The Angel's Game
Author:CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON

4

You don’t know what thirst is until you drink for the first time. Three days after my visit to El Ensue?o, the memory of Chloé’s skin still burned my very thoughts. Without a word to anyone - especially not to Vidal - I decided to gather up what little savings I had and go back there, hoping it would be enough to buy even just one moment in her arms. It was past midnight when I reached the stairs with the red walls that led up to El Ensue?o. The light was out in the stairway and I climbed cautiously, leaving behind the noisy citadel of cabarets, bars, music halls and random establishments which the years of the Great War had strewn along Calle Nou de la Rambla. Only the flickering light from the main door below outlined each stair as I ascended. When I reached the landing I stopped and groped about for the door knocker. My fingers touched the heavy metal ring and, when I lifted it, the door gave way slightly and I realised that it was open. I pushed it gently. A deathly silence caressed my face and a bluish darkness stretched before me. Disconcerted, I advanced a few steps. The echo of the street lights fluttered in the air, revealing fleeting visions of bare walls and broken wooden flooring. I came to the room that I remembered, decorated with velvet and lavish furniture. It was empty. The blanket of dust covering the floor shone like sand in the glimmer from the illuminated signs in the street. I walked on, leaving a trail of footsteps in the dust. No sign of the gramophone, of the armchairs or the pictures. The ceiling had burst open, revealing blackened beams. The paint hung from the walls in strips. I walked over to the corridor that led to the room where I had met Chloé, crossing through a tunnel of darkness until I reached the double door, which was no longer white. There was no handle on it, only a hole in the wood, as if the mechanism had been yanked out. I pushed open the door and went in.

Chloé’s bedroom was a shadowy cell. The walls were charred and most of the ceiling had collapsed. I could see a canvas of black clouds crossing the sky and the moon projected a silver halo over the metal skeleton of what had once been a bed. It was then that I heard the floor creak behind me and turned round quickly, aware that I was not alone in that place. The dark, defined figure of a man was outlined against the entrance to the corridor. I couldn’t distinguish his face, but I was sure he was watching me. He stood there for a few seconds, still as a spider, time enough for me to react and take a step towards him. In an instant the figure withdrew into the shadows, and by the time I reached the sitting room there was nobody there. A breath of light from a sign on the other side of the street flooded the room for a second, revealing a small pile of rubble heaped against the wall. I went over and knelt down by the remnants that had been devoured by fire. Something protruded from the pile. Fingers. I brushed away the ashes that covered them and slowly the shape of a hand emerged. I grasped it, and when I tried to pull it out I realised that it had been severed at the wrist. I recognised it instantly and saw that the girl’s hand, which I had thought was wooden, was in fact made of porcelain. I let it fall back on the pile of debris and left.

I wondered whether I had imagined that stranger, because there were no other footprints in the dust. I went downstairs and stood outside the building, inspecting the first-floor windows from the pavement, utterly confused. People passed by laughing, unaware of my presence. I tried to spot the outline of the stranger among the crowd. I knew he was there, maybe a few metres away, watching me. After a while I crossed the street and went into a narrow café, packed with people. I managed to elbow out a space at the bar and signalled to the waiter.

‘What would you like?’

My mouth was as dry as sandpaper.

‘A beer,’ I said, improvising.

While the waiter poured me my drink, I leaned forward.

‘Excuse me, do you know whether the place opposite, El Ensue?o, has closed down?’

The waiter put the glass on the bar and looked at me as if I were stupid.

‘It closed fifteen years ago,’ he said.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure. After the fire it never reopened. Anything else?’

I shook my head.

‘That will be four céntimos.’

I paid for my drink and left without touching the glass.

The following day I arrived at the newspaper offices before my usual time and went straight to the archives in the basement. With the help of Matías, the person in charge, and going on what the waiter had told me, I began to check through the front pages of The Voice of Industry from fifteen years back. It took me about forty minutes to find the story, just a short item. The fire had started in the early hours of Corpus Christi Day, 1903. Six people had died, trapped in the flames: a client, four of the girls on the payroll and a small child who worked there. The police and firemen believed that the cause of the tragedy was a faulty oil lamp, although the council of a nearby church alluded to divine retribution and the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

When I returned to the pensión I lay on my bed and tried in vain to fall asleep. I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the business card from my strange benefactor - the card I was holding when I awoke in Chloé’s bed - and in the dark I reread the words written on the back. ‘Great expectations’.