Checkmate in amber, p.1
Checkmate in Amber, p.1Matilde Asensi
THE AMBER SALON (EL SALÓN DE AMBAR)
An amazing journey in search of a work of art that mysteriously disappeared during the Nazi period
A group of antiquarians are dealing in stolen works of art. The group is hierarchically organized and its members represent the chess pieces. The King (the eldest team member) leads every operation and the Pawn (the main character of the novel) carries out the orders. Ana Galdeano’s next job is finding a unique and exceptional piece, stolen by the Nazi army, which mysteriously disappeared during the final days of World War II. This object is the Amber Salon, an 18th-century room constructed entirely of semitransparent amber from the Baltic. In seeking this magnificent object, Ana finds herself obliged to disentangle the threads of a conspiracy plotted 50 years earlier by two very dangerous Nazi officials.
About the Author
Matilde Asensi (born 1962 in Alicante, Spain) is a Spanish journalist and writer, who specializes mainly in historical thrillers.
She has more than 20 million readers worldwide and has become the reference of quality bests-sellers in Spanish language. According to the magazine Que Leer she is the ‘Queen of the adventure novels’.
Her books, of an indubitable quality and proven historical documentation, have been translated to 15 languages. The English translation of The Last Cato won the 2007 International Latino Award in the category ‘best mystery novel’ and an honor mention for ‘best adventure novel’. The following year, Everything Under the Sky won the second place for the International Latino Award.
In 2011 she received the Honour Award of Historical Novel Ciudad de Zaragoza for her career in this genre. She also was awarded the Premio Juan Ortiz del Barco (1996) and the Premio Felipe Trigo de Relato (1997)
OTHER BOOKS BY MATILDE ASENSI
Everything Under the Sky
The Last Cato
The Lost Origin
Checkmate in Amber
Translated by Alexander Fraser
Copyright © Matilde Asensi, 2013
Translated by Alexander Fraser
Cover page image: © Jacobo Blasco
About the Author
Slap in the middle of Ávila’s Plaza del Mercado Chico, a zealous Inquisitor was hurling heretical tracts onto a raging bonfire. Meanwhile, two streets up, I was desperately trying to get my metallic calypso red (and frankly, gorgeous) BMW 525 tds out of the garage in a frustrating face-off with the hordes of stragglers arriving late for the medieval bash organized by the city council. For several days already, right outside my own front door, I’d been having to put up with the racket and riot of beggars’ brawls, slave auctions, jousting knights and the boastful claims of street vendors hawking their magic cure-alls and slivers of the True Cross.
If I’d only been just a bit more on the ball, I would have made damn sure to miss the mayhem, get out of Ávila with Ezequiela and go and stay at our finca in the country - leaving my fellow citizens to live it up any which way they fancied. But I had just come back from a long trip away and badly missed my home comforts, the familiar warmth of my own bed and a little bit of peace and quiet. Fat chance. This municipal knees-up was driving me up the wall.
I gently hooted the car horn and flashed my headlights in the vain hope that the sea of humanity would gracefully part and let me through, but it was a complete waste of time. Instead, my murderous instincts kicked in sharp, as a gang of heavy metal kids started to hammer on my car bonnet, laughing in my face and giving me the finger. Whenever something like this happens, I always solemnly swear to myself - usually in Hebrew, of course - that this year will definitely be the very last time that I stay cooped up inside the city walls at the mercy of the rampaging mob.
To be fair, there’s absolutely no way that I would have hit the street at this point, had I not received a characteristically imperious phone call from my Tía Juana, who I’d already planned to go and see the following day to finally wrap up the Saint Petersburg business. But when Juana says Right now!, not even Patton and his Third Army would have had the nerve to defy her.
‘Now don’t forget to take your jacket, dear, the weather’s taking a turn for the worse,’ Ezequiela instructed me from the living-room. ‘And be sure not to give my regards to that woman!’ she added scornfully.
Dear old Ezequiela had been working for my family since she was twelve years’ old, when my grandmother brought her in from the tiny hamlet of Blasconuño, in the north of Ávila province. She’d seen my father and my aunt grow up, she’d laid out the bodies of my grandparents, she’d faithfully served my own parents and then, when my mother died, she herself had taken charge of my upbringing. Her loyalty and loving affection for me were rivaled only by the implacable hostility that she felt towards my aunt. Juana’s bad temper and sheer vindictiveness when she was a girl had left an indelible imprint on Ezequiela’s memory. She had never been able to forgive Juana for her casual cruelty.
I eventually managed to get outside the city walls through the gate by the Church of San Martín and, now much calmer, crossed the Adaja Bridge and got onto the Piedrahita road. A leisurely half-hour drive lay ahead of me, listening to the news on the radio. The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was trying to get the State Duma to accept Viktor Chernomyrdin as his next prime minister and the communist-dominated Duma had turned him down flat, and was threatening that, if he carried on insisting, they’d be only too happy to kick off the Third World War. In the meantime, Bill Clinton was awaiting the publication of the Lewinsky Report and trying to come up with a convincing definition of the enormous difference between sexual relations and an inappropriate relationship.
These little spats had sent the world’s stock exchanges into free fall and plunged the world economy into deep recession. In Spain, however, all this was chickenfeed compared to the shocking news that Javier Clemente, the manager of the national football team, was refusing to resign after our embarrassing humiliation in the World Cup in France was followed by defeat in Cyprus. Yes, that’s right. In Cyprus.
I took the left turning towards Molinillos de Trave and, five hundred yards further on, glimpsed the imposing outline of the Santa María de Miranda monastery, built off the slope of the Monte de la Visión and silhouetted blue against the dim light of the waning moon. Its octagonal bell tower punched up into the sky with all the malice of my aunt’s forefinger on one of her bad days. I had never really worked out why Juana had decided to bury herself in such a place after having tasted life’s pleasures to the very full. I was ten or eleven then, and I will never forget the furious rows between her and my father. One of them ended up with Juana hurling a seventh-century bronze Persian jewelry box at him, opening up an inch-long cut on his forehead as bloody proof of the unshakeable nature of her deep religious vocation.
After that, they stopped speaking for a good long while. In the meantime, Juana took her vows and - to everyone’s a
I stopped the car in front of the monastery’s wrought-iron gateway and waited for one of the nuns to run down the slope and open it up for me. It was almost ten o’clock in the evening and I was surprised to see so many lights on in the building. According to the Rule of their Order, they should have already attended night prayers and gone to bed.
Before I knew it, Sister Natalia - somewhat sweaty from rushing down and pushing open the heavy gates - was looking at me through my side-window with her shining eyes and a broad smile showing off her two rows of whiter-than-white teeth. I sighed to myself quietly. Natalia always volunteered to open up the gates for me, just so that she could ride in the car the short way back up the slope. One of these days - the evil thought occurred to me - I would shoot up the hill at the speed of light, mercilessly abandoning her down at the bottom.
‘What a great car you’ve got yourself this time, Ana! Let’s see if it lasts any longer than the rest of them did!’ she squealed, as she lowered her more than fourteen stone onto my BMW’s springy upholstery. Since turning fifty, she had put on weight like there was no tomorrow.
‘Why on earth did you ever become a nun, Natalia? I’ve always thought that you should have been the mistress of some mega-rich Gulf sheikh.’
‘You’re crazy!’ she shrieked, delighted at the suggestion.
If there is one thing that really bugs me about the Santa María nuns, it’s their spotless naivety, their innocent immunity to whatever terrible remarks I make to them.
Unbending as a drill sergeant and as stiff as a board, my aunt was waiting for me just inside the gatekeeper’s lodge. Juana had just turned fifty-seven, but the mysterious anti-aging charm which the brides of Christ seemed to possess made her look as if she was still in her early ‘forties. Her long and angular face, with the thin lips and the bags under her eyes, was just like my father’s and mine, but her blue eyes were utterly unlike the brown ones traditional to the Galdeano clan - raising still-unanswered questions as to her exotic and quite possibly illegitimate origins. Luckily, Juana’s stiffness was just a pose and as soon as I was within her reach, her expression sweetened up and she gave me a big hug, under the admiring and affectionate gaze of the surrounding nuns, all lit up by Natalia’s huge white smile.
‘So, how did Saint Petersburg go?’ she asked, looking me over after finally letting me loose. ‘You’re certainly a lot skinnier.’
‘Well, there’s not a lot of food in Russia,’ I grumbled, remembering the paltry helpings of cabbage, semolina and beetroot that I had wolfed down over the week.
‘Oh Lord …! We’ll pray for those poor, poor people.’
‘Great. That’s sure to get the manna falling from heaven. Better still, make it vodka - they’ve got a long hard winter closing in.’
‘Really, Ana María!’
My hard-line atheism meant that the power of prayer - in which my aunt was a firm believer, of course - was a complete mystery to me. Why didn’t they do something practical, something that really worked?
‘And Ezequiela?’ Juana asked me, cunningly changing the subject. ‘How is she?’
‘Fine, fine, she’s doing really well. I left her in the living room watching TV.’
‘Give her my regards.’
‘Oh come on, Tía!’ I protested. ‘You know very well that the last thing she wants are your good wishes. Don’t make me put up with her string of heartfelt moans and complaints again.’
‘She really is the most obstinate and pig-headed woman who ever …!’
‘Hey, look who’s talking,’ I interrupted, hiding a smile. But my aunt’s expression was pained. Ezequiela’s contempt burned her up inside.
As we headed into the building side by side, I had a good look at her on the sly. She was as beautiful as ever, her bright blue eyes contrasting with her stern expression and permanent frown. She really was a good person, much better than she liked to admit, and she had a major weakness for her favorite niece. Well, OK, her only niece, yours truly. Luckily, my basic survival instincts quickly kicked in to remind me that with Juana, it was never a good idea to let your feelings cloud your vision. There were only two possible reasons for her demanding to see me: either she needed money, or she needed a potload of money.
The monastery and its community survived off the proceeds of various commercial activities which Juana had set up over the last few years. For instance, the older nuns sewed tracksuits and overalls for local factories and the cooks made pastries and Yemas de Santa Teresa which they sold for a king’s ransom in a little shop by the sanctuary door. The younger nuns had done bookbinding courses and carried out jobs for printshops and well-off private customers. There was even a novice who - for strictly cash up front - designed websites for various Church and National Heritage institutions. Whatever brought in the bucks, as far as my aunt was concerned. But even if she had been able to get her nuns on permanent piecework, as she would have liked to, it still would not have brought in the millions needed to pay for the constant restoration works required to keep the twelfth-century monastery from meeting its Maker.
‘So what’s gone to rack and ruin this time, Tía?’ I asked, as we crossed the hexagonal cloister and headed towards the Chapter House and monastic archives.
‘Don’t be so impatient!’
I smiled to myself. Juana loved keeping a secret.
‘Listen, I need to visit the dungeon for a second,’ I said, stopping suddenly by one of the cloister’s double columns and starting to take my bag off my shoulder.
My aunt nodded her approval. ‘I thought you would.’
One of the oldest parts of the convent, which had housed the nuns’ cells for eight centuries, had become uninhabitable shortly after Juana’s arrival. The then Mother Superior decided to close it off completely, and moved the Sisters’ cells to the east wing. But when the good woman passed on to a better life, Juana was elected to take her place and decided to open up the medieval cribs again. She gave them a quick facelift - a strut here, a new wall there, the odd coat of plaster and a lick of paint - and opened up an illegal warehousing business. My impression was that nearly every Ávila family worth its salt had rented an old cell where, for the very reasonable price of thirty euros a month for a small one and fifty a month for a big one, they could store all sorts of junk and odds and ends that had gone out of fashion. The daughter of one of Juana’s oldest friends, the wife of a military man who was forever being moved from post to post, had three cells permanently on lease.
When I was a kid, I got the wrong end of the stick - like you do - and believed that the cells were dungeons where the nuns were locked up every night. So ‘the dungeon’ is what my father called the cell which he used to hide away various articles that he didn’t want to keep in the finca’s storeroom or at his business, in case the police chose to pay him an unexpected visit.
‘Have you had any trouble at work?’ Juana asked me with motherly concern as she turned the huge iron key in the lock.
‘None at all,’ I replied, as I pushed the door open with a screech. ‘Everything worked out as planned. As usual.’
‘Thanks be to God!’
I breathed in a foul-smelling waft of fetid air as I stepped into the large room which for centuries until the Redemptorists’ arrival had served as the living quarters of the Bernardine abbesses, only to end up as the cache and stockpile of the Galdeano family. I was greeted by the welcome and familiar sight of various mounds and humps covered in dusty sheeting and dimly lit by the light coming through a latticed window. Somehow it really cheered me up, that comforting feeling that everything was in order and just where it sh
I didn’t have to take off the dustsheets to recognize from memory most of the precious objects beneath them. Many of those that were no longer there had ended up over time occupying privileged places in the mansions, castles and palaces of the richest art collectors in the world. In the Sixties and Seventies, Spain had been much more interested in packing the beaches of Benidorm and Marbella with tourists than in protecting its cultural and historical heritage. And the least bothered of all with the his-toric value of its goods and chattels had been the Catholic Church, which had sold off countless works of art through gypsy go-betweens.
At the beginning, my father’s business had been strictly legit. He had always been a huge admirer of beautiful objects, and this love had led him to travel all over the world buying antiques and building up a collection of seventeenth-century Flemish paintings. Not long after marrying my mother, his family wealth - earned in the construction of Spain’s first railways during the reign of Isabel II - finally ran out for good. So, given that one way or another he was going to have to work for a living, and seeing as there were no top-class antique dealers in Spain at the time, he decided that it would be an excellent idea to set himself up in a business so in tune with his own tastes.
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