The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte

He took a sip from the glass the receptionist had just offered him with a flirtatious glance. He wasn't good-looking. His less than average height exaggerated the width of his brawny shoulders, and he had wide, hard hands bequeathed him by a businessman father who had no luck in the chandlery trade and who in lieu of money had left him the rolling, almost clumsy stride of someone not convinced that the earth he is treading on can be trusted. The harsh lines of his wide mouth and large, aggressive nose were softened by the tranquil, dark, soft eyes that recalled certain hunting dogs when they look at their masters. He also had a timid, sincere, almost childlike smile that came often to his lips, reinforcing the impression of that loyal, slightly sad gaze, a look rewarded by the champagne and friendly overtures from the receptionist, who was walking away through the clients now, de rigueur short skirt switching above the shapely legs she believed were holding Coy's eyes.

Believed. Because at that moment, even as he lifted the glass to his lips, he was looking around for the blonde woman. For an instant his eyes lighted on the short man with the melancholy eyes and checked jacket, who nodded courteously. Coy kept searching the room until he sighted her through the crowd. Again her back was to him, and she was standing holding a glass of champagne. She was wearing a suede jacket, dark skirt, and low-heeled shoes. Gradually, he made his way toward her, curious, studying her smooth gold hair, cut high at the nape of the neck and felling on each side toward her chin in two perfect diagonal, though asymmetrical, lines. As she talked, her hair swung softly, the tips brushing cheeks Coy could appreciate only from a foreshortened perspective. And after crossing two thirds of the distance between them, he saw that the naked line of her neck was covered with freckles, hundreds of tiny little specks barely darker than the pigment of her skin, which was not terribly fair despite the blond hair—a tone that indicated sun, open skies, and outdoor life. And then, when he was but two steps away and starting to move around her casually in order to see her face, she said good-bye to the auctioneer and turned, pausing a couple of seconds in front of Coy, just long enough to set her glass on a table, sidestep him with a lithe movement of her shoulders and waist, and walk away. Their glances had crossed in that brief instant, and he had time to notice that her unusual eyes were dark, with glints of blue. Or maybe it was the other way round, blue eyes with dark glints, navy-blue irises that slid over Coy without noticing him, as he confirmed that she also had freckles on her forehead and cheeks and throat and hands. That she was covered with freckles, and that they lent her a singular, attractive, almost adolescent look, even though she must be well into her twenties. He could see that she wore a large, masculine, stainless-steel watch with a black dial on her right wrist. And that she was a few inches taller than he, and very pretty.

COY left five minutes later. The glow from the city reflected on clouds scudding through dark skies toward the southeast, and he knew that the wind was going to shift and that it might rain mat night. He stood in the doorway with his hands in the pockets of his jacket while deciding whether to head left or right, which involved a choice between a light snack in a nearby bar or a walk to the Plaza Real and two Bombay Sapphire gins with a lot of tonic. Or maybe one, he corrected himself quickly, after recalling the lamentable state of his wallet. There was very little traffic, and through die leaves on the trees, as far as he could see, a long line of stoplights was sequentially changing from yellow to red. After deliberating for ten seconds, just as the last light turned red and the nearest changed back to green, he started walking to his right. That was the first mistake of the night.

LNAM: Law of Non-Accidental Meetings. Based on Murphy's well-known law—one that had several serious confirmations recently—Coy had the habit of establishing, for private consumption, a series of colorful laws he baptized with absolute technical solemnity. LADWU: Law of Always Dance With the Ugliest, for example; or LBTAFFD: Law of Buttered Toast Always Falls Face Down, and other principles more or less applicable to the recent miserable state of his life. These laws didn't accomplish anything, of course, except to occasion a smile from time to time. At his own expense. No matter, Coy was convinced that in the strange order of the Universe, as in jazz—he was a great jazz fen—chance played a large role, like improvisations so mathematical that you had to ask yourself if they weren't written somewhere. And it was right here that his recently formulated LNAM was proved. As he approached the corner he saw a large silver-gray car parked at the curb, with one of its doors standing open. Then, near a streetlight a little farther away, he could see a man talking with a woman. He first recognized the man, who was facing him, and after a few steps, when he could see how angry he was, Coy realized that the man was arguing with a woman. Now visible in the light from overhead, she was blond, with hair cut high on the nape of her neck. She was wearing a suede jacket and a dark skirt. He felt a tingling in his stomach. Sometimes, he told himself, life becomes predictable by nature of its pure unpredictability. He hesitated a minute before adding, or vice versa. Then he reckoned direction and drift. If there was one thing he was capable of, it was instinctively to calculate these situations, although the last time he had determined a route—a rout would be much closer to fact—it had led directly to a shipping tribunal. At any rate, he altered his course by ten degrees in order to pass as close as possible to the couple. That was his second mistake. It was at odds with any sailor's common sense, which counseled maintaining sea room at any cost, or danger ahead.