David Liss


The Coffee Trader

1

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting. Miguel Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose into the tarry liquid. Holding the vessel still for an instant, he breathed in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs. The sharp odor of earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.

“What is this?” Miguel asked, working through his irritation by pushing at the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other. She knew he had no time to waste, so why had she brought him here for this nonsense? One bitter remark after another bubbled up inside him, but Miguel let loose with none of them. It wasn’t that he was afraid of her, but he often found himself going to great lengths to avoid her displeasure.

He looked over and saw that Geertruid met his silent cuticle mutilation with a grin. He knew that irresistible smile and what it meant: she was mightily pleased with herself, and when she looked that way it was hard for Miguel not to be mightily pleased with her too.

“It’s something extraordinary,” she told him, gesturing toward his bowl. “Drink it.”

“Drink it?” Miguel squinted into the blackness. “It looks like the devil’s piss, which would certainly be extraordinary, but I’ve no desire to know what it tastes like.”

Geertruid leaned toward him, almost brushing up against his arm. “Take a sip and then I’ll tell you everything. This devil’s piss is going to make both our fortunes.”

It had begun not an hour earlier, when Miguel felt someone take hold of his arm.

In the instant before he turned his head, he ticked off the unpleasant possibilities: rival or creditor, an abandoned lover or her angry relative, the Danish fellow to whom he’d sold those Baltic grain futures with too enthusiastic a recommendation. Not so long ago the approach of a stranger had held promise. Merchants and schemers and women had all sought Miguel’s company, asking his advice, craving his companionship, bargaining for his guilders. Now he wished only to learn in what new shape disaster would unfold itself.



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