Of course, lots of people are on the make. But Id like to know why youve decided to sell the books now . . .
Dionisio looked at his sister, as if he didnt understand: how could the fellow be stupid enough to ask such a question? The Count cottoned on and, smiling, tried to refocus his curiosity for a third time.
Why did you wait until now to decide to sell them?
The transparent woman, perhaps stirred by the urgency of her hunger, was the one who rushed to reply.
Its Mummy. Our Mother, she explained. She agreed to look after these books years ago . . .
The Count felt he was treading on typically swampy ground, but with no choice but to press on.
And your Mother?. . .
Shes still alive. Shell be ninety-one this year. And the poor thing is . . .
Conde didnt dare keep on: the first part of the confession was on its way and he waited in silence. The rest would come of its own accord.
The old girls past it . . . shes been a bundle of nerves for a long time. And the fact is we need some money, spat Dionisio waving at the books. You know what things are like these days, the pension goes nowhere . . .
Conde nodded: yes, he did know about that. His eyes followed the mans hand towards the shelves crammed with books and he felt the hunch that he was on the verge of something big, still there, rudely pricking him under the nipple, making his hands sweat. He wondered why it hadnt gone away. He knew he was surrounded by valuable books, so why should the alarm-call still sound so loudly? Could it be there was a book that was too much to hope for? That must be it, he told himself, and if that were true it would only stop when hed inspected every shelf from top to bottom.
Ive no wish to pry, but . . . But when was the last time anyone touched this library? he asked.
Forty . . . Forty-three years ago, the woman answered and the Count shook his head incredulously.
Hasnt a single book left here in all that time?
Not one, interjected Dionisio, confident he was upping the value of the librarys contents by making such a statement. Mummy asked us to air it once a month and clean it with a feather duster, just along the tops . . .
Look, Ill be frank with you, Mario Conde decided to issue a warning, aware he was about to betray the most hallowed rules of his profession: I have a hunch, in a manner of speaking. Im quite sure there are books here worth lots of money, and others so valuable that they cant or shouldnt be sold . . . If I might explain myself: there could be books, particularly Cuban books, that shouldnt leave Cuba and almost nobody in Cuba has the money to pay out what theyre really worth. The National Library, for a start. And what Im telling you now goes against my own business interests, but I believe it would be a crime to sell them to a foreigner whod only take them out of the country . . . and I say a crime because it would be more than unforgivable, it would be a felony, and thats the least of it. If we can agree terms, we can do business with the saleable books, and if you then decide to sell the more valuable books, Ill get out of your way and . . .
Dionisio stared at the Count with unexpected intensity. What did you say your name was?. . .
Mario Conde, he chewed on the name slowly, as if extracting from the letters an injection of dignity his blood sorely needed. Standing where you can see us now, my sister and I have really run ourselves into the ground over this country, in a big way. I risked my life here and even in Africa. And although Im starving to death I wont do anything like that . . . Not for a thousand or ten thousand pesos, and he turned to look at his sister, as if seeking out a last refuge for his pride. Will we, Amalia?
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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