Mission: Camembert



At 9:15 I was in the car. I hoped to arrive easily within four hours, but I didn't want to be late, or to travel hastily and anxiously. I didn't want to push the Golf too hard since I already had four speeding tickets. OK, I had appealed all of them, and of course hadn't paid any of them; all the same, it's a drag to have to run all over the place to take care of a ticket.

At 1:40 the car was in the garage and my luggage was in my room, and I had just sat down in the Havana Hotel bar. I ordered a martini with seltzer and a touch of gin. Those fifteen minutes would do me good to settle into the place, to relax after my four-hour journey and organize my thoughts. Yeah, right; as soon as the waiter brought my drink and the inevitable peanuts, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Imanol, who had also arrived quite early to our meeting place. Slowly, and before I had finished my business with Imanol, the others who had been invited to the meeting began to arrive.

The first was a white-haired man about forty years old, "Mr. Fuentes, contractor," according to Imanol. Why deny it: Imanol and I knew each other well, and a few gestures or special expressions in his conversation when he performed the introductions sent a clear message. I was under the influence of the writer Argensola at the time, and I interpreted Imanol's message very much in my own way: "This is not Fuentes and he's not a contractor either." OK, I thought. Who knows who this Fuentes person really is. It's common enough in such circumstances for one person or another, or several, or all, to use a false identity. Imanol had simply had the courtesy to give me that information. Anyway, through his tone and manner, Imanol made it clear that he wanted me to be friendly, polite and pleasant with this Fuentes. "Something more to drink, Imanol?" I asked casually so that he could see I had gotten the message. "No, no, I'm fine," Imanol answered with an expression that said he had understood me. Fuentes, or whoever he was, wasn't paying attention to our games. Whatever was going on, he was sure of himself, unconcerned. He was very polite and friendly when he spoke; you could tell he was used to working with people, to making people feel comfortable. He was an educated man. Careful, I thought, this is not his true nature, he's slippery as an eel. I couldn't shake the feeling; it seemed to me that I had seen this white-haired Fuentes somewhere before. And to tell the truth, I just don't know that many contractors. It's not exactly my specialty, not at all.

Fuentes asked me a question that caught me off guard: "Do you know French?" he inquired. To tell the truth, at the time I didn't know very much. I thought about how to tell him this in a nutshell, but as I was starting to speak, the last two guests arrived. A tall, thin, forty-something man and a blonde girl about thirty years old, looking like she had just stepped out of a Belmondo movie about the resistance, even without the bicycle and cap or bonnet. Hell, this is getting interesting, I said to myself. Monsieur Carreaux, Madame Lasalle, I was told. Carreaux shook hands and we exchanged awkward greetings, they in mediocre Spanish, Imanol and I in our disgraceful French, everyone sorry for not speaking the others' language. The girl turned her head, and that was it. "Let's eat," someone said.

Fuentes led the conversation. He was the one who spoke French the best and besides, it was obvious that they had discussed the matter earlier. "I represent the interests of Mr. Carreaux and Mrs. Lasalle," he said, or something like that. The girl, Lasalle, spoke briefly in Spanish. Fuentes went right to the point.

"Are you familiar with the French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec?" he asked.

First news of Camembert

While we were eating lunch, Fuentes was the one who spoke the most. Imanol hardly said anything. I understood immediately that his task had been to bring me to the table. According to what they told me, Carreaux -Yves Carreaux - was an art collector and dealer; he had a gallery in Paris. Margot Lasalle was his secretary. Carreaux spoke almost no Spanish, and when he needed to say something, he spoke to Lasalle or to Fuentes, mostly to Lasalle, and then one of them would translate for me. Although I knew little French, I understood a fair amount without their translations.

Carreaux wanted information on a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec, one called Still Life with Camembert, a Glass and a Knife. The painting had an unusual history: it had supposedly disappeared. That is, it had disappeared assuming that it had ever been painted in the first place. It seemed very confusing to me. Not to mention beyond my capabilities. "If I'm not mistaken," I told them, "what you're asking could be better answered by someone familiar with Toulouse-Lautrec's works. No doubt there are many experts in the world." They looked at each other without saying anything. "No doubt... but it's a delicate matter." "Delicate? How delicate?" Carreaux thought he knew where the painting was. "So tell it to the authorities," I said, "tell the curator of the Albi Museum." "Yes," he said, "but is the painting authentic? Or is it a fake?" "There must be experts who can testify to the authenticity of Toulouse-Lautrec's works, aren't there?" I said.

Fuentes spoke next. Choosing his words carefully and with an elegance and courtesy I would never achieve, he gave me to know that Mr. Carreaux might have a certain, of course fully lawful, economic interest in this discovery, and that this interest required both the acquisition of certain information and complete discretion. Information was guaranteed, but if he asked the experts or the executors of the painter's estate, discretion would be forfeit; and especially if the news got out, Mr. Carreaux's entirely respectable and legitimate economic interests could be harmed.

Then I put my last doubt on the table. Very logical, very obvious: was there no one in all of France who could do what they were asking of me? Imanol told me with his glare that he would strangle me with his own hands.

Now Margot Lasalle spoke. Gently and slowly, with a strong French accent, deliciously confusing articles and genders. Perhaps Mr. Enekoitz Ramirez was too busy. Perhaps that's why he didn't want to take the job they were offering him. Perhaps Mr. Ramirez failed to understand what was expected of him. She herself would take care of Yves Carreaux and our association and contact, as it wouldn't be convenient for anyone to tie us together, Carreaux and me. She would be the contact. She looked right at me and the teasing shine left her eyes. Left quickly, but stayed long enough for me to see. Did she always calculate her explanations so well?

"OK," I said, after hemming and hawing for a while. "But let it be clear that I am a serious professional; I do what I promise to do, and I expect the same from you. Otherwise, our agreement is off."

The meeting broke up. Imanol and I sat in the hotel bar, each with a stout. "I thought you were going to say no, you idiot," said Imanol. "If you had said no, I would have dropped you forever, you jerk." "What have you gotten me into?" I said. "Don't worry, man, Fuentes has got his interesting aspects, you can trust him and there'll be something in it for you." "What the fuck are you talking about?" I said. "Because I have no idea."

That's what things are like in our business sometimes. That bastard Imanol apparently didn't know a thing. The French would seek out Fuentes and ask him for something. Fuentes would find Imanol, and Imanol, who no doubt owed Fuentes a favor if not money, would ask me. And the bastard had agreed without having the first clue what they were talking about. "That Margot's a trip, huh?" Imanol was saying now, trying to cheer me up. "The secretary, man, the secretary. At least he's not claiming she's his niece. You'll be working with her - you can't complain about that."

I could see his point, and I could also see that the only reason for hanging out with him now was to get more information out of him. And that was no reason, because he didn't know anything. So before getting into it again, I told him I wanted to go to the Bernabeu stadium and then to bed. Imanol doesn't like soccer at all; even though he's been in Madrid a thousand times, he's never been to Bernabeu. I thought I'd get rid of him that way. Yeah, right. "What," he said, "you have a room here? Me too. OK. I'll go with you to Bernabeu. Believe it or not, I've been in Madrid a thousand times and I've never set foot in the place."

Sometimes it happens like that. Since it was clear I wasn't going to get rid of Imanol for hours, at least I could try to get more information out of him. "Who is Fuentes, what is his real name, who are the French, what do they really want? Do you think this is normal, sending me to France to do research? Should I stick my gun in my suitcase, or what?"

Imanol laughed at my grumbling. "Shit, man, your gun? Your police gun? You still have it? No, no, no, you don't need a gun, Fuentes swore to me there's no need for guns. The French will gradually bring you up to speed, you'll see. I don't know anything, but trust me, it's supposed to be a delicate matter and for now, just do what you're told. Man, you don't believe anything, do you?"

From then on I didn't get much out of him. Not even who Fuentes really was. "No, I don't believe a thing, I wasn't born yesterday." "I don't believe anything either," Imanol confessed finally, "but what can I say? That's life: look at that watch you're so proud of. Any African will sell you one cheap in Callao Plaza. That watch isn't gold and it's not a Rolex either. It's not even a watch, if you ask me."

"Shit, Imanol," I said, "have you been reading Argensola too?" He didn't get it. "Huh?" he said. "You must have known it was a fake." "Well, yeah, of course. Come on, let's go to Bernabeu."

Š Alonso, Jon. Mission: Camembert (Camembert helburu): Susa, 1998.

Š Translation: Kristin Addis