WHEN MICKY MIRANDA WAS TWENTY-THREE his father came to London to buy rifles.
Señor Carlos Raul Xavier Miranda, known always as Papa, was a short man with massive shoulders. His tanned face was carved in lines of aggression and brutality. In leather chaps and a broad-brimmed hat, seated on a chestnut stallion, he could make a graceful, commanding figure; but here in Hyde Park, wearing a frock coat and a top hat, he felt foolish, and that made him dangerously bad-tempered.
They were not alike. Micky was tall and slim, with regular features, and he got his way by smiling rather than frowning. He was deeply attached to the refinements of London life: beautiful clothes, polite manners, linen sheets and indoor plumbing. His great fear was that Papa would want to take him back to Cordova. He could not bear to return to days in the saddle and nights sleeping on the hard ground. Even worse was the prospect of being under the thumb of his older brother Paulo, who was a replica of Papa. Perhaps Micky would go home one day, but it would be as an important man in his own right, not as the younger son of Papa Miranda. Meanwhile he had to persuade his father that he was more useful here in London than he would be at home in Cordova.
They were walking along South Carriage Drive on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The park was thronged with well-dressed Londoners on foot, on horseback or in open carriages, enjoying the warm weather. But Papa was not enjoying himself. “I must have those rifles!” he muttered to himself in Spanish. He said it twice.
Micky spoke in the same language. “You could buy them back home,” he said tentatively.
“Two thousand of them?” Papa said. “Perhaps I could. But it would be such a big purchase that everyone would know about it.”
So he wanted to keep it secret. Micky had no idea what Papa was up to. Paying for two thousand guns, and the ammunition to go with them, would probably take all the family’s reserves of cash. Why did Papa suddenly need so much ordnance? There had been no war in Cordova since the now legendary March of the Cowboys, when Papa had led his men across the Andes to liberate Santamaria Province from its Spanish overlords. Who were the guns for? If you added up Papa’s cowboys, relatives, placemen and hangers-on it would come to fewer than a thousand men. Papa had to be planning to recruit more. Whom would they be fighting? Papa had not volunteered the information and Micky was afraid to ask.
Instead he said: “Anyway, you probably couldn’t get such high-quality weapons at home.”
“That’s true,” said Papa. “The Westley-Richards is the finest rifle I’ve ever seen.”
Micky had been able to help Papa with his choice of rifles. Micky had always been fascinated by weapons of all kinds, and he kept up with the latest technical developments. Papa needed short-barreled rifles that would not be too cumbersome for men on horseback. Micky had taken Papa to a factory in Birmingham and shown him the Westley-Richards carbine with the breech-loading action, nicknamed the Monkeytail because of its curly lever.
“And they make them so fast,” Micky said.
“I expected to wait six months for the guns to be manufactured. But they can do it in a few days!”
“It’s the American machinery they use.” In the old days, when guns had been made by blacksmiths who fitted the parts together by trial and error, it would indeed have taken six months to make two thousand rifles; but modern machinery was so precise that the parts of any gun would fit any other gun of the same pattern, and a well-equipped factory could turn out hundreds of identical rifles a day, like pins.
“And the machine that makes two hundred thousand cartridges a day!” Papa said, and he shook his head in wonderment. Then his mood switched again and he said grimly: “But how can they ask for the money before the rifles are delivered?”
“Papa knew nothing about international trade, and he had assumed the manufacturer would deliver the rifles in Cordova and accept payment there. On the contrary, the payment was required before the weapons left the Birmingham factory.
But Papa was reluctant to ship silver coins across the Atlantic Ocean in barrels. Worse still, he could not hand over the entire family fortune before the arms were safely delivered.
“We’ll solve this problem, Papa,” Micky said soothingly. “That’s what merchant banks are for.”
“Go over it again,” Papa said. “I want to make sure I understand this.”
Micky was pleased to be able to explain something to Papa. “The bank will pay the manufacturer in Birmingham. It will arrange for the guns to be shipped to Cordova, and insure them on the voyage. When they arrive, the bank will accept payment from you at their office in Cordova.”
“But then they have to ship the silver to England.”
“Not necessarily. They may use it to pay for a cargo of salt beef coming from Cordova to London.”
“How do they make a living?”
“They take a cut of everything. They will pay the rifle manufacturer a discounted price, take a commission on the shipping and insurance, and charge you extra for the guns.”
Papa nodded. He was trying not to show it but he was impressed, and that made Micky happy.
They left the park and walked along Kensington Gore to the home of Joseph and Augusta Pilaster.
In the seven years since Peter Middleton drowned, Micky had spent every vacation with the Pilasters. After school he had toured Europe with Edward for a year, and he had roomed with Edward during the three years they had spent at Oxford University, drinking and gambling and raising cain, making only the barest pretense of being students.
Micky had never again kissed Augusta. He would have liked to. He wanted to do more than just kiss her. And he sensed that she might let him. Underneath that veneer of frozen arrogance there was the hot heart of a passionate and sensual woman, he was sure. But he had held back out of prudence. He had achieved something priceless by being accepted almost as a son in one of the richest families in England, and it would be insane to jeopardize that cherished position by seducing Joseph Pilaster’s wife. All the same he could not help daydreaming about it.
Edward’s parents had recently moved into a new house. Kensington Gore, which not so long ago had been a country road leading from Mayfair through the fields to the village of Kensington, was now lined, along its south side, by splendid mansions. On the north side of the street were Hyde Park and the gardens of Kensington Palace. It was the perfect location for the home of a rich commercial family.
Micky was not so sure about the style of architecture.
It was certainly striking. It was of red brick and white stone, with big leaded windows on the first and second floors. Above the first floor was a huge gable, its triangular shape enclosing three rows of windows—six, then four, then two at the apex: bedrooms, presumably, for innumerable relatives, guests and servants. The sides of the gable were stepped, and on the steps were perched stone animals, lions and dragons and monkeys. At the very top was a ship in full sail. Perhaps it represented the slave ship which, according to family legend, was the foundation of the Pilasters’ wealth.
“I’m sure there’s not another house like this in London,” Micky said as he and his father stood outside staring at it.
Papa replied in Spanish. “No doubt that is what the lady intended.”
Micky nodded. Papa had not met Augusta, but he had her measure already.
The house also had a big basement. A bridge crossed the basement area and led to the entrance porch. The door was open, and they went in.
Augusta was having a drum, an afternoon tea party, to show off her house. The oak-paneled hall was jammed with people and servants. Micky and his father handed their hats to a footman then pushed through the crowd to the vast drawing room at the back of the house. The French windows were open, and the party spilled out onto a flagged terrace and a long garden.
Micky had deliberately chosen to introduce his father at a crowded occasion, for Papa’s manners were not always up to London standards, and it was better that the Pilasters should get to know him gradually. Even by Cordovan standards he paid little attention to social niceties, and escorting him around London was like having a lion on a leash. He insisted on carrying his pistol beneath his coat at all times.
Papa did not need Micky to point Augusta out to him.
She stood in the center of the room, draped in a royal-blue silk dress with a low square neckline that revealed the swell of her breasts. As Papa shook her hand she gazed at him with her hypnotic dark eyes and said in a low, velvet voice: “Señor Miranda—what a pleasure to meet you at last.”
Copyright © 2010 by Ken Follett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.