He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.
He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.
Señor Raol Ferreira. A man of few words, impeccable taste and advancing years. He would arrive at exactly 10:30 and sit at the window table in the far corner. After politely enquiring about the specials he would, without fail, order a café con leche and a sweet almond pastry. He would then pull out the days newspaper, reading it from cover to cover before folding it back up neatly at 11:30. He would then pay, always in exact change left on the corner of the table, tipping his hat to the waitresses on the way out.
One of those girls was Maria Ferreira (no relation). She had been working at the cafe for the summer and liked the funny older gentleman. While he was very kind there was always a sparkle of something in his eye. Not danger exactly, but as though he was playing a part and only you and he were in on it. She would always choose him the best pastry from the cabinet and make sure his coffee was brewed extra strong, just how he liked it.
Last Tuesday however, much to Maria's dismay, Señor Raol Ferreira did not show up at exactly 10:30 and look at the specials before ordering a coffee and a sweet almond pastry. He did not show up at all, in fact.
The other girls hadn't noticed, not that she would expect them to. She considered them particularly vapid, concerned almost exclusively with which of the local boys had spoken to who last night (Ramon, to Cristibel). She raised it with them anyway and they predictably told her not to worry so much. They said he was probably ill or perhaps he had gone to another café, but she knew they were wrong. Señor Raol Ferreira did not strike her as a man who got ill, and he was definitely not one to go to other cafes.
At the end of her shift she wrapped up three of the leftover pastries in a napkin and walked to his house. He had ordered cakes for a party the previous year, so they had his address in their order book. As she headed into his street, double checking the address she had scrawled on a napkin, she started to suspect she might be on an adventure. She should know, she was well versed in adventures.
Not her own however, much to her chagrin. Maria was looked after by her father, though only in the loosest possible sense. He was a sailor and spent 364 (and a half) days a year at sea (he had half a day off for Christmas, though inevitably spent it heaving in the toilet due to his "landsickness"). When he was away he would send her postcards from every port the ship docked in telling her of the adventures he had been a part of.
Maria's father had a particular aptitude for adventures. There was the time he accidentally dropped a box of snakes they were transporting for a sultan and had to chase them through the city. Or there was the time he got onto the wrong boat and ended up helping smuggle opium out of China. Or the time he had to escape prison after being caught helping to smuggle opium out of China. Adventures seemed to seek him out, whether he wanted them or not (typically he did not). Maria, on the other hand, felt her life was particularly bereft of them.
Señor Ferreira’s house was not far from the café so she was shortly standing on the doorstep feeling foolish. She optimistically looked up and down the cobbled street, hoping to spot a neighbour she could enquire with. The only other living thing on the street was a mangy cat sunning itself in the evening rays. It was Friday so everyone was down at the piazza drinking wine, eating tapas and generally not skulking on doorsteps. Her stomach was churning but she steeled herself to knock on the door.
At this juncture in the story, it would be useful for you know a little more about Señor Raol Ferreira. While the elderly gentleman was indeed kindly he had managed to get himself mixed up in a bit of trouble. On the other side of the door on which Maria will imminently knock there are three men, with guns, waiting for the elderly man to return home. As is almost always the case when dealing with men holding guns, they were not happy. They believed that Señor had stolen something, which he had, and they wanted it back. It would also be remiss of me to not inform you that Señor Ferreira was presently rounding the corner at the end of the street.
At this point, three things then happened almost simultaneously. First, Raol, distracted by seeing the waitress on the doorstep, stood on the tail of the lounging cat, which screeched violently. Second, the sound of the cat startled one of men inside who squeezed the trigger of his gun, blasting a hole in the ceiling. Third and most egregiously, Maria, startled by both the shot and the cat, dropped her pastries. By the time the ears of the men inside had stopped ringing, Maria was halfway to home and Raol had sequestered himself down a side street, waiting to see who was firing shots into his ceiling.
It was getting dark before the men emerged, covered in plaster and muttering darkly. They immediately noticed the pastries on the front step as well as the white napkin they had been wrapped in. Raol could see them discussing the discovery from his vantage point. He knew that the young girl in the cafe was caught up in it all whether she liked it or not. Perhaps an adventure was on the cards after all.
By the time the men left the building Maria was already home, lying on her bed and chastising herself. At last, an adventure falls straight into her lap and the first thing she does is run away!
As the adrenaline began wearing off and her breathing returned slowly to normal, she began to analyse the events of the night. The sound she had heard was definitely a gunshot, she was sure of it. Not that she had ever actually heard a gunshot before, but based on what she had read in books she was absolutely certain. This was very exciting to Maria. Gunshots meant guns, and guns positively reeked of adventure. She promised to herself that she wouldn't run away next time.
While Maria was swept up in the excitement of definitely being on an adventure, she did not consider the following (and I am sure you will agree quite pertinent) questions: Had she just overheard a murder? Was Raol ok? Should she tell the police? What about the pastries in the napkin? However, and I am sure you will agree with me dear reader, perhaps the reason that we think to ask such questions is the reason we don't end up on adventures like young Maria here.
The next day, Maria was standing idly in the cafe, replaying the events of previous night in her mind for the hundredth time. She had just got to the end of Raol’s street when the door chimed and a customer walked in.
He was a squat, squarish man with thick features and a rough dark stubble. One of the other girls went to serve him and Maria watched absently as Isabella went through the specials and took his order. Suddenly, Maria's heart skipped a beat. He had just brought one of the cafes napkins out of his pocket and was asking Isabella about it. Maria saw Isabella point back to her cheerfully before taking the napkin off the gentleman.
"Maria, that gentleman said that he found this napkin on the street with some pastries. I told him that you had taken some to Raol yesterday — did you drop it on your way to Raols?" Isabella asked Maria while she busied herself getting the coffee together. Maria nodded slowly while her mind raced.
She had dropped the napkin right outside the door! And now this man who was almost certainly a criminal and almost definitely carrying a gun was going to shoot her where she stood and the bullet would go straight through her and hit the coffee cups behind her the shards would go everywhere and everyone would be picking shards of coffee cup out of their hair for weeks!
She now also realised she had been staring directly at the man who was directly staring back at her. Without thinking she dropped into a crouch behind the counter. Isabella stared at her dumbly.
“What are you doing?” Isabella asked with suspicion, peering down at her.
“Ah, er, cramps,” Maria replied, trying on a wince. “I think I must have eaten some bad fish. I better head home.” She proceeded to scuttle along the length of the bar while still crouching to grab her coat. Isabella watched her with incredulity.
“You can’t just leave! I will be swamped!” Isabella whined. There was currently two customers in the cafe, one of whom was trying in vain to catch Isabella’s eye so they could pay and leave.
“I think I might be sick,” Maria replied, pretending to wretch and calculating the distance from the end of the counter to the door. Isabella’s eyes widened.
“Oh, you better be off then. We don’t want that sort of thing in here.” Maria nodded. Isabella sidled round her to deliver the coffee to the squat man, still blithely unaware of the woman who was desperately trying to pay. As Isabella walked into the gap between the end of the counter and the door, Maria rushed forward and grabbed it, swinging it open and launching herself out into the street. The squat man’s brow furrowed.
- - -
Maria’s heart pounded as she caught her breath in a small alley just off the main street that the cafe was on. She had bolted out the door of the cafe with a thought to continue down the street at the same pace. However, a few steps down the road she realised that if the squat man was looking for her, there may be others. She would have a better chance of slipping past undetected if she wasn’t running at full pace in waitresses outfit in the middle of the day, so she ducked down the alley.
Once she had composed herself, she emerged back onto the main street with her best nonchalant amble and headed towards home. It was a beautiful day and the street was packed. She tried her best to become part of the crowd but the hairs were standing up on the back of her neck. One of her father's stories came back to her.
In the adventure of the missing hat, her father had been heading through the city when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up just like Maria's were doing now and he was certain he was being followed. To confirm his suspicions he did three things. Maria now followed suit.
First, he kept an eye on passing shop windows to see if he could see anyone keeping an eye on him. Maria studied the windows of the greengrocer, the bakery and the bookshop as she passed. Sure enough, in each window she could see a man with his eyes fixed on her keeping a few paces back. Suspicions aroused, she proceeded onto the next step, stopping suddenly and crossing the street, doubling back and then continuing on in the same direction. Sure enough, in the next shop window she could see the man was still following her. She considered the last step her father had told her, but it was illegal in most countries, so she skipped it for now.
Now acutely aware of the man behind her, and certain he was following her, she tried picking up her pace without making it too obvious, keeping an eye on him in every window she passed. He was almost the exact opposite of the man she had seen in the cafe. Tall and thin he stood a head taller than everyone else on the street, though he was clearly trying to slouch down to hide his evident height. This made him easy to tabs on for the most part.
She was trying so hard to observe the man behind she nearly collided with a shopkeeper standing outside his shop.
“Ah, madame, I see you have been attracted by our beguiling scents! And no wonder, they are the finest scents in the whole of Lisbon.” She started and looked to see who was talking to her. A man with dark oiled hair and a curled, oiled, mustache spoke to her greasily in a clearly affected french accent. Her nostrils reliably informed her she had nearly run into a perfumier. “Looking to attract a handsome man no doubt?” he insinuated with rambunctious eyebrows.
“Well, ah, no. Ideally looking to get rid of one actually.” She responded, trying to keep an eye out for the tall man in the reflection of the shopfront. She couldn’t see him any more.
“Very good madame, I have just the thing. Please, come in, come in,” the man oozed, taking her gently by the arm and steering her into the shop.
Unable to spot the tall man she allowed herself to be guided in, thinking at the very least she would have a better view of the street from inside. As she entered she was hit by a waft of warm stuffy air composed of the co-mingling of 100 different fragrances. The shop was shelved floor to ceiling in rich dark wood and was surprisingly dark given the bright day. She could just make out hundreds of tiny fragrance bottles carefully lined across every shelf. The thick fragranced air instantly made her feel queasy while the oily man slid behind his counter and begun rummaging for a scent. She took up a position by the shop window, idly fiddling with some decorative soaps whilst she scanned the street. Through talking to the man and entering the shop she had lost sight of her follower, despite his lofty stature.
She could feel the air become yet denser with fragrance and she realised that the man was at her shoulder again. He was proffering a bottle before him.
“Here you go madame, just the fragrance you need.” He was holding a small, glass spray bottle in his outstretched hands, made of frosted green glass. She picked it up and went to smell it. “Careful madame, it is quite potent.” He warned.
She tentatively sniffed the opening of the bottle and her eyes watered from the pungent scent, heavily laced with pepper and other spices. He looked expectantly at her.
“Yes, very good” she spluttered.
He beamed, delighted. “Excellent madame, I am so glad that you like it. I will go wrap it up for you right now.”
“No no, that is fine, I will just take it as it is.” He looked somewhat deflated but assented. She wasn’t quite sure how she had ended up now buying a bottle of fragrance, but she felt like she couldn’t back out now. She paid him the money and slipped the bottle into her pocket, heading back towards the door.
She hesitantly stuck her head out, looking up and down the street, but she could no longer see her pursuer She figured that she must have given him the slip when she had entered the shop.
Glancing around furtively whilst trying to look as nonchalant as possible, she proceeded up the street to the tram stop where she would take the tram back to her house. She felt greasy, like the fragrances in the shop had stuck to her skin in a slick layer, but the bright sun and the fresh breeze coming off the sea soon cleared her foggy head. There was still no sign of the man and she began to feel excited at the possibility that she had lost him. That was definitely the sort of thing you did in adventures.
She saw the tram stop ahead and hurried towards it as she could hear a tram trundling closer. Just before she reached it she felt a hand grip her shoulder, hard. The force of it spun her round and she was soon looking up into the face of the man that had been following her. He smirked triumphantly.
“I think you ought to come with me miss”. He spoke Portugese well, but with an accent that suggested that he wasn’t from here originally. She shook her head and tried to back away, but his hand was gripping her tightly. He said something else but the tram was close now so she couldn’t hear it. His eyes narrowed. Thinking quickly she grabbed the fragrance bottle from her pocket and sprayed it in his face. He howled, the fragrance burning his eyes. Suddenly, she felt a hand around her waist and she was abruptly on the tram standing opposite Señor Raol Ferreira.
Later, she was sitting in Raol’s house with a cup of coffee, listening to Raol explain his side of the story.
“I went to speak to you at the cafe this morning, but as I was drawing near I saw you running out. I nearly shouted for you, but realised I didn’t know your name. That was when I noticed someone following you down the street, so I kept a low profile and started following him. When I saw him go on ahead of you towards the tram stop I knew he was going to try and cut you off, so I went after him. I was standing up the road when he accosted you so I jumped on the tram and swept you up as I went past. Damn near pulled my arm off though, you’re heavier than you look,” he grumbled, rubbing his shoulder.
She sipped her coffee. They were sitting in a different house than the one that she had delivered pastries to, which Raol says is in fact a rental he sometimes entertains at. This was his actual house and it was small and sparsely furnished. He was sitting opposite her on a small dining table and a woman, who Maria presumed was his wife, was in the kitchen.
"Last night I went to see if you were ok, and I brought you some pastries, but when I got to yours I heard what sounded like a gunshot." Only now as she was saying this did she realise that she hadn't thought to check whether he had in fact been on the receiving end of that bullet, so she blurted out "You didn't get shot did you?!" The outburst shocked her almost as much as it did him. Coffee slopped down the side of his cup.
"No no, I am quite alright. I wasn't in the house a the time, though I did arrive to see you leaving - that was why I was coming to see you this morning, to see if you were ok." He explained, hastily mopping at the coffee that had dripped on the tablecloth with one eye on the kitchen.
"Who was shooting their gun in your house? And why for that matter? And who were the men that came after me today? Are they looking for you? Why?" Questions tumbled out of Maria like pastries out of a hastily dropped napkin. She coudn't help herself, she could tell she was definitely involved in an adventure now and she was very excited.
"They are all very good questions Maria, whilst Estela is -"
“Is that your wife?” Maria interrupted. Her had flew up to her mouth realising she had been rude.
He smiled warmly. “Ah, that is not my wife, that is my housekeeper.” Maria went to apologise but he stopped her with a held up hand. “No need to apologise, she has been looking after me for so many years we may as well be married.” He looked warmly in the direction of the kitchen where you could hear the sound of her clattering. She had been cross when he walked in because he hadn't told her that they were expecting guests. He had tried to protest that he didn't know either, but by then she was too busy plumping pillows and straightening tablecloths and rummaging in the kitchen for some supper.
"As I was saying, whilst Estela is preparing some supper I will answer your questions, but I will warn you, it's a long story. When I was a young boy, my mother used to take me to the art gallery every weekend. She was a lecturer at the local university on Art History, so we would wander through the gallery and she would tell me all about the different pieces of art, where they came from, who painted them, everything. However, we would always return to one of her favourite pieces, a small blue vase covered with figures in white relief. It sat at the end of infrequently used wing of the gallery. Often it would be just us two in there and we would make up stories about all the figures we could see carved on the vase, giggling and laughing. Those were some of the happiest times in my life."
"When I was about 9 or 10 my mother grew ill. She was soon bedridden in the hospital but she would make sure that I still went to the gallery every weekend and come back and tell her what I saw."
"There were some days when she was really bad, almost too weak to speak, so I had a great idea. I would go to the gallery and borrow the vase that my mother liked so much. We could laugh about it like we used to and it would cheer her up. I am not quite sure how I got away with it, but I strolled up, lifted the piece off the plinth it was on and shoved it in my rucksack. In my mind I was just borrowing it, I never thought that I was doing something wrong. I then walked straight to my mother."
"When I got to the hospital I proudly lifted it out of my bag for her expecting her to be delighted, but she was furious. She scolded me and told me to take it back immediately. She said 'Art is for everyone Raol. It should never be kept for just one set of eyes, it should always be for everyone.' I was devastated. I had tried to cheer her up and I had ruined it, I had done the worst thing possible. I cried all the way back to the art gallery, and put the piece back. To this day I am not sure how I managed to take it and return it without anyone noticing. The only way that you would know that I had taken it was a small greasy fingerprint I accidentally left near the bottom of the vase."
"My mother passed away a few days later. After the outburst she was too weak to speak, so that scolding were her last words to me." Raol's eyes were shiny and he dabbed them with a pristine white handkerchief he pulled from his pocket.
"I carried on going to the art gallery every weekend, and I would always go to see the little vase that my mother loved so much. When you sat on the bench nearby and looked in the right place, the light just glanced off my little greasy thumb print. It wasn't the biggest gallery, and certainly not the most well funded, so they never had much budget for the ongoing maintenance of the pieces. So for many years I went and sat and contemplated that little greasy fingerprint. One day, however, it was gone."
"I spoke to the museums curator and asked whether the vase had been finally been cleaned but he said that it had not. I went back and studied the vase. Something about it was wrong. It wasn't just the missing fingerprint, something seemed off about the whole thing. I carried on returning every weekend to contemplate the little vase, and every weekend I became more convinced that the vase had been swapped out with a forgery."
Raol described how he had spent the last 40 years trying to track down the original vase. Along the way, he had found a string of similar forgeries and had liberated the originals from their new owners and returned them to their rightful place in the gallery. Recently, he had found who had the original vase and had broken into their house and taken it back. This was, he informed Maria, who those men were that were after him. They were sent by the owner of the house he had broken into.
Maria was very excited. The heady scent of adventure filled her nostrils. Forgeries! Burglary! Art! She knew Raol was technically stealing, but only stealing from bad people who had taken art that did not belong to them. Like taking candy back from a bully. Raol leaned in conspiratorially.
"This is where you might be able to help. The men who are after me know exactly who I am, but I don't think they would have had chance to get a good look at you, so I don't think they would be able to spot you in a crowd." He proceeded to tell her his plan. He would give her the real vase and a small rucksack. She would walk into the gallery the next day and swap the vase over. Just as Maria was about to ask some questions Estela walked in with supper and Raol stopped abruptly. She got the sense that Estela would disapprove if she knew that Raol was trying to get Maria to help (for the record, she would have). Over dinner Maria told her story about being looked after by her father and the adventures he had. Estela also told her story, but to be honest it was really quite boring and largely focused on a missing churn of milk from when she was a teenager.
When dinner was over Estela made a bed for her on the sofa. Raol had said it was too risky for her to go home tonight. He also asked that she sleep on the plan he proposed, but they would have to do it tomorrow, before the men closed in.
Maria did not sleep that night, positively effervescent with excitement. Never in her wildest dreams has she imagined that her first adventure would be one so grand. This Christmas she would be able to tell her dad an adventure story of her own - the adventure of the stolen vase! But here she was, standing outside the gallery with the backpack on her back with the real vase inside. Raol had drawn her a brief map so she knew exactly where to go. She paid for her ticket at the front desk and walked straight ahead into the main gallery space. She then proceeded through a door on her left and straight down the hallway until she reached the end of the east wing. In a room on her right was where the vase was kept. The vase was on a plinth in a spotlight at the end of the room.
She looked around - the room was empty just like Raol had said it would be. She hurried towards the plinth and placed the bag at her feet, her heart pounding. She lifted off the fake vase and was about to place it in her bag when a heavy hand fell on her shoulder. Her stomach sunk. She spun around and saw the tall man that had followed her the other day. He was standing with the stocky man from the cafe. They held out their badges.
"I am police inspector Da Rosa and this is detective Botelho. We are arresting you for burglary and for being a suspected accomplice of international art thief and con man, Señor Raol Ferreira."