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The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Reader's Circle)by David Liss
It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting. Miguel
Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose
into the tarry liquid. Holding the vessel still for an instant, he
breathed in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs. The sharp odor of
earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary
might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.
“What is this?” Miguel asked, working through his irritation by pushing
at the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other. She knew he had
no time to waste, so why had she brought him here for this nonsense? One
bitter remark after another bubbled up inside him, but Miguel let loose
with none of them. It wasnt that he was afraid of her, but he often
found himself going to great lengths to avoid her displeasure.
He looked over and saw that Geertruid met his silent cuticle mutilation
with a grin. He knew that irresistible smile and what it meant: she was
mightily pleased with herself, and when she looked that way it was hard
for Miguel not to be mightily pleased with her too.
“Its something extraordinary,” she told him, gesturing toward his bowl.
“Drink it?” Miguel squinted into the blackness. “It looks like the
devils piss, which would certainly be extraordinary, but Ive no desire
to know what it tastes like.”
Geertruid leaned toward him, almost brushing up against his arm. “Take a
sip and then Ill tell you everything. This devils piss is going to
make both our fortunes.”
It had begun not an hour earlier, when Miguel felt someone take hold of
In the instant before he turned his head, he ticked off the unpleasant
possibilities: rival or creditor, an abandoned lover or her angry
relative, the Danish fellow to whom hed sold those Baltic grain futures
with too enthusiastic a recommendation. Not so long ago the approach of
a stranger had held promise. Merchants and schemers and women had all
sought Miguels company, asking his advice, craving his companionship,
bargaining for his guilders. Now he wished only to learn in what new
shape disaster would unfold itself.
He never thought to stop walking. He was part of the procession that
formed each day when the bells of the Nieuwe Kerk struck two, signaling
the end of trading on the Exchange. Hundreds of brokers poured out onto
the Dam, the great plaza at Amsterdams center. They spread out along
the alleys and roads and canal sides. Along the Warmoesstraat, the
fastest route to the most popular taverns, shopkeepers stepped outside,
donning wide-brimmed leather hats to guard against damp that rolled in
from the Zuiderzee. They set out sacks of spices, rolls of linen,
barrels of tobacco. Tailors and shoemakers and milliners waved men
inside; sellers of books and pens and exotic trinkets cried out their
The Warmoesstraat became a current of black hats and black suits,
speckled only with the white of collars, sleeves, and stockings or the
flash of silver shoe buckles. Traders pushed past goods from the Orient
or the New World, from places of which no one had heard a hundred years
before. Excited like schoolboys set free of the classroom, the traders
talked of their business in a dozen different languages. They laughed
and shouted and pointed; they grabbed at anything young and female that
crossed their path. They took out their purses and devoured the
shopkeepers goods, leaving only coins in their wake.
Miguel Lienzo neither laughed nor admired the commodities set out before
him nor clutched at the soft parts of willing shop girls. He walked
silently, head down against the light rain. Today was, on the Christian
calendar, the thirteenth day of May, 1659. Accounts on the Exchange
closed each month on the twentieth; let a man make what maneuvers he
liked, none of it mattered until the twentieth, when the credits and
debits of the month were tallied and money at last changed hands. Today
things had gone badly with a matter of brandy futures, and Miguel now
had less than a week to pluck his fat from the fire or he would find
himself another thousand guilders in debt.
Another thousand. He already owed three thousand. Once he had made
double that in a year, but six months ago the sugar market collapsed,
taking Miguels fortune with it. And then-well, one mistake after
another. He wanted to be like the Dutch, who regarded bankruptcy as no
shame. He tried to tell himself it did not matter, it was only a little
while longer until he undid the damage, but believing that tale required
an increasing effort. How long, he wondered, until his wide and boyish
face turned pinched? How long until his eyes lost the eager sparkle of a
merchant and took on the desperate, hollow gaze of a gambler? He vowed
it would not happen to him. He would not become one of those lost souls,
the ghosts who haunted the Exchange, living from one reckoning day to
the next, toiling to secure just enough profit to keep their accounts
afloat for one more month when surely all would be made easy.
Now, with unknown fingers wrapped around his arm, Miguel turned and saw
a neatly dressed Dutchman of the middling ranks, hardly more than twenty
years of age. He was a muscular wide-shouldered fellow with blond hair
and a face almost more pretty than handsome, though his drooping
mustache added a masculine flair.
Hendrick. No family name that anyone had ever heard. Geertruid Damhuiss
“Greetings, Jew Man,” he said, still holding on to Miguels arm. “I hope
all goes well for you this afternoon.”
“Things always go well with me,” he answered, as he twisted his neck to
see if any prattling troublemaker might lurk behind him. The Maamad,
the ruling council among the Portuguese Jews, forbade congress between
Jews and “inappropriate” gentiles, and while this designation could
prove treacherously ambiguous, no one could mistake Hendrick, in his
yellow jerkin and red breeches, for anything appropriate.
“Madam Damhuis sent me to fetch you,” he said.
Geertruid had played at this before. She knew Miguel could not risk
being seen on so public a street as the Warmoesstraat with a Dutchwoman,
particularly a Dutchwoman with whom he did business, so she sent her man
instead. There was no less risk to Miguels reputation, but this way she
could force his hand without even showing her face.
“Tell her I havent the time for so lovely a diversion,” he said. “Not
“Of course you do.” Hendrick grinned widely. “What man can say no to
Not Miguel. At least not easily. He had difficulty saying no to
Geertruid or to anyone else-including himself-who proposed something
amusing. Miguel had no stomach for doom; disaster felt to him like an
awkward and loose suit. He had to force himself each day to play the
cautious role of a man in the throes of ruin. That, he knew, was his
true curse, the curse of all former Conversos: in Portugal he had grown
too used to falseness, pretending to worship as a Catholic, pretending
to despise Jews and respect the Inquisition. He had thought nothing of
being one thing while making the world believe he was another.
Deception, even self-deception, came far too easily.
“Thank your mistress but give her my regrets.” With reckoning day soon
upon him, and new debts to burden him, he would have to curb his
diversions, at least for a while. And there had been another note this
morning, a strange anonymous scrawl on a torn piece of paper. I want my
money. It was one of a half dozen or so Miguel had received in the last
month. I want my money. Wait your turn, Miguel would think glumly, as he
opened each of these letters, but he was unnerved by the terse tone and
uneven hand. Only a madman would send such a message without a name-for
how could Miguel respond even if he had the money and even if he were
inclined to use what little he had for something so foolish as paying
Hendrick stared, as though he couldnt understand Miguels good, if
thickly accented, Dutch.
“Today is not the day,” Miguel said, a bit more forcefully. He avoided
speaking too adamantly to Hendrick, whom he had once seen slam a
butchers head into the stones of the Damplatz for selling Geertruid
Hendrick gazed at Miguel with the special pity men of the middle rank
reserved for their superiors. “Madam Damhuis told me to inform you that
today is the day. She tells me that she will show you something, and
when you set your eyes on it, you will forever after divide your life
into the time before this afternoon and the time after.”
The thought of her disrobing flashed before him. That would be a lovely
divide between the past and the future and would certainly be worth
setting aside his business for the afternoon. However, Geertruid loved
to play at these games. There was little chance she meant to take off as
much as her cap. But there was no getting rid of Hendrick, and urgent as
his troubles might be, Miguel could make no deals with this Dutchman
lurking in his shadow. It had happened before. He would trail Miguel
from tavern to tavern, from alley to canal side, until Miguel
surrendered. Best to have this over with, he decided, so he sighed and
said he would go.
With a sharp gesture of his neck, Hendrick led them off the ancient
cobbled street and across the steep bridges toward the new part of the
city, ringed by the three great canals-the Herengracht, the
Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht-and then toward the Jordaan, the
most rapidly growing part of town, where the air echoed with the ring of
hammer on anvil and the chipping of chisel on stone.
Hendrick led him along the waters of the Rozengracht, where barges
pierced the thick canal mist as they headed toward the docks to unload
their goods. The new houses of the newly wealthy stood on either side of
the murky water, facing the oak- and linden-lined waterway. Miguel had
once rented the better part of so fine a house, red-brick and
steeple-gabled. But then Brazilian production of sugar had far exceeded
Miguels expectations. Hed been gambling on low production for years,
but suddenly Brazilian farmers unleashed an unexpected crop, and in an
instant prices collapsed. A great man of the Exchange as instantly
became a debtor living off his brothers scraps.
Once they departed from the main street, the Jordaan lost its charm. The
neighborhood was new-where they stood had been farmland only thirty
years before-but already the alleyways had taken on the decrepit cast of
a slum. Dirt replaced the cobblestones. Huts made of thatch and scraps
of wood leaned against squat houses black with tar. The alleys vibrated
with the hollow clacking of looms, as weavers spun from sunup until late
into the night, all in the hope of earning enough to keep their bellies
full for one more day.
In moments of weakness, Miguel feared that poverty would claim him as it
had claimed the wretched of the Jordaan, that he would fall into a well
of debt so deep he would lose even the dream of recovering himself.
Would he be the same man then-himself, yet penniless-or would he become
as hollow as the beggars and luckless laborers he passed on the streets?
He assured himself it would not happen. A true merchant never gives in
to gloom. A man who has lived as a Secret Jew always has one more trick
to save his skin. At least until he fell into the clutches of the
Inquisition, he reminded himself, and there was no Inquisition in
Amsterdam. Just the Maamad.
But what was he doing here with this inscrutable Dutchman? Why had he
allowed his will to collapse when he had business, important business,
“To what sort of place are you taking me?” Miguel asked, hoping to find
a reason to excuse himself.
“A miserable sort of place,” Hendrick said.
Miguel opened his mouth to voice an objection, but it was too late. They
Though he was not, like the Dutch, inclined to believe in omens, Miguel
would later recall that his venture had begun in a place called the
Golden Calf, surely an unpromising name. They climbed down a steep and
viciously low-ceilinged stairwell to the cellar, a little room that
might comfortably have held thirty souls but now contained perhaps
fifty. The choking smoke of cheap West Indian tobacco and musty peat
stoves nearly suppressed the scent of spilled beer and wine, old cheese,
and the odor of fifty unwashed men-or, rather, forty men and ten
whores-whose mouths puffed out onions and beer.
At the bottom of the stairs, an enormous man, shaped remarkably liked a
pear, blocked their passage, and sensing that someone wished to get by
he moved his bulk backwards to prevent anyone from squeezing past. He
held a tankard in one hand and a pipe in the other, and he shouted
something incomprehensible to his companions.
“Move your monstrous bulk, fellow,” Hendrick said to him.
The man turned his head just enough to register his scowl and then
“Fellow”-Hendrick tried again-“you are the hard turd in the ass of my
journey. Dont make me apply a purgative to flush you out.”
“Go piss in your breeches,” he answered, and then belched laughter in
his friends faces.
“Fellow,” said Hendrick, “turn around and see to whom you speak so
The man did turn around, and as he saw Hendrick the grin melted from his
jowly three-days-unshaved face. “Begging your pardon,” he said. He
pulled his cap down off his head and moved quickly out of the way,
knocking clumsily into his friends.
This newfound humility wasnt enough to satisfy Hendrick, who reached
out like the lash of a whip and grabbed the mans filthy shirt. The
tankard and pipe fell to the floor. “Tell me,” Hendrick said, “should I
crush your throat or not crush your throat?”
“Not crush,” the drunk suggested eagerly. His hands flapped like bird
“What do you say, Jew Man?” Hendrick asked Miguel. “Crush or not crush?”
“Oh, let him go,” Miguel answered wearily.
Hendrick released his grip. “The Jew Man says to let you go. You
remember that, fellow, next time you think to toss a dead fish or rotten
cabbage at a Jew. A Jew has saved your hide today, and for no good
reason, too.” He turned to Miguel. “This way.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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