The Great Peace
Journey to the Heart
Copyright © Rushworth Consultancy 2022
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This novel is 252 pages long.
The police department’s communications unit received the 911 call and responded with professional speed. The suburb in question was familiar territory for law enforcement officers, and they followed a well-used trail to the scattering of low-rise apartments, low-rent houses, empty lots, and semi-industrial sites.
They knocked loudly at the door of the third-floor apartment but got no response. They knew exactly why the neighbors were complaining. The putrid stench was unforgettable.
Once the deadlock and chain were torn away from the splintered doorframe, the site was secured with checkered, police tape. Half an hour later, two homicide detectives arrived, closely followed by forensic specialists, who quickly started work. A woman wearing white cotton overalls recorded the scene with her digital SLR camera, taking multiple, bracketed images at one-stop intervals. It was only backup. DNA analysis would solve the crime rather than pictures or witnesses. The hairbrush would, probably, do the job. There would be no witnesses. In this part of town, no-one talked to the authorities.
The detectives were particularly interested in the way the body had been propped gracefully on a couch. There was a magazine on the corpse’s lap and its hair was tidily brushed. But, the face was a ghastly dark gray. The thin line that lanced deeply into the neck was visible under the jaw. No wire or rope was found nearby. The cops guessed that the perpetrator took it with them. It would have contained traces of the deceased person’s DNA and, if it were discovered, would probably identify the murderer. Then, charges could be laid. However, at this stage, it was all just speculation.
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.
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 vision from the 1920s fades fast and reality resumes.
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.
Cole’s gruff, grizzled father had driven home from his work at a demolition site in Armour Patch on the south side of Chicago. When Cole showed him the sticker from the pop bottle, the old man was scornful. “What d’ya know about Spain? Bet ya couldn’t find it on a map. A bus tour! They’ll all be eighty years old and doddering.”
Cole began to doubt whether the prize would be worth claiming. He could find himself trapped in a mobile aged-care facility. He talked to the women at his part-time job as a hairdresser at the Elegance Hair Salon. They thought he’d struck gold.
While she was alive, Cole’s dearest mother would never have been as disparaging as his father; she would have praised him, encouraged him. At her funeral, when the boy was seven years old, the congregation sang haunting, beautiful songs. And, he saw her there. A smiling misty figure who signalled the saddest farewell. She was sweet and kind. She still was.
Cole’s African American grandparents cried bitterly for their dear daughter. His Irish and Greek grandparents promised they would help, but they moved away to Kansas, struck difficulties, and, from then on, Cole sometimes saw them just once a year. But, every so often, Cole’s mother would return to show herself: shimmering, loving, encouraging. Cole always felt inspired.
Unfortunately, Cole’s father had long despaired of him. The boy never stood; he adopted a posture. His hair was scissored, parted, and gelled to pomaded perfection. The old man was sure the kid did strange things with his eyebrows. and, he didn’t care that his ridiculous yellow socks didn’t match his tan shoes. Cole wore Shock Mansion t-shirts and slim-cut chinos. He knew he looked real duggie.
Earlier, his father worried that Cole was gay. He tried to beat it out of him but, in the process, beat a permanent fear into the boy who quickly learned he was in constant danger of assault because of who he was and who he might want to be. That was the trouble. He was never sure.
His father eventually decided that Cole wasn’t gay; he was just a pain in the ass and a weirdo. He’d never survive on Chicago’s south side, particularly in Lawndale.
Since the old man’s new girlfriend had moved in, Cole’s life had plummeted to new depths. T’ondraLee Paine was rough, belligerent, and abusive. The old man preferred it that way. He gave it straight back to her.
One night, after a few too many cheap bourbons without sufficient Coke, the loud-mouth woman announced that, when her brother got out of Dixon Correctional Center, she would get him to shear Cole’s hair and permanently rearrange his face. She cackled at her delightfully vicious plan. She said she’d help hold him down. The trouble was she was serious. And, her vicious brother was a lethal threat.
Cole had had enough. This was intolerable. A sickening chill swept through his body. He had to put an end to danger, to the threats, to the violence.
As far as Cole’s dad was concerned, the boy had to suffer his bitch girlfriend or get out; it was well beyond time. There were no other choices. And, if she didn’t like being smacked around, she could go, too. There were other bitches who didn’t complain.
Sometimes, T’ondraLee vanished. She said she was visiting her mother who lived two hundred miles away to the south. Cole learned it was a lie. She decided to bail out after the old man menaced her with his Sturm, Ruger 9mm handgun. She promised revenge. She meant it.
Now, Cole knew that time was running out. He had to act immediately. His first priority was to claim the prize. His second was to ensure he had a future. He followed through, or so he was led to believe. He saw the result with his own eyes. He had the tickets in his hand. They offered an escape. At least, in Spain, he would be safe. Or, safer for a while, at least.
With T’ondraLee gone, his father began spending time with another sneering woman who complained that he had ignored her for too long. She had figured there had been another slut hanging around. She was correct.
From that time on, Cole carried an invisible yoke across his shoulders but, even straining in fear, he plowed on.
On their first morning in Madrid, all the winners gathered in the hotel reception area to be greeted individually by Carlos. Although his accent was strong and his English sometimes wrong, they soon warmed to his formal but friendly manner.
“Although most arrived yesterday, please to call this ‘Day One.’ Is your first day to discover this magical land. We start with the beating heart of España: Magnífico Madrid. Please enter our bus and will make announcements.”
As part introduction, part orientation, Lorena drove the travelers past the citadel of soccer, the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, and out to the leaning towers of the Gates of Europe, which, in Spanish, are called ‘La Puerta de Europa.’ Then, she turned back to the city center, where the travelers visited the Royal Palace and wandered through the verdant and peaceful winding paths of the gardens and ponded parklands.
After driving a circuit to the west and south of the city, Lorena returned to Centro and parked in a tiny space set aside for motor scooters near the Plaza Mayor. The ravenous travelers retired to a restaurant. It was nearly three o’clock, the latest lunch of their lives.
Two meals received the highest praise. The first was the pungent, fried pig’s ear called “oreja a la plancha.” It consisted of fatty chunks of juicy pork served plain with a half lemon. The second was Spanish shrimp with garlic and chili pepper, called “gambas al ajillo.” It was impossible to imagine a better combination of the smell of garlic and the sea. The travelers mopped the green, extra virgin olive oil with yeasty artisanal bread.
George, with his head half-shaved and his glinting diamond stud, was not inspired. He sniped, “I would have to say it wouldn’t be taken particularhly well where I come from. Not strictly kosher, son. Cheap ingredients, too.” The last comment was untrue, but once spoken … George relayed his personal perspectives to his five friends and followers on Facebook. He received no likes.
Some of the travelers imagined that young Cole was decidedly hungry. He was the first to finish his sumptuous meal and the first to excuse himself and leave the restaurant. It was not a desire to admire more of Madrid that pushed him, even though the decorated walls of the Plaza Mayor were a visual delight. He was unnerved by Ash’s insistence that they sit together at all times and that they stick together when they visited the tourist sites; she had dibs on him.
Most of the other travelers had noticed Cole from the start. As they spoke to him, he was preoccupied, looking past them into the distance. He positioned himself in perfect places for photographs but he never looked happy. Soon, many of the travelers busied themselves when he was nearby so they didn’t have to watch him preening. Except, Ash and one or two others.
Nan Lee was one who monitored him closely, as if he were a struggling insect and she a praying mantis with a nasty plan.
The second daughter of a Chinese family, Nan lived in Long Island in the Beautiful Country, which is what she called America. Both “Nan” and “Nancy” were not her real names. When she was born in Beijing, her name was Lee Nian Zhen. Over time, “Nian” was anglicized to “Nancy,” then shortened to “Nan” as she was engulfed by the boisterous demands of her life in the Beautiful Country.
Like many Chinese, Nan’s family often created nicknames for people. Nan’s was “chin,” not because the word had many Chinese meanings, but because Nan had the habit, when speaking, of looking along her nose and leading with her chin.
One thing Nan never relinquished during her time in the Beautiful Country was her proletarian taste for plain clothes and “sensible” shoes. For her, “sensible” meant black leather with good rubber soles. There was the hint of residual Chinese history in her footwear and in her determined stomping gait as though she still marched to the songs of the Maoist Red Guard. The fevered ideology reached its peak when she was born, but she grew up with the political upheaval echoing through her Beijing elementary school. Now, her sensible shoes and plain clothes were all that remained.
Cole was outside the restaurant and breathing the fresh Spanish air; for once, he relaxed. He was free of his torments. He was in a new reality. It was a pictorial heaven. Unfortunately, Cole could never have imagined the disaster about to befall him the next day on Calle Hortaleza. Still, deep in his heart, he knew that the punishment must fit the crime. And, there would be worst to come. Much worse.
Elin’s experience on Day One was remarkably different from the other travelers.
The evening before, she had landed in Madrid-Barajas Airport and snatched a few hours of jumbled sleep in the lavish hotel. After an overindulgent breakfast, she followed Carlos’s instructions and boarded the tour bus that was idling on the road outside. She chose a comfortable place to sit three rows from the back. It was then that Carlos made his introductory speech.
Once the bus began to move, the back bounced on the tight, uneven roads of Madrid. It was not as comfortable as Elin hoped, but she didn’t mind. She was away from the ghosts of her life in Raleigh. She was in this fascinating new country, which was old and yet vibrantly alive. She also had the inkling that she was in reach of the peace she so desperately desired.
Although she imagined the flight across the Atlantic had wiped away her past, it was not so. Her newly departed husband, Pete, thought he was well rid of her. But, the difficult part for Elin was that he didn’t leave her for someone else. He’d simply left. He’d chosen between her and nothing. And, nothing was the better option. That was hard. Also, there was the fact that he had vanished. No-one had heard or seen him since he locked their apartment door. He was simply gone.
Her police colleagues from Raleigh’s Southeast District Precinct were gone, too. That was sad but too bad. Jobs can’t go on forever; such is life. “Oak City” was usually reasonably safe and quiet. Driving squad cars for nearly ten years, Elin had become a Master Officer after four and, near the end, was promoted to Detective. Nearly.
With a wry smile, she told herself that her next position as a security officer with a department store a few miles out of town was waiting, poised for her reluctant return. Facial recognition cameras. Fraud. Shoplifting. Minor assaults. It would do for now. Anyway, she enjoyed analysing the people. So, shoppers, lessees, and administration staff would be interesting enough. She hungered to know what pushed them, and what held them back. She could do that at her leisure at the shopping mall. Easy. No pressure.
On Day One of the tour, the bus circled around Madrid, and, occasionally, jolted Elin who happily stared through the wide windows, luxuriating in the sweet pleasure of having nothing much to do other than to enjoy herself. However, at times, she was more focused on her own reflection than the view outside.
In the last months of her policing days, Elin put on an extra pound or two, but she was still fit. She had a pretty and kind face. She was nearly forty years old, with medium length blonde hair that she sometimes tied back casually with a scrunchie, a ribbon, or a clip, depending on her mood. Men liked it that way. Someone once told her that women were at their prime at forty. She hoped so.
When she first met the other travelers, she acknowledged them politely, but her sky-blue eyes made no lingering contact.
The beautiful, white-faced woman, called Mia, looked at her shrewdly then attended to her cellphone. She had recently decided to learn more about how it worked.
The Spanish-looking guy across the aisle greeted her in an understated way with a nod and an open hand.
Elin didn’t say much, so some of the others guessed she was shy. In the huge park called Casa de Campo on the western side of Madrid, she wandered off by herself. Someone saw her pacing along a tree-shaded stream, so they assumed she was shy, too. When she listened silently to conversations over that late luxurious lunch, the remaining travelers were convinced she was shy.
Unfortunately, all of them had got it wrong, every time. Elin was introverted. That meant her internal world was far bigger than anyone imagined.
What Elin truly wanted was some sort of profound peace. She imagined it would, one day, descend upon her, a glorious, perfumed cloak. She wanted to rest deep in its soft, protective folds. However, she never escaped an irritating contradiction. She also wanted to know every human as well as she understood herself. That meant, she had to engage.
The clashing motivations made no sense. Not yet.
So, through the blue-tinted windows of the bus, she watched a sliding, busy video of magnificent Madrid, while her own superimposed reflection studied her, still and pensive.
Dreamily, she paid little attention to Carlos’s tourist-guide monologue. It consisted of a long list of dates and places. The travelers’ heads swiveled left and right. On a street called Paseo de Recoletos, one head lingered longest on the Casino Gran Madrid Colon; it was the big woman from Miami, Tammy-Belle.
Through his microphone, Carlos continued to sketch out Madrid’s history of foolish kings, frenzied aristocratic lovers, and reckless generals. Tammy-Belle laughed loudly at his jokes but quietened when he spoke in detail of art and architecture, of churches and bells. She was neither aware nor cared. Beside her, Isaac frowned, concentrating. He shifted jerkily in his seat as he sifted and sorted the details of Carlos’s lecture.
Head down and hunched, Nan checked Carlos’s facts against Wikipedia articles on her cellphone, which she called her “hand machine.” When she grew weary of this scrutiny, she called someone and spoke to them in an extraordinary mix of blurred Mandarin and English, with scatterings of Lawng Island slang.
Late in the afternoon, as the travelers’ interest lulled after lunch, the bus took a sharp corner somewhere in the city. Carlos was outlining the story of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He was precise with his dates. He was careful with his words, as though they were “sanctioned” in some way. Elin sensed an issue unresolved. She imagined being in Madrid under military attack. She gazed blankly at a shadowed building that was six stories high. The bus had eased to a slow roll. Dazzling sunlight flared through a gap and struck Elin’s face. A magenta flare wiped across her window.
The bus lurches. There is a popping sound. Air whistles into or out of some vessel. Somewhere.
Now, the building has lost its block shape. It’s a chaotic mess of smashed masonry and a teetering, creaking back wall. Water pipes are leaking; one is a spouting, mad fountain.
Elin thrusts herself toward the window. She half-stands. Through the patchy light of dust and smoke, two men drag a body roughly covered by a burnt brown blanket. A teenager stares solemnly, her face is a dripping delta of blood.
High above, a silver Italian-built bomber sheds a wake of whining piston-engine clatter as it banks sharply toward the setting sun. The Savoia-Marchetti’s stubby wings flash. It has finished its last mission for today, and the Spanish pilot is visually tracking back to a makeshift airstrip carved out on nationalist-controlled land to the southwest.
From the rubble, someone cries out.
An old woman is kneeling among the broken bricks and splintered rafters. Shrouded in dust, bent double in anguish, she screams, “This is the worst year in history. Nineteen thirty-six. The year of the devil. Someone, please save us.”
Then, the bus bumps forward, and modern Madrid slides into view once more.
Startled, Elin slumps hard back into her seat. But, none of the travelers has reacted to the extraordinary event. Not a word. Maybe, they hadn’t seen the destruction. Hadn’t heard the plane.
Embarrassed and confused, Elin saw the man across the aisle peeping at her then looking away.
An unusual idea came to Elin’s mind: the past perforates the present.
She pondered the idea. It was the first time she’d experienced such a thing.
Tomorrow’s vision of the bookshop on Calle Hortaleza would be the second.
Elin wondered if this was what Spain was like; nobody warned her. The past pressed against the present. It was a thin border. It could easily break.
The bus paused at a red light.
Elin tried to shake off her distress. Maybe, this was jet lag or a virus. Or, something else she hadn’t conceived.
That “something else” was to be a big part of her future.
For most of Day One, Mercury Rossi was relaxing in his seat across from Elin. He was the traveler who Elin thought was Spanish. He had been to Madrid a million times and knew every plaza, puerta, palacio, puente, paseo, and parque. He didn’t tell the other travelers he hadn’t won the tour as a prize, but he had a ready answer, if they asked. He would say he worked for the man who created the soda competition. He and his boss had collaborated for years on lots of “projects.” The main issue was that he had to remember this story.
In his mind, Mercury paraphrased his boss’s commands. “Oversee them. Remember, the old laws still hold. Build a golden bridge. Be careful. Nurture Elin Helstrom so she becomes as good as you.”
It was no surprise that Mercury planned to make sure the last command was never carried out. The word “planned” was not often associated with him, either. Usually, he operated ad hoc and slap dash.
He had joined the tour to observe, analyze, and categorize the travelers. He would focus on their banter, their jibes, their delights, and predictable insights. He took notes, keying them into his cellphone’s Contacts list; there he stored a great deal of data.
In the past, he was sociable and kind, for the most part. But, nowadays, Mercury was quickly cranky and, sometimes, careless. Time had transformed his temperament from youthful joy to aging scepticism, bevelled with a nasty, cutting edge. He sliced that blade rashly when someone deserved a reprisal. He had his territory. No-one would enter it without his say-so. He couldn’t tell his boss every little detail in his reports. He focused on what his boss wanted to hear.
Mercury had the worldly appearance of someone who was born in northern Italy. He told people he was from Milan, and that his surname was Rossi. Neither claim was true. He said that his first name was Mercury. Here, at least, he was being honest, but it would be hard to find an Italian man with such a name. Mercury was his only name, although he had plenty of titles.
His straight hair was brushed back, as though they were wings over his ears. It had long lost its glossy blackness. Now, it was a muddy off-white and thinning at the crown. Withering old age had weathered his cheeks making his nose more prominent. His eyes were ringed with darkness and were slightly sunken.
People remarked on how speedily Mercury moved. Sometimes, he flew. They saw how slim and lithe he was. He had a smooth and courteous manner, most times, and women were still held by his luscious lips and long eyelashes. Their minds lingered: if only he were a little younger.
He deployed his charm to swamp any blemishes. He always had a captivating story to tell, even if he made it up. And, he was good at that because he was Mercury. He was the God of Communication and much else besides. He had the god franchise on language, commerce, travelers, borders, gamblers, and thieves. It was quite a portfolio. He’d earlier been a big player: monuments were erected, temples were consecrated, days were set aside to celebrate his glory. But, franchises lose their traction and their customers over time – extensive time.
All the travelers soon realized that, although he consistently dressed in old-fashioned elegance, Mercury always carried a small black backpack that he seldom opened. They did not know that inside was his caduceus: a special wand that was a gift of Apollo. It was a short stave with two snakes coiled around it. At the top, were open wings. It was the symbol that is incorrectly used by the medical profession. Mercury treasured the caduceus with his life. It was his life.
His boss? That was Jupiter, the King of the Gods, whose other titles included God of the Sky, of Storms, of Omens, and of Oaths (those last two were his way of dominating justice and government). Nowadays, Mercury never called him “Father,” even though that was who he was: his father, or so it was said.
These two formed a formidable team, but time was passing, and they were succumbing to age. Neither of them controlled time, not fully, at least.
When old man Jupiter got mad, he expressed himself without restraint or remorse. He had extraordinary firepower because of his dazzling array of godships. He could frighten a soul to death, and, if that didn’t work, he’d resort to more bloody means; he did whatever was required.
As the golden evening descended over a glittering Madrid, a wind rose from the south with increasing intensity. The travelers were visiting the last site of interest for the day: the Faro Moncloa tower. They stood on the top deck, and the breeze buffeted them belligerently. Viv, who was tall and exceptionally fit, began jumping and jogging to increase her body temperature. The others simply felt leaden and cold. They’d had enough. Then, two electric cables slapped against each other in the Chamberi district, close by. A blue spark flared. A snapping crack echoed across the leafy Parque del Oeste just across the street from the tower. Another of the travelers, an otherwise quiet man called Dean Landerson, spoke up. “The gods are angry.” Those nearby laughed nervously. In truth, the sound had terrified them. But, Dean was far more susceptible to noise than they were and he was instinctively wary of dramatic, devastating events.
For the moment, Mercury was feeling worse. He tightened in fear. He fretted, searching the tumbling clouds. Maybe, Jupiter had spied on him during the day. Mercury imagined a hand reaching from the sky to squeeze his heart. He fantasized that a distant basso profundo voice called to him. “Make sure you bring Elin to us.”
His guilt was strong because he was determined to betray Jupiter. He knew the risk. He felt his blood freezing in his veins.
Jupiter’s famed, omniscient insight was patchy. It was old age causing his decline.
Later that evening, Cole was exhausted, but his body was still working on Chicago’s Central Daylight Time. When it was bedtime in Madrid, he felt it was lunchtime. His confused evening would have been worse if he had known he would spend the next night in hospital.
The muddle didn’t end there.
Although George Witvelt had stuffed his bag to bursting point with a mess of expensive clothes, he was not the greatest sinner. Other travelers had split zippers and torn straps as they forced their travel dreams into their luggage restrictions.
Unfortunately, Cole had broken the rules. He had brought two bags: one red, one yellow.
When Carlos saw the transgression, he showed Cole the page listing the conditions of the tour. “The bus can only carry this size bag.” He ran a fingernail under the printed metric dimensions. “We have limits on … err … porterage.”
Cole did not understand.
Carlos explained. “What size bag a hotel will take to your room. Later on, in the tour, some hotels are … boutique, no? Unusual. Special. We are expecting another one to join us. Nan Lee’s sister will come, too. I apologize. Is no extra space.”
So, there was no choice. Cole would have to put one bag into storage in Madrid. The hotel would oblige. He searched the internet for packing tips and decided to roll all his essential clothes as tightly as he could. He copied a YouTube tutorial, visualizing the perfect packing result. That’s when he realized that he had no rubber bands. Maybe, someone had some spare. Forgetting the time, he called Ash, whose room was on the floor below, and he found he was in luck.
Combing his thick black hair into an elevated style, Cole checked his skin, as if he was going to a lick. Then, he skipped to the elevator which dropped him down one floor. He knocked on Ash’s door and heard her call out, “It’s open.”
He entered, saying, “Sorry to bend on you, but there’s no Jewel’s here.”
His words floated into a large, dim room. The curtains were open, casting a distorted square of faint light across a king-sized bed. Ash was lazily leaning against a pile of pillows. Her voice was soft, husky. “The rubber bands are there on the table. In the packet.”
“Thanks so much.” Cole grabbed it.
Ash half whispered, “That’s fahn.”
Cole could smell some old-school perfume. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see that Ash was not wearing her eyeglasses. And, they were not the only things missing. Ash was dressed in the flimsiest nightdress that exposed her breasts. He gaped as did her nightdress. She sighed, “My air-con’s pretty bad. So stuffy in here.” She pulled the sheet away to reveal her naked body under a near-transparent film of sheer pink nylon. She shifted languidly and drew a line with her fingers from her breasts to her stomach, stopping short of her thick, tangled triangle of pubic hair.
Staring but not thinking, Cole stood perfectly still.
Ash said, “I can’t sleep. It’s all been too much. Sit for a while. Let’s talk.” She patted the bed.
Cole tried to speak, but it came out as a meaningless mumble.
Tucking her legs to one side, Ash tipped forward, her arms either side supporting her like pale, slender pillars. Her nightgown was now wide open. Her breasts swinging freely.
Stuttering, Cole said, “I’m … I’m good. I …” He looked at her face and at her body again. “Umm … I’ve got to finish …” Lamely, he pointed to his room on the floor above. “… my bag. The conditions … Carlos told me.” Then, he ran from the room, calling out, “Thanks,” as he slammed the door. He sprinted to the elevator. Inside, he saw himself in a mirror: hair dishevelled, flushed, gasping, relieved. He shivered at … at what? His embarrassment? His disgust? His naivete? Whatever it was, he was certain he’d been stupid.
That was nothing compared with Ash’s violent emotions. She’d made a fool of herself; she’d overplayed her hand. She searched for the soft-furred teddy bear she kept under her pillow and threw it hard across the room. Then, she plotted revenge: she’d snub him or ridicule him or ignore him or all three. The creep. Maybe, she’d say he tried to come on to her. Maybe she’d make sure he lost something. In any case, she wanted to cause him trouble. And, she would.
Seven hours later, the terracotta rooftops of Madrid were lit by the fiery golden rays of the sun as it rose from the distant Mediterranean Sea. Ash had slept fitfully but had calmed a little. She’d devised a plan; she spat out words as though Cole was in the room with her. “I know mor-ah than you’ll ever know, boy.”
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