WHERE LABYRINTHS END
On the morning of the abduction, Symphony Messina rushed to the wrought-iron balcony and watched her fiancé disappear into the red and white mass of runners on the hill. It was a quarter to eight and the pale light of daybreak had given way to a blinding July morning. She raised her binoculars and focused tighter into the crush of bodies by the stable gates. They were bouncing and waving rolled-up newspapers in the air under the statue of San Fermín, behind a chain of arm-linked policemen at the starting line. The spot where Miguel Angel had told her he would be, where the most daring start the run.
Below her in the canyon-like street, every flat surface, every oriel, every balcony, was crammed with people gesticulating, drinking and hollering for the run to commence. Virginia and her sisters, three tiny old women in the solemn black of widowhood, came out to the balcony. They were Miguel Angel’s grandaunts and they spoke Castilian Spanish to her. It sounded nothing like the little Spanish Symphony had learned in New York. The old women talk to her at the same time and patted her arms with sympathetic taps as if they knew what she was feeling. Symphony grinned and nodded, venturing the occasional si si not to seem rude, assuming they were telling her the same things Miguel Angel had told her. They sounded like they were reassuring her of his bull-running skills, comforting her as they might other first-timers to this world of hombres and toros.
Symphony raised the glasses to her eyes and scanned the strange crowd.
It had been a journey of firsts from the start. Her ‘maiden voyage’ across the Atlantic, her first meeting with her future in-laws in San Sebastián, her first time ever so far from her Brooklyn-born, Jersey-girl world. Miguel Angel hadn’t changed her mind on the running of the bulls’ nonsense. She still thought it stupid, a glorified game of tag with a one-ton beast. But since their arrival, Miguel Angel’s relatives and friends had been wonderful to her, and she couldn’t find it in her heart to speak against it.
Besides, she also knew something about Old World traditions from her own Italian-American upbringing, the unquestionable acceptance and the silence it demanded.
Symphony squinted into the binoculars and scanned the hilltop again. The sun was beating down on the balcony now. She could feel it on her shoulders and bare legs, in the heat rising from the street two floors below along with the men stares. It was the first time she and Miguel Angel had been out of each other’s sight, beyond each other’s reach since they arrived, and it made her feel out of place, too far away from home.
“Damn it, Miguel,” she muttered under her breath. All she wanted was a glimpse, one last look at him, but all that showed through the lenses was a seething blur of faces. “Where are you?”
Across the street, two thickset men with red neckerchiefs and matching beards jostled their way through the scrum behind the barricades. They glanced up surreptitiously at the young americana on the second story balcony. Their names were Aitor Urra and Patxi Mitxelena, and they had been on the couple’s trail since Madrid.
Aitor, a balding, solid man dressed in the feast’s colors to blend in with the multitude, scowled at his wristwatch. “Call Baldo,” he told his partner, the taller and huskier of the two.
“We called only a minute ago,” Patxi grumbled even as he pulled out his mobile telephone.
They spoke in a combination of Spanish and Euskara, the ancestral language of the Basques, with its primitive phonology without contractions or abbreviations.
“What if the girl convinced him not to run? You know how women are.”
“Do not say that even in jest,” Aitor replied. “Call them. Minot has probably returned by now.”
Despite their tense sweaty brows, they were glad Miguel Angel’s American girlfriend had decided to stay at the old women’s apartment. It not only gave them a break from the complications of tailing her through the chaotic streets: it had also settled a delicate part of the operation that had gone unresolved until this moment. Now the problem was they were five minutes from the start of operations and were yet to receive eyes-on confirmation of the target’s position.
Two blocks away, Baldo’s mobile phone played an electronic version of the Basque anthem. Baldo and Minot, the rest of their team, were in the process of changing into their runner’s outfits inside a bone-colored van parked behind the old houses facing Estafeta Street.
“Has Minot returned?” Patxi asked from the other end of the line.
“Yes,” longhaired Baldo smirked at the malformed head of the man beside him. “He says the target is in place, by the corralillos.”
Out in the barricades, Patxi gave Aitor an affirmative nod. Then said into the mobile, “What took him so long?”
“Breakfasting,” Baldo replied.
Upon hearing that, Minot, a unibrowed man with oval bovine eyes, sneered at Baldo from across the sweltering shadows inside the van.
Out on the street, Patxi glanced skyward. “The next rocket will go off at any moment.”
“We are ready. Have the costumes on. But I have to tell you, it is like a furnace in here.”
“Go over the moves with Minot again. Make sure he knows them by heart.”
Patxi pocketed his mobile telephone.
“What was Minot doing that he took so long?” Aitor asked.
“Breakfasting. Would you believe it? Whose idea was it to assign the iparralde to us?”
Aitor shrugged. “Iñaki said we need a man like him.”
“What is so good about him? He makes me uncomfortable. I never can tell what he is thinking.”
“He has been reliable so far,” Aitor said. “That does not make him necessary.”
“True. But Iñaki swears he is something serious to behold when things get ugly.”
Patxi let out a smoker’s wet laugh. “I am completely in accord with that. All he is missing is a pair of horns to look just like a Miura. How could anything get uglier than that?”
Out on the balcony, Symphony readjusted the focus on her binoculars. Narrow Mercaderes Street looked like an anthill of black berets through magnifying lenses.
Up on the hill, the oblivious bulls in the corral stirred as herdsmen picked up their long wooden poles. Outside the bullring, TV reporters shoved their microphones in peoples’ faces and hyperbolized for the cameras the happy and tragic odds connected to the event about to unfold. Police units blocked off all adjacent streets.
Several ambulances pulled up unnoticed in the rapture of fiesta.
Three blocks away on the roof of city hall, a team of pyrotechnics waited for the Mayor’s cue to fire up the skyrocket. The signal to let the bulls out of their pen.
The streets tremored in anticipation. Bagpipes squealed. Drummers beat on their snares, rolling to a climax. Symphony could feel all of it pounding in her breast.
Two flights below, Aitor and Patxi huddled inside a dilapidated doorway. They lit up cigarettes and glanced at the sky. All that was left was to wait for the rocket to fly and kick off the run.
Patxi gave a look around. “Your idea of seizing the pieza during the encierro is a good one, I give you that. But is it necessary that we take him today, on the first run of the season? Look at this place.”
An amused grin formed behind Aitor’s curly beard. He and Patxi had known each other all their lives and needed but few words to communicate their feelings to each other. “The decision has been made,” he said. “It must be today and it must be Minot, you know that.”
“Yes, but Minot has never run in an encierro, yet I am the one with all the experience. To anyone else it would be clear who should be running with Baldo. But not to you. It could all end up a disaster with this guy.”
“Patxi, if this operation, which has already taken so much of me, ends up being a disaster, it would not be because of that. We were not the ones who squandered the organization’s funds in New York and came back with a report that is nothing but crap.”
Patxi nodded his sweaty head in agreement. “How could we have known the boy was coming with his fiancée? But the iparralde running with the bulls? That is not intelligent. Maybe we should wait—”
“Wait? Two years of planning and waiting have not been long enough?” Aitor scowled over his shoulder at his man. “Vamos, stop turning this into a big tragedy only because you want to run with the bulls. They are only going to run as far as the curve into Estafeta Street. The whole stampede practically comes to a halt there.”
“That is why I should be there. It all bottlenecks there, runners slip and fall, many of the bulls do too.”
“Precisely. The curve is perfect for our purpose.”
“Perfect? There will be hundreds of people and cameras.”
Aitor turned to face his compeer. “Listen Patxi, if you know of another place where we can get our hands on the pieza without the girl being there too, tell me it. If you do not, keep your mouth shut. I need your solidarity, not your protests. The leadership left it very clear: the girl must not be touched. And I am in complete accord.”
“Hold it,” Patxi said, his mobile vibrating in his pocket. “It is Baldo . . . They are in position with eyes-on the pieza.”
“Let us enter now,” Aitor said, pushing the door behind them. “We must not attract attention.”
They gave one last look at the americana in the cut-off jeans up on the iron balcony across the street and they disappeared into the darkness inside the building.
T W O
A shushing whistle rose over the great noise of the multitude, followed by the flash and snap of an explosion high above the red-tiled roofs. A tense, material silence descended over the packed streets. The vast silence of an entire city holding its breath.
The moment had come. A man howled and Symphony and everyone else on the street turned to face the corral gates. The metallic gates slammed open with a roaring gasp, and six massive fighting bulls and their oxen retinue burst out in a violent charge. Like a herd of mythical beasts, the galloping animals wedged straight into the packed crowd, hooves pounding on the cobbled street, black-horned heads bucking, chasing and being chased by hundreds of runners.
Symphony, binoculars over her face, let out an involuntary yelp. “I see him!”
Virginia and her sisters grinned at each other, pleased to see their grandnephew’s novia at last smiling. Seconds later, the stampede boomed like a tornado passing under their balcony. The old women huddled around her, making swift signs of the cross on themselves.
Symphony could barely keep Miguel Angel’s lanky figure in focus. She leaned on the railing as far as she could, not to lose sight of him. Miguel Angel kept disappearing and reappearing from view inside the crush of runners, a snort’s distance from the biggest bull she’d ever seen. She could not understand why he kept tapping it with a rolled-up newspaper on its hump. She wanted to yell at him to stop it, but they were moving so fast that by the time the idea entered her mind he was already zooming away down the street, one more head bobbing in a flood of bobbing heads.
The tumult reached the turn-off into Estafeta Street and Symphony squinted into her binoculars. There she saw or thought she saw two men prying Miguel Angel out of the bulls’ path and into a doorway. She focused tighter on the spot, confused by what she’d seen.
“What’s going on? Is he hurt?”
It was impossible to distinguish anything in the crashing orgy of bodies, runners and bulls, sliding into a heaping pile against the wall as they made the bend.
Symphony looked at the old women. But they were busy talking, oblivious of what she’d just seen. She tried to tell them but it was of no use. Her Spanish was too limited and she was unsure of what she herself had seen.
After a moment of indecision, she threw the binoculars and the camera she had forgotten to use back in her backpack and, without giving the old women time to protest, dashed off down the stairs.
By now, the rampage of runners and animals had migrated around the bend, leaving behind them the distinct smell of fresh manure in the morning breeze.
Symphony followed the last of the stragglers toward the doorway where she’d last seen the men pull Miguel Angel out of the mob.
She stood in front of the door. The building looked condemned. The ground floor windows were shuttered and its balconies the only ones on the street without potted geraniums.
With the side of her fist, she knocked on the dilapidated door. No one answered. She rapped harder on it. No sound came from within. For a second, she wondered if she had the wrong place. Took a step back. No chance, this was the right doorway.
She looked around her, waited until the man smiling at her went by, and slammed her right shoulder hard against the door. It opened with a scraping screech.
She sidled into the narrow hallway and waited until her eyes adjusted to the dimness inside. Dust specs floated like live insects in the shaft of light from the half-opened door behind her.
At the foot of the stairway inside, she noticed the ash-like dust covering the floor disturbed by recent-looking shoe marks, as if there had been a scuffle. Not a good sign.
She took two steps forward into the darkness and shouted Miguel Angel’s name several times, louder each time.
“Are you in there? Can you hear me?”
Symphony waited for a reply. But all she could hear was the sound of her own agitated respiration over the rowdy background street noises. If the scuffle marks meant that someone had taken Miguel away then she needed to run and call the cops, and be quick about it. Luckily, there were dozens of policemen outside.
She turned for the door at the exact instant the sound of a man’s heavy shout broke out from within the building. It stopped her cold.
“Miguel, is that you?”
Symphony backtracked toward the only opened door in the dark hallway.
With a hand outstretched before her and the other feeling the walls, she followed the footmarks on the dust-covered carpeting barely visible in the indirect gray light filtering through the uneven boarded windows. All sorts of cobwebbed, broken furniture and shadowy junk lay in her path.
Like a blind person in a strange place, she stumbled into what was once a kitchen. Its doors hung like broken wings beside the doorframe. A streak of golden daylight shone from under a side door. A way out?
Symphony worked her way over the discarded plumbing fixtures cluttering the floor and halted by the door, afraid of what she’d find on the other side. She turned the doorknob and the door creaked open. With an arm up to shield her eyes against the glaring sunlight, she stepped out. She only had time to take one breath before it was knocked out of her.
Three ski-masked men jumped her from all sides. A thick hairy forearm locked her in a chokehold from behind, his callous hand on her mouth. The longhaired one clutched her legs like a football player. A third man clamped her by the waist and tried to pull her down to the kitchen floor. Symphony kicked and tried to scream but all that came out was a stifled squeal.
“Tranquila,” the huge man holding her from behind kept saying as if afraid to break her. “Tranquila.”
A French-sounding voice warned the brawny man to show some restraint. The big man showed it, lessening on the pressure around her neck—a miscalculation they could not have anticipated.
Despite her panic, Symphony managed to call on the Taekwondo skills her Jersey instructor had literally knocked into her head, driven into her instinct, and with a swift contortionist’s twist, she rolled herself into a solid ball and all four of them crashed to the kitchen floor in a pile.
Free from their hold she vaulted into the labyrinthine house, back to the front door, tearing through any opened doorway she found. She leaped over missing floorboards, knocked over everything, anything to slow them down. It gained her a little distance.
With the beams of their flashlights twitching ahead of her, Symphony made an abrupt turn and dashed into a room. She slammed the door shut, threw the latch, and leaned back against it, trying to catch her breath.
Then she heard their muted footsteps coming closer. She squeezed her lips tighter and held her breath not to make a sound. The light of their flashlights slipped through the crack under the door. The doorknob rattle sneakily but the latch held the door locked. They whispered to each other. “Aquí no,” she heard one say, as in not here. A moment later, they moved away.
A long hissing breath came out of her. They were leaving.
Except they had only stepped away to pick up speed. Now she heard their stomping footfalls zooming in with an upsurge of hollering voices.
The door exploded against her back and Symphony and a large piece of wood panel catapulted together across the room and smashed against the opposite wall.
Next thing she knew she was flat on the floor, blood dripping from her nose. Half stunned, she pushed herself back on her feet while the men proceeded to kick down what remained of the door. She dashed to the only other exit in the room. Locked. The damn door was locked. She picked up a stool and with hard desperate swings beat on the doorknob, hoping just as hard it didn’t lead to a closet or a bathroom. She’d be trapped. With one last fierce swing, the knob broke off, and she kicked the door open. She smashed into the wall-less dark outside just as the men tore into the room.
With their heavy footfalls and frenzied shouts behind her, Symphony came upon an inner stairway. She padded up the narrow steps into the heavier darkness at the top. She stood very still, leaning her forehead on the wall, taking lungs-full of the staled air. Her trick of hiding on the second floor, from where there was no visible escape, would have to work or else it was all over for her.
She wiped her nose with her arm and felt tears trailing down her sooty cheeks, but she wasn’t crying. Hell no, she was thinking, trying to think. Working it out . . . How would her father handle it? Wait, wait, yeah, what if she just came out and said ‘OK guys, let’s talk about this. Huh? . . .’ Maybe it was all a big misunderstanding. What if the building belonged to them and they had taken her for an intruder? What if Miguel Angel had really gotten hurt and they’d taken him somewhere to be looked at? Yeah right, a misunderstanding with three beasts in black masks chasing after her . . .
She heard them barging into the room downstairs.
Symphony glanced at both ends of the hallway. It made no difference which way she ran. Either way, it would be like running into solid blackness. A fusion of panic and fury such as she’d experienced only once before, long ago in the Brooklyn tenement of her childhood, erupted inside her. The inner fire that made it impossible for some people to resign themselves to submission, to be trapped, caught . . . the kill-or-be-killed potential her martial arts instructor had recognized and tried to hone in her. Symphony had no idea what those men wanted from her, nor cared to imagine it. Whatever it was, she decided, they would never have it while she was alive.
Downstairs, the three men started to work themselves up again. They hollered and argued with one another as if unable to agree on which direction to give chase.
Symphony leaned down slowly and picked up a broomstick on the floor beside her. She held it in front of her with both hands like a baseball bat, a hopeless, pathetic weapon, yet a weapon.
A crackling noise at the bottom of the stairs came next, followed by the beam of a flashlight tracing the prints she had left on the grimy steps.
She dragged herself into a nearby room and rolled herself up behind a huge armoire, her legs pressed against her chest. She listened to her pursuers going from room to room, coming ever closer. The realization that she had cornered herself where there was no way out hit her in full then. Every adrenaline-soaked fiber in her body yelling at her this was it.
The light of their flashlights entered the room first.
Symphony wiped her eyes and rose to her feet, the wooden stick in one hand and a small shower pipe she had found on the floor in the other.
They followed in slowly, one at a time, three out-of-breath shadows whispering instructions to one another, determined to put an end to their frustrations.
When their footsteps were almost upon her, Symphony let out a piercing cry and lunged at them like a fiend out of the blackness.
She hurled the foot-long pipe at the first dark shape she saw. The shadow let out a painful cry and dropped the light. Without missing a beat, she swung the broomstick hard at the head of the silhouette coming at her. The stick bounced out of her hand when it hit and she burst out of the room at full speed into the dark hallway.
Her rubber soles flew over the creaking floors, a taste of deliverance dawning in her palate, until she collided with a wall. It wasn’t exactly a wall, but something almost as solid and wide as a wall.
It was Patxi, who immediately locked her in his wooly lumberjack’s arms. He lifted her kicking feet off the floor, his mitten-sized hand over her lips, careful to keep it clear of her teeth this time.
Longhaired Baldo came running, the side of his head bloodied from the blow with the broomstick. “Leave her to me,” he said.
Patxi yelled “No!”
But Baldo swung his flashlight and smashed it on Symphony’s head, and she ceased moving. “Solved,” he said, rubbing his hand on the side of his trouser legs. “Now she will behave like a lady.”
“Why did you do that for?” Patxi shouted, holding Symphony’s limp body in his arms. “You could have killed her.”
“Nah,” Baldo said. “She is only unconscious. See?” Symphony let out a soft cry. “She is all right.”
“Shut up and take her legs. Help me get her out of here.”
At that moment, Minot came out of the dark, rubbing the part of his chest where the led pipe had hit him. “Don’t touch her,” he growled, cutting in front of Baldo. “Take your hands off her.” He gently took hold of Symphony’s legs. “What is wrong with you? Do you like to beat up women? Is that it?”
“The hell with her. I am still bleeding from the blow she gave me, la muy puta . . .”
Symphony woke up with her sore head inside a filthy pillowcase. Her hands, feet, and lips were bound together with duct tape. She felt someone grab hold of her arm and a needle stabbed into it. She tried to fight it but the burning liquid injecting into her vein was almost pleasurable.
The pillowcase came off her head and she saw a black-masked shadow looking down at her. She wanted to scream but it was so much easier not to make a sound, not to move a muscle, only to breathe as the strange voice coaxed her to do.
In her last moments of lucidity, Symphony caught a glimpse of Miguel Angel lying beside her with his back to her and his hands taped behind him, as hers were, the tip of his fingers stained blood-brown. Symphony made a last dull attempt to wriggle herself free, to shout from behind the adhesive tape choking her, until she finally passed out, defeated by the chemicals in her veins.
When the americana’s head dropped to one side, unconscious, Aitor, Patxi, Baldo, and Minot pulled their masks off their heads. They stooped over their catch in the metallic heat inside the closed van. Their white San Fermín outfits soiled and drenched in perspiration as if they had just wrestled and roped a wild bull.
Each man lit up a cigarette, except for Minot. The van fogged up with nicotine fumes.
“We might end up paying dearly for this,” Patxi declared with a puff of regret.
“The whore gave us no choice,” Baldo snapped.
Minot fixed his bovine eyes on Baldo, glassy with disgust, but said nothing.
Aitor clapped his hands. “All right, men. Vamonos,” he said. “The leadership is expecting us by lunchtime and we have over an hour of highway ahead of us.”
Patxi grunted in agreement. “Yes, let us go already. Before we have to shoot our way out of this fiesta.”
T H R E E
San Sebastián, Spain
When Miguel Angel’s father, gray-haired Orlando Estrada-Uribe, received his first call from Pamplona that afternoon, it caught him on the second course of a delicate business luncheon with three of his company’s key stockholders from abroad. Tall and impeccably dressed in a tan suit, he excused himself to take the call. He walked to the glassed terrace overlooking the white sandy arc of La Concha beach and the city below.
His chin sank as he listened to his Aunt Virginia’s distressed inflections on the telephone.
“We are so worried, Orlando. We haven’t seen Miguel or his novia since the encierro, many hours ago.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Virginia. They’ll be back by tonight. You’ll see.”
“But they left everything here and that is not normal.”
“What do you mean everything?”
“All their things. Both of them. And I don’t like the way Miguelito’s novia just ran out of here like a loca this morning, without saying anything.”
“They weren’t together?”
“No. Ay, Orlando, we’re so afraid something bad has happened . . .”
Señor Estrada-Uribe tried to calm his emotional aunt. “I’m certain they’re out having a good time as any young couple would during the sanfermínes. Let’s wait a little longer. We’ll talk again this evening.”
He returned to the table, concerned but unalarmed.
Later on at home, he withheld from mentioning anything to his wife to avoid worrying her, in case it was just another of his free-spirited son’s escapades.
Estrada-Uribe waited until nightfall. Then he went directly to his office at home and looked up the telephone listing of his corporate representative in the Pamplona area.
He found him at home.
Flattered by a call from none other than the company’s elusive chairman, Señor Ruíz, his man in Pamplona listened attentively to his boss’s brief description of the situation. He immediately agreed to look into the matter.
“And one other thing, Ruíz,” Estrada-Uribe added, as he studied his young executive’s round face in the photograph on the monitor screen. “Let’s keep this strictly between us. The last thing we need is for the authorities or the press to get a whiff of it, particularly if there is nothing wrong.”
“Consider it done, sir.”
In the span of two hours, Ruíz covered all the places the Chairman had suggested. His first stop was the local hospital, to check if Miguel Angel had been among the handful of runners hurt during the encierro. Afterward, he braved the fiesta traffic to the Tres Reyes Hotel where the manager, a business acquaintance, escorted him to the couple’s room for a visual inspection that turned up no clues. Lastly, he visited the old women’s apartment on Mercaderes Street where he telephoned the Chairman.
Señor Ruíz’s uneventful report seemed to confirm Estrada-Uribe’s earliest suspicion that the emergency was only in his old aunt’s overprotective mind. Except for one detail.
“Are you completely certain both of their mobiles are in their backpacks?”
Miguel Angel never went anywhere without it.
“Most definite, sir. As far as I can tell, all their personal documentation is there. Their mobiles, passports, wallets, credit cards, even his wristwatch, which I suppose your son removed for safety before the encierro.”
“Do you have them with you?”
“No, sir. Your aunt would not give them to me. She was rather adamant about it.”
“I understand. I will take care of it from here.”
Estrada-Uribe thanked his officer and reminded him again of the importance of maintaining the utmost discretion on the matter. Then he rose from his desk chair and walked to the liquor cart. He was beginning to pick up the red flags that might be involved but did not want to acknowledge them yet, too soon.
He dropped a couple of ice cubes in a glass, poured himself a generous stream of scotch, and returned to his desk, a massive walnut escritoire in the center of the wood and leather elegance of his office.
He took small sips as he stared into the glow of his computer screen. Going back a few days, he found no emails from the boy. No lost calls on his iPhone either.
Miguel’s mobile kept pestering him.
How much did he pay for it? It was the one Miguel had to have, a Zebra MC something or other, cost a fortune. No, he thought, his son wouldn’t have gone out the door without it. Clearly, he had left it behind for the encierro. But afterward? Not his Miguelín, he was certain of that.
In the same methodic manner with which he governed his enterprises, Señor Estrada-Uribe evaluated every detail and made his decision. His son and his novia had until morning to return to the hotel or show some sign of life. If not, he would personally fly to Pamplona and take command of the situation.
“And may God catch us confessed and in his good graces,” he whispered to himself. For if some misfortune had in fact befallen his son and his fiancé, the repercussions would reach clear around the world.
At eight a.m. the next morning, Estrada-Uribe came back to his desk and looked through the fresh morning dailies while his wife was still asleep. No word about his son or his fiancé’s fate in any of them. He stood by the French doors to the garden, his silk pajamas under his silk house robe. The Andalusian gardener was pulling weeds in the rose patch. Back at his desk, Estrada-Uribe drew his teacup aside, untouched, thinking. What happened to Miguel Angel and the girl had to have happened while the bulls were running, he decided. He picked his mobile phone ready to make the call he’d spent all night dreading to make, just as the call came to him.
The voice greeted him in Basque. “Estrada-Uribe jauna?”
“Speaking,” he answered in Spanish. “Who is this?”
“I do not think you know me, sir, but perhaps you might have heard of me. My name is Ignacio Gaztelu. You may recall I served as a councilman in your wife’s hometown of Guernica for the Batasuna Party some years ago.”
“Gaztelu? Yes, I do,” Estrada-Uribe said, faking his acquaintance with the man but already starting to make the unsettling connection. “Did you say Batasuna?” Estrada-Uribe could only imagine one reason why a member of the illegal Batasuna Party would call at this time, at his home telephone number, and on this morning of all mornings.
Still, he tried not to jump into conclusions. “How can I help you?”
“Sir, the reason I have taken the liberty to call you at your residence is that I’ve received an urgent message from ETA’s political leadership, which I’ve been instructed to convey to you.”
A glacial spasm rippled down Estrada-Uribe’s back. “A message from ETA?” The telephone almost slipped out of his hand. “I thought they were a dead issue.”
“No sir, ETA is very much alive. I was requested to inform you on their behalf that your son, Miguel Angel, is now and has been since nine a.m. yesterday morning a prisoner of ETA.”
Estrada-Uribe bit his lower lip. “Have those sons of bitches kidnapped my son? Is that what you are saying?”
“Señor, please, I am afraid it is not that simple.”
“Is my son all right? Is he hurt?”
“Miguel Angel is in perfect state of health,” Gaztelu said switching to Spanish this once. “That I can assure you—”
“Have you seen him, personally?”
“No, I was instructed only to relay this information.”
Estrada-Uribe pressed his hand over his heart and asked with a quivering voice, “How much do they want? How much are those bastards looking to get from me?”
“Again, sir, there are other considerations that we must take into account.” Gaztelu waited until he sensed Señor Estrada-Uribe’s breathing eased before he went on. “First of all,” he said softly, “it is imperative that we establish whether my clients will receive your full cooperation.”
“That is a rather stupid question, don’t you think, señor letrado? If it’s true, ETA has my son. Why not just tell me how much they want.”
“Señor, ETA’s leadership will set a rescue fee in due time. But before they take the next step, there are details that we must establish without leaving any room for misunderstanding. Your son’s life depends on it.”
“By God, man, don’t you think I know? Everybody knows what your ETA wants . . .”
“Then you agree to collaborate?”
“Yes. I said yes.”
“You are aware that from this moment on any attempt on your part to try to derail the process of negotiation, or conspire with the authorities, or deceive my clients in any manner would be considered an act of treason, punishable by death?”
“I expect no less from your so-called clients.”
“Sir, a yes or a no would be sufficient.”
“Look Gaztelu, I am a Basque. The same as you and your clients. I have lived all my life in Euskadi. I know very well what ETA does. What else do you have to tell me?”
“I have other instructions to pass on to you, but we would have to meet in person.”
“Your telephone is not a secured line. I was requested to furnish you with a copy of ETA’s official communiqué, explaining the reasons for this action.”
“A communiqué?” Estrada-Uribe repeated, repulsed. “You not only kidnap my son, now you also want to lecture me on ETA’s nationalistic ideas? Spare me your worthless tirades—”
“Do not miscomprehend me. I, as an attorney, am bound to my clients, but I am neither my clients nor an ETA spokesman.”
“I know what you are, señor letrado—”
“That is correct. I am a letrado, a lawyer acting within the boundaries dictated by the Law of this autonomy. Now, if you allow me to continue.”
“Please do, but I already know what comes next,” Estrada-Uribe said reddening with contempt. “Your clients are going to wait two or three weeks before they admit publicly to the kidnapping. Isn’t that the little trick they usually pull, for the purpose of exploiting the publicity they are sure to reap from it? Then they’re going to demand some exorbitant rescue fee meant to ruin me. Is this not how it functions, Gaztelu?” Estrada-Uribe kept getting louder, working himself up. “Is this not how it goes?”
Gaztelu replied calmly, “I doubt their aim is to ruin you, señor. Besides, everyone knows the weight of your purse is quite considerable.”
Estrada-Uribe’s nostrils flared. “You . . .”
“Sir, ETA has no intention of ruining any Basque citizen. On the contrary, as you well know, these operations are forced upon my clients. It is the only means left to them to persuade our more fortunate citizens to partake in our national struggle for independence. Nationhood will benefit you as well.”
“Spare me that crap, Gaztelu. You are a lawyer and you know all too well that kidnapping is a crime in every civilized society. A criminal act, regardless of how you dress it up.”
Estrada-Uribe didn’t let him finish. “You may go and tell those criminals friends of yours not to worry about me. Tell them that as long as Miguel Angel is alive and doing well they can count on my cooperation. But you can also tell these clients of yours, if my son is hurt in any way—”
“Hold it there, sir. Be careful of what you tell me. I must have you know that I am obligated to inform my clients of everything you say. And in the spirit and frame of mind in which you say it. So I strongly recommend that you do not say something now you will regret later.”
After a long pause, Estrada-Uribe released a long sigh and continued, now sounding a decade older than at the start of the conversation. “Do you have any children, Señor Gaztelu?”
“I have two sons, but I do not see what that—”
Estrada-Uribe cut him off. “Then I do not need to explain to you how I feel at this moment, do I? Have your clients given you any idea as to how long it will take them to come up with a ransom fee? And will the ransom cover both my son and his fiancée?”
“Pardon me, sir, just so there is no misunderstanding. I was only instructed to contact you with this matter concerning your son.”
“How can that be? They were abducted together.”
“I know nothing about that. I am sorry—”
“Are those criminals of yours going to try to get another ransom for her, an American student visiting our country?”
“I have absolutely no knowledge of what you are referring to.”
Estrada-Uribe shook his head, sickened by it all. “Listen Gaztelu, we Basques know what to expect when ETA kidnaps a family member. God knows you have done it plenty of times before. But kidnapping an innocent American girl? Gaztelu . . . Hola . . . Hola . . .”
The line went dead.
F O U R
Brooklyn, New York
A few minutes past midnight, Terry Messina was watching TV at home in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, when she received Estrada-Uribe’s transatlantic call informing her of his son’s and her daughter’s disappearance. She spent the next hour in tears, trying to track down her husband on the phone at all his usual haunts.
She finally reached him on a landline at the Greenpoint Social Club, wrapping up a card game with his crew.
Joey Messina, tired and in a nasty mood after losing every big pot of the night, called her back on his cell. At first, he couldn’t grasp what his wife was saying. “Calm down, Terry,” he snapped. “What’d you mean they can’t find them? Since when?”
All eyes inside the smoky cone of light over the card table peered up at the boss as he listened to the unbelievable things his wife was telling him.
The fair-skinned man seated across the table asked, “What’s the matter, Joey?”
Joey Messina put up his free hand, signaling his man to shut up. “Michelangelo’s father said that? The Spanish Police and who else? Them too?”
As if choreographed, every face at the table fixed on Joey’s. They could see something was terribly wrong but could not figure out what.
“Listen to me, Terry. Take it easy, OK? Just give them Spillman’s number when they call back . . . Yes, Spillman . . . ’cause he’ll know how to deal with them . . . My cell? Are you out of your mind? Look, it’s probably nothing. Maybe they’ve just gone somewhere. Meantime, get a hold of yourself. . . Yes, I’m leaving now.”
Somehow, those last words eased Joey Messina’s men immediate worries. Whatever the emergency was, it seemed to have nothing to do with their business. Still, they could see the boss had a family crisis on his hands, a serious one.
Joey’s cell phone disappeared inside his fist. He sat back on his chair, motionless, scowling at the play cards on the green felt tabletop in front of him. His tense, suntanned features blanching to a pallid whiteness as the news sank in. No one, from the old man behind the counter to the two teenage boys by the front door of the sleepy social club, dared to break the silence.
“Can’t fucking believe it,” he finally said.
“For pete’s sake, Joey. What’s going on?” Coppertone Tony, his right-hand man, asked.
“It’s Symphony. We got a call from Spain saying she and her boyfriend are missing.”
“Yeah. Her boyfriend’s father had some interpreter call the house. Looks like Michelangelo’s been abducted by somebody. They’re not sure who. The Spanish police said they might’ve taken Sym too.”
“Symphony? . . . Your kid? . . . Kidnapped? . . . That’s crazy,” his men let out almost in unison.
“Didn’t say she’s been kidnapped,” Joey said intentionally vague. “They just don’t know where she is.”
He was not about to admit to them the FBI and a State Department agent in the U.S. embassy in Madrid had called his house and left messages asking him to call them.
“I got to go.” He pushed himself off the creaking chair.
Joey’s men bunched around him pouring out the obligatory curses, expressing their outrage at such an inexplicable event. “It’s got to be some kind of mistake, boss . . . Them Spanish cops probably got it all wrong . . . Got to be some kind of goof up . . . Who’d freaking dare?”
“Got to get home,” Joey said as he rounded the table.
Coppertone called out to one of the boys by the door. “Run to the back and bring Joey’s car around. Come on.”
“Forget it. I’ll get it myself.” Joey was already heading out, his quick-moving feet too small for his girth making the cuffs of his silk trousers flap violently.
Joey Messina’s crew watched their boss storm out of the club. They could only remember one other occasion when Joey’s face had turned that pale gray. They had been sitting at the same table that time too, when two-dozen FBI plainclothes and NYPDs led by the DA himself busted in and personally handed out the court summons, the indictments that put an end to their profitable golden days in the carting industry.
With the boss gone, the crew drifted back to the table where they stayed all night, drinking and smoking in hard debate, wondering whether this unprecedented event was, in reality, the preamble to a war no one had seen coming. Or just more evidence of the messed up shape the world was in.
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