Message From MalagaHelen Macinnes
ALSO BY HELEN MacINNES
AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS
Pray for a Brave Heart
Assignment in Brittany
North From Rome
Decision at Delphi
The Venetian Affair
The Salzburg Connection
While We Still Live
The Double Image
Neither Five Nor Three
Snare of the Hunter
Agent in Place
Message From Málaga
Print edition ISBN: 9781781163337
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781164365
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: December 2012
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© 1971, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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For my friend Julian
a man who has never given up the ship
Table of Contents
About the Author
So this, thought Ferrier, was El Fenicio, an open courtyard behind a wineshop, a rectangle of hard-packed earth on which rows of small wooden tables and chairs had been set out to face a bare platform of a stage. Its four walls were the sides and backs of two-storied houses, old, faceless except for a few windows, tightly shuttered, and a single balcony, dark, withdrawn. Lights were sparse and haphazard, a few bare bulbs attached high on the walls, as coldly white as the moon overhead, but softened by the clusters of leaves and flowers that cascaded from the vines and ramblers climbing over the worn plaster. There was the lingering scent of roses still heavy with the heat of day. There was the smell of jasmine as ripe as sun-warmed peaches, fluctuating, tantalising. And there was the music of a solitary guitar, music that poured over the listeners at the tables, surged up the faded walls, escaped into the silence of night and a brilliance of stars. It seemed, Ferrier imagined, as if the perfume of the flowers suited its mood to the ebb and flow of sound, weakening or strengthening when the guitar’s chords diminished or soared. His touch of fancy amused him: he had come a long way from the tensions and overwork of Houston, a longer way than the thousands of miles that lay between Texas and Andalusia. He hadn’t felt so happily unthinking; so blissfully irresponsible in months. He lifted his glass of Spanish brandy in Jeff Reid’s direction to give his host a silent thanks—not for the brandy, it was too sweet for Ferrier’s taste, but for this beginning to what promised to be a perfect night.
It was all the more perfect because he hadn’t quite expected anything like El Fenicio. “Some flamenco now?” Reid had asked at the end of a late and long dinner. “The real stuff. None of those twice-nightly performances for the tourist trade along the Torremolinos strip. I know a little place down by the harbour. Friday is good there. It will be packed by one o’clock. We’d better drop in around twelve-thirty and make sure of my favourite table. You like flamenco, don’t you?” Ferrier nodded, pleased by the fact that Jeff had remembered his taste in music, but a bit doubtful, too. He was thinking of the little places down by the harbour that he had seen in Barcelona, in Palma. What difference would there be in another seaport town, like Málaga? The little place meant a small dark box, a hundred degrees in temperature and unventilated, with an ageing tenor in a bulging black jacket, puffy white hands clasped before him in supplication to an unseen mistress, his thick neck straining to bring out the high notes of the Moorish-sounding scales but only producing a sad cracked wail. The little place meant anervous guitarist disguising mistakes in a flourish of sound. It meant one dancer, elderly, thickset, trying to compensate for lost technique by the height she twitched her flounced skirt up over a naked thigh. It meant three or four fat women dressed in screaming pink or virulent green, the shiny satin of their tight dresses as artificial as their purple smiles, as furrowed as their tired faces, as hard as the jagged mascara around hopeless eyes, who sat together at a table near the staircase (there was always a narrow staircase climbing up one wall of the room) and measured the rough mixture of foreign seamen and nervous tourists who imagined they were seeing a bit of authentic Spain. The little place was too often a sad place, of failures and might-have-beens, of vanished hope and flourishing despair. But Ferrier had kept his doubts, to himself and thank God for that, although he had made a feeble try to sidetrack Jeff: “There’s no need to make an effort to entertain me. I’m perfectly happy—” Reid had cut in with his warm smile, “Well—just to please me—will you come? I haven’t yet missed a Friday night at El Fenicio.” So Ferrier retreated with a joke. “What?” he asked. “No wonder you never find time to get back to the States for a visit. Is this part of your job?” Reid looked at him sharply, then laughed. “Oh, a business-man has to have some compensations.”
And now, as Ian Ferrier listened to the guitar—no microphones here, no electronic jangle—and wondered what the music was (perhaps an original composition based on a malagueña?) and then decided it didn’t matter—all that mattered was the sound that caught one’s heartbeat, sent one’s pulse quickening—he had a strange attack of conscience. He glanced at Reid, lost in his own thoughts like all the silent listeners in the crowded courtyard, and realised that if anyone had changed in these last eight years, since Reid and he had met, it was not Jeff; it was he who had altered most. At thirty-seven, you’re become a self-centred bastard, he told himself: you want everything your own way, don’t you? And if he blamed this moment of truth on the combination of guitar, scent of flowers, night sky glittering above him, he had only to remember the way he had almost ruined the journey to Málaga with his reservations and doubts and afterthoughts. Those damned afterthoughts... At one point, he had almost cancelled this whole trip.
* * *
That afternoon, he had driven across the mountains, leaving fabulous Granada behind him, and headed dutifully for the Mediterranean. (Dutifully? That was the word. He wasn’t bound for a lazy beach and blue water, or a picturesque fishing vil
lage.) His emotions had been not only mixed but also definitely roiled. He was having an attack of second thoughts, and they were always an irritation, especially when it was too late to do anything about them. He had only himself to blame, of course: this was what he got for imagining he could snatch a visit to Granada in between a week of professional business (and how did that creep into his vacation time, anyway?) and a couple of days with an old friend. It had seemed a good idea, back in Houston, to write Jeff Reid that he was coming to Europe, that part of his time would be spent in Spain, that naturally of course most definitely he’d make a point of dropping in on Málaga—if that suited Jeff. It did. Jeff had replied that eight years had been far too long since their last meeting; and the exact date was set. Perhaps that was what depressed him now: he had quite enough of exact dates and deadlines in his present job with the Space Agency. Or perhaps it was just that a glimpse of Granada was too damned unsettling. He kept feeling—well, not exactly cheated. Frustrated? It was like being passionately kissed by a beautiful woman who slipped out of your arms and vanished.
He had routed that attack of gloom by concentrating on some high-speed driving over a winding, narrow, but well made road that cut along the top of hillsides. (Okay, okay, forget that Málaga was listed in the guide-book as a bustling, modernised town; just remember you wanted to see Jeff Reid again.) The Spaniards, wise birds, were having their long siesta in this intense heat of day; the road was empty for twenty miles at a stretch, the village streets were as deserted as if plague had struck them, the vast stretches of fields and olive groves that sloped into great valleys lay abandoned to the sun. He had Spain to himself. And as a backdrop, there were the jagged Sierra Nevada peaks, crowned with snow even in June, sawing into one of Spain’s best blue skies. Then he came down from the hills and the pine trees to an abrupt edge of coastline, where terraced vineyards ended in cliffs that dropped steeply into sea. He liked that. He liked the sugar-cane fields, too, and a couple of ruined Moorish castles and the fishing villages. Until he began to see some high-rise hotels and French restaurants. Progress, progress... His depression returned full whack as he drove into Málaga and found himself—siesta time now being over—in the same thick syrupy congestions of city traffic that he could enjoy anywhere in America. Was this what he was travelling abroad for?
Reid had sent him a rough sketch of the district where he lived. “You’ll find me easily,” he had written. “An old Air Intelligence type like you doesn’t need instructions how to get anywhere.” So the directions, if concise and clear, were minimal. The crisscross of smaller streets, no doubt an unnecessary complication to an old Air Reconnaissance type like Jefferson Reid, was left unmarked. At last, almost an hour later than he had hoped, Ferrier found the place. He stared at the large house, retreating behind palm trees and flowering shrubs, a replica of its neighbours in their equally lush gardens along this placid street. A villa, no less. And there must be servants to go with it. Good God, had Jeff Reid changed as much as all this? Was he really a settled business-man, with a position to keep up, living abroad, avoiding some taxes and all the headaches of present-day America? It certainly looked as if the sherry business was thriving—Reid was head of the Spanish branch of an American wine-importing firm. Well, thought Ferrier, as long as Jeff hasn’t changed into a complacent fat cat, all the more power to him. But he found he was climbing slowly out of his rented car, taking his time in picking up his jacket and bag. He felt his sodden summer shirt clinging to his back muscles, his trousers sticking to his buttocks. The truth was—and at the last minute he was admitting it fully—the truth was that old friendships could atrophy. That had been the core of his depression all the way here. People changed. And all the irritations and annoyances that had almost ruined the journey for him were simply excuses to cover his real doubts.
But there had been no need to worry. Reid’s welcome was no pretence, no sentimentalised fake. The changes were superficial. His dark hair had grown thinner on top and grey at the temples. He had put on ten pounds (his height carried them well, even needed them), and developed a permanent tan. He had adopted the snow-white shirt and narrow black tie of a Spanish business-man along with his precise tailoring, and looked so smooth that Ferrier might easily have passed him by if he had been sitting at a café table over a small cup of ink-black coffee. But the handshake was strong, the eyes sympathetic as they studied Ferrier’s tired face, the voice both casual and warm. “You look like a man who needs a long cool drink, a cold shower, and part of the siesta you wouldn’t take. In that order. When did you get to bed last night? By the dawn’s early light? Actually, I laid a bet with myself that I’d never pry you loose from Granada. Glad I lost, though. What about dinner at ten? See you down here then. Okay?” Very much okay, Ferrier thought, accepting the tall drink with the admirably clinking ice that Reid held out to him, and followed the middle-aged woman who had already carried his bag halfway upstairs. This was Jeff Reid, all right. They might have seen each other only last week, and not eight years ago. Yes, it had been worth the trip to Málaga, if only to find that old friendships could take up where they had left off.
* * *
In the courtyard, the music quickened. The guitarist brought the last surge of rippling notes into a falling diminuendo of one, listening to its last sigh as intently as the people sitting before him. The note faded slowly into nothing. There was a long moment of silence, all eyes watching the stage—a giant table, almost twelve-foot square and a hand span thick, with four massive barrel legs—that was backed against the end wall of the courtyard. The applause broke out, crisp, brief, critically measured. It pleased the guitarist enough, though. He inclined his head gravely, his gaunt face relaxed a little, intense dark eyes lingering only briefly on his audience as if they scarcely existed. He was good, and they knew it, and that was sufficient. He lifted his narrow-backed chair in one hand, swung it lightly into place at the end of a row of six others before the bare plaster wall.
“No encore?” Ferrier asked. “Or didn’t we clap loudly enough?”
“He has plenty to do later on.” Reid glanced at his watch, then back at the stage, where the guitarist had sat down again and was concentrating on some silent fingering. Reid looked at the open doorway near them, a narrow space without any light tacked overhead, shadowed still more by a cascade of bougainvillaea. There was no sound of women’s voices, no movement from inside the door, no one gathering there to join the guitarist on the stage.
“One o’clock,” Ferrier verified from his watch. “Isn’t that when the show really gets moving?”
Reid said lightly, “Oh, you don’t keep account of time in Spain. Ten minutes here, half an hour there, what does it matter if you are with friends?” And delays happened: dancers’ dressing-rooms had more than their share of tantrums and temperament. But, Reid wondered, was this the beginning of a natural wait? Or was it being carefully engineered by Tavita to last precisely fourteen minutes? If so, then it was no ordinary delay, but a warning signal from Tavita—one that only Reid in all that crowded courtyard could understand and act upon. (It had been Tavita’s idea of how to preserve security—one that had amused him at first, even embarrassed him, but he had let her have her way. She had confidence in it. And it had been successful. No one had ever noticed. What more did he want?) Well, he thought as he controlled his rising tension, if this is the beginning of an alert, I’ll know in exactly fourteen minutes. And what do I do then, with Ian Ferrier sitting beside me? Just as I usually do, I suppose: wait until the dancing starts and all eyes are riveted on the stage and I can slip away. And Ian? My God, it would have to be tonight that an emergency happened... All right, all right let’s wait and see if this turns out to be a signal. Just wait and see. Meanwhile, talk. “We’re in luck,” he told Ferrier. “Usually there are six chairs on that stage. Tonight, seven. So Tavita is dancing. For my money, she is one of the best in Spain, but it is only at the weekend that we can get her down from Granada. That’s where she lives.”
“Oh?” Ferrier was definitely interested.
“Not in a cave with the gypsies,” Reid added. “She has a house on top of a hillside, not far from the Alhambra. An artist left it to her when he died—his paintings of her are all over the place. Yes, she’s quite a girl.”
“Nice going; lives in Granada, dances here. But why not in Granada?”
“Since the tourists get taken by the hundreds in the gypsy section of town? No, not for Tavita. She’s a purist. Flamenco is something she really believes in. She dances in Seville, mostly. On Fridays, she dances here.”
“But why?” In Málaga? And was I just another gullible tourist in Granada? Ferrier wondered. He supposed that idea was good for controlling his ego, but he didn’t enjoy it.
“Out of sentiment. Also—” a smile spread over Reid’s face—she owns El Fenicio.”
“Nice going. I placed him as the owner.” Ferrier nodded discreetly in the direction of the middle-aged man with a thin and furrowed face, thick black hair, large dark eyes, who stood near the main entrance. He had greeted Reid with a handshake and Ferrier with a restrained bow.
“Esteban? He manages El Fenicio for Tavita—he’s one of her old bullfighter friends. Tavita got her start as a dancer here when she was fourteen. It was a wineshop with a staircase down to a small cellar in those days. She never forgets it, though.”
“And they don’t forget her?” Ferrier looked around him. There were only a few women, quietly dressed, obviously married, well guarded by a phalanx of males. And the men? A mixed crowd, in age and appearance, but whether their clothes were cheap or expensive their appearance was well brushed and washed, either as a compliment to El Fenicio or as a matter of self-respect. The contrast between them and a group of four young men who had just arrived in bedraggled shirts and stained trousers was so marked that the newcomers might just as well have entered shrieking.
“All dressed for a hard day’s work in the fields,” Reid said, and looked away from the group. They were being led to the last free table in a back corner, and didn’t think much of it. Their protest didn’t have much effect on Esteban: take it or leave it, his impassive stare said; preferably leave it. “They’d have to be American,” Reid added with a touch of bitterness, as he listened to their voices. “Just hope those two tables of dockworkers down front don’t decide to move back and have some fun. They’re allergic to people who make a mockery out of poverty. That’s how they see the fancy dress. If these kids were poor and starving, they’d give them sympathy, even help. But the poor don’t travel abroad; the poor can’t afford cafés and night clubs; the poor don’t have cheques from home in their pockets.”