Stick, Steele and Ball
Disclaimers: well, haven't used any of the names,(well,
just the one) and most everything else is made up. Mild use of
bad-language. Please, Nancy, archive for me.
To fully understand the story, it is recommended that you read Bend it Like Steele, and All Steele at Dawn first. They can be found in Nancy's site:http://krebsfiles.com/filecabinet.html
Feedback is appreciated both on the list and to: email@example.com
Ernesto Giralt Anchorena, genial owner of one of the foulest and proudest tongues south of the Plata, looked left and then right. Once certain no cars or busses were coming either way, he slowly limped his way across the avenue. Why wait for the traffic lights, he thought. Why indeed when one had one's pockets full of money, and too little time to waste. Ah, and may the good Lord bless that spirited three year old filly Inminente, and its jockey. What a race!
The old man smiled to himself. Libertador avenue in Palermo looked none the worse for wear today. Late spring had seen all the pale violet blossoms of the jacaranda trees bloom along the pavement, and a rare gentle breeze alleviated what would have otherwise been a somewhat scorching heat. Malaboca (for it is he we were talking about) was swiping his forehead with a kerchief as he made his best effort to avoid the incoming traffic on the eight line road. But sadly, he was long past his prime. It had been proved beyond shadow of a doubt.
When he reached the west side of the avenue he rested his back against one of the trees. Across the road, Palermo Race Track, with its French architecture and its unparalleled view of the woods beyond, was still hosting a splendid meet. But now, Malaboca knew, now it was time for polo.
It was a quiet day in Buenos Aires, and at nearly 3 o'clock, the old man could already see the interminable line of cars waiting patiently to access La Catedral's parking lot. They were no ordinary cars, mind. Oh, no. It was the prince's Rolls; the sheik's Mercedes, or sultan's Porsche. And with them the entourages of the presidents and the kings. It was la crème de la crème, in a display of automotive splendour that put lesser mortals squarely in their place. Oh, and of course, there was also the odd official-looking Ford or two, with the Generals in full military regalia. But that couldn't be helped.
Malaboca walked briskly past, avoiding those eyes like any
good citizen, and rounding Libertador and went straight for the
Dorrego entrance. He approached, spying yet another line, this
one of pony trailers and a few flashy convertibles owned by the
players. Searching his pockets, he took out the already agreed
upon bribe for the gate-keeper. With a smile, he eased the bills
onto the man's hand as they shook. Not too subtle a move, granted,
but still favoured by a great many. Then, made virtually invisible
by his lack of style, looks, or wealth, the old man went inside
He had not walked a dozen paces, though, when one of the stable-hands approached him from the right. In hushed tones, he directed Malaboca towards the side of the stables.
"What are the odds?"
"You know better than me, I'll expect, son," Malaboca said, "But the going across the avenue says 2 to 1 on Venado Tuerto."
"Two to one?"
The older man shrugged his shoulders, "Damn match's too even, anything could happen."
Malaboca was right. This had been dubbed the 'Match of the Century' and had been anticipated for weeks on end. It would be the first ever 80-goal polo match in the world, for amazingly, both El Trebol and Venado Tuerto boasted 4 players each with a perfect 10 handicap.
The stable-hand smiled a rueful smile. "True. How about best horse?"
Malaboca took a notepad out of his pocket, consulted it, and said. "Alberto Heguy's second mount, Dulcinea, is the favourite. She's going at 4 to 1."
"Oh?" Malaboca deadpanned. He had an eye out for trouble, and right now he could see it coming. There were two or three men coming towards them, and at least one of them had a stick in his hand, with the mallet-head held threateningly above his head. Now, the third man was turning around to warn a few other trainers about the bookie's presence. He'd better conclude his dealings soon.
"See that petiso there?" his would-be first customer was saying, with a knowing glance.
Malaboca lifted his eyes, as he quickly put a notepad away. "The mare?"
One of the new arrivals, a rough looking man with the El Trebol's team shirt on, and stern look upon his face, said, "That's Pandemonium. She belongs to Juan Carlitos Harriot, and she's the best horse I've seen in a long, long time. Are you taking bets against her, abuelo?"
"Grandpa" your frolicking bollocks, junior. Malaboca grunted low, but didn't say anything. He consulted his little paper. Then, "She's going at 9 to 1. Do you want to try your luck?"
The men did, and before he knew it, the bookie had a new pile of cash overflowing his pockets. The rumour quickly spread, as expected. The end of the Fifth across the road would not be long, and soon every single bookie in the neighbourhood would be fighting for a spot. Malaboca wasn't overly concerned. Despite his advanced years, his trusted facón had deterred more than one cocky, young soul in the not too distant past, so they had better beware. Yes. But in the meantime, business at the back of the stack shed bloomed.
Half an hour had gone by now, and Malaboca happily cursed as he turned yet another page in his notebook. What had started out to be a very good day at the track, was now proving now to be an excellent day, by all accounts. He'd buy himself a car this time, no question about that. He'd pay up the debt on his flat, first, then buy himself a brand new car. Yes. And maybe a pony, why not? They were good business, obviously. He turned another page. Maybe he'd set up shop here, for good, and he'd-- Malaboca looked up, feeling eyes on him.
There was a tall blonde man up front, cash in hand. "1000 pesos on Bittersweet," he said. The old man took the money and wrote down the bet. The blonde man left, but Malaboca still felt the eyes. In came 1500 on Dulcinea; he took this down, then a lousy 200 on Lady Swift, and 2000 on Pandemonium. Blast! The feeling was still there. Minutes later, the dozen or so men in the line were reduced in half. Malaboca took his hat off to get a clearer view, leaving his features in the open. Taking a once powerful hand, he brushed his long beard, and straightened his back, stretching now to his full height. God, and didn't it hurt! It was only then, though, that his eyes caught a glimpse of the sixth man in the line. He was quickly scurrying away. Without thinking about it twice, Malaboca sprang into action.
He followed, and surprisingly passed, the tall, impeccably dressed man of the inquiring eyes. And once he had passed him, he blocked his way, supporting all of his generous weight on legs slightly apart. With a bony finger, he pointed accusingly at the other man's shocked blue eyes. "Oh, but lad," the old man said with a twisted smile, "Yo a vos te conozco.." - I know you.
But his smile was met by a cold, well rehearsed look of confusion.
Well, well, well. What have we here? Malaboca took half a step back for a more comprehensive appraisal of the man. For, hell; it was, unmistakably, him. Two years had gone by, and yet the lad looked hardly a day older. Still too tall and too lean, and still looking all too fragile. Ha! Malaboca chuckled, for he knew better than that. Yes, and now he found himself, once more, at the end of that cold stare he remembered as if it were yesterday. Such sweet memories, too. He recalled vividly the boy's agile feet, his clever waist, and the power so carefully hidden behind those wiry arms. But more than anything, he remembered the lad's dangerous, unforgiving steel.
Malaboca all but whispered , "The Kilkenny Kid, wasn't it, Irlandés?"
The young man said nothing, but his breathing suddenly quickened. He had moved up in the world, Malaboca noted. Nice looking clothes: authentic fine linen, if he wasn't mistaken, black polo shirt with matching kerchief . Good leather shoes, too. His hair was shorter and well groomed, his fingernails encouragingly clean. There were no visible scars or bruises on his ivory pale, clean-shaven face. His posture was now, as well as then, still arrogantly elegant. The old man scowled his approval. "Cat got your fucking tongue, pibe?"
A sharp intake of air and a quick spark in the eyes of El Irlandés let Malaboca know he might be overstepping the mark. He took another careful step away, mindful of the result of their last encounter. Yet, the young man remained resolutely silent, as if that lack of acknowledgement could change anything of what passed between them that night, long ago. Sending his former partner a look of farewell, El Irlandés turned his back on him.
Malaboca's desperate long arm reached out to prevent the lad's hasty exit. But before he could make contact a young woman, also in her early twenties, appeared suddenly in the wide alley way.
She was slender, but her figure indicated she was no stranger to exercise. Malaboca looked down. She had lovely legs, too. And her blonde, wavy hair fell languidly over graceful shoulders. Ah, youth! But for all her loveliness, the lady was helpless to hide the affronted look on her face. Eventually, though, she recovered. It was almost painful to see how the sternness of her voice fought a loosing battle against the inescapable, all-forgiving warmth of her eyes. "Colin, your uncle will just kill you if he realises I had to come looking for you in the stables!"
"We won't tell him, then, will we?" came the swift reply, though the lad's glare had still been focused on the old man.
The girl, slightly taken aback by his abruptness, looked at the young man for a brief second. Then realising his attentions were centred elsewhere, she eyed the stranger uncertainly.
The old man stared back.
The astonishing change that took place before Malaboca's eyes caught him so by surprise that even his ferocious tongue was, for once, at a loss for words. A disarming smile unexpectedly appeared on that young face which, he knew, was a stranger to the smallest of grins. He saw candour and affection in the young man's so often hard, cold eyes. And a reaching, open hand where all he remembered were angry fists.
"Susan, you shouldn't have bothered," the young man was saying, all too fast in that blasted English, as he took her delicate hands in his. "As I was saying to this charming man here, I have absolutely no idea where the gents lavatories are. Why, I have been looking for them for fifteen solid minutes!"
Susan made a face. "Colin!"
"Not that he understood any of it, I'd wager," the young man clarified. Then, placing his hand in the small of her back, added, "Come along, love, let's return."
The young couple turned around promptly. She before he, so that the old man could see the fire retuning to his eyes as they walked away. "Don't," El Irlandés seemed to be saying before he, too, vanished among the growing crowds that were now pooling towards the field, "Because I know you, old man."
Juan Carlos Harriot, Venado Tuerto's back, wore his number four shirt with pride. He was like no one Malaboca had ever seen on horseback, and with his own lifelong passion for the track, that was saying something. But this man was no ordinary athlete; his grace and elegance on the mount were notorious. The old man watched him fly past, legs slightly bent, arm tensed forward following only the line of the ball. Such concentration! Suddenly the ball was his, and he hit. It was his trademark backhand, fuelled by a ferocity that only his strict allegiance to fair play could overshadow.
Away the ball went, and time for Trebol to try and beat his defence again.
The second chukker was now all but over, but still the two teams were matched goal by goal. Either the great Alberto Heguy scored for El Trebol, or the other Heguy, Horacio Jr, scored for Venado. The audience were watching a battle of giants, and they behaved accordingly. Respectful, amazed silences were interrupted ever so often by the inevitable gasps that punctuated a daring attack. Bursts of generous clapping rewarded, periodically, the effort of the tireless ponies. Because, do not be fooled, those animals were as eager to win as their riders.
But Malaboca was not concerned with all this. From his vantage
point, just under the high balustrade of the north grandstands
he bided his time observing the select spectators carefully. He
had always had a keen eye for opportunity, and something told
him this already profitable day need not be over so soon.
He could easily make out the young Irlandés amidst the crowd. He was in a private box, not far from President Martinez de Perón herself, in fact. Malaboca spat in disgust at the mere sight of the bloody woman. She had been her husband's vice-president, and therefore, rightful successor when he passed away while in office. But she had never been anything more than a fucking puppet. Bah!
He took his eyes away from the offending lady's decadent courtiers, and directed them once more to the numerous British entourage. Well, at least there was something different in them; a certain flair for theatrics, as it were. Malaboca smiled. This crowd, he thought, he could identify effortlessly by the ladies' hats alone. What a display! There were feathers and veils, and bonnets and wide-brimmed fantasies. Such elaborate confections, in short, no woman of taste could ever refuse to balance on their pricey heads. The old man chuckled softly. Those Brits.
But the young Irlandés seemed to have no problems whatsoever blending and mixing with them, Malaboca gathered, as he squinted his eyes to see better. He was now chatting animatedly with the young woman from the stables. It was evident, mind you, that their interest lay more in their own private affairs than with the comings and goings of the horses in the field.
To the youth's right, sat an elegant man of around Malaboca's own age. He looked distinguished, and rich, and seemed too engrossed in the game to pay attention to the young couple beside him. This was, probably, the boy's uncle. There was another person, however, sitting one row above the youths, who looked much more attentive to the pair. He was wearing a military uniform, of sorts, which in itself was suspicious. His stripes said he was a Colonel. But that wasn't what rubbed Malaboca the wrong way. It had something to do, instead, with the way the man observed without being observed. Or how he seemed so fully apprised of every word and move El Irlandés would make, before he himself knew it. The subtle clues unknowingly revealed -to Malaboca's trained eye alone- an overall attitude of trust and approval of the youngster's actions that was most alarming. The old man frowned as his nerves stood on full alert. Who was this?
Malaboca's musings were cut short as the roar of the crowd
brought his attention back to the field. Gonzalo Tanoira, Trebol's
number 3, was riding off Venado's Gastón Dorignac in a
valiant attempt to get him off the line of the ball. The two ponies,
going side by side at tremendous speed, were puffing and looking
barely under control. Both players were riding with the mallet
heads up in the air, ready for a swing. The crowd cheered, now
on their feet, as the ball neared Trebol's backline. With a final
effort, Tenoira bumped his horse against Dorignac's nearside,
causing both of them to go off the line. An opportune and powerful
backhander by Alfredo Harriot, Trebol's back, cleared the ball
out of the danger line and to the mid-field. It had been close.
Malaboca lifted his eyes to the crowd again, as they all returned to their seats with excited smiles on their faces. The old man frowned. Somewhere between the ride off and the clearing, the Colonel of the red coat had vanished. Rapidly scanning the right side boxes, and then the ones of the left, the old man caught sight of the soldier by the seats of the Emirates delegation. Bright smile on his face, he was dutifully shaking hands with them. As at home as a fish in water. Malaboca moved rapidly from his perch, and down, never taking his eyes from the man. Having dispensed his greetings to a Sultan, two of his wives (low bow, discreet smile,) a prince, a Sheik, and a trusted aid or two, the popular Colonel disappeared behind the stands. Malaboca walked faster.
He found him just as the uniformed figure approached the east
wall of the stables, avoiding three other bookies, and went, decidedly,
towards Malaboca's own "office."
"Perdió algo, ch'amigo?" Lost something, friend?
The Colonel turned around abruptly, a beatific look on his features and eyes that were the very picture of innocence. Malaboca was not fooled. The man said, "Ah, I'm sorry, my good man. Don't speak a word of Spanish, I'm afraid."
Malaboca was sorry, as well. "Not Espanish, no?"
The Colonel measured the cunning of the old man's gaze, and neared him offering his hand. "None, I fear," and then by way of excuse, "I'm Col. Reginald Frobish, of her Majesty's Tenth Royal Hussars."
"Un Coronel, no?"
The Colonel smiled, and there was an uncomfortable silence. When it had outlived its welcome the man in uniform turned as if to leave.
"Si es por las apuestas..." Malaboca implied, taking the notebook from his pocket. "Bets, eh? Cierran despues del 3er chuckker, apenas esta a tiempo. Tengo 3-1 contra El Trebol." They close after the 3rd chukker, you're barely in time. I've got 3-1 against Trebol.
"Ah, yes, but look here-"
"Your friend. Him quería bets " Malaboca said, pointing in the vague direction of the stands. "Quiere bets for his?"
The Colonel narrowed his eyes. "Friend? I'm afraid I don't understand."
Malaboca waited in silence.
"No comprendo?" the Colonel insisted.
"No?" Malaboca said harshly, nearing slowly within inches from the Colonel's face.
The other man took a step back.
With movements faster, and more precise anyone would have given him credit for, the old man took a hand to his coat. He tore the garment open, as did his shirt underneath, thus exposing his bare left torso.
"What-" The startled Colonel left his sentence unfinished as his unwilling eyes travelled down to a long, terrible scar that ran from under the old man's chest, down to his fourth left rib.
Malaboca was breathing agitatedly. The badly healed wound rose and fell rapidly, and as suddenly has it had been unveiled, it was covered once more.
The Colonel brought up an enlightened stare to the old man's face.
Malaboca nodded."Cuidado con el chico. El boy, eh,"-- Beware of the boy. "He, también, my friend. Y he gave me that."
The Colonel pushed the bookie away. "Get off me, old man," he said. But the fire in those weathered eyes seemed to speak volumes to him. It was clear this wasn't just a random lunatic. This man had meant every word that he said. The old, clever eyes almost screamed that he was after revenge. The Colonel suppressed a shudder. "You are mistaken, sir. I don't know any boys."
A twisted smirk crept slowly to Malaboca's mouth, and stopped right there. His gaze remained deadly serious. "¿No? ¿El Kilkenny Kid, no?."
"I most certainly don't know anyone by that name," the Colonel replied, maybe too fast.
The old man was still smiling as he made an expansive gesture with his arm. "Yes," he insisted, and made a fist as if to illustrate the point, "He, you know."
But the Colonel was already turning his back on him. "I'm afraid you have the wrong man, old chap," he said, in parting.
Malaboca let him go. His eyes were already searching for somebody who could help him with his new plan. What he needed was information, and he needed it fast. This polo match, never mind how important or fancy it was, wouldn't last much longer. And if he didn't make the right move before it was over, he'd lose the lad for ever. And Malaboca wouldn't let that happen. No. Not again!
His feet quickly moved around the east wall, and towards the main stable-yard. He briefly flirted with the idea of seeking aid from somebody in the Clubhouse as he stared at the magnificent building not two hundred yards away. Malaboca shook his head. Me? In La Catedral's Clubhouse? Ha! He walked briskly past some of the food stands. Then circumnavigated the Olympic Oak, Hitler's gift for the 1936 Berlin gold medallists, and made a beeline for the yard. Yes, here, amongst those in his own level, he'd find the necessary answers.
All the second mounts were, mostly, ready and primed for the third chukker. No horse, said the rules, could play more than two chukkers in a match, and some of the ponies were already being walked towards the field. Malaboca went towards a man who was busily finishing the wrappings on the hind legs of a splendid beast: fourteen hands, ten inches in height. Clever eyes, powerful legs, big heart. He was a "made" pony, bred and trained to play the game. This Arabian crossed with criollo was "Dubai Dream," Francisco Dorignac's second mount, and he was going 8-1. Hadn't Malaboca been taking the bets, he would have put all his money on it.
The man looked up. "Afternoon."
"Do you know who trains for the British patrones?"
The man, never stopping his labour, motioned his head towards the right. "Galindez, but he's already on the way to the field. Ask Luchito Di Carlo, he's always hanging around them, seeing if can get a job that'll take him out of here."
Malaboca looked at the dead end of the alleyway. Sure enough, he could see a sixteen-year old miniature of a boy polishing a pair of boots too large to be his. Malaboca neared him slowly. The boy looked up.
"I've got two thousand pesos for a man who will earn them," Malaboca said.
The boy held his stare but said nothing.
"There is a Colonel Frobish with the British group "
"Nice man. Good tipper." Lucho said, not wasting his good manners on the stranger, "What do you want with him?"
Malaboca came around and sat on a log just across the lad. Five hundred pesos exchanged hands. Lucho resumed his polishing, hiding his eyes behind a curtain of dark brown hair.
"There is also a young man. Colin is his name. He's with a girl called Susan, and an elder man. She says he's Colin's uncle."
Lucho frowned, as if trying to remember. Nothing happened for a few moments until another five hundred refreshed the boy's memory.
"His name is Colin Simms, he's the nephew of the Duke of Arlington, the elder man you mentioned. I've never seen the girl, but I'm only here for stick and ball, so I wouldn't know. Colin's trained with us for two weeks. With Ahmed, Philippe, and I. He plays centre-half best, has a good head for strategy. He's okay for an Englishman, I guess, but no handicap yet."
Malaboca listened to all this in silence, and mild amazement. The nephew of the Duke of Arlington? Ha! It was a joke, surely. The old man chuckled, as he counted another five hundred for his next question. A joke, or a scam?
"The Colonel and the Duke," he asked, "Do they know each other, would you say?"
Here Lucho hesitated. "How do you mean?"
"I mean, did you get the impression, from what you've heard, that they met only recently at this Polo Week, or that they knew each other from before," the old man said seriously. "Take your time, son. Same question goes for the lad."
Lucho finished with one boot, set it aside, and started on a second one. A light breeze blew over their heads, bringing with it faint echoes of the cheers of the crowd. Then there was the distant sound of a bell. The third Chukker had just begun. Lucho took the offered five hundred.
He spoke rapidly now, in one long, convoluted sentence. "My boss, Galindez, tells me the Duke has told him, that he has a lot to be thankful for to Colonel Frobish. The Duke says it was providence that led the two of them to meet one afternoon, when the Colonel was introducing one of his star new recruits in a society dinner, outside of London. Colin was a cadet at the time, and an orphan, too. And it was just pure luck, if you ask me, that Colin's family history was brought up in conversation. But it must have been fate, because it turned out he was the illegitimate son of the Duke's younger brother, who had been killed in a mountaineering accident five years before."
Malaboca's eyebrows shoot to the skies, and he let a loud laugh escape. Luchito Di Carlo looked at him inquisitively. But after that outburst, the old man quickly gathered his wits, and gestured the young stable hand to finish his tale.
Fully aware that there was more to the conversation than met the eye, Lucho wrapped up the story in a huff, "After that dinner, and on the Duke's behalf, the Colonel offered to carry a thorough investigation on his cadet's past history. Once it was over, Colin could re-unite with a family he never knew he had." The young lad shrugged his shoulders, and put a reflective smile on his face. "Should we all have that sort of luck, no?"
Luck my arse! Malaboca thought. El Irlandés was no more the nephew of any Duke than he was the bloody King of Lapland. And he was willing to bet his own boots the Colonel had never even seen the inside of a barracks in his entire lifetime, either. But he had to give it to them, if it was a ruse, and the old man was completely certain that it was, then it had been brilliantly executed. What terrible shame it would be, he thought, if someone came in and blurted the truth out!
"Thanks, lad, " Malaboca said, rising to his feet and turning to leave.
"Hey, señor, you said two thousand!"
Malaboca stopped in his tracks, counted another five hundred, and showed them to the young man. "Only if you can earn them, boy."
Lucho thought about it for a few seconds, then shook his head.
Malaboca turned to leave, and then heard behind his back. "Ahmed said he had seen Colin with a new girl two days ago."
Ah, more Clubhouse gossip. Wasn't it just the thing? "I'm listening."
"He told Ahmed she was absolutely wonderful and the daughter of one of the Americans who came in for the game; King of the Styrofoam cups or something. Up to his eyeballs in cash, naturally, not that he'll stand out in that crowd out there."
Malaboca smiled and offered the five hundred pesos, asking, "And his daughter? She's called Susan, maybe?"
Lucho shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe, but it doesn't mean anything. It's why Ahmed and I were joking about it. Colin's been head over heels in love, his words not mine, with three different girls in the past two weeks. He has another week to go before he goes back home, you do the math."
"Indeed," the old man said, hading him the last five hundred. "He's going back home next week, you say?"
The young man nodded, "With any luck, I can tag along. Make me a decent salary in London as a rented player next year."
Malaboca gave the boy a sad look and said as he walked out, "If I were you, son, I'd try my luck with Ahmed. 'Ta luego."
The fourth chukker was nearly history now, and the tensions were growing. Venado Tuerto was ahead four to three, but El Trebol showed no signs whatsoever of defeat. There was much of the match to be played, still. And in this game, you'd better give it all you had and then a little more, if you were to win.
There was a clang of a bell, and a ball that went fast past the Venado backline. The flagman signalled below his waist: no goal. The crowd sat down again, mildly disappointed. Had the ball made it through the posts, it would have been a very nice pony goal. The horse that almost had scored, was none other than Dubai Dream. Malaboca whistled low. What did you know? Maybe he would win the best horse prize today.
He was standing right below the official box, now that the President had gone home. Clearly, being there for the first two chukkers was enough to keep the press off her heels. Well, good riddance! This meant, however, that with the exception of two bored looking ministers, the rest of the best seats in the house were empty. What a waste! And he, with his aching bones and tired feet, was standing on the sides. But with any luck this would soon come to an end, eh? Malaboa rubbed his hands together with glee. And once again, he'd have El Irlandés to thank for it.
The old man looked up at his former companion's box only to discover, with considerable surprise, that it was also empty. His quick eyes rapidly found the Duke, the cups king, and his daughter near the railings, some fifty yards away. The girl was busy petting a pony's nose, while her father greeted one of the Venado players who had neared to accept the praises of the crowd. But where were the Colonel and his faithful cadet?
"Looking for something, friend?" Colonel Frobish, Tenth Royal Hussars, threw back at the old man.
Malaboca spun around and found that the Colonel was not alone. He was quick to put a toothy smile on his face, and a friendly arm around El Irlandés's neck. "Que hacés pibe?" he asked as he playfully ruffled the youth's previously immaculate dark hair. "Y yo que pensaba que ya te habías olvidado de tu amigo Malaboca. Pero veo que no, que no!"-And here I was thinking you had forgotten all about your friend Malaboca. But I see you haven't. You haven't.
El Irlandés bridled, as expected, but with less anger than he would have before.
Malaboca didn't loose stride for a minute. "Y Coronel?"
he inquired as he took the small notebook out. "¿Qué
va a ser? ¿Venado o El Trebol?" -- What will it be?
The young man and the Colonel exchanged a knowing glance. Then both pairs of eyes looked towards the effusive bookie.
In careful English, El Irlandés said, "Perhaps a proper introduction is in order. Colonel Reginald Frobish, may I present Mr. Ernesto Anchorena, an old friend."
"Giralt Anchorena," Malaboca corrected.
"Your pleasure, I'm sure," Colonel Frobish interjected shortly.
Malaboca looked past the two men's shoulders and at the rest of the party, who were still busy by the railings with the Venado men. The other two followed his eyes, and frowned.
Nobody spoke for a few seconds.
Then the old man tried. "Should I just introduce myself to your other friends, boy? Or would you rather-"
But El Irlandés had had enough. He unceremoniously took the old man's arm and pulled on it until the two of them, followed by the Colonel, were safely tucked away under the stands. Fair play was over, that was clear, and Malaboca put a good yard or so between himself and the youth, lifting his hands in the air in surrender.
"What will it take for you to clear away?" El Irlandés asked, in rather fluent, angry Spanish.
"Oh, good," the old man replied, taking a hand to his left side and leaving it there. "You haven't forgotten."
The young man exhaled exasperatedly. It had been a loaded statement, and not just about language skills. "Of course, I haven't. But now is hardly a good time, Malaboca."
The old man stole a quick glance of the Colonel, to see whether he was following the conversation. He was not. The Colonel was there just for moral support, he gathered. A loud bell now indicated the beginning of the fifth chukker. It wouldn't be long until the rest of the party started worrying about the pair. But Malaboca wasn't in a hurry. No. For once, he had the boy just where he wanted him. Yes. "Not a good time, eh, Colin Simms?"
The young man gave the soldier a quick, worried look.
"What? Are you afraid your uncle, the Duke, will miss you if you don't return to his side?" Malaboca asked with a teasing smirk. Then his eyes grew suddenly serious. "Or is it the lovely Susan, the Styrofoam princess, who has you on such a short leash?"
He should have remembered that speed. One second El Irlandés was standing a safe few feet away, and now- Argghh! Malaboca felt the strong hands he remembered so well closing dangerously around his neck. The old man's knees gave under the added weight, causing both him and his attacker to go down on the damp grass. Finally, some air. One of the hands had lost its vicelike grip around his neck, but was now clenching menacingly in preparation for a punch. Malaboca's scared eyes searched in panic for the ice-blue ones, but in them he found nothing but a familiar, unadulterated fury.
"No!" Malaboca gasped, realising, all too late, that the killer instinct he had once helped hone in the lad was still very much alive. He tried to protect with his arm but he was all but tied down, damn it! On the last millisecond, the old man closed his eyes as an iron fist came down.
"Harry, stop that!"
It had been merely a whisper, but it had miraculously reached the young man's ears. Suddenly Malaboca felt all the pressure vanish, and was thankful for a blow that never came. The old man opened one careful eye, drew a lungful of fresh air, and thoroughly envied the Colonel's influence.
El Irlandés, once more in control of his feelings, had released his life threatening hold on his former partner, and was now looking at him from above. He stood on steady legs, and held the old man's look with even steadier eyes. His fists, however, still twitched with rage.
After a moment, and never taking his eyes of the old man, El Irlandés warned, "He knows about the Duke, Daniel. And Susan, too."
From his prone position on the grass, Malaboca looked up at
the Colonel with something close to respect. He raised a protective
hand, as if to indicate he needed a few seconds to recover, and
quickly examined his options. That the two partners in front of
him were running something big, was more than obvious. As was
the fact that said partnership was strong, at least for now, (one
never knew with El Irlandés). What remained to be seen,
it appeared to him, was whether this scam had room for one more.
And now was as good time as any to find out.
Under the close scrutiny of the two foreigners, Malaboca stood slowly to his feet. He tried a small smile. "Qué mal carácter, che!"- what a temper, boy!
"What do you want?" the younger of the men asked imperiously. He was done wasting his time.
The wooden planks above them suddenly shook under the weight of standing feet and people cheering. The Colonel peeped out from in between the stands to see a flurry of movement out on the field. Two of El Trebol's men were galloping furiously towards goal, with Venado's number four in hot pursuit. But the man was too late, and with a forceful forehander, Alberto Heguy pushed the ball past the line.
The boards above the young man's head bent, and creaked, and threatened to split in two. And still, his eyes never left those of his new enemy.
"Qué es lo que querés?" he repeated in that slow, tranquil manner of his that always sent chills down Malaboca's spine.
"I want in," the old man declared simply.
El Irlandés blinked. "In?"
"I know you, boy," Malaboca reminded his former protégée boldly, though taking a few steps back, just in case. "And if someone the likes of you can be the nephew of a Duke, then I can be, at least, a very distant relation. The side with the nobility titles, preferably." Here he stopped, for a reaction.
Patent disbelief, would describe it best, in Malaboca's opinion.
He smiled broadly and began pacing, looking up as if for inspiration. Then elaborated, "Well, maybe the Duke's great granddad was here with fucking Beresford, eh? Maybe he knocked up my poor old great granny, who always had a fancy for red-coats, the poor thing." A wink at the mystified Colonel, then, "Alas, and imagine her distress, after the invasion failed, and the soldiers left. So sad. But she had to lie to her husband, yes? Tell him the child was his, while deep down she knew " at this point, the old man removed a tear from his rather dry eyes.
"Me estas cargando, no?"-you're joking, aren't you?
Malaboca came around and took the young man's arm, while making a broad arc with his spare one. "But now the truth has finally come out in the open. The honest Duke and I could be cousins, for all we know! The Colonel here will make the necessary inquiries, I'm sure. He's clearly the detective in the group."
During the stunned silence that followed, Malaboca inspected his fingernails. "Well?"
The young man's eyes shined with humour. "You're quite
insane, you know that?" he said with a smile of incredulity.
The lad quickly translated Malaboca's proposal to his uniformed partner, keeping him informed, if nothing else.
The old man, in turn, kept a self satisfied grin on his face and his eyes on the Colonel, waiting for a reaction. Malaboca was quite aware his requests were laughable- Farfetched didn't begin to describe them, in fact. But any businessman knows: the asking price should always be high when you start haggling.
Now the Colonel was saying something in English. Malaboca stared at the soldier's eyes, while the young man translated. "If it is money you want-"
"No es la guita!" he roared.
"It's always the money," the Colonel replied knowingly.
Malaboca shrugged and to El Irlandés nonchalantly said, "Well, money is never a bad thing, no? But better than that-- maybe your Duke knows some of the big shots here, right?"
The Colonel and his partner looked at each other, then back at the old man.
"Maybe he will introduce me to president of the Jockey
Club, and a couple of bankers. Oh, I can just see it now! I'll
walk him down Florida St., do a few of the stores there, and who
knows, maybe he'll get a discount if we try Harrods!"
"No," said the young man.
Malaboca grunted. He needed a change in tack. "Oh, come on, Irlandés! You can squeeze him all you want back in Britain. But while you're in my nice, little southern town you simply focus on that lovely young lady of yours, and leave the old, boring Duke to my tender cares, eh?"
"The Colonel can take good care of the Duke," El Irlandés pointed out.
Malaboca, quick on his feet, ran towards the uniformed man, and spoke directly to him. "I'm sure the Colonel will appreciate it if he could fully focus on young lovely's dad, no?"
A new roar from the audience cut the through the thick silence, but the mood in that small damp area was getting increasingly suffocating. The Colonel waited for the translation and then, with a look of contempt, turned on his heel to the older man.
Damn and blast! the old man cursed under his breath. That hadn't
been expected. El Irlandés would soon follow the steps
of his new master, unless he thought of something quick.
An appeal to the heart. Clichéd, but effective. "Por los viejos tiempos, Irlandés?"-For old times sake?
Malaboca stood his ground as the dark blue eyes scrutinized him. The lad's proud shoulders turned briefly, acknowledging the Colonel's departure, but the feet stood, stoically, in their place.
"You owe me, son. I have the scars to prove it"
His eyes were low, as the young man nodded. "I know."
Malaboca found himself smiling.
"But I also have mine," El Irlandés finished.
There was little more to say now, evidently. Except, "Sorry, old man," as the young man turned around and begun a chagrined retreat.
Ten paces away, the lad turned with a sigh.
"I think I'm ready to take your bet now," Malaboca said, taking his notebook out. "I'd put my money on El Trebol."
Finally, an honest smile. "They're still 4-3 down."
Malaboca shrugged, "Can't keep a good team down for too long, lad."
Knowing eyes met, as twelve thousand pesos exchanged hands without further comment. The two men; the first young, tall and lithe, the second burdened with the wisdom and roundness of his years; emerged slowly into the bright spring daylight. And as they parted- the young towards his private box, the old to his unorthodox perch above the railings- they shared a last handshake.
Malaboca kept looking until El Irlandés was welcomed, effusively, by his lady friend. His aristocratic uncle, for once tearing his eyes from the field, sent him a reproachful glare, but instantly replaced it for a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. The Duke was rewarded, if you must know, with the most brilliant of smiles and the most genuine affection those blue eyes could muster. One row above them, the martial looking Colonel absorbed and approved of this family bonding without ever being noticed. But despite all this, in the field, the Match of the Century went on. Yard by yard towards glory, superb riders matched only by the excellence of their mounts, strived to achieve the utmost prize. Gave their all for a win. And as the sun begun to set amongst the tall, aromatic eucalyptus of La Catedral, the final clang of the bell signalled a solid seven to six victory for El Trebol.
Malaboca started to make his way towards the stables. It had been a good day, after all. He was certain, after all debts had been paid, that he would come away with the upper hand. Looking down to his notebook, he began his calculations. In a few moments, he would face a small number of happy winners and he would have to be ready. As for handling the losers-Well, he had been born ready for that, hadn't he?
"Señor?" a polite voice said, out of nowhere.
Malaboca turned carefully to meet the eyes of a quiet looking man in hid mid-thirties. He was all dressed in black, and kept a driver's hat tucked under his left arm.
"Ernesto Giralt Anchorena?"
Malaboca nodded. "Who wants him?"
"My boss, Colin Simms, sir. I have a message for you."
The old man waited. Then, "Well?"
"He is playing tomorrow. Field three, at ten o'clock," the driver explained. "He said maybe you'd want to come and watch."
Malaboca looked down, hiding a small smile. And why not?
The sun was treacherously hot, the following morning. Even at ten o'clock most people had already shed sweaters and jackets, favouring instead the less suffocating open neck shirts, and the rolled up sleeves. Cursing loudly under the dark brim of his hat, Malaboca swiped the back of his neck with his handkerchief and ploughed on.
He could see, on approaching, the young driver from the day before cowering from the vicious sunbeams under the shade of the player's bench roof. There was nobody else in sight, except for a couple of stable hands. And they were further away, keeping the spare horses well under the cover of the massive eucalyptus.
Malaboca sat by the young chauffer. "Morning."
"Good morning, sir," the man said, barely looking at him. "You made it."
"Don't 'sir' me, son. And of course I made it."
The younger man chuckled softly, and shaded his eyes with his hand to improve his sight. "Over there, sir-- Sorry. That's our Mr. Simms. Shirt number three, can you see him?"
Malaboca took his hat off, swiped his forehead, and put in back on again. Well, he'll be damned.
"He's going to fall off that horse, if he isn't more careful," the driver said.
Ha! Sooner the pony would be speaking English-- But damn his recklessness, anyway. Malaboca shook his head and grinned. Poor Irlandés had fight in him, and nothing could be done about it. Whatever he did, he'd have to be the best. And that was, in the old man's opinion, a lifetime sentence to never being fully happy.
"Have you and Mr. Simms known each other long?"
Malaboca's eyes followed the lithe figure on the number three shirt ride past as if possessed by the very wind. El Irlandés had seen him, he was certain.
"And what makes you say that?" the old man asked pensively.
"Nothing," the driver said. "Just- You look as if you cared about him, that's all."
Malaboca frowned. But he had never claimed to be completely inscrutable, either. "Yes, I've known him for sometime."
There was a silence. Both men turned towards the field again.
As she galloped, the pony's flesh glistened in the sunlight. Her powerful muscles were strained by the exertion, her nostrils flared and her eyes well focused ahead. Her carefully braided mane moved side to side in rhythm with her step. Her rider was one with her. Malaboca admired the pair in awe.
"They are something else, these ponies, eh, sir?"
Malaboca smiled. "Yes, sir."
Now El Irlandés was going decidedly for the ball. Behind him were Lucho Di Carlo, and two from the opposite team. A fast, authoritative offside forehander and the ball went flying. Steady in the line, El Iralndés followed.
"You've got it, lad. Come on." The old man urged.
His team's forwards felt him coming, you could tell. Ahmed, with the number one, checked and turned, leaving the space free. Phillipe protected the line from the opponents. Ten yards behind, El Irlandés neared. He raised his mallet high and just barely behind his right shoulder, his right boot softly encouraged his pony onwards. It was all that she needed. With his hand secure on the reins he inclined his weight forwards, his head held up high. Soon, his eyes saw Phillipe leave in his favour. The ball was his.
It was, again, that fearsome offside that sent the ball deep past the goal line. The flagman raised the red cloth well above his head.
"Goal!" the driver shouted with glee. "Well done, Mr. Simms!"
Malaboca clenched his right fist, all his teeth showing in an inevitable smile. Nice goal, yes. And no handicap yet!
The bell rang and all horses paced down to an elegant walk. All but one, that is, for the imprudent Irlandés was apparently charging towards the railings. His mallet came up as he neared, and he was not three yards away it came back down. Malaboca stood up to meet him, but the young man never broke stride. Grabbing the rains with his stick hand, he reached with his left under the saddle. As he galloped by, he flicked a small white card towards the two stunned men that gaped at him.
"Diego, could you drive Miss Susan in for the last chukker,
please?" he said in passing. "She's staying at the Alvear."
"Yes, sir," the chauffer replied. Then, to his retreating back, added, "Well done!"
A hand was raised in acknowledgment as El Irlandés joined his team-mates for a water break.
The young driver turned around to find the old man retrieving the small card from the floor. It had the Jockey Club's crest on it, and in elegant long hand said, "Tonight, nine o'clock."
Malaboca read the invitation wordlessly, and once he was done he read it again. What did you know? That cheeky Irish bastard.
The old man looked up.
The man in the black outfit was looking embarrassed, evidently gathering courage to say something. "If I were you, sir," he rushed at last, with an encouraging smile, "I'd get me some good clothes."
"Nonsense, son," Malaboca replied, putting the card into his pocket, "All I need is my good friends."
Massive A.N. Ahead (read at own risk)