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From Tomás Nevinson, which will be published this month by Knopf. Translated from the Spanish.

I still didn’t have all the facts—I was waiting for the full reports, which would be given to me just before my departure—but I had been told that two of the three women were married; the other appeared to be single, but she might be divorced or widowed—at any rate she lived alone.

I did not intend to win any of their hearts if I could avoid it, still less screw them. Besides, that wasn’t an easy route to take, certainly not any longer. It wasn’t only that, since my retirement, I was very out of practice in that area—the mere idea of it filled me with sloth. Arranging to meet, making yourself more or less attractive, getting all dressed up, going out and having long conversations, subtly—ambiguously—chatting the woman up, taking an interest in the life and opinions of that complete stranger, paying close attention and listening patiently, memorizing everything you’re told—a form of adulation—as if you were drinking in the teachings of a master; being gallant without going to ridiculous extremes, making a pass without appearing salacious or needy or unctuous or aggressive, gauging their reaction to any apparently casual or naturally occurring touch, an affectionate hand on the shoulder, a protective hand on the waist when crossing the street, the closeness of my thigh to hers in a cinema or at a concert or in a taxi . . . it made me tired just to think of it. Not to mention the prospect of kissing and fondling and feeling her up (assuming she was wearing an encouraging, facilitative skirt), unzipping zippers and unbuttoning buttons and panting and looking passionate and getting undressed, even if only half-undressed, and pressing yourself to another person’s flesh in a flattering manner, possibly putting on a fervor straight out of some willfully fervid novel or a desperation and an urgency copied from the most idiotic and mendacious of films. And don’t even mention the possibility of spending the night in someone else’s bedroom or accommodating someone in my own bed, getting up in the morning with that someone and having breakfast in their rather crumpled company; in the clear light of day the previous night’s excitement tends to be seen as a mistake, sheer recklessness, folly, at least after a certain age.

If I found myself forced to follow the muddy path of sentiment and sex or just plain sex with either of the married women, I would first have to overcome the initial resistance put up by any married woman (a resistance more mental than physical, the physical is purely mechanical and the postcoital shower washes away all traces) about deceiving her husband and making a space in her daily life for a new individual, a tedious, supplementary chore. Unless she was already in the habit of cheating on him and considered it of no importance, or unless cracks had long been appearing in their marriage and she was just waiting for an opportunity to plant a small bomb to bring it crashing to the ground.

I was hoping that none of them would take me seriously or see me as a substitute. Of course if that did happen, I had considerable experience with arranging brutal deceptions and disappearing with no explanation, and of placing those lovers in the hands of the law or of the comrades they had betrayed, the latter usually being the worst of the two options as far as the women were concerned. I had occasionally felt pity for them, but not a paralyzing pity: what happened to them next was neither my business nor my fault. They had chosen to help the people they were helping or hide the people they were hiding, or serve the cause they were serving and to dedicate themselves to whatever they were dedicated to, although they had sometimes been duped or hypnotized into doing so, as had many inexperienced men. The woman I was charged with uncovering and identifying in that town in the northwest, whichever one of the three she turned out to be, had been responsible for massacres and should pay for that. Or if not “should,” it would be appropriate that she did. Or if not “appropriate,” since she no longer presented any danger and had turned around her unhappy life, it would be best to interrupt that life just in case, and because we were by our nature avengers. If we weren’t, who would be, in this forgetful world?

We were the archive, the record, the ones who never forgot what everyone else forgets out of weariness, or so as not to wallow in bitterness. This made us—with all our human, mortal limitations—rather like the God of all those past centuries of belief, or should that be credulity: the God who retained and stored away everything in his motley, moveless time, in which nothing was new or old, remote or recent. For us, what happened ten years ago is yesterday or even today, and is happening right now. This is how that God—now outmoded, but very much a force to be reckoned with for most of recorded history—must have regarded everything. That’s why he forgave nothing, for that really wasn’t in his remit, for in his eyes no crime has an expiration date or grows less heinous, they are all simultaneous, and all persist.

There was, though, another motive behind my decision to return to active service, to accept this mission: the only way to avoid questioning the usefulness of what you have done in the past is to keep doing the same thing; the only justification for a murky, muddy existence is to continue to muddy it; the only justification for a long-suffering life is to perpetuate that suffering, to tend it and nourish it and complain about it, just as a life of crime is only sustainable if you persevere as a criminal, if villains persist in their villainy and do harm right left and center, first to some and then to others until no one is left untouched.

Terrorist organizations cannot give in voluntarily, because if they do, an abyss opens up before them, they see themselves retrospectively and are horrified by their annulment, and therefore their ruin. The serial killer keeps adding to his series of murders because that’s the only way he can avoid looking back to the days when he was still innocent and without stain, the only way he can have meaning. To do otherwise would be to reach Lady Macbeth’s horrified realization, something almost no one is willing to do, for it requires great integrity, a quality that has vanished from the world: “Nought’s had, all’s spent.” In other words: “We have done infamous deeds and gained nothing.”

That, in our own way, was a feeling we shared with all of them. For me, it had been unbearable to go back to work in the embassy as I had before, even though I concealed this and pretended to be quite happy or grateful and contented; as if nothing had happened in between and I had never moved from there, and my years of absence and isolation and apparent death had never existed either, the years dedicated to stopping misfortunes of which no one knew, given that I averted many of them and they never happened, and what never happens is lost like a ship in a fog from which it never emerges.

On the other hand, I did know what I’d done to avert those misfortunes, so that they would not be inflicted on the very citizens who want nothing to do with us and who disapprove of us without even knowing who we are. They assume that we exist and that we have a duty to shield them from dangers and save them from the atrocities committed by those stalking the Realm, eager to destroy it at whatever cost. And yet they refuse to find out more about how we work, because they sense they would feel obliged to condemn our methods and be shocked by them, people demand security but are unwilling to sully themselves, not even with the knowledge of what we do. If we fail, we’re guilty of ineptitude or negligence; if we succeed, we’re guilty of brutality or murder, when, by chance or by mistake, it becomes known that we succeeded, something that is always best kept under wraps. Then those same citizens complain to high heaven and reproach us for not having been more humane and gentle to the individuals who, if they’d had their way, would have lined them all up and chopped off their heads one by one, or had the whole lot of them blown to pieces.

I had done things that were very unpleasant, indeed repugnant in the eyes of my victims; I had behaved hypocritically, I had won someone’s trust only to betray that trust, I had endangered those who had given me their affection and even a kind of hasty, reckless love; I had sent them to prison to serve long sentences or perhaps sent them to their deaths, and I had killed two men with my own hands. That’s a brief summary. In war there’s no room for regrets.

And yet, when I stop to think, I recall faces and conversations, glasses clinking, people singing, ingenuous smiles and looks and friendly words, slaps on the back and caresses I did not deserve. And the occasional naked body which, believing it was embracing one of its own—a hero in the making—was actually embracing the person who would bring about its future perdition. And little by little, you start to ask if it was all necessary, every action, every promise, every half-truth and every deceit, and the torment begins to eat away at you and overwhelm you. You wake in the middle of the night in a cold, guilt-ridden sweat, assailed by terrible feelings of remorse, caught in the spider’s web of what you have done and for which there is no remedy. The only escape is to go back to your old self and do what you used to do, to reoffend and continue fighting real but insignificant enemies, who are the incarnation of the abstract enemy, who will destroy you if you don’t get in first and punish him. And at that moment, you understand that, once you’ve started, once you’ve taken the first twisted step, you have no alternative but to continue along that twisted path and take another twisted turning.

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December 2010

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