The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte


He thought of himself as nearly illiterate in music, but he loved jazz, its insolence and ingenuity. He had fallen in love with it during long watches on the bridge, when he was sailing as third officer aboard the Fedallah, a fruit carrier of the Zoe line whose first officer, a Galician they called Gallego Neira, had the five tapes of the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. They included musicians from Scott Joplin and Bix Beiderbecke to Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, passing through Armstrong, Ellington, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and others. Hours and hours of jazz with a cup of coffee in his hands, nights beneath the stars huddled on the flying bridge, staring at the sea. The chief engineer, Gorostiola, who came from Bilbao and was better known as the Tucuman Torpedoman, was another passionate fan of that music, and the three of them—later they went on together to the Tashtego, a sister ship in the Zoe line—had shared jazz and friendship for six years, following the quadrangular route the Fedallah. cut as she carried cargoes of fruit and grain between Spain, the Caribbean, northern Europe, and the southern United States. That was a happy time in Coy's life.

From the floor below came the sound of the radio belonging to the landlady's daughter, who usually stayed up late studying. She was a sullen, graceless girl at whom he smiled courteously without ever receiving a greeting or a look in return. La Maritima had been a bathhouse—built in 1844 it said above the door facing the calle Arc del Teatre—and was later converted into a cheap rooming house for sailors. It straddled a rise between the old port and the Chinese quarter, and no doubt the girl's mother, a hard-faced woman with dyed red hair, had alerted the girl from an early age to the inherent dangers of her clientele, rough unscrupulous men who collected women in every port, hitting land with a raging thirst for alcohol, drugs, and more or less virgin girls.

Through the window, and blending with the jazz on his Walkman, he could hear every note of Noel Soto singing "Noche de samba en Puerto Esparia." Coy turned up the volume. He was naked except for his shorts; on his stomach, open and face down, lay the Spanish edition of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander. His mind, however, was miles away from the nautical feats of Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin. The stain on the ceiling resembled the outline of a coast, complete with capes and coves, and Coy followed an imaginary course between two extremes of the yellowish sea on the smooth ceiling.

It was raining when they left the Boadas. A fine rain slicked the asphalt and sidewalks with glimmering lights and misted halos around automobile headlights. She didn't seem to care that her suede jacket was getting wet, and they walked along the central paseo between newspaper kiosks and flower stands just beginning to close. A mime, stoic beneath the drizzle trickling down the white paint on his petrified face, followed passers-by with sad eyes after she bent down to leave a coin in his top hat. She walked on exactly as before, a little ahead of him and looking to her left, as if leaving to Coy the choice of occupying that space or discreetly fading away. He stole a glance at the hard profile behind smooth hair that rippled as she walked, and the dark-blue eyes occasionally turned toward him as the prelude to a thoughtful look or a smile.

There weren't many people in the Schilling. Again he ordered a Sapphire gin and tonic and she settled for tonic alone. Eva, the Brazilian waitress, poured their drinks while staring at Coy's companion, then arched an eyebrow toward him, drumming on the counter with the same long green-polished fingernails that had been conscientiously digging into his naked back three dawns before. But Coy ran his hand over his wet hair and smiled his inalterable smile, very sweet and tranquil, until the waitress muttered "bastard," smiled in return, and even refused to charge for his drink. Coy and the woman sat at a table facing the large mirror reflecting rows of bottles along the wall. There they continued their intermittent conversation. She was not talkative; at this point she had told him only that she worked in a museum. Five minutes later he learned that it was the Museo Naval in Madrid. He deduced that she had studied history, and that someone, maybe her father, was career military. He didn't know whether that had anything to do with her well-brought-up-girl look. He had also glimpsed a contained strength, an internal, discreet self-confidence that he found intimidating.

Coy did not bring up the guy with the gray ponytail until later, when they were walking beneath the arcades on the Plaza Real. She had confirmed that the Urrutia was a valuable if not unique piece, but it wasn't clear whether she had acquired it for the museum or for herself. It's an important maritime atlas, she commented evasively when he alluded to the scene on Calle Consell de Cent, and there's always someone who's interested in that kind of thing. Collectors, she had added after a minute. People like that. Then she dipped her head a little and asked what his life was like in Barcelona, making it obvious that she wanted to change the subject. Coy told her about La Maritima, about his walks through the port, and about the sunny mornings on the terrace of the Universal bar opposite the headquarters of the Merchant Marine, where he could sit for three or four hours with a book and his Walkman for the price of a beer. He also told her about the long weeks he had ahead of him, about the frustration of finding himself ashore, without work and money. At that moment he thought he saw, at the far end of the arcade, the short, mustached individual with the gelled hair and checked jacket who had been at the auction house that evening. He watched him a minute to be sure, and turned to the girl to ask whether she had recognized him too, but her eyes were empty of expression, as if she'd noticed nothing in particular.