WINNER OF THE CRIME WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION’S INTERNATIONAL DAGGER
For fans of Alan Furst and Carlos Ruiz Zafón comes a haunting and layered thriller filled with history, adventure, suspense, and an unforgettable love story—by the internationally bestselling author Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Cádiz, 1811: The Spanish port city has been surrounded by Napoleon’s army for a year. Their backs to the sea, its residents endure routine bombardments and live in constant fear of a French invasion. And now the bodies of random women have begun to turn up throughout the city—victims of a shadowy killer.
Police Comisario Rogelio Tizón has been assigned the case. Known for his razor-sharp investigation skills—as well as his brutal interrogation methods—Tizón has seen everything. Or so he thought. His inquiry into the murders reveals a surprising pattern: Each victim has been found where a French bomb exploded. Logic tells him to pass it off as coincidence; his instinct tells him otherwise, and he begins to view Cádiz as a living chessboard, with himself and the killer the main players.
In a city pushed to the brink, violence and desperation weave together the lives of a group of unlikely people: the Spanish taxidermist who doubles as a French spy; the young woman who uses her father’s mercantile business to run the enemy blockade; the rough-edged corsair who tries to resist her charms; and the brilliant academic furiously trying to perfect the French army’s artillery and bring Cádiz to its knees once and for all. And as Napoleon presses closer, Tizón must make his next move on the bomb-scarred chessboard before the killer claims another pawn.
Combining fast-paced narrative with scrupulous historical accuracy, this smart, suspenseful tale of human resilience is Arturo Pérez-Reverte at the height of his talents.
Praise for The Siege
“A genre-bending literary thriller . . . Pirates; serial killings; steamy, unrequited love: Pérez-Reverte imbues the sensational with significance. . . . His descriptions of the town and people of Cádiz capture colors, smells and personalities, making the page come to life, and he balances these sensory passages with dense observations about history, metaphysics, science, and human nature.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Bold . . . [Pérez-Reverte’s] best yet . . . an ambitious intellectual thriller peopled with colorful rogues and antiheroes, meticulous in its historical detail, with a plot that rattles along to its unexpected finale. It’s hard to think of a contemporary author who so effortlessly marries popular and literary fiction as enjoyably as this.”—The Observer
“Pérez-Reverte has long been Spain’s most popular, inventive writer of historical fiction. . . . This is a big and bold novel, rich in character and incident.”—The Sunday Times
Acclaim for Arturo Pérez-Reverte
“John le Carré meets Gabriel García Márquez . . . Pérez-Reverte has a huge following . . . and it’s spreading.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four . . . pale in comparison with Pérez-Reverte’s novels.”—Time Out New York
“It’s a rare novelist who can create a literary page-turner. Arturo Pérez-Reverte . . . is one of those rarities.”—The Denver Post
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Arturo Pérez-Reverte is the author of many critically acclaimed novels, including The Club Dumas, The Flanders Panel, and the Captain Alatriste series. A retired war journalist, he lives in Madrid and is a member of the Royal Spanish Academy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Perez-Reverte / THE SIEGE
At the sixteenth lash, the man strapped to the table loses consciousness. His skin is yellowish, almost translucent now; his head hangs limply over the edge of the table. The glow from the oil lamp on the wall reveals the tracks of tears down his filthy cheeks and a thread of blood drips from his nose. The man whipping him stands in silence for a moment, uncertain, one hand gripping the pizzle, the other mopping from his brow the sweat that also soaks his shirt. Then he turns to a third man leaning against the door in the shadows behind him. The face of the man with the whip bears the hangdog look of a hound cowering before its master. A brutish, lumbering mastiff.
In the silence comes the sound of the Atlantic pounding against the shore beyond the shuttered window. No one has said a word since the screaming stopped. Twice, the dark face of the man in the doorway is illuminated by the glowing ember of a cigar.
“It wasn’t him,” he says finally.
Every man has a breaking point, he thinks, though he does not say as much aloud. Not before his dull-witted companion. Every man will break at a precise point if only he can be brought to it. It is simply a matter of delicacy, of finesse. Of knowing when and how to stop. One more gram on the scales and everything goes to hell. Comes to nothing. Becomes, in short, a fruitless waste of energy. Of time and effort. Blows struck blindly while the true target is making good his escape. Useless sweat, like that of the torturer now mopping his brow, bullwhip in hand, waiting for the order to continue.
“There’s nothing more to be done here.”
The other man looks at him, slow, uncomprehending. His name is Cadalso—the word means a gibbet—an apt name given his office. Cigar clenched between his teeth, the man in the doorway moves to the table and, stooping slightly, peers at the unconscious body: unshaven, dirt crusted on his neck, on his hands and between the violet weals crisscrossing his torso. Three more lashes, he calculates; perhaps four. By the twelfth blow, he knew all he needed to know, but it was important to be sure. Besides, in this case no one will ask awkward questions. This man was a vagrant wandering the docks. One of the countless human wrecks washed up in Cádiz by the war and the French siege, just as the sea washes flotsam onto its shores.
“He didn’t do it.”
The man with the bullwhip blinks, struggling to take in this news. It is almost possible to see the information trickling through the narrow winding pathways of his brain.
“If you let me, I can—”
“Don’t be a fool. I’m telling you it wasn’t him.”
He continues to study the unconscious man closely. The eyes are half-open, fixed and glassy, though the man is not dead. In his professional career Rogelio Tizón has seen enough corpses to recognize the symptoms. The beggar is breathing shallowly and a vein, bloated by the awkward position of his neck, is pulsing weakly. Leaning down, the comisario becomes aware of the acrid stench of damp, dirty skin, of urine spilled on the ground under the force of the lash. The sweat caused by fear—colder now as the unconscious man grows pale—is very different from the other sweat, the animal reek of the man standing nearby holding the whip. With a rictus of disgust, Tizón takes a deep pull on his cigar, exhales a long plume of smoke that fills his nostrils, obliterating the stench. Then, he stands up and walks back to the door.
“When he comes round, give him a couple of coins and warn him that if he breathes a word of complaint hereabouts, we will skin him alive. Like a rabbit.”
He drops his cigar stub, crushes it with the toe of his boot then takes his broad-brimmed hat, his cane and his gray redingote from the chair, opens the door and steps out into the blinding sunlight; in the distance, beyond the Puerta de Tierra, the city of Cádiz unfurls, white as the sails of a ship perched upon stone walls that seem to rise from the sea.
Flies buzz. They have come early this year, in search of carrion. The body of the girl still lies on the Atlantic shore of the reef, at the foot of a sand dune whipped by the east wind. Kneeling next to the body, the woman Tizón has had brought from the city works busily between the girl’s thighs. The woman is a respected midwife and one of Tizón’s regular informants. They call her Tía Perejil. She once worked as a whore around La Merced. Tizón trusts her instincts—and his own—more than he trusts the doctor the police habitually call on, a drunken, mercenary butcher. This is why he calls on this woman for his cases. Twice now in the space of three months. Or four times, if he includes the alewife stabbed by her husband and the innkeeper murdered by a student in a fit of jealous rage. But those were very different cases: it was clear from the outset that they were crimes of passion. Routine. The two murdered girls are a different matter, a strange and much more sinister affair.
“Nothing,” says Tía Perejil as Tizón’s shadow alerts her to his presence. “Her maidenhood is intact, she’s as pure as she was when her mother brought her into this world.”
The comisario looks down at the gagged face of the dead girl, her tangle of hair fouled with sand. Fourteen, fifteen perhaps; a scrawny little thing, hardly more than a child. Her skin has been blackened, her features bloated by the heat of the morning sun, but this is nothing compared to the horror of her back, which has been whipped and flayed down to the stark white bones that contrast with the mutilated flesh and congealed blood.
“Just like the other one,” adds the midwife.
She rearranges the girl’s dress to cover her legs, then stands up, brushing sand from her clothes. She picks up the shawl that is lying nearby and uses it to cover the dead girl’s back, swatting the swarm of flies away from the wounds. The shawl is made of thick brown flannel, as plain as the rest of her clothes. The victim has been identified as a maid who worked at a cheap lodging house outside the city, midway between the Puerta de Tierra and the fortifications at La Cortadura. She had set off on foot to visit her frail mother yesterday afternoon while it was still light.
“So what about the beggar, Señor Comisario?”
Tizón shrugs as Tía Perejil looks at him inquisitively. She is a tall, stout woman, sapped by life rather than age. She is almost toothless and gray roots are visible beneath the dye that tints her greasy mane of hair, which is tied up with a kerchief. Around her throat she wears a necklet of holy medals and devotional scapulars, a rosary hangs from a cord at her waist.
“So it wasn’t him, then? . . . From the way he screamed, it sounded like he was guilty.”
The comisario glares at the midwife until she looks away.
“Hold your tongue, or you’ll find yourself screaming too.”
Tía Perejil is an inveterate scandalmonger but she has known Tizón for a long time, long enough to know when he is not in the mood for confidences. And today is such a day.
“Forgive me, Don Rogelio, I spoke in jest.”
“Save your jests for your sow of a mother should you meet her in hell.” Tizón slips two fingers into his jacket pocket, extracts a silver duro and tosses it to her. “Now get out of here.”
As the woman walks away, the comisario surveys the scene again, as he has a dozen times already. The east wind has long since erased any footprints from the previous night. Besides, ever since the body was discovered by a muleteer who went to a neighboring inn to give the alarm, the countless comings and goings have obliterated any clues there might have been. Tizón stands motionless for a moment, alert to anything that might have escaped his notice, then gives up, disheartened. One long track catches his eyes, a broad groove in the side of the dune, and he crouches down to inspect it. As he squats there, he has the fleeting impression that this has happened before, that he has seen himself crouching, studying traces in the sand. But his mind cannot bring the memory into focus. Perhaps it is nothing more than one of those strange dreams that later seem so real, or perhaps that brief, inexplicable feeling that what is happening has happened before. The comisario gets to his feet having reached no conclusions: the furrow could have been caused by an animal, by a body being dragged, by the wind.
As he passes the corpse he notices that the wind has lifted the girl’s skirt, baring her leg to the knee. Tizón is not a tender-hearted man. His profession is brutal and certain rough edges particular to his character have long since led him to think of a corpse—whether in sun or shade—as simply a piece of rotting flesh. As a chore that will entail complications, formalities, investigation, reports to his superiors. Nothing that is likely to trouble the sleep of Rogelio Tizón Peñasco, Commissioner for Districts, Vagrants and Transients, who has spent thirty-two of his fifty-three years working as a policeman, making him a wily old dog. But on this occasion even the hard-nosed comisario cannot help but feel vaguely uncomfortable. And so, with the tip of his cane, he moves the skirt back into place and piles a little heap of sand on it so it will not fly up again. As he does so, he spots a half-buried shard of metal, twisted like a corkscrew. He bends down and picks it up, weighing it in his hand. He immediately recognizes it as a piece of shrapnel created when the French shells explode. There are shards of metal like this all over Cádiz. This one probably came from the yard outside Lame Paco’s Tavern where a bomb recently exploded.
He drops the piece of metal and walks back towards the white-washed wall of the tavern where a group of onlookers is being kept at bay by two soldiers and a corporal sent by the duty officer at San José at the request of Tizón, who felt confident that a few uniforms would command some respect. The crowd is made up of menials, serving wenches from neighboring taverns, muleteers, local mothers and their tykes. Standing at the front, by virtue of his status both as the innkeeper and the person who informed the authorities when the body was discovered, is Lame Paco.
“They say it wasn’t the beggar what done it,” Paco says as Tizón draws level with him.
“They speak the truth.”
The beggar had been skulking around for several days and the local innkeepers were quick to point the finger when the murdered girl was discovered. In fact it was Paco who had arrested the beggar, kept a hunting rifle trained on him until the police arrived and made sure he wasn’t roughed up too badly: just a few kicks and punches. The disappointment is visible on the faces of the crowd—especially the boys, who now will have no one at whom they can hurl the stones they’ve stuffed in their pockets.
“Are you sure, Señor Comisario?”
Tizón does not trouble himself to answer. He looks thoughtfully at the section of wall destroyed by the French shell.
“When did the bomb fall, my friend?”
Thumbs hooked into his belt, Lame Paco comes and stands next to Tizón, respectful and a little cautious. He knows the comisario of old and knows that “friend” is simply a turn of phrase and one that, coming from Tizón, could just as easily be a threat. Because Lame Paco is not lame, he has never had a limp, but his grandfather did and in Cádiz nicknames are inherited more surely than money. As are professions. Lame Paco has a face framed by gray whiskers and it is common knowledge that he was a sailor and a smuggler in the past, not to mention the present. Tizón knows that Paco’s cellars are full of merchandise from Gibraltar, he knows that on nights when the sea is calm and the wind temperate, the beach is alive with the dark shapes of boats and shadowy figures hauling contraband. Sometimes they even smuggle cattle. But for as long as Lame Paco continues to bribe Customs officers, soldiers and policemen—including Tizón—to look the other way, no one is going to ask questions about whatever is hauled up on this beach. It would be a very different matter if the innkeeper were to become greedy and attempt to shirk his obligations, or if—as some in the city and elsewhere have done—he were to traffic with the enemy. But of that there is no evidence. In the end the people of Cádiz, from the Castillo de San Sebastián to Zuazo Bridge, know each other of old and in spite of the war and the siege, they are content to live and let live. This includes the French, who have not launched a serious attack on the city for some time, shelling it from a distance as though simply observing the formalities.
“The bomb fell yesterday morning, just after eight,” the innkeeper explains, gesturing to the east of the bay. “It came from over there, from La Cabezuela. The wife was hanging out the washing and saw the flash. Then boom, it exploded over there.”
“Not much—that bit of wall, the pigeon loft, a few dead chickens . . . The shock was the worst of it. The wife nearly passed out. Thirty paces closer and it would have been a different story.”
Tizón digs a fingernail between his teeth—he has a gold canine on the left—as he gazes across the mile-wide inlet of sea that separates the reef—Cádiz is on a peninsula, on one side are the shores of the Atlantic, on the other the bay, the harbor, the salt marshes and the Isla de Léon—from the mainland occupied by the French. The east wind has swept away the clouds so it is possible to see the French fortifications at the Trocadero: to the right the Fort San Louis, to the left the half-ruined walls of the Matagorda and slightly farther away the fortified cannonry of the Cabezuela.
“Have any other shells fallen around here?”
Lame Paco shakes his head, then gestures toward the Reef on either side of his tavern.
“They get a few up near Aguada, and down near Puntales they rain down all day—the people round there have to live like moles . . . This is the first time one has fallen here.”
Tizón nods distractedly, still looking toward the French lines, blinking against the dazzling sunlight reflected off the whitewashed wall, the water and the dunes. He is calculating a trajectory, comparing it to others. Something has just occurred to him. It is a hunch, a vague feeling. A nagging sense of foreboding coupled with the conviction that he has somehow experienced this before. Like a line of attack on a chessboard—in this case, the city—made before Tizón could notice it. Two pawns, including the one today. Two pieces captured; two girls.
There might be some connection, he thinks. He has witnessed more complex chess strategies while sitting outside the Café del Correo. Has played them himself, devised them, or used them to counter an adversary’s attack. Like a lightning flash, he has an unexpected vision: chess pieces laid out, an unremarkable game, and suddenly, an ambush from behind the knight, a bishop or a pawn, the Attack—and its Capture; a corpse lying at the foot of the dune, dusted with sand carried by the wind. And hovering over all this like a dark shadow, the inkling of something he has experienced before, something he has seen, kneeling as he was then before the traces in the sand and thinking. If only he could remember, everything would be fine. Suddenly, he feels an urgent need to retreat behind the safety of the city walls and begin the necessary investigations. The need to castle, while he considers his strategy. But before he does so, he walks back to the body and, without a word, fumbles in the sand for the twisted hunk of metal and slips it into his pocket.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of a league east of Lame Paco’s Tavern, unsh...
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