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Authors: Patrick Quentin

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BOOK: The Follower
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9

THE great circular structure of the Plaza de Toros loomed over a white, unfinished suburb. Mark paid off the taxi in front of a gate in the high concrete wall. Broad sidewalks alternated with areas of dust and rubble. The feeling was of a city that had been bombed rather than of a town which was catching up with itself. The little stalls selling fruit, candy, cold meat and weird omelets which sizzled over charcoal braziers looked improvised after disaster. Even the people who were storming the gates seemed a refugee-mixed swarm … fashionable women, bare-foot Indians, men in prosperous business suits, girls with rebozos over their heads, half-naked children and dogs.

His ticket was rejected at the first gate and he was waved towards another entrance further around the wall. He bucked the crowd. A little boy selling lottery tickets whined after him.

Chickens squawked away from him and almost got run over by a passing limousine. Music, blaring from a loudspeaker, was incongruously American.

‘Candy, I called my sugar candy…’

Mark reached the next gate and presented his ticket. He was let into a spacious parking area jammed with expensive automobiles. The great wall of the bullring reared ahead of him, split with stairways and entrances. He was jostled towards cement stairs and up them. He passed through one of the gaps, to find himself half-way up one side of a monstrous cup of stone. Far below, the circle of the arena itself looked hardly bigger than the cardboard cap of a milk bottle. Tiny men in red coats and white pants were scurrying around smoothing the sand. A brass band was playing a
paso doble
. The stone tiers of seats, beveling the huge crater, were already a third full. Clusters of people alternated with great grey gaps of stone. Ribbons of bright advertisements stretched around the circumference of the arena — Carta Blanca Beer, Gayosso, Buy Adam’s Hats.

Mark pushed his way around the circular walk, searching for his seat. If Ellie and the unknown gentleman’ had left the hotel half an hour before him, they must certainly be here by now. He found his section. He started down steep stone steps towards his row. ‘L ‘was much nearer the ring. There was an iron railing to help the descent. The music stopped. One patch of people on the far side of the arena were mad about something. They started to whistle and shout. Mark reached Row L’. The outside seats were occupied. He eased past Mexican knees, looking ahead for Ellie. There was no sign of her.

A little boy, staggering under an immense basket, screamed:
Cerveza. Hay cerveza. Bohemia. Dos Equis. Hay cerveza.’

Ahead of Mark were three empty seats. he struggled to them. He looked at the numbers 454, 456, 458. A man selling cushions was wandering in the next aisle. Mark signaled him. The man scrambled through the tier below and threw him a cushion.

Mark handed down a peso, dropped the cushion on his scooped-out cement seat and sat down. He glanced at his watch. It was exactly four o’clock. Maybe Ellie and her escort were having lunch first. Ellie had never been on time for anything in her life. Suddenly a trumpet sounded. It must have been a signal, for the people sitting in the high tiers across the ring started to run and tumble downwards to take the unoccupied seats below. It was strange to watch the mad rush of those tiny, distant figures. They had a false air of panic as if a tremendous ship were sinking.

Down in the ring one of the wooden gates in the corral that surrounded the arena was thrown open. An old man, dressed in antique splendor with a long plume in his hat, rode out alone on a white horse. He crossed the full extent of the ring. He reined his horse below Mark, took off the hat, made a sweeping bow, and then slowly, majestically, backed the white horse away again across the ring.

When he reached the point from which he had started a group of matadors in brilliant costume appeared behind him. The florid pageant started to parade around the arena.

In the din, Mark suddenly heard an American voice, a girl’s voice, saying

‘Excuse me. I’m so sorry. Thank you.’

He looked sharply to his right. A girl in a grey tailored suit with blonde hair to her shoulders was pushing past the knees of the other people in the row, coming towards him. She had a scarlet handbag on a strap slung over her shoulder. She was tall and slim. She managed to be graceful while she scrambled across wedged skirts and pants. She reached the empty seats next to him, Ellie’s seats. She had a ticket in her hand. She leaned down to look at the number on the seats and then sat down next to Mark.

Behind the loose fair hair, her profile, with its marked cheekbones and pure chin line, had a kind of laconic beauty. Her lips were heavily made-up with a shade of scarlet that matched the handbag. She had the general ambience of a New York model, of a girl who knew her way around.

‘Sorry, lady,’ said Mark. ‘That’s my wife’s seat.’

The girl still had her ticket stub in her hand. She held it out to him, watching him with blank indifference.

‘Can you read, bub?’

Mark looked at the ticket. It said Section AL 456. Exasperation welled up in him. Had it happened again? Had the girl at the Hotel Reforma given him the wrong seat? He turned his head, scanning the seats behind him. They were all occupied and Ellie was not there.

‘Well?’ said the girl. ‘Want to make something of it?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Always the gentleman.’

Mark paid her no attention. He felt frustrated and angry. What should he do? It was hopeless to try to locate Ellie in this giant bedlam. Should he go back to the hotel and wait for her there? The prospect of another indefinite wait was almost more than he could bear.

The girl had crossed her legs and lit a cigarette. She was watching the ring, indolently, as if she didn’t know what was going to happen and cared less. The parade was over now. The arena was deserted. A wooden gate opened to one side and a great black bull with a frivolous red ribbon curled on its back stomped into the ring, pawing the ground, snorting, looking important. Men with large magenta and yellow capes ducked out from behind the barrier and started fluttering the capes like butterflies. The bull charged half-heartedly at one of them. The girl turned, the cigarette still in her hand and said:

‘Where’s your wife, anyway? Down there fighting the bulls?’

‘Yeah,’ said Mark. ‘She’s the one on the horse.’

The girl’s speculative gaze did not alter its expression. ‘Going around shedding wives all over the place! Sloppy, that’s what it is.’

She looked back at the ring. So did he. One of the men was swooping his cape back and forth around the terrified bull. People were cheering and yelling Ole. To Mark it was just a slaughter-house in Technicolor, but the audience was loving it. He thought Ellie’s here somewhere. He tried to picture her as one of those little insects clinging to the side of the vast cup. It didn’t bring her closer. She only seemed less real.

The girl waved at a drink vendor and bought a beer in a cardboard cup. She leaned back comfortably with it, surveying the arena. A man was sticking darts in the bull’s back. They were gay fluffy darts like little pink Christmas trees. Mark made his decision. He would go back to the hotel and wait. As he shifted in his seat to get up, a man’s cheerful voice called in English from the aisle beyond the girl:

‘Hi, there you are, Mrs Liddon.’

Mark reacted to the name as if he had been stabbed by a dart. He spun around. Ellie was here. Then all this time … Eagerly he scanned the row of faces on the tier behind him again. They were all Mexican and unfamiliar.

He turned back to the man who had called Ellie’s name. He was pushing his way down the row towards the girl with the red handbag. He was just as obviously American as she. In his early forties, he had a happy pink moon-face, shrewd eyes, crinkled at the corners, an expensive suit and a loud hand painted tie. He looked like the vice-president of any prosperous company with an eminent position in the Elks or Shriners. He reached the seat next to the girl and sat down.

‘Guess you thought I’d abandoned you. Never try and telephone in this country. You can walk there quicker.’ He turned his beaming smile to the girl. ‘Have I missed anything good?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ said the girl. ‘No one’s been killed yet. Is that good or bad?’

The pink-faced man laughed uproariously and slapped a plump knee. ‘I can see I have a cynic on my hands. I’ll have to initiate you into the mysteries of the bulls, Mrs Liddon.’

There it was. It had been said again. There was no getting around it. The blonde with the red handbag, sitting in the seat next to him, was called Mrs Liddon.

Mark’s first feeling was one of dejection. The ticket-seller at the Reforma had not made a mistake. She had given him a ticket next to a Mrs Liddon and her ‘gentleman.’ This was the Mrs Liddon she had meant. There must be two Mrs Liddons at the hotel.

And yet, surely, if there had been two Liddons listed the clerk at the desk would have mentioned it. Was this then the only Mrs Liddon at the Reforma? Was this, too, the Mrs Liddon who had stayed only a short time at the Hotel Granada and checked out with a blond young American? The idea carried Mark even farther back and was suddenly appalling in its implications. What if the salesgirl at Derain’s had made a mistake and given him the address of a Mrs Liddon who was not Ellie?

Was this whole journey a preposterous wildgoose chase? Was he stranded here in Mexico while Ellie was still somewhere in New York?

A matador was in the ring now, prowling around the bull with a scarlet cape and a drawn sword. Mark’s common sense came back. No, the girl at Derain’s could not possibly have made a mistake. She knew Ellie by sight; she knew her picture was in Harper’s Bazaar; and on the address she had copied for Mark, Ellie’s name had been written: Mrs Mark Liddon. It was inconceivable that Derain’s could have two customers called Mrs Mark Liddon who had both bought suits and needed them shipped at the same time.

Ellie, then, had asked to have her suit sent to the Hotel Granada. She had at least planned to go to Mexico. And, when he had called the hotel from New York, he had specified Mrs Mark Liddon. Surely no coincidence could have brought two Mrs Mark Liddons to the Hotel Granada simultaneously. Ellie must have been the Mrs Liddon whom Oscar had seen go off with a blond young American. For that matter, Mark had specified Mrs Mark Liddon at the Reforma too.

A sudden new idea came to him. It was improbable, but no other theory fitted the improbable facts. He couldn’t believe in two Mrs Mark Liddons following each other from Derain’s to the Hotel Granada, from the Hotel Granada to the Hotel Reforma.

Then …

Down in the ring the matador seemed to have hypnotized the bull. It stood with solid patience, its head lowered, in front of the man who loomed on tiptoe over it, his raised sword pointed ominously downward at the animal’s neck. The huge arena was caught up in a charmed silence. Suddenly the sword swooped. It disappeared in the bull’s thick neck. The bull staggered. Its tongue lolled out. An enormous blast of roared applause swept through the auditorium like a gale. Blood spilled out of the animal’s throat. It gave a kind of hissing cough and collapsed on to its side in the sand.

Clappings, screams, cheers bellowed around Mark. He turned to look at the girl next to him. The businessman type had jumped up and was applauding heartily. He glanced down jocularly at the girl.

‘Well, well, what do you think of that?’

‘It’s making a bouillon cube the hard way,’ said the girl.

Her escort laughed his good-natured, foolish bray.

‘Ah you!’ he said archly. ‘You little cynic, you, Mrs Liddon!’

The girl was very serene. With a casual glance at Mark, she pulled the red handbag around on to her lap, fumbled in it and brought out a compact. Frowning slightly at the compact mirror, she started to remake the scarlet arcs of her lips.

There was something haunting about that young face with the disenchanted blue eyes and the delicate, almost gaunt cheekbones. But Mark wasn’t looking at her as a woman; he was looking at her as a potential enemy.

Because he was almost sure of it now. There was no other explanation.

This girl was impersonating his wife.

10

BERIBBONED mules dragged away the dead bull. The Matador strutted around the arena to cheering, the stomping of feet and the waving of white handkerchiefs. The businessman type sat down. The girl lit another cigarette. The roar of the crowd subsided to a murmur and then rose again to a buzzing of anticipation as a second bull charged clumsily into the ring.

He glanced sidewise at the girl. Her head was half-turned from him as she listened with unenthusiastic politeness to her escort’s lecture on bullfighting. To have this happen on top of everything else seemed more than any man should have to bear. Mark fought against his growing sense of frustration. This was another crisis and he could only meet it by keeping calm.

‘Keep calm,’ he said to himself as he had said when he found Corey’s body in the apartment. The charm worked once more. He felt much steadier. Okay. This girl next to him was impersonating Ellie. Why? Almost immediately an explanation occurred to him. It was far-fetched, but it fitted with Ellie. If she was frightened enough of Victor, she might have thought that escape to Mexico was not enough. She might have persuaded or bribed this girl to take over her public identity while she went into hiding. It would have been a muddled idea because, presumably, anyone Victor sent after her would know what she looked like. But Ellie — particularly Ellie frightened — wasn’t any Quiz Kid.

Until he knew more facts that would do as a premise. He glanced again at the girl. Whether she was an ally or an enemy of Ellie’s, she was obviously the key. He would not let her out of his sight until he had tricked, cajoled, frightened, or forced out of her whatever it was she knew.

He sat pretending an interest in the ring, straining his ears to hear every word exchanged by the girl and the man with her. For so bizarre a situation the conversation was almost incredibly banal. From the man’s heavy politeness and his constant use of the formal ‘Mrs Liddon’ Mark was sure that they were only slight acquaintances. He gathered from a few stray remarks that the man’s name was Riley and that his business was in Mexico, but his guide-book dissertation on the sights of the city proved that the girl had only recently come from the States. The man was not making passes at her, but there was a certain courtliness in his behavior, as if she was worth the expenditure of time and charm. He would, Mark reflected, treat the wife of an important business contact that way.

BOOK: The Follower
4.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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