We were first introduced to Valentine Pescatore as a rookie Border Patrol agent in Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing, which the New York Times named its favorite debut crime novel of 2011. His hazardous stint in U.S. law enforcement behind him, Pescatore has started over as a private investigator in Buenos Aires, where, like anywhere, justice is a malleable concept, and one learns there are several sides to a story. Read the opening of the first chapter of The Convert’s Song below.
Chapter One: Cafetín de Buenos Aires
The whole mess started ten years later on a sunny fall day when Valentine Pescatore was feeling at home in Buenos Aires.
He got up and put on a warm-up suit. He took a quick cab ride on Libertador Avenue to the sports club in Palermo Park. At eight a.m., he had the red rubber track to himself. His breath steamed in the morning chill; May was November in Argentina. He was not as fast or strong as he had been while serving as a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Yet he was healthier than during those crazy days at the Line. He had lost the weight he’d acquired eating home-cooked Cuban meals while living in San Diego with Isabel Puente. Arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, fried plantains. Washed down with drama and heartbreak.
Leaving the club, he caught a whiff of horse smell on the river wind. A nearby compound of the Argentine federal police housed the stables of the mounted division. Facundo had told him the compound was also the headquarters of the police antiterrorism unit.
Pescatore reclined in the cab, invigorated by the run. The driver was a grandfatherly gent with well-tended white hair encircling his bald spot. His shoulders in the blue sweater-vest moved to the tango classic on the radio, “Cafetín de Buenos Aires” (“Little Café of Buenos Aires”). The cab stopped in front of Pescatore’s building on a side street as the song ended in a flourish of bandoneon and violins. It was an homage to a neighborhood café—the best thing in the singer’s life except his mother.
“That was great,” Pescatore said. “What was that last line? ‘In the café I learned philosophy, dice and . . . ’?”
The cabbie studied him over his spectacles. He recited crisply: “ ‘The cruel poetry of thinking of myself no more.’ ”
Pescatore took the elevator to the tenth floor. He had found the furnished rooftop apartment through Facundo Hyman Bassat, his boss. The landlord had described it as a penthouse. It was cobbled together from a converted maid’s quarters and a storage attic. The front door opened into the middle of a narrow hallway that led left to a galley kitchen and living-dining area. A bookshelf held his old collection of compact discs and his new collection of books. At the other end of the hall, a skylight in the low slanted ceiling made the bedroom less claustrophobic. Glass sliding doors opened onto a little balcony-patio.
Rain tended to flood the patio. The sun took no prisoners. The wind was noisy. There were bats. But the apartment was cozy. It got plenty of light. From the railing, you could see the river. Bottom line: he was living in a penthouse in La Recoleta, the swankest neighborhood in town.
Forty minutes later, he hit the street showered and shaved. He wore his Beretta in a shoulder holster under a brown leather jacket. He had let his curly hair grow longer than when he was in the Border Patrol, though he drew the line at slicking it back like the locals. If he didn’t talk much, people took him for a local. He preferred it that way.
He turned onto a tree-lined street where a hotel faced a shopping center. Ragged kids from the riverfront slum worked the taxi stand in front of the shopping center, jostling and begging and carrying bags. The high-pitched melodic whistle of a mouth harp echoed among high-rises: the call of the afilador, an itinerant Galician knife sharpener in a brimmed cap and blue smock who looked as if he had been pushing his cart for a century.
In the middle of the street, a paunchy police officer stopped traffic so a couple of lean ladies in short fur jackets could jaywalk. Two cops in boots and helmets stood smoking cigarettes near their motorcycle. They were in an anticrime tactical team. Pescatore had seen them zooming the wrong way down Callao Avenue with siren and lights blasting, the driver hunched like a human rocket, the rider with his shotgun at the ready.
The hotel and shopping center had security guards. The doormen of apartment buildings kept watch even on Sundays, which they spent in vertical trances listening to soccer games on earphones. But no one had seen anything on a recent night when a gang robbed the ritzy Italian restaurant next to the shopping center. The robbers were fit, efficient, their hair close-cropped; they barked commands as they relieved diners of valuables. The word on the street: the stickup artists were off-duty cops from the Bonaerense, the police force that patrolled the province of Buenos Aires, an expanse the size of France surrounding the capital. A wave of robberies downtown was part of an ancestral feud between the provincial police and the federal police, who patrolled the city.
The federal beat cop strode to the curb, his cap at a low jaunty angle. He and the motor cops exchanged greetings and kisses on the cheek. Pescatore made his way around them. He was an armed U.S. civilian on foreign soil. Despite the investigator credentials that Facundo had provided for him, despite the rule-breaking he saw at every turn, carrying a gun made him a bit nervous. And he wasn’t comfortable with all the kissing. Argentine men kissed each other with alarming frequency. It wasn’t some sissified European thing confined to actors and fashion designers. Kissing was a common form of greeting among waiters, garbagemen, bank tellers, soccer players, airport baggage handlers, and, yes, cops.
The hotel had marble columns, plush rugs, and a musty air. Pescatore went up to the suite of the American client. Dr. Block greeted him wearing a suit and tie. They sat in armchairs. Pescatore leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs, fingers interwoven. This was the most delicate assignment that Facundo had given him.
“You doing okay, Dr. Block? Jet-lagged? Want some coffee?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Pescatore,” Block responded in a weary monotone. “Just anxious to get this thing done with and go home.”
“Please, Doctor, call me Valentine.”
Block was a pediatrician from Miami. He had a shiny bald head, a white mustache, a gentleness that came from decades treating little kids. But his blue eyes behind his glasses seemed drained of light. He was the saddest man Pescatore had met in a long time. Block’s son had been an engineer married to a Brazilian woman. A public-works project took him to the Triple Border region where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. He got into a dispute with an Argentine investment partner: a lawsuit, allegations of embezzlement, death threats. During a visit to Paraguay, the younger Block was shot dead at the wheel in a car-to-car ambush.
The Paraguayans hadn’t done much of anything about it. Dr. Block hired Facundo, who ran a private investigation agency operating in the tri-border area and Buenos Aires. Facundo helped the FBI identify a hit man and track him to Buenos Aires, where the Argentine police arrested him. The evidence pointed at the former business partner as the shot-caller, but the investigation had stalled. Facundo had warned the U.S. embassy that the killer was likely to be released. Official options had been exhausted.
As Facundo’s operative in the capital, Pescatore had been instructed to carry out the unofficial option.
“Doctor, this is the situation,” he said. “Bottom line: The judge is gonna cut this guy loose. Unless he gets paid. The figure they named is forty thousand dollars. We recommend paying. It should keep the suspect in jail and get the investigation moving again.”
The doctor stared with his defeated eyes. “If I may ask: How did they arrive at that particular price?”
“We think he got thirty thousand from the other side.”
“Exactly. I feel terrible about it, but that’s the deal. We have an appointment with the judge this morning. If you approve.”
“I expected something like this. My in-laws and I agreed to spend what it takes. But Valentine, I don’t have forty thousand dollars on me.”
“Don’t you worry about that, Doctor,” Pescatore said. “Long as you got your checkbook, we’re fine.”