Today's Reading

A flock of seagulls cawed over my head. I walked past a row of canoes moored along the dock and a group of women carrying umbrellas to shield their faces from the unforgiving sun. Behind them was a man in a dark suit that stood out among the white jackets and hats like a black bean in a bowl of rice. He was holding a sign with my name; the words written in curly, black letters.

María Purificación de Lafont y Toledo.

Lafont from my French father, Toledo from my Spanish mother.

I stopped in front of him.

"May I help you, señor?" he said.

Señor. Another small mercy. He was shorter than me, but I'd always been tall for a woman. His wide skull was reminiscent of those early humans in Cristóbal's archeology books. His eyebrows were coarse and primitive, nearly joining each other.

I coughed in order to make my voice hoarser. "I'm Cristóbal de Balboa, María Purificación's husband." If I spoke slowly, I could reach the lower register of my voice.

"Tomás Aquilino, at your service."

I was right. This was the lawyer who'd sent the letter informing me of my father's death. He glanced behind me.

"Where's your wife? I thought she intended to come herself." A sharp pain hit my chest and it had nothing to do with my corset. This ache came every time I thought of what had happened to Cristóbal. I studied every line on Aquilino's forehead, the glint in his eyes, the corners of his dry lips. Could I trust him?

I took a deep breath.

"Unfortunately, my wife perished aboard the Andes."

Aquilino looked appropriately shocked. "¡Dios mío santís- imo! How?"

I hesitated. "A case of Spanish influenza." "And they didn't quarantine the ship?"

"No." I let go of the trunk. "Only a few passengers contracted it, so it wasn't necessary."

He stared at me in silence. Did he know I was lying? I'd never been a deceitful person and I despised having to do this.

"What a disgrace," he finally said. "We didn't hear anything about it here. My sincere condolences, señor."

I nodded.

"Help me with my trunk, will you?" I said, not as a favor, but as a command. Men didn't ask, men ordered.

Aquilino grabbed the other end of the trunk and together we carried it across the street. It was heavier than a dying bull, but I couldn't let the lawyer see how weak I was. By the time we reached the vehicle, I was panting and a layer of sweat covered my face and armpits. No wonder men sweat all the time!

He plunked down his end of the trunk next to a glossy, black Ford Model T. I hadn't known many people in my hometown who owned a car, much less an imported one. I wouldn't have imagined there would be such modern vehicles in a place that Cristóbal had called a "land of barbarians." This Aquilino must make good money as a lawyer, or maybe he was one of those men who found other means to build a personal fortune? Favors here and there, perhaps even a hand—a sort of tax, if you will—on another person's inheritance. Or maybe, he himself came from money.

I'd only traveled in an automobile a couple of times. In my native Sevilla, I walked everywhere. But when I visited Madrid to see about the expired patent to my grandmother's invention—her fabulous cacao bean roaster—I rode an automobile similar to this one, except that these seats seemed softer. Or perhaps it was my exhaustion.

Pushing on a lever by the steering wheel, Aquilino informed me that, unless I'd made other arrangements, I would spend the night at his house. We would depart to Vinces first thing in the morning to "see about Don Armand's will." He was unable to look me in the eye as he said this.

I recalled the words from the letter—I'd read it so many times I'd already memorized it: As one of the beneficiaries, you are required to come to Ecuador and take possession of your portion of your father's estate or to appoint a representative who may sell or donate the property on your behalf.

One of the beneficiaries.

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