Summer Can Kill
Copyright© 2008 by satyricon.21
She knew this road so well; when she was little every village had been a landmark, proof that they really were on holiday. He hadn't called, and she didn't think he would, and she'd promised herself that she wouldn't either, but she checked her phone just in case. If you tried to push him he diverted, and if you went on trying he disappeared and there was nothing left to push, only the friction-free shell that he'd built, as opaque and resistant as granite. The psychologist had said there was guilt but she wasn't so sure. One of her lecturers had said to always be suspicious of simple answers to complex questions. If a shell lets nothing out, how can you be sure if it's full or empty? But she didn't want to think that. There was too much of him for it to be empty and guilt was too easy an answer. And if he did decide "yes" that would be it and her life would have changed, and if she ever wanted the old one back it would be a hell of a difficult job. They were approaching another landmark and her mother was pointing it out nostalgically. She began to wonder what she'd do if he did say "Game On". That would be so risky. Or if he didn't. She wasn't sure if she'd be able to bear that.
As I walked up Castellana the next morning, I felt better than I had any right to. Maybe I was healing; maybe it was the pleasure of being out and about; maybe, guiltily, it was because I was going to be by myself for two weeks. Maybe it's because you're not dead. Anita had brought me breakfast and stayed to keep me company, saying nothing, while I ate slowly and admired her intuition. I'd been out of the shower for ten minutes when my phone rang.
'Agustín? You're as punctual as a Protestant.' A dry laugh.
'You seem to have recovered. Will you join me for an aperitivo at the club this morning? About noon?' The Spanish morning lasts till lunchtime at three o'clock.
'Your customers will begin to wonder. I look like Frankenstein's ugly brother.'
'No-one will look at you twice.' His voice was flat.
'Twelve or a little after, Agustín.'
That had given shape to the day. I talked quietly to Anita and drank more coffee while Elena studiously ignored me. When she'd left I told Anita about the previous evening. She gave a snort of disgust.
'Poor little thing. She hasn't got a clue. Keeping her out of your room has been a nightmare, and as for listening through the door, well, for Heaven's sake. She's going to have to handle this better. Do you think I should talk to that Rumanian doctor?'
'I'll ask her down to see where they're rehabilitating themselves. You'll like her. Pilar must have talked to her already and I ought to give her some more money. I'm going to have to start keeping track of expenses.' I told her where I was going and her face sharpened in anxiety; she almost spoke, but bit her tongue with a visible effort.
I'd spent an hour making phone calls and playing with a new spreadsheet, then saved it under a password and left. I walked slowly, dazed by the bustle of the hot streets, and it was twelve-fifteen by the time I reached the club. When I stepped out of the lift Agustín himself was there and I allowed him to embrace me. Two hostesses who were watching exchanged startled looks as he led me to another lift. On the third floor we stepped out into a corridor lined with panelled doors.
'Guest suites, ' murmured Agustín. 'Señor Martínez is using one at the moment. It's more convenient.' He knocked gently on one of the doors and we went in. Juan Martínez was sitting in an armchair, immaculately dressed. Instead of a jacket he was wearing a silk dressing-gown and looked like a tired, diminutive Noel Coward.
'Alex.' He rose to his feet and I received another embrace, then he lowered himself slowly back into his chair. 'Suddenly I'm feeling my age. It's an unpleasant experience. Would you like something to eat or drink?' He's using the 'tu' form. Whatever next? I decided I'd stay with 'usted'.
'Maybe some orange-juice, sir. Eating is still a chore.' Agustín touched a bell and Martínez examined me.
'You look better than you did on Monday. I thought you were dead.'
'I nearly was.' I glanced at Agustín and spoke directly to him as I rubbed my neck. Careful now. You need a double six. 'She told you that she talked about why she was upset and that I suggested she speak to Señor Martínez, but I didn't think she'd go and gloat. When she told me what she was doing I should have called you, and then I shouldn't have stopped to call you when I did, and I should have been quicker. I was trying to cover too many bases.' Agustín snorted.
'And I shouldn't have bothered to speak. I thought he'd freeze. I was too slow.' His voice held self-loathing. Martínez moved a hand dismissively.
'And I should have tried harder to understand her and foreseen that she'd be too impetuous. If there is blame to be shared we will share it equally.' It was a formal absolution and relief washed through me. The door opened and a hostess came in. She served me and put a pack of Fortuna and a Zippo on the arm of my chair. Martínez shifted in his seat and continued. 'I wanted to recompense you for your injuries, but Agustín said that you shouldn't be insulted.'
'Thank you for listening to him.' He leaned forward slightly and fixed his dark eyes on me. They hadn't aged at all.
'What can I offer you that wouldn't be an insult?
'I'd appreciate residence permits for the women I keep banging on about, and possibly the privilege of bringing a guest here occasionally if I need to dazzle or confuse anybody.' Agustín smiled and Martínez nodded at him in acknowledgement and sat back again.
'He wins our little wager. Nothing for yourself but a quiet life? Bring their passports and photographs here on Monday. Agustín will call you in a couple of days.'
'Do you want them backdated?' I shook my head disbelievingly.
'As long as they're legitimate.' We sat some more, then he continued.
'The police have closed the file and Agustín has made contact with the family. They have been persuaded that her remains should be released to me. The promise of discretion is a powerful tool. Agustín will call you when we know more.' He was on the verge of saying something else, but glanced at Agustín and checked himself. 'Will you excuse me now, please? I must think about her replacement.' Fuck that.
'Señor Martínez, she was who she was. You will find someone to perform her duties, but replacing her will not be possible.' My voice was harsher than I'd intended and he bowed his head.
'I know.' Agustín rose and I looked at Martínez, but he didn't seem to want to say goodbye.
The bar was half-full, hostesses circulating between the tables, the clientele less formally dressed than in the week. As we sat down in the booth I was once again aware that we were being furtively watched by almost everyone. A hostess appeared with orange-juice, gin and tonic, and another packet of Fortuna with another Zippo.
'What's with the Zippo's, Agustín?' He smiled faintly.
'Because we've got class. Thank you for saying that to Juan. It wasn't something I could have done.' Juan? He was fiddling with his drink. 'I know you're not fit yet, and I know it'll be difficult, but can I ask you to clear her flat? Juan can't do it and I won't. I can't think of anyone else she would have tolerated. I think you were becoming special to her.' I pretended to hesitate.
'She was special from the start. Of course.' He took a long pull of his drink. I felt more tension drain out of me and lit a Fortuna. He looked at me curiously.
'How much do you really smoke?' I shrugged.
'About half a pack a month; usually less. The secret is not to buy them and not to carry them and never smoke today if you smoked yesterday. I've been breaking that rule recently.' We sat some more and I realised that I felt almost at ease in his company. I put the cigarette out and thought about how life jerks you round. He leaned forward slightly and looked at my cheek.
'If you want the scar seen to, tell me.' She kept one.
'I'll see how I feel. Thank you.' He didn't say any more, and after a moment looked at his watch.
'Will you excuse me for a moment?' He walked over to the bar and said a few words to one of the girls. After a moment Saskia came through and he spoke to her before coming back and sitting down. 'Saskia has taken over some supervisory duties here. She'll bring you a card and the flat keys.' I nodded and he looked at his hands for a full minute, then stood. 'I must go now, Alex. Thank you for coming and for ... for the favour. Leave the passports with the doorman on Monday.' We shook hands. I drank orange-juice and was about to light another cigarette when Saskia slipped into the booth. She touched my injured cheek gently.
'We were friends, sort of, and they told me some of it to stop me being too curious. Did you know how fond of you she was getting? I knew her for four years and you were the only one in all that time. When she relaxed she was so nice. I'll miss her.'
'You won't be alone.' I didn't want to talk about Mercedes.
'These are the keys Agustín told me to give you and this is a membership-card. The star in the corner means all facilities.' She looked up and smiled. 'You won't be using those.'
'Not unless my face never gets better. I only tried it for money once and it was a disaster.' She made a face of distaste.
'It's usually a disaster. Do you want anything else?' I shook my head.
'I'll go now. Could you organise a cab for me?' She touched my cheek again and went back to the bar.
When I arrived at the hostal it was full. Elena and Monica and the nursing team were in the dining-room, speaking English and Spanish alternately, and Ilona and Anita were on the sofa in reception. Ilona stood and kissed me.
'Alex, I'd hoped that you'd still be in hospital, or in bed at least.'
'Hospitals inhibit healing, Ilona.' She pursed her lips.
'Rank heresy. I wanted to talk to you before I went. Anita and I have been chatting, but I think we've dealt with everything.' She turned to Anita. 'Is there anything else you can think of?' Anita shook her head.
'I'll try what you said and we'll see.' She went into the dining-room and Ilona's eyes followed her.
'A quite remarkable person. No formal education and no idea that she's intelligent, but tons of insight.'
'Pilar's pushing her to go back to school.'
'According to her you were the one who planted that seed. I'm afraid we were talking about you as well as Elena, and I think I understand you a little more now.' She faced me squarely. 'Last Monday your luck ran out.' Don't try that line with me.
'It held up nicely, thank you, Ilona; the luck that ran out wasn't mine.' For the first time since we'd met she looked ill at ease.
'I'm sorry. From what Pilar and Anita say you're busy insulating the experience. Do you think that's wise?' None of you bastards who want me to talk know what it's like to watch someone die violently, and I've done it twice. The only person who knows is Agustín and we won't ever talk about it. How's that for irony?
'I witnessed two murders, Doctor, and whoever I talk to will have to accept becoming an accessory to those crimes, obstructing the course of justice, and possibly having to choose between perjuring themselves and incriminating me. I expect you've read the papers. One of the victims was guilty of something, but the other wasn't, and my luck was at the expense of hers. I'll talk about it eventually, but probably not to you. Maybe to Pilar, if she'll let me.' I paused, watching her absorb what I'd said.
'I'm sorry about the woman who died. Were you close?'
'She might have become a friend.' I didn't want to talk about this any more. She was a professional extractor of information and I wasn't up for duelling. 'Monica seems more confident than you'd led me to believe' She accepted the change of subject gracefully enough.
'Since she left the clinic she's taken the domestic role in the flat upon herself and is studying Spanish with ferocity. Very impressive.'
'That validates my theory of healing. Elena did exactly the same when she was recovering, before I found Monica. Then she decided that I was her lodestone and very soon after that she became your patient. Pilar must have told you all this.' She made a noise of assent.
'Elena is older than Monica but less mature, and less thoughtful too. I'll keep working with them. I must say, it's nice to be using my own language.' She smiled. 'Very therapeutic, really. Even my husband has noticed.' I dug in my pocket and found the envelope.
'Which reminds me. We probably need to think about a monthly retainer. You can't be doing this just for the therapeutic value.' She took the envelope and put it in her bag. When I asked about the retainer again she named a ridiculously low figure. 'Ilona, we both know that's not enough. I don't want to have to feel grateful.' A lifted eyebrow.
'We'll see. This whole business has been so ... Listening to Monica has made it difficult to regard this as just another case. I might have acted as you did if our roles had been reversed.' More absolution. 'I'll talk with them a little and then we'll go.'