The Count swallowed Amalias torrent of words sitting on the edge of their threadbare sofa, smoking and using his hand as an ashtray, until Dionisio returned with a chipped, gold-edged dessert dish which he apologetically handed to the smoker. But Dionisios actions went unnoticed by the Count, entranced by that chronicle of irrational loyalty. His emotions hadnt, however, entirely stifled his critical powers: the automatic alarm developed by his time in the police was alerting him to the fact that it was only part of the story, perhaps the most pleasant or dramatic part, though for the time being he had to go along with what hed heard.
Well, if youve made your minds up . . . Ill come back tomorrow . . .
Wont you take any books now? Amalia almost implored.
Im really not carrying enough money on me . . .
Amalia looked at her brother and took the initiative: Look, we can see you are a decent, honest fellow . . .
Its years since Ive heard that phrase, the Count responded. A decent, honest . . .
Yes, we can tell, the translucent woman assured him. Can you imagine the number of bandits weve had to deal with to sell the vases and other adornments? And how often they offered a pittance for things that were really valuable? Look, just make us an offer, take a few books and . . . pay us what you can. How about it? You can come back, draw up whatever inventory you want and take the books you then decide to buy . . .
Conde noticed that while Amalia was talking, Dionisio reacted almost defensively as if he wanted to shield himself from the words he was hearing. He discreetly averted his gaze in the direction of the library, whose mirrored doors remained open, as if inviting him to walk in and help himself to the royal banquet spread out there.
Ive got five hundred pesos on me . . . Four hundred and ninety, to be exact. If Im going to take a few books with me now Ill need ten for a minicab.
That will do . . . she replied, unable to rein in her eagerness. Conde preferred to walk into the library rather than return Amalias look, let alone Dionisios. Able to obliterate the remnants of pride and an old pledge, their despair was the last scrap of dignity to be destroyed by the calamities that had destroyed those lives. Yet again, he regretted the sordid side of his trade, but soon found relief from remorse in his quest for books that would easily sell on the market. Two volumes of population censuses prior to 1940 that an Italian was after, a client of his partner Yoyi Pigeon, were the first he put aside. He then picked out three first editions of works by Fernando Ortiz that were always easy to place with readers keen on rumbling the mysteries of the world of Afro-Cubans; a first edition of The Slave-trader, by Lino Novás Calvo; and, after putting to one side several books printed in the nineteenth century whose value he needed to check out, he bagged several historical monographs published in Havana, Madrid and Barcelona in the twenties and thirties, that didnt have tremendous bibliographical value, but were coveted by the non-Cuban buyers who flitted from one second-hand booksellers stall to another. He was about to shut his bag and tot up the total, when he saw before his eyes a book that practically screamed at him: it was an intact, sturdy, healthy, well-nourished copy of My Pleasure? with the secondary title of An indispensable . . . culinary guide, printed by Úcar y García in 1956, and illustrated by the great cartoonist, Conrado Massaguer. Ever since that remote afternoon when the Count had seen that book for the first time in the hands of a nouveau riche owner of several of those private restaurants that sprang up in the first days of dire shortages, as a compulsive buyer of gastronomic literature, hed tried to track it down, thrilled by its wonderful recipes for Creole and international cuisine, compiled to satisfy the most aristocratic kitchens in an era when aristocratic kitchens still existed in Cuba. However, the Counts persistent search wasnt driven by bibliophilic or even commercial goals, but the grandiose, self-interested idea that he might present that wonder to old Josefina, the only person the Count knew with a magical ability to conjure up miracles even in times of Crisis and convert those dream dishes into edible realities.
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
Blood at the Root
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