What was extraordinary was that hed not chosen that shadowy mansion in El Vedado, with its neo-classical pretensions and debilitated structure, as a result of any odour and much less as a result of his shouting in the street. In fact, Mario Conde was almost convinced he was suffering from a progressive loss of smell, and had already spent three hours on that sultry Cuban September afternoon banging on doors and getting no for an answer, on several occasions because a colleague had passed that way before him. Sweating like a pig, fed up, and fearful of the storm heralded by the rapid accumulation of black clouds on the nearby coast, Conde was preparing to sign off for the day, totting up his losses in the time-wasted column when, for no particular reason, he opted to go down a street parallel to the avenue where hed thought hed be able track down a minicab. Had the tree-lined pavement appealed, did he think it was a shortcut or was he simply, quite unawares, responding to a call from fate? When he turned the corner, the decrepit mansion came into view, shuttered, barred and swathed in an air of profound abandonment. His immediate reaction was that someone must have already beaten him to it, because that style of edifice was usually profitable: past grandeurs might include a library of leather-bound volumes; present penury would include hunger and despair, and that formula tended to be a winner for a buyer of second-hand goods. However, despite his bad run over recent weeks, the Count yielded to the almost irrational impulse driving him to open the wrought-iron gate, cross the subsistence plot of banana trees, rickety clumps of maize and rapacious sweet potato lianas and climb the five steps that led to the cool porch. Barely pausing to think, he lifted the greenish bronze knocker on the indestructible black mahogany door, that hadnt seen a coat of varnish since the discovery of penicillin.
Hello, he greeted the person opening the door, and smiled politely, as etiquette dictated.
The woman, whom Mario Conde tried to place on a scale descending from seventy to sixty, didnt deign to reply and eyed him severely, imagining her visitor was quite the opposite: a salesman. She wore a grey housecoat blotched with prehistoric grease stains and her hair was discoloured and flaked with dandruff. Furrowed by pale veins, her skin was almost transparent and her eyes seemed appallingly desolate.
Im sorry to bother you . . . I buy and sell second-hand books, he went on, avoiding the word old, and was wondering if you might know someone . . .
This was the golden rule: you madam are never so down and out that you need to sell your library, or your fathers once a doctor with a famous consultancy and a university chair or your grandfathers, who was perhaps even a government senator if not a veteran from the wars of independence. But you might know of someone?. . .
As if deadened to emotion, the woman showed no sign of surprise at the mission of the man on her doorstep. She stared at him impassively for a few lengthy, expectant moments, and Mario Conde felt himself on a knife-edge: his training told him a huge decision was being reached by the parched brain of that translucent woman, in desperate need of fats and proteins. Well, she began, the fact is I dont . . . I mean, I dont know if in the end . . . My brother and I had been thinking . . . Did Dionisio tell you to come?
Conde glimpsed a ray of hope and tried to relate to the question, but felt hed been left dangling in the air. Had he perhaps hit his target?
No . . . who is Dionisio?
My brother, the enfeebled woman went on. We have a library. A very valuable one . . . Do come in . . . Sit down. Wait a moment . . . and the Count thought he detected a determination in her voice that could see off lifes hardest knocks.
Excerpted from Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura Copyright © 2009 by Leonardo Padura. Excerpted by permission of Bitter Lemon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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