PART 1 – AIRPORT
Don’t believe a word I say. Not a sentence. Not a letter. Not a question mark or comma. I am what novelists would call an ‘unreliable narrator’. And I should know. I am a writer myself.
If I told you these words were written on my brand new laptop, in an airport lobby – luxury handbags to the left, the odour of freshly cooked lobster and clams to the right, an endless stream of families in between, scurrying off to the sun, deluding themselves they’ll escape the rat race, even if it is for just a long weekend – I’d urge you to take it with a grain of salt. Chances are I’m sitting at a dingy table in a fixer-upper hotel, my back hunched, toiling over an antique typewriter, in desperate need of a new ink ribbon and incapable of hammering an L or Y to the paper.
I have been called in the past a liar. A cheat. A coward. A scoundrel. A mythomaniac of epic proportions, tripping up the truth one sentence at a time. I have been, since I can remember. My earliest memory – I must have been three or four – was a con. The victim? My older sister. Rhonda – an ill-advised name if you take in she was adopted, Japanese and at five years still not fully capable of saying the first letter of her name – was smothered so much by my parents that she unwittingly provoked a serious bout of jealousy from my part. She was quite naïve, infinitely more so than me despite her advanced years, and had somehow got it into her head that magic was real and that if she just found the right abracadabra she’d be able to fly. My parents intervened before anything serious could happen, grabbing her just before she was going to throw herself off the tall granite staircase in our house, yelling – three times in quick succession – ‘Ablabab Mordo Condo’. Had I been older than her, I would probably have been grounded for most of my pre-adolescent life. But I was younger and aided by a well-placed tear and pouting lip and lots of fake earnestness my parents concluded that it must have been someone else who whispered the dangerous three words into Rhonda’s ear. If only they had seen the beaming smile on my face once they turned their backs. I was three or four and I was hooked on opposing the truth. In the years since I have only perfected the illusion of the genuine. To such an extent that I myself am often no longer certain if the tale I tell did actually happen or if it was conceived somewhere inside the most nefarious corridors of my imagination.
So, for arguments’ sake, let us assume that I am indeed sitting in an airport lobby, on a curvy sofa, a laptop on my knees. And let’s say I’m pondering at last the consequences of my life of lies and the inevitable punishment that is bound to follow. I’d like you to be my confidante. And bearing in mind my penchant for distorting the truth, I want you to be continuously on the lookout for any holes you can punch into my tale. Do not trust a word I say, I implore you.
Except for this, for it is the truth.
I killed a man in Lisbon.
PART 2 – THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TAGUS
I should have known better than to do the final part of the voyage on foot. Lisbon, with its many hills was not a city for a casual walk. Especially when you’re towing one bag behind you and have another on your back. To compound my toils, the day hadn’t even properly started but the temperature was already approaching 27 degrees Celsius. I was wilting.
Still, this is part of my ritual. For every novel I have ever written, I have walked the final two or three miles to the guesthouse where I would re-arrange the ideas in my head into a coherent story. I walked the Royal Mile – and then some – for The Cowgate Gallows, climbed the meandering hills surrounding Fort-de-France for Deadly Rhum and traversed the grey, stately relics of Soviet occupation in the Eastern part of Berlin before penning Mörder, Alexanderplatz. Why should Lissabon warrant an exception? So on I toiled, seeking refuge under the foliage of the numerous small parks in the city, in between the arduous climbs.
These walks are an important part of my writing process. They allow me to get a sense of the city I have hand-picked as a location for yet another hard-boiled, bloody novel. The main gist of the plot I would always have in my head – sometimes even written down – before I board the plane, cobbled together from the grizzliest stuff in tabloids and Wikipedia snippets about the most photogenic places in the city (from a literary standpoint). But people don’t read novels for the plot or the sightseeing highlights. They read it for the details. Just think about it. What was the last book you read? And what do you remember about it? I bet it’s a detailed description of a street or neighbourhood you’d never even heard of. And I bet when you finally visited that city, you went there first to see if the author had done it right. If he was any good, he would have aced it. And if the circulation numbers of my novels are something to go by, I’m good.
So I walked the streets of Lisbon and took in the atmosphere. The first thing I noticed was that as a capital it was unlike any other I had visited in Europe. It had none of the speed that London is infused with, nor the breathing room of Berlin, or the bureaucratic chaos of Brussels. Even compared to its Mediterranean cousins, Madrid and Rome, there was something off here, something not quite European, not quite grand and self-important enough. You sensed history in its buildings, yet not the shadow of the ages. As if all Lisbon’s past was but an invention of more recent architects, who had moulded a genuine nostalgia into an artificial present. Lisbon would look somehow less out of place in the New Continent than the Old one, odd as that may seem. Yet there it lay, in front of me, in this Southern corner of Europe.
The cobbled street leading up to the apartment I had booked was atypical of the city. Here you could still smell the decay of the Middle Ages. This part of town the architects had not yet reached, apparently. Sure, some of the houses clad themselves in blue or orange, but it was easy to see past the varnish and spot the crumbling. In twenty years’ time this street would either have to fall in line with other parts of the city or not exist at all. But that was the way I liked my yearly hide-outs: tucked away in a pocket of the city, not with a bow tie around them, like the garishly decorated tourist traps in Alfama.
‘I’m so sorry’ greeted me when I walked the wooden stairway towards the first floor. ‘You’re apartment is not yet clean’, Leila continued, in surprisingly proficient English, adding once again ‘I’m so sorry’. I looked at my watch. Despite my dislike for temperatures that exceed 25 degrees and the hilly path, I somehow had arrived thirty minutes before the hour we had agreed to exchange keys on.
‘Here, let me help you with your bags.’
Leila was a bit older than thirty, but she hid it well, behind a raven-black, indifferent hairdo and a nose piercing so befitting her I only noticed it on her second sorry. Grovelling girls have never done it for me, but she was ticking enough other boxes not to be immediately annoyed.
‘We had said one o’clock?’
‘We had. But what’s half an hour, right?’
Leila smiled meekly. She was clearly more uncomfortable with the situation than I was.
‘It’s not cleaned up yet. And I wouldn’t want you to stay a week in a dirty apartment.’
The apartment didn’t seem too unclean to my eyes. The kitchen didn’t have a dirty pot or pan in it and the adjoining sofa was seemingly free of lint. A handful of towels was strewn across the small bathroom to the left but, apart from the buckets of soapy water Leila was trying to hide under the small writing desk this was not an apartment in disarray. I had stayed in worse hellholes in my life. Yet Leila was fidgeting with her fingers to such a degree that she all but convinced me the place was a disaster.
‘Here, let me first give you your keys. The small one’s for the outside door, the little one for the apartment itself.’
She avoided all eye contact as she gave me the keys and then persisted in handing me an assortment of plasticized pieces of paper containing such important info as the Wi-Fi access, important landmarks I should definitely see (most of which I had already stumbled upon during my Wikipedia research) and a selection of the best restaurants, bars and cafés in the neighbourhood.
Since she was too polite to ask what she was clearly aching to ask, it was I who provided her way out.
‘What would you say if I just started discovering the neighbourhood already? That should take me a couple of hours. Time enough to clean up this mess, I would think.’
You could almost literally see the weight being lifted of her shoulders.
‘Thank you, mister. That would be perfect. Are you sure you don’t want to freshen up first? You could use the downstairs bathroom.’
‘Don’t worry about it. With this weather, I’ll be sweating like a pig anyway when I walk into town. I’ll just leave my bags here?’
‘Yeah, of course. I’ll put them in the bedroom when I’m finished.’
Only when I walked out the front door and heard voices emanating from my apartment – one Leila’s, the other a distinctly gruffly male – I realised that the whole time I was in the place Leila had been blocking my view of the bedroom door. The male had been hiding in there, surely. I’m guessing it was her boyfriend and they had been frolicking after the previous occupant had vacated the premises. That would explain why Leila hadn’t had enough time to clean thing up. Their exchange was quite heated, that I got, even though I don’t speak a word of Portuguese. But – for the moment at least – the only thing I thought was that it would perhaps make a nice anecdote in my book, just before the unlucky house guest would discover a body dangling from her backyard balcony.
The city had reached its warmest point of the day and so I headed for the Tagus, hoping a cold breeze would ease the incessant sweating. The river was just a ten minute walk away and mostly downhill, making for a pleasant stroll along the padaria’s that cropped up on nearly every corner, their terraces populated by seasoned men drinking their coffee and eating their sweet pastries. As I had suspected most tourists had not yet discovered this part of town. The neighbourhood would make for a fine arena for the book, halfway between the liveliness of the busy Alfama area and the solemn São João cemetery, a perfect metaphor for the state I was planning to plunge my protagonist into.
The closer I got to the river, the more I got away from the Lisbon I had hoped to discover, as I was forced to dodge a fleet of honking tuk-tuk’s navigating the narrowing streets with fat Americans in the back seat, snapping pictures of the surroundings as they wheezed passed it. Ominous too were the high-rising cruise ships that told of more tackiness to come. As I reached the Terreira de Paço square, my fears seemed justified. The monumental place was a sight to behold with its Roman arches and striking yellow wall paint, but it might as well have been situated in Firenze or Madrid. If the square had anything unique about it, it was swiftly disposed of by the hordes of tourists invading the terraces, drinking Heineken or Perrier.
Still looking to be as close as I could to the cold breeze of the Tagus, I rejected the prospect of a cool drink and followed the leisurely walkway past the water, where many others, foreigners and locals alike, had stumbled upon the same idea. The breeze soothed but could not totally dissipate the heath. Luckily I was clad completely in white, so the sweat stains on my shirt would not be obvious to detect, though their smell would prove harder to mask.
As much as I’ve never been a fan of hot weather, at least the sunglasses allow me to ogle the passers-by without them noticing. I took advantage of that as I passed the docking stones that proved irresistible to Lisbon’s youngsters, who used the stones to sit and tan their skin, contorting their bodies in poses that would not seem out of place on a Vanity Fair cover. One youth in particular caught my eye, a scantily clad girl in her low-twenties with huge sunglasses, striking a pose that was half Little Mermaid, half Jenna Jameson. Though she was well below an age that was proper for a man mine, she screamed sex in a way that was hard to ignore and as I walked passed her, for a moment, I thought she acknowledged my horniness with a consenting wink.
The ferry ride cooled me off considerably, but the girl never truly left my thoughts as I disembarked on the other bank of the Tagus, looking from a distance to the city I was setting my next novel in. She would figure in it of course. The femme fatale who would set the plot in motion. The churlish girl who played with grown men’s minds and made them forget they were just a cog in her devious, murderous plans.
‘A penny for your thoughts’, a female voice next to me suddenly exclaimed.
It was her. The girl on the docking stone. The wind played with her blonde hair to make her look even more enticing.
‘Nothing in particular’, I replied, trying my best to sound casual.
‘What brings you to Lisbon then? People always have a reason to be somewhere.’
‘Have I read anything of yours?’
‘Do you like mystery novels?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you avoid reading in general.’
She removed her glasses. Her emerald eyes didn’t blink at all.
‘You don’t think I’m smart?’
‘You’re smart. Just not book smart.’
‘I’m Carmo’, she said.
Her shake was firmer than that of most males.
‘I noticed you looking at me. At the other side of the river.’
‘Don’t most guys?’
‘Why did you follow me?’
‘Who says I did?’
She was clearly playing coy and I, despite knowing better, was close to taking the bait.
‘Do all your answers end with a question mark?’ I asked.
‘Ask me another and maybe you’ll get an exclamation mark.’
‘Why did you follow me?’
This time I did indeed get an exclamation mark.
‘I want you to kill a man.’
PART 3 – TWENTY-EIGHT WAYS TO DIE
The following night is mostly a blur. Carmo had served me one rhum cocktail after the next in Cacilhas, numbing my senses in the hope it might make me more susceptible to the unusual request she had made a couple of hours earlier. As the sun drooped over the city on the other side of the river, the yellow lights popping up against the night sky were melding into one another: an impressionist painting, splattered against the backdrop of a waking nightmare.
The cool winds of the midnight ferry to the Cais Sodré did not clear my mind, which was poisoned not just by the alcohol, but by the dark droplets of murder Carmo had whispered in my ear throughout. By the time we entered B.Leza – an unassuming bright yellow building on the edge of the river that turned into a throbbing nightclub awash with African beats once you entered – my head was spinning and Carmo, her sweaty body draped against me like a snake strangling its prey into submission, was making outrageous promises – most of which I’ve already forgotten – to tempt me into murder.
I never would have thought that the sight of a naked twenty-something next to me, on a sun-drenched holiday morning, could make me sick to the stomach, but it did. I spilled my guts into her toilet bowl as she lay there sleeping, unperturbed and peaceful. Opening her bedroom window, gasping for fresh air, I was treated to a glorious view of the Tagus, worthy of a postcard image. It did nothing to dispel the doubts in my mind. What had I agreed on? What had I promised her? God, I didn’t even remember if the sex was any good. Perhaps if I snuck out, I could leave this behind me. I could return to my laptop halfway across Lisbon and forget about last night. But just as I tied my laces, the sound of shifting bed sheets was audible behind me and a familiar voice spoke sleepily.
‘Where do you think you’re going, Gerald?’
‘I have a novel to write.’
‘After you do what you promised.’
No, you listen…’
She stepped out of the sheets, not afraid of showing off her gorgeous naked body, and reached into her handbag. Out came an iPhone. She scrolled trough some menus and then pressed play.
It was my voice alright. Slurry and barely comprehensive, but if you listened carefully you could clearly hear me say: ‘Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll kill Rodolfo Theobaldo.’
‘That is blackmail,’ I protested.
‘That is my insurance. Rodolfo will die, whether you like it or not. And when he does, and the police come sniffing at my door, I’ll let them hear this.’
She had me by the balls. The tape surely would not be enough. But I was sure she had taken other assurances as well. A thumbprint on a piece of tape she could plant wherever the crime would be committed. A hair. A drop of blood maybe.
‘I has to be today,’ she continued. ‘You remember his itinerary?’
I shook my head.
‘Take the 28 from Limoeiro at half past eleven. He’ll head for Estrela. Look for a shady part of the park. At that hour there shouldn’t be too much of a crowd.’
My throat had turned hoarse.
‘How will I recognise him?’
‘You’ll know, don’t worry. And take a shower. You smell of booze and sex.’
When I came out of the shower, she was gone. On the table lay a snippet of paper. It simply read: close the door behind you.
There was no time to pass by my own apartment. The time was eleven and Limoeira was a brisk twenty minute walk. The shower proved a waste of time. If I wasn’t sweating from the thirty degree heat, the dread of having to take a life was enough to give my pores a severe workout. Somehow the route led me past streets that were covered in menacing graffiti, something that did nothing to ease my trepidations. Some writers would – for lack of a better word – kill for this opportunity; to live out a plot straight out of the novels you were writing. But I was not one of them. My senses were doing overtime. I smelled the salty odour of the Tagus all the way up to here and for the first time noticed the squeaking of my shoes on the smooth yet uneven stones of the narrow sidewalks. The jangling bell of a tram pierced my ears as it raced past me. It was eighteen past eleven. I’d have to hop onto the next one.
On a weekday outside of the holiday season the number of tourists at the tram stop was mercifully slim. There was an old couple in their seventies, holding up admirably under the heat and a young lady wrapped in a blouse that looked like it could fall to the ground at any time but somehow clung to her torso, whatever movement she made. But more importantly, there was no sign of Rodolfo Theobaldo. There still wasn’t when the tram arrived. Was he delayed? Had he sensed that today was not a good day to get out of bed? Perhaps I should not have gotten on the tram either. But I did. And like Carmo had predicted, I recognised Rodolfo immediately. It was hard not to: his name was prominently shown on the tag on his tram driver’s uniform.
I zapped 1.5 euros from my public transport card and moved to the back of the carriage. The tram was filled by a mix of locals and tourists, juggling for a seat near the rolled-down windows that provided a refreshing wind in the otherwise smothery tram. Stutteringly the vehicle came alive, climbing the hilly streets of the city. The passengers only had eyes and ears for the sights outside of the tram – the parks, the churches, the tiny squares that housed a multitude of cafés, their waiters sneaking between the trams to get a hot plate from one side of the road to another – but mine were firmly fixed on Rodolfo. He was in his early thirties, sported a perfectly manicured, black beard and despite the overpowering heat didn’t sweat a drop.
Why he had to die, I no longer remembered. But it was all that consumed me, all the way up to the Campo de Ourique: in an hour’s time Rodolfo would have to die. How would I do it? I couldn’t overpower him. He looked way too strong for that. I had no poison on me, nor a gun or a knife. Perhaps I’d push him in front of a passing car. Or a tram. Wouldn’t that be ironic? But then there’d be witnesses. But I had to kill him before Carmo would and with the final stop fast approaching I still hadn’t figured out how.
The crowds flooded out of the tram: the old couple, the girl with the blouse, five young American tourists who had during the trip done nothing but take pictures on their selfie stick. A new batch of tourists was already waiting at the stop, ready to fill the vehicle to the brim once more. Rodolfo got out as well. He heartily greeted the colleague that was taking charge of the tram now. According to Carmo he would now be setting off to the Jardim de Estrela, a lush, gentle park we had passed a couple of minutes ago on our way up. And indeed, Rodolfo set off in that direction. I shadowed him, my legs nearly giving out from the stress. But only a couple of hundred metres on, my future victim took a detour. Unexpectedly, he headed towards the big, white church, the Igreja do Santo Condestável, and entered through its gates.
I could have waited for him to re-emerge from the building, but perhaps he’d take another way out and then I’d lose him. So I went after him. On the steps to the entrance local youth was seeking refuge from the sun in the shadow of the giant stone statue of a saint. One of them gave me a high-five.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Speak English?’
I didn’t reply.
‘Speak English?’ the youth kept repeating, as I entered the church. ‘You speak English, yes?’, twice more.
As monumental as the church looked from to outside, so common did it look on the inside. There was hardly a person there. Only the echoes of Rodolfo’s footsteps, heading towards the confessional. I saw the priest on the other side of the church, talking to an old lady who had no intention to stop her story halfway through. So I took a chance and headed for the confessional myself, entering the priest’s box.
‘Benção, pai, por eu ter pecado,’ he said.
‘I don’t speak Portuguese,’ I replied. ‘Do you speak English?’
There was a short silence. Then, an unsure ‘yes?’
‘You don’t know me, but you have to listen to me. Someone wants to kill you. Do you know Carmo?’
‘Carmo? She was my girlfriend.’
‘And now she wants you dead.’
‘She would never.’
‘How would you know?’
‘She asked me to do the deed.’
On that note Rodolfo stepped out of the confessional and dragged me out of my box with force.
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Gerald. I am a writer.’
‘Why are you sticking your nose in other man’s business?’
‘I don’t want to either. I just want to warn you. I’m not gonna kill you. But Carmo might. You must take precautions.’
The ruckus we had caused had alerted the priest, who was now making his way towards us and begged us to be quit.
‘Let’s got to the Jardim de Estrela,’ I suggested to Rodolfo. ‘We won’t bother anyone there.’
On the way to the park, I told him what had happened to me. How Carmo had seduced me with alcohol and then her body. Rodolfo was less surprised at my tale than I had foreseen. He told me how he and Carmo had met two years ago, in a way not dissimilar to what I had just told him. They had dated for over a year, but – sensing that something was wrong with her obsessive nature – he had broken it off. She had stalked him. He had gotten a restraining order. He hadn’t heard from her since. Rodolfo’s story didn’t sound familiar in any way. Whatever Carmo had fed me the night prior – I still couldn’t remember it – must have been something totally different.
The park was surprisingly empty. You’d expect more Lisbon locals to seek out the cool shadows on a warm day, but they didn’t. Rodolfo and I looked for a park bench far away from any other people to continue our talk.
‘All I ever did was love her,’ he said. ‘But to her that wasn’t enough. I always had to be around her. Always. Day and night. She was scared to death I was going to meet someone else and leave her.’
‘She is one crazy bitch alright.’
Rodolfo let out a hearty laugh.
‘Yes. Crazy bitch. Could not have said it better.’
‘So what do we do now?’
‘We go to the police. Simple. I will do the talking.’
It sounded so obvious when he said it. Why hadn’t I done that?
‘Shall we go?’
I nodded. He got up. He didn’t notice me reaching in my pocket for the rosary I had picked up from a seat at the church.
I handled swiftly. The rosary was around his neck before he could do anything about it. He struggled like a wild boar to get it off. But he was less strong than I had expected. The beads were making big indents in his throat now and his skin was turning a soft shade of purple. His breath slowed, then some more, until no breathing was heard anymore. I kept on choking him for another minute to make absolutely sure.
We should go to the police. That’s what did it for me. Why hadn’t I done that? Because deep down I knew it wouldn’t help. Deep down I knew that Carmo had something on me, so damning that if I went to the police she’d ruin me.
And there was only one thing that could be.
PART 4 – THIEVES MARKET
The apartment did not look an awful lot cleaner (or less for that matter) than when I last set eyes on it but Leila had put my bags in the bedroom, as she had promised. Over the kitchen table chair a pair of towels was draped. They came in handy, because I was sweating like a pig. I had not taken public transport back to the apartment, but had come on foot. A bus tram or metro I could not have handled. The judging eyes of the commuters – even if they were only judging in my delusion – would have weighed too heavily on me. Yet making the one-hour journey on foot proved no less an ordeal. Though mostly downhill, there were half a dozen travesso’s to navigate that went steeply uphill. By the time I had reached my destination my shirt looked as though it had been recently tossed into the Tagus.
The shower got rid of the sweat, but not of the nagging guilt. I had just killed a man. Killed him in cold blood, because some girl had blackmailed me into it. To protect a secret from my sordid past I’d rather not have out there. The police would have arrived on the spot by now, counting the indentations of the rosary in his neck. I leaned into the tiled wall, the warm water washing over me. I tried to cry, I wanted to scream, but nothing came out. I was alone with my guilt, the only ones I trusted hundreds of miles away in another country. Damn this city, I thought, damn Lisbon and its many temptations, its winding streets and its shadowy parks. Was this how saudade felt? Was mine a tale they’d someday sing Fado songs about?
I didn’t unpack. Why bother bringing out the laptop? Sure, I had plenty to write about, but there were more pressing things on my mind. Like the text message that I found blinking on my cell phone screen. ‘Meet me at the Feira da Ladra’. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting Carmo again. If I’d kept the rosary instead of chucking it in a sewer, perhaps I could have strangled her too. In plain public, for everyone to see. That is how desperate I felt. But I could not. There were questions to be answered. Like what was she planning on doing with the secret she’d wrestled from me now that I had done her dark bidding.
As I descended the wooden stairs, I ran into Laila again. At least my predicament hadn’t diluted her quaint cuteness.
‘I hope you find your apartment to your satisfaction,’ she said.
‘Absolutely. Very clean.’
‘Me and my boyfriend are right next door if you want anything or have any questions. If you need some pointers about sights to see or places to eat …’
‘As it happens I’m off to the Fiera da Ladra now.’
‘Ow, you’ll like that. Always lots of people.’
‘I’m only looking for one.’
That befuddled her. I didn’t care. I had other fish to fry.
No wonder they called it a Fiera da Ladra, a thieves’ market. Either what you saw on the cloths in front of the fervent sellers was nicked, counterfeit or intended to knock a shitload of money out of your pockets without much to show for it. The sight of the Panteão Nacional, its white dome visible from each corner of the market, gave the surroundings a soupcon of class but that was about all that could be said about the market. I had grown weary of these flea markets. Every capital in the world now boasted one and they seemed to cater more and more to the tourists. Buying a real find here would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
‘So, we meet again,’ a familiar voice said.
She was wearing something floozy again, as if she’d succeed in whirling me around her finger once more.
‘Enough with the pleasantries,’ I replied.
‘Is it done?’
‘You have proof?’
‘I’m guessing it will be on the news soon enough.’
‘I knew you had it in you.’
Such knowledge for such a young girl.
‘He didn’t put up too much of a fight, did he?’
I did not feel like answering these icy cold questions, detached from any emotion. I grabbed her by the arm.
‘Now you listen, Carmo, our business is far as I’m concerned is done. I gave you what you wanted, now you give me what I want.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘The audio file.’
She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone, erasing the audio file in front of me.
‘And the other thing,’ I demanded.
‘No. Only after I’m sure.’
‘You have my word. Now give it to me.’
She walked out on me with a line straight out of a forties film noir.
‘Insurance is expensive these days, honey.’
I responded by kicking the shit out of a collection of brightly coloured wooden cockerels in front of me. But can you blame me? Everything I had – my pride, my career, my innocence and now too my most guarded secret – had been stolen from me. I was hungry for revenge and it would not be a dish served cold.
Of course you can’t serve up revenge on an empty stomach and so I headed to the Cais do Sodré, to the recently restored Mercado da Ribeira. The morning’s food market was already closed but the other hall was already bustling with activity for the lunch crowd. I ordered a bacalhau from one of the food stands and, drinking a giant, chilled Super Bock beer waited for the order to be cooked on my stool at the long wooden tables that dominated the inside square. With nothing else to do, I ogled the quickly changing crowd, a mix between the usual tourist crowd and a younger and upscale section of the local population. Five chairs further a businessman was digging into his seafood pie with vigour. He looked like the kind of insufferable hotshot that was willing to do skim a million here and there from one of his clients, knowing they’d never notice it on their bank statements anyway. If it was him who had been found in a park with rosary indents in his neck, nobody would have cared. Hell, they might have rejoiced. I was pretty sure that would not be the case with Rodolfo. He seemed like an okay guy.
With an infernal noise and dozens of flashing red lights the gizmo in front of me sprung to life and kicked me out of my daydream. My order was read it seemed. The dish looked like something concocted by a Michelin-starred chef, but I’m not sure it tasted quite good enough to be. Still, it silenced my rumbling stomach.
I’m not sure how many more Super Bocks I had, but by the time I was kicked out of the Mercado by the security an evening breeze had descended on Lisbon and I waddled towards a place I’d vowed not to set foot in during my time in this city: the tacky, touristy eyesore of the Alfama district, where beautiful, authentic buildings and soulful surroundings were mercilessly sacrificed on the altar of commercial exploitation.
Luckily I stumbled into the one bar in the district that had more or less kept its integrity, as there was nary a tourist in sight and the old guard of the locals had conjoined on the odd assortment of chairs outside to watch the Bayern-Barcelona football game on a small TV that still operated with an antenna. The geezers where firmly in the Bayern camp. The German team had eliminated FC Porto in an earlier round – humiliated would be a more accurate word – and as fans of Porto’s arch rivals Benfica that counted for something.
The game failed to distract me and when at half-time a news broadcast was sandwiched between commercials, I sobered up immediately. There it was at last: confirmation that Rodolfo was indeed dead. I could not understand a thing the reporter said, but she said it solemnly enough that there was no mistaking the gravity of the situation. More worrisome for me was that the report was followed by a crude sketch of a man that looked remarkably like myself. The resemblance escaped the locals, who had – bar a guy sipping a rhum in the corner – retreated to the inside to order another round, but I made sure I got out of there as fast as I could.
As I climbed up the wooden steps of the apartment building, frantic dialogue was coming from Leila’s room. The door was askew and had I spoken any Portuguese I surely would have tried to eavesdrop, but it seemed better to retreat to my own room. If you have ever been drunk, you probably know that putting key to lock is not that straightforward and after three tries the keys fell from my hands, onto the floor, with a loud bang. Immediately the voices stopped and was replaced by the sound of approaching footsteps. Open flung the door and out stepped not Leila. Out stepped a police officer.
He asked me something in his native tongue but soon realised I understood nothing he said. He couldn’t have failed to notice the fear in my eyes though. Nevertheless, he helped me up, took my keys and unlocked the door, patting me on the back. I would have entered my apartment immediately and locked the door three times had it not been for a familiar voice that sounded as I was planning to do this.
Leila’s arms were flung around me and her salty tears fell on my neck, eventually rolling down my back.
‘He is dead, mister Gerald. They have killed him! Dead!’
The police officer and his colleague, who had now too appeared from the doorway, pulled Leila from me. I knew it would be best to be silent, but I have a tendency to ask questions. Call it an occupational spasm.
‘Who is dead?
‘My boyfriend. Rodolfo. Rodolfo is dead!’
The second cop escorted Leila back inside her apartment. The other one walked up to me and looked me in straight in the eye. Had he recognised me? But al he said was, in an awful accent: ‘Drink is bad. Not drink. OK?’ And he too disappeared again into Leila’s room.
Five seconds later my door was double locked and I stood panting against it. Of course! That’s why his voice sounded so familiar to me. I had heard it coming out of the bedroom window on that first day. It was Rodolfo who had been arguing with Leila. And probably not about cavorting in my bed before my arrival. I was sure it had been about that stalking maniac. Yes, it all came back to me. I had heard Leila shouting that name. Carmo. She had distinctly said Carmo. Was that why I had gone along with her that easily 36 hours ago? Because I had a subconscious recollection of her name? Freud is a bitch.
Then my mind turned to Leila. Poor, quaintly cute Leila. What would she do if she knew that the murderer of her boyfriend was just a few feet away from her at this very moment? The police must not have shown her a picture of the possible culprit yet. They’d probably wait till the morning, till Leila could think straight again. That didn’t give me much time. I was convinced I had to end it all in the morning. I had to put things straight. I had to avenge Rodolfo and Leila for my horrible mistake.
My eye caught one of the brochures Leila had planted on my writing desk when I had arrived. ‘Visit Sintra’, it said, with on the cover the ruins of a Moorish medieval castle, overlooking lush green pines and cold grey rocks.
Yes, I decided.
It will all end in Sintra.
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.
PART 6 – AIRPORT (ENCORE)
And they say that dead men don’t tell lies. I told you to take my tale with a grain of salt. Though one truth remains. I did kill a man in Lisbon. Only thing is: that man wasn’t Rodolfo. It was me. Not by throwing myself of the Castelo dos Mouros. No, I was never a drama queen. Not even by slicing my wrists or taking some pills. I died from the life I have lived. A life full of alcohol and smoking and debauchery and lies and all those things your doctors say is bad for you. It was bound to catch up with me someday. It did in Lisbon.
They say your life flashes in front of you when you go. It doesn’t. At least not in the way you expect it to. There is no showreel of highlights. Instead you get the story you concoct yourself, a delusion that tells you life was worth living if only for that one story, a tale that sums up your time on Earth. I have been a writer, ever since I could remember. So I went out on the thrill and suspense of a novels I had authored, this time starring myself. Parts of what I told you was true, just not the parts you’ll probably remember. That’s how a good writer should work: hiding something true in between the fantasies.
The only thing I don’t know is why my farewell tale was set in Lisbon. I’ve spent more time and had more lasting memories of other places, of other people. Perhaps that’s just the way it works. Perhaps you don’t get to choose your final arena. It is chosen for you, at the place you die. As a final reminder that you should live your life to the fullest and be at places you desire to be, lest you be disappointed in your final seconds. And though it might not seem that way from some of the descriptions I have fed you in these past chapters, there are worse places to die than Lisbon, a glorious city, especially in the sun, with lovely people, memorable sights and an all-round amicable atmosphere.
Oh yeah, one last thing. It doesn’t end immediately. There is still some waiting involved in what is best described as an airport lobby: a cold, detached, eerie place filled with lots of strangers – some in groups, some alone – checking the boards to see when their flight departs. We mostly avoid each other. You never know what wounds are still too fresh to open. Luckily the waiting doesn’t take as long as on a regular airport. This place has one not insignificant perk after all.
Just two gates to choose from.