Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, with a small fleet of ships from the British Navy, captured the port [of Porto Bello] in 1739 . . . Bonfires were lit in all the major cities to celebrate the victory . . . streets and districts were named after Vernon and Portobello. Whetlor and Bartlett, from Portobello
He ran, as so many others ran, the black anorak protecting him from the mist, the reflective patches on his trainers gleaming as he passed under the street lamps. The pattern of the streets was etched in his mind, a living map. Down Portobello, under the motorway, past Oxford Gardens, once the site of Portobello Farm, then back up Ladbroke Grove, past the video shop and the Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, then into Lansdown Road with its whitewashed Victorian austerity. He imagined that the street’s curve paralleled the track of the old racecourse that had crowned Notting Hill a hundred and fifty years ago; that his feet fell where the horses hooves had struck.
Now, Christmas lights twinkled in front gardens, promising a cheerful comfort he could not share. Other joggers passed him. He acknowledged them with a nod, a raised hand, but he knew there was no real kinship. They thought of their heart rates, of their dinners and their shopping, of home and children and the demands of the holiday on their bank accounts.
He ran, as the others ran, but his mind revolved in a rat’s wheel of old things, dark things, sores that did not heal. Nor would they, he knew, unless he took the cleansing upon himself: There would be no justice unless he made it.
There, the spire of St. John’s Church, rising disembodied above the mist-wreathed rooftops. The blood roared in his veins as he neared his destination; his breath came hard with the terror of it. But he could not turn away. All his life he had been moving towards this place, this night; this was who and what he was.
A woman with long, dark hair passed by him, her face in shadow. His heart quickened as it always did; it might have been his mother as he saw her in his dreams. Sometimes in his visions her hair twined round him, silken and cool, an elusive comfort. Every night he had brushed it with a silver-backed brush, and she had told him stories. Until she had been taken from him.
He ran, as the others ran, but he carried with him something they did not. History, and hatred, honed to a bright and blazing point.
Portobello took on a different character once the shops closed for the day, Alex Dunn decided as he turned into the road from the mews where he had his small flat. He paused for a moment, debating whether to go up the road to the Calzone’s at Notting Hill Gate for a celebratory pizza, but it wasn’t the sort of place one really wanted to go on one’s own. Instead, he turned to the right, down the hill, passing the shop fronts barred for the night and the closed gates of the cafErun by St. Peter’s Church. Bits of refuse littered the street from the day’s traffic, giving it a desolate air.
But tomorrow it would be different; by daybreak the stallholders would be set up for Saturday market, and in the arcades, dealers would sell everything from antique silver to Beatles memorabilia. Alex loved the early-morning anticipation, the smell of coffee and cigarettes in the arcade cafes, the sense that this might be the day to make the sale of a lifetime. As he might, he thought with a surge of excitement, because today he’d made the buy of his lifetime.
His step quickened as he turned into Elgin Crescent and saw the familiar facade of Otto’s Café at least that was how the regulars referred to the place; the faded sign read merely Café. Otto did a bustling daytime business in coffee, sandwiches, and pastries, but in the evening he provided simple meals much favored by the neighborhood residents.
Once inside, Alex brushed the moisture from his jacket and took a seat in the back at his favorite table favored because he liked the nearness of the gas fire. Unfortunately, the cafés furniture had not been designed to suit anyone over five feet tall. Surprising, really, when you looked at Otto, a giant of a man. Did he never sit in his own chairs? Alex couldn’t recall ever seeing him do so; Otto always seemed to hover, as he did now, wiping his brow with the hem of his apron, his bald head gleaming even in the dim light.
“Sit down, Otto, please,” Alex said, testing his hypothesis. “Take a break.”
Otto glanced towards Wesley, his second-in-command, serving the customers who had just come in, then flipped one of the delicate curve-backed chairs round and straddled it with unexpected grace.
“Nasty out, is it?” The café owner’s wide brow furrowed as he took in Alex’s damp state. Even though Otto had lived all of his adult life in London, his voice still carried an inflection of his native Russia.
“Can’t quite make up its mind to pour. What sort of warming things have you on the menu tonight?”
“Beef and barley soup; that and the lamb chops should do the trick.”
“Sold. And I’ll have a bottle of your best Burgundy. No plonk for me tonight.”
“Alex, my friend! Are you celebrating something?”
“You should have seen it, Otto. I’d run down to Sussex to see my aunt when I happened across an estate sale in the village. There was nothing worth a second look in the house itself; then, on the tables filled with bits of rubbish in the garage, I saw it.” Savoring the memory, Alex closed his eyes. “A blue-and-white porcelain bowl, dirt-encrusted, filled with garden trowels and bulb planters. It wasn’t even tagged. The woman in charge sold it to me for five pounds.”
“Not rubbish, I take it?” Otto asked, an amused expression on his round face.
Alex looked round and lowered his voice. “Seventeenth-century delft, Otto. That’s English delft, with a small ‘I’d rather than Dutch.’ I’d put it at around 1650. And underneath the dirt, not a chip or a crack to be found. It’s a bloody miracle, I’m telling you.”
It was the moment Alex had lived for since his aunt had taken him with her to a jumble sale on his tenth birthday. Spying a funny dish that looked as if someone had taken a bite out of its edge, he had been so taken with it that he’d spent all his birthday money on its purchase. His aunt Jane had contributed a book on porcelain, from which he’d learned that his find was an English delft barber’s bowl, probably early eighteenth-century Bristol ware. In his mind, Alex had seen all the hands and lives through which the bowl had passed, and in that instant he had been hooked.
The childhood passion had stayed with him through school, through university, through a brief tenure lecturing in art history at a small college. Then he had abandoned the steady salary for a much more precarious, and infinitely more interesting, life as a dealer in English porcelain.
“So, will this bowl make your fortune? If you can bear to part with it, that is,” Otto added with a twinkle born of long association with dealers.
Alex sighed. “Needs must, I’m afraid. And I have an idea who might be interested.”
Otto gazed at him for a moment with an expression Alex couldn’t quite fathom. “You’re thinking Karl Arrowood would want it.”
“It’s right up Arrowood’s alley, isn’t it? You know what Karl’s like; he won’t be able to resist.” Alex imagined the bowl elegantly displayed in the window of Arrowood Antiques, one more thing of beauty for Karl to possess, and the bitterness of his envy seeped into his soul.
“Alex?” Otto seemed to hesitate, then leaned closer, his dark eyes intent. “I do know what he’s like, perhaps more than you. You’ll forgive my interfering, but I’ve heard certain things about you and Karl’s young wife. You know what this place is like, his gesture took in more than the café, nothing stays secret for long. And I fear you do not realize what you’re dealing with. Karl Arrowood is a ruthless man. It doesn’t do to come between him and the things he owns.”
“But,” Alex felt himself flushing. “How?” But he knew it didn’t matter how, only that his affair with Dawn Arrowood had become common knowledge, and that he’d been a fool to think they could keep it hidden.
If the discovery of the delft barber’s bowl had been an epiphanic experience, so had been his first glimpse of Dawn, one day when he’d stopped by the shop to deliver a creamware dinner service.
Dawn had been helping the shop assistant with the window displays. At the sight of her, Alex had stood rooted to the pavement, transfixed. Never had he seen anything so beautiful, so perfect; and then she had met his eyes through the glass and smiled.
After that, she’d begun coming by his stall on Saturday mornings to chat. She’d been friendly rather than coy or flirtatious, and he’d immediately sensed her loneliness. His weeks began to revolve around the anticipation of her Saturday visits, but never had he expected more than that. And then one day she’d shown up unannounced at his flat. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” she’d said, ducking her head so that wisps of blond hair hid her eyes, but she had come inside, and now he couldn’t imagine his life without her.
“Does Karl know?” he asked Otto.
The other man shrugged. “I think you would know if he did. But you can be sure he will find out. And I would hate to lose a good customer. Alex, take my advice, please. She is lovely, but she is not worth your life.”
“This is England, for heaven’s sake, Otto! People don’t go round bumping people off because they’re narked about . . . well, you know.”
Otto stood and carefully reversed his chair. “I wouldn’t be so sure, my friend,” he replied before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Bollocks!” Alex muttered, resolved to slough off Otto’s warning, and he ate his dinner and drank his wine with determination.
His good humor somewhat restored, he walked slowly back to his flat, thinking of the other find he’d made that day, not a steal as the delft bowl had been, but a lovely acquisition just the same, an Art Deco teapot by the English potter Clarice Cliff in a pattern he had seen Dawn admire. It would be his Christmas gift to her, an emblem of their future together.
It was only as he reached the entrance to his mews that a more disturbing thought came to him. If Karl Arrowood learned the truth, was it his own safety which should concern him?
Bryony Poole waited until the door had closed behind the final client of the day, a woman whose cat had an infected ear, before she broached her idea to Gavin. Sitting down opposite him in the surgery’s narrow office cubicle, she shifted awkwardly, trying to find room for her long legs and booted feet. “Look, Gav, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
Her boss, a bullet-headed man with shoulders that strained the fabric of his white lab coat, looked up from the chart he was finishing. “That sounds rather ominous. Not leaving me for greener pastures, are you?”
“No, nothing like that.” Gavin Farley had taken Bryony on as his assistant in the small surgery just after her graduation from veterinary college two years ago, and she still considered herself lucky to have the job. Hesitantly, she continued. “It’s just, well, you know how many of the homeless people have dogs?”
“Is this a quiz?” he asked skeptically. “Or are you hitting me up for a donation to the RSPCA?”
From the Hardcover edition.