Summer Can Kill
As he drove home he admired himself. Dinner had been good, the company calm and civilised. Heads had nodded admiringly as he damned the government with faint praise, and he had had to concentrate to refrain from sneering. Colleagues, he had called them: sheep would have been a better term. He had accepted a liqueur from the waiter and enjoyed the deference they offered him, their respect tinged with jealousy. Now the rest of the evening was his. Perhaps he'd watch the new DVD again and plan the slut's next lesson. Or maybe he would spend some time deciding exactly where to have his summer home built. The Landcruiser rolled quietly through the evening traffic and he watched his city sliding past the tinted windows. He never tired of it. The politicians came and went, doing their small part and then disappearing, ejected by the little people, but they would never eject him. He was fireproof. It was a good thing only fools went into politics, he thought, or clever men wouldn't be able to pull their strings so easily.
Elena was in the armchair when I arrived. She was wearing a tee-shirt and skirt of Pilar's and looked timid but at ease.
'Up you get, girl. I'm starving, and you haven't been outside properly for days.'
'But I have no shoes, ' she said, 'and these clothes are too big for me, and I cannot go out in case... ' Stop whingeing, will you? I felt ashamed at the thought.
'Rubbish. You'll need clothes sooner or later and we might as well make a start.' Firm but kind.
While she primped I inspected the flat. Dusted, and the lunch dishes washed. Top marks. I automatically shuffled her drawings into a pile, then stopped. Glowering up at me was Leather Jacket. There were pictures of him, and of two other men and two women. One of the women had Elena's features and had been drawn in a submissive pose. If the ones of Leather Jacket were anything to go by they were good likenesses. Oh, we are definitely going to talk.
'Come on, kid, ' I called, 'or I'll collapse and it'll be your fault.' She came shyly out of the bedroom. She'd turned the waistband of the skirt until it was knee length, and chosen a different tee-shirt. I grabbed her hand and after a second she stopped resisting and followed me. As we approached Calle Hortaleza I tapped her shoulder gently.
'I won't leave you alone except when you're trying stuff on, and then I'll be right outside, OK?'
'OK.' She looked nervous. She's got a right. Be more understanding, please.
The shops on Hortaleza and Fuencarral are a mixture of clubbers' extravagant, fetish wear, and bargain youth. We stayed with bargain youth and started with shoes, moved on to underwear, sets, young ladies for the use of, three, (one on, one washing, one for tomorrow, I explained, though she didn't laugh), and finished with tee-shirts, a couple of skirts, a pair of light trousers and some sports socks. At the last minute I bought a sweatshirt as well. She looked stunned, which didn't surprise me. I've never yet met a woman who can imagine buying more than two items an hour, even on a good day.
'Um, do you need to go to the pharmacy or anything?, ' I asked her when she came out the last fitting-room. She looked shy again and shook her head. I finished rationalising our purchases into one large bag and straightened up.
'Time to eat then.' We turned left and almost immediately dived through a narrow door into La Casa de la Abuela. Granny's Kitchen would be a suitable translation. Ramón spotted me, pointed to a table, took the bag of clothes, sent a waitress over with menus, and reappeared with a bottle of Rioja, apparently in one seamless movement. It's good to have friends. Elena looked scared, and I had a flash of exasperated intuition.
'Elena, look at me. There is no charge for this, not money, not sex, not anything. So for God's sake stop looking scared and decide what you want to eat.' Her face crumpled and I took a little Rioja on board, trying not to show my irritation. Why do people cry whenever you tell them something clearly? 'The toilets are at the end and down the stairs, ' I told her, 'Go and wash your face, come back smiling, and we'll eat.' She went off obediently and I decided I'd trust the kitchen. 'Whatever Ramón suggests, ' I told the waitress. I sipped more wine, then dug out my phone and called Pilar.
'Alex, ' she said, 'I've discovered a lot of stuff and we're still eating and talking.' She paused. 'I'm being careful about what I say, honestly.' She seemed about to say something more but changed her mind and rang off.
Elena reappeared and I wondered again about her. Either tougher than she looks, or less imaginative, I mused. She bent down, putting her mouth to my ear.
'Thank you, ' she whispered, and went round to her seat. She looked calmer and was not so ... so what? So huddled, maybe, I decided. Whatever, it was an improvement, although I had an uneasy feeling that I still didn't like her very much.
The food came and was good. More Rioja was consumed and Elena had an ice-cream. Coffee arrived and I cadged a cigarette off Ramón. Elena had begun to smile; once she'd even laughed. I felt avuncular and smug and a little bit impatient. Only a little: Rioja is magic therapy for feelings of impatience. I looked round and waved to Ramón. He held up a handful of cards, tore them up, and grinned. The waitress appeared with the bag of clothes and we left. Elena looked bewildered and I explained that Ramón had decided I had sent him enough customers to justify his feeding us. We'd eaten the remains of the lunchtime menu-del-día, so the total cost to him had been the wine and one cigarette. She thought it through.
'Do you do this a lot, ' she asked. 'I mean, do little deals with people and be helpful to everyone and cheerful all the time?'
'Certainly not. I'm unpleasant and selfish, but I try not to let anyone realise.' She looked at me as if I had said that I ate babies for fun, and I took pity on her. 'That was an English joke, ' I said, 'but no-one here understands them.' Good thing too.
I gave her the bag of clothes when we reached the flat, and then flopped into a chair. Rioja is lassitude in a bottle. Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow when Pilar arrives will be a good time to talk. Elena came back into the lounge.
'You bought far too many clothes, ' she began. 'You really should not have... '
'Elena, ' I said, 'you said thank you once and that's enough, or I'll show you my mean and unpleasant side.'
She looked at me and tears began to trickle down her cheeks again. Jesus Christ, will they never stop weeping? I scooped her up and sat down again, rather harder than I had intended and let my shirt get wet. At last she stopped and raised her face.
'I am sorry.'
'Go and get ready for bed.' I pushed her off my lap and aimed her at the bedroom. There were bathroom noises and then a slight creak as the bed took her meagre weight. I had a sense of déjà-vu as I peered round the door.
'Phone charged and on?' I asked. She nodded. 'Try not to wake up with a hangover. I shouldn't have given you so much wine.' She looked up from the pillows; the light from the bedside lamp revealed the pretty girl behind the fading bruises.
'I will say thank you properly when I am better.'
'One day at a time, love, ' I said. 'We'll be here by eleven. The spare keys are in the bedside table.' She was almost asleep and I beat a virtuous retreat.
At nine-thirty the next morning I was bustling about. I had slept like a baby, risen like a giant refreshed, and showered and shaved myself into a state of sublime cleanliness. I had two cups of coffee and a pastry in me and not a hint of a headache. Perfect. I was in reception when Miguel walked in.
'Hola, jefe, ' I sang out cheerfully. 'How are you?' He grunted and examined the computer. It was a silly gesture, as he didn't have a clue what he was looking at. I had persuaded Dolores to invest in a second-hand machine and promised her that it would pay for itself. She'd taken to it like a duck to water, immediately grasping the importance of information that could be altered without trace. Our relationship had improved ten thousand percent when I showed her how to bank online.
'Five rooms clearing this morning, boss, ' I told him, 'and four booked for tonight. We've been a hundred per cent all month, ' I added, just to drive home how efficient and profitable Anita and I were. Mentioning it now and again doesn't count as hubris.
'Good, good, ' he muttered, 'Dolores told me bookings were good.' Dolores had gone mad at Easter and bought a laptop, and now I sent her regular e-mails on the state of play. I remembered my manners and asked Miguel how she was.
'Working, I hope, ' he told me, 'and I wish she wasn't. I'm meeting the AVE this morning.' The AVE is the high-speed pride of Spain's railway system: Sevilla to Madrid in two hours and your money back if it's late.
'So take a seat, ' I said. 'The coffee's fresh.' I smiled inwardly as he approached Greg and Lorraine's table and made polite noises in Spanish, asking if he could join them. Whenever he came at breakfast-time he chose attractive girls to sit with. I poured coffee and took it to the table, winking at Greg.
'It's the owner, ' I told him rapidly. 'Do me a favour and tell him how wonderful everything is.' Lorraine immediately started flipping through her phrasebook and I went back to taking money and wishing bons voyages. Miguel came out of the dining-room wiping his lips.
'Who are you meeting, boss?' He scowled
'Family, because it's Dolores's birthday on Monday. And I must be there when the train arrives because Madrid is violent and dangerous and Atocha station is the most violent and dangerous place in all Madrid. That American girl was happy, ' he added. 'Very good'
'Do you want the cash?' I asked. He took the envelope I held out and stuck it in his pocket. After a year and a half he finally trusted me. Equally trusting, I keyed in the date and the amount and saved the transaction into the spreadsheet. I guessed he wouldn't be in for a few days. When Dolores's family visited he spent all his time in the bar being unavailable. He admired himself briefly in the mirror and made for the door.
'Good luck, ' I said, 'and try not to get mugged.' Two minutes after he'd left Pilar walked in. I rose to greet her and she gave me a hug along with the two kisses on the cheek. My cheeks and my mouth seemed to be moving closer together.
'Hi, kid, what are you doing here?' She looked ace: she seemed to have taken more care than usual with her appearance and she smelt of something floral. Altogether scrumptious, I thought. Careful, Alex.
'I've had breakfast, ' she began, 'and I came by Metro and changed trains but I didn't see anybody, and I stopped for a coffee and still didn't see anybody and I decided... '
'Whoa, girl, ' I said, 'I'm still doing breakfasts so I can't hurry. Come and sit down'
Only two tables were still occupied, and I cleared one of the others quickly. She sat, and I poured two cups of coffee. We were immediately interrupted by Lorraine leaning over and brandishing a map at me.
'Alex, can you tell us about getting out of the city? The book says there's a place called El Escorial that I guess we ought to check out.' She brought her map and guidebook over and Greg rolled his eyes at me. The phone in reception rang.
'Pilar, can you tell Lorraine how to get to El Escorial while I see to the phone?' A request for a room, check in this afternoon, please, and we were full again. Easier for Anita to deal with the rest of today's enquiries now that all she'd have to say was sorry. I printed the list of arrivals for her. Greg had followed me out.
'You'll like El Escorial, ' I told him. 'The town's pretty and the monastery is outrageous.' He didn't look convinced. Lorraine came out of the dining room.
'Your girlfriend is real cute, ' she informed me kindly, 'and her English is too wonderful: I just love her accent.'
'Why, thank you Lorraine, ' I said, 'and I hope she appreciated your beautiful accent too.' She looked puzzled for a moment, then started back to her room, followed by faithful Greg. Pilar watched as I took cloths off tables and piled crockery in the kitchen. I poured myself a final cup of coffee and sat down.
'OK, kid, tell me all.'
'Well, one of the things we thought is that we should postpone the last three days of English because of Elena and everything, and pay you now for the classes we've had, and it might even be better to have the rest just before we go, and I hope that's alright.'
She waited expectantly, an envelope in her hand. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, I thought, and it would let me concentrate on Elena and her problems, as well as spending more time with Pilar. I reached out and took the envelope.
'Good plan, ' I said. 'Thank you. Tell me about last night.' She looked startled at the speed with which the envelope disappeared.
'Aren't you going to count it?'
'Have you cheated me?' She looked indignant.
'You know we wouldn't do that.'
I spread my hands. 'That's what I thought.' After a minute she smiled.
'That American girl likes you, ' she said. 'She told me you were great and that we made a wonderful couple.' She blushed. 'I didn't tell her we weren't a couple.' I told her about the late-night pill mission and she giggled.
'Last night we decided that you're not typically English at all except when you are.' There's not very much to say to a statement like that, so I didn't. We sat for a moment while I wondered why she hadn't told Lorraine that we weren't a couple. Then she began to talk again: agent Pilar reporting.
'The others were totally shocked, ' she said with satisfaction, 'I showed them where the chain had nearly come out of the wall, and they went all quiet.' When she'd finally convinced them that she wasn't exaggerating, the sound of cooling feet was deafening. 'They all started making excuses, except Nuria, about the summer holidays, and their families, and their boyfriends, and anything they could think of, ' she said indignantly, 'and even Nuria was getting nervous.' She scowled at the lack of solidarity.
So the real reason for no more classes was that her friends wanted out. Oh well, easy come, easy go. Part of me noted again that she wasn't worrying enough. Maybe when she'd seen Elena's pictures properly she'd regain some sense of self-preservation. She plunged on.
She'd sworn them all to secrecy and then begged them to tell her who they had talked to: the answer was everyone. All anyone would have had to do to find out Elena's whereabouts was to ask the first person they saw in the hospital precincts. Nuria and Belén had offered to go and talk to the people on the floor where Elena had been.
'If that Pablo could talk me into letting him into the house in the middle of the night he could easily have talked someone into saying where I lived.' She wanted me to agree, so I did, and she looked pleased. Nuria and Belén had come back with news that yes, a man had indeed been looking for Elena, and he'd said that he was a friend of a friend and so on and so forth. The nurse that he'd spoken to had actually called someone to find out Pilar's address and had written it down for him. At that point they had adjourned to eat and discuss other people's tendency to gossip.
'I didn't tell them your address, ' she said, 'but I did mention walking down to Cibeles, and that was just two minutes before you rang. I felt terrible. How did you know when to call?' I shrugged knowingly. There was a noise from reception. Anita had arrived, laden with her usual collection of bags.
'Hola, Alex.' She looked at Pilar.
'Hola, Anita, er... , this is Pilar, one of the nurses I've been teaching. Pilar, I've told you about Anita: she's been holding the fort here during the classes.' They kissed and made greeting noises, then stepped back and looked each other over, apparently approving of what they saw. I took the opportunity to slip into my room and get ready. When I had finished beautifying myself they were still talking so I looked ostentatiously at my watch and coughed.
'Pilar, we're going to be late.' I turned to Anita. 'Unless there's anything you think needs doing before I go.' They looked surprised that I had the temerity to interrupt, but Pilar disappeared to collect her bag, and I showed Anita the bookings for the day and told her about Miguel's family visit. We shared conspiratorial smiles that he was going to be under strict control for a while. I told her I'd be back by eight for happy-hour. She looked pleased at that. Pilar had been standing in the doorway while we talked
'Come on then, girl, ' I said, 'time's a-wasting. Hasta luego, Anita, I'll see you later.' I turned and winked at her before I closed the door. She made a movement reminiscent of shaking an old-fashioned thermometer. This is a multi-purpose Spanish gesture: on this occasion it meant, 'Nice one, sunshine.' It struck me that the different parts of my life were becoming less separate than I liked. Be careful, Alex. On the street the sun was torrential. I thought about what I needed to do.
'Look, love, why don't you go and tell Elena what you've just told me and look at those sketches she did? I'll go to the bank and a couple of other places and join you there. That way we won't waste any time.' I reminded her to check round the block before she went in, and headed back up Calle Atocha.
The guy at the bank was delighted to accept my money, and with the strain taken off my finances I carried on. I had an uneasy feeling that the next couple of weeks were going to be expensive. Money doesn't usually solve problems, but it can buy the time to find ways round them. Always better to be prepared, I told myself wisely, and reminded myself to buy beer after I'd been to the bakery.
When I entered the flat I could hear the girls talking. The subject was clothes and how guys always buy things too quickly and carelessly.
'Hi, kids, have you exchanged lots of nice information?' They had identical looks of annoyance on their faces. 'Or shall I leave and come in again later?' Pilar merely sighed, but Elena looked nervous.
'Come here and bring those sketches, ' I said firmly. 'I know one of them is the guy who followed me yesterday, and I guess one of the women is Monica, but apart from that I'm ignorant.' I'd thought the chairs were equidistant round the table, but somehow Pilar ended up close enough to me for our shoulders to touch if we leaned slightly. She seemed to be leaning more often than necessary and I felt a tickle of anticipation.
'First things first, ' I said. 'Elena, where did you learn to draw?'
'Ever since I was little, ' she said, 'but only faces really. They just sort of come out of the end of the pencil when I am not concentrating.'
'Lucky for us, ' I said. 'Did Pilar tell you about last night?' She had, so I brought the meeting to order and demanded facts. After an hour I had information overload and her pedantic English was annoying me. Again.
'I need to digest this, ' I said. 'Does either of you mind if we stop for a bit?' They went into the bedroom to play dressing-up games and I turned one of the sketches over and began to make notes on the back. Leather Jacket and Pablo were one and the same and were really called Alberto. Pilar was sure he was from Galicia. Elena had said that he ran the Casa de Campo girls. I had asked how many girls, and she'd looked doubtful.
'About twelve, I suppose. She had worked day-shifts and had been lodged in one of the notorious 'Hoteles de Alterne, ' forty kilometres outside Madrid, under the eye of the woman in the drawings. Some of the girls had worked in the hotel on busy nights.
(If you are driving through Spain and you see a hotel in the middle of nowhere, with pink neon, or featuring the word 'relax, ' or closed-up tight in the daytime, don't try to check in. They are brothels, where you can buy overpriced drinks while you decide which of the available coerced immigrants you want to take upstairs. There is occasionally a piece on the news about one being raided, but mostly they might be in a parallel universe for all the attention that is paid to them.)
The woman's name was Olga, and one of the girls had said she was Bulgarian and her boyfriend was in prison for robbery. She'd driven the van once when Alberto was away. Elena had portrayed her with arms crossed and a malevolent expression She'd been the person who brought Elena food during her induction and had told her how much easier it would be if she did what she was told.
'She said that there were hundreds more like me, and that there were worse things than being nice to men, and it was up to me what sort of men I would have to be nice to. She was like a recruiting-sergeant, I suppose.' Recruiting-sergeant?
The other two men were brothers and Elena thought they were Albanian. She'd been told they were called Adem and Jusuf Tzeka. Olga and Alberto were very deferential towards them.
'They have cruel hands, ' was all she would say when I tried for more details. I didn't want to ask why that had stuck in her memory.
The hotel was on the freeway to Barcelona, she thought. She had no idea how many girls there were. She didn't know who decided which girls worked in the hotel and which ones were sent to the Casa de Campo. She didn't know if her passport was there or not. She hadn't seen her sister. I didn't know what to ask to find out what else she didn't know so I sat and looked at the sketches again. A neuron fired and told me that what we really needed was a car and I bookmarked the thought. Eventually the back of my brain would tell me what to do. Never second-guess inspiration. There were two choices now: first to go have some aperitivos and second to try and pump Elena some more. Ten minutes later we trooped in through the narrow door of Granny's Kitchen.
It was too early for lunch and we were the only people seated, but Ramón's curiosity got the better of him and he came in person to take our order. Pilar wanted coke, and I ordered a bottle of wine and another of 'La Casera, ' the cream-soda that one mixes with wine to form a long, red, slightly too sweet spritzer called 'tinto de verano.' The tapa was paella, which isn't my favourite, so I decided to splash out in honour of Pilar having paid me and ordered bread and olives and cheese as well. The food and drink stimulated my thought processes and I turned to Elena.
'What I really want to know is the routine. When you got up, where you went, what you did, what happened to the money, everything.' Pilar frowned at me and shook her head, but I ignored her. 'I don't know what's important and neither do you, so we examine everything.' Push a little bit harder. 'So far we're no closer to finding your sister than we were on Monday.' I turned to Pilar. 'What do you suggest, guapa?'
She'd commandeered a glass and mixed a tinto de verano for herself. She sipped and thought and swung her leg idly to and fro, brushing mine gently with every pass. I sat back and constructed perfectly-balanced mouthfuls of olives and cheese. I inched my leg experimentally towards Pilar. She took no notice, but the pressure on my calf increased, dragging my pulse-rate with it. The back of my head was still ticking away. All these people cared about was money, and they were making a lot of it, all in cash. They must do something with it: presumably twelve or more girls brought in more per day than would fit conveniently into a wallet.
The idea of a car floated past again. I sipped some more tinto de verano and wondered how to get hold of one. I'd be able to cruise the Casa de Campo and look for the people in Elena's sketches. Or better, take her and see who she recognised, or go up the Barcelona road and see what we could see. I hoped she wouldn't need too much persuasion. She's entirely too passive and I don't like her very much.
By a quarter to three I was feeling pleasantly lethargic. The wine had done its job and a siesta beckoned. Elena looked half-smashed. Apparently Rumanians have the aperitivo habit, although this one didn't have the body-mass to handle it. I asked the waiter for coffee and cleared my throat.
'Listen, kids, ' I began, 'I think we need wheels.' I looked at Pilar, and raised an eyebrow. She wriggled a little.
'I do not know many people with cars, ' she said, 'not who would let me use them. Why?'
'Transport is always useful, ' I hedged, 'and it's better to be prepared than not.' I didn't want to explain stuff to her now, nor deal with the objections. I went to pay Ramón, who today accepted my money gracefully. The girls straggled after me, and we ran the gauntlet of afternoon heat back to the flat. It wasn't any cooler inside but there was a fan. Elena was swaying visibly
'Have a nap, love, ' I told her. 'We'll come back tonight and see what we can work out to do. Here, let me show you something.'