Authors: Jason Webster
‘I just . . . You caught me by surprise. I never expected to see you again.’
‘And neither did I, Estrella. I had no idea you had this place.’
‘Well, of course you didn’t. I could be running a bar on the moon for all you know.’
‘Don’t hold it against me.’
‘I know why. Everyone knows why.’
She pulled his hands tighter around her waist.
‘I’ve missed you, Max. I miss . . . everything. Still. Even now, after all these years. I’ve never got over it. There. I’ve said it. But it’s true. How can I? How can anyone get over something like that? I don’t think the city was ever the same, you know? Something changed back then.’
‘Oh, Max. It’s so wonderful to see you again.’
‘And it’s good to see you.’
She leaned in, patting him on the cheek with one hand, kissing him on the other.
‘This makes me feel very old, you know, seeing you like this. I’m not the same girl I was.’
She placed her hands on her breasts.
‘I’ve got these to remind me of that every morning. Heading closer and closer to the equator.’
‘Not quite as firm as when you had your hands on them.’
‘May I remind you,’ Cámara said, ‘that while not a small number of my friends had that pleasure, I never did.’
Estrella leaned away, grasping his hands.
‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Still, you are younger than me. And I suppose it was out of respect for Concha – I didn’t want to be responsible for leading her younger brother astray. That must have been it.’
‘You needn’t have worried. Your very presence, with those tight jumpers of yours, was enough. In my mind, at least.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m glad I had some influence on you.’
She pulled up a stool and sat down, her knees pressing against the side of his leg, one hand on his arm.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about her,’ Max said. ‘Coming back, just walking around the city again.’
He told her about Hilario, and how he had rushed down from Madrid. His police work, and his extended leave period, he left out; there was only so much he could reveal of himself. Although the closeness they had shared as adolescents had been rekindled in a heartbeat, and while both were acutely aware of the distance in years and experiences that separated them, they sat close to each other, enjoying a warming, joyful reconnection.
The opportunity had always been there, but they had never kissed or petted. Yet now Cámara knew that they could quite easily sleep together that night. Not that he would, and nor would it be anything truly passionate or meaningful. But as they sat at the bar, touching each other’s hands and faces as though each trying to confirm the presence of the other, he could see a door or a window opening, an immediate future where the two of them lay side by side, comforted, and perhaps a little troubled, by a sexual encounter that they had somehow fallen into. With one part of his mind he watched the scene while he listened intently to her talking, her comments about her life, the bar, a man who had left her a while back, but only after taking most of the money from her bank account to pay for his cocaine addiction. And though temptation was there, a possibility to conquer where his adolescent fantasies had always remained a failure, he chose not to pass through, to remain where he was. Despite what was happening, the unexpected re-engagement of his policing self, he was happy with Alicia; he didn’t desire anything else, another woman. He had what he needed. And yes, he thought, he needed what he had.
Estrella had opened a bottle of cava, and they toasted their re-encounter. Customers came and went from the bar, and occasionally she got up to serve them, but mostly her attention was on Cámara.
She spoke about Concha, about her memories of her, how they had played together at school, then become interested more in other things, skipping lessons so they could go and catch a glimpse of a couple of boys in another part of the city. The two of them had meant to go out together the night Concha disappeared. The fair was on, and they’d arranged to meet at one of the stalls. Concha walked alone from her flat – it was only a few blocks away, and it was barely dark. But she never made it. Estrella had been the first one to raise the alarm. Concha had never let her down like that; it just wasn’t like her.
‘Of course I’ve wondered over the years if those boys, the ones we’d been chasing, could have had something to do with it. But you think anything in the end, when there are no answers. They were nice lads anyway, just kids, like us. They couldn’t have done anything like that. Wouldn’t have been capable. They’re both married now. One has a couple of grown-up daughters. The other never had children. I see them around from time to time. It’s a small place. You can’t hide in a city like Albacete for very long.’
She drank some more cava, her eyes moistening again. Cámara started wondering if he should go; he needed this as well, somehow, bringing up old memories he’d shelved somewhere, but he was concerned that the evening could become maudlin if they continued too long.
‘There was a man arrested at one point, wasn’t there?’ Estrella asked. ‘I seem to remember something.’
‘Juan Manuel Heredia,’ Cámara said. Had that name ever been properly tucked away? It had shot out of his mouth like a bolt.
‘They let him go,’ Cámara said. ‘He had an alibi – he was somewhere else at the time.’
IN THE END
he was drawn away by a phone call.
‘Are you free? Can you come and meet me? Now?’
Cámara pulled himself away as delicately as he could from Estrella. She seemed to understand. But they embraced tightly once more, and she kissed him softly on the mouth – a kiss of goodbye, of departure, less of passion or promise.
And he wiped the mistiness from his eyes as he walked away, breathing deeply and steadily, pacing the few blocks down towards the park.
Yago was already there, standing in the shadows of the trees overhanging the outside railings.
‘I need a walk,’ he said. ‘And what I’m about to tell you can’t be said inside the Jefatura.’
They set off along the pavement that circled the park, past the old police headquarters and a handful of the few buildings of note. There was the usual growing hubbub as Albaceteños started heading out for the night’s entertainments, but no one noticed the two men in their forties strolling together as the car headlights streamed past them.
Yago loosened his tie. Cámara pulled out his packet of Ducados and offered him one. Yago didn’t smoke, never had. But he took one and they smoked in silence for a few minutes.
‘It’s about this murder,’ Yago said at last. ‘Mirella Faro, the young girl.’
‘What about it?’
Yago put his hands behind his back, pushing his head forwards a little, his eyes focused on the paving stones ahead of them.
‘We’re beginning to wonder if it really is drug related.’
‘You said something about needle marks on her arms.’
‘Yes, she was a taker. It showed up in the autopsy, and her family have confirmed that she had a problem. She may even have gone in for some opportunistic prostitution to help pay for the habit – traces of semen from at least two different men have been found on her body.’
‘Boyfriends? Clients? Suspects?’
‘Yes, that’s the point. Any or all of the above. The problem is, it’s proving difficult finding anyone here who knew her.’
‘In Albacete. She was from Madrid, although she has family living in a town not far away.’
They stopped to allow a couple of women in tight Saturday-night skirts to get past them, then fell into step with each other as they continued.
‘Mirella lived with her mother,’ Yago said. ‘Olga Faro. Single parent. The father left and moved to Venezuela before Mirella was born. We’re checking, but it looks as though he’s still there. There’s been no contact between Olga and the father since they separated. Not even now that Mirella’s dead.’
From what Yago was saying, the police’s first theory still appeared to fit. A broken home, drug addiction, possible prostitution. Cámara was trying to work out what Yago’s doubts were – and why they needed to be expressed out here.
‘You think there’s a sexual motive? Some kind of sex killer?’
‘We’ve thought about that,’ Yago said. ‘She’s found naked, the semen, light traces of bleeding around the vagina . . . it’s a possibility. But apart from the marks around her neck from the strangulation, there was little sign of a struggle, no bruising on her thighs or groin, for example.’
‘And the prostitution theory. Are you sure about that?’
‘No, personally I’m not. Jiménez suggested it. But the semen could just be the result of some adolescent fumblings. Even the bleeding. It wasn’t that heavy. She was fifteen, for heaven’s sake. She was probably having her first sexual encounters. So there’s semen from more than one boy . . .’
They fell silent, both policemen aware that they had fallen into the trap of speculating too much with too little information. It was one of the things they had taught them not to do at Avila, but every now and again it happened. Especially in cases such as this one, when something about the murder victim brought on an inevitable desire to wrap it up quickly, to catch the perpetrator and throw him into the darkest cell.
A neighbourhood bar on the other side of the road was in the process of closing up: they didn’t look after Saturday-night crowds. With a nod Yago suggested they go over and catch a last drink before the shutters came down.
‘There’s no one there,’ Yago said. ‘We can talk without being overheard. By policemen at least.’
The barman looked at them with a sneer as they walked in: it had been a long day and he wanted to go home.
‘We won’t be long.’
Cámara ordered a brandy; Yago a bottle of alcohol-free beer.
‘You said no one here knew her,’ Cámara repeated once they’d sat down.
‘This is the story as far as we know at the moment.’ Yago crossed his arms in front of him on the table.
‘Mirella had a drug problem. She also had problems at home – didn’t always get on well with her mother. So sometimes she used to come down here from Madrid to stay with this family of hers nearby.’
‘Where are they?’
‘In a place called Pozoblanco, about five kilometres north. Small village.’
‘But she used to come into the city.’
‘That’s right. The idea was that when things were bad at home she could come here and clean up, get a bit of space from Mum, before making her way back. Obviously it disrupted her schooling, but everyone seems to have thought it was worth it.’
‘How often had this happened, then? How many times had she come here like this?’
‘Three or four times.’
‘And she always made trips to the city when she was down here?’
Yago took a swig of his beer.
‘I knew I did right calling you. Jiménez is good, but . . . You saw what sort he is.’
Cámara shrugged. He knew exactly what Yago meant.
‘So Mirella came here every time she stayed in Pozoblanco,’ Yago repeated.
‘On her own?’
‘What did she tell her family? I’m assuming they’re – what? Aunts? Uncles?’
‘Grandparents. She always told them she had some Madrid friends in the city and that she was going to see them. Used a moped to get in and out.’
‘Has it been found?’
‘No. There’s been a search, but so far no trace.’
‘And these Madrid friends?’
‘No one has any idea. She never mentioned any names, just used to tell them she was off and that was it.’
‘And they were supposed to be helping this girl with her drug problem?’
Yago let out a sigh.
‘So the idea is she’s meant to be cleaning herself up, but meanwhile she’s riding into town every few days to get another hit.’
‘That’s about it.’
‘The theory about it being drug related still looks plausible,’ he said.
The barman had turned off the lights in the kitchen and now came around the bar to start stacking chairs.
‘There’s something else,’ Yago said.
Cámara pulled out his cigarettes again, but Yago refused another one.
‘It’s to do with this branch of Mirella’s family in Pozoblanco. The grandfather is a man called Francisco Faro Oscuro. He’s the mayor of the place. There are only a couple of hundred inhabitants, but he’s been in power for years, and runs the place like a Maoist collective.’
Cámara spluttered into his brandy.
‘You heard me right,’ Yago said, raising his eyebrows. ‘He’s hard left. Father was a communist – and mayor as well, in his time. And now Paco runs the show. That’s what everyone calls Faro Oscuro in the village, by the way. None of your fancy titles. Just Paco.’
‘Now you mention it, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve seen something about this on television.’
‘You may have done. The guy’s a maverick, has his own party after he split from the United Left – set up the Workers’ Agrarian Freedom Party. He’s been on TV a couple of times. I think there was even some documentary made about him. Anyway, for all his talk of collective power, he rules Pozoblanco like his own fiefdom. Of course he makes sure he gives enough away so that everyone keeps voting for him. Rents are really cheap, for example. Fifteen euros a month. But all property belongs to the village. Which in effect means it belongs to him.’
‘And this is Mirella’s grandfather.’
‘What does the village live off? That’s saffron-growing land, I assume.’
‘Exactly. And that’s what I need to talk to you about.’
Yago turned and glanced round at the barman, who had gone back behind the bar and was folding up a pile of cloths.
‘That’s why we had to come out here,’ he continued. ‘Look, there’s a scam going on. It may actually be very big, perhaps even international.’
‘With the saffron?’
‘You know it can sell for anything up to three thousand euros a kilo, right?’
‘I knew it was expensive. But that’s as much as some drugs. High-grade Moroccan