a shake. “Terry Fowler, author of the Dragon Seeker quadrilogy.”
“I imagine you mean tetralogy,” said Lewis, shaking the hand. “And actually, I must correct you-”
“It’ll be a sexilogy by the time I’ve fulfilled the contract. Sounds dirty, doesn’t it?” said Terry. “Tell you what else sounds dirty: me and you is on a panel this afternoon with a lady comedian and an author of tentacle erotica. Can you believe it? I don’t see the connection between us all. They’re calling it ‘From Ranch to Elf Realm’. May as well call us ‘The Odds and Sods’.” He laughed. “‘Odds and Sodomy’, more like it, right?”
The door opened to admit a gust of Arctic chill as well as a young blonde woman in a pink ski jacket. Her heavily made-up face was framed by a pink imitation fur collar and a frilly pink beanie that resembled a tea cosy. Fogged-up wire-rimmed spectacles pinched the bridge of her nose. She interrupted her snow dusting to give Terry the fan-recognises-celebrity charade in grotesquely overstated gestures: coquettish side-on squint (could it be him?), hand over open mouth (yes, it is!), and then a bashful approach with her bottom lip between her teeth. Her performance seemed so completely insincere that Lewis assumed she was a friend of Terry’s taking the piss. And then she removed from her jacket pocket a thick mass market paperback titled Dragon Seeker™ 3: Llenor the Unvanquished.
She said, “Can you sign my copy, Terry Fowler?”
“I can indeed, my darling,” said Terry. “For that purpose I will require your name. And while we’re being friendly, why not give me your telephone number?”
“My name is Madison,” she said. “And we’re already friends on Facebook!”
He scrawled something on the title page with a biro. “Are you coming to see my appearance on the ‘From Ranch to Elf Realm’ panel this afternoon, Madison?”
“You should hang around after and have a little cocktail or three.”
“I will! My boyfriend thinks you’re great, too!”
She left the bar.
Terry took another slug of bourbon. “I do believe I will be getting my leg over tonight. Perk of the trade.” He leaned close to confide to Lewis in a haze of vaporous booze. “She’s pretty fit. But she wears a lot of make-up. A lot of make-up!” He laughed. “I don’t suppose you get many female readers with your westerns, do you? You’re in the wrong game, mate.”
Before Lewis could correct this man’s persistent misapprehension the obese registrar came into the bar. Jacketless, she was shivering. The shoulders of her green dress were dusted with snow. “Arty,” she said. “I spoke to our curator and I’m afraid we made a boo-boo. But we’ve decided to make the best of a bad situation. As it is too late to fly in the real Arthur J. Lewis, we have decided you can still participate in the panel this afternoon. It may disrupt the theme a little, of course—”
“What, ‘Odds and Sodomy’?” Terry interjected.
“Hit the brakes, Terry,” she said. “You’ve had too much to drink already.”
“I’ve hardly touched a drop, Sue-Marie. Just warming my chest.” He winked. “How’d you fancy I warm yours, too?”
Sue-Marie smiled politely. “No, thanks.” She handed Lewis a pass key for a room in the hotel.
“And to whom do I speak for compensation for my plane ticket, my taxi from the airport, my meals?” said Lewis.
Terry chortled. “Good luck!”
Sue-Marie said, “You’ll have to send the receipts to Helen after the conference.”
“I was told that you would have copies of my book for sale,” said Lewis. “That was entirely my interest in speaking here.”
“We have the entire Showdown series.”
“That’s no bloody help.”
“But I just checked online, Arty. Your books appear to be out of print.”
“I presumed you had found a box somewhere,” he said. “Actually, I could have helped you with that.”
She shrugged, helpless.
THE BLIZZARD INTENSIFIED. The exhibition hall’s thermostat was set high enough to melt the street frost on everybody’s snow boots. The jumbo-sized paper coffee cups littering the sprawling concrete floor were crushed and chundered into an icy brown sludge.
The four lecture theatres branching off the hall simultaneously ran panels all day. Each theatre provided seats for a hundred and fifty. The audience assembled for the 4pm grab-bag panel filled only a third of the seats. The book stall beside the stage was, needless to say, bereft of copies of Lewis’s novels.
Lewis took his seat on the stage between Terry Fowler, whose nose was deep in a cup of black coffee lashed with pungent rum, and Trixie Turner, author of a ‘dog memoir’ entitled Yo, Doggie, My Leg is Not a Fire Hydrant. She wore her black hair in a straight fringe an inch above her thinly plucked eyebrows. Her costume paid no deference to the raging blizzard outside: sleeveless pleated blouse, plaid mini-skirt, and knee-high red leather boots with platform soles.
Lewis attempted to politely introduce himself to the young woman, but she was oblivious to the real world, in preoccupation with her mobile phone. He squinted down at her glowing touch screen. It appeared she was tapping out short messages to a network of virtual followers. He glimpsed one that said: I wish I was in bed with SWW rewatching Season 3 of The Barney Variations #boredinohio. The next said: [_ And btw if you don't *get* The Barney Variations sorry I can't consider you a viable human being. _]
Frowning, Lewis squinted at this young woman’s capsule biography in the convention program. He found a paragraph of frivolous irony. It told him she had been born twenty-five years ago in Flatbush and lived with a dog named Snoopy Woof Woof who was
“better company than most Brooklyn dudes except when he starts licking my sister.” She liked to eat vegan cheesecake. She knew how to count to nine in Swahili and was “working on learning number ten by 2020.” Lastly, she enjoyed “speaking of herself in the third person.”
Ignored by this silly phone-obsessed Trixie Turner and keen to avoid more banter with Terry, Lewis examined the crowd. Judging crudely by physical appearance, he determined who was who. Three lone hooded Unabomber-types and a shamelessly canoodling couple in tracksuits were no doubt waiting for the tentacle pornographer who had yet to appear. The other Arthur J. Lewis had surely drawn the dozen middle-aged men in jeans, collared shirts, and white moustaches. Terry Fowler had attracted about fifteen plumpish females aged thirteen to thirty, some accompanied by dutiful boyfriends, husbands, or mothers (Madison and her boyfriend were in the front row). Lewis couldn’t figure out who had turned up for Trixie Turner. The ugly teenage lad with the skateboard? The unsmiling lesbianish type with snow boots planted on the seat tops in front of her?
The convention registrar Sue-Marie came into the lecture theatre wielding a jumbo-sized paper cup of coffee. Apparent staff-shortages meant she was to moderate. As she mounted the stage, her green frills shimmering, she smiled kindly at each of the panelists in turn. At the lectern she said pantingly into the microphone:
“Good afternoon, PopConners, and welcome to ‘From Ranch to Elf Realm!’”
“We have an exciting panel ahead,” she said. “But first I must be the bearer of bad news. Marvin P. Ackerman, author of the Cephalopod Slave series, is stuck in a snowdrift on the Ohio Turnpike. He will not be joining us. We offer our apologies.”
Amid general murmurs of displeasure, Lewis’s blunt profiling proved itself accurate: the handful of Cephalopod Slave fans stood and shuffled out.
“Oh, fuck me, what a shame,” Trixie said to Lewis as she finally stowed her telephone in a tiny plastic handbag clearly intended to be used as a children’s toy. “I was real excited about meeting Marvin P. Ackerman, weren’t you?”
‘I’ve never read a book with such frequent use of the words ‘pucker’ and ‘dilate’.”
Lewis smiled thinly, avoiding eye contact.
“I’m afraid we’ve also have had a mix-up with Arthur J. Lewis,” Sue-Marie told the crowd. “You may have been under the impression we were presenting the bestselling Western author. But in fact the Arthur James Lewis with us today writes novels about Ancient Rome, the Caesars, gladiators with broadswords, that kind of thing. But I’m sure he’ll have something interesting to share with us today.”
Lewis winced. Broadswords! He would never propagate such an outrageous anachronism. Moreover, he had already informed this woman he was no writer of gladiator pepla. The mustachioed men in the audience were also visibly outraged, albeit for different reasons, Lewis presumed. Four of that dozen walked out.
“Wow,” Trixie whispered to Lewis. “Dropping like flies.”
Sue-Marie introduced Trixie by reading the capsule biography verbatim; her tone progressively registered embarrassment as she realised it was a paragraph of ironic garbage. To polite applause, as Sue-Marie settled her weight on the empty fourth chair, Trixie stomped over to the lectern in her platform boots. Terry jabbed his thumb towards the young woman’s mini-skirted backside and said quietly to Lewis:
“We’ve got the best seats in the house, don’t we?”
Lewis did not say anything.
“Well, howdy Zanesville,” said Trixie. “You know, one of the perks of doing a Midwestern book tour during a month-long blizzard is you get to meet so many great writers. Seriously, what a panel today! I’m not sure how I fit in. I feel seriously outgunned. I mean, here is little old me with quirky stories about my dog, asked to present alongside a guy who writes about orcs with enormous spears, another guy who writes about gladiators with enormous broadswords, and another guy who writes about women getting fucked in the ass by slimy alien tentacles.”
Lewis was getting seriously irritated by the repeated mischaracterisation of his work as sword and sandal garbage. He would have to correct this slander at the lectern.
Meanwhile Sue-Marie was whispering, “Please, Trixie, if you could mind your language. This is a family event!”
Trixie turned to the moderator, bit her bottom lip in a mock display of shame—the epitome of facetious insincerity—and said, “I know, Mommy. I’m a bad little girl.”
Sue-Marie summoned a painful smile and was silent. Meanwhile Terry whispered to Lewis:
“She’s pretty fit, don’t you think? But she wears a lot of makeup.”
Trixie read a brief and grammatically incompetent anecdote about Snoopy-Woof-Woof. It was supposed to be humorous. Despite the audience’s polite laughter, Lewis considered her a miserable failure in that regard, and more profoundly in others, too; he was frankly disgusted. The anecdote’s subject was, of all ghastly things, an episode of dog diarrhea while she and Snoopy Woof Woof had been left unattended in the home library of her college English professor. Trixie had attempted to clean up the carpet with pages torn from the professor’s edition of the poetry of Browning. Failing at that, she had fled the house with her dog.
Frankly appalling, thought Lewis. And appalling that this shameful admission of hers was applauded, celebrated as a humourous “misadventure.” She returned to her seat beside Lewis, who pointedly ignored her.
Next up was Terry. He stepped to the lectern with a big smile, cracked the spine of a weighty mass market paperback, and read a passage depicting a gore-spattered battle between armies of hobgoblins and orcs. Lewis couldn’t follow the action, nor keep track of the ludicrous character names, but it inspired feverish applause from the females in the front row.
Now it was Lewis’s turn. He had selected a hand-drafted chapter from the unpublished Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums. After a brief but unavoidable introduction in which he rejected the anachronism of the broadsword—a weapon of the Late Middle Ages!—he read the dramatised debate between the aediles over the procedures of the concilium plebis. A mere six pages into his extract, he heard Sue-Marie tap a pen against her chair leg.
“Two minutes, Arty!” she hissed.
Two minutes? Well, that was ridiculous. He had flown all the way from Krakow. For sixteen further minutes he read from the holograph, despite both the ever-persistent pen-tapping and what sounded like Trixie’s mock-snoring, absorbed in the robust discussion of the aediles. But before he could finish, his microphone abruptly cut out. Simultaneously, the lectern lamp extinguished. No longer able to make out the words on the page, he trailed off mid-sentence.
He heard Trixie sigh theatrically and say, “There is a God!” Lewis turned to censure this idiot’s breathtaking discourtesy with a cold glare but Sue-Marie, approaching, blocked his view.
“It seems we have a technical problem,” she said, edging him away from the lectern, fiddling with the microphone cable, tapping the foam windshield with her chubby index finger. The microphone returned to life with a howl of high feedback and the lectern lamp reilluminated.
“Can you all hear me?” Sue-Marie said into the microphone.
“It works!” yelled somebody in the crowd.
“That’s terrific!” she answered. “Well, it’s time for the Q and A! Can we all please thank Arthur James Lewis for his wonderful reading.”
The crowd began to applaud, strangely, as if Lewis had actually ended his reading with dramatic resolution and a conclusive cadence. He was forced to return to his seat between Terry and Trixie despite three holograph pages still unread. Technical problem? He didn’t believe it for a second. This was a disgraceful sabotage of his reading. He felt his spirit sink. For a spell Lewis lost focus, his mind a muddle of conflicting impulses. Should he demand a public apology? Now? Later? Or should he simply walk out?
Sue-Marie sat down with a handheld microphone and welcomed questions from the audience. With great effort Lewis rose above his shock, clawed his way back to cogency, and tried to focus on the audience’s questions. All were for Terry. Can you really repel Merfolk with an Elven fishlance? If the maternal grandfather of the Queen of the Darkelves was the Grand Sultar Gris, why did she not inherit his gift of levitation? Madison asked Terry, “where do you get your ideas?” and, worse, he answered her in detail. A proud mother stood and complimented Terry for having encouraged her child to begin “the adventure of reading in an age of digital distractions.” Terry nodded, smiled, accepted the applause. Amid such an unworthy bestowal of accolades, Lewis could no longer be silent. He roughly seized the microphone from Terry and said with bitter gravity:
“Oh, how often indeed have I heard this tripe,” he said, “the old ‘I-don’t-care-what-the-child-is-reading-as-long-as-he-is-reading-something’ attitude. But you make the mistake of deeming frivolous books a kind of gateway drug into literature by virtue of being printed on paper. Very misguided. You forget the old Turkish proverb, which we find preserved in Æsop: ‘When the axe first came to the forest, the trees said, “we need not worry—after all, the handle is one of us.”’”
“You better explain that metaphor for dummies like me,” said Trixie loudly, with neither the aid of nor the need for the microphone. “Because I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“It would be bloody obvious to any literate person who wasn’t addicted to the inanities of the mobile telephone. In this case the forest represents culture, making the axe an instrument of cultural terrorism.” Lewis clarified further: “The cultural terrorism of frivolity, I mean. You are all wallowing in frivolous pursuits.”
Trixie smirked. “This may be a frivolous question, Arty,” she said loudly, “but you seem like a barrel of laughs. What are you doing after the panel? ‘Cause I’ve got a bag of hash brownies and the complete second season of Auction Wars in my hotel room and baby, it’s cold outside.”
Lewis’s face froze into what he hoped would be read as an expression of unambiguous contempt. This young woman, he decided, was the end product of a sick and frivolous society.
‘What’s the matter?” she said. “You don’t watch TV?”
As Sue-Marie hissed for civility, Lewis told Trixie that obviously he did not watch television, that he refused to be a cretinous nothing like her, a repertoire of empty ironic gestures, that whichever way one looked at it television had waged more than half a century of war on literacy. Unbending opposition was necessary. Much was at stake. He spoke of how his niece-by-marriage, an unwed mother reduced by her financial irresponsibility to living rent-free in his tiny Krakow flat, had recently installed a satellite television, a humming monolith, to hynoptise her little boy for hours on end. But this child of two could not yet read; ergo, his plastic brain would orientate its comprehension of the world to images rather than words. And that was nothing less than a tragedy.
One of the western fans stood up and said:
“I drove here from Akron, Ohio, through the Polar Vortex, in order to see Arthur J. Lewis, author of Showdown at Cripple Creek. I don’t mind a very interesting debate on childhood cognitive development, but that’s a lot of gas money in this economy.”
Lewis spoke directly to the man in the audience. “You are misguided in your admiration for my namesake. I had the opportunity to peruse a few pages of Showdown at Butte before the panel. It’s truly execrable.”
“What makes your excrement any better, Arty?” said Trixie.
Lewis refused to look this dreadful, appallingly miseducated girl in the eye any longer. He cleared his throat and opened a notebook handily in his pocket of his jacket. “Allow me to quote a recent internet comment on my ‘excrement’ by Dr. Camila Weitensteiner, honorary professor of Ancient History at the University of North Mendoza, no less, which I have had translated from the original Spanish: ‘The Severan Dynasty remains a fascinating epoch in the second and third century: for extra sauce, read Arthur James Lewis’s historically reliable trilogy of novels.’”
The thing ended and the crowd dispersed.
“Dramatic show!” Trixie said to Lewis. “Keeping it spicy!”
Before Lewis could respond she had stood and departed the lecture theatre.
Terry smiled. With an eye on Trixie’s vanishing bottom, he said to Sue-Marie, “Went alright, didn’t it?”
Sue-Marie leaned over to Lewis. “I know Trixie was a little New York in her humour, but you weren’t very respectful, either, Arty. Nor grateful that we accommodated your appearance even though you were not technically on the schedule. I haven’t seen anything like this since Solzhenitsyn denounced the USA for its moral turpitude after we gave him refuge from the commies.”
“I’ll denounce your moral turpitude all I like, Sue-Marie. My work was misrepresented and my speech was sabotaged. I’ve never been more insulted in my career.”
Terry, rising to greet his crowd of fans, winked at Lewis. “Fancy a drinkypoo after I sign all those books, mate? It’ll warm us up.”
THAT EVENING at the Shelter Island Bar Lewis nursed a single glass of whisky in a state of deflation, unwilling to follow the demented discussion between Terry and Madison and the other fantasy readers over the minutiae of the Elf Realm. He watched Terry indiscreetly supplement his half-dozen double bourbons with a small bottle of Chinese rice wine. Gradually the conversation drifted into drunken nonsense—lewd innuendo, improvised karaoke, broken glasses.
At midnight the establishment closed and the barman forced them out into a blizzard at its apogee. The fans ran to a scattered fleet of gigantic SUVs, every last one abandoning Lewis and Terry, no doubt assuming they each had cars. Didn't everybody have a car? Not these foreigners. According to the television news, the wind chill had dropped to -35 ° Fahrenheit. 21st Street was perilous with hardened ice and limited visibility. Lewis and Terry walked. Despite the thinness of his blazer and turtleneck, Terry seemed unconcerned by the cold. Lewis’s feet in their thin boots quickly began to lose sensation. Rigid, shivering, hurrying along, burying his hands deep in the pockets of his topcoat, his shoulder muscles contracted into his neck.
Halfway to the refuge of the hotel and convention centre, Terry lurched to the gutter to be sick.
“My God, man!” said Lewis.
“I wonder how long it will take my sick to freeze?” said Terry, pawing bare fingers at his mess. “Hey, I think it already did!”
At that moment a tanklike black SUV passed, its headlights slashing through the flurrying snow. It hooted a greeting. Lewis glimpsed Madison at the wheel. Her boyfriend was slumped drunk in the passenger seat. The SUV’s red tail lights climbed the hill and turned into the near-empty parking lot of the hotel and convention centre.
“Thanks for the bloody lift!” Lewis yelled into the night.
“I believe you offended lovely young Madison and her lesser half,” said Terry, getting to his feet and scraping spew crystals from his chin. “She was only asking you about gladiators.”
“It was an idiotic question. I don’t write about gladiators. And if so, only incidentally. And it was you who offended that couple with your hints at a ménage à trois! You’re disgracefully drunk, Terry.”
“She was pretty fit,” said Terry. “But she wore a lot of make-up!”
“A lot of make-up!”
“Stop saying that! We’re going to freeze to death out here.”
“Lewis, I have a confession,” Terry said. “I lap up the accolades, I partake of a lot of fan clunge, but I’m a rotten bloody fake. I’ve had writers’ block for two months.”
“I don’t know what should happen to the Queen Darkelf after she is seduced by the Penetrator of the Seiðkonur in the Chamber of Crossed Destinies. I’m stuck. I used up fifty thousand words by tracing the queen’s genealogical line. I padded a lot. A fucking lot! But I don’t know how much longer I can avoid the story. I’ve got a deadline at the end of the month. And this is only book four of the sexilogy!”
“I can’t believe it is difficult to write your books, Terry.”
“Oh, it is. Pure torture! Now I need to be sick again.”
Lewis danced on the spot while Terry retched on his knees. Spent, Terry fell face forward, out for the count. Lewis lifted this skinny moron out of his mess and half-carried him by his belt towards the hotel. The cold was seeping into his bones. He hoped he would not lose feeling in his fingers, the power to grip, and have to abandon Terry to the snow.
“She was pretty fit,” Terry mumbled.
“I know,” Lewis said. “But she wore a lot of make-up.”
“But what about the Chamber?”
“The Chamber of Crossed Destinies!”
“Is this garbage really difficult to make up?”
“I’m tapped out, Lewis! Artistically constipated.”
An illuminated billboard warning women against the sin of abortion loomed above the street. Lewis said, “Why don’t you have the Elven Queen become pregnant from the seduction of this Penetrator and give birth to a magical child?”
“Nah, that won’t work,” he mumbled, “because the Penetrator of the Seiðkonur is a woman.”
“Then she should rightly be a penetratrix. You really must get on top of your feminine agent nouns. But how on earth does that work, anyway?”
“The Penetrator of the Seiðkonur seduces with a strap-on made of gold! Many a fine marriage has she disrupted.”
“Ugh. How can you write this bilge?”
“I’ve got bills to pay like everybody else, ex-wives, children—”
“Well, it’s fantasy. Why not give this golden strap-on a magical potency that results in a golden child who wields an alchemic power like Midas?”
“Oh,” Terry said. “That’s an alright idea, that is. In fact, I reckon that’ll play nicely!”
“Read Ovid,” said Lewis. “I have a copy in my luggage.”
“Nah, it’s okay, I’ll hit Wikipedia,” said Terry.
They reached the warmth of the hotel lobby.
“You’ve saved my bacon, Lewis,” said Terry. “Fancy a nightcap?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Alright, suit yourself. Goodnight, then.”
Terry stumbled alone into the hotel bar.
THE PHONE was ringing in Lewis’s room.
“Good morning, kochanie. Last night I was calling four hours your hotel.”
“I am sorry, sweetie. I’ve been drinking with a horrible hack writer.”
“This is good. This is networking. How was your presentation?”
“A dismal experience.”
“It is good for your career to receive invitations to industry events.”
“I shouldn’t waste my time. They are only covering my expenses. I’ve wound up losing money buying drams of whisky to keep warm. And it’s miserable weather here, worse even than in Krakow. There is a, quote, Polar Vortex, unquote, that caused many of the attendees to cancel.”
“I am watching the Polar Vortex on our satellite television now. But forget about the United States, Lewis. We have a Polar Vortex inside the apartment. I am wrapped inside all of the blankets.”
“Why couldn’t they have staged PopCon at Miami Beach? At least I could have taken some much-needed sun. But this has been a total waste of my time.”
“Did you sell books?”
“They promised they would obtain stock and then had none for sale!”
“Why you did not take with you copies of the letterpress Scipio Africanus? We have two hundred and seventy-two in the larder.”
“It would have been futile. The audience was uniformly base. I doubt any of them read Latin. Things have truly declined in this country. I was subjected to the most unprofessional aggression. It was disgraceful.” Lewis paused for an emphatic grunt. “ Actually, I am not very pleased to find myself attacked today from all quarters.”
“To find my motives surrealistically mischaracterised. One would expect one’s own family—”
“Lewis, I am very proud of your invitation to Zanesville PopCon,” Ludka said. “However, I am not proud of your behaviour with the gas company. Nevertheless, I am sorry for the Vladimir Putin comparison. This is not nice.”
“It certainly is not nice.”
“And cold feet are also not nice. Many things are not nice in this world. The situation must change.”
“You don’t actually suggest paying those criminals at PGNiG?”
“Well, we cannot do this now because the credit card is at the maximum because of your flight to PopCon.”
“I have a new sales strategy in mind to move copies of the letterpress Scipio Africanus: Tempus Heroica that should push us back into the black.”
“Okay, what sales strategy?”
“I’ve a mind to place an advertisement in the next newsletter of the Scipio Society of Great Britain.”
“Ah. Perhaps you can also demand Zanesville PopCon pay a fee for your time. You fly all the way from Krakow. Demand it!”
“I think an honorarium decidedly unlikely at this juncture.”
“Can you take advantage of your new contacts with publishing industry people?”
“Nobody here but hacks and fools, darling. But I believe with a sensitive agent I can sell Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums to a publisher for a decent advance. Although the manuscript remains to be finished and typed.”
“I am happy you now are thinking commercially after the letterpress fiasco in Chișinău.”
“I have no Chișinău regrets.”
“You have a one-time windfall, magic inheritance money from Australia, and like magic, poof! it disappears into a criminal’s pocket.”
“It did nothing of the kind. I chose to work with Mr. Popovici’s letterpress business because I believe in the tradition. And a criminal! He is a true gentleman of a past age. I assure you that even raising the subject of filthy lucre during our negotiations was frankly embarrassing for him.”
“Fifteen thousand euros of lucre is not filthy.”
“Mr. Popovici was only interested in a partnership because he loved my story in its Latin translation and felt its presence between his signature goatskin boards would not disgrace his prestigious line. I’m proud that my work sits beside his three volume illustrated Romanian Ovid, his Voyage of Argo—”
“With respect, this guy also printed three hundred copies of memoir of minister of sanitation from time of communism, also probably for ‘investment’ of fifteen thousand euros.” Ludka chuckled sadly. “I think these fees go directly to the whorehouses of Chișinău, not to the true cost of a letterpress business. A bit of paper, ink, some leather? Come on, Lewis! I say never trust a Moldovan but you don’t listen. Now we have many boxes of books in Latin which nobody can read and no space in the larder.”
“It is a fine story and a beautiful signed limited edition.”
“Not limited enough.”
“Very witty, Ludmilla. Actually, I think the book is overpriced at £150. I have been told that two pounds per page is what is called the ‘tipping point’.”
“Impossible for less. We have already lost so much money.”
“But think of the benefits to my reputation which, incidentally, has just this week has been bolstered by the comments of an eminent professor at the University of North Mendoza. A copy of my old Severan Dynasty Trilogy wound up in her hands and inspired fulsome praise.”
“Congratulations, my love.”
“Now, Lewis, we must talk about money. It is urgent. I have no work in the theatre for two more months and no translation contacts. We have no credit and no food in the larder. Just books in Latin which we cannot eat. We have only cabbage soup for microwave. The gas is off. This will be our whole winter! Misery!”
“Microwave cabbage soup and satellite television,” said Lewis. “We are true Polish peasants.”
“I don’t like when you speak this way about my country. Is your privilege to live in the Poland. Now: I had no choice but to send Ola and Jerzy to the house of my parents until the weather is better. In the country there is at least the fireplace. And there is milk. It is better for Jerzy. For him it is like a vacation because he will play with the pigs. Ola will milk cows to help my mother.”
“Well, at least know I will have some peace and quiet at home.”
“More than you think, kochanie.”
“What do you mean?”
“In two days my cousin Gustavo is driving a truck of pickled vegetables to London and I will ride also. I can make money cleaning toilets in a hotel for a few months. I can babysit for Olga Shartze and sleep free on her settee. This is the only way for us to pay for the gas and eat better than cabbage soup for microwave.”
“Are you telling me I’ll be alone for two months in Krakow in that freezing flat?”
“When I earn some money I will pay the gas company.”
“They are criminals!”
“You can also come to London and sleep on the settee with me if you want.”
“You know I can’t stand Olga Shartze. She is a very frivolous person.”
“I know you cannot stand. She also cannot stand. I am being unrealistic. I go alone.”
“It is not good timing, darling. Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums is almost finished and I need you to start typing.”
“I’m sorry, we must prioritize.”
“Well, any advance for my book will certainly be delayed until you can find the bloody time to type it!”
“Type your own book, please.”
“Are you forgetting I have carpal tunnel syndrome?”
“You have excuses, kochanie, while everybody else has problems. I am very patient with you but I cannot spare the time to type another enormous bloody fucking book.”
“Wow,” he said. “A ‘bloody fucking book’. A ‘bloody fucking book’. That’s how you think of my work?”
“I did not mean to insult your book.”
“No, you meant to insult me and all I stand for. You know what inner strength and stoicism I must muster to endure the attacks I face?”
“Lewis, I must go clean toilets in London. You can sit at home with your inner strength and stoicism. And don’t forget to feed Andnej and comb him for lice. I hope Thaddeus does not forget to come upstairs to feed Andnej every day until you return to Krakow. He is very senile by now. But I am sad, Lewis. Our family is separating because of filthy lucre. Goodnight.”
Lewis heard a beep, then a dial tone. He racked the telephone and sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes. He opened his leather satchel, removed the 1100 leaves of manuscript, weighed the hand-written work on one hand. His bloody fucking book. His bloody fucking book.
How dare she?
LEWIS CAME DOWN to the breakfast buffet at eight the next morning in his carpet slippers. He carried a Loeb Library volume of Polybius in the pocket of his grandfatherly jacket. He poured himself a cup of transparent brown water labeled ‘coffee’ from a scorch-stained glass orb. Terry Fowler, now dressed in a scarlet red turtleneck, was feasting on waffles with maple syrup and a blueberry muffin the size of a bowling ball.
“No hangover, Terry?” said Lewis. “I find that astonishing.”
“Nah, I just haven’t been to sleep yet. I took a sauna. Just sweated it out,” said Terry. “And then I sat up all night working on chapter sixty-seven. Your suggestion was golden.”
“Golden. Get it? It’s a pun.”
“Oh, right,” Lewis said. “The potent golden strap-on.”
“Exactly. After I typed up my chapter I got on the blower to my agent in London. Told him the new plot twist, the Midas-child-spawned-from-the-potent-golden-dildo bit. He loved the new direction and got on his blower to a chap in Hollywood. That fellow loved it, too, and immediately took an option on the television rights for the entire Dragon Seeker saga. And I am a man who gives credit where credit is due.”
Terry laid a cheque for US$15,000 on the table.
“Half the option. And more to come if they buy the rights outright when I hand in the manuscript of tome four of the sexilogy.”
Lewis picked up the cheque. Terry wasn’t joking.
“That’s very honorable of you, Terry. Thank you.”
“Not at all. We’re partners, aren’t we?” Terry broke the seal on a fresh bottle of Chinese rice wine. “Shall we drink to a great partnership?”
“It’s a little early in the day for me. How and where can I turn this cheque into cash? I need to go to Argentina.”
ALL MORNING hot dust blew across the province of Mendoza until at noon the wind died and the land baked in stillness under the sun. Only wandering geese moved on the dirt road that branched off the lonely Huascito highway for a mile to meet a rust-eaten gate announcing in wrought iron FINCA WEITENSTEINER. Two hundred paces beyond the gate at the end of a gravelled drive stood a two-storey adobe farmhouse. Beyond the house an old horse trail ran west through a pear orchard and a grove of willows and poplars and then into the dry foothills of the Andes.
In the afternoon a woman in a cotton dress stepped barefoot from the back door of the farmhouse and looked out at the sun-drenched land. An untended field of yellow-flowering nasturtiums, tall poplars, and purple pampas grass buffered the house from five acres of trellised malbec vines. Several structures were lined at the nearest edge of the vineyard: a stable for two chestnut mares, a rotting log cabin, a brick cottage. These buildings were dwarfed by the large winery where grapes were crushed, the juice pressed and fermented in tanks, bottled, and cellared.
The woman walked a little way into the field and climbed into a hammock strung between two of the poplars. Sunlight filtered through their clusters of orange and red leaves. The air was deliciously warm. Waiting for the swinging of the hammock to subside, she watched an orange sierra finch hop along a branch. Then the rhythmic creak of the bone-dry ropes slowed, ceased, and she began to read Polybius in the Greek. She turned three pages and drifted into irresistible sleep.
Later she woke at the sound of Nico’s football bouncing against a wall of the farmhouse. Spike, Nico’s labrador, was barking somewhere. The woman stretched out the stiffness in her neck, lower back, thighs, and calves; the hammock rocked again, the taut ropes creaked. At the edge of the vineyard her ancient grandfather was padlocking the door of his log cabin. A fearsome giant in the old days, he was now feeble. He hobbled with grim determination. The old man had endured, anchored to the earth by long-established routine. He had yet to acknowledge he no longer ran the place. Up at dawn to patrol the full perimetre of the finca, he took an early lunch and a nap, followed by solitary hours in his log cabin, which had always been off-limits to everybody else. God knows what he did in there. In the evening he smoked foul-smelling Schimmelpenninck cigarillos in his rocking chair, or went wandering. She often heard him mumbling in German out in the vineyard. He seemed to have lost his Spanish entirely. Perhaps he thought he was back in Munich and was looking for Jews to beat up.
She yawned. The silence was wonderful, but there was no way she could study Polybius out here. The air worked like a sleep draught. She would have to do her work in the cool brick cottage with its view of the vineyard. She’d drink coffee.
She woke later as the sound of distant hooves carried along the horse trail. She swung her legs out of the hammock and fell knee-first onto the ground as Emiliano Quesada and two of his gaucho strongmen rode out of the pear orchard in a cloud of upraised dust. They passed her old pickup truck and came to a halt at the farmhouse’s front porch. The gauchos dismounted and watered their piebald horses at the rusty trough below the hitching post. Emiliano, in a dusty and sweat-stained polo uniform, was almost handsome, but something went to hell below his mouth—an ugly fat neck covered in long black bristles. He spat at the ground and peeled off his riding gloves.
She marched barefoot onto the hot jagged gravel and told Emiliano he was trespassing. The stocky, weathered gauchos kept their attention on their panting horses. Emiliano leaned forward in his saddle, smirked, but avoided meeting her eyes directly for more than a second. Looking at his gloves, he said:
“I was riding after polo, just passing by. What’s your problem, Camila? My horse needs water.”
“No games. What do you want?”
He smirked again. “Okay, I wasn’t just out riding. I know that yesterday you signed an export contract with Jørn Henriksen’s supermarket chain in Norway.”
“That’s my business.”
“Fuck off, there was a story on the internet with a photo of you and Henriksen toasting to the contract. You looked cute standing together in your shit little vineyard. Henriksen looks like a yankee TV cowboy with his faggot hat. What did you have to do to convince him to sign?” He smirked when Camila did not respond. “Well, you may have increased the value of this little bodega a bit.”
“We are not going to sell, so that is irrelevant. I have told your brother this a hundred times. Why are we wasting time talking about it now? We must have fallen very low on the priorities of the Quesadas if your brother is sending you here.”
Emiliano gave a high-pitched grunt. His eyes were ranging everywhere but directly at Camila: at the farmhouse, at the sky, at the ground in front of her dusty bare feet. Finally he said, “I can’t believe you think you can speak to me like that. You!”
Then Emiliano saw Nico hiding in the field. The boy’s bright blue and white football shirt made him conspicuous behind a tussock of pampas grass. Emiliano dismounted and handed his reigns to one of the gauchos, who tied them to the hitching post. Down on the ground, Emiliano stood almost a foot shorter than Camila. He removed a football from a canvas pouch tied to his saddle and called out, “Nico! A present for you!”
The boy did not move. Spike was heeled alert at his side.
“It’s signed by everybody on our national team,” Emiliano continued.
The boy looked to his mother. She signalled with a finger that he shouldn’t come closer. Emiliano smirked and sat the autographed football on the rail of the hitching post.
“I’ll leave it here for you, Nico,” he called out. “Don’t kick this one around. It’s worth a lot of money.”
Camila chuckled without mirth. “After years of intimidation you Quesadas try to impress us with your generosity? Now we have an export partner you want to be friends? Get off my property and take these murderers with you, you fool.”
The gauchos betrayed no offense. Why should they be offended? It was a fact. They were killers. But Emiliano was enraged. He moved within a metre of Camila, his eyes roving over her tough bare feet, her hips, her breasts, everywhere but directly at her eyes.
“I will ask you again,” he said. “Who do you think you are you to talk to me like this? ‘Export partner.’ I’ve tasted your malbec. Shit. No supermarket would bother to ship it to Europe. Where is this Norwegian cowboy Henriksen? I want to ask him why he chose your wine.” Emiliano turned and yelled at the farmhouse in English, “Come out here, faggot! I want to talk to you!”
“He’s not here now,” said Camila quietly. “You have strange ideas. Get off my property.”
“I know he’s here. I saw the photo of you two together with your grapes.”
“That photo was taken a week ago,” she said.
Emiliano turned away from the farmhouse and smirked again as if he’d had a great idea. He pointed a finger across the wild field to the small cottage. Emiliano met Camila’s eyes for a tiny moment, and then he looked again at the cottage. “Of course. This Norwegian cowboy is staying in your little house for yankee tourists. That way your son can’t hear you fucking for the contract.”
She refused to allow this asshole to bait her. She rolled her eyes and began to turn away. She heard him make a self-satisfied grunt and say:
“That way your son won’t realise his mother is a whore.”
He began to laugh.
Then something ke-ranged and the autographed football exploded, a leather rag that leaped from the hitching post and tumbled onto the ground. Emiliano was saying, “What happened?” when a second bullet dinged against the water trough. Emiliano cried and ran to hide behind his horse. Camila flung herself into a protected nook beside the porch stairs. The gauchos were no longer expressionless. She saw little fear but a definite fascination, even amusement in their sun-worn faces as they raised their hands in surrender to the invisible sniper.
Then a hard hot wind blew into the finca from the vicinity of the dirt road, raising an enveloping dust cloud. Camila raised a hand to shield her eyes. The gauchos vanished from sight. She vaguely made out the shapes of Nico and Spike sprinting through the field towards the back of the farmhouse. She scrambled up onto the porch and into the cool house, bolting the front door behind her. A few seconds later Nico was with her in the front room. He was remarkably calm.
“Did you lock the back door?” she said.
Together they peered out through the curtains of the front window. At first they saw only an impenetrable screen of whirling white desert dust. Then the dust began to thin, drop, and the shapes of Emiliano and his two gauchos, now behind their horses, faded into vision. One of the gauchos had drawn a revolver.
Suddenly the men began to talk excitedly. They’d seen something. Where? At the finca gates. Camila looked in that direction and made out the silhouette of a man walking along the long gravelled drive to the farmhouse. The man wore a broad-brimmed hat. He carried two small bags. He walked fearlessly through the eddying dust.
Nearby a vulture sounded a hideous squawk.
“Let’s go!” cried Emiliano.
The three intruders mounted their horses and galloped away along the horse trail.
WHEN LEWIS REACHED the farmhouse his feet were sweating inside his boot leather. A hot and dusty day! He put down his small suitcase and leather satchel, removed the straw hat he’d bought at Mendoza Airport, and wiped the sweat and dust from his brow with the back of his hand. He smelled fermented fruit, horseshit, the flowers of the country—wonderful stuff. The Polar Vortex was now just a memory back behind a long chain of airports and taxis and buses.
He kicked curiously at a busted soccer ball lying on the ground and stepped onto the wooden porch. He didn’t have to knock. A woman opened the door a few inches and stared out with distrustful, proud, defiant brown eyes.
“Buenos días,” said Lewis. “ ¿Habla inglés?”
“Yes, I speak English,” the woman said. “What do you want?”
“Are you Dr. Weitensteiner? I’m Dr. Arthur James Lewis.” He passed his business card to her through the doorway. “I believe you’re familiar with my novels of Rome.”
He watched her study the card. Distracted and disarmed, drawn from the immediate to a distant mental zone, she absently allowed the door to swing inwards. Here was the intellectually formidable, wisely appreciative, much anticipated Dr. Camila Weitensteiner without a hint of academic fustiness: knee-length yellow cotton dress, bare farm girl feet, long brown hair (a little grey), well-sunned skin, large and beautiful breasts. A blonde boy of nine or ten leaned against the woman’s hip. Rubbing dust from his eyes, he stared up at the stranger.
“I happened to be passing through Mendoza, Dr. Weitensteiner,” said Lewis, “and thought it would be pleasant to meet with you to discuss our mutual scholarly interests.”
“This is completely unexpected,” she said, looking at him properly with her large brown eyes. “Completely. Yes, I read your trilogy. I found it historically reliable.”
She stepped through the doorway to kiss his right cheek in greeting.
“I first went to the University of North Mendoza,” continued Lewis, excited by her proximity and the smoothness of her cheek. “They told me I could find you out here. I hope I haven’t come at a bad moment.”
“I’m sorry. We just had unpleasant visitors. Trespassers.”
“Those men I saw riding off on horses?”
“The Quesada family are trying to take our bodega to add the final piece to their wine monopoly. They are without scruples.”
The boy tugged Lewis’s hand and obliged him to lean down for a kiss of greeting.
“Señor, you want to drink limonada?”
“Sure, why not?” said Lewis.
The boy ran off, presumably to the kitchen.
“Your boy also speaks English,” said Lewis.
“Nico spent his first five years in Wichita, Kansas,” said Dr. Weitensteiner, tossing Lewis’s card onto a small table just inside the doorway. “I taught there. He grew up bilingual.”
Heavy, ponderous footsteps heralded a lean old man’s descent of the staircase a few metres beyond the doorway. Lewis was momentarily startled because the old man carried a rifle, its muzzle pointed upwards. Perhaps heading out for a bit of rabbit hunting? Dr. Weitensteiner immediately disarmed him and shouted, “¡Podrías matar a alguien! ¡Tonto de remate!”
The old man said nothing, moved past Lewis out onto the porch, and settled into a rocking chair half in the sunshine.
“My grandfather, Heinrich Weitensteiner,” Camila said to Lewis, distracted as she worked the bolt of the rifle and ejected a chambered cartridge. “He founded the bodega in 1948.”
“A great pleasure, Don Heinrich,” said Lewis, extending his hand.
“He speaks no English,” said Camila.
The old man shook, iron pincers under knobby wrinkled leather, but barely glanced at Lewis. Instead he lighted a cigarillo with a long match and rocked slowly in his chair as he smoked. Camila locked the rifle in a cabinet behind the staircase and pocketed the key. Then she came out onto the porch in sandals.
“May I show you the finca, Dr. Lewis?” she said.
He followed her into the field along a narrow track between bright yellow flowers and dry clumps of native grass. Walking thusly, single file, Lewis was obliged to admire Dr. Weitensteiner’s wonderful hips and buttocks, lithe yet strong—the body of a flamenco dancer. The hem of her cotton dress flapped above her muscular calves. They passed a rope hammock; Lewis spied a volume of Polybius lying on the nearby grass. He felt a stirring in his loins.
She turned to him. “How did you find us out here?”
He tore his eyes away from the edition of Polybius. “I took the bus from Mendoza to the town of Huascito and then walked.”
“Quite a long way. Most people get lost. There are no signs anymore.”
“A friendly waiter sent me to the top of the hill overlooking the main square in Huascito where I was able to observe the lay of the land,” Lewis said. “He told me that to reach Finca Weitensteiner one must simply follow the finger of General José de San Martín.”
Lewis looked back east across several miles of brushwood and cacti sloping gently to the dusty town of Huascito. Even at this distance they could see the colonnaded plaza and its large statue flashing white in the sun.
Dr. Weitensteiner grunted. “That grotesque fake marble statue with its silly Superman cape was supposed to point beyond the Andes to liberation, but the moron sculptor did not raise San Martín’s outstretched arm to a sufficient angle. So instead the guy points directly at us.”
“It certainly makes the finca easy to find!”
“I feel it to be a threatening gesture from Huascito.”
Lewis laughed a little, then saw she was serious. “Why a threat?”
“Huascito is the kingdom of the Quesada family,” she said, leading him further through the field, “and we are one of the last of the independent bodegas in this part of Mendoza Province. Ten years ago dozens of families still produced quality wine here, and officials planned to develop Huascito as a base for enocultural tourism, the hub of a new ruta del vino. But the Quesada family, who have political influence, stole the public money. They drove the small bodegas into bankruptcy and then bought them for nothing. And now we have this monopoly that produces bad malbec on an industrial scale. Their wine is full of chemicals and acids and who knows what else, and bulked up with grape concentrate. They’ve ruined the reputation of Huascito wine and made the town into a wasteland. They exploit an army of Bolivian golondrinas who spend the harvest living in shantytowns. There is no future here. I don’t know why we persist.”
Lewis recalled the blight beyond the town plaza. Walking along the wide and lonely highway in the hard sun, before he’d reached the dirt road branching west to Finca Weitensteiner, he’d passed a string of long-neglected town streets. Nothing seemed to be happening. He’d spotted a handful of sweat-soaked people dozing on the porches of concrete dwellings or sprawled on dry grass beneath one of the few shady carob trees. In the empty lots between the boarded-up shops feral dogs and turkeys nosed at plastic rubbish, weeds, puddles of stagnant water. Further on, at the fringes of the town, a flat arid expanse lay empty except for a group of boys kicking a football and a black-crested buzzard eagle perched on a cactus. A mile beyond this field a shantytown seemed to have been thrown together from recycled building materials and repurposed advertising hoardings.
The boy Nico and his labrador caught up with his mother and Lewis in the field. Lewis drank his freshly made lemonade in two big gulps and handed back the glass.
“Thank you, son.”
The boy ran it back to the farmhouse. The dog followed, barking in excitement.
“A good lad,” Lewis said to Dr. Weitensteiner as they walked on. “You’ve raised him to be very respectful.”
“He is sweet,” she said. “It’s been a difficult year for him. He misses his father.”
Lewis thought that was interesting.
The tour continued. In the fenced yard adjoining the stable, Lewis admired two redheaded mares. Camila identified the one with four white socks as Bucephalus, and the other with the white star between her eyes as Incitatus. They passed through a strip of cool shadow along one side of the winery. Stepping back out into the sun, they came to the edge of the vineyard. Stamping across the soil to one of the stripped vines, Dr. Weitensteiner plucked a lonely black grape hidden behind a drip irrigation hose. She put it between Lewis’s fingers. He plopped the plump grape between his teeth and chewed.
“What a delightful place you have,” he said. “Utterly charming.”
“You missed Vendimia,” she said, “the harvest festival in Mendoza. That is when most tourists come.”
“I’m more of a peace-and-quiet man, myself.” He pointed to the nearest of the small buildings on this side of the vineyard, a log cabin. “Is that colonial Spanish?”
“My grandfather built it himself, and he’s not quite that old. Can you believe I’ve never set foot inside? Not even my grandmother was allowed in. It’s always padlocked. I have no idea what he has in there. I’m not looking forward to cleaning out his garbage when the old man passes away.”
“Surely many years hence,” Lewis said with a kindly smile. “And what is that?” he asked of the brick cottage.
“My folly,” she said. “I built it as a guesthouse for tourists when there was still hope for Huascito.”
“Is it vacant?”
“May I see it?”
“It’s not completely ready for habitation, but sure.”
Large windows filled the cottage with light. The double bed in the sleeping quarters was dressed in austere white linen. A porcelain enamel tub, yellowed and webbed with cracks, had surely been rescued from some 19th century Mendoza villa; it sat on iron claw-and-ball legs in the centre of the bathroom. The living room was minimally furnished with a worn brown leather couch, a large writing desk, and a slightly sun-faded shiraz rug. A framed reproduction of the fresco of Apollo playing his lyre, the masterpiece discovered near the House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill, filled much of the wall opposite French doors that opened directly onto the vineyard. And then there were the books—four enormous bookcases stocked with classical texts, sundry commentaries in Spanish and English, as well as the rare omnibus edition of his Severan Dynasty Trilogy.
Lewis was enchanted.
“If I had been expecting a visitor I would have moved out my books,” Dr. Weitensteiner said, picking up a much-thumbed concordance to Polybius from the writing desk. “It passed a lot of time since we had a guest. I sometimes write in here. It’s very quiet.”
“I wonder if you’ve thoughts on the recent controversy about the severity of the Roman internment of Polybius?”
“I’m sorry to say I cannot answer that, Dr. Lewis,” she said. “Because of my responsibilities at the finca I’ve fallen behind in the discipline. I haven’t kept up with the latest journals. I have a deadline to submit my next book on the reception of Polybio’s text during the Renaissance, but I’m far behind. In fact, I’ve hardly started. I’m very tired after this year’s harvest. And soon I must return to teach. For that I am not at all prepared. It’s been five years since I was in a classroom.” Her smile communicated weariness, melancholy. “But it is very good to speak again to a fellow scholar. I’ve become accustomed to spending all my time talking about powdery mildew fungus.”
Lewis started as something pounded against the outside wall of the cottage.
“Don’t worry,” said Dr. Weitensteiner. “It is only Nico and his football.”
The ball now hit the bathroom window and made the glass shudder.
“Nico!” she cried. “¡Basta ya!”
The boy’s disembodied voice answered, “Perdóname, mamá.” And then, “Forgive me, Dr. Lewis!”
“You live here alone?” said Lewis. “Just the three of you?”
“It has been that way since my parents were killed. I think my grandfather would die immediately if he ever had to leave the finca.”
“And Nico’s father?”
She said quietly, “He is no longer part of our lives.”
Lewis nodded and smiled warmly, compassionately, not a little exhilarated. What a find. She was alone, free, a like-minded scholar, an admirer of his work. And the boy needed a strong fatherly presence, particularly now the elderly patriarch was retreating into his well-deserved twilight. Moreover, the cottage by the vineyard was exactly what Lewis sought. It seemed fated that he should come here.
“I had no idea the place would be so ideal for my present needs,” Lewis said, sitting on the cool leather sofa, spreading out comfortably. “I am finishing an epic novel on the fall of Carthage and much prefer this as a place to work than my unheated apartment in Krakow. I’ll take it for at least the next month, maybe longer. And I’m in need of a typist. Would you be interested in working with me?”
“I have my own work to do, Dr. Lewis, a montón. But I could perhaps find for you a graduate student at the university who reads English.”
“Fine, fine. Will you accept US dollars in cash for the rent? Or would you prefer pesos?”
“Well, that’s most convenient for me. Gracias.”
“¡No, por favor! You are very welcome here. And please, call me Camila.”
“Sure. As long as you call me plain old Lewis.”
They smiled warmly at each other—there seemed to be mutual excitement at the prospect of a season on the finca. She went out through the French doors and ordered Nico to fetch the suitcase and leather satchel that Lewis had left at the farmhouse. Lewis came into the sun to join her. A large transportation truck with a refrigerated container was coming by a narrow trail along the periphery of the vineyard. The side of the container was marked with the Finca Weinersteiner logo. They watched the truck back into the winery’s loading bay. The sixtyish driver stepped down from the cabin and walked towards them. He wore a grey ponytail and scraggly beard. His face was sun-brown with indigenous features. A sleeveless black t-shirt exposed faded tattoos. He kissed Camila’s cheek, then turned to Lewis and drew him in for a kiss of greeting.
“You must be Jørn Henriksen from Norway!” the man said with a big smile and a slap against Lewis’s right shoulder. “Welcome to Finca Weitensteiner!”
“Thankyou, but I’m actually Arthur James Lewis, the novelist.”
The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “Confrontación en Ciudad Dodge?”
Lewis frowned. “No, the Australian novelist of Ancient Rome.”
“Ah. I am not familiar with such books.”
“Jesús has worked with us for years,” Camila said. “He is almost part of the family.”
“I started here when I was a boy,” Jesús said with a grin. “In the days when the old man was the most terrible boss in the world and worked the Indians like slaves. Many times we were close to rising up in revolution and slitting his throat. But conditions have improved since Camila took over.”
“Don’t be so hopeful,” she said. “Because I fear we are to be finally crushed by the Quesadas.”
“Oh, those hijos de puta have tried to ruin you in the past. And now we have the Scandinavian contract, we do not have to worry. I will drive the first shipment to Buenos Aires in the morning.”
Camila said, “Things will be much worse after what happened today. We must talk. El nazi está insoportable.” To Lewis, “I’m sure you have work to do, Lewis, but I hope you will join us tonight for asado and wine. To accommodate your cultural differences, we will eat early. We always dine outside at this time of year, enjoying the air, and despite everything I will continue the tradition.”
NEAR SUNSET the cooling air blew gently, clean and fresh, and rays of red sunlight hit the poplars lining the far side of the vineyard; their orange leaves flared so brilliantly it seemed they would suddenly combust. Below, the silhouettes of meadowlarks darted between the vines. The chatter of these birds was all that competed with the rustle of the breeze.
Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.
With deep and weary satisfaction Lewis capped his fountain pen and returned Book V, Chapter XXIII—a rather lively account of the evolution of Numidian taxation—to his leather satchel along with the large maps he’d been able to unfold fully across the large desk. He buttoned his grandfatherly jacket, put on his carpet slippers, and went for a pre-dinner constitutional. He saw nobody. Near the silent farmhouse the hammock was motionless and the Greek Polybius had vanished. The shadows of the trees and tall grass tussocks were creeping across the expanse of yellow flowers. Lewis curved around to the front of the house, passed Camila’s dusty pickup truck at the end of the gravelled drive, and strolled along the horse trail through the pear orchard. Soon enough the orchard became a shadowy grove of willows and evergreen carobs. He walked onward along the trail, back into the dying sunlight through arid scrub, until his calf muscles registered a gradual incline into the Andean foothills.
Lewis followed the rising trail for ten minutes. He supposed by now he had passed the boundary of the finca into no man’s land. He walked until the trail veered up a steeper slope—difficult work in horseshoes, no doubt, let alone slippers! He wandered off trail between rocks and dusty cacti until on a ridge he found a fine vantage of the finca and, beyond it, Huascito. For a few minutes he sat on a limestone boulder. The irregular foothills above him throw long black shadows down the slope. Thin blue smoke—the barbeque, he presumed—was rising from the vicinity of Camila’s farmhouse. In the town plaza bright lights were focused on San Martín, and a vague smudge of light was glowing far off in the shantytown.
Coming back to the horse trail by a different route through the shrub, Lewis passed a tiny adobe hut so aged and hidden in a shallow dip that he almost missed it. Maybe the hut had been designed for discretion. Perhaps it had once been used by the military as a sentry post. The only door, painted a very chipped and dull red, was fastened with a heavy rusted padlock. There was something generally unpleasant about the place. Somebody had been here recently, too; less than a metre from the door was the corpse of a dead dog half-stuffed into a plastic pet food sack. Its teeth were bared fiercely, the flesh of the jaw half-eaten by writhing maggots.
Lewis hurried away, found the horse trail again, and retreated through the grove where the air was alive with the smells of fruit, earth, horses. The trees seemed to be mutually encroaching in the tangled blackness. His slippers passed silently over hoof-trampled soil.
Lewis was delighted to spot Camila alone in the shadows a little way off the trail. Turned away from him, she stared at the ground as if in meditation. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she had changed into denim: a faded blue jacket and tight jeans. He allowed himself a few unobserved seconds to admire the shape of her bottom. Eventually he said:
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?”
She spun around fast and tumbled onto her knee. Before Lewis could come forward to help her upright, she was already on her feet and brushing the dirt off her jeans.
“I’m sorry I startled you,” he said. “I’ve been on a wander. Don’t worry, I’m not a ghost.”
“I don’t fear ghosts. I fear the Quesadas will return to make trouble.”
“Oh, those cowboys on horses. You know, I—”
“Shh!” she said, coming forward to take his right hand. “Stop and listen.”
For a moment he could focus his attention only on the work-etched texture of her palm against his fingertips—a web of intricate lines as if scratched by an awl into rubbery flesh. They stood close together in this unexpected intimacy. Their eyes met. Then she turned her head to stare into the shadows, to listen. Strands of dark hair fell across her forehead. Her thin denim jacket was unbuttoned, and the outline of her brassiere visible through a tight pink t-shirt. Lewis heard their breathing, chirping crickets, shifting leaves, and then, emerging distinct from the mélange of near and distant bird calls, what seemed to be a flute making a mournful melody.
“Who is it?” Lewis whispered.
“My young musician friends,” she answered at normal volume, releasing his hand. “They are making much less money since the tourists stopped coming to Huascito. But I called them to tell them you are staying here, so they will come later tonight. I hope you don’t consider it an imposition. They are really very good.” The flute music faded amid formless birdsong. She smiled and looked at him. “Where did you wander?”
“Up into the foothills a little way. Nice view down on the town. Is that an abandoned sentry hut up there?”
“Oh, you found that. Yes, it’s from the days of San Martín. When we were children my brother and I once played inside. We called it the Casa Roja because of the door – the Red House. And then one day my brother locked me in there for three hours. There’s not much space, and no light. I screamed so much I nearly went crazy. I stopped playing in there after that. I still haven’t entirely forgiven him. My nona released me.”
She gestured to where she had been standing in the grove. Lewis peered down at a flat stone inscribed FLORENCIA WEITENSTEINER 1919-2005.
“Your grandmother? A good innings,” said Lewis, “if I may use a cricket metaphor.”
“She taught me how to make wine.”
“Did she work her whole life on this wonderful finca?”
“My nona came from Buenos Aires. She was very intelligent. She could have been a scholar. Instead she worked herself to death on this wonderful finca for that man.”
They walked back along the trail to the farmhouse.
“I’ve asked my old friend Morgana to cook the dinner for us tonight,” said Camila. “She is a chef and needs the work. She once managed her own restaurant in Huascito, in the plaza, but the Quesadas called on their friends in the health authorities to shut it down.”
“The family are that powerful?”
“Trust me, Morgana always washes her hands before she touches food. The authorities acted because she refused to be extorted and serve Quesada wine.”
An unclothed rectangular oak table, on the grass behind the farmhouse, was set for five with placemats of burnished leather, steak knives and forks, glasses for water and wine, a large basket of bread, and a roll of paper towel. Four bottles of red wine, unlabelled but each marked with an R in wet chalk, stood uncorked. A dozen fat wax candles burned in glass jars and provided the light as the moonless night advanced.
A stout fortyish woman was tending the brick barbeque adjoining the rear wall of the house. Hunks of beef sizzled. She wiped bloody hands on her apron and greeted Lewis and Camila with cheek kisses.
“I am Morgana,” she said to Lewis. “How you want a steak?”
“We will see.” She looked at the meat on the barbeque. “Maybe it is too late and you will eat what is on your plate.”
She flashed a cold smile at Lewis, then picked up a heavy soup ladle and beat against the bottom of a brass casserole pot until Camila was crying “¡Basta ya, cacerolazo, por favor!”
“What is your problem?” said Morgana. “The dinner is ready.”
As they went to the table, Camila said quietly to Lewis, “It has been a very difficult year for Morgana personally and she’s depressed. Do not take her bad attitude seriously.”
Lewis saw Don Heinrich emerge from the log cabin at the edge of the vineyard, carefully padlock its door, and begin the long hobbling trek to the table. Meanwhile Nico ran in from the field flashing a big and expectant smile. His dog trotted alongside obediently.
“Buenas noches, Lewis! How do you do?”
“Fine, son. And you?”
“Do you want to play football with me for a few minutes until the asado is on the table, Lewis?”
“No, my boy, I think I will just enjoy the pleasant night air and the even-more pleasant conversation with your mother.”
The boy smiled at him with transparent emotion. It was clear he’d yet to learn to convincingly suppress tell-tale signs of disappointment. The pity of fatherless lads! thought Lewis.
“Go along and wash your hands and leave Dr. Lewis alone,” said Camila.
Nico obeyed and scampered into the house. Morgana threw a raw beef bone on the ground for Spike to gnaw. The old man reached the end of his long walk and took the seat at the head of the table.
“Good evening, Don Heinrich,” said Lewis.
With his eyes on the table, the old man adjusted his dentures with his tongue and said nothing. Camila stared at her grandfather with something that seemed close to despair. Some family tiff best ignored, thought Lewis. Camila chose the sole chair at the foot of the table, facing her grandfather directly. Lewis sat on the long side to her left. Morgana picked up a wine bottle and began to fill the glasses. When she reached Camila she asked, “¿Y vos, Camilita? ¿Agua con gas?”
“Vino.” Camila said. She seemed suddenly exhausted. “¿Porque no?”
“Finally she is drinking.” Morgana snorted an unpleasant laugh. To Lewis, “She has not drunk nothing this year. After the harvest she went straight to the library. She did not celebrate Vendimia. She has become very boring now she is an old woman.”
“It’s true,” said Camila, taking the bottle. “You go to supervise the asado, you exciting and young woman, and I will look after the wine tonight.”
“I for one find libraries very exciting,” Lewis told Morgana. “I don’t think it is necessary to be frivolous in order to enjoy oneself.”
Morgana blurted “ha!” and returned to the barbeque.
Camila said, “This is the reserve malbec we have sold to Europe. We begin shipping to Norway in the morning. I hope you enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will!” said Lewis.
When Nico came to the table, his blonde hair was combed neatly and his hands were clean. Before he took his seat to the left of Lewis, he tore a perforated sheet from the roll of paper towel, folded it in half, and placed it under Lewis’s fork. The boy did the same for his mother. When he attempted perform the service for Don Heinrich, his hand received a hard slap.
“Abuelo!” said Camila.
Don Heinrich said nothing. Nico rubbed his stung hand and sat down, smiling shyly at Lewis, who raised his wine glass. “To your health, Don Heinrich, and to your wonderful finca!”
The old man did not acknowledge the toast. He merely drained his glass steadily and stared into space.
“Yes, to his health,” said Camila. “May he continue bringing so much joy to the world.” She downed her portion of wine in two gulps and immediately refilled the glass.
Lewis said quietly, “Your boy still looks to his great-grandfather for guidance.”
“He surely needs a strong male role model,” Lewis continued. “Since I’ll be living on the finca for a spell, I’ll be happy to spend some time with the boy. Although I must not be disturbed while writing. I’m sure you will make that clear to him. At other times we could do some father-and-son type activities.”
“Nico loves to play football. He is a fanatic.”
“I was thinking rather of teaching him Latin. Give him a big advantage in life.”
“I’ve already taught him the basics. Do you have children, Lewis?”
“Well, I guess you could say my books are my children. I do have a niece and great nephew—” He was going to add “by marriage” but decided to abandon the sentence. “Delicious wine!”
“Frankly, I think Nico has had enough of strong male role models,” said Camila. “I will not speak of my ex-husband. Nor will I speak of my brother in Rosario, who has done nothing to help us. My father? He was responsible for killing my mother and himself five years ago because he was driving a car recklessly after watching a James Bond movie. I have not yet been able to forgive him. At the time the finca was close to bankruptcy, in debt, and unproductive since my nona died. She did everything for all those years, didn’t she, Abuelo?”
The old man continued to stare into space.
“Exemplary male role models,” Camila said to Lewis. “My choice was to sell the place for almost nothing—and whoever we sold it to, I knew it would soon become the property of the Quesadas—or try to bring the business back from disaster. I thought of my nona working in the vineyard her whole life, all she had worked for. I knew she would have preferred to burn the place to the ground than allow the Quesadas to take it over. So I resigned from the University of North Wichita, left my academic life, and got to work back here. It has been extremely difficult but we turned our fortunes around. It’s taken five years. I tried everything to bring in money to pay off our debts. We tried to attract tourists. I hired people to make promotional videos, we hosted busloads of people for tastings, I built the cottage for rich yankees wanting a ‘romantic escape to the wine country’. Excuse me, I mean no offense.”
“As an Australian, I take none!”
“And then the Quesadas sabotaged the Huascito revival and the tourists stopped coming.”
Morgana interrupted to serve the meal. Don Heinrich received his plate first and tucked in. Nico, served next, said gracias. Then Morgana tossed a heavy plate in front of Lewis. He stared down at a very charred steak. He made an exploratory forking of the mashed potatoes—lumpy. After a few mouthfuls of the meat, Lewis wondered if it had really been a bad thing that Morgana’s restaurant had been shut down by the health authorities. Lewis asked her if there was any tomato ketchup. She said no. Nico tried to hand him a large plastic sachet of mayonnaise, but Lewis waved it away. He took the liberty of refilling his glass with wine.
“A delicious vintage,” he said. “I can see why it is so successful.”
“Drink up, Lewis,” said Camila, topping her own, too, from another of the bottles. “Morgana wants you to eat charcoal and not quite purè de papas tonight, so you will need much wine to wash it down.”
“Don’t criticise good cooking,” said Morgana, sitting across from Lewis with her own food-heaped plate. Her steak seemed significantly rarer than his own. “Yankees are accustomed to fast food so I do not accept the criticism.”
Lewis was poised to correct this stupid woman’s misapprehension of his nationality, but Camila laughed loudly and said, “Morgana is obviously having a bad day. Well, she can join the bad day club. Do you want to hear the rest of the story of Finca Weitensteiner, our miraculous rebirth?”
“Of course,” said Lewis.
“Last year I hired an agent to promote our wine to the international market, and by a miracle it was chosen by a chain of supermarkets in Scandinavia who will deal with us on a fair trade basis. When I signed the contract last week I thought, We have survived! We have withstood the intimidation of the Quesadas! And finally I can pay off the last of our debts! And finally we will make a small profit! And now that Jesús has assembled a team of workers I can trust, finally I can go back to the university, to my real life’s work!”
Lewis raised his glass. “Hearty congratulations to a job well done!”
Camila was suddenly laughing uproariously, her mouth wide open, her eyes rimming with water. Lewis, staring at her winepurple tongue, was alarmed at the ferocity of this uncontained emotion. On the other hand the spontaneous laughter made her even more devilishly attractive—blood-filled and youthful. Camila quickly recovered, anyway, although her face had gone very red and her face was now fixed in big smile. She picked up her glass and knocked it hard against Lewis’s.
“Salud, honey!” she said. “But our soap opera does not end there. Because now we find ourselves in a new war with the Quesadas.”
“They want this small finca so very much?” said Lewis.
“With such people there is no end to what they want. Such people want the whole world. The Quesadas have always been rich, and my grandfather once had a rivalry with old Don Eduardo, but he’s been dead for decades. The younger generation of Quesadas are worse than ever. Mauricio Quesada is a corrupt politician, rich from narco-trafficking. His brother Emiliano, on the other hand, is the family embarrassment, an idiota. Emiliano and his friends are the runts of the ruling families of Mendoza, the ones too stupid to fuck up Argentina in the traditional way as corrupt judges, politicians, or corporate executives.”
“They fuck up Argentina by being hijos de puta,” said Morgana.
“Emiliano is seriously stupid,” said Camila, now giggling. “I’ll give you an example. A few months ago he cancelled an export contract with a guy from Texas who had already paid a large deposit in cash. Emiliano said into the yankee’s face, ‘fuck you, I’m not giving you back your money,’ et cetera, and threatened to call his friends in the police unless the yankee left the city immediately.”
“Good grief,” said Lewis.
“But Emiliano does this kind of thing without thinking. Or maybe he seriously believes he is a tough guy. Because he tried this rip-off when he was alone with the Texan at a warehouse all the way out in Corralitos, in the desert. This Texan, who I hear was a big guy, refused to accept the situation. He got angry. Of course he did!”
“Don’t mess with Texas!” said Morgana.
“The Texan beat Emiliano unconscious, stole his phone, and left the idiot locked in a hot little cupboard. He put Emiliano’s sports car somewhere it wouldn’t be found. Emiliano was stuck in the cupboard for three days. To survive he had to drink filthy water from a bucket used for mopping. And nobody in his family even bothered to look for him! They probably assumed he was just drunk in a whorehouse. He would have starved to death except a janitor heard the moans and called the cops.”
Morgana said, “Don’t forget the best part. The Texas guy also emptied a bag of cement into the gasoline tank of Emiliano’s car. And then the water.” She cackled with laughter. “He had to buy a new one! I like that part of the story.”
Camila said, “After that Emiliano was demoted in the family business. No more export deals. It seems his new assignment is simply to harass us. He tried to provoke me today, but I can handle that stupid son of a bitch.” Then she stared at her grandfather—a hard, unforgiving look. “But then this crazy old man decided to start trouble by shooting off his rifle like the old days. He has declared a new war on the Quesadas. Nothing good can come from it. I think all my work, five years of my life, will come to nothing. I think I will put him in an institution. Or maybe I’ll just lock him in the Red House and forget about him. I’ve had enough of seeing him tonight, certainly.” She looked at her grandfather and smacked her right hand hard against the table. “¡Ya te vas a dormir! “
Don Heinrich, who had eaten three mouthfuls of lumpy mashed potatoes, stood up and hobbled away without protest.
“You, too, Nico!” said Camila.
Nico looked up in surprise. “Pero estoy comiendo, Mami.”
His mouth went rigid as he tried to hold back his tears. “Can Lewis tell me a story before I go to sleep?”
“Well…” said Lewis, picking up his fork again as if he actually intended to persist with his steak. “Actually, I-”
“Go ahead, Lewis,” Camila said, reaching for the nearest wine bottle. “I will keep drinking until you return to discuss with me the detainment of Polybio.”
Nico led Lewis by the hand along the side of the house. Spike trotted behind. The wine had taken a measure of steadiness from Lewis’s feet. Out in front of the house, the glowing red tip of a cigarillo broke the darkness of the porch. Lewis heard the rocking chair creak.
“Goodnight, Don Heinrich!” said Lewis. “What a pleasure to be here on the finca!”
“Buenas noches, Abuelo,” said Nico.
The old man said, “Verpiss Dich.”
“I do not understand the things he says, Lewis,” Nico confided inside the dark house. “I think he has forgotten how to speak Spanish. Lately he has been saying some strange things. He is very old.”
Nico’s bedroom was on the ground floor and decorated with posters of Argentinean football players. Lewis turned on a lamp. Spike clambered into his own bed, old pillows in a cane basket on the floor. While Nico went to brush his teeth and change into his pajamas, Lewis looked out of the bedroom window onto the porch. Don Heinrich was slowly rocking in his chair just a few feet away. The window was ajar and allowed the pleasant smell of smoke to drift inside.
“Lovely evening, isn’t it, Don Heinrich?” Lewis called out.
Nico got into bed and said, “Can you tell me a story, Lewis?”
Lewis sat on the window seat. “A quick one. What kind of story do you want, son?”
“An exciting story!”
“Have you heard of a place called Carthage?”
“Is that where you are from in Australia? My mother told me you are from Australia. Are there kangaroos in Carthage?”
“No. Far from Australia! Carthage was in Africa, what is today Tunisia. My story takes place a century and one half before the birth of Jesus Christ. It takes place during the Third Punic War.”
He filled in Nico on the origins of the Carthaginians, a colony of Semitic Phoenicians who spoke a Canaanite dialect, whom the Romans called the Punici. He spoke of the uneasy years in the wake of the Second Punic War as Carthage continued to pay off its immense indemnity to Rome.
In the middle of all this they heard Don Heinrich splutter an emphysemic cough out on the porch.
And meanwhile, Lewis continued, despite the entreaties of Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum in the Roman senate, Marcus Cato the Elder insisted “Carthago delenda est.” And so it would burn. Carthage endured provocations by those duplicitous allies of Rome, the Numidians, really the fusion of two tribes, the Massylii and the Masaesyli. Finally, throughout the promontory of Carthage was heard the sound of distant drums. The city of Utica mutinied; then Scipio Aemilianus laid waste to Carthage itself, enslaving its population. The great statues were toppled and smashed; its ships were towed to sea and scuttled; and the city was razed in a great fire that left nothing but ash. An apocryphal legend had it that the Romans sowed the land with salt; however, this had never been verified by evidence in the primary sources or in archeology.
Before the end of the story Nico was asleep, snoring gently. Lewis pulled a blanket up to the boy’s chin, gave the sleeping dog a gentle rub on its scalp, and turned out the lamp.
Out on the porch Don Heinrich was also sleeping. His head drooped forward and a line of drool wet the front of his shirt. Lewis removed the smoldering cigarillo butt from the man’s hard fingers and extinguished it in a nearby flower pot. “Sleep well, weary patriarch,” Lewis murmured.
He found his way back through the darkness to the dining table. The candles twinkled in their jars. By now the dinner plates had been cleared, so added to Lewis’s initial resentment over the inedible charred steak and lumpy mashed potatoes was another—he would now be deprived of finishing the meal, something to steady his heavy belly of wine. A third irritant was Morgana herself. Her job was completed, and yet she seemed content to sit at the table indefinitely in a state of general disapproval. Camila was slopping more wine into her glass. As Lewis resumed his seat, Morgana said, “Camila is trying to compensate for what she missed at Vendimia. She is doing very well.”
Ignoring Morgana, Lewis refilled his glass in solidarity with his fellow scholar. He drank deeply and reported to Camila that he had put Nico to sleep with a story. Don Heinrich, too, was snoozing in his rocking chair.
“That was quick,” said Morgana. “I will read one of your books when I cannot sleep.”
Surely poised to defend the work she had praised online for its “extra sauce,” Camila was distracted by headlights sweeping ugly whiteness across their faces. She put down her glass and turned towards the open gates of the finca. A taxi was coming in along the gravel. It stopped and a man got out of the backseat with a suitcase. He was short and wore a large blazer over a dark turtleneck.
“I should have known you’d be home on the range between books, Lewis,” the man said as the taxi made a gravel-crunching U-turn and drove away. “Evening all. I’m Terry Fowler. Sorry I don’t speak the lingo. I hope you speak mine.”
Stepping into the zone of candlelight, Terry took Nico’s seat to the left of Lewis.
“No,” said Lewis. “No, no, no. What on earth are you doing here, Terry?”
“I spent a morning trying to write the next chapter of tome four and I’m blocked again, still stuck in the Chamber of Crossed Destinies. So I jumped on the next flight to Argentina to consult with my partner, didn’t I? You’ve got to help me write the potent golden dildo bit!”
“Are you Terry Fowler, renowned author of Buscador de los dragones?” said Morgana.
“If that’s local speak for Dragon Seeker,” he said with a wink. “C’est moi.”
Lewis held his head rigid, focused his wavering attention, tried to sober himself by the force of his will. “This is horribly presumptuous of you, Terry. I’ve come down here to write a very demanding novel, not to help you write your trash.”
“I’ll pay you the going rate, don’t you worry.” To the others, “He drives a hard bargain but he delivers the goods! I re-read Showdown at Abilene on the flight down. Master storyteller!”
Now Terry held out an empty water glass to Camila for a pour of malbec. “I don’t know how to say ‘when’ in Spanish,” he said, “so fill it till you spill it.”
“Regrettably,” said Camila, filling his glass to the brim, “we only have accommodation for one guest at the finca. Unless Dr. Lewis is willing to share the cottage with you.”
“Absolutely not,” said Lewis. “Terry should go to Mendoza, to a hotel. Actually, Terry should go back to Norwich or wherever and write his own bloody fucking book.”
“Nah, the night air is lovely,” said Terry. “I’ll nod off in that hammock over there. And in the morning Lewis and I can get cracking.”
Lewis barked, “I’ve told you, I’m not interested!”
“You put me in it, you did!” Terry said with a big grin. “They’re on the edge of their seats in Hollywood waiting for us to put up or shut up. You upped the ante with that potent golden dildo bit! You can’t back out now.”
Lewis was about to attempt to explain Terry’s nonsense to Camila, but a loud noise distracted them. This time a motorbike seemed to be puttering towards the finca along the horse trail, getting closer all the time. Camila stood up quickly, unsteadily, and knocked over her wine, which splashed across the table. Lewis righted her glass.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Almost immediately the worry vanished from Camila’s face. She sat back down heavily and chuckled. “Oh, I forgot. The musicians.”
The engine noise was powerfully present when the motorbike emerged from the pear orchard, cornered around the house, and pulled up not far from the table. The riders were a couple of twenty-something hippies in threadbare brown kaftans, dirty jeans, sandals. The woman was thin. Blonde hair flowed past her shoulders. She slipped off the back of the seat and played warm-up scales into a wooden flute. Her bearded and dreadlocked companion killed the engine, kicked out the side-stand, and removed a lute from the underseat storage compartment.
“Buenas noches, señores,” said the flautist to Lewis and Terry. “We’ve come to entertain you on this beautiful Argentinean night. Welcome to Huascito!”
Lewis feared the worst—pop covers, tourist tango, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’—but his pessimism was unfounded. The lutist seated himself on a chair and finger-picked a sad baroque waltz. Lewis temporarily forgot about Terry’s outrageous intrusion. The musicianship was superb. The flautist played her accompanying melody with a swaying motion. The large sleeve of her loose kaftan draped from her right elbow, affording occasional shadowy glimpses of a hairy armpit and a nipple like a small copper coin.
During the piece, Terry dipped his finger into the puddle of spilled wine and dabbed Morgana behind each ear. “For luck,” he whispered. For the first time that evening Morgana laughed without sarcasm or aggression. Lewis hissed at them to be quiet.
The next piece was by Bach. Lewis and Camila’s eyes met. They raised glasses and drank their wine in tandem.
“A rather free arrangement of the haunting sarabande from the suite in G minor, BMV995, if I’m not mistaken,” said Lewis at its conclusion. “Delightful.”
The flautist smiled, nodded, but said, “BMV999.”
“Well, I think I’m correct,” said Lewis.
“Who cares!” said Morgana.
“It certainly was beautiful,” said Lewis. He reached into his pocket and handed this slightly undergroomed wood nymph a hundred pesos. Terry gave the duo a fistful of coins and gestured for the lute. “Mind if I return the favour by entertaining you with a ballad from my last tome, Llenor and the Orklings? I set my lyrics to music for a bit of fun. In fact, this will be its first public performance.”
“Dale!” said Morgana.
The lutist surrendered his instrument.
“It’s not a bloody guitar, Terry,” said Lewis.
Terry nodded, fiddling with the lute’s tuning pegs. “I’m used to playing an 11-course Venetian model, but I reckon I can make a decent attempt on a 6-course. Might be easier if I transpose it into G minor, though. The ballad concerns the tragic fate of an agèd wood elf who dances to make nubile conquest.”
Without hesitation Terry flawlessly plucked accompaniment to what proved to be his pure counter-tenor:
Eithel, maa ie’ i’ men amin magha van-,
amin naa y’ edainme’s edan: n’uma coiasira quen-.
lindale raun ar’ edainme urna, amin nae cronhe
tuulo’ i’ coiasira amin noste.
ta naa tereva. ta naa quel.
ar’ lle Lotesse maa i’ n’at tie.
lye will rangwa
i’ yela en’ a’re no’ Edan.
And so on and on and on. At its conclusion the musicians applauded loudly. Morgana joined them with equal enthusiasm. Terry returned the lute and accepted the accolades. The musicians each kissed them all in farewell and departed. Camila poured Lewis and herself fresh glasses of wine, splashing the table a little, and drank her glass off quickly. As the roar of the duo’s motorbike faded out on the road to Huascito, Camila said to Lewis, “I don’t understand fucking Elvish. Do you?”
“I’m afraid only Latin and Ancient Greek,” Lewis said, smiling back at her. “And I could probably order a drink in Biblical Hebrew.”
Camila smiled broadly, refilled her glass, and quoted Proverbs 31.7 in the original: “Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” Then to Terry, “Can you sing songs in Spanish, too?”
Terry grinned. “I reckon I could bluff my way through the ‘Macarena’!”
Morgana said, “Thanks God. The sensible woman is finally drunk.”
“Well,” said Camila, “if I am sensible most of the time it is because I have ambitions in my life. You cannot understand, Morgana. For you there is only work and telenovelas and fucking as many guys as you can during Vendemia.”
“Whoah!” said Terry. “Catfight!”
“Conchuda,” Morgana muttered. She burst into tears and ran away into the house.
Camila smiled. Her teeth were blue. “I am drunk. She has reason.” Camila filled her glass again. “I know there is a necessity for celebrating the end of harvest and being a little wild. We cannot work all the time.”
Lewis said, “Burst into smiling life, oh Bacchus!”
Terry refilled, eager to catch up. “To Finca Weitensteiner. I could get used to this place!”
Camila closed her eyes and sighed. “My God, I am so fucking tired.” She opened them and raised her glass. “To Finca Weitensteiner. My sentimental folly. Salud.”
They all drank.
“Right,” said Terry. “I’m going for a tinkle.”
“A what?” said Camila.
“The toilet is in the house.”
“Grass’ll do!” he said, already on his way into the field.
Camila and Lewis were now, finally, alone.
“Perhaps we should toast instead to your exciting new book on Polybius’s reception in the Renaissance,” said Lewis.
“I’m afraid my research is now as rundown as the finca when I came back five years ago,” she said with a definite slur to her words. “I really fucked up, Lewis. I’m furious with myself that I remembered my nona teaching me to make wine when I was a little girl. I was sentimental. A woman cannot afford to be sentimental. This world is too tough for sentimental women.”
“Your face has gone very red,” said Lewis.
“Yes, this happens. I’m actually a little allergic to wine. Ironic, no?”
He swayed closer and put his hand on her right knee. She leaned forward and kissed him, parted his mouth with the force of hers. Her mouth was alive, wet, hungry; she licked his tongue in broad acidic swipes. He felt her fingers take a handful of hair at the back of his head. The kiss lasted all of twenty seconds. Then she pushed him away with a gentle laugh, sat back, and drank off the rest of her wine. Lewis smiled and woozily reached for his own glass. He blinked, and when he next looked at Camila’s chair, she’d vanished.
He heard a chair creak to his left as Terry returned to the table.
“Now I’ve broken the seal I’ll be pissing every five minutes,” he said.
“Where’s Dr. Weitensteiner?” said Lewis.
“Just saw her heading through the field towards your fancy cottage. Leading you into temptation? You lucky bastard. She’s pretty fit.”
Lewis stood unsteadily and saw movement in the moonlight, Camila hurrying towards a square of light, one of the cottage windows. He must have left the bathroom light on. He stumbled into the dark field and was lost in the labyrinth of tall pampas grass, sudden trees. He quickly gauged the extent of his drunkenness, a roaring haze, all the fault of that bloody Morgana for not providing a proper meal. His sense of direction was skewed. Turning right, left, he slipped, fell on his knees. When he was upright and steady again Camila was standing in front of him.
“There you are, sweetie!” he slurred, stumbling forward, reaching for her waist. Denying his embrace, she thrust his suitcase and leather satchel at him, put his straw hat on his head. He was flabbergasted. She led him away from the cottage by the elbow. “Did I do something wrong?” he said.
“Not at all, Lewis! But I think it would be better to sleep in the city.”
“I’m sorry. The cottage isn’t suitable tonight. It’s just not going to work. But if you go to the Hotel Gardel in Mendoza and take a room there, I will pay for it with my credit card. It will be very comfortable.”
“Ah,” said Lewis, tottering. “I understand. I’m all for discretion myself.”
Her wild kiss at the table, while extremely exciting, was not really his style. After all, Terry had been lurking nearby, primed to deliver some tasteless comment. More importantly, Lewis understood that Nico might well be sensitive about his mother romantically involved with men who were not his father, at least for a short time until he came to accept Lewis as a figure in loco parentis.
She was saying, “You can get a taxi to the hotel from Plaza Huascito. It’s only a short walk from here. You’ll be okay? I would drive you in my car but I’m a little drunk at the moment and I have a few things I need to do immediately.”
She vanished into the trees before he could answer. He wandered and found himself at the edge of the field near the hammock. Morgana was lying in it with Terry, stroking his fluffy blonde hair. Lewis stumbled away, out through the finca gate, and walked to Huascito in the darkness.
EMILIANO QUESADA sped his yellow Maserati into Huascito’s main square. Steering with his left hand, he gripped a heavy staple gun in his right. He parked with a jerk under the statue of José de San Martín, killed the engine, raised the gun in the near-darkness, and slowly shot staples at his warped reflection in the side window: ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk. The staples bounced back off the window until the staple gun was spent. He tossed it on top of his crumpled polo uniform on the backseat and stepped into the night air.
The tourists, French and German people at tables between the colonnades outside the steak restaurant, were looking at his Maserati. He had no idea why they had come to Huascito. The town was an open sewer. Some Indians from the shantytown scavenged in a dumpster for food. A five-year-old girl in a dirt-caked pink cardigan was trying to sell the tourists pictures of the Virgin. A hot chick and some bearded asshole, dirty hippie musicians, were trying to make their folklore heard over the cumbia pounding from the Ice Ice Baby Ice Bar. They wanted money, too.
What an asshole scene.
Emiliano walked across the plaza. One of the cops standing near the statue winked at him. That fucking half-breed asshole who broke him out of the cupboard in Los Corralitos. The cop went back to talking with two of his colleagues, doing nothing about the parasites annoying the tourists. Collect your fucking salaries, assholes, keep Argentina fucked up forever.
His friends had made a huge mistake opening the Ice Ice Baby Ice Bar in this wasteland. Emiliano had gone to school with Bernardo and Diego and Mariano in Mendoza, university in Madrid, they played polo together, partied together in Vegas and Macao, other places. They were fighting boredom. And then one night a tattooed Russian chick sucked each of their cocks one-by-one in the toilet of an ice bar in South Beach, Miami, and they decided they wanted to bring some of that same “anything goes” atmosphere to Mendoza, which was boring. Bernardo figured with an ice bar they could be entrepreneurs, hang out together all the time in a great place, and maybe their fathers and brothers would stop criticising them for being lazy assholes. The guys wanted Emiliano to be part of the deal, too, but he told them to fuck off when they decided to build it in Huascito. They thought they would attract a lot of the hot European chicks in town for hiking excursions to Aconcagua. Emiliano hated Huascito and hated tourists. Anyway, he had been too busy training with his polo team, drag racing his Maserati, and dealing with yankee wine importers on behalf of his family. Until the fucking cupboard incident.
So Emiliano’s friends went ahead without him. Each borrowed capital from his family and picked a role. Bernardo was the manager. Diego wanted to make cocktails to explore his creativity. Mariano would manage the entertainment. They bought an old building in Plaza Huascito, flew in an engineer from Tokyo who supervised the construction of the refrigerated bar, hired a lighting designer from Copenhagen. The walls were lined with ice. The bar was ice. The tables and chairs were ice. The cocktail glasses were made of ice. It took six months to get it together. They spent big on the opening party—a US$60,000 DJ from London, national football celebrities, quality whores and cocaine. A guy with a chainsaw was flown in from Canada to carve an enormous ice statue based on a great selfie of Bernardo, Mariano, and Diego—the friends huddled together with a common project. It was a wild night and Emiliano felt a little regretful he hadn’t been part of the deal.
After that the Arctic Room stayed open a week. All eight Ice Ice Baby Ice Bar Bikini Babes quit because they didn’t like working in the cold and Bernardo hadn’t immediately paid their wages. Diego himself got tired of mixing cocktails in a ski jacket. His hands were always numb. And then the frequent power outages in Huascito kept fucking up the steady refrigeration. The walls would melt and then refreeze. The assholes should have bought a generator as a backup but they had spent all their operating capital on the opening party. Without a large cash inflow, and with all these other problems, they decided to focus on the unrefrigerated part of the establishment, the bar out front with Bernardo’s uncle’s pool table for entertainment. They switched off the refrigeration unit and opened all the doors to let the bar defrost for a couple of days. But there had been a drainage problem, that Japanese engineer was a real asshole who’d done a terrible job, and when the room began to stink they decided to close the doors and forget that it existed. That had been three months ago.
Emiliano walked into the bar. The music was deafening tonight. A yankee tourist couple, in their forties, both fat, the only customers, were sipping martinis. The woman wore her bleached hair in a ratty perm and sucked on a little cocktail straw that was probably about the same size as her dumb boyfriend’s dick. With a white-blonde goatee on a deeply sunburned face, the guy looked fucking ridiculous. His shirt tails hung out over his baggy jeans. He kept looking with concern at the wall-mounted loudspeakers blaring cumbia.
Emiliano wanted a drink, but as always nobody was serving behind the bar. There was no ready cash to pay a bartender’s salary, and fat Diego was being a lazy asshole eating empanadas and watching Boca play River on the wall-mounted television. Bernardo and Mariano were knocking balls across the pool table. They all kissed cheeks in greeting.
“This place is fucking disgusting,” Emiliano yelled over the music. “My shoes are sticking. Why don’t you scrub the floor, Diego?”
“Why doesn’t your mother come over and scrub the floor with her fat ass up in the air?” said Diego, chewing, his eyes fixed on the television screen. “Bernardo never said we’d have to clean all the time. He said we’d have fun working together.”
“You should open a paintball field and close this fucking ice bar that isn’t even an ice bar anymore,” said Emiliano. “It’s a failure.”
Bernardo said, “My uncle won’t put up more capital for another business.”
The fat yankee guy came up to Bernardo, confident, friendly, speaking loudly in English as if he had no awareness this was actually an Hispanic country, the stupid fuck. “Excuse me, sir, but with this music so loud its impossible for my wife and I to talk. And since we’re the only customers, I thought—”
Bernardo, who was almost as fat as the yankee, yelled in English, “Go to another place.”
“Pardon me? I’m afraid we’ve already purchased our beverages.”
Bernard stared into the guy’s eyes and said, “If you don’t like the music, get the fuck out of my bar! Now!”
The yankees left immediately.
“You could turn the music down, asshole,” said Emiliano, grabbing the pool cue and lining up a shot at the yellow 1.
Bernardo said, “I can’t stay here all night without good music. I’ll die of boredom. This bar is driving me crazy.”
Emiliano shot but the cue ball went the wrong way and knocked the black 8 into a corner pocket. Mariano, a skinny motherfucker with a smug grin, laughed at him.
“Shut the fuck up,” said Emiliano. “I’m just warming up.”
Mariano said, “You’ve got the shakes today because the Norwegian supermarket tycoon shot up your ball. Naturally you can’t aim straight, Emilianito!”
Bernardo and Diego joined in to laugh at him. Blood seemed to flood into Emiliano’s head, a welling surge of pain, energy, heat. “My gauchos told you about that?” he said.
“Everybody in Mendoza knows about it by now,” said Bernardo. “Are you going to accept that treatment from the Weitensteiners?”
“Do I look like a faggot?”
“Yeah, you look exactly like a faggot, faggot. Your brother is already angry with you about the cupboard incident,” said Mariano. “After this he might only give you a job cleaning toilets at the Finca Quesada tourist centre. Maybe you were put on earth to clean up yankee shit, Emilianito. You can clean our toilet, too, if you want. It’s disgusting.”
They laughed at him again.
“Stop bringing up the cupboard incident,” Emiliano said. “Mauricio doesn’t understand anything. I’ve already taken revenge on the asshole who shot my football.”
“How?” said Bernardo.
Emiliano grinned. “Do you remember how Camila Weitensteiner used to fuck Joaquín Álvarez in high school?”
“Oh, poor Álvarez,” said Mariano. “That was a shame. I always check for water leaks in the fuse box now because of what happened to him.”
“Álvarez was a porn freak and liked to make videos with his chicks,” said Emiliano. “One time he showed me a video he made when he was fucking his cleaning lady. He was very proud of his fat cock. He was kind of an asshole, but I liked him. But this afternoon I went to see Álvarez’s brother because I figured somebody inherited the collection of VHS tapes. I asked if he had one of Camila Weitensteiner. He searched and I bought it for just a thousand pesos!” Emiliano unfolded a piece of paper. “Check it out—the famous professor of history sucking Joaquín Álvarez’s fat cock.”
Mariano tried to snatch the paper away from Emiliano, but he wouldn’t let him take it. Diego didn’t bother to get out of the chair. Bernardo peered over and said, “She was fucking hot then, man.”
“Tonight I made twenty screenshots and printed them out and stapled them to the wall of the cottage on her bodega where this Norwegian faggot is staying. Now he will see what a whore he’s fucking. And I’m going to put the video online if she doesn’t sell the place to us. I’ll send a copy to all her students.”
Now Mauricio Quesada came into the bar. He was a heavyish forty-five year old politician in an open-necked white shirt and a navy blue suit. With his raw, closely-shaven face, his heavily-lidded eyes, he always looked as though he’d just been forcibly woken up for some trifling reason and was ready to punch somebody for it. Mauricio told Bernardo to turn down the fucking cumbia and Bernardo obeyed. Emiliano felt his lower guts shift and gurgle. He needed to run to the toilet but he knew Mauricio wouldn’t wait around for him to take a shit. So Emiliano stayed where he was, kissed his older brother’s cheek, and was hit by the stench of Mauricio’s aftershave.
They spoke apart from the others.
“What happened this afternoon at the Weitensteiner place, Emilianito? They shot at you?”
Emiliano began to mumble an explanation about the Norwegian supermarket tycoon. Mauricio looked down at the piece of paper in his younger brother’s hand and said, “What is this?”
“It’s Camila Weitensteiner sucking cock. Everybody is going to see it.”
“Some foreign asshole shoots a gun at a Quesada and you fuck around humiliating his girlfriend? Petty blackmail? Why didn’t you immediately call Uncle Jorge to drive in and arrest the guy? His boys will take care of everything. We don’t tolerate this.”
Mauricio slapped him in the face, a hard ringing sting.
“Take action, you little shit,” Mauricio said. “You have one more chance. I’m tired of you.”
Mauricio walked out, leaving Emiliano dazed, raging, blind, fighting tears.
Mariano said, “I think you better hide in the cupboard again, Emilianito.”
The assholes laughed.
Emiliano grabbed a pool cue, broke it across his right knee, and held the splintered end of the handle against Mariano’s throat. “I think you better hide in your mother’s dirty cunt, you skinny faggot.”
“That’s my uncle’s pool cue!” said Bernardo, seizing Emiliano’s shirt collar, throwing him onto the sticky tiles. Falling hard on his left shoulder, Emiliano lost his grip on the pieces of the pool cue; they bounced away. He rolled over, scrambled on his knees to Bernardo, intending to tackle him around the legs and gouge his eyes with his thumbnails, but Bernardo planted a boot hard into his belly and it was all over. As Emiliano fell back onto the tiles, winded and dazed, Diego began to yell at the television with a mouth full of empanada. Mariano joined him.
River had scored against Boca.
Bernardo abandoned interest in the fight with Emiliano and began to whoop in celebration with the others. Emiliano fought to keep breathing. Finally he was strong enough to crawl to the bar.
Amid the celebration, a bearded yankee in an old man’s jacket had come in with a suitcase and a leather satchel. He seemed a little drunk and sweaty from a brisk walk.
“Good evening,” he said in badly accented Spanish. “Do you speak English?”
Bernardo did not lower his eyes from the television. “What do you want?” he said in English.
“Actually, I need a taxi to Mendoza,” said the yankee. “Would you be kind enough to call one for me?”
Bernardo did not answer, but Diego took out his phone and made a call because his cousin owned a taxi company in Mendoza.
“And may I use your bathroom?” said the yankee.
“Are you going to buy something?” said Bernardo.
“Alright. Do have cognac?”
“But first the bathroom.”
Bernardo jerked his thumb in its direction. The yankee left his suitcase beside the cigarette machine and took his leather satchel into the toilet with him.
“What do you think is in his bag?” said Mariano.
“Maybe his maxi-pads,” said Bernardo. “Who cares? Did you clean the toilet this week?”
“It’s not my turn!”
Diego finished the call and went to find a bottle of cognac. By now Emiliano had crawled up onto a bar stool. Sweating and cold, he told Diego to give him a bottle of cold beer. He guzzled it quickly. The blood was still flooding his head. He thought about how much he would enjoy stabbing Bernardo and Mariano in the neck while they were distracted by the football, how much he would enjoy watching their blood spurt over those sticky tiles. He had another beer.
Ten minutes later a taxi arrived and hooted out in the plaza. The bearded yankee finally came out of the toilet, collected his suitcase, and walked up to Bernardo at the pool table.
“I’m afraid that in addition its filthy state, your toilet facilities are not functional,” he said. “I wish to lodge a complaint with the manager.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Bernardo threw his cue down on the tiles—a loud bouncy clatter—and went to investigate. The yankee came to the bar. He handed some peso bills to Diego and choose the barstool right next to Emiliano.
“Weak plumbing,” the yankee said as he sipped his cognac. “The standard story. The proprietor provides an inadequate service, using the cheapest possible materials, and then blames the customer when it fails to function.”
Emiliano reached for his empty beer bottle so he could break it against the bar top and bury the jagged glass into the neck of this fucking asshole except Diego had already cleared the bar top and his beer bottle was gone and Emiliano’s hand closed on air. At the same moment Diego turned the cumbia back up to full volume and Emiliano had a new thing to irritate the blood fever in his brain.
And now the five-year-old beggar in the filthy pink cardigan came into the bar to tug at the yankee’s elbow. He smiled down at her, reached into his pocket, and handed over fifty pesos. The girl ran out before Emiliano could drag her by the neck and kick her across the cobblestones.
“You shouldn’t give these people money,” said Diego, polishing a glass. “It encourages them.”
“It’s tragic to see such poverty,” said the yankee. “I spent the evening drinking exquisite wine in good company. How quickly one can forget one is in the third world!”
“What do you mean about my country, puta madre?” said Emiliano, still looking around for a weapon. “These people are not Argentinos, they’re fucking illegal immigrants, fucking parasites. Get the fuck out of here!”
The yankee frowned, picked up his suitcase and leather satchel, and departed without another word.
IN MENDOZA the hippie duo were working the restaurant tables along Paseo Sarmiento, a pedestrian thoroughfare off Plaza Independencia. Lewis waved to the bearded lutist before he stepped into the desolate, maroon-carpeted lobby of the Hotel Gardel. He handed his Australian passport to an ancient concierge.
“Regular room or the luxury suite?”
“The luxury suite, please,” said Lewis.
The water cooler glurped. The concierge peered over his desk at the carpet slippers on Lewis’s feet. “It is a large suite for only one person.”
“I am expecting a lady to join me shortly. She will be paying.”
“When she arrives,” said Lewis
“No, you must pay now.”
Lewis paid in a heavy wad of paper pesos, ignorant of its equivalence in zlotys. It was not important, anyway. A sleepy adolescent porter with a faint brown moustache lugged Lewis’s suitcase containing his winter clothes, historical texts, and $13,400 in rubber-banded United States currency. Lewis insisted on carrying his bulging leather satchel. Downlights made narrow cones of dust-filled whiteness at intervals along the corridor. The hum of an industrial refrigeration unit out in the car park was filtered by double-glazed windows.
They entered the so-called ‘luxury suite’. The carpet was the same unlovable maroon that condemned the lobby to gloom. Each of the two bedrooms contained a monolithic flat screen television and a queen-sized bed with a lip of black silk sheet folded down. The white tiles in the two bathrooms sparkled. Notwithstanding the inherent erotic qualities of a hotel room, it would be difficult to surmount the glamourlessness of this transient lodging, this fancy flophouse for business travellers. What was Camila thinking? Sure, discretion was advisable where Nico was concerned, but how far from the tranquility and homeliness of the cottage at Finca Weitensteiner!
The porter put down his suitcase and asked, “Do you want company?”
Lewis squinted at this mustachioed teenager, now casually scratching a food stain on his tunic. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“No, I mean a girl for you, a prostituta.”
“Ah, right!” Lewis said with a chuckle. “No need, son. I’m expecting a lady. Can you send over a bottle of your best champagne?”
“Okay. We have pornographic movies on television, too. You pay for how many you watch, so be careful.”
Lewis frowned. “That will not be necessary, either. Gracias.”
“¡No, por favor!”
The porter left the suite with a fistful of Lewis’s crumpled pesos. By now Lewis’s drunkenness had burned away and he felt merely jet-lagged, muscle-fatigued, dry as a prune. But he would not let weariness prevail. He stood under a hot shower for five minutes, brushed his teeth, combed his hair and beard, put on a clean shirt and pair of trousers. While he’d been in the shower the porter had delivered two glasses and a bottle of locally produced sparkling wine. Lewis unpacked the last six issues of the Journal of Roman Studies and racked them on the bedside table for post coital conversation stimuli. He was eager to hear Camila’s position on the recent debates over Cicero’s De Haruspicum Responso.
Awaiting her arrival, Lewis sat on the bed and flicked through television channels: local variety shows, Mexican telenovelas, dubbed action movies, frivolous cartoons. The introductory screen for the hotel’s selection of pay-per-view erotica advertised everything from lesbian congress to a cartoon Japanese woman making love to a cartoon octopus. He continued flicking channels. He chanced upon Quo Vadis dubbed in Spanish, which didn’t matter too much because he recalled the English dialogue virtually by rote, although it had been some years since he’d watched the film in full. During the Dance of the Vestal Virgins he picked up the phone and called the front desk. After the fourteenth ring he heard the ancient concierge’s grumpy grunt.
“I’m expecting a lady to join me,” said Lewis. “She hasn’t arrived yet, has she? Please send her to the luxury suite.”
“Nobody’s been here.”
“No phone messages?”
“¡No, por favor!”
Lewis ventured into the lonely corridor in his carpet slippers and found the hotel’s ‘business centre’ in a shadowy alcove. Maybe Camila had sent an email? It wasn’t impossible. She had the address on his business card. He woke up a computer and logged in to his email account.
There were only three dispatches from his wife headed successively:
Kochanie I’m stuck on the highway outside Wrocław because Gustavo’s truck broke now we hitchhike
I am cold and worried are you back in Krakow I need help
In fact it is okay now I am in coffee shop in Bolesławiec but snowed in.
Well, Ludka’s drama had resolved itself. But there was nothing from Camila. He worried she had been in an accident while driving tipsy into the city from the finca.
As of 3am, by which time Rome had burned and Galba had marched on the city, Camila had not arrived. Lewis, exhausted and now fully sober, returned to the pay-per-view pornography options. He avoided the octopus hentai and selected Exploraciones íntimas con Bella y Hayley. Two women in their early twenties—pretty but rather under groomed for contemporary professionals, Lewis thought—kissed each gently other on a couch. As it went on and on without a piece of clothing shed, Lewis came to a grim realisation: he’d wanted lesbian porn; this, however, was porn for lesbians. And there was no way to fast–forward through the endless foreplay. He fell asleep even before the beginning of the cunnilingus.
EMILIANO QUESADA, face down and gurgling, tried to swat the fat finger poking his bare shoulder and prodding him towards consciousness. His swatting movement upset the stillness of the waterbed, and he was roiled with it. Fucking seasickness ensued. He lifted his drool-coated chin from the mattress, belched, blinking rapidly as the pain hit.
Oh, your mother’s cunt.
He rolled over and belched a vapour of vodka and bile gases. His brain seemed oddly weighted, top-heavy, rattling around his bruised inner skull in a slime of thin fluid. Rosetta, his fat little Bolivian maid, leaned over the bed. She poked him again, this time in the arm. The blazing sun sickeningly amplified the powder blue of her tightly buttoned dress. The sun lit up the white walls, the white couch, the white ceiling; bouncing off the swimming pool, this sunlight shimmered and danced. Awful. He clenched his eyes.
“Ugh,” he said. “Close the fucking curtains!”
“Emilianito, you must get up!”
Rosetta prodded his arm again. Now he grabbed her wrist, jerked and unbalanced her, and she fell heavily on top of him. The bed went wild. Extricating his right leg from under her broad fat behind, Emiliano wept at a new bout of nausea. He curled up, buried his face into the softness of Rosetta’s large bosom, and waited for calm seas.
“Don’t move,” he said. “I need to sleep. Fuck, I got so drunk last night.”
“Please, Emilianito,” said Rosetta, disentangling with her powerful arms, lifting herself from the bed, leaving him bobbing alone. “Somebody was here this morning.”
“Thieves. The lock on the front door is broken, and your computer is gone.”
He tumbled off the bed onto the floorboards and tried to keep his gluggy eyelids open. He followed Rosetta into the living room. His desktop computer had indeed been taken from his cluttered desk. Standing in his sagging underpants, he ransacked the desk drawers. Motherfuckers. All four of his external hard drives had been stolen. The jar where he kept his collection of USB pen drives had also been emptied. Even the old data discs he kept on a spindle were gone.
He went back to the bedroom to look for his phone, which he normally left on his bedside table. It was gone, too. Every fucking piece of technology with the capacity for data storage seemed to have been taken from his house.
He went back to the living and screamed, “Where’s my fucking stuff?” at Rosetta, who was sweeping the slate tiles in the kitchen.
“I told you, Emilianito,” she said. “Thieves broke in! They must have come while you were sleeping.”
Now Emiliano saw that the crucial VHS tape – Camila Weitensteiner sucking Joaquín Álvarez’s fat cock – which he had left sitting beside his games console, was also missing. As was the ancient VCR machine he’d excavated from his garage to play the tape. As was the digital device he’d purchased to transfer the analogue video to his computer.
Camila Weitensteiner’s people had been here.
From the kitchen, Rosetta raised her eyebrows and said, “You are lucky they didn’t take your PlayStation, darling.”
He picked up a porcelain vase of gerberas from the dining table and threw it at her. The vase bounced off the kitchen counter and shattered against the wall.
Rosetta grunted. “Your mother will not be happy you broke that.” She began to sweep up pieces of the broken porcelain and the strewn flowers.
Now pain, put aside during his fury at being robbed, returned with crippling force. Right behind his eyes. Oh Christ. Emiliano staggered out to the poolside. His eyelids shut themselves against the impossibly brutal sun. His breathing was tight, even asthmatic. He kneeled at the pool’s edge and dunked his head fully into the water. He withdrew, gasping for air, and then rubbed the bearded skin of his cheeks with vigour. Chlorine-smelling water dripped down his bare back and beneath the limp elastic of his underpants.
Slowly opening his eyes, he was relieved to see the Maserati still parked in the driveway. He’d somehow made it home from Ice Ice Baby while drunk. He retrieved his car key from his crumpled trousers on the floor of his bedroom and went out to inspect the car. The exterior was without a scratch. Let’s see how smart this bitch really is, he thought. He disarmed the alarm, got into the driver’s seat, and reached into the glove compartment expecting to find a sheaf of papers, those half dozen spare printed shots from the Camila and Álvarez sex tape that he hadn’t used at the cottage.
The glove compartment was empty.
The bitch had thought of everything.
His eyes pumped with rageful blood and he was attacking the steering wheel in a punching fit. The horn blurted but he didn’t hear it. Eventually he fell back into the seat, spent and more nauseous than before. Something heaved in his guts, and he dangled out of the driver’s side doorway to vomit onto the gravel. When he raised his weary head Rosetta was standing nearby.
“You need to put your clothes on, Emilianito. I’ll make coffee.”
EMILIANO CALLED his gauchos from the house’s landline, told them to drive over and to bring the ‘toolbox’. Skipping a shower, Emiliano pulled on a black t-shirt and jeans. He found an old Trilby hat to hide the bad hangover hair that was sticking up all over the place. He wore his sunglasses. Standing in the shade of his large ranch house at the end of the gated drive, he drank down a large mug of black coffee.
When Segundo and Martín pulled up in a black and dusty SUV, Emiliano threw his coffee mug onto the front lawn. Rosetta would pick it up. But the mug hit a hidden rock and cracked. Whatever, he had lots of coffee mugs. He climbed into the SUV. The gauchos, in grimy work khakis, were playing cumbia music very loud. Segundo was driving. Martín shuffled over to the middle of the front seat to allow Emiliano to take the passenger side. Emiliano rested his sneakers up on the dashboard on either side of a hideous bobble-headed doll.
“You’re late,” said Emiliano.
“We were working this morning, boss,” said Martín.
“We’re working at the vineyard on the other side of Lunlunta. There’s a case of powdery mildew fungus. We’ve been clipping in the hope we can contain it.”
“Whatever. The SUV smells disgusting. You guys smell disgusting. Like shit.”
“Yeah. Mauricio had us moving manure earlier, too,” said Martín. “It gets everywhere. Why can’t we take your Maserati?”
“I can’t drive my Maserati this morning,” said Emiliano. “We have to be incognito. Did you bring what I told you?”
Martín reached into the back seat to lift a rag draped over a metal tool box. Emiliano picked up the Uzi submachine gun on top of a pile of screwdrivers. He squeezed the trigger.
“Not loaded yet,” said Martín. “Safety measure. By the way, nice hat, boss.”
“It looks terrific,” added Segundo, who usually said nothing.
“I bought it a long time ago,” said Emiliano, examining himself in the rearview mirror.
“It’s actually maybe the best hat I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Martín.
“Would I lie, boss?”
The fucking gaucho asshole was smirking. Or was he? Emiliano took off the hat and rested it on his knee.
“Turn off the fucking cumbia,” said Emiliano. “I have a headache.”
“This is bachata, boss.”
Martín turned it down a little and said, “This Weitensteiner woman has got balls to steal your stuff right out of your house while you were asleep.”
“You should definitely teach her a lesson,” said Segundo.
“More than a lesson,” said Emiliano. “The Weitensteiners are finished in Mendoza. She picked the wrong guy to fuck with. The wrong guy to rob. The wrong guy to shoot at.” And then he glowered. “You assholes told somebody about the shooting yesterday.”
“No way!” said Martín.
“We don’t talk,” said Segundo.
“Somebody talked,” said Emiliano. “Everybody in fucking Mendoza knows what happened and everybody has been breaking my balls.”
“Maybe the Norwegian cowboy is bragging about it around town,” suggested Martín.
“I pay you guys to shut the fuck up, not to talk.”
“Come on, boss, we’re very laconic guys,” said Martín. “Silent types. We find silence is the best way to scare the shit out of people.”
“For example, we didn’t tell anybody about your cupboard incident,” said Segundo.
“Shut up about the fucking cupboard incident,” said Emiliano. “I told you never to mention that. And Christ, put the fucking air conditioning on! I’m breathing shit fumes in here.”
“The air conditioner is broken,” said Martín.
“Why didn’t you fix it?”
Martín nodded. “We asked Mauricio to fix it and he said it was okay the way it was. By the way, boss, Mauricio was not happy with you yesterday. After he found out about the Norwegian shooting your football, I mean.”
“See, you did tell him!”
“We don’t have to tell Mauricio anything,” said Martín. “He knows about things in Mendoza as soon as they happen. The cupboard incident, for example.”
Segundo said, “Man, he said shut up about the cupboard incident.”
“Oh, I forgot,” said Segundo.
Emiliano raised his right leg and stamped his sneaker down on the edge of the dashboard.
“You’re doing this on purpose, you motherfuckers.”
At that moment Segundo clipped a thicket of bushes alongside the road. The dry branches scraped along his door.
“I’m going to teach Camila Weitensteiner more than a lesson,” said Emiliano, cradling the Uzi in his lap. “I’m going to teach her to respect me.”
“Should be easy enough,” said Martín. “By the way, boss, where can I buy a hat like that?”
Emiliano turned and glared at him. “If you’re joking with me about my hat I’ll kill you, you half-breed asshole.”
Martín shook his head. “I need a new hat, so I thought I’d ask.”
After a moment Emiliano said, “I got it in a shop in Miami. You’ll never go there, so why should I bother telling you?”
“Well, I’m going to save money for a plane ticket,” said Martín.
“You owe it to yourself, Martín,” said Segundo.
Joe nodded. “Because, damn, I really like that Miami hat.”
“Can we stop talking about my fucking hat?” said Emiliano.
Segundo and Martín chuckled. Segundo turned off the highway outside Huascito and along a narrow dirt road. The boundary of the Weitensteiners’ vineyard on the left side of the road was marked by a hedge of tangled carob trees and dried bushes. Segundo parked the SUV at a place where the hedge was patchy. They had a clear view across the vineyard to the winery building, the old barn, the stable, and the Norwegian cowboy’s sex cottage. Several men were packing a refrigerated transportation truck with cardboard boxes. An older man with a ponytail and tattoos was directing the loading.
“Look, it’s Jesús,” said Martín. “My dad used to drink with him in the old days.”
“I remember that fucking old bastard,” said Emiliano. “He’s been with the Weitensteiner family forever.”
“I bet it was Jesús who robbed your house,” said Martín. “He is the person Camila would ask to help her. The person she trusts.”
“Let’s drive out to the highway and wait for Jesús and the truck,” said Emiliano. “I’ll load the Uzi.”
“Wait until we get there, boss,” said Martín. “It’s a rough stretch of road.”
“No,” said Emiliano. “I’ll do it now.”
Segundo returned to the empty highway and drove north away from Huascito into uneven desert country. The road cut through a chain of low foothills. They picked a narrow spot at the bottom of a downhill stretch for the ambush. A sheer cliff climbed to the left, and the right shoulder of the road fell away steeply into a gully. Segundo maneuvered the SUV so it blocked almost the full width of the road. There would be time for a large truck to brake on its way down the road, but no space for a retreat.
When Segundo killed the engine, the stupid fucking cumbia stopped, too. Waiting in the silent SUV in the hot shitty air, the loaded Uzi on his lap, Emiliano dozed. He woke up sweat-soaked and staring at the bobble-headed doll, at its ugly face of grimy pink plastic. His headache had not gone away but had actually become worse. He told Martín to prepare mate. Martín filled the mate gourd with yerba and hot water from a thermos and passed it first to Emiliano, who sucked through the metal straw. Martín refilled the cup and handed it to Segundo. Then Martín took the cup prepared mate for himself.
A few cars came down the road and blared their horns. At these moments Segundo backed up to allow them through. Afterwards he returned the SUV to block the road.
The refrigerated truck from Finca Weitensteiner appeared at the top of the road about 9am. Jesús was driving alone. As they’d planned, he applied the brakes coming down the decline and was trapped.
Emiliano fixed his hat on his head and stepped out onto the road with the Uzi. He squeezed a few rounds into the sky and enjoyed the fear in Jesús’s eyes. But Emiliano looked away. He couldn’t stand eye contact. He opened the truck’s door and pulled Jesús out of the cab. Segundo and Martín, unarmed, waited nearby.
The four of them stood in the road in front of the truck in the bright sun.
“Put away your fucking gun, asshole,” said Jesús.
Emiliano laughed. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, it’s not going to happen. Because I think you broke into my house this morning and stole my stuff. I think you stole my computer. And I think that whore Camila Weitensteiner asked you to do it.”
“Man, I wish I’d stolen that hat, too,” said Jesús.
Emiliano heard Martín and Segundo laugh. He told them to shut the fuck up. He hit Jesús across the back of the skull with the side of the Uzi. Jesus fell onto his knees and stopped joking. He looked over at Segundo. “Come on, this is stupid. I knew your father.”
“I remember,” said Segundo. “So what?”
“You’re talking to me, asshole,” said Emiliano.
Segundo and Martín took an arm each and pushed Jesús’s right cheek down against the dusty bitumen. With little hesitation Emiliano swung back his right sneaker and kicked the man’s face as if he was kicking a football. Checking out the damage, he saw he’d split Jesús’s bottom lip and knocked out a front tooth.
“More later, asshole.”
Segundo and Martín tied the spluttering man’s hands behind his back with one of his shoelaces and locked him in the backseat of the SUV.
The gauchos then followed Emiliano uphill to the rear of the transportation truck. Emiliano climbed up onto the tailgate and opened the door of the refrigerated container. The cargo was all wine boxes, several thousand bottles of Finca Weitensteiner Reserva. Emiliano ripped a hole in the nearest box, withdrew a bottle, and tossed it underarm out onto the road. It exploded in a pop of violent red near Segundo’s feet. The gaucho didn’t jump out of the way, didn’t even flinch as the shards of tiny glass and wine splashed his boots.
Emiliano jumped off the tailgate and stepped back. With his legs a shoulder-width apart, he raised the Uzi and emptied the magazine into the boxes. The sound of breaking glass was almost musical. Wine spat, misted, and gushed onto the highway. When the Uzi clicked empty, Emiliano handed the gun to Martín and walked around the left side of the truck. He climbed into the cab, fixed the steering wheel hard right, and released the brakes. He jumped out onto the road as the truck rolled forward, veering right, moving beyond the edge of the road and down into the gully.
The sound of the crash was tremendous.
Breathing fumes of wine and petrol, Emiliano looked down from the shoulder. The truck lay on its side on the floor of the gully ten metres below. Wine was making a bubbly purple lake around the crumpled and perforated refrigerated container.
“Give me your phone,” Emiliano called to Segundo. “I need to send a text message to a bitch.”
WHEN LEWIS WOKE alone at 9am, Bella and Hayley were still kissing on the couch in full dress. For several minutes he stared in disbelief at the giant television. Ah. A loop. He switched it off, packed his suitcase, paid the sniggering morning concierge a hundred and forty-nine pesos for the useless pornography, and took a taxi out to Finca Weitensteiner. The morning sun was naked and powerful. To escape a faintly meaty mire inside the taxi, Lewis rolled down the window for the hot and grapey breeze.
At the finca Bucephalus was saddled for riding and tied to the hitching post in front of the farmhouse porch. Around the back at the big table Don Heinrich was chewing a ham sandwich on pumpernickel bread. Terry Fowler was leaning back in a chair to tan his skinny bare chest. He tracked Lewis’s approach with a lazy head swivel. His eyes were hidden behind pink plastic sunglasses with opalescent lenses.
“Howdy, partner,” he said. “A little better than the Polar Vortex out here, isn’t it?”
Lewis down put his suitcase and leather satchel. Spike ran over to him, blurting hard barks, and tried to lick Lewis’s wrist. Lewis toed the dog away. Then Camila’s blonde lad ran up with a soccer ball.
“Buen día, Lewis!”
“Good morning, son.”
“How are you today, Lewis? Have you seen my mother?”
“No, I have not.”
Nico smiled and playfully dropped the soccer ball between their feet. Lewis tried to oblige with a kick. The edge of his right slipper shot the ball against the adobe wall of the house, and then bouncing into a thicket of leafless dry bushes out in the field. Nico, never quite losing his big smile, crawled through the bushes to retrieve the ball.
Lewis nodded to the old man. “Buen día, Don Heinrich.”
“Ah, die Arschmade.”
“There he goes again,” said Terry. “I don’t speak Hun. Do you?”
Lewis sat at a place as far away from Terry as possible. He served himself sunwarmed coffee from a pot left over from breakfast.
“So how was your night?” said Terry. “You disappeared, matey.”
“My night was quiet,” said Lewis.
“Me and Morgana settled for the hammock. Snogged a bit then we sealed the deal.” In case Lewis hadn’t understood, Terry briefly raised his pink sunglasses and confided, “I got my leg over.”
“I get it, Terry. Have you seen Dr. Weitensteiner this morning?”
“She ran off ten minutes before you arrived. Got a text message and sped off like a speed demon.”
“I’m quietly puzzled about this woman.”
“Don’t try to figure out the ladies, Lewis. Fool’s gambit. Stick at what you’re good at. Storytelling. Today we can get going on that potent golden dildo bit. I’m stucker than I’ve ever been.”
Lewis drank coffee, then said, “You do not present to the world a picture of the tortured artist.”
“Oh, I am, it’s terrible,” Terry said. “And it’s even worse now Hollywood’s demanding delivery. The pressure is mounting.”
Terry nodded affirmatively. They heard a horse trot in from the trail and come around the side of the house towards them: Morgana on Incitatus, the mare with the white star between her eyes. As Morgana dismounted the horse shat a half dozen grassy baubles. After tying the reigns to another hitching post at the edge of the field, Morgana jumped onto Terry’s lap and ruffled his hair. He welcomed the caress with a catlike roll of his head. Lewis’s distaste must have been evident, because Morgana stared him down with a proud lover’s defiance which became ridiculing laughter when she saw his carpet slippers. “¡Pantuflas!” she cackled. Then she continued to canoodle with Terry.
Their heads were turned by the sound of Camila’s pickup truck speeding through the finca gates and across the gravel drive. She passed out of sight beyond the farmhouse. Lewis heard a spatter of churned up gravel hit the boards of the front porch. He heard Bucephalus,
innocent bystander, whinny in protest.
“Somebody’s not happy,” said Terry.
“She must have the menstruation,” said Morgana.
Lewis put down his coffee cup and went to speak to Camila, give her a piece of his mind. He discovered she had left the driver’s door of the pickup truck hinged open. Bucephalus was bucking and scraping her hooves against the gravel.
Lewis went into the house and found Camila unlocking the gun cabinet behind the staircase. The bizarreness of her present appearance stole the well-rehearsed words of reproach from his tongue. His immediate impression was that she’d been stamping grapes in her equestrian gear. On second thought the red stains marking her white riding slacks and boots and hands and the splotch of purple matting her hair against her right temple—all coated in a glaze of desert dust—made it look as if she had crawled away from a massacre.
“What on earth have you been doing?” he said. “Are you injured?”
“No, I’m furious.”
“That makes two of us. We need to talk.”
He watched her pass over two racked hunting rifles in favour of a well-preserved antique Lugar pistol. She began loading its box magazine with 9mm cartridges. Her wine-spattered hands shook. Several cartridges dropped to the floorboards and she bent down to retrieve them. Lewis seized her right elbow and repeated her name until she looked him in the eye.
“What do you want?” she said, shaking him off.
“You should know I waited up at the Hotel Gardel last night until 3am,” he said.
“At the hotel.”
“Why? I don’t understand.”
“Watching Quo Vadis dubbed in Spanish,” Lewis said with a humourless chuckle. “Frankly, I was not impressed.”
“Naturally,” she said, snapping the magazine into the pistol. “Quo Vadis should be watched in the original English.”
“I mean I was not impressed to be left waiting.”
Camila seemed genuinely puzzled. “You thought I was… Lewis, maybe my English wasn’t clear. I’m sorry I kissed you last night. Well, not sorry, but it was very unprofessional. It was a drunken night. But many complicated things are happening right now that you know nothing about. The Quesadas have sabotaged my shipment and kidnapped Jesús. I must act.”
“What? Have you called the police?”
She shook her head. “This is Huascito, Lewis. The police are not our friends.”
“But what do guns achieve?” said Lewis. “Absolutely nothing!”
“This gun will achieve destroying the testicles of that motherfucker Emiliano Quesada.”
“Ah,” said Lewis. “Well, okay. I suppose that is achievable.”
Camila shoved the pistol under the waistband of her riding slacks and walked out. Before Lewis could stop her she had started the pickup truck. She gunned the accelerator and made a hard skidding U-turn that spat another fan of gravel. Nico, playing out in the field, ran after the truck as it sped for the gates. He screamed for his mother to stop. Pacing alongside for a moment, he beat a fist against the passenger door. She drove faster, leaving her boy standing in a trail of drifting dust.
Lewis hurried to the big oak table.
From her perch on Terry’s lap, Morgana said, “Where’s she gone this time?”
Lewis said, “The Quesadas have sabotaged a wine shipment and kidnapped Jesús. Camila told me she is going to shoot off the testicles of Emiliano Quesada in revenge.”
“Sí, that is good,” said Morgana. “Los testículos. He deserves it.”
“What nonsense,” said Lewis. “We must call the police!”
“This is the wild west, Lewis,” said Terry. “You of all people should know it’s a different set of rules out here.”
Lewis went to the head of the table and put his hand on the patriarch’s knobby right shoulder. “Don Heinrich, please. You must take charge and avert a bloodbath with the Quesadas.”
Don Heinrich did not deign to give Lewis a glance. He went on chewing his ham sandwich. If the stoic old man was indeed considering the matter, he would not be rushed. But valuable time was passing.
Morgana tumbled off Terry’s lap. “Forget this old fool. We must help Camila. She cannot act alone against the whole Quesada family.”
“Alright,” said shirtless and sunglassed Terry, rising to his feet. “Where is this Emiliano chap then?”
“Probably the ice bar in Plaza Huascito,” said Morgana. “He is always there with his stupid friends, the assholes of Mendoza.”
“I know the very place,” said Lewis. “I was there last night!”
Terry went into the house through the backdoor and returned presently with a rifle and box of ammunition.
“Oh, Jesus,” said Lewis. “Put that gun back!”
The old man barked, “Das ist mein Gewehr!”
“That’s his rifle,” explained Morgana.
“Sorry, old-timer,” said Terry. “But I need it more than you do.”
“Do you know anything about rifles, corazón?” said Morgana.
“Can’t say that it’s my specialty.” Terry slung the rifle by its broad leather strap diagonally across his bare back, bandido-style. “But like the man said, ‘When Duty whispers low, ‘thou must,’ the youth replies, ‘I can.’”
He ran over to Incitatus hitched at the edge of the field, untied the reigns, swung into the saddle, and galloped out through the finca gates with a loud “huzzah!”
“That’s my horse!” called Morgana.
Lewis, who had ridden a horse just once before as part of a reenactment of cavalry patrols at Hadrian’s Wall, went around to the front porch and laboured to mount Bucephalus. His carpet slippers were clearly not designed for use in stirrups. Once he was in the saddle, the horse began to trot of its own volition after Terry. Lewis held tight to avoid bouncing off onto the gravel.
“So you men will leave me with only a bicycle!” cried Morgana from the driveway.
Lewis was too preoccupied to respond to her. As he passed through the gates, he heard Nico cry with great confidence:
“Save us, Lewis!”
OUT ON THE HOT HIGHWAY Lewis’s nose clogged with desert dust and his beard became slick with sweat. The saddle bouncing was hard on his buttocks but he caught up soon enough with shirtless Terry. Coming into Huascito, feral turkeys idled in the gutters and mange-burdened mongrels chased after their horses.
Two blocks from Plaza Huascito Lewis heard the report of a gun and then shattering glass. Bucephalus reared, skittish, and he just barely held on. Terry jerked back his reigns and turned his own wildly neighing Incitatus.
“She’s shooting already!” said Terry.
“One side of the plaza is bordered by a hill,” said Lewis. “Let’s climb up around the back of it and look down to see what’s going on.”
Lewis turned Bucephalus off the highway and down an empty street of concrete houses and open-air eateries. These structures gave way to long-neglected lots. After the lots became wild grass Lewis found the foot trail that climbed up the back of the hill. The men dismounted here and left the horses to roam between tufts of dead pampas grass.
It was a quick hike to the crest. A low boulder provided cover. Lewis and Terry crouched behind it and peered down into the colonnaded plaza from the east. They faced the rear of the caped San Martín statue in the centre of the plaza. The liberator pointed directly at Finca Weitensteiner away in the distance. A yellow sports car, parked in San Martín’s shadow under his feet, was partly obscured from their view by the statue’s monumental black stone dais.
The plaza was empty, the outdoor restaurant tables abandoned, nobody in sight. Camila had left her pickup truck outside the bike hire shop at the top left corner of the plaza. The Ice Ice Baby Ice Bar was in the top right corner, and shattered glass lay between the colonnades out front.
“Where is she?” said Terry, unslinging his rifle.
Lewis glimpsed a flicker of moving shadow near the car beyond the dais. They heard a sharp pop and then a sustained hiss. One side of the car began to sink.
“She’s shooting out the tyres of that beautiful car!” said Terry.
Now Camila walked into view, her back to them. The urgency of the situation notwithstanding, Lewis had to admire her womanly backside in those tight, wine-stained riding slacks. Her outstretched pistol arm echoed San Martín’s gesture to liberation. From a position to the right of the sports car, she bent her knees and unloaded another round at the front windows of the ice bar. It was a long shot, some thirty metres, but her aim was good. More glass shattered.
“Emiliano Quesada!” she cried. “Vení!”
The chubby bartender and one of the men Lewis had seen playing pool ran out and fled with their hands in the air. Camila let them escape. A minute later a familiar short, curly headed man stepped out of the ice bar.
“That rude imbecile is Emiliano Quesada?” Lewis whispered to Terry. “He threatened me last night because he had the false idea I had insulted the dignity of Argentina.”
“He looks like a right turd,” said Terry.
Emiliano walked in a direct line towards the sports car. Camila held her ground, slowly pivoted on her feet, tracked Emiliano with her pistol arm.
“Perhaps this is not the plum time to mention it,” said Terry. “But she’s pretty fit. All that horse riding is marvellous for the gluteus maximus once you get over the initial bruises.”
“Shut up, Terry.”
They heard Emiliano mutter something dismissive to Camila in Spanish and keep walking. She fired a warning shot into the air and put the gun back on him. He stopped a few metres from the car and turned to face her directly. He scowled. “Qué querés, puta loca?”
She answered something indecipherable. They remained ten paces apart.
Terry tapped Lewis on the arm. “Ambush coming! Down in this corner.”
A burly man, whom Lewis recognised as the pool-playing manager of the ice bar called Bernardo, had snuck into the near right corner of the plaza and was now creeping up behind Camila. Emiliano, privy to the looming ambush, kept her distracted with talk. Without hesitation Terry shouldered the rifle and sighted.
“What the hell are you doing?” said Lewis.
“I’ll bushwhack this chap in the arse before he can disarm Camila.”
He immediately squeezed off a shot that went far off its nominated target. The bullet ricocheted from the cobblestones to make a hole through San Martín’s right ankle.
“Whoops,” said Terry.
At the sound of the shot all lost their focus. Emiliano hid behind his Maserati. Camila dropped her upraised pistol arm. Bernardo leaped on Camila from behind and took the pistol away. Wheeling around, with the muzzle of the Lugar against Camila’s right temple, he squinted up at the top of the hill.
“¡Tirá el rifle!”
“Sorry, I don’t speak the lingo!” Terry replied.
“Drop the fucking rifle, puto!”
Terry stood up and threw the rifle aside. Lewis remained hidden in a crouch behind the boulder.
“Come down here,” called Bernardo.
“It’s up to you now, Lewis,” Terry whispered, before he stumbled down the front of the hill into the plaza.
The rifle lay in the dirt beyond Lewis’s reach, irretrievable without showing himself, so he crawled away unarmed and ran down the back of the hill. The horses had wandered off. Lewis ran circuitously to enter the plaza from the south side. Hiding in the shadows behind a cool stone column, he heard echoing voices in an overlapping argument of hard-to-decipher English and Spanish. The four speakers had not altered their positions on the far side of the plaza: Emiliano alone, not far from his car; Bernardo ten paces away with the gun still at Camila’s temple; shirtless Terry at the base of the hill in his ridiculous sunglasses.
Lewis tiptoed across the cobblestones to hide behind the left side of the dais. He wasn’t spotted. Now he was just a few feet away from the yellow sports car, parked directly in front of the statue. Lewis crawled and concealed himself behind the car’s front right wheel. From here he could spy Emiliano, standing on the other side of the statue and brandishing a tyre iron that he must have taken from the car.
Suddenly Lewis saw movement up on the roof of the ice bar. He felt his heart thump. Then he realised it was Morgana up there, confidently brandishing Don Heinrich’s other rifle, unseen by the others. She waved to Lewis and jabbed a hard finger at Emiliano. The message was unambiguous:
Take that skinny son of a bitch out of the equation. She would deal with Bernardo.
Lewis swore to himself and backed away from the car. How had he wound up in this mess? With some difficulty he climbed up onto the dais and crawled in a clockwise circuit around the feet of San Martín. His trouser knees kept slipping on the smooth stone surface. Above him the liberator’s enormous outstretched arm pointed west. Lewis put his head down and kept moving until he found a protected vantage inside the folds of the Superman cape falling to San Martín’s shot-up right ankle. He noted significant damage. The concrete shell was thin, hollow, with about as much structural integrity as a chocolate Easter Bunny.
Here Lewis was just three metres away from Emiliano, both above and slightly behind the man’s right side, safely out of his peripheral vision. Emiliano was anyway staring fixedly at Camila as she wriggled in Bernardo’s grasp. Furthest away was bare-chested Terry, his hands held high, his mirrored pink sunglasses reflecting a distorted vista of the plaza.
“Why don’t we all just share a bottle of tequila and forget about the guns bit, hey?” Terry was saying. “No harm done, is there?”
Emiliano called out, “Maybe instead we will just shoot this bitch and paint the cobblestones with her brains, motherfucker.”
Lewis sank into despair. Who were these lunatics? Why had things suddenly escalated to such a terrible showdown? It was clear he must act immediately. He looked again at Morgana on the roof and she nodded an impatient assent. Well, he hoped his body weight would be sufficient to put Emiliano out of action; he also hoped the skinny fellow would cushion his own fall onto the cobblestones.
And then Bernardo rendered the rescue plan unnecessary by releasing Camila. Morgana, with sharp judgment, held her fire. Lewis watched Bernardo eject the magazine from the Lugar, unload the round already in the chamber, and hand the emptied pistol back to Camila butt-first.
“Cuidado,” he said, “Las pistolas son peligrosas.”
She stowed the gun under her waistband. “Sé todo acerca de las armas, idiota.”
“Calmate, nena,” Bernardo said with a laugh, and then loudly, “The yankee has reason. Let us all drink tequila and stop playing with guns. And Emiliano needs to stop being such a bloodthirsty pelotudo.”
The showdown averted, Morgana raised the barrel of her rifle to the sky. Lewis exhaled in relief and prepared to climb down from the dais. But then he heard a high-pitched grunt and watched Emiliano raise the tyre iron and run directly at Camila with unambiguous intent. Sheer violent lunacy! Facing Bernardo, Camila was oblivious to the oncoming assault. Morgana snapped back into sniping position and swiftly tracked Emiliano’s movement. Lewis waited for the shot that would end this mad sprint and save Camila. He waited for the spatter of blood. He waited for Emiliano to fall dead.
It did not conclude that way.
Instead, a colossal explosion in the countryside to the west of Huascito made the air pulse with a deep and ratcheting metallic boom. Everybody in the plaza was startled out of their tightly wound focus. Emiliano slipped, tumbled hard, and hit his head on the cobblestones. His tyre iron bounced away.
Not more than two seconds after the explosion Lewis heard a light pop. Concrete chips and cement dust sprayed his trouser leg. Reeling off-balance, Lewis felt his slippers lose their grip on the smooth surface of the dais. He seized San Martín around his muscular right thigh and was able to steady himself. What the hell had just happened? He heard Morgana yell “Sorry, Lewis!” It seemed that one of her bullets had glanced off the cobblestones near Emiliano and somehow cracked the statue’s left ankle. Above his head San Martín’s finger, now shaking violently, pointed to a wall of black smoke rising from distant Finca Weitensteiner as if to say, “look at that!”
By now birds were squawking across the valley. At least a dozen car alarms had begun to wail. Lewis steadied, detached himself from the liberator’s thigh, and watched Camila run past Emiliano’s fallen body to the pickup truck. She sped away. Terry put two pinkie fingers in his mouth and whistled powerfully; Incitatus came trotting into the plaza. Terry mounted and took of in pursuit of Camila. By now Morgana had vanished from the roof of the ice bar. Lewis was left alone with the rich runts of Mendoza.
“The guy who fucked up my plumbing!” said Bernardo. “Why are you up there with San Martín? Don’t you have respect for the liberator?”
Before Lewis could answer, another explosion, even louder than the last, boomed across the valley. Lewis cringed, spun around, and glimpsed a jet of fire leap into the sky above the finca. Again his slippers lost traction, and this time he fell hard against the interior of San Martín’s Superman cape. His weight, added to the existing damage to the ankles, put untenable pressure on the statue. It rocked backward once, then gravity dragged it forward. Lewis managed to move to the side as San Martín toppled. Emiliano, rising dazed from the cobbles, watched as the statue’s outstretched arm swept downwards and penetrated the roof of the Maserati as if it was tearing through a sheet of paper. Then San Martín rolled left, breaking apart and shattering when it hit the cobblestones.
Lewis was left alone atop the dais with the liberator’s amputated feet.
Bernardo began to laugh as Emiliano cried out something in Spanish. Squealing with rage, he retrieved the tyre iron and threw it. Lewis narrowly dodged this whirling whooshing iron propeller and tumbled off the left side of the dais. His horse, less obedient than Terry’s, was nowhere to be found. Lewis sprinted, his feet very nearly sliding out of his slippers, and grabbed an untended bicycle outside the hire shop. He mounted and jiggled across the cobbles, then made speed when he rolled onto smoother road. Emiliano, limping, was left behind.
Lewis peddled along the highway and turned right onto the dirt road to Finca Weitensteiner. The air was pungent with smoke and gasoline fumes. En route two more deafening explosions sounded up ahead. On both occasions Lewis nearly ran the bicycle into the bushes. Terry’s mare, now riderless, came charging away from the finca in a state of high agitation and nearly trampled Lewis.
The sight up ahead was staggering. The iron finca gates marked the entrance to a raging inferno. Nothing much could be seen beyond through the writhing, velvety black smoke, but sounds came from within—cracks like gunshots as fire consumed dry wood, the crunch of falling masonry, and a constant roar beneath it all like the sound of a waterfall.
Lewis left the stolen bicycle on the dirt outside the gates. Don Heinrich was leaning calmly against the cargo tray of Camila’s pickup truck.
“Don Heinrich, what happened?”
The old man did not answer nor look him in the eye. He seemed much more interested in the cigarillo he was smoking.
With a shift in the wind, the smoke beyond the gates thinned. Lewis distinguished Camila, Nico, and shirtless Terry in a huddle on the gravel driveway. He ran over. Here the heat was close to unbearable. The sight was grim. The adobe farmhouse was burning within a column of high-shooting black smoke. Much of the pampas grass in the field was aflame. The winery, the old man’s cabin, and the cottage, too, were consumed.
“What the bloody hell happened here?” said Lewis.
Wine-stained and smoke-blackened, Camila was uncommunicative. She examined the fires with what seemed to be detached and puzzled curiosity. Nico, dirty as a chimney sweep, looked up at Lewis with reddened, rheumy eyes and explained something about being on the horse trail up in the foothills when he’d heard the explosions.
Lewis fell to his knees, took Nico by the shoulders, and asked, “Boy, where is my leather satchel?”
Nico blubbered tears. “I put it in the house! With your suitcase! I put them there for you, Lewis!”
“Jesus Christ! I had my manuscript in that satchel! Has it really gone up in flames? Oh, no!”
“But where is Spike?” said Nico. “I can’t find Spike, Lewis!”
“Forget about bloody Spike! What about my bloody fucking book!”
“How could I forget about Spike?” Nico growled.
“Everything has burned up today,” said Terry matter-of-factly to the boy. “And I suppose Spike has, too.”
Lewis got to his feet. Nico began to wail, burying his face in his hands.
“The vineyards have gone up, too, like an old man’s birthday cake,” Terry said to Lewis. “Looks to my unschooled eye like somebody pumped the drip irrigation hoses full of petrol and then lit a match. A bloody clever idea, in fact.”
“Sabotage?” said Lewis. “We must bring these Quesadas to face the full force of the law for this atrocity. We must not rest!”
Without warning a cloud of black smoke turned and blew across the gravel. Terry, Lewis, and Nico had to tug Camila out of danger. They all retreated back outside the gates. Don Heinrich had not moved. Morgana was just then arriving on the back of a wobbly bicycle.
“You nearly shot me, you crazy woman!” said Lewis.
“I am not a professional shooter, what do you expect? Give me some respect. I rescued Jesús from those imbéciles who left him beaten and tied up in the toilet of the ice bar. It was disgusting! The plumbing is broken.”
“Where is Jesús?” said Camila.
“Jesús is fucking angry.”
Before Camila could inquire further, Spike charged out of the immersive black smoke with Lewis’s bulging leather satchel between his teeth. The dog dropped it at Lewis’s feet and barked.
“Ah, thank God!” cried Lewis, retrieving his work. “What a fine bloody dog!”
Nico screamed in delight. Fur-singed and smelling a little like a hamburger, Spike leaped into the boy’s arms. They rolled together in the dirt in mutual delight.
“So Nico has his dog,” said Morgana. “And Dr. Lewis has his manuscript. But Camila has lost her finca. Some justice in this miserable world.”
“Yes, I have lost my finca,” said Camila quietly. “But this was not the work of the Quesadas.”
“Who then?” said Lewis.
She began to laugh—mirthless, miserable laughter. Slowly they turned—Lewis, Terry, Morgana, and Nico—to Don Heinrich, who was still leaning against the pickup truck.
“So I guess we now know what this old bugger was hiding in his secret log cabin,” said Terry. “Petrol bombs. Incendiaries. You ought to be locked up, you bloody pyromaniac!”
Don Heinrich said, “Ich hörte das Geräusch von Trommeln in der ferne.”
Lewis turned to Camila. “I don’t speak German. What did he say?”
Camila laughed again. “He said, ‘I heard the sound of distant drums.’”
“TERRY!” said Lewis. “I found you!”
It was midnight at Mendoza Airport, and Terry was drinking whisky in a bar in the departure lounge. At his feet were six bottles of duty-free Estancia Quesada malbec.
“Hullo, Lewis! Fancy a cocktail? My flight to London isn’t for a while yet. I’m soaking it up in anticipation. Best way to ensure a good night’s sleep over the pond.”
Lewis signalled to the bartender. A cognac. He said:
“I’ve spent the last six hours with your bloody girlfriend Morgana trying to find a dementia ward in Mendoza that would accept Don Heinrich. You abandoned us, Terry! Camila abandoned us! What the devil happened?”
“Well, I didn’t want to get involved further, you see,” he said. “I decided to call it quits with Morgana. A little magic in the moonlight doesn’t always look so good in the light of day. She’s pretty fit,” he said, “but she wears a lot of makeup. So I decided it was time to take a plane home.”
“Right. Thanks for your help.”
“Camila and her lad and the dog flew out earlier to America. Although these Latinos don’t like you calling it America up there since they say it’s all America.”
“Camila’s already gone?”
Terry made a plane of his right hand and flew it away. “Hasta la vista, baby. She did tell me something cryptic as she was boarding the plane. Maybe you will understand what she was on about. She said that Jesus locked his captor in the Red House and she’s taking the only key to Wichita. Some sort of Christian metaphor, I reckon. But I always slept through Sunday school and I don’t know the bible from my arsehole.”
“What a remarkable woman. She meant something entirely different, neither metaphoric nor very Christian.”
“Well, I never try to understand the ladies, Lewis. Fool’s gambit! Her kid was less ambiguous. He told me to tell you that he never wanted to see you ever again.”
“For Christ’s sake, he got his bloody dog back. What else does he want?” said Lewis. “Anyway, first things first. I’ve decided to consent to the collaboration you proposed.”
“Nah, that’s okay. I accept that you’re not really interested.”
“To be frank, Terry, I desperately need the cash. My novel survived the inferno, thank God, but my suitcase went up in flames. All my money is burned. Fortunately PopCon has reimbursed me what they owed, so I can at least afford a ticket back home to Poland, but I face cold, impoverished months there typing up my holograph pages.”
“Poland is a funny place to write westerns.”
“I don’t write bloody… Anyway, we have work to do. The potent Midas dildo bit!”
Terry smiled nervously. “Nah, as it turns out, your help won’t be necessary. I had a creative epiphany as we were standing there watching the smoking ruins of Finca Weitensteiner. You should be proud of me. I’ve decided to take my story in a different direction that uses zero percent of your original story material but, rest assured, one hundred percent of your kind encouragement. As it turns out, Don Heinrich was not the only one inspired today by the history of this Carthage place. Very interesting story, in fact.”
“My book is about Carthage! That’s my material!”
“Well, I believe that story is in the public domain and free to all comers,” he said. “So how does this sound: I decided to move the Chamber of Crossed Destinies to a city on the southern fringes of the sea of the Thibbledorf, a place long at war with the elf realm. Anyway, those elf buggers go in and enslave the population, raze the city, topple the statues, and the chamber goes up in flames. The infamous dildo melts down into liquid gold, and the Penetrator of the Seiðkonur is temporarily bereft of her powers of seduction. Boom. And the book pretty much writes itself after that.”
Lewis slowly drank his cognac and felt a too-familiar sense of deflation. He envisioned the oncoming months in Krakow: the freezing empty apartment, the microwaved cabbage soup. He would have to cart the satellite television through the snow to sell at the Halą Targową flea market. A writer’s peace was elusive.
“I conquered my writers’ block!” said Terry with a grin. “You were right, Lewis. I could do it all by myself.”
Thanks to Jace Davies, Clinton Walker, and Christina Haas
for their perceptive early readings of this story
Last seen in 'Lewis and Loeb', Arthur James Lewis returns for another comic misadventure! In the winter of 2014, Lewis yearns for nothing more than Ciceroâ€™s idealâ€”a garden and a library. Desperate for a peaceful place to complete 'Carthage: The Sound of Distant Drums', the latest (and longest) of his "magisterial novels of the ancient world", he finds himself instead harassed and disrespected. Where to begin? His wife refuses to type up his manuscript. His live-in niece has installed a noisy satellite television to addle the brain of her toddler. The gas company have switched off the heat in an act of shameless revenge. And at a ghastly pop culture convention in blizzard-battered Ohio, Lewis is collectively mistaken for a hack writer of Westerns. An unexpected windfall of cash allows Lewis to escape to Mendoza, Argentina, where he hopes for a fruitful discussion with the beautiful Camila Weitensteiner, eminent scholar of Ancient Rome, who also happens to manage a small family winery with a guest cottage overlooking the vineyard. For a moment the garden and library seem within reach, but Lewis has arrived during a standoff between the Weitensteiners and the corrupt and monopolistic Quesada family that threatens to become all-out war. Yet again he will learn that a writerâ€™s peace is elusive. [Cover image by Simone Artibani @Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.]