Summer Can Kill
One o'clock, he'd said, and he'd better not drag his feet. Cheeky foreign bastard. Nothing wrong with his balls though, and if he'd really done what they said he did he wasn't squeamish either. He looked as if he knew what he was doing and he'd handled himself pretty well the other day. No cards, but what he'd said had tickled the old man. And now he was promising more and showing every sign of delivering. It might be worth finding out why he was here instead of back where he belonged. Perhaps he couldn't go home for a bit. It would be nice to have a lever on him. In fact it might be interesting to know him a little better anyway. He caught a hostess's eye and glanced up at the ceiling. She smiled brilliantly and went out. He was almost sure he hadn't used this one before. Well, give her a minute to clean her teeth and get herself ready and he'd see if she was competent. Quality control he thought, and smiled inwardly. He stood up, nodded to the old man, and left the room.
I don't know South Madrid well and was completely lost by the time the cab pulled up outside the Clinica de la Virgen. Inside it smelt of hospital, and a faint haze of grey seemed to settle round me. I read somewhere that in India they snap their fingers to avert evil, but I've never felt happy doing that so I turned my money over instead. That works more often than not.
'I have an appointment to visit two patients who were admitted yesterday. Señor Martínez' referral.' The receptionist came to attention in her chair.
'Please take a seat, sir. Señora Mercedes is expecting you.' Señora Mercedes? I trekked back across the lobby and sank into an armchair. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror: well-ironed shirt and chinos, courtesy of Elena; gleaming shoes; executive briefcase. The haircut didn't look so bad this morning. Maybe it was growing on me. Heels sounded on the tiles behind me and I twisted round. The sleepy beauty.
'Alex, so nice to see you again.' We kissed like gladiators saluting. 'I hope you managed to find a parking spot.' She smelt gorgeous and looked better, and she was fishing already.
'I don't own a car.'
'A grey Citroën, M6375YG, no?'
'Alas, that car never really existed.' She looked annoyed.
'Would you like a cup of coffee or a drink? The facilities here are impressive.'
'I'd like to see my two charges, and their doctor, and then perhaps we could keep our appointment with Señor Martínez.' All business, that's me.
The look of annoyance sharpened and she didn't speak again, but showed me to a room on the second floor. She was about to follow me in, but I closed the door gently in her face. Both girls seemed to be asleep, but Elena opened her eyes as I entered. She hurtled out of bed, wrapping herself round me, and I patted her back gently. She was wearing one of those ridiculous hospital gowns and I found that I was patting bare skin, so I staggered to the bed and tipped her onto it. The gown was rucked up nearly to her waist but she made no attempt to pull it down. Oh for God's sake. I walked over to the window.
'Better cover up, kid, the doctor's coming in a minute.' She pouted but did as she was told.
'Monica is really here, and it is all because of you, and the doctor says that she will be fine soon, and a Rumanian lady, another doctor, came, and Monica started crying, but the lady helped her to calm down, and gave her something to stop her worrying. Alex, she has had such a bad time, and the lady said that it would take her a while to get better, but she would tell me how to help... ' She ran on and I looked at Monica. She was hooked up to an IV but her eyes were open and she was watching us intently.
'Monica's awake. Will you introduce us, please?' She rattled off a torrent of Rumanian. Monica tried to smile, but as I moved toward her she tensed. I retreated, ashamed of my thoughtlessness, and Elena began to scold her. Yesterday Monica thought she was going to die.
'Elena, don't be cross with her. I'm glad she's looking better.' Elena went on grumbling. I decided if I were Monica I'd have run away too, then chided myself for having unkind thoughts: Elena had some legitimate complaints. If it weren't for Monica, she'd still be safely in Bucharest, exporting dodgy Rumanian plonk to an apathetic world. There was a tap on the door and a head popped round, looking curious and professional.
'It is the doctor, ' said Elena. 'He is very kind.' We shook hands. He smiled at Elena and said that she should stop jumping about and get into bed, then began to give me a run-down on the two of them. Elena was fine. She needed to gain weight and have some dental work, and maybe a new nose if she wanted one, but there was no hurry. Monica was another story. Last night's repair work was only temporary and she needed further surgery. He looked faintly sick.
'A case like this should be a matter for the police but I have been told the circumstances are exceptional.' Another one of life's innocents.
'Concentrate on healing her. How long?' Never ask a doctor to be definite.
He hemmed and hawed and eventually said that if she had the necessary surgery now she should be able to leave in a fortnight, possibly less. Psychologically, he was not sure. Maybe his colleague could advise me on that. He would ask her to join me. We shook hands again and as he left Elena hopped back out of bed and dived onto my lap. She pushed her skinny body hard against me and put her mouth to my ear.
'I know you and Pilar are in love, but I love you too, and nothing will stop me, ever.' I was saved from having to answer by the door opening. A motherly-looking middle-aged woman came in and looked at me disapprovingly. Elena scrambled off my lap, looking guilty.
'Alex, this is the lady I told you about, who has been telling me how to look after Monica.' We shook hands cautiously.
'I am Ilona. Are you the man who has been helping Elena and her sister? Elena has told me that you are her boyfriend.' I gulped. As I went through an edited version of the story in deliberately rapid Spanish she began to look more sympathetic.
'I didn't think Elena's version of events was completely convincing. You realise she's very dependent on your approval?' Elena was concentrating on what we were saying but her face said she wasn't following it.
'To the point where it's causing problems for everybody.' She looked at her watch.
'It's nearly twelve. Shall we have some coffee while we talk?' I told Elena that I would be back to say goodbye, and that she wasn't to talk to anyone about me or anything else. She brightened when I said that I was relying on her. Mercedes was waiting in the corridor looking impatient.
'At last. Now then, Alex, there's a great deal to do and... '
'Mercedes, I need to talk with Dr. Ilona. I'll be in the lobby at half past twelve, as we agreed.' I caught up with Ilona at the lift and she eyed me curiously.
'Not many people contradict Señora Mercedes.'
'Somebody should contradict her twice a day until she gets used to it. Tell me about the girls.' We sat in the cafeteria and I listened and thought.
'Ilona, when Elena and Monica are discharged and if they're adequately housed and provided for, would you work with them? At your normal rates, of course.' She looked at me carefully.
'Why do you care?' Reasonable question.
'Because I can't do it on my own, and because if I don't I'll start picking fights with my girlfriend and everything will be awful, and because, for Christ's sake, someone has to. I could go on.' She caught herself smiling, then coughed and reached into her bag.
'It's twenty past twelve, and you'll annoy Señora Mercedes much more if you're absolutely punctual. This is my card. Call me.' I stood up.
'Maybe it'll be my girlfriend. She can probably go further with this than me.' I hot-footed it up the stairs to the girls' room and gave Elena a kiss on the cheek.
'We'll come and see you tomorrow. Tell Monica goodbye from me, and tomorrow we'll see if she wants to talk a little. I've got to run now, OK?' I ran.
The clock on the lobby wall flicked to twelve-thirty as I stepped out of the lift. Take the initiative.
'Mercedes, thank you for being so understanding. Where's your car?' She glanced at me suspiciously and then preceded me into the heat.
'The Jaguar, ' she said, fishing keys out of her bag, 'and it'll be like an oven. Madrid in summer is unbearable.' I leapt forward and opened the driver's door and she slid gracefully in.
'You just switch it on and off, don't you?' she said as I got in the passenger side.
'Yes we do.' She smiled for the first time.
'I told them you were harder than they thought. What's in this for you?'
'A quiet life, if I'm lucky.' She rolled her eyes.
'It's no good, is it? Your girlfriend was the same, saying she hadn't realised I was Señor Martínez' secretary. Did you tell her to say that?' I sent Pilar an imaginary kiss.
'Heavens, no. She must have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. She's told me how kind and helpful you were yesterday.' She drove for a while in silence.
'If all this gets fixed we could maybe have a drink or something, no?' Agustín told me that it would take me six months to save enough.
'That would be a privilege.' I could see her wondering if I was teasing, but we were heading into Madrid and traffic was getting heavy, so I sat back and let her drive.
She stopped outside one of the old palacetes on Castellana and a flunkey slipped into the driving-seat. I just managed to scramble out and shut the door before he whisked off. We walked briskly into a cool lobby. Martínez and Agustín were at a round table in a small bar on the second floor, drinking something frosted and complicated. From a double-doorway across the wide hall I could hear a buzz of conversation and the noise of pre-lunch aperitivos. Agustín rose, extending his hand. I shook it warmly, pretending I hadn't noticed he was reaching for my briefcase, and turned to Martínez. There are times when I wish that I had a magic lamp to rub. Still, onwards and upwards. Hello, you old buzzard, have I got dues for you.
'It is a pleasure to meet you again, señor; my fiancée and I would like to thank you for the assistance you offered last Sunday. We are both most grateful.'
'Maybe if we concentrated on the business at hand?' I sat down without being asked. You are not a supplicant. 'As I said to Agustín, I am in a position to offer you material expression of my gratitude.' He smiled faintly.
'Indebtedness is a better word. Do you know the cost per day for two patients in the Clinica de la Virgen?' I shook my head.
'I have with me some examples of the type of repayment you might expect, sir.' The three of them looked at me. Don't be too keen. 'Maybe you could tell me what stories are circulating about the incidents of yesterday? All I know is what I have heard on the news reports.' Agustín snorted.
'An idiot murdered an Albanian near Pio XII and another idiot broke into a cheap hotel on the Barcelona road, and a third idiot then persuaded Señor Martínez to underwrite the admission of two valueless whores to the most expensive clinic in Madrid.' His voice was hard. 'And the idiots are swimming in very deep water. Beyond that we have reasonable assumptions, and we notice that the idiots have had a recent haircut.' He looked very mean and very dangerous. These people are hyenas. Don't back down.
'Is there a television here with a VCR player? And maybe a beer while we are waiting, and possibly a cigarette?'
Martínez jabbed Agustín in the ribs. 'You owe her, compañero. She told you he had balls. You're just upset about your car.' Mercedes was looking amused and Martínez turned to her. 'Mercedes?' She rose gracefully and went to the door, and I turned to face the two men.
'Mostly correct. But the idiot didn't kill the Albanian; he made him very unhappy, but the knife was none of his doing. Maybe we can discuss that later.' Agustín began to speak, but was interrupted by Mercedes' return.
'A couple of minutes, ' she announced, 'and I ordered fresh drinks.' Martínez nodded absently.
'You spoke to Agustín about documents, ' he murmured. If you're an ageing crimelord you have to keep reminding everybody that you're bad.
I opened the briefcase, extracted a folder, and handed it to Martínez. He began to read and then stopped.
'These are photocopies.' I shrugged and he looked amused and turned back to the papers. After a moment he stopped looking casual and I felt a wave of relief.
The door opened and a naked woman carrying a tray walked in. She was lithe and blonde and beautiful. As she approached the table I saw that she was actually wearing a tiny flesh-coloured tanga. Nice to see hygiene rules being observed. She served us and left.
'Summer uniform?' I asked no-one in particular. Agustín cracked his first smile.
'In winter the tanga is mink.' I sipped my beer. The waitress had provided a pack of Fortuna and a Zippo, and I fiddled idly with the lighter. Martínez looked up from the papers.
'Have you read these?' he asked, considerably less formally. Gotcha.
'Enough to know what they're worth. My only interest is in restoring my two valueless whores to health. One of them could be useful in breaking... ' I pulled out the picture of Don Álvaro, ' ... him.' I handed it to Agustín and lit a cigarette. Agustín looked at the picture and passed it to Martínez. A glance passed between them, and then Martínez turned back to the folder.
'You have the originals of these?' I delved into the briefcase again and laid a row of passports on the table, and then some more photocopies.
'Of course, and plenty of these, and more of these than I can count, and a CPU and some videotapes. If you can assure me that you'll leave the girls alone and either destroy their abuser or make the rest of his life horrible, you can have the lot. I'd love to see your waitress again.' Mercedes turned to the door and gestured and the naked blonde reappeared. I still couldn't believe these people. How sleazy can you get? Dolly Parton said it: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. I managed to ask for another beer without dribbling. Martínez was looking at the other photocopies.
'These are credit-card slips, ' he said.
'Useful signposts.' He steepled his fingers.
'The number of young women you are concerned about seems to have increased, ' he said mildly. Damn, he's noticed.
'They're sisters, so it was double or nothing.' I shrugged. What's one more here or there? He looked at me closely.
'Have you done this sort of thing before?'
'One thing often leads to another, ' I told him, honestly enough, 'I don't know what's in the CPU, but I suppose the files are intact.' Martínez turned to Mercedes and raised an eyebrow.
'The big box that's connected to a computer screen, ' she told him, then looked at me. 'Did you crash it?' I shook my head.
'I wasn't very gentle with the cables, but that shouldn't be a problem.' The door opened again and the hostess reappeared with my beer; she was followed by one of the doormen wheeling a TV and video unit. We stopped talking while he found a power-outlet and set it up, and when he was done I handed him the videotape. Agustín put his hand out and the man gave him the remote-control and left smartly.
They watched silently, freezing the image every so often. Nobody said anything. I glanced at Mercedes and she was staring at the screen as intently as the two men. When it had finished Martínez and Agustín stood and went to the other end of the room. After a minute Martínez beckoned to Mercedes. I lit another cigarette and concentrated on projecting confidence vibes. The conversation became animated, but then Martínez raised his hand and the other two stopped. The trio came back to the table and Martínez cleared his throat.
'Are all the English like you?'
'If they were, the Empire would still exist.' He smiled benignly. He's going to make a speech. Listen up.
'First you must know that I have always found the carrot to be more effective than the stick. My success is in no small way due to the fact that those of my clients in positions of influence do not feel vulnerable when they use my facilities. You are asking me to change my way of doing business on a whim, by offering me material I would be reluctant to use, and also to assist you in a matter of private vengeance. That is the case, no? Don't you just love the sound of your own voice.
'You know the material is much more than simple extortion and the use you make of it is no concern of mine. And yes. The man is a danger, and should not be in a position to indulge himself any more.'
'No doubt. Well, there are times when one follows one's instincts. Agustín thinks I am being hasty, but I have met your type before. Rare, but not yet extinct. If the rest of the material is of this quality then I give you my word that your requests will be honoured. Will you accept that?'
'Of course. And you have my word that I will withdraw from the situation.' His voice was a fraction colder when he replied.
'Indeed you will. Can you summarise your interests again so that we are all aware of them?' To hell, if they want to go all the way, that's fine.
'Don Álvaro Ceacero de la Mata to be killed or maimed, or exposed and ruined.' Mercedes' head whipped round. 'The two sisters to be restored to full physical health and discharged into my care. I understand that the younger one needs immediate rectal surgery, and the older, dental implants and cosmetic work to her nose. You will receive all the original documents in my possession, the CPU, four videotapes, and all the passports except those of my two charges. I just want a peaceful life.' Agustín spoke. Apparently I'd been provisionally accepted into the underworld because his voice had lost its hard edge.
'Would you kill him yourself?' Fair question.
'I'd cripple him in a minute if I thought I could get away with it. Actually, I think he's the one who killed the Albanian. He's just the sort of bastard who'd stab an injured man.' Agustín nodded.
'And how exactly did you manage to injure that poor fellow?'
'With a length of bar-stock, left at the scene with no prints. You already know this.'
'So no evidence, no car, but you still had a haircut.'
'It needed cutting anyway.' Martínez smiled approvingly.
'Mercedes says that your fiancée is a remarkably attractive young woman and that she looks after your interests assiduously.'
'As Mercedes looks after yours, sir.' He continued to look pleased.
'Agustín, what else do we know?' Agustín smiled like a shark.
'You did alright with the Albanian. He was supposed to be hard, sent up to keep the two boys in hand, but he can't have been that good.' I shrugged again. It's the second great Spanish gesture.
'I've seen knives before.' Liar. I saw him file the information away. He nodded and went on.
'The police don't know who he was, and they've no idea why he was outside the home of a well-connected civil-servant. And his car had fake plates and a different blood-type on the back seats, so they're having fun worrying about that end of it.' He looked almost enthusiastic. 'The hotel was closed last night, and the Galician was sitting at the gates apologising to clients. The service-staff weren't being admitted either. I am told that this morning there are three cars there... '
'A Lexus, a BMW, and one other I don't know about, unless you mean a red van, ' I said. Martínez raised one hand.
'How much of this did you know last time we met?' he asked. 'I ask only for curiosity.'
'Some, not all, ' I told him, 'and I'm not sure about the cars, except that it seems logical. The Galician arrived, or the woman I whacked woke up, they called the boys, who were on their way anyway, and papa was told by someone, so he set off as well and brought some troops with him. Maybe someone should tell them that Don Álvaro knows more than he's saying. Then they'd have someone to talk to.'
'What woman?' asked Agustín. He sounded more curious than annoyed.
'She kept the girls in order. We had a very brief argument. Tell me about the visitors.' Señor Martínez raised his hand again.
'Were you serious about your only interests being your two orphans and Don Álvaro?' Careful now, back off.
'As we discussed, señor; if you wish to make use of Don Álvaro, then well and good, as long as he lives in a constant state of fear. You know him, I think.' Señor Martínez looked at Mercedes.
'We withdrew his client privileges last year, ' she said. 'His needs are simply too extreme, and none of our employees was willing to satisfy them.' The business jargon grated.
'So he went downmarket to someone who didn't care.' She nodded slightly.
'His demands are very specific. If a girl looks more than sixteen or seventeen he's not interested, and they have to be blonde, slight, skinny even, frightened, tied up, stuff like that. He likes to inflict pain. Both the girls at the clinic fit his requirements perfectly. Anyone who had them at their disposal would have a strong influence over him.' Her voice was calm but she looked full of tightly-contained rage. Never mind why. Time to close this deal.
'May I inform the clinic that the necessary medical procedures be scheduled?' Martínez looked straight at me.
'Are you serious about accepting my word?' Oh, for God's sake.
'Asking you for proof of good faith and then arguing with Agustín would not achieve anything, señor. But I repeat: all that I know indicates that you are a good friend and a bad enemy, and I do not believe that Agustín and Mercedes would remain in the employ of a man they did not respect.' More bloody flannel, but he's going to say yes. 'If I brought the material here tomorrow at this time, would that be convenient?'
'Mercedes will accept delivery and the clinic will carry out all reasonable treatment. Don Álvaro's life will be made intolerable. You have my word. Do I have yours?'
'I am honoured that you should accept it.' He rose to his feet and opened his arms. I was about to be embraced by a scrawny Don Corleone and I felt like a complete fool. I managed to resist the temptation to blow in his ear. Agustín and Mercedes looked at each other. Well, if they were surprised then maybe the old bastard meant it. I put everything back in the briefcase and handed it to Agustín who gave it straight to Mercedes.
'I have another engagement, señor, so I must leave.' I nodded at Agustín and Mercedes escorted me to the lift.
'You're bloody good aren't you? Where did all the sincerity come from?' I looked about me as we stepped into the lobby.
'What is this place, anyway?' I asked her. She rolled her eyes.
'Evasive sod, you are. Señor Martínez has many interests. As far as you're concerned this is a private home offering a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere to those who are welcome to visit. There is no application procedure.'
'Damn, I was going to ask for a form.' She almost smiled and as we approached the doors she hesitated and then kissed me on both cheeks. Acceptance or promise?
'I'll see you tomorrow then, here.'
'I'll expect the doorman to carry the CPU. Do you think you could tell the clinic that Monica's surgery can be scheduled immediately and that I'll talk to them about Elena tomorrow?' Her brow furrowed.
'You really care about them don't you?' You only see commodity.
'They've caused me a lot of trouble.' She rolled her eyes to heaven again.
'Bloody English sense of humour. Piss off, and don't be late tomorrow. You're right about him being a good friend and a bad enemy. I'll call the clinic now.' She turned back into the building and I stepped out onto Castellana, wondering if I'd caught a glimpse of the real her.
What I needed now was a drink in normal surroundings. I found a bar and wolfed olives and sipped beer while my nerves settled, and was resisting the siren-voices of hubris when my phone rang.
'Hola, Si, having second thoughts?'
'Alex, do you know what you're mixed up in? Every paper in town wants the story and Jose Pedro is pressuring me to spill. What the hell are you up to?'
'Too late, Si. Everything's promised to another, and the press-officer is Agustín Herrera. Do you want his number?'
'I'll stonewall Jose Pedro, ' he said resignedly. 'Now tell me what the fuck you're up to.'
'Personal stuff, Si, but if I can do some more copying tonight I'll put my trust in your discretion. I'll call you later.' I killed the connection and the phone rang again immediately.
'Alex, I've been trying to get hold of you for ages.'
'My phone was off. It's going to be fine, I've made a deal, and where do you want to celebrate?'
'I'm at your flat. I was at the hostal and I couldn't bear it, and Anita was no help at all so I came here and I've been pacing about while you weren't answering your phone, and I need to know now.'
'I'll come over and tell you everything, and then I'll show you the even better news.'
'Because you can't hide your reactions when you've got no clothes on, ' I said in answer to her muffled question, 'and when you react well it helps me concentrate. Have you got a problem with that?' She lifted her head from my neck.
'It doesn't help me concentrate at all. All I remember is that it went OK and the waitress had no clothes on and you want me to talk to someone. I'll have to listen properly while you tell Anita. What do you want to show me? Not that, the good thing.' I swung myself out of bed and fetched the bag of money and gave it to her. She undid the knot.
'This is money.'
'You know what I mean. Is it real?'
'Where's it from?' I'd thought she'd go ballistic, but no. She'd emptied the bag and was sitting up, flicking through the sheaves of notes. Maybe I'd corrupted her.
'I stole it when I let down the van tyres.' Remember hubris. 'I didn't tell you, and I should have, but we were still a bit hesitant with each other then. Anita knows. She heard on the street that someone had robbed the Albanians, and she put two and two together and got twenty-nine thousand and something. But it's dirty so we've got to make it clean.'
'If you stole it then it belongs to those poor girls, doesn't it?' She began to gather the stuff up and put it back in its bag.
'That's why I said dirty. We can't give it back, so we've got to do something decent with it, and then if there's any left over, that'll be fine too. We deserve some compensation.' She eyed me suspiciously.
'It's a lot of compensation.'
'It's going to take a lot to sort our orphanage out properly, and it'll cost to get Anita legal and her kids over here, and you'll need some to get settled in England, and it'll take a bit to let me cut my teaching hours next year and keep an eye on the girls and visit you. In fact there's probably only just enough.' Suspicion was replaced by something softer.
'You've been thinking about this, haven't you?'
'Always plan for success. Come and get unsweaty.'
'Do we have to? I love the way our sweat sticks us together.'
'Don't be disgusting. If you really want to, you can sweat all over me later.'
When we arrived at the hostal Anita was on tenterhooks. I grinned at her.
'I hope you've remembered I can't tell stories without beer. I can't concentrate otherwise.' Pilar stepped up behind me.
'Don't you dare tell her to take her clothes off so you can concentrate or you'll be history, ' she murmured. Anita looked triumphant.
'I knew you'd say that, and I bought beer and cheese and there's some bread over from breakfast so you've got no excuse. What are you whispering about?' Pilar pinched me.
'Just telling him I don't want to miss the details.' She smiled her bad girl smile. 'I wasn't concentrating first time round.' She poured beer and squeezed herself some orange-juice while Anita and I sat obediently, then rubbed the back of my neck.
'From the time you left, chico, and don't forget anything.'
Dealing with guests meant it was nearly seven-thirty before I finally wrapped it up. Pilar was the first to speak.
'Did Elena actually say that she loved you? What did you do?'
'Nothing. Ilona came in and saved me, and Elena jumped back into bed. It's overreaction.' Anita shook her head.
'It's not overreaction at all. I'd love you too, if you'd saved me and my sister. But she gets love and sex mixed up. God knows why, after three months in the Casa del Campo. Is that doctor person any good?'
'Instinct says yes. I'm going to ask Pilar to talk to her.'
'I can't think why Juan Martínez didn't just say that you couldn't see the girls till you gave him the stuff. What would you have done then?' I shrugged.
'Given it to the papers, gone to get the girls out of the clinic, gone to the police, begged and pleaded ... I don't know. He's the big winner and he's a vain old bastard and he likes being the Godfather. I already knew that.'
'And plan for success, ' said Pilar to Anita. 'Apparently that's the key. Did he say that he's told me about the money?' Anita looked at me and I nodded. I went to my room, wondering about having a go at the CPU, but I wasn't really good enough, and it was probably all in Albanian, so I called Si, then Luis. Pilar came bouncing in.
'Anita says that Luis is going to lend us a BMW.'
'It's for me to take you on holiday, but I didn't say when and he's so rich he probably won't even notice it's gone. Do you want to go and fetch it?'
'Well, it's Friday night and I ought to be here. I'll explain what I want to do, and ask you very nicely if you'll help.' Anita appeared in the doorway.
'And if we say we won't you'll go and do it anyway.' She and Pilar looked at each other and punched the air simultaneously. I put my head in my hands.
'Please, pretty please.' If Martínez dragged his feet I wanted an insurance policy. They listened and agreed and I sent them off. By half past eight Anita was back with a small suitcase and her usual bundles, looking smug.
'I told Graciela that I was going away with my boyfriend and I might be back and I might not. I've paid my rent so there's nothing she can do except be jealous. I'm going to hang my stuff up and have a shower, and afterwards I need to talk to you.' I went on sorting papers, trying to decide which were important and which were just padding. Martínez was going to get his money's worth. The Albanian pile was a mystery, but even I could tell that some of the Spanish ones were dynamite. Don Álvaro's name cropped up here and there.
Guests kept interrupting. Washing? Certainly. A place with good music? No problem. A fax-machine? Sorry. It went on. Anita brought me a beer and the last of the cheese. She was wearing a cropped T-shirt and shorts and looked even cuter than usual.
'Don't stare at me like that, ' she said, 'and don't lick your lips either, it makes me embarrassed.'
'Just getting the last crumbs of cheese. What did you want to talk about?' She was hesitant and doubtful but after twenty minutes I'd managed to convince her that when we knew how much Elena and Monica were going to cost, she was next on the list. No, it wasn't too much. Yes, of course I was serious. Because you bloody well deserve it and so do your kids, you daft woman.
'What you can do is look for the right sort of flat at the right sort of price, and talk to someone who can advise you on schools and everything, and then when you've got a rough total we'll sit down and refine it.'
'I know exactly how Elena feels, ' she said, and went into the bedroom. She came out after a while and pottered round a little. The third time she'd stopped and looked at what I was doing, I pointed a finger at her.
'You've got a choice, kid. Either you go to El Brillante while I go through these papers, or you do this and I'll go to El Brillante.' She looked embarrassed.
'Alex, I'm not the fastest reader in the world. If you want me to fetch supper, why don't you just ask?' Gotcha. That's twice today.
'Because you're going to have your kids here, and a job with a proper contract, so you ought to get used to paperwork. All I want for now is to check the dates on these letters and put them in order. So, if you choose to do the letters, I'll ask you what you'd like, and go down to El Brillante. If you choose to go to El Brillante, then I'll just tell you what I want.' She lunged forward and hugged me.
'I'm not really dressed to go out. I want meatballs and something with vegetables. Will you check what I do?'
'Attagirl. Do you want patatas bravas?' I had a couple of cañas at El Brillante and when I got back she was shuffling paper and Pilar was at the reception desk surfing the net.
'All well?' She looked delighted.
'I put it in the carpark at Ánton Martín. It's gorgeous, leather seats and electric everything, and I've got copies of the insurance papers. Luis and Ragnar made me look at the flat and admire the view, and they're so sweet. I promised we'd visit them.' She reached up and grabbed my ears, pulling me down towards her. 'Anita told me about your talk, and I nearly cried. You're trying to look after everyone, aren't you?'
'Just the ones I care about. But if we have to burn all the money to screw Don bloody Álvaro, I'll be there with a match. That's what you need to understand.'
'It's completely Spanish, so I understand perfectly.' She kissed my nose. 'What's for supper?' We sat in the dining-room. Afterwards they got up to clear the remains, and I watched them while I finished my beer.
'Stop it, ' said Anita. 'Pilar, he's staring at my legs, and before you came back he was licking his lips.' She wasn't upset at all. Pilar smirked.
'I can't stop him, because he's a man and completely disgusting, but I can make sure he's too tired to follow up. Will that be OK?' I tried to look hurt but they started talking about flats and where the best schools were, and how to get residence-papers. The only bureaucracy I do is the stuff that affects me so I turned to the other table and looked at the piles. There were several, and I hitched my chair over.
'Anita.' She looked nervous.
'What have I done?'
'You've only put these by date and name, and separated them so they're easier to go through. Pilar, kiss her for me. I don't want to be accused of taking advantage.' I turned back to the papers and rationalised them a little more, using Anita's method. In twenty minutes they were as good as they were going to get.
'Stage two, kids. Pilar do you want to meet Si? When he sees you he'll be terminally jealous and you'll get the chance to examine another Englishman. There are several different types.' I began to put the papers together. 'Anita, can I get the rest of my stuff from your room?'
'You don't need to ask that, Alex, and it makes me nervous.'
'Pilar, tell her why I asked.' I piled clean clothes and a few odd books on the sofa and started putting the papers into my lesson-bag. Pilar came out of the dining-room.
'Are you ready? I'll get the car and run you to your friend's office and say hola, but I think I'll go home after that. I need clean stuff for tomorrow. Are we going to the clinic in the morning?'
'I said I would and it'd be much better if you came too, please, and if Ilona's there you should talk to her. Pick me up here after breakfast?' Anita raised her hand.
'I'll go to the bakery in the morning, as long as you're here in time to do the serving.' She kissed Pilar and then turned to me. 'You don't owe me any big ones at all.' She gave me a hug and went off to her room. Pilar began to say something but I shook my head.
'It's been a long day already. Come on, kid.'
It was nearly one o'clock by the time the last tape had been copied; the documents were long done and Simon and I were sitting in his office.
'That girl of yours is a cracker. Does she know what you're up to?' I nodded. 'And she's not going mad? What the hell kind of woman is she?'
'The best sort.' I wasn't going to discuss Pilar with him. 'What about the rest of the stuff?' He groaned.
'I wish I hadn't bloody promised off the record. It's an absolute shocker, and those videos are something else. There are a dozen high-profile boys there who even you ought to know.'
'Anyone connected with immigration?' He shrugged.
'I can find out. You want to smooth the way for your waifs and strays?'
'I'll have to clear it with Martínez. I got a good deal out of him, and I don't want to screw it up. I'm serious about the off the record too. Any leaks and I blame you, loudly, to Agustín, who'll kill you immediately after he kills me.' He winced.
'I asked a couple of the crime boys about him and they made my bloody hair stand on end. An enforcer with brains, said one guy, Martínez' heir apparent, and loves his work. This stuff goes in the safe and stays there. Word of honour. I can't say more.' I don't suppose you can.
'OK. I've got things to do tomorrow and you've got Rachel champing at the bit waiting for your buff torso to come through the door. Let's go.' Mission almost accomplished.
At nine-thirty on Saturday I was finishing up breakfast. I left the rest of the guests to Anita and retreated to the desk, pretending to be engrossed in administrative tasks, and was thinking about strategy when my phone rang.
'Alex? This is Mercedes.'
'Mercedes, what a pleasure. How are you? No problems, I hope?' What are you bastards cooking up now?
'No, nothing, I'm fine, but I'm going to be hopelessly busy today. Would it be possible for you to drop the material off later? Sometime this evening?' Why don't they want it as soon as possible? 'No problem. What time would suit you?.'
'Well, late would be better. Ten o'clock? Maybe we could have that drink?'
'Sure. At the palacete, still? What's the dress-code?'
'Just as you are. Oh yes, the clinic knows you're authorised to act for your little invalids. I must rush now; I'll see you this evening, OK?'