Authors: Alex Connor
And there it was – hospital politics. Ben’s personality clash with his registrar had finally given her an opportunity to undermine him – to make her first play for the top job. Megan Griffiths might want Harley Street, but she was savvy enough to know that being consultant, then senior consultant at the NHS Whitechapel, would shoo her in nicely for private practice.
To his chagrin, Ben realised he had played into her hands. At any other time he would have been more astute, but events had hobbled him and she had taken advantage.
‘I’ve worked at the Whitechapel for twenty years,’ he said slowly. ‘My work has been exemplary—’
‘I don’t argue with that,’ Steinman replied, ‘but what’s been happening lately would affect any man. No one blames you for being preoccupied, but your registrar isn’t the only person to notice the … change in you.’
What the hell was he intimating? Ben wondered. That he was losing his mind?
‘Perhaps you’re tired. You should take some time off until everything’s sorted out. No one wants to see you having a breakdown.’
‘With due respect, Mr Steinman, I doubt you would have said that to any other consultant. Just because my brother was unstable doesn’t mean I am.’ He could feel his throat taut with anger. At the time he most needed support, there was none. Instead he was being threatened from every quarter, each part of his life capsized: his partner, his work, his life, even his sanity.
‘Ben, take a week off. Keep away from the hospital—’
‘You need a change of environment.’
Furious, Ben snapped back. ‘Have you been talking to the police?’
‘Not about you. I just think you should take a week off.’
‘Are you sure a week’s enough for a breakdown?’
‘Well,’ Steinman replied damningly, ‘that depends on you, doesn’t it?’
Slamming down the phone, Ben ran his hands through his hair, struggling to contain his anger. He had been sucker-punched by Megan Griffiths and resented it. Resented being excluded from the Whitechapel. Resented being edged out by the police and his colleagues. He was, he realised, completely on his own. He had no allies. All he loved most had been destroyed or taken from him.
His gaze fixed on the clock. He had just under six hours to trace the man who had killed his brother and abducted his partner.
Six hours to find a way to bargain. And nothing to bargain with.
Her face swollen and bloodied, Gina pushed her way into Bartolomé’s office, his secretary trying to stop her but failing as Gina stood defiantly in front of Bartolomé’s desk, holding a blood-soaked cloth to her cheek.
‘Gabino did this.’
Waving away his secretary, Bartolomé offered Gina a seat. She was a different woman from the one he had seen at Leon Golding’s funeral, her eyes brilliant with malice, her sexuality suspended.
‘Look at what he did.’ Slowly she took away the cloth to reveal a deep knife cut three inches long running across her jaw line. She could see Bartolomé’s eyes widen as he stared at the injury and felt a moment of triumph. It would be worth it, after all.
Determined to have her revenge on Gabino, Gina had done something that would have seemed unbelievable only days before. Rocked from the beating he had given
her, she had formed a plan so ruthless it took all her courage to set it in motion. Throughout her life beauty had been her calling card, her entrée to money and influential beds, but her allure was waning. She could no longer rely on looks and sex alone – that currency was devalued. The inflation of age had hobbled her.
Staring at herself in the mirror, Gina had felt the knife in her hand. It was light, but the blade was razor-sharp. For several moments she scrutinised herself, her heart thumping as she prepared to make the leap from using beauty to using cunning. Then finally she had lifted her hand and – in one movement – attacked her face.
At first the blade had sliced through the flesh easily, but then it had snagged on the bone, blood coming fast and warm as she clasped a cloth to the wound. Momentarily faint, it had taken her a moment to work up enough courage to look in the mirror. When she did, another Gina had confronted her.
Her face was ashen, but her eyes triumphant.
Of course Bartolomé didn’t know that Gina had injured herself, cutting her own face for a future she was determined to secure at any means.
‘You need a doctor.’
‘Yes,’ she said, nodding. ‘But I had to come here and talk to you. Your brother did this.’ She showed him the bruises on her arms and forehead. ‘And these. He beat me. He kicked me. In the stomach, as if I was an animal. As if I was inhuman.’
Mute, Bartolomé leaned against the desk, staring at his
brother’s ex-lover. To attack a man was one thing, to assault a woman quite another. But he was clever enough to realise that Gina hadn’t come to see him just to show him Gabino’s handiwork. There was a frigid determination about her, a calm infinitely more threatening than hysterics.
‘Why did he do it?’
?’ Bartolomé repeated, surprised. ‘What about me?’
‘You know I was living with Leon Golding. He was working on Goya’s Black Paintings – he had a theory about them.’
‘Many people have theories,’ Bartolomé said warily, knowing that of the two of them, Leon Golding had always been more likely to solve the enigma first.
Gina nodded, then took a large crumpled envelope out of her bag and slammed it down on the desk. She could see Bartolomé’s eager glance and nodded.
‘Yes, that’s it. I took a copy. Leon never knew, no one knows. I don’t know why I did it, I just did.’
His hands ached to touch it, but he resisted, wanting to hear everything she had to say.
‘He had the Goya skull too.’ Gina could see she had his full attention and carried on. ‘Of course you know about that now – it’s in the USA – but when Leon first had it he was willing to sell it.’
The lie was perfectly formed, and did its damage.
She nodded. ‘I told Gabino, because I knew how much you would want it. I begged him to tell you – but he wouldn’t. He refused, said
why should he?
He enjoyed denying you the thing you most wanted.’ Her voice was neutral, without malice, the words ripping into Bartolomé. ‘He laughed at you – always has done. Thinks he can do anything and you’ll never let him be punished. Thinks that the charge of assault will be crushed. That you’ll see to it that it never comes to court.’ Pausing, she touched the wound on her face. It was worth it – worth disfiguring herself to get revenge. ‘But he won’t get away with this. I’m going to the police. I’m going to make sure Gabino pays for this.’
Stunned, Bartolomé stared at her. But he wasn’t listening any more, just thinking about the Goya skull, and how his brother had made certain he wouldn’t get it.
You offered the skull to Gabino?
‘Why not come to me direct?’
‘I know Gabino, and he lives in Madrid. You’re usually in Switzerland,’ she replied evenly. ‘Naturally I thought he’d pass on the news to you.’
‘He never did.’
‘No, I know that now. Bobbie Feldenchrist has the skull, doesn’t she?’
The words slashed into him. ‘What d’you want?’
‘For Leon’s theory?’ she asked, glancing at the envelope. ‘Nothing. I knew how distraught you’d be about the skull. I thought that maybe the theory would help make up for it.’
He shook his head.
‘No … that’s not all of it. Why are you really here?’
‘Your brother beat me up,’ Gina replied. ‘I want him put away. Jailed. I want to see him behind bars – and he will be, if I give evidence. If I go on the stand and tell the world about his excesses. People might forget him attacking men but they won’t forget him beating up a woman.’ She touched her face. It barely hurt with all the adrenalin rushing through her. ‘Of course a lot of other things will come out too. Gabino will retaliate. He plays dirty – he’ll want to drag you down with him.’
Bartolomé was breathing heavily. ‘Are you trying to blackmail me?’
‘I want you to tell your brother to marry me.’
His astonishment was obvious. ‘
I beg your pardon?
‘You heard me. I want to be Gabino Ortega’s wife.’
‘You still love him?’
‘No, I loathe him. I don’t want to love him, I want to punish him. For everything he said to me. For every bruise, for every sneer, I want to make his life a living hell. And in return I want to have the Ortega name and some of the Ortega money. I want security, a home, status.’ She paused, breathing in to steady herself. ‘Think about what he did to you – denying you your dream when it was offered to him on a plate. Gabino could have got you Goya’s skull. You could have had it in the Ortega collection, in Spain. You could have triumphed over everyone
else in the art world. But he stopped it.
He stopped you.
’ Her eyes flickered with spite. ‘Give me my revenge and you’ll have your own. Being married to a woman he hates will burn into Gabino. Being shackled to someone he said was only worth fucking, will turn his brain.’ She laughed drily. ‘I don’t care which option you chose. I’ll go to court and ruin him, or you’ll see to it that I keep quiet, marry him and destroy his life. Either way, he’ll get what coming to him.’
‘I had my chance of happiness, but I chose not to see it or take it,’ she replied, shrugging. ‘That’s my hell.’
‘I’m blackmailing Gabino, not you.’
‘What if he won’t agree to it?’
‘He will, if the alternative is having his allowance cut off and being thrown into jail.’
don’t agree to it?’
‘Then I’ll go to the police and press charges.’
Gina raised the cloth to her face again, her eyes dead. Was he going to agree or not? She couldn’t tell, but she was determined to have the Ortega name and promote herself from penury to prosperity overnight. Lying had been no problem, but perhaps her manipulation had only got her so far. Perhaps Bartolomé needed one last little push.
‘You have a son. I don’t think you’ll want to endanger Juan’s future.’
‘Scandal and bad publicity can wreck lives,’ she went on, Bartolomé’s full attention caught. ‘It’s not a risk you should take.’
’ he echoed. ‘What risk?’
‘You don’t know?’ She affected surprise. ‘I’m sorry, I thought … Your brother said you knew …’
He was dry-mouthed, staring at her as though he realised that whatever she said would destroy him.
‘Gabino …’ she paused, focused and pitiless, ‘… is the father of your son.’
Quinta del Sordo, Madrid, 1824
From across the river came the chiming of the night clock. Ten minutes fast, already ten minutes into a future hour. Surrounded by flickering candles, on the table, the worktop, the window ledges, even the floor, Goya painted in the tremulous light. Raw from lack of sleep, his body aching, his legs swollen and dry with the heat, he worked on. He was completing the last of his Black Paintings – an eerie, morose image of a decrepit woman hunched over a bowl of gruel, a skull-headed creature seated beside her. Both of them were looking to their left, gazing out of the window of the bedchamber
Gazing out of the bedchamber, over the river, towards Madrid. Gazing out to the Court in the distance. Look where I look. Look
Pausing, he felt a vibration under his feet and moved to the window. Outside a man was approaching on a horse, his presence unexpected at so late an hour. Although Goya couldn’t hear it, he could imagine the whinnying of the horse, pressed into
nocturnal service, its hooves throwing dust patterns on the scorched earth. But why would someone be out so late? Come to the Quinta del Sordo on what night purpose?
Still watching, Goya saw the man pause, staring at the farmhouse. He was wearing dusty black clothes, a white ruff marking him out as a fellow of the court, a gold cross swinging round his neck as he stared at the shape in the window. Goya knew that Leocardia was asleep in a chair downstairs, her daughter on her lap, but still he waited for the front door to be unfastened, for her to hurry over to the stranger and greet him
Seen before, noted before. Coming over the fetid river to the Quinta del Sordo – the Deaf Man’s House
Turning away, Goya glanced over at the painting of the Holy Office, recognising the man outside as the man in the picture holding the drinking glass. His offering, his gesture from the court, his salutation
This from the King, from Ferdinand. This from the Royal hand
When Goya returned to the window, the man on horseback had gone. Suppressing fear and exhaustion, the old painter resumed his work. It would not be long now. Soon he would be finished. Soon the evidence would be complete
His lifted his right arm, stiff in the joint, his full brush smearing the paint on the wall. He could sense the other paintings around him, sense them watching. Every figure playing a function in the grim
he had created. He had spent his life describing the indescribable – the cruelties and viciousness of his age, the tyranny of the Court and the ruthless hectoring of the Inquisition. Paintings, drawings, etchings had all presented the truth in vivid
brutal detail, but this time Goya was leaving behind a covert truth – an enigma, a riddle which depicted the unthinkable
A secret too dangerous to be committed to paper or spoken out loud
Let the court view him as a dangerous, treacherous madman. Let the world believe the same
Goya knew that eventually fate would intervene. The Black Paintings might remain a mystery for a little time or for centuries, but one day someone would come looking
leaned against the wall, smearing the paint with his bare arm. Terror, age and exhaustion hung over him. He had lived through wars, survived the Inquisition, grown old amid plots, treachery and carnage, but now he wondered if – finally – death was imminent