Table of Contents
Chapter 31 appears
in this issue.
Chapter 32: Off the Road Again
Toni’s journey home through the Spanish night, back under Carla’s watchful eye, was not a relaxing one. It was two hours before he got properly off to sleep, and after that he woke up many times in a very confused state of mind. At last, after he had endured the hour-long wait at Miranda del Ebro, his train pulled in to Bilbao just before seven-thirty.
He had done his homework thoroughly at Madrid station the previous evening. He stayed on his own platform for fifteen minutes, then went onto the concourse, threw his ticket into a waste bin, and studied the board for the platform number of the 0757 overnight arrival from Barcelona.
When that other train pulled in, he merged into the stream of people leaving it, and walked out of the station into the early morning sunshine of his hometown.
He wandered around the nearby streets for half an hour or more, then went for a quick café breakfast, plucking up his courage for what was to come. Finally, when he was ready, he marched confidently down the Gran Vía, across the square where he had picked up that taxi, and then past the café where he had spotted that elegant young woman with the crimson scarf ...
‘Yes,’ he thought. ‘I believe I’m myself again.’
He continued alongside the park, then turned left towards the headquarters of the Bilbao police forces As he approached the doors, a voice whispered gently in his ear.
‘Be brave, mi amigo ...’
He heard it, but he did not understand ...
* * *
‘Buenos días. My name is Antonio Felipe Murano.’
‘I was kidnapped ... and I’ve been released ... and I wish to make a statement.’
The young officer on the front desk had not encountered this particular situation in his training, and a detective sergeant was immediately summoned and given a whispered briefing.
The sergeant ushered Toni rather uncertainly into an interview room.
‘Please just tell me just a little more, sir ... and then I will be able to decide who else needs to join our discussion.’
‘Well,’ said Toni, ready to tell everything if only he were allowed to, ‘I live here ... in the centre of Bilbao. I was last here two and a half weeks ago, when I got caught up in a police raid on a café just up the road ... but you released me after a while ... and then ... well ... then I was sort of ... kidnapped.’
‘Are you hurt at all, sir? Do you need a doctor?’
‘No ... I’m fine!’
‘In that case, do you mind waiting a few moments? I must talk to a special branch inspector. Can I get someone to bring you a cup of coffee ...?’
* * *
Toni vaguely recognised the faces of the two people who walked into the room three minutes later. Despite his shorter hair, the woman certainly recognised him.
‘Antonio Murano! So you have come to give yourself up!’
‘No! I‘ve told the other officers already! I was kidnapped!’
The inspector was efficient by nature, and usually single-minded, but she was no fool. She looked into Toni’s eyes, and already had a strong suspicion that he was telling the truth. But she would keep her options open for a while, and see how he responded to a little pressure. So she noisily ordered a special guard on the door, agreed reluctantly that Toni could have the cup of coffee which had just arrived, demanded one for herself, and motioned her own sergeant to sit down.
‘Talk to me, Antonio. You’re not under arrest. But I’d like to tape-record this ... is that OK with you?’
Toni nodded, and the sergeant moved over to the machine.
‘You were there, weren’t you?’ said Toni to the inspector. ‘Waiting in the wings while the other men were questioning me ...’
‘Yes, I was — and I have been involved ever since. So tell me what happened after you were released ...’
The tape recording began.
‘Well, the police car took me home from the café. I sat down and tried to understand what had been happening to me. I’d only been there about half an hour when the door buzzer rang.
‘I though it must be the police again. I opened the door. There was a big man standing there, with a mask over his whole face. He put his hand over my mouth and pushed me back inside, and closed the door, and told me to keep quiet or he would make sure I did ...
‘He made me sit on the sofa. I was very scared. Then he asked me what I’d said to the police. I told him exactly what I’d told them ... that I’d seen that woman ... and then I’d decided to follow her ... and that was all.
‘But he didn’t believe me. He asked me, over and over again, who else I had seen at the café. I kept saying “I can’t remember!” And he kept asking me what else I had told the police. I kept saying “Nothing!” Eventually he gave up. Then he went quiet for a very long time.
‘Finally he took out his phone, and made a call, and said some things I didn’t understand at all ... about how he “couldn’t take the risk of letting it drop”, and that he could “try to put them off the scent”, and that I’d have to “be there for the next test” ...
‘Then he told me I was going to have to help them. He asked me who lived at our apartment. I told him. He asked if I had a girlfriend. I said “Yes”. Then he said ...’ (Toni’s voice was wavering very convincingly) ‘... he said if I co-operated, and didn’t go to the police or anyone else, then everything would be fine. But if I didn’t do what they wanted ... then my mother and Paula would also be kidnapped ...
‘Then we just waited for ages. The house phone kept ringing, and later the door buzzer, and Paula was calling out for me. Each time, he warned me to ignore it. Finally his own phone rang again.
‘After that I just did everything he told me to. I had to pack my rucksack and book a flight to Rome the next morning. Then he made me sit down and try to relax with a glass of beer and some music. Then he got me to write two little notes, to Paula and my parents.
‘He gave me the address of a café in Rome, and told me to be there at two-fifteen the next afternoon, and to wait for a further contact.
‘Then he said I must go straight out and get plenty of cash to take with me, and buy a GPS unit, and take some fixes at both cafés. “That will confuse them, too,” he said to himself.
‘Then he left, telling me not to talk to anybody for any reason, and warning me again what would happen if I disobeyed him.
‘I did exactly what he’d told me to do. I didn’t answer the phone, even though it kept ringing, or the door-buzzer ... even when Paula came back and called out for me. I was just too scared for her sake, and my mother’s ...
‘In the morning I took the fix in Bilbao, and I caught the planes to Madrid and Rome.
‘I went to the café just before two-fifteen, and I took the other GPS fix. Then I waited. But five minutes later I heard police sirens coming closer and closer, and I panicked. I got up from the table and hurried away as the police cars stopped outside.
‘But I had only gone two hundred metres down the road and around the corner when someone came up behind me and said “Keep walking ... and don’t make a sound or try to run ... you know what will happen if you do”. And then he seemed to be speaking on a mobile phone ...
‘A couple of minutes later, a car with very dark windows drew up alongside me, and the voice told me to get in. So I did. The driver had a big hat on and I couldn’t see his face at all. As I sat down in the back seat, the other man pulled a hood over my head, and everything went dark. Then he got in next to me, and we drove away ...
‘The man said their plan had misfired because I had walked out twenty seconds too soon. I was worried about what they would do to punish me ...
‘We drove around for hours. The man kept making short phone calls, in an Italian dialect I didn’t understand. Sometimes we were moving slowly in the city. Then we were obviously out on a motorway. Then in the country. Then back in the city. We stopped at one point, and the man made me give him my wallet. He told me he was taking my plastic cards. Then I think the driver got out, and came back five minutes later. They gave me back my wallet — I could feel that both cards were in their place. Then we drove off again, out into the country ...
‘Eventually we stopped and they let me out and took me indoors, and put me in a room and locked the door behind me. Then they called out that I could take off the hood and relax ... but that I must make no sound. I was in a little bedroom in some sort of farmhouse in the middle of fields and woods. Nothing else in sight. And there were solid lumps of timber screwed onto the little window frame.
‘I think only one of them stayed behind when the car drove off. He brought food for me regularly, and took me to the toilet when I needed it. I always had to put the hood on before any contact with him. So I never saw his face.
‘They kept me there for over two weeks. At least I had my watch to keep track of time and dates! I got very bored and very angry. They’d taken my mobile phone, of course ... and the GPS unit. I did have a book with me, and there were some old newspapers in my room — and I read them over and over again! But I never argued. I just kept hoping it would soon all be over ...
‘Then last Wednesday evening, just after dark, they told me to pack my bags and put the hood on. They took me out to the car again (it smelt like the same one). Then they just drove and drove, very fast, only stopping for petrol. They gave me food and drink when I wanted it, and a few times they left the main road and stopped in a deserted spot, and we took turns to ... you know. On three of those stops the man let me take off the hood. The light was so bright the third time! But all I could see was trees, and he ordered me not to turn round, of course ...
‘At one point they pulled the car over, stuck a piece of tape over my mouth, and gave me the same old warnings about keeping perfectly quiet. Then they made me get in the boot (it was a very big boot, I think), and drove off again. They let me out ten minutes later, and we carried on. They did the same thing once again, many hours later. That’s when I guessed it must have been for border crossings ...
‘At last I could tell we had arrived in a big city, and eventually we stopped.
‘And the man spoke to me. “You’re in Barcelona. Here’s your rucksack. We don’t need you any more. You’ll have to talk to the police. That’s all right, now. We won’t hurt anyone if you do. You’ll need a shave and a hairwash first. We’re parked right outside a barber’s shop. When I take the hood off, get out and go straight through the door and keep walking inside. Don’t turn around. If you do, I will come in and get you and everyone will be in big trouble.” I did just what he said. The daylight was so dazzling! And I never saw the car again.
‘I decided I didn’t just want a hairwash. I wanted to try and get the whole thing out of my head. So I told them to cut it quite short. And I certainly needed a shave. I felt a bit better after that.
‘It was early evening again. I had no idea where I was in the city, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to go home. So I grabbed a taxi, went to the station, had something to eat, and got on the night train.
‘And here I am. And I want to see my parents, please ... and Paula ...’
The inspector asked him lots of questions: rather harshly to begin with, more sympathetically as time passed. Every answer Toni gave matched closely with his first full account, and he never added a single further detail, simply saying “I don’t know” when he simply did not know.
* * *
They left him to drink another cup of coffee, while they searched his rucksack in the inspector’s office.
She had not uttered a word since they had left the interview room. But the sergeant offered an opinion.
‘What a story! Straight out of a B-movie. Load of nonsense, every word of it!’
The inspector disagreed.
‘Murano? That shrinking violet? He couldn’t even invent a story like that, let alone stick to it under questioning! Look at him. He’s a tired, dispirited student who’s almost certainly been abducted. Poor kid. But he hasn’t been physically harmed, and he seems to have coped with it all right. I’m not going to let him waste any more of our time than necessary. We still have no evidence against him. We know he went to Rome. There’s no law against that. That police sighting of him near the café, and the cash machine alerts, and everything in his rucksack ... they all corroborate his story perfectly! And he is our citizen ... but the physical kidnapping is not our crime ... it’s the Italians’! So we’ll give them our news, just like they gave us theirs, and let them get on with it. I’ve got my own suspicions anyway, about whether we’re really dealing with criminals here, or some other clandestine agency ...’
The sergeant wisely decided not to argue. The inspector continued.
‘We’ll get the doctor to examine him right now, of course. We’ll ask for his unofficial opinion on the boy’s state of mind. Then we’ll get Murano to volunteer to come back for a lie detector test as soon as it can be set up over the weekend. He’ll agree to that, of course. Then he can go home — I’ve got nothing to charge him with, so we don’t have to worry about bail. We’ll watch the apartment until he’s taken the test. But he’ll pass it! Believe me, he’s telling the whole truth ...’
And the inspector did not wish for another tangle with Toni’s father just yet. She knew the strong-willed preacher would give her plenty of his attention in the hours and days to come. So she decided not to alert the parents to their son’s return. When the medical examination was completed, she just ordered a patrol car to drive him straight home.
* * *
As Toni inserted his key into the door of his parents’ apartment, a voice whispered gently in his ear once more.
‘Hasta la vista, Toni. Hasta la vista ...’
He paused, turned around, shook his head in mild puzzlement, and opened the door.
There was nobody at home. Friday afternoon, of course ... both out at work. But they would be back soon. He was safe now ...
He went straight to his bedroom and dumped the rucksack on his bed. Then he saw a small pile of unopened envelopes sitting neatly on his desk. He flicked through them and stopped as soon as he recognised Paula’s handwriting ...
Friday 28 March
Dearest Toni ...
I’m really sorry you did not try to talk with me before you left so suddenly the other day. It took us all greatly by surprise! I know your mother is very unhappy — and your father too, though he won’t be showing it. I hope you’ll be particularly kind to them now that you’re back.
I had a very special reason for asking you to meet me at our bar on Monday afternoon. But I never got a chance to tell you my news, or to hear your reaction to my plans. Believe me, I’ve tried to phone you many times. But I could never get through. So I had to carry on and make my decision without you.
And now I feel I must tell you about it, even though it has to be in a letter. There’s no other way, is there?
Toni, I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past few months — but I really don’t think you’ve noticed anything different, have you?
I know now that it is time for us to part. I truly hope this will not hurt you too badly. You’ve been a good and faithful friend to me. Thank you.
But I’ve had a new friend for many weeks now. She lives here, in Bilbao. Her name is Lisa.
She’s wonderful, Toni. We’re very happy together. She’s a few years older than me ... and she’s married. But, like me, she has now learned her own truth, and has taken her own decision ... and she will change things as soon as she can.
Toni, I do hope you’ll get to know Lisa one day. I’m certain you’ll like her immediately — there’s something very special about her, something indescribable. She’s beautiful ... so beautiful ... long dark hair, and a gorgeous smile ...
And you’ll never guess how I met her — it’s really ironic! Do you remember the gift voucher you gave me last Christmas? For the new beauty salon ...
Well, I’d only been there five minutes when she walked in and sat down right opposite me. She was wearing a lovely red silk scarf ...