The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte


He didn't see any warning flashes in the woman's eyes as he returned to her with a drink in each hand in the crowded Boadas bar. That was his third error of the night. There are no handbooks on lighthouses and perils and signals for navigating on land. No prescribed routes, no updated charts, no outlines of shoals measured in feet or fathoms, no markers at such and such a cape, no red, green, or yellow buoys, no conventions for boarding, no clear horizons for calculating latitude. On land you have to navigate by blind reckoning, and you are aware of reefs only when you hear their roar a cable's length from the bow, when you see darkness grow light in the froth of the sea breaking on a reef just below the surface. Or when you hear the unexpected rock—all sailors know there's one waiting for them somewhere—scraping the hull with a murderous screech that makes the bulkheads shudder, in that terrible moment when any man at the helm of a ship would rather be dead.

"You were quick," she said.

"I'm always quick in a bar."

She watched him with curiosity, amused, as he cleared a path through the people clustered around the bar with the decisiveness of a small, compact tugboat. He had ordered a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic for himself and a dry martini for her, carrying them back with a skillful, pendular motion of his hands, without spilling a drop—a feat that deserved no little credit in the Boadas at that hour.

She looked at him through her glass, blue eyes very dark behind the crystal and the clean transparency of the martini.

"And what do you do in life, besides move well through bars, go to maritime auctions, and help defenseless women?"

"I'm a sailor."

'Ah."

'A sailor without a ship." 'Ah."

A half hour earlier, after the man with the gray ponytail climbed into the Audi, she had said "Thank you," and he had turned to look at her closely for the first time. Standing mere on the sidewalk, he reasoned that the easy part was behind him, that now it wasn't his move, but that of the woman whose thoughtful and vaguely surprised gaze was checking him over from head to toe, as if she were trying to catalogue him with one of the species of man she knew. There was nothing for him to do but try a modest, restrained smile, the same smile you give the captain when you sign on to a new ship, at that initial moment when words mean nothing and both parties know there will be time to sort things out. But for Coy the problem was precisely that he had no guarantee they would have the necessary time, that there was nothing to keep her from thanking him once more and marching off in the most natural way, disappearing forever. He bore the ten long seconds of scrutiny silently and motionlessly. LUF: Law of the Unzipped Fly. I hope to God it's zipped, he thought. He watched as she tilted her head to one side, just enough so the left side of her smooth blond hair, cut asymmetrically with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel, brushed her freckled cheek. After that, no smile, no words, she just walked slowly along the sidewalk, up the street, hands in the pockets of her suede jacket.

She was carrying a large leather shoulder bag that she tucked close to her side with her elbow. Her nose was not as pretty seen in profile. It was a little irregular, as if it had once been broken. That didn't diminish her attractiveness, Coy decided, it gave her a touch of unexpected toughness. She walked with her eyes to the ground and focused a little to the left, as if offering him the opportunity to occupy that space. Together they walked in silence, a certain distance apart, without exchanging glances or explanations or commentary, until she stopped at the corner, and Coy understood that this was the moment either for good-byes or for words. She held out a hand and he took it in his large, clumsy one, feeling a firm, bony grasp that belied the juvenile freckles and was more in line with the calm expression of her eyes, which he had finally decided were navy blue.

And then Coy spoke. He spoke with the spontaneous shyness that was his usual way with people he didn't know, bunching his shoulders with a simplicity and accompanying his words with a smile that, although he didn't know it, lighted his face and took the edge off his roughness. He spoke, touched his nose, and spoke again, with no idea whether someone was waiting for her somewhere, or whether she was from this city or from out of town. He said what he thought he had to say and then stood there, moving nervously and holding his breath, like a child who had just recited a lesson and was waiting, without much hope, for the teachers verdict. She looked him over for another ten seconds, and again tilted her head so that her hair brushed her cheek. And then she said yes, why not, she too felt like having a drink. They walked toward the Plaza de Cataluna, and then toward the Ramblas and calle Tallers. When he held the door of the Boadas for her he caught her aroma for the first time, vague and subtle, a scent that came not from cologne or perfume but from skin dotted in tones of gold, skin he imagined to be smooth and warm, with the texture of a peach. As they headed for the bar against the wall he noticed that all the men and women in the place looked first at her and then at him, and he wondered at how men and women always look first at a beautiful woman and then shift their gaze toward her companion in an inquiring way, to see who that fellow might be. As if to decide whether he deserves her, whether he's up to the test.