The Angel's Game
Author:CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON

25

That night I returned, for the last time, to the Sempere & Sons bookshop. The CLOSED sign was hanging on the door, but as I drew closer I noticed there was still a light on inside and that Isabella was standing behind the counter, alone, engrossed in a thick accounts ledger. Judging from the expression on her face, it predicted the end of the old bookshop’s days. But as I watched her nibbling the end of her pencil and scratching the tip of her nose with her forefinger, I was certain that as long as she was there the place would never disappear. Her presence would save it, as it had saved me. I didn’t dare break that moment so I stayed where I was, smiling to myself, watching her unawares. Suddenly, as if she’d read my thoughts, she looked up and saw me. I waved at her and saw that, despite herself, her eyes were filled with tears. She closed the book and came running out from behind the counter to open the door. She was staring at me as if she couldn’t quite believe I was there.

‘That man said you’d run away . . . He said we’d never see you again.’

I presumed Grandes had paid her a visit before he died.

‘I want you to know that I didn’t believe a word of what he told me,’ said Isabella. ‘Let me call—’

‘I don’t have much time, Isabella.’

She looked at me, crestfallen.

‘You’re leaving, aren’t you?’

I nodded. Isabella gulped nervously.

‘I told you I don’t like farewells.’

‘I like them even less. That’s why I haven’t come to say goodbye. I’ve come to return a couple of things that don’t belong to me.’

I pulled out the copy of The Steps of Heaven and handed it to her.

‘This should never have left the glass case containing Se?or Sempere’s personal collection.’

Isabella took it and when she saw the bullet still trapped in its pages she looked at me in silence. I then pulled out the white envelope that held the fifteen thousand pesetas with which old Vidal had tried to buy my death, and left it on the counter.

‘And this goes towards all the books that Sempere gave me over the years.’

Isabella opened it and counted the money in astonishment.

‘I don’t know whether I can accept it . . .’

‘Consider it my wedding present, in advance.’

‘And there was I, still hoping you’d lead me to the altar one day, even if only to give me away.’

‘Nothing would have pleased me more.’

‘But you have to go.’

‘Yes.’

‘Forever.’

‘For a while.’

‘What if I come with you?’

I kissed her on the forehead, then hugged her.

‘Wherever I go, you’ll always be with me, Isabella. Always.’

‘I have no intention of missing you.’

‘I know.’

‘Can I at least come with you to the train or whatever?’

I hesitated too long to refuse those last few minutes of her company.

‘To make sure you’re really going, and I’ve finally got rid of you,’ she added.

‘It’s a deal.’

003

We strolled down the Ramblas, Isabella’s arm in mine. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we crossed over towards the dark alleyway that ran deep into the Raval quarter.

‘Isabella, you mustn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see tonight.’

‘Not even Sempere junior?’

I sighed.

‘Of course you can tell him. You can tell him everything. We can hardly keep any secrets from him.’

 

When the doors opened, Isaac, the keeper, smiled at us and stepped aside.

‘It’s about time we had an important visit,’ he said, bowing to Isabella. ‘Am I right in supposing you’d rather be the guide, Martín?’

‘If you don’t mind . . .’

Isaac stretched out his hand and I shook it.

‘Good luck,’ he said.

The keeper withdrew into the shadows, leaving me alone with Isabella. My ex-assistant - now the new manager of Sempere & Sons - observed everything with a mixture of astonishment and apprehension.

‘What sort of a place is this?’ she asked.

I took her hand and led her the remaining distance to the large hall that housed the entrance.

‘Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Isabella.’

Isabella looked up towards the glass dome and became lost in that impossible vision of white rays of light that criss-crossed a babel of tunnels, footbridges and bridges, all leading into a cathedral made of books.

‘This place is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands, a new spirit . . .’

004

Later I left Isabella waiting by the entrance to the labyrinth and set off alone through the tunnels, clutching that accursed manuscript I had not had the courage to destroy. I hoped my feet would guide me to the place where I was to bury it forever. I turned a thousand corners until I thought I was lost. Then, when I was convinced I’d followed the same path a dozen times, I discovered I was standing at the entrance to the small chamber where I’d seen my own reflection in the mirror in which the eyes of the man in black were ever-present. I found a gap between two spines of black leather and there, without thinking twice, I buried the boss’s folder. I was about to leave the chamber when I turned and went back to the shelf. I picked up the volume next to the slot in which I had confined the manuscript and opened it. I’d only read a couple of sentences when I heard that dark laughter again behind me. I returned the book to its place and picked another at random, flicking through the pages. I took another, then another, and went on in this way until I had examined dozens of the volumes that populated the room. I realised that they all contained different arrangements of the same words, that the same images darkened their pages and the same fable was repeated in them like a pas de deux in an infinite hall of mirrors. Lux Aeterna.

 

When I emerged from the labyrinth Isabella was waiting for me, sitting on some steps, holding the book she had chosen. I sat down next to her and she leaned her head on my shoulder.

‘Thank you for bringing me here,’ she said.

I suddenly understood that I would never see that place again, that I was condemned to dream about it and to sculpt what I remembered of it into my memory, considering myself lucky to have been able to walk through its passages and touch its secrets. I closed my eyes for a moment so that the image might become engraved in my mind. Then, without daring to look back, I took Isabella’s hand and made my way towards the exit, leaving the Cemetery of Forgotten Books behind me forever.

 

Isabella came with me to the dock, where the ship was waiting to take me far away from that city, from everything I knew.

‘What did you say the captain was called?’

‘Charon.’

‘I don’t think that’s funny.’

I hugged her for the last time and looked into her eyes. On the way we had agreed there would be no farewells, no solemn words, no promises to fulfil. When the midnight bells rang in Santa María del Mar, I went on board. Captain Olmo greeted me and offered to take me to my cabin. I said I would rather wait. The crew cast off and gradually the hull moved away from the dock. I positioned myself at the stern, watching the city fade in a tide of lights. Isabella remained there, motionless, her eyes fixed on mine, until the dock was lost in the night and the great mirage of Barcelona sank into the black waters. One by one the lights of the city went out, and I realised that I had already begun to remember.