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VI Of Chessboards and Mirrors

And where is the end?

You’ll find that out when you get there.

Ballad of the Old Man of Leningrad

Since they were double-parked, Menchu had moved over into the driver’s seat by the time Julia got back to the car. Julia opened the door of the small Fiat and dropped into the seat.

“What did they say?” Menchu asked.

Julia didn’t reply at first; she still had too many things to think about. Staring into the traffic flowing down the street, she took a cigarette out of her handbag, put it to her lips and pressed the automatic lighter in the dashboard.

“There were two policemen here yesterday,” she said at last, “asking the same questions as me.” When the lighter clicked out, she held it to her cigarette. “According to the man in charge, the envelope was delivered to them that Thursday, first thing in the afternoon.”

Menchu’s hands were gripping the wheel hard, her knuckles white amongst the glittering rings.

“Who delivered it?”

Julia slowly exhaled.

“According to him, it was a woman.”

“A woman?”

“That’s what he said.”

“What woman?”

“Middle-aged, well-dressed, blonde. Wearing a raincoat and sunglasses.” She turned to her friend. “It could have been you.”

“That’s not funny.”

“No, I know it isn’t.” Julia let out a long sigh. “But it could have been anyone. She didn’t give her name or her address, she just gave Alvaro’s details as sender. She asked for the fast delivery service. And that was it.”

They joined the rest of the traffic. It looked like it was going to rain again and a few tiny drops were already spattering the windscreen. Menchu crunched the gears and wrinkled her nose with displeasure.

“You know, Agatha Christie could have made a blockbuster out of this.”

Julia gave a humourless smile.

“Yes. But it has a real death in it.” She imagined Alvaro naked and wet. If there was one thing worse than dying, she thought, it was dying grotesquely, with people coming to look at you.

“Poor devil,” she said out loud.

They stopped at a pedestrian crossing. Menchu cast a glance at her friend. She was worried, she said, about Julia’s being embroiled in such a situation. She too felt uneasy, so much so that she’d broken one of her golden rules and installed Max in her home until things were clearer. Julia should do the same.

“What, install Max in my apartment? No thanks. I’d rather go to rack and ruin on my own.”

“Don’t start that again. And don’t be obtuse.” The light changed to green, and Menchu shifted gear and accelerated. “You know perfectly well I didn’t mean him. Besides, he’s a sweetheart.”

“A bloodsucker.”

“Well, at least it isn’t just my blood he sucks.”

“Don’t be vulgar.”

“Oh, so now it’s Sister Julia of the Holy Sacrament.”

“And proud of it.”

“Look. Maybe Max is what you say he is, but he’s also so gorgeous that I get dizzy every time I look at him. The way Madame Butterfly felt about Lieutenant Pinkerton… in between coughing fits. Or was it Armand Duval?” She swore at a pedestrian crossing the road and, honking indignantly, skidded into a tiny space between a taxi and a bus belching fumes. “But, seriously, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be alone. What if there really is a murderer and he decides to get you?”

Julia shrugged irritably.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“I don’t know. Move in with someone else. I’ll make the ultimate sacrifice, if you like. I’ll send Max away and you can come and stay with me.”

“What about the painting?”

“You can bring it with you and continue working on it at my place. I’ll get in plenty of tinned food, coke, dirty videos and booze and we can hole up there, the two of us, like in Fort Apache , until we can get rid of the painting. Oh, and two other things. First, I’ve taken out extra insurance, just in case.”

“What do you mean, just in case? The Van Huys is perfectly safe in my apartment, under lock and key. The security system cost me a fortune to install, remember? It’s like Fort Knox, without the gold.”

“You never know.” It was starting to rain harder, and Menchu switched on the wipers. “The second thing is: don’t say a word about all this to Don Manuel.”

“Why not?”

“Are you mad? It’s just what his little niece, Lola, needs in order to ruin this whole deal for me.”

“So far no one has linked the painting with Alvaro.”

“Heaven forbid. But the police aren’t exactly tactful and they might have got in touch with my client. Or with his bitch of a niece. Oh, well. It’s getting horribly complicated. I’m tempted to hand the whole problem over to Claymore’s and just take my commission and run.”

The rain created a procession of blurred grey images through the windows, so the car seemed surrounded by a strange, unreal landscape. Julia looked at her friend.

“By the way,” she said, “I’m having supper with Montegrifo tonight.”

“What!”

“You heard. He’s got some business he wants to talk to me about.”

“Business? He’ll probably want to play mummies and daddies too.”

“I’ll phone and tell you all about it.”

“I won’t get a wink of sleep until you do. He’s obviously guessed that something’s going on. I’d stake the virginity of my next three reincarnations on it.”

“I told you not to be vulgar.”

“And don’t you go betraying me. I’m your friend, remember. Your best friend.”

“Trust me, and don’t drive so fast.”

“I’ll stab you to death if you do. Like Jose in Merimee’s Carmen.”

“OK. Look, you went through a red light just then. And since the car is mine, I’ll have to pay any fines you get.”

She glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw that another car, a blue Ford with smoked-glass windows, had jumped the light with them, but it soon disappeared off to the right. She seemed to remember seeing mat same car parked – double-parked like them – on the other side of the street when she came out of the courier service. But it was difficult to say for sure, what with the traffic and the rain.

Paco Montegrifo was the sort of man who decides, as soon as he’s old enough to make such decisions, that black socks are strictly for chauffeurs and waiters and opts instead for socks of only the darkest navy blue. He was dressed in a made-to-measure suit of dark and impeccable grey, a suit that could have walked straight off the pages of a high-fashion magazine for men. This perfect appearance was topped off by a shirt with a Windsor collar, a silk tie and, peeping discreetly out of his top pocket, a handkerchief. He got up from an armchair in the foyer to greet Julia.

“My word,” he said as he shook her hand, his white teeth gleaming in agreeable contrast to his tanned skin, “you look absolutely gorgeous.”

That introduction set the tone for the first part of the meal. And he’d expressed his unqualified admiration for the close-fitting black velvet dress Julia was wearing even before they’d sat down at the table reserved for them by the window with a panoramic night-time view of the Palacio Real. From then on, he deployed a repertoire of looks – which managed to be intense but never impertinent – and seductive smiles. After the aperitifs, and while the waiter was preparing the hors d’oeuvres, he began plying Julia with questions that prompted intelligent replies to which he listened with his chin resting on his clasped fingers, his lips slightly parted, and a gratifyingly absorbed expression, which at the same time permitted little gleams of light from the candle flames to sparkle on his perfect teeth.

The only reference he made to the Van Huys before dessert was his careful choice of a white Burgundy to accompany the fish. To art, he said, with a vague look of complicity, and that gave him the opportunity to launch into a brief discourse on French wines.

“Oddly enough,” he explained, while waiters were still bustling round the table, “it seems to be something that changes as you get older. You start off as a staunch supporter of white or red Burgundy: the best companion until you’re into your thirties. But then, though without renouncing Burgundy completely, it’s time to move on to Bordeaux: a wine for adults, serious and even-tempered. Only in your forties can you bring yourself to pay out a fortune for a crate of Petrus or Chateau d’Yquem.”

He tasted the wine, signalling his approval with a lift of his eyebrows, and Julia sat back and enjoyed the show, quite happy to play along with him. She even liked the supper and the banal conversation, concluding that, in different circumstances, Montegrifo would have been agreeable company, with his low voice, his tanned hands and the discreet smell of eau de cologne, fine leather and good tobacco that wafted about him, and despite his habit of stroking his right eyebrow with his index finger and snatching sly glances at his reflection in the window.

They continued to talk about everything but the painting. When she’d finished her slice of salmon a la Royale, he was still busy, using only a silver fork, with his sea bass Sabatini. A real gentleman, he explained, with a smile that emphasised that the remark was not to be taken totally seriously, would never use a fish knife.

“But how do you remove the bones?” Julia asked.

The auctioneer held her gaze unflinchingly.

“I never go to restaurants where they serve fish with bones.”

After dessert, and before coffee, which, like her, he ordered black and very strong, Montegrifo took out a silver cigarette case and carefully selected an English cigarette. Then he leaned towards her.

“I’d like you to come and work for me,” he said in a low voice, as if afraid that someone in the Palacio Real might overhear.

Julia, who was raising one of her own untipped cigarettes to her lips, looked into his brown eyes as he held out his lighter to her.

“Why?” she asked, with apparent disinterest, as if he were talking about someone else.

“For several reasons.” Montegrifo had placed the gold lighter on top of the cigarette case, aligning them carefully dead centre. “The main reason is because I’ve heard nothing but good things about you.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

“I’m being serious. As you can imagine, I’ve asked around. I know the work you’ve done for the Prado and for private galleries. Do yon still work at the museum?”

“Yes, three days a week. I’m working on a recent acquisition at the moment, a Duccio di Buoninsegna.”

“I’ve heard about the painting. A difficult job. I know they always give you the important commissions.”

“Sometimes they do.”

“Even at Claymore’s we’ve had the honour of auctioning a couple of works that you’ve restored. That Madrazo in the Ochoa collection, for example. Your work on that meant we could up the auction price by a third. And there was another one, last spring. Concierto by Lopez dc Ayala, wasn’t it?”

“It was Woman Playing the Piano by Rogelio Egusquiza.”

“That’s right, that’s right, forgive me. Woman Playing the Piano, of course. It had been badly affected by damp, and you did a wonderful job on it.” He smiled, and their hands almost touched as they dropped the ash of their respective cigarettes into the ashtray. “Are you happy with the way things are going? I mean, just working on whatever comes up.” He flashed his teeth again. “As a freelance.”

“I’ve no complaints,” said Julia, studying her companion through the cigarette smoke. “My friends take care of me, they find me things. And besides, it means I’m independent.”

Montegrifo looked at her intently.

“In everything?”

“In everything.”

“You’re a fortunate young woman then.”

“Maybe I am. But I work hard too.”

“Claymore’s has a large number of projects requiring the expertise of someone like you. What do you think?”

“I don’t see any harm in talking about it.”

“Wonderful. We could have another, more formal chat in a few days’ time.”

“As you wish.” Julia gave Montegrifo a long look. She felt unable to suppress the mocking smile on her lips. “Now you can talk to me about the Van Huys.”

“I’m sorry?”

Julia stubbed out her cigarette and leaned slightly towards Montegrifo.

“The Van Huys,” she repeated, carefully enunciating the words. “Unless, of course, you intend taking my hand in yours and telling me I’m the loveliest woman you’ve ever met, or something equally charming.”

Montegrifo took a split second to recompose his smile but he did so with perfect aplomb.

“I’d love to, but I never say that until after coffee. Even if I may be thinking it,” he explained. “It’s a question of tactics.”

“Let’s talk about the Van Huys then.”

“Let’s.” He looked at her for a long time, and she saw that, although his lips were smiling, his brown eyes were not; they held a glint of extreme caution. “I’ve heard certain rumours – you know how it is. It’s a real gossip shop, this little world of ours, where everyone knows everyone else.” He sighed, as if he disapproved of the world he’d just described. “I understand you’ve discovered something in the painting. According to what I’ve heard, it’s something that could considerably increase its value.”

Julia kept an absolutely straight face, aware that she would have to do more than that to deceive Montegrifo.

“And who’s been telling you this nonsense?”

“A little bird.” The auctioneer stroked his right eyebrow thoughtfully. “But that’s the least of it. What matters is that your friend, Senorita Roch, intends to blackmail me in some way.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” Montegrifo’s smile was undimmed. “Your friend wants to reduce Claymore’s percentage of the commission and increase hers.” He tried to look impartial. “The truth is that legally there’s nothing to stop her doing that, since ours is only a verbal agreement. She can easily break it and go to our competitors in search of a better Percentage.”

“I’m glad to see you’re so understanding about it.”

“Naturally I am. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be looking out for the interests of my own company.”

“I should hope not.”

“I won’t conceal from you the fact that I’ve already located the owner of the Van Huys; an elderly gentleman. Or, to be exact, I’ve been in touch with his niece and her husband. My intention, and I won’t conceal this from you either, was to get the family to dispense with your friend as intermediary and deal directly with me. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly. You’ve been trying to put one over on Menchu.”

“That’s one way of putting it, yes. I suppose you could call it that.” A shadow crossed his tanned forehead, giving a slightly pained expression to his features, the look of someone wrongly accused. “The unfortunate thing is that your friend, a very prudent woman, got the owner to sign an agreement, which invalidates any deal I might make. What do you think?”

“You have my deepest sympathy. Better luck next time.”

“Thank you.” Montegrifo lit another cigarette. “But it may be that all is not quite lost. You’re a close friend of Senorita Roch. Perhaps she could be persuaded to come to some amicable agreement. If we all work together, we could make a fortune out of that painting, from which you, your friend, Claymore’s and I would all profit. What do you think?”

“Very likely. But why tell me all this rather than talk to Menchu? It would have saved you a supper.”

Montegrifo composed his features into an expression of genuine hurt.

“I like you, and I don’t mean just as a restorer. I like you a lot, to be honest. You strike me as being a reasonable and intelligent woman, as well as being extremely attractive. I’d rather trust in your mediation than go directly to your friend, whom, I’m afraid, I consider a little frivolous.”

“In other words,” said Julia, “you want me to convince her.”

“If you could, it would be” – the auctioneer hesitated, carefully seeking the right word – “marvellous.”

“And what do I get out of it?”

“My company’s gratitude, of course. Now and in the future. As regards any immediate advantage, I won’t ask you how much you were hoping to earn for your work on the Van Huys, but I can guarantee you double that figure. As an advance on the two per cent of the final price The Game of Chess reaches at auction, of course. I’m also in a position to offer you a contract to head the restoration department at Claymore’s here in Madrid. How would you feel about that?”

“It’s very tempting. Are you really expecting to make that much on the painting?”

“There are already interested buyers in London and New York. With the right publicity, this could turn into the biggest event in the art world since Christie’s auctioned Tutankhamun’s treasures. Given the situation, as I’m sure you’ll understand, your friend’s wanting to go halves with us really is too much. All she’s done is find a restorer and offer us the picture. We do everything else.”

Julia considered what he’d said without the least show of surprise; what could and could not surprise her had changed a lot over the last few days. She looked at Montegrifo’s right hand, which lay on the tablecloth very close to hers, and she tried to calculate how far it had progressed in the last five minutes. Far enough to call an end to the supper.

“I’ll try,” she said, picking up her handbag. “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

Montegrifo stroked one eyebrow.

“Do try.” His brown eyes looked at her with liquid, velvety tenderness. “It will be to everyone’s advantage; I’m sure you’ll manage it.”

There wasn’t a trace of menace in his voice, only a tone of affectionate entreaty, so friendly, so perfect, it could almost have been sincere. He took Julia’s hand and planted a gentle kiss on it, barely brushing it with his lips.

“I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before,” he added in a low voice, “but you really are an extraordinarily beautiful woman.”

She asked him to drop her near Stephan’s and walked the rest of the way. After midnight the place opened its doors to a distinguished clientele whose level of distinction was regulated by the high prices and a rigorously applied admissions policy. Everyone who was anyone in the Madrid art world gathered there, from agents working for foreign auctioneers, who were just passing through on the lookout for a reredos or a private collection for sale, to gallery owners, researchers impresarios, specialist journalists and fashionable painters.

She left her coat in the cloakroom and, after saying hello to a few acquaintances, walked to the sofa at the far end where Cesar usually sat. And there he was, legs crossed, a glass in one hand, immersed in intimate conversation with a handsome, blond young man. Julia knew the special contempt Cesar felt for clubs popular exclusively with homosexuals. He considered it a simple matter of good taste not to frequent the claustrophobic, exhibitionist, often aggressive atmosphere of such places, where, as he would explain with a mocking look on his face, it was hard, my dear, not to feel like some old queen mincing around at a stud farm. Cesar was a lone hunter – ambiguity refined to its elegant essence – who was at ease in the world of heterosexuals, where he felt perfectly free to cultivate friendships and make conquests, usually of artistic young bloods whom he would guide towards a discovery of their true sensibility, which the divine young things did not, a priori, know. He enjoyed playing at being both Maecenas and Socrates to his exquisite boys. After suitable honeymoons that always had Venice, Marrakesh or Cairo as their backdrop, each affair would follow its natural and distinctive course. Cesar’s long and intense life had, Julia knew, been shaped by a succession of confusions, disappointments and betrayals, but also by fidelities which, in private moments, she’d heard him describe with great delicacy, in that ironic and somewhat distant tone in which, out of personal modesty, he tended to veil any expression of his intimate longings.

He smiled at her from afar. My favourite girl, his lips said, moving silently as, placing his glass on the table, he uncrossed his legs, stood, and held out his hands to her.

“How did the supper go, Princess? Ghastly, I imagine. Sabatini’s isn’t what it was.” He pursed his lips and there was a malicious gleam in his blue eyes. “All those executives and parvenu bankers with their credit cards and restaurant accounts chargeable to their companies will be the ruin of everything. By the way, have you met Sergio?”

Julia had met Sergio and, as always with Cesar’s friends, she sensed the confusion he felt in her presence, unable quite to grasp the real nature of the ties that bound the antiquarian and that calmly beautiful young woman. She could tell at a glance that the relationship was not serious, at least not that night and not on Sergio’s part. The young man, sensitive and intelligent, wasn’t jealous. They’d met on other occasions. Julia’s presence merely intimidated him.

“Montegrifo wanted to make me an offer.”

“How kind of him.” Cesar seemed to be considering the matter seriously as they all sat down. “But allow me, like old Cicero, to ask: Cui bono? For whose benefit?”

“His, I suppose. In fact, he wanted to bribe me.”

“Good for Montegrifo. And did you let yourself be bribed?” He touched Julia’s mouth with the tips of his fingers. “No, don’t tell me yet, my dear; allow me to savour that marvellous uncertainty just a little longer… I hope his offer was at least reasonable.”

“It wasn’t bad. He seemed to be including himself in it too.”

Cesar licked his lips with expectant glee.

“That’s just like him, wanting to kill two birds with one stone. He always was very practical.” Cesar half-turned towards his blond companion, as if warning him not to listen to such worldly improprieties. Then he looked back at Julia with mischievous expectation, almost trembling with anticipatory pleasure. “And what did you say?”

“That I would think about it.”

“Perfect. Never burn your boats. Do you hear that, Sergio, my dear? Never.”

The young man gave Julia a sideways glance and took a long sip of his champagne cocktail. Quite innocently, Julia imagined him naked, in the half-light of Cesar’s bedroom, beautiful and silent as a marble statue, his blond hair fallen over his face, with what Cesar termed, using a euphemism Julia believed he’d stolen from Cocteau, the golden sceptre, erect and ready to be tempered in the antrum amoris of his mature companion, or perhaps it would be the other way round, the mature man busy with the young man’s antrum. Julia had never taken her friendship with Cesar so far as to ask him for a detailed description of such matters, about which, nevertheless, she occasionally felt a slightly morbid curiosity. She looked quickly at Cesar. He was immaculate and elegant in his dark suit, white linen shirt and blue silk cravat with the red polka dots, the hair behind his ears and at the back of his neck slightly waved, and Julia asked herself again what the special charm of the man was, a man capable, even at fifty, of seducing young men like Sergio. It must be the ironic gleam in his blue eyes, the elegance distilled through generations of fine breeding and the easy assumption of world-weary wisdom, tolerant and infinite, to which he never gave complete expression – he rarely took himself entirely seriously – but which was nonetheless there in every word he uttered.

“You must see his latest painting,” Cesar was saying, and it took Julia a moment to realise he meant Sergio. “It’s really remarkable, my dear.” His hand hovered over the young man’s arm, almost but not quite touching it. “Light in its purest state, spilling out over the canvas. Absolutely beautiful.”

Julia smiled, accepting Cesar’s opinion as a cast-iron guarantee. Sergio, simultaneously touched and embarrassed, half-closed his blond-lashed eyes, like a cat receiving a caress.

“Of course,” Cesar went on, “talent isn’t enough in itself to make one’s way in the world. You do understand that, don’t you, young man? All the great art forms require a certain knowledge of the world, a deep experience of human relations. It’s quite another matter with abstract activities, in which talent is of the essence and experience merely a complement. By that I mean music, mathematics… chess.”

“Chess,” said Julia. They looked at each other, and Sergio’s eyes flicked anxiously from one to the other.

“Yes, chess.” Cesar leaned over to take a long drink from his glass. His pupils had shrunk, absorbed in the mystery they were contemplating. “Have you noticed how Munoz looks at The Game of Chess?”

“Yes. He looks at it differently somehow.”

“Exactly. Differently from the way you, or indeed I, could look at it. Munoz sees things in the painting that other people don’t.”

Sergio, who was listening, frowned and deliberately brushed against Cesar’s shoulder; he appeared to be feeling left out. Cesar looked at him benevolently.

“We’re discussing things that are much too sinister for your ears, my dear.” He slid his index finger across Julia’s knuckles, lifted his hand slightly, as if hesitating over a choice between two desires, and placed that hand between Julia’s, but directed his words to the young man-“Guard your innocence, my friend. Develop your talent and don’t complicate your life.”

He blew Sergio a kiss just as Menchu, all mink coat and legs, made her entrance with Max and demanded news of Montegrifo.

“The bastard,” she said when Julia had finished telling her about it. “I’ll talk to Don Manuel tomorrow. We must fight back.”

Sergio drew back from the tide of words issuing from Menchu, who was rushing from Montegrifo to the Van Huys, from the Van Huys to assorted platitudes, and from a second to a third drink, which she held in an increasingly unsteady hand. Max was silently smoking by her side, with the poise of a dark, sleek stallion put out to stud. Wearing a distant smile, Cesar sipped his gin-and-lemon and dried his lips on the handkerchief from his top jacket pocket. From time to time he blinked, as if returning from some far-off place, and distractedly stroked Julia’s hand.

“There are two sorts of people in this business, darling,” Menchu was saying to Sergio, “those who paint and those who pocket the money. And they’re rarely the same ones.” She sighed loudly, touched by the boy’s youth. “And all you young, blond artists, sweetheart.” She gave Cesar a poisonous sideways glance. “So utterly delicious.”

Cesar felt obliged to make a reluctant return from his remote thoughts.

“Pay no heed, my young friend, to voices poisoning your golden spirit,” he said in a slow, lugubrious voice, as if he were offering Sergio condolences rather than advice. “This woman speaks with forked tongue, as do all women.” He looked at Julia, bent to kiss her hand, and swiftly recovered his composure. “Forgive me. As do nearly all women.”

“Look who’s talking.” Menchu grimaced. “If it isn’t our own private Sophocles. Or do I mean Seneca? I mean the one who used to touch up young men as he sipped his hemlock.”

Cesar leaned his head back and closed his eyes melodramatically.

“The path the artist must follow, and I’m talking to you, my young Alcibiades, or Patroclus, or perhaps even Sergio… the path involves dodging obstacle after obstacle until finally you’re able to peer deep inside yourself. A difficult task if you have no Virgil by your side to guide you. Do you understand the subtle point I’m making, young man? Thus the artist at last comes to drink deep of the sweetest of pleasures. His life becomes one of pure creation and he no longer needs miserable external things. He is far, far above the rest of his despicable fellow men. And growth and maturity build their nests in him.”

This was greeted by a certain amount of mocking applause. Sergi0 looked at them, smiling but disconcerted. Julia burst out laughing.

“Take no notice of him. I bet he stole that from someone else. He always was a crook.”

Cesar opened one eye.

“I’m a bored Socrates. And I indignantly deny your accusation that I steal other people’s words.”

“He’s really quite witty, isn’t he?” Menchu was talking to Max, who had been listening with furrowed brow, while she helped herself to one of his cigarettes. “Give me a light, condottiere mio.”

The epithet caught Cesar’s malicious ear.

“Cave canem, sturdy youth,” he said to Max, and Julia was possibly the only other person present who knew that in Latin canem can be both masculine and feminine. “According to the history books, the people the condottieri really had to watch were those they served.” He looked at Julia and made an ironic bow; drink was beginning to have its effect on him too. “Burckhardt,” he explained.

“Don’t worry, Max,” said Menchu, although Max did not seem in the least upset. “See? It wasn’t even his idea. He crowns himself with other people’s bay leaves… or is it laurels?”

“You mean acanthus,” said Julia, laughing.

Cesar gave her a hurt look.

Et tu, Bruta?” He turned to Sergio. “Do you understand the tragic nature of the matter, Patroclus?” After another long drink of gin-and-lemon, he looked dramatically about, as if searching for a friendly face. “I really don’t know what you’ve got against other people’s laurels, my dears. In truth,” he added after thinking about it, “no laurels can be said to belong to just one person. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but pure creation simply doesn’t exist. We are not, or, rather, you are not, since I am not a creator… Nor are you, Menchu, my sweet. Perhaps you, Max… Now don’t look at me like that, my handsome condottiere feroce. Perhaps you are the only person here who truly does create something.” He sketched a weary, elegant gesture, expressive of profound tedium, brought on perhaps by his own line of argument, his hand coming to rest, apparently by chance, close to Sergio’s knee. “Picasso – and I regret having to mention that old fraud – is Monet, is Ingres, is Zurbaran, is Brueghel, is Pieter Van Huys… Even our friend Munoz, who doubtless at this very moment is bent over a chessboard somewhere, trying to exorcise his demons, at the same time freeing us from ours, is not himself, but Kasparov and Karpov. He’s Fischer and Capablanca and Paul Morphy and that medieval master, Ruy Lopez… Everything is merely a phase of the same history, or perhaps the same history constantly repeating itself; I’m not altogether sure about that. And you, my lovely Julia, have you ever stopped to think, when you’re standing before our famous painting, just exactly where you are, whether inside it or outside? I’m sure you have, because I know you, Princess. And I know too that you haven’t found an answer.” He gave a short, humourless laugh and looked at them one by one. “In fact, my children, parishioners all, we make up a motley crew. We have the cheek to pursue secrets that, deep down, are nothing but the enigmas of our own lives.” He raised his glass in a kind of toast addressed to no one in particular. “And that, when you think about it, is not without its risks. It’s like smashing the mirror to find out what lies behind the mercury. Doesn’t that, my friends, send a little shiver of fear down your spine?”

It was two in the morning by the time Julia got home. Cesar and Sergio had walked her to her street door. They wanted to accompany her up the three flights to her apartment but she wouldn’t let them and kissed each of them good-bye before going up the stairs. She walked up slowly, looking about anxiously. And when she took the keys from her pocket, her fingers brushed reassuringly against the cold metal of the gun.

As she turned the key in the lock, she thought with surprise that, despite everything, she was taking it calmly. She felt a pure, precise fear, which she could evaluate without recourse to any talent for abstraction, as Cesar would have said, parodying Munoz. But that fear did not provoke in her any humiliating feelings of torment or a desire to run away. On the contrary, it was percolated by an intense curiosity, in which there was a strong dash of personal pride and defiance. It was like a dangerous, exciting game, like killing pirates in Never-Never-Land.

Killing pirates. She’d grown familiar with death at an early age. Her first childhood memory was of her father lying utterly still, with his eyes closed, on the mattress in the bedroom, surrounded by dark, sad people talking in low voices, as if they were afraid to wake him. She was six at the time and that image, incomprehensible and solemn, remained forever linked with that of her mother, all in black and less approachable than, ever, whom, even then, she never saw shed a single tear; and with that of her mother’s dry, imperious hand on hers as she forced Julia to plant final kiss on the dead man’s forehead. It was Cesar, a Cesar whom she remembered as much younger, who had picked her up in his arms and taken her away from there. Sitting on his knee, Julia had stared at the door behind which the undertakers’ men were preparing the coffin.

“It doesn’t look like him, Cesar,” she’d said, trying not to cry. You must never ever cry, her mother used to say. It was the only lesson she could recall having learned from her. “Papa doesn’t look the same.”

“Well, no. It isn’t Papa any more,” came the answer. “He’s gone somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“That doesn’t matter now, Princess. But he won’t be coming back.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

Julia gave a childish frown and remained thoughtful.

“I don’t want to kiss him again. His skin is cold.”

Cesar had looked at her in silence for a while, then hugged her hard, Julia could remember the warmth of his embrace, the subtle smell of his skin and his clothes.

“Well, you can come and kiss me any time you like.”

Julia could never remember the exact moment when she’d discovered that Cesar was homosexual. Perhaps she came to the realisation little by little, from minor details, intuition. But one day, when she’d just turned twelve, she went into his shop after school and found Cesar touching a young man’s cheek. That was all; he just brushed the youth’s cheek with his fingertips. The young man walked past Julia, smiled at her and left. Cesar, who was lighting a cigarette, gave her a long look, then set to work winding the clocks.

Some days later, while she was playing with the Bustelli figurines, Julia formulated the question:

“Cesar, do you like girls?”

He was sitting at his desk, going over his accounts. At first he seemed not to have heard. Only after some moments did he raise his head and let his blue eyes rest calmly on Julia’s.

“The only girl I like is you, Princess.”

“What about the others?”

“What others?”

That was the last either of them said about it. But that night, as she went to sleep, Julia had thought about Cesar’s words and felt happy, No one was going to take him away from her; there was no danger. He would never go far away from her, as her father had, to that place from which there is no return.

Then came the times of long tales told in the golden light of the antiques shop; Cesar’s youth, Paris and Rome all mixed up with history, art, books and adventures. And there were the shared myths and Treasure Island read chapter by chapter amongst the old chests and rusty weapons. The poor sentimental pirates who, on moonlit Caribbean nights, felt their stony hearts melt when they thought of their old mothers. Because pirates had mothers too, even such refined riffraff as Captain Hook, who revealed his true self in his vile behaviour, but who at the end of every month despatched a few doubloons of Spanish gold to ease the old age of the woman who gave him life. And between stories Cesar would take a pair of old sabres from a trunk and show her how the filibusters used to fight – on guard and retreat, the aim is to scar, not to slit your opponent’s throat – and the best way to throw a grappling iron. He’d get out the sextant and teach her how to navigate by the stars. There was the stiletto with the silver handle, made by Benvenuto Cellini, who, in addition to being a goldsmith, had killed the Constable of Bourbon with a shot from his harquebus at the time of the sack of Rome; and the terrible dagger of mercy, long and sinister, that the Black Prince’s page used to pierce the helmets of the French knights fallen at Crecy…

The years passed, and Julia’s character began to come to life. Now it was Cesar’s turn to be silent, while he listened to her confidences. First love at fourteen. First lover at seventeen. He listened without passing judgment. He would simply smile, just once, when she finished speaking.

Tonight Julia would have given anything to see that smile, a smile that instilled courage in her and at the same time made things seem less important, cutting them down to their real size in the great scheme of things and in the inevitable course of one’s life. But Cesar wasn’t there, and she had to fend for herself. As he would have said, we can’t always choose our companions or our fate.

She busied herself preparing a vodka-on-the-rocks and suddenly smiled in the dark as she stood in front of the Van Huys. She had the odd feeling that if anything bad was going to happen, it would happen to someone else. Nothing bad ever happened to the hero, she remembered as she drank her vodka and felt the ice clink against her teeth. Only other people died, secondary characters, like Alvaro. Still vivid in her memory were the hundreds of such adventures she had experienced and from which she had always emerged unscathed, praise God. How did that other expression go? God’s teeth!

She looked at herself in the Venetian mirror, just a shadow amongst other shadows, the slightly paler smudge of her face, the vague profile, two large, dark eyes, Alice through the looking glass. She looked at herself in the Van Huys too, in the painted mirror reflecting another mirror, the Venetian one, reflection on reflection on reflection. And she felt the same dizziness she’d felt before. The thought occurred to her that at that time of night, mirrors and paintings and chessboards can play strange tricks on the imagination. Or perhaps it was just that concepts like time and space were, after all, becoming so relative as to be barely worth worrying about. She took another sip of her drink and again felt the ice clink against her teeth. She thought that if she stretched out her hand, she would be able to set the glass down on the table covered by green cloth, on the very spot where the hidden inscription lay, between Roger de Arras’s unmoving hand and the chessboard.

She moved closer to the painting. Beatrice of Ostenburg was seated near the lancet window, her eyes lowered, absorbed in the book that lay in her lap. She reminded Julia of the virgins painted by the early Flemish masters: fair hair sleeked back, caught up beneath the almost transparent toque. White skin. Solemn and distant in that black dress, so different from the usual cloaks of crimson wool, the cloth of Flanders, more precious than silk or brocade. Black, Julia realised with sudden clarity, was the symbol of mourning, and the black widow’s weeds in which the Duchess had been dressed by Pieter Van Huys, the genius who so loved symbols and paradoxes, were not for her husband, but for her murdered lover.

The oval of her face was delicate, perfect, and every nuance, every detail, reinforced the resemblance to Renaissance virgins. Not a virgin like the Italian women honoured by Giotto, who were maids and nursemaids, even mistresses, nor like the Frenchwomen who posed as virgins but were often mothers or queens, but a bourgeois virgin, the wife of a municipal representative or of a noble landowner ruling over undulating plains scattered with castles, mansions, streams and belfries like the one painted there in the landscape outside the window. This one looked rather haughty and impassive, serene and cold, the embodiment of that northern beauty a la maniera ponentina that enjoyed such success in the countries of the south, in Spain and Italy. And the blue eyes – at least it could be assumed they were blue – their gaze turned away from the onlooker, apparently intent on her book, were nonetheless alert and penetrating, like the eyes of all the Flemish women depicted by Van Huys, Van der Weyden and Van Eyck. Enigmatic eyes that never revealed what they were looking at or wanted to look at, what they were thinking or feeling.

Julia pushed back her hair and touched the surface of the painting with her fingers, tracing the outline of Roger de Arras’ lips. In the golden light that surrounded the knight like an aura, the steel gorget almost had the gleam of highly polished metal. He was resting his chin on the thumb of his right hand, which was slightly tinged by the surrounding glow, and his gaze was fixed on the chessboard that symbolised both his life and his death. Judging by his profile, like a profile stamped on an ancient medal, Roger de Arras appeared unaware of the presence of the woman sitting reading behind him. But perhaps his thoughts were not of chess at all; perhaps they flew to that Beatrice of Burgundy at whom he did not look, out of pride, prudence or possibly merely out of respect for his master. In that case, only his thoughts were free to devote themselves to her. At that same moment, perhaps the lady’s thoughts were unaware of the pages of the book she held in her hands and her eyes were contemplating, with no need actually to look in their direction, the knight’s broad back, his calm, elegant features, the memory of his hands and his skin, or merely the echo of contained silence, the melancholy, impotent gaze she once aroused in his loving eyes.

The Venetian mirror and the painted mirror framed Julia in an imaginary space, blurring the boundaries between the two surfaces. The golden light wrapped itself about her too as, very slowly, almost resting one hand on the green cloth of the painted table and taking great care not to upset the chess pieces laid out on the board, she leaned towards Roger de Arras and kissed him gently on the cold corner of his mouth. And when she turned, she caught a gleam, the insigne of the Golden Fleece on the vermilion velvet doublet of the other player, Ferdinand Altenhoffen, the Duke of Ostenburg, whose eyes were staring at her, dark and unfathomable.

By the time the clock on the wall struck three, the ashtray was full of cigarette ends and her cup and the coffeepot stood almost empty among sundry books and papers. Julia sat back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling, trying to put her ideas in order. To banish the ghosts encircling her, she’d turned on all the lights, and the boundaries of reality were slowly returning, gradually fitting back again into time and space.

There were, she concluded, other, more practical, ways of asking the question; there was another point of view, doubtless the correct one, if Julia bore in mind that she was more of a grown-up Wendy than an Alice. In order to approach things from that angle, all she had to do was close her eyes and open them again, look at the Van Huys as she would at any other picture painted five centuries ago and then pick up pencil and paper. And that’s what she did, after drinking down the last of the now cold coffee. At that time of night, she thought, not feeling in the least sleepy and more afraid of sliding down the slippery slope of unreason than of anything else, it would be no bad thing to set about reordering her ideas in the light of recent events. So she began to write:

I. Painting dated 1471. Game of chess. The mystery: What really happened between Ferdinand Altenhoffen, Beatrice of Burgundy and Roger de Arras? Who ordered the death of the knight? What has chess got to do with this? Why did Van Huys paint the picture? Why, after painting the inscription Quis necavit equitem, did he paint over it? Was he afraid they might murder him too?

II. I tell Menchu about my discovery. I go to Alvaro. He already knows all about the painting; someone has consulted him about it. Who?

II.Alvaro is dead. Dead or murdered? Obvious link with the painting, or perhaps with my visit and my research. Is there something somebody doesn’t want me to know? Did Alvaro find out something important I don’t know about?

V. An unknown person (possibly the murderer or murderess) sends me the documents compiled by Alvaro. What was it that Alvaro knew that other people believe to be dangerous? What does that other person (or persons) want me to know, and what does he or she not want me to know?

. A blonde woman takes the envelope to Urbexpress. Is she linked with Alvaro’s death or merely an intermediary?

VI. Although we are both investigating the same thing, Alvaro dies and I (for the moment) do not. Does the person want to facilitate my work, or guide it towards something, and if so, what? Does it concern the painting’s monetary value? Or my restoration work? Or the inscription? Or the chess problem? Or is it a matter of finding out or not finding out certain historical facts? What possible link can there be between some one in the twentieth century and someone in the fifteenth?

II. Fundamental question (for the present): Would a hypothetical murderer benefit by an increase in the price of the painting at auction? Is there more to the painting than I have so far uncovered?

III.Is there a possibility that the whole thing has nothing to do with the value of the painting, but with the mystery of the chess game it depicts? Munoz’s work. Chess problem. How can that possibly cause a death five centuries later? That’s not only ridiculous; it’s stupid. (I think.)

IX. Am I in danger? Perhaps someone is waiting for me to find out a bit more. Perhaps I’m working for him without realising it. Perhaps I’m still alive because he still needs me.

She remembered something Munoz had said the first time he saw the Van Huys, and she began to reconstruct it on paper. He’d talked about the different levels in the painting. An explanation of one of them might help her understand the whole thing.

Level 1. The scene within the painting. A floor in the form of a chessboard on which the people are placed.

Level 2. The people in the painting: Ferdinand, Beatrice, Roger.

Level 3. The chessboard on which two people are playing a game.

Level 4. The chess pieces that symbolise the three people.

Level 5. The mirror that reflects a reverse image of the game and of the people.

She looked at the result, drawing lines between the different levels and managing only to establish disquieting links. The fifth level contained the four previous levels, the first was linked to the third, the second to the fourth. It formed a strange figure turned in upon itself.

The Flanders Panel

In fact, she said to herself while studying the curious diagram, it seemed a complete and utter waste of time. The only thing those links demonstrated was that the painter who created the picture had a brilliantly devious mind. It did nothing to help clear up Alvaro’s death. Five hundred years after The Game of Chess had been painted, he had either slipped in the bath or someone else had made him slip. Whatever the result of all those arrows and boxes, neither Alvaro nor she could be contained in the Van Huys, whose creator could not possibly have foreseen their existence. Or could he? A disquieting question surfaced in her mind. Confronted by a collection of symbols, like that painting, was it up to the viewer to attribute meanings to it, or were the meanings there already, from the very moment of its creation?

She was still drawing arrows and boxes when the phone rang. She jumped, startled, looking at the phone on the carpet, unsure whether to answer it or not. Who could be phoning her at half past three in the morning? None of the possible replies to that question set her mind at rest, and the phone rang four more times before she moved. She went slowly over to it, suddenly feeling that it would be much worse if it were to stop ringing before she found out who was calling. She imagined herself spending the rest of the night curled up on the sofa, looking in terror at the phone, waiting for it to ring again. She hurled herself on it with something approaching fury.

“Hello?”

The sigh of relief that escaped her must have been audible to Munoz, who interrupted his explanations to ask if she was all right. He was terribly sorry to phone her so late but he felt he was justified in waking her. He himself was quite excited about it; that’s why he’d taken the liberty of calling. What? Yes, exactly. Five minutes ago the problem suddenly… Hello? Was she still there? He was telling her that it was now possible to ascertain, absolutely, which piece had taken the knight.


V The Mystery of the Black Lady | The Flanders Panel | VII Who Killed the Knight?



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