Read an Excerpt
By Julián Sánchez
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Julián Sánchez
All rights reserved.
Barcelona lay radiant beneath a beautiful April sky. The sun warmed the air with zeal, as if in retaliation for the unusual harshness of the previous winter. Crowds of people strolled the streets, anxious to put the rainy days behind them. The added hum in the air signaled the anticipation typical of the twenty-second of April, the eve of Sant Jordi's Day.
On La Palla Street, a narrow alley that begins alongside Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol and Plaça del Pi, to end in Plaça de la Catedral—the traditional hub of antiques dealers—a man shuffled a number of books around on the worktable in his shop. He was an older man, somewhere in his sixties, though he looked much younger at first glance. Slim, and of medium height, he wore a simple, dark blue suit that was slightly outdated and showing wear. His white, neatly combed hair and slender physique gave him a somewhat ethereal quality, which was heightened by movements that, though brief, revealed an agility surprising in someone his age.
His blue eyes, behind thin-rimmed metal eyeglasses, stood out on a face marked by a splay of clear-cut wrinkles spanning out from the corners of his lips and eyelids. His gaze was imbued with a lively energy. It hinted at the power of concentration possessed by a man passionate for his work; a man who, sealed away in his passion, was perfectly able to withstand any distraction to finish his task. The glasses perched on a nose so unique it defined the man's entire demeanor all on its own. The bone had been sunken by some long-forgotten blow. The nose itself, crooked like those of boxers in 1950s Hollywood movies, appeared solid and steadfast, and at odds with the intellectual activity inherent in the owner's current occupation.
His slender hands, with their long fingers and well-kept nails, gently handled the old books and delicate manuscripts as he arranged them on the table. One finger bore a heavy gold ring—an antique engraved with a gothic A, the seal and symbol for generations of the House of Aiguader. It was now being worn by its last descendant, Artur Aiguader, bookseller and antiquarian.
The table where Artur was sorting the old tomes of his recently purchased lot stood in a room that functioned as a study. His shop was one of the largest in the antiques community, to which he had belonged for some forty years, and consisted of three areas.
A large room served as the shop and housed a jumble of furniture, sculptures, paintings, books, and a miscellany of objects, all thrown together in no apparent order. Nevertheless, it proved irresistible to passers-by, who stopped to admire the establishment from the street. The ever-present fresh fruit and cut flowers embellished the rich décor, and the aroma of incense and sandalwood burning in a small brazier gave the finishing touch.
The second room was Artur's personal study, where he busied himself with classification and research. The antiquarian was a self-taught philologist and historian. He would study anything that stirred his interest, though his preference ran to subjects related with the history of a city. In truth, he often decided what to acquire more by his own taste than the real needs of a business that had already given him more than enough to live on.
The study was in a loft at the end of the room. The space was arranged so that Aiguader could keep an eye on the shop from there. The walls of the study were covered with shelves packed with books of all kinds, most of them old. Next to the picture window, from which he could watch the entire room, Artur sat before a beautiful eighteenth-century walnut writing desk decorated with marquetry and inlaid bronze. A large worktable like the kind architects use, stacked with books and manuscripts, took up most of the room. Between the table and the desk, a slender cherrywood table and three beautiful Spanish armchairs made of old leather completed the simple arrangement of his personal study.
The third room was actually a large storeroom accessed from Pi Street. A massive wooden door separated it from the shop. This was where Artur and his old friend and colleague, Samuel Horowitz, kept the lots acquired before classifying and repairing them. They also used it as temporary storage for restored pieces that were awaiting shipment to the homes of their buyers or exposition in the shop. It was a vast warehouse, with perhaps four thousand square feet of space. If the tangle of furniture and myriad objects in the shop was surprising, that of the storeroom was simply overwhelming. Just as the study and shop reflected the delicacy inherent to Artur's tastes, the warehouse was nothing if not functional, and it bore the signs of its age: the smell of damp and a certain mustiness, both blended with the scent found in places where cats roam free, and these coexisted with the odors of chemical products and the fragrances of wax polish for wood.
Artur was studying a manuscript when someone knocked on the shop door. He pushed his glasses up his nose far enough to see who it was and pressed the button that unlocked the door, causing a loud metallic click. A man getting on in years entered the shop. Tall, heavily built, and completely bald, he had thick lips, though they were not at all sensual, and dark eyes, framed by long lashes and heavy brows. His dress was casual, but unabashedly refined. He walked to the center of the room and stopped. His gait had a peculiarity that was barely detectable. Something in it reminded Artur of the caution and tension of a cat; he walked as if expecting a surprise that would make himjump at any second. The man put his hands on his hips and waited silently next to a marble altar.
The antiquarian rose with an exaggerated sluggishness, perhaps the result of fatigue accumulated over a long week of work. He walked to the stairs without looking down at the lower floor. He stopped. His visitor remained silent.
"Well?" asked Artur.
"Well, what? I am still waiting." The visitor spoke in a strange, vaguely guttural accent. His s's were softened and drawn out.
"This is not the time or place. I was working."
"Working on something interesting, of course—interesting enough for you to forget what really concerns us."
"Yes, that's right, something interesting. I've acquired some old papers that belonged to a Catalan bourgeois family, the Berguéses," answered Artur in a clear attempt to divert the conversation. "They look promising. I've come upon a couple of manuscripts that may be quite valuable. And that's not all—"
"Oh, I am sure. I am sure." The man cut him off with undisguised sarcasm. "I am sure they're just the thing to make you forget the last 'piece' I handed over to you."
"It'd be better if you came back later, after I've closed," answered the antiquarian, whose patience seemed to be running out.
"It would be better this, it would better that, it would be better the other way," scoffed the man. "Yes. You have always been good at giving orders: 'Do this, do that, go up, go down, leave, then come back.'" His z's and s's were stretching into the words that followed. "But maybe I am sick of all these orders wrapped inside suggestions. Now I want action."
"French, I'm telling you that now is not the time."
"Enough bullshit! I have earned the money! And you know I really need it. Maybe I could wait under other circumstances, but I have my own problems to solve. I did my part: two months preparing, a detailed plan, a discreet operation—not to mention the complexity of the place—difficult transport, keeping the others quiet. Now it's your turn!"
Artur came down the stairs, alarmed by his visitor's shouting, wanting to calm him down any way he could. He stood on the other side of the altar, facing the man, and spoke with deliberate slowness.
"Listen, French, let me talk. You and I agree. The piece is very good; the best we've had in years. But you know as well as I do that the market is saturated and the crisis is taking its toll on all of us, rich and poor. The buyer withdrew after he placed the order, even though he knew it meant losing his deposit. The transaction had been completed. I covered your expenses and gave you everything that was left over as indemnity, as per the terms. I made no profit whatsoever. What more can I do? I need time to get a feel for the market before I offer such pieces. Not everyone can reach that deeply into their pockets. I mean, I don't know how much we're talking about in euros, but fifty million pesetas—"
"Blah, blah, blah! Excuses! You talk and talk. Do not try to play me. I did my part, as I always have. You cannot deny me my money. I earned it fair and square. Plus I am sure you spend more time buried in your damn books than you do looking for a buyer."
"I can't give you what I don't have," responded Artur, his forbearance beginning to fray.
"Then let me settle it!" retorted the Frenchman. A perverse smile revealed his broad eyeteeth. "Give me the name of the person who ordered it. I'll convince him soon enough to pay me. He'll be quick to accept my terms!"
Artur refused, shaking his head. It was the first time he had seen the Frenchman lose his temper.
"Are you listening to yourself? That's impossible! There are rules to abide by. Clients' names are secret. Only I can know them. The only way for this business to work is to uphold privacy. Break the rules and we're finished—not just the two of us, but the entire profession. Give you the name? You must be out of your mind!"
"Merde alors!" The man pounded the altar with his fist. "You have to fix this. You come up with the money."
Artur weighed the proposal. He might be able to put the amount together. And sooner or later the piece would go onto the market. A medieval altarpiece worshipped as fervently by the locals as it was neglected by the church and institutions, which had practically left the historic work of art to rot in the sun. Now it was hidden away, its whereabouts known only to Artur and the Frenchman. It was completely safe, and the process necessary to restore the worm-eaten wood was already underway, with the full guarantee that its retouched polychromy would last another seven hundred years. It was so captivating. He was tempted to give in, above all to keep enjoying its presence for himself, savoring the details, appreciating the quality, simplicity, and balance of the piece as a whole. But that was impossible; work and pleasure could never mix, and giving in now could take him to a point of no return.
"That was not the deal. We've been in this together for twenty years, and we've never—I repeat, never—had a problem like this. Be patient. It won't take me long to find a buyer—a couple of months, if we're lucky." The Frenchman's look turned aggressive. "If you need, I could lend you some money. Enough for you to make ends meet—"
"That is not it!" the Frenchman shouted. "I need all the money. I did my part. Now you do yours."
"I can't. This profession entails certain risks, which you know perfectly well."
The Frenchman nervously paced in a circle on the shop floor, frowning, while Artur, awaiting an answer, leaned forward with his palms down on the altar.
The Frenchman came to a sudden decision. "This conversation is over," he said, now standing next to the door. He leveled an index finger at Artur. "I want the money Monday morning, just like standard procedure. If you do not have it, prepare for the consequences."
"That sounds like a threat," responded Artur, unperturbed. "You don't frighten me. And come Monday, I won't be giving you any money."
"You heard me: if not, prepare for the consequences." The man smiled and closed the shop door with an unexpected delicateness.
Alone again, the antiquarian took a deep breath. Tiny beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead, and he felt his heart, calm until then, pounding faster now. He was back in his element, surrounded by the things he knew and loved. The episode, which had disrupted the order in his private universe, had ended on a slightly unpleasant note, but he wanted to believe it was not unexpected. In his private life, the Frenchman moved on impulse, and every now and then, he lost the composure he relied on in his irregular profession. In any event, a brusque intrusion like that in Artur's shop, during business hours, was terribly dangerous, and incompatible with the precautions to be taken by a man like him. There could be no doubt: the passage of time did nothing to benefit the mental equilibrium of the top purveyor of stolen Spanish art.
Artur was not sure whether to mention what had happened to Samuel, his closest friend and confidant, with whom he had shared so many adventures, or to wait until Monday. Although the Frenchman did not intimidate him, Artur's hand trembled ever so slightly as he brought a snifter of aged brandy to his lips. He was sure the Frenchman would never try anything against him. Or was that a mere morsel of solace to soothe him while he tried to push the problem out of mind? The two had argued bitterly in the past, but the disputes were usually over in a matter of days, or even hours. No one in their right mind would do anything to kill, or even scare, the goose that laid the golden eggs. Artur knew that arguments came with the territory in this business, and the bigger the job, the louder the quarrel. Yet everyone had too much at stake for the hostilities to last long. So he decided to forget the threats and return to his work.
He sat down at his desk, determined to get back into his routine. Some of the documents in the most recent lot had turned out to be fascinating, and he harbored no doubts as to their historical value, beyond the mere business considerations of his profession. He eagerly burrowed back into the piles on his table, surrounded by sheaves that were sometimes indecipherable, but always precious and, in their way, comforting. They could, by themselves, reinstate the order taken from the uncertain world in which Artur had to live. That let him forget all about the ugly scene he had just played a part in.
Engrossed in his work, time passed him by. The doorbell brought him back to the real world. After a cursory glance, he pressed the entry button, and three men came into the shop in the midst of a lively conversation. Artur was surprised to see the time on his pocket watch: six hours had passed since he began classifying the Casadevall book collection after having been interrupted by the Frenchman. Since then he hadn't felt so much as a hunger pang. He got up, walked to the top of the stairs and invited the newcomers up to the study.
"Come up, come up. I'm sorry I don't have the coffee on. I was working and I didn't notice the time; in fact, I haven't even had lunch."
The three men walked across the shop, toward the stairway. One was young, thirty at the most, with close-cropped blond hair. His round eyeglasses gave him the unmistakable air of an intellectual, confirmed by his ponderous gestures and an obvious shyness. His attire was simple and his face a faithful reflection of his personality: slightly round, with rosy cheeks and thin lips. He had an aquiline nose and broad forehead that hinted at oncoming baldness. His was a circumspect face that would never attract attention to itself, perhaps more for the owner's wish to go unnoticed than anything else.
The second visitor appeared to be Artur's age. Completely bald, his face, furrowed by countless wrinkles, was reminiscent of a topographic map. He had one of those identifying features that marked a person for life: one of his eyes was dark, nearly black, and the other a pale yellowish-green, an almost honey-like color. He was wearing a dour gray, flannel suit that matched the severity of his appearance. He carried an ivory walking stick with a bronze handle in the form of a dragon's head. He used the cane more to consummate his image as a dandy than out of any real necessity.
The last of the group was middle-aged, in his early forties, and dressed with sublime exquisiteness. He was tall, with jet-black hair that he wore combed back with gel. His lips were thin but endowed with a refined sensuality. He had green eyes and a nose of perfect dimensions. Dressed in an immaculate blue wool suit and a stylish white shirt, he wore a garnet ascot under his chin and black, monk-strap shoes. He was a man fully cognizant of how attractive he was, inside and out: a seducer. His voice carried the three men's conversation, and of course, he was the first to speak.
Excerpted from The Antiquarian by Julián Sánchez. Copyright © 2009 Julián Sánchez. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.