Author’s Note: The double quotes you will see at the beginning and end of spoken lines during certain scenes will always indicate dialogue actually spoken in Spanish by the characters, but translated, so to speak, into English for the reader’s sake. The regular, single quotation mark at the beginning and end of a line means that the words are being spoken in English. -J.I. O’Neal
Zeb Martin lowered the camera and smiled his thanks at the elderly street musician, who returned the smile with one of his own, but didn’t falter a single note on his violin. Zeb closed his eyes and felt the music course through him, savoring the beauty of each note. The sound filled his ears and reverberated off the stone facades of the buildings surrounding Plaza Mayor, echoing down cobble stone alleys and streets. When the song ended, a small pang of loss flitted through his heart, but he tossed some coins into the open violin case, applauded the virtuoso and headed down the narrow Madrid streets in search of something else to immortalize with his camera lens.
A glance at his watch confirmed he still had plenty of time before the concert, so he slowed his pace, taking in the ancient plaster buildings, marble fountains and sculptures as he discovered them. The camera beeped a warning just as he tried to photograph a particularly ornate small fountain outside a restaurant. He’d gone through yet another memory card. After replacing the full one with an empty one, he framed the shot again and pressed the shutter button.
A young boy of about ten years old wearing a red shirt and blue shorts ran in front of him and reached into the fountain to splash some water out at a couple of his friends who were just catching up, their laughter filling the air. Zeb laughed in amusement and photographed their fun. They raced off as quickly as they had arrived and he shook his head as he watched them streak down the road, squealing and laughing without a care. Zeb turned back to the fountain. He had to take a quick step, however, as the rapid turn of his head and the slight slope of the street momentarily unbalanced him.
He laughed it off, but his heart did a double-beat for a few seconds. A deep breath and a few more artistically framed photos of the fountain’s cherubs put it all behind him, and soon he was making his way through the crowded city to the concert hall where this evening’s performance would take place. His suit jacket, which was so stifling in the heat outside, soon was not nearly enough to ward off the chill of the concert hall, whose managers apparently thought their guests would appreciate being frozen while enjoying the show.
He was shown to his seat by a pretty señorita, after leaving his camera with the front desk manager, and had only a few moments to spare before the house lights dimmed. The hushed conversation and rustling of programs and formalwear followed suit, and soon the hall was filled with anticipatory silence. The curtain slid open with a rattling whoosh to reveal the orchestra. The conductor, facing the audience, dipped his head once in acknowledgement of the audience before turning to his musicians. He lifted his baton and left hand, held them poised aloft, then eased them into motion, coaxing the first few notes of Prelude de l’apres midi d’une faun. The music filled the hall, slowly building and falling, and Zeb felt the world melt away. He no longer cared that this precious vacation would soon be over, he didn’t give a thought to the classes he would be teaching this semester or all the work he still needed to do to prep for them – and all the stress that came with it.
In this moment, there was only the music.
When the final note faded, the hall erupted in applause, and Zeb was part of it. The conductor took his bow, acknowledged the orchestra before him, then turned back to the musicians and took up his baton once more.
This time, it was a cello piece: Elgar’s Cello Concerto in G Major. The low, thrumming notes were almost more felt than heard, a deep vibrating he could feel in his chest. But then another sound slowly tugged at his attention. A low rush of white noise – like the sound of an ocean wave – began to get louder, until he could no longer hear the lowest notes of the concerto.
His heart thudded. He looked around slowly, hoping to see an innocuous explanation, some source to which to attribute the distraction. But his eyes found nothing but hundreds of oblivious patrons all eagerly enjoying the concert.
His breathing became shallow and quick. He had to get out of there. The exit wasn’t too far. He was seated on the end of a row; he could easily slip away if he left right then, and no one would notice.Palms sweating, he pushed himself up out of his seat, moving just slowly enough to keep the seat from rebounding noisily as he exited, and rushed toward the exit. A few people glanced his way, but soon returned their attention to the concert.
Zeb pushed through the oversized door and into the plaza outside. He gasped for breath, his heartbeat pulsing in his ears. He sat on the edge of a large planter full of fragrant herbs and fought to calm himself down.
The sound was gone. He was fine. Everyone, everything, was fine. But the fear stayed with him, enough so it seemed that just going back inside the building would make something terrible happen.
A black and green soccer ball rolled into his foot, and he looked up from the ground to see the same young boy from earlier running toward him, his dark brown eyes wide with apprehension.
“”Excuse me, sir,”” the boy said in hurried Spanish. “”I’m sorry – my ball got away from me.”” The boy scooped up the ball with one foot and began passing it from one foot to another, bouncing it off the top of each and then balanced it on the toe of one well-worn shoe. He went to say more about some of his friends and an angry bicyclist.
Zeb got the gist of what the boy was saying, though he spoke much too quickly to be clearly understood. “”It’s okay,”” he replied. “”Don’t worry about it,”” he added. He rubbed his hands across his face, scratching at his closely trimmed beard before pinching the bridge of his nose as the ground beneath him started to tilt to the left.
“”Are you okay, mister?””
The dizziness passed. Zeb sighed and eyed his shaky hands a moment. He turned to the boy with a reassuring smile. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said in English.
The boy’s expression lit up. “American, yes?”
“Yes,” Zeb replied with a smile. “But my mamma’s mamma was born here in Madrid. My mamma was born in California, which is where I’m from.” People often mistakenly thought Zeb was Mexican or Spanish, especially in summer when his skin darkened in the sun. However, his green eyes revealed the Caucasian half of his genetic code.
“California? Have you ever watched them making movies?”
Zeb laughed. “No, sorry. I live very far from Hollywood.”
The boy’s expression wilted with disappointment. “Oh,” he said, kicking the soccer ball up and catching it to bounce on his knee. He looked over his shoulder, up the dusty stone street to where his friends were waiting. “Goodbye, mister,” he said with a wave of his grimy little hand.
“Wait,” Zeb said. “May I take a picture of you for my sister? She would be very impressed with your soccer skills.”
The boy dropped the ball and corralled it with one foot securely on its top. “Your sister? A girl?” The boy smiled. “She likes futbol?”
“Very much.” He looked down and realized that his camera was not next to him. “Oh, I left my camera inside the concert hall.” He pulled out his wallet and waved a five dollar bill toward the boy. “If you tell the man at the ticket counter that Mister Martin asked you to fetch his camera, and bring it back to me, I’ll give you five dollars.”
“Yes. Sorry, I didn’t get any more money exchanged today.”
The boy thought it over a moment. Then he ran toward the concert hall and returned a minute or two later. “Here,” he said, holding out the camera proudly. Zeb smiled and handed over the fiver.
The boy puffed out his little chest and wiped at a smudge of dirt on his red shirt. He began to weave the ball between his feet in an elaborate pattern, looking up at Zeb to make sure he was taking pictures. Zeb smiled and obligingly recorded every fancy piece of footwork the young boy showcased.
One of the other children called out and the boy turned, waved at Zeb, and said, “”Goodbye, Mister Martin!”” Then he raced back to his friends without losing control of the ball for a moment.
Impressed by the agility of youth, he could only smile and shake his head in wonder. He ran his hand through his hair and stood slowly. When no recurrence of the unsettling noise, or the accompanying dizziness, returned, Zeb made his way back to his hotel.
The next day, the unnerving incident was nearly pushed out of his mind. He was now in a small neighborhood in the south of Madrid, on top of a brick building with a breathtaking view of the city. He glanced down yet again to assure himself he was leaning firmly against the waist-high wall that encircled the rooftop before lifting the camera again. The old couple – his Great-Aunt and Uncle, who he hadn’t met but one other time – that had graciously allowed him on top of their home stood nearby, watching him take photographs.
His Great-Uncle suddenly broke the silence to inform Zeb that he and his wife were returning indoors and asked him not to linger any longer than he needed to, as it wasn’t very safe up there. Zeb thanked them both warmly, then turned to catch the afternoon sun glinting off the waters of the fountain in the square. He steadied himself with one hand and then took the photograph. He stayed just a few moments longer, content with the beauty around him, before replacing the camera back into the case on his shoulder.
A sharp, banging sound drifted up from ground-level to his right, and he heard a man’s voice protesting something. Furrowing his brow, Zeb walked a few feet to the right to the corner of the roof. A newer building stood across the street almost a block away, and it was from a door he could not see that the upset man had issued. He was young, probably in his late 30s like Zeb, with movie star good looks. He was agitated, though, raking his hands through his hair and talking animatedly to someone Zeb could not yet see. The man walked across the nearly-empty parking lot and got into a silver sports car, started it and pulled around to the side of the building where the door must be. He parked and jumped back out of the car, leaving it running. Zeb could no longer hear the man’s voice, but he was still visibly upset about something.
He disappeared from Zeb’s line of vision for a long moment, then emerged once more, walking backward and carrying something heavy in both hands…
Zeb gasped. A head, shoulders and arms…The man was helping someone carry another person out of the building. “What the…?”
He brought the camera up to his eye and zoomed in to be sure he really was seeing what he thought he was seeing. A second man came into view. There was now no doubt: the two men were definitely carrying a body. Zeb fished his cellphone out of his pocket and began photographing the men with one hand while trying to dial the police with his other.
He leaned his elbows on the short wall before him, steadying the camera. The second man, a bearded dark-haired man with sharp features, dropped the legs of the man he was helping to carry and opened the trunk of the car. “Oh, Lord, no,” Zeb muttered, as the realization of what he was witnessing hit him.
He shifted his weight to look at the keypad of his phone while maintaining his view through the camera. The shift threw too much of his weight forward against the crumbly wall, part of which gave away. He had to catch his balance with his left hand and lost his grip on his phone.
“No!” he cried out as the phone plummeted to the ground two stories below. It hit the ground and shattered. He heard a sharply barked command and jerked his head up in time to see the second man pointing at him.
The first man shut the trunk, hiding the body of the dead man – for Zeb could see from how the body lay inside that the person was obviously no longer alive. Zeb snapped off a few more photographs, then ran for the door that lead down into his great-aunt and -uncle’s home.
He startled them both as he ran past them toward the front door. “Stay inside!” he yelled to them as he exited the house, and headed to the north, back toward the heart of the city.
He’d only been to Madrid one other time, years ago with his parents, and, though he knew his way around fairly well from all the maps he had studied in preparation for this trip, he was soon disoriented as he plunged through narrow side streets and crowded plazas. His heart beat loudly in his ears, nearly drowning out the babble of voices of locals and foreign tourists all around him. He hoped that the serpentine route he was taking would make him harder to follow, but part of him acknowledged that the two men still had the advantage if they lived here. Gotta find a police station, Zeb mentally chanted, as if thinking it enough could make it happen. Lord, please, help me find a police station.
Soon, he began to recognize street names. The Hotel de Bertram, where he was staying, was only a few blocks west, but he thought he remembered seeing a police station on a corner somewhere to the north-east when he had first arrived in the city last week. He hesitated a moment, then crossed the street in search of the police station.
He slowed to a fast walk, both to keep from passing out and to try not to draw too much attention to himself, in case the two killers were nearby. He turned down one more street and was rewarded with the site of the police station, as remembered, on the corner opposite him. He took a few eager steps toward its promised safety then stopped cold. Somehow, the two men had gotten there first, and were watching the crowds. Zeb ducked into the doorway of a shop, shaking all over, as he debated what to do.
There was no way to get past them, he decided. Now he just had to get back out onto the street and out of sight before they saw him. Behind him, the door of the shop opened and a trio of businessmen stepped out. Zeb let them pass, then followed them down the block, keeping to the side close to the shops they were passing, walking directly opposite the second man across the street. Zeb didn’t dare look over, and kept his eyes fixed on the sidewalk before him, praying he could become invisible.
When the group he was trailing neared the next intersection, Zeb broke free of them and turned back to the south, circling around to head back to his hotel. Five minutes later, he cautiously approached the welcoming entrance to the Hotel de Bertram. He slipped through the door, glancing back over his shoulder until he reached the elevator and its polished brass doors had safely enclosed him inside. He let out a shaky breath and fumblingly pressed the button for the fourth floor.
As soon as the elevator car began to rise, dizziness struck him. He pressed his back against the wall and closed his eyes, gripping the flat metal rail behind him with both hands. The car ascended to the fourth floor and juddered to a stop. Zeb felt the floor trying to pitch him toward it, so he kept his body pressed to the wall until he had to move away from it to exit the elevator. He opened his eyes only enough to glimpse the hallway before him, then leaned his shoulder against the wall to the left and shuffled toward his room.
He unlocked his room door, slipped inside and lurched toward the neatly made bed in its center. He fell to his knees mere inches from the foot of the bed, a roaring, rushing sound like he had heard during the symphony filling his ears. He climbed onto the bed and lay as flat and still as possible, clutching the duvet with both fists to try to convince his brain that he truly was stationary; and that the room really wasn’t spinning like a washing machine during a heavy duty wash cycle.
Half an hour later, the dizziness diminished to swimmy-headedness and the rushing roar dimmed to a pulsing murmur. He opened his eyes, rubbed the heels of his palms across them to dry the tears that had leaked out onto his cheeks and temples, and slowly, very slowly, sat up with his back against the headboard.
In the wake came the shakiness, nausea and fatigue. He was familiar enough with the cycle of symptoms to know that this meant he’d be back to normal within the next half hour or so, provided he kept the nausea in check, so he reached over to the bedside table and retrieved the bottle of water and small pouch he’d left there last night.
He opened the pouch and took out two prescription bottles: meclizine and promethazine. He shook out the pills into his hand, popped them into his mouth and washed them down with a long swig of room-temperature water. Now that the immediate danger had passed, he found himself trying to process what he had witnessed from that rooftop. He leaned his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes, replaying the sequence of events, but ended up snapping his eyes open and looking for his camera case.
He saw it on the floor just inside the door where he had apparently dropped it on his way to the bed. With a sigh, he lowered his feet to the floor and gingerly made his way to the camera case. Picking it up carefully off the floor, he took it back to the bed, climbing up to sit with his legs crossed in front of him. The case was only partially zipped, as he had shoved the camera in with the telephoto lens in place and it protruded out of the case’s opening. He opened the zipper the rest of the way and retrieved the camera. He flipped it over and pressed the button to review the photographs he had taken.
Looking at them now, the horrific scene frozen in time, Zeb felt a chill down to his very soul. The two killers – he had begun to think of them as Killer One and Killer Two, but felt now that Killer Uno and Killer Dos was more appropriate – seemed oblivious to the degree of atrocity they were committing. The young man they so callously shoved into the trunk of their car like too much luggage was dead. Murdered.
Zeb flipped through the photos, but could not clearly see the license plate number of the car. He wasn’t familiar with the make and model of the car, either, so figured he wouldn’t be much help with identifying the vehicle. He turned his scrutiny to the three men. Dos looked like he had done this sort of thing before. His sharp, wolfish features were relaxed, almost bored.
Uno, on the other hand, at least had the decency to look nervous. No doubt he was more worried about getting caught than concerned for the life that had just been cut short, though, Zeb thought.
He then forced himself to examine the dead man. Zeb let out a shaky breath. He was really young, probably not even thirty yet. He looked healthy and strong, and Zeb sadly wondered if he’d been able to put up a fight or if the two killers had taken him by surprise. He didn’t see any obvious wounds, but it did look like there was blood on his face.
He flipped to the last few photos, and was able to make out the dead man’s features: dark hair, lean face with a squared jaw, he had no doubt been handsome in life. In death, his face had gone slack and the blood running down his forehead and down to his chin lent him a chilling aspect.
He decided it was time to make a call to the authorities, since he hadn’t been able to go to the police station in person. He dialed the operator and asked, in Spanish, to be connected to the police department. A moment later a man’s voice answered telling him he had reached the police and asked how he could help.
“”I need to report a murder,”” Zeb said.
The line went silent for only a second. “Uno momento, por favor,” the officer said.
Zeb waited on hold a long moment, using the time to take in as many details from the photographs as possible. His eyes kept returning to the dead man’s slackened features.
“”This is Inspector Espinal,”” a man’s voice suddenly said. “”You wish to report a murder?””
“”Yes, I…”” Zeb tore his gaze away from the disturbing image and noticed that the jacket Uno was wearing bore a badge of some sort on the shoulders. He couldn’t tell if the badge meant Uno had ties to any official capacity, and therefore, if anyone else in authority might also be involved, and Zeb suddenly wasn’t sure who to trust.
“”Sorry, yes, I saw two men putting a body in the trunk of a car. I think they killed him.”” Zeb swallowed hard, praying he was doing the right thing. He went on to describe the car in as much detail as he could.
“”Where was this?”” The Inspector sounded like he’d missed his morning coffee, for about the last ten years.
Zeb told him the location of the building where he’d seen the killers, but left out any mention of his Great-Aunt and Great-Uncle, just to be safe.
“”What did these men look like?”” Espinal demanded.
Zeb described them as best as he could, given that his Spanish was more academically learned than immersive and he lacked some of the idioms and other specific words he wanted. “”Uh, the man who was dead, he was young, good looking and was-“” he struggled for the right word, so slipped back into English, “what’s the word…athletic, um, atletico?”
“American, eh? Why didn’t you say so?” Espinal replied in gruff, heavily accented English. “Never mind that. You are sure the third man is dead?”
“Yes, they stuffed him into the trunk of their car. He was very much not alive,” Zeb added with a shiver.
“Okay. I will investigate the area where you say this happened. You are calling from the Hotel de Bertram, room 412, yes?”
“How did- of course you’d be able to see that, I guess. Um, yes, that’s right.”
“Stay where you are. I will contact you when we’ve finished searching the area.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere,” Zeb replied.
“Bueno,” Espinal said.
Zeb started to say something more, but the Inspector had disconnected the call. He hung up the phone and resigned himself to waiting for a call back. The nausea had settled to an ignorable level, and his thoughts kept going back to the badge on Uno’s shoulder. He felt like he should know what it was, but he could not bring anything to mind that seemed to fit…
He took up his camera once more and studied the picture which showed the badge the most clearly. He zoomed in as far as possible and was able to make out some letters, one of which was an R. He couldn’t make out the others very well, but it definitely looked official.
Which made him wonder even more just who these men were.