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The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Reader's Circle)


The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Cover




Chapter 1

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.”

“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

his arm.

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

just now.”

“Of course you do.” Hendrick grinned widely. “What man can say no to

Madam Damhuis?”

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

rancid bacon.

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 pursue?

“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

had arrived.

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

looked away.

“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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

Daniel Hatch, February 11, 2010 (view all comments by Daniel Hatch)
I've read this book twice now and really enjoyed the sights, smells (particularly the smells) and sounds of 17th century Amsterdam. The characters were interesting and the story compelling. I enjoyed not only the peek into the markets of the period, but the openess of Amsterdam to those shunned elsewhere.
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Product Details

Liss, David
Ballantine Books
Mystery & Detective - Historical
General Fiction
Mystery Historical
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.02x5.30x.95 in. .72 lbs.

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The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Used Trade Paper
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$5.95 In Stock
Product details 432 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780375760907 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

What grabbed me was the combination of historical atmosphere (Amsterdam during the time of Rembrandt) and a subtle sense of tension and intrigue in the plot line. The world's first commodities exchange and our present day Wall Street have much akin to each other.

"Review" by , "In his second novel, David Liss creates his own genre: the historical noir. The seventeenth-century Amsterdam he depicts is a wonderfully dark city of secrets, roiling with deceitful maneuverings and caffeine-fueled perils. The Coffee Trader is vivid, utterly absorbing, and more than a little relevant to our current age of financial skulduggery."
"Review" by , "Good to the last drop . . . Chock full of intrigue, suspense, and financial shenanigans . . . Liss transports the reader back in time . . . handl[ing] the seventeenth century and all the nuances of Dutch culture with utter ease. Whether it's his portrayal of the Maamad, the restrictive governing body of Miguel's Jewish community, or the complex characters appearing throughout the novel, The Coffee Trader is an excellent example of historical fiction in its finest form."
"Review" by , "[A] transporting tale of financial intrigue...[Liss?s] writing is smooth and elegant — like a good cup of coffee."
"Review" by , "David Liss has cornered a very narrow niche of the literary market — historical financial thrillers. And it must be said: He's quite good at it. . . . Lienzo's world comes to life in great (and frequently grimy) detail, and the workings of the Amsterdam bourse are eerily similar to modern commodities markets. . . . [The book is] more latte than espresso, and all the more enjoyable as a result."
"Review" by , "The premise and setting of The Coffee Trader is unique, with smaller-scale historical detail as richly rewarding as Liss's remarkable first work, A Conspiracy of Paper."
"Review" by , "[A] TRANSPORTING TALE OF FINANCIAL INTRIGUE . . . [Liss's] writing is smooth and elegant — like a good cup of coffee."
"Review" by , "Although The Coffee Trader lacks the narrative punch of Liss's previous novel, it will appeal to those interested in finance and sophisticated readers of historical fiction."
"Review" by , "The best moments of The Coffee Trader create a powerful sense of vertigo that's something like the vertigo of finance capitalism, where is there no end to the trading and no firm foundation, just an ever-receding spiral of value."
"Synopsis" by , Includes bibliographical references (p. [387]-389).
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