Chapter 1: Bilbao, Spain
She crossed the street and selected the table farthest from him, but still quite close by, at the front corner next to the flower tub. She sat down, looking back the way she had come. Yes, he thought, an elegant profile too.
From the top of her shoulder bag she took a large denim jacket, draping it roughly over the chair on her left, and then pulled out a pocket camera, which she set down carefully on the small round table, again to her left.
The waiter appeared beside her.
‘Una cerveza y un agua.’ Her Spanish was rudimentary but, she persuaded herself, adequate for the task in hand.
She relaxed for two, perhaps three minutes, absorbing the late morning sun, adjusting her crimson scarf, occasionally closing her eyes as if composing herself. Then, as the waiter emerged, she delved into her own jacket, taking out what looked like an ultra-compact mobile phone. She paused, then pressed a single button.
The circuit must have been closed instantly.
She spoke clearly and rapidly in another tongue, leaning forward, looking down, never once putting the device to her ear. Then, after one more touch of a button, she slipped it back into her jacket pocket.
The waiter had, meanwhile, placed a small glass of beer beside the camera, and a half-filled goblet of water and its bottle directly in front of her. He had then moved off to serve another table. But he spotted her extracting a ten-euro note from a tiny purse and positioning it on top of the unexamined bill.
She sat back again, now looking suddenly drained, and waited for him to retreat into the cool of the café’s interior.
The camera and the denim jacket were returned to the bag. She turned in her chair, looked briefly back towards the café door, then rose smartly, picked up the bag, and strolled off up the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro, leaving the beer and the water spoiling nicely in the sunshine.
From his table on the left at the back, next to the door, the young man stood up, leaving a few more coins in payment for his second drink, this one also untouched and still inside on the waiter’s tray. Puzzled, as he passed the woman’s table, to see that the banknote had disappeared, despite the lack of any breeze, he began to follow at a respectful distance.
* * *
The high-frequency signals routed from mobile phones to telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit are ordinarily relayed straight back down to an appropriate ground station on the surface of the Earth, for onward transmission to the called party.
The extraordinary signal sent that Monday morning from a fashionable Bilbao café was, however, acted upon fully within the orbiting equipment which received it, with no need for further onward routing. And other eyes continued to follow the woman’s movements, from a somewhat greater distance, but with considerably less risk of losing her.
* * *
Oh, the frustration! If only she could have picked up the water glass and discreetly poured its contents into that flower tub! It would have maintained the pretence so much better — and, from what she had seen so far, would have been so much more human ...
* * *
It took the authorities just over thirty minutes to get there — in three waves.
First at the scene, after a slow start which luckily would not need to be explained to their superiors, was the closest available Policía Municipal patrol car. Their orders were straightforward: cruise up quietly, wait outside for the arrival of the special branch, and discourage the departure of anyone hoping to leave the premises.
The second car, coming across the city centre but arriving only four minutes later, had no such need for discretion, its driver desperate to keep his contribution to the speed of their response free from any subsequent reproach. He took the final junction on three wheels, veered across the path of an oncoming scooter with little care for the safety of its terrified rider, and screeched to an ugly halt on the pavement only inches from the front of the patrol car and a small corner table and low flower tub.
The uniforms-in-waiting had not previously met the lady and two gentlemen who now piled out of this unmarked car, but they were quick on the uptake and out of their own vehicle and following the newcomers towards the café doors without any demand for their IDs. But they were stopped halfway across the patio by the still-buzzing driver, who ordered them to stay with him and detain the dozen people sitting at the outdoor tables.
Nor did his superiors stand on much ceremony with the owner inside.
‘Listen, hombre. How many people used a mobile phone here in the last ten minutes?’
The owner, who had been behind the bar for most of the morning, pleaded total ignorance and began praying for the survival of his licence and his teeth. He was saved from such fears by his waiter’s rapid intervention.
‘I didn’t see one being used either. But there was a young guy out there, not long ago, with a phone in his shirt pocket. He paid up and left suddenly while I was inside, without even waiting for his second beer. I saw him walking off towards the square, as if he’d suddenly been told to go somewhere fast. And I think he stole some money from one of the tables ...’
While the woman extracted from the trembling waiter a brief but usable description, her colleague borrowed her phone, made a staccato call passing his situation report and demanding a large search force, told the control room to stand-by, handed back the phone and hurried out to brief the others. She proceeded to relay, calmly and very precisely, a jargon-rich summary of what she had learned from the waiter. Then, shouting at her partner and the bemused policemen to watch over the bar, its staff and its present clientele until told otherwise, she raced back out to their car and would have taken it over herself if the driver had not anticipated her intentions perfectly. His two-point reversing turn to get back into the downtown lane was executed blind, with the few words of caution muttered by his senior officer totally ignored, and only another miracle of timing avoiding a huge pile-up.
The military had been a good deal farther away, but their scrambles were more practised. Less than twenty minutes after the manhunt had been set in train, a helicopter approached the nearby Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar. Its pilot realised quickly that his initial plan to land in the park itself was flawed; no touchdown was possible on that sharp and tree-clad incline. With the remonstrations of his high-ranking payload ringing in his headset, he descended instead onto a huge river-level building site just south of the Guggenheim Museum. The two officers who emerged had no choice but to zoom-in their GPS handhelds, find a way back up to street level, and literally run down the reported co-ordinates of the café across five or six blocks.
* * *
She walked for a minute or two. Then, once she was certain the young man was following her, she turned at the next corner, moved quickly into a shady doorway ... and un-made.
When he appeared, only moments later, a deep impression of loss showed suddenly on his face. She smiled to herself in satisfaction.
Five or six minutes passed, as he scanned the street up and down, hurried to the next block and peered both ways, retraced his steps to the corner, and searched around and around for her in vain. Finally, with a bitter sadness clearly overwhelming him, he crossed the road and languidly continued his interrupted walk back from his lecture. Now, unseen and unseeable, it was she who followed him.
They were taking a roundabout route. He was clearly still hopeful of stumbling across her again ... or perhaps he just did not want to go wherever he had planned. They passed the Plaza de Bizkaia; he paused to watch the children laughing and shouting in the play area. She imagined again the sadness in his face.
They turned into Calle Ercilla. She sensed they were close to his home. She was ready to make her move.
Then the police car passed her, passed him, and stopped. And they took him.
Her surprise was great, but her resolve was undiminished. As the car sped off, she made her decision. Still observed by no human, she joined up with it in close outrider formation, and pursued it back towards the café.
* * *
The officers’ plan, concocted in haste during the short helicopter flight, had anyway been to set up their initial base at the café, rather than get embroiled in the police dragnet. But as they turned the final corner, breathless and sweating, their radios informed them that the suspect had just been caught and was on his way back to the café to make their acquaintance.
* * *
They filled his vision ... intimidating, violating, leeches on his soul.
‘T ... Toni ... Antonio Felipe Murano,’ he stammered.
He gave it.
‘Your own place?’
‘No — it’s my parents’ apartment.’
They checked his mobile phone first. It looked perfectly normal. The anti-terrorist officer who had been speaking seemed somehow deflated. His colleague was more impatient. He opened up the phone, expertly took it to pieces in seconds, found nothing extraordinary. They looked again at the well-dressed and trembling young man. There was already little doubt of the mistake.
‘So why did you leave here so fast?’
‘I was following the woman.’ It felt like an admission of guilt.
Toni took a deep breath. They seemed a little less aggressive now.
‘She came round that corner a few minutes after I sat down, and she crossed the road. She seemed to be heading straight towards me, and she was smiling right at me. It was almost unreal ... the sort of thing you’d see in your dreams ...’
‘OK, OK, Romeo ... but what did she look like, what did she do?’
‘She was smart. In her twenties, long dark hair, red silk scarf. I really thought she was coming over to my table. But she sat down at the corner and ordered drinks ... two drinks. Then I realised she must have been holding on to the jacket and the camera for a friend — probably a man. I was a bit disappointed ...’
‘She took it out of her bag with a jacket, and put it on the table. But her friend never arrived. After a while she put the things back in the bag, then she suddenly turned round quite deliberately and smiled straight at me again. Then she just walked away without even touching the drinks ...’
Toni was abruptly aware of two photo flashes somewhere ahead of him.
‘So why did you follow her?’
‘I don’t know. I really don’t. I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve never done that before!’
‘What do you do for a living, Toni?’
‘I’m a student ... at the Conservatorio. Piano ... History of Music ...’
‘And your parents?’
‘My father’s an architect ... and an evangelist preacher at the Santutxu church. And my mother’s a freelance fashion writer. She’s Italian.’
‘Any Basque connections in the family, Toni? Don’t mess us about ... we’ll be checking ...’
‘No — for God’s sake!’ Toni was scared again. They were watching his reaction like hawks.
‘Stay there, Toni.’
They searched his briefcase. They found textbooks, classical sheet music, lecture notes, a modern songbook, a magazine. He watched them muttering to each other.
They were being forced to accept that this timorous boy had simply been fascinated by the woman for the obvious reasons, and nothing else. One of them went a little further. ‘That kid looks like he’s never been near a real woman in his life.’
But there was no time for further debate. So now they quizzed the special branch inspector, who had only just returned and had been waiting uncomfortably at a suitable distance, seemingly outranked and reluctant to intervene. And they discovered it was the waiter who had given the false lead. So it was his turn next. He confirmed everything the student had just told them, and then he mentioned a dictation machine ...
‘I guessed she was a foreign journalist.’ ... ‘No, I’ve never heard that language before.’ ... ‘No, it can’t have been a mobile phone — she was just talking straight into it, like this.’ ... ‘Yes, right next to that camera.’
Then a new false penny dropped for this new set of agents. The camera was obviously part of the transmitting equipment. Somewhere around the city a major terrorist incident should by now have been triggered ... why on earth hadn’t they heard about it yet?
They pressed Toni and the waiter for fuller descriptions, and then issued an urgent demand to the special branch inspector for a second intensive search: this time, for the elegant young woman with the captivating smile.
She had been observing all of this, at very close quarters. She now began to recognise in broad terms just what had happened, and she was feeling frustration and considerable sympathy for the young man’s plight.
She watched while the officers consulted, re-interviewed, worried, radioed, argued, and consulted again. She watched Toni standing there alone and scared; saw him finally sitting down at the table she had earlier used, looking around for some explanation, finding none. And they both just waited.
* * *
At last the officer who had examined the mobile phone came over to Toni and crouched down beside him.
‘Did you steal the money she left on the table?’
‘There was no money left on her table! It must have blown away!’ He was feeling angry now, and something inside him wanted to fight.
It was exactly the reaction the officer had expected. He knew the boy was telling the truth. He looked over to his partner and shook his head.
‘All right, Toni. Looks as if you just got caught in the crossfire. Here’s your briefcase, and your phone ... it’s switched off, but it’s still working. The patrol car will drive you home now.’
With that he was gone, back inside the café.
* * *
Still unseen, she followed the car back to where Toni had been picked up. She watched it drive off round the first corner, as she and Toni crossed the street. Pursuing him effortlessly through the front door, and then into the lift, she finally re-made a few feet behind him, as he unlocked and opened the door of his parents’ apartment.
‘Hola,’ she ventured.
Toni started, turned round, and saw that smile once again. Dumbfounded, but now smiling shyly himself, he stood to one side and ushered her in, then followed, closing the door gently behind him.
She was irresistible; but it did not seem sexual. She commanded his attention in a quite unknown but delicious way.
He felt an urge, impossible to ignore, to hear music playing. Forgetting all courtesies, he made a clumsy bee-line for his parents’ sound system and selected his favourite Janis Ian CD.
Would you like to learn to sing?
Would you like to sing my song?
Would you like to learn to love me best of all?
Then he turned back towards her, looked her fully in the eyes, and spoke, in his native Spanish, which he had now heard her use twice. ‘What is your name, señorita?’
She clearly did not understand, though she clearly wanted to. So he pointed to himself. ‘Toni. My name is Toni.’
She smiled in recollection and recognition.
He tried again. ‘But who are you?’
Once more her face was blank. He nervously pointed towards her, afraid to offend, desperate to touch, desperate not to. ‘And you?’
Now she understood. Now she felt ready to exercise the little Spanish she had absorbed in the last few hours. But she had an able and willing partner for conversation. She could proffer, at this stage, only a few simple nouns, verbs and adjectives, but Toni, with surprising ease, would find himself supplying all the grammar needed to turn her efforts into perfectly understandable Spanish.
‘Choose a name for me, Toni.’
He searched around in his mind for a moment or two, and then, without knowing why, said simply ‘Carla.’
She smiled in appreciation. ‘Carla. Yes. I shall be Carla.’
Toni felt his knees suddenly weaken, and he sank into the sofa, motioning Carla to sit down next to him.
‘Do you live here alone, Toni?’
‘No. It’s my parents’ place. But they’re away for a few days in Barcelona.’
‘So nobody else will be visiting you today?’
‘No. Well, maybe ... no.’
‘Are you sure, Toni?’
‘Are you happy to be here with me, Toni?’
‘Oh, yes. I can’t explain the feeling ... but yes, I am ...’
Carla smiled again, her smile as warm and deep as the lagoons of her homeland. Slipping smoothly off the sofa and down onto her knees immediately in front of him, she slowly raised her arms and extended her hands towards his face.
Any moment now she would be holding his head in those beautiful hands. Any moment now ...
And when my party’s over
You can fall in love with me ...