Nubian Prince

Overview

After giving up the thankless life of a do-gooder, Moises Froissard now travels the world, saves lives, and makes more money in a week than he would in a year helping the poor. Moises is a scout for the Club Olympus, the world's most refined and expensive sex club. His task is to follow the currents of poverty and disaster in search of illegal immigrants, refugees, and other unfortunates, and rescue the most beautiful among them—men, women, and children—for highly-paid careers ...

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The Nubian Prince: A Novel

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Overview

After giving up the thankless life of a do-gooder, Moises Froissard now travels the world, saves lives, and makes more money in a week than he would in a year helping the poor. Moises is a scout for the Club Olympus, the world's most refined and expensive sex club. His task is to follow the currents of poverty and disaster in search of illegal immigrants, refugees, and other unfortunates, and rescue the most beautiful among them—men, women, and children—for highly-paid careers as prostitutes.

His search for the most coveted prize, a young fighter from the Sudan known as the Nubian Prince, will bring him up against the most savage forces of the underground economy, threatening his safety as well as his fragile conscience. Hilarious, disturbing, and sexually explosive, Bonilla's American debut tells the story of an ordinary man reckoning with the allure and the hazards of the global underworld.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of Spain's top ten writers . . . funny and ferocious, Juan Bonilla is the best evidence that there's nothing incompatible about profundity and humor."—El Mundo

"A skillful treatment of its unusual and tricky subject."—Kirkus Reviews

"Bonilla does a wonderful job of taking a character the reader could and maybe should easily hate and turning him into a somewhat likeable (if still disgusting) narcissist."—Library Journal

Publishers Weekly
Moises Froissard's job is "to save lives." At least, that's what he tries to believe throughout El Mundo columnist Bonilla's bittersweet fourth novel. While there may be a grain of truth in his proclamation, the reality of Moises's occupation is less noble: he's a "scout" for secretive, exclusive Club Olympus, a supplier of beautiful and expensive prostitutes to the rich and famous. As a scout, Moises travels to exotic (and, usually, poverty-stricken) locales in search of beautiful men, women and children willing to become "models" for the club as a way out of their grim circumstances. While proud of his growing list of recruits, Moises is guarded about his job and uses his travels to isolate himself from his troubled family. Though the fleeting emotional attachments he sometimes forms with the "pieces" he scouts for the club violate the cardinal rule of his employment, it doesn't become a problem until Moises's first recruit, Luzmila, becomes a scout. When the two are pitted against each other in a race to recruit the "Nubian Prince," a handsome African coveted by an obsessed client, Luzmila relishes the opportunity to upstage Moises as revenge for recruiting her, and Moises is forced to confront his growing distaste for the job. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of three novels, four story collections, a children's book, and countless articles as a columnist for Spain's El Mundo newspaper, Bonilla won the prestigious Biblioteca Breve prize for this work. In his latest novel, protagonist Moises Froissard narrates his life in an incredibly irreverent, self-absorbed tone that keeps the story unexpectedly lighthearted, though it easily could be tragic. After working a short stint as a humanitarian in Bolivia, Froissard realizes he is not cut out for that type of missionary work and moves on to his dream job making a small fortune traveling around the world's slums and scouting beautiful people among the forgotten to serve as whores, or "models," in Madrid. Froissard believes his job saves lives and that those he recruits are much better off in their new setting. However, when he is hired to find a Nubian prizefighter, he temporarily locates his depleted conscience and starts questioning his life and career. Bonilla does a wonderful job of taking a character the reader could and maybe should easily hate and turning him into a somewhat likable (if still disgusting) narcissist. Owing to its sexually explicit theme, this novel is recommended for larger or more venturesome public libraries. Stephen Morrow, Amherst, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The international sex trade becomes the unlikely source of an ironic metamorphosis in the prizewinning Spanish newspaper columnist and author's 2003 novel (his first in English translation). Its narrator, 22-year-od Moises Froissard, abandons an unfulfilling life in Seville and the uncomfortable embrace of his troubled parents, accepting a job as a "scout" for Club Olympus. Portraying itself as a humanitarian relief organization that "rescues" Third World emigrants and refugees from poverty and homelessness, the Club is-as Moises's boss, Carmen T. (aka "the Doctor"), explains-a clearinghouse for beautiful women and men, employed as "models" servicing wealthy clients. Moises warms to his task, forming volatile relationships with gorgeous Albanian model-turned-scout Ludmila, Mauritanian beauty Irene and succulent boytoy Emilio (who introduces Moises to same-sex pleasures). Sent with Ludmila from the Club's Barcelona headquarters to the southern Spanish city of Malaga, Moises endures tropical heat mingled with the overpowering stench of uncollected garbage, while venturing into dangerous streets in search of "the Nubian"-a perfect male specimen coveted for business (and perhaps other) purposes by the sexually avaricious Doctor. The narrative dawdles for too many pages as Moises considers the logistics and morality of the career that seems to have chosen him. But Bonilla picks up the pace when a tip sends Moises and Ludmila to an "extreme fighting" arena where the Nubian (a refugee from civil and religious strife in his native Sudan) attracts dumbstruck adoration for his sculpted body and smoldering demeanor, and dominates his sport as an emotionlessly efficient killing machine. The scoutsfulfill their mission, but Moises reaps what he has sown, with a vengeance, and, as the story moves with increasing swiftness toward its conclusion, experiences a change of mind and heart that is simultaneously his humbling and his delayed maturity. Not exactly effortlessly readable, but a skillful treatment of its unusual and tricky subject.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312426866
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Juan Bonilla was born in Jerez, Spain, in 1966 and is a columnist for El Mundo, a Spanish daily newspaper. The author of three novels, four short-story collections, and a children's book, he was awarded the prestigious Biblioteca Breve prize for The Nubian Prince. He lives in Spain.

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Read an Excerpt

Nubian Prince, The

ONE

My job was to save lives. It was that simple. You may think I'm exaggerating, trying to impress you. You can think what you like; the fact is I was paid to save lives, and the more lives I saved the more money I made. My existence was a kind of tennis game in which one of the players—me—never ventured far from the house, the living room with the big-screen TV, the darkroom where I'd spend whole days developing pictures, the neighborhood where I had everything I needed to be happy: a bar where I ate long, peaceful breakfasts, a small bookshop where I could get whatever book caught my eye, a fruit stand run by a big, toothy woman who'd set aside the best grapes and most tempting peaches for me, a barber shop I'd duck into a couple of times a week, and even an Internet cafe where I'd spend hours surfing the Web. Meanwhile, the other player—also me—would zigzag across half a continent, which was the zone I'd been assigned. He might be setting off for the Cádiz coast; he might be arriving in Sicily. I could usually decide for myself where this other player was to be found, but occasionally circumstances decided things for me. A huge transport of Albanians arriving in Brindisi would have me on the next flight to Rome, renting a car, and racing to the city where my partner in this tennis match would be waiting for me.

You may well be wondering what sort of work I did, what I mean by "saving lives." Well, I wasn't saving people the wayfiremen or lifeguards do; all they really save are bodies. I've never known a fireman to rescue someone from the flames and then offer him a new and better life, something beyond dragging him down the fire escape to the street and providing a little emergency medical care. I've never heard of a lifeguard giving mouth-to-mouth to a half-drowned swimmer and then saying, "Marry me." My job was to seek beauty, to plunge my hands into the world's muck and bring up pearls. I cleaned those pearls, made them presentable, prepared them to acquire the value that was rightfully theirs. I traveled to places where poverty had hidden these treasures; I searched them out with infinite patience and rescued them. That's what I mean by saving lives.

Look at me now, for example, here on a beach near Gibraltar with the sun reluctantly sinking below the horizon while the trees, stiff with cold, lean forward as if attempting a graceful bow. A few dozen Africans have just arrived in pitiful, flimsy boats. They drag themselves along the beach in their dripping rags, following orders, fearful of the eyes that are watching them: the Guardia Civil has been waiting for them to land and immediately arrests them. Many seem about to faint; others would give their lives for a glass of water; most can't stop trembling. But the Guardia Civil doesn't do a thing for them, just herds them together to keep them under control. Some have managed to hang on to a few possessions carried in backpacks held together with duct tape. The police won't bring out the water bottles and clean towels and start pampering the refugees until the TV cameras arrive. That's how it usually is: cameras first, then the paramedics. In between, they'll call me, if I happen to be in the area. Well, actually, the only one who calls me is a lieutenant into whose palm I occasionally slip a wad of bills. He wakes me at dawn with a whispered, "Half an hour from now at such and such a place." And I'm off. When I get there, he always says,"You've got fifteen minutes," and allows me to inspect the merchandise. I give the newcomers a quick once-over and if there's a piece that convinces me, I signal to the lieutenant, who says, "OK, stop by the station in a couple of hours."

I get there right on time, and the lieutenant has set her aside for me, the one in the pink track jacket and pants that long ago were some light color, the one with the eyes that say, "Please don't hurt me." She's been spared the medical inspection and served a cup of coffee instead. Some guy who's just seen a movie celebrating human goodness may even have bought her a doughnut. I hustle her out the door, doing my best to make sure no one sees us. Even though she's been captured, she still isn't mine; I have to be charming and radiate friendliness, make her grateful. I've bought her a sweater and tennis shoes at a twenty-four-hour store. She's certain to ask where I'm taking her, what's going to happen to her family—there's always a father or brother who gets left behind—and that's when I have to tell her the truth. I'll begin by confessing why I'm saving her while all the others who made the crossing with her will be sent right back where they came from without arousing the faintest twinge of remorse in the hearts of the enforcers of the law. If she doesn't speak English, as is often the case, I can simplify matters by hiring a translator who knows how to explain the situation quickly and forcefully. If she does speak English, I can handle things on my own and convince her she has very few options besides trusting me and allowing me to save her. I even bring along the phone numbers of some of the various gorgeous specimens—both male and female—I've saved in the past; one will probably turn out to be from the same place she is; they'll talk for a while, and when the newly captured piece hangs up she'll have no arguments left. Then it's up to me to clean her up, heighten her exquisite features, accentuate her extraordinary appeal. In a couple of days she'll be ready to visitClub headquarters, where management will look her over. I always know in advance whether a piece I've collected will be accepted outright or will have some trouble passing the exam. In this case, there'll be no objection whatsoever. They won't stand there gaping; they're not in the habit of feeling or expressing astonishment. But they will be delighted to have Nadim—that's the name I gave her the moment I saw her; she told me her last name but for some reason refused to give me her real first name. They'll immediately schedule a photo shoot, and the resulting portfolio will be added to the Club's magnificent menu. Then they'll transfer her to a city where she'll work under some local branch manager. But I won't have any part in that; all I do is save her. Once she's assigned to a branch, she'll start earning money: 20 percent of every service. (As a rule, she'll be required to perform a service every three or four days.) The full price of the service is astronomical, of course. To put it bluntly, the proof that her life and beauty will soon be worth much more than they are now is that if I wanted to enjoy her body—which prior to her examination by Club management would not be at all an impossible thing (and I must confess that on more than one occasion I've been guilty of doing just that with the pieces I've captured)—at the Club's going rate I'd have to pay almost as much as I'll earn for having saved her. The Club offers no discount to its own scouts.

You must be wondering how I got this job. Well, the story is not without its charm. The most basic element of any story—I imagine we can agree on this—is the thing that compels someone to tell it; that's more important than the content of the story itself. Why does someone decide, suddenly, to tell a story? There are thousands of answers to that question, maybe as many answers as there are stories, I don't know. I still haven't managed to come up with an answer of my own, though I suspect it must have something to do with the circuitous route that brought me here.

I could begin by saying: I had travelled to Bolivia as part of a band of saintly crackpots sent by a nongovernmental organization to put on clown shows and acrobatic routines for the miserable children who live in the immense garbage dump on the outskirts of the capital. I was twenty-three years old, an age at which you can still fool yourself into believing that this sort of gesture will save the world. I had just finished college with a degree in dramatic arts, and to what more noble use could I put my certified knowledge, incorruptible audacity, and scant talent?

This first part of my story, however, immediately demands a somewhat deeper foray into my past—though I promise my explanation of how I landed this job will require no tedious rummaging through my deepest childhood memories in search of the one shining nugget that will illuminate all that follows. When Iread a biography, I always skip the chapters about the subject's childhood; I'm sure they're only there so the author can show off all the backbreaking research he did to discover the names of the boys who waited outside the schoolyard one rainy day to settle a score with our hero. As soon as anyone starts telling me things about his childhood, both my legs go to sleep, and for that same reason I try never to tell anyone anything about mine.

I remember a certain spring night at home, watching a movie on TV with my parents and brother. The movie was Magnolia, a collection of shocking dramas woven together with enviable skill and copious histrionics. Suddenly one of the characters—a pathetic former TV child star who's had braces put on his teeth in order to seduce the muscular waiter he's fallen for—bursts into tears after getting his face cut open in a spectacular fall. Between sobs, he cries, "I have so much love to give." I don't know what went through my mind when I heard that line, but I completely lost it and burst into tears myself. To my mother's astonishment, my brother's bewilderment, and my old man's stone-faced indifference, I started repeating the character's line over and over. My mother got up and came over to me but couldn't think of anything to do except throw the afghan she'd had in her lap around my shoulders. "That's right—make him look even more ridiculous," my brother said.

"I think the best thing would be just to change channels," my father declared. "Either that or take him to the emergency room. With any luck, they'll decide to keep him in the hospital a while."

I got up, still wrapped in my mother's afghan and wiping my eyes on a corner of it, and went to the bathroom to look in the mirror and try to figure out what the hell was going on. Behind me, I heard my mother say, "That boy is going through a lot. Heshould see a psychologist. Even better, we should take him to Padre Adrián."

My mother was fascinated by psychologists and therefore also by priests. In fact, her sole preoccupation in life was to find an appropriate name for what the rest of us called "her little thing," and which she, therefore, had no choice but to call "my little thing." It might come up in any conversation, with a neighbor lady or a relative, with the owner of the corner store, or, occasionally, with a fellow passenger on the bus. Whenever her spirits darkened and she left the kitchen to sit in front of the TV until all hours, voraciously consuming carton after carton of ice cream, my brother and I would say to each other, "Mother's got her little thing again." My mother was obsessed with finding the correct name of her "little thing"; she was certain that the moment she knew exactly what was happening to her—if, in fact, it deserved to have a name (if, that is, it was something that had happened to other people in the past and would happen to still more people in the future)—her obsession would disappear. Of course everyone in the family knew that Mother's condition was a banal mixture of boredom with her empty life, resentment of my father, disgust with herself, and, finally, an uncontrollable urge to put an end to the whole thing—a combination that did not fail to present an interesting philosophical conundrum. Here was a cocktail of woes topped off with an ingredient whose essential purpose, in addition to giving the brew its own distinctive flavor, was to eliminate the cocktail itself.

During the phases when she wasn't feeling so low that she had to remain prostrate most of the day, she would valiantly pursue the label that could reduce her problem to a few syllables. First she went back to finish up her interrupted bachelor's degree, enrolling in night school, where her classmates were an impressivecrop of slow but determined learners. She lasted less than a year. It was true, she said, that she'd learned things about Ferdinand and Isabella and the causes of the Spanish Civil War, that she had recovered a certain taste for mathematical formulas—Ruffini's theorem struck her as "enchanting," and its derivatives inspired rapturous commentary—and had confirmed that chemistry remained as uncouth and insufferable a subject as it was when she was in college. But something was missing. She hadn't managed to strike up a friendship with any of the students in her class, and it wasn't for lack of drinking lots of coffee with the ones who seemed most interesting. She decided that what was missing was exercise. Why wasn't gym a required subject in night school? She could answer the question herself simply by imagining most of her classmates in workout clothes. That same week she put all her class notes away in a drawer and rushed off to enroll in a sports club.

My brother maintained that what my mother really needed was a lover. It's true that when women who are inordinately bored with their families and the dull routine of their lives find something to focus on so as to escape to a better place, they experience an upsurge in mood and looks that is in direct ratio to the neglect with which they then punish their families—and during her fitness period my mother managed to get a little closer to that better place. I don't know whether she actually did have a lover during those months (I hope she did), but it would have been difficult even to ask the question; the "upsurge" had lifted her so high above us that we would have had to scream just to get her attention. And it wouldn't have been a good idea to arouse my father's suspicions. He was contemptuously dismissive of my mother's attempts to save herself and find a name for "her little thing."

There was no doubt the daily visits to the gym were doing her good, but she suddenly decided that no, this wasn't the place shewas going to find herself either; some element of soul was missing in that sports club packed with bodies. Yes, that was it, what she needed were words, not push-ups. Maybe the lover who'd helped her love herself a little more grew tired of her constant doubts and rigorous self-examinations, deliberately intended to fuel her sense of guilt. In any case, the gym days were followed by a brief period of prostration. Then, I imagine, she had an idea: given the impossibility of finding a name for her problem in Spanish, it might be easier to try finding it in some other language. She enrolled in a language school. My brother suspected that my mother's decision to study German rather than English could only be a kind of secret tribute to her lover's nationality. (You see how, without knowing anything for certain, we were able to conjecture a rather odd sequence of events in order to explain something that undoubtedly required no explanation.) Whatever the case, it was the worst decision she could have made. If she'd chosen English, she might have managed to finish the course, but with German her chances were a lot slimmer. Before the end of the second semester my mother abandoned her declensions and once more took refuge in silence, serving up boiled potatoes for dinner with a vacant stare, spending hours each day in front of the television, and, on the days when she felt worst, buying colossal quantities of entirely useless things.

Finally, my brother, who is much more candid than I am and consequently wound up working as a gas station attendant despite his newly earned master's degree in journalism (he later got his honesty under control, learned not to say what he was actually thinking at any given moment, and landed a position doing PR for the Department of Education and Culture, where he was soon writing speeches for the executive director and even the minister)—finally my brother uttered the fateful word, pronouncing each syllable distinctly and separately, as if trying todownplay its force and drama: psy-cho-an-al-y-sis. Of course my mother had been giving that option a lot of thought for a long time, even before she went back to finish her degree, before she joined the gym, before she studied German, and before she'd gone to the local YWCA, where she learned to make rag dolls while telling the other women in her group about her life, and where she attended several lectures. (The proof that none of them did her any good is that she came back to us, whereas, according to my brother, a lecture is worth sitting through only when you leave the auditorium and decide never to go home again.) But opting for psychological treatment would mean burning her bridges and acknowledging that she was sick—that is, that the name of her little thing was going to be the name of an illness. And she much preferred to exhaust all other possibilities before risking having a doctor tell her that her little thing could be cured by pharmaceutical means.

My brother understood that the only way my mother could be saved by a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst was for there to be transference, which is the technical term for when the patient falls in love with the doctor. The earliest sessions seemed to yield some results. After her hour on the magical couch where she gradually scraped away the dark incrustation of her fears to arrive at the core where the sacred name of her ailment was emblazoned in glowing letters, my mother would come home feeling better. But after two months of treatment, her state of mind took another steep dive. We didn't want to ask, but we couldn't help noticing that she was spending hours watching television, that we had to say her name two or three times before she would notice, that she was putting salt in the coffee and sugar on the salad, and that she was buying nothing at the supermarket but jumbo cartons of ice cream. My brother pithily summed up the situation: "It's clear that there has been transference and she'sgone and fallen in love, and it's also clear that the doctor has told her not to come to him anymore but to start seeing someone else." There was nothing left for my mother but to seek solace in religion. At least God and his representatives on Earth would not be as unfeeling as that psychoanalyst, who, instead of allowing himself to be adored in exchange for a thick stack of bills per session, had wounded my mother by sending her off to some colleague she would never visit even once.

When I had that crying fit, my mother thought it was time for her to do something about me, so she made me come with her to church. The visit to a psychologist could always wait until after the priests had failed, if only because priests are cheaper than psychologists. She left me in a confessional where my voice, muffled by my own incredulity, enumerated the reasons I considered it entirely useless for me to seek consolation from a God in whom I had not believed since the time when, as a child, I'd prayed to Him to make my team, the Real Betis Balompié, league champions, and he'd never given my prayer the slightest heed. The invisible priest who heard my confession must have thought he wasn't being paid enough to concern himself with the blabberings of an atheist and, as my only penitence, told me never to set foot in his church again.

At that time in my life I was obsessed with freeing myself from an obsession. In fact, I still have it; which means I'll always have it; there's no way for me to get rid of it. Ever since I first had to memorize my name and address as a boy, so that in case I got lost I could walk up to any trustworthy-looking person and ask to be taken home, the first thing I think upon waking up in the morning is this: my full name, Moisés Froissard Calderón, my old address (where no one lives anymore, or at least no one I know), La Florida 15, apartment 3B, and then my age, my profession (saver of lives, naturally), and some trait that characterizes myidentity or my present circumstances, the only variable element in this daily mantra. I thought that if I could only stop this compulsive behavior, this recitation of my identity, this linguistic tattoo by which my consciousness activates itself, then my life would change, I would succeed in becoming someone and stop falling apart over stupid things like a ridiculous, tender scene in a movie that had no effect on anyone else. And I came away from that priest—from confessing to him that I couldn't confess anything to him and that I might have been better off with a pretty personal trainer or charming foreign-language instructor—telling myself: you have to do it, you have to learn to forget your name, your address, your age.

Somehow I had to save myself. I couldn't imagine a worse fate than the stagnant life my friends were living. Like lots of people my age, I'd tried to do whatever traveling I could with the help of summer internships and student discounts. Occasionally I'd earn some money handing out flyers, working as a lifeguard at a swimming pool where the pink of Seville's lumpenproletariat fried themselves to an even brighter scarlet, or donating sperm at the hospital—no big deal. Some friends and I were always on the lookout for ways to generate income with none of the usual headaches. The girls had it easier: the private clinics would give them close to a thousand euros for a single egg, while our sperm was only worth thirty or forty euros, depending on the demand. We were constantly sharing information: a movie that needed extras was about to start shooting; a new TV show was paying audience members to be jeered at and insulted. A few of us even tried our luck at a modeling agency, but they barely let us off the elevator. When we found out we could earn good cash by acting as basketball statisticians, we headed straight for the league headquarters to apply. On Sunday afternoons, for an hour of recording personal fouls and keeping track of each team's possession time, we pocketed the staggering sum of thirty euros. We looked at other sports leagues as well, and dreamed of becoming ping-pong statisticians, tennis statisticians, handball statisticians,volleyball statisticians, or whatever—but we never had the same luck again.

Every night before I fell asleep, I used to grant myself interviews. Sometimes I'd won a grand slam; other times I'd saved fourteen people from dying in a fire. Sometimes a famous Hollywood actress was madly in love with me, or I was the only photographer to get a clear image of the pope's head the instant the bullet smashed into it. Any social welfare psychoanalyst—and any first-year psychology student and probably any department store sales clerk—could have told me: muchacho, you're suffering from delusions of grandeur; all you want out of life is to be famous. Something in your past—your parents' indifference?—is driving you to do great things, things that will make you immortal, make people recognize you wherever you go. Nevertheless, most of the interviews I conducted with myself confirmed my suspicion that my greatest talent lay in bringing out the worst in everyone around me. I believe I spoke those very words at some point during every one of the interviews, as if this were a virtue worthy of praise, as if my real mission on Earth were not simply to be the first man on Saturn, win the Tour de France, marry a millionaire, build the fanciest airport in Asia, uncover the remains of Jesus Christ, or discover an infallible cure for depression, but to serve as a funhouse mirror for everyone who got near me. In fact, I always ended up convincing my hypothetical interviewers—whom, of course, I also invariably wound up seducing—that however impressive the achievement they were interviewing me about was, what lay below it, which they'd find if they scratched the surface even the slightest bit, was a disturbing image of themselves, reflected in my unusual temperament.

I once mentioned this to my brother, at one of the rare moments when we were being serious, or at least, I was being serious—some college philosophy course or youthful romanticmishap would occasionally drive me to wax philosophic. Whereupon he, with a sidelong glance and a suppressed laugh—he was very good at suppressing his laughter; he understood that much of the impact of his jibes lay in keeping their bite undulled by a chuckle or a "just kidding"—said, "You get that from Papa." This remark had a considerable effect on me because we hadn't called the old man "Papa" since before we started high school. It was as if we'd been exchanging views on the pope and my brother had referred to His Holiness as "cootchi-cootchi." It felt pornographic.

It was my brother who took the crucial step that led to my doing something I'd never had the nerve to do: make a decision. He introduced me to a friend of his who earned a living as an administrator for Artists Without Borders.

"Maybe you can do something for him. I think he needs a little shaking up," my brother, reeking of gasoline, as ever, said to his friend.

"Would you be willing to go to Bolivia? We're sending a team there a month from now, and we need actors, clowns, puppeteers, acrobats—things like that."

He explained everything, and I didn't even need time to think it over. That night before falling asleep, I granted myself another interview. Having just received the Oscar for my role in a biopic of James Dean, to whom I bore a remarkable physical resemblance, I reminisced about my entire career and confessed that I was particularly proud—and also much admired though I didn't get into that—of having gotten my start in show business by bringing joy and laughter to helpless, poverty-stricken children.

I left for Bolivia like someone going off on a weekend camping trip with friends. The morning after my arrival I woke up angry, for even though I had a new address now and innumerable reasons to forget my name and everything else, to become nobody,just another clown, I still had to repeat to myself, in order to greet the day, or rather to be greeted by the day: Moisés Froissard Calderón, La Florida 15, apartment 3B, twenty-three years old, world-class idiot.

Half an hour after my first visit to the vast garbage dump on the outskirts of La Paz where thousands of small children lived, I went on another crying jag. Then I got over it. What else could I do? We put on a couple of shows a day, with lots of improvisation and not much juggling. The children crowding around us were wildly delighted by our ghastly little puppet shows; to them, hearing a puppet speak was miraculous. "The clowns are coming, the clowns!" they would shout when they saw us climbing toward them up a mountain of garbage. They spent all day, dawn to dusk, rummaging through the immense mass of refuse for something they might be able to sell on the streets of the city. At night, to stave off hunger, they covered their faces with glue-soaked rags and hallucinated. More than one of them had climbed a telephone pole, thinking he was an eagle, and thrown himself to the ground, or electrocuted himself by grabbing a live wire. Almost all of them had stooped shoulders and faraway eyes. Grandparents were highly improbable; it was unusual for anyone to reach forty, but I did meet a man who already had several grandchildren at the age of thirty-two. The missionaries who had ventured there to sooth the unbearable agonies of the body with balms for the spirit were opposed, naturally, to the distribution of condoms that might alleviate the overpopulation problem. But there would always be more garbage than garbage pickers, no matter how many were born. According to census figures someone in my group claimed to have seen, there were about fifty thousand people living in that dump. I can't begin to describe the stench that choked the air not only at the dump itself but for ten kilometers all around. It was a jungle of garbage,ruled by the law of the jungle. If a six-year-old girl found something of even the slightest value, she'd have to have learned a great deal in her short life to keep others from immediately grabbing it away.

The glue corroded their brains but gave them access to other regions where they could breathe or become soccer stars or drive fast cars. And in every shack on the dump an image of some virgin or saint presided over the single room where the whole family lived crammed together. Every time I left the dump, the stupefied children's applause in my ears, I would swear never to go back. Then I'd proceed to spend the evening getting drunk in some filthy dive and letting the other members of my group persuade me not to give up. I'd ask them if they really thought what we were doing was of any value at all, if they really thought that with a few quick hugs and some clown noses and white face paint we were going to save anyone. And instead of taking me to task for even asking such questions, they were naive enough to try to answer them.

I'd been there three weeks, putting on shows for adorable and all-too-easily-pleased audiences, lending a hand here and there, helping build some wooden huts that could house a few families, giving math classes if the teacher needed a day off, when I met Roberto Gallardo, a red-haired immaculately clad Argentine in his thirties whom I'd occasionally glimpsed roving across the garbage dump and had initially taken for a member of our group. But he wasn't. He showed up one evening at one of the dingy haunts I retreated to every day the instant the sun went down, in urgent need of benumbing my consciousness and manufacturing a little dose of sleep for myself. (Those days I was falling asleep without granting any interviews; there wasn't time for even a single question.) Roberto asked if the stool to my left was free, and I gestured for him to sit down. He delivered thekind of opening line that's typical of someone who has his speech well prepared, something like: "Life's tough around here, isn't it?" Then came a minutely detailed inquiry into my past and what it was that had compelled me to do what I was doing, followed by a lengthy evaluation of the likelihood that my work was doing any good at all for the public it was intended to serve. He told me the La Paz dump was a Garden of Eden compared to certain Mexico City barrios where the police charged a very high price indeed if anyone called for their help. He waxed explicit about scenes he had personally witnessed in those barrios, smothered under a layer of greasy smog above which the sun itself was nothing but a filthy piece of small change. Death was routine and came as a welcome salvation to the fortunate few who met with it before suffering too much. One night some kid would collapse headlong into the rag he'd soaked with all his liquid assets, never to wake up; the next morning they'd stick him in a cardboard box, and if the priest had nothing better to do, he'd stop by to repeat exactly what he'd said the day before at another kid's burial, and the story ended there without anyone even wondering what the kid had been alive for in the first place.

Finally, his smiling eyes working hard to establish the camaraderie his awful stories had not managed to elicit, he asked, "Don't you think we could do more for them?"

"Not all of them, of course," he hastened to clarify, "but for a few, for the best of them." I soon learned that the best of them meant the best-looking. And there he cut off his narrative, ceding the role of interviewer to me. Of course he had my full attention at that point; there were moments when he seemed like a politician who carries a thick pack of cards in his wide sleeve, so as to pull out exactly the right one at any given moment. I need hardly mention that the question that obsessed me from the start and even long after I'd grown inclined to accept the new worldviewRoberto was proposing was: why me? Was I so transparently out of place among the performers who went to the dump every day that even a complete stranger could spot me unerringly? When I found out what Gallardo did for a living, I thought he was a criminal who deserved to be hung. That was after I'd discarded the possibility that he was making the whole thing up to try and impress me. We've all been heroes and villains in our late-night bar talk; we've all told tall tales, climbed high mountains, or hunted lions on the strength of information gleaned from a back issue of National Geographic idly leafed through long ago in a dentist's waiting room. I found myself claiming to be the leader of a small band of neo-Nazis one night as I tried to cast my spell on a Valkyrie who was wearing a silver swastika pendant. When Roberto told me his job was to save lives, to sink his hands into the muck and rescue nuggets of pure gold, I sighed. Then he came out with an energetic speech about the kind of ultra-Catholic misgivings that cloud our minds and keep us from a commonsense appreciation of the greatness of the organization he worked for.

"If children break their backs harvesting tea or go blind making athletic shoes, you'll accept that as normal—an outrage, yes, but far preferable to their working as prostitutes. And bear in mind that as prostitutes they'll work in absolute safety, there will be no abuses, they will be paid what they're worth and not some miserable pittance, they'll have doctors when they need them, and they'll soon be able to save enough to quit doing that kind of work if they're not happy with it. But that horrifies you; anything involving sex strikes you as appalling. The TV can run a thousand ads selling suicidally fast cars, and no one protests. But if a close-up of a naked man appears on the screen in an ad for refrigerators, or a beautiful woman is shown stroking herself between the legs in a pitch for Persian carpets, then everyone screams forParliament to do something about it. A man may be losing his soul working twelve hours a day with shit for wages, but he's still an honorable man. But if he makes in half an hour what you make in a month by letting himself be pawed by some drooling imbecile who comes the minute he touches him, well then, honor is out of the question. Take any one of those handsome boys and beautiful little girls who are out there scrabbling around in garbage and shit all day long; bring out their beauty with the right kind of clothes, teach them a couple of tricks that will drive the clients wild, and in half an hour they'll have knocked out any one of the drooling imbeciles and be stowing a nice pile of money in their wallets. Ask them which outrage is greater."

His sermon seemed a little weak in points, but I preferred not to challenge it with a sermon of my own. I said only, "We all have to make a living as best we can."

And then: "Why are you telling me all this? What do you want from me?"

He told me he was having a hard time finding his way around the garbage dump. He'd been trying for days but never managed to get where he wanted to go. He'd once spotted a lovely little girl rummaging through the garbage but hadn't managed to approach her. When he finally reached the place where he'd seen her through his binoculars, on a hill of trash, accompanied by five or six other children, she'd already taken off. She was the only worthwhile piece he'd seen here. He asked me to find her for him, and said that if, during my visits to the dump, I saw any other piece that was lovely, very lovely—the pieces had to be exceptionally beautiful, he told me—would I please do him the favor of recruiting her, or him. He'd pay a thousand dollars per head for all pieces who met with his approval.

"Beauty is such a subjective thing," I said, my patently idiotic words sounding like a pretext for rejecting the proposal.

"Amigo," he said, "beauty is a very simple thing for a man to define."

"How?"

"Beauty is whatever gets you hard."

I laughed. And asked the obvious: "Why me?"

He told me I was different from the others, that this was clear from a mile away; I was out of place; I simply didn't belong to the new breed of lay missionaries who are spreading out across the world to improve the Kingdom of God and correct its imperfections.

That same night, sharing a cot with Virginia—something I did from time to time, always when she felt like sleeping in someone's arms, never when I was the one who felt like it—I told her about Gallardo's offer. She got out of bed and said, "You need a shave." My beard was taking over my face. And then: "We've got to turn that guy in."

"Are you crazy?" I retorted. "Who are you going to turn him in to? The highly efficient Bolivian police force, which will brook no interference with the youngest of the nation's garbage pickers?"

"We have to teach him a lesson," she said. "And you should shave. Because ..."

She was silent for a few seconds. I didn't know whether she was going to continue on the subject of my beard or was trying to think of a way we could teach Gallardo a lesson and let him know exactly what we thought of him. Finally she said, with something almost heartbroken in her voice, "You're thinking about taking him up on it, aren't you?"

My only response was a smile. She got up off the floor, leaving the wet trace of her ass behind, and before heading off to her own cot, she slapped me with a soft hand that couldn't possibly have done me any harm, though it sounded as if I'd been hit witha heavy black weight. Then she had a change of heart and raised the same hand that had just left a red mark on my cheek to my forehead, as if to see whether my temperature had risen, whether I had a fever I could blame her for having brought on. Without looking at me, she said, "You're very good at bringing out the worst in me."

The words condemned me to insomnia.

The next day I became aware of just how much headway the conversation with Roberto Gallardo was making inside me. We were performing in the northern part of the dump. Our audience consisted of about three dozen kids, the youngest about six, the oldest no more than fifteen. As I juggled three small, brightly colored balls, I thought: OK, now, when I step aside to let Virginia take over, I'm going to have a look; with any luck I'll find the girl he's looking for or another one whose life he can save. Those were the exact words that ran through my head, I swear. The night before I had flung myself on my cot but even though I was drunk I'd had trouble falling asleep. I was thinking about luck: those kids' luck and my own. When all's said and done, I said to myself, you don't really belong here, you're an imposter; you didn't really come here to make anyone else's life more pleasant, you were just looking for a way out for yourself. My nights were often taken up with thoughts like these, though I never reproached myself for my charade; I accepted that ultimately the important thing is always the act itself, and not the underlying motive. It was true that Virginia, Pablo, Raul, and Mercedes all had reasons for being there that were much purer than mine; each of them had been led to the garbage dump by some deep inner conviction that I never managed to muster. For example, to them, the constant stench only served to strengthen their sense ofmission, while for me it was one more unbearable proof that I wasn't cut out for this kind of thing. I was the only one who covered my face with handkerchiefs doused in cologne. The others bore the stench as a badge of heroism. To me, it was simply the most hateful and maddening element of this hell I'd gotten myself into without knowing why. Moreover, I was the only one who continually criticized our work, though this was more out of a feeling that I was wasting my time than from the sense of futility brought on by registering, day after day, that no matter how we got the children to like us, no matter how many smiles we managed to win from the terrible slavery of their days, we were essentially doing nothing more than collaborating with all the shit we were supposedly rebelling against.

The moment I stepped out of the chalk circle where I'd been playing with my little balls to make way for Virginia's number, I knew I'd started working for Gallardo's organization. I took a long, slow look at the face of each kid in the audience, eager to find one who would give me the full experience of beauty, in Gallardo's simple definition. I was out of luck, but the mere fact of having made this patient, detailed inspection—I even rated each child's body on a scale of one to ten; the highest rating, a six, was obviously not a life-saving score—gave me a strange feeling which seemed funny at first but then made me so uneasy that I ordered myself to stop playing with fire. Nonetheless I continued to play with fire that whole day; it was thrilling to play with fire.

I swear I wasn't thinking about the money I'd make if I found the girl Gallardo was looking for, or any other child who stood a chance of meeting his criteria. I was only playing a role—a foolish way I had of entertaining myself at that point in my life. In a given situation, I would cast myself in a given role. For example, if the bus I was riding on broke down and we had to sit for hoursin a ditch, instead of being the traveler who loses his temper and joins the chorus of loud protests, I would resolve to be a kind of yogi, who knows that one can easily rise above even the worst circumstances by training one's will to accept the will of destiny with resignation and expect nothing more. I admit I wasn't always the best yogi, and since it was rather common, in the part of the world I was circulating in, for buses to leave you stranded in the middle of the highway, I had many opportunities to fail. At most I could hold out for twenty minutes, silently chanting "om namah shivaya." Then I'd give a hard punch to the back of the empty seat in front of me, scream out my desire to shit on the motherfucking bus company, and get off the bus to unite my wrath with that of my fellow travelers who were vociferating at the side of the road.

That day I didn't run across a single child of exceptional beauty in that apocalyptic landscape of endless mounds of garbage. Several families had settled at the foot of each hill and often had to defend their land from those who disputed their claim. Fights were not unusual, nor was it at all unheard of for a knife to flash in the shadows and for blood to flow and for screams to ring through the dump's rank air. When the time came for the trucks loaded with the day's garbage to arrive, a crowd would gather at the dumping spot and a ferocious struggle would ensue over broken trophies, stained clothing, various sorts of scrap metal—anything that could be sold at the market the next day. There was little point in hoping for food; whatever boxes restaurants and supermarkets tossed into the dumpsters disappeared immediately, fought over by people in the city who'd learned those establishments' daily schedules and kept close tabs on them. Even so, the remains of some banquet always emerged, a cluster of spoiled grapes, a box of yogurts, their expiration date long past. I took pictures of all of it. I knew very well that the only benefitI could hope to derive from this experience—which I'd signed on for without asking myself what on earth I was looking for or what I could possibly expect to find in such a hellish place—was a collection of photographs I might be able to persuade some magazine to publish when I got back to Spain. But on that day I stopped taking shots of the wretched squabbling, the children endlessly tunneling into mountains of garbage, and instead began to look for bodies that deserved to be photographed. I asked a few of the boys and girls to pose for me, and shot some close-ups, but even as I pressed the shutter button I knew that my subject—anxiously waiting for me to produce the image immediately, and disappointed to learn it would be some time before I developed the picture—was not going to interest Gallardo or his organization.

Little by little I was becoming ... if not actually Gallardo's friend then at least his drinking buddy. He was a man who suffered a great deal from his own ambitions. He felt like a failure; he'd spent five years scouting for the organization and hadn't yet been considered for a position as a branch director in charge of a given region—a position that would give him an office of his own. Whenever I tried to find out about his past, Gallardo barred my way; he didn't want to tell to me how he had gotten started in the business, and even the information he gave me about the Club was always insufficient, facts I could more or less have guessed on my own: that it was headquartered in Paris and the Spanish branch was in Barcelona, that the Club's boys and girls would travel anywhere to take care of a client, that naturally the Club also functioned as an agency, loaning out its personnel for porn films and millionaire bachelor parties, or to serve as companions or pets: I also learned that the richest regions, where scouts were sent as a reward, were Thailand and the Caribbean, but that the youngest and most adventurous scoutspreferred more complicated destinations, countries that had just gone through a war or an economic collapse. Once the war correspondents decamped, the Club's scouts were always next on the scene. Gallardo wasn't even willing to tell me how many lives he'd saved, whether he'd fallen in love with any of the pieces he'd scouted, or whether his trip to the La Paz garbage dump was his idea or the organization's. He wouldn't talk about money, either; all he'd say was that there was lots of it involved. Of course the clients' identities were kept secret; they were important people; he didn't know and didn't want to know who they were, and if he ever heard a rumor about a client's name, he tried to forget it immediately. The one thing he did tell me was: "When you become part of the Club, it's best not to say much and not to hear much; just go, scout, turn in what you find, and collect your money." He also told me that his biggest success story had nothing to do with any piece he'd discovered in some repellent spot. What he'd found was a scout: a woman in her thirties he had met under circumstances similar to those we were in now, and who emerged within just a couple of seasons as the Club's top scout. That woman was now director of the Barcelona branch, and she was the one who would interview me if I wanted to join the Club Olympus as a talent scout.

I held out for two months in the garbage dump. I had made a commitment to stay for six months before going home and being reassigned to another area. You get yourself into these things because you want to travel. There's all that stuff about helping others and doing useful things, making some gesture that will save the world, but traveling and learning geography up close and personal is the main thing. Otherwise you might as well just stay home and pay a daily visit to your own city's slums, the long grim alleys where children chase the rats off a small patch of ground so they'll have a place to play soccer with the ragged remains of a ball they found in a dumpster. The plan I'd signed up for specified that our mission was to entertain the kids, help them escape for a little while each day from the nightmare they were drowning in, and also try to teach them things like reading or writing. We'd brought a stack of reproductions of famous paintings with us, in imitation of the Pedagogical Missions the Spanish Republicans sent out around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the idea was that we were going to help the children appreciate the beauty of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Vincent van Gogh. I considered this aspect of our work hilarious and was constantly making sarcastic remarks about it, to the displeasure of the other members of my group, who were finding me harder and harder to take. Occasionally they'd ask, "What thehell are you here for, anyway?" And I'd shrug; any answer would have required a series of rhetorical gymnastics not worth wasting my energy on. And then, two months after my arrival, I quit. I said, "I can't do this anymore." I paid Virginia the fifty dollars I'd bet her that I would be able to hold out to the end and boarded a plane back to Spain, a few kilos lighter than on arrival and with a permanently atrophied sense of smell. Gallardo had left a week before, having finally found the little goddess he'd been after. One night the three of us had dinner together. The girl's face was dizzying: large green eyes, a mouth that cried out to be nibbled, a skinny body that would soon be developing into something more.

"You could fuck her today for a handful of change, muchacho, but a week from now an hour with this girl will be worth two thousand dollars plus expenses. Now that's what I call saving someone's life."

So Club Olympus scouts are lifesavers. I'm repeating the words to myself over and over right now as I talk to Nadim, who comes from Mauritania, has landed on this beach near Cádiz, and doesn't know what will become of her or whether to trust me; she wonders if she did the right thing by abandoning her group at the Guardia Civil station. She clutches the cup of coffee she's just been served, trying to warm her hands. She knows some English, so I don't need an interpreter. I give her a smile, but her face registers no response until I say, "And now?" I ask her whether she knows anyone in Spain, what her plans are—you know, a few preliminary questions just to pave the way. This was always the part I was worst at. I liked catching a piece; my adrenaline surged, and my heart pounded. But once the piece was in front of me and it was time to move on to the second phase of the capture, I would start to lose interest. Sometimes it was because what I really wanted was to keep the piece formyself; other times I worried I wasn't going to be able to prove that what I was doing was saving her life. And of course sometimes I resorted to pure fiction and brought the piece I'd captured all the way back to the Club's branch office without giving her the slightest notion of what kind of business she was getting involved with. I once had to convince the young, chronically unlucky mother of a skinny and adorable little Romanian boy I found in a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid that I was a representative of the Barcelona soccer team and wanted to take her son away with me to try out for the second string. I overcame her qualms with a solid wad of euros, of course. "He doesn't know how to play soccer, but they can always make him the goalie," she said, as if inviting me to invent some other, more convincing story; not that she was thinking of raising any objections to the sale of her son, but she felt obliged to demand a minimum of verisimilitude to help her deceive herself with some semblance of credibility.

I took one of Nadim's hands, drawing it away from the coffee cup. She let me. I gazed into her eyes. I said: "I'm here to help you. I can help you. I have an offer to make you, and it's up to you to decide whether or not to accept. If you accept, you'll come with me and I'll arrange all the paperwork you'll need to stay here. If not, I'll have to take you back to join the others, the Guardia Civil will send you all back to your country, and you'll have to cross the sea another time, hopefully with better luck than today."

As if to reprove me for having chosen this approach, my cell phone rang. On the little illuminated screen appeared the word Her. In my address book, that's the name for Carmen Thevenet, aka the Doctor, aka the Big Boss Lady or the Thousand Eyes That Never Blink.

"You're meeting me at the Hotel Reina Mercedes in Madrid tomorrow at nine a.m.," she barked.

"Good evening," I answered.

"Drop whatever you're doing wherever you are and get started. This is a red alert, a very, very, very big deal."

"But I've just made a capture."

"Leave it where you found it. What is it this time, another shipwrecked girl? You're starting to get boring; you're slacking off. You're not going to get anywhere that way. On a scale of one to ten, how does your latest catch rate? Anything but a nine or a ten automatically fails."

I took a look at Nadim. Her eyes were lost on the motionless surface of her coffee which reflected a fragment of her face. No, she wasn't a ten or even a nine. Judging her by such exacting criteria, it could be that I'd chosen her because she was the most beautiful member of her group of shipwrecked refugees, but now that she was out of that context—though I'd have no problem selling her to the Club—she wasn't going to fetch the kind of astronomical prices that were paid to the Club's biggest stars. Only a little while earlier, I'd been thinking that Nadim was going to be one of my best and most celebrated catches. Now that conviction slowly deflated. I tried to imagine her in a sexy dress and could only see her as a degraded caricature, more like one of the whores who throng along Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana or the Alameda de Hercules in Seville than like a delicious, glittering star of the Club's firmament. I could almost hear the Doctor's voice upbraiding me for bringing her such a piece, scolding me for lowering the Club's standards of excellence, delivering one of her characteristic aphorisms such as, "The greatest scouts aren't the ones who bring in lots of vulgar pieces but the ones who extract only diamonds from the mud," or, "I'd rather have one diamond than a thousand tiny chips of gold that I'll never be able to melt into a single piece." However, I knew the Club's beauty experts were capable of transforming anapparently vulgar piece into a more than respectable imitation of a diamond. And Nadim wasn't vulgar; she was tall, her face was somewhat angular, she had large eyes and an intense gaze—which, however, inspired more tenderness than desire; the worst thing that can be said of the eyes of someone who wants to get into the Club is that they inspire tenderness. She might be a little too thin and would need to have some breast enhancement work done, but there was definitely a lot of potential. Finally I took a chance and said, "An eight and a half, but that's natural. I just took her off the beach; she's just been separated from the group she was shipwrecked with, and she must have had a boyfriend or a brother among them; she doesn't know where she is. She'll be a nine in a few days and a ten once you've taken charge of her."

"You're exaggerating," the Doctor said. "I'm sure you're exaggerating. With a heart as soft as yours, you'll never amount to anything. Are you sure she's not pregnant?"

"No. If she is, it doesn't show, so ..."

"Right—we'll have to pay for an abortion on top of all the other fixing up she's going to need. Have you looked at her teeth?"

"Carmen, I only just sat down to have a coffee with her."

"Fine, then. Nine a.m. at the Reina Mercedes. If you want, you can bring her along, and if not, you can leave her where you found her. But get in the car right now and start driving."

I knew that if I took her to Madrid and the Doctor rejected her at first sight, I could still help Nadim out by taking her to the alternate club where I sent pieces I had scouted who couldn't stand up to the Club's severe examination. After the Doctor took over as head of the Club's Spanish branch, the requirements for approval rose considerably. Carmen Thevenet was a woman who brushed her teeth every night until her gums bled. Sometimes she'd stand there brushing for half an hour until she managed toextract a thread of blood. If a single detail can evoke the entire geography of a soul, that detail had, for me, come to represent the whole of the Doctor's soul. She also collected old books with uncut edges. When I discovered this, I found it highly implausible. I imagined that she bought books with uncut edges so she could enjoy the pleasure of slicing the pages apart with a knife; there are people who enjoy even stranger forms of relaxation. But not only did she collect books with uncut edges—the only collection of such books in the entire world, she liked to brag—she also read them without cutting the pages apart. Once, in a good mood, she explained how she did it. Every book consists of signatures of sixteen pages each. In a book with uncut edges, the only pages you can read are the first, last, and two middle pages of each signature: four out of sixteen. Those were the pages she would read. That is, in a 320-page book, the Doctor would read eighty pages. She would just invent whatever lay between—i.e., whatever was obscured from view by the joined edges of the pages. But, she explained, it was nothing at all like skipping pages just to get ahead. If she read a page where a man was cheating on his wife with the woman next door and then, after the inevitable skipping over of the uncut pages, the neighbor disappeared, Carmen would simply make up what happened in between; she would decide that the wife had killed the neighbor or that the neighbor had gone to India to spend the rest of her life caring for lepers.

The most curious and excellent part of this was that in other aspects of life, as well, Carmen continued to behave like a reader of books with uncut edges: she only wanted to read part of every story, preferring to invent the rest for herself, letting her imagination weave the links between the isolated facts she was given. She hated knowing everything; she always needed to be the coauthor. Though she was a little engine that could never stopchurning out speech, she never said much about herself, or rather about her feelings, and she almost never talked about her years as a scout and her rapid rise up the Club's ladder before taking over as director of the Spanish branch. Nor did her ambitions end there, of course. She was pushing for a transfer to New York; Europe was too small for her. She had wild illusions for the future that seemed to come straight from the realm of science fiction. For example, she dreamed of a time when those who evoke desire in others might live off their royalties. That is, if you happen to masturbate while thinking about someone—a dancer, someone who walked past you in the street, a waitress in a nightclub, your teenage neighbor—that person would be paid for having lent his or her image to your desires, for having been used. How to go about collecting money for this didn't strike her as much of a problem; she argued that composers' royalties aren't paid out on a case-by-case basis but by more general criteria. I didn't understand her reasoning very well, but that was probably because I didn't care and the whole thing seemed so outlandish it wasn't worth discussing. In any case, this fantasy of hers about royalties for the objects of desire—"Just think!" she'd say. "You might get a nice little surprise at the end of the year. There you were thinking no one felt the slightest desire for you, and suddenly you get a statement detailing precisely how many people have jerked off thinking about you, for which you're entitled to such-and-such an amount of money. Wouldn't it be fantastic?"—was given concrete expression when she increased the price of the Club's models. She said that 70 percent of the price the Club charged was for the services that were actually rendered, and 30 percent was for the future desires those services would arouse. Because obviously, if someone hired one of the club's stars for an hour, he wasn't only going to spend one unforgettable, magnificent hour with that individual; his mental images of that sessionin the future, when he was alone, stroking himself with closed eyes, trying to recapture the sequence of burning movements that had driven him wild during the session. Those echoes or afterimages of that one, pricey session were covered by 30 percent of the set price for the piece he hired. "Image rights," she called this.

Sometimes she'd surprise you with a sharp turn of phrase, and you weren't sure whether she'd gotten it out of one of her uncut books or was actually trying to express, with her usual self-assurance, the vestige of some former bitterness she had long since laughed off. "I not only came to my marriage a virgin," she told me once, "but to my first experience of adultery, as well." And: "In a marriage, sex ends up being a legal form of incest, doesn't it? You start realizing that going to bed with your husband is like going to bed with your brother." And also: "For most men, copulation is just a more sophisticated form of masturbation." I never discussed any of these lines with her but smiled indulgently when she delivered them. The greatest gem of them all, the one I liked so much that I noted it down in a little book I used to carry around with me to jot my thoughts in—or rather, I began by jotting my thoughts in it and ended up using it to write down phone numbers and e-mail addresses—was: "Growing older consists of ceasing to fantasize about the future and resigning yourself to fantasizing about the past." She said this as a way of letting me know that was how she felt, and warning me to be on the lookout for the moment when my own decline would begin.

When I returned from Bolivia, still unsure what I was going to do—while keeping in mind that whenever I decided to I could use Gallardo's name to pay a visit to the Doctor and learn more about the Club Olympus—I didn't know if I was capable of putting together a photojournalism feature that some magazine might buy; nevertheless, I tried to find a publisher for my experiences asa volunteer in Bolivia. Among the many photos I brought back were a dozen fairly decent, publishable ones which I sent off to a number of magazines, accompanied by a lousy text about life, if you can call it that, on the garbage dump of La Paz. I was not at all confident that the article would be accepted anywhere, so I leaped for joy when I got a call from a weekly magazine that was thinking of publishing my work if I didn't want some ridiculous amount of money for it. For a few days, before falling asleep, I granted interviews as a legendary reporter, and when, over breakfast, my mother asked what I was thinking of doing with myself next, I told her I was planning another journey in search of a subject for a new photo essay.

I spent hours staring at my photographs printed in the pages of that magazine. I read and reread the pathetically inadequate text which the editors had barely altered. I relived vivid scenes on the La Paz garbage dump and set new challenges for myself; I tried to pay attention to what was going on in the world in the hope of discovering some geopolitical hotspot where I could take my camera for a visit. It was a strange period of my life, during which I considered myself capable of any feat, no matter how daring, as long as it would consume all my time for the next few months. The dark hours of my experience in Bolivia were entirely erased; all that was left were a few fragments of the story, the parts I could use to make the narrative seem heroic. I'd wrung those bits of narrative dry to make my fictions all the juicier, and now experienced them only as necessary and good; they caused me no pain at all—on the contrary, they nourished my vanity.

But the weeks went by and left me with nothing. I couldn't go on swinging through empty space pretending I was still savoring the sweet taste of one small and entirely forgettable success. The story about the Bolivian garbage dump had no echo anywhere, and if at certain moments between sleeping and waking I managedto convince myself that my phone would soon be ringing off the hook with pleas that I bring back news stories from exotic locales, the slow course of real life, the onerous burden of the present moment, and the stubborn muteness of my telephone persistently put the lie to my exalted desires. No one at the other end of the line wanted anything from me.

The situation was a gold mine for my brother. "Our tireless foreign correspondent," he'd say when he saw me sprawled on the couch exhausted, toying with the remote control. My mother didn't pressure me but went on tackling her "little thing" as usual, at that point through a combination of working out and going to church. According to my brother, she was seeing someone; he wasn't sure if it was her personal trainer or the priest. He hoped it was the priest; an affair with a personal trainer would have been so tacky, so entirely in keeping with the most codified traditions of pornography. Whereas a priest seemed much grander, like the plot of a novel by Eça de Queiroz—something to make us proud of her. My father remained exclusively concerned with his team's standing in the play-offs and his efforts to prevent the economic crisis from affecting his company's profitability. He had long since made a rule (which he did not always keep) of avoiding any kind of dispute with my mother, but sometimes, when she insisted he do something to help his sons find work, even if it was only a job as an errand boy for the company he ran, he would lose his temper and serve us up a lovely fairy tale, its main character a boy whom no one ever helped and who always had to make do for himself (my brother and I were delighted with the expression "to make do for oneself"; "I'm going to make do for myself," my brother would announce every time he headed for the bathroom), a boy who owed no thanks to anyone for anything. And that's what was going on in my life when I met Luzmila.

There I was, driving at night with soft music on and a beautiful woman stretched out on the backseat trying to sleep, her memory thronging with images like wounded soldiers who know they're about to die and whose only desire is to kill before sacrificing themselves. Engulfed in a darkness that adhered to the car's windows like a giant decal, Nadim and I proceeded toward Madrid, following the stubby beams of the headlights that seemed to invent the road as they went along. She climbed into the car as if she were entering a cell she knew she wouldn't be able to leave until she'd lived through many a nightmare and made many a scratch on the damp wall to mark the death of yet another day. I had already come to know the anguished sadness of that gaze very well; I looked for it in the faces that posed for me, I loved to photograph it, and when I saw it gleaming in the darkroom's shadows, my heart would beat faster and I'd take it out of the tray and hang it up with a clothespin to dry and stand there hypnotized by that beautiful, poignant sadness, all races and ages united in the brotherhood of its glitter. I drove along without wondering why the hell the Doctor wanted me so urgently, simply enjoying the soothing music; whenever I got tired of its melancholy rhythm I'd give the radio a try, the airwaves filled with the late-night confessions of lonely hearts, retired old men no one ever visited, teenagers whispering into thereceiver so as not to wake up their parents, people with problems who'd been waiting all day to make this call, waiting all day for the microphones to open so they could finally talk about a pain that was gnawing at their soul, an experience they could no longer keep buried in the deep, dark cellar where we all hide the stories we cannot bear.

I wasn't worried about what would happen to Nadim; as far as I was concerned, she was saved and I had saved her. Even if all I'd been able to do in the end was abandon her to her fate on the streets of Madrid, I would have left her better off than I'd found her, and consequently would have served as her bridge toward that better place to which we all aspire. As the car's headlights went on swallowing up the kilometers, I sometimes found myself trying to imagine Nadim's story. Every piece I've ever scouted, including the ones who got away, are the bearers of monumental stories. Sometimes the air in those stories is fetid and sickening; at other times there are epic feats that are hard to speak of without waxing grandiloquent or implausible, but there's always a sadness in their ascending stairways, a sadness that pervades everything. There is always despair on those playgrounds, be they minefields or rat-infested garbage dumps or vast beaches where the slap of the waves is like a torturer's chuckle.

Someone on the radio was telling a story that was as sensational as it was engrossing—something about a man and a woman who were lovers when they were both twenty, then stopped seeing each other, and then, a long, long while later, were both killed in the same car accident, a headlong collision with each other. I thought about that story, trying to envision the characters' faces, trying to imagine what the two lovers had told themselves in the seconds before they crashed into each other. And I remembered that after my brother picked up the expression omniscient narrator from somewhere, probably from mymother—every time she acquired some new bit of knowledge, she tried to transplant it into her daily life to keep it alive in her mind—whenever anyone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would always reply, "An omniscient narrator." That was what I wanted to be: an omniscient narrator. I wanted to slip into the story Nadim was telling herself and copy it down here. It was a futile aspiration, of course, and yet somehow legitimate; maybe I simply wanted to vindicate my actions or was still trying to prove to myself that what I was doing was more than a terse slogan and indeed, nothing less than an irrevocable command: after all, my job is to save lives.

I made the decision eight or nine months after I came back from Bolivia. It had nothing to do with my personal salvation or some need to show that I did indeed possess the calculating mind, cold blood, and lack of all feelings and scruples that my brother celebrated in me, my mother reproached me for, and my father viewed as convincing proof that it was unlikely I was any son of his. After publishing my story on the La Paz garbage dump, I tried to come up with a few others; the good thing about journalism is that anyone who has figured out how to disguise his own inadequacies can do it. It's the same in art: the fact that you don't know how to paint doesn't mean you can't earn a living as a painter. But my inadequacy was that I was too imaginative. I thought, as I walked through the city—which was what I did with my time, mostly—that I could put together a nice little photo essay about war without ever leaving Seville. Without ever leaving my native city, I could disguise myself as a war correspondent and take pictures of places that looked as if they'd been bombed, people who appeared to have been cast into total poverty after airplanes had dumped their shit onto them. Tramps with empty gazes, facades hiding vast fields of rubble where junkies pretended to be alive, forsaken old women with a ragingfire stuck to the palms of their hands, people come from real wars to exchange their university degrees for a piece of cardboard hanging around their necks that asked for help in broken Spanish. I spent the last money I had developing a hundred shots of chilling places I'd found in the center of the city. The overall impact was devastating: there was a war going on, these peoples' eyes spoke of it, the conditions they were living in proved it; all you needed was a fake caption, all you had to do was write Grozny where truth dictated you should put Seville. I was particularly struck by one of the girls whose picture I took; she was speaking to the customers of an outdoor cafe with an angry look on her face, as if she were demanding they give her money for food. When I got a little closer, I realized that her face was incalculably beautiful. Her accent sounded vaguely Italian, but Italy is not a country that currently vomits its poor out across the earth so I guessed she was Romanian. I was mistaken. She was Albanian. Her name was Luzmila. I swear that at that moment, when I offered her twenty euros if she'd let me take her picture against the battered walls of a building falling to ruin, the thought of Gallardo and the Club Olympus never crossed my mind. For once I was too concerned with sticking to a plan to muddle my head with enthusiasm for other possibilities.

I mean that I had made it very clear to everyone at home what I wanted to be, what I was going to do with my life, what I was going to put my energies into. I was twenty-four years old, and the time had come to make a decision. I made several. I decided to start living with Paola, a girl who'd been coming on to me since before I went to the garbage dump and who made a living teaching English at a language school. I wasn't sure whether things would work out with her or not, but I knew for a fact I'd be better off with Paola than with my parents. When the photo essay on the fake city at war was ready, I showed it to several editors,and for once they were all in splendid unanimity: they rejected the story and accused me of fraud. A few of them recognized one or another of the beggars; another lived right next to one of the buildings I'd photographed; another tried to convince me he was impressed with my bravery but then claimed to have published something about Grozny only recently; he hadn't understood the point of the piece. All right, I told myself, there's no reason to lose heart. And Paola told me, all right, don't lose heart; they're looking for someone in the neighborhood to coach a junior soccer team; there's not much money in it, but it isn't a lot of work, either. My father was sure to be delighted when he learned how I intended to make a living. At first he'd say nothing at all, limiting himself to the almost imperceptible twitch of the lips that was as close to a smile as he ever came. Then, a while later, out of the blue, as he was peeling an orange or scratching his head or filling his pipe with tobacco, he'd come out with it: "All coaches of junior and children's leagues are pedophiles, and they all end up in trouble for abusing some child."

One thing was certain: I was starting to resign myself to my fate and get over the fact that my catalog of heroic deeds recorded no experience worth recounting besides those months spent on the garbage dump as a saintly artist without borders trying to coax a smile out of some poor child. If it occurred to anyone to ask me why the hell I'd wasted my time studying theater arts, I'd reply that my initial aim was to become a politician, a mayor, an arts manager, or something like that, for which you had to know more about theatrics than about political science. I never went to auditions or anything like that. I went on taking pictures, but they were all of junior soccer matches—and I swear I never snapped a single shot in the locker room. But in the end it all came crashing down around me, all of a sudden, on a single afternoon.

For the moment, however, I'm starting to feel drowsy. Madrid is still a long way off, and I've decided to stop somewhere and get some sleep. I'm in luck. I pull off the motorway at the next town and soon find a cheap place to stay. I leave Nadim stretched out in the backseat to give her an opportunity: if she wakes up and decides to escape, she can go ahead and do it; it will be easy. All she has to do is open the door, get out of the car, and walk off into the streets of this town on a solitary adventure that will take her through a labyrinth of inglorious scenes to some police station or into the tentacles of some mafia that will ultimately deposit her in the Casa de Campo park in Madrid, wearing nothing but a pair of tanga panties accessorized with a cheap little purse to conceal the switchblade she plans on using to defend herself against any hypothetical assailant. The room smells of disinfectant, and the bed receives me with a groan of its ancient springs. I know I'm not going to get much sleep. For some time now I've been suffering from a psychological breakdown that has chosen to reveal itself in a very comical way: itching. As soon as I lie down, my testicles start to itch. Go ahead and laugh; you have every reason to. It's a tragic situation that no dermatologist has been able to do anything for. They prescribe painkillers, tranquilizers, creams, but nothing helps. The itching starts up no matter what. I've started to call it "my little thing"; I have no other name to give it. I've accepted the fact that it's a punishment, that I'm being punished, and of course it could hardly be more significant that my guilt has chosen to manifest itself down there.

Whenever I'm running late or have no idea where I'm going, I apply a strategy that yields excellent results. I imagine it's the same one almost everybody resorts to in those situations, though I've never heard anyone else own up to it, perhaps because some might consider it childish or absurd. Here it is: I begin by choosing a random pedestrian who happens to be walking a hundred meters or so ahead of me and transform him or her into a runner who's that far in the lead in the last leg of an Olympic track event. I then do my best to get ahead of my opponent before reaching a point I've designated as the finish line before starting the race. Should my fellow pedestrian veer off the established course, rather than proclaiming myself the winner I simply choose another opponent and a different finish line.

On the afternoon that brought my tidy little life as Paola's consort to an end, I needed to calm down a bit and couldn't think of anything better than an Olympic finale to cool down the anguish that was scalding my chest. I chose a blue spot in the distance and decided its nationality was German, I'm not sure why. I clenched my teeth, selected the end of Avenida Menéndez Pelayo, about eight hundred meters away, as the finish line, and quickened my pace. To give you a clearer notion of my innocent pastime, I should confess that while I'm pursuing this fellow pedestrian, rising to meet my own challenge and fully intent onwresting the gold medal in the fifteen-hundred-meter race from my opponent, I entertain myself and safeguard my mind from injurious thoughts by taking on a heroic identity—my country's last hope of winning the lone medal that will salvage the honor of our national team. An inner voice broadcasts the race, spurring on the runner: me. Of course another part of the spectacle is the wild cheering of the crowd, waving my nation's flag and rooting for me like mad.

The girl I needed to pass had short hair and was wearing sneakers and beat-up jeans. At that point I was only sixty-five meters away from her but hadn't yet noticed that she was Luzmila. I still had more than five hundred meters to go before reaching the stoplight that marks the end of Menendez Pelayo, one of Seville's main thoroughfares, which is lined with two rows of trees that yield at the avenue's end to the sudden greenness of the Murillo gardens. There I was, swiftly overtaking other pedestrians who were strolling along with annoying calm as if they weren't even in a race, forgetting all my troubles, no longer lost in treacherous illusions, fully concentrated on the race, absorbed in the announcer's emphatic second-by-second commentary and the spectators' cheers. Every time I passed another person my feat was jubilantly celebrated by the inner voice that had exclusive broadcasting rights, and the fans would go through the roof, ceaselessly urging me on, applauding louder and louder, chanting my name.

The gap between me and the German was closing. Soon she was only about thirty meters ahead. That was when I realized who it was I was pursuing. Then something happened that made everything much more difficult. Luzmila looked around and noticed me among all the people on the street, and suddenly she seemed to remember that she was late for wherever she was going, and began walking faster, which the voice broadcasting the race took as evidence that our opponent had noticed hervictory was jeopardized by my breakneck rush forward. The change of pace and the fact that the girl had spotted me forced me to speed up even more. Of course I also wondered: she recognized me, so why is she running away? Perhaps she thought the photos I'd shot of her hadn't come out as well as I had hoped and I was chasing her to request another session or make her give back the money I'd paid her. Despite her stepped-up speed, I managed to get right behind her, so that I could easily have stretched out my arm, touched her, and said, "Hey, don't you remember me?" The stoplight was still two hundred meters away.

Just as I was about to pass her, with the crowd roaring my name and the medal's welcoming sparkle winking at me from the platform next to the finish line, just as I was about to pull up alongside her on the left and sprint forward to an easy victory, she surprised me by speeding up even more and keeping me from closing in. I didn't say a word; I wasn't even looking at her now. She didn't look at me, either. She was going to make me pay dearly for my victory; she seemed to want to make things hard for me, as if she somehow knew we were fighting for a gold medal and the top position on the platform and the honor of listening to your own national anthem with your hand on your chest as the flags rise during the ceremony.

The inner broadcaster was now practically strangling as he shouted me on, urging me not to give up, not to let our nation's only chance at a gold medal slip through my fingers, not to let the Albanian—but wasn't she German? Someone asked the announcer, and he explained, "No, there was a mix-up; she's Albanian, Albanian"—win, and the crowd was on fire, screaming and clamoring, the whole stadium on its feet, though I was no longer sure whether they were celebrating the fact that I was neck and neck with Luzmila or that Luzmila had reacted and was going tomake it hard for me and not let herself get beaten. After all, Albania had yet to win an Olympic medal, either.

We covered a long stretch of ground side by side, like two impeccably trained soldiers on parade. The Albanian girl was watching me, and I was watching her; we were gauging each other's strength, each keeping an eye on the other without losing sight of the stoplight that marked the finish line. I was on the verge of stopping her, telling her everything, and having a good laugh with her about my whole Olympic nonsense, but how would she react to a story as lame as that, and in any case, what could I possibly say? That utter ruin had just befallen me? That only a short while earlier I had discovered that my girlfriend had a handsome lover and that my favorite TV series, Frasier, had just been canceled? And that in order to drive this avalanche of misfortunes from my mind, I had invented a race and happened to make her my opponent, and hadn't been able to stop trying to beat her even after I realized I knew her, and her pictures had come out beautifully and I'd like to show them to her and give her a couple to keep?

Please don't imagine that there was any connection between the three factors that were playing a role in my distress. Setting aside Frasier, which was nothing more than the straw that broke the camel's back, the truth is that if utter ruin had befallen me, it was because Paola was getting it on with the former coach of the junior soccer team. I had no idea how long they'd been seeing each other—possibly even since before I moved in with her. I'd often had a beer with her lover in the bar where I used to wait for Paola in the evening after her classes. He was forty-something and sold cars, though he acted as if he were about to buy the Volkswagen corporation itself with a little ready cash he happened to have. Despite the hair gel, the smile straight out of an adfor unbreakable dentures, the many hours spent in the gym buffing his abdominals, and the cosmopolitan charm of his lengthy digressions—about the Amsterdam house pulleys that are used for lowering coffins; the loudspeakers on the cars in Palermo that are constantly blaring because a red light in that city is not so much a command as a suggestion; the Cuban women who perform the centrifugado, a wildly exotic sexual practice requiring extremely fast hips; the hundred thousand palm trees of Tozeur; and many other things he'd learned firsthand and not during a prolonged perusal of travel magazines—I liked him just fine. Anyway, I gave this master of the universe wannabe an uppercut that dislocated his jaw; I guess his teeth weren't that indestructible after all. Paola jumped and then must have felt that the roof was caving in over her head because she covered her face and leaned forward as if the building were collapsing. "It's not what you're thinking," he murmured before I knocked him out. But obviously I wasn't thinking. "Calm down, don't be an idiot," she urged just before the sound of my fist cracking against her lover's face made her jump. My eviction was guaranteed, as was the coming hospital bill and the fine I'd be forced to pay by a verdict I'd have a tough time beating. The announcer's voice and the fervor of the spectators shaking the stadium bleachers inside me with their flags and their applause gave me renewed strength, driving me not to disappoint them, to go on. I'd convinced myself that the Albanian girl was my only enemy, the only being on the planet who stood between me and the thrill of victory. She was my disease, and I had to fight her, beat her. To lose would be to give in to death. I couldn't allow myself to be defeated; I'd already lost too many things: Paola, a place to live, my favorite TV show. The stoplight was only a hundred meters away.

As a boy I occasionally indulged in certain trivial superstitions. Before an English exam, for example, I'd look at one of theshelves in the living room and make myself a dare: if you can guess the number of books on this shelf, it means you'll pass the exam. And I would guess a number, and if I was right, I was convinced there was no longer any need to study until the wee hours. I couldn't possibly have hit on the exact number of books by pure chance. My correct guess was a sign from God that any further rubbing of my elbows against my desk would be a waste of time; the exam was in the bag already, even before I took it, and this was guaranteed by the books on the shelf, whose number I had precisely determined. I don't know why I remembered those youthful superstitions as I pressed on, determined to get ahead of the Albanian girl, who was doing all she could to make sure I didn't. And of course I knew it was extremely stupid of me to succumb to the notion that if I did manage to win the gold medal in the end, it would mean I'd soon find a job that paid much more than working as a junior soccer coach; Paola would leave her lover and give me some acceptable explanation for what happened; and they'd start running Frasier once again.

I was blinded by the absurd certainty that what the Albanian girl really wanted—as if she were fully aware of all that was going on inside me—was not to let me get ahead, not to let me win, not to give me the pleasure of taking my revenge on all the things that were turning out so badly. She knew I'd been betrayed, that I was going to have to face criminal charges, perhaps she even knew my girlfriend's lover, and in any case she was clearly overjoyed that they'd taken Frasier off the air. She knew I'd said to myself, as before that English exam, OK, here goes: if you can win this race, you'll melt the pain that's freezing your chest, you'll find another job where they'll pay you much more money, Paola is replaceable—in fact you've never loved her, and there's no reason to be hurt that she deceived you; she'll beg your forgiveness, and you'll tell her to go to hell because you're going tomeet someone else, someone much better, someone who will never deceive you—and Frasier will soon return to your television screen.

How was that possible? I don't know. There are times when your mind is cluttered with too many things, your head is a storehouse of ridiculous ideas—mirrors reflecting other mirrors—and the commotion of your thoughts keeps you from isolating any one of them; they're all enveloped by a sticky plastic substance that transforms them into a single viscous mass. I thought of Paola's body convulsed with pleasure beneath her lover, maybe in the same bed I'd been sleeping in for the last several months, or in improvised love nests to make their passion all the more adventurous: cafe restrooms, hotel phone booths, dimly lit garages. I also thought about my resume, carefully sealed in a padded envelope and sent off to the human resources directors of many companies. And I thought about how wonderful it used to be when ten p.m. finally rolled around, and after a frugal dinner in the kitchen, Paola and I would plop down in front of the TV and wait for the next episode of Frasier to begin. And I thought about how ridiculous this whole situation was and why the Albanian girl wasn't letting me pass her and all the factors that were driving me to beat her in that race. And I thought about the invisible audience jammed into the stadium inside me, and the announcer who never stopped exhorting me as he relayed every moment of the race. And I thought about how certain pedestrians are superstitious, and if they notice that someone's about to pass them, they walk faster to keep anyone from getting ahead of them; for people like this, having someone get ahead of them on the street is like having a black cat cross in front of them or spilling salt on the table. There are some pedestrians who are always ready to start a race and who will give their all beforethey let some stranger outwalk them. Maybe the Albanian girl belonged to that breed, maybe her zeal had nothing to do with reaching any given point before I did, catching up to some other pedestrian she'd selected as her own opponent, or even beating me to make it very clear that I wasn't going to find a better job than the one I'd just been fired from, that Paola had left me for good, and that I could kiss Frasier good-bye forever. Maybe all she wanted was not to feel that anyone had gotten ahead of her.

Then suddenly, we both passed an old man who wasn't exactly hobbling along himself—I on the left, Luzmila on the right—and she slowed down and finally let me get ahead, just twenty meters from the finish line. It took me a moment to notice my privileged position because I'd decided to go into the home stretch of the race with my head down to isolate myself from everything except the uproar of the crowd clamoring for my victory. As soon as I noticed I'd pulled ahead, I was completely dumbfounded. I felt like stopping, waiting for her, and asking her why the hell she'd made me sweat by refusing to let me get ahead of her for so long, only to let me pass her just a few meters from the finish. Despite my imminent triumph, which was already being cheered in the stands and trumpeted by the announcer, I wasn't happy. As the crowd chanted my name and waved their flags, I took a backward glance and immediately understood everything.

Luzmila's face, as she pulled ahead of the elderly man, bore the unmistakable expression of one who has accomplished what she set out to do: pass the old man who was trying not to let her. He was her competitor, and the finish line selected by my Albanian acquaintance—who may not have been representing Albania in her race against the old man; perhaps she, too, was representing Spain, and this was her way of feeling as if she belonged here, welcomed, with all her papers in orders, a star athlete, and perhapsshe, too, was cheered on by thousands of spectral voices inside her head and by an energetic and supportive announcer—may have been the striped awning of the candy store we'd just passed, since that was where she slowed down, changed her rhythm, shortened her strides, and let me get ahead.

I kept going until I reached the stoplight, but no longer with any competitive urgency. I took another look behind me. Luzmila was walking along without looking at me. But between her and the old man a space of a few meters had opened up, into which, suddenly, as if from nowhere, a heavyset bearded man in a lumberjack shirt had appeared and was vaulting into a maneuver that would put him in the lead and leave her behind. I couldn't help it—of its own volition a cry erupted from me: "Watch out! Run, run!"

She gave me a look of fear, then turned around and saw the lumberjack gaining on her, his jaws clenched, his face contracted, his eyes squeezed almost shut. She started to run. The bearded guy was completely bewildered. She crossed against the light, was almost run over by a car, and had to dodge two motorbikes that braked noisily to keep from plowing into her. This brought on a whole musical interlude of protesting honks. But she reached the other side safe and sound and from there turned around again to look at us, at the bearded guy and me, standing next to each other now, waiting for the light so we could cross. Then she started running again. The beard wanted to know what in Christ's name was going on, coño, so I told him. I told him it was nothing, that I'd been fired for beating up a coworker and breaking his jaw and that the coworker I beat up was fucking Paola and that on top of everything else the TV had stopped running Frasier. He didn't say a word. Another crackpot, he thought. The old man was about to reach the stoplight, too. When it turned green, the beard, still keeping a corner of his eye on me, whetherout of compassion or suspicion I don't know, went on with his walk, quickening his rhythm. There were a lot of people on the street, and he wasn't going to have the slightest trouble finding some opponent in the distance to compete against in his own Olympic finale.

I didn't cross. I walked up to Carlos Quinto and dropped into the Café Oriza to display my shiny gold medal to a couple of gin and tonics, a gold medal that meant nothing, that couldn't possibly mean I would find another job, or that Paola would decide not to leave me just when I needed her more than ever, or, of course, that a new episode of Frasier would be televised that night. No, it didn't mean any of those things, and correctly guessing how many books were lined up on a shelf in the living room never meant that I didn't need to study in order to pass an exam either; whenever I let myself get carried away by one of those idiotic certainties and put it to the test to confirm or refute the invisible and secret relationship between correctly ascertaining the number of books on a shelf and passing an exam I hadn't studied for—I failed the exam.

But that black afternoon held a breath of fresh air in store for me, a bit of relief, a small but adequate ray of light: Luzmila. I was sitting in the cafe window feeling like a vintage toy on display in the window of an antique shop, occasionally noticed by passersby in the street, some of whom would stop and have a look at the price tag hanging around my neck, then gesture that the price was too high and continue on their way. No one was going to buy me. Suddenly a shadow fell across my face. The Albanian girl was standing in front of me like a waitress impatient for me to give her my order and stop looking at a menu I wasn't going to choose anything from.

She said: "Coca-Cola. You buy me."

I grinned. A slight dilation of my pupils must have expressed my surprise at seeing Luzmila there before me with her green eyes and her smile, which looked as if she were wearing it for the first time, and her hands with their long fingers and dirty nails, and the little tattoo that illustrated her shoulder with a boat floating atop a wave that was no more than a scribble of green ink. We had absolutely nothing to say to each other, but our conversation lasted into the early hours of the morning. First in the cafe, then in a plaza where elderly men were feeding pigeons and a cat lurked behind a tree waiting for a pigeon to stray his way so that he could have some dinner too, then at the back door ofa hotel while we hung around waiting for the containers with the day's leftover food to come out—which was how Luzmila managed to get something to eat every night. A crowd of undocumented immigrants, old men living on tiny pensions, and beggars would gather to squabble over a few stale croissants or some cold cuts, or a bag of bruised apples or peaches on the verge of spoiling. After Luzmila had treated me to dinner—we managed to get our hands on some slices of sausage and a few rolls—we headed off to a different plaza, where the noisy fountain was shut off at the stroke of midnight. In her Spanish full of mistakes and Italian words, she was filling me in on brief episodes of a shadowy story: a violent father, total poverty, violent brothers, a mother who hung herself, violent neighbors, impregnable mountain landscapes. "Am sure someone made movie about it," she said to sum up her tragedy and merge it with that of the thousands of her compatriots who'd started walking one day to see if they could reach a port where they could hide out on a ship that would take them anywhere away from there. And yes, that movie had been made; I saw it a few days later, once I was reinstalled in my parents' house—"There's only one thing worse than a junior soccer coach," the old man told me, "and that's a junior soccer coach who's living with his parents." When they found the corpse in the packed truck that was carrying the Albanians like so many cattle to a port where there was some hope of a ship bound for Italy, I broke down again and started in with the sobbing, but this time not even my mother showed any concern; she didn't even toss me a blanket to help me get warm. "That boy's coming to a bad end," my brother opined. "I'm warning you now so you can buy yourselves something nice for the funeral."

That night, in an unlit park where the city's heavy breathing sounded like a monster fallen asleep after a hard day, Luzmilasaid, "For hundred euros I let you fuck me. For fifty, I suck you. Sodomy, no."

The words, of course, stunned me, even if only because after using no euphemisms to say what she meant, she suddenly used a proper word instead of the expression that fit the tone of the rest of the phrase. She didn't say "in the ass"; she said "sodomy." Luzmila was demonstrating her enviable capacity for mastering a language and speaking it as if it were her own natural tongue; in a very short time she went from broken Spanish full of mistakes and words on loan from Italian to fluent, crystalline Spanish, all too sharp and clear, in which she was even capable of coining unexpected puns. I smiled and asked if she often had sex for money or if this was a special gift she was giving me because of the time we'd spent together. And it was my obviously stupid question that made me remember Gallardo and the Club Olympus, and gave me the idea that if I took Luzmila to see them, two lives could be improved at one fell swoop: hers and mine. Hers, because, after all, if she was turning the occasional trick anyway, there was nowhere else her beauty would earn as much for her as in the Club, and it was sheer waste for her to sell herself cheap on the Alameda de Hercules to be had by nobodies with no funds whatsoever invested in the stock market; and mine, because I was giving myself a splendid opportunity to harmonize two vital impulses: that of helping others and that of saving myself, or rather, that of saving others and that of helping myself. I accept and admit that this rationale was no more than a passing and none too convincing way of placating my own churning stomach, but deluding yourself in order to move forward is a strategy the heroes of every age have always practiced, with little heed for the fact that the lie they take as their mandate only conceals the extent of their own powerlessness, emptiness, and dissatisfaction; the pole you use to make this vault is the least of it.

In the small hours of the morning after my nocturnal outing with Luzmila, I fell asleep in the doorway of my parents' apartment building. I could have gone inside—keeping the key to your parents' house is a transparent sign that you don't want to separate entirely, because of what might happen, and from the time I was a boy to the present, even today, the first thing I say when I wake up in the morning is my name, my age, and my parents' address, an apartment where no one I know now lives—but I decided I'd rather stay at the foot of the stairs. If some early rising neighbor found me there, I'd tell him I'd forgotten the keys and didn't want to wake anyone up. The bad thing was that the first early rising neighbor was my father, who said nothing but "Ah, the return of the idiot son. If you'd joined the military, your life would have gone better." I never thought of asking him what the hell he meant by that; I just climbed the stairs and collapsed onto the living room sofa.

Later, at noon, having eaten breakfast across the table from my mother, who observed me without saying a word but sighed from time to time and looked away whenever I tried to meet her eye, I phoned Paola to make note on her answering machine of the fact that I'd stop by to pick up my things later that afternoon. My things were a few books, a few CDs, my camera, and a few framed photos. I asked my mother if I could borrow her car.

"What about your car?" she said.

"It wasn't my car; it was Paola's."

During that period my mother had enrolled in a bookbinding class at the Women's Center. She went to class three times a week, primarily to chat with other women who, like her, were less interested in bookbinding than in meeting women who would listen to them talk in exchange for being listened to themselves. My mother had come up with the idea of using clothes she no longer wore to bind books she was no longer going to read.She converted an old blouse she didn't want to throw away—because it brought back the scent of who knows what afternoon or what solitary, nocturnal stroll through some city while my father slept in a hotel room that was obviously far too grand for the two of them—into the jacket that covered the life and death of Madame Bovary. The checked fabric of a skirt that was way out of style and that she wouldn't have been able to wear anyway without some liposuction to shrink her hips was used as a binding for Jane Eyre. Between the books my mother dressed in her most cherished clothes and my father's collection of biographies of the widows of legendary men—this was his obsession: curiosity about the lives of the women whom History's great men chose to marry—the bookshelves in our home were becoming eccentric enough to warrant nomination for that anthology of human idiocy, that Sacred Book of our time, the Guinness Book of World Records.

"If I were you, I'd keep it. I'd leave the books there, and the CDs and of course the photos, too, along with those clothes you shouldn't be wearing anyway, and that murderous dog of yours, and I'd keep the car. That's what I'd do. With that car you can start over again from scratch anywhere you want to, but with that dog and those pictures you take, hijo, there's no way to get ahead; there just isn't."

The dog wasn't mine either. It was a rottweiler that Paola called Paolo and I called Omniscient Narrator. I imagined our story as narrated by that animal which in just a few months had gone from a sweet little puppy into a monster whose blazing eyes sent you recoiling against the ropes. Of course Paola must have listened to my message and given Omniscient Narrator strict orders not to let me take anything from the house. She hadn't had time to change the lock, but with that beast prowling around on guard she didn't need to. The moment I stuck my key in, agrowl warned me I wasn't welcome. I spoke a warm word or two by way of greeting, but the dog's gaze reached an immediate verdict that launched his entire body at me, his jaws stretched wide in the attack position. I barely had time to hide in the bedroom to the right of the hallway, where, in fact, almost all the things I was going to rescue, the camera and a few photos, were to be found. Paola could keep the books in the living room and the CDs in the den. The problem was how to get out of the bedroom while evading Omniscient Narrator. Jumping out the window was a little risky; not only was the apartment on the seventh floor, but there was a small park down below where the youngest children in the neighborhood played on the swings, fought with each other, or simply got themselves dirty in order to give meaning to their mothers' lives. From the other side of the door came the sound of Omniscient Narrator's vigilant breathing; I could practically feel his eyes boring through the wood to meet mine. And then I remembered that the bar and weights Paola used for her morning workout were under the bed. Lying on her back, she would do a hundred thirty-kilo lifts, then fifty sit-ups, then another fifty push-ups, then she'd hop into the shower. I squatted to feel around for the bar, which I thought would be more than sufficient to keep the dog away from me on my way out the front door. I wondered if I should use one of the weights as well, one of the ten-kilo weights, and maybe throw it at his head if he didn't get the message while I was using the bar to keep him at a safe distance. But it turned out to be hard to carry so much stuff: my camera, the pictures, the bar, and the weight. I decided to put my plan to the test, step out the door with just the bar, and see what happened. If I managed to intimidate the dog and force him back until I could shut him in the bathroom or the kitchen or wherever, then I could calmly return and collect my things. But no sooner did the door open than Omniscient Narrator had hismuzzle inside and was growling—conclusive evidence that things were going to turn violent however hard I tried to keep us on the path of dialogue. I spoke to him through the door and received only silence for an answer. He didn't even growl; the dumb beast was trying to make me think he'd left his post. It was clearer than water that Omniscient Narrator was capable of chewing up that steel bar as an appetizer before proceeding to devour one of my legs. If my reflexes were quick, the best I could hope for was to grab the doorknob and start screaming through the keyhole so the neighbors would at least take note of my death and could then say a few words about the sinister event when the TV reporters showed up in quest of a touch of vivid yellow to cap off the nightly news. OK, I was going to risk it with the weight. Not the ten-kilo; the most I could hope for with that one was to raise a little bump on the dog's monstrous head. It would have to be the twenty-kilo. With luck, if I managed to hit him on some funny bone that would addle his brain for an instant and render it incapable of issuing orders, I'd reach the doorway to salvation with my camera—my interest in recovering the framed photos was gone. Brandishing the round twenty-kilo weight, I opened the door a crack, keeping my foot pressed against it as a brake against the dog's onslaught, which came without delay. Around came the muzzle, the wide-open snout displaying the lacerating edges of the teeth. I told myself: no, it's too soon, it's too soon. I moved my foot a few millimeters away from the door, and now Omnisicient Narrator's enormous head appeared. I think there was one instant when I knew he was going to kill me and I shouted to myself over an interior loudspeaker that set every cell in my body on fire: YOU'RE AN IMBECILE. As I was passing that judgment, I dropped the twenty-kilo weight on the dog's head. It knocked him out immediately. To tell the truth, I was a little disappointed. I didn't count to ten. As soon as I'd verifiedthat his belly was still rising and falling, I picked up the twenty-kilo weight again and finished the job, mouthing a couple of insults at Omniscient Narrator in the bargain. This really was the way to begin a new life: leaving a dead dog behind you. Back in the car, after having gathered up all of my things—camera, photos, albums of negatives, books, CDs and videos, as well as a few clothes—I thought: the day you decided to start a new life, you were brutally attacked by your own dog.

Of course there was no way to fall asleep or resist the temptation to scratch. I tried to interview myself as a way of escaping from that cheap hotel room whose walls seemed to be moving in the darkness, as if seeking to bend down and give me a kiss that would pulverize my bones. Let's see, I said to myself, you're the first man to prove the existence of life beyond planet Earth, the interviewer is a stunning blonde, all smiles, who wants to know everything about your childhood and adolescence and how you managed to strike up a friendship with beings from the Dark Beyond, a stunning blonde who will gaze at you in bewilderment when the interview is over, for by then you'll no longer be the first man who's provided credible proof of intelligent life on other planets, but a mirror that distorts her features and shows her herself at her very worst, as she never wants to see herself again, as she feels herself to be on her very worst days when the world is a parade of senselessness where nothing is right and nothing is worth the trouble. Nothing.

The bad thing about these bedtime interviews is that the pretexts start deteriorating as you get older, along with the principle of plausibility, to which, like it or not, you have to render a minimum of respect, however free a rein you give your imagination. If you're fourteen years old and tell yourself you're an astronaut, well, OK; who's to say whether you just might not be the firstman to set foot on Saturn? But if you give yourself an interview at twenty-five pretending to be the best goalie in the league, that's already a little flimsy and you have to work some sleight-of-hand to reconfigure your past so as to allow yourself to dream that you really did make it into the First Division. As you start closing in on thirty, your ability to grant an interview and project your highest hopes onto the future without correcting your past is already pretty limited, especially in my case. I can't even fantasize about becoming prime minister of Spain—how are you going to be prime minister of Spain when you've spent your life recruiting prostitutes? But despair makes your imagination more indulgent; after all, if a pair of extraterrestrials shows up and chooses you as the only human being to whom they will give convincing proof that not only do they in fact exist but they also spend all their time fucking like porn stars—such a thing could happen to anyone, at any age: fifteen, twenty, or fifty. But, as I said: nothing.

There it was, concentrated on the left side of my groin, the itching, which showed up like clockwork thirty seconds after I stretched out in bed at night—strangely enough, when I lay down for an afternoon siesta I never had any problem—an infallible reminder that something had gone wrong in my psyche and that I wasn't going to be able to repair the breakdown with one Atarax or even two. I got up and cursed my fate. I couldn't even wait for morning in the hope of eventually losing consciousness; by dawn I would already have been on the road for an hour on my way to Madrid. At least when I stood up the itching grew more bearable and the walls stopped moving. I looked out the window. The lightbulb above the entrance to the hotel glinted off the chassis of my car. I was so tired I thought I might be able to fall asleep with my forehead pressed against the window's dirty glass. The itching was better now, but I knew if I lay down itwould start up again with a vengeance. There was no solution. Sometimes I scratched so ferociously that I broke the skin, and then it got even worse, the stinging made me curse my own rage and lack of self-control, and the resulting sores didn't just fuck up my life when I lay down in bed at night like the itching; instead I'd walk around at all hours of the day and night as if I'd been sodomized by Mazinger Z.

When the torture of the nightly itching first began, I would often try to gain some relief by masturbating. The comfort was fleeting, of course, but it allowed me about an hour's pleasant snooze, a temporary flight to some nebulous point from which I was quickly jerked back by the report from some thug's motorcycle, any little sound from the floor above, or a word my own voice spoke aloud from out of my light sleep. But itching is like rats, whose immune systems soon formulate an antidote to any kind of poison. The future of laboratories that create rat poison is assured; they know from the start that they won't be able to come up with a powder that can do away with the rodents for good. All I know is that not long after I started working in earnest for the Club Olympus—and by working in earnest I mean I stopped doing the other things I used to spend my time on and focused all my energy on the Club because it was paying me the kind of money I'd never dreamed of being able to earn without selling my soul for a pistol and holding up a bank—I had my first sexual crisis. To put it poetically, nothing and no one could give me an erection. Of course that did not cut down on my ability to recognize the beauty and distinction of a jewel in the mud; I'd never really adhered to Gallardo's definition of beauty anyway. It did force me to be more demanding, to imagine that if something hadn't malfunctioned in the circuitry of my soul, the piece I was after would arouse my appetite immediately. My statistics in the Club didn't suffer the same cataclysm that I wasgoing through, so I didn't think it was necessary to discuss my problem with anyone there. And on the bright side: my lack of appetite made it certain I wouldn't tamper with the goods between the moment I discovered them and the moment I placed them in the Doctor's hands.

Suddenly the door of my car opened, and Nadim stepped out. Never for a moment did I think she was escaping. I preferred to imagine she was simply going off to pee. But the minutes went by, and she didn't come back. What the hell did she think she was going to do in that shithole of a town? The truth is, I felt wounded. After all, you invest a lot of yourself every time you scout someone whose life you intend to save, and I don't think that deserves to be repaid with a gesture like this, which no matter how you look at it is unfriendly. But after all, it was her life; she knew best. She'd end up working as a whore along the highway and get knifed one night, and no one would even bother trying to identify her corpse, which would be no more than another drop in the mighty ocean of crime against immigrants—an ocean that is ultimately rather convenient to the state, swallowing up as it does some portion of the flood of illegals. I went back to bed with my hand in my Calvin Kleins, pinching myself wherever I located a focal point of the itching, trying not to scratch in order not to inflame the skin, and suddenly, just before resting my head on the pillow, I remembered my Leica R8—value: thirty-two hundred euros—and the state of idiotic somnolence I must have been in when I left it in the glove compartment without a second thought. I pulled my pants on at top speed, then my shoes, forgetting all about the cigarettes on the night table and putting the bad scene of the bedtime itching behind me. A scare is a thousand times more effective than all the dermatological anxiolytics that all the world's laboratories will manufacture for the next thousand years; a scare immediately removes your hand from the afflicted area. Naturallythe Leica R8 was no longer in the glove compartment. I'll kill her, I said. I'll kill her. But first I had to find her.

OK, hombre, I told myself as I started the car, let's see: maybe she wasn't planning to rob you at all; maybe she just wants to take a self-portrait and went off to look for a brighter streetlight. The idiot, I'm sure she'll sell it for a handful of change, I told myself, also. You're the idiot, I added: leaving the Leica in the car—God himself could not forgive you for that. When I start up these conversations with myself, I admit I lose much of my charm. In the end two or three turns around the sleeping streets of the town were all it took to prove that Nadim had been swallowed up by the earth, or by a helpful entranceway where she was probably curled up around my Leica at that moment. I stopped at a café that announced its presence with a sickly light over its peeling doors. They were just opening up; it was the typical small-town spot where local workers drank their breakfast anise before heading to the construction site. It struck me as perfectly plausible that the crazy immigrant might have decided to request political asylum in there and exchange my Leica for a coffee with rolls. The girl who waited on me had sleep glued to every curve of her lovely face. The kind of piece I would never have the nerve to try and pick up, I said to myself, the kind of piece that's out of the Club Olympus's range. Certainly if the girl had the kind of intelligence that in many, many people would win out over any scruples or family pressures, she would ultimately see that the future I was offering was a hundred times more dazzling than the one she already knew from memory, but then again I wouldn't be able to tell myself I'd saved her life, because her life was not in any danger and, compared to that of most inhabitants of her town, might really deserve to be called a life. In the end I ordered a coffee, made my inquiries, was answered with a no, loudly cursed all black people, and watchedthe girl stifle a yawn with her hand. The first customers came in, their voices loud in contrast to the ghostly silence outside. I hadn't stopped thinking about my Leica, and as if my thoughts had found some magical way of influencing reality, I saw it shining in the beefy hand of one of the men coming in. Without a moment's hesitation I said: "That's my camera. A black woman I picked up on the highway stole it from me, and I've been looking ..."

"For the woman or the camera?"

"I've just found the camera. How much did you give her for it?"

"Ten euros, just what she needed."

I learned that Nadim had managed to reach the train station, where she was waiting for an express to Seville. I told the man we could settle this with or without police involvement; it didn't matter to me; I had all the time in the world and no further interest in the black girl's fate.

"Hey listen, you calling my friend a thief?" asked one of the other guys who was with him, the kind of midget who waxes bold when he knows he's protected by circumstances and two or three bored mountains of human muscle.

"Not for a moment," I said, without losing my calm, and even flashed a smile so he could see that I, too, knew how to be charming when I wanted to be. "Here's the story: I can prove to you that the camera belongs to me, I can prove it was stolen from me, I can prove a lot of things that you guys can't prove, and what I'm saying is that we can resolve this with or without the police, that is, either among ourselves, in which case you'll get your ten euros back, or else with the help of a few men in uniform, in which case you'll have to hand the camera over to me without getting your money back."

"Oh, a wise guy. We've got a wise guy at breakfast this morning," said the midget. The others laughed. I noticed one of themhad two gold teeth, which led me to regret the approach I had chosen to take with this group. Customers kept coming into the cafe. The girl behind the bar didn't say a word, just served up what was ordered—or wasn't even ordered, since she knew in advance what everyone's usual was—and shot me a look from time to time, perhaps feeling sorry for herself.

"Ten euros?" said the man with the camera. "Who told you this cost me ten euros?"

"You did," I answered naively.

"You didn't hear me, hombre. I said a hundred euros. And I bought it thinking I could sell it to El Tito for at least two hundred. It's a good camera, hombre."

I didn't think twice. I said: "Great. One hundred euros, there you go; you've just earned yourself ninety euros in less than a minute, and I'm getting my camera back."

"Look, I'm in a hurry and I want my breakfast, so give me another hundred or leave me alone. You can go down to the police station if you like. Ask for Matías. He's my brother, and he's on duty right now; let's see what he has to say about this. If he tells me you're in the right, then that's fine; I'll take the hundred euros and give you the camera."

There was no arguing with that. Two hundred euros and breakfast for the whole gang, and the Leica was back in my glove compartment. As I was on my way out of that godforsaken town, I said I'm not leaving it like this and shifted the car to reverse. I asked a man on his way into the cafe for breakfast where the train station was, and he told me. And there was Nadim, lying on her back on a green bench where Carlos had engraved a message declaring his love for Raquel, Pedro had sworn that no one had nicer tits than Marta, and another individual who preferred to remain anonymous shat on the king of Spain, the Real Madrid, and a certain Channel 5 newswoman.Nadim looked at me, and smiled a smile beyond all adjectives, a smile that made her even more beautiful. I took my Leica and captured that smile, which she held to make the task easier when she saw me aim the camera at her. Then she sat up, brought her knees under her chin, and circled them with her forearms. She was adorable, prettier than when I'd picked her up in the Guardia Civil station. I kept on shooting until I'd finished the roll. Then I looked inside my wallet; I had three ten-euro bills left. I gave them to her and wished her luck. And as I was walking away, I whispered, "I bet I'll see you someday in the Casa de Campo or along the Alameda de Hercules, but it will be too late then, far too late." I have one of those shots here, those huge eyes gazing at me from that remote dawn, with an old-fashioned innocence shining in them and that smile I cannot diminish with a single adjective.

The Doctor did not scold me for showing up half an hour late looking awful. She asked after the piece I'd scouted in the latest shipwreck, and since I didn't feel like telling her the whole story, I said the piece wasn't worth it; she was pregnant and missing two important teeth. She didn't believe me, of course, but let it pass. She knew me well, that woman, maybe too well for my own good. I remember the first day I ever sat down in her office, I thought that if I didn't end up kissing the ground beneath her feet, it would only be because she would insist on exempting me from any such display of gratitude. She treated me as if I were her son, a son with whom she wouldn't mind committing incest. She talked for quite a while about Gallardo, which was the magic word I had used to get her to meet with me; she called him a fool, a flatterer, a poor fellow, and a few other fine things such as Argentine, which in this case was a pejorative. No one would ever have guessed there had been a day when Gallardo found a new career for her that became her life's work. She was one ofthose women who flesh out every conversation with episodes from their lengthy biography. If you were starting to unwind while talking about your experiences on the La Paz garbage dump, she would cut you off immediately so you could relax while listening to an episode of her past. After a bit you'd start wondering: what does all this she's telling me have to do with the garbage dump? But by then it would be too late. What did you study in school? Theater arts? Well, she used to go out with a guy who earned a living working as a model in art classes—as if theater arts had anything to do with fine arts—which made her remember that the same guy ended up going off to Amsterdam, where she, of course, also once lived for a while with the blind brother of a friend who was a seer—or was it the other way around?—with the seer brother of a friend who was blind. Never mind; the main thing is that Amsterdam ... and here followed two or three paragraphs about that city, a mix of reproaches and tender words, hints that only there will she finally settle down one day, and enumerations of streets and places where any tourist who visits the city must go if he wants to get the real taste and smell of Amsterdam. Once I tried timing how long the Doctor could remain silent while I was talking: thirty-four seconds. And that was when I was speaking very harshly of another scout whom she couldn't stand and wanted to fire as soon as possible.

The fact was that she had a special liking for me. She hadn't been in charge of this branch of the Club for very long, and she was particularly annoyed because New York had requisitioned the services of two of her best pieces. She wanted to find some new blood to strengthen the branch's position; she was certainly not going to resign herself to a permanent fifth place in the Club's profitability rankings (Paris, Tokyo, New York, London, Barcelona). And then I showed up with Luzmila, whom sheaccepted the moment she saw her. Luzmila, the little dear, said, "You must know, señora, that I won't work for less than a hundred euros."

"Chiquilla," the Doctor said soothingly, "at this company we don't pick up the phone for less than three hundred euros."

Then she turned to me: "Do you really want to give it a try?"

"It might be fun," I answered.

That answer was the key that opened the Club's doors to me, more than the discovery of Luzmila or the fact that as soon as she saw me walk through her office door the Doctor started flirting with me and didn't stop until she'd conducted me to the bedroom of her penthouse apartment which was hung with framed portraits of macho men by Tom of Finland.

"That's it; having fun—that's the most important thing. I like that. I like you. I'm going to offer you something, something good, something that's going to make you very happy. Apart from the matter of the Albanian girl, of course. For her, we can give you fifteen hundred euros. She'll need a little domesticating, a little taking in hand, but that's our affair. I imagine Gallardo's warned you about some of the rules. You know already that you're not allowed to play kiddie games, falling in love and all that nonsense. I'm telling you this because it looks as though you have some feelings for the Albanian girl. If that's how it is, we drop the whole thing right now. In order to work as a scout, it's absolutely necessary that you not be afraid of air travel, that you have good, very good relations with the forces of law and order—but I'll take care of that for you—and that you don't fall in love. At least not with someone you've got to hand over to the Club. But it's best not to fall in love with anyone. That says a great deal in the scout's favor. Of course you have to have wide-ranging tastes, as well. You've got to have a hearty appetite. Around here we need men as well as women, and of everyconceivable hue in the erotic rainbow, you understand? We need effeminate young men, which we're short on right now because the material they're bringing in from Morocco leaves much to be desired, and little virgin girls. We need flashy working-class types decked out in leather, large impressive Negroes, extraordinary sensual Caribbean women, and delicate Thai flowers. You're going to love the first job I'm giving you, just to break you in; you'll work alone, you'll be far away, and that's good, really, you're going to thank me for it your whole life. You know what's going on in Argentina? One hell of a crisis, an economic collapse that serves our purposes beautifully; there are lots of good-looking people down there. I'm delighted about it, this collapse; the Argentine banks and all the bastards who took their money out of the country have made your work easy for you, easier than easy. Sometimes things like that happen. Take Yugoslavia, for example; that was great for us, they're so fabulous-looking, and of course it isn't always easy to find white people who are willing just like that, but we've got eight Yugoslavs and four Czechs on staff. Every one of them can tell you a whole movie about their life and each movie seems more unbelievable than the last one, but that's only if you make the mistake of asking them who they are, where they come from, and all that. En fin, in the three or four years they'll work for us, they'll earn enough money to start their own business or go back to their countries or settle down here and try to live off the interest. But a lot of them don't need to do that, as Gallardo must already have told you. On top of making a fortune with us, most of them, once they're free of us and assuming they decide not to extend the contract, now that they have citizenship—most of them hook up with someone who's fallen in love with them, some capricious client; the same client who paid us hundreds and hundreds of euros, vaya.

"Argentina, I was telling you, Argentina's going to be a real treat. One hell of a crisis, and an especially sweet moment for us, people waiting in line for days on end in front of the Spanish Embassy, and you show up, a nice boy with that tactful, understanding face of yours, and talk to them about a modeling agency in Barcelona, and how you could—and you can—arrange for their papers in less than an hour, with a single phone call. You'll have them slobbering all over you. I need at least three girls and three boys. I'm sure you know, Gallardo must have told you, that there's no rule about trying them out before you bring them in. Trying them out yourself, I mean. Afterward it will be hard to sample the merchandise. And one other thing: not that I don't trust you, but you'll have to stay in touch with me, send me photos of the pieces you think we can use. I don't want to arrange papers for anyone we won't want working for us. Send me as many pictures as you can; use your talents, shine. Does this sound good to you or not? Sounds like fun, no?"

What do you think I was going to say? I couldn't stop smiling. I couldn't stop thinking about my brother and how jealous he was going to be when he found out I was making five times more money than he did. At that point, I didn't even worry about the fact that my mission included scouting for men. Whenever I asked myself why I sometimes felt desire when looking at a beautiful male body, on the beach or in an art gallery—I followed the work of gay photographers like Bruce Weber, Robert Mapplethorpe, Herbert Ritts, George Platt Lynes, with some interest—or on television—once I watched the Mr. Spain competition all the way through to the end and was genuinely upset when Mr. Canary Islands didn't win—I answered myself: you're ethereosexual. I imagine that this meant, or was intended to mean, that I wouldn't dare take my desire for certain men beyond the level offantasy, I wouldn't take any concrete steps to give it a try, but as with so many other things, I would let circumstances decide for me. If at some point circumstances were propitious, well and good, and if not, I'd resign myself to concealing the desire from other people and establishing its true dimensions only when I closed my eyes to go to sleep. During a certain period of my life, as I was leaving my teenage years behind once and for all, I would hold a daily beauty contest just before falling asleep. I was no longer granting interviews at that point; I'd grown tired of giving them, tired of casting myself in glorious roles. Instead, I would select the most beautiful of all the people I'd seen that day. On four or five occasions the contest was won by a man, and that didn't trouble me in the least. The prize, naturally, was that I would dedicate the moments of autoeroticism that would help me fall asleep to the winner. Among the many winners, I particularly remember a mulatto boy I often saw in the university cafeteria. It was easy to tell that he really liked his own looks: he wore very tight clothes, and long before spring had given any sign of arriving he was already dressed in form-fitting, sleeveless shirts. It's odd that, seeing him so often, I only deigned to give him the prize once. On another occasion an actor who played a bit part in a porn film won; he appeared in only one scene in an early morning movie I watched with one eye on the screen and the other on the hallway to make sure no one was coming in. I remember looking for the actors' names in the credits so I could memorize his. I couldn't find it because I hadn't paid much attention to the name of the character he was playing, a security guard summoned by a blonde whose garter belt was giving her serious problems. As soon as I saw him, I knew my daily beauty contest had its winner, even on a day when I hadn't left the house and the only serious competitor for the crown was a neighbor lady who'd stopped by to borrow a stapler. Here's what I told theDoctor when she asked whether I thought I'd have a problem scouting males: "I'm ethereosexual."

"Fantastic," she said. "We belong almost to the same group, off by just a couple of letters. As you'll find out, I'm stereosexual: all I'm looking for is someone who can make me scream."

I left for Buenos Aires like someone going to the mountains for the weekend, free of any awareness of what I was getting myself into and without a single exalted qualm about the morality of my mission. I told my family the trip was my second assignment as a nongovernmental artist in support of lost causes. My father could barely hold back a laugh; all he said was "Don't even think about bringing back some Argentine girlfriend if you want to go on occupying a bed around here." My mother was ripping up a black-and-white-striped dress to use as a binding for the two volumes of War and Peace; her only reaction was a request that I remember to say my prayers before going to bed (she was favoring the priest over the personal trainer or the psychologist at that point). Spring was beginning to transform the teenagers of Europe into desirable machines, but I was on my way to an autumn oppressed by unemployment, the precipitous fall of the middle classes into the deep pit of poverty, and a currency devaluation that made every tourist a multimillionaire. I hadn't reserved a return ticket, and the only thing plaguing my conscience was a confession the Doctor had made.

She told me she had initially promised the Buenos Aires trip to Gallardo to help him get ahead a little in his career, "because the truth is that man has serious problems, the only thing that reallygets him going is little boys, and of course that's not the only type we need, you understand, no? So I thought about it and I said, 'Buenos Aires will help improve your statistics, Gallardo,' because that's where he's from, on top of everything else, and if you ask him about his life he'll tell you he had to flee from the milicos during the dictatorship, although not even he believes that anymore. But I owed him one, I guess. So I told him, 'Gallardo, you'll go to Buenos Aires, you'll keep your good name, and no voice on the board of directors will speak of the advantages of dispensing with your services.' But the thing is: life is hard. And there he was with all his problems. Did you know that for a while he was thinking of becoming a monk? He actually spent some time in a monastery, qué tipo, after all the opportunities I had given him, sending him to Bolivia to get little boys, just what he likes. But I can't give him ... For Buenos Aires we need new blood, a fresh approach, someone who really wants to prove himself, show that he's right for the job, and that person is you. But I hope you don't make the same mistake as Gallardo, don't start imagining you only need to go for pieces that are to your personal taste; you've got to think about other people's tastes, too, think about the company and the resources we'll be needing, and don't be filling up the house with blonde girls or boys just because that happens to be your type. You must always keep in mind that the person who's going to pay five hundred euros to spend some time with a piece you found in a garbage dump isn't going to be you. Think about rich, drooling old men, men in their forties who are getting tired of the same old thing and are looking for a more powerful experience; think about crazy women who've been hiding in a closet all their lives and need something vigorous and macho to give them a good thrashing, think whatever you want to think, but don't be a pain in theass like Gallardo. He's a sick man, really; the truth is almost all redheaded men are sick in the head that way, every single one of them."

If at any moment before the plane took off my resolve had weakened enough to allow the plainclothes policeman we all carry around inside us enough time to convince me of how despicable my assignment was, I had a lucky break with my seatmate, who helped me block out any and all discourse aimed at my redemption. He was an antiques dealer going to Argentina to buy furniture, paintings, jewels, anything at all, because the prices of all those things had taken a rude plunge and were now within easy reach of those who could once only have hoped to gaze at them in glossy catalogs. He'd seen on TV that the Argentine economy was going down the tubes, and started planning his trip immediately; he was full of high hopes. "I'm not the only one," he said in his defense; "two of my colleagues are sitting up there, and I saw a couple of rare-book dealers in line at the gate; you can't let an opportunity like this one pass you by." We all knew that, we all had our suspicions about why we were going to Buenos Aires, and the fact that we were traveling there brought an element of squalor into the atmosphere and made us feel slightly dirty, as if there were a thin coat of slime on our skins. We tried to excuse ourselves, thinking: two other guys who are up to the same thing are sitting over there—without wanting to know that those two were also thinking: two other guys who are going down for the same reason are back there.

To while away the hours of the flight, my brother had found me two novels by Roberto Arlt. "If you want to know why Argentina is going through what it's going through, read this," he announced. The novels were written in the 1920s, and according to my brother they had already laid out the Argentine tragedy in full detail. Maybe so and maybe not, I wouldn't know; all I didwas enjoy myself tremendously with the exploits of Arlt's farfetched characters, who not only helped make the time pass more quickly but also placed a polite barrier between myself and the antiquarian's tireless and tiresome monologue. Predators, I told myself; a planeload of predators solicitously rushing off to be present at the collapse of an entire society. I liked that word and dreamed of printing it on a business card beneath my name. Yes, I was going to be a predator, but my mission wasn't simply to gnaw the bones of whatever corpse lay in my path. Instead, I would be pulling the most beautiful specimens—those who truly deserved a different fate than the one their misfortune had in store—out of the deep shit-filled hole they were in. None of the rest of us did anything to earn the principal gift we were born with, which in our case is simply the fact of having been born in a rich country, where there are social services and some political stability and the state has enough money to buy contemporary art. Why was it such a sin to try to offer this gift to beings who certainly deserved it more than we did? For in the end what I really had to offer was nothing more or less than a Spanish passport. In exchange for the loan of their beauty—their gift—the pieces I scouted would have the right to become my compatriots. Once they'd settled their debt to the company, they could fly off wherever they wanted to, across the globe.

Oh, how very touching this whole line of reasoning is, you must be saying, you're going to make us cry; how tender, how insightful. What is good? What is bad? These questions made no sense; their substance had evaporated well before the plane landed at Ezeiza. The only correct moral question for the times we live in is: What will pay off? What will turn a profit? Now you're probably saying, hey, that's some brainwashing they gave this dumb jerk, who actually believes all this garbage and is using it as a pretext for self-adulation, just to keep from brandinghimself as one of the bad guys already at such a young age. OK, that's possible too, but I'm trying to get us back to the youngish man with the Roberto Arlt novel resting on the tray in front of him, to the mental flagellations that were heightening his doubts about the morality of what he was about to do, assailing his conscience with a series of questions meant to unnerve him. He was not unnerved. In order to end the assault on his conscience, he chose what was, under the circumstances, the most profitable solution: to obliterate his conscience. Voilà.

I landed in Buenos Aires very, very much in the mood to go looking for delectable creatures whose lives I could save. And I got lucky. Of course—how could I not get lucky? I had an idea which at first I considered a stroke of genius, then a completely idiotic notion, and finally an emergency plan to fall back on if things didn't work out as well as I'd hoped. I argued to myself that under the current circumstances of economic collapse, social rage, and the fall of the middle classes into dire poverty, any beautiful creature who used to spend her time, shall we say, ringing up groceries in a supermarket, would certainly pay close attention to the proposal of an indecent Spaniard who told her about a modeling agency across the ocean where she could take refuge—without, of course, failing to mention the word prostitution—and would therefore have little trouble deciding whether it suited her better to remain in chaotic Argentina or flee far away. If this were true of a decent girl like that, then the whores and rent boys of Buenos Aires, for whom calamitous times had also arrived, would certainly be more than delighted to go abroad and practice what was already their profession in a place where they'd be treated much better, would be guaranteed astonishing salaries, and would even have an opportunity to abandon their profession as soon as they were able to save enough money or hook up with a client who would rescue them from perdition. I had no doubtthat among those whores and rent boys there had to be a few exceptionally beautiful creatures who fully deserved to be saved. What a naive little pretension this was, or what pretentious naivete. It had been months since reality had far surpassed my desires, and people who'd never imagined for a second that they'd someday have to sell their bodies in order to eat hot food or pay the rent had long since been forced onto the streets or into parks where more and more succulent flesh with no prior experience was on offer each day. There the well-informed tourist could find a wide array of secretaries, students, butane distributors, waitresses, waiters, and unemployed housekeepers ready to satisfy any client's desires in exchange for a few dollars that would help them make it to the next day. All I needed to do to carry out my mission was have a look around those parks—it was that simple. Luck had decided to act as my personal servant: things had gotten worse, there was a warlike atmosphere in the streets; supermarkets and delicatessens were looted at night, and in the morning the lines in front of the embassies curved around interminable blocks, though no embassy was giving out applications for entry visas and even the Argentine employees of those embassies were turning up in the parks in the early mornings trying to earn some small additional income to ease their distress. If I confessed to the Doctor that her mission had been a literal walk in the park for me, I would risk having her undervalue my incipient virtues as a scout, though it seemed clear that some clever foreign correspondent would soon write a highly disturbing account of how young Argentines, following the Cuban example, had no other solution but to sell the only thing they had left—their almost invariably beautiful youth—in order to get ahead.

Since I was intent on proving to myself how trifling my own scruples were, I decided that the first piece I would scout would be a male, and once again luck rushed forward to attend to myneeds, bearing on a tray the perfectly formed ass of Emilio, a former employee of a messenger company who was as handsome as the movie stars whose pictures illustrate the notebooks of teenage girls: a little dimple on his chin, gray eyes, chiseled features, well-honed muscles, perfect teeth, long, straight hair, as easily imaginable in the role of an executive as in that of a rebel without a pause. He was free with words and used expressions that underscored the musical charm of the Buenos Aires accent. When he climbed into the passenger seat of my rental car, he mentioned that the autumn temperature was already beginning to make warm clothing necessary. Nevertheless, he was wearing a tight, sleeveless shirt and a pair of brown leather pants that clung to the perfect lines of his ass. I had a hard time explaining why I'd blinked my headlights at him to get him to walk over. The car was already rolling down an avenue where the streetlights gave off a tired light and the puddles reflected buildings crowned with the neon emblems of companies either about to go under or already bust. I thought the best thing would be to take him to a bar, I'm not sure why; in case things didn't turn out the way I wanted, I guess. I warned myself not to take him to the hotel where I was staying. Finally I opted for a compromise: we went to the bar at my hotel. I was nervous, not knowing how to react to his flattery—"a young, handsome client; this is my lucky night!"—and not daring to come right out and invite him to become part of Club Olympus's select catalog of beauties. I told him I was a photographer and didn't want sex.

"As long as you've got money," he said, disappointed.

"No need to worry about that. That's precisely what I want us to talk about before the photo session: money."

And then I came out with a hasty speech about the humiliating situation that young people as handsome as he was were having to live through. I had traveled to Argentina precisely in order torescue a few unfortunates from that situation and offer them a chance to restore their lost dignity.

"We lost our money, not our dignity," he said. I had to correct myself. Then I went on with my halting speech. I believe he was thinking: he's pulling my leg; this idiot is trying to put one over on me; wasting my time telling me a fairy tale as if I were an idiot. Emilio was losing patience. He'd barely touched the orange soda he'd ordered. Suddenly we were upstairs in my room, and having tucked the dollars I gave him into a pocket of his leather pants, he took off his clothes and leaned against a wall, while I adjusted the ceiling lights and floor lamps to improve the lighting. Not that I was trying to make it an artistic session, but I like for things to come out as well as possible. I imagine Emilio must have had a hard time believing what was happening, saying to himself: when I tell them about this, they're going to think I've been smoking dope again. I started shooting. I hadn't bought the Leica yet; at that point I still had a Minolta 404 automatic that could correct my mistakes. Seen from behind, Emilio was a perfect Greek statue; from the front, his beauty was a little marred by the discrepancy between the classic form of his biceps and his underdeveloped abdomen, which showed no sign of muscle, only a tanned smoothness interrupted by the line of hairs connecting the groin with the navel. I shot a few close-ups of his face, head-on, gazing at the camera, and in profile, with his eyes lost on the ground or fixed on the ceiling. During one of those shots, Emilio smiled mockingly and said, "You're starting to get aroused." It had quite an effect on me, because all I saw were a pair of lips speaking the words, as if those lips didn't belong to Emilio but were an independent creature living inside my camera's viewfinder, as if the voice of my consciousness had somehow been transplanted into the external world and was capable of saying out loud things only I could hear in the deep abyss of silencewhere we're always telling ourselves everything and the narration of our lives goes on incessantly. It was true: I had an erection, and he had noticed. I put the camera down and walked over to him. His smooth, rock-hard ass was the first thing that my hands, tired of the ceremonies that had postponed the moment of truth, got busy with, as if magnetically drawn by an irresistible desire. He started giving me little bites on the neck. Soon we were lying down without wasting another word, though first he warned me—"The dollars from before won't cover what I'm going to do to you now; you'll have to give me more"—and I nodded and pushed his head down toward my belly. My first homosexual—and stereosexual—experience left my body tired and my soul purring with pleasure. I slept straight through until very late the next morning. Before he left, I told Emilio that what I'd said about the Spanish company needing models was true and that we could meet the next day at the hotel bar and continue our negotiation. That would give me time to develop the photos, scan them, and send them to the Doctor, so she could give me her opinion. I didn't have to wait long: "You're off to a good start, muchacho, I knew we could trust you." She included a number at the Spanish embassy that I'd have to call in order to arrange for Emilio's papers, and another number for a travel agency where the Club Olympus's newest piece could stop by to pick up the ticket to salvation I was about to grant him.

When I met up with Emilio again bearing good news, a light came on in his face that I would have liked to capture on film—a light of joy, perhaps with a dose of incredulity, as if he couldn't believe it were possible that the nightmare into which he and the whole country had sunk was finally about to be over for him. When I told him he could stop by the travel agency the next morning to pick up his ticket while I went to the embassy to do the paperwork for his identity card, it was as if I had stunnedhim; he kept looking at himself in one of the bar's mirrors as if he wanted help or needed someone to pinch him. Then he said, "Let's go up to your room. My treat."

After we'd messed up the sheets a little and I told him that in a couple of weeks my entire savings account wouldn't be enough to pay for what he'd just done to me, Emilio seemed melancholy, as if he'd flown off to a point in his mind so distant that he would never be able to tell anyone what he had imagined there. I asked him, "Where are you right now?" and he asked if I needed more people for this modeling agency of mine. I told him I did, in the hope that he'd make my path to success on this first scouting trip even smoother. He told me about a cousin of his who'd also been forced to turn tricks after the radio station where she'd worked as a sound technician had fired more than half the staff and sharply cut back on its programming. I told him we could go right over and see her that moment, and we did. The girl turned out to be a disappointment though. She was pretty, but we were looking for exceptional beauty and she wasn't in the same class as the other candidates who were hoping to win one of the joy-inducing lifebuoys I was carrying in my wallet. Trying not to offend Emilio, I went through the whole routine to prove I was seriously considering his "cousin," who it turned out was not at all related to him, but simply a friend or neighbor or lover. I took some nude photos of her in my hotel room, but when Emilio asked her to give me a blow job I said there was no need; I was sated and wouldn't be able to respond appropriately to the favors she was eager to lavish on me. Even though I knew full well there was nothing to be done, I did run my fingertips over the most attractive parts of her anatomy—a pair of perfect, prodigious tits, no surgery at all, she said, nature in its purest state. After his friend, neighbor, or lover had gotten into a taxi and left us alone in the mirrored bar, I spoke frankly with Emilio."She's not what we're looking for." He asked if I could use my influence as a special favor so the girl could go with him to Spain. At that point I decided I had to be firm.

"That wouldn't help you, Emilio. Listen, I'm offering you a golden opportunity and you're the first one I've offered it to, but this opportunity requires some sacrifices; this is only an individual salvation, that's just how it is, but you'll soon see it's better this way. Later on you'll be able to decide for yourself; if you want to bring someone to Spain, you'll have the money, you'll have no problem doing it, and you'll decide for yourself. But at the moment that won't help you, and besides there's nothing I can do to get her a ticket or work anything out at the embassy."

He insisted and went so far as to deliver an ultimatum: "Well, the two of us go as a pair, and if she doesn't go, I'm staying"—which forced me to get a little sharp with him. A few moments of distrust sprang up between us, and I was already seeing myself canceling my appointment at the Spanish embassy and calling the Doctor to tell her I'd blown it—because who else was there to blame? Fortunately I realized in time that this was no more than a desperate final gambit Emilio was playing in order to force me to yield. But I couldn't possibly give in; there was no negotiating. He had to know what he was doing; he was old enough to understand when it makes sense to sacrifice yourself for others and when the privilege you're offered has to take priority over the sentimentality that makes you weak. We said good-bye to each other with the morning already well advanced, having gone back to the room to tangle up on the bed again. He wanted to fuck me, but I wouldn't let him. He pushed my head down his torso, and my moment to prove myself on the male member arrived; I didn't do badly at all, though Emilio got a little violent with me to make me pay for my obstinate indifference to his woman. After we were through, while we were looking at eachother in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth to get rid of the slightly bitter taste of his come, he wet his hair, combed his fingers through it, and said: "You owe me fifty dollars. This time you pay."

I did. It seemed fair enough. I paid for the service. It was still cheap enough, at that point, for me to indulge myself. Two days later he took off for Barcelona and his new life at five hundred euros per session. By then I'd already collected two new pieces, both women; I didn't want to risk losing my taste for women after the good times with Emilio. And I went on finding what I was looking for here and there, in parks long after dark, at modeling agencies, gyms, and even without leaving the hotel, where, as luck would have it, I ran across a very beautiful girl whose job it was to clean the rooms. I flirted with her a little, and after she had changed out of her uniform and accompanied me to dinner I suggested she join the Club Olympus. Unfortunately I hurt her feelings, she told me. "Let's forget about it then," I said. But she'd already put her pack of cigarettes and lighter back into her purse and asked for the check; she insisted on paying for her share, not for anything in the world would she allow me to cover the bill for her salad, steak, and glass of white wine. I gave in and didn't even leave the restaurant with her, having decided I'd rather stay and have dessert. The next day she left a note in my room. She'd given it some thought and would like go to Spain after all and try out her luck with the modeling agency I had told her about. She was the only one of the pieces I scouted on that excursion whom I didn't sample before sending on to the Doctor.

I'd been in Buenos Aires for twenty-two days when I decided my search was over. Six girls and three boys. The Doctor was delighted with my efficiency. Some strange things had happened, and I'd met many likable people (though I couldn't save them all—some were likable but not exceptionally beautiful; thosewere the ones I had to leave behind in the crowds fighting over the leftover food when the hotels took out their garbage). Among the strange things I remember was one night when, after spending the afternoon buying clothes, including, on a whim, a pair of black tanga underwear, I looked at myself in the mirror and found myself so desirable I got hard; that's all you needed, I told myself—to get an erection looking at yourself in the mirror. I flew back to Spain with a suitcase full of photographs, the tremulous happiness of having discovered how to have a good time in bed with a man, and the utter certainty blazing at the back of my mind: congratulations, muchacho, you were born for this; at last you've found a job that's suited to your talents.

The Doctor was radiant, and I was a dishrag. She'd had some reddish highlights put in her hair and wanted to know how I thought it looked. She'd also had work done on her face to get rid of some wrinkles, and the close-fitting dark blue suit that dizzyingly emphasized her curves very proudly announced to all passersby that she had lost weight. On the table, next to her coffee and the Bauhaus ashtray containing the remains of two cigarettes, lay the most recent addition to her collection of books with uncut edges which she was showing off to me: a copy of a romance novel from the 1920s. A piece of bad news was the soundtrack to my cheerful riffle through the new book: she'd found out there was an old man in Havana who also collected books with uncut edges and had amassed nearly five thousand volumes, a number she clearly had no hope of ever matching. For a moment I thought she was going to send me off to Havana to persuade the old guy to give up his collection to her, but just then the conversation turned to the urgent matter that had forced me to spend a good part of the night behind the steering wheel of my car.

The first thing the Doctor did was extract from a file folder several pages torn out of a U.S. magazine. It was a news report from Spain about the immigrants who were thronging into certain cities in Andalusia. Since the United States is one of the few countries whose economy allows for the kind of serious investigativereporting on which a journalist spends several months of work before publishing a text whose every line has been carefully scrutinized by an entire department of fact-checkers, the text was very long. However, it had only a few illustrations, and not particularly good ones. One showed three black men sitting in a park lush with vegetation; the caption identified them as Sudanese in Málaga. The Doctor's lacquered fingertip pointed to one of the three figures.

"Your job is to find that one."

He was a singularly handsome man. Though the photo didn't show much of his body, his muscles were apparent beneath his pale T-shirt. His mouth was almost too sensual, and every other feature of his face suggested wild sex, while a pair of large eyes, two white spots against the severe darkness of his skin, completed his exciting aura of mystery.

"It's absolutely essential that you find him. He's a Nubian. Do you know who the Nuba were or are?"

Not the faintest.

The Doctor explained. An African tribe plagued by Islamic oppression in southern Sudan. Its men and women renowned for their beauty and narcissism. Their occupations: cattle raising, agriculture, and a type of fighting similar to pro wrestling but allowing the use of sharpened stones and wrist straps that were designed to inflict the maximum possible harm. In just under twenty years the Sudanese government had reduced the Nuba to the few hundred individuals who'd been able to flee or hide. Many ended up accepting the government's conditions and joining the very police force whose mission was to annihilate their tribe. Others sought a life for themselves far away. Some managed to reach Spain. A few Nubian villages still remain on the coast of Sudan, thanks to international assistance, having managed to resist the government or force it to respect them. Theywill become an exceptionally valuable tourist attraction as soon as the region's conflicts die down and photo safaris in search of Nubian warriors or Nubian dancing girls can be arranged. But we didn't have to wait that long. There were Nubians in a park in Málaga. And now the Doctor wanted to track one of them down, a kind of god in peasant clothes who gazes about wondering: what am I doing here?

The Doctor said: "The other day, the director general called me, and his voice sounded urgent. 'I have a very important job for you. Is New York still looking good to you? This is your chance,' he said. 'Take care of this for me, and New York is yours.' Just like that, he said it. I was thinking: you can ask me for the American flag that's planted on the dark side of the moon, and I'll get it for you; you can ask me for the two stones that were struck together for mankind's first fire, and I'll get them for you; you can ask me for the underwear Kennedy was wearing when his head was blown off, and I'll get it for you. When he told me what it was about, immediately I thought of you. Me in New York, and you in Barcelona. No more streets or garbage dumps or beaches full of shipwrecked refugees—an office with a phone, a list of scouts to order around, you'd run the branch, set the prices, all that—I know that sounds good to you; I know that's what you're after. And the best part of all is that they're not asking for that flag or those stones or Kennedy's underwear. All they want is this Nubian. A very, very, very important client of the company saw him—the client or his wife. (Who cares? We're not going to start gossiping about that at this late date.) Anyway, this client was suddenly overcome by an irrepressible, uncontrollable desire and said to himself: there must be someone who can acquire this magnificent animal for you, this creature who belongs to you already because he has induced this desire in you from the moment he showed up in your life even if it wasthrough the vulgar medium of a photo in a magazine. I like to add just a touch of literature to spice up the story, as you can see—I'm sure you'll indulge me. Here's the thing: an important, very important client requests that we find the specimen he has glimpsed in a magazine—an African male who happens to be in Málaga; the director general notifies the director of the Barcelona branch, who in turn calls in her best scout; he gets on the case right away, tracks down the Nubian, recruits him for the Club, and takes him to the director of the Barcelona branch. She in turn sends the new recruit to the director general, who throws a big party to hand over the newly scouted piece to his very, very, very important client. And after all that, in gratitude for her excellent work, the Barcelona director—me—is placed in charge of the New York office, and the highly efficient scout leaves the streets, garbage dumps, and shipwrecks and takes charge of the Barcelona office. Perfect. Simple. Doable. Questions?"

Many. Of course. The first and most basic temptation was to start wondering about the client. Who could possibly come up with the idea of launching a search like this just because he saw a sexy man in a photo—not even a very good photo—in a magazine? But we were strictly forewarned against ever formulating such a question. The Club's clients fascinated me, though I didn't know a single one of them. I used to wonder, during moments of sober reflection, looking at some stranger while sitting in a park or waiting for my appetizer to arrive in a restaurant: Could he be a client of the Club? What kind of services would he ask for? Of course I also wondered about people I knew. By then my brother had landed his position in the Department of Education and Culture, laid in a stock of suits and ties, and gone up ten notches in my father's esteem, but he was still living in the apartment on La Florida and was not known to have any sort of romantic attachment. What sort of services would he request if he becameone of the Club's clients? Once in a while we'd talk on the phone, and he'd ask where the hell I was and how I'd gotten there, tossing out barbed questions to needle me and make me lower my guard, but I hadn't had any trouble resisting the temptation to tell him anything about my activities. I imagine he must have suspected something, though I'm not sure what. As for my father, he was far too stingy to waste one drop of his capital—monetary or energetic—on a gorgeous, pillowy-lipped Caribbean beauty or a delicate Asian flower. I spoke to my father once a week, not because either of us wanted to, but just because he always answered the phone when my brother wasn't there. I was calling to check on my mother, to find out how she was and which of her phases she was in. First, however, I had to say hello to my father and tell him something while my mother stopped whatever it was she was doing to come to the phone. He never told me anything about himself, of course, and reserved his commentary on what I said to him for after I'd hung up. I could easily imagine the scene: My mother comes back from the hallway after telling me to take care of myself, my father lifts his eyes for a moment from the television or the magazine or a biography of the wife of a great man, and asks, "What does our masterful artist without borders have to say for himself?" My mother gives him a quick summary of whatever I told her, and then my father states, before plunging back into the life of the great man's wife, the game show, or the business section of the newspaper, "As I've always said, anyone who spends all his time on the move is crying out to the four winds that he's unhappy and immature." And on to the next thing.

With respect to the Club Olympus's clients, certain legends did circulate among the scouts, the modeling staff, and the administration. One of the most disturbing was about a man who fell hopelessly in love with a Cuban boy whose price was far beyond his means. The man visited the Club's office, leafed through thevarious photo albums—each one designed with irreproachable elegance—pointed out the boy whose services he wanted to hire, and was told what the price was. His only response was a long, helpless sigh. Though it was far too much money for him—two thousand euros, perhaps—he purchased a one-hour session with the delicious creature. It was a terrible mistake. That one hour turned his life into a martyrdom. It turned out that he was a simple bank clerk—or bank manager, according to other versions of the story—who saved up all his money to pay for a one-hour session with the Cuban boy every two or three months. The man soon realized that even if he gave up going to the movies and stopped drinking orange juice with his breakfast, he'd need several months to come up with the two thousand euros, which meant the sessions with his love would be unbearably far apart. So he decided to take out a loan of twenty thousand euros in order to guarantee an adequate degree of continuity for his encounters with the Cuban boy: ten meetings in a single month, one day yes and two days no. After that month, he would never see him again. Presumably he told all this to the Cuban boy himself, who was the one responsible for spreading the story around. Maybe he told him in an attempt to soften the boy's heart. What he achieved was something very different, of course. The Cuban boy told Club management he would no longer perform any services for the bank employee, who'd fallen in love with him, gone crazy. The Club's models have a right to veto. If they sense danger in any client, they can say so and prohibit management from hiring them out to that client. The client phoned the Club in dismay because although he thought he'd made it clear as daylight during his last session that he was to be with the Cuban boy again two days later, the boy hadn't shown up. Management told him that was not the way to hire a model and that private negotiations between model and client were not allowed. No matterwhat the two of them may have agreed on, the model could not negotiate on his own behalf without being represented by the Club. The client insisted that they send the Cuban boy to him immediately, and management told him that was impossible; the boy was not available, though they could send him another model in the same price range as the boy the bank employee wanted. He answered that he didn't want anyone else, and asked when he could enjoy the Cuban boy's services again. When he was informed that the boy had been transferred to another branch of the Club, the client hung up, whispering in terror, "He can't have done this to me."

Our story ends badly. The client called the Club again to ask for information about the Cuban boy's whereabouts, but the request was denied. He came to the office, claiming he didn't want to cause any trouble but needed to see the darling child and would do whatever he had to do to see him. He was wrestled down, thrown out, and threatened with a lawsuit, but he came back one more time and asked if he could at least have a photograph of the boy. Touching, no? Until one day he couldn't take it anymore and succumbed to despair. There was no further word from him, and everyone who knew the story concluded he must have hung himself or thrown himself out a window.

I once asked the Doctor, "What is a Club Olympus client?"

She answered, "The person whose job it is to take the immigrants you find on the streets or lined up at the back door of a hotel and transform them into machines."

For her the Club's models had to achieve the perfection of a machine; it was that simple.

"No questions," I said finally, still staring at the page of the magazine where an African immigrant was beginning to become a perfect machine.

"That's not good. Didn't they tell you when you were a boythat it's smart to ask questions? I'm sure you're curious about the client's identity, at the very least. Of course I'm not going to tell you a thing about that, but I am going to give you a piece of bad news which has nothing to do with the client, but is related to your all-important obligation to follow orders."

The Doctor could sometimes be cryptic; her monologues would take strange turns in their attempt to retain the interest of a listener whose legs, inevitably, had begun to fall asleep. I imagine that the look on my face said, "Now what?" She stretched her lips into an understanding smile.

"You're not going to like this at all, I know; I know perfectly well that you're not going to like it, but I'm telling you this is important and at the end of the day she's not going to interfere with my plans to have you take over my position if things go well, I've already got my books boxed up for the move to New York, and in the end, even if she winds up being the one who reels him in, even if you don't work together as a team and each of you goes his own way, and she's the one who ends up with the prize—that won't change my plans."

What was she talking about? My face must have reflected a slight, insolent annoyance; perhaps a white patch broke out on one of my cheeks, or I suddenly changed posture, throwing my body forward and making it clear that I didn't understand a thing she was saying and was growing impatient with her circumlocutions.

"All right, I'm getting there. Luzmila. She'll be your traveling companion on this job. The truth is I'd thought of her as your assistant, but I know you don't need an assistant and I also know she likes to work on her own and isn't the kind of scout who takes orders from anyone. To tell you the truth, given the facts of the case, it's more than likely that she'll be the one to pull the thing off; the person you need to attract is a man, and in theshort time she's been working for the Club Luzmila has brought in more men than anyone else. Even so, her statistics aren't so great because she seems incapable of getting women or little girls. Anyway, I thought that in this case you could use some help from her. She'll be taking her orders from you, but I'm not going to pull the wool over your eyes—it's hard to do that anyway, and you'd know I was telling you a lie if I told you she had to obey you—she'll be working on her own; as soon as the two of you get to Málaga, you'll both arrange matters as you see fit. But none of that matters to me; what I need is for you to catch the piece, and I don't care in the least who catches him; the success of the operation, even if you end up having nothing to do with it, will be your success, and you'll be the one who's promoted."

So that was it. Luzmila. Twelve months of work as a sexual machine activated by five hundred euros per session had been enough; she realized she'd rather be doing something else. So she made an appointment with the Doctor, showed up in her office one morning with the stony look she used to give when demanding money from people for a sandwich, forcing them to give her a few coins because she deserved them, and told the Doctor she was sick of going out with drooling idiots, sick of lying on her back under greasy bodies that disgusted her and left her feeling slimy, that she'd started to feel revulsion for the clients who requested her and that she needed to free herself from the contract that yoked her to the Club for three years—a contract which stipulated that should the undersigned not comply scrupulously with the aforesaid conditions and decide to dissociate him- or herself from the company, he or she would have to pay the company the sum of seventy thousand euros in compensation for losses and expenses. It had occurred to her that she might be able to work as a scout, "like the photographer who brought me to you," she said, and added that they could agree to a trial period of a fewweeks—the models were entitled to some vacation time and extended leave—which should be enough time for the Doctor to realize that Luzmila would be much more valuable to the Club as a member of the scouting team than as just another model.

The Doctor pondered the pros and cons and added it all up: Luzmila was not one of the more sought-after models, and every client who requested her never asked for her again, which meant that she wasn't doing much to please those who hired her. She hadn't figured out how to transform herself into a machine, though it was still too soon to say that for sure; every model needed time to adjust, in order to complete the metamorphosis from an immigrant sprawled on a street corner into a perfect sexual machine. In the end, the Doctor decided that Luzmila could go ahead and try her hand at scouting. Luzmila passed the test with flying colors and quickly brought several monumental slabs of beefcake onto the modeling team, which the Barcelona office was able to distribute among the Club's other branches, where expensive masculine flesh was always in short supply. And now the Doctor had come up with the idea of reuniting the photographer and the Albanian girl on a special mission, the kind of thing that comes up only once during a directorship, a search for a particularly juicy morsel that had to be acquired in order to satisfy the big bosses and demonstrate to them that proven effectiveness on the part of Club staff members merits recompense.

"Want to go up to my room for a while?" the Doctor asked. "I've been having a lot of luck here in Madrid—I found ten or twelve books with uncut edges when I took a walk along the Cuesta de Moyano yesterday."

"Where is she?" I asked.

"She's here in Madrid. We're having lunch with her. You'll both be boarding the four-thirty plane. You each have a room reserved in the Hotel Málaga-Palacio. Ideally, you should get mesome news on the piece you're scouting within the next couple of days, the way I figure it. That will allow me to send an initial report to New York to let them know we're already about to catch the Nubian. Of course, I can't say for sure if he's really a Nubian or not, but you know how I like to give the pieces flashy new names. The Nubian Prince. Sounds magnificent. Even if he's not Nubian, that's how we'll sell him, I like it—don't you?—it's got a powerful sexual charge. It's already putting me in the mood just thinking about it. He's definitely one of the ones who should charge more for image rights than for the actual session, don't you think?—those are always the best: bodies that don't need to do anything to excite you, like a sculpture, they show up and you get excited without their so much as lifting a finger, they leave and you've got them in your head forever, or for weeks, so that you go to the bathroom or to bed thinking about the things they didn't do to you but could have—and there should be a charge for that, shouldn't there? I'm very clear on this; if it were up to me, I'd put his price at one thousand euros, three hundred for the session and seven hundred for image rights. I already have him lodged in my mind, just about, and all I've seen is his picture; that's how image rights are, of course. How many women, lying under some boring man, are imagining they're being possessed by a supermacho, the guy from the corner store or the actor they adore, and if the men who are on top knew where their women's imaginations were sailing, well, you tell me what would happen. But I know none of that matters to you; you're made of different stuff—in fact I'm sure it would even excite you a little if I were to promise you that if I were lying under you today, I wouldn't be able to get the Nubian out of my head. Shall we go up to my room for a while?"

THE NUBIAN PRINCE. Copyright © 2006 by Juan Bonilla. Translation copyright © 2006 by Esther Allen. All right reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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