The first thing Zeb thought when he woke up was that Dos must have kidnapped him – and that he wasn’t the only one. Panicking momentarily, he found himself in a strange bed surrounded by a faded green curtain that did nothing to dampen the sounds of screaming and crying somewhere nearby.
The fact that he was wearing a paper gown reassured him he was more likely in a hospital, but a panic rooted in a different fear gripped him now. Where were his clothes? And, most importantly, where was the memory card?
He sat up in the bed and looked around the small exam room, breathing a sigh of relief when his gaze landed on his clothes piled neatly on a chair. He yanked his jeans off the pile and shoved his hand into the pocket.
It was there. His passport was there. He pulled it out of the pocket and opened it to the page where he’d secreted away the memory card. He closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks: the memory card was right where he had left it.
“Señor! What are you doing?”
Zeb spun around to see a tall, thin man with wire-rim glasses clad in a lab coat and carrying a clipboard. Zeb shoved the memory card and passport back into his jeans pocket and grabbed the rest of his clothes. “I’m sorry, doc, but I really need to get out of here.”
The doctor reached a hand toward Zeb and gestured with his medical chart toward the bed. “Señor, you need to sit down. You were in very bad shape when they brought you in a little while ago.” The doctor’s voice was deep and smooth, both reassuring and commanding at the same time. In any other circumstances, Zeb would have trusted the man completely and gone along with whatever he thought necessary to figure out what was wrong with him. “I need you to let me help you.”
But Zeb knew exactly what was wrong with him. He started dressing, using the paper gown as a measure of some privacy until he was more decent. “I’m fine now, doctor, as you can see. The only thing I need to do right now is get to the airport.”
“Airport? No, señor, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to go anywhere until we run some tests. The symptoms you presented with could indicate a serious condition…I want to rule out a brain tumor,” he added with enough gentleness to soften what would have been a serious blow.
Zeb pulled off the gown and put his tee shirt back on. Then he looked the doctor in the eye and shook his head with a small smile. “I appreciate that you want to help, but I already know what’s wrong with me.”
The doctor blinked at him. “Go on,” he prompted.
“I have Ménière’s Disease,” Zeb said. It felt strange, saying it out loud for the first time since his diagnosis six months ago, and to a stranger, nonetheless.
“Ah,” the doctor said slowly, “that was a falling attack, then. But the pain? They told me you were found clutching your head and crying out in pain.”
Zeb sat in the chair and laced his fingers together. “My…particular brand of the disease includes migraines. Sometimes independent of the attacks of tinnitus, vomiting and loss of balance, sometimes during. This time it was during.”
The doctor nodded and pursed his lips sympathetically. “I am sorry, señor.”
Zeb gave him a half smile. “Yeah, me, too. I mean, it could be worse, though. Until today, I hadn’t had a full-on attack in about a month, so it’s not so bad yet. But thanks.”
The doctor regarded him a moment. “You are aware of the usual prognosis, aren’t you?” Zeb nodded. “How much hearing do you have left right now? It seems like you must be early in the journey.”
“I have lost fifteen percent in my left ear, twenty in my right. It’s been six months since I was diagnosed.” He looked around until he spotted his bag on the floor.
The doctor lifted his eyebrows. “Progressive bilateral hearing loss… And your balance between attacks? Are you managing okay? You did not have a cane or anything with you when you were found.”
Zeb sighed. His throat wanted to constrict, his eyes burned with tears waiting to be shed. But he swallowed them down, along with any fear and self-pity that tried to surface. “For the most part, yes. I was having unexplained balance issues for quite a while before I was finally diagnosed. The tinnitus wasn’t so obvious at first. But I -”
He stopped speaking when his eyes caught sight of a man standing just behind the doctor, peering in through the opening in the curtain. The doctor turned and started to usher the man away, but the man held up a badge and pushed past him. “Mister Martin?”
Zeb sat back in the chair in disbelief. He recognized the voice immediately, though this slightly balding, world-weary man in a tan suit was not what he had pictured in his mind’s eye. “Inspector Espinal,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugged and looked around the small exam area with a bored air. “What is the phrase? ‘Through the grapevine’?” He waited until Zeb nodded, ignoring his look of confusion. “I heard through the grapevine that you had been brought to this hospital. Naturally, I wanted to see if this had anything to do with what you said on the phone.”
Zeb scoffed. “Do you mean the part where I begged you to believe me and help me, or the part where I told you I’d be a sitting duck if you didn’t find the men I told you about?”
Espinal turned a direct stare at him. “Are you saying that you would like to report an assault?”
Zeb returned a glare, but then dropped his gaze. “Not exactly. One of the men chased me, threatened me at gunpoint, but the reason I’m here has nothing to do with that. Not directly, anyway.”
Espinal turned to the doctor. “Are you releasing him?”
The doctor looked first at Zeb and then back to Espinal. “I see no reason to keep him,” he finally said.
Espinal nodded. “Walk with me,” he told Zeb.
Zeb stood up, shouldering his bag. “I have to settle up first,” he said, retrieving his traveler’s insurance information out of his wallet. He raised a questioning eyebrow at the doctor, who gestured with the clipboard.
“Right this way, señor,” the doctor said, leading them out of the room. As they passed by other exam areas similar to the one in which he had awoken, Zeb soon discovered that the source of the screaming and crying he had been hearing was, in fact, a very upset young child who appeared to have burned her hands on something. He looked away as a nurse came out of the exam area and hurried on toward the check out desk.
Within a few minutes he was officially released and he turned toward the exit to find Espinal hovering behind him. The Inspector gave him a smile that seemed to say, “Yes, I am still here. You won’t get rid of me that easily.” Zeb sighed, but he approached the Inspector and let him fall into step next to him. They exited the hospital out onto the busy street and into the bright midday sun.
He hitched the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder. “Which way is the airport from here?” Zeb asked, looking at the collection of small buildings to his right and the taller ones to his left. An ivy-clad retaining wall stood across the street.
“So you are just going to go back to America, then?” Espinal asked, looking around as if he, too, would like to know the answer to Zeb’s question.
Zeb started walking up the street to the left, the Inspector still beside him. “Well, if you aren’t going to look into the murder I reported and aren’t going to protect me until you find the murderers, then yes, I am just going to go back to America. I’ll be safer there.”
Espinal spread his hands before him. “I looked, Mister Martin, right where you told me to. There was nothing, absolutely nothing there to support what you claim you saw.”
Zeb stopped and turned to the Inspector. “So you think I’m making it up?”
Espinal sighed. “No, Mister Martin. I do not think you are making it up. But I need something to go on. Give me something, anything to start my investigation on. Can you do that?”
Zeb’s hand involuntarily strayed to his pocket where the passport rested, but the image of the badge on Uno’s shoulders made him hesitate. What if Espinal were somehow involved and was just trying to make sure he had no more evidence than the statement he had already given? He started walking again. “I gave you a description of the killers and the victim. And the car. I realize they probably weren’t the greatest, but that’s where we’re at. And since I’d rather not be chased across all of Madrid again or shot in my sleep, I’m going home.”
Espinal stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Zeb glanced back over his shoulder but kept walking. “Wait,” Espinal called after him. “Señor! Come back.”
Zeb turned around. “What?”
“We are miles from the airport. It will take you hours to walk.” He gestured back the way they had come. “Come back with me and I’ll drive you there, make sure you catch your plane safely.” He tilted his head. “What do you say, eh?”
Zeb adjusted the strap on his shoulder again. The bag was fairly heavy and he didn’t want to risk being found by Uno or Dos again. He walked back to the frumpy Inspector. “Do you have a card?”
“Yes,” he said, looking a little bewildered. He fished one out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Zeb.
Zeb examined the crest of the police department the business card bore, but couldn’t be completely sure it was different from the one on Uno’s shirt without comparing it to the photographs, but he thought it might be. He pocketed the card and then retrieved one of his own and handed it to Espinal, praying he wasn’t signing his own death certificate by doing so. “Now you know how to contact me and I know how to contact you.”
He then whistled shrilly and waved down passing taxi. It slowed and pulled over. Zeb greeted the driver, opened the back door and threw his bag in the back seat. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ve got a ride.” He gestured to his business card in Espinal’s hand. “I’m choosing to trust that my information goes no further than you.”
Espinal furrowed his brow. Before he could answer, Zeb got into the taxi and closed the door. He directed the driver to take him to the airport, and the taxi pulled away, leaving the Inspector behind.
Forty-five minutes later, Zeb had finally gotten a ticket for an earlier flight than the one he already had. It didn’t leave for another hour, so he grabbed something to eat from one of the airport restaurants and sat in the dining area to wait until it was closer to time to board.
He had finished his food and was now sipping a Coke, absently watching the news broadcast on the restaurant’s television. The first thing he had to do when he got back home, he thought, was get a new cell phone. He hadn’t called his sister or parents to let them know he was cutting his trip short. If they had tried to call him in the last eighteen hours, and couldn’t get through, they would probably be worried right now.
He became aware of the fact that a few of the other diners had stopped eating and moved closer to the television, visibly affected by something they were seeing. He turned his attention to the news report to see what had them so upset.
He had missed the first half of the report, but understood that someone had died in a fiery car crash yesterday evening. The screen changed from the news anchor to a photo of of the victim.
Zeb nearly choked on his drink. The photograph was of a young man in a soccer uniform posing for what looked like a promotional shot. The breath left Zeb’s lungs in a rush and he, too, stepped closer to the television. He caught a name amongst the news anchor’s report: Nicodemo Milian.
Zeb now knew who the victim in his photographs was.
He dug out Espinal’s card, grabbed his stuff and left the restaurant to find the nearest pay phone. Placing the card in between his lips while he picked up the receiver, he fished around in his pocket for some change. He had to tell the Inspector that the car crash story was a lie, that young man had been murdered and his death covered up as an accident.
Just as he placed the first coin into the slot, he hesitated before letting it go as a new thought struck him. How easy would it really have been to pull off this kind of cover up? It would entail transporting the body in the trunk of that car to the victim’s home or wherever his own vehicle had been. Then they would have had to put the body into the victim’s own car and driven it to wherever they had staged the crash. All without being seen.
Could the two killers have been able to do that without getting caught? Maybe. But wouldn’t it have a whole lot easier if they had someone in the local police force to help them out? Definitely.
He put the coin back in his pocket and hung up the phone, silencing the beeping off-the-hook alert it had begun emitting. Maybe it would be better to wait until he got back to the States and gave the evidence to the FBI or Interpol or anyone who was not an overly interested Madrid police Inspector.
He walked away from the pay phone, turning his back on it and heading to the waiting area for the gate where his flight would board. Twenty minutes later he was in the air, leaving Madrid and its resident murderers behind.
He hoped it was for good.