American but with an Irish passport, the itinerant translator Cassandra Reilly is living in London when she receives an unexpected phone call. The voice on the other end belongs to Frankie Stevens, a San Francisco transplant with an unusual request. Her husband, Ben, has gone missing—presumably in Barcelona—and Frankie needs a translator to help her find him. Not one to pass up a well-paying gig or a free trip to Barcelona, Cassandra takes the job. But she quickly realizes that all is not as it seems.
Frankie’s charm is matched only by her guile. As Cassandra chases down leads in search of Ben, she becomes increasingly tangled in a web of half-truths—and caught between former flames Ana and Carmen.
Winner of the British Crime Writers’ Award for Best Mystery Based in Europe and the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, Gaudí Afternoon is the first book in the Cassandra Reilly Mystery series, which continues with Trouble in Transylvania and The Death of a Much-Travelled Woman, and concludes with The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists.
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For more information visit www.barbarasjoholm.com and www.barbarawilsonmysteries.com.
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A Cassandra Reilly Mystery
By Barbara Wilson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Barbara Sjoholm
All rights reserved.
MY NAME IS CASSANDRA REILLY and I don't live anywhere. At least that's what I tell people when they ask. I was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but I left when I was sixteen and I can hardly remember when that was. I have an Irish passport and make a sort of living as a translator, chiefly of Spanish, and chiefly of South American novels, at least at the moment. I rent an upstairs room in a tall Georgian house in Hampstead and another room in Oakland, California from an old friend Lucy Hernandez. These are my most permanent residences, by which I mean I receive mail there. But often as not I'm travelling: a conference here, a book fair there, a yen to see some part of the world I don't know yet. On my way back from Hong Kong I'll get an urge to see a friend in Kyoto and end up teaching English in Japan for two months. Or I'll decide I need to catch up with an old lover in Uruguay, and political events will keep me there longer than I expected.
I'm rarely anywhere more than a few months at a time and that's the way I like it. Of course my Irish relatives in County Cork believe my real spiritual home is Ballybarnacle, and sometimes I believe it too. Ireland is always green and magical in my mind and sometimes—on a crowded train snaking through India, on a sweltering day in a Columbian jail—I long for its mists and rocky shores. But hardly ever when I'm there.
I had been back in London for almost three months after a challenging six weeks in Iceland visiting a new friend, the volcano expert Ingrid Biritsdóttir. Money was tight and I had been forced to take on a larger translation project than I generally like—a lavishly written, complicated novel by the fourteenth writer to be compared to Garcia Márquez. Actually, it was by a woman, so she was only the fifth author to be dubbed "the new female Garcia Márquez."
Gloria de los Angeles was her pen name, and her wildly popular novel was entitled La Grande y su hija—literally, The Big One and Her Daughter. Told by a young woman, María, it had jungles and decaying colonial cities, plagues and miracles, a sinister villain called Raoul, a revolutionary named Eduardo and strong women like Cristobel, María's mother and the Grande of the title, who nevertheless was reduced to quivering guava jelly whenever Eduardo emerged from the jungle. Gloria de los Angeles was a Venezuelan mother of four, I had learned, who had previously translated Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel into Spanish. La Grande y su hija had swept Spain and South America and was poised, so the British publisher believed, to do the same in England and North America. A better title would help, though the English editor hadn't liked the American agent's suggestion: Big Mama's Baby Daughter.
I was up to page two hundred and forty-five and still had about seventy-five pages of the first draft to go. My deadline was June 1, two months away. I had saved time by not reading the book in advance, which had the added advantage of keeping me in a continual state of astonishment at Gloria de los Angeles's inventive plot line.
In any other country it would have been spring, but England keeps its own counsel about the weather, and had decided that a few more weeks of sleet, hail and freezing winds were good for the English, the one people on earth who think you should feel damp and chilled inside as well as outside. Up in my room it was cozy; a few days ago, in honor of it being the first of April, I had turned off one of my heaters, but tonight I had it back on again. I was surrounded at my desk, in fact, by four heaters. When you get into your forties it's harder to keep warm on your own anymore.
From downstairs I could hear the faint sounds of a Vivaldi bassoon concerto. Olivia Wulf, who owned the house, was a former first violinist with the English Chamber Orchestra. Now in her seventies, she was wheelchair-bound and cared for by her old friend and mine Nicola Gibbons, an accomplished bassoonist and Vivaldi scholar. In the evening the two of them often liked to arrange small baroque concerts for themselves. Although months and occasionally years went by between my stays here, this house, even more than the one in Oakland, was my post office, clothes closet and information center. I might forget in the deepest Amazon what new cultural and political developments were really significant, but when I came back to London I could count on Nicky, an ardent socialist-feminist as well as a fervent theater- and concert-goer, to help me get caught up.
I had just plunged into Chapter Twelve, which opened:
When I was thirteen a series of flash fires mysteriously combusted all through the river basin, causing no great harm to villages or to the jungle dwellers, animal or human, but great alarm to the parrots which scattered like leaves before a storm, blood-red and shrieking dementedly. I was not to know this for years but the fires coincided with the menopause of my long-lost mother Cristobel, who, lying in a darkened room of her great shabby palace in the city, her ivory forehead covered in cool cloths smelling faintly of rosewater, and remembering the scenes of her youth, was lighting conflagrations of memory along the banks of the fabulous river of silver,
when the phone rang and, shortly after, a gong sounded far below to let me know that I should pick up the line.
The voice on the phone was American; there was a weak buzzing in the background that made it clear the call was coming from across the Atlantic. Across a few dozen states as well.
"Is this Cassandra Reilly?"
It was a woman with a pleasantly husky voice, slightly distorted by the long-distance crackling. "You don't know me but I'm a friend of Lucy's in Oakland. My name is Frankie Stevens."
"Yes?" I was hesitant. Lucy might be one of my oldest friends, but I had just gotten rid of one visitor, someone's Alaskan cousin visiting Europe for the first time, and wasn't eager to play hostess again for a year or two.
The contralto voice paused. "I've got a slight problem and Lucy thought you might be able to help me. Since you speak Spanish."
"A translation job?" Again, I wasn't overly enthusiastic. The last friend of a friend who'd called up had wanted me to translate a computer program on managing your own vineyard from Spanish to English. Besides, I was up to my armpits with innocent but wise Cristobel and her diabolical first husband Raoul.
"Well, yes. Look—I wonder if we might talk about this in person? I'm flying to Heathrow this evening and that will put me in London tomorrow afternoon. I'll be staying at a hotel near Russell Square. Can we meet?"
I hesitated loudly.
Frankie said, "I'll make it worth your while."
I doubted that. Still, what was the harm? Even if Frankie were to propose the preposterous it couldn't be more bizarre than anything in this novel. And I probably needed a break—I was starting to lose my grip on reality.
So I suggested we meet in the Abyssinian rooms at the British Museum. Four p.m. Frankie said she would be wearing red.
The Abyssinians were not people with whom you'd probably enjoy spending a spring day, rainy or sunny. They seemed like the kind of guys who would enslave you as soon as look at you. The friezes were full of long lines of captives in chains, carrying animal, vegetable and mineral tribute and looking glum and apprehensive, no doubt for good reason. I was very fond, however, of the wavy river lines at the bottom of the friezes and the fish that jumped through them.
I was right on time but there was no woman in red in sight. I hadn't known how to describe myself. My last lover called me "desiccated," but that, I'm sure, was just pique that I had called things off first. On the other hand, age has made me a bit scrawny and tough, and it's hard to pamper one's skin on the road. On my better days I believe I resemble the middle-aged Katherine Hepburn.
Today I was dressed in a warm wool jumpsuit and my black leather bomber jacket. My hair, which one hairstylist had referred to as an Irish Afro, was bundled up under a black beret with an old Troops Out Now button. I wear my beret and my political sentiments whenever I meet prospective clients whom I suspect might be thinking of taking advantage of me.
I waited and waited. I hoped that Frankie hadn't been stopped at immigration. Maybe she was a drug dealer and I'd be implicated through a traced phone call. The narcotics squad would break into my attic room, take one look at my South American newspaper clippings and peg me for a coca baroness.
The Abyssinian rooms were not crowded, even on this rainy day when tourists flooded the museum. Most of the visitors were huddled around the Egyptian mummies and the Elgin Marbles. Only a few Japanese tourists, multiply-cameraed, peered with me at the long rows of captives and warriors. I fell into a kind of reverie about history, war and violence, and was only roused by the jaunty energy of someone advancing towards me.
A woman in a stretchy bright red tunic, black mini-skirt and black tights came tripping lightly as a gymnast over the stone floor. Her lipstick was a cheerful gash against her pale face and she wore a dozen red and black plastic bangles around her thin white wrists. Something about her face appealed to me right away; it was impish with a triangular chin and widely-spaced hazel eyes. Her hair was auburn and chaotically, delightfully curly, corkscrewed like that of a Shirley Temple doll. She was in her late twenties.
She skidded to a stop in front of me; on her feet were silly pointed black shoes. She wrinkled her nose. "Cassandra?"
You could tell she was American: the first thing she did was throw her arms around me and squeeze me tight. "Glad to meet you!"
Frankie reminded me of a young Irish setter, leggy, friendly, frisky. Upstairs, where I took her for tea, she beamed at the waitresses behind the counter and told the woman at the cash register to have a nice day.
"This is my first time in London," she said dramatically. "And you know what my first thought was? Wow, they really do talk like Masterpiece Theater. You're lucky to live here." She polished off a scone with strawberry jam and lit a Camel. "And I just can't thank you enough for agreeing to help me."
"I haven't agreed to anything," I reminded her pleasantly.
"Oh, I know," she said quickly and wrinkled her nose, as if we were already complicit. "Agreeing to meet me, I mean ... Lucy spoke so highly of you ... I felt sure you'd be the right person for this job, and now that I've met you I'm positive."
She looked at me brightly, and repeated, "You just seem right."
"What exactly is this job?" I asked.
"It's simple, really," she said. "I'm looking for someone in Barcelona and I need a translator to go with me."
"Barcelona!" I said. I loved Barcelona. "I'm in the middle of a big project here," I said. "I can't just take off and go to Barcelona."
"Oh, it wouldn't be for long," she assured me. "A few days maybe. Not more than a week. I'll pay your round-trip airfare of course, and a hundred dollars a day for expenses. Whether or not you're able to find the person I'm looking for I'll pay you a thousand dollars, but if you do find him, it will be three thousand. Think about it, Cassandra," she said, in a deeper drawl, "three thousand for just a few days' work."
I was thinking. Thinking about the dim shabby streets and pouring rain outside, thinking about Cristobel and Raoul waiting for me in my little upstairs room, thinking about the thin blue letter I'd received a week ago from my friend Ana in Barcelona.
"Who's 'him'?" I asked. "And why me?"
"My husband, Ben." Frankie sighed significantly, tossed her auburn corkscrews and lit another Camel with her silver lighter. "It's so complicated. You see, we've been separated for about five years, but we're still close. We married in college. I didn't know then he was gay and I didn't know he was from a wealthy family. Ben persuaded me to move to San Francisco and that's where he came out. He didn't want his family to know, so we agreed to stay married. At first it was hard on me, but eventually I accepted it. I'm an actress, you see, and both my freedom and Ben's economic support are important to me."
"You're an actress?" I said. I'd always had a weakness for girls behind the footlights.
"A stage actress," she smiled. "Unlike most of my friends, when I'm between roles I don't have to waitress. I'm so spoiled really!" She wrinkled her nose again, and rounded her bright hazel eyes. I could imagine her playing the gamine on stage, the saucy soubrette with the husky voice.
"What's the problem then?"
Frankie frowned. "The problem is that Ben is such a free spirit. He's never had to work and sometimes he just takes off for a month or two without telling me. Which is usually fine, but this time I happened to get a call from the family lawyer saying Ben needed to sign some important papers. I stalled as much as I could while I tried to find Ben, but after a few days I realized he'd simply disappeared."
Frankie paused and leaned over the table conspiratorially. "The papers are terribly important of course, but it's far worse if his father gets wind of the fact that I, his wife, don't live with him anymore and that I have absolutely no idea where to find him. His family is very traditional. They might cut him out of the will or something."
"What makes you think he's in Barcelona?"
"I started going through his phone bills," Frankie said without embarrassment. "I have a key to his apartment of course, so I just went through his desk, found the phone bills and started calling some of the numbers. There were quite a few to a number in Spain, in Barcelona. Whoever it was who answered only spoke Spanish, but when I said, 'Ben? Is Ben there?' they panicked and said in English, 'There's no Ben here,' and hung up the phone. So you can see why I think that's the logical place to start."
"And money's no object?" I asked.
"And time is of the essence." She smiled and placed her bangled hand on mine. "I hope you'll help me. You see, I ran into your friend Lucy Hernandez—who I knew years ago—as I was leaving Ben's apartment in the Castro. I told her that I was thinking of going to Barcelona but that I didn't know any Spanish and it would be a real problem for me. So she suggested you since you're a translator. I flew to London to persuade you. I plan to leave in a few hours. I'm hoping you'll follow me as soon as you can."
I was more than persuaded, but some last remaining shred of caution made me hesitate. "The thousand is up front, then, no strings attached?"
Frankie took out a red leather purse from inside an enormous glossy black shoulder bag. She pulled out an envelope and put it on the table in front of me. I'm sure the rest of the tea room thought we were doing a drug transaction or an IRA arms deal.
"Your airline ticket on Iberia is inside, and ten hundred dollar bills."
"What made you so sure of me?" I asked, taking the envelope.
Frankie gave the charming smile of a woman who has always gotten what she wanted. "Feminine intuition?"CHAPTER 2
THERE IS A WINDING STREET here is a winding street in the Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, not far from the cathedral, where you can pass one antique and curio shop after another. Whenever I find myself in Barcelona I invariably end up on Carrer Banys Nous, drifting by plate-glass windows through which you can see heavy wooden chests, rococo paintings in gold leaf frames and opulent tea sets and ceramics. Because I travel so much I rarely buy anything—but I still like to look.
But on one occasion, seven or eight years ago, I found myself with an impossible, irresistible desire to buy a ship's figurehead in one of the small shops. Long in the torso, with bright gilded hair and slightly parted roseate lips, the figurehead leaned forward through enormous pink- and purple-striped conches and blushing open scallops in the display window as if she could feel the Caribbean air still fresh on her painted cheeks.
Never before had I gone into any of the shops, not even to inquire a price. I'd been content to window shop, not to possess. But that day, almost without thinking, inflamed by desire, I rushed into the dark shop interior.
It was a tiny place, packed neat as a ship's cabin. On the walls were paintings of ships at sea and worn old maps; from the ceiling hung lanterns and finely detailed model ships. At the back of the shop the owner and a customer were just beginning to negotiate a purchase—of the ship's figurehead in the window.
I begged, I pleaded, I said that I thought my family had owned the figurehead, that I had been a sailor in a former life, that I would die if I couldn't have this lovely carved wooden lady. I offered to pay anything the owner wanted. He tried to play us off against each other, obviously seeing a profit whichever way he turned. But the other customer was adamant—and disarming. With great logic and single-mindedness she talked me out of my desire. Then invited me for dinner in one of Barcelona's best restaurants. We'd been friends ever since.
Excerpted from Gaudí Afternoon by Barbara Wilson. Copyright © 2012 Barbara Sjoholm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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