The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte

"Do I hear a bid?"

Gray ponytail raised his hand, and the blonde woman immediately counterattacked, lifting her paddle, number 74. That caused a stir in the room. The lean bearded man decided to withdraw, and after two new raises the bald, well-dressed man began to waver.

Gray ponytail raised the bidding, and caused new frowns in his vicinity when his phone rang once again. He took it from the hand of his secretary and clamped it between his shoulder and his ear; at the same time his free hand shot up to respond to the bid the blonde had just made. At this point in the contest, the entire room was clearly on the side of the blonde, hoping that ponytail would run out of either money or phone batteries. The Urrutia was now at triple the opening price, and Coy exchanged an amused glance with the man in the next seat, a small dark-haired man with a thick mustache and hair slicked back with gel. His neighbor returned the look with a courteous smile, placidly crossing his hands in his lap and twirling his thumbs. He was small and fastidious, almost prissy, and had melancholy, appealing, slightly bulging eyes, like frogs in fairy tales. He wore a red polka-dot bow tie and a hybrid, half Prince of Wales, half Scots tartan jacket that gave him the outlandishly British air of a Turk dressed by Burberry. "Do I have a higher bid?"

The auctioneer held his gavel high, his inquisitive eyes focused on gray ponytail, who had handed the cell phone back to his secretary and was staring at him with annoyance. His latest bid, exactly three times the original price, had been covered by the blonde, whose face Coy, more and more curious, could not see no matter how hard he tried to peer between the heads in front of him. It was difficult to guess whether it was the bump in the bidding that was perturbing ponytail or the woman's brassy competitiveness.

"Ladies and gentlemen, is this the last bid?" asked the auctioneer, with great equanimity.

He was looking at ponytail, without eliciting a response. Everyone in the room was looking expectantly in the same direction. Including Coy.

"Then at the current price, going once— At this price, going twice—"

Gray ponytail thrust up his paddle in a violent gesture, as if he were brandishing a weapon. As a murmur spread through the room, Coy again looked to the blonde. Her paddle was already up, topping his bid. Once again the tension built, and for the next two minutes everyone in the room followed the rapid duel's intense pace as if watching a fight to the death. Paddle number 11 was no sooner down than 74 was up. Not even the auctioneer could keep up; he had to pause a couple of times to sip from the glass of water sitting on the lectern.

"Do I have a further bid?"

Urrutia's Atlas was at five times its opening price when number 11 committed an error. Perhaps his nerve faltered, although the error might have been his secretary's; her phone rang insistently and she passed it to him at a critical moment, just as the auctioneer was holding the gavel high in expectation of a new bid, and gray ponytail hesitated as if reconsidering. The error, if that is what it was, might also have been the fault of the auctioneer, who may have interpreted the sudden movement, the turn toward the secretary, as a capitulation and an end to the bidding. Or perhaps there was no error at all, because auctioneers, like other human beings, have their hang-ups and their phobias, and this one might have been inclined to favor ponytail's opponent. Whatever the case, three seconds were all that were needed for the gavel to bang down on the lectern. Urrutia's Atlas was awarded to the blonde woman whose face Coy still hadn't seen.

LOT 307 was one of the last, and the rest of the session proceeded without emotion or drama, except that the man with the ponytail did not bid on any other item, and before the end of the auction he stood up and left the room, followed by the hastily tapping heels of the secretary—not, however, without first directing a furious glare at the blonde. Nor did she lift her paddle again. The thin, bearded individual ended up in possession of a very handsome marine telescope, and a gentleman with a stern expression and dirty fingernails, sitting in front of Coy, obtained for only slightly more than the opening price a model of the San Juan Nepomuceno that was almost three feet long and in quite good condition. The last lot, a set of old charts from the British Admiralty, remained unsold. The auctioneer called an end to the session, and everyone got up and moved to the small salon where Claymore treated its clients to champagne.

Coy looked for the blond woman. In other circumstances, he would have devoted more attention to the smile of the young receptionist, who came up to him with a trayful of goblets. The receptionist recognized him from other auctions. She knew that he never bid on anything, and was undoubtedly aware of the faded jeans and white sneakers he wore as a complement to the dark navy-blue jacket with two parallel rows of buttons that at one time had been gold and bearing the anchor of the Merchant Marine, but now were a more discreet plain black. The cuffs showed the marks of the officer's stripes they had once sported. Coy was very fond of the jacket—when he wore it he felt connected with the sea. Especially at dusk when he made the rounds of the port district, dreaming of the days when just calling at hiring offices you could pick up a ship to sign on to, times when there were remote islands that were a man's haven, reasonable republics that knew nothing of two-year suspensions, and where arrest warrants and subpoenas from naval tribunals never arrived. He had had the jacket made to order fifteen years earlier, with regulation trousers and cap, at the tailor shop of Sucesores de Rafael Vails. After he passed the examination for second officer, he would sail everywhere with it, wearing it on the ever rarer occasions in the life of a Merchant Marine officer when it was obligatory to wear correct attire. He called that ancient treasure his Lord Jim jacket—still very appropriate to his present situation—because it dated from the beginning of what he, an assiduous reader of seafaring literature, denned as his Conrad period. In that vein, Coy had previously lived a Stevenson period and a Melville period. Of the three, around which he ordered his life whenever he decided to take a glance back at the wake that every man leaves behind him, this one was the least happy. He had just turned thirty-eight, and was feeing twenty months on suspension and a captain's examination that had been postponed without a set date. He was stranded on land, burdened by a court action that drew a frown from the hiring officer of any shipping company whose door he darkened, and the boarding-house near the Ramblas and his meals at Teresa's were mercilessly devouring his savings. A couple of weeks more and he would have to accept a berth as an ordinary seaman aboard some rusting freighter with a Ukrainian crew, Greek captain, and Antillean registry, the kind that ship-owners scuttle for the insurance from time to time, often with a bogus cargo and no time to pack your seabag. Either mat or give up the sea and look for a job on dry land. The mere idea nauseated him, because Coy—even though it had been of little use aboard the Isla Negra—possessed the principal virtue of every sailor: a certain sense of insecurity that took the form of mistrust, something comprehensible only to someone who has seen a barometer drop five millibars in three hours on the Bay of Biscay, or has found himself being overtaken by a half-million-ton, quarter-mile-long oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz, at closer and closer quarters. It was the same vague sensation, or sixth sense, that woke you at night when there was a change in the throb of the engines, that raised apprehension at the sight of a black cloud on the far horizon, or when unexpectedly, and for no real reason, the captain appeared on the bridge to give a look around, as if he had nothing particular in mind. A feeling that was normal, on the other hand, in a profession in which the usual procedure when standing watch was to make minute by minute comparisons between the gyroscopic and magnetic compasses; or, to put it another way, to verify a false north by means of another north that itself was not true. And as was the case with Coy, that sense of insecurity was paradoxically accentuated as soon as his feet touched the deck of a ship. He had the misfortune, or the good luck, to be one of those men who was happiest ten miles from the nearest coast.