Summer Can Kill
The face looking back at him from the mirror was paler than he liked. He peered closely and saw that his eyes were slightly bloodshot and that the distinguished touch of silver at his temples was growing. These bloody foreigners had no idea how delicate the work was. Madrid wasn't Marbella, not by a long chalk. The politicians here weren't to be bought with anything so vulgar as cash in an envelope. He shook his head at his reflection and fitted cufflinks into his monogrammed shirt. Yesterday had been worrying. A different man had brought the girl, breaking all the rules they'd agreed on, and that had distracted him. He hadn't wanted him in the house unsupervised, but having him watch was unthinkable. He'd had to settle for leaving the door open and that had been completely unsatisfactory too. He'd sat insolently on the stairs, coughing exaggeratedly, and nothing had gone right. Even the girl seemed to be laughing at him, her crocodile tears not hiding the amusement in her eyes. At least he'd taught her some respect. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Tonight, dinner with the minister, and some very delicate conversation. And maybe he ought to talk to the father or the uncle and remind them that offending him wasn't to anyone's advantage. He felt a slight tic beginning in his right eye.
Elena and Anita were drinking coffee. Elena looked as if the day had been too much for her but I was too pumped to sympathise. On top of the world and ready to slay any dragon foolish enough to cross my path.
'Anita, I've got orders for you.' She looked startled. 'Go home, shower, change, get back here by half past ten, and we'll all go and have supper. What do I need to know?'
She'd made a list. All I had to do was catch the new check-ins, fleece them, and give them their front-door keys. She started on the rest, but I shooed her away.
'Go and do as you're told.' She stuck her tongue out at me, smiled, and turned to leave. Before I could say anything else my phone rang.
'Hola cariño, where are you, how are you, you'd better have missed me.'
'Hostal, fine, definitely, ' I told her, 'and you?'
'Your flat, worrying a bit about Mum, and loads. Isn't it pathetic? What are you doing?'
'I'm going to have a quick shower and then the chores. You should have settled for somebody normal.'
'You'll do till Mr Dull comes along. I'll get clean and come down. Can I bring dirty clothes, please?' Nothing better than doing your lover's washing. Stage one has a lot going for it if you don't think too deeply. I told Elena to shout if anyone wanted anything and dived into my room. Hot water, all the trimmings, and clean clothes from the skin out. I was not only a master-thief but an absolutely gorgeous one. I hummed the Bond theme and inspected myself in the mirror. Slicker than gooseshit. I sauntered back into reception and pointed a finger at Elena.
'Go and rinse away the day and have a siesta.' I tossed her the Spanish grammar I'd brought from the flat. 'Or else read this. It's time you were able to talk.' She went off with the book, frowning.
Pilar arrived looking like a million euros and we sneaked into the laundry-room and said hello properly until the bell from reception made us both jump. She sat on the sofa and reread the information she'd downloaded, and started making notes. I loved the way she looked when she was concentrating.
'You're so helpful to all those boring people, ' she said after a while. 'How can you sound so interested?'
'I enjoy working out why they're boring. Anyway, they're on holiday and deserve some fun. I'm big on fun.'
'So you should be, with the practice you put in.' She got up and ruffled my hair. 'This lot needs cutting, ' she said proprietarily. 'What's left to do?'
'Washing. It's in my room and so is Elena.'
'I've brought all her things, ' she said hesitantly. Hah!
'Good. I already told Miguel I've arranged live-in help while I'm tutoring you.'
'You're really annoying sometimes.' She scowled then smiled, and went into my ex-room to organise everything.
By eleven o'clock I was about to start eating the carpet. Anita had arrived and promptly disappeared to make last-minute adjustments and see what the others were wearing. I'd called Ramón and was anticipating his reaction when I strolled in with my three houris. Pilar came and kissed my cheek as I sat at the desk.
'You love all this stuff, don't you?' she said, 'I mean, going out and having a good time and everything. You're a complete grasshopper.'
'When this is over I'm going to show you your own grasshopper, and you'll thank me for it. Are we ready? If I don't get something to eat soon I'll die and you'll never know what I did today.'
'I'll hurry them up, ' she said instantly, and zoomed off.
Ramón was openly curious and the other diners watched us covertly, wondering how I got so lucky. When the coffee arrived I told the girls what I'd done, leaving out the money part, and waited. Elena was the first to react.
'You let the tyres down completely? You know it is the girls who will suffer, don't you?'
'Just to annoy them, ' I said defensively. 'Maybe I'll do it again, and then both of them will need to be in the Casa de Campo all the time, and Pilar can go back to her flat.' She started to say something else and then stopped.
Anita poured herself more wine and tried to project deep thought. As it was her third glass she merely looked pissed, but her mind was still working.
'When you went out to the hotel did you see anybody who looked South American?' I shook my head. 'They can't all be from Eastern Europe, ' she said. 'I know people I can ask. Perhaps I can find out who works there.' She giggled for a moment. 'I wish I'd been a bird in a tree and seen that Niku when he found his tyres flat.'
'What do you think, love?' I asked Pilar. She shrugged.
'You're going to do what you do. You're like a kid climbing a tree to show off, except you're grown-up, and you won't stop when you're told, and it's more serious.' My turn to shrug.
'The more distracted they are the better. But there's no book on dealing with Mafiosi, so I'm having to feel my way a bit.' My dashing exploits had gone down like a cup of cold sick. I was glad I hadn't talked about the money. Anita rescued me.
'I need some sleep. How are we getting back?' I blew her a kiss of thanks.
'I'll ask Ramón to call a cab for you, and you can drop Elena off at the hostal. I'll do breakfast, but after that Pilar and I are going to go somewhere and forget about everything for a little while.'
I went to the bar to pay, feeling resentful. The girls were talking earnestly, heads together, and it took a moment to get their attention when the cab arrived. Ramón insisted on kissing them all goodbye and I slipped twenty euros into Anita's hand.
'Taxi fare, ' I said quietly. 'I'll be there tomorrow morning, so don't think you have to arrive early.' She glanced at Pilar.
'Be careful, Alex. If you hurt her you won't get any sympathy from me.'
'I'm careful about everything, and her especially.' You don't know how careful. The cab-driver hooted and we filtered out into the street. Elena and Anita went on their way and Pilar and I walked slowly to my flat. She looked round the bedroom and tears began to trickle down her cheeks...
'What is it, love?' She didn't reply, but pushed me onto the bed and attacked. She was silent and fierce and put her hand hard over my mouth when I tried to speak. I gave up and went with the flow. More of a torrent than a flow, and the world narrowed to a cataract of sensation.
Later, I stroked her hair and tried to hold on to the moment.
'You're two people, aren't you?' she said after a while. 'There's Alex who's lovely and thoughtful and everything, and there's Alex who doesn't care about anyone else's feelings; I thought asking you to help would be good, because I really fancied you, but now we've got to help her because I promised, and you won't stop, and I feel frightened, and I wish her sister didn't exist and I hate myself for thinking that.' She sat up and grabbed my ears. 'I don't want to start hating you and I want you to get this sorted, and when you've done that you're going to concentrate on us.' Her face was very close to mine. 'Do you promise?' Decisive is only one step away from bossy.
'I promise to do my best, and then concentrate on you, ' I said carefully. 'Do you want me to keep talking to you about it?' She pulled my ears some more.
'I know you'll only tell me what you think I can handle, but I want to be able to go to my flat and feel safe and be by myself when I want to.' I wondered how to achieve that.
'First thing on Sunday, ' I said, 'but tomorrow is us in the Sierra, with no phone-cover and no heat and no people. OK?' She lay down again and in a little while her shoulders relaxed and her breathing deepened. I shifted her head onto the pillow and swung myself quietly out of bed.
I made a cup of tea and sat in the armchair. Summer-lightning flickered, but there was no thunder and the room was very quiet. I lit a Fortuna and thought about promises and possibilities. After an hour, the rain began and I went to bed.
Soon after ten on Saturday morning I let myself back into the flat. Elena had helped me with breakfast and Anita had arrived early; she hadn't said anything, but I was given to understand that Pilar was to have a good day and that if she didn't I would be brown bread. She was in bed, her hair brushed and her lips tasting of toothpaste, and put her arms round my neck.
'Early siesta, please, ' she said, 'and let's be really gentle with each other.'
We were so gentle that it was gone twelve as we drove north. Pilar was fiddling with the radio, but stopped when I gave her a Van Morrison tape. She sat back as Van began to tell us about Gloria.
'Where are we going?'
'Cercedilla, the little train up to Puerto de Navacerrada, along the Camino Schmidt, back down the Roman road to Cercedilla, then decide what's next, and if it's all too much I'll carry you.' She giggled for the first time in days, or so it seemed, and put her hand on my thigh.
'I'd hoped I'd worn you out.'
'Keep trying, kid.' It's going to be alright.
El Puerto de Navacerrada is the main pass over the Sierra de Madrid. It has a tiny ski-station and three bars and a baby railway that connects with the main-line at Cercedilla. We stepped out of the train and breathed naturally cool air for the first time in weeks. I moved smartly to the nearest bar and bought two cold cans of beer and two more of coke. Pilar smiled and shook her head as I came out. I took her hand and we walked up the access road that led into the trees.
'We're going to burn to cinders unless we get bitten to death first, ' she said accusingly after ten minutes. 'This isn't England, you know.' I smiled smugly and halted. Taking the day-pack off, I opened it and produced a spray-can of insect-repellent and another of sun-block. From my pocket I took a stick of lip-salve. She cuffed my head.
'OK, Mr Clever, which one goes on first?'
After a brief interlude of rub-the-stuff-in-well fun, we started again. Apart from us, only the breeze was moving, and we joined in the silence gratefully. The path slithered and twisted between pines and we walked slowly. After a kilometre and a half a clearing opened on the right. Pilar tugged at my hand and flopped onto the grass.
'Put your head on my lap while I say something, ' she commanded. I lay down obediently. She smelled of warm girl and sun-proofing chemicals.
'I was a bit pissed last night, ' she said, 'I'm sorry I went over the top.' It's hard to shrug when your head is in someone's lap, but I tried.
'You had reason, ' I said. 'Do you want us to duck out of this one?' She put a finger on my lips.
'Shush, ' she said, 'this is a speech not a conversation. You ought to realise that part of last night was because you don't know how to duck out of anything. It's sweet of you to offer, but if you did, it would chew you up until you blamed me, and then we wouldn't last two minutes. So I'm going to try to hang onto the original you, and when it's done you're to arrange something with Anita and take me somewhere where I won't be stressed the whole time and won't get pissed just to stop worrying.' She paused for breath. 'Your comments, please.'
'Lie down and kiss me, or I'll take you by force, right here.' When she'd done that I sat up and popped two cans.
'OK, ' I said 'It sounds like a plan, but Anita's got a lot of stuff on already.'
'She offered yesterday, ' she said, 'and Elena thinks the hostal is wonderful, and she's spending all her time with Anita practising Spanish. Maybe it's occupational-therapy, or maybe she's just fixated on you, like a baby duckling and wants you to like her.' I felt as if my life was being changed, for better or worse. For better or worse? What the hell is happening to you? You'll be telling her about the money next.
'One more thing, ' she said. 'If I disappear for a bit you'll just have to put up with it. But I'll come back, because I'm not giving up on you unless you force me to.'
'Deal. Let's walk some more.' I'd chosen the route because there was no uphill at all, and a little over three hours later we were re-entering Cercedilla. An hour after that we were finishing salad and dark Serrano ham and dense village bread. Pilar put her hand out for the car keys.
'That was your third beer, ' she said. 'Where next?'
'I want a shower and a siesta, ' I said, 'because I've got sticky all over me and walking always makes me sleepy.'
'Do you want company?'
'Only if it's you, ' I said, realising while the words still hung in the air that I meant it.
When I woke up I stumbled into the kitchen and made coffee. With the first cup safely inside me, I went and nudged her. Nothing happened, so I lifted her head with one arm and held the cup under her nose. In a few moments she opened her eyes.
'Bathroom. Two minutes, ' she mumbled. Water ran for a short time, and she re-emerged wrapped in my bathrobe and looking awake.
'Better, ' she said, and drank thirstily. 'You've caught the sun; do you feel sore?' I didn't, but I let her rub After-Sun on me anyway.
'You don't need excuses to touch me, ' I said. 'A simple request is fine.' She sniffed disdainfully and squirted cream in places that had never seen the sun.
'You're all sticky again, ' she said 'Go and wash and we'll go down to the hostal. Anita won't leave Elena alone there and it's getting late.'
'You're sticky too.'
'My sticky is just your sweat and I like it, but yours is nasty goop. Let me be the boss for a little while.' When I came out, stick-free, she'd stripped the bed and made a bag out of one of the sheets. I went into the bathroom to get the wet towels. She's working at it and so should you.
When we arrived Elena and Anita were sitting in the dining-room, their heads bent over a dictionary. Elena looked up as we entered.
'Hola, ' she said in careful Spanish, 'have you had a good time?' Pilar answered her slowly, and I looked at Anita.
'So we've got two teachers on the staff now.' She beamed.
'She's had the dictionary with her the whole time. I'm more tired than she is.' I listened to the conversation. Pilar wasn't having to repeat herself more than twice.
'Come and talk, ' I said. 'I think I need your help.' We went out to reception and I wondered which cards to play. When I led with "how do we avoid being targeted by a bunch of vengeful Albanians", she began to pay attention. 'So what I need to do first, ' I finished, 'is to find out who to talk to.' She stared at me, then sat quietly thinking.
'I could talk to some people, ' she said, 'but I don't like it at all. Life's hard enough without having to be polite to the bottom-feeders.'
'You don't have to. I can probably run down the right sort of sleazebags myself. It'll just take a little longer, that's all.' She smiled.
'You've told Pilar that you'll see to it tomorrow, haven't you?' I felt myself reddening and she nodded. 'I did promise I'd help if I could. Can I hype you up a bit?'
'Say whatever you like, ' I said, 'as long as you cover your ass. Do you promise?'
'Count on it, ' she said. There are two little guys in Ecuador who would never forgive me.' She got up and went to collect her parcels.
'Anita, ' I said, 'why do you carry that stuff around all the time?'
'So nobody steals it, of course, ' she said pityingly. 'Sometimes, Alex, you know nothing.' She stuck her head into the dining-room and said goodbye to Elena and Pilar. 'Call me tomorrow morning, ' she said quietly, and left. I thought about what Pilar had said about pressuring people and wondered what else I could have done. No answer, so I settled for feeling like a complete shit. Again. Luckily guests arrived to distract me.
More cards for restaurants, more advice about what would be open on Sunday, more soothing noises. There was a lull in the flow, and I fetched a beer and beckoned Elena.
'Come and sit here, ' I said. 'If anyone asks for information try to help them. If they're Spanish, Pilar or I will do it. If they don't speak Spanish or English draw pictures. There's a list of restaurants and clubs here, and these cards are already signed. Can you do that?' I dug in my pocket and handed her forty euros. 'This is less than you deserve, but you need something for the cleaning and everything.' She began to give the money back to me but I put both hands behind my back.
'It's not charity. Anita and I need more days off, so think "on the job training". Anyway, you ought to have some money in your pocket for when you go out, which you're going to do tomorrow. OK?'
'I cannot do that, ' she whispered, 'someone might see me.' Will you for Christ's sake think just a little, please? I tried to sound persuasive but exasperation won.
'I don't care if you're frightened. You got to Spain by yourself, you ballsed everything up by yourself, and now you've got to fix it. We'll help you as much as possible, but you're it, and it's time you started.' Her eyelids fluttered.
'You do not understand, ' she said tightly. I retreated into the utility-room. Pilar grabbed me with both hands and kicked the door shut. She cuffed my ear and then kissed me.
'You really are two different people, ' she said. 'When you gave her that money and told her why, I wanted to rush out and hug you, and then you were so brutal to her I wanted never to see you again.'
'I've hurt her pride, I hope, ' I said placatingly. 'but only so she works on herself. She started when she offered to help with the cleaning and I'm just pushing the process along. Please don't hit me when I'm doing my best.' She stared at me.
'Don't you care that you've upset her?'
'This isn't about me. If she isn't ready when we find her sister we'll have two lame ducks on our hands, and then what? I'm going to have a beer in "El Brillante". Why don't you talk to her and be the good guy and give her moral support. There's no-one left to check in, so it's only washing and advice now.' She gave me a hug.
'I'll do that. Don't be too long. You're not exactly who I thought but I think I'm starting to love you.' She must have felt my reaction because she hugged me harder. 'And you are not to say that to me unless you mean it.' I touched her cheek and walked past Elena to the front door. The word already. You'd better start being really careful. I turned my money over as I waited for the lift.
When I got back Elena looked up from the desk.
'You must not be worried that I will not be able to look after Monica, because I will. Pilar explained that you are stern because you are worried and that you care about me. She is in the bedroom, and I have dealt with three people. I have kept notes. Do you want to read them?' She was looking at me much too intensely. I shook my head.
'Later if you want. I know you're working on it and thank you.' Pilar was on the bed with her eyes closed and I kicked my shoes off and squeezed in beside her.
'I left the door ajar to hear what was happening in reception so I heard that, ' she said. I didn't reply. We were lying quietly when I heard the front door open and Elena called my name in a slightly strangled voice. I shot out to see what was happening and then came to a dead stop.
What was happening was Ragnar, hanging onto the arm of a fine-looking specimen of Spanish youth. I wondered what the devil she was up to now.
'Alex, ' she said shyly, 'this is Luis.' Her eyes shone. 'We are engaged.' I must have looked like a quick-frozen cod but Pilar rescued me.
'I heard that, ' she said, flying out of the bedroom. She rushed over to Ragnar and hugged her. 'Congratulations, you lucky thing, ' she rattled on, 'he looks gorgeous, is he the one who asked you out in the restaurant? Have you got a ring yet?' She let go of Ragnar. 'Congratulations, Luis, I am so happy for you both.' She paused for breath and looked at me. I took a grip on myself and kissed Ragnar.
'Lots of congratulations, ' I said, 'and the best of luck.' She was looking at me imploringly and I realised she wanted my blessing. Why on earth did I give Lorraine that money? I let go of her and turned to Luis, holding out both arms.
'Congratulations, Luis, ' I said and hugged him. 'If you hurt this girl, ' I whispered in his ear, 'I will put you in the hospital. Do you understand?' He tried to pull away, but I was still hugging him and patting his back. I raised my voice to a normal level. 'Look after her well, Luis, because she's a wonderful girl and deserves a good man.' I let go of him and shook his hand again. Ragnar danced up to him and flung her arms round his neck. He looked as besotted as her, and I wished I hadn't been quite so direct. At least he knows she has a friend.
Elena came out of the dining-room with a tray.
'There is no champagne, ' she said, 'but there is just enough beer to drink your health.' Pilar translated for Luis and we raised our glasses.
'To love, ' said Pilar solemnly, winking at me. Sweat prickled down my back. You just don't understand the risks.
We sat in reception and made small-talk. Pilar inspected Luis' entire life thoroughly before sitting back and looking approvingly at him.
'So what are you going to do?' I asked Ragnar. She started talking and I sat mute, entranced. She was going to check out, and she didn't mind paying for tonight, because she knew it was past the check-out time, and she was going to live with Luis and when they were married she would get a job and ... She was about to tell me the dates of birth and names of their children, but I stopped her.
'Where does Luis live, ' I asked'
'In a place called La Moreleja, ' she said, 'and it is lovely. You can see the golf-course from his bedroom window.' She realised what she had said and blushed prettily. The girl had fallen on her feet. La Moreleja is Madrid's snootiest suburb and if young Luis had a flat there he either had rich parents or the best job in the world or both. Probably both. Well, she was twenty-two and she looked happy. Love at first sight can happen. But only to people who believe in it.
'Why don't I talk with Luis while Pilar helps you pack?' I suggested, and turned to Luis, who was staring at me nervously. I switched to Spanish. 'You truly love her?' He nodded eagerly, and began to tell me all.
'I can't believe this is happening to me. When I saw her in the restaurant she was like an angel, and I knew she was sent for me. I asked her to dine with me the next night and she said yes.' He took my arm. 'You must believe me. I have never, never done anything like this before.' I should bloody hope not. 'My friends are calling me foolish and reckless, and I don't care. This is the woman of my life and she has told me that it was because of your gift that we met.' He crossed himself. 'I will not betray that gift.' He had it bad.
'And your parents?' I asked.
'They're on a cruise at the moment. My mother will cry and my father will disapprove and when they meet her they will love her, just as I do.' He looked beatific and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But she was determined, and he had more chin than I'd imagined, and it was none of my business. Who would believe the story when I told it? No-one.
The girls came back with Ragnar's cases, and I slipped behind the desk to make up the bill. Luis was right behind me holding his wallet, so I didn't knock off tonight's charge. It was a Gucci wallet, full of large notes and multiple credit-cards.
'Would you prefer cash?' he asked. I nodded enthusiastically and he smiled. I almost liked him. When the young lovers had left I asked Pilar about him.
'He's fine, ' she said instantly, 'and he's from a good family and he'll be good to her. And you are not to start worrying about her as well or I'll get really cross with you.'
'I promise.' I said pacifically. ' I was just wondering how they communicate. In Braille, I suppose. What about supper?' She looked blank.
'I hadn't even thought; whatever you like.'
'Can we just go to the flat?' I said. 'I haven't touched a pan all week
'Deal, ' she said, 'and I'll wash up while you recover your strength.' Game on.
She didn't wake as I got ready to leave on Sunday morning so I scribbled a note to say that she should come to the hostal when she woke. I nearly signed it with a smiley face, but resisted. When I arrived coffee was made and Elena took the box of bread and pastries from me. The dining-room filled and emptied and filled again and she seemed fine so I went and sat in reception. Greg and Lorraine came in yawning.
'We're gonna check out, ' said Greg. 'I guess Italy is calling. Lorraine says there are some neat pictures there.' I nodded. 'I guess you've been a big help, ' he said, 'and I wanna thank you for that.'
Lorraine said the whole thing again at greater length while I nodded politely. She finally ran down.
'Well, ' she said, 'I guess I oughta pack.' I smiled at her.
'Don't forget to check the bathroom.' She blushed like a tomato and hurried off.
Pilar arrived at nine, dressed for chores and looking so cute I could hardly bear it.
'Elena's got the cleaning list, ' I told her. 'Two check-ins due, and you can accept one walk-in. The computer will walk you through it: it's easy.' Dam' right it was easy: drop down menus and everything, and Dolores thought I was Bill Gates. I kissed Pilar and escaped. Now for the tricky stuff.
As I walked to the carpark I called Anita and told her I'd pick her up. She was waiting outside her building and her expression reminded me of my mother's when I'd come home late, but as she stared at the car her face morphed into a caricature of delight
'It'll wait, ' she said. 'I haven't been in a proper car for years. Aren't they nice?' She played with the windows and the air and the radio and the seats until I wanted to strangle her. I headed towards my pet terraza, wondering what was up. She didn't speak till she'd destroyed three cups of coffee and two croissants, then hitched herself forward and fixed me with an icy stare.
'Alex, did you steal a shitload of money from that van?'
'Is the news out already?' I tried to sound nonchalant but she was having none of it.
'Those guys will kill you: they're the joke of Madrid. I couldn't tell anybody about the tyres, because someone would have put two and two together. You are crazy mad. Didn't you think about what you were doing?' Her hands clenched as if she wanted to shake the madness out of me.
'Anita, I did the tyres and I tried the doors, and one was open, so I lifted the case and buggered off. If I'm mad, I'm mad, but I still need information.'
'What are you going to tell Pilar?' she demanded. Nothing yet, and neither will you.
'I'd prefer this to be just between us for now.' I said as decisively as possible. 'I don't want to scare her even more. But if she finds out or if you tell her, I won't lie to her.' She studied my face for a minute.
'And what are you going to do with the money?' Give you a slice of it for starters.
'Expenses for all of us when this is over, and emergency money if everything goes wrong. I can think of any number of good causes close to home and so can you. Now, tell me what's happening.'
She'd talked to street-girls and their 'boyfriends, ' and to small-time crooks, and to the hard-nosed Samaritans who work on the tattered fringes of the immigrant community, and the stories all tallied. Criminal Madrid had woken up one day and found a new enterprise in their midst, with a base at the hotel, a string of cut-price girls in the Casa de Campo, and a reputation for violence. They were said to be looking to expand their operation. Whatever their motives, they had rocked the comfortable cartel that currently had the city stitched up. They had said that they would kill whoever had taken the money, and the cartel was amused but apprehensive. So far, no English teachers or Rumanian fugitives featured in the gossip. I raised my hand to stop her going on.
'So who's a good person to talk to?' She groaned.
'Alex, these are all bad people.'
'I need to talk to the guy who persuades the other guys.'
'Pilar's right about you: you won't stop. But if you have to know, I spoke to a couple of the freelance girls, and the person they respect most is Spanish, but was born in Venezuela so he can sort of talk to everyone. One of them even said she wished she worked for him. What I wish is that you'd be sensible.' Pilar still thinks I'm sensible.
'Do you know him?'
'No I don't, and I don't want to either, and he'll wonder how you know about him, and unless you promise on, on... , on your mother's life to keep your dumb mouth shut about me I won't tell you anything.'
She was scared, and I wondered again if there was any real alternative. Not if they're as mad as she says.
'On my mother's life, Anita.'
He was called Juan Martínez, and was the owner of a long string of high-class chalets and flats, catering to the top end and the specialised corners of the flesh market, and with fingers in a lot of other pies as well. He was a hard, successful bastard. There was a phone number. She didn't say another word until I dropped her back at her flat. Then she turned and pecked me on the cheek.
'If you can't do sensible try careful.' She got out and I extracted my phone and called the number she'd given me. Punching out numbers on a mobile when your fingers are crossed is harder than you think.
An hour later I drew up outside a large detached house in a development off the Valencia road. I'd fought my way through a husky-voiced receptionist and a telephone pimp before I'd managed to talk to someone with any clout. He'd listened and called me back in ten minutes. Señor Martínez would see me at eleven. I rang the bell and a voice squawked at me.
'About fixing flat tyres.' The gate swung open.
The front-door was opened by an absolutely stunning, sleepy-looking girl in a silk robe. She looked at me curiously and motioned me inside. A smooth-looking fellow in a light summer suit came out of the lounge and inspected me.
'You are alone?' His voice held more than the question.
'Of course, ' I said, 'I spoke to you on the phone, I think, but we did not exchange names.' I thought I sounded ridiculous, but he nodded seriously. Formality seemed to be going down alright. He stepped aside, one hand in his jacket pocket. The girl ran her hands lightly over my thighs and pulled the material of my chinos tight against my legs, front and back. I'm actually being fucking frisked. She pulled up my polo-shirt, and looked at my chest and back, then slipped a hand into each armpit. Her fingers were cool and dry. When she had explored my groin she stepped back.
'Nothing but skin, ' she said, 'and he's stronger than he looks.' She disappeared up the stairs The robe was short and her legs were long. Mr Smooth cleared his throat.
'You couldn't afford her if you saved for six months, ' he said dryly, and gestured me into the lounge.
A short, frail-looking type in his sixties was sitting at a table reading the Sunday paper. He had a cup of coffee at his side and a cigarette in his hand.
'So you are the young man who pulls the tails of tigers?' he said softly. His voice held whispers of South America. 'You are not Spanish. English?' I nodded.
'And why are you not on your way to England for a nice long holiday?' He sounded genuinely curious.
'A point of honour.' It was not the answer he'd expected.
'I thought the English had sold their honour to the Americans, ' he said, 'and now live on their island in the rain, dreaming of the past.'
'Many, not all, ' I said, and waited. After a moment he sighed, and motioned me to a chair. A uniformed maid came in and poured coffee. Martínez offered me a cigarette and I took it, vowing that when this was over I would quit properly again. Black tobacco. Yecchh.
'Agustín says your Spanish is good for an Englishman, ' he murmured. 'Does your honour require that?'
'That is pride, not honour, ' I said, wondering if I was hallucinating. I was in shit up to my nostrils, sitting in a brothel with a career criminal and his armed PA, arguing semantics. Only in Spain.
I gave him the edited version. Pilar became my fiancée, Elena a mere innocent, Alberto a threatening figure, and Niku a mystery one. Monica, Anita, my flat, the hostal, my job and what I wanted to do next did not feature. My only avowed aim was to restore the status quo, but I'd found out some facts that required me speak to a man of influence.
'Why do you think they wish to recapture your little fugitive? And why do you deliberately annoy them when you could return her and live peacefully?' Not a stupid man. I tried to look like a person preparing to bare his soul.
'Because the woman of my life is being harassed. Because these men's actions are insulting. Why they persist, I cannot say, but they do, so... ' Zorro or what? Don't ham it up too much.
'Are you sure you are English?' I didn't bother to answer that one. 'And you wish me to assist you in this matter?' I shook my head.
'By no means. I do not wish to bind another to my actions, but I do ask for information and possibly advice.' He drummed his fingers on the table and I surreptitiously crossed mine again.
'Agustín, ' he said to Mr Smooth, 'come and sit.' He turned to me. 'Agustín will tell you a little about these people. For myself, I choose not to speak of them. To take these girls from their homes and to force them into this life is shameful. None of my employees is coerced, and all are free to leave when they wish.' I kept a straight face. Old Uncle Pandarus trying to convince me that he was just a kindly fellow helping young girls through hard times. He'd be telling me next that he paid their tax and Social Security. On the other hand he was probably a better career option than Alberto.
In the next twenty minutes I learnt rather more than I wanted about criminal Madrid, but the only items that interested me were that nobody liked the new developments and that the brothers disappeared during the week. From Tuesday to Friday they were absent, presumably in Marbella. I must have seen them returning.
Agustín spoke much less formally than his boss and the more I looked at him the more I realised that he was dangerous. He appeared to be completely relaxed, but I knew that it would be almost impossible to catch him unawares. When he'd finished, the two of them looked at me.
I leaned over to help myself to another disgusting cigarette. Nobody seemed to mind so I followed Agustín's lead and spoke less correctly.
'There are some questions I've been wondering about, ' I began, 'For example, why are these guys here? No-one travels five hundred kilometres just to set up a hotel and some street hookers? And I wonder why they're so inefficient. I don't know who actually does the work, but I only know of five people, and one of those is a recent arrival. I suppose they have service-staff, but the whole thing's amateurish, for God's sake: they lose money and dignity to an opportunist thief and they immediately let everyone know about it and now they look like idiots. It smells as if the women are not their real interest. Construction is what they do on the coast, and it's what's made them rich, but Marbella's imploding right now. It would be interesting to know who's working with them here. I don't really think they're serious about trying to kill anyone: they've been trying to keep a low profile. And I'd like to know who Niku is. I'm told that he has authority but chooses not to display it. He isn't as dangerous as you, ' I said politely to Agustín, 'but he is more dangerous than the Galician.' Señor Martínez looked at me.
'How do you know that Agustín is dangerous?' he asked interestedly. I shrugged.
'In the same way that you know I'm not, ' I said. He almost smiled.
'It is possible that you too are dangerous in your own way. The English were dangerous once. Your assumptions are interesting, although your curiosity seems to extend beyond your regard for your honour. And the advice?' He loved the sound of his own voice. Back to formality I decided. My honour was at stake again.
'Ah, well, that is a minor matter, but my fiancée wishes to return to her home, and I do not wish her to be inconvenienced. It is not your help that I seek but your sanction.'
That went down well. He preened himself and then looked at me quizzically. I imagined turning my money over and asked for the favour. When he'd convinced himself that I really wanted nothing more he looked amused.
'Agustín will telephone you.' Agustín handed me two cards with a mobile number on them. I scribbled my own on one and handed it back Martínez smiled like a friendly rattlesnake. 'Now, would you care to tell me how you decided that I was the person you should disturb on a Sunday morning? My telephone number is not generally known. And why you did not think I would ask Agustín to persuade you to offer me the unspecified but large sum of money that you recently inherited as ... as a consultant's fee, one might say?' Fingers crossed. Again.
'You are not entirely unknown, Señor, nor am I entirely ignorant. I have heard you spoken of as a severe man, but never as a treacherous or dishonourable one.'