“Ugh,” screamed Leon Prado as a fierce black bull gored him in the groin with its right horn. The beast hoisted him above its head and tossed him five meters through the air as easily as a feather pillow. He landed on the arena sand with a heavy thump. The crowd gasped as attendants rushed to save him from more punishment by flapping their capes at the rampaging monster. Hopefully, they would distract it from finishing Prado off. He lay motionless, the pain was excruciating, and blood spurted everywhere. His blood.
He opened a bone-weary eye and blinked several times as the haunting nightmare faded, and reality started to bite. “Where the fuck am I?” he said to himself with a growing sense of unease as he sat up. “And why is my head thumping so badly?”
He looked around the traditionally decorated room, searching for something familiar that might assuage his anxiety. The reflection of his twenty-year-old self in a large wardrobe mirror at the side of the bed startled him. “Not my usual pretty sight,” he said, spotting his hazel bloodshot eyes and pallid round face. He ran the fingers of both hands through his close-cropped black hair and inspected his naked muscular torso for any damage. His stomach churned alarmingly. “OK, I was drunk,” he admitted, as his foggy mind tried to make sense of the surroundings.
Opposite the end of the bed, he spied an old gilt-framed painting hanging on the wall above a bleached timber chest of drawers. He recognized the portrait instantly, as would nearly every Spaniard. It was of the famous Matador, Pedro Romero, painted by Francisco Goya back in the late eighteenth century.
The artist had captured Pedro at his best. A handsome man in his mid-forties with olive skin, long dark hair graying at his distinctive bushy sideburns. He was stylishly dressed in a black jacket lined with red silk, a gray waistcoat and a white shirt with a ruff collar. A pale rose-colored cloak was draped over his shoulders.
“Surely it’s not the original,” Prado mumbled as he staggered out of bed, guts lurching violently as he walked over to inspect it more closely. It was a high-quality print. Then the events of yesterday sprang back into his mind.
Prado was staying in the historic country mansion of distant descendants of the man in the portrait. The Romero family was one of the few remaining bullfighting dynasties in Spain. For three hundred years, each generation had produced several legendary heroes, still talked about among aficionados in the cafés and bars up and down the country. He’d been invited to a wedding by his best friend and work colleague, Juan Romero, whose elder brother Jaime was getting married to the daughter of yet another respected bullfighting family, Maria Ordoñez.
Leon groaned as he recalled the cause of his hangover. Knocking back that final orujo at last night’s stag party had been a huge mistake. Then a sense of foreboding pricked his subconscious. Had he been goaded into something foolish in his inebriated state? The memory flooded back. A broken conversation, a challenge accepted. He smacked his forehead with his fist as he realized what he’d agreed to. Then instantly regretted it as a stab of pain behind the eyes reminded him of his delicate disposition. “You numbskull Prado, you dumb bastard. You allowed those Romero brothers to cajole you into fighting a bull. You’re due in the bullring after breakfast.”
As Prado showered and shaved, his heart thumped madly at the magnitude of his foolishness. He dressed in his favorite blue Levi jeans and white Real Madrid football shirt, ruminating over his dilemma, cursing as each detail of the morning’s potentially fatal ordeal became clear.
This was not to be a mock bullfight wearing some stupid garish costume and an outsized sombrero against some timid breed of domestic cattle. He’d agreed to pit his wits against Toro de Lidia. Savage Iberian fighting bulls that had been maiming and killing capable bullfighters in arenas throughout Spain for centuries. This bad-tempered beast was renowned for its speed, strength, and agility; it feared nothing.
It was to be Prado alone in the bullring facing this killer. There would be a little training, admittedly from Juan, himself an apprentice bullfighter, but even with that, he knew he stood no chance. The prize would not be an ear or a tail, just with luck; his survival and some salvaged pride.
He could back down, but then he would lose face, and he was far too stubborn to let that happen. Which just might be his saving grace. If he could somehow see this through, he would undoubtedly earn some degree of face, and despite his feeble condition and lack of skills, he was not about to miss it. He was going into that ring come hell or high water.
Afterward, ignoring the distinct possibility that he might not survive. He would have earned his cara, even some cojones, and would become mucho hombre, which was worth whatever degree of risk that might entail. Nothing could be said to deter him, and nobody would dare attempt to persuade him otherwise. Except, perhaps, his mother, who would be furious with her guapo niño at such macho nonsense, but she was miles away in Cordoba busy looking after his father and four younger sisters.
Prado and Juan had been granted a three-day furlough from their compulsory military service at the Spanish Legion base on the outskirts of the historic Andalusian mountain city of Ronda where they were both military cops. The wedding was being held at Ganaderia Romero, the family’s bull breeding ranch. Over three hundred hectares of rolling hills, located in the Grazalema National Park to the west of Ronda. It was just off the snaking road to Jerez de la Frontera, the home of sherry, Flamenco and the Royal Spanish Riding School.
The ceremony would take place in the spacious family chapel opposite the main hacienda, followed by a catered reception and live music in a large marquee erected on the manicured lawns to the rear of the property.
Prado posed fully dressed in front of the wardrobe mirror. The shower had marginally improved his headache, but his stomach was still complaining. “Let’s hope it’s pissing down,” he said, going over to the window and drawing back the floral curtains.
As on most days in Andalucía, it was a crystal blue sky and not a cloud in sight.
“Fuck it,” he said.
The central feature of the substantial granite-built Romero property was a circular tower with a pointed terracotta tiled roof and narrow barred windows. It was the original defensive structure constructed during the fifteenth century. Its purpose was to protect the occupants from marauding bandoleros or bandits that had plagued the area at that time. Today it formed the main entrance. A grand circular staircase wound its way around the inner perimeter of the tower providing access to the three floors. Over the centuries, several wings had been added to accommodate the expanding family and staff.
Leon closed his bedroom door and headed along the dimly lit stone corridor toward the tower. He stepped gingerly onto the staircase that curved around a massive crystal chandelier. All the way down, his eyes were drawn to the portraits of deceased Romero bullfighters dressed in their traditional sky-blue trajes de luz, or suits-of-light. They may have been heroes in their time, he thought, but they are all dead now and if I’m not careful, I could be joining them in about an hour. He clung tightly onto the well-worn timber handrail. His stomach still complaining. Nerves jangling worse than ever.
He found Juan in the elegant dining room that led off the main hallway on the ground floor. He was seated at one end of a long, highly polished wood dining table covered with white placemats and silver cutlery. The views through full-height windows to the rear of the house were of glorious landscaped gardens. Beyond those were luscious green meadows dotted with grazing cattle and a hazy outline of the distant mountains. A massive walk-in fireplace dominated the far end of the room. More family portraits lined the walls, this time including women and children.
Juan was laughing and joking with a dozen or so bleary-eyed stag party attendees. Cousins, friends, and Jaime the groom, who was serving his first full season on the circuit as a professional torero. Their eldest brother Pedro, who ran the family restaurant in Madrid was sitting at the head of the table next to the brother’s father, Don Pedro Romero. A short, well-built balding man in his early fifties with silver hair. The eldest son in each generation was traditionally christened after their famous ancestor. The family resemblance to the portrait upstairs was incredible despite almost two hundred years between them. The only notable difference was progressive baldness and silver hair as each grew older. Otherwise, they were of athletic appearance, petite facial features, dark brown eyes, strong chins and a supreme aura of confidence. They all stopped talking and jeered at Prado’s belated appearance.
Leon’s stomach heaved at the sight of Juan’s congealing dish of Serrano ham and fried eggs, sprinkled with crispy garlic. He preferred to consume nothing, but dutifully went over to the buffet table and poured himself a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. He took a seat next to Juan and sipped it cautiously, wrestling with his nausea.
“Not looking so good this morning, Leon,” said Juan.
“Nonsense,” said Prado. “Never felt better.”
“A more robust sustenance might prepare you, better for this morning’s entertainment,” said Jaime. “Try the eggs, they’re not too greasy.”
“Never been one for large breakfasts,” said Prado trying another tiny sip of his juice. “Hence my lean frame and superb fitness.”
Everyone laughed, including Prado, who went back for some more juice and strong black coffee. He was starting to feel better.
They chatted generally over coffee until Jaime stood and said, “Everyone finished?” After a variety of nods and grunts of confirmation, he said. “Then shall we reconvene by the front door in ten minutes?”
Prado drank some water, then went outside through the massive oak entrance door. He felt improved, but far from perfect. His intestines were not behaving to his usual ox-like constitution. He stood in the warm sun admiring the old house, gardens and the family church opposite as he waited for the others. Birds were singing, and tractor engines humming as the ranch hands went about their daily tasks.
The spectators gradually assembled next to Prado. Some shook his hand, others slapped his shoulder and wished him luck. Then Romero senior and his wife Marta, a petite, slender woman in her late forties with short graying hair arrived and they headed off.
The Romero practice bullring was located some four hundred meters from the main house, along an almond-tree-lined gravel track. Freshly painted white fencing on each side enclosed calves and their mothers grazing in rich green pastures.
The bullring was small in comparison to actual arenas but was still thirty meters in diameter and surrounded by sturdy railings of timber posts and beams. A whitewashed rustic outbuilding with a terracotta-tiled roof stood next to the ring. It housed hay, tackle, changing rooms, and more significantly for Prado, a fully equipped first aid station. Adjacent to the outbuilding was a row of pens, each large enough to accommodate one animal. They opened out onto a narrow passageway that once inside, an animal couldn’t turn around; it could only go forward. There was a gate at both ends of the passage. The animals entered from the surrounding meadows through one, at the other, was the entrance to the bullring.
Prado spotted only one animal. He glanced at it as they passed. It seemed harmless enough as it chewed rhythmically on some fodder, ignoring him totally.
The audience took their places, leaning on the upper rail, waiting expectantly. A couple of farmhands stood by the outbuilding ready to help when needed. When Prado and Juan were done, they would herd the animal back to its grazing zone.
In practice bullfights of this nature, there is no possibility of the animal suffering any bloodletting or killing. The humans, however, were another matter. The ranch practice ring was where budding bullfighters learned their craft; serious injury was no rare event.
Following Juan’s example, Prado climbed over the railings and jumped down. The pain in his head when his feet hit the hard, uneven sand jolted him back to his predicament. He knew this was the moment to back out. He swallowed.
“What’s your blood group?” said one onlooker.
“Need some life insurance?” said another.
“At least he’s having a go,” said Juan.
Juan was also in jeans but sporting a Ganaderia Romero T-shirt bearing the family logo of a red rose in the center of a bunch of rosemary. He walked to the side of the ring and grabbed a rusting red bike that was leaning against the railing. It had a stuffed bull’s head, mounted onto the handlebars. Prado touched the unevenly curved horns. They were gargantuan and deadly sharp. Juan climbed aboard and circled around the ring. The squeaking pedals set Prado’s nerves even more on edge.
“The head is the same height as most of the bulls we fight,” shouted Juan riding towards him throwing him a shabby gold and magenta capote, or cape that had been lying neatly folded on the bike’s saddle.
Prado caught it and was surprised how heavy it was.
“Have you ever been to a bullfight?” said Juan.
“Never, my parents were against it,” said Prado.
“Then hold the capote, with its collar at the top with both hands in front of you, and then spread your arms so that the collar is just below chest height,” shouted Juan as he pedaled in circles around the ring, picking up a little speed.
Prado lifted the cape as instructed. “Why does it have to be these awful gaudy colors?” he said.
“The cape is a replica of those used by noblemen during the sixteenth century,” said Juan as he pedaled faster and faster around the ring. “Man has been chasing bulls for thousands of years. The Romans used to pit them against Christians in their stadiums. Bullfighting in Spain evolved from Spanish Royalty seeking some light entertainment. Wild bulls were rounded up and the King surrounded by his noblemen chased them on horseback around town squares trying to stab the bull in the back with lances. Noblemen took off their brightly colored capes and waved them at the bull to distract it if it came too near his Majesty. In those days bright clothes signified wealth and position. We’re just following that tradition plus it makes it easier for the audience to appreciate our passes.”
“If I find these colors garish, they must drive the bull bananas,” said Prado deliberately deepening his voice “Have you anything more masculine?”
The spectators howled.
“Bulls are color blind Leon,” said Juan. “It’s the movement of the cape that attracts their attention. So, don’t shake it until you are mentally prepared for it to charge.”
“OK. Why is it so heavy?” said Prado.
“Nothing but complaints this morning my friend,” said Juan. “The weight of the cape is deliberate. It prevents uncontrolled movement in the event of strong winds.”
“I see,” said Prado.
“Now shake it,” said Juan. “Show us what you can do.”
Prado feebly waved the cape.
“You’ll need to do better than that Leon,” said Juan.
Prado shook it as hard as he could.
“Better. With your sharp inquisitive mind, you’ve probably noticed that cattle have eyes in the sides of their heads.”
“Actually, I hadn’t. The nearest I usually get to cattle is attacking their grilled insides with a knife and fork. Is it important?”
“It gives them better peripheral vision. Which means they must turn their head to look where they are going. For example, if they look to the left, then they are going that way. It’s why we look the bull in the eye all the time, they are the mirror of their intent.”
“You’ll be expecting me to say good morning to the damn thing next,” said Prado to more laughter from the crowd.”
“Ha, ha,” said Juan. “There’s one more point and then we can make a start with a few passes. It’s crucial to stand behind the cape and always keep it close to your body. Then all what the bull sees is a single entity. I’ll explain why later.”
“OK. When the beast is thundering toward me, what should I do with the cape?” said Prado.
“Throw it over the horns and leg it,” said a helpful onlooker.
“Ignore him, Leon. Stand your ground until the last moment, then as the bull approaches stand perfectly still and guide it around you with a sweep of the cape. Take care never to touch its horns and don’t have the cape too far in front of its eyes. You must be close enough to block its vision but far enough away for it appear tantalizing. Then, when the bull has passed, quickly turn, reset the cape and prepare for the animal to spin round and charge you again. Then keep repeating that until it starts to tire. Now I’m going to charge you several times on this bike until you feel comfortable enough to have a go with a real animal. Are you ready?”
“As ever I can be,” muttered Prado turning to face Juan as he accelerated toward him.
“I’m traveling at about twenty kilometers an hour,” said Juan. “Which is a similar speed to the animal, but be wary, they can go faster, much faster. Watch their eyes as they approach. As I said, If the animal is going to swerve their eyes will look where they intend to go. It will give you advance warning to step away.”
Juan approached, the bike squeaking loudly. Prado swung the cape at the bull’s head, but it was too close. The cape snagged on the horns. The bike stopped dead, causing Juan to somersault off and land in a heap on the sand.
Juan picked himself up and dusted down his jeans. He didn’t look happy, but untangled the cape, gave it back to Prado and remounted the bike.
“The cape needs to be higher,” he shouted as he circled around the arena and steered straight at Prado. At the last minute, Prado stepped nimbly out of the way, but forgot to sweep the cape. Juan kept on going around, and this time told Prado when to sweep the cape. Everyone applauded as Prado completed his first pass adequately. They persevered and by the sixth attempt, Prado swept the cape as perfectly as he was ever going to.
Everyone cheered. Prado began to feel better. Momentarily.
“Miguel,” shouted Juan to one of the farmhands. “Can you let the animal in now, please?”
Two minutes later, the gate to the arena opened with an ominous creak. Prado stood fifteen meters from it, cape held in front of him, even though his arm muscles were already burning from the practice.
The animal trotted into the arena and stopped just inside the door looking curiously around. It was a magnificent example of its kind; jet-black, except for a white sock on its left foreleg, finely muscled, only two years old, but fully grown and weighed at least four hundred and fifty kilos.
Prado shook the cape. It made a loud swooshing noise. The movement attracted the animal’s attention and it regarded Prado through black obsidian eyes, but it wasn’t the cold, menacing stare that concerned him. Above the eyes were two massive, curved, sharply pointed, cream and black speckled horns aiming straight at him.
He watched them like a hawk, intestines rumbling, legs trembling, and throbbing head about to explode. Realization dawned on Prado instantly. This was not a practice bike, nor the stuffed dummy he was accustomed to during bayonet or unarmed combat exercises. It was a massive lump of fearless muscle that could smash a hole through a brick wall, or more significantly kill him stone dead with one thrust of those lethal weapons.
The animal trotted toward him, then accelerated into a gallop lowering its head and horns to aim directly at Prado’s groin.
The nightmare flashed into his mind; all he could see was his blood spurting.
His mind stopped functioning. He could move nothing as if he was frozen to the spot, then his guts liquidized. He prayed; perhaps something he should have done more of, for a hole to open below him, but nothing happened.
The beast was only meters away. Prado’s mind went blank as he prepared to meet his maker. All the maneuvers and side steps he’d almost mastered with Juan had been wiped from his mind.
“Move now,” yelled Juan. “Remember, sweep the cape in front of its face, just in front of the horns. Pretend it’s me on the bike.”
The beast lowered its head further.
Why won’t my legs move? Prado said to himself, as collision seemed imminent. “Goodbye Mum,” he whispered as his sphincter finally lost control.
Juan barged Prado out of the way, grabbed the cape, span round, and presented it to the charging beast, managing to guide it around his body with consummate flair and elegance. He finished with a final flourish, twirling the cape above his head mimicking rotating helicopter blades.
This was just one of his extensive range of passes or veronicas, reputedly named after Saint Veronica who, according to Christian legend, wiped Christ’s brow with a cloth as he passed by on his way to Golgotha.
Juan kept the beast occupied with more passes while Prado scraped himself up off the sand. Then he skulked off to the washroom, disgusted with himself and distraught about his shameful performance, but more importantly his favorite jeans.
As Prado came out of the shower, Juan was opening one of the wooden lockers opposite. “Thanks,” said Prado feeling totally depressed. “For saving my life. I’m sorry for my pathetic behavior and that mess.” He indicated the steaming jeans on the changing room floor. “To say I’m embarrassed would be an understatement. I hope I haven’t offended your family.”
“Leon, dear friend, please forget it,” said Juan opening a cupboard drawer and sorting through a pile of clean, folded clothes. He selected a pair of jockey shorts, a cream T-shirt, dark blue pants and socks. “You were not the first, neither will you be the last. Leave the jeans, etc., where they are. The staff will attend to them. They are used to it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Please do not concern yourself with anything Leon, you have no cause to be embarrassed and my family’s only concern is that you are alive, well and will forgive them for badgering you into the ring when you were full of orujo. Bullfighting is about managing fear, and it’s a perfectly normal human function to evacuate your bowels when terrified. At some stage in our apprenticeship, it happens to us all. Here, try these,” said Juan handing over the clean clothes and grinning amiably. “You’re taller than me so you’ll have a half-mast problem.”
“It all seemed so easy with the bike and the stuffed head,” said Prado shaking his head. “But that combination didn’t want to kill me. The way that beast stared at me was deeply disturbing, and I couldn’t move my legs. Sorry amigo, but I’m obviously not cut out for this line of work and thank you again for intervening. I’m forever in your debt.”
“You owe me nothing Leon,” said Juan. “At least you tried, most can’t enter the ring, even with the bike.”
“Well, if that is how horrifying it is with a young bull, I can’t imagine how it would be with a fully grown one,” said Prado slipping into the boxer shorts.
“Leon,” Juan laughed. “That was a cow.”
“A cow? Fuck you. Thanks, amigo, you know how to boost my self-esteem. But why cows? I thought you were here to train against bulls?”
“We practice with cows and steers, but not with bulls that are destined for the ring. They are deliberately kept away from human contact.”
“The Toro de Lidia is substantially different from domestic cattle because it has been selectively bred under tightly controlled conditions for centuries. It has a thirty percent more developed fight reflex, is incredibly intelligent and learns quickly. If it becomes too familiar with humans, it will recognize their smell and shape in the ring. Our capes would be rendered useless, and we wouldn’t stand a chance. The bull would kill us instantly.”
“I hadn’t realized that capes played such a major role.”
“Without them, we could never get close enough. Bulls behave instinctively in the ring, just as they do in the wild. His role, aside from fathering the next generation, is protection. He’s naturally wired to clear any space of potential threats to the herd.
“What he sees, when he enters a bullring is a lot going on. This is deliberate to disorientate him. For example, a man will pop out from behind the barrier, and then almost as quickly disappear. At the same time, the bullfighter’s team spreads out in a fan before him, each standing behind their spread-open cape, shaking them at him and goading him with taunts of Toro. With so much going on, he chases everything at full speed twisting and turning like a boxer. It saps his energy extremely quickly because he’s not built for such varied movement, only short sprints preferably in a straight line.
“After his initial expenditure of energy, he realizes that he hasn’t caught anything. He slows down and re-examines what is in front of him more closely. However, all he can see is a shape. We know that it’s a man holding a cape, but to him, it’s a single entity. It’s the same on an African Safari. All an elephant sees is the large shape of a Landrover, therefore he won’t see the passengers in it and will leave it alone. However, as soon as a person climbs out of the vehicle, the elephant sees a smaller moving object, which he is more likely to attack. It’s why I stressed that one should never wave the cape around separately from the body, always keep them as one entity otherwise the bull will spot the smaller moving man and go for that.
“Anyway, after his closer inspection in the bullring, the bull decides that the moving cape is the threat and it has to go. However, every time he charges, the cape keeps escaping him. Gradually, he becomes more and more enraged with this elusive prey and that anger converts into an obsession. He must kill the cape, to the exclusion of everything else. This is what the bullfighter watches for, the point when the bull has reached the peak of its obsession, it’s when it can be killed reasonably safely.
“Obviously, there’s more to it, but it’s the cape-work that will lead the animal to his death. It’s why we put in thousands of hours practicing our Veronicas with live animals. The more bruises we accrue, the more experienced we become, and can stand closer to the bull, the objective being that its horns almost kiss our suits as it passes. We call it dancing with bulls. You need to see a fight to really understand.”
“Love to. Perhaps you could take me to the next one in Ronda. When is that?”
“The Pedro Romero Festival is the first two weeks of September. I have three relatives appearing this year, so we can get family tickets. The penultimate day is the best. We call it La Goyesca. I’ll try and get seats.”
“Great, thanks, though I still don’t understand why you practice with cows. Surely, they are smaller and more timid, except for that monster earlier.”
“Ranchers need to identify the bravest and most aggressive females from their herds. The fiercest is then mated with those few exceptionally brave bulls that are pardoned in the ring. The combination produces fearless killers, facing them is terrifying.”
“I would have thought it safer to fight meeker bulls, why have you deliberately taken on the nastiest possible?”
“We are entertainers Leon; we want to put on the finest of credible performances in the prestigious Plazas de Toros of Spain. The crowd must believe that we face bulls that are as determined to kill us, as we are them. The crowd adores bulls, we toreros love bulls with a passion, the fiercer the better. Bullfighting wouldn’t have lasted for centuries if we used wimpy or drugged animals. The most rewarding accolade a torero can receive is when the crowd is so delighted with the courage, stamina, and determination of the bull, they demand that he’s pardoned. Nothing gives us greater pleasure than not to kill the bull, so it can go home to a life of green pastures and an endless supply of fine females such as your protagonist today. She’s called Melinda by the way.”
“Dear Melinda, she may be a big ugly brute, but I will never forget her. Anyway, thanks for explaining all this. In the future, I’ll learn about bullfighting as an observer. Meanwhile, I’d like to practice more with the two-legged variety. If I could find one.”
“Well, you might be in luck at the reception tonight? My new sister-in-law has some rather delectable and available siblings. One might suit you?”
“That would be erm…”
“Yes, wouldn’t it. Meanwhile, let’s grab a couple of horses and I’ll show you around. We’ll be back in time for lunch if you can stomach it.”
“I’m OK now, but no more cow confrontations?”
“No more orujo either,” Juan laughed.
Prado slipped the T-shirt over his head, threaded his belt from his jeans and slipped into the blue pants. He buckled up, chuckled at the six-centimeter gap between his shoes and trouser legs, and then followed Juan off to the stables.
“Adios,” he said to his stained Levi’s on the way out. “I suppose I’ll have to save up for a new pair now.”
Prado was impressed by the luxury cars as they disgorged their finely dressed passengers outside the church that evening. This was not a world to which he was accustomed, but it didn’t worry him. Spain is more egalitarian than elitist, and everyone welcomed him warmly.
The wedding guests were restricted to immediate family and friends, which still added up to two hundred people. The marriage was not founded just on romantic love between the couple, but was also a merger of bullfighting interests to expand both parties as a major force in the industry.
He and Juan stood by the church door both wearing their smartly pressed Legionnaire dress uniforms and highly polished boots. Juan whispered who was who, as each new arrival filed into the church.
“These are the bride’s sisters,” said Juan digging Prado in the ribs as a white Range Rover pulled up to the church. Three young women ranging from mid to late teens exited the rear door. They were all stunningly pretty with long dark hair, wearing elegant gowns. They whispered among themselves, pointed at the two handsome soldiers and giggled, as they waited for the driver to assist their wizened chaperone out of the front passenger seat.
“Buenas tardes, Doña Ordoñez,” said Juan.
“Hola Juan,” wheezed the girl’s grandmother. “And is this your new friend from the Legion?”
“Leon Prado, ma’am,” said Juan.
The grand old lady ran her eyes over Prado, nodded approvingly and said, “Will you both be out here until everyone’s inside?”
“Si señora,” said Juan.
“Then make sure that you pay particular attention to my grandson Fredo when the bride’s party arrives. He’s always banging on about soldiers. Show him your medals or something. I presume you have some?”
“Er… yes,” said Juan, who did not.
“And one more thing. I expect you and young Leon here to be on your best behavior with my granddaughters.”
“As always, señora,” said Juan, grinning.
“Girls, you watch these two soldiers. They might look pretty, but you can’t trust them an inch. They’ll have your knickers off faster than you can blink.”
The girls squealed and blushed.
Doña Ordoñez appraised her granddaughters, eyebrows raised. They quietened instantly and filed obediently into the church in line behind her. As the middle one passed Prado, she looked at him with twinkling eyes, then smiled at him demurely before following her sister into the church.
Prado was gobsmacked. His pulse raced.
“That’s Inma,” whispered Juan. “You could be alright there.”
“Frankly, Señor Crown,” said Detective Inspector Leon Prado in Spanish. “I’ve had enough of you.” They were sitting opposite each other in the interview room of the Central Comisaría in Málaga. There were no windows, but on one wall was a large mirror that provided one-way visual access from a small adjoining room. Prado’s boss and his assistant were standing over the engineer operating the video equipment.
“We arrested you at the villa in Torrox Park over three weeks ago,” said Prado rubbing his earlobe. “Thankfully for the victims, we were just in time to stop your partner in crime from raping a young man and two girls. Luckily, he was killed trying to escape leaving you with all his responsibilities. You chose to decline a solicitor but have not given us any reason as to why you might be innocent. We, therefore, have no choice but to charge you with people trafficking, abduction, imprisoning persons against their will and torture. You are not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you say may be put into writing and given in evidence. I will ask one more time. Who are the people financing your criminal enterprise?”
Crown stared blankly back at Prado and said nothing.
“Do you realize,” said Prado. “That the seriousness of these offenses will guarantee a lifetime prison sentence?”
Crown looked away from Prado’s relentless eye contact but remained silent.
“In that case, you give me no choice,” said Prado. “You will be taken to Alhaurin prison where you will be held without any chance of bail until the courts can find an available date for your trial. I should warn you that Spanish jails are packed with disturbed minds from all nationalities and religions. One of the common characteristics among your future cellmates is a distinct hatred of sex offenders, especially foreign sex offenders. Initially, your life inside will be in total solitary confinement to protect you, but there will come a time after the trial when you will be accommodated among these desolate souls. To put it mildly, your life will be in extreme danger.”
Crown said nothing.
Prado stood up, collected his gray suit jacket from the back of the gray chair and put it back on over his crumpled white shirt. He glanced at the mirror and nodded. A few seconds later the door opened and in stepped a tall, tanned, athletic-looking man in his early forties with steel-blue eyes, and shaggy blond hair dressed in black chinos and a short-sleeved light blue shirt.
“Señor Crown,” said Prado. “You may remember Mr. Phillip Armitage, my English translator from previous interviews. I’m going to leave you alone with him for a few minutes before the officers outside take you up to the prison. If you have any domestic arrangements that need attention, let him know.”
Phillip waited until Prado left the room before sitting down at the table opposite Crown. He looked him directly in the eyes and smiled warmly.
Crown ignored him.
Crown was forty-seven years old. A short, skinny, effeminate man with slender hands, blue-gray eyes, and greasy dark hair. Even though he kept his head down, eyes averted and left leg twitching furiously, he still managed to project an evil presence. As if the devil himself was lurking inside his body.
“Where are your parents now?” said Phillip.
Crown frowned, shifted in his chair and said, “What the fuck has those bastards to do with this?”
“I just thought they might want to know where you are?” said Phillip. Even after several interviews with Crown, he was still surprised at the man’s upper crust English accent. It was so incongruous with his appearance. “I could call them on your behalf.”
“Difficult, they are dead.”
Crown glared at him with a hateful expression. Phillip was amazed. After three weeks of hardly a word, finally, a reaction. Not much, but at least a change from the usual blank mask.
“A sister, perhaps?” said Phillip.
Crown put his head in his hands and shuddered momentarily. When he looked back at Phillip, the mask had returned.
“Malcolm,” said Phillip quietly. “The microphone is off now. Is there anyone that you would like me to inform about your circumstances? Any personal effects that you may wish for your long sojourn behind bars?”
No reaction from Crown.
“It is obvious that whomever you are protecting has a relentless hold over you. It’s the only logical justification for you not talking. Prado wasn’t bullshitting you about the dangers facing you in a Spanish prison. Not just from the weirdos, but also from the person or persons you are protecting. They will be concerned that at some time in the future, you may give them up to the police. It’s more than conceivable that they have contacts inside who will come after you?”
“I know that,” said Crown, lifting his head and returning Phillip’s gaze through watery eyes. “I doubt I’ll last twenty-four hours.”
“I’ve been authorized to offer you protection in return for your giving us the names Prado asked for. A safe house and a new identity, a chance for a fresh start. But you have to give me the information immediately.”
Crown thought for a moment. Then he looked Phillip in the eye and shook his head.
“But, if we can guarantee your safety, I don’t understand why you would choose to die.”
Crown’s eyes watered more heavily, he reached up and wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve.
“Is there anything?” said Phillip. “That you can tell us. At least then your death would not have been in vain?”
Crown stood up, stretched his legs and made the sign of writing. Phillip passed him the pen and notepad lying on the table. Crown walked over to it, picked up the pen, scribbled something quickly and threw down the pen. Phillip picked up the notepad and tried to read the almost illegible script. All he could make out was what seemed to say ‘look in the darkness’. Phillip ripped the note out of the pad and slipped it into his pocket, then stood, walked to the door and rapped on it. Prado entered with two uniformed officers who took Crown away.
“Did he say anything?” said Prado.
“Nothing we can use,” said Phillip holding his ear while looking at Prado directly in the eyes. “I fancy some fresh air,”
“Then may I suggest a coffee?” said Prado.
They stepped out of the Comisaría, walked over the quiet street to the café opposite and took a seat on a terrace table under a green awning. Prado ordered their usual.
“He did write something down,” said Phillip as they waited for their drinks.
“I saw that. What?”
Phillip took the note out of his pocket and gave it to Prado. He read it and shrugged.
“It says, ‘look in the darkness’,” said Phillip.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Prado.
“Darkness can be nighttime, a place without light or somewhere, where bad things are going down physically or mentally. The word in Spanish would be Infierno.”
“What’s he’s trying to tell us?”
“I can only assume that he means to look in the dark or deep web. It’s where we found his Peepers website.”
“Without more information, that’s worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Yes, but at least we know where the haystack is.”
“That’s one hell of a haystack. Wasn’t it you that told me the deep web is at least four hundred times bigger than the pages searchable by Google? And, it’s unlikely to be in Spanish, so can I leave that with you?”
“Fine. Any progress in Gibraltar? We could really use the detail of the CVS bank accounts and a court order for their lawyer’s files.”
The waiter delivered their coffee. They sipped them quietly, each lost in thought about Crown.
“You’re right,” said Prado. “However, it’s a lot of work fathoming the Rock’s bureaucracy then chasing after them. They are deliberately elusive and evasive to requests from the Spanish police. So, while we ought to press them, I’m not sure it will bring us anything extra. As it stands, we have more than enough to put Crown away, and I think we’re going to have to be satisfied with that. Unless you can find anything in this damned darkness web thingy.”
“I can only try.”
“I’ll talk to the boss about Gibraltar,” said Prado. “Maybe he has connections that might work better than mine.”
“Good idea. Any luck with the Sanchez brothers, Crown’s Málaga lawyers?”
“Some idiot granted them bail and unsurprisingly, they have vanished.
“What happened to Crown’s victims?”
“Angelika is having some counseling so should pull through. Juliet, you know about. Lars has gone back to Sweden. The illegal migrants have been transferred from Las Claras Convent to a detention center near Antequera.”
“How are they?” said Phillip.
“Angry at everything,” said Prado.
“Hardly surprising,” said Phillip. “They left their homes and suffered brutal treatment on their journey to Spain, with only their dream of a better life to keep them going. Then they are captured by the Guardia Civil, sold off by corrupt officials to a sexual slavery ring where they are tortured into abusing each other, then locked up pending deportation back to the horrors that they escaped from in the first place. I’d be apoplectic.”
“Me too, but they should have known all that before they started out on their journey. It’s not our problem, but my country is expected to pay for all this when we have enough problems of our own. The UN should be addressing global immigration with some urgency, otherwise, this will blow up into a massive explosion of violence all around the northern Mediterranean coastline. Meanwhile, our job is to round them up and send them back.”
“Only to be replaced by the next relentless batch of new arrivals.”
“Of which, we intercept about ten percent.”
“Given your limited resources,” said Phillip. “That’s not so bad and don’t forget, in your first major case, you tracked down twelve abductions, over a dozen missing migrants and closed down a sexual slavery ring and a corrupt network of civil servants profiting from this grim trade. That’s a good result.”
“Which we couldn’t have achieved without you and Amanda. Are you two er?”
Phillip paused, a loving expression lighting up his face. “Er, wonderful,” Phillip said. “But what about you? We’ve never discussed your life outside of the police. Are you married?”
“It’s complicated,” said Prado. “I married a beautiful, fiery, but stubborn girl from just outside Sevilla. Inma Ordoñez, she’s related to the famous bullfighter, Antonio. We met when I was twenty at a wedding in Ronda while I was doing my two years National Military Service. After that, I joined the National Police in Málaga and worked my way up to my current position. We have two fine sons now in their early twenties. However, until recently, we’ve lived apart for some fifteen years.”
“That’s sad,” said Phillip.
“Not really, it was by mutual agreement. We own and still do, a lovely house in Ronda from where I used to commute to wherever I was working. However, when I was promoted to run the Málaga Serious Crime Squad, it meant that I was away most of the time and failed to perform my paternal duties. To us Spaniards, that is a capital offense. However, now that I’ve been moved into the foreigner’s department, I have more free time and we’re making some serious attempts at reconciliation.”
“That’s great news. I hope it works out.”
“So do I. Long nights alone in my studio apartment here in Málaga with a bottle of Scotch, does not bode well for a happy retirement in about three years’ time.”
“But you’re still young?”
“Fifty-two is old in this business, especially after thirty years on the job.”
“What about management?”
“I’m a nuts and bolts copper, Phillip. I love solving crimes and locking up bad people. It takes a special breed to even think of becoming a manager and that is not me. Anyway, we have a rundown smallholding on the edge of Ronda that I want to develop.”
“Goats. We want to make cheese.”
“You and Inma?”
“Are you on your own tonight?”
“Care to join Amanda and me for a tapa. She wants to hear all about Crown’s case.”
“Love to, where?”
“Cortijo de Pepe, on Plaza de la Merced.”
“I know it. I have a few things in the office to tidy up. See you there in half an hour?”
They finished their coffee, Prado left some coins on the table and headed back to the Comisaría. Phillip headed off to Plaza de la Merced, extracted his phone from his pocket and called Amanda.
“How did it go with Crown?” she said.
“Yes, I’m fine thanks, had a good day?”
“Sorry, no, still stuck on this bloody editing for the foie-gras man.”
“What you need is a drink. We’re due to meet Prado in half an hour at Cortijo de Pepe. He can tell you all about Crown. Interested?”
“On my way.”
Phillip walked the few hundred meters along attractive narrow streets of elegant townhouses and modern apartment buildings to Plaza de la Merced, one of Málaga’s prettiest tree-lined squares. It was a balmy June evening, with a clear blue sky. The traditional tapas bar was on a corner overlooking the former medieval marketplace. In the center stood an obelisk constructed in 1842 to celebrate the life of General Torrijos, a liberal Spanish soldier renowned for his slogans of freedom and justice. According to legend, the doves that used this memorial as an evening perch had a major influence on the young Pablo Picasso, who was born in a house on the northeast corner of the plaza. There was a statue of him seated on a bench outside the house.
On arriving at Cortijo de Pepe, Phillip sat down at a table on the terrace under a shady awning, stretched his legs and enjoyed people watching until the waiter popped outside to collect his order.
“Una copa de Verdejo,” said Phillip to the waiter’s request several minutes later.
“Jamon Serrano por favor.”
A group of blonde-haired girls walked by carrying textbooks and chatting loudly in what sounded like Swedish. Phillip assumed that they were students at one of Málaga’s nearby language schools. Three smartly dressed seniors hobbled by Phillip leaning heavily on elegant walking sticks and deep in conversation. They stopped to watch the girls, nodding in approval. Phillip overheard one say, “The day I stop appreciating a pretty girl, is the day they carry me out in a wooden box.”
“Mentally, I could still ravish that lot,” said another.
“Physically, you would need rather a lot of blue pills for that,” said the third.
Phillip laughed aloud as the waiter delivered his order. He picked up the chilled glass and was about to take a sip of the delicious fruity white wine from Rueda in northern Spain when someone snatched the drink from his hands. A petite olive-skinned woman with an appealing elfin face, curvy figure and long silky raven hair sat down at the table, sipped his wine and smiled lovingly at him. The golden flecks in her light-brown eyes sparkled. They melted his heart every time he gazed into them. He reached out and stroked her cheek. She kissed his hand. In the background, the seniors gave him a thumbs-up.
“Hi, Amanda,” he said.
The waiter delivered Phillip’s ham.
“Una copa de Verdejo más y una tapa de Manchego por favor,” said Phillip.
“Por supuesto, Caballero.”
“What’s the problem with the edit?” said Phillip.
“I’ll show you at home later,” she said. “I need a break from it now. When’s Prado coming?”
“Ten minutes or so?”
Prado was in his office tidying up a few loose ends on the Crown paperwork when his mobile phone rang. It was his old friend retired bullfighter, Juan Romero.
“I hear you are getting back with Inma?” said Juan.
“Ronda rumor mill hard at it again?” said Prado.
“No, seriously, a friend bumped into her in the town center, they had coffee. Inma was most insistent that she wanted you back home.”
“Well, we are probably heading in that direction. Is this why you called me? Nothing better to do than listen to gossip?”
“Actually, there is something I wanted to chat through with you. You remember I told you that the family is concerned about the state of bullfighting and is trying to do something about it. Well, we’ve not achieved a damned thing. However, what we have discovered is a rather alarming stance taken by the Royal Taurino Society. The old farts on the committee are not listening to the people or to us.”
“Bullfighting business still bad then?”
“It’s falling off a cliff, but there is a ray of hope. My young nephew Diego, you remember, my brother Jaime’s son, has developed a cunning plan to turn it around. I can’t tell you over the phone, but I recall you saying that you are working with a couple of foreign translators, who make documentaries and broadcast them on their own website.”
“That’s right. Why?”
“We need a series of hard-hitting videos for social media and a full-length documentary explaining our vision for the future of bullfighting. Would they be the sort of people that could help us?”
“Why don’t you use your own contacts in the Spanish media? With your radio and TV commentating, you are practically the voice of bullfighting?”
“You know how well connected the Society’s committee are, they’ll bring pressure on the Spanish media to squash our campaign. Foreigners should be independent of all that.”
“Good thinking. Listen, Juan, I think their videos are brilliant, but look for yourself on their website, it’s at www.Nuestra-España.com. I have some stuff here I must finish, call me back in a few minutes.”
Prado rattled off his final emails. Juan rang just as he was turning off his machine.
“You’re right,” said Juan. “They are good. Listen, amigo, can you help persuade them to work with us?”
“I’ll try. Is it urgent?”
“Desperately. If possible, I need them in Madrid tomorrow. We will pay whatever it takes.”
“That’s just as well mate,” said Prado. “These two insist on doing things properly. May I suggest that you send them two first-class tickets on the AVE, book a fancy hotel room and a gourmet restaurant? I’ll persuade them to come, but the rest is up to you.”
“So how do we do this?”
“I’m seeing them shortly for a tapa. I’ll confirm if they are happy to come to Madrid. If so, I’ll send you their email addresses for the tickets afterward. If not, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. OK?”
“Perfect, mi amigo. Thank you.”
Prado turned off his laptop, tidied his desk and headed off to Cortijo de Pepe.
Prado bent to kiss Amanda on both cheeks, pulled up a chair from a nearby table, sat down and ordered his customary glass of San Miguel from the hovering waiter. He looked out across the square. “I love it here,” he said.
“Me too,” said Amanda.
The waiter returned, placing a small paper table mat on the table upon which he carefully positioned the frosty glass of beer.
“Anything more with Crown?” said Phillip.
“Crown no,” Prado paused. “But there is something else, and it involves you two.”
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