I spend the next two years at the University of Iowa writing my book about Huitzilac. I go the whole time without hearing or wanting to hear anything about Liliana. I finish the book. The day of its release in Mexico City she gets in line to have her copy signed at the end of the book party. Her black eyes smolder with her unique mix of pride and diffidence. Or—just as possibly—with a snort of cocaine. Her Prince Valiant haircut and the tailoring of her sand- colored suede suit make her look like a mischievous child. The plum-colored scarf at her throat matches her lipstick.
When she gets to the head of the line she says, “My name’s not in the book, but I know I’m in there.”
I dedicate her copy, “To Liliana, who’s in the book though her name’s not there.”
She reads the dedication and says, “Shall I wait for you so we can talk about old times?”
I look for her when I finish signing, but she’s left. I still have the phone number of her old apartment where we met three years ago. No one answers when I call that night or in the following days. When I go to look for her in her apartment, the doorman tells me she hasn’t lived there for months. A bout of nostalgia drives me to look for her in the Montoyas’ old house in the San Rafael district. It’s now a kindergarten.
I look up Felo Fernández. He doesn’t know where to find Liliana, but he does know where el Pato is.
He’s holed up in a minor government office run by Olivares, whose death is yet to come.
I’m in physical need of Liliana Montoya.
I blink, and the years fast-forward to a call from Felo Fernández.
“Boss, it’s been four years since we talked. Pardon the delay. I’m calling because yesterday our old pal Olivares kicked the bucket. The wake’s at Gayosso’s on Félix Cuevas. Maybe we’ll run into each other.”
Olivares’s death surprises me less than four years of not hearing from Felo and doing without Liliana.
“It seems like yesterday,” I tell Felo Fernández. Life goes by in a heartbeat, and so do we.
As I said, the presence of el Pato Vértiz at Olivares’s wake reinvigorates my quest for Liliana Montoya. I lost track of her in the four years since my book about Huitzilac came out. If there’s a whiff of Liliana anywhere, I tell myself, I’ll find it among the friends of Olivares and el Pato, who, I suppose, longs for her as much as I do. Felo Fernández is the first step on my search for her, and I have him update me on el Pato and the now-departed Olivares.
Felo gets back to me nearly empty-handed. “The last anyone heard of Liliana Montoya she ran a hotel in Antigua, Guatemala. Then she had a bar in Los Cabos where she sang. That’s it.”
I ask if el Pato’s the source of what he tells me. “El Pato tries to keeps tabs on her, but he’s lost sight of her. No one else is looking for her except you. I share your sexual and literary weakness for her, but I’d advise you to keep your distance. She’s a nefarious woman, a temptress who left a whole generation in her wake. When did you say you saw her last?”
I tell him again, “It’s been four years.”
“For your peace of mind and the good of the nation, get over her. Everyone who tries to screw her loses half his prick.”
Felo’s right. Liliana has washed in and out of my life on waves of disaster. She bides her time in the back of my mind. I’ve loved this woman more than I’ve feared her, but fear has always won.
Her story about the killing of el Catracho gives me bad dreams for years. Sometimes I’m his designated murderer; sometimes I’ve already killed him and am running from the law like a hunted animal. I wake up one morning in the grip of a horrifying revelation: I’m the one who killed el Catracho. I did it because Liliana told me to, then put what I did out of my schizophrenic mind. I’m sweating and trembling. It takes me several seconds to come to myself and admit that my nightmare has grown more vivid and maddening over the years. I remember deciding to investigate the death of el Catracho. It’s a commitment I also remember forgetting.
After Olivares’s wake I again decide to investigate the death of el Catracho. Readdressing this enigma is one way to pick up Liliana’s trail. It’s an indirect way to be sure, and I might actually prefer not to find her, but maybe I’ll run across her in the course of the search.
I begin by recapitulating what I already know.
Liliana told me about el Catracho’s murder three times. Each time she says she’s the one who asks el Pato Vértiz to kill him. That never varies. In the first version, el Pato has him killed and takes photos of the body to prove it. In the second version, Liliana and her sister Dorotea go to see the corpse, and Dorotea pokes it with her foot to make sure he’s dead. In the third version, Liliana is present at the execution and specifies how el Catracho is to be killed.
I write and destroy a short novel based on the second and third versions. I don’t publish it because I’m afraid of el Pato Vértiz. He’s an animal Liliana may have trained, but he’s no lap dog. In the novel I say the Liliana figure is as distraught as her wronged sister. The narrator takes it for granted that such transgressions are beyond redemption and that the two sisters will always be harnessed with guilt. But, in the third version, Liliana unintentionally stresses that the transgression has no consequences. She feels no remorse, and neither does Dorotea, who has a husband to provide for her, two lovers who dote on her, and a near genius of a son.
For her part, Liliana has dumped el Pato and had affairs with other equally profitable lovers. It could be said that misfortune armored her against suffering and made her immune to blame. For Liliana Montoya and her sister Dorotea, what matter are results; guilt is irrelevant.
The notes I’ve kept from my penultimate encounter with Liliana—our trip to Huitzilac— include the date of el Catracho’s murder: February 14, 1978, Valentine’s Day. “We gave him a Valentine’s gift of love,” Liliana says in my notes.
I spend a whole day in the periodicals library going over the crime pages of newspapers from that date. I find nothing. I turn from newspapers to magazines. The daily bloodletting is staggering: crimes, accidents, catastrophes, record-setting mass killings. I’m horrified and numb by the end of the morning. A headline says “a foreign journalist” whom I met has gone missing on the beaches of Oaxaca. A few pages later another headline discloses the death of a foreign tourist in a sleazy bar. Later I come across headlines about the death of “a models’ agent,” also a foreigner, who drowned in Manzanillo. People from other countries seem to gain a measure of notoriety in these pages. I keep an eye out for the word “foreigner” in the magazine I happen to be paging through. In a flicker of chauvinism, I wonder if this toxic brew of foreign blood and fatal accidents might make an odd kind of sense. I go back to the volume for 1978 and read only the stories about dead foreigners. I find nothing. I ask for 1979. In a headline from the first week of March I read: “Foreigner shot dead in revenge killing.” The following story says:
Honduran lowlife Cataldo Peña found dead;
lured two young prostitutes to his den.
The story goes on:
Fellow lowlifes appear to have dispatched him from their shameful profession with two bullets to the chest and one to the head. His days of trafficking unsuspecting young innocents to customers as twisted as he are over. The unsavory doings of this despicable Honduran were a stain on the good name of a beautiful neighboring country.
Investigations are ongoing in the offices of the Anti-Crime Division (formerly the Secret Service).
The Honduran is a big fish, and the authorities are working to uncover possible links between him and other criminal groups.
I correct the year of my search and revisit the dailies. I begin at March 1979 and draw a blank. I go back to February and find nothing on the 15th or 16th, but on Saturday the 17th I find a story about the death of “a pimp named Clotaldo Peña.” City police are looking into possible links between this crime and a band of Colombian thugs long active in the city. I check the dailies one by one through July 1979 to no avail. I return to the magazine and check the whole year. Not a line.
I pay Felo Fernández and ask if he knows anyone who could get me access to the 1979 files of the renowned DIPD, the Criminal Investigation and Prevention Division that was disbanded in 1983.
Felo Fernández takes me to his old classmate Ricardo Antúnez, a longtime protégé of el Pato Vértiz who later became el Pato’s mortal enemy. As the city’s first civilian security chief, Antúnez was an absolute disaster. Ten years ago, during his glory days, I had a minor but unforgettable run-in with him. While dining at the fashionable Cicero Restaurant, I publicly refused a bottle of wine he sent from his table to mine. Antúnez tells Felo he’d be glad to see me provided our meeting takes place at the Cicero Restaurant.
He and Felo are waiting for me when I arrive. He greets me with open arms. He says this will be a friendly meal, but, to make sure it is, I should lay my cards on the table right now. He asks me what I want. I repeat what I told Felo Fernández. I want a copy of the case file of a Honduran named Clotaldo or Cataldo Peña, who was murdered in mid-February 1979.
Antúnez has a walrus mustache and a scalp as smooth as a billiard ball. He has long curled eyelashes and thick hairy fingers. Though he looks affable, his demeanor is icy. He has a huge watch on his thick hairy wrist. He doesn’t ask why I’m interested in the case, but he leaves no doubt he’s familiar with it.
“I’ll get you the file, count on it. But what do you want to know, what happened or what’s in the case file?”
I tell him both. Antúnez hastens to explain his question.
“What’s in the file isn’t necessarily what happened. The court record is one thing, the police blotter is another. The police blotter is more accurate.”
I’m slow to grasp that Antúnez is making me an offer. Felo Fernández sees I’m lost and explains. “What Antúnez is asking is if you want him to look up a comandante from those days, someone with first- hand knowledge of the case.”
I say, yes, naturally.
“That’ll cost you a bottle of wine,” Antúnez says with a yawn.
I agree. Antúnez scans the wine list and chooses a Spanish tinto, the most expensive wine on the menu. Olivares’s old students never miss a trick. Antúnez keeps his word. A week later he sends me a photocopy of the file. Then he calls to invite me for another dinner and promises to pay for the wine. Once again we eat at Cicero’s. While we’re considering dessert we’re approached by an elderly man who seems perfectly alert but whose clothes are wrinkled and threadbare. He has a mane of unkempt gray hair above a low forehead. As a waiter escorts him to our table, he looks the place over as if he were going to film it. He shakes hands with us before sitting down, his grip feels rough and calloused. We order dessert. Antúnez finishes his coffee and leaves when the conversation gets down to business.
“The two of you should talk alone.”
Felo Fernández leaves with him. He has an affair of his own to take care of.
Being alone with the old comandante is like looking at a blank wall. The wall speaks, “Mr.Antúnez told me what you’re looking for. Can we cut the bullshit and get to the point?”
From Day In, Day Out. Used with permission of Schaffner Press. Copyright © 2017 by Héctor Aguilar Camín.