Part 1 of 2
This story was featured in the anthology Crooked Cats’ Tales :20 short stories by Crooked Cat authors,(2014) and can be purchased here
‘Oh, my God!” Sebastian Okoro exclaimed. “They’re Ku Klux Klan!” Even in the lamp-lit street, I felt sure his ebony complexion had paled. His eyes started, whites showing in the flickering flames from the torches. He was serious. This was unlike him, a dedicated agent of the National Crime Agency. I decided to disabuse my friend of the KKK idea fast.
“Seb, don’t worry, this is quite normal.” I gestured at the colourful slowly passing procession. “It’s a religious ceremony that goes back to the Middle-Ages and has nothing to do with racial prejudice!”
“Yes, of course. It’s Spain’s Holy Week – Semana Santa. Similar processions are happening all over the country.”
He visibly relaxed. “All right… What are we doing here, watching a procession? I thought you were going to finger Franco Roldan for me.” Seb was a workaholic, so I wasn’t surprised at his tone.
I pointed to the phalanx of men carrying candles, striding in front of the enormous religious float that depicted the Passion of Christ; they wore silk robes or nazarenos and pointed hoods, capirotes, with eye-holes. “The men in the conical hoods represent penitents from the old days.”
“So, it just happens that two of them are due to exhibit penitence, though they don’t know it yet. And one of them is Roldan…”
He sighed. “Must you always talk in riddles, Leon?”
I grinned. “No, not always. Enjoy the procession.”
This particular float was over a hundred years old. The Brotherhood who owned it belonged to “The Beautiful Virgin”, a fraternity that had been in existence since the late 1500s. A brass band performed its own processional march.
Despite their similar garb, each individual penitent under the disguise was unique, in subtle ways. Their shoes differed, and their robes didn’t always drape their full length; a good number of the bottoms of the men’s trousers showed – brown, blue, grey and black. Breadth of shoulders varied too. I pointed to a short man wearing brown deck shoes and fawn trousers. “Pablo Saura, an architect…” I pointed again. “And there’s Roldan.” Roldan was a head taller than the architect.
“He looks pretty pious,” Seb seethed, “carrying that wooden cross! Hypocrite!”
I nodded. “He reminds me of Mafia men I’ve met, who have no qualms about going to confession in the morning and slaughtering some poor soul in the evening.”
“They don’t have a conscience, Leon.”
“Perhaps not. But the law will catch up with them, eventually.”
Seb grinned. “Are we calling in the police now, then?”
I shook my head. “If you wish. It’s your case. They’re happy to let you direct the action against Roldan.” True enough. As soon as he arrived, Sebastian had been in touch with both the National Police and the Guardia Civil in the area. It wasn’t only a matter of courtesy. It was now standard international policing procedure, the only way to successfully combat international crime. Resources and data were pooled to better effect an arrest.
Roldan fled England when his counterfeiting ring was busted by another friend of mine, Detective Inspector Alan Pointer. I’d worked with Alan and his sergeant Carol Bassett some years back, when the NCA was called SOCA. They were a good team: “let slip the dogs of law!” was a phrase attached to them. Since then, however, Alan had become a reclusive agent, tending to work only at night.
There’d been ructions when it was learned Roldan skipped the country dressed in a niqab and using a false passport; this was almost a repetition of the escape of police killer Mustafa Jama in 2006. The Border Agency was red-faced - again. No heads rolled, though. If somebody uses an “inappropriate word” with regard to race or gender, he’ll be hounded out of his career; but if a civil servant is proved incompetent and criminally negligent, he might get a slapped wrist. The brave new world of law enforcement in Britain – political correctness is more important than catching and punishing criminals; and that particular contagion was spreading to all European law agencies. And Seb wondered why I’d decided to get out and go it alone as a private eye!
I preferred it this way: no red tape, no accountability. The system worked and helped snare the ungodly.
Seb bit his lip. “Why delay?”
“You said his organization in Brighton needed input from elsewhere, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Every indication showed he was a major operator, but not the source.”
“Exactly. I think he will contact his source here and try to set up another counterfeiting shop.” It wasn’t money they copied; that was getting harder, particularly with the newly released euro notes; no, they duplicated movies on DVD. The market was already flooded with bad copies, many from Chinese outlets; the local police in most coastal towns regularly raided warehouses, confiscated the counterfeit products, mostly watches, handbags, CDs and DVDs, and then employed steam rollers to crush the contraband. But Roldan’s copies were so good they could pass off as originals. Apologists for the illegal copiers said that if the new movies were sold at sensible prices, the trade in copies would virtually dry up. That’s not how commerce works, though; anything new gets a high starting price, anticipating a surge in demand from the instant gratification generation.
“So,” Seb asked, “what has the architect got to do with anything?”
Pablo Saura came from an extensive family, many of whom found themselves in positions of authority and, naturally, Pablo won the architect tenders for work in small towns up and down eastern Spain. Nepotism is endemic in Spain, and always has been. Thanks to his familial connections, his star was in the ascendant. Unfortunately, as his success grew, the quality of his work declined. Hubris.
“Tomorrow morning,” I said, “I’ll pay him a visit.”
“Should I come along?”
“No, Seb. You don’t want to get involved.”
He looked askance at me. He knew a little about my methods; they were not always quite within the law. Then he shrugged. “What about Roldan?”
“Plans are taking shape. I’ll let you know.”
“There you go again – going all mysterious on me!”
I laughed. “Must be my secret service training,” I whispered.
It was quiet as I walked along the village street; most of the two-storey buildings were old, in need of fresh plaster or paint. A cock crowed from an inner courtyard. It wasn’t early, gone nine. At the end of the road a white van was parked with rear doors open, its interior displaying wooden trays crammed with bread, empanadas, and ensaimadas. Attired in his white apron, the baker stood on the pavement, filling a wicker basket with loaves. Above, an elderly woman in black leaned over her balcony rail – Señora Barrantes – and called down to him; then she hauled on the rope, tugging the basket up. I passed the baker, exchanged buenos días and turned right, round the corner.
Across the road, on the left and between two older dwellings, a ruined house stood, windows gaping like empty eyes, its upper storey caved-in. Directly opposite the now derelict building, I stopped and turned, knocked on the facing door. It opened and a bead curtain was swept aside by thin arthritic fingers. “Sí?” an ancient man croaked.
“Señor Quinto, I’m Leon Cazador. I’ve spoken to your wife.”
“Yes, yes, come in.” He stood aside to allow me to pass into the hallway, then slammed the door shut. The beads rattled as they settled behind us. He led me along the passage, past two doors, then turned left into a quite large kitchen, its floor covered in russet-coloured tiles. In the middle of the room stood a rough-hewn wooden table, and four matching chairs. An Iberian ham hung from a hook in the ceiling, over the sink, where an old woman stood, hunched back to me. She turned, the side of her face partially sunken, the bone structure crushed.
Madalena Quinto had been visiting her neighbour, Bonita Ruiz, in the house opposite when the earthquake struck on the afternoon of 11 May 2011. Her friend, Bonita, was buried under the rubble; Madalena survived with a shattered shoulder and face.
In all, nine died and dozens were injured. It was the worst quake the region had experienced since the 1950s, measuring 5.1 magnitude. The experts labelled it “moderate”, though those affected saw it differently. Ancient structures were seriously damaged, including the historical Espolón Tower of Lorca Castle, the Hermitage of San Clemente and the Convent of Virgen de Las Huertas. As this occurred two months to the very day after the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, it was understandable that fears over further cataclysmic events increased the potential for panic.
The wheels of the law, the courts and the village administration grind slowly. Madalena Quinto accused architect Pablo Saura of negligence when designing the second storey extension of her friend Bonita’s house. It’s a common sight, single storey homes being extended upwards. Naturally, planning permission and inspections should be the norm; that’s in the ideal world. Kickbacks to town planners and officials sometimes skirt these safety essentials. Perhaps if an earthquake had not occurred, then the new second storey might not have collapsed? Two other extensions in the village, designed by Saura, had suffered from serious structural defects and cracks.
The upshot of it was that Saura was due to appear in court in two months’ time. Saura’s argument was that his design was sound; the blame lay with the builders. The plans were impounded, pending the case.
She moved away from the sink and settled in a chair. I sat opposite, elbows on the table.
“He will wriggle free,” she wheezed. The bones of her chest had suffered trauma too.
“He will become a penitent, have no fear, Dona Quinto,” I assured her.
Time for the architect to meet Carlos Ortiz Santos.
He answered on the second ring. “Saura.”
“Señor, you don’t know me, but I have a friend in the judiciary who might help you in your present difficulty. The word is that your architect’s plans will go against you…”
“Who is this?”
“I am called Carlos Santos, and...”
“You’re right, I don’t know you.” His tone and the pause that followed hinted that he was about to hang up.
“The plans,” I said rapidly, “they can be altered to help your case, señor…”
Silence. But he must have heard; the connection hadn’t clicked off.
“What are you implying, Señor Santos?”
“Perhaps we could meet to discuss the subject further. I can recommend a quiet place, where we wouldn’t be disturbed.”
“I would rather…”
“Señor, this is a delicate matter. I wish to preserve my anonymity. I have a safe house… it is not far from your office, as it happens…”
I heard paper being shifted. “I won’t be free until 4p.m.”
“That is fine.” I told him the address.
“I know it. As you say, not far.”
“Bring five thousand euros – the first half, to show good faith.”
“Five thou… And that’s just half… Ten altogether?”
“Your career, it is worth more than that, surely?”
“Why, yes, of course it is, but…”
“Remember, Señor Saura, the case against you is liable to ruin your career, should it prevail…”
“Yes… I will be there…”
I hung up. First phase complete: architect drawn in.
To be concluded tomorrow…