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 christened me with: a humble Eduard (though still a Spanish Eduardo on my ID card) Martínez Estivill. On the other hand, my brother’s (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 originated from Soria, in the heart of Castile. In the case of Borja-Pep’s imaginary family, as he himself likes to expatiate, his father was from Lerida, the youngest in a family owning large stretches of arable land and herds of cows in the region of Alt Urgell, and his mother, a rich heiress from Santander, the coastal resort where the parents Borja invented for himself decided to settle down after they apparently married and where he claims he was born.
This canny scatter-gunning of his family tree enables my brother Borja to justify the fact that, despite his spectacularly blue-blooded surnames and a juicy family fortune he should supposedly 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 belongs to one of those ancient families which inevitably fell on hard times and whose genealogical roots are mired in obscure aristocratic surnames of obscure medieval origin.
“Papa,” Borja usually explains (and from now on I will refer to him using the name everyone knows him by, the one I myself am now accustomed to), “was unable to adapt to modern times and lost his entire inheritance. He’d invested everything in the family business in Santander, and in fact managed to make a fortune . . . But then the times were a-changing . . . ” he goes on to explain, frowning grimly and sighing soulfully. “The famous industrial re-organization of the shipyards came along, and, if that weren’t enough, Papa got into trouble with the Revenue, which wasn’t his fault, of course, but down to a wretched accountant who lost him a heap of money,” he whispers in conclusion, shaking his head as he embroiders his tale with pride and fatalistic resignation, 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 even look like brothers. He takes more after our mother’s family, which was always rather optimistic and reed-like, while I take after our father’s, always a touch sullen and chubby. In fact, Borja is the younger fledgling since he left the womb a couple of minutes after me: nonetheless every so often it amuses my twin to remind me that, if we’d been a king’s sons (of the legitimate variety, naturally), he, not I, would have been the rightful heir to the throne. I always tell him not to worry, I’m sure we wouldn’t have fought each other for the honor. In my case, this peculiar idiosyncrasy of monarchies that struggle to preserve intact vestiges of ignorance from past eras–that is, first spliced, last out-takes a weight off my mind. Perhaps because I’m the shy, wavering one, and he’s the moody, audacious type.
We are twins and will both be forty-five in May, but I must confess Borja seems slightly younger. He’s still a bachelor, although for some time he’s had a sort of more or less steady girl friend who likes to take him out to Barcelona’s most select venues. Maybe the only drawback in this arrangement—depending on your point of view, obviously—is that she is married.
In fact, despite the close relationship we now enjoy, the last twenty years in my twin brother’s life constitute a mystery that only receives sporadic illumination when, under the influence of Cardhu, Borja makes the odd revelation, happy slips I grasp at in order to patiently reconstruct periods of his life. Thanks to his Scotch I found out that he set foot in Australia, went hungry in Germany and in no way would ever work again as cook on an oil tanker. I’ve also discovered he lived in Paris for several years, but more of this anon.
I’m still married to the same woman, my darling Montse, and I’ve got three children: two fourteen-year-old girls who are 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 hairdresser adds blond highlights once a month), and loves silk ties, English-style pinstripe suits, and Italian loafers. I prefer corduroy and jeans, checked shirts and lace-up shoes. Although we are more or less the same height, around one metre seventy-five, I weigh in at twelve kilos more, though I’m not what you’d call fat. Maybe I am developing a slight paunch, and, like our father, a receding hairline, that I try to hide. The hair that’s left, of which luckily there is a lot, is inexplicably graying 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—and while his skin is always an enviable golden brown, thanks to a tanning salon on the ground floor of his building, mine remains a milky white almost all year. Borja works out at a gym at least three times a week, while I get more than enough exercise with what I have to do in the general housecleaning every Saturday, and what I do daily with the kid when Montse is getting dinner ready. Borja is rightwing (for aesthetic reasons, he claims) and I continue to be a non-voting, disillusioned member of the left.
I must admit that I blush easily when forced to tell a lie, even the most innocent of fibs, while Borja only reddens when he blabs something that really seems to be true. In restaurants he is able to select wine not simply as a function of price and knows how to wield the appropriate utensils to dissect 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) of a kind of consultancy agency, as we call it, which on our cards and letterhead declares itself to be Frau Consultants, Limited Company. In fact, the name Borja chose initially was Tau, a Greek letter, that apart from invoking Taurus, the sign of the Zodiac that we share, is not a word in Catalan or Spanish, which we felt to be most opportune considering the strange things that occur with language questions in this country, particularly on the upper north side of the city. However, someone made a mistake at the printers, and Borja, who is a touch superstitious, believed that it was an omen and decided to adopt the mistake, re-baptizing our newly created company with the new name. In fact, Frau brings to mind, quite logically, “fraud,” and perhaps there is something of that in my brother’s new name and his permanently bankrupt state. Borja is a man who likes to live it up and when he can, which, one has to say, is not very often, he goes the whole hog.
In reality, Frau Consultants is not a real firm because it doesn’t exist as such at the company registry and, anyway, the activities we pursue don’t go with lots of invoices and paperwork. The consultancy we offer, and which our clients demand, is too confidential in nature to allow for written contracts, let alone reports and invoices. It is quite another matter to have a decent office where we can receive clients and elegant, expensive cards embossed with our names and telephone numbers. As Borja says, they lend an air of respectability that means important people can trust us, and at the end of the day trust is what it is all about. In terms of hierarchy, he is the company director and I am his deputy. In practice, to make it crystal-clear, he brings in clients, class, and personal charm, while I do the bloodhound bit.
As we don’t have a secretary (our current budget can’t cope with a blonde goddess in the office all day manicuring her nails, which is one of the improvements Borja would like to introduce into the company), we are forced to give our clients the numbers of our wretched mobiles. These are the latest models because Borja has an acquaintance who works in the vicinity of the shops in the Barceloneta and he gets them on the cheap (I think backstreet trafficking in mobiles is one of the scams Borja depends on when we aren’t on a case). What we do have is a small, very chic office—glamorous in today’s parlance—at the top of calle Balmes, very close to the plaza Bonanova, because it’s on a token rent that was fixed years ago. Borja says this rent, which is ridiculously low if you consider it is situated in one of those districts where the nakedness of the graffiti-free walls seems almost obscene, is a favor from a grateful friend. I suspect it is a very grateful friend about whom my brother has not made public any additional information. It has a reception area, a small sink and forty square meters of room that contains our non-existent secretary’s desk. Since the room is spacious, we’ve equipped it with two armchairs and a small sofa from the Ikea sales, together with two standard lamps and a brightly-colored carpet, a long, secondhand glass table, one side of which is slightly cracked, and six leather chairs that Borja bought on the cheap (a shipment off the back of a truck, I suspect). It is here that we welcome our customers, who are not exactly queuing up. With characteristic guile Borja had fake, very flash mahogany doors set in one of the walls (the carpenter is still waiting to be paid, I fear) and mounted there a couple of gold plaques whose italics proclaim our names and respective roles:
When we receive clients, our secretary is invariably on holiday or on an errand. Nonetheless, on her table there’s always a little bottle of red Chanel nail varnish and other small items that supposedly betray a feminine presence in the office: a Loewe foulard draped carelessly over the back of the chair (which, on one night of partying, after a couple of generous measures of Cardhu, Borja confessed he’d requisitioned from a restaurant coat rack), a copy of Hello! (invariably a very old issue, because I think my brother purloins magazines from his suntan salon), and a plant that doesn’t require much watering. He reckons such anodyne objects lend credibility to the idea that a woman is at work. In one of the desk-drawers, whereon rests an idle Mac, we keep a bottle of L’Air du Temps that never passed through any cash till, and from time to time when we are expecting a visit, we squirt it around and perfume the atmosphere with the high-class secretarial touch Borja believes to be so vital. As for our offices, non-existent behind the fake doors, they are always being painted or redecorated.
After all this setting of the scene, it’s easy to surmise that our customers almost always belong to the upper classes, and that what we offer them is our absolute discretion in the matters they confide in us. “Kid brother, ‘Lie under an oak tree and your acorns will prosper’,” Borja likes to repeat. It’s one of his favorite sayings. The other is the one about God and dice.
“Eduard, God doesn’t play dice . . . ” he usually declares when we find ourselves up a blind alley or suddenly have a stroke of good luck.
In truth, my brother Borja and I play the role of intermediary in the kinds of negotiations that the rich don’t like to do themselves, such as buying or selling whatever and pawning jewels and art objects. We sometimes get involved in collecting information on firms in competition or disloyal partners, and occasionally we have even had to check out the veracity of a prolonged absence from work due to an excessively long and suspicious depression. Unfortunately, as we have to earn our crust one way or another, we must also sometimes get to grips with cases of infidelity. We aren’t detectives or anything of that stripe, and that’s precisely why our clientele decides to place itself at our mercy. It is not the same to contract an agency of professionals to tail your wife (or mistress, which is usually what it amounts to), and then be confronted with a grizzled individual who hands you a fat file and even fatter invoice confirming your tiresome suspicions, as to ask a friend to find out what he can in exchange for a generous golden handshake. We are this friend: we don’t bug, we don’t take photos, we don’t hoard files or write long reports. We work by word of mouth, and frequently rehearse our findings to clients comfortably seated in one of the few decent cocktail bars that, according to Borja, are left in Barcelona. Not two anonymous employees from a sordid detective firm that advertises itself on big balcony billboards, just two understanding friends who, if need be, can find a word of consolation and offer a shoulder to cry on when one of our clients has decided to let it all hang out.
You can take it as read that when I accepted Borja’s partnership proposal I never imagined things would become so complicated and that we’d find ourselves implicated in a murder case we’d have to set to and solve. 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 about the criminal underworld originates exclusively—I exaggerate not—from what we used to read on childhood holidays spent in Premià de Mar with our parents and grandparents, when Premià was a small village sufficiently distant from Barcelona to constitute a summer holiday resort. As far as I’m concerned, this bookish experience was extended on the beach at Caldetes, where Montse, the children, and I spent the odd week: the main aim of such page-turning was to assuage the tortured virility of a young man lying amid spherical splendor on the sand as naked as the day it was born. Frankly, our sources never went beyond Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Chesterton, Simenon, Vázquez Montalbán and, recently, Mrs. Jessica Fletcher and Colombo (a series that keeps being repeated on the television and which Borja never misses). It can also be taken for granted that the nearest we’ve ever got to pistols, and firearms in general, is 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, the Spanish army issue gun with a life of its own, characterized by an ability to shoot of its own accord. As for our knowledge of matters legal and forensic they add up combined to zero, if not less.
Borja may be right and, as Einstein said, God doesn’t play dice. I am fairly skeptical when it comes to interpreting chance as cause, but I must accept that, in the case I’m about to relate, there were far too many coincidences. It was precisely the coincidences that drew us into the investigation of a tricky murder case dominated by leading figures from Barcelona high society. Given our total lack of know-how, the job was testing, 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 that they were circumstances to excite any of our detective heroes, because the crime we confronted was the stuff that films are made of. If newscasters tell us today about crimes that are sordid, vicious, and, largely 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 lacking any such ingredients. It was both refined and unnerving. If the truth were told, given the excessive fondness of our day and age for blood, guts, and cheap sex, the planning and execution of “our” murder recalled rather the staging of a minor, yet truly macabre, masterpiece.
First published as Un crim imperfecte (Barcelona: Editora 62, 2006). Forthcoming as The Not-So-Perfect Crime from Bitter Lemon Press. By arrangement with Bitter Lemon Press. All rights reserved.