The light emanating from the closest streetlamp to number 19 Porvera Street was enough to sense the magnitude of the struggle that had taken place in that room a few hours earlier. The alarm was raised by an octogenarian neighbor, incredibly vigorous and lucid, accustomed to keeping an eye and an ear on the windowpane to «stay informed» about what was happening in the otherwise peaceful neighborhood. It was she who – as later became known – saw the clockmaker enter accompanied by two men clad in coats, who hastily left the house after what sounded like a heated argument.
Cruelty and violence seeped through the walls of the dilapidated living room and spread across the floor, occupying everything, leaving little room for the breath that had long ceased to flow from the clockmaker. Throughout the room, there were scattered pieces of exorbitantly expensive collector’s watches that had once been connected to the crème de la crème of European society through gold and silver chains. Pocket watches were the most abundant, but there were also scattered examples of Patek Philippe or Rolex here and there. It was precisely this that made the situation senseless, a puzzle that Inspector Meseguer, who had just entered the cordoned-off house a few minutes earlier by the police, would have to face. The safe had been opened with the collaboration, voluntary or not, of the man lying on the carpet, and everything indicated that whoever had caused that chaos had not found what they were looking for. After torturing the unfortunate obese man, they hastily left the place, assuming he was dead.
«Antonio Ibáñez. Fifty-eight years old. Divorced and childless. A clockmaker by profession, as you will see, Inspector Meseguer,» informed an officer consulting a notepad. «We haven’t been able to contact any family members. According to the neighbor who alerted us, his ex-wife went to Canada after the divorce about five years ago, and she was never heard from again. Time of death, around six-thirty in the evening. It was at six o’clock when the lady saw the deceased enter with two other men.»
Out of inertia, aware perhaps that it would be other hands that would tune and set it, the chime of a valuable Mauthe clock, manufactured in the 1950s, sounded on the stuccoed wall.
«It’s already nine,» the inspector cursed to himself, realizing that it would be impossible for him to attend the performance of La Bohème scheduled for that night at the Villamarta Theater, where he had reserved two seats for the entire opera season.
Wearing latex gloves and being extremely careful not to step on the trail of blood left by the collector as his last breath escaped from a mouth frozen in a painful grimace, Inspector Meseguer conducted a superficial examination of the body. Prior to that, the body had been meticulously photographed from various angles by a forensic technician. The autopsy would later determine the time of death, as well as the unmistakable causes, given the stab wounds visible on the deceased’s chest and neck. Someone had sewn him up with multiple stabs, perhaps one for each chime that had sounded at the time of his death. The photographer’s trained eye estimated the time of death to be approximately two and a half hours before the discovery of the body, an estimation that was corroborated by his colleague.
The previous day, they had predicted bad weather with intermittent sunshine in the late afternoon. Just in case, Ibáñez took his overcoat and draped it over his left forearm. Clad in a beige suit and properly adjusting his tie knot, he stepped out onto the street where the morning presented itself as damp, yet pleasantly warm. Clutched in his right hand was a weathered leather briefcase, showing signs of age.
Since their meeting was arranged, he had decided not to go by car. So, after cautiously meandering through the streets, wary that someone might be following his footsteps, he headed down Medina Street toward the train station.
The clockmaker was nearing sixty and his waistline far exceeded the desirable limit for a man his age. He was not a trusting person. His profession had led him over the years to gauge people in the same way he examined each piece that came into his hands. Surprisingly thin and visibly smooth, his hands were characteristic of his profession, and he habitually kept them crossed in front of anyone who addressed him, serving as a barrier between his corpulent self and the world. He was wary of the world and observed it with cold yet tranquil eyes, studying every gesture, every blink, every breath taken and exhaled. With a prominent double chin that tended to stand out when he was in a good mood and whistled Mozart’s 40th symphony, and rather short legs, he had a somewhat forlorn appearance.
Soon, the train became visible in the distance, coming from El Puerto de Santa María station. Once in the corresponding carriage, he took a seat and quickly glanced around, counting ten passengers besides himself: seven facing forward and three facing the opposite direction.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary except for a curious tattoo on a man in his forties, consisting of small italicized letters. It had something to do with «ignorance,» but the clockmaker couldn’t quite make out the full meaning. In any case, it had nothing to do with the Nuremberg egg, as he ventured into Andalusian territory.
He spent the long two-and-a-half hours of the train journey simulating reading a book about the endless crisis that ravaged the country like a hurricane. Lost in thought, he «dreamed» that he strolled along the banks of the Guadalquivir River, crossed the San Rafael Bridge, and marveled at the view of the mill bearing the same name. He was awakened from his reverie by an announcement. «Next stop… Córdoba.» He closed the book, took his overcoat and briefcase, and, along with the other passengers, made his way to the exit of the station. He chose not to take a taxi, determined not to leave any trace of his presence in the Caliphate city.
The winter wind shook the leaves that had clung to the tree branches a few weeks longer than usual due to the increasingly erratic weather caused.
The clockmaker, with his gray overcoat draped over his thinning hair, advanced against the same wind from the station. Driven by his firm determination to finalize one of the most lucrative deals of his life in utmost secrecy. For over three months, he had been trying to acquire one of the so-called Nuremberg eggs on the black market, whose production dated back to the 16th century. He walked about sixty meters against the gusts of wind and turned right, finding shelter against the wall of the station building. Taking advantage of the corner, he checked from a doorway to ensure that no one was following him. He continued walking along Avenida de América to Calle Osario, occasionally glancing back as a pretext to gaze at some shop windows. Upon reaching the building that housed the Provincial Council, he looked up at the sundial, a nod to the task that had brought him to the Andalusian capital from his neighboring town of Jerez. Due to the clouds, the gnomon cast its faint shadow on the wall lines, indicating approximately three o’clock and five minutes. Punctuality was an essential requirement to carry out the operation, and the skilled specialist in mechanical precision was well aware of that, so he consulted the luxurious Rolex on his wrist. Exactly at three fifteen, the man from Jerez stepped away from the wall where he had waited for the last two minutes and crossed a sparsely traveled street, dialing the number 42. A slight sound of footsteps on the ground occurred just moments before a peephole slid open with a metallic sound in the cherrywood door.
«What do you want?» asked the voice of a man slightly younger than the clockmaker from inside the house.
«I believe we have a matter of mutual interest.»
Behind the peephole, an impatient eye observed the expert clockmaker for a few seconds.
«Come in, don’t linger at the door any longer than necessary,» urged a burly figure from the now-open door of the house. «You’re certainly being watched, and we mustn’t be connected in any way,» cautioned the man with whom the clockmaker had arranged the meeting. «Have you brought all the money as I explained in my last letter?»
«Everything, just as you said,» replied the man from Jerez. «Although I must say, it didn’t seem like the safest method of communicating with me. As for the divided bills and the fact that they are used, it doesn’t surprise me. It’s common in these cases. At least in fiction.»
«Pah! Nonsense! No one would pay attention to a letter sent through the regular mail by an ordinary citizen. After all, the way the egg came into my possession couldn’t have been more unexpected. No one can suspect that it’s me who brought it to Cordoba. If anyone follows a hot trail, it’s yours, not mine.»
Without saying another word, the man from Cordoba showed the man from the border a small black velvet bag, from which the latter extracted a beautiful oval-shaped watch. With great care, caressing it, marveling at its beauty, the man from Jerez thought it had been worth going there and embarking on such an adventure just for the pleasure he experienced at that moment. Satisfied, he handed over the agreed-upon amount and offered his hand to the man from Cordoba, who shook it, surprised by the strength and energy that seemed incongruous with the appearance of the man from the south.
As he closed the door, the burly man from Cordoba could hear on the other side the first notes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, whistled by a clockmaker who felt as if he were floating with happiness at that moment.
His double chin and cheeks swelled and deflated to the rhythm of the chords he himself was picking out in the Cordoban evening.
As planned, he returned to Jerez by taxi. A silent hybrid vehicle took him to Utrera, a town near Seville, where he boarded a local train to ensure even further that no one was following his path.
Despite the season and the room facing northeast, the workshop was heated due to the reflection of the sun on the glass surface of the building across from him. The sun dazzled the clockmaker, so he chose to close the curtains and work under the light of a desk lamp. Moreover, this gesture protected him from potentially prying eyes on the other side of the street. At this point, any precaution he took was insufficient. Ibáñez took the Nuremberg egg out of the protective cloth and delicately opened its lid, running a curious finger over the inscription on the concave part of the watch. «Ignorance is the mother of evil and all other vices.»
The next step was not up to him. Someone would have to contact him in an entirely unpredictable manner, through channels determined solely by his future or future interlocutors. All he could do was safeguard the piece and wait, carrying out his daily activities as normally as possible. Not arousing suspicion or making any kind of display of the valuable watch were the only requirements of the message he had received. Everything had to be carried out with the utmost discretion.
The windmills’ blades danced in the east wind. Ships in the Strait of Gibraltar drew irregular wakes on the rippled sea. Africa loomed in front of the southern tip of Europe, and to the left, the Rock of Gibraltar could already be seen. The clockmaker’s Seat glided smoothly downhill, cutting through the same air that moved the arms of the enormous windmills.
Crossing the border separating Spanish territory from the British colony took him more than an hour and a half, much to his despair. When he parked his car in the space reserved for hotel guests, his nervousness was palpable. Despite the rigors of the current season, sweat droplets dotted his forehead. He gripped his briefcase with both hands and crossed it over his chest as a shield. Hesitant, he asked at the reception for Mr. Andrew Morris, and a slim receptionist with an Andalusian accent informed him that Mr. Morris had been waiting for him for over an hour in the bar adjacent to the hotel lobby.
Claire’s dress revealed a smooth back that she displayed with both indifference and sensuality. Antonio witnessed the indiscreet gazes of all those who crossed paths with the beautiful British woman in the hotel lobby, while Andrew, her husband or accomplice of less than a year, endured her behavior with stoicism, not without a certain pride. She was his particular «jewel of the Crown,» and as such, it was something akin to a morbid pleasure for him to see other men and the occasional woman turn their heads when she passed by, swaying and making her way to the rhythm of her high heels. Heels elevated her above the world, a position not necessary for the clockmaker due to his rather timid and reserved nature.
He looked at him disdainfully from his refuge at the bar while his wife approached them, and in one gulp, she finished her glass of bourbon. On the polished surface, an issue of one of the most prestigious specialized magazines in antique art auctions lay open to a page dedicated to 18th-century watches. The music of John Dowland floated in the air, mixing with the scent of firewood in the enormous fireplace and the warmth emanating from Claire’s body.
«You’re late, Mr. Ibáñez,» the Englishman snapped at the clockmaker in slightly slurred Spanish due to the high amount of alcohol he had consumed. «It’s surprising that someone with your profession isn’t a bit more punctual in fulfilling their commitments. I don’t know about you, but both my wife and I have other matters to attend to, and wasting time is not something we appreciate. I hope you can at least fulfill your commitment to deliver the piece. Because… I assume you have brought it. Isn’t that right, Mr. Ibáñez?»
«First of all, I want to apologize,» the man from Jerez stammered. «You know, the border policies are becoming stricter by the day. The queues have been considerably long in recent weeks, and despite the controls, I managed to arrive before you left the city. I am aware that time is not on my side. I hope you understand my situation. I tried to reach out to you by phone. I sent you an email. You see, I haven’t been able to talk to you until this moment.»
«Forget about words and apologies. We made a deal fourteen days ago. Fulfill your part. We will respond in kind. If we don’t have the Nuremberg egg in our hands today, as agreed, we’ll be taking yours. They will fly in formaldehyde this very afternoon, courtesy of British Airways. Business class. Quite a luxury for your precious jewels.»
«Calm down, my darling. There is no need to lose your temper. Mr. Ibáñez will fulfill his part of the deal. Isn’t that right?» interjected the Gibraltarian woman.
«Of course, I will,» the clockmaker mumbled. «I’m telling you, I tried to get in touch with you these past two days. Your phone was unavailable, and reception couldn’t tell me your whereabouts.»
The man from Jerez crossed his arms over his chest in a protective gesture, while the British man grew increasingly impatient because he showed no sign of fulfilling his part of the agreement, at least not at that moment. Everything indicated to the Londoner that the sweaty character in front of him did not have the item he had been chasing for nearly five years. With a fierce anger in his eyes, he grabbed the clockmaker by the collar, in the complicit presence of the hotel waiter, who pretended to polish the glasses. The Englishman tightened his grip so much that Ibáñez was on the verge of losing consciousness and collapsing to the ground.
«Stop it,» Claire said to Andrew in a low but indignant voice. «You will catch the attention of somebody!»
With his right hand still choking the surprised and almost unconscious man from Jerez, Andrew looked at Claire for an endless moment and slowly loosened the pressure of his fingers.
The redhead embraced Ibáñez, who collapsed onto her warm body, holding him with a strength that surprised the waiter, who was attentive to what was happening while pretending to polish the glassware.
«Alright, Mr. Ibáñez. Calm down. Let’s step out to the terrace for a moment. The fresh air from the Strait will do you good.»
With her arm around the back of the man from Jerez, Claire accompanied him to the hotel terrace, from where they could see the slow traffic of numerous ships in the Strait. The wind gradually revived the clockmaker, who was still stunned by the Englishman’s reaction. He took hesitant sips of a black coffee that the Gibraltarian woman offered him to shake off the faintness he had experienced.
«Look, this is what we’ll do… My husband is leaving for London today, but I don’t have to be there until next weekend. I’ll make it even easier for you. I’ll personally go to your city to pick up the watch the day after tomorrow. It’s been a while since I enjoyed a proper sherry in Arenal Square. This way, you have two extra days to make the delivery, and with my husband away, everything will be calmer.»
Without giving Morris the opportunity to attack the hapless man from Jerez again, Claire led him out through a side door of the terrace and, accompanying him to his vehicle, arranged their next meeting in Jerez two days later in a park on the outskirts.
To Antonio Ibáñez’s relief, the encounter in Jerez was cordial. Nothing foretold the tragedy that would ultimately unfold. He patiently waited on a bench at Laguna de Torrox, observing indifferent couples strolling hand in hand, children running around, and grandparents engaged in friendly conversation. Winter gradually spilled onto the ground, soaking the meadow. The almond trees were painted white on their branches, and the occasional dog chased wood pigeons. Fearless seagulls venturing further inland were busy scavenging for food.
Dressed in green wool, a matching hat, black sunglasses, and boots of the same color, Claire let her auburn hair ripple beneath the green covering her head as she walked towards Antonio, who watched her approach from a safe distance, maintaining a careful balance between the agreed meeting point and a possible escape route.
«Hi! Buenos días, Mr. Ibáñez,» the Englishwoman greeted the clockmaker. «I hope you have recovered from what happened in La Roca. Please excuse me, but I assure you I couldn’t avoid the altercation last Monday. You have to understand that my husband is very anxious about the delivery delay. He’s accustomed to British punctuality. You know, don’t you?»
«I’m fine, I’m fine, it’s nothing. Just a slight bruise that will gradually fade away,» Ibáñez replied, covering the mark left on his neck with a scarf. «I just want to finish this matter as soon as possible and get out of the mess I should have never gotten involved in. My expertise lies in clockwork mechanics, understand me. I have never, nor will I ever, dedicate myself to smuggling and the black market after this unpleasant experience.»
«You don’t need to worry about Andrew anymore. He has entrusted me with concluding this… let’s call it an exchange. He believes I will be more persuasive with you than his fists and bad temper. Isn’t that how you
I think it’s a quote from Galileo. You may know that the Florentine gave a significant boost to technology and even designed a pendulum clock that would later be built by Christian Huygens, a Dutchman. It was Galilei if I’m not mistaken – he joked – who had his own quote engraved inside the egg before his clash with the Inquisition. As you know, knowledge and the Tribunal didn’t get along very well in the 17th century.
Well, it seems you’re quite knowledgeable on the subject. I thought your expertise was limited to clock mechanics. Anyway, let’s focus. You now have the first part of the payment we had to give you. The rest, as we agreed over the phone, will be delivered to you later once our collaborator has certified the authenticity of the object you brought here.
Of course, of course. And who guarantees me that you won’t vanish with the clock and the rest of my money? – the watchmaker inquired with a confident tone, knowing that Andrew wasn’t there to support the redhead – Look, Mrs. Morris, let’s do things properly if you allow me to say. Here’s what we’ll do… I’ll take the egg, and if you want to come with your… «Collaborator,» I’ll be waiting for you this afternoon at my workshop. You see, I have nothing to hide from you. You know my address very well. It’s easy to trace. Big Brother Google will show you the way.
I see you’re still keen on making things more difficult than necessary. Ok. Don’t worry. We’ll do everything as you wish. Luckily, Andrew is far away. He wouldn’t be so… «condescending»? What do you think if my appraiser and I drop by your house or workshop or whatever you call it at four-thirty this afternoon? Not a minute more, not a minute less, please. Be punctual this time. After all, you don’t have a gate to cross today.
The watchmaker put the egg back into the black velvet, stood up, and for the first time, looking down at the redhead from a higher position, he retorted:
Don’t try to intimidate me with the veiled threat of what your husband, your accomplice, or whatever you call him would do. Four-thirty. I’ll be waiting. Let’s get this over with. You give me the money, I give you the damned egg, and as we say on this side of the gate, «here peace, and afterward glory.»
Emboldened by a sudden surge of adrenaline caused by a somewhat bipolar character, the once meek watchmaker allowed himself one last teasing comment directed at the Gibraltarian before heading to his car.
Don’t bother accompanying me. I know the way.
The British subject sat on the cold gray bench for a few minutes, smoking a cigarette as she watched the obese figure of the watchmaker move away. Crushing the cigarette butt with some malice, she took out a phone from her purse and dialed the number Andrew had given her. On the third ring, a man with a Southern accent answered.
«24-hour Solutions.» How can we help you?
Good afternoon. You see, I’ve lost my cat. His name is Cheshire. The last time he was seen, he was wandering around number 19 Porvera Street. It wasn’t long ago, so you might find him in the area if you hurry. You’ll be duly rewarded.
Leave it to us. We’ll contact you as soon as we have news about your kitty. Can we call you on this same number?
Yes, no problem.
«Alright. If your cat doesn’t hide very sharp claws, we’ll have it in our possession before tonight. Stay attentive to your phone.»
The connection was interrupted. Claire put the phone back in her purse, straightened her skirt and copper-colored hair under her bonnet, and headed to the edge of the park where she hailed a taxi that took her to her favorite square in Jerez.
Antonio Ibáñez, also known as Cheshire as of a few minutes ago, drove his white Seat León through the dense afternoon traffic to a nearby parking lot where he had reserved space. After parking, always mindful of anyone following him, he headed to a well-known restaurant on Gaitán Street, where he was a regular customer. He ordered a salad and sea bream baked in salt, accompanied by a white wine from Barbadillo in nearby Sanlúcar de Barrameda. As compensation, and with no clear intention of expanding his waistline, he had tocino de cielo with whipped cream for dessert and a glass of the finest brandy available at the establishment, to celebrate the substantial exchange he was about to make an hour later. He left a generous tip for the waitress and headed home.
Fate had it that when he went to open the door to his home, he realized he had left the keys he usually carried in the right pocket of his pants forgotten in his car. He retraced his steps towards the underground parking lot at Plaza del Mamelón. He descended the stairs to the ground floor of the facility, and as he went to open the car door, he was approached by two individuals, one of whom brandished a sharp knife pointed directly at the watchmaker’s liver.
«Very well, Mr. Ibáñez,» the one with the knife said in a cold voice. «Now we’re going to calmly go to your house. Don’t attempt to ask for help or escape because you’ll end up bleeding out in the street like the pig you’re proving to be. You know what we’re looking for, and unless you have it on you, we assume you’ve kept it in your safe. You know the drill, cooperate, and it’ll all end up as a mere unpleasant experience. Resist, and sooner or later all your clocks will stop ticking for good. Or rather, it will be you who stops.»
The accomplice of the knife-wielder remained silent, attentive to any movement or noise that might alert a witness to what was happening by the car. In this manner, they made their way to number 19 on the central street, pretending to engage in a trivial conversation about the progress of the football league.
Behind the curtains of the neighboring house to the watchmaker’s, a thin widow who had been his neighbor for over forty years — since she began familiarizing herself with precision mechanisms in the master’s workshop — observed Antonio Ibáñez enter his home accompanied by two strangers. This wouldn’t have been unusual behavior for Ibáñez if it weren’t for the fact that one of them seemed to push him slightly and urge him to open the door.
The subsequent excessive volume of music in her neighbor’s house also didn’t fit the norm. She knew that he was a music lover and a fan of Verdi, Mozart, and Bach, and he would often listen to their music while working with clocks. But that afternoon, the Queen of the Night was performing her famous aria at an overly high volume.
The elderly woman didn’t suspect that beneath the notes of «Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,» her neighbor was groaning and pleading for mercy while one of his assailants ransacked the house and workshop. Meanwhile, the other assailant held him tightly while continuously stabbing him.
Cornered as he was, and aware that these were undoubtedly his last moments of life, the watchmaker launched himself with all his strength at his captor, who inadvertently plunged the knife into Ibáñez’s spleen. It emerged bathed in blood that quickly spread across the living room floor, splattering furniture and walls during the struggle between them. The fight took the aggressor by surprise, as he had underestimated the strength that the watchmaker was capable of unleashing. The collector put up fierce resistance, but in a confident gesture, the assailant repeatedly stabbed a small screwdriver into the hand that held the knife.
Driven by the volume of the music, the ruffian’s left arm relentlessly pushed the Albacete knife, like an unstoppable piston, into the watchmaker’s body, tearing through muscles and arteries, breaking ribs, and finally severing the aorta. Ibáñez, who eventually succumbed in his valiant but futile struggle to escape the clutches of his attacker, slid to the ground, slipping in his own blood, dying amidst gasps, with a grim expression on his face, and perhaps with the satisfaction of knowing that he would take the secret of the Nuremberg egg to the grave.
After ransacking the house from top to bottom, including the safe whose combination had been provided by the watchmaker before his death, they concluded that the Nuremberg egg was not to be found at 19 Porvera Street. Resigned, they hastily abandoned Ibáñez’s residence, being observed from behind the curtains by Doña Juana Bermúdez, a widow and loyal collaborator of the law enforcement authorities since the time when her husband served as a brigade in the Civil Guard. It was the widow who called the National Police, who arrived at number 19 in less than ten minutes.
By then, the inevitable had happened.
Once he had taken charge of the situation, albeit reluctantly, Meseguer removed his sterile gloves and, as he adjusted his shirt cuffs, a small italicized inscription on his left wrist caught one’s attention—a timeless quote from Galileo Galilei: «Ignorance is the mother of wickedness and all other vices.»
Days later, at 42 Osario Street in the capital city of Córdoba, a notification from the postal service was received. An item that should never have left that address was returning to its most recent origin, like the hands of a clock, determined to mark the same hour at regular intervals, trapped in an inescapable loop.
The sender of the package containing the item was an unknown waitress, a friend who was accustomed to receiving generous tips.