The Great Peace (Introduction)
Copyright © Rushworth Consultancy 2022
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… It was puzzling that, after the murder was committed, the door had been deadlocked and chained from the inside. Yet, it was not a suicide. Strange.
A driving licence was discovered. The photograph and other details matched those of the deceased.
The body was removed to the medical examiner’s facility for the usual coronial post-mortem procedures. The media was informed but not so much as to damage a prosecution case.
Almost immediately, police officers were sent out to inform, observe, and question the next of kin, and those who had been associated with the deceased.
As he was about to leave for work, a man heard a sharp rap at his front door. It was 6:39 a.m. Two grim-faced officers were standing on his porch. They had both removed their flex-fit police caps.
The older of the two held up a photograph. “Excuse me, sir. Do you recognize this person?”
Madrid compressed then gradually released in a slow, inexorable rhythm that pumped life across the body of the land. In clear spring air, swallows scribed arcs over the city’s terracotta tiled rooves. On the rising boulevard artery of the Calle Gran Via, two middle-aged men patiently supported their frail mother along the broad sidewalk, chatting to her affectionately as she hobbled, leaning against their crooked arms.
Years before, those three had strolled along the same grand thoroughfare. The men were little boys, each holding the hand of their beautiful, confident mother who looked so elegant in a fur-collared coat. Those three souls set a capital point that marked the living, passionate, and loyal heart of Spain.
It was alive on this day.
Down a narrow street leading to the north, a 16-seater Mercedes Vega tourist bus edged into a tiny parking indentation; its brakes and woman driver were already hot from the start-stop, turn-twist of Madrid’s Centro district.
Across the bus’s metallic bronze flanks was printed, in scrolled magenta text, Journey to the Heart of Spain (Viaje al corazón de españa).
The Vega’s long tail butted, inelegantly, into the single lane Calle Hortaleza, but the working vans and passenger Citroens and Fiats casually banked around it or flipped by flamboyantly.
Of the thirteen people on board the bus, eleven hovered in various states of excitement. It was late in the afternoon on Day Two of their Spanish tour, and they had already settled into a comfortable social routine. It would not last long.
Yesterday, was their first day’s adventure in Madrid.
They were strangers; they spoke with reserve, holding close their lives, loves, and secrets.
At the start, a confident young man stood to attention at the front of the bus. He was holding a microphone. Their tour manager was above average height, slim, and strong. He was neat, clean, and rigorously ironed. He was quite a picture in his cream shirt and dark blue trousers. “Good Morning everyone. Buenos días.” There was a mumbled response from the travelers. “Very good! Muy bueno. I am your tour manager, and my name is Carlos Martínez Baeza. Our driver is Lorena Molina Flores.”
An olive-skinned woman in her mid-fifties swiveled around in the driver’s seat. She smiled and nodded politely to her passengers. She had black, wavy hair streaked with respectable gray strands that suggested she knew about life.
Today, she had pulled it back tight and clasped it with a sprung comb. In this way, Lorena signaled that she was a qualified professional.
The sounds of Centro, throbbing, rumbling, and occasionally screeching, became an enveloping blanket that settled over the bus.
The neat, young man continued. “Some of you will have noticed we have a third member of staff on our bus.” He waited a moment for effect. He pointed to the religious statuette held upright on the dashboard with a metal clamp at its base. The travelers strained this way and that to see. “Over the next days, we will have San Cristóbal, or, in English, Saint Christopher, with us. Many of you know San Cristóbal is the patron saint of travelers. So, you can be sure, with our team of Lorena, San Cristóbal and myself, you will be in safe hands.”
An amused murmur bubbled through the travelers. Tammy-Belle Jackson beamed and patted the knee of her thin husband, Isaac, who, unlike her, slotted neatly into the window seat. He was used to living with distinctive local customs.
Tammy-Belle had happily introduced herself and her husband to the other travelers but, today, he did not appear to be particularly happy.
She was a bulging woman in a floral dress from a suburb called Miami Springs. In her late fifties, Tammy-Belle often wore a floral perfume that was bright and cheap. Her sober-looking husband was fast approaching sixty-five years. He had a gentle and open face that looked every inch professorial. His demeanor suggested that this was the last place on earth he wanted to be. Isaac was black and Tammy-Belle was white. They had been married for nearly forty years. They had survived the early troubles with both of their families and were still devoted to each other. In some ways, the world had caught up with them.
Behind them sat a man in his mid-twenties with a pinched, cynical expression. One side of George’s head was shaved, exposing a diamond ear stud. He wore a green, leather jacket that was styled to imitate snakeskin. He paid five-thousand dollars for it in a boutique store in Manhattan. At the mention of Saint Christopher, he rolled his eyes. If it was going to be that type of tour, he might hop a flight back to New York to find some sanity. If possible. He failed to see the irony that underpinned his raging impulsive thoughts.
A Chinese woman from Long Island listened carefully and critically to Carlos. She recorded, analysed and evaluated the information he provided. Nan’s face was tilted toward the roof of the bus and she peered at Carlos down her small nose, using her chin as a gun site.
Behind her, sat a porcelain beauty of infinite calm. Her name was Mia and she had wafted in from Palo Alto. Usually, nothing on earth could disturb her equilibrium. She was oceanically tranquil.
There were other travelers on the bus, and some were more extraordinary.
Carlos had announcements to make. He cleared his throat and lifted the bus’s microphone to his lips. He smiled, although he was not really the smiley type. “Please remember. When you purchase a meal is not provided by this tour, make sure you keep the receipt. This tour provides one hundred percent of your breakfast, lunch and dinner costs. One hundred percent.”
The travelers whispered to each other; the noise rose to an amiable chatter. Carlos was expecting that. It happened every time with a premium tour. “However, your journey has a limit on those three meals.” The travelers now began to grumble and groan softly. Carlos played it well. “Each of you may spend a maximum of one-hundred euros per day on food and drinks and will be fully, err, reimbursed.”
The travelers’ rumbling smoothed to a satisfied hum. They knew a good deal when they heard it.
Carlos exhaled, which the microphone amplified. “We also have free Wi-Fi for you throughout our journey. The hotels will provide, but you are welcome to use our service.” He read out an internet link and a password. “With Wi-Fi use, is no limit. No limit. Is good, no?”
After a brief pause for his announcement to sink in, Carlos continued. “Please know that today and tomorrow we have tours of the great city of Madrid. So, that is Day One and Two. The following days, Three and Four, are free. We have guides and advisors who will help you explore and learn. You can enjoy by yourself or with a guide. On Day Five, we drive south to Toledo.”
For some reason, Elin Helstrom from Raleigh, North Carolina, tuned out. She was in a seat midway along the length of the bus, gazing at the people on the sidewalk. She was thrilled to be in Madrid. It was … fascinating. Elin sometimes got distracted when she was observing so acutely. And, it was unfortunate she didn’t hear Carlos’s last message.
“If you need to contact me during our journey, please write my phone number. Is …” He announced his number twice, and most of the travelers added it to their cellphone Contacts list. But, not Elin.
In retrospect, Day One truly set the scene. However, it was Day Two when the travelers received a powerful insight into the type of journey they were to experience.
The sky was pale on the evening of the second day. A tour guide joined the travelers. He was a small, moustachioed man called Sebastián, who had a permanently bemused twinkle in his eye. He was expert in the Centro district of Madrid.
As Lorena had parked the Vega bus on the left side of Calle Hortaleza, Carlos warned the travelers to exit with care. He was always wary about safety. It was crucial that he shepherd his travelers. If anything went wrong, it could cost him his job. And, he was grateful to have this work, despite everything.
The travelers filed out of the bus and strode briskly across the single lane road to the slender sidewalk opposite. A delivery van paused patiently. Carlos waved his thanks.
As the travelers began to spread along the sidewalk, Carlos held out his arms to corral them closer. They formed a tighter clutch, bumping against each other, giggling and apologizing. Then, Sebastián presented his introductory speech about the places of interest on Calle Hortaleza and in the alleyways nearby. The travelers strained to hear him above the swelling, city noise. From somewhere, the delicious smell of paella wafted along the street.
One of the travelers, Cole, was a well-groomed young man of just twenty-one years. He knew that he had a handsome, chiseled face. Standing next to a knee-high balustrade marking the border between the road and the sidewalk, he was staring at a bookstore. It had two differently shaped doors cut into an aging, black façade. Transfixed by the old-world charm of windows blocked in with antique books, he read the name: Librería Pérez Galdós. Cole had seen nothing like it back in Chicago. At least, not on the south side.
Once Sebastián’s introductory lecture was done, Carlos turned north toward the gentle fall of the pencil-thin street: he invited the travelers to follow him. Then, he called them, but his voice was drowned by a rising, rolling, roaring cacophony. Carlos beckoned the travelers to follow him. Some saw his gesture. Some did not. Some moved. Some were preoccupied. The noise grew louder. Then, it became deafening: banging painfully against the street’s tight walls.
Like Cole, Elin Helstrom ignored the racket. She stared at the unusual bookstore. Maybe, she had seen it in her dreams. Maybe, she had hoped for it. Here was a perfect, romantic image of Spain, even though it was only one hundred years old. In this nation, that was yesterday.
Amid the battering, blasting noise of a motor, there was a curious popping sound. A hiss filled the air, as though it were escaping from … something. The scene is transformed. Now, it is the bookstore’s first day. The lights inside shine dimly through the windows. There is a sign on the door: “Open.”
A snubnosed 1942 Autarquia truck is parked to one side. It is brand new, pale green, and tilting slightly with one of its large wheels sitting on the cobblestone curb.
Nearby, in pitiful resignation, a ragged, unshaven man stands on the grimy sidewalk. He is gloomily selling newspapers to pay for his evening meal. He has a rasping cough. He pulls his black beret over his forehead; he hunches inside his dirty, coarse overcoat. He coldly contemplates a woman in a tight-fitting woollen suit wearing a fashionable slanting fedora hat. She is impossibly elegant in somber gray with black highlights. It is perfect for Madrid. She holds a shallow wicker basket in which rests a loaf of fresh aromatic bread, part-wrapped in white tissue paper. It steams.
Two soldiers in wide-thighed jodhpur pants and high leather boots stride past, purposeful and vain. Oncoming pedestrians make way, stepping left or right, as though unconsciously displaying their personal political persuasions.
The bulbous hood of a deep blue, 1937 Chevrolet eases forward. It is belching balloons of acrid fumes.
Elin’s hazy view holds her steady. Then, she feels an abrupt, hard shove in the middle of her back: a kick or a punch. Her legs buckle; she slumps forward into Cole. He takes the full force of her fall. In slow motion, he staggers onto the roadway.
The street is now overwhelmed by an explosive sphere of noise. It is bursting from a Harley Davidson Forty-Eight with a single chrome headlight and a low-slung saddle.
Accelerating, its fat tires smoked and gripped then threw the heavy machine directly into Cole. The handlebars punched into the left side of his ribcage. He crumpled around the strike: stiff metal against soft tissue and bone. The rider’s helmet skidded across Cole’s scalp. His neck twisted unnaturally. His torso spun and his shoulder smacked hard against the bike’s rear mudflap. Then, he rolled and lay with his face pressed hard against an unforgiving metal grate in the gutter. He stared into the dark stinking drain.
It was all over in five seconds.
Instantly, Elin was at his side, ignoring her adrenaline, her frantic compassion, and her fear. Kneeling on the paved road, she carefully turned Cole face up; she checked his airway. Automatic. Training. Once a cop, always a cop.
The young man felt his body shift quickly from numbness to dagger-dazzling pain. Agony. He tried holding his breath. It didn’t help.
On the sidewalk, one of the travelers stood staring, mouth agape. Another, a startled woman, leveled her arm and pointed at the injured man, her head turned toward someone who was speaking to his neighbor. One traveler held a cellphone high, videoing the injured figure. Someone covered their eyes in horror. A woman was pleading for help from the sky. A man was coolly observing.
It was a dark painting in a Spanish art museum, every pose and gesture told a story of humans and humanity: their passion, their weakness, their love, their detachment. The painting might be titled “The Sinners” because, many of them were sinners. Although, some were more sinned against.
An angry screaming erupted into the street. Lorena’s emotional power ejected her from the bus, and she flew across the road, gesticulating wildly at the man who was straining to lift his fallen motorcycle. “You are blind. You are a murderer. I curse you.”
She crouched on the road beside Cole. Her hands cupped her distressed face and she chanted rapidly. “Dear San Cristóbal. Dear San Isidro. Protect this boy. In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Save this boy.” Her piety made her refrain from saying, “Or else.” But, she was tempted. She stroked the young man’s stiff hair.
Carlos, who was fifteen yards away, sprinted back up the hill. When he reached the site of the accident, Lorena issued a ripping order. “Call an ambulance. Ahora! Now!”
A car horn blared as Carlos fumbled in his pocket for his cellphone. Calle Hortaleza was blocked. Gawping pedestrians clotted in curiosity, except for one man whose mood had slewed dramatically from flippant amusement to clinical observation. Now, he was settling into wincing guilt.
Two minutes later, a wailing squad car arrived from Calle Gran Via. Two police officers stood above the injured man with their thumbs hooked into their belts. Elin told them what they needed to hear, and Carlos translated some of the confusing English. Then, one officer stepped away to question the motorcyclist. He intimidated the shaken rider, but the man pleaded with his hands held high, gesturing toward the injured man. An ambulance arrived with its surreal blue and red lights flashing against the street’s claustrophobic walls.
Efficiently the patient, who slurred that his name was Cole Benter, was carried away. The ambulance bumped over gutters and sliced through red light intersections; the hee-haw siren rose to an ear splattering din. Inside the vehicle, Cole lay on a smooth-sheeted gurney in a bright cube of light. The ambulance officer’s face hovered over him and spoke soothing, incomprehensible Spanish words as he cut away Cole’s dress shirt and assessed his injuries.
Inside the private hospital’s Emergency Department somewhere in Madrid, Cole was expertly triaged, anesthetized, scanned, and diagnosed.
In Spanish-flavored English, doctors assured him that he was lucky: a cracked rib, deep bruising of the intercostal muscles, slight lacerations on the skull, and bruising to his right shoulder. No damage was apparent to the lung. Cole would be admitted to a ward. He needed to rest and to restrict his movements.
The motorcyclist must have pivoted toward him at the last moment. The handlebar struck him lengthways across his chest. Had he been hit end on, his lung may have been ruptured. However, all was good. He would recover. The doctors would write a report.
Unfortunately, Cole would not be “okay.” His life was not going to play out sweet and neat.
Elin visited Cole in the hospital the following morning. It was Day Three of the tour, the first of two free days. The young man, barely awake under his mustard-colored blanket, was still in shock and woozy from the doctors’ drowsy drugs.
Sitting by his bed in a tangle of emotions, Elin said, “I’m so sorry I fell into you. Someone pushed me real hard in the back.”
Cole raised his arm then let it fall to show he did not care. Unfortunately, that attitude wouldn’t last.
Elin worried away at her guilt while certain it was undeserved. She had a perfectly clear memory: the thump against her back; the abrupt collapse of her knees; the slump of her full weight against Cole. Then …
“How are they treating you?” She needed to say something, but it was perfectly apparent that the hospital was excellent; better than some she had seen back home.
Cole still slurred in a swampy pool of numbing and mind-tumbling drugs.
“Last night. He showed me. What have I done?”
Elin smiled and frowned at the same time; she had no idea what he was talking about.
“Loss mahm’s tourmaline. Mistake. Owwch-aaah. Got to get away.”
Elin smoothed his blanket with the edge of her hand. “Bad dreams. It’s the drugs for the pain.”
Cole whispered because, with each breath, he felt he was dying. “So sorry. Terrible mistake.”
Misunderstanding his message, Elin said. “It’s no trouble. It wasn’t your fault.”
She lifted a glass to his lips. Then, she rested her hand on his. “I’ll come back.” She scribbled her name and cellphone number on a scrap of paper and left it under a box of tissues on the metal cabinet next to his bed.
As he slept, he dreamed that an old man came to him, saying, “Keep going. It’s your only chance.”
Two months before, Ashley Kinstone was alone when she peeled the label from the soda bottle. She had won an all-expenses-paid trip to Spain. She was not surprised by the win. She had been dreaming hard about stealing a victory. And, Spain would do just nicely.
This was true justice. Seven years before, Ash was certain that majoring in international finance at Richmond University would get her a great position in Wall Street or somewhere exotic like the City of London. It hadn’t happened. She’d received an excellent education; however, there were other factors at play. During the last few years, she had justified her misbehaviour by blaming Richmond. That’s how it worked in her mind.
Ash was driving to her tedious job at Westcott Finance Corporation on East Carey Street. She usually followed a quirky route to Downtown, veering north onto Westhover Hills Boulevard and over the two-lane nickel bridge which spanned the rocky James River.
This time, she did it differently, driving straight along the Midlothian Turnpike, and turning into a side street in Reedy Creek. Parked under overhanging trees, she followed the instructions on the sticker and registered her details using her cellphone. She photographed the prize-winning label and attached the image to her message.
For a few minutes, she sat in her car with the windows shut tight cheering and screaming her delight at her success. She had already forgotten she didn’t pay for the bottle of soda.
Ash was medium height with long, lank hair; she always struggled with that. She wore thick eyeglasses that exaggerated her puffy, tired eyes. Once people truly understood Ash, they paid no attention to how she looked. It was her behavior that radically changed their minds.
Soon, the magic day arrived. Two of the winners were on the same flight from New York City’s JFK to Madrid. They each fantasized that they were royalty in their business class, lie-back seats on the upper deck of the Airbus A380.
Ash rigorously judged the stitching on the in-flight slippers. She estimated the percentage of alcohol in the free wines and spirits, and the level in the other passengers, who had earlier waited in the business class lounge. Before they departed, she pronounced that the service was “acceptable.”
The black dude next to her was thrilled with everything. “So much stuff is free. Drinks. Food. Incredible.”
Turning toward Cole in a slow authoritative movement, Ash said, “It maybe ought to be. We are the rich. The one percent.” She squinted myopically at him. “We deserve it.”
Cole thought for sure she was joking. Then, he decided that she posed more than proposed.
After a bumpy climb to thirty thousand feet, Ash learned that the attractive guy beside her had also peeled a competition sticker from what he called a “pop” bottle. This dude was on the same six-star tour of southern Spain. They both buzzed with excitement and synchronicity. They were young and lucky.
Even though this was his first time traveling alone, Cole never let on. There was a small, secret part of him trembling with terror.
Ash took a selfie to send to her friends. She attached a comment proclaiming her pride in exploring the world alone.
Cole Benter had a sharp and critical eye for … for many things. It was no surprise that he was interested in clothes and hairstyles. On this journey, Ash wore a peculiar pink hoodie with a unicorn print on the front, which did not match her cotton shorts and cloth belt. Her black, patent leather ankle boots confirmed that she had absolutely no idea.
Soon, Cole lost interest in Ash, and he began playing with his on-board screen. He loved the cameras showing a live view from the plane’s tail, belly, and nose. Leaning toward Ash, he said, “Who needs da window seat?”
The Atlantic Ocean, a featureless, metallic blue plate, was eventually replaced by the undulating coast of Portugal. First, there was a pastel-green softness; then, there was an intricately patterned town; then rising rugged hills; then patchwork countryside and, now, the lights of Madrid-Barajas airport.
From the nose camera, Cole watched runway 15L/33R rise up as the leviathan Airbus descended. Regally, it rolled to Gate U73 in the T4S terminal building. The air bridges glided out to press snuggly against the fuselage. Cole absorbed everything he saw. “Fantastic. I wonder if there’s a jump off tonight.”
Not thinking about parties and in a more contemplative mood, Ash said, “Hmm.” Cole gave her a winning grin and deliberately bumped her arm. He mistook her tone for genuine pleasure. She mistook his good humor for something more.
After disembarking, they boarded the APM autonomous train to terminal T4 where they collected their baggage.
Ash stood pigeon-toed beside the conveyer belt. When her bag arrived, it had a pink Barbie Beach Doll chained to a zip. It was a miracle that it survived in the hold. But, more than that. Cole thought it was odd that a woman of twenty-five years would be flaunting a toy. His two bags soon swung into view.
At the entrance to the public area, after customs and passport checks, a man in a suit and a chauffeur’s cap, held a bright yellow sign with two names printed in red: Ms Ashley Kinstone; Mr Cole Benter. He took control of their bags. He drove them to their hotel in the Centro district of Madrid. Two men in gray uniforms, held the main doors open as porters brought the luggage inside. Ash and Cole had arrived in style. Alone in his vast two-bedroom suite, Cole drew back the wide curtains and absorbed the magnificent dreamscape of the rooftops of Madrid. He felt safe at last. He was euphoric. He wept.
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This novel is 252 pages.
© Rushworth Consultancy Pty Ltd 2022