Summer Can Kill
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2008 by satyricon.21

Thursday 11.00am

A busy week and a busy day, he thought as he prepared the documents for the last chore of the morning. Meetings all the way and he'd had to cancel one already. Time passed slowly on Mondays and Thursdays, and he was never sure if he wanted lunchtime to come or whether to savour for a little longer the dancing expectancy that coursed through him. He wondered how apprehensive the little slut felt. He'd teach her a lesson or two today, definitely, and then maybe another one. His back prickled with sweat and he wriggled uncomfortably. One more meeting. The minister was getting nervous and soothing him would be a delicate task. He felt a stab of resentment: no-one realised how hard it was to keep everything running smoothly. The minister wetting himself; the uncle impatient for contracts; the office staff to be watched in case they showed too much curiosity; what he really wanted to do was to go home and create an ambience and do some creative thinking about the afternoon's activities. Stressbusting, he thought irrelevantly as he began to gather papers together. Maybe he'd leave the gag off today so that he could hear her hurting. God knew he deserved something special after a hard week. As he left the office he adjusted himself discreetly.

The bar opposite Don Álvaro's office was nearly empty. I was already on first name terms with the waitress, and had confided to her that I was waiting to see if my girlfriend left early. She nodded sympathetically and I remembered to sigh from time to time. By eleven o'clock I was pacing my coffee intake and didn't want anything more to eat. I unfolded the Guardian and stared at the crossword. Last night had been memorable. And probably a mistake.

'You knew I was listening, didn't you?' she'd asked as we left the hostal.

'Certainly did, ' I said. She bumped me with her hip.

'I made Elena promise to tell you that she was going to try harder. I thought that it would make her more... , more motivated, I suppose. But she kept going on about you, and sort of trying to find out about us. She's completely insight-free unless you spell it out for her, so finally I said that we were falling in love and that I was asking her, woman to woman, not to make things too difficult for us, and all in English too. Then when I heard her say what I'd told her and ask you if it was true, I nearly died.' I reached out and put an arm round her shoulder.

'Didn't stop listening, though, did you?' She bit her lip.

'No. But, Alex, if you knew I was listening and you still said 'yes, ' was it for her or for me? It doesn't count if it was for her or if you were just surprised... ' I put a hand over her mouth. I didn't actually say it to you. A wave of grey hovered at the edge of memory. 'Maybe it was for me. I need to practice a bit. It didn't work too well before.' She didn't reply, but kissed the palm of my hand and then began licking it. I pulled it away hurriedly.

'Control yourself, woman, or we'll be arrested.'

By the time we squeezed into the shower we were in a dangerously heated state. 'Energetic bed' she'd said, and she'd meant it. The second shower was calmer.

'What are we going to eat?' she said. 'I'm starving to death and all you can do is pant and play with my bits. Pull yourself together.'

'Don't talk about pulling anything, or I'll scream. Would you be too upset if I called for pizza again? I don't think I can face the kitchen.'

Dining was sleazily luxurious. Pizza from the box, with my finest wine in my only two proper glasses. I lit candles as well. She was wearing one of my tee-shirts and looked sleek and beautiful and underdressed, and I almost wished I had a camera. I poured myself a brandy afterwards, more as a gesture to the gods than anything else, and didn't want a cigarette at all. We moved back to the bedroom and lay quietly digesting.

'What did you mean when you said that it didn't work too well when you tried it before?' she asked. 'You don't have to tell me, but it was a curious thing to say.' I felt the all-but-forgotten grey mist swirl around me again, and without meaning to I opened my mouth. You shouldn't have had that brandy. Suppose she doesn't understand?

By the time the first phrase was spoken it was too late to stop, and I listened to myself, appalled, as the mawkish story spilled out. I told her about my Fiona and the plans we'd made. I told her about the drunken bastard who'd casually killed her as we stepped onto a pedestrian crossing. I told her about listening to the doctors advising her parents that the brain damage was total and that the support systems should be withdrawn, and how the penalties for causing death by dangerous driving were laughably mild. I told her how I'd waited for him to complete his fourteen months in jail, and how I'd waited some more, just for luck, and how six months later I'd driven a stolen car at him while he tried to climb through a brick wall. I told her about his legs and how neither then nor now did I give a flying fuck. I couldn't read her eyes and had to force myself to finish.

'And about three months after that I came to Spain. And since then I've been careful about saying that word.' She turned towards me and cradled me in her arms. We lay like that for a long while and then moved on. Gentle bed is even better.

I slept, and when I woke she wasn't there, but light was spilling under the door from the lounge. She was naked, curled in a chair, looking blankly at an infomercial for sixties hits, and spoke without looking round.

'If it had been an accident, I mean just an accident, one of those things, then what?'

'Nothing. Accidents happen.'

'And no-one know what you were planning? You really didn't tell anyone?'

'No. Afterwards I wondered if my mum suspected, but she's never asked.'

'I can't imagine you doing that. Anita said there was something reckless about you, but that was cold, not reckless.'

'Careful isn't cold, ' I said, 'and I don't care. I wanted to kill him and I didn't. I got out of the car and walked away and phoned an ambulance. How long have you been sitting here?'

'About half an hour. I thought I was getting to know you a bit. Will you tell me about Monica?' There was no reason not to. When I'd finished, she shivered.

'I thought it might be like that. Will you be able to control yourself?'

'I don't put myself in the way of temptation that I can't resist.'

'Sit down, ' she said, and pointed to the other armchair. When I was settled she sat on my lap, then twisted round and took hold of my ears. Her thighs clamped over mine and squeezed hard, then she leaned forward, covering me with the warm, smooth length of her. The television was still babbling mindlessly.

'Anita would help all she could if she loved you, and Elena wouldn't say a word whatever she thought, because you can do no wrong, and I'm between the two. If it was a story on the News I'd be saying I sympathised even though I knew it was wrong. So that's what I'm going to do. God knows what made you open up, but you did, and I love nearly all of what I see, and the parts I don't like ... I'll have to think some more about that.' Thank you, Anita. Her face changed. 'This is going to happen soon, isn't it?' 'Tomorrow or the next day or the day after. It's just watching and waiting now.' She nodded. 'It's sort of irrelevant after what you've said, but I called Nuria today and told her that I might need some help in a day or two. I think she's feeling guilty about bottling out, because she agreed straight away.' Bathos or practicality or wanting to share the cost? I couldn't decide.

'I can't think of another way. I'm glad I told you.' I should have kept my mouth shut.

'Come back to bed, ' she said, 'and don't ever worry about telling me stuff again.'

My pet waitress interrupted me and asked if I wanted more coffee. I ordered beer, and she smiled and went off to spread the news that I was bearing up manfully. I sat and waited some more. Rogue Male. An hour later the Toyota appeared at the carpark barrier, and the world lurched and slowed. Senior civil-servants do not leave work before lunch unless they have a pressing engagement elsewhere, and if the engagement is work related they take a taxi and claim expenses. I put a twenty euro note on the bar counter and left. A cab floated into view and I flagged it down. The driver was a tough looking lady.

'Pio XII, Jumbo shopping-centre, as quick as you like, ' I told her, and reached for my phone. She took a route I wouldn't have thought of, but it worked and I forwent the change, eliciting what might have been her first smile of the week. I rescued the car from the mall car-park and drove to Don Álvaro's house. The three unities I thought. Here, now, and with luck, coherent action. I moved to the corner of the crossroad. The street was empty and I hoped that the Toyota was safely garaged and Don Álvaro awaiting his mid-week treat. Time still seemed to be running slowly, and I watched myself watching the street, surprised at how calm I looked. It was quiet and the faint noise of traffic from the main road emphasised the silence. After a minute I pulled on the work-gloves that I'd bought and checked the thigh pocket of my cargo-pants.

At twenty past two the green Audi came round the corner and stopped. I found time to marvel that they'd bothered to rescue the car. Maybe Albanians are naturally thrifty. Niku got out and opened the back-door and I stepped forward and began to stroll down the street. He didn't see me, as he was apparently having difficulty persuading his passenger to cooperate, and finally went round to the other door. As he grasped the handle he looked up and saw me.

'Tu.' His left hand flicked into his pocket and came out holding a knife. The anger kindled and flared and I brought my arm up and ran at him. Left handed, that's good. As I passed him I swung the length of twenty millimetre bar-stock hard against his elbow and heard the knife drop. I turned as I bounced off the Audi. His left arm was hanging loose and he was bent over, his back still to me, scrabbling for the knife with his right hand. I brought the bar down hard on the back of his head and he shrank into a heap on the ground. I dropped the bar and wrenched open the door of the Audi, and a small figure toppled slowly out. I just managed to catch it. It was Monica, dressed as she had been on Monday. I'd lifted her and was trotting up the road to the Xsara before my brain caught up. Lucky she doesn't need persuading. I was counting seconds in my head as I lifted her into the car, covering her with a light sheet. Forty-seven. Drive carefully. My pulse rate was about a hundred and eighty and there wasn't enough oxygen in the world, but I turned into the main road without incident. After two hundred metres I began to shake and pulled in to the kerb. The wave of reaction held me for a full minute, and it was only when it was fading that I heard her whimpering. Shit. I headed for my flat, driving faster than before.

I was dripping with sweat as I pulled up. I punched the doorbell before I opened the back and lifted her hurriedly out. As I straightened Pilar opened the front-door and I ducked past her into the hall. The noises were twisting my heart, and I only half saw Elena as I went through to the bedroom. I laid Monica gently on the bed and untangled her huddled body from the sheet, and as I did, Elena pushed past me and dropped to her knees. She cradled Monica's head and began crooning to her in Rumanian.

'You got her.' Pilar's voice sounded in my ear, and I turned into her arms and let her hug me.

'I had to hit Niku twice, but yes. I don't know what's wrong with her exactly. I think they sedated her so she didn't try to... , whatever.' I didn't recognise my voice. 'You'd better look at her and decide if she needs to be admitted.' Another figure brushed past us and knelt down.

'Nuria's better at this than me. Come into the lounge.' There was a jug of orange-juice on the table and she poured me a glass. 'You look awful. Drink this and go and do the rest. We'll use Nuria's car if we have to. I love you.' She put the car-keys into my hand and I kissed her.

The Barcelona road was clear and I broke all speed-limits. No pissing about today. Unless I was completely wrong there would be no vehicles there, and if there were I'd just turn round and leave. I drove straight through the gates and skidded round the corner into the back-yard. Empty. I swung the car round so that it faced the exit and piled out, grabbing my sportsbag from the passenger seat. The back-door was closed, and when I yanked on the handle it didn't open. I opened the sportsbag and took out a short crowbar, forced the tapered end into the gap between the jamb and the door, and leaned into it with my full weight. There was a moment's resistance and then the wood splintered and the door swung open. I gripped the crowbar hard as I stepped through.

I was in a passage that ended in a solid door with a new mortise-lock. Opposite each other were two flimsier doors. I pushed open the one on the left and saw an empty room that had once been used for storing wine. The walls were still lined with racks and the only light was from a small window near the ceiling. In the middle of the room was an iron bedstead with a torn mattress on it. Around the bed, their ends buckled neatly together, were three long leather straps. The room smelt of urine and fear. I backed out and tried the other door. Paydirt.

There was a table littered with papers, a television, a slick-looking computer set up, and a filing-cabinet. I ripped the cables out of the CPU and placed it by the door. The bottom drawer of the filing-cabinet contained a supermarket bag stuffed with passports, the middle drawer was half-full of papers, unfiled, some loose, some bundled together with elastic-bands, and in the top one were four videotapes. I put the tapes and the passports into my bag and was shovelling handfuls of paper after them when I heard a door being unlocked. I picked up the crowbar and the bag and stood behind the open door as footsteps came down the passage. They stopped and I heard a sharp breath. I tensed, but the footsteps moved on to the outside door and I followed them.

I was standing behind Olga. Her shoulders and back looked strong and her dyed red hair was piled on top of her head. As she began to move towards the car I took two steps and hit her square on the scarlet topknot with the crowbar. She fell face downward on the ground and I dropped the bar and ran back into the office. Never mind the rest of the papers. The sportsbag hooked over one arm, and the CPU cradled in both hands, I stepped over her and put the swag in the car. I turned and looked at her briefly. There was no blood and she was breathing regularly. Goodbye Olga. I hope your head hurts like hell.

I turned north and came off the motorway at the first exit. If I headed cross-country I could reach Madrid by a different route. There might have been faces at the hotel windows, or lunchtime gardeners watching me with Niku; there might be reports out now about a grey Citroën with Madrid plates. I turned up the first side-road I saw. The Madrid plates came off and Enrique's went back on. I threw the stolen ones over a wall and drove on conscientiously, letting the anger seep away.

In Madrid I parked the car in the usual garage, moving the front seats as far back as possible and reclining them. The CPU and the sportsbag were invisible. One more chore. It went against the grain but there was no escaping it. As I went into the shop the proprietor eyed me suspiciously. Sweaty, long hair, dressed for combat: what was I on? I smiled ingratiatingly.

'Number four clippers, please.'

I let myself into the flat, feeling naked and self-conscious. My neck was exposed, and I was sure that my head was ridiculously white. My ears felt cool and enormous. Pilar came out of the bedroom, but before I could say anything she grabbed me by the shoulders.

'Alex, did you stab that man?'

'Niku? What the fuck's going on.'

'There was a report on Telemadrid that a body's been found near Pio XII, and there were two stab-wounds in his chest and the knife was still in his body, and tell me you didn't do it, please, promise me it wasn't you.' I put my arms out to hold her but she twisted away and stepped back. 'If you care for me even a little bit... '

'I broke his arm and hit him on the head pretty hard, but I didn't stab him. For Christ's sake, do you think I'm stupid? If it had been me I wouldn't be here. Tell me what they said.' I pulled her into my arms and she let me hug her

'I've been so frightened. There was a newsflash on the radio, and I turned on the television, and it was on the Madrid news, and all I could think was that you must have killed him because of Monica, and I couldn't let Nuria know, and... ' I hushed her with my mouth. When I drew away, I moved my hands up to her face and cradled it.

'I promise you I didn't kill him. I promise you I didn't even think of it. I promise you I won't lie to you. Tell me about the news report. Do I need to do anything urgently?' She sniffed and shook her head.

'I don't think so.' She suddenly looked at me properly. 'What have you done to your hair?'

'You said it needed cutting. Where's Nuria?' Stay focused.

'She's gone to get some dressings. Monica's got unhealed lesions on her back and ... places, but I persuaded Nuria to wait for you before taking her to the hospital. But she's been terribly treated and she absolutely must see a doctor soon. And Elena won't leave her. Look.' She opened the bedroom door.

My bed had been stripped of all but the bottom sheet and the sisters were twisted together on it. Monica was still curled up and Elena had tried to cover her with her own body, as if to protect her. They were both unconscious and there were soft sounds coming from deep in Monica's throat. There were smears of blood beneath her.

'Jesus Christ, have they been like that since I left?' Pilar nodded.

'Nuria gave Elena a relaxant, but Monica was already doped with something.' Her voice was wobbling. Next big gamble. I reached for my phone.

'.' Agustin's voice was as soft as ever.

'We met last Sunday. I am in a position to repay Señor Martínez' generosity.' There was a moment's silence.

'You do not wish to ask for Señor Martínez' help? I think your honour has led you into some difficulty today.' His voice was still light, but there was an edge to it. Balls on the table time, again. Pilar was watching me intently.

'The difficulties have been exaggerated. The matter I wish to discuss is more pressing. I have documents and electronic information about a certain family's activities in Madrid. I have a witness who will testify to repeated sexual abuse by a senior civil-servant and will connect him to that family. The witness and her companion need medical attention urgently. If Señor Martínez can suggest how the health of these two young women can be improved, then the information that I have will be entirely at his disposal.' He only hesitated for ten seconds. Maybe I'd been more impressive last Sunday than I thought.

'The Clinica de la Virgen in Léganes will expect your friends. Say that they have been referred by Señor Martínez.'

'Thank you. The patients will be accompanied by a qualified nurse.' The phone went dead.

'What's the Clinica de la Virgen in Léganes?' I asked Pilar.

'You do jump around. It's terribly expensive. Who were you talking to? And what was all that stuff about information?' The doorbell rang. 'That'll be Nuria, ' she said.

The next few minutes were confused. When Nuria looked at Monica again she began panicking. She wanted to dump the whole thing in someone else's lap and run, and Pilar was twisting her hard to stop her. Finally something snapped and Nuria stood up.

'I don't care what you say. I'm going to call 112.'

'Nuria, if you take them to the Clinica de la Virgen, would that be OK?' She stopped in mid-sentence and stared at me.

'The Clinica de la Virgen? In Léganes? But that costs a fortune.'

'I've got friends who know the director. I did say that the person who had been looking after them is a qualified nurse and would inform the doctors about their treatment so far. Of course, Pilar could do it if you'd rather... ' She bridled.

'They're my patients. They can't go like this though: they need a wash and some clean things. Pilar, come and help.' Pilar looked at me and raised an eyebrow, then blew me a kiss and followed Nuria into the bedroom. I called Anita.

'Alex, where are you, what have you done, I saw on the News... '

'Yes. I found her, and she and Elena are at the flat, and they're going to hospital now with Pilar. And I didn't kill him. That was someone else. I've told Pilar and she believes me. I'll be a bit late getting to the hostal. Is that OK?' She didn't piss about.

'Whenever, but bring some food or I'll tear your arm off and eat it, and not pizza again.'

'Deal.' Pilar came out of the bedroom.

'Nuria's fussing over them, and at least they've got some clothes on now. Monica's running a really high fever. You're going to tell me every single detail tonight, and if I think you're leaving anything out I'll castrate you.' More threats. Perhaps she cares after all. 'Tell me what you want me to do.'

'Close the bedroom door. The clinic's expecting them and they know there'll be a nurse with them. Tell the doctor as much medical history as we know, what sort of abuse they've had, and make sure they both have full blood-tests. It'd be good if you could manage to look stern and let them know that Martínez has a personal interest in this. Do you think you can pretend to be representing a professional criminal?'

'Will it help if I do?'

'Yes. Listen, love, the bad bit's over. I don't think Martínez is going to risk losing what I'm offering him, Monica's safe, we can put Enrique's car back in his garage and live happily ever after. What else?'

'Why did you do that to your hair? You look completely different. When you came in I hardly recognised you.'

'Good. I'll tell you tonight. You can tell Nuria that I was getting too hot. Hang on a minute.' I called Agustín again.

'Another favour already?' His voice was still casual and cold.

'I'm calling to ask you to inform the clinic that the nurse will stay. Both patients are in shock, and I am sure that Señor Martínez would agree that a familiar presence is desirable.' Pause.

'Señor Martínez' representative will be at the clinic. Señor Martínez is anxious to meet you to discuss the matters that you mentioned.'

'I have already said that the documents will be at Señor Martínez' disposal. My concern is for the witness I mentioned and her swift recovery. I'll be less distracted if I know that she and her companion are safe.'

'Bloody English waffle. I will tell the clinic.' He cut the connection. Had I imagined a hint of admiration in his voice? I turned back to Pilar.

'OK, they won't do anything dodgy. You've got your phone, haven't you?'

'Alex, of course I've got my phone. What's this about documents?' I ran the bones of it past her and she absorbed it calmly.

'So now it's just getting Monica and Elena well and giving Señor Whathisname the stuff, is that right?'

'More or less. I've got to make sure that Don Álvaro never sleeps soundly again, but I'm hoping that Martínez will do that'

'You're still going to tell me everything properly later, aren't you? You promised.' I put my hand on my heart, and then moved it to hers.

'Everything and a bonus. Something good.' Her eyes narrowed.

'What sort of good?'

'You'll see. Listen, Martínez has probably got the staff there in his pocket, so it doesn't matter who talks to you, how nice they are, how interested and caring, you're just a nurse, and if anybody wants any information about anything besides nursing give them my number.'

'Aren't you being a bit paranoid?' I should fucking hope so.

'Someone has to. Let's get these girls moved.'

It was heart-rending. Nuria brought her car round and between us we managed to put the girls in the back. Monica's thumb had slipped into her mouth and Elena was no help at all. Nuria bit her lip.

'Pilar, you'd better drive. I'm going to stay in the back with them. Elena's OK, but this little one's almost catatonic. What on earth did they do to her?' Sodomy, rape, casual malnutrition, deliberate neglect, calculated humiliation, and God knows what else, for God knows how long.

'She's had a bad time. You'd better get going.' Pilar came and kissed me.

'As soon as someone's looked at them I'll call you. Try not to worry. If there's a problem I'll just imagine I'm you.' She smiled at me and my heart did handsprings.

I went back into the flat and stripped the bed, When I looked I seemed to have one tee-shirt and a pair of jeans left. I couldn't even see any boxers. Oh well, commando is always an option. I stripped off my clothes and threw them onto the sheets as I headed for the shower. When its thirty-eight degrees and you've had a hard day breaking some important laws, cool water never disappoints. I washed and shaved and shampooed and rinsed until I began to wrinkle. Then I sat in an armchair and began to shake. I tried to concentrate on how I was going to talk to Martínez and how not to enrage Agustín.

At ten to eight I parked on the pavement outside the hostal and called Anita.

'I'm going to start throwing stuff in through the front-door. Can you come down and begin taking it up while I park?'

'What about food?'

'Lots of it, Mexican, still hot.'

'On my way, gringo.'

I began putting my booty in the hall. As I was placing the CPU carefully on the floor the lift-doors opened and she charged out. She jumped at me and caught me in a hug.

'I called Pilar and she's going to call you as soon as she can, and she said I was to give you a big kiss from her and I could give you a small one of my own if I wanted, and you were to tell me everything.' She kissed me hard and stood back. 'What have you done to your hair?'

An hour later we were sitting in the dining-room surveying the wreckage. Anita had eaten well but I'd outstripped her easily. I'd bought beer, and five dead soldiers stood on the table between us. I'd finished telling Anita the story at about the same time as I opened my third beer, and she was quiet, getting her head round it while I toyed with the last of the frijoles.

'So who killed the guy you hit?' I'd been thinking about that one.

'I'd really love it to be Don Álvaro, ' I mused. 'I mean, he's waiting for his afternoon treat but no-one comes, and he sees the car and goes out, and someone's given Niku a hard time, and Monica's not there, and he's scared to death for his reputation and his position, so he picks up the knife and just sticks it in. Then he calls the cops. It works. I'll suggest it to Martínez. There must be someone in the police he can whisper to.' Anita gave me a look I was getting used to.

'And when you got back from that hotel after more assault and breaking and entering and burglary, you gave Pilar a kiss and then called Agustín Herrera to say that if he didn't give you a hand you wouldn't tell him what had happened. I don't understand why you're not a nervous wreck'

'Not quite like that. I don't really remember what I said to him exactly. Pilar could tell you, I expect.' As if on cue my phone rang. I switched it to hands free and put it on the table.

'Alex?' Pilar's voice through the little speaker sounded tinny.

'Hola, love, everything OK?'

Apparently, yes. I could tell she wasn't alone: she sounded like a PA reporting. Elena was fine. Nuria had misjudged her body weight, but no harm done. Monica had a torn perineum and probably more internal damage. She was awash with antibiotics and asleep. Did I think there was anything else? Think ahead.

'Could you tell the staff we'll visit tomorrow morning, say elevenish, and maybe ask if they know anyone who can do counselling in Rumanian?'

'I'll ask them.' Her voice changed. 'There's someone here who wants to speak to you.'

'The representative?'

'Exactly. She says she knows you. I'll pass the phone to her.' The next voice was cool and slightly husky.

'So your name is Alex. That's the first piece of information your little friend has let slip.' Condescending bitch, whoever you are.

'I'm sorry, but I have no recollection... ' She interrupted me.

'Last Sunday. You'd requested an interview with my employer.' Ah, the sleepy beauty.

'Of course; I look forward to the pleasure of meeting you again. Is Agustín with you?' She laughed.

'Agustín is trying to find out what the hell you've been up to. You're more impressive than you look, you know. I told them, but they didn't believe me.' Should I believe anything a very upmarket prostitute says?

'Thank you, Señora. I intend to visit the clinic tomorrow morning at eleven. Would it be convenient to meet Señor Martínez after that?' She paused for a moment.

'I'll collect you at twelve-thirty. Señor Martínez will be able to make time for you.' Wow. Further up the food-chain than I'd thought. Remember you're a principal too.

'Maybe you would be kind enough to contact Agustín for me and tell him; if he's busy he'll be glad to have one less thing to organise.' She laughed again, a little less convincingly.

'Of course. Until tomorrow then, Alex. I'll pass you back to your friend. I heard the phone being fumbled, and then Pilar's voice.


'Don't say anything, love. She's Martínez' secretary or girlfriend or something, and I don't want her to know anything except my name. Look, can you confirm we'll visit at eleven o'clock tomorrow, then check Monica one more time, see them both settled for the night, and leave. I was going to come and collect you but I don't think I want anyone to see Enrique's car. Take a taxi and call me when you get into town, or else just come to the hostal. Is that OK?

'Of course.' She rang off without saying good bye and I spent a moment marvelling at her quickness. Anita had been listening intently.

'You've done it, really, haven't you?' she said, unconsciously echoing Pilar. 'What's that secretary woman like?'

'Beautiful, arrogant, sexy as hell, Lauren Bacall meets Catwoman, very close to Martínez, since it appears that she can commit him to a meeting at a particular time. I'll be careful with her.'

'You sounded so, so ... uncompromising when you were talking to her; I hardly recognised your voice.' I was getting tired of people telling me that.

'I was just trying to convince her. These people are sharp, but they're not what I'd call smart.' I remembered something. 'Anita, nearly all my clothes are here somewhere. Elena must have washed everything and put it away. Have you got any idea where?' She looked at me exasperatedly.

'It's taken you a while. They're all in the big cupboard in your room. Sheets, clothes everything. Elena ironed the lot, almost. I think she'd have ironed your socks if I hadn't stopped her.' She yawned. 'I'm going home. You don't need me for breakfast, do you?'

'I'll wait for Pilar and see what's happening and then pass out. I think I'll stay here tonight. Tomorrow's going to be difficult, and I need my beauty sleep.' I got up from the table and she sighed.

'The sooner you move in properly with Pilar, and I get to use that room once in a while, the better that'll be too. It's too hot to think in my flat.'

'Aren't there any empty rooms tonight?' I asked her. 'Stay in one of them and sleep properly.' She looked shocked.

'There are two, but I can't use them: what would Miguel say?'

'Miguel's in Andalusia. What he doesn't know won't hurt him. Go and get your stuff and come back and go to bed. You've been coping with Elena almost single-handed and it's time to collect.' I caught a hint of a smile as she began to clear the table and wondered why she'd needed somebody's permission. I've never had that particular problem.

When she'd gone I wandered about for a while. There weren't any excuses left so I went into my room and picked up the sportsbag. There was no time to hook up the CPU, and anyway, the cables were probably all different to the ones we had. They always are. Gates' Law.

I took the bag into the dining-room and put it on a table. The paper was mixed stuff. Credit-card slips, bills, letters, bank statements. The tapes I had no way of examining. Pilar had a video though, and it would be helpful if I knew what chips I was playing with. The bag of passports was another matter. I was dealing them out like cards when the sound of the downstairs doorbell made me jump. I went to reception and buzzed it open, then opened the front door and waited.

Luis and Ragnar stepped out of the lift. When Ragnar saw me she sprang at me and hugged me hard. Then she let go and waved her hand under my nose.

'Look, Alex, we've got the ring. Luis bought it today, and I wanted you to be the first person to see it. Look, isn't it lovely?' About three thousand euros worth of lovely, I reckoned.

'Ragnar, it's really beautiful' I kissed her and shook Luis by the hand. 'Congratulations, Luis.' He blushed and grinned and looked moonstruck. I felt a stab of envy. Young and rich and happy, and all that that entails. Ah well. Ragnar wasn't Pilar, not by a long chalk, and their lives would be much less interesting than ours. Jesus, what are you thinking? Ragnar was bubbling: wedding plans, parental reactions, Luis had bought a new car, just like that, because they needed a bigger one now that they were a couple, did I think Lutherans could get married in Catholic churches, the flat and how it was going to be redecorated. I was saved by Anita returning. The whole process was beginning again when I had an absolutely despicable idea.

'Luis, you know Madrid better than I do. I'm taking Pilar on holiday in a day or two. Do you know anywhere where I can rent a car cheaply, somewhere that does special deals for longer hires?' He could go one better than that.

'Ragnar has been telling me that we should do something for you, because you are the one who brought us together. I can lend you my old car for as long as you want.' Bingo.

'Luis, I can't let you do that, I couldn't possibly... ' Anita watched sardonically as I finally gave in and thanked him effusively. I gave him my name and Pilar's and he promised to put us on the insurance.

'It's only a 2 series, ' he said, apologetically, 'which is why I got a new one, really, but it runs fine and everything. When do you want to pick it up? I could have someone bring it down to you if that would be easier... '

'Luis, you're too kind. Maybe tomorrow evening? I'm going to be busy during the day. Let me have your number.' I made sure Ragnar knew exactly what Luis had promised so that any second thoughts he had would be valueless. When they'd left Anita looked at me.

'Alex, that poor boy didn't stand a chance. I think you do this stuff just because you can.' She shook her head. 'I'll use room three. The air conditioning's quieter in there. What are you doing now and where's Pilar?'

'First, he's a very rich boy, not a poor one, so don't feel too sorry for him. What's a lad of his age doing with two BMWs anyway? Second, come and see what I've got, and then you can call Pilar.' I led her into the dining-room and showed her the passports. Her jaw dropped.

'These were at the hotel?'

'Rumania, Serbia, the Ukraine, a couple of Russian ones, Bulgaria. There are some blank ones as well, Spanish blanks. How much do you think they're worth?'

'The Spanish ones? I could sell them tomorrow for six thousand each, cash and no questions. In fact I'd like one for me.' She was still reeling. 'What else have you got?'

'I don't know yet. I was looking at the stuff when Luis and Ragnar arrived. Why don't you ring Pilar while I have a quick look. Use my phone.' I turned to the passports. Hopeful young faces stared back at me, full of the suppressed excitement that passport photographs always have. Anita had got through to Pilar but almost immediately turned to me and held out the phone.

'You talk to her: she's being very careful.'


'Oh, hola, ' she said brightly. I could hear the strain in her voice. 'I'm glad to be able to talk to you. Señor Martínez' secretary insisted on giving me a lift home, she's so kind, but really, I don't want to worry her. I've told her to drop me off at a Metro station.' 'You are so good at this, sweetheart. I could call Agustín and ask him to tell her to stop pushing. I think he's higher up the organisation than her.'

'Oh, that won't be necessary, ' she said, 'I mean why bother Agustín so late? We're nearly at Avenida de America, and that's close and everything.' Avenida de America? Miles away from the hostal. Clever girl. They must have been driving round in circles.

'Just go one or two stops and then get off and take a cab. I need to see you badly.'

'Oh, you're always telling me to be careful. I've been telling the secretary-lady just how careful you are. Bye.' She rang off, and I smiled to myself. Secretary-lady indeed: I bet the sleepy beauty was spitting blood at that one. Anita pulled my arm.

'Look what I found, ' she crowed. 'Look.'

Two Rumanian passports, two familiar faces, Elena and Monica Lopescu.

'Well, thank God for that. Now we can send them back home and live happily ever after.' Anita gaped at my words, then relaxed when I winked at her. We flicked through the pile of little booklets and my brief euphoria faded as I imagined the reality behind each one. Anita caught my mood and murmured that she was going to bed. She tapped my hand gently.

'You can't save the whole world, Alex. I'll see you in the morning.' I swept everything back in the bag, and took it into my room, but I was still wound-up and restless so I bought it out again and started sorting.

I'd managed to put the papers into three piles of credit-card counterfoils, official looking correspondence, and pages in a language that I assumed was Albanian when the doorbell rang again. Two minutes later Pilar stepped out of the lift. We were tense and worn out from the day, and hungry for each other, and it was five minutes before I looked at her properly.

'Have you eaten? We can go and have some supper if you like.' She shook her head.

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