Cristóbal tapped his fingers on the desk—repeatedly—while the clerk wrote our names as if there weren't dozens of passengers standing behind us. Cristóbal had little patience for incompetence, a trait I never quite understood since he had a temperate disposition and always avoided conflict. His way of expressing his frustration was to burst into a variety of ticks: tapping his foot, scratching the back of his head, loosening his tie, chewing his nails to the quick. It was as if his body expressed what his voice couldn't.
"Purificación," the clerk said slowly. "With a c or an s?"
"C," Cristóbal said, curtly.
My husband had little to no awareness of his many habits or the effect he had on others, especially women. He never noticed when our female customers stared at him or groomed their hair while he took their order or handed them a warm cup of chocolate. I could see why they were enthralled by him. Cristóbal was already thirty-four years old, but he took care of his appearance and of his hygiene. His beard was always trimmed and his neck-tie always straight. Most of all, he was attentive and kind and had an aloof quality that made women feel at ease in his presence. I couldn't deny that I'd been fortunate that my mother hadn't found me an old, fat man to marry. Ours was certainly not a problem of attraction.
Cristóbal turned to me, sighing. Ours was a problem of affinity.
While my husband spelled out my last name for the clerk, I had a feeling that someone was watching me. I turned my head as discreetly as possible.
A man leaning against a thick column was staring at me. He averted his gaze as soon as I looked at him. There was something wrong with his face, but I couldn't see clearly for fear of appearing rude.
"Here's the itinerary." The clerk presented Cristóbal with a handwritten paper. "Your cabin is number 130 D."
Cristóbal grabbed the key from the clerk's hand before he finished the sentence. The man leaning against the column lit a cigarette. His distraction gave me the opportunity to study him.
Half of his face was burned.
The skin was thick and wrinkled from his eyebrow and cheek to his jawline. The other side of his face, however, was intact. One might even call it attractive.
For an instant, our eyes met. A chill ran down my spine, but I attributed it to the thin georgette fabric of my rose blouse. And yet, I couldn't deny there was something unsettling about him. I held on to Cristóbal's arm, pretending to stare at a marine landscape hanging on the wall above the man's head.
"Ready, Puri?" Cristóbal picked up his typewriter case.
"'Sí, mi alma'."
The bellhop followed us with our trunks.
I didn't see the strange man again for two days. On the third day, I ran into him as I was stepping out of my cabin. He acknowledged me by tipping his hat and walked past me without further contemplation. His scent was familiar, but I couldn't quite pinpoint its source.
I considered mentioning him to Cristóbal, but by the time my husband stepped out and shut our cabin door, the man had turned the corner.
On our way to dinner, the melodic sounds of an accordion and a tambourine floated from one of the salons. Through one of the windows, I spotted a vaudeville circus.
"Oh, can't we go in?" I begged my husband. "They may have a magician!"
"Puri, I've had a breakthrough. Let's just eat our dinner and go back to the stateroom."
I clung to his arm. "Please, just this once!"
I dragged Cristóbal and his stiff legs into the salon.
The troupe consisted of three men in shiny red outfits. One rode a unicycle and sported a long, curly mustache and a top hat. His black cape billowed with the cold air drifting from the open door. Another one, a harlequin, walked among the audience on stilts, leaving the children in awe as he pretended to lose his balance above them several times. The third man had a trim goatee and was the highlight of the show. For the next fifteen minutes, he swallowed knives and balls of fire and presented us with Marina the Great, a muscular woman with a taut bun who was about to walk on a tightrope.
Cristóbal leaned over me and whispered, "Look, I'm not hungry anymore. You can go to dinner and meet me at the stateroom when you're done."
"But there's a dance tonight."
Surveying the room, Cristóbal gripped my elbow and led me outside the salon.
"I've already wasted twenty minutes on this."
"You wasted twenty minutes? That's what you call spending time with me?"
"You're the one who suggested that I write my novel during the trip."
"Yes, but is that all you're going to do, Cristóbal? Write your novel all day and all night? You barely eat, and when you do, it's in haste. I've spent this entire trip by myself."
He shrugged. "I can't help it if I'm feeling inspired."
This excerpt ends on page 13 of the paperback edition.
Monday, December 13th, we begin the book Treachery Times Two by Robert McCaw.