Lopez’s place was near calle Delgado, in a sidestreet. A simple restaurant, but well-decorated. It was crowded. For a weekday in San salvador that was an exception. They sat at a table next to the entrance.
“You look tired. I don’t know if I was wrong to turn up like that.”
“Of course not. I don’t sleep before eleven. Let’s see what happens. Do you recommend anything?” “Pasta is their speciality.”
“You told me that you’d lived on your father’s farm. What’s it like to pass your childhood in that kind of place ?” “It was a long time ago. I don’t remember it very well. There are only a few good memories, like the pastries that Dona Isabel used to make. I’ve forgotten almost everything. My father’s farms were in a beautiful place. A region of high mountains with a lot of forests. The weather there is milder and even the mosquitoes don’t bother you so much. Did you know? There are still real Indians there. They are nomads, remnants of the first people who inhabited the continent.”
“Interesting. Shall we order ?”
“Yes, please. Waiter, lasagna and cappeletti! And to drink?”
“What about some wine?”
“A bottle of wine. Thank you, Keith. I hate having to choose the drinks.”
“When did you go to the United States?”
“When it was time to study. Here the opportunities are very few and then the guerrillas had started attacking the region. I moved to the capital and after that I lived with my mother in Atlanta. It was great to live in America. It improves people. Everything there is much easier. People with ambition find their chance there. But I think I’ve been talking about myself too much.”
“Not at all. I’m curious. Do my questions bother you?”
“I ask myself how you came to be interested in business.”
“I think since I was a child. I can’t stand still anywhere. I need to be on the go all the time, working hard. In America I decided to study business and it wasn’t difficult to start. My father helped me a lot. Although he is old-fashioned he believed in me. After all, I am his only daughter.”
“It’s not easy to be a businesswoman in a country like this.”
Antonia talked about her career, explained some of her ideas. She always spoke with conviction, although she avoided going deeper into subjects. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman. Keith let himself be carried away on a wave of emotion. Although he didn’t exactly know what was going on, he knew that Antonia was exercising a glamorous fascination.
The willingness to win, the difficulties she went through to set up her business and her busy life as a businesswoman. These facts couldn’t diminish the admiration that Keith was starting to feel for her. Antonia gave off a mysterious sensation that revealed itself in tiny details. Along with her words,her gestures showed affection and frequently her vital energy.
“This may be a difference. Here people are still stuck in this endless war. In Europe you don’t have to do anything. I think that the will to live is the main thing. We have to learn to deal with things even when they are going wrong. There, I don’t see much of that. Do you sincerely believe that you are living with the intensity that you should?”
“Difficult question. I don’t think so. What I can assure you is that this lasagne is very good and your company is much better.”
“It’s a pity it’s so late. I really have appointments tomorrow.”
“In the morning ?”
“Early. It was the only time that Domingos arranged with Colonel Felisberto.”
“Ah, talking about that, was your conversation profitable ?”
“Very much and I don’t know how to thank you. He’s going to give good protection.”
“These things here are necessary.”
“And you can’t imagine how! I know about it. Well, let’s talk about now, right?”
On the way to the hotel Keith thought about the moments he had passed with that woman. Near her, he felt eclipsed. Antonia still had more to reveal. Caution towards her feelings was recommended*when the car braked. The caretaker approached to open the door. Antonia smiled.
“Here we are,” she said.
Keith felt himself definitively involved. From that moment on, he would do anything to conquer her. He hesitated. Then he talked, looking into her eyes:
“Are we going to see each other again ?”
Antonia answered sweetly:
“Is it OK for the night-club on Friday?”
They said goodbye. While the caretaker was holding the door open, Keith stood up and held out his hand towards Antonia. She took it and pulled him close to her. She gave him a kiss on the edge of his mouth.
The drawers were all over the room. The bed was a mess. The wardrobe was open. Papers and notes were spread over the bed. The cases were on the floor with all the zippers opened. Even the bathroom had been searched. The shaving foam and the deodorant had fallen next to the bidet. The room door was closed without signs of having been forced. It was a professional job.
As soon as he entered, coming back from the restaurant, the journalist thought he should talk to someone. He realised there would be no point in calling the police. He wondered about Antonia. What reason would she have for being involved in something like this ? Could it be a coincidence? What did the intruders want in his apartment? He thought it might be best to try to sleep. He locked the door. He made his bed and got into it. He was unsettled.
“Antonia, you listen to me whether you want to or not. Listen carefully: I don’t want you involved with this journalist,” said the deputy.
Don Carlito, his daughter and his two private assistants, Domingos and Juan Carlos, were having a meeting in the library of the villa. They had just settled things relating to Izalco Enterprises, the import-export company managed by Antonia. Don Carlito was speaking slowly at that moment, in a respectful and low tone of voice, trying to avoid a scene.
“I don’t like snooping into your private life, but I consider your relationship with the journalist inopportune. You’re going beyond your limits. I asked you only to introduce Domingos and that’s all.”
“Can I know why ?” she said.”And can I know who is gossiping about my private life?”
There was silence. She looked at the two assistants. Domingos stepped back with a gesture that said he didn’t know anything about it. Juan Carlos approached.
“I don’t like him very much. He’s already been in trouble here and in other places. I do it on my own account.”
“You do it according to my instructions,” interposed the deputy.
“It’s not my business,” continued Juan Carlos.”But you shouldn’t have been in contact with a man like Keith O’Brien. If you want, I can show you his file. We’ve already collected a lot of very interesting information about him… We’ve already been in his hotel room…”
Antonia was furious.
“I know very well what I am doing. My life doesn’t need to be invigilated, particularly not by an asshole like you. Dad, I ask you to leave me alone. If you don’t… well, if you don’t you’ll see.”
“I just think that we shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. I don’t have anything against Mr. O’Brien. I think he’s a nice intelligent man. I’m not against the help Domingos is giving him, but I don’t know why you get involved. What do we earn from that ? Let’s forget about this man and take care of our business. And another thing: you expose yourself by going out without a bodyguard. The guerrillas would love to have you as a hostage. Try to be more reasonable my daughter.”
Antonia calmed down. She flung a final defiant look at Juan Carlos and said:
“I’ll shoot the first person I find following me in the streets.”
After crossing the northwest section of the city they arrived at the Operation Centre of the Salvadorean political police. The Centre worked out of a walled mansion. There were no identifying signs, nor any kind of activity outside the building. The house stood out from the others because of the shelters with men armed with machine guns. The single entrance was heavily guarded, with barbed wire and cement blocks.
Domingos slowed the car. He drove up to the gates. He flashed the lights, reducing his speed further. He stopped. He and Keith were identified at the entrance. Then they found themselves in a kind of internal area where other cars were parked.
What they could see showed that it was definitely not a house. There were thick bars on almost all the windows as well as men in uniform. They were guided by a policeman to an office at the end of the corridor on the second floor.
Felisberto Vilareal, a young man of 32, tall, thin, square-shouldered, with his black hair combed to one side, was the agency commander. He received them at the door of his office.
“Good afternoon,” he said, standing to attention and speaking with a military clip.
Domingos approached and greeted him.
“Good afternoon, colonel.”
“How can I help you? ” answered the officer.
“My name’s Domingos Herrera. This is Mr. O’Brien, the English journalist.”
“Nice to meet you. What are you doing standing there ? Please, come in and take a seat.”
“I work for Don Carlito and I’m Ignacio’s brother.”
“He’s an excellent civil servant. How is the old deputy?”
“He’s very well.”
“He’s wearing well, isn’t he? How old is he now?”
“About 74, I think.”
The office had a small table near the window from where the internal area could be seen. There was also a circular committee table with four chairs and files stuffed with paper spread around the room. On the wall there were portraits of the President and Army officers. On a table there was a pile of reports, an array of pens and a large ashtray decorated with warplanes. Felisberto sat down and put his feet on the table. The visitors were still standing.
“Well, senores. How can I help you?”
“Well, I offered to bring Mr. O’Brien so he could take advantage of the department’s co-operation.”
“Right. Why don’t you sit down? Senor O’Brien, how can I help you?”
They both sat down and Felisberto asked Domingos for a cigarette.
“Mr. O’Brien doesn’t speak Spanish very well. If you don’t mind, I can tell you what he wants.”
“As you like.”
“I don’t know if you remember, but he is the journalist who was trying to make contact with Santiago’s group in that downtown brothel.”
“Ah! Of course I remember.”
“Mr. O’Brien is one of the most well-known journalists in Europe and he is here doing a story on our country. You already have his file, as well those of the other journalists that are here. He is a neutral and he is full of good intentions. Mr. O’Brien knows that someone has been following him and, after what happened downtown, he realised that you police are keeping a watch on him. In short, we’re here to ask you to leave him be.” Keith intervened.
“I’d like to have a general overview of the conflict to write up later in my articles.”
“I’m sorry Mr. O’Brien, but I can’t help laughing. Unfortunately there’s no neutrality in a war. You support either one side or the other. The press have no rights in a conflict that involves life and death. We are against them and the one who wins will destroy the other. What you want is simply impossible. Those men would take you hostage and would exchange you for their colleagues in prison. And we did the best thing: We killed them before they could go on causing problems.”
“I understand your point of view, but what I ask is not impossible. I would like to be left alone.”
“Let’s be honest, senor. We follow all foreign journalists. It’s not a privilege. Everybody knows, don’t they, Domingos? They know it so well that they come here to ask the same thing. I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Mr. O’Brien, our men are following you to protect you. And if you disappear? We need to know what’s happening. It isn’t in our interest to hear speculations later from the Red press saying that we are `disappearing’ the journalists. War is something that happens every day, even in time of peace. International communism is working every minute of the day. Counter-espionage is part of the procedure. I’ll give you an example. If I were a guerrilla I would make you disappear and later I would kill you, leaving on your body the mark of our death squad. What would happen? The whole world would be revolted with our government. One goal, one battle won by the reds.”
“Were you the ones involved in that hit ?”
“Frankly, yes. We were the ones who went into that brothel firing. Our men had instructions to protect you.”
“Colonel Felisberto, please. Don Carlito is willing to help this man in his work. I was ordered to follow his instructions. I am armed and I know all about the service. Would it be too much if I asked you to make an exception? We’ll take care of his security. Mr. O’Brien would sign something saying that the decision was his .”
“I don’t want to be over-inquisitive, but what’s your special interest in this man?”
“We should all be interested in him. What he’s going to publish in Europe will have repercussions all around the world and this will help to put an end to the war.”
“Optimistic, Domingos, optimistic. The war against communism will never end. And European opinion… well, it’s not important. But let’s get straight to the point, because I’m not here to waste my time. If it’s what you want, all right. I promise you that they won’t bother you. Wait a minute. I have to find the journalist’s file to make some notes.”
Felisberto signalled to an assistant. He asked him to look for Keith’s file. While the man was looking for it, Felisberto talked about the function of the information service. With the file, he took notes of something and read it through, slowly flipping through the pages.
Then he said:
“Well, everything is OK. A detail that I’ve read here. A curiosity. We were not the only ones who were following Mr. Keith. Someone else is following him.”
As soon as the visitors left, the assistant asked Colonel Felisberto if he were serious.
“Of course not. I want you to intensify the surveillance. No mistakes. I don’t want him to see anything. Tell that idiot, Morales, to be quiet. There’s no need to be hasty. Let the man talk to everybody on the left. We are going to do the business later when the idiot’s far away from here. Ah, and I want to know who is following this journalist and why he is so important for Don Carlito.”
Keith decided to wait. He adopted a more cautious plan of action until something new happened. He stayed quietly in the hotel and tried to think about what had been going on. He concluded that it was essential to protect not only himself but also his informers. The secret service certainly wouldn’t stop following him. Furthermore, someone else was following him and, sooner or later, this person would try to make contact.
His relationship with Domingos intensified and deepened as the weeks passed. The Salvadorean proved to be even more helpful. Constant telephone calls to London brought back old memories. But his involvement in collecting the data for his articles made him lose himself more and more in his new environment. Keith, as in other situations, found himself entangled in events in a search for something in his private life that he didn’t clearly understand.
Antonia became part of his routine. At first, she would appear out of the blue and later disappear for several days. As time passed, they started to see each other almost every day. Keith admired her even more. Although she had a modern spirit, Antonia kept a certain distance, never allowing space for more daring invitations. She sought time to understand what her feelings were.
At the weekend, a telephone call surprised him in the middle of the night. Just as before, a man well informed about his life and habits, claiming to be the guerrillas’ spokesman, was proposing a meeting. Before checking the details, the man spoke with the journalist about his mistakes during the other contact. Keith apologised and said someone had been following him. He blamed himself, but he was quickly forced to change his opinion. The voice on the telephone said that the guerrillas had been watching the person who was following Keith. Everybody made mistakes the first time.
They arranged a new meeting. They didn’t specify the location. Only some days later a brief message would give further details. Keith was supposed to go the following Friday, at six o’clock, to a certain place near the bus station. There he would receive instructions to travel to a certain village. He was asked about people he knew. Keith asked the man on the phone if he knew Domingos. After a short pause he heard that the guerrilla knew the man. He was quite trustworthy. He didn’t have any direct contact with the right wing, but to avoid problems only he should go to the meeting. He avoided mentioning Antonia, but he was asked about her. He replied that she was only a girlfriend and that he didn’t talk to her about what he was doing.
Domingos probed for more information:
“Did the men get in touch?”
“Are you talking about the guerrillas?”
“We may have a new meeting.”
“Are you going to risk yourself again?”
“It’s necessary. I’m going away soon. The destination hasn’t been revealed yet. They asked me to go alone, and I’m going to respect that.”
“How are you going to get to the country?”
“In civilian clothes.”
“You’d better take care.”
“I sometimes do…”
“It’s good to take risks sometimes.”
“You’re kidding …”
“I don’t know why, but I feel like it.”
“Anyway it won’t be easy for you to travel. Have you ever travelled on our buses?”
“Well, if you want I can give you a lift.”
“No, no, I’ll go alone. If the situation gets difficult, I’ll telephone you. I learned a lesson with the deaths of the informers at the last meeting.”
In front of the television, images of a country music show were flickering on Keith’s serious and impassive face. He paid no attention to what was happening on the screen. He was far away, thinking about recent events.
“I don’t know who I can trust. In my position I don’t have any alternative. Domingos… He surely is one person that I shouldn’t rely on. I don’t know if he’s interested in the end of the conflict. I don’t know who he works for. I must keep my eyes open and use him while it’s possible. He should know as little as possible. He seems to be a man who’s not really involved in politics, but it’s amazing the relationship he has with all the people on the right. I really wanted to understand better what was going on and know exactly who I could trust. I felt like sharing my ideas with Antonia, but something tells me to wait. In fact I don’t even know where I stand. Antonia is a special woman. This involvement at the wrong time is disturbing me. Maybe in a different situation… Her zest for life is beginning to affect me. I am seriously attracted to this woman and I don’t know if that’s good. Particularly in the situation I’m in. The impression I have is that she is going to leave me suddenly. She’s been affectionate and impulsive, talking about strong feelings, but I don’t know what she may do. Antonia is an enigma. She’s been great company during these long days, but it’s difficult. I’m a kind of independent and I can’t accept this feeling with an open heart. I don’t know if I can get involved with her. I don’t know how to deal with things without her. If I could take her smile to England…
“What crap ! I’m a grown man and I’ve been around. It may be something simpler. A desire that comes, a casual meeting and all the story that a man and a woman have to tell. A party, a flame of passion and soon it’s over. I would like to have her in my arms. It’s strange for a man like me, after experiencing everything, to admit that I can still love a woman the way I do… I need to sleep.
“Tomorrow I’ll have a busy day. I’m confused. I can’t tell what’s right or wrong. Where is she tonight?
“Good old Ralph, I miss you. Life’s not the same without a friend to argue with. I think that I’m really becoming sloppy and sentimental. If you could read my thoughts you would surely think that I’ve been carried away by the Latin’s passionate way of living. Could it be? My life has been empty recently… I’ve always waited for the opportunity that I’m having now: a place to forget about the routine and to live intensely. This country has a bit of everything. Passion, this is something that the Latins know how to bring to life.
“El Salvador, a very small and dirty country. A small oven that is slowly baking my senses. What nostalgia for the mild days of Autumn in London. My cups of coffee. Come on, Keith. The show must go on!”
The waves were buffetting the ship with less force. The wind was dropping at last and the crew, for the first time in two days, could breathe with relief. The ship was off the Central-American coast. Yuri, on the bridge, was smoking a cigarette.
“There’s not much left to do to finish the mission,” he said.
“What are we waiting for, by the way?”
“Instructions by the radio. Probably the group ashore is late.”
“Will it take long ?”
“Less than ten days, maybe. If we don’t have problems like this one, I don’t care about waiting.”
“Bad weather is part of a sailor’s life.”
“That may be true, but I’d rather not have been through it. I’m not used to it,” said the Russian.
The bus, an old Chevrolet lorry adapted for carrying passengers, followed the Panamerican Highway. From the windows the exuberant tropical vegetation was visible. Plains and scattered peaks appeared in alternation.
Fields with small crops and ranches with cattle farm passed quickly by . The suspension creaked. The passengers were squeezed together, trying to take up the empty space in the aisle. The bus bounced about, overtaking slower lorries when possible, as well as those carrying people. Inside, it was a hub-bub of Hispanic noises and the screeches of chickens in sacks. Now and then someone laughed. `Permissos’ often introduced new faces.
Sitting on the third row of seats, Keith was trying to hold on to his sense of humour. Beside him there was a fat woman carrying a child on her lap. Keith didn’t have enough room for himself, but he was cheerful. In his mind he was whistling an old Christmas song and trying to comfort himself by remembering that he would have to stand for the last two hours.
The bus went north. After the Panamerican, it turned east, along a winding road in dangerous state of disrepair. At this point the mountains were already routine and the bends increased the likelihood of a collision. Keith focused his attention on the passenger beside him. He looked at the deep traces and wrinkles around her eyes. The large cheekbones and the texture of the skin. She took care of the child like a robot. She turned the baby, changed it and shouted at it as if she were hardly conscious of what she was doing. In the rare moments of peace she fed the baby, pulling down her coloured print shirt and giving it her breast.
Small villages flashed past the window. Poor houses in a twisting line, dirty streets full of children playing. Old men and women without teeth eyed the Chevrolet. The bus stopped for a snack near Soyapango. A dirty wooden bar offered the travellers refreshments and Coca-Cola. A small display case on the counter held boiled eggs and pieces of cake. On the walls, there were cigarette and drink advertisements and government posters with photographs of wanted guerrillas. Keith, though trying not to look a foreigner, was the centre of attention. His silence and his posture gave away his origin. He asked for a soft drink. He drank it and tried the gents.
After ceaselessly beeping his horn, the chauffer closed the door. He shouted after those who were missing and accelerated away, leaving the bar behind in a cloud of dust. Keith was back in his seat with his bladder full. The toilet had been impossible …
A few kilometres before Las Vinas, they were stopped at a police check-point. Three officers looked over the bus. Their eyes scrutinised the passengers’ faces. Armed with machine guns, they spread tension as soon as they entered.
“Your documents, please,” said the shortest. Those standing can get off to clear the aisle !”
They watched each of the passengers’ movements very carefully. Each document checked received a visa. They passed in front of Keith. One of them fixed his attention on the Englishman. He asked for his documents. He took the passport and carried on down the aisle. The other two were at the back of the vehicle. They checked the documents of a twenty-five-year-old guy and, without asking any questions, dragged him from the bus. The guy shouted. Keith didn’t understand anything.
Two policemen came back later and asked some passengers to go to the check-point for clarification. Keith was among them. His heart started to beat faster. He got off with five people. Outside, three soldiers were searching the passengers’ baggage. The group was taken to a small room about four metres square. There was only a writing desk in one of the corners with a noisy fan on it. Flies buzzed around the people. Keith was pushed towards the man in charge of the police operation.
“Sergeant Miguel!” – he introduced himself.”I’d like to know what a man like you is doing in this region ?”
“I’m a journalist.”
“Journalist! Come on! Let’s see. You are either a guerrilla or a smuggler. One or the other.”
“I’m telling you the truth, senor. Please, speak slowly. I don’t understand your language very well, I’m a foreigner.”
” Shut up,” the officer said making a gesture to his assistant.
The man brought Keith’s bag and turned it out on to a table. Pens, notebooks, a diary, a shirt and a small parcel fell from it. The sergeant opened the notebooks, looked at what was written, pretending he knew English. He shook and smelt the pens. Finally he opened the parcel and found some grammes of marijuana.
“Here it is, son of a bitch! Journalist! Filthy drug dealer!”
Keith was wide-eyed.
“I assure you that this stuff doesn’t belong to me. Someone must have put it there.”
“Fuck you, man. Wait there.”
An armed guard began to watch Keith’s movements. His machine gun was pointed at the Englishman’s back. While Keith was sweating coldly, the sergeant questioned the others. He set some of them free and detained one more besides Keith and the man who had been dragged by the policemen off the bus. A little later the driver entered the office, slapping the soldiers on the back.
“Hey amigos, let’s get this over with quickly. I gotta go. Miguel, have you found anything?”
“You’re free. You can get out of here. I’ll stay with these.”
The three men were scared. The two Hispanics started to shout. One of them whispered something to the sergeant. He discreetly passed him a handful of colons and was released. The second was taken to a cell nearby and Keith was kept in the office. The bus driver pressed the horn three times and took off. Keith tried his last chance.
“Sergeant, please, my passport. Read inside the envelope.”
The officer gave him a look. A mixture of disdain and menace. He opened the passport, took a small envelope and started to read. The light in his eyes faded little by little. His face became pale. Without taking his eyes off the document, he waved to his colleagues. They approached and read it too. Beads of sweat stood out on Keith’s face.
“Senor, everything was a big mistake,” said the sergeant.”I’m terribly sorry. I couldn’t have known that you were working for Colonel Felisberto.”
“I was introduced to him by a good friend,” stammered Keith.
“Holy God. You can ask whatever you want. Money? Don’t tell him that we’ve treated you badly. Can we help you?”
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Chapter 44 (click to continue)