The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte

But she didn't say anything. She was as silent as Coy himself. Coy stood there between them, staring into the bicolored eyes opposite him, a step away and a foot above his. He couldn't actually think of anything else to do, and if he spoke he was going to lose what small advantage he had. He knew from experience that a man who keeps his mouth shut is more intimidating than one who doesn't, because it's difficult to guess what he has in mind. Maybe ponytail was of the same opinion, because he was looking at Coy thoughtfully. Finally Coy thought he saw a glimmer of uncertainty in the eyes of the Dalmatian.

"Well, well," ponytail said. "Look what we have here. A hero from a B-movie."

Coy kept staring, not uttering a word. If I move quickly, he thought, I could land a kick to his midsection before taking on the Berber. The question is the girl. I wonder what the fuck she'll do.

Suddenly ponytail exhaled, with a sigh that sounded like a sour, exaggerated laugh.

"This is ridiculous," he said.

He sounded sincerely confused by the situation. Coy slowly lifted his left hand to scratch his nose, which was itching. That always happened when he was thinking. Give him the knee, he mused. I'll say something to distract him, he thought, and before he answers I'll knee him in the balls. Then the problem will be the other guy, who will be warned. And not in the best of moods.

An ambulance passed by, flashing orange lights. Thinking that soon he was going to need one himself, Coy ventured a quick look around, without seeing anything he could use for a weapon. So he eased his fingers toward the pocket of his jeans, his thumb passing lightly over his keys to the boarding-house. He could always try to slash the chauffeur's face with the keys, as he had once done to a drunk German at the door of the Club Mamma Silvana de La Spezia—hello, good-bye—when he saw him ready to jump him. Because, as sure as sin, that's what this sonofabitch was going to do.

The man facing him ran a hand across his forehead and down the back of his head, as if he wanted to smooth the already smooth hair pulled into a ponytail, then wagged his head sideways. He had a strange, pained smile on his lips, and Coy decided he liked him much better when he was serious.

"You'll be hearing from me," he told the woman over Coy's shoulder. "You can count on that."

In the same instant he looked toward the chauffeur, who had taken a few steps in their direction. As if mat was an order, he stopped. Coy, who had glimpsed the movement and felt his muscles tense with adrenaline, relaxed with concealed relief. Pony-tail again took a long look at Coy, as if he wanted to engrave him in his memory, with subtitles for emphasis. He raised the hand with the rings and pointed his index finger at Coy's chest, just as he had earlier with the woman, but he didn't jab him. He just held the finger there, pointed like a threat, then turned and walked away as if he had just remembered a pressing engagement.

After that came a brief succession of images: a look from the secretary in the back seat of the car, the arc of her cigarette as it fell to the sidewalk, the door slamming on ponytail's side of the car after he got in beside her, and the last black look from the chauffeur standing at the curb—a long, foreboding glare more eloquent than his boss's—just before the slam of the second car door and the smooth purr as the motor started. With just what that car burns as it takes off, Coy thought sadly, I could eat like a king for two days.

"Thank you," said a woman's voice from behind him.

DESPITE appearances, Coy was not a pessimist. For that it's essential to have lost all faith in the human condition, and he had been born without any to lose. He simply viewed life on land as an unreliable, lamentable, and unavoidable spectacle, and his one desire was to stay as far away as necessary to keep the damage to a minimum. Despite everything, he still had a certain innocence in those days, a partial innocence related to things and areas outside his calling. Four months in dry dock had not been enough to wear away a candor more suited to the world of the sea, the absorbed, slightly absent distancing sailors often maintain when dealing with people who feel solid ground beneath their feet. At that time he still looked at some things from afar, or from outside, with a naive capacity for surprise not unlike what he had felt as a boy when he was taken to press his nose against the toy-shop windows on Christmas Eve. But now there was also the certainty—as much a relief as it was disillusion—that none of those exciting marvels was destined for him. In his case, knowing he was outside that perimeter, and that his name was not on the list of good boys to receive presents, was calming. It was good not to expect anything from anyone, for his seabag to be light enough that he could sling it over his shoulder and walk to the nearest port, without regret for what he was leaving behind. Welcome aboard. For thousands of years, even before Homer's hollow ships set sail for Troy, there were men with wrinkles around their mouths and rainy November hearts, men whose nature leads them sooner or later to look with interest into the black hole of a pistol barrel, men for whom the sea was a solution and who always sensed when it was time to make an exit. Even before he knew it, Coy was one of them, by vocation and by instinct. Once, in a cantina in Veracruz, a woman —it was always women who phrased this kind of question—had asked him why he was a sailor and not a lawyer or a dentist. He could only shrug his shoulders, and after a long pause, when she was no longer expecting an answer, he said, "The sea is clean." And it was true. At sea the air was fresh, wounds healed more quickly, and the silence became so intense that it made unanswerable questions bearable and justified silence itself. On a different occasion, in the Sunderland restaurant in Rosario, Argentina, Coy had met the sole survivor of a shipwreck, one of nineteen men. Three o'clock in the morning, anchored in mid-river, a leak, all men asleep, and the ship on the bottom in five minutes. What most impressed Coy about the survivor was how quiet he was. Someone asked him how that was possible—eighteen men going down with their ship, without any warning. The man had looked at him, silent and uncomfortable, as if it was all so obvious it wasn't worth the trouble to explain, and then raised his glass of beer and drank. City sidewalks filled with people and brightly lit shop windows made Coy uneasy. He felt clumsy and out of place, like a fish out of water, or like that sailor in Rosario, who was almost as silent as the eighteen men who had been lost. The world was a very complex structure that could bear contemplation only from the sea, and terra firma took on soothing proportions only at night, while on watch, when the helmsman was a mute shadow and you could feel the soft throbbing of the engines issuing from the belly of the ship. When cities were reduced to tiny lines of lights in the distance, and land was the shimmering radiance of a lighthouse glimpsed on the swell. Flashes that alerted you, repeating again and again: careful, attention, keep your distance, danger. Danger.