Authors: Jason Webster
He remembered how the curtain had flapped at his bedroom window that morning, before the search party had assembled, slapping the side of the wall in an incoherent, staccato fashion, as though trying to warn him that something was about to happen.
HAVE YOU BEEN
He’d kissed her hard and long at the station, but now, as they rode the short distance in the taxi, he merely held her hand as he stared out the window.
‘Thanks for coming,’ he said. ‘I’m glad you’re here.’
Pilar had left, but Hilario was out on the balcony when they got to the flat, stuffing his bed sheets into the washing machine. Cámara sniffed the air.
‘He’s wet himself,’ he said in a low whisper.
Alicia raised an eyebrow.
‘A visitor!’ Hilario cried when he saw them. ‘He doesn’t talk about you much, but I can tell he’s very much in love. It’s very nice to meet you at last, Alicia.’
He leaned towards her and kissed her on the cheeks.
‘You must forgive me,’ he said. ‘I’ve just pissed myself in bed and I need to get this washed right away. It’s this stroke, you see. Does funny things to you. But it won’t last long. I’ll be back to normal by tomorrow, I reckon.’
Alicia bent down and started helping him load the machine.
‘It’s all right, my dear. I can manage. Although I appreciate it. You don’t really want to be touching this. Not very pleasant.’
Alicia carried on regardless.
‘Ho, ho, yes. I can see why you’re so good for him. He needs someone who can’t be pushed around.’
‘And a sense of humour, too. You’re pretty, you’re smart. My only question is why you’ve ended up with him.’
Cámara rolled his eyes.
‘He’s got hidden depths,’ Alicia said as she stood up. ‘As you know.’
‘Keeps them very hidden, though. Frightened of them. Still, you’ve seen it. That’s good. Might get him loosened up a bit. If he only realised who he really is.’
‘Drink?’ Cámara said.
‘There’s a bottle of cava in the freezer,’ Hilario said. ‘Put it in about twenty minutes ago. Should be cool enough now.’
Cámara cooked fish for dinner – fillets of John Dory sautéed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. He sat in amused silence for most of the meal as Alicia and his grandfather chatted like old friends. Hilario rolled out much-used tales from the past, about how he’d survived the harsh post-Civil War years by working three jobs simultaneously – cleaning a school in the morning, helping out at a mechanic’s during the day and then searching for sellable scrap at night – as he and his mother struggled to survive under Franco.
‘It’s about keeping going,’ he said. ‘That’s it. Whatever happens. That’s the only secret.’
Cámara was surprised, though, that Hilario didn’t pour himself a glass when the brandy bottle came out at the end of the meal.
‘Not for now. Not tonight.’
He got up from the table. Cámara stood up, making to help him.
‘I’m fine,’ Hilario waved him away.
He turned at the door.
‘It’s been wonderful meeting you. I’ll be off to bed, my dear,’ he said. ‘It’s all right, the new sheets are already there.’
He nodded in Cámara’s direction, without looking at him.
up on the shelf. Max knows where it is. You two will be wanting to have sex. I don’t recommend the sofa, though. It’s got a loose spring, needs fixing.’
The door closed and they were left alone.
Cámara pulled out a cigarette and offered one to Alicia, then wordlessly he opened the balcony door and signalled her to follow him.
‘Not allowed to smoke inside the house?’ Alicia asked.
‘It’s not that. It’s a bit more private here. At least until he falls asleep.’
A couple were walking along the street below, the woman wrapping both hands around her husband’s arm.
‘Is he a light sleeper?’ Alicia said. ‘Will I have to keep my voice down?’
‘You can scream as much as you like,’ Cámara said. ‘He’s sleeping more than ever at the moment. Something to do with the recovery after a stroke. Give him another five minutes and he’ll be out.’
She rested her head on his shoulder and he leaned down to kiss her hair. The smoke from their cigarettes turned into a haze against the orange glow of the street lamps.
‘Something’s going on,’ she said. ‘I suppose you’ll tell me eventually. Although I might have to prise it out of you, as always.’
‘It’s about Concha,’ he said.
She lifted her head up and looked him in the eye. She was the only woman he’d ever told.
‘The young girl’s body – Mirella – was found in almost exactly the same spot.’
They finished their cigarettes, extinguishing them on the balcony railing, before carrying the stubs back inside. Cámara carried them down to the kitchen to throw them in the bin, then came back with a couple of shot glasses. Opening a cabinet he took out a bottle of
He handed her the glass and paused.
‘Oh, I forgot,’ he said. ‘You don’t really like . . .’
‘Here. Give it to me,’ she said. And she drank it in one.
‘Give me another one.’
‘I’ve got some other stuff. Whisky, vodka . . .
He poured, and sat down next to her on the sofa.
‘Do you think . . . ?’ she started.
‘It was over thirty years ago,’ he said.
The liquid in his glass was rippling from the tremble in his hand, and he raised it to his lips, dissimulating.
‘So it’s just a coincidence.’
He didn’t reply.
Alicia took another drink and got up from the sofa. Her black canvas briefcase was sitting on one of the chairs.
‘The arrangements for tomorrow,’ she said, pulling out some papers.
Despite it being a weekend, she’d managed to get a lot organised. Cámara was impressed. They were to go to Pozoblanco in the morning; she’d set up an interview with Paco Faro Oscuro, the mayor, and they were to be shown around as part of her research for an article on the saffron business.
‘It’s harvest season, so it makes sense. The official I spoke to was more than happy for us to come along.’
‘Was Mirella mentioned at all?’ Cámara asked. ‘Did you, or they, bring it up?’
‘No. I thought they might give it as a reason for not going ahead with the interview. But no, they didn’t say anything.’
Not wanting to stay on the sofa, yet unable to reignite the intimacy of a few moments before, he got up and stared out the window for a moment, then reached again for his packet of Ducados.
‘I’ve started looking into this saffron mafia thing,’ Alicia said.
Cámara drew on his cigarette, and coughed.
‘I know a man who deals in it, based in Madrid,’ she went on. ‘He was fine at first, talking about the quality of La Mancha saffron, best in the world, that kind of thing. He does pretty well out of it – wholesales it to China and Australia. And he’s well connected – I’m not sure if he’s an actual member of the ruling party, but he’s friendly enough with them. The kind of face you see at official events, VIP balconies for fiestas, that kind of thing.’
‘So what did he say?’
‘Well, nothing, really. That’s the point. I’d done some research before I spoke to him. The problem is that according to the Ministry of Industry, each year Spain produces about fifteen hundred kilos of saffron.’
‘But then we export a hundred and ninety thousand kilos of it, worth almost fifty million euros.’
‘It seems much of the shortfall is shipped in from abroad. But when I brought this discrepancy up with my contact – the difference between actual production of saffron and how much of it is sold each year as “Spanish” – he clammed up on me.’
‘What, he refused to say anything?’
‘He changed the subject. Wasn’t interested.’
‘Giving imported saffron a Spanish label isn’t illegal in itself.’
‘So why not give me a comment, even off the record?’
‘We haven’t got very far, then.’
‘The gap, the discrepancy, is there. I checked. I’m amazed no one’s noticed it before. And it seems people in the trade are reluctant to talk about it. There’s something else, though. What are they hiding?’
She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a camera.
‘I brought this as well,’ she said. ‘It helps play the part.’
‘So I’m your
?’ Your photographer.
‘Yes,’ she said decisively. ‘Yes, you are.’
‘I can practise some of the techniques I’ve been picking up recently.’
‘Strange,’ he said. ‘It’s only been a few days, but already it feels like a long time since I was in Madrid.’
‘Nothing’s changed,’ she said. ‘Your things are still where you left them.’
His ‘things’ were just a few clothes, a dozen books, the camera and a handful of personal effects. Almost all his possessions had been lost when his block of flats in Valencia had collapsed earlier in the year. Since then he’d held back from buying any more than the purely necessary. He might be on paid leave from the police, but things were uncertain: he’d thought he might need the little money he had to help make a change, move into a new life. Although what that might be had never crystallised in any way.
In fact the months had passed quickly since he’d left Valencia and gone to Madrid. Days spent in Alicia’s flat, cooking, talking, reading, having sex. Living at a slower pace, different from the one that was demanded of him as a policeman. And he’d thought that that in itself could bring about change in him, that simply by trying a different way of being, savouring daily pleasures, a shower of sensual impacts – that this would show him a way forward, that something would emerge which he could grab on to.
Yet the questions had remained – whether to return to the police or not. Whether to stay in Madrid. To stay in Alicia’s flat . . .
It worked between them: the powerful sexual attraction tended to make up for any tensions that living together had brought. Yet each was aware that their situation had come about through external factors, not because they had really chosen it themselves. Cámara had been homeless and – temporarily, at least – without a job. Alicia had opened the door to him – a chance to start again what had begun almost two years previously as an aborted, abortive, relationship. And so he’d jumped – left Valencia, the ruins of his flat and career, behind, and caught the train to Madrid.
And days and weeks had become months.
No hay mal que por bien no venga
, he’d say. Every cloud had its silver lining – and the good that had come out of the broken chaos of his life had been reconnecting with her, physically, emotionally and mentally. Her month of annual leave had come in August, and unlike the rest of Madrid, they stayed in the city, sleeping during the day, sweating through the night.
It wasn’t enough, though, and neither could it last for ever. They both knew that. But the question of what was to happen to
had seemed to be wrapped up in the question of what he did next, what decisions he made about his life. In the erotic fog it had been easy to forget that, but he knew it annoyed her. She wasn’t in control – but neither was he.
The point was, though, that very little appeared to have changed during his ‘interlude’. At least on some more profound level inside him. His life, much of who he considered himself to be, had crumbled around his feet back in Valencia. Yet a love affair, passionate and fulfilling though it was, was not the jewel waiting to be found in the rubble. Yes, it was life. Yes, it was something he hadn’t experienced before – not to the same degree, not with the same intensity.
Was he in love? Yes. Absolutely.
Would it last?
That depended on many things. Or did it? Perhaps it only depended on this one thing – on where he decided to go, what he decided to do. He felt as sure as anyone ever can be that his feelings for her were reciprocated. But she was strong-willed, independent. As things stood he sometimes felt as though he were feeding off her. And he hated himself for it.
It couldn’t last.
Now he was back in Albacete and life had become denser, thicker. The months in Madrid had flown by; these past few days had moved powerfully, like a surging tide.
He walked over to the shelf, reached up and pulled down the tin of home-grown, unleashing a sweet smell into the room as he opened it up.
‘Do you want some?’
She stepped across, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him hard.
‘Not right now.’
THEY LEFT EARLY.
Cámara took Alicia to a bar across the street where they drank
café con leche
. She had a croissant; he ate toast with olive oil and salt, watching as she flicked through a copy of the local newspaper.
‘It’s like a drug for you. The news,’ he said.
‘I consume it,’ she said without looking up. ‘As you consume crime.’
Both had woken up feeling heavy and drowsy. Eschewing the sofa on Hilario’s advice, they’d moved to the bedroom, where sex had barred the door to sleep for much of the night.
‘I need another coffee, a strong one.’
After a few more minutes with the paper, she looked up.
‘I like your grandfather.’
‘He likes you.’
‘If he weren’t so old . . .’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘I’m serious. He’s got something. A spark, an energy.’
‘You want me to be jealous of Hilario?’
‘You’ve got it as well. A bit of it. Not always, though. It’s as if you’re frightened of it.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like him.’
‘He says that as well, does he?’
Cámara sipped his coffee wordlessly.
Afterwards they walked three blocks south to a mechanic’s garage.
‘Gerardo is an old school friend,’ Cámara said as they stepped inside.
‘I didn’t realise you had any.’
The mechanic was a small, compact man with light blue eyes and a heavy black beard.
‘You son of a bitch. I don’t hear from you for twenty years and then you call up asking me to give you a car.’