Alex left the room with the tall stranger behind, and followed the corridor to the stairs at the end. The paint on the walls was peeling, and the floor was bare, with many of the boards missing, and the rotting banister at the end of the corridor now only hinted at it’s former colonial elegance. It had the feel of what was once an elegant building. Despite the fact that he’d already made more than enough noise to rouse any other occupants, he didn’t know if anyone else might still be around. He trod carefully, in any case. He paused at the top of the stairs and looked down, slowly managed his breathing, and watched for shadows in the half-light. Seeing none, he descended into the murk.
The door at the bottom of the stairs was panelled towards the top with frosted glass, made dirty with time, and opened directly on to the street. Alex stopped and listened for movement outside, at the same time smelling the air to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke that might suggest a guard. He heard nothing, and his nostrils could tell nothing other than that the stairwell had served as a urinal more than once. He slowly pushed open the door, just a touch, and peered out. An empty panel van, facing up the hill and raised on bricks, cast a useful shadow from the street-lamp opposite, while further down the hill to the left he could see lights and hear party music. A girl laughed while glasses clinked. He stepped out on to the pavement, closing the door quietly behind him, and moved to the rear of the van. He adjusted his jacket, and started down the hill towards the noise.
It was as he moved away that he heard footsteps behind him, coming in from the right – not hurried, but definitely gaining on him. He was being followed, he was certain. At his current pace, Alex’s pursuer would be on him well before he made the bar where the party was. He had nowhere to go. He was exposed. As the footsteps closed in, Alex relaxed his pace even further, sinking slightly on his hips as he did so, and relaxing his shoulders. He suddenly stepped to the right, and pivoting inwards on his left foot, brought his right forearm round to bear on any weapon his would-be assailant might be carrying. Without thinking, he grabbed the other man’s wrist with his right hand – at the same time thrusting his left under the throat, to bring the head back, unbalancing the man. As he tipped backwards, Alex’s right foot went into the back of his knees, and the man went down to the ground quickly and heavily, with Alex’s left knee coming forward and down, emptying any remaining air from his lungs with a hard gasp. It was only then that their eyes met.
“Ernesto! You prick, where the fuck have you been?”
“Señor Cochrane”, the man croaked.
“Don’t ‘Señor Cochrane’ me, you tosser!” said Alex, through gritted teeth. “I’ve been drugged, tied up and beaten. All while you’re supposed to be my guide and lookout. Part of me just wants to keep squeezing, but that won’t get me any answers – something I could really do with right now.”
His grip eased, then tightened again.
“So, can you help with that? Me puede ayudar?”
“Si señor. Si! No hay problema!”
“Hmm, we’ll see”. Alex eyed his supposed guide suspiciously, as he cautiously released him. “Tell me about the house I just came out of. And how did you know I was here?”
Ernesto frowned, and looked towards the ground. Yeah, Alex knew he was guilty about something alright. He took him by the elbow and pulled him to his feet, finger and thumb pressed into the nerve of his his elbow joint. Ernesto winced, but Alex’s grip never wavered. The earlier encounter with his would-be torturer had left him on edge, and feeling singularly unsympathetic towards Ernesto into the bargain.
“Yeah, I thought so, you double-crossing wanker.” He knew he had to get out of there as soon as possible. He looked back up the hill, and then down. “You’re going to walk me past that bar down the hill, and you’re going to do it quietly and very calmly. One peep out of your mouth, and I’ll fucking throttle you.”
Even from this distance, the bar looked fairly desperate. Bottles smashed as the evening’s drunks got stuck into what Alex thought was probably a regular session. Definitely the place to avoid on a day like the one he was having. It was more than likely frequented by the odd acquaintance of his earlier host, so giving it a wide birth felt like a sensible tactic. But stepping into side alleys in an unfamiliar place seemed foolhardy, so passing it on the street – albeit on the opposite side – would have to do. Keeping Ernesto to his left, they crossed the road, and aimed for the shanties opposite and what little shadow they offered.
As they approached, Alex could feel Ernesto falter slightly, a bead of sweat running down his temple. Alex spoke to him softly, “Calm down, just look ahead and keep walking. We’re just two gents talking in the evening air. Relax.”
The bar seemed to be in full swing by the time they drew level, and they passed it without incident. They continued down the hill, towards a gap in the shanties, and headed for the city centre. As they walked, Alex ran through the events of the evening in his head, trying to make sense of it all. To be honest, he was struggling to remember anything much beyond the morning, but then that was as good a place to start as anywhere, he thought. After breakfast, he’d met the trade delegation from Belgium, and introduced them to Eduardo Gonsalves, the closest thing to a ‘magnate’ in the local area. He owned pretty much all of the port on the other side of the city, as well as a couple of shipping firms – each with a solid reach into the interior – and the group from Antwerp wanted to meet him to discuss opportunities for expanding their export business into the region. Alex, having dealt with Gonsalves on previous occasions, for other businesses looking to move goods in and out of Puerto Calera, was the perfect person to make those introductions.
There hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary about the morning at Gonsalves’ estate. After coffee on the veranda, which had followed a tour of the gardens, he had made the usual display of showing off his horses to his guests, along with his daughter’s excellent horsemanship. Gina had been her usual flirty self of course, but Alex, always the gentleman (and mindful of the lengths Gonsalves had previously gone to in order to protect his ‘assets’) had shown what he thought was the proper amount of respect and reserve towards his host and his daughter. Had she perhaps ground her saddle a little too much in front of Alex for her father’s liking? Had Alex not averted his eyes enough? She was very beautiful, and there was an undeniable chemistry between them, but this morning they had hardly spoken to one other. Which one of them had he upset, then – Gonsalves or Gina? Her father was certainly more than capable having him murdered, but more likely in his own cellar, in front of him, making no bones about just who was doing it and why. So, that ruled out Don Eduardo, then. Would Gina have the wherewithal to contract in a man of such capabilities as he had met earlier? Unlikely, he thought. She could be bitchy, high maintenance, without a doubt, but this? He dismissed it. That only left the Belgians, then. Assuming it had something to do with anything Alex was working on at the moment, of course. It could be something from his past – lord knows he had one – but that was too much of a meal to digest in one sitting. Best to stick with the here and now, he thought, which brought him back to the Belgians. The meeting had gone well, he thought, although why the spiny businessmen had brought a heavy with them, he couldn’t tell. Alex had clocked him straight away, of course – alert, attentive, medium build and well dressed, but bristling with energy. Foreign Legion, if he had to guess. When they shook hands, he saw it in his eyes. They saw it in each other, if he was honest. So there was that. After the meeting, Alex had stayed for lunch with Eduardo, who pumped him for his opinion on the delegation. He didn’t mention his suspected legionnaire.
Whilst Alex considered this, and tried to make sense of the confusion it created, they had been seen from over the road. One of the men from the bar, a swarthy little bull of a man with dirt rings on his neck, and a loose shirt whose better days had seen better days, prodded another with a filthy finger and nodded over at the two fading figures. His partner, larger and arguably the grubbier of the two, turned away from trying to molest a very unhappy barmaid, and drunkenly agreed to follow. They staggered out into the night, for the most part unnoticed and certainly unmissed.
Alex’s normally alert senses were clearly not up to their usual heightened level. He was distracted, and before he realised it, one of the barflies had shoved Ernesto into the wide alley they were crossing. As he went flying, Ernesto caught Alex’s shoulder, spinning him round and off balance. As he turned, he saw the two men, and immediately went for the bigger of the two, hoping Ernesto would be able to evade the other long enough for Alex to get to him. The thing with taller, wider, and generally bigger men, is that they tend to be slower. This guy was no exception, and his intoxication only made him more sloppy. By the time Alex had dodged the left and right swinging hammers, he put a swift kick in to the giant’s left knee, tilting him to one side. He followed it up with a hard roundhouse punch to the temple, and that was it. The big man went down, unconscious before his face hit the dirt. Alex turned quickly, only to see Ernesto clutching his abdomen, his hands sticky with blood. The second attacker was about to go in for the kill when two suppressed retorts came out of the dark in quick succession – snick, snick! The rounds landed centre mass, dropping the man in a dead heap at the same time as Ernesto fell to his knees. As he sank further to the ground, he tried to speak, but had difficulty finding the breath to generate words. Alex scrambled to his side.
“Lo siento. El diablo del negro…”, Ernesto’s eyes looked apologetic, and then faded as the life left his body. “Bollocks. What did you get us into, Ernesto?”, Alex sighed.
As the shadows seemed to push him out in to the half light, Alex immediately recognised the Belgian Legionnaire from that morning’s meeting with Gonsalves.
“Mister Cochrane, I’m sorry about your friend”, he gestured towards Ernesto’s body, as he tucked his pistol into the small of his back. “But you and I should talk, and soon. For now, it’s time to go.”
Alex nodded, passed a hand over Ernesto’s face and stood. “You’d better lead on.”