"Difficult for Strangers" Mr Martínez One
The sky's battleship grey was only missing the rust. The wind blew palms and pines alike close to the horizontal. Martínez had never thought he'd live in a place where both those kinds of tree grew. When - and if - the rain stopped, the roads would seem freshly oiled, the hills would return to winter's green for a day. Meantime it rained. Time for a smoke under the shelter of the bar's flapping toldo. Green and grey-ed stripes better at keeping the sun off your head than the rain.
Martínez lit the Ducados. The burnt taste of the tobacco had the savour of the first Lucky stolen from a crushproof pack that belonged to someone's dad, back before you'd acquired the taste. Ducados; smoked by construction-workers and farmers and gardeners and bums; cheap and tasting like that first-ever cigarette, the one that made you cough and say that's good, real good, to your brother or best pal or even a bully-boy jock who made you smoke it, though the tears came to your eyes. You could buy Marlboro here, anywhere, everywhere. A good place to hide, where no Americans came; off the tracks beaten from Seville to Santiago via Barcelona after that dumb-ass film. So you smoked local, acted local, spoke local-lite as if you came from Guatemala or Mexico and kept an eye out for men in suits too good for the pueblo.
Diego would be late, for sure. Martínez would wait ten minutes then call inside for another coffee. Four spoons of tarry liquid in a cup that you had to put 3 packets of the sugar with life-affirming quotations on one side of the paper and the name of the bar on the other into to make it taste less like melted black-top. Hell, even some of the locals drank 'Café Americano'; although the builders and bums would catch each others' eye and cough 'Maricón!' under their breath. You had to call inside for anything and not just when it rained. Every few hours a camarero would come out and register disbelief that the four or five tables were all full of empty glasses, dirty crockery and the paper napkins that blew onto the floor and back onto the table in the capricious wind. It was almost as if he or she believed there was something called a bus-boy and being a waiter had no obligation other than to bring out drinks and the oily finger food they called tapas. Diego was always late. Coffee with Diego was part of the day he didn't care to miss.
Two green-and-white SUV's pulled up outside Café Bar Ilusión, blocking both lanes at the entry to the circle with the stone cross in the centre. Every small burg and hamlet had traffic circles that no-one knew how to drive around. The traffic stopped and the drivers seethed. Martínez watched as one of the uniformed Guardia Civil strolled ten cars down and stopped just as the guy hit the horn. The Guardia hauled the guy half out of the window by the front of his shirt. Then he let go and moved down the traffic line to catch the next guy who wanted to sound his horn.
Diego Rueda came over to Martínez but sent the other two Guardia inside.
'Four, Cabo Mayor? What's up?' Martínez dropped his cigarette butt. It sizzled in the water pooled around a sunken pavior.
'Nada, got a cigarette for me?'
Martínez handed him the packet, lit the cigarette with a disposable.
Cabo Mayor Diego Rueda nodded and blew out some smoke,
'You'll never get it. How many times a day do you get asked for a light?'
Martínez shrugged, 'But four Guardia, Diego? In Redención?'
'Wait 'til the Policia Local get here. Or maybe don't wait.'
Rueda dropped three-quarters of Martínez's Ducados into the same pool of water. There was no hiss and it floated turning slowly brown.
'Yeah, I got another message. From- well... you know where. Ve te, tio. Hide, at least for a few days. We're expecting visitors, too.'
Martínez nodded. But the fact was he didn't know. Had not one scintilla of a hint of a clue. You did what the Guardia said. A local would, and Martínez wanted to be hidden by Andalucian dress, customs and skin. People were looking for the man he used to be, people who weren't Andalucian, Spanish or even Latino. People who were just looking. North Americans, Northern Europeans and even Brits. Martínez remembered being an Anglo himself, a long time ago. When he used to look like himself. So he walked down Calle Ilusión towards Serendipia, another Ducados in the corner of his mouth. He wondered what the Cabo Mayor thought he knew. A fool would have asked Rueda who was 'visiting'. A damn fool would wait around in Redención to find out.
In the efficiency apartment near the Ayuntamiento, Martínez's bag was packed and beside the door. He was lying on the coverlet, smoking with the window open; the battery from the smoke alarm was next to the shot-glass on the night-stand. Flicking his butt out of the window, he sprang up from the bed. He left the bag by the door, like any founder-member of the Damn Fools' Club would.
The café on the other side of the crossroads was a hole-in-the-wall bar, no seats inside and damn few on the sidewalk in front. Martínez was standing at the bar. The street window through which El Calvo served drinks and occasional bocadillos allowed a view of the Café Bar Ilusión. The Guardia were long gone and now the rain was easing too. He wanted another smoke, but began cleaning under his nails with a pen-knife instead.
'¿Porque nos visitas hoy?' El Calvo barked the question out.
'Why not? I wanted a change, your bar is as good as another.' Martínez wondered if El Calvo polished his scalp and if he liked the nickname it had brought him.
'You look over at the other place. Your usual place. I see you there most days.'
'A man likes a change.' Martínez said.
El Calvo put a shot glass in front of his only customer, '¿Un chupito?'
'Why not, like said “a man-”
'Likes a change. Not in small towns, Señor.'
The bar-owner poured himself a brandy, 'Salud!'
Martínez replied in kind. El Calvo refilled the glasses.
'You from where? America Central? One of those “-agua” or “-guay” countries? What the fuck you doing here, Tio?'
Martínez laughed, 'Hiding, what else?'
The man behind the bar wiped a hand over his sweating scalp, 'You funny. You want to smoke, go out the back, through the kitchen. I will watch over there.' El Calvo lifted his chin towards his competition on the other side of the crossroads.
Behind the kitchen was a tiny courtyard, full of beer crates and wet cardboard packaging. A woman in a head-scarf stood cigarette in hand staring up at the sky.
'Buenos dias, Señor.' She appraised his work-boots, blue, quasi-denim pants, tee and windcheater jacket. 'No eres albañil.'
'How do you know?'
'Las botas limpias aparte, nos conocimos todos el uno al otro en un pueblo asi.'
Martínez looked down at his boots, too clean, perhaps, for a builder.
'That's small towns the world over, everybody knows everybody else.'
He hoped she wouldn't come out with the old saw about the world being a pocket square. Martínez's dad used to fold one and put it in his coat. A thin white line showing above the breast pocket, no points, not two nor three. His dad had never had a business lunch in his life. That pocket square travelled to cocktail bars and suds taps all over the city, the suit he carried it in growing worn and baggy but the white line stayed fresh and sharp right up until the day he died.
The woman was still staring at him in the frank way that all Latinas did. Didn't mean anything, nothing at all. She dropped her cigarette butt, stamped on it as if it were part of a flamenco routine. She would have suited the dress, Martínez imagined her sweeping the full skirt in a thrilling arc as she went inside. He looked up. Blue between the clouds, maybe there'd be sun after all.
Inside the cafe El Calvo was staring out of the window at Cafe Ilusión.
'Nada,' the bar owner said.
And there was nothing: a couple of expat Brits drinking brandy; the idle waiter smoking a cigarette in the doorway. The Guardia Civil had gone, even Rueda.
Martínez thought about when he’d arrived in the town, just after Martínez had arrived himself. Rueda had made a point of visiting every bar and cafe on his first day.
In Ilusión, next to the bar, Rueda had said,
'It's difficult for strangers.'
'Outsiders, foreigners. People from the next town, people who've only lived here twenty years.'
Rueda looked over both shoulders, although the café was empty apart from the owner.
'It's diff-i-cult for strangers.'
'Not here,' Martínez said. 'I'll come into the Comisaría.'
Rueda let out a long sigh and started to speak, before Martínez interrupted,
'And strange for the difficult. I'll come. Make a denunciación, around 4.'
Rueda stood open-mouthed. Martínez left his beer on the bar, before heading out onto the street.
At four o'clock Rueda gave the password again, this time in an interview room.
'Let's not bother with that,' Martínez said. 'What is the message?'
'There's no message.'
Martínez slammed a hand on the desk. 'Come on, don't waste my time!'
Rueda leaned back in his chair and swung his feet up onto the desk.
'Calmate! The message is 'There's no message.'
A siren sounded outside. It dopplered into the distance. An ambulance, another Senior Citizen taking the last ride to a hospital on the coast. Martínez slumped back in his chair.
'You should know I could not find out where this message originated.' Rueda was stroking his chin. Martínez felt like punching it.
'I tried, how I tried, to find out. I traced the e-mail to the Minister for Infrastructure's office.' Rueda raised his eyebrows, looked up at the ceiling and two flies circling like string-and-canvas war-planes.
'A long way up the chain, Martínez. My brother-in-law's cousin works there. He said the message's trail went down again. A long way down.'
'Who sent it? It must have...'
'Come into the country from somewhere?'
'It didn't though.'
'Who sent the message?
'I can't, it should have come from... well... anywhere.'
'So guess who sent it.'
'I have no idea.'
'I did, apparently.' Rueda laughed until he coughed.
Martínez rose to go.
'Wait,' Rueda mimed smoking a cigarette and jerked a thumb out towards the rear of the building.
They walked out of the open fire exit. Rueda sent two subordinates inside. They dropped their butts and stamped hard on the glow. Rueda asked if Martínez had any cigarettes. He shook out two Ducados and reached in his pocket for a lighter. Rueda laughed.
'You'll never pass for a local, Senor.'
'Who says I'm trying?'
The policeman laughed again, 'Whatever, where are you from that you receive messages like this one?'
Martínez shrugged. 'Here and there.'
He shrank backward as Rueda leaned close.
'You are an Anglo, Mr Martínez. You have dark hair and skin and your contact lenses are undetectable or you have one of Cortes' sailors in your family tree, but you are no Latino, nossir.'
They both blew plumes of smoke high into the air. Rueda went on speaking,
'What do people say here? Are you a Guiri? Or just someone from out of town?'
'They say lots of things, Guiri, Sudaca. They say Americano, but never mention el Norte.'
'That might do for you, huh?'
The policeman held out a hand. 'We'll see if I get another message from myself, one day. Meanwhile, don't worry. You can be whoever you want, for me, Cantinflas.'
Martínez laughed. He didn't look much like the Mexican actor and he was surprised Rueda knew who he was.
That had been six months ago. Rueda and Martínez had shared a coffee most days since. The policeman would joke that he hadn't written to himself in ages and Martínez would summon up a laugh like a dry cough. And now someone had hacked Rueda's e-mail to contact a government official again and the message had been forwarded to him, like last time. He should have got the message word for word. He'd ask Rueda, next time he saw him.