“Don’t you dare touch me,” screamed Angelika in Spanish as she barged through the gymnasium door. Her long, silky, blonde hair swirling as she ran down the school entrance steps.
“Then stop running away from me,” said Mateo letting go of her shoulder. “I need to talk to you.” “I’ll miss my bus.”
“Then catch the next one; this is important.” Angelika stopped and glared at him, breathing hard, “what do you want?”
“I don’t like the way you treat me.”
“We’re dancing partners, not lovers.”
“So when you thrust your hips against my thigh, it means nothing to you.”
“We were dancing asshole, we’re supposed to move sensuously.”
“Then I’m sorry, I must have misread your signals.” “Not for the first time. What else can I do to make you understand? We dance and that’s it.”
“I don’t turn you on at all?”
“For dancing, yes,” she said, her pretty face softening. “But nothing else.”
“Don’t you like boys or something?”
“Typical macho. I’m automatically a lesbian because I don’t fancy you.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Mateo raising his voice.
“Then say what you want, damn it.”
“Can’t we be more than just dance partners?” Angelika stood her ground, gazing into the light brown eyes of the tall, handsome, dark-haired teenager but she refused to be another notch on his bedpost. Half of her was tempted, but all the girls were after him and he was constantly overheard bragging about his conquests to his mates.
She shook her head, stroked his muscular arm and said, “Look, Mateo, I love dancing with you. We’re not bad together and stand a great chance of winning the school talent contest. So can we please continue as dance partners and just that?”
Mateo grasped her hand with his and gazed into her ice-blue eyes and said, “I want more than that.” Angelika looked at him thoughtfully and said, “if you stop behaving like a stud and learn some discretion, then maybe, but I’m not promising.” She pecked him on the cheek, adjusted her backpack and skipped out of the school gate in the direction of the Málaga bus stop.
She made her way along the deserted citrus tree-lined pavement in the fading evening breeze. Tiny, delicately-scented white petals fluttered on the slabs in front of her. She glanced over her shoulder, but Mateo had disappeared.
Angelika checked her phone. It was just after eight and there was a message from her Mom.
Fish tonight. Let me know when you’re on your way. I don’t want to put it in the oven too early.
Angelika began to tap in her reply. Her loose skirt billowing upwards revealing long, shapely and deeply tanned legs. Preoccupied with the message, she failed to register that a plain white van had pulled up beside her, its sliding side door open, and the engine running.
Angelika continued to type; totally focused on the reply to her mother.
A man in black clothing, his face covered by a dark scarf, jumped out of the van with a large red patterned shawl held tightly between his outstretched arms. He threw himself at Angelika, wrapped her head and shoulders in the shawl, jammed his hand over her mouth, and then lifted her up as if she were a feather. Even though her legs were flailing madly, he bundled her easily into the back of the van, shut the door and banged on the partition between him and the driver. The vehicle sped off into the twilight.
Angelika’s phone lay on the pavement, blocking the flight of several petals.
The screen had cracked with the impact.
“May the prophet favor us with a gentle surf tonight,” said Karim in Moroccan Arabic speaking loudly over the battered Land Rover’s powerful diesel engine, as he wrestled with the steering wheel. “It will be easier to launch this damned lump of a boat.”
“A moderate swell would be safer,” said Mohamed, hanging on tightly to the grab rail in front of him. “Then there’ll be enough of a breeze to blow it and its contents toward Spain when the fuel runs out. The last thing we need is disgruntled passengers landing back here.”
“Fair point. They’ll be wanting a refund.” “And our heads on spikes.”
“Life on the edge brother.”
“Beats herding goats.”
“Or picking fruit.”
Both young men laughed.
The daylight was fading fast, as they bounced down the almost sheer bumpy track toward the beach, threading their way through a dense copse of pines. They dared not turn on the headlights. Police boats patrolling the north-west coast would spot them instantly. Thankfully, Karim knew the way intimately, it was one of their regular departure points. He glanced in the wing mirror and sighed with relief. The trailer had stayed in the center of the track.
They reached the steepest stretch, where the weight of the trailer shoved them along even faster, forcing them closer to the tree line. Even with the four-wheel drive engaged, Karim dare not touch the brakes on the treacherous muddy surface. They smashed into several lower branches which slid along the side of the vehicle paintwork making a piercing, scratching sound that set their teeth on edge. Karim changed down to a lower gear. The Land Rover slowed, and he managed to hold it and the trailer out of the wood.
Finally, they rounded the last tight curve where the track leveled out and drove across the beach toward the shallows, forging deep ruts in the soft sand.
“How many liters of gas are we giving this lot?” said Mohamed.
“There were only a few drops in the tank, so I added another three,” said Karim. “That should be enough to get them out of territorial waters. After that, who cares?”
“How many suckers are in this group?”
“Assuming they all made the three-kilometer walk from Ceuta, it should be thirty-seven, but one woman is heavily pregnant. There could be thirty-eight by the time they reach Spain.”
“Have they all paid?”
“A thousand Euros each, but I didn’t charge the mother extra.”
“You’re too soft with them, brother.”
“Nonsense. One competitor now includes onboard meals. I had to do something to sustain our reputation.”
“But the flow of migrants to Spain through Morocco is booming, why give stuff away?” “If we want to increase our prices, we need to improve our customer experience.”
“What next; cushions, caviar and cruise attendants?”
“I was going to suggest lifebelts,” said Karim, smiling.
The Land Rover reached the shore, Karim drove into the water and turned the vehicle around. He stopped facing the track, applied the squeaky hand brake and turned off the motor. They opened the doors, clambered out and looked around them.
Other than the waves kissing the sand, it was totally silent.
“Where are they?” said Karim.
“They must be here somewhere,” said Mohamed. “Any sign of the beach guard?”
“We agreed,” said Karim rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “That he should stay clear for at least twenty minutes, so they better hurry.”
Mohamed removed the boat’s tiny motor and gas tank from the back seat and took off their covers, while Karim unstrapped the inflatable rubber dinghy.
Demand for large boats like this was so high that they had become difficult to acquire. The brothers were continually on the lookout for more to transport their weekly consignment of human misery across the channel. Some, they purchased from the police, who as fast as they confiscated them, sold them back to other smugglers.
The brothers had stolen this complete rig late the previous night. It was parked outside a café, where the owner was using the restroom. They’d stopped alongside, switched his trailer over to their Land Rover, and driven away without anyone noticing. Even if they had been seen, their vehicle number plates were covered in sand, and they were two faceless men dressed in long black robes, heads wrapped in Tuareg turbans.
They looked around for their passengers. One by one, they emerged out of the gloom from under the pines, plodding toward them in bare feet, wearing an assortment of dark clothing, including jeans, T-shirts, hijabs, turbans, robes, and baggy trousers. Most had thick jackets to ward off the night chill on their imminent but dangerous voyage. Some did not and were already shivering. As instructed, no one carried belongings.
Karim read their body language. Unsurprisingly, they appeared terrified, but expectant. It was the same with every group. They knew the risks of crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with no radar, had heard the death by drowning statistics and accepted that their boat would probably be intercepted by the coast guard. It mattered not, the prospect of a new life in Europe drove them onward.
Many had been traveling for years to arrive at this point. They were from all over Africa: Gabon, both the Congo Republics, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. All escaping the mess that was the Dark Continent, riddled with poverty, sickness, war, corruption, and starvation. They’d left their loved ones behind, struggled across deserts on foot, hitched rides on occasional trucks, been robbed, beaten; often by policemen, and some of them sexually abused. Doggedly, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and continued heading toward Ceuta, the Spanish enclave east of Tangiers, their portal to paradise or at least an easier death than from the horrors back home.
Most had tried on several occasions to climb the razor-wire fences surrounding this tiny patch of Europe in Africa, but it was too well protected by armed guards, sensors, and guard dogs with vicious teeth. Occasionally, one of them would make it over the top. Only to be sent straight back through a gate built into the fence solely for that purpose. Hands kindly bandaged having been shredded by the wire.
Their long, desperate journey had been in vain. The last chance at freedom cruelly dashed. Then they’d met the unscrupulous Mohamed and Karim.
The brothers were extraordinary salesmen who hovered on the edges of the Ceuta border, promising an easy ride to Spain and an introduction to fantasy employers in exchange for anything of value. If interested passengers didn’t have the cash for their ticket, they faced an undetermined future in the hills above Ceuta, risking imprisonment, slavery, or death.
Alternatively, they could steal the fare. In return for a small fee, Mohamed would demonstrate how to pick the pockets of unsuspecting tourists shopping in the Souk Al Had in the nearby frontier town of Fnideq. Most accepted the brothers’ offer; what else was there? Even though none of them had any idea what they would do to earn a living in Spain, couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, and carried no papers. To them it was irrelevant. Any kind of life in Europe had to be a vast improvement compared with that they had left behind. It’s what they’d been told, and what they chose to believe. It was this false delusion that had kept them going when they were dehydrated, cold, hungry, bruised or depressed.
Karim opened the back of the Land Rover and extracted liter bottles of drinking water. He passed them around. Each bottle was taken eagerly.
“Hands up; who’s missing?” Karim shouted in French while counting the heads.
Nervous laughter was the reply.
Most understood some French. They might not be literate, but were accustomed to trading with neighbors. Hunger is a hard taskmaster, and in order to have survived this far, they would have quickly picked up the necessary vocabulary for basic communication. So it would be on their arrival in Spain.
“Then let’s make a start,” announced Karim to the group, satisfied that all were accounted for. “We’ll launch the dinghy now. I’m going to reverse the trailer into the water. I need six of you to stand in the shallows and hold the boat steady, while everyone climbs aboard. Nine rows of four abreast, so board four at a time from the front and sit still. The final row is adjacent to the motor where there is only room for two. Who will steer?”
“I will,” said a tall young Nigerian, stepping forward, dressed in dirty jeans and T-shirt. “Keep pointing toward the northern star,” said Karim, waving his arm at the darkening sky. “I know where it is,” answered the Nigerian. “How do you think we crossed the desert, signposts?” “Allah be praised, we have a navigator on board,” said Karim. “Listen, my friend, the little island, Jazīrat Tūra or Parsley Island to the Spanish, is two hundred meters in front of you. It disputably belongs to Spain. It’s uninhabited but there are lethal rocks in the shallows that could tear a hole in the dinghy. You need to give it a wide berth and leave it to your left, heading northwest. Keep pointing that way, and you’ll spot the lights of Gibraltar. Try not to bump into it. Aim to the right where the beaches are flat.
“I should warn you that, roughly halfway there, you will cross the main shipping channel. You have no reflectors, so these huge tankers and the like cannot see you on their radar, but they are brightly illuminated, so not difficult to avoid. The bus station in La Linea de la Concepción opens at six o’clock in the morning. You should arrive with time to spare.”
The brothers looked on as the migrants struggled through the water and clambered on board the seven meter long dinghy. A handsome teenage boy and his attractive younger sister helped the heavily pregnant woman over the side where willing hands made her comfortable, she thanked them profusely in French.
Five minutes later, they were all crammed into the boat. It sat low in the water, but seemed stable enough. “OK,” said Karim. “All that remains is to mount the engine and gas tank”
“Wait,” shouted a breathless voice in French from the darkness behind them. “I will go with them.” Everyone turned to regard this last-minute arrival. A young man appeared out of the gloom perspiring heavily, he had long hair, a full beard, and lighter skin than the Africans. He was dressed smartly in new jeans, a dark-colored short-sleeve shirt, and the latest Nike sports shoes. A canvas bag was draped over his shoulder.
“Who told you our location?” said Karim. “Your brother Abdul; I met him at the Ceuta frontier. I ran all the way here.”
“And who are you?” said Karim.
“Never mind, but I need to reach France urgently. Here, take this.” The man reached into his bag, extracted a billfold, and handed over a wad of euros. Karim thumbed through them adeptly, nodded, and slipped the euros into a pocket inside his robe. The man clambered into the back of the dinghy and squeezed himself aggressively into the tiny space next to the Nigerian.
The brothers picked the motor from the sand, stepped into the water and clipped it to the wooden transom. Then Karim reached into the mass of bodies, placed the orange fuel tank in the bilges by the Nigerian’s feet, and opened the fuel line. Mohamed wrapped a cord around the starter and pulled. The engine spluttered into life on the third attempt. The Nigerian grasped the tiller and twisted the accelerator. The boat moved chugged slowly forward, the motor laboring hard.
“Bon voyage,” said the brothers as they stood and watched its barely visible shadow flickering against the water’s phosphorescence. Gradually, it melted into the darkness, and they were gone. The brothers threw the straps in the back of the Land Rover, climbed in the front, roared off up the track and into the night.
Detective Inspector Leon Prado scrutinized the name plaque mounted on the wall next to the full-height oak veneered door. It read ‘Jefe Superior, Provincia de Málaga: Francisco Gonzalez Ruiz’ in white plastic letters stuck onto a black rectangular background. He rapped on the door twice.
“Enter,” said a stern voice in Spanish from within. Prado turned the handle, pushed the heavy door firmly, and strode into the Málaga Police chief’s spacious office. Usually, Prado would have made a pithy remark about how the other half lived, as he walked toward the chair by his boss’s expansive mahogany desk. The views from the massive picture window of Plaza de la Merced and Málaga old town were spectacular. Today, though, he said nothing; it wasn’t that type of meeting.
“Sit down,” said the chief, while continuing to tap away on his laptop. Prado waited patiently and watched his boss finish off whatever vital task he was doing. He was in no hurry; he knew what was coming. Physically, the appearances of the two men couldn’t have been further apart. Prado was medium height, well built, and in his early fifties, with a thick head of silver hair and round friendly face. Gonzalez was short, slight, and in his early forties, with thin black hair swept straight back from his forehead. Chiseled features, a Roman nose, and cold obsidian eyes lent him a hard, imposing disposition.
Prado was familiar with his superior officer’s body language games to intimidate and gain the upper hand with his subordinates. Usually, they didn’t worry him, but today his stomach churned with anticipation about what he might hear.
With a final flourish, the boss hit the Enter key, closed the screen, and looked directly into Prado’s brown eyes. Prado didn’t flinch, he was used to hiding his true feelings, especially from this man, and returned the piercing gaze with equanimity.
“Inspector Prado,” said Gonzalez, picking up a beige folder and scanning its contents. “During the last six months, nine girls have been abducted off our streets and it’s been over a fortnight since you fucked up that kidnapping case. Not one single girl has been found and the pathetic number of leads you’ve stumbled on has yielded nothing. Furthermore, since the kidnapping, you’ve been off sick for over sixty percent of the time, and when you do bother to turn up, you don’t contribute anything worthwhile to our heavy workload. What do you have to say about that?”
“Actually, Sir, it has been thirteen days since Angelika was taken,” said Prado in clipped tones. “And in all my years serving this department, I’ve never come across such an elusive perpetrator.”
The boss continued to glare at Prado.
Prado was not at all surprised by his senior officer’s rant. He’d expected it days ago. The long-awaited call, though, only came yesterday. The chief’s administrative assistant had politely requested Prado to attend what she’d referred to as an ‘appraisal’. However, Prado had already heard the rumors flying around the office. He was about to be sacked from his job, heading up the Málaga Serious Crime Squad. He even knew who his successor was to be and surprisingly approved.
“Have you learned anything?” said el jefe. “That might assist your colleagues in finding these girls?” “It would have helped if I was allowed to publicize names and photos of the girls,” said Prado. “But you, and the powers that be, seem more interested in protecting visitor numbers than solving crimes. Given that I have to work with the limited resources available to me, I feel confident that there has to be a connection between them, sir. Although of different nationalities, they are all well under twenty, beautiful and have an advanced knowledge of English.”
“And what have you concluded from that?” “These are not random acts of madness. Each girl was thoroughly researched, because the abductors knew precisely the best time and place to take them without leaving any trace. How else could they vanish into thin air?”
“Like a magic trick?”
“Despite all our cameras and amateur photographers, there isn’t one single clue. That and the lack of resources has been driving me crazy. All I can tell you, is that I am convinced there is only one person or group responsible?”
“That sounds plausible, but why would they want so many?”
“Sex; Sir. What else?”
“Oh. I see,” said el jefe, puzzled.
“They’ll be for some kind of slavery ring or selling them to the wealthy. I don’t think they are for the abductor’s own use.”
“And your reasoning is?”
“No dead bodies, sir. These girls have been taken for a purpose and have at least a short term shelf life. If they were for personal use, they would have been used and disposed of. We’d have found some of their remains by now.”
“Very well, and is that all you have to say on the matter?” said el jefe glancing down at Prado’s personnel file in front of him. “No groveling, or lame excuse for your time off work?”
“The doctor’s report is also in the file, sir.” “Doctor’s report, Prado? At this level, we don’t take any notice of medical opinion. Depression, it says. We’re all fucking depressed, but it doesn’t stop us from getting up in the morning and doing our bit for the taxpayer. You’re a senior policeman; you should be immune to illness. Next, you’ll be expecting to enjoy the damn job.”
“Something less demanding would improve my health and effectiveness, sir.”
“Less demanding he says. Such as what, school crossing controller?”
“Your job looks just about perfect, sir.”
El jefe looked taken aback, then smiled, and chuckled, his grim face softening at his elder colleague’s insolence. “Ha, you don’t care, do you, Prado?”
“No, sir. I’ve been working here for thirty-two years; I’ve seen it all, heard all the bullshit, thrown away the T-shirt, and frankly, I’ve had enough. Now fire me, or give me something passably worthwhile to do. And yes, I would like to enjoy what I’m doing; otherwise what’s the point, and don’t tell me money.”
“I could let you go now. It’s within my power.” “That would hammer my pension payments.” “So it is money. Anyway, why would I care about
the size of your pension? You could always apply for work as a private eye or security guard, and the reduced costs would look good on my statistics.”
“You may be younger than me and have the support of the politicians, but you aren’t insensitive. Your low budgets might appeal to some, but I know that firing me would be difficult for you personally. You would find it hard to live with your conscience. Wouldn’t you, sir?”
The chief looked long and hard at Prado, who returned his gaze, unflinching.
The chief shook his head. “I never thought that I would have to say these words to you, Inspector Prado. You were a rising star on my team. I had you earmarked for greater things, I can just about tolerate the lack of progress with the missing girls, but the way you handled that kidnap was a disaster, and your performance since can only be described as pathetic. Regretfully, it falls upon me to confirm that as of the last day of April, your employment as head of the Serious Crime Squad is terminated.”
“Thank you, sir,” Prado said, standing up. “Sit down, Leon. I haven’t finished with you yet.” Prado slumped back down in the chair, his worst nightmare playing out before him. El jefe picked up another file on the far corner of his desk and tossed it over to Prado.
Prado turned it around and looked at the words typed on the front label – ‘New role—responsibility for crimes involving foreigners throughout the province of Málaga.’ Prado opened the file and speed-read the single printed sheet inside but the title had described the job perfectly. He looked up and found the chief regarding him with a kindly expression. “It’s tailor made for you, Leon.”
“Except for one minor thing, Fran.”
“You don’t speak any foreign languages.” “Correct.”
“You also won’t have any staff or budget, but you may liaise with appropriate departments as needed.” “So, it’s a political appointment?”
“Yes, the marketing boys at the tourist office dreamed it up in response to the mayor’s concerns about the increase in crime by foreigners against foreigners. They reckon it will enhance our focus on safer tourism. We’re just a little ahead of ourselves for a change.”
“About nineteen years, sir.”
“Ha. We managerial types prefer to call it strategic planning. At the moment, there’s not much to do, just the odd minor case here and there, so it certainly fits your criteria of not demanding. I can’t quite see you signing up for any language courses, though, so I suggest you find yourself a volunteer translator, maybe two or three. English will be the most important, followed by German, French, Russian, and Moroccan Arabic. I wouldn’t bother with Armenian or Swahili; they all speak English. You’ll find plenty of volunteers to choose from at coastal medical centers, hospitals, or language schools. You’ll report to me directly. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Prado, standing up. “When do I start?”
“First of May.”
“But that was last week.”
“I had every confidence.”
“I won’t disappoint you on this.”
“I know, and by the way, I’ve moved your office up to this floor. It will look like a promotion to your colleagues.”
“That wasn’t necessary, but thank you again, Fran.” Prado picked up the file and headed for the door. “One more thing,” said the chief. “What with the
illegal migrant traffic through Italy and Greece being curtailed by the European Union, they’ve started coming to Spain via Morocco. I’m informed that there is a growing network of crooks setting up to exploit them. Apparently, they offer a choice of career paths; selling fake goods on the street, forced labor or sexual slavery. See what you can do to close them down.”
“But isn’t that the responsibility of the Guardia Civil?”
“Yes, but they need help so I volunteered your services.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Prado opening the door. “I’ll get on it.”
Isabel, the chief’s administrative assistant, a well rounded but stylishly dressed woman in her late thirties with dyed blond-highlighted hair, was waiting for him outside. She had an uncanny knack of always being in the right place at the right time. She escorted him down to the far end of the corridor, opened the last door, and waved him in. “If I can help in any way, Leon, just call me,” said Isabel, patting him on the shoulder as he walked through the door into his new domain. “It’s good to have you back. We all missed your terrible jokes.”
Prado looked around. It wasn’t as big as his last office, but he couldn’t spot any brooms, and the view could have been worse. At least the laundry fluttering from a line on the terrace opposite didn’t have any holes in it.
A new phone and laptop sat on top of the reasonably spacious but cheap pinewood desk. He opened a drawer and checked the manufacturer’s label. As he thought, Swedish; thankfully, somebody else had unraveled how to assemble it. He checked out his new toys. Latest models, even a protective case for the phone. Nice touch, thought Prado. He tended to throw phones at stupid people. Isabel had already loaded both with his customary password, files, contacts, and favorite websites. Málaga Football Club was in pole position. She’s amazing, he thought.
Prado took his jacket off and tried out his new chair. It was surprisingly comfortable, so he decided to prepare himself for the first crucial task in his new career. He sat back in the chair, placed his feet up on the desk, and closed his eyes. He breathed a sigh of contentment and let his mind wander.
Why hadn’t he settled for a less challenging career in the first place, what had made him push himself so hard, who had he been trying to impress with his success? His parents, wife, the pretty girl in reception, colleagues, the world at large? It certainly wasn’t for money, or to compensate for lack of manly dimensions, so it must have been for that inner voice that nagged him onward and upward. Maybe, if he hadn’t demanded so much of himself, perhaps he would still be happily married and could see more of his boys, he certainly regretted being on his own. On the other hand, was he deluding himself, maybe it was necessary for a man to strive for the top to gain a sense of fulfillment, a life worth living? But only a few make it right up there. Not everyone can be the boss, he reasoned. Most become stuck halfway up the ladder, becoming disillusioned and bitter. His eyes blinked open at this revelation.
“Am I bitter?” he said aloud.
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