Authors: Alex Connor
‘What the hell!’
Poised, she went in for the kill. ‘I don’t have enough evidence to charge you.
. But I’ve got my suspicions and I’ll prove them—’
‘As I said before, the skull,’ Roma replied, her confidence
rising. ‘You see, I’ve been thinking about this whole business, mulling it over, and I’ve come to a decision.
Perhaps the person with the skull is the one we should be looking for?
responsible for everything?’
Ben saw his chance and grabbed it.
‘But the skull’s in the Feldenchrist Collection, New York,’ he replied, holding her stunned gaze. ‘And the exhibition opened yesterday.’
‘You stupid bitch,’ Gabino said sourly, looking over at Gina as she walked in. ‘They’ve got the skull in the Feldenchrist Collection.’
She had heard the news in Madrid, at the farmhouse. Had seen it reported on the internet and then left the house without talking to Ben. So the skull was found, she thought bleakly. Any chance of her securing it for Gabino was over. Any chance of winning him back was over too.
Unusually quiet, Gina looked around the familiar sitting room in Gabino’s flat. She had never anticipated being in such a precarious situation. Leon’s death had left her destabilised. After having him devoted to her, being able to control and manipulate him, it came as a shock to Gina to realise that her lover was gone, and with him, her power. She had not been Leon’s wife so she had no entitlement to his house or his money, and her attempt to gain the interest of Ben Golding had been a failure.
She was now looking at an uncertain future without male protection. Propelled from the safety of the farmhouse and the reclusive life she had led with Leon, Gina realised that going back to her old party girl existence wasn’t an option. She had been off the circuit too long and had become the ex-lover too many times to excite fresh interest.
For a while she might have fooled herself into thinking that she still had a chance with Gabino, but her promise to secure the skull for him had failed miserably, and now Gina found herself homeless and alone.
‘I thought I could get the skull for you,’ she said imploringly. ‘If Ben Golding still had it, I could have done—’
‘But he didn’t, did he?’ Gabino replied, his tone dismissive. ‘If I’d known you were going to waste my fucking time, I’d never have listened to you.’
Her temper flared.
‘You couldn’t get the skull either! If you were so smart, how come you didn’t get it?’ She moved towards him. ‘I’d have thought the Ortega money would have counted for something—’
‘I wasn’t on the doorstep, was I?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You were sleeping with Leon Golding. You were by his bloody side all day. If anyone could have got hold of the skull, it should have been you.’ He was snappy with anger. ‘You’re losing your touch, Gina – you must be. After all, Leon Golding was a walkover. Poor bastard, everyone knew he was crazy—’
‘He was twice the man you are!’
‘But with a fraction of the income,’ Gabino replied unpleasantly. ‘Which, let’s face it, is all that matters to you.’
‘It’s not all about money!’ she hissed. ‘I care about you!’
‘You care about yourself.’
‘There was more to it than that—’
‘Not for me,’ he said indifferently. ‘It was an affair, Gina, that was all. You’re not the kind of woman a man marries.’ She flinched at the words. ‘You’re one of a hundred other women on the make. We had a good time, but that was all it was.’ He stared at her, eager to vent his frustration on someone. ‘You didn’t think I was ever serious about you, did you?’ he smirked. ‘
God, Gina, women like you are just good for fucking—’
She slapped him hard, Gabino reacting immediately. Drawing back his fist he pounded it into her face, her nose bleeding with the impact as he grabbed her hair and pulled her on to the sofa.
‘You stupid bitch!’ he said, his mouth inches from her ear. ‘You could have saved me. You could have done something useful for once!’ Enraged, he slapped her hard across the face, Gina whimpering as she put up her hands to protect herself. ‘But you’re worthless.’ He punched her in the stomach. ‘Hopeless.’ Again he punched her, catching her forearm as she tried to fend him off. ‘Slut!’ Turning, he moved away, then ran back, kicking her in the stomach. ‘
How dare you think I could love you!
You’re a fucking whore!’ After one final kick, he bent down and picked up her
handbag, tossing it on to her lap. ‘Get the fuck out of here!’
Moaning, Gina clutched her stomach and staggered to her feet. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’
He moved over to her, jutting his face into hers aggressively. ‘Why? What are you going to do about it?’ he sneered. ‘You’re nothing, Gina. Just a sad bitch with nowhere left to go.’
For once, Bartolomé had travelled without his wife. Celina was suffering from food poisoning and unable to leave Switzerland, even in a private jet. So he arrived alone at head office to meet up with his lawyer. Every month he came to the Spanish capital, leaving his reclusive bolt-hole in Switzerland and braving the heat and press of Madrid. He disliked the few days he spent in the city, and was particularly irked to find himself visiting not once, but three times within the space of a few weeks.
And all because of Gabino. All because his younger brother was due to attend court for a hearing regarding the charge of grievous bodily harm to a notable banker. At any other time Bartolomé would have suppressed the charges. He still could, if he chose to. But Gabino had committed an unforgivable sin in his brother’s eyes and had neither apologised nor explained why. The news that Bobbie Feldenchrist now owned the Goya skull had added further friction. To Bartolomé, it was inconceivable that an American could possess the skull of the greatest Spanish painter who had ever lived. It should have stayed in Spain,
he thought bitterly, in the Ortega collection.
But although Gabino had known about it and had been on the spot in Madrid, although he had known of his brother’s passion for the painter, he had let the opportunity slip. It was something Bartolomé would never forgive him for. And because of Gabino’s casual neglect, all his other foibles seemed magnified. His recklessness and violence were suddenly no longer excusable; his boorish behaviour was repulsive. Bartolomé knew that if his wife had been with him she would have calmed him down, made the inevitable excuses for his brother. But Celina wasn’t with him and, freed from her judicious advice, he was looking for a way not to help Gabino, but to punish him.
So for a prolonged, overheated hour, Bartolomé had listened to his lawyer and heard all the details about Gabino’s attack on the hospitalised victim. He had also seen the photographs of the damage inflicted and felt a repulsion which was hard to shake. The photograph of Gabino at the police station was also shown to him, his brother’s drunken expression belligerent and threatening.
‘We could have a word with someone,’ his lawyer began. ‘Get the charges dropped.’
Shaking his handsome head, Bartolomé swallowed the fury which was curdling inside his stomach.
‘Why should we?’
‘The Ortega name, the publicity—’
‘Why should we always clean up after my brother?’ Bartolomé remarked.
‘Because if we don’t the damage will be much worse.’
‘We should get him into line—’
‘We can’t,’ the lawyer replied patiently. ‘You know that, Bartolomé. We’ve tried for years. Gabino’s out of control.’
‘So maybe this time we let him suffer the consequences.’
Folding his arms, the lawyer raised his eyebrows. He could feel Bartolomé’s frustration and shared it, but his advice would remain what it always had been – pay up and keep Gabino’s transgressions quiet. Not that they were
quiet. All Madrid knew about Gabino’s excesses, but the alternative was worse – having an Ortega in court. The press would relish such an opportunity; a scrum would ensue which would result in every uncomfortable detail being exposed. And with Gabino’s sins would be resurrected the murder of their grandmother, Fidelia.
How long, thought the lawyer, before a business enemy would seize their chance to undermine the whole Ortega fortune? They could prove nothing, but digging up the murder of Fidelia would remind everyone of the family’s cursed past.
‘You couldn’t handle the fallout—’
Bartolomé turned to him, his expression intense. ‘So I’m going to be tied to this madman all my life?’
‘You have a son,’ the lawyer said hurriedly. ‘Think of Juan.’
‘Think of my son? Excuse and protect my brother because of my son?’ Bartolomé snapped. ‘What has my son to do with this?’
‘Is what he makes it!’ Bartolomé roared, then quickly dropped his voice, controlling himself. ‘My son is not
Gabino. Juan’s growing up in Switzerland, away from Madrid, away from any reckless influences—’
‘Which is all the more reason to suppress Gabino’s assault charge,’ the lawyer interrupted him.
He had known the family and worked for them for over thirty years. There was nothing he wasn’t privy to, nothing he didn’t know or hadn’t concealed. And, as always, his sympathy lay with Bartolomé. He could see a respectable man struggling against his family’s reputation and knew that if Bartolomé had been an only child, the Ortega name would have flourished. Refined and cultured, Bartolomé was the perfect ambassador for a family who had a sordid past. As an only child, in time he could have buried all the old scandals.
an only child.
‘Bartolomé, we have to suppress this charge.’
To the lawyer’s surprise, his client waved him away with his hand. ‘I have to think. I can’t make a decision now.’
‘Give me time,’ Bartolomé replied, smiling fleetingly. ‘I know you’re trying to help me. I understand, but I have to think about this a little longer.’
The lawyer didn’t know about the Goya skull, didn’t know that Gabino’s failure to secure it for his brother had resulted in a cataclysmic emotional shift. But as he left the room and walked out into the over-heated sunshine he felt suddenly, overshadowed by the expectation of tragedy.
Having found the address among Leon’s possessions, Ben walked towards a row of old-fashioned red-brick terraced houses, the newer high-rise flats behind glowering over them. Between green wheelie bins was a discarded pram, a cat curled up in the seat, and beside it an overstuffed carrier bag reeking of sour food. Checking the house numbers, Ben knocked on the door of 289 and waited for a response.
‘What d’you want? Get off the doorstep!’
Surprised, Ben bent down, lifted the flap of the letterbox, and called out: ‘It’s me, Mr Martinez. Ben Golding.’
He could hear the opening of several locks, and finally Carlos Martinez opened the door and stepped back to let his visitor enter. They shook hands awkwardly, Carlos showing Ben into the front room, the street outside obliterated by net curtains stained with mould. Taking a seat in front of an old 1950s tiled fireplace, Ben watched as Carlos reached for roll-up and lit it.
He seemed sad, shrivelled. ‘I never thought I’d get to see you again,’ he said.
‘It’s been a long time.’
‘Yes, a long time.’
‘I wanted to talk to you about Diego. I’m very sorry about what happened.’
‘Your son knew my brother—’
‘And we’ve lost them both.’ His Spanish accent had softened, only the sibilant S’s making his origin obvious. ‘It was a bad way to die, Mr Golding. My son didn’t deserve that.’
‘Leon didn’t deserve to be killed either—’
Carlos’s head jerked up. ‘
He was killed?
‘I heard he committed suicide,’ the old man replied, his expression suspicious. ‘Why are you here? I mean, you’re welcome – my son thought the world of your brother – but I’d like to know why you’re here.’
It was a reasonable request.
‘I think that the deaths of your son and my brother are connected.’ Ben paused, noticing that Carlos’s hands had begun to shake. ‘Have you been threatened?’
‘No. But Diego was.’
Silence: Carlos was torn between confiding and lying.
‘Please, Mr Martinez,’ Ben urged him. ‘I wouldn’t be here unless it was very important. Someone I love is in trouble, and I think the man who has her was responsible
for Diego and Leon’s deaths.’ He could see Carlos inhaling on his smoke, his glance moving to the telephone. ‘What is it?’
‘Diego had a call the night he went missing.’
‘Who called him?’
‘I dunno. But they invited him out for a pint at the Fox and Hounds, London Road. It’s a rough place, but Diego liked the barmaid.’ Carlos paused, as though the memory of his son’s love life was unbearably futile. ‘I went with him once – she was nothing. He could have done better, much better.’ He ground out his smoke and immediately began to roll another, Ben letting him take his time. ‘Diego always went to that pub when he was in London. The place has a bad reputation, but he said it was exaggerated.’
‘What kind of reputation?’
‘Petty criminals, old lags,’ he sighed, glancing over at a faded wedding photograph, a striking woman standing beside a younger version of himself. ‘That was his mother. She died over twenty years ago. I’m glad. Glad she didn’t have to live through this.’ He bowed his head, a perfect parting on the right-hand side of his scalp. ‘It’s a meeting place, the pub, where all the runners for the bosses hang out.’
‘Who’re the bosses?’
‘There’s a few, but two big names. It wasn’t always like this, but now the place has gone to seed, these are the last terraces to come down. To be honest, I don’t go out much any more. Don’t dare to. Larry Morgan runs half of
Brixton, Emile Dwappa the other half. They split it between them. Morgan handles drugs and Dwappa handles all sorts …’ He stared hard at Ben. ‘Have you spoken to the police?’
‘Could I get into trouble talking to you?’