Summer Can Kill
Chapter 10

Copyright© 2008 by satyricon.21

Monday 10.00am

As she watched him she still wasn't sure. She was potty about him, he was kind and loving, the sex was wonderful, but ... There were times like now when he disappeared and although he was being thoughtful and attentive he was actually somewhere else thinking how to do the next thing he wanted to. No, what he thought he should, and to hell with everyone else. He hadn't lied, she was sure of that, but she didn't know how much he hadn't said. She tried to imagine him coming home and talking about work, asking about her day, helping with the children, then laughed at herself. She knew he was trying hard, and that he knew she knew, and that watching himself try amused him. He'd opened himself to her a bit, but only after a big brandy, and she knew that he had doubts about that. Love or in love? Was he thinking the same thing? He hadn't said, but he'd tried to explain. She made a conscious effort to stop. She'd already decided that she didn't care and would ride this one until he either took her to shore or left her choking in the undertow. Last night had been the best ever...

The unhappy Scottish couple had me under siege and Pilar was watching me sardonically.

'Ian, I can't replace it over the phone. You've got to go to the Consulate in person, ' I said as calmly as I could, 'and of course they speak English. They speak better English than me. Look, I've marked it on the map. You catch a 27 bus from the bottom of the road here and get off at Plaza Colón.' Ramón had wined and dined us well, and the rest of the evening had been long and inventive and exhausting. I felt heavy of body but light of heart.

'I really can't come with you, I'm afraid. I'm expecting the owner, so I'm sorry, but there it is. You've got my number, and if there's a real problem call, OK?' I turned back to the computer. After a moment I heard them move away. Pilar snorted.

'He lost his passport and he wants you to go with him to replace it? He's a grownup, for goodness' sake, and he's behaving as if he's marooned in Iraq. I'd be embarrassed to ask for more help after everything you've done already.'

'People just love my company. Even Enrique likes me' She came over to the desk and ruffled my hair. I still didn't mind it when she did that. Stage one continues, eh?

'He's never liked any of my boyfriends before. When I went down with him he was going on about what a nice guy you are and all sorts of nonsense.' She smiled at me. 'You just charmed him.'

'Like he charms all of us, ' chimed in Anita. 'It's a good job he's honest or he'd charm the clothes off our backs.

'All I did was let him bang on about all the trophies Real are going to win next season, ' I grunted, 'and if you want me to charm the clothes off your backs you'll have to form an orderly queue. What are we meant to be doing today?'

'You can choose, ' said Pilar. 'There's Elena and Monica, but I think you ought to ask Ilona about that. And there's whatshername, but ringing her might not be a great idea. You could come and charm my friends, or you could go and charm my mum, or you could go to the Consulate and charm the officials and be supportive to that hopeless couple.'

'Meet your mum already? Let me call Ilona. The problem is that I'm slow this morning. If you go on deliberately eating too much just to qualify for therapy we'll quarrel, and you'll weigh a hundred kilos by then so you'll win and I'll be miserable.' She gave me the smile again.

'I was just feeling frisky. If you can't keep up that's your problem. Maybe you should think about cutting down on the beer.'

'No problem, ma'am, eat as much as you like.' I called Ilona and we talked. Actually, she talked and I listened. After twenty minutes I put the phone down.

'What it boils down to is that I should go and see Elena so she doesn't feel deserted, but not by myself. And it would be a good idea if I somehow disappointed her, so she stops thinking I'm perfect. I don't see why I should lie about that though. What the hell are we going to do, cariño? We've got less than two weeks before they're my responsibility completely.'

'You'll decide something. Is she going to be there too?'

'Not till tomorrow afternoon. She reminded me that she has other patients, who actually pay her. I hope she takes cash.'

'This is Spain, stupid, ' said Pilar. 'Everyone takes cash, even estate-agents and the tax people.'

'Good point. Well, let's go and see them, and we'll say that we have to rush off and that Ilona will visit tomorrow. Then you round up your friends and show them the car and boast about me, and get them ready to help, and I'll go and look at those photocopies again. And then later we'll compare notes and put you on a diet and see how frisky you're feeling. Vale?' She stared.

'Are you the person who didn't know what to do?'

'That was me but now I'm not.' She went to say goodbye to Anita and then caught up with me at the lift.

'Why do I have such a good time with you?'

'Because you only have real fun if you earn it and we've earned every second in the last couple of weeks. I'm glad it's been with you.' The lift-doors opened and we went out into the heat.

'Give me Ilona's phone-number, ' she said as we arrived at the clinic. 'I'll try to get hold of her before I talk to the others. We can turn it into a project and get everybody motivated.' I handed her my phone. Lord let this cup pass from me.

'Her number's in there. Remind me to give you some money for her. We don't want her dropping out in a huff.' Pilar waved at the receptionist as we crossed the lobby.

'And you accuse me of charming people, ' I said. 'One smile from you and that girl on the desk's wagging her tail and waving us through as if we were doctors.'

'One of her friends trained with me. It's just a matter of knowing the right people.'

'That's my problem, then, knowing the wrong people?'

'Look at your life recently, ' she said dryly. 'Apart from me, that is.'

'Good point.' When we went into the room Elena and Monica were talking. Monica looked nervously at me, but Elena jumped up and after a sideways look at Pilar gave us both a polite kiss.

'I am glad you came, ' she said. 'Monica and I were just saying that now we are getting better it is boring here. Ilona says I need something to do.'

'Learning Spanish would be good, ' I said, 'and Monica could learn with you. I don't really know how much she speaks.' I smiled at Monica and she raised her eyes and then dropped them again. Well, it was a reaction.

'How much does Monica speak?' asked Pilar. 'To you, I mean.' Elena looked pleased.

'More than before. We have been talking about home, and what we did when we were little. She does know some Spanish but she does not like speaking it.' What's like got to do with it?

'Well, everyone here speaks it, and if she doesn't learn some she'll be lonely and miserable unless she goes back to Rumania.' Elena looked worried.

'Why does everyone want us to go back?' Pilar stepped into the breach.

'Nobody wants you to go, silly. That is why Alex said about learning Spanish. But for now you must get well enough to decide what you want to do. Tell me how Monica is managing with food and stuff.' Monica joined in, to my loud mental cheers, but the conversation became boring very quickly. Just as I was beginning to feel impatient the door opened and the doctor came in.

'Monica's making a good recovery, ' he said proudly, 'and she'll be fit to be discharged soon. Another week or so unless there are complications. Doctor Ilona tells me that she'll be working with her for a while.' He lowered his voice. 'One day you can tell me how you manage Señora Mercedes, who is extremely decisive, and Doctor Ilona, who is just as determined in her own way.'

'Tact and diplomacy.' He shook his head doubtfully.

'We'd like to do Elena's nose tomorrow, ' he said, 'and I need her to sign the forms. The surgeon's booked, but we need to X-ray her again, so that'll be more forms, and I'd prefer to do them before I go off. Oh yes, and we could put the bases in for the dental implants at the same time, if she wants.'

'More forms, I know. I don't see why you shouldn't do the whole lot. Elena, you and Pilar need to talk to the doctor.' Pilar smiled at him and I watched a professional turn to putty before my eyes. I tapped him on the arm.

'I think the best thing would be if you dealt directly with Pilar. She knows much more than me. Is that alright, cariño?' She looked surprised.

'Alex, are you sure? I'm... '

'Better qualified and less impatient. Please.' I tried to look imploring and she stuck her tongue out at me, but her eyes were pleased. I hate hospitals and she loves them. She flicked a glance at Elena.

'Let me guess. You are going to wait in the cafeteria.' I nodded.

'Don't forget to collect me.' Elena scowled and Monica smiled faintly. Pilar gave me a kiss.

'Of course I won't. The car needs petrol.'

I said awkward goodbyes and escaped. The cafeteria didn't smell of hospital: I'd feel better there.

Someone had left a paper on the table, and I was flicking through it when someone sat down opposite me.

'Mercedes.' She was as elegant as always but her eyes were tired.

'Hola, Alex. The receptionist told me that you were here, and your girlfriend said you were having a cup of coffee.'

'She's busy organising things, and I slipped away gratefully.' She smiled wryly.

'Busy is a fact of life. I've been thinking quite a lot about Saturday. I can't remember the last time I went to an ordinary restaurant like an ordinary person. You don't like my world much, do you?'

'It's OK to visit, but it doesn't engage me much.'

'What engages you, then?' It's too late to explain.

'Doing what I want, mainly, and that takes a lot of effort, which is a pity, because I'm naturally lazy.'

'You're so damned evasive. When I spoke to your fiancée just now she was different. You told her about Saturday, didn't you?'

'You didn't tell me not to, and it's sort of important that I don't try to con her. I need a reference-point, and she's it.' I was watching wheels turning in her head when Pilar arrived in a rush. She leaned over and kissed me ostentatiously, picked up my orange-juice and drained it, and waved energetically at the waitress.

'All sorted. They'll do everything in one go, and Monica's halfway alright, with me at least.' She looked at Mercedes. 'I'm sorry I didn't have time to talk earlier, but with the doctors and everything... ' Mercedes nodded and wrenched the subject back.

'I was asking Alex why he's doing this when he says he only wants a quiet life.' Pilar looked at me sideways and then volleyed.

'Because he hates it when people get hurt and he hates feeling bad about not helping them, and you've worked that out already. Why else did you tell him your story?' Mercedes blinked once and morphed into Mer.

'You've worked that out already too, because he's played that recording to you. So you know what I want, and why, that's point one, but there's the girls as well. I won't send those young ones to him any more. I did it for three years and told myself that it was OK because they were whores like me, and because I was scared, or because it wasn't me that had to go, or whatever, but I'm not doing it again. And this time I can't say "dump him, he's costing too much", and Juan doesn't know that he's the man who stopped me being me, or that he's a sadistic maggot who'll kill somebody one day.' She got up and Señora Mercedes slipped back over her like a glove. 'I have to go now. Please discuss this with Alex. You only need to agree with one of the reasons.' She sketched a wave and left, her heels tapping. I looked at Pilar.

'She was talking to you. Was it acting?'

'If it was, she's acting something she believes. Ilona would love her.'

'She wasn't like that on Saturday, storming off dramatically.'

'She sounded like that in the last bit of recording though, ' she said thoughtfully. All the way back to Madrid she avoided the subject and talked about meeting her friends. I half-listened and wondered whether Martínez was part of this or not.

She dropped me in Pyramides and zoomed off towards the M30, still looking pensive, and I went into the first decent bar I saw and ordered beer and olives. Mercedes wanted to try something. She'd asked Pilar to let me help her and Pilar had understood and was thinking about it. I felt totally outclassed. The day was close and heavy and the Metro was too much to contemplate, so I took a cab to Simon's office. He looked hot and rumpled and not very pleased to see me.

'Alex, what is it this time?' he asked, 'and make it quick: you're bad for everyone's health.' The back of my head finally punched its weight and tossed me an idea, ready formed.

'Si, I've come to buy you a drink, then lunch, and then I'm going to sit in your second-best chair and read those photocopies and answer any reasonable questions you may have.' He took two seconds to decide.

'Where's the drink going to happen?'

'Go and clean yourself up. We're going upmarket.' He went to the bathroom and I looked for my phone.

Saskia wasn't on duty, but the girl who escorted us to a booth was a very reasonable substitute. She was gypsy-dark and had a gold ring in one nipple.

'Two bottles of Mahou and some tapas, please. Whatever you think we'd like.' She looked suggestive and hurried off. Si leaned towards me.

'What the fuck is this place, and why are you being treated like the Sultan of Brunei? Everyone one here looks like a merchant banker and you're a fucking English teacher for God's sake.' He looked round again. 'OK, I admit it, I'm gobsmacked.'

'We're in a private house, ' I said, 'and the domestic staff are making us welcome.'

'And who's the owner?'

'No comment, but on busy nights Agustín Herrera sticks his head round the door to make sure everyone's happy.' He was about to answer when the hostess arrived with a loaded tray.

'The duty-manageress would like to know if you'll be lunching, sir. Señora Mercedes said you were to be regarded as a member.' She looked suggestive again. 'With full membership privileges, naturally.' She leaned over the table and displayed her piercing in close-up.

'No lunch today, thank you. We'll have another beer in about ten minutes.' She pouted and shimmied off, and I turned to Simon.

'Well, you heard her. Do you want a lunchtime jump?' He found his voice.

'Of course I do, but Rachel would kill me. You're a bastard, Alex. How the hell did you get to be a member?'

'I only brought you here to get your attention, Si. Drink your beer and have another canapé or our lovely attendant will start breast-feeding you when she comes back.' We left after the second drink and emerged onto Castellana. Over lunch I told him as much as I dared, and he absorbed it greedily, along with food and more beer.

'So what you want, never mind the bits you left out, is to shit hard on this bastard who hurt your little Rumanian girl. And you think you can if this other woman is in on it, and it's going to involve going public so you want a cut-out to cover everyone's ass, and that's why you're shaking nudies at me and buying me lunch. Right?'

'Flawless.' He spread his hands.

'Sub-editing skills. Did you hear the latest about the Albanian?' His turn to spill info.

'I thought the police were classically baffled.'

'Till his prints came back. The guy was wanted on about twenty-six Eurowarrants, people-trafficking, extortion, murder, drugs, sticking his tongue out at babies, not a nice chap at all, and about two seconds after he turns up dead you're all over me looking for copying facilities and promising me a story. Is the real story that you topped the bastard? Agustín assumed that too.

'If I'd done Niku I wouldn't be sitting about waiting to be asked.'

'But you know his name. I don't really think you did him either, except maybe by mistake, and you'd still have done a runner. So who did then?'

'Don Maggot, I think. I want to read his love-letters.'

If Anita hadn't organised the correspondence it would have taken an annoyingly long time to make the connections, and even then I wouldn't have known what to do with them if Simon hadn't been peering over my shoulder.

'There you are: put those in the right order and what have you got?' I looked at the letters he'd selected.

'Dunno. Invitation to lunch in your capacity as blah blah, notification of tender requirements, corrections to tender requirements, polite request to hurry completion blah blah ... What have I got?'

'Him by the balls. Look at them. Preliminary meeting to discuss the scam, details on what sort of tender's going to make the cut, quick one to say who's tendered what and how to make your own look better, then OK boys, now you owe me. Why on earth did he put it in writing, arrogant prick? And with signatures too.' He plucked the letters out of my hand and moved to his desk, giving a good imitation of a man who's discovered that his old tea-caddy is in fact the Holy Grail.

'Will you let me deal with the dailies and the TV boys? I can do that and keep you right out of it. I know twenty people who'll happily pretend it's their own research. This is public corruption, big P big C, and there's no way to make it go away. Your guy's fairly right-wing, to say the least, and it'll make a nice change to have a fascist in the dock instead of Socialist ex-ministers who aren't important anymore. This is the housing bubble and illegal zoning and all sorts of naughty shenanigans. Find someone plausible to blow the whistle, throw in the fact that he's a serial abuser, and through the back-door too, and he's history for twenty years.' I'd never seen him working before.

'What are you doing, Si?' He was intent on the screen.

'Putting flesh on these dry bones. I'll write this up as if it were an article, or maybe an open deposition, and I'll need my own copies of those letters. I'll look at the rest tonight and see what else there is and give you a print-out of what I'm doing now. You get hold of the originals and find a stooge. We need someone who could have had access and who'll stay with the story. Can you do that?' He was still focused, going at about ten thousand key strokes a minute. Where did this come from?

'Si, the other day you ran a mile and now suddenly you're Clark Kent. What happened?' He looked embarrassed.

'I woke up and wondered where my balls had gone. If you say drop it, OK, but bear in mind that you'll owe me big time, so fucking work on, there's a good chap. This could go a long way. Brussels is always happy to chatter about institutional corruption and organised crime from the nasty Wild East.'

'Well, if you're going to go through everything again, remember to keep an eye open for anyone who might be able to smooth the way for my waifs and strays; I'm still worrying about getting them legal. And I'll need to talk to my principal, and you're on a promise. Your word, remember.'

'Why don't you shut up and have a little think about everything while I reconstruct this?' He turned back to his own brand of poison, as happy as a pig in shit.

I left his office with an envelope and a better outline of my idea. I went to my flat to shower, and then made my way down to the hostal.

There were flowers on the coffee-table when I arrived. Not just flowers, more a young garden, displayed in two orange-juice jugs. Anita was staring at the computer screen.

'Hola, Alex. Does this Google thing only do English?'

'Look where it says 'Google' and underneath there are languages in little blue letters. Click on Castellano.' She bit her lip.

'I should have noticed that.

'Keep playing with it. It's impossible to break. Why does the place look so rural?'

'They're for all of us.' She handed me a florist's mini-envelope. The card said that Ian and Lizzy were grateful to the staff for all their help. 'The flowers arrived about ten minutes ago' she said. 'They've been in and out all day, and he's got a passport.'

'I'm surprised they haven't gone straight back to Scotland.'

'Don't be so mean. I was frightened when I came here, and I didn't have a language problem. I feel really sorry for them.' That put me in my place. 'I've been talking to Pilar, ' she said, 'and we're going to make some suggestions.'

'What sort of suggestions?' She pulled an imaginary zipper across her mouth.

'When Pilar gets here. She said she'd try for sevenish. She's been racing round all over the place, and was going back to her flat for a shower. She came here to collect some books for someone to take to Elena, and we talked a bit.' She turned back to the computer. 'How do I get to the airline stuff in here?' The tutorial lasted until Pilar came in. She looked tired but happy, and her hair was still damp.

'At last. I need to sit down. Where on earth did those flowers come from?' She gave me a kiss. 'Are they from you to me?'

'Certainly not. They're a gesture of thanks from my charm victims.' I went to look for beer and drew a blank, so I took some oranges from the bin and began squeezing. Pilar came and nuzzled the back of my neck.

'Are you going to come and listen to Anita and me?'

'Again?' Her teeth closed warningly over my ear.

'If you don't pay attention you'll piss me right off. Vale? ' What does one do? I surreptitiously turned the coins in my pocket over.

Anita pointed me into one of the armchairs and I put the tray of juice on the coffee-table and waited. They looked at each other and Pilar began.

'We've decided that you're really badly organised. There are three things you're trying to do, and that's sorting out Elena and Monica, and doing everything here, and dealing with that man as well; and Anita and I realised that there are actually three of us, and I know about sick people, and she knows about the hostal, and you're completely obsessive about Don Whatshisname. If you try to do everything yourself we'll still be here at Christmas, so we're going to suggest a new division of labour.' I looked at her suspiciously.

'What sort of division?' Anita looked gleeful.

'Well, basically you're sacked. Pilar and I can do everything here. Her English and sweetness for the guests, and me for the rest.' She turned her head to Pilar, who nodded slightly; this was going to be a gesture to watch out for. Anita faced me again.

'I want to learn everything. When you started teaching Elena about the computer and the bookings I felt really angry, because you'd never even tried to show me, and then along comes a little blonde with a broken wing and you're encouraging her and everything and planning to give her your job. I know you didn't mean anything, but to me it just felt like more invisible immigrant. It's a good job Pilar helped me understand because I nearly walked out. And then you said what you were going to do with the money and I didn't know what to say.' I opened my mouth to reply, but Pilar forestalled me.

'You can talk about it later. I called Ilona today and told her you'd delegated the medical stuff, and we decided Elena's project should be getting a flat ready. So then I went to see Nuria and Belén, and Ana was there as well, and their project is helping Elena and making her take the decisions even if it's just what sort of plates. Nuria went to the clinic this afternoon to take them some more books, and introduce herself again, and I'm going tomorrow with Ana and Belén so that they can say hola before she has her nose done, and I'll talk to Ilona when she comes to see Monica. Ilona was really helpful. She said to tell you that you should remember what she said, but she wouldn't say what it was.' Control your anger or some such bollocks.

'It was about staying focused. Are you two serious about this?' They smiled and nodded twin puppets and the more I thought about it the more sensible it appeared. 'OK, sounds like a plan.' Pilar looked smug and put her hand out to Anita, palm up.

'I said he wasn't stupid. One euro, please.' She turned back to me. 'Really no comments?'

'Thanks for persuading Anita that I'm not a closet racist, and Anita, I'm sorry for being so dumb. Apart from that, nothing, just wondering why I never thought of it.' Pilar smiled.

'It was only when you asked me to deal with the doctor that it clicked. You and I can share the morning chores, or take it in turns, except you'll need to do the money, and I'll do the evenings and the washes. And Anita will do what she does, and in the evenings I'll show her how the bookings and everything work and how to be a computer whiz, and as far as Elena and Monica are concerned you'll be a spectator, and if there's a problem here, well, that's what mobiles are for.'

'You've thought it through, haven't you? Do you want to know what I'm going to do?' I got up and fetched my explosive envelope then sat down at the computer. 'Take a look at that while I put together a how-to package.'

It was nearly nine by the time I'd finished showing them what was what and where to find it. Anita had an anxious expression but Pilar merely sniffed.

'What was that English phrase for something really easy?' I winced. Why do they only remember the throwaway lines?

'A piece of cake?' She nodded.

'Not cake. I remember. This looks like a piece of piss.' She turned and explained to Anita, who nodded bravely; I winked at Pilar and blew her a kiss.

'Can you keep smiling at people and answer their silly questions?' She snorted.

'It's just another form of nursing, really, except that the patients argue more.' One way of looking at it.

'As long as you don't prescribe enemas. What were you saying to the passport guy? He seemed happy.' She shrugged.

'Ian? I congratulated him on managing everything and thanked them both for the flowers too.'

'You're going to be fine. What do you think about my stuff?' They eyed each other, and Anita spoke.

'That article thing that your friend wrote, is it true?'

'Yes. The evidence was in the letters you sorted out, and Si's looking to see if there's any corroboration in the rest of them. A good reporter only needs to pull one end and it'll all unravel like an old sock. I'm going to call Mercedes in a minute and see if I can sell her the idea.' Pilar pursed her lips.

'We'll talk about that, but first I need something to eat, and not pizza again. Anita, what about you?' Anita jumped to her feet.

'I'll go and get something for myself, and phone my mum and the kids, and when I get back you can go off. Who's going to do breakfast?'

'I'll do that, ' I said, 'and finish up stuff for Miguel: he'll be back on Wednesday and I'll have to tell him some of this, and I'll need some help on what to say. But once the spreadsheet's updated I'm turning the ant in me off.' I settled at the computer again. Truth to tell there wasn't a lot to do, but I tidied it up and sent it to Dolores. I was counting cash when Pilar sat down next to me.

'You're not going to stop, are you?'

'Nope. I can't make him pay what he owes, but I can make him wish he'd never been born. I'm glad you understand.' She made a face.

'Anita understands better than me. I didn't tell her what you looked like when you were watching Monica the other day though. I'm glad you're not after me.'

'That's filed under mission accomplished. Where are we going to eat?'

We ended up going to an outdoor patio. Pilar finished her salad and fanned herself.

'I want to go somewhere where we'll need sweatshirts in the evenings. Galicia or Asturias, or anywhere where the temperature at night is less than twenty-five. If we're lucky there might even be proper rain. Weather rain I mean, not just summer storms.'

'Weather? What's that? Shit; I said I'd ring Mercedes.' I was reaching for my phone when she leaned forward.

'Did you know I want to scream every time you say that?' Her fingers were hard on my forearm.

'I guess I'd be feeling the same, ' I said, 'but she knows I'm a one person at a time guy. That's why she was focusing on you this morning.'

'Supposing the only way to persuade her to do things your way was to ... to sleep with her. Would you tell me?' Do you think I'm crazy?

'No, I wouldn't, wouldn't sleep with her I mean. First, because of you, and second, because I'm not sure I could.' I thought for a moment. 'I don't really find her that ... whatever. I can't forget how many hands she's passed through and how damaged she is. Beautiful and damaged, poor bitch.'

'Is there anyone you don't feel sorry for? Could you give me your phone, please?' I handed it to her.

'I try not to feel sorry for myself. If she can't talk, don't push. This is risky for her too.' She nodded absently.

'Mercedes? It's Pilar, Alex's friend, ... yes, fine, thanks. Are you free to talk? ... No, he's not listening.' She made go-away motions and I went across the terraza to the bar. The barman raised an eyebrow and I scowled and muttered that she was talking to her husband. He gave me a coffee and one of his cigarettes and I watched Pilar. When she put the phone down I went back.

'I couldn't say it with you there. I'm sorry. It wasn't at all fair, and if you'd done it to me I'd have been really suspicious. Say you don't really mind.'

'Don't go all girly on me. Tell me now, and I'll punish you later if you ask nicely. What did you say?'

'I told her I'd been thinking about what she said this morning, and it was OK with me if you and she worked together, as long as she understood that it was only because he needs to be stopped and I thought you were the best person to do it, and if I didn't think that I'd nail her to the wall before I let her anywhere near you.' I was fascinated.

'What did she say to that?'

'She said she doubted if I could stop you doing what you were doing, and probably she couldn't either if the positions were reversed, and she knew why I was calling really. And then she sort of laughed and said you were a very focused person, and that you were focused on me and hadn't I noticed, and I was very lucky and she'd already told me you had muchos cojones, and I said I knew that and they were reserved for me, and then I said something about just making sure that we both knew how the land lies. And then we talked about nothing for a minute and she said she had to go. I told her you'd call her in the morning because you were going to be busy soon.' I stifled a grin.

'Happier now?' She chewed her lip.

'If she thinks she needs you she'll do anything, including lying her head off to me. Still, I told her as plainly as I could, and now all I've got to do is trust you. Do you think I'm strange?'

'I think you're incredible. Two weeks ago you hardly knew me, and now you're mixed up in all sorts of shit, and instead of going mad and running away you're calling Madrid's most expensive courtesan to tell her not to mess with your man. I think you're wonderful.' She looked shy.

'I love it when your eyes are like that: it makes me feel all tingly inside. Will you take me home now and punish me a little bit?'

'Until you beg me not to stop. Let's go.' New moon or not, turning your money over often works. Superstition will be the death of me one day.

At half past ten the next morning I was glaring at anyone who showed impatience while Anita handled check-outs. When the last person had been dealt with she leaned back in the chair.

'I need another shower. If I was quicker typing things in I wouldn't get so nervous.'

'Why don't you talk to Pilar about courses? I told you you're going to need to support your kids properly and get a grownup job, maybe.' Luckily Pilar arrived before the sermon got going.

'Sorry I'm late, sorry, sorry.' She turned to Anita. 'He crippled me last night and I had to go home to repair the damage. What have you been talking about?'

'Alex says I should think about going back to school.' I watched Pilar take the idea on board. Come September you'll be sitting behind a desk. I looked at my watch.

'OK, I've got to go in a moment, but here's some stuff to cheer us up. Come into the dining-room.' I waved the envelope I'd brought from the flat and they trooped in after me.

'Payout time. Look. This pile's for Ilona, on account. These three equal piles are for us, for our trouble so far, and God knows we deserve it. This pile is for a deposit and the first month on a flat for Elena and Monica, and a bit extra for furniture and pots and pans, and this pile is for Ecuador airfares and another deposit for another flat for more bloody immigrants. This one's for me to cover what I've spent so far, and the last one's for Pilar to clear all her plastic so her cards are clean when she goes to England. There's still lots left so don't start bitching about extravagance. OK?' They were staring at the money. Pilar picked up her piles.

'I'm not going to argue.' Anita nodded. She looked as if she wanted to get tearful.

'I'll need to open a bank account.'

'That can be your other project. More qualifications and a credit rating. I'm going to call Mercedes and see where she wants to meet. I hope it's not at the bloody club again.' Mercedes answered almost immediately. I put the phone on handsfree.

'Alex? How are you after your busy night?'

'Blooming, thank you, Look, I've got the beginnings of an idea. Where are you?'

'At the club doing money stuff while Agustín inspects the girls, poor things, at this hour of the morning.' Jesus.

'Tell him hands-on management is just so yesterday. Listen, where can we meet and when? There's some stuff I want to run past you, get some input, think a little.' I was very conscious of Pilar and Anita listening.

'Agustín and Juan are touring the houses today, just to keep everyone on their toes, so I'm free till this evening. I'll shop a little and then go to my flat. About two?' She gave me the address.

'I'll see you there. If you could buy beer while you're shopping that would be good. Don't wear yourself out.' I was encouraging for another couple of minutes and rang off. I turned to Pilar. 'Do you want to come and protect me?'

'Not after talking to her. I'd look silly. Anyway, I'll be at the clinic.' She reached over and ruffled my hair. 'Thanks for asking.' Anita had been playing with her money.

'You sounded so kind. If I were Pilar I'd be really jealous.'

'I am, ' said Pilar, 'but he's being upfront about it, which is either good or bad. I'm going to believe good until proved wrong.' She bit my ear gently. 'I'll probably get anxious and call you, but if you can't answer just call back as soon as you can.' I pushed my chair back.

'First stop's Simon, to see if he's scraped up any more information. Every little helps. I'll walk down to the car with you, wherever it is.' She bit my ear again, slightly harder.

'No need to sweet talk me any more. I've said what I think.'

Simon wasn't answering his phone so I left a message and tried to think what to do, but my mind wandered. Maybe Pilar and I really would be able to go away for a proper break if the others got on top of the situation. Maybe she did ought to spend some time with her parents first. Perspective is always good. When I paid attention to my surroundings again I discovered that I was on the way to my flat.

I let myself in and looked around. Tidy, thanks to Pilar, and still with a good stash of clean clothes. I decided to put a wash together anyway, just to show willing, so I stripped the sheets and emptied the clothes-basket onto them. When the bundle was secured I left it in the hall and examined the fridge. That took about three seconds; I threw out everything that looked wrinkled, grabbed my pack and headed for the market.

Beer is heavy to carry and it takes up a lot of room. I tucked the food round the bottles, rewarding myself with one afterwards. A shower, a shave, and I was ready for anything, especially food and drink. I left the washing where it was and headed for Ramón's.

An omelette with fresh mushrooms, new bread, olives, and only two glasses of Rioja later, I made my way to Mercedes' flat. It was in a newish block near Rios Rosas, quite anonymous and ordinary. I rang the bell.


'Alex.' The door buzzed and I went in.

'I only got here two minutes ago. You English are always so prompt.' She was in her Mercedes clothes and there were expensive-looking bags piled on the sofa. The air-conditioner hadn't made any headway against the accumulated heat and the place smelt unused. 'Why don't you learn to run on Spanish time? It's polite to arrive a little late.'

'Only for social occasions.' She began to take off her jacket.

'Well, I'm going to have a shower like I was planning to, and then I'll need something to eat.' The jacket and skirt came off and she tossed them onto the sofa, challenging me with her eyes. Her underwear went the way of the suit.

'Do you want me to go away and come back in half an hour?' She didn't try to hide herself. She was comfortable naked. Plenty of practice.

'I'll call your clever girlfriend and give you top marks. Wait a minute and I'll shower quickly.'

'Show me the kitchen and I'll fix something. Did you remember to buy beer?' She smiled reluctantly.

'If I were a beer bottle you'd probably be all over me.'

'Only if you were decently cold.' The kitchen was tiny, but she followed me in as I inspected cupboards. She smelt of something expensive and it was hard to concentrate.

'Do you think you'll be able to find everything?' she asked, leaning forward a little so that her breast brushed my arm.

'Mer, turn round a minute.' She shuffled round, and I ran a fingernail down her back. 'Now bend over.' She smiled a knowing smile and did as I asked. I admired the view for a moment, then took a can of coke from the fridge and pressed it against the crease of her buttocks. She yelped and jerked upright.

'What the... ?'

'Stop being naughty. I know how to find things in kitchens.' She gave up and went into the bedroom, leaving the door open. Old habits die hard.

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