Authors: Jason Webster
Maragall was of the other kind – the ones who saw policing in terms of us and them, of good and bad, who cheered every success, like waving a scarf at a football match, and felt pain and frustration with every reverse. Practical and efficient, nonetheless there was a hero inside him waiting to emerge, a man who could really make a difference, make Valencia – his home city – a better place to live. His friends and neighbours – almost the entire population – were, to him, almost like children, in need of his protection and care.
And it hurt and angered him to see the limits of what he could do.
But something else angered him more, to despair: corrupt police. Not the low-level types – that was almost expected, if not in large numbers. No, what ate away at him was seeing officers like himself, or superiors, on the take. It was a betrayal – to him personally. It was enough, as Cámara had witnessed once years back over a case involving the Colombians, to bring him to tears.
Back out into the drizzle, hopping over puddles as they dived towards a small bar on the other side of the road.
‘None of the others come here,’ Maragall said, wiping his glasses dry on his jacket as they stepped inside.
‘Over there. There’s someone I want you to meet.’
In the run-up to the total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, establishments had been forced to reserve a certain number of tables for non-smokers. And there, in a corner surrounded by unoccupied chairs, sat a man in a dark grey suit with a dentist-white shirt and thin black tie. In his hands he held a tablet computer, its screen reflecting in his eyes.
The man stood up as they approached the table and held a serious hand out to Cámara.
‘John Villalobos,’ he said before Maragall could introduce them. Cámara could hear his accent. ‘FBI.’
His straight black hair and skin tone marked him out as being of Hispanic origin, probably Mexican. On the table in front of him stood a tall glass of water with ice. Cámara immediately felt the urge to pull out his cigarettes, but the no-smoking sign on the table merely underlined what he’d already seen as they’d walked in the door. He’d have to wait.
‘Villalobos is a special agent with the FBI,’ Maragall added. ‘From America.’
They sat down. Cámara noticed that Villalobos didn’t bother to greet Maragall.
‘The lieutenant here tells me you’re looking into the saffron business,’ Villalobos said. He had the nasal, sing-song, slightly menacing way of speaking of many Mexicans.
‘I told him what you told me,’ Maragall said before Cámara could answer. ‘Villalobos is head of an international investigation into this. They’re trying to pressurise Madrid to start doing something about the scam.’
‘How did you two get together?’ Cámara asked.
Villalobos smiled briefly before reassuming his studied air of gravitas. Maragall answered for him.
‘I heard about the investigation and approached them myself,’ he said.
Cámara looked at him. Maragall, so frustrated and angry with his own people that he was prepared to go behind their backs and talk to a foreign police force, one that appeared to be treating their sovereign state like another colony or satellite where they could do as they pleased. Cámara should ask for some bona fides at least, make sure that Villalobos was who he said he was. But there was no surrender in Maragall’s countenance, no sense that he had taken this step through defeatism. Desperate, perhaps – some would call it betrayal. But he looked energised, almost; here – at least as far as he believed – there was a chance to actually get something done. For now, Cámara himself would have to ride on his faith in this, in Villalobos. Besides, as a policeman on indefinite leave, he was hardly in any position to question the man himself.
‘I understand your concern,’ Villalobos said. ‘We’re all in a situation where it’s not clear who can be trusted.’
He lifted a hand and signalled to the barman.
‘Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I could do with something a little stronger.’
In a moment, two bottles of beer had appeared on the table. Maragall had a coffee.
‘I’ve got to be back in my office soon.’
Villalobos drank his beer straight from the bottle; Cámara poured his into a glass before taking a gulp.
‘Let me tell you some of what I know,’ Villalobos said.
Cámara sat back in his chair to listen.
‘The saffron trade is a big mess,’ Villalobos started, mimicking Cámara by sitting back in his chair as well. Cámara was aware of the man’s attempt to ingratiate himself with him by changing his style like this – drinking and being more open, copying his body language – but decided to go along with the game.
‘There’s a lot of money involved – we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. Saffron is expensive, light, easily shipped and highly sought after. In some cases it’s worth more than its weight in gold.
‘Now you can imagine that with something like this we’re dealing with a situation not at all unlike the drugs trade. And it seems that business practices we tend to associate with narcos are becoming more common with saffron.’
‘Wait a minute,’ Cámara said. ‘Are you saying the narcos are getting in on this?’
‘Not exactly. Not yet, at least not in big numbers. But the way things are going it could end up like that. Saffron can sell in the US for up to a hundred and seventy dollars an ounce, which comes out to over seven thousand dollars a kilo. That kind of money for something that’s so easy to move around can attract the wrong kind of people. You with me?’
Cámara pretended to take another sip of his beer. Villalobos reached for his bottle.
‘Every year around two hundred tons of saffron are produced around the world. One hundred and ninety tons of that is sold as Spanish.’
‘So there’s almost a monopoly.’
‘The only thing is, only one point five tons of saffron are actually produced in Spain each year.’
Cámara put his beer back on the table.
‘Where’s the rest of it coming from?’
‘Various countries,’ Villalobos said. ‘Greece, Morocco, Kashmir – but from Iran, mostly. The vast majority from Iran.’
He put his bottle of beer on the table next to Cámara’s glass.
‘Now there’s a problem for the Iranians selling their own saffron. They’ve got bad relations with the international community, first of all. And secondly there’s reason to believe there’s a risk of radioactivity from their saffron as it’s grown near their nuclear reactor plant at Bushehr.’
‘We have nuclear reactors here in Spain but no one ever talks of radioactive saffron,’ Cámara said.
‘The safety levels are nowhere near the same,’ Villalobos said with a wave of his hand.
And they were hardly exemplary here, Cámara wanted to say, but Maragall was speaking.
‘I’ve got more than enough evidence that a lot of saffron is being imported and exported out of the port,’ he said. ‘Large amounts – the numbers tally with what Villalobos is saying. And some of it makes it over to La Mancha, but a lot of it simply goes into warehouses here in Valencia for a while, gets relabelled and sent out again as Spanish. That’s just the start of it, though. The saffron’s being cut as well, but no one in the top ranks wants to touch this.’
The same old problem, the one that had dogged Maragall his entire career. There was no need to say any more: someone – perhaps several people – in charge was almost certainly on the take. Getting in touch with Villalobos began to make more sense.
Villalobos cleared his throat.
‘Now, as the lieutenant outlined,’ he said, ‘the real problem is not just that Iranian saffron is being shipped here and then repackaged as Spanish to be sold to the US and the rest of the world. That kind of thing is happening all the time. The problem is that, just like heroin or cocaine, the saffron you buy is highly adulterated in order to boost the profit margins. And we’re not talking by a small amount. Top-quality saffron you buy in the US regularly comes up in tests as actually only having ten per cent saffron in it, maximum.’
He opened his eyes wide for dramatic effect.
‘People are paying a lot of money and getting shit in return.’
JOHN VILLALOBOS PICKED
up his bottle of beer and drained it in one, placing it back on the table with a loud clunk.
Cámara’s fingers had been fiddling inside his pocket for the past few minutes. He decided not to resist any more: he lifted the no-smoking sign off the table and tossed it on to a nearby empty chair. Then taking out his packet of Ducados he picked one out and lit it before offering one to Villalobos. The look of confidence on the American’s face showed the first signs of cracking. He glanced down almost longingly at the little sign with its cigarette and a red line running through, then shook his head.
‘So how are they bulking it out?’ Cámara asked. ‘What’s in the saffron if it isn’t saffron?’
‘Other parts of the flower sometimes,’ Villalobos said, crossing his hands over his lap. ‘Not just the stigmas, I mean, the bits that make saffron. They add colouring to make it look like the real thing – carmoisine, which makes it reddish. Tartazine for the yellow tones.’
‘What about the smell?’
‘Again, chemicals are being used – derivatives of benzene, mostly. If you don’t know the difference you probably wouldn’t notice. But the fake stuff smells much more like chemicals. The problem is that it’s hard to find anyone who’s actually tried or smelt pure saffron in the past fifteen years. Not even what you buy here in Spain. It’s almost all fake. Even the expensive stuff.’
Cámara looked in vain for an ashtray, eventually flicking his ash on to the floor. Villalobos turned to the side and executed an exaggerated cough before turning and speaking directly to Cámara.
‘Now Lieutenant Maragall here tells me you’ve recently managed to visit a saffron farm near Albacete.’
‘In a place called Pozoblanco,’ Cámara said.
‘We know it. Or rather we know of it. It’s one of the main production facilities we’d like more information on. Perhaps you could share some of your findings.’
Cámara began to relate his experiences at the commune village, editing the information so as to leave Alicia out. As he spoke, Villalobos picked up his tablet computer and started tapping on it, taking notes. He was particularly interested in what Cámara had to say about what he’d seen inside the barn where the saffron stigmas were being plucked out of the flowers by the villagers. Cámara mentioned the door leading into a section which he hadn’t been shown, where he was told the packaging was done. Villalobos looked up at him and then quickly tapped some more.
‘And the fields around that you saw didn’t look like they could produce the amount of saffron in the barn?’ he asked.
‘It seemed that way to me. Much of the land around that area has been abandoned.’
Villalobos stared hard at the screen.
‘Satellite-imaging confirms that. But it’s always good to have eyes on the ground as well.’
‘There was another thing,’ Cámara said.
After a pause, Villalobos looked up at him.
‘There was a Middle-Eastern man in the village. A Moroccan, they said. Ahmed.’
Villalobos’s brow lowered a fraction, his gaze intensifying.
‘Did you talk to him?’
‘A little. He gave me directions. Why?’
Villalobos lowered his voice.
‘This is strictly off the record. I’m not supposed to be telling you this.’
Maragall leaned in, nodding.
‘It’s a pseudonym,’ Villalobos said. ‘His name’s not Ahmed, it’s Reza Amini. And he’s not Moroccan, he’s Iranian. We’ve been tracking him for some time. We believe he’s a link man between the Iranian and Spanish saffron traders.’
‘Former member of the Islamic Revolution militia. And a very dangerous man.’
It was practically hidden under the thick black beard, but a smile, a definite smile, lit up Torres’s usually dour expression as he spotted Cámara on the other side of the road. They both crossed and met in the middle, ignoring the cars heading in their direction.
They shook hands formally, then, laughing, opened up into an embrace.
‘Good to see you. You’re looking very relaxed, I must say. All that time off suits you.’
‘Not for much longer,’ Cámara said.
‘I’ll tell you about it over lunch.’
A line of six cars was now backed up, unable to get past the two men standing in the middle of the narrow street. A chorus of horns was beginning to blast.
‘Eh! Get out of the way!’
‘Do you know anywhere around here?’ Cámara asked calmly.
‘There’s a place a couple of blocks away. Someone suggested it – we can try that.’
‘All right. Which way?’
Only when they’d decided in which direction they were going to walk did they step out of the way of the traffic.
’ a driver spat through his open window as he roared past. Pricks! For Torres and Cámara, it was as if the cars weren’t there.
They walked in single file down the narrow pavements, Torres leading the way, before heading into a restaurant with frosted glass windows.
‘All right, chief?’
‘Let’s give it a try.’
They sat down at a wooden table covered in a white cloth. Before either of them could say anything a basket of bread, a bottle of house red and some olive oil and vinegar had been placed in front of them.
‘I’m wondering,’ Cámara said.
‘You must be the only policeman in the entire force who calls one of his superiors “chief”.’
‘I only say it to you. And then it’s only because I’m such a deeply sarcastic bastard. Chief.’
Cámara sniggered. Torres poured them both some wine.
They were an unlikely couple. Other policemen formed friendships, but this was more an informal partnership where both knew full well that their best policing characteristics were complemented by the other. Torres more thorough, Cámara more instinctive. Each could take on features of the other when they were working together, as though unconsciously performing a balancing act, their moods and personalities almost capable of swapping over according to the needs of a case.