PART 5: CASTELO DOS MOUROS
The Americans sitting opposite me on the train were involved in a heated debate. One of them had recently visited the Middle East and was getting her head around the fact that the women there would go swimming in full burqa attire. ‘It’s a miracle there aren’t more drownings’ she exclaimed. Death by drowning. What a horrible fate that must be. Knowing all too well that you’re going to perish in minutes and not being able to do a thing about it. Surely one of the more harrowing deaths out there. It would suit Carmo. It would suit her to a T. In an ideal world I’d drown the bitch. But drownings are a messy, drawn-out affair. So I’d settle for a simple push into the abyss. I’d settle for Sintra.
It hadn’t surprised me that she’d replied so readily to my invitation. She could have just ignored me and disappeared into the distance, severing all ties with me, clinging onto the evidence of my past-life trespass as an insurance against me talking about her. Yet I knew she wouldn’t. By now a sketch of my face was in all the morning papers – I, ironically, was hiding behind one of them all the ride up to Sintra – and if I got caught, I’d have nothing to lose by implying her. She was smart enough to know that. She’d be smart enough too I hadn’t picked the Castelo dos Mouros arbitrarily. An isolated location, far from the Lisbon police, perched atop a steep hill. She’d know danger would be lurking. She’d come prepared. But so would I.
If the circumstances surrounding my visit hadn’t been so dire, Sintra was the kind of place I would have fallen madly in love with, from the charming train station that greeted you when you pulled into the small town to the gorgeous architecture of the castles and houses scattered in its landscape and the winding, steep roads leading up to the Moorish castle, the hot concrete cooled by overhanging tree leaves. If there was one silver lining to the dark maelstrom that had engulfed me in Lisbon, it was that it was all going to end not in a shady alley during a thunderstorm but here, in the wide open nature, under a sun-drenched, clear blue sky.
The bus ride to the castle took about fifteen minutes and gave me the time to reflect on how I’d do it. I had picked up a map of the castle from one of the vendors outside of the station in order to wrap my head around the logistics of the place. There would be an embarrassment of choices to throw Carmo to her doom, but the Royal Tower seemed the most strategically sound. It took a lot of steps to get up there, so the number of visitors there would probably be least – especially on a scorching day like this one – leaving the biggest window of opportunity to let her pay for what she’d done to me.
Carmo was all smiles as she awaited me on the castle square.
‘I almost hadn’t recognised you behind those sunglasses and with that cap on. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were trying to go unnoticed.’
I could appreciate dark humour more than anyone I knew, but I did not laugh at her remark.
‘You’ve seen the news, I’d wager a guess?’
‘I have. They’re calling you the rosary killer now. Not a bad nickname. Not bad at all.’
The square was slowly flooding with tourists now.
‘Maybe we should find a place that is a little less crowded,’ I proposed, nodding towards the Royal Tower. She took the bait and before you knew it we were climbing dozens of stairs, carved out of rock centuries ago. I had made sure she was leading the way. I didn’t trust it having her in my back. I wanted to keep my eyes on her, every second of the way. She’d double-crossed me once. She wouldn’t do it a second time. My reasoning had been spot-on. Apart from us two only half a dozen visitors had made the climb up the tower. We sought out the quietest corner of the battlement as I awaited my moment to strike. But it was she who started the conversation.
‘Pop quiz,’ she said snidely. ‘The category is literature. Who said that good writers borrow and great writers steal?’
I humoured her by answering.
‘That would be T.S. Elliot.’
‘So if we believe mister Eliot, that would make you … a great writer?’
And she showed me the flash drive I knew she had procured after our drunken tryst.
‘You know, I was wondering why you were holding onto the galleys of a novel that says, quite clearly, on the first page that it was written by someone else. A protégé perhaps, who had asked you to read his work? But then I googled the title. And somehow Google informed me that you were the author. And it had hundreds of convincing arguments: links to online bookshops, all selling the Cowgate Gallows, written by … you.’
‘There’s no need to rub it in.’
‘But I googled some more. And I found that this Andrew Garner, this author on this flash drive, used to be your roommate at university. Like you, he was reading English lit. Had much higher marks than you as well. Probably a much better writer. With that kind of talent, you’d almost think he’d have a secret novel in a hidden drawer, ready to send to publishers once he’d have graduated.’
‘I was the only one who knew about it. He didn’t handle criticism well, but me he trusted. I read it, gave him some pointers, …’
‘Killed him, then stole his manuscript?’
‘No! I did not kill him. He … died. He did die. Car crash. It was horrible.’
‘Okay, so you didn’t murder him. But you did steal his novel.’
‘I’d helped him with it anyway.’
‘You could at least have mentioned him as a co-author.’
I could have. I should have. If I could turn back the clock I would have. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Well, at least until a few days ago.
‘But what I really don’t understand,’ Carmo continued, ‘is why you would carry this around with you. Seems a bit masochistic, no?’
‘Stop asking questions,’ I said, trying to keep my voice down.
‘Why did you keep it, Gerald? Why not simply destroy it?’
‘Because that would mean destroying every memory I have of him. He was my friend. After he died I stabbed him in the back, but he was my friend. He always will be.’
That caught her off-guard. She did not know what to say at first. But then she smiled wryly.
‘So that’s why you want it back? As a souvenir from your so-called friend?’
‘Yes. That’s why I want it back.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
Only then did I realise that the two of us were all alone atop the tower now. The other visitors were already halfway down by the look of it and I could see no one else heading upwards. This would be my window of opportunity.
I lunged forward, straight onto Carmo, flooring her. The flash drive shot from her hand, but with her other hand she was already reaching for a knife, hidden under her clothes. The knife cut me straight across the face. Instinctively I took a step back, as Carmo rose back to her feet, waving her weapon at me.
‘I was starting to like you, with all your sentimental crap,’ she said. ‘But no more.’
Her eyes darted to the flash drive.
‘Give it to me,’ she ordered me. ‘Give it to me or the next stab will do more damage than a mark on your face.’
I kneeled down, always keeping my eyes on her and slowly stepped towards her with the flash drive. I hadn’t been lying about my reasons to hang onto it. I did cherish the drive as my last tangible memory of Andrew. And I’d loathed to see anything happening to it. Which made what I did next all the harder.
With the drive within her reach, I swung it over her head, over the battlements, into the deep. Carmo’s reflex was to try and grab it. I did not hesitate. With a firm push she ended up against the stone wall and a swift swipe at her legs was all it took to topple her over. It wasn’t like in the movies. She didn’t scream. Not a sound. She just fell, first hitting the rock below and then ricocheting into the woods. She was dead. I had killed her. And this time there wasn’t a witness in sight.
At least, so I thought. Because mere seconds after Carmo had hit the trees, from out of the shadows a slow monotonous hand clap emerges, soon followed by the person I had least expected to see there.
‘Bravo,’ Leila applauded. ‘That was quite a show.’
Was it the relentless heat or the decompression following the traumatic events of the past minute that made me dizzy? Or was it the sudden realisation that I had been played by not one but two femmes fatales? It didn’t take me long to figure out the truth behind it all – one I had used numerous times before in my novels, a cliché as big as the ruins of this castle – but Leila was kind enough to spell it out for me, in case I wasn’t so fast on the ball.
‘Rodolfo was an incurable philander,’ she said. ‘He cheated on Carmo with me, then he cheated on me with someone else and he would have done the same to her if Carmo and I hadn’t found each other in a common plan to spare the other girls of Lisbon our fate.’
‘And if you hadn’t found me.’
‘You were a god-sent, Gerald. I had read your novels. They were filled with detectives falling for the gorgeous twenty-something local girl. Your stories were a dead giveaway. There’s no way you would have resisted Carmo’s charms.’
‘What made you so sure I’d go through with it?’
‘If you hadn’t, we had some other tricks up our sleeve. No need to bore with them now. But yes, the flash drive was a nice surprise. Writers are proud creatures, aren’t they? Your career or his life? A simple enough conundrum. As you have proven.’
‘I’m guessing you won’t mourn your partner in crime?’
‘I needed her, she needed me. We both needed a goon. It was a business transaction, that is all.’
‘So what happens now?’
‘I got what I wanted. And the last piece of evidence leading to me has just been disposed of by you. I’m in the clear. You, on the other hand, are not. That sketch is a bit crude, but I’m sure I’ll be able to make a positive ID from it. You can tell the police your story of course. And maybe they can prove that Carmo was involved. But not me. Not me.’
‘That is cold.’
‘That is life.’
‘You’ll never be able to live with this, you know. Guilt has a knack for creeping up on you.’ You never truly get over it. I know. And I didn’t even have to kill a man for it. All I did was steal a story. It’s been haunting me for years. Isn’t it ironic that it took me a murder – hell, two murders – to finally look into the mirror and face the consequences?’
‘I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time in prison to reflect on your flaws.’
‘No, I won’t. But I’m hoping you do.’
I showed her my smartphone, the red record button prominently visible.
‘We are prone to mistakes,’ I told. ‘It’s how we atone for them that distinguishes us from the common animal. Well, most of us anyway.’
Here I hit the ‘stop recording’ button, put the smartphone in my pocket and, to the sound Leila’s anguished scream, jumped from the battlements to my death.
To be continued …