The Multicolored Goddess in
by Roberto Fox
as told to Frank Thomas Smith
Din, Din, Din, you lazruthian beggar Gunga Din,
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
Chiche invited me to a lecture at the local Anthroposophical Society on Saturday evening. I had planned to go to the opera, where a traditional version of The Magic Flute was being presented at the Colón Opera. I have seen many versions of Mozart’s masterpiece, my favorite, the most recent being “modern” (in quotes because I have come to equate modern with crappy where opera is concerned). The traditional version only attracts true Mozart lovers, so I knew that I would have no trouble obtaining a ticket for a later performance. Chiche is the nickname of one of my ex-clients who became a friend. I was able to discover the fate of her husband during the military dictatorship through my contacts in the Federal Police. He had been drugged, weighted and thrown out of a helicopter into the Rio de la Plata – the updated Argentine method of New York mafia killings where boats were used to the same effect and the body is never found. It was one of the many reasons why I decamped from Argentina and sat out the “dirty war” in the U.S. I didn’t want to be one of them. The information about her husband meant the end of hope for Chiche, who was already along in years then, and now she is in her eighties. She is a wonderful, courageous, intelligent woman, a school teacher by profession, and I didn’t have the heart to refuse her invitation.
Chiche is an anthroposophist, that is, a disciple of Rudolf Steiner, and this was not the first time she tried to get me into the fold. Although I find Steiner’s writings interesting, even fascinating, I have no desire to become a true believer, which is, as far as I can see, what most members of the Anthroposophical Society are. Chiche told me on the phone that the lecturer was a young Chilean, especially invited by the Argentine society because a few members had heard him speak in Santiago (Chile), and were convinced that he is an initiate a la Rudolf Steiner. Chiche was quite excited by the whole thing and said she wanted to know my opinion. I suspected, however, that her real motive was to broaden my interest in Anthroposophy by giving me the opportunity of listening to a real initiate.
The Society owns a small house in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, easily identifiable by an organic architectural façade designed according to anthroposophical insistence on no right angles. Inside the house is like any other, except that two rooms have been converted to one large one painted in pleasant pastel colors, where the lectures take place. The lecturer, Claudio by name, was not so young after all – although for Chiche everyone under seventy is young. His technique was to walk back and forth while speaking without notes in his Chilean sing-song Spanish, using hypnotic arm movements. Although it was less than a year ago, I can’t for the life of me remember anything he said. But that may not be as much a reflection on Claudio’s words as the fact that my attention was directed elsewhere.
Two rows ahead of Chiche and me and to our right sat a striking woman. Not the least remarkable aspect of her anatomy was her flaming red hair, fastened at the back of her neck and from there flowing down her back like blood. Most people with red hair have fair, freckled skin, but hers was dark, either deeply tanned – unlikely at that time of year unless she went to one of those sun parlors – or the result of a favorable gene symphony inherited from a Brazilian or African grandparent. Her nose was aquiline and her lips (another contradiction) were full. She wore a cream-colored knee-length dress which adorned beautifully shaped crossed legs which seemed to be distracting Claudio in his travels, for he stopped most often in front of her when he wanted to emphasize a point. And why not? She was a multicolored goddess in anthroposophical heaven.
Afterward came the worst part: tea and cake, when cocktails would have been more to my taste. Normally it would be time to escape, but I hung around hoping for a chance to meet the goddess. And lo and behold here comes Chiche leading her to me.
“Roberto”, she gushes, “I want you to meet Brandy. Brandy Calderón, this is Roberto Fox.”
Following the local custom, I kiss Brandy on the right cheek in greeting. I want to stay locked on, but of course that's impossible. As I withdraw I notice a faint line of pink fuzz on her upper lip, somewhat magnified by the heat in the room. I can’t help wondering if her pubic hair is also red; if so, it would be like diving dick first into red hot lava.
“Brandy Fernandez, Chiche, remember?” Brandy said.
“Oh yes, sorry,” Chiche said, shaking her head. “You know the latest feminist fad, Roberto, women using their maiden names instead of their husbands’. Nothing I can do about it I suppose.”
“Legally, Chiche, my name is Brandy Isobel Fernandez de Calderón. The first three names are mine; the rest indicates that I belong to Calderón – which I certainly do not.”
“Anyway, my dear,” Chiche said, rolling her eyes,” I wanted you to meet Roberto Fox, who’s very good at finding things.”
“Charmed,” Brandy said with a charming smile and a deep, for a woman, voice. “The pleasure is mine,” I replied in all seriousness, “but I sometimes can’t find the keys to my car.” She smiled and was about to say something when Claudio appeared at her side. “Oh, Claudio,” Chiche said, “a marvelous lecture, thank you so much.”
“I suppose it was satisfactory, but I thank you for the opportunity to give it here,” Claudio said, somewhat pompously I felt, but perhaps I felt that way because he was looking at Brandy from the corner of his eye. I know about these gurus, anthroposophical or otherwise: women flock to them like boys to soccer heroes. Brandy was taller than Claudio, and she peered down at him, as I did from my even greater height. Chiche introduced us, the obligatory kiss on Brandy’s cheek followed and a handshake for me.
“Tell me, Claudio,” Chiche said, “did Dr. Steiner ever say anything about flying saucers?”
“Certainly not,” Claudio smirked. “That’s hardly spiritual science,” – with emphasis on the last word. Then to Brandy: “I hope you found my little talk interesting.”
“Yes, I did, thank you very much for coming.”
“It’s my pleasure. Do you have any questions?” Translation: your place or mine?
“Many,” Brandy said innocently, and I knew it was time to butt in.
“Why did you say ‘certainly not’ about flying saucers?” I asked him. “Even Carl Jung wrote a book about them.”
“They’re nonsense and Dr. Steiner had no time to talk about nonsense. Furthermore…” An overweight lady intruded, happily, into our little circle. “That was a wonderful lecture, Señor Claudio. I have the impression you’re an initiate. May I ask you something?”
Chiche leaned toward Brandy and me and whispered, “Come outside, you two. I want to speak with you – privately.” At first I thought she was disappointed at Claudio’s dismissal of the saucers, but it turned out to be otherwise. We went to a café on Avenida Cabildo, two blocks from the Anthroposophical Society headquarters, and ordered cheesecake, a specialty of the house, and coffee. I was thankful not to have eaten any anthro-cake. When I looked at Brandy, I was surprised to see that her hair no longer seemed red. Was it a wig? I didn’t see her take it off. She noticed that I was staring and smiled. “Are you looking at my hair?” I nodded. “It’s a very strange thing. When I’m in the Anthroposophical Society it’s red, anywhere else and it’s normal, this kind of undefined color. I suppose it has to do with the colors of the walls in the Society reflecting onto my hair.”
Chiche put her hand over hers. “No, my dear, it’s a sign that you belong there.”
“What did you want to talk to us about, Chiche?” Brandy asked, obviously wanting to change the subject and probably curious as well. I certainly was curious, especially if it had something to do with Brandy and me together. I hoped Chiche didn’t intend to invite us to a flying saucer landing.
“Brandy,” Chiche said, “I want you to tell Roberto all about Pablo’s disappearance. Now don’t look at me like that.” Brandy didn’t seem to be looking at her in any special way, so I assumed she meant thinking instead of looking. “Roberto is an FBI agent and private detective and is an expert at finding missing persons…”
“Whoa, Chiche,” I interrupted.” I’m an ex-FBI agent and an ex-private investigator. I’m now a writer, a writer of children’s books. I wish I could convince you of that once and for all.”
“Oh, I’m convinced, darling. It’s just that I happen to know that you will sometimes use your expertise to help people in trouble – special people, I mean, like that poor woman whose retarded son was murdered, or when you found that horrible Nazi person.”
By then it wasn’t hard to deduce that Brandy was another “special person” who needed my help. I had sworn to myself that I would not get involved in any more criminal stuff, wouldn’t even listen to potential clients. That’s my weakness: once I agree to “just listen”, I'm hooked. Brandy was now gazing at me through her emerald eyes with new interest.
“Now I really must get back to the meeting, but I want you to tell Roberto everything, Brandy,” Chiche said, “and I mean everything. And you, Roberto, just listen, please.” She downed her cafecito in one gulp and started to put some money on the table, but I stopped her. It was only a gesture on her part anyway.
Brandy and I were left looking at each other. “I don’t want to inconvenience you, Roberto,” Brandy said. “Chiche is trying to be helpful, but she has no right to drag other people into my problems.”
I would do anything for you short of murder, my lovely, I thought, but said, “It’s all right. I’m listening.”
Her husband, Pablo Calderón, had walked out of the house one Sunday morning a few months previously and never came back. I don’t adhere to the let-it-all-out school of interrogation because it’s a waste of time, so I ask questions.
“Did you go to the police?”
“Finally, yes, although I was hesitant to do so.”
“Do you mean in case he’d been kidnapped?”
“No, if I thought that I’d have gone right to the police.”
“Because he might have been abducted by aliens and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell the police that.”
“You were right.” I had been taking notes. Now I closed the notebook and put away my pen. I should have known she was too good to be true. Screwballs, beautiful or not, bore me. I've seen too many. “Please explain,” I said, resigned.
She smiled sadly, probably noticing my skepticism. “This wasn’t the first time he’d disappeared. About a month before that he disappeared, but it was only for a week and I hadn’t even noticed it.” She had been looking down at her coffee cup and now looked up to see if I was still there. I was. “Why not?”
“He was supposed to be in Europe on business, but when he returned home he told me he had been abducted by aliens and they took him somewhere, another planet he supposed, and asked him a lot of questions and did some medical experiments, nothing invasive, blood and urine tests, things like that.”
“So he never got to Europe?”
“And you bought that story?”
“Did you see the movie?” She meant that Steinberg movie about Close Encounters.
“No, I read the book.”
“So did I, the movie’s better.”
I had to smile. “I believe you.” She smiled back, then laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe because it sounds so ridiculous.”
Her smile disappeared. “Yes, maybe that’s why. But is it ridiculous? I mean, he’s gone again.”
“Yes, that part is true,” I admitted. “Can you think of any reason why he’d want to be gone again?”
“Like another woman, for example?”
“If so I don’t know about it, and no one I know does either.”
“How about work, money, mid-life crisis, anything like that? Has he been acting strangely?”
“Actually yes, he’s been quite nervous lately, but I attributed it to the..er…abduction.”
“Sure. Anyone who’s been abducted by aliens would feel nervous. There’s one problem.”
“Yes, Roberto?” she asked, leaning forward so her breasts were half exposed beneath a button that had come undone. I had been about to say that the alien abduction stories are pure bullshit and if she wanted my help she’d have to get that out of her system right now – as I would have said to any other client. But I melted before the flame of her beauty and couldn’t do it. I said something about the abduction story being dubious, in my opinion, and that I preferred to concentrate on other aspects.
“Then you will help, Roberto? Oh, I’m so grateful.”
“I feel privileged to be able to help, Brandy,” I said, feeling like an idiot, but I was sincere, she had really gotten to me.
“How much do you charge, Roberto?” She blushed wonderfully. “I must know, you see, because…”
“Expenses, if there are any,” I said too quickly, and knew that I had it bad. I was sweating.
“I…I don’t know what to say.” Her eyes were starting to be teary, so I decided to call it a day. “I’d like to come by your place tomorrow, if that’s possible. I want to see where you live and ask a lot of questions; it’s too late for that now.” I wanted to examine my feelings as well.
I was at her house in San Isidro, an upper-class suburb of Buenos Aires, at nine the next morning, a Sunday. We sat on a verandah at the back looking onto an immense, tree and flower populated lawn. Brandy was dressed in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, no bra. Her indefinable hair, let out, sparkled in the sun, which was well over the trees in the east. Coffee, orange juice and croissants were laid out on a cloth-covered table. I had expected no less and so had not breakfasted at home.
“I’m fascinated by your history, Roberto,” Brandy said. “FBI agent, private investigator, now author. Did you change because the FBI doesn’t respect human rights?”
“Actually, the FBI does respect human rights, Brandy – too much so according to certain opinions. You’re confusing them with the CIA, who are the bad guys in that respect.”
“And you’re the good guys?” she said in accent-free English, surprising me.
“Mostly, not always, but mostly,” I answered in the same language.
“Are you Argentine or American?” she asked. “I can’t tell by your speech?” I now noticed a slight accent in her speech though.
“Both. I was born in Buenos Aires, American father, Argentine mother. My father registered me at the U.S. consulate, so I became a citizen of both countries at birth. I went to college in the States, later I got into the FBI by accident because I needed a job after military service, spoke Spanish so they sent me here.”
“I didn’t know the FBI has people here.”
“Then there’s a lot you don’t know.” That sounds harsh, but I said it with a lopsided grin, so she just shrugged. “What about you?” I said, “I mean a short bio.”
“Okay, but you forgot a detail in yours.”
“An important one? I left out a lot of details.”
“Are you married?”
“Oh that. Glad you’re interested. But no, not at the moment.”
“But you were,” she insisted.”
“Yes, but that was a long time ago. Can’t we change the subject?”
She laughed. “Sure we can. I’ve found out all I wanted to know.” I let that go, not wanting to rush things, but don’t think it didn’t excite me.
“How long have you been married, Brandy?” I asked, business-like.
“Five years.” She needed no prompting. “I went to St. John’s all the way through high school. Do you know what that is?”
“Very posh bilingual?”
“Exactly, explains my English, which you were probably wondering about.”
“Yes, but your accent isn’t really Anglo-Argentine.”
“I went to college in England. My Dad wanted me to in order not to lose my Queen’s English, Argentine version. I met Pablo there, we got married and returned to Argentina when the dirty war ended. So I never got my degree.”
“Happily married housewife?”
She shrugged. “Pablo is very good to me, but San Isidro ain’t Greenwich Village.”
“Indeed it ain’t. I’m originally from New York myself.”
“She arched her eyebrows theatrically: Really? Anywhere near the Village?”
What could she say? “Oh, that’s nice.”
“Argentine men have a penchant for mistresses. Did Pablo…?”
“Don’t most men,” she interrupted, “if they can afford it?”
“I guess so,” I admitted, “but here it’s pretty much an accepted way of life. What I’m getting at is whether your marriage was shaky for that reason or some other.”
“Well,” she said, “first of all I don’t know if Pablo had a mistress.” (She sounded offended, as most women will, whether they really care or not.) “And if our marriage was shaky (I noted the past tense), I’d say that it had cooled off considerably, but no more than that of most of my friends.”
I could see I had hit a nerve. She looked at her fingernails, short ones attached to slender lightly freckled fingers, but wasn’t seeing them. Finally she looked up and answered: “Not by my choice, but Pablo said he wasn’t ready, he traveled a lot and so on. I asked when he’d be ready, I’m thirty-two for gods sake.”
A frustrated suburban housewife, I thought. So what else is now? But she wasn’t only that. I asked what she was doing now, besides housewifing. she was working and acting in a Buenos Aires repertory theater. When I asked if it was the Suburban Players, an awful English-speaking amateur group, she glared and shot out, “God no! It’s purely Argentine, in San Telmo.”
“What’s your attitude towards anthroposophy?” I asked, just from curiosity.
“It’s marvelous!” she replied – “not so much the people, who often give me a pain in the ass (we were still speaking English) – “not Chiche of course, she’s a darling. But you know… it…it gives life a meaning, and that’s something lacking in a lot of people nowadays; I know it was lacking in me. How about you?”
“I haven’t really decided yet,” I said, which was true enough. “And your husband, Pablo?”
“Oh, he thinks it’s all nonsense; for him if you can’t see something through a telescope or a microscope or touch it, it’s not there. You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I said, and decided she was warmed up enough to answer personal practical questions. “What are you doing for money now that your husband is no longer around? Or do you have your own?”
“No, I don’t have any money of my own. You probably thought I did, having gone to St. John’s and all, but my father went broke during one of Argentina’s periodic economic crises, and they had to forgive the senior year’s tuition. I went to college with an academic scholarship.” She waited a moment for my next question, but I didn’t ask it, knowing she’d go on. “After college I went to New York and waited tables, worked in hotels, sales clerk, that kind of thing. I love New York, I even became a Mets fan. (A girl after my heart.)
“You really were integrated then.”
“Yes, I love baseball and hate soccer.”
“And money now?” I asked, getting back on track.
“We have what I thought was a joint account, Pablo and I.”
“What’s not joint about it?” I asked, although I thought I already knew.
“I can draw money and write checks, but I can’t get any information about the account.”
“Is it called a special checking account?”
“Yes, that’s it. I only found this out when I asked for the balance at the bank.”
“And they told you that you aren’t one of the account’s title holders, but have a special power to draw from it.”
“How about credit cards?”
“I have Visa and American Express and I use them.”
“Who pays the bills?”
“I don’t know. They’re in Pablo’s name.”
“Well, if there are computers on Mars, he could be paying them by internet.”
She didn’t smile.
“Sorry, couldn’t resist.”
“So you definitely discard the abduction?”
“I never held it to discard. Your husband is either dead, kidnapped or running.”
“Running?” She said, genuinely surprised. “From what?”
“You for instance. With all respect, Brandy, husbands have been known to run from their wives. Or something more serious like the police or the Mafia. What business is he in?”
“He’s a trader.”
“Anything, commodities mostly, but also gold, silver, dollars, euros.”
“How about drugs?”
“I don’t think so. He never used drugs.”
The doorbell – gate bell really – rang. The gate is a good football field away from the house. “Excuse me,” Brandy said, and she walked into the living room where she pressed an intercom button. “Yes?”
“Está la Señora Calderón?” a tinny voice with a strange accent asked.
“Sí, soy yo.”
“I have a message from your man, Señora. He say he is fine and you are not to worry.” She turned and looked at me. I went quickly to her side,
“Where is he?” I spoke into the intecom.
“He is very far away – with us.”
She didn’t need my prodding. “And who are you?” I opened the front door and ran down the entrance road toward the gate. There was no one there. I ran back. They were still talking.
“But when will he be back?”
“He does not know,” the voice giggled.
“Can you at least tell me if it will be soon?”
“No, he does not know. You are not worry.”
“Why are you laughing?” she said angrily.
“Good bye, sweetheart.”
“He say.” There was a click indicating end of conversation.
“What did he say while I was out?” I asked Brandy.
She looked stunned. “When were you out?”
“You were asking him who he is”
“Oh. He said he was a rep – rep, meaning representative I guess – of his galaxy. Did you see him?”
“At the gate? No, there was no one there. What galaxy?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Did you ask him?”
“No. Do you think you could find him if you knew the galaxy?”
I wasn’t amused. “Is there another intercom, a box I mean, outside, at the back entrance?”
“The only entrance is at the front and there’s no other intercom.” She had reverted to Spanish.
I paced the living room and she sat, fell rather, into an armchair.
“Is it wireless?” I asked.
“The intercom. Is it wireless?”
“Oh. Yes, it’s wireless.”
“It wouldn’t be very difficult to hack it then.”
“From another galaxy?”
I looked at her sharply to see if she was pulling my leg. I couldn’t tell. “No – from a parked car around the corner, for example.”
“Or another galaxy; they’re very advanced, you know.”
“Yes, I’m sure they are.” I was getting exasperated, probably because the intercom bit shook me a little. “Look, Brandy, if Pablo was abducted and is being held on a small planet in a big galaxy, we won’t find him. So I suggest we concentrate on the other alternatives.”
“Okay,” she smiled. She was a cool customer, under the circumstances. “Kidnapped?” she asked.
“Unlikely, they would have been after ransom long ago, unless they killed him by mistake.”
“Oh, do you think so?”
“I don't know, but it’s happened. He could be dead, Brandy, you’ll have to consider that. There are a lot of psychos in the world who kill for revenge or just for the hell of it. Does he have enemies?”
“None that I know of,” she said. “Actually he was very well liked.”
“Do you have any pictures?”
She nodded and went into another room. I went back to the verandah and finished my coffee, which was delicious, by the way.
“Why, he looks like Cary Grant,” I said when she showed me a photo of them both holding hands in front of what looked like a country hotel entrance.
“Yes, everyone says that, very handsome. He tried to get into the movies, but they said he looked too much like Cary Grant. Isn’t that ironic? That’s in La Cumbrecita, do you know it?”
“I’ve been there, yes, very faux-German.”
“It is that, but beautiful, too. I love it there.”
“One of my all-time favorite Cary Grant movies is Gunga Din,” I said. Something was tickling my subconscious and I wanted to keep the conversation on Grant until it emerged, although Gunga Din really is one of my favorite movies.
“Gunga Din? I don’t think I ever saw that one. I liked An Affair to Remember best.”
“How about Pablo, is he a Cary Grant fan?”
She thought a moment, then said, “Pablo likes to joke that he's just as handsome and would have been a better actor if he didn’t look so much like him. He said he liked Houseboat best, but I think that was more because of Sophia Loren than Cary Grant.”
That was the moment of my inspiration, helped along by Brandy’s comment and my having seen a documentary about Cary Grant on TV the night before.
“What was the date your husband disappeared, Brandy?” She told me. “May I use your phone?”
I called Detective Comisario Alberto Contreras of the Argentine Federal Police. When he heard my voice he didn’t exactly jump for joy: “Puta! Zorro, I hope you’re calling to invite me for a game of chess and nothing to do with work. It’s Sunday for the love of God.” It was all a show we put on. Alberto helps me with information and sometimes strong-arm stuff, and I insure that he gets the police-side credit when investigations are successful. We are friends.
“Never would I think of asking a dedicated public servant like you to even lift a finger on Sunday,” I rejoined. “All I need is information. So please take a dozen aspirins to think straight for a change.”
“Aha! And this information, you need it yesterday. Am I right?”
“Naturally. I need to find out if a Pablo Calderón left Argentina on September 30th or 31st…no, or August 1st. ”
“By foot or balloon?”
“Basta, Alberto, by airplane. Try Rome first.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Maybe nothing this time.”
“Oh, a favor, eh?”
“How many do you owe me?”
“I don't keep score, Zorro, but I know I'm ahead.” (Zorro is my name in Spanish.)
“Okay, Roberto, I’ll have to wake up that stupid Chief of the airport police and get him on it, then someone’ll have to go through all the departures cards. Might take a while.”
“Ten minutes will be fine.” I hung up.
“Why Rome?” Brandy said.
“Just a hunch. How about taking a walk?”
Alberto knows a lot of people in police work, and most of them owe him; if he could get the information I suspected existed at the airport, I’d be owing him as well – but I’m used to that.
My cell phone rang three hours later while Brandy and I were eating dessert at “La Tienda”, a very good San Isidro restaurant. We’d downed a bottle of excellent Argentine wine and I felt like having a long siesta, preferably with Brandy by my side – but it was not to be.
“You’re in luck, Zorro,” Alberto growled. “The card was in the first pile they checked. Your boy left for Rome on Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1344 on August 1st.”
“I don’t suppose they checked if he came back,” I said. “I forgot to mention that.”
“Please kiss my ass the first chance you get.” And he hung up, smiling I'm sure.
I looked at my watch, then at Brandy. “Came back…? She said.
“What are you doing tonight, Brandy?
“Tonight? Why I…”
“How’d you like to accompany me to Rome?”
“He went to Rome?”
“That’s right, unless there’s another Pablo Calderón who departed by Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1344 to Rome the day after your husband, Pablo Calderón, disappeared.”
“You knew he went to Rome, Roberto,” Brandy said. You told that cop to check Rome first. How did you know?”
“Just a guess that turned out to be right.”
“All right, how did you guess right then?”
“You’re not going to like it, Brandy.”
“Okay.” I reverted to English, which I often do, even thinking, when something gets delicate and/or complicated. “Pablo is the spitting image of Cary Grant, right?”
“He looks just like him.”
“Did anyone ever tell you look like Betsy Drake?”
“No, I never heard of her.”
“She was before your time. Anyway she was an actress who didn’t do many films and she was Cary Grant’s third wife.”
“Third? How many did he have?”
“Five. And you do look like her.” I waited for it to sink in.
“Very well, so what?” She was staying in Spanish, so a bilingual conversation ensued.
“But you do know who Sofia Loren is.”
“Of course – and I don’t look like her, I know.”
“Betsy Drake was originally cast for the part in Houseboat,” I explained, “but they changed to Sofia, who was a much bigger name. Personally I think she was miscast. Anyway, Cary fell in love with Sofia and they had an affair. Betsy had accompanied him to Italy and when she noticed something going on, and still smarting from having been rejected for the role, she was furious and took the next boat home.”
Brandy frowned: “How do you know all this, Roberto?”
“I saw a biography of Cary Grant on Film & Arts last night after leaving you.”
“Well, I wasn’t there.” Silence. “Look, you asked me how I got the idea of Rome…”
“Yes, sorry. Go on.”
“So I figured that if the new Cary Grant, now Pablo Calderón, is now married to someone who reminds him of Betsy Drake – are you sure he never mentioned that?”
She downed the remains of her wine. “Now that you mention it, maybe he did. I don’t remember the name, just Cary Grant’s wife.”
“You see, Cary stayed in Italy after the Houseboat filming, trying to keep the affair with Sofia going, but she tried to break it off. He kept after her though, until she finally married Carlo Ponti, about the most un-Cary Grant-like guy you can imagine.”
“Roberto!” Her eyes gleamed with what looked like amusement.
“Are you suggesting that Pablo – my Pablo – went to Rome after Sofia Loren. My god, she must be ancient!”
“Not necessarily, but maybe someone like her.” That wasn’t true. I had been thinking of Sofia Loren. In that same Cary Grant bio, they interviewed Sofia Loren about him now. She’s seventy-eight and doesn’t look a day over forty, and is still as beautiful as ever.
“Look, Brandy, that just gave me the hunch, which might be all wet…”
“Mistaken. All we really know is that a guy with Pablo’s name left for Rome on a particular day, and it looks like it was your husband. So what are you doing tonight?”
“Tonight? Why I’m going to Rome with you to look for that hijo de puta. Sofia Loren indeed. What time does the flight leave?”
We went back to her house to order electronic tickets via internet with her credit card. She didn’t know how so I worked the computer. “I usually travel business class on business,” I told her. She was standing next to me with her hip touching my shoulder. “Oh let’s go first class,” she said and yawned. I then phoned the Plaza Hotel on the Via del Corso in Rome and reserved two single rooms for the next day. The Plaza is an insider’s hotel, old fashioned, elegant, a few blocks from the Spanish Stairs. I always stayed there when I was working the FBI international beat.
“By the way,” I asked the voice at the other end of the phone, “Is Signor Pablo Calderón still there?” I had no clue to indicate that he might have gone to that hotel, but if not it would be one less place to look.
Silence as the voice worked its computer, then, “No, he must have checked out.”
“Oh, do you remember him then?”
“No, but if he was here and isn’t now he must have checked out, ne’s pas?”
Wise guy. “Si, grazie.”
Then I called a contact in the anti-terrorism police in Rome and asked him to check arrivals from Buenos Aires on Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1344 on September 1 and tell me the local address he gave. The Italians have all that stuff computerized, so it shouldn’t take them long. I don’t know if he knew that I was no longer FBI and I didn’t tell him. I think he’d have done me the favor anyway. He owed me one. He called me on my cellphone when we were in the airport. “Hotel Plaza, Via del Curso, Roberto,” he said.
During the flight to Rome I lifted the armrest between us out of the way and Brandy slept with her head on my shoulder. Like a baby. I sleep badly on airplanes, so I enjoyed that. Her hair changed from chocolate to strawberry when the first rays of the morning sun crept through the plastic shutters on the windows and tousled it.
Old time European hotel concierges have a well trained gift for remembering names and faces. I’m also good at faces, but a failure at names. When we walked into the Plaza Hotel on Monday morning the concierge looked at me and said, “Signor Fox, so nice to see you again. It’s been years.” He must have checked the reservation list and recognized my name; it’s unlikely that even Pietro – according to his name plate – would have immediately been able to remember both my face and name if he hadn’t been expecting me.
“It’s good to see you, too, Pietro. And yes it’s been years, many years. I congratulate you on your memory.”
“Where distinguished guests are concerned, my memory is also distinguished,” he said with a huge smile which revealed his gold tooth. That I remembered. He looked at Brandy appreciatively. “You reserved two single rooms, Signor Fox. Am I correct?” – as though there must have been some mistake. I acknowledged that strange truth and turned to Brandy. “You can go right up if you wish, dear, I’ll take care of the formalities.” Pietro, not missing a beat, took two adjoining keys (not electronic cards) from the key-box and rang the bell for a boy, who appeared like a genii at our side. Pietro gave him one of the keys and Brandy followed him to the elevator. “I’ll be right up.” I told her.
I filled out the registration card as man and wife quickly and handed it to the concierge along with a hundred euro bill. He didn’t blink, waiting to hear what I wanted. “Can we talk somewhere privately, Pietro?” I asked him. Several people were behind me waiting to register.
“But of course.” He snapped his fingers at a young assistant doing paper work at a desk behind him. “Take over, Giuseppe.” He came from behind the counter and led me to a small alcove near the elevators and out a door into a side street, where he took a foul Italian black cigarette and lit up. “What can I do for you, Roberto?” Corruption breeds familiarity.
“I’m looking for someone you may know or remember, Pietro. As you know, I have great respect for your memory.”
He smiled. “It is magnificent, I admit, but not infallible like the Pope’s. Who is it?”
He coughed on the smoke he had just inhaled and looked at me as one who has heard everything might. “But of course I remember him. He always stayed here when he was in Rome, in the Presidential suite. A great gentleman and a wonderful tipper. But alas, Signor Roberto, you must know that he is dead.”
“Yes, I know that, but actually I’m looking someone who looks very much like him, an Argentinean named Calderón.”
“Calderone? Yes, you are right, he is a dead ringer.”
“Then you do know him. But it’s Calderón.”
No, Calderone – Conde Paolo Calderone. I am sure. And if he is Argentinean, I never heard one speak such perfect Italian.”
Now I looked at him as one who thought he had heard everything. “Count?”
Pietro laughed. “That’s what he says, and we never question titles here; we welcome them.”
“Is he still here?”
“In the hotel? No, he stayed for a few days a month or two ago, then left for his castle, or manor, wherever counts live.”
“I see. And do you know how I can find him?”
He scratched his head and looked at the sky. “It’s possible.”
I handed him another hundred euros. “Probable?”
He looked at his watch. “Definitely. Tonight in our private dining room at ten o’clock, where he will likely be accompanied by Sofia Loren.”
I assumed he was using the name ironically, as I had used Cary Grant’s. “Ah,” I said, “a Sofia Loren look-alike.”
“Look-alike? No, Signor Roberto, la Loren herself, in the flesh.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. “Pietro, you are a genius.”
“Perhaps, but there is a complication. You see, there will be ten people, important men with their wives or paramours, including our Prime Minister. They come in and leave through a side door and there is obviously a lot of security. Berlusconi is not very popular, you know…and you and Signora Fox are not invited.”
I thought about this a moment, then said, “Complications can be simplified with planning and good will.” [and money] “Could I get a message to …er…the count at an appropriate moment?”
I wanted Brandy to identify our Count Calderone before confronting him. I told her what the concierge had revealed and outlined my plan. I wrote a note in Spanish:
Sr. Pablo Calderón: My name is Roberto Fox and I am a friend of your wife’s. I would like to invite you for a drink. I am in the hotel’s Garibaldi Bar wearing a New York Mets cap…to be given to the count at dessert.
Brandy would be in the bar at a table in the rear with a wide-brimmed hat covering most of her face and with stuffing in her clothing to make her look fat. When Pablo walked in and approached me, she would stand up and leave if she was sure it was him, and remain seated if it wasn’t him or if she wasn’t sure. I would watch her in the mirror. It would also cost. She gave me five hundred euros, two hundred to cover what I had already paid Pietro and another three for the head waiter to pass the note.
It worked perfectly. At midnight Count Calderone walked into the bar and spotted me immediately wearing the ridiculous cap I had bought in a kiosk across from the hotel, looking like a typical American tourist. I watched fat Brandy put down her third martini, stand and stagger dumpishly out.
“Signor Fox?” he asked.
“Señor Calderón,” I replied in Spanish. “What are you drinking?” The bartender had come over.
“Brandy, you interrupted mine at dinner, he said in the same language.” He waited until the bartender poured his Napoleon then said, “Who are you?”
“My name is really Roberto Fox and I’m a private investigator.”
“Ah, for Calderón’s wife.”
I almost smiled at the impertinence. “For your wife, Calderón.” The resemblance to Cary Grant was uncanny, but his voice was different, high-pitched, and he didn’t walk jauntily bow-legged like Grant.
“You are mistaken, Fox…”
“She just identified you positively.”
“She just walked out, disguised so you wouldn’t recognize her.”
“You needn’t have gone to the trouble; I wouldn’t have recognized her anyway.”
“Come on, Calderón,” I said. “What’s the game?”
“No game, it’s very serious. Pablo Calderón is very far away, farther than you can imagine…”
“I already saw that movie…”
“Just be quiet a moment and I’ll explain,” he said angrily. “If you don’t want to hear me out I’ll leave and you won’t live to see another Roman morning.”
I didn’t ask if that was a threat, there was no mistaking it, and I must admit to having a sense of fear. After all, this guy was hobnobbing with some of the biggest crooks in Italy, where they know how to breed them. I was quiet.
“As I said, Calderón is far away, safe and content on a planet, my planet
“In another galaxy?” I was about to wisecrack about him cavorting with virgins up there but kept it to myself.
“Actually a parallel universe. Meanwhile, I am inhabiting his body in order to carry out intensive research here on your earth.” He paused, to let it sink in I suppose.
“What kind of research? Did you say, ‘Take me to your leader’ and they showed you Berlusconi, for god’s sake?”
He smiled. “For starters, yes. There are many others, of course.”
“Obama, for example?”
“I do expect to be introduced to him shortly, yes.”
“After the Italian movie stars.”
“They can open many doors.”
“But what’s the point, Pablo?”
“You may call me Paolo, Roberto.” He was warming up. How people like to talk about themselves! “If you mean what is the objective of my research, please believe that we have no intention of invading your planet…”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“You see, I’m writing a novel.”
For the first time I began to take him seriously. “About the earth?”
“Yes, a historical novel.”
“Uh huh, and how long will it take, I mean how long will Calderón be away?”
“My sabbatical is for seven years.”
“I see. And then you’ll be Calderón again?”
“Señor Calderón has signed a contract which stipulates that he will stay on our planet for seven years. After the expiration date of the contract he may return or stay where he is, as he wishes.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“That’s hard to say. If I were him though, considering what I’ve seen here so far, I’d stay there.”
“What’s your planet’s name?” I asked stalling for time in the hope of thinking of something more intelligent.
“You couldn’t pronounce it. Look, Mrs. Calderón has nothing to worry about. Her husband’s fortune is at her disposal and she can do anything she likes. Why don’t you tell her that, Roberto?” He smiled a Cary Grant smile.
“What if she wants to expose you? No one will believe the abduction story. And your DNA is still Calderón´s.”
The smile disappeared. “You still don’t understand, do you? Let me make the situation as clear as possible. One: the first time was indeed what you call an abduction. The second time, however, Pablo went willingly with us. In fact, he wanted to come. Two: This body’s DNA no longer matches Calderón´s; we think of everything and changing DNA – temporarily – is child’s play for us. Three: You’d be surprised at how many people would believe the abduction story. In fact, most of Pablo’s friends and relatives already do. Four: I much prefer that Mrs. Calderón not denounce anything because it would result in publicity which I want to avoid. Five: Since you – and I assume soon Mrs. Calderón – are the only ones on earth who know the facts, I hold you personally responsible for not revealing them to anyone else. Is that a threat? you are thinking. The answer is yes. Have I made myself clear or must I put it even more simply?”
I ignored the sarcasm. “Just one question. How can Calderón be on your unpronounceable planet if his body is here?”
He smiled again, possibly because he recognized that the question was serious. “Good question, Roberto. You may know that human beings (and we are also human beings) are composed of body, soul and spirit…”
“I’ve heard that, yes – at the Anthroposophical Society.”
“Good. Pablo’s soul and spirit are on planet xxxxx.” He was right, I couldn’t pronounce or understand it.
“In your body?”
“Does he look like Cary Grant there, too?”
He laughed out loud. “Good heavens no. I’ve been told I resemble Brad Pitt.” He looked at his watch, a Rolex I noticed. “Now I must really go back to my party. They’ll have already handed out the Havana puros and I’ve developed a taste for them.” He held out his hand, which I took. “Arrivederchi, Roberto Fox. It’s been a pleasure meeting you – for the first and last time.”
I knocked on Brandy’s door. She had unstuffed herself and looked lovely in a knee-length, low-cut blue dress that still had the label attached; she must have bought it this afternoon. “Open the minibar, Brandy,” I said. “We need a drink.” While we sipped our Dewar’s scotch, I told her the whole conversation I’d just had with…whoever.
She sat still for a while, then crossed and re-crossed her legs twice, then asked, “Do you think he was telling the truth?”
“No…but, oh hell, I don’t know. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” She uncrossed her legs for the third time, stood up and smiled deliciously as her hair slowly turned dark red. “I think we should move to a double room.”
© Frank Thomas Smith