Anna was looking downcast when Kalliste Periakes entered the Women's Co-op that afternoon. Kalliste was whistling a catchy number that somehow seemed familiar. She was a slender woman, an archaeology grad student of indeterminate age, with her black hair spilling across her shoulders in a riot of curls. She had an upturned nose, a generous mouth and large eyes that, this afternoon, sparkled in the sunshine.
"What's got you so upbeat?" Anna asked from her seat behind her ledger. She was paying the bills of the Co-op, something that always brought a scowl to her face.
"Cubs 6, Pirates 4," Kalliste replied. Though she was from Greece she had this strange love of baseball that none of the other women at the Co-op shared. "In the last three innings the Cubs rallied from four runs down and won the game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run homer. The Pirates' closer came on and..."
Anna tuned out Kalliste's description and went back to writing checks. After a bit Kalliste noticed, and came over.
"What's wrong? Is something bothering you?"
Anna stared at the checkbook without really seeing it. "I saw someone today," she said in a low voice, "someone I never expected to see."
"Oh?" Kalliste sat down, studying Anna's face. "I assume it was an unhappy occasion."
"It shouldn't have happened." Anna moved the checkbook around the table, rearranged her pens and even adjusted her adding machine slightly. "People tell me I should have been overjoyed."
"Who was it?" Kalliste asked softly.
"Son?" Kalliste hid her reaction well. This was the first she had heard that Anna had a son. "Go on."
"I gave my son up - when I was younger I made a mistake, and..." Her voice trailed off as she stared at her desk. "This is hard."
"Nobody will hear it from me."
Anna nodded, biting her lip. "I, uh, when I was, uh, when I was 14, barely 14, I had a baby. I thought I could care for him," she added in a rush. "My school had a day care and I thought I could take care of him and still have my own life."
"You had to give him up for adoption, didn't you?" Anna nodded. "And today you saw him."
"The people who adopted him, they're good people. We've stayed in touch. I don't know why, the adoption agency recommended against it, said I'd be better off if we didn't, but I had to. He was my baby, my child. I couldn't... couldn't sever all ties with him. They sent me pictures, and today they took him to the baseball game."
"I didn't know you liked the game."
Anna grimaced. "I don't, not like you. But I knew where they'd be. I had to see him; I didn't want to touch him, or do anything like that. I needed more than a picture. I needed to see my son, my child, my baby, in the flesh."
She stared at the traffic outside, and the ebb and flow of people on the city street. "Did you ever run into someone, Kalliste, someone who was... someone it was painful to meet? Someone you shouldn't have seen, but somehow did?"
"Once," Kalliste said, staring at the desk. "Oh, more than once, but this one hurt." She gave Anna a troubled smile. "Let me tell you a story."
I loved Amsterdam from the first moment I saw it. You could almost smell the money being made. As my coach rattled over the bridge I could see a haze about the city, a haze I had seen hanging over many of the cities I'd passed through on this trip. At least there wasn't that horrible smell I'd noticed in Rome, an odious mélange of horses, manure, mud and unwashed people. And in Amsterdam it was the people I noticed first. They were rich! Even the street wanderers who would have been vagrant beggars in any other city seemed well-fed and intent on productive work. Seeing those prosperous folk made me realize how many others in the world were painfully poor.
More places than I cared to think of had an objection to a woman making money. After all, we were 'not meant' for the rough and tumble of the business world. Our 'duty' was to 'stay home and make babies'. Such thinkers never walked through the marketplace in the afternoon and saw who sold the food they ate or the clothes they wore. I had been in Amsterdam only a day when a Spanish friend from Barcelona explained it to me.
"The Dutch are the dullest thinkers in Europe, Belle," Domingo said. "They don't think about anything but Guilders. Everything else is secondary. They will tolerate anything, if it makes them money."
"Will they tolerate a woman who makes money?" I asked. I was Belle d'Argois right now, a young to middle-aged widow with a comfortable income and religious views that were best not expressed in Spain or any other Catholic land.
"If she makes money? It is possible." He turned his head, his aquiline nose probing the air like a dog scenting something. Knowing Domingo it was probably a loose coin somewhere in the room. "You will need a partner, though," he added, "for the owning of money and property is still a matter of law, and the lawyers are all men."
His smile was so enchanting I knew he was considering what was to him that most delightful of circumstances, an alliance with a lady of means; pleasure, wealth and leisure, not necessarily in that order. Domingo was so transparent he should have been made of glass.
"Leave that to me," I said with a smile and a subtle nod that took the sting out of my refusal.
He laughed. "Belle, I would have been honored."
"Of a certainty you would, you old lecher. You haven't changed at all in the years I have known you. For my own peace of mind I should get you married off."
"And you haven't changed either," he responded gallantly. "Soft, sweet, demure, with just a hint of steel in those lustrous eyes, and ever a touch of mystery in the business you make. Some day I'll have to find out what really happened to that husband of yours."
"You would be disappointed," I said. "As I told you before, he was killed by pirates."
"Turks," he said. I did not bother to correct him. "And he with no brothers or uncles to relieve you of the onerous duties of managing his fortune? No prelates or noble seigniors leaping forth to guard you and your inheritance from worldly depredations? So sad, my Belle, all alone in this dismal world with her memories and her money." We had been down this route before, but he played his part well, and I mine, like the moves of a pair of matched chess masters.
"None of my brothers are alive," I said truthfully, and sadly, "nor his. I mourn them still." Again, the Lady's own truth, though little he knew it.
"What a world it would be," he mused. "Your talent for making two florins into four, and my contacts. What would our children be like?" He poured us both another cup of wine. "To lost futures, Belle."
"To lost futures, Domingo," I agreed, raising my cup to touch his.
He pulled a small piece of parchment from his purse. "See this man tomorrow," he said, flicking it across the table to me as if it were the merest trifle. "It will be worth your while."
"Who is he?" Domingo knew me well. If I gained profit from his advice I would see that a share of the guilders found their way into his purse. A point of honor as we had each helped the other in times past.
"A gentleman who is offering shares in a trading venture."
"Which is going where? What does he trade?"
"He represents the cloth merchants of Ypres. He controls a considerable share of their production."
I picked up the parchment. "How do I find him?" I carefully noted the directions he gave me and then settled back in my chair, nodding and saluting him with my cup. He smiled, inclined his own, and our contract was made.
It was good to do business with Domingo. He treated me with respect as a partner should, and not just as a tactic in his never-ending pursuit of my hand in marriage. Together we had earned profits in other ventures. He recognized and valued my ability to make money grow. That was a rare treasure in a man - it still is. And what did I see in him? I doubt there was a merchant in Europe Domingo did not know. As he had said, his contacts and my talents would make a wonderful combination.
Serious business discussion gave way to more pleasant conversation. "So, my friend, what have you been up to? How did you avoid the inquisitors in Barcelona?"
"You heard about that?" he asked dolefully. "It is a terrible day when a man of my talents finds himself being chased by priests who are less interested in his orthodoxy than in the florins he has set aside. That is a long, sad story."
I refilled his cup. "I like long stories. I grew up on them."
"Well those holy brothers have no respect for profit not of their own making, and-"
The next morning I followed Domingo's directions to a modest house overlooking one of the canals on the northeast side of town. The merchant's secretary eyed me with obvious reluctance - I was dressed in the Spanish style this morning. That could lead to problems in the Spanish Netherlands as the Dutch had no love for their Spanish overlords, but I was willing to live with that this morning. My skirts and petticoats were warm in the brisk morning air.
"I am Mademoiselle Belle d'Argois," I said in French. "I have an appointment to see Master Trader van Voorthuysen. Señor Domingo Juarez de Santiago y Valencia has recommended the Trader to me."
Master van Voorthuysen's secretary looked at a list uppermost in the neat stack of work on his desk, then reluctantly opened the door and showed me to his master's study. "She says she is expected," he said with a sniff. Master Trader van Voorthuysen reflected the annoyance of his secretary as he gestured me to a chair.
.... There is more of this story ...