XIII The Seventh Seal
In the fiery gap he had seen
something unbearably awesome,
the full horror of the abysmal depths
“Naturally,” Paco Montegrifo said, “this regrettable incident will not affect our agreement.”
“There’s no need to thank me. We know you had nothing to do with what happened.”
The director of Claymore’s had gone to visit Julia at the workshop in the Prado, taking advantage, he said when he turned up there unexpectedly, of an interview with the director of the museum with a view to their buying a Zurbaran commended to his company. He’d found her in the middle of injecting an adhesive made from glue and honey into an area of incipient flaking on a triptych attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna. Julia, who was not in a position to stop what she was doing, greeted Montegrifo with a hurried nod of her head while she pressed the plunger of the syringe to inject the mixture. The auctioneer seemed delighted to have surprised her in flagrante – as he said, at the same time bestowing on her his most brilliant smile. He’d sat down on one of the tables to watch her.
Julia felt uncomfortable and did her best to finish what she was doing quickly. She protected the treated area with water-repellent paper and placed a bag filled with sand on top, taking care to mould it carefully to the surface of the painting.
“A marvellous piece of work,” said Montegrifo, indicating the painting. “About 1300, isn’t it? The Master Buoninsegna, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That’s right. The museum acquired it a few months ago.” Julia looked critically at the results of her labours. “I’ve had some problems with the gold leaf along the edge of the Virgin’s cloak. In some places it’s been lost completely.”
Montegrifo leaned over the triptych, studying it with a professional eye.
“It’s still a magnificent effort,” he said when he’d finished examining it. “Like all your work.”
The auctioneer gave her a look of deepest sympathy.
“Although, naturally,” he said, “there’s no comparison with our dear Flanders panel.”
“Of course not. With all due respect to the Duccio.”
They both smiled. Montegrifo tugged at his immaculate shirt cuffs to ensure that the required inch was showing below the sleeves of his navy blue double-breasted jacket, enough to reveal the gold cuff links bearing his initials. He was wearing a pair of impeccable grey trousers and, despite the rainy weather, his black Italian shoes gleamed.
“Do you have any news of the Van Huys?” Julia asked.
The auctioneer adopted an expression of elegant melancholy.
“Alas, no.” Although the floor was strewn with sawdust, paper and splashes of paint, he made a point of dropping the ash from his cigarette in the ashtray. “But we’re in contact with the police. The Belmonte family have put me in charge of all negotiations.” The look on his face was one that managed simultaneously to praise the owners’ good sense in doing so and regret that they had not done so before. “The paradoxical thing, Julia, is that if The Game of Chess ever does turn up, this whole unfortunate series of events will send the price sky high.”
“I’m sure it will. But, as you said, that’s if it ever does turn up.”
“You don’t seem very optimistic.”
“After what I’ve been through the last few days, I don’t really have much reason to be.”
“I understand. But I have faith in the police investigation. Or in luck.
And if we do manage to recover the painting and put it up for auction, I can assure you it will be a real event.“ He smiled as if he had a marvellous present for her in his pocket. ”Have you read Art and Antiques? They’ve dedicated five colour pages to the story. We’ve had endless phone calls from specialist journalists. And the Financial Times is doing an article on it next week. By the way, some of those journalists asked to be put in touch with you.“
“I don’t want any interviews.”
“That’s a shame, if you don’t mind my saying so. Your reputation is your livelihood. Publicity can only increase your professional standing.”
“Not that kind of publicity. After all, the painting was stolen from my apartment.”
“We’re trying to gloss over that fact. You’re not to blame, and the police report leaves no doubt about that. Everything points to your friend’s boyfriend having handed over the painting to an unknown accomplice. That’s their main line of enquiry. I’m sure it will turn up. It wouldn’t be easy to export a painting as famous as the Van Huys illegally. At least, not in theory.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident. That’s what I call being a good loser. Good sportsmanship, I think they call it. I’d have thought that the theft would have been a real blow to your company.”
Montegrifo put on a pained expression. Doubt is most hurtful, his eyes seemed to say.
“As indeed it is,” he replied, looking at Julia as if she’d done him an injustice. “In fact I had a lot of explaining to do at our head office in London. But such problems are always cropping up in this business. Still, it’s an ill wind… Our branch in New York has discovered another Van Huys: The Money Changer of Louvain.”
“The word ‘discovered’ strikes me as a bit excessive. It’s a well-known painting, it’s been catalogued. It belongs to a private collector.”
“You’re well-informed, I see. What I meant to say is that we’re in negotiations with the owner. He considers that now is the moment to get a good price for his painting. My colleagues in New York have managed to get in before our competitors.”
“I thought we might celebrate.” He looked at the Rolex on his wrist. “It’s almost seven o’clock now, so how about coming out to supper with me? We need to discuss your future work with us. There’s a polychrome statue of San Miguel, seventeenth-century Indo-Portuguese, that I’d like you to have a look at.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’m still rather upset. My friend’s death, the matter of the painting… I wouldn’t be very good company tonight.”
“As you wish.” Montegrifo took her refusal with resigned gallantry and without losing his smile. “If you like, I’ll phone you early next week. Would Monday be all right?”
“Fine.” Julia held out a hand and he clasped it gently. “Thanks for dropping in.”
“It’s always a pleasure to see you, Julia. If you need anything” – he gave her a long look, full of meanings she couldn’t quite decipher -“and I mean anything, whatever it might be, don’t hesitate to call me.”
He left, turning at the door to give her one last, brilliant smile. Julia spent another half hour on the Buoninsegna before putting away her things. Munoz and Cesar had insisted that she not go home for a few days, and Cesar had again offered her his house; but Julia had remained steadfast, simply changing the security lock. Stubborn and immovable, as Cesar had described her with some annoyance during one of his many phone calls to check that everything was all right. As for Munoz, Julia knew, because Cesar had let it slip, that both of them had spent the night after the murder keeping watch near her building, numb from the cold, with only a thermos of coffee and a flask of brandy (which Cesar had had the foresight to bring with him) for company. Swaddled in overcoats and scarves, they consolidated the odd friendship which, by force of circumstance, these two very different personalities had struck up around Julia. When she found out, she forbade them to repeat the episode, promising in exchange that she wouldn’t open the door to anyone and that she would go to sleep with the derringer underneath her pillow.
She saw the gun when she was putting her things in her bag and she brushed the cold chrome-plated metal with the tips of her fingers. It was the fourth day since Menchu’s death with no cards or phone calls. Perhaps, she said to herself without conviction, the nightmare has ended. She draped a linen cloth over the Buoninsegna, hung her overalls in a cupboard and put on her raincoat. The watch on the inside of her left wrist said it was quarter to eight. She was just going to put out the light when the phone rang.
She put the receiver down and stood holding her breath, suppressing the desire to run as far away as possible. A shiver, a breath of icy air down her spine, made her tremble violently, and she had to lean on the table to recover. She couldn’t take her eyes off the phone. The voice she’d just heard was unrecognisable, asexual, like the voice ventriloquists give to their creepy articulated dummies. A voice with shrill notes in it that had pricked her skin with a stab of blind terror.
“Room 12, Julia.” Silence and muffled breathing, perhaps because a handkerchief was covering the mouthpiece. “Room 12,” the voice had said again. “Brueghel the Elder,” it added after another silence. There was a short, dry, sinister laugh and the click of the phone being put down.
She tried to put her scattered thoughts in order and not let panic take over. Cesar had told her once that when ducks were flushed out by beaters for the benefit of hunters’ rifles, it was the frightened ones who were always the first to fall. Cesar. She picked up the phone and dialled his shop and then his home number, but got no answer. She had no success with Munoz either. She would have to fend for herself, and she trembled at the thought.
She took the derringer out of her bag and cocked it. At least that way, she thought, she could be as dangerous as the next person. Again the words Cesar had spoken to her as a child surfaced. There are exactly the same things in a room at night as there are in the daytime; it’s just that you can’t see them.
Pistol in hand, she went out into the corridor. At that hour the building was deserted apart from the security guards making their rounds, but she didn’t know where to find them. She had to go down three flights of stairs which formed a sharp angle with a broad landing on each floor. Lights cast a bluish penumbra there, in which could be made out dark paintings, the marble banister and busts of Roman patricians watching from their niches.
She took off her shoes and put them in her bag. The chill from the floor seeped through the soles of her feet and into her body. This night’s adventure might end up giving her a monumental head cold. She stopped now and then to peer over the banister, though without seeing or hearing anything suspicious. At the bottom she had to make a choice. One route, through several rooms set up as restoration workshops, would lead her to a security door through which, using her electronic card, she could get out to the street near Puerta Murillo. The other route, at the end of a narrow corridor, would take her to a door that led into the museum itself. It was usually closed but never locked before ten o’clock at night, when the guards made their final inspection of the annex.
She stood at the bottom of the stairs, the gun in her hand, considering the two possibilities. She could either get out as fast as possible or find out what was going on in Room 12. The second option would involve an unpleasant trek of six or seven minutes through the deserted building. Unless, on the way, she was lucky enough to meet the guard in charge of that wing, a young man who, whenever he found Julia working in the studio, would buy her coffee from the vending machine and joke about what nice legs she had, assuring her that they were the main attraction at the museum.
What the hell, she said to herself, after all, she had once killed pirates. If the murderer was there, it was a good opportunity, perhaps the only one, to meet him face to face. She, being a sensible duck, was watching out of the corner of her eye; meanwhile in her right hand she held eighteen ounces of chrome metal, mother-of-pearl and lead which, when fired at a short distance, could easily reverse the roles in this unusual hunting trip.
Flaring her nostrils as if trying to sniff out the direction danger might come from, she gritted her teeth and called up in her aid all the rage contained in her memories of Alvaro and Menchu, and the decision not to be just a frightened pawn on a chessboard, but someone quite capable, given the opportunity, of demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If he, whoever he was, wanted to find her, then he would, be it in Room 12 or in hell.
She went through the inner door, which, as expected, was unlocked. The security guard must have been far away, for the silence was absolute. She walked down an aisle of disquieting shadows cast by marble statues, who watched her pass with blank, motionless eyes, and continued through the room containing medieval retables, of which, amongst the dark shadows they made on the walls, she could make out only the occasional dull gleam of the gilt and gold leaf backgrounds. To the left, at the end of that long aisle, she saw the small staircase that led to the rooms containing early Flemish paintings, amongst them Room 12.
She paused on the first step, peering with extreme caution into the dark. The ceiling was lower there, and the security light allowed a better view of the details. In the blue penumbra, the colours of the paintings had turned to monochrome. She could make out Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, almost unrecognisable in the shadows. In the unreal darkness it took on an air of sinister grandeur, revealing only its palest colours, the figure of Christ and the face of his mother, fainting, her fallen arm parallel with the dead arm of her son.
There was no one there, apart from the people in the paintings, and most of them, hidden in the dark, seemed locked in a long sleep. Distrusting the apparent calm, troubled by the presence of so many images created by the hands of men who had all died hundreds of years ago, images that seemed to be watching her from their old frames on the walls, Julia reached the door leading into Room 12. Her throat was dry but she could not swallow. She glanced over her shoulder again but could see nothing suspicious. Conscious of the knot of tension in her jaw muscles, she took a deep breath before going into the room as she’d seen people in films do: grasping the gun in both hands, pointing into the shadows, her finger on the trigger.
There was no one there, and Julia felt an immense, intoxicating sense of relief. The first thing she saw, its colours muted by the shadows, was the dazzling nightmare of Bosch’s The Garden of Delights, which took up most of one wall. She leaned against the opposite wall, her breath blurring the glass protecting Durer’s self-portrait. With the back of her hand she wiped away the sweat from her forehead before going over to the wall at the far end of the room. As she walked, the shapes and the lighter tones of Brueghel’s painting began to emerge. That painting had always held a peculiar fascination for her. The tragic tone that informed every brush stroke, the eloquence of the innumerable figures shaken by the mortal, inexorable breath, the many scenes that made up the macabre whole, had for many years stirred her imagination. The feeble blue light from the ceiling illuminated the skeletons bursting in hordes from the bowels of the earth, in a vengeful, all-destroying wind; the distant fires silhouetting the black ruins on the horizon; the wheels of Tantalus in the distance, spinning atop their poles, next to the skeleton who stands with sword raised, about to bring it down on the neck of the blindfolded prisoner kneeling in prayer; in the foreground, the king surprised in the middle of the feast, the lovers oblivious even at the final hour, the smiling skeleton beating the drums of Judgment Day; and the knight who, trembling with terror, still has courage enough to make one last gesture of valour and rebellion, and unsheathes his sword, ready to fight for his life in one last hopeless battle.
The card was there, stuck in the frame just above the gilt plate on which, Julia knew, were the four sinister words that form the title of the painting: The Triumph of Death.
When she reached the street, it was pouring with rain. The light from the Isabelline street lamps lit up the curtains of water that burst in torrents out of the darkness and beat on the paving stones. The puddles were spattered by fat drops of rain, splintering the reflections of the city into a furious coming and going of lights and shadows.
Julia lifted her face to the rain and let it run freely over her hair and face. Her cheekbones and lips grew taut in the cold and her wet hair clung to her face. She buttoned her raincoat at the neck and walked between the hedges and stone benches indifferent to the rain and the dampness invading her shoes. The images in the Brueghel painting were still engraved on her retina; the terrifying medieval tragedy still danced before her eyes. And in it, amongst the men and women submerged by the avalanche of avenging skeletons exploding out of the earth, she could clearly see the characters from the other picture: Roger de Arras, Ferdinand Altenhoffen, Beatrice of Burgundy. In the middle distance, she could even see the lowered head and resigned face of old Pieter Van Huys. Everything came together in that one definitive scene, where, regardless of how the dice fell, the last dice thrown on the card table of the Earth, beauty and ugliness, love and hatred, good and evil, hard work and profligacy would all meet their end. Julia had also seen herself in the mirror, which reproduced with pitiless clarity the breaking of the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse. She was the young woman with her back to the scene, absorbed in her daydreams, mesmerised by the music played on a lute by a grinning skeleton. In that sombre landscape there was no room now for pirates and hidden treasure, all the Wendys were being dragged away, kicking and screaming, by the legion of skeletons; Cinderella and Snow White, their eyes wide with terror, could smell the sulphur, and the little tin soldier, Roger de Arras, like St George without his dragon, stood with his sword half out of its sheath, unable to help them now. He had enough to do lunging vainly into the void, a mere point of honour, before joining hands, like everyone else, with the fleshless hands of Death, who was drawing them all in to join his macabre dance.
The headlights of a car lit up a telephone booth. Julia scrabbled for some coins in her bag, moving as if in a dream. Mechanically, her drenched hair dripping into the earpiece, she dialled the numbers of Cesar and Munoz without getting a reply. She leaned her head against the glass and placed between her lips, numb with cold, a damp cigarette. Standing with her eyes closed, she let the smoke curl about her until the tip began to burn the skin between her fingers and she dropped it. As the rain beat down monotonously, she knew, with a disconsolate feeling of infinite tiredness, that this was only a fragile truce, which could not protect her from the cold, the lights and the shadows.
She had no idea how long she stood there. At one point she put the coins in the telephone again and dialled a number, Munoz’s this time. When she heard his voice, she seemed to come slowly to her senses, as if returning from a long journey, a journey through time and herself. With a serenity that grew as she spoke, she explained what had happened. Munoz asked what the card said, and she told him: B x P, bishop takes pawn. There was silence at the other end of the line. Then Munoz, in a strange voice she’d never heard before, asked where she was. When she told him, he said she was not to move; he’d be there as soon as possible.
Fifteen minutes later, a taxi drew up by the telephone booth, and Munoz opened the door and told her to get in. Julia ran out into the rain and dived into the car. As the taxi drove off, Munoz removed her soaked raincoat and placed his own around her shoulders.
“What’s going on?” she asked, shivering.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
“What does bishop takes pawn mean?”
The fleeting lights outside slid across Munoz’s frowning face.
“It means,” he said, “that the black queen is about to take another piece.”
Julia blinked, stunned by this news. She grasped Munoz’s hand with her two frozen hands and looked at him in alarm.
“We must warn Cesar.”
“We’ve still got time,” replied Munoz.
“Where are we going?”
“To Penjamo. One j two aitches.”
It was still raining heavily when the taxi pulled up outside the chess club. Munoz opened the door without letting go of Julia’s hand.
“Come on,” he said.
She followed him meekly up the steps to the hall. There were still a few players at the tables, but Cifuentes, the director, was nowhere in sight. Munoz led her straight to the library. There, amongst trophies and diplomas, were glass-fronted shelves lined with a few hundred books. Letting go of Julia’s hand, he slid open one of the glass doors and took down a fat leatherbound volume. On the spine, in gold letters darkened by use and time, a puzzled Julia read: Chess Weekly. Fourth quarter. The year was illegible.
Munoz put the book on the table and turned the yellowing pages of cheap paper. Chess problems, analyses of games, information about tournaments, old photographs of smiling winners in white shirt, tie and suits and haircuts of the period. He stopped at a double-page spread of photographs.
“Look at them carefully,” he told Julia.
She bent over the photos. They were of poor quality and all showed groups of chess players posed for the camera. Some held cups or certificates. She read the headline: SECOND JOSE RAUL CAPABLANCA NATIONAL TROPHY.
“I don’t understand,” she murmured.
Munoz pointed at one of the photos. In the group of boys, two were holding small trophies; the other four were staring solemnly at the camera. At the bottom of the photo were the words: FINALISTS IN THE JUNIOR LEAGUE.
“Do you recognise anyone?” asked Munoz.
Julia studied the faces one by one. Only a face on the far right seemed faintly familiar. It belonged to a boy of fifteen or sixteen. His hair was brushed back and he was wearing a jacket and tie and a black armband on his left arm. He was looking at the camera with calm, intelligent eyes, in which she thought she could see a glint of defiance. Then she recognised him. When she pointed at him with her finger, her hand was shaking, and when she looked up at Munoz, he nodded.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s our invisible player.”