The curator of the Museum of Confiscated Property would be the first to admit that there were probably a hundred more venerable museums in London, but that didn’t bother her. No, what bothered Maria Cordobes was that the collection was so diverse, it resisted ready classification. And Maria did like to classify things, to impose order, to obliterate randomness. As a toddler she had arranged her teddy bears on their shelf by size and her dolls by hair colour, but it was only when her father allowed her to reorganise his jumble of books using her own version of the Dewey Decimal Classification that her talent really blossomed. After that, there was no stopping her. She sorted her mother’s wardrobe not just by type of garment but by season, and her younger brother’s toy car collection became a daily challenge as Carlos never returned the vehicles to their allotted positions. Now thirty, Maria knew she had it in her to be an accomplished curator. She dreamed of dealing with historically important artefacts and working alongside fellow specialists in a fully equipped museum. But for now, she would continue to put in her time at the Museum of Confiscated Property – two musty rooms in a Clerkenwell backstreet, open by appointment only – and acquire the experience necessary to apply for a job at one of the major London museums.
On this cold, grey February afternoon it was business as usual at the museum. She had welcomed four visitors in the morning and her three afternoon visitors would soon reach the end of their tour. Two of these, the elderly Hutchinsons from Carlisle, whispered to one another as they moved from one display case to the next. They both started when the telephone bell shattered the silence.
Maria grabbed the handset in a second. ‘Museum of Confiscated Property. Good afternoon.’
‘Hello, Maria. I need your help.’
It took her a couple of seconds to register that the barely audible voice belonged to her brother. ‘Hello, Carlos. There are visitors in the museum, I’ll have to call you back.’
‘Soon, please, Maria. It’s important.’
Her brother saying ‘please’? And whispering? Must be more trouble. ‘Yes, very soon.’
She turned back to the couple in Gallery 1: Gwen Hutchinson looked bored, ready to go, but Dr Ian bent his long back and serpentine neck and reinspected the pocket knives on the lowest shelf of the first display case. He examined each one and studied their labels, staring for what seemed to Maria to be several minutes at the handmade switchblade with two coupling skeletons carved into its slightly cracked bone handle. She’d rewritten the labels of every item on display herself, implementing a methodical system that documented the object’s place of confiscation, its date of confiscation and the reason behind its confiscation. She knew every label by heart and she now ran through the switchblade’s details in her head: The Marquee Club, Wardour Street, London; November 1964, David Bowie’s first appearance there with the Manish Boys; illegal weapon.
Dr Ian whistled.
Maria shifted from one foot to the other. What had Carlos done now? Not for the first time, she wished she didn’t run the museum single-handed.
In answer to her prayers, the doctor uncurled himself, coughed, and said to his wife, ‘Right.’
Once those two had left, there would only be the man who’d rung the bell half an hour ago. She’d told him that visits were by appointment only, but he’d pleaded that this was his last day in London and she’d relented.
Gwen Hutchinson smiled at Maria. ‘Thank you so very much. It’s been most interesting.’
Dr Ian made to follow her through the door and onto the stairs down to the street, but then changed his mind. ‘One last look at the sword sticks, I think.’
Maria followed him to the tall case beside the entrance to her workroom. The six sword sticks on the upper shelf were all fully sheathed, but two of the six on the lower shelf were not. Dr Ian craned over to inspect the German one with the handle carved to look like the head of a black forest bear (Munich Beer Festival; September 1971; dangerous weapon). Its shaft – about thirty inches long – emerged from a finely tooled silver ferrule and tapered to a deadly point that rucked the green-baize base.
‘Ah, the stick is briar wood, of course – explains that lovely gnarling. I missed that first time round. Is it valuable?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Maria said, even though she knew it was worth over £3000. Robert, her predecessor, had suggested she respond to all such questions with vague answers. ‘The English hallmarks on the silver mounts are nineteenth century. It’s one of my favourites too.’ She forced a smile.
‘I’m surprised the owner didn’t want it back.’
‘The museum has a strict policy of neither returning nor selling confiscated items, but in this instance, there was no owner to attempt such a claim. A security guard at the Munich Beer Festival sent it to us, with a note explaining that the man who owned it got involved in a fight and was carried away in a box. My predecessor assumed he meant the man had died.’
‘I thought there had to be an interesting story attached to such a forlorn bear. How very satisfying.’ Dr Ian straightened up, immediately bent down for one more look, and sighed before he finally turned away. ‘Well, my wife is waiting, I suppose I’d better go.’ On his way out, he stuffed two £20 notes into the donation box.
Maria went straight through into Gallery 2 and asked the other visitor if he wanted any help. She tried not to make it obvious that she wished he would hurry up so she could call Carlos. Instead she played her ‘guess the nationality’ game. His white linen suit highlighted his tanned complexion, but from the few words they had exchanged so far, she wasn’t sure whether his accent was South African or Dutch.
‘Yes, one question and then I will leave you in peace.’
She clearly hadn’t been as subtle as she’d intended.
‘Can you tell me what this is?’ He pointed to the book-form portable camera obscura on the middle shelf of the optical equipment case. ‘The label says it was confiscated at Tripoli airport but does not explain how it works.’
She gave an inward sigh and flashed him an insincere smile. Of course he’d chosen the most complicated item in the museum. But it also happened to be her favourite, and she usually relished the opportunity to get it out of its case and show it off. Ever since her parents had taken her to the Torre Tavira camera obscura in Cadiz, she’d been fascinated by these intriguing contraptions. Carlos might be waiting, but she couldn’t deny her visitor the chance to share the magic.
She unlocked the case and carried the instrument to the table by the window. A book-shaped box of about fifteen inches square provided the base for four slender wooden panels that formed an open-topped pyramid, which in turn supported the lens and mirror box. She pointed the lens aperture into the room and looked through the spy-hole in the side of the pyramid. She turned the focus knob to sharpen the image of the display case beside the door to Gallery 1, which was projected onto the white paper at the base of the box. ‘Look through this hole, please. The cloth-covered aperture in the side of the book is so that you can put your hand inside to trace the image.’ She stood aside to let the man look. ‘I believe the Libyans suspected it could be used for espionage.’
‘Remarkable. An ingenious instrument.’ He pulled away and smiled at her. ‘Thank you, Miss Cordobes, for a fascinating diversion. It looks like the whole contraption folds down into the box.’
‘That’s correct – so that it looks like a large old book. In this case, mid-eighteenth century.’
‘A worthy museum piece.’
Yes, Maria thought, one of the few objects in here that is. She was tempted to show him one of her own camera obscuras, the one she had set up in her workroom to project an image of the street onto a screen inside a dark box, but she really had to ring Carlos.
Ten minutes later, she watched the man sign the visitors book and noted with satisfaction that he was from South Africa. She stood by her desk opposite the landing door, hand on the telephone, and listened to him descend the stairs. As soon as she heard the front door click, she lifted the receiver and dialled her brother’s number. He answered instantly.
‘Has something happened, Carlos?’
‘It’s my own fault, I know. I shouldn’t ask you.’ His voice was a high-pitched croak. ‘I’m always asking you for help. What an idiot. I can’t think what to do. I thought of running—’
‘It’s OK, Carlos. Just tell me. What’s your fault? What happened?’
‘They said they would break my legs.’
‘What?’ An electric shiver ran across her skull.
‘I was winning every hand, but then… then…’ The words seemed to be stuck in his throat. ‘Then I lost it all and so much—’
‘You idiot! You promised,’ she shouted, her head hot with pumping blood. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout at you. Just tell me everything, and I mean everything, and we’ll make a plan.’
She heard a cough, or was it a sob, and her own throat tightened. She looked up at the uneven, cracked plaster on the ceiling and told herself not to weep, but when she said ‘Carlos?’, it came out as a gasp.
‘I lost. I… Sorry.’
His words were drying up; he must be terrified – he never cried. Maria closed her eyes and pinched the top of her nose to hold back the tears. A sigh stuck in her chest like a stopped heartbeat, then puffed down the phone line. She disguised it with a cough and said, ‘How much did you lose?’
A sucking sound, like a deep breath through pursed lips, then, ‘A lot, too much.’
‘Ten?’ It couldn’t be more than ten thousand euros.
Silence. He’d hung up. No, she could hear distant traffic, a horn, a dog’s bark. She waited.
‘Twenty thousand!’ The words spurted from her mouth. ‘But that’s almost my whole year’s salary.’ She dropped into the chair and let her head slump into her free hand. Twenty thousand or they would break his legs. Think, think, think. How could she raise twenty thousand? Her head jolted up. ‘Wait, who are these people?’
‘Will you help me, Maria?’
‘Don’t be stupid, Carlos, of course I’ll help you.’ Her tearfulness had gone, her jaw was now clenched in anger. ‘Now tell me, who are these people?’
‘Just men, gamblers like me.’
‘So you would break someone’s legs if they didn’t pay you what they owed?’
‘Of course not.’ He spat out the words.
At least he’d found his voice. ‘Then tell me – gangsters, Mafia, who?’
‘Then I can’t help you.’
Neither spoke. Why had she said that? She waited again, hardly breathing. After what seemed like minutes, he spoke.
‘The Cardoso brothers.’
‘Who are they? Criminals – what?’
‘Oh God, Maria, they’re very heavy. I know someone who didn’t pay, and—’
‘Don’t tell me.’ Her mouth was so dry. She tried sucking to produce saliva but none came. ‘I don’t have anything like that amount of money.’
‘You could ask Papa to lend you the money.’
She heard panting, pictured him shaking, weeping, about to faint.
‘I can’t. I borrowed from him last time.’
She scratched at her head; her legs shook. ‘Last time? Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I… I promised him I would stop playing poker. I just can’t ask him again.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘In the street, watching my apartment block, in case…’
How could this be happening? But it was real, this nightmare. Things could go wrong. What if he fought back? They could kill him. She wracked her brain. Who would lend her the money? Not the banks, not on her salary; and she didn’t know anyone else with money. Even Angela was broke after her unpaid sabbatical in Tanzania. And she had nothing to sell, except… No, she couldn’t sell her portable camera obscuras, not after all the trouble she’d gone to to seek them out, save up for them, repair them. They’d become part of who she was, her very own tiny museum of historic objects, each with its own story to tell. ‘I could sell…’ Her turn for the words to get stuck in her throat; her parched, closed-up throat, ‘… my camera obscuras. They might be worth about three thousand pounds.’ She’d said it, and now that she had, it felt like the right thing to do. To help her little brother, as she always did, as it was her duty to, because she loved him and would always take care of him. ‘And I have about eight hundred pounds in the bank.’
‘You’d sell them for me?’ His voice croaked down the line.
‘Of course. You are more precious to me than a bunch of old instruments.’
‘But they want it all. That person I told you about who didn’t pay them tried to give them less.’
Dios, he was cracking up. ‘When do they want their money?’
‘Five days. On Monday.’
She heard the sucking noise again. He was smoking. Why did that incense her, when his life was in danger? Five days. Impossible.
‘What about something in your museum?’
‘What do you mean? Dios, Carlos, how could you even think such a thing? Me steal from my place of work?’ She pulled the sweaty handset from her ear and made to slam it down.
‘Of course. I’m sorry, Maria. But you’ve got to help me.’ The tinny, distant voice sounded pathetic echoing into the air.
She was his only hope. She put the phone back to her ear. ‘You’re my brother – of course I’ll help you.’ But how? She mustn’t let him feel abandoned. God knows what he might do. She concentrated, kept her voice calm. ‘Look, let me think about what we can do. I’ll call you tomorrow.’ She ran her free hand through her hair. More sweat. ‘And Carlos?’
‘Please don’t do anything stupid like trying to steal the money.’
As she put down the phone, she heard the familiar creak of the front door’s hinges, followed immediately by the softer click of the latch. She was sure she’d heard the door close after the South African left. Maybe it hadn’t closed properly and the wind had just now blown it shut. She should have checked it; normally she did that automatically when the last visitor left. Her heart began to race – maybe someone had got in and was waiting for her on the stairs…
She braced herself, ran out of the room and peered down the staircase. No one. She raced down, pulled open the door and stared down the street. No one there either. She spun round and looked the other way, caught a glimpse of a running figure near the corner – short dark hair, leather jacket, gone. She started to follow him but halted on the pavement and stuck her arm out to stop the door slamming. No keys. Adrenalin pumped through her, blood pulsed in her neck and her scalp tingled. Who was he? What did he want? A thief? Or maybe the running man was a coincidence, maybe the door had just blown shut. She stepped inside, made sure the door was properly shut this time, and plodded upstairs.
Back at her desk, she stared straight ahead, unseeing, and didn’t move for a long time, probably more than an hour. Still no solution presented itself. At five o’clock she set the alarm, locked up, and walked to Clerkenwell Road to catch a bus home to Tufnell Park.
The flat seemed drab, monochrome, and all she could do was sit at the kitchen table and gaze at the wall. If only she worked somewhere respectable like the British Museum, instead of in a glorified bric-a-brac emporium that no one took seriously, she would have the prestige and the salary to help her brother. When she had more experience, she would apply again for the position of assistant keeper at the British Museum. She would do real curatorial work with important, ancient artefacts. But that was the future. Right now, family came first. And especially Carlos.
Growing up in Barcelona, she and Carlos had been inseparable, even though she was five years older. Their busy mama had got her to walk Carlos to and from school, help him with his homework, even make sure he had his packed lunch or gym kit. She’d loved it, loved him unconditionally, despite – or maybe because of – his wild nature. She couldn’t recall a single instance when she’d lost her temper or even her patience with him. She sorted out his problems, stepped in when he was bullied and, most important, never divulged his secrets. OK, so he took up most of her free time, but what else was there to do? She couldn’t stand the pointless gatherings of girls talking about fashion and boys, much preferred her books and Carlos, and of course their frequent visits to the fantastic Barcelona museums. She smiled at the image of a whingeing Carlos, moaning about not another boring museum, having to bribe him with ice creams and sweets.
She got up and closed the kitchen blind. We’re so different, aren’t we, Carlos. You are easy-going, spontaneous, an emotional crackerjack. And then there’s me: always worried the worst will happen, unable to do anything without a clear plan.
CHAPTER 1 CONTINUES