Saturday, 19 December 2009
Christmas Short Story – Inn Time
This story is printed in the bumper Christmas issue of the Costa TV Times, together with a plug for my psychic spy thriller The Tehran Transmission. The story features Leon Cazador, who is a private investigator. ‘My allegiance is split because I’m half-English and half-Spanish,’ he says. ‘Mother had a whirlwind romance with a Spanish waiter but, happily, it didn’t end when the holiday was over. The waiter pursued her to England and they were married.’ A somewhat longer version has been prepared for the Leon Cazador collection, tentatively titled Spanish Eye.
Just my luck, snow had started to fall the day before I left and, by the time I drove my Seat into the mountains, it was lying thick. Not the most auspicious start to the Christmas holidays, I thought, as the windscreen wipers beat a monotonous rhythm.
The road climbed and twisted. Oncoming traffic lights glared, blinding. My heart lurched. I instinctively touched the brake. If I’d been driving a little faster in these conditions, I’d have hit the rear end of the parked car.
I let the engine idle. I was late and the weather was hell. Drive round and move on. I fished in the glove compartment for a torch, switched off the engine, switched on the hazard lights, shoved the shift into gear and ratcheted the handbrake another notch. I opened the door and stepped out.
The snow stopped.
The interior light was on and the windows were steamed up. Not the best place for courting couples. The electric window lowered and a young man peered out. ‘Thank God, you stopped,’ he said. ‘The car won’t go and my wife’s pregnant. We were going to the hospital!’
I shone the torch inside. She was half-lying, half-sitting on the rear seat. One hand rested on her bump, the other gripped the headrest post. She blinked and glanced away. ‘Sorry.’ I lowered the torch.
‘We need to push your car off the road or it’s going to cause an accident,’ I told him. ‘Then we’ll see about getting your wife to the hospital.’
‘Yes, of course.’
I walked to the back of the car. I pocketed the torch and braced myself, ready to push. The road surface was firm enough to give me purchase. ‘Handbrake off!’ I called.
After a few seconds of intense effort, the car started to move forward and gradually it turned off the road.
At that moment, a lorry bore down on my Seat, horn blaring, brakes squealing. The crunch was deafening, my car jammed under its front bumper. Sparks flew as the heavy vehicle dragged mine and slewed across the road. It demolished the crash barrier. Both vehicles tumbled over the edge, leaving only a flurry of snow in their wake.
My mouth was dry. I glanced at the expectant father. He stared in shock at the gap in the road barrier. I took out my mobile, but there was no signal. I enquired but the husband’s phone was inoperative as well, so we couldn’t alert the emergency services.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and flames briefly spouted up from the fallen vehicles. In the fleeting flash of light, I thought I saw something that gave me hope.
Now, the snow started up again, but this time it hit us horizontally, driven by the cierzo, the cold dry wind from the northwest. I moved round and opened the door, slumped into the passenger seat. I explained that we could sit in the car and slowly freeze to death, or try to get to some shelter. ‘Not the greatest options,’ I said, ‘especially in your condition, Señora…’
‘Maria Delacruz,’ she said. ‘My husband, he is Jacinto.’
I nodded. ‘Leon Cazador.’
‘But we don’t know of any shelter,’ said Jacinto. ‘I don’t recall passing any building.’
‘When the truck blew up, the flames highlighted a rooftop over there.’ I pointed down a rough track. ‘Maybe somebody lives there.’
‘They might have a phone!’ Maria said.
‘Very well, we’ll risk it,’ Jacinto said.
The sloping track led to a double gate with a chain and padlock, which opened to useful skills I learned some years ago. Jacinto whispered, ‘How’d you…?’
‘Don’t ask,’ I said.
For a further ten metres the track curved towards a two storey building, its roof covered in snow. The door sign read: Posado del Belén. Inviting enough. I rang the doorbell. The trees were snow-laden, the gardens virgin white. I hoped there wasn’t a frustrated writer acting as a caretaker with a penchant for axing doors. I was relieved there was no answer. I paced to a bay window; it revealed a lounge, an empty hearth. A window on the right showed a bar area, dance floor, stacked tables and chairs. ‘Closed for the season,’ I said.
‘What do we do now?’ Jacinto wailed, stamping his feet, an arm round Maria.
I picked the lock. ‘This way.’ I shut the door behind us and shepherded them into the lounge on the left. Logs were piled to one side. ‘Let’s get a fire going.’
It didn’t take long to warm the place. Maria removed her coat and lay on the leather sofa in front of the roaring fire. Jacinto and I raided the kitchens and found in-date lamb in the fridge and made sandwiches. While Jacinto heated some vegetable soup, I checked out the rest of the building, in search of towels and blankets for Maria.
The reception desk phone didn’t work. I pored over the guest book. The last visitors left two months ago. The inn didn’t have a musty smell and seemed to serve as a hotel, with eight double rooms, the furniture in all of them draped by dustsheets.
In one wardrobe I found a cache of weapons and explosives, but I decided to keep the discovery to myself.
‘The baby,’ shouted Jacinto, ‘it’s coming!’
I raced downstairs and asked Maria about her contractions.
She nodded and wheezed, taking great breaths.
‘There’s still time to eat,’ I told Jacinto. ‘But you must abstain, Maria.’
A couple of hours later, I said, ‘Jacinto, now it’s time. Hot water. Towels.’ He got up and hurried towards the kitchens. It was a few years since I’d delivered a baby, but I told myself it was like riding a bike. As long as no wheels came off, I thought.
Maria gave birth to a lovely boy, without any complications. I’d left Jacinto with his wife and newborn while I cleaned up and took the towels and cloths to the kitchen.
I was on my way back to the lounge when the front door was opened with a key. Most civilised, I thought. Two men and a woman stood in the doorway. I was surprised to see anybody; their expressions reflected more shock than surprise.
They exchanged glances with each other then the woman demanded, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Her voice echoed in the lobby.
‘Hola,’ I said. ‘We took shelter from the storm.’ I gestured at the half-open lounge door that emitted a warm glow. ‘It was an emergency.’
‘Emergency?’ she said.
‘We’ve just delivered a baby – come and see.’
With some reluctance, the three of them followed me inside.
‘We’ve got visitors,’ I said.
Jacinto stood up and Maria hugged her son to her.
I eyed the woman. ‘Are you the owners?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Melita Reyes and this is my husband, Beltran and my brother-in-law Casimiro.’ She looked at the empty plates.
‘We’ll pay for what we’ve used,’ said Jacinto.
Melita smiled. ‘No need – it can be our gift.’
Her husband tugged at her sleeve and gruffly whispered something. She shook her head. ‘You go with Casi,’ she said, dismissing him.
The two Reyes brothers turned and left the lounge.
‘I’m just going to the kitchen,’ I told Melita. ‘Do you want a drink?’
She sat on the edge of a seat and studied the mother and child. ‘No, thank you,’ she said without looking up.
I eased the door back and was in time to observe the brothers climb the stairs. I sighed, because I knew where they were headed.
There was an alcove under the stairs. I pulled out from my ankle holster the lightweight Colt Officer’s ACP LW automatic. The Astra A-100 automatic was amidst the burnt-out wreckage of my Seat. I had an uninterrupted view of the door to the lounge and the foot of the staircase. I waited.
Ten minutes later, Casi and Beltran descended the stairs, their hands full. I stepped out, my gun levelled on their chests. ‘Is this the new version, eh? Instead of frankincense, myrrh and gold, you bring the babe explosives, detonators and bullets…’
‘What are you talking about?’ Beltran snapped.
Melita emerged through the doorway. As she noticed my weapon, she reached inside her parka.
‘Don’t,’ I warned. ‘I’m a good shot.’
‘You cannot shoot all three of us.’
‘I don’t want to shoot any of you, but I can’t let you leave here, either.’
‘This is our property, Señor. You have no right to…’
‘You’ve no right to blow people up, either.’
‘It is what we believe in,’ said Beltran gruffly.
‘Then it’s about time you got a new belief system.’
‘We want self-determination and territoriality,’ said Casi. ‘This is how we will get it.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I said.
‘We fight injustice and tyranny,’ said Beltran.
‘Franco’s been dead over thirty years. Open your eyes to the world. If you and Melita ever decided to have children, no dictator is telling you to restrict yourselves to one child. You’re free to follow any religion or none, without persecution. If you’re law-abiding, you need not fear the knock on the door at three in the morning. You have drinking water on tap, and shops filled with food and clothing. You can read any material you wish without censorship. Need I go on?’
‘The government tramples on our aspirations!’ snapped Casi.
‘Your bombs kill innocent people,’ I said.
‘They’re not innocent. They work for the government!’
‘Those Guardia Civil men and women were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were not government tyrants.’ I gestured at the lounge doorway. ‘Inside there is a mother and baby. Innocents.’
‘What would you have us do?’ Melita said, her tone sombre.
‘Give yourselves up. Renounce violence. If your aims are just and legitimate, fight for them by peaceful means. Don’t create orphans and widows.’
Beltran laughed. ‘You’d have us surrender, for the sake of that one baby in there?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and why not?’
‘It’s absurd!’ said Casi.
‘Is it? Just over two thousand years ago, another baby boy came into the world to spread the word. Peace to mankind. His word’s been diluted over the centuries, maybe, but it still holds true today, tonight. This is Christmas Day, after all.’
‘It’s just a baby,’ said Casi.
Beltran pursed his lips and looked at his wife. Her eyes were moist and she nodded briefly. Then he lowered the weapons and bags to the floor.
‘Your weapon, please.’ I held out my hand to Melita.
Carefully, she took out the revolver, gave it to me and I shoved it in my pocket.
Casimiro swore. ‘This is stupid! We’ve sworn to fight together till…’
‘Until one or more of you are dead?’ I said and shook my head. ‘Your so-called cause has gained you nothing but it has killed over eight hundred people, including women and children, and maimed hundreds more, ruining so many lives. Lives that are for living…’ I could easily have been talking to godless killers, but I’d seen the look in Melita’s eyes when she sat with the mother and child, and I believed her maternal instinct had been deeply stirred.
Melita glanced at the lounge doorway again then moved over to her brother-in-law. ‘Bury the hate and love life,’ she whispered. ‘It’s a good belief system, I think.’ She laid a hand on his arm. ‘Please, Casi.’
Casimiro glared at me then flung his bundle to the floor. I flinched as the bag made a noise but nothing exploded. Melita hugged him then went back to her husband.
‘What will you do with us now?’ she asked.
‘Give yourselves up when the snow stops.’
At that moment, Jacinto stepped out of the lounge. He trembled as he stared at the discarded weapons and explosives. ‘Madre de Dios!’
I nodded. ‘Maybe this time there won’t be any death of the innocents. Let’s go in and look at the Christmas child.’
Spanish translation note: posado= inn; Belén = Bethlehem; rey = king; reyes = kings; Madre de Dios = Mother of God.