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The day was coming to an end, but still the heat fell like hammers.
Barcelona shimmered as if it were a mirage, the air lensed by the warmth of the day escaping from the narrow streets, back into the cloudless sky. As he walked, Pasco patted his shoulder with a rolled-up copy of El Periodico, tapping out an aimless rhythm across the top of his sergent’s chevrons. His uniform shirt was sticking to his barrel chest, but he didn’t notice it. Pasco was a son of this city, fourth-generation, and he’d grown up in the Balearic sunshine. His old face attested to that, careworn like good calfskin leather.
He navigated around the knots of tourists and locals without really being aware of it. The uniform did most of the work for him, the pale blue of the Mossos d’Esquadra and the red-banded cap on his head cutting a path through people on the busy street. Now that the sun had dropped below the rooftops, the first wave of revellers were shaking off their siesta and coming out to play. Joining them were pale Germans and paler British, yet to build up a tolerance to the heat and grateful for the cooling atmosphere and the open-air cafés in this part of the old town. Minor criminals—pickpockets and opportunist thieves—would already be among them.
But few would be found near this corner of the Ciutat Vella district, thanks to the imposing, slab-sided shape of the main police station on the Nou de la Rambla. It was a charmless building, all heavy white stone and blue-tinted glass, built with the modernist ethic that had swept over the city in the last few decades.
He crossed the station’s courtyard, passing Enrique going the other way, and the two policemen exchanged nods. Enrique pointed at the newspaper. “Hey, Abello. Finish it today?” He smiled, showing tobacco-stained teeth.
Pasco snapped open the paper with a flourish. It was a little ritual that they shared once a week, when the cryptic crossword was published. He offered it to Enrique to show him that every clue had been filled in, the letters written in a careful hand.
The younger man scowled. Pasco knew the other sergent hadn’t completed the puzzle himself, which meant that Enrique would be required to buy him a packet of the good cigarillos, as their regular competition demanded.
“You’ve got better all of a sudden?” Enrique asked, with no little suspicion.
Pasco gave a shrug. “The warm air. Makes me smarter.”
Enrique’s scowl deepened. “If I catch you cheating, I will fill your desk with cat shit.” He gave a rueful smile of defeat and walked on.
Pasco snorted. Soon, perhaps in a week or two, after he had made up enough wins to redress the lead Enrique had on him, he would reveal his secret. A birthday gift from his grandson, an electronic gadget that kept all his names and address, birthdates and phone numbers. It was a clever thing, packed with a huge library of words and phrases in different languages, and it had come in useful more than once when Pasco had found himself dealing with foreign tourists. It also had a dictionary in it that was excellent at suggesting whole words when you only had a few letters to go on.
Thinking about the boy made him think about his son, and guilt stirred in his chest. He was supposed to call him yesterday, but after work a few of the men went to the local bar and he had lost the rest of the evening with his colleagues and their rough good humor.
Pasco sighed. His son worried about him now that his mother was with the angels. Papa, a man like you should not be walking the streets, he would say. Policeman is a job for men of my age, not yours. Let them give you a desk.
A desk; the very idea made Pasco’s heart shrink in his chest. He loved this city like it was his own private property, and to see it from behind a desk, day in and day out … His son didn’t understand that it would be a slow death for him, slow and hard, like the cancer that had taken his beautiful Rosa.
Through the glass doors into the precinct hall, a steady mutter of conversation and office noise washed over him. Stepping through the arches of the metal detectors, he nodded absently to the man on duty there as the scanner bleated. The other police officer waved him through with a distracted nod.
Pasco doffed his cap and he tried to push his thoughts of family aside. There were bigger problems for Pasco to deal with. Sometimes, his son seemed like he had come from another planet, with all his talk of things like the global warming that made the summer heat murderous, the scandals of the impossibly rich, and the men of other countries who seemed to kill each other for reasons Pasco couldn’t begin to fathom.
He sighed. It was because of those things that he didn’t buy the paper for the news anymore. All too depressing. It was just the crossword now, and nothing else.
Pasco noticed the boy then, and chided himself for being too deep in his own head. It was no reason not to remain observant.
The youth was in his late teens, but the pallor of his face made it difficult to be certain exactly how old he was. He had a heavy brow and dark eyes, filled with worry. The ends of black curls peeked out from under a tan painter’s cap, the rest of him hidden inside a nondescript tracksuit the color of tilled earth. He walked like his training shoes were too tight for him, stepping awkwardly as he made his way toward the big desk where Tomás the duty officer was growling something at a junior mosso.
The youth became aware of Pasco looking directly at him and flinched as if he had been struck. The sergent got a good look at him then, head on. He was washed out, filmed with sweat, and there was a line of bruising on his neck.
His eyes, though, were what caught Pasco. The teenager’s eyes were so very serious, in that way that only the young were capable of. He saw his son and his grandson in them.
The youth in the tracksuit gave him an owlish blink, as if he was going to say something, and then his legs bent under him. He landed hard on the tiled floor and skidded. People heard the impact, the heavy noise of it echoing in the hall, and they turned to stare.
Pasco was immediately at the teenager’s side, kneeling down to look him over. He looked ill; not like a junkie dragged through withdrawal, but someone afflicted with the sort of bone-deep sickness that ate away at a person. “Are you all right, boy?” asked the sergent. “What’s the matter? Do you need a doctor?”
The look Pasco got in return told him that the youth didn’t understand a word of Spanish. Part of his mind—the trained, focused part of him that was pure police—was already evaluating the boy, thinking of him in terms of how he would be logged and reported in the day’s paperwork. “Where are you from?” He asked the question without thinking about it. The silent youth looked back with his serious eyes.
The sergent cast around and found a familiar face in the yellow and orange of a paramedic’s jacket. “Noya!” He shouted the girl’s name, but she was already on her way to him, the toolbox-shape of an emergency kit in her gloved hand.
Noya was a regular at the precinct. The petite Catalan girl was part of an ambulance crew from the local hospital, and more often than not, when a medical crisis arose at the station, her team was the one that answered the call. Pasco liked her even though a lot of the other men didn’t. She was brisk and severe, but fiercely competent.
“Help me get him over to a bench,” she demanded. Between them, they helped the youth stagger to a wooden seat in the waiting area, the paramedic yelling at the people who sat upon it to vacate. They scattered and Pasco laid the boy down.
His breathing changed, coming in short gasps like a frightened animal.
The level of noise in the entrance hall dropped as people began to notice what was going on, pausing in the middle of their own little dramas to watch the unfolding of this one. Some were coming closer to get a better look.
Noya snapped her fingers to attract the youth’s attention. “Hey. Can you hear me?”
“I don’t think he understands,” Pasco told her.
She had her fingers at his neck, checking his pulse. “It’s not heat-stroke,” Noya replied. She reached for the zipper on his tracksuit jacket and the boy snatched at it, preventing the paramedic from opening it. A new emotion crept into his eyes; fear. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a dry gasp.
“I need to open your shirt.” Noya said sternly. She waggled a stethoscope at him. “To listen.” She was speaking loudly and over-enunciating each word, as if talking to a slow child.
The youth looked past her to Pasco, and again he tried to say something. Licking dry lips, he forced out a word, and the effort seemed to cost him.
The sergent only caught part of it and he leaned in. The boy tried again, and this time Pasco heard the whisper clearly.
The word meant nothing to him. He frowned.
“Get back,” Noya snapped at Pasco. “Don’t crowd me.” She tried to grab the zipper, and again the youth resisted her. She scowled. “I don’t have time for this.” The paramedic pulled an ingot of bright orange plastic from her pocket. A rescue tool, it was typically used for cutting the seatbelts off victims of traffic accidents, but Noya could wield it like a surgeon, and with a single swift motion she hooked it in the tracksuit collar and sliced it open.
Pasco did as he was told, falling back a step or two, giving Noya room to work. Her partner, a skinny Portuguese lad, came across the hall with a folding stretcher in one hand. The youth said the word again, and without thinking about it, Pasco pulled out his birthday gift and thumbed the tab marked Translator. As best he could, he repeated what he had heard into the device’s pinhole microphone.
* * *
It would not have been an exaggeration to say that Jadeed’s room was the most expensive space he had ever been in. The executive suite on the upper floor of the Hilton was alien to him in a way he found difficult to articulate. It wasn’t something he would have spoken about to the other men, for fear that they might be amused by it and consider him parochial and unworldly. He didn’t like to be thought of as inferior.
But the suite could quite easily have encompassed the entire footprint of the slum apartment in Jeddah where he had grown up. The first night, he had not been able to sleep in the huge, soft bed, interrupted by dreams of being swamped in a vast, empty space. He took sheets and made a place instead in the living room, arranged in the lee of a long sofa where he wouldn’t be seen by someone entering through the doorway. It served him much better.
Jadeed sipped from a tumbler of water as he crossed the room toward one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. It seemed wrong to him that so much space should account for the needs of a single person. He felt that in his bones, as if it were a violation of some kind of law. It was wasteful. But then, it was Western.
At the open window, he felt more comfortable. A low moon was already visible in the sky, and lights were coming on across Barcelona, all along the Diagonal Mar and out toward the city center. Sounds reached up to him from sixteen floors below, where restaurant terraces in the shopping mall across the street were taking in their early evening business.
He sat before a low table and lit one of the Czech cigarettes that were his sole vice, taking a long draw. He tossed the match into a glass ashtray before exhaling a cloud of blue smoke.
Next to the ashtray were a pair of compact but powerful Bushnell binoculars, a wireless headset and the flat, glassy tile of a smartphone. Jadeed nudged the phone with his finger, turning it idly in a circle where it lay. Although the device outwardly resembled any one of a number of next-generation handsets, it had been heavily modified. Beneath the brushed aluminum surface, there was barely a single component still in place from the original design. Jadeed remained suspicious of the technology, but more intelligent men than he had told him it was safe to use, and he knew enough not to question them.
The smartphone buzzed and he blinked in surprise. Stubbing out the cigarette, he hooked the lozenge-shaped headset’s loop over his right ear and tapped the phone’s screen. The panel immediately illuminated with a number of colored icons and an oscillating display showing the rise and fall of a signal waveform.
He heard a resonant voice in his ear. “I am watching.” Khadir’s words were strong and clear, almost as if he were standing at Jadeed’s shoulder. Only the ghostly whisper of static beneath them betrayed the fact that the man on the other end of the line was thousands of miles away. There was a fractional delay, doubtless some artifact of the complex course taken by the call’s clandestine routing around the globe and back via satellite relay, through encryption filters at both ends.
Jadeed nodded. “Very soon now.” He reached for the binoculars and scanned the rooftops. He quickly found his sightline. After a moment, he looked away to the smartphone, carefully tapping one of the application icons. It grew into a window containing a countdown clock, and Jadeed watched the numbers tumble toward zero. Khadir would be looking at the exact same display.
The clock reached the two minute mark and blinked red. “One hundred and twenty seconds,” murmured the voice. “We are committed.”
Jadeed smiled slightly. “Has there ever been a moment when that was not so?”
Khadir didn’t rise to the comment. “Were there any issues with the sample before deployment?”
He glanced down at the fingers of his right hand. They were still a little red and inflamed from where he had been forced to use them to inflict a moment of discipline, wrapping the steel spheres of his misbaha prayer beads in a tight loop like a knuckleduster. “No,” he lied. Silence answered him, and he reluctantly amended his reply. “Nothing of note.”
If Khadir heard the pause in his voice, he didn’t comment on it. “I appreciate you handling this personally,” he said. “You understand that I need eyes I trust to witness this?”
“Of course.” The fact was, there were many men that Khadir could have given this assignment to, men they would have been more than willing to leave to take the blame after the fact; but this was too important to be left to inferiors. “I have my departure arranged.” Jadeed had paid for the room for another day, but he would be leaving it in little more than …
He glanced at the smartphone. Only sixty seconds now. The binoculars came up again and found their mark. “This is what the Americans would call the moment of truth,” said Jadeed, almost to himself.
“How apt,” offered Khadir.
* * *
The boy tried to stop Noya, but his effort was weak and half-hearted, as if he couldn’t muster the energy to do it. He moaned as Noya pressed the disc of the stethoscope to his chest. Her other hand moved lightly over the youth’s torso, stubby fingers clad in blue latex probing at his flesh. Each touch got another pained reaction.
The paramedic swore under her breath and bunched a handful of the boy’s t-shirt in her fist, and she bared his chest with another slice of the cutter.
Pasco heard her partner gasp. He actually heard the sound of the Portuguese recoiling in that sharp breath, the man’s face twisting. He knew that expression too, of disgust and horror being swiftly shut away beneath a professional façade of detachment. One of the tourists watching the scene unfold made a gagging noise and went ashen.
Pasco was compelled to take a look at the boy and he regretted it immediately, crossing himself as he realized what had been done to him. “Santa Maria…”
Suddenly he felt his age, right there in the marrow of his bones, heavy like lead. It disappointed him to think that someone could inflict such horrors as the young man had suffered.
A soft digital ping brought his attention back to the electronic gadget in his hand. Pasco had forgotten he was holding it in his thick fingers. The device offered a translation of the word he had given, and his blood ran cold.
Shahiden (Arabic, Noun), it read. Martyr.
Noya began to speak. “I think there’s something—”
The wet gasp the boy gave was the last thing Pasco Abello heard.
* * *
One moment there was nothing but a sea of red-tiled rooftops, and the next a gray-black blossom of haze and debris filled the optics of the binoculars. Jadeed let them drop just as the sound-shock of the explosion crossed the two mile distance to the balcony, buffeting him as it passed, rattling the tall windows.
He closed his eyes and visualized the effect of the weapon, almost basking in the thought of it. The first blinding flash of the detonation itself and the ring of compacted air radiating out through the interior of the police station, glass and plastic shattering under the catastrophic overpressure. The bodies of those closest to the ignition point would have been utterly destroyed. Blood would atomise into vapor, flesh becoming cinders. Supporting pillars and walls would distend and crack, ballooned outward by forces they were never meant to contain. In a few microseconds, the building would break apart and begin to die. The structure would collapse under its own weight, the discharge churning outward in thunderous torrents, channeling destruction into the surrounding streets.
He opened his eyes. Behind the rush of the blast noise came a shrieking machine chorus of honking horns and bleating sirens as every car alarm within a mile radius went off at once. In the cool evening air there was no breeze to stir the motion of the pillar of smoke that spiraled upward. It hung like a great black dagger pointing into the heart of the ruin.
He waited, straining to hear, and was rewarded by a long, low rumble that resonated in his chest, blotting out the chatter of the people on the avenue below, as they struggled to understand what had just happened. A second, larger dust cloud projected itself into the air as the stricken building collapsed. Jadeed couldn’t see the station house from where he sat, but he could see the mark its demise left behind.
“Broad dispersal,” noted Khadir, with clinical focus. “There are fires.”
Jadeed wondered exactly how his superior was seeing that. A spy satellite or a drone, perhaps? He absently looked up into the darkening sky. “The gas lines will—” he began, but before he could fully voice his thought, the dull concussion of a secondary detonation joined the unfolding chaos. New streamers of smoke rose with the main plume, illuminated from within by gas-fueled fires.
Jadeed rose from his chair, gathering up the phone and binoculars.
“I am satisfied,” said the voice in his ear. “The sample meets with my approval.” The last words sounded like they were being directed at someone else.
“I am leaving now,” Jadeed replied, but when he looked down at the smartphone, the display was static, the waveform signal a flat line, the countdown frozen at zero. The phone went into his pocket, clattering against his prayer beads.
He took the small case containing everything he needed from where it lay on the bed, securing the compact Beretta 84F pistol sitting next to it in a hip holster, which was concealed by the cut of his clothes.
In all the noise and confusion, the sound of the Hilton’s fire alarm shrilled away unnoticed as he left the hotel through the emergency exit, and threaded away between the people pointing and gawping at the column of smoke.
Copyright © 2016 by James Swallow