I was the wrong guy in the right place. At least that’s what I thought when I opened the office door and the elderly gentleman asked me if I was Miranda, the private detective. I quickly realised that he was a rich client. Not so much because he was wearing a suit and tie, both impeccable. It wasn’t just that. There was something on the man’s face that said: I’ve got money.
“Yes, I am.”
I was lying. My name isn’t Miranda and I’m not a detective. At least not a professional one. There was a time when I thought about being one. I put an ad in the paper and everything, but I wound up in a hell of a mess. It happened six years ago and I narrowly escaped winding up six feet under, keeping the worms company in São João Batista Cemetery.
The real Miranda was a scoundrel and owed my brother a large sum of money. My brother, Augusto, was living overseas and sent me money each month. It wasn’t a lot and it was never enough, not because I wanted to get rich but because I really needed it to get by. Augusto called me one day and said: Miranda owes me. If you can get him to cough up, the money’s yours.
I had been staking out the bastard’s office for three weeks. I had even become friends with his secretary, Ana. That is, we were a little more than friends.
Miranda always found a way to give me the slip. Whenever I arrived at his building, he’d already split. He knew I was Augusto’s brother and was there to collect, so he was never around when I showed up. At least I hooked up with Ana, when there were no clients. And it happened right there on the small couch in the reception area or on Miranda’s desk. She would lock the door and for a short while I’d forget I was deeply in debt and that there was a prick of a detective who owed me money.
It wasn’t just a form of compensation, of course. I liked Ana. Pretty face, with fine features, long legs that reminded me of Barbie, and her white skin would take on a rosy colour on hot days. Short hair, dyed red, a false redhead who was a real traffic-stopper. She was doing a degree in History and worked as a secretary on the side, to pay the bills. As well as intelligent, she had a good sense of humour. I love women who make me laugh. I liked Ana but what I really needed was my money.
Here’s my chance to get my money, I thought. The plan came to me readymade: pretend to be the detective and keep whatever he had coming from his client.”
That afternoon, as always, Miranda wasn’t in his office. I arrived as Ana was leaving. I have to run some errands, she said. Wait for me here, I’ll be back in a minute. She left. I locked the door and went into the detective’s office.
I started rummaging through some files, not really knowing what I was looking for, since it was highly unlikely that he’d hide money in his office. That was when the doorbell rang.
I put everything back in its place and went to get the door. It was an elderly gentleman. Here’s my chance to get my money, I thought. The guy must have been Miranda’s client. Maybe he was there to pay him. The plan came to me readymade: pretend to be the detective and keep whatever he had coming from his client.
Now the man was there and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do, except keep up the farce as long as I could.
“Come on in. This way, please.”
I motioned for him to take a seat and I sat in the other chair, Miranda’s chair.
“I thought you were older.”
I am older, I thought. My ID card says I’m thirty-two but it isn’t some wretched piece of paper in a plastic cover that’s going to say my real age. After what’s happened to me lately, my soul must be fifty years old, if a soul can have an age.
“I look after myself,” I said, straightening some papers on the desk, without looking at my client.
Then I looked up and said, staring him straight in the eye:
“How can I help you, sir?”
“A good friend of mine recommended you. You solved a case for him a few years back: the theft of some family jewels. His name’s Omar.”
“Yes, Omar, of course I remember. How is he?”
“Well. He loves to travel, as you know. He left for Asia yesterday. That’s why he couldn’t come here with me.”
“He was happy with your work and praised your efficiency and, above all, discretion,” the man said, with a penetrating look.
He was a polite and softly spoken, very friendly. He seemed incapable of doing anyone any harm. What might have brought him to the office of a private detective? I discarded the hypothesis of payment. He wasn’t there to pay anyone, unfortunately.
I could have just told him the truth and got out of that place that wasn’t mine. But I decided to keep up the act. My intuition was telling me that I was still going to get lucky.
“It comes with the terrain. Discretion is everything,” I replied.
“It’s good to know you think like that.”
He changed position in his chair. He seemed less tense.
“I need you to recover an object. Something very valuable.”
I waited a few seconds, holding the client’s gaze. He must have been about sixty years old, grey hair carefully combed back, and there was something in his eye that I wasn’t really able to identify, an exuberance, a certain vitality, an intense gleam.
“Yes, a collector’s item, the first edition of Histoires Extraordinaires, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe organised and translated by Baudelaire in 1856.”
“Are you familiar with it?”
“Poe is one of my favourite writers. I know everything about that book. I’ve read it several times. In Portuguese, of course. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ is in it. It’s considered the first ever detective story, the pioneer.”
“Then you must know that that story wasn’t in the original edition, organised by Poe himself, with the title Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.”
“I know. It was Baudelaire who decided to include the story in his collection and changed the title of the book. The Brazilian translation was based on Baudelaire’s collection. Histórias Extraordinárias, in Portuguese.”
“A detective who likes Poe!”
Did Miranda like Poe? And if he did, did the man know it? I was starting to talk too much, I thought to myself.
“It must be worth a fortune.”
“Perhaps. But don’t think its value is purely monetary. The book has been in my family since the 19th century. A beggar gave it to my great grandfather in 1862.”
“My great grandfather was twenty when he took a trip to Paris. He was always broke and given to adventures of all kinds. At the time, he had just received a small inheritance from his late father and decided to spend it all travelling through Europe. He didn’t have a set job. He did odd jobs here and there, and let life take him where it would. And he loved to read.”
He loved to read and didn’t want to work. I liked my client’s great granddad.
“He had a big heart and no attachment to material items. One day, strolling through Paris, he found himself on Rue Dunôt, Faubourg Saint-Germain.”
“It’s not possible.”
“What’s not possible?”
“Can you repeat the name of the street?”
“Now you’re going to tell me he went into number 33.”
The man smiled.
“I see you know Poe’s stories well.”
“Not really, I’m no expert or anything, but I know that that’s Dupin the detective’s address. How did your great grandfather end up there?”
“Luck, if you believe in such things. Or fate, if you prefer. What matters is that my great grandfather was walking down the street and right in front of number 33, sitting on the sidewalk, a beggar asked him if he could spare some change. Generous as always, he gave the poor man half of what he had in his pocket.”
“The beggar was surprised to see how much money he had just been given. He wanted to kiss his benefactor’s feet. My great grandfather refused and the man asked him what he could do to return the favour. That was when my great grandfather saw the book. It was wrapped in a threadbare blanket, together with other objects. He asked to see it.”
“It was Baudelaire’s book. Rather, Poe’s.”
“Exactly. The beggar had been given it by someone in the street. It was of no use to him as he could barely read and he was hoping to sell it for a few pennies or trade it for food.”
“Did your great grandfather know it was valuable?”
“Back then it didn’t have the value that it has today. It had been published a few years earlier and could be found in any bookstore.”
“A beggar gave your great grandfather a book with the story of Dupin in front of Dupin’s own house? Unbelievable.”
“If you don’t believe that, then I can hardly expect you to believe the next part.”
“What I told you was just the beginning. My great grandfather took the book and went on his way. A little further along he heard the beggar calling him back. He returned and the beggar told him that the person who had given him the book had given him a warning. The beggar hadn’t been bothered by it but thought he should relay to my great grandfather what the book’s former owner had said, just in case.”
“And what was it?”
“A very clear warning: never read all of the stories in this book.”
“The beggar merely repeated what he had heard from the man who had given it to him: misfortune will come to the reader when he turns the last page of this volume. Never read it in its entirety.”
I remembered something I had heard once, I’m not sure where, in a film I think. Someone in the film was saying exactly the same thing about One Thousand and One Nights. They said the Arabs believed that One Thousand and One Nights should never be read all the way through, at the risk of suddenly dropping dead, slumped over the last page.
“Then I think the curse must only apply to the French edition. I’ve read my Histórias Extraordinárias many times and nothing has ever happened.”
I studied his face carefully and detected an ironic smile, which I didn’t know how to interpret properly and which seemed a little scary. I felt a shiver run down my spine.
“My great grandfather was a man, how should I put this, who believed in certain things.”
“OK, a mystic. He took the warning seriously and avidly read the stories, with the exception of one, whose pages he didn’t even open.”
“Why that one?”
“I don’t know, I never found out. What matters is that from that day on, from the moment my great grandfather opened his Histoires Extraordinaires, his life changed completely. He became a millionaire overnight. Everything started going right in his life. In health, love, business, it was incredible.”
“And you think it has to do with the book.”
“I don’t just think it does, I know it does. And he did too. Before he died, my great grandfather gave the book to my grandfather, who led a long, prosperous life. Then my father inherited the book and the same thing happened to him. On his deathbed, he gave me the book as a present. He placed it in my hands and said: look after it well and never let it leave this house.”
“And you have led a prosperous life too.”
“I have. Until now. I fear that bad things might happen to me and my family now that Histoires Extraordinaires has been stolen.”
“Stolen? Are you sure it’s been stolen?”
“Yes, and I know who did it.”
I suppressed a smile but my face must have let some sign of it escape.
“Do you think it’s funny, son?”
“You have a butler? And he’s guilty?”
“I had a butler, but I don’t any more. He disappeared.”
I went serious again. The whole story seemed absurd but I felt that the man was telling me the truth, or at least what he considered to be the truth.
“I’m sorry, Mr…”
“Mattos. Affonso Albuquerque de Medeiros Mattos, at your service.”
“Why do you think it was the butler, Mr Mattos?”
“It could only have been him. Thomaz had been with us for over thirty years. We always treated him affectionately. Everyone considered him a member of the family. A few weeks ago he started acting strange, irritable. He was in a foul mood that he wasn’t able to control; he even got aggressive.”
“And you threatened to fire him.”
I was about to take on a ridiculous case, in which the guilty party was the butler. And worse, a case that wasn’t even mine. Was it worth it? I decided not to make a decision until I’d heard a little more of the story.”
“No, I tried to talk to him and asked what was happening. He gave me evasive answers, said he had personal problems. Last week he received a phone call. He answered thinking no one was home. I was in the garden and overheard the whole conversation without him noticing me. He was talking to a woman, saying she was wrong, that he wasn’t a child, that he was going to pay the debt.”
“Are you sure that’s what it was? A debt?”
“Yes. I heard it very clearly. A woman was asking him to pay a debt. And it must have been a big one.”
“If he was in debt, he could have borrowed the money from you.”
“I agree. I had decided to talk to him after the phone call, to find out what was really going on and help him financially if necessary. But he was very worked up, out of control. He slammed the phone down and paced the room for a while and I was reticent to approach him in that state.”
“Didn’t you talk to him later, to ask what was going on?”
“That night Thomaz packed his bags and left. When I woke up he had gone. He disappeared. He didn’t even leave a note.”
“When did you realise the book was missing?”
“Two days later. I didn’t leave it out on the bookshelves in my library, like the others. It was too precious for that, so I kept it in a safe. Only I know the combination. That is, me and the other members of the club.”
“I belong to a club of bibliophiles. We get together once a month. It’s a closed club. We don’t accept new members. Initially the group had twelve associates, twelve true friends, I can assure you. Some have already died and now there are seven of us.”
“You and the other six members of your group know the combination of the safe the book was stolen from.”
“And how do you know the thief isn’t one of them?”
“Because the safe wasn’t opened using the combination. It was cracked. We were all at a meeting, my friends and I. We were in my library and when I went to get the book I saw the cracked safe and no sign of Histoires Extraordinaires.”
“The safe is in the library itself?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t some other member of the household, another employee?”
“The only employee who entered the library is Thomaz. He did the cleaning himself, when it needed it. Not even the cleaners are allowed in there.”
“Are you married?”
“No. I’m a widower. I live with my two daughters.”
“And why didn’t you call the police?”
“Oh, no. The police have better things to do than chase after a stolen book. The chief of police would laugh in my face or think it was just the ravings of a doddering old man. I’d have all the bother of leaving my home and facing the unpleasant atmosphere of the police station for what? Nothing. At the very most, I’d manage to file a complaint. That was when Omar suggested your name.”
I leaned back in my chair and stared at the man. I was about to take on a ridiculous case, in which the guilty party was the butler. And worse, a case that wasn’t even mine. Was it worth it? I decided not to make a decision immediately, until I’d heard a little more of the story.
“Do you have any idea where your former butler might have gone? Was he married or did he have any relatives in Rio?”
“He was single, didn’t have any kids. Thomaz was very reserved. He rarely talked to me about his personal life. All I know is that he has, or had, a sister, older than him.”
“And where does this sister live?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you at least have a photo of him?”
“Not here, but I must have one at home somewhere.”
I stood and went over to the window. I opened the blinds a little and stood there watching a fine rain fall outside.
“Are you going to take the case or not?” he asked.
“I’m prepared to pay you in accordance with your competence.”
Then you can give me a fiver and we’re good, I thought, feeling like laughing. Or crying.
“And how much is that, exactly?”
I choked. I wasn’t drinking or eating anything and nevertheless I managed to choke. I think the words must have flown out of the man’s mouth and lodged in my throat. Thirty thousand!
“Are you feeling OK?”
“I am. It’s the air conditioning, sometimes it bothers me.”
I turned off the air conditioner and drank a glass of water. Still standing, I asked, “Dollars or euros?”
Amazing how I managed to go one better and be so brazen. He stared at me a moment.
“You really are Miranda. Omar told me your services weren’t cheap.”
So Miranda had money. He hadn’t coughed up because he was a dishonest prick.
“If that’s your price, I’ll pay it. Thirty thousand euros.”
I went back to the window. Outside I could see one of those mirrored buildings in the city centre. It was a beautiful image and would have made a nice photo. The rain beating against the building’s mirrors was making a pattern in tones of blue and grey. I stood there looking at it and thinking: jackpot.
This extract was translated by Alison Entrekin from O livro roubado (The Stolen Book). Reproduced by kind permission of Mertin Witt Literarische Agentur and Agência Riff.
Flávio Carneiro was born in Goiânia in 1962 and now lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he works as a journalist, literary critic, scriptwriter and professor of Literature at the State University. O livro roubado, three earlier novels, two collections of stories and two books of essays are published in Brazil by Rocco.
Alison Entrekin’s translations include City of God by Paulo Lins, The Eternal Son by Cristovão Tezza, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, Budapest by Chico Buarque and Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa.