My brother Borja’s name isn’t Borja. It’s Pep (or Josep). And his surname isn’t Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga. We’re both Martínez on our father’s side and Estivill on our mother’s.
Unlike Borja, (I mean, Pep), I’ve kept the name and surnames my parents gave me: a humble Eduard (though still a Spanish Eduardo on my ID card) Martínez Estivill. My brother’s name (or at least the one he prefers to flaunt) is Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga, notwithstanding an identity card he should have renewed years ago that proclaims him José Martínez Estivill, born in Barcelona, son of Rosa and Francisco. Naturally nobody knows that Pep, (I mean, Borja) and I are brothers. Twins, to boot. No one, not even my wife.
Our parents were born in Barcelona, although on my father’s side our grandparents and great-grandparents hailed from Soria, in deepest Castile. As for Borja-Pep’s imaginary family, as he himself likes to expatiate, his father was from Lleida, the youngest in a family owning large stretches of arable land and herds of cows in the region of Alt Urgell, while his mother was a rich heiress from Santander, the coastal resort where Borja’s invented parents had decided to settle down after they married, and where he claims he was born.
This canny family tree enables my brother Borja to justify the fact that, despite his spectacularly blue-blooded surnames and the handsome family fortune he should logically have inherited (he presents himself as an only child, so as not to over-complicate matters), nobody in Barcelona has ever heard of the Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorgas. My brother is also quick to explain, when referring to his precarious financial state, that he comes from one of those ancient families which inevitably fell on hard times and whose genealogical roots are mired in a silt of aristocratic surnames of obscure medieval origin.
“Papa,” Borja usually explains (from here on I’ll refer to him using the name everyone knows him by, the one I’m now used to), “was unable to adapt to modern times and lost his entire inheritance. He invested everything in the family business in Santander, and managed to make a fortune. But the times were changing . . . The famous industrial reorganization of the shipyards came along, and, as if that weren’t enough, papa fell foul of the Revenue, which wasn’t his fault, of course, but down to a wretched accountant who lost him a heap of money,” he concludes in hushed tones with a shake of the head as he embroiders his tale with pride, fatalistic resignation and always with the utmost conviction.
Though we are twins, my brother Borja and I are not at all alike physically. I mean we don’t look like brothers. He takes more after our mother’s family, who were rather carefree and slim, while I take after our father’s, always on the sullen and chubby side. In fact, having left the womb a couple of minutes after me, Borja is the younger fledgling: nonetheless every so often it amuses my twin to remind me that, if we’d been a king’s sons (the legitimate variety, naturally), he, not I, would have been the rightful heir to the throne. I tell him not to worry, I’m sure we wouldn’t have fought each other for the honour. As far as I’m concerned, this peculiar idiosyncrasy of monarchies struggling to preserve vestiges of ignorance from past eras – namely, first spliced, last out – takes a weight off my mind. Perhaps because I’m a hesitant, shrinking violet, and Borja’s the capricious, daring type.
We are twins and will both be forty-five in May, but I have to admit that my brother seems somewhat younger. He’s still single, although for a long time he’s had a sort of more or less steady girlfriend who likes to have him on her arm at Barcelona’s most select venues. Maybe the only drawback in this arrangement – depending on your point of view, obviously – is that she is married.
Clearly, the husband of this girl (who is hardly a girl any more) is a guy with lots of money and no time to spend with his family. However, I deduce from stories Borja sometimes tells that she’s not what you’d call a downtrodden spouse. The woman, Mercedes by name and Merche for short, belongs to that cohort of successful female lawyers who graduate from the Abat Oliva University to work in Barcelona’s most select law practices. She devotes herself to the kind of work that brings in the bacon for graduates of expensive, prestigious institutions favoured by well-heeled Catholics who dedicate their talents to ensuring that the rich don’t pay too much tax. Borja and Merche usually meet up on the odd evening and spend weekends together, when her husband goes on his travels. Apparently, this happens quite often, since he’s an entrepreneur who owns factories in China (or something of the kind), and one of those successful men who revel in the ancient tradition of more than a little slap and tickle with their secretaries and other deserving causes, usually on business junkets to destinations never very far from a sweep of tropical beach. They constitute, so Borja informs me (the fount of all my knowledge on the affairs of Barcelona’s upper classes) a modern couple typical of this social background, sharing children and social activities but separating out lives and bank accounts. Merche has a teenage son who’s overly fond of snorting coke (like his mother I suspect), whereas Borja, to the best of his knowledge, has no offspring. The only worrying vice I associate with him is Cardhu, and he can’t drink that in excess because he’s perpetually broke. I know next to nothing of Borja’s love life before Merche.
In fact, despite the close relationship we enjoy now, the last twenty years of my twin brother’s life are a mystery that only receives sporadic illumination when, under the influence of Cardhu, Borja makes the occasional, apparently sincere revelation. I clutch at such straws in order to painstakingly reconstruct periods of his life, and it’s thanks to this Scottish beverage that I’ve found out he set foot in Australia, starved in Germany and would never work again as cook on an oil tanker. And also that he lived in Paris for several years, but more of this anon.
I’m still married to the same woman, my darling Montse, and we have three children: two fourteen year-old girls, also twins, and a terrible two who will soon be three. My brother Borja still boasts a splendid head of brown hair (to which I am sure Iranzo, his stylist, adds blonde highlights once a month), and loves silk ties, English pin-stripe suits and Italian casuals. I prefer corduroy and jeans, checked shirts and lace-ups. Although we are more or less the same height, just below six feet, I weigh in at twenty-six pounds more – not that I’m what you’d call fat. I’ll admit I might be developing a paunch, and, like our father, a receding hairline that I do my best to conceal. My remaining hair, of which luckily there is a lot, is unaccountably greying in a way that doesn’t give me a more distinguished air – not even when I imitate Borja and pile on the gel and comb it back. His skin is always an enviable golden brown thanks to a sun-tanning salon next door to his block, while mine stays milky white most of the year. Borja works out at a gym at least three times a week, but I get more than enough exercise with my contribution to the general house-clean every Saturday, and by playing with the kid every day while Montse’s getting dinner. Borja is rightwing (for aesthetic reasons, he claims) and I soldier on as a non-voting, disillusioned left-winger.
I must confess that I blush easily when forced to tell even the most innocent of fibs, whereas Borja only goes red when he blabs something that sounds as if it’s really true. In restaurants he is able to select wine not simply as a function of price and knows how to wield the appropriate utensils when dissecting a lobster, while I always end up ordering meat and giving the nod to whatever wine I’m asked to taste.
We are both partners (and the only employees) in a kind of consultancy, as we call it, which on our cards and letterhead proclaims itself Frau Consultants, Ltd. The name Borja chose initially was the Greek letter Tau, invoking Taurus, the sign of the Zodiac we share; it is not a word in Catalan or Spanish, and we felt that to be opportune considering the strange things that occur with language questions in our country, particularly on the Upper North Side of this city. However, someone made a mistake at the printers, and Borja, who is a touch superstitious, read it as an omen, decided to take the error on board and renamed our newly created company. Frau brings the word “fraud” to my mind, reasonably enough, and perhaps there is some of that lurking behind my brother’s new moniker and his permanent state of bankruptcy. Borja appreciates the finer things in life and likes to splash out – which, given his circumstances, is not very often.
The truth of the matter is that Frau Consultants is not a real firm because it has no legal existence at the company registry and, in any case, the activities we undertake generate little in the way of invoices and paperwork. The consultancy we offer, and which our clients require, is too confidential in nature to allow for written contracts, let alone reports and invoices; but it is quite another matter to run to a decent office where we can see clients and hand out elegant, expensive cards embossed with our names and telephone numbers. As Borja says, they lend an air of respectability that leads important people to trust us, and at the end of the day trust is what it’s all about. In terms of hierarchy, he’s the company director and I’m his deputy. In practice, to make it crystal-clear, he provides the clients, class and personal charm, and I perform the bloodhound routines.
As we don’t have a secretary (our current budget won’t stretch to a blonde goddess manicuring her nails all day in the office, though she’d be one of the improvements Borja would like to introduce into the company), we are forced to give our clients the numbers of our blasted mobile phones. These are the very latest models thanks to an acquaintance of Borja who works around the shops in the port area and gets them on the cheap (I suspect that backstreet dealing in mobiles off the backs of lorries is one of the scams Borja resorts to when we aren’t on a case). What we do have is a small, very chic office – top end as they say – on carrer
Balmes, very close to the plaça Bonanova, because we pay a peppercorn rent that was fixed years ago. Borja says this rent, ridiculously low considering we work in one of those districts in Barcelona where the nakedness of the graffiti-free walls verges on the obscene, is a favour granted by a grateful friend. I imagine it’s a friend who’s very grateful because my brother has kept the lid on various items of compromising information. There’s a reception area, a small sink and 400 square feet of space containing our non-existent secretary’s desk. Since it is so roomy, we’ve equipped it with two armchairs and a small sofa from the Ikea sales, together with two standard lamps and a brightly coloured carpet, a longish second-hand glass table, one side of which is slightly cracked, and six leather-upholstered chairs Borja bought on the cheap (a job-lot from a removal van, I guess). This is where we meet our clients, who are not exactly queuing up. With characteristic cunning Borja has had very flash imitation-mahogany doors set in one of the walls (the carpenter has yet to be paid, I fear), mounted with a couple of gilt plaques that proclaim our names and respective posts in italics:
Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga
Eduardo Martínez Estivill
When we see clients, our secretary is invariably on holiday or out on an errand. Nonetheless, there is always a little bottle of red Chanel nail varnish and other small items on her desk that supposedly betray a feminine presence: a Liberty foulard draped casually over the back of her chair (which, one festive night, after a couple of generous measures of Cardhu, Borja confessed he’d requisitioned from a restaurant coat-stand), a copy of Hello! (inevitably a very out-of-date copy purloined from my brother’s sun-tanning salon) and a plant that doesn’t require much water. He reckons such anodyne objects lend credibility to the idea that a woman is at work there. We also keep a filched bottle of L’Air du Temps in one of the drawers of the desk, whereon rests a Mac that doesn’t work, and occasionally when we are expecting a visit, we squirt the scent around and perfume the atmosphere with the high-class secretarial touch Borja believes to be so vital. As for our non-existent offices behind fake doors, they are always being painted or redecorated.
After all my setting of the scene, it must be apparent that our customers almost always belong to the upper classes, and that what we can offer them is absolute discretion in the matters they confide to us. “Eduard, lie under an oak tree and your acorns will prosper,” Borja likes to repeat. It’s one of his favourite sayings. The other is the one about God and dice.
“Eduard, God doesn’t play dice . . .” he likes to quip when we find ourselves up a blind alley or enjoy a sudden stroke of good luck.
In fact, Borja and I play the role of intermediary in the kinds of negotiations the rich don’t like to conduct them-selves, such as buying or selling whatever comes their way and pawning jewels and art objects. We sometimes get involved in collecting information on rival firms or disloyal partners, and occasionally we’ve even checked out the veracity of a prolonged absence from work brought about by a pleasant, highly dubious depression. Unfortunately, as we have to earn our crust one way or another, we must also occasionally get to grips with cases of infidelity. We aren’t detectives or anything like that, and that’s precisely why our clientele decides to place itself at our mercy. It’s not like contracting an agency of professionals to tail your wife (or mistress, which is usually what it amounts to), and then facing up to a grizzly individual who hands over a fat file and an even fatter invoice confirming your irksome suspicions – it’s more like asking a friend to find out what he can in exchange for a generously filled envelope. We provide this friendly service: we don’t bug, don’t take photos, don’t hoard files or write long reports. We work by word of mouth, and frequently relay our findings to clients comfortably ensconced together in one of the few decent cocktail bars that, according to Borja, are still left in Barcelona. We’re not anonymous employees of a sordid private detective agency advertised on balcony hoardings, but two understanding friends who, if needs be, can find a word of consolation and offer a shoulder to cry on when one of our clients decides to divulge all. “Be prepared” is our motto, salvaged by Borja from our wretched time as obedient boy scouts. As he says, it reflects the professional skills we offer, not to mention the over-the-top fees we try to command.
You can take it as read that when I accepted Borja’s partnership proposal I never imagined things would take off and that we’d find ourselves embroiled in trying to solve a murder case. I must confess neither of us had the slightest idea about how to tackle such a situation, either then or now. In fact all our knowledge of the criminal underworld originates exclusively – I kid you not – from reading crime fiction on childhood holidays spent in Premià de Mar with our parents and grandparents, when Premià was still a small village sufficiently distant from Barcelona to perform as a summer holiday resort. As far as I’m concerned, this bookish experience was supplemented on the beach at Caldetes, where Montse, the children and I still spend the summer: the main aim of such page-turning being to keep in check the tortured testosterone of a young man prostrate on the sand and surrounded by splendidly curvaceous flesh as naked as the day God brought it into this world. Frankly, our sources never went beyond Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Georges Simenon, Vázquez Montalbán and, recently, Mrs Jessica Fletcher and Colombo (the series shown repeatedly on television, of which Borja never missed a single episode). You can also take it for granted that the nearest we’ve ever got to pistols, and firearms in general, was the front row of the cinema stalls. As we are orphans, we enjoyed the privilege of never being conscripted, so neither of us has ever held a CETME, that Spanish army-issue rifle with a life of its own, characterized by a tendency to backfire at will. As for our knowledge of matters legal and forensic, they add up to a combined total of zilch, if not less.
Borja, and Einstein, may be right that God doesn’t play dice, but I’m fairly sceptical when it comes to identifying coincidence and causality; I must, however, accept that in the case I’m about to relate, there were far too many coincidences for comfort. In the first place, how else would we have been drawn into the investigation of a tricky murder case in which leading figures from high society were key players? Given our total lack of know-how, the job was clearly beyond us, to put it mildly, but the strange circumstances surrounding the case (and the fact we ourselves got embroiled), put us in the position of having to take the case on. I won’t deny there were circumstances to inspire all our detective heroes, because the crime we confronted was the stuff films are made of. If newscasters tell us day-in day-out of crimes that are sordid, vicious and eminently predictable, the majority perpetrated by head cases on drugs or poor wretches who commit suicide or give themselves up to the police, tails between legs, it was our lot to investigate a case that lacked any such spice. It was at once refined and unnerving. To tell the truth, given our day and age’s fondness for blood, guts and cheap sex, the planning and execution of “our” murder suggested that a minor, yet truly macabre, masterpiece had been staged.