DISCLAIMER: Los Hombres de Paco and its characters are the property of Antenna 3. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To lrogers[at]boardermail.com
Bring Me The Head Of El Gordo
Pepa came to.
Man, was she getting tired of that. The part that truly upset her about this state of affairs was that she had not had a drop of alcohol since the best and worst day of her life, her wedding day. She sure as hell hadn't had any drugs. Dread and worry were the main reasons that she kept moving until she literally dropped. She looked over to the bed where her wife lay and had lain since the second, no, the third surgery that was the aftermath of the shooting.
One thing about loving a redhead, she didn't need a thermometer to know that Silvia had a fever. Still. The surgeon had been clear; the desperate, bloody surgery that Silvia had talked Pepa and Don Lorenzo through had been the only thing that had allowed Silvia to live long enough to get to a real operating room. The surgery he performed there had stopped the bleeding and repaired much of the damage done by the bullet and the first operation that Pepa had done. Since the first attempt at surgery had hardly happened under sterile conditions an infection was almost inescapable. The infection is what had led to the third surgery. And even now there was still a fever.
Pepa felt a breeze coming from the open door that led to the balcony. She didn't remember opening the door so Sara must have come in to check on Silvia after Pepa had lain down. She could see that it was still light outside. That either meant that she had only been out for a few hours, or that she had slept through until the next day. That had happened once before, maybe twice. Had it been ten days since the wedding, or was it more like two weeks? As she looked out the balcony doors she noticed for the first time since she and Silvia had moved into this room that if the head of the bed was against this wall, Silvia would be able to see the ocean without having to turn her head. She wondered if Lucas was back yet. She would ask him and Sara to help her move the furniture around so Silvia would have something beautiful to look at while she got better.
Pepa noticed that although Silvia still looked flushed to her, she did not appear to be sweating. Her breathing seemed much more even and less labored. Pepa had always been an expert on how Silvia looked. Now she felt as if she had earned a Ph.D. in how her looks related to her physical well being.
Don Lorenzo would not be happy to hear that Silvia still had a fever. For a moment, Pepa thought about lying to him, but deep down she knew that she would not be able to do that when he called at sunset. He was giving up so much by going back to San Antonio while she and Sara and Lucas were here with Silvia. He had to pretend every day to be mourning his youngest daughter, while in truth he was worried almost out of his mind about her. The least Pepa could do was be honest with him about her condition. She suspected that after all they had been through in their struggle to keep Silvia alive she would never be able to be anything but completely honest with him again. She hoped that the news about Silvia's condition would be much better soon, maybe today. Then she saw Silvia stir. Pepa forced her exhausted body into an upright position and walked to her beloved.
Silvia sensed the motion and opened her eyes. She smiled as Pepa came closer and then frowned as she noticed that Pepa looked like hell.
"What's wrong, Princesa?" Pepa asked, taking Silvia's hand. "Are you hurting? What can I do to make it better?"
"You can eat a meal and get some sleep," Silvia whispered back.
As Silvia was attempting to summon the energy to scold her wife further, there was a very soft knock on the door. Sara's head peeked through the small opening she had made. Seeing her two aunts together and awake made her smile. She pushed the door open further and walked into the room followed closely by her husband. Lucas dropped a small bag on the sofa as he passed it on the way to the bed.
Sara moved to the side of the bed opposite from where Pepa stood. She sat down very carefully trying not to jostle her aunt too much. Sitting seemed like a great idea to Pepa so she gingerly lowered herself to the surface of the bed as well. Lucas stood a little behind his wife and looked with concern and no small amount of tenderness at his ex-wife, but you would have to have known him as long as Pepa or as well as Sara to read those emotions on his handsome and seemingly placid face.
Sara leaned over to gently touch Silvia's forehead and smiled at what her touch, as much as her eyes, told her, Silvia was a little better. Still she was unable to keep from asking, "How are you feeling?"
"I am awake and I know what is happening. That's a change," Silvia answered in very soft voice that sounded as if its owner could benefit from drinking a little water. So Pepa reached over to the nightstand and poured a little into a cup and held the straw up so that Silvia could drink. Silvia smiled again at her wife, and then again frowned at the dark circles under her eyes and the lines that fatigue and worry had drawn around her mouth.
Lucas spoke up before the tension he could feel rising between the two women he had grown up with could bubble up into Silvia berating Pepa for her obvious signs of exhaustion, since Pepa would undoubtedly have to respond in a way that could blow up into an all out argument; "I brought presents for both of you. Yours," he said looking at Pepa "is on the sofa. And yours," he said now turning to Silvia, "is down the hall."
Pepa had always been like a little kid when it came to presents and was on her feet and moving to the sofa before Lucas finished talking. She picked up the bag Lucas had tossed there when he came in and opened it. Inside were a few t-shirts of exactly the kind that Pepa usually wore. When they had come here, they had basically nothing with them. Lucas and Sara had been able to have their own belongings sent to them, but Pepa was making do with what CNI had provided. As she moved back to the bed she had smile on her face, but also a little telltale moisture in her eyes. Pepa recognized the brand of the shirts and suspected that Lucas had not been entirely comfortable going into the sort of store that sold them without a woman with him. Since Sara had taken up the responsibility of the essential care and feeding of both her aunts and had not left the house since their arrival, Pepa knew he must have gone to the store by himself. Pepa and Lucas had been as close as siblings when they were teenagers, but this kind of caring gesture was not really like him. Lucas had a tendency to focus on himself or on the job he needed to get done. When Pepa showed the shirts to Silvia, the look Silvia gave Lucas was a mixture of gratitude and puzzlement. Silvia knew better than most that Lucas could be sweet and kind, but also knew that thoughtfulness was not his greatest strength. Maybe they were all growing up at last.
There was another soft knock at the door, and Lucas moved to answer it. The three women on the bed saw him smile and reach his hand out to the person on the other side. When the door swung wider, Lola was standing in the doorway holding Lucas's hand as if trying to anchor herself. Upon seeing the younger sister she had been told was dead, as well as her own daughter and dearly loved sister-in-law, Lola burst into tears. By the time she got to the bed, everyone in the room was crying. Pepa stood and moved aside so that Lola could get closer to Silvia. Lola looked up at Pepa in wonder and pulled her into a brief but bruising hug. Lola turned to look at her baby girl and her baby sister. She sat down in the spot that Pepa had vacated and reached out to take Silvia's hand. Silvia opened her arms to her sister and Lola moved gently into the hug. After a minute or so of just holding each other, Lola and Silvia each reached to pull Sara into their embrace. Tears streaming down her face, Pepa watched her family for a few minutes and then leaned over to place a kiss on each head. She turned to look for Lucas and realized he had slipped out of the room at some point. As she moved toward the door herself, Silvia called to her "Hey, where are you going?"
"Don't worry, Princesa. I'm only going to eat something as ordered. I'll be back in a little while. You guys talk."
When Pepa walked into the kitchen, Lucas noticed she had changed into one of the shirts he had brought her. She sat in the chair opposite his, picked up the fork from the place setting in front of her and began to eat the salad Lucas had put out for her. The salad was a perfect mix of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. Since it was now the beginning of July, it was also the perfect daytime meal. Pepa mused that Sara was really getting good at planning and preparing food for the family.
They ate in a companionable silence for a few minutes. Pepa looked up at Lucas and tugged on her sleeve, "Thanks," she said. Then gesturing with her head upstairs she added "For all of it."
Lucas shrugged. "It is good to see you look more like yourself. Only Don Lorenzo knows where you really are, and it felt kinda weird asking him to go get your stuff," a comment which nearly caused Pepa to choke on her orange juice, as she imagined Don Lorenzo packing her clothes with firmly shut eyes. Lucas continued, "Sara didn't like that Lola didn't know about Silvia. I finally got it cleared by CNI, so last night I went and got her. I told her that I was bringing her to see Sara. Once we got moving and no one could hear us, I told her everything else. She knows that she can't leave here for a while and that none of us may ever get to see anyone from San Antonio again, except maybe Don Lorenzo. By the way, there is another bag on the counter. I didn't bring it upstairs because I was afraid it would piss Silvia off."
Curious, Pepa got up to retrieve the bag. Inside she found underwear of the right size and style for both herself and Silvia. "You're afraid she might think you are getting to know too much about all of us?" She asked with a smile on her face.
"I'm not sure what would piss her off more, thinking about how I knew what kind to get or finding out that I know because I've been doing the laundry." When Pepa shot him a confused look he added, "I was not all that helpful around the house when we were married."
Pepa laughed for the first time in what seemed like forever.
"Anyway it gave me the chance to do a little shopping for Sara too," Lucas added with a waggle of his eyebrows.
"Hey! Don't tell me that. I'm her aunt. I don't need to think about her having sex. Especially with you."
Now Lucas laughed.
Pepa looked at Lucas again as she asked, "Any more news about El Gordo?"
"Not much that we didn't already know. He's back in Italy and he's hiding. He and his fucking army killed three and he thinks four cops. Even in Italy he can't just walk around. All of the leads we get are at least three days old. Don't worry, we will find him."
"I want to be out there looking for the bastard myself."
"I know the feeling, but we're both a little too conspicuous right now. Besides you have more important things to take care of."
"She knows she's my first priority. She also knows I can't just let this go. Not just because of what they did to her, but for Kike and Nelson and especially Gonzalo."
"I get that and you might be right about Silvia understanding, but you can't take off right now. Worrying about you will just make it that much harder for her to get better."
"Believe me, that's the only reason I'm still here."
Lucas laughed again. "Well that, and the fact that there is no one in the world you would trust to take care of her right now who isn't you."
"Ok, that too. I'll see you later," Pepa said as she got up to go back upstairs.
Lucas knew he had been right about bringing Lola here. Pepa had actually been able to be away from Silvia for fifteen minutes. That was five minutes longer than her old record. He cleared away their dishes trying not to think about how this time when he had been forced to be mostly idle and all that he had nearly lost had made him pay more attention to domestic matters, like doing dishes and laundry, taking care of his family. There was something about Pepa that was different too. He didn't think she would just go back to being her old self once Silvia was well either. He turned to see Sara coming into the kitchen.
She walked up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "That was the best surprise ever. Thank you."
He put his arms around her and held her close. He didn't really think he needed to respond to that beyond the kiss he dropped on her head.
When Pepa walked quietly back into the bedroom she and Silvia shared, she found Lola just sitting and staring at Silvia who was lying with her eyes closed. Something that Pepa herself had done for hours at a time.
Lola saw her come in and got up to join Pepa on the sofa. For a little while she just stared at Pepa. Then she pulled her into a hug and just held her. At some point everyday Pepa would think she had cried all her tears. And then something like this would happen and she would be off again. As her tears slowed, she pulled away from Lola, hardly surprised that she had not been the only one crying. She pulled some tissue out of the always ready supply in her pocket and handed some to Lola as she dried her own face. "Did you guys get a chance to talk?" Pepa asked in a low voice.
"Some. Mostly we just held each other and cried. I can't believe I'm really here with the four of you. She was dead and you were God only knows where. There are people in San Antonio who are wondering if you killed yourself."
"If those bastards really had killed her I probably would have, but not until after I got El Gordo."
"Are you looking for him?"
"CNI is, and they keep Lucas and me up to date on their search. They want him tried in Spain just as much as we do. It was a huge blow for them to have this happen to us while our people and theirs were doing a joint operation on Spanish soil."
"Are you really going to stay out of it?"
"I never said that," Pepa answered. Then looking at the bed she added, "But for now I can't be anywhere else."
"How did you all get here? Why pretend Silvia is dead?" Lola asked with a frown.
"Nearly everyone in our group at the precinct wound up on El Gordo's hit list, except Povedilla. We were almost all together at the wedding. El Gordo must have thought it was the perfect time to kill most of us. It had been quiet and we thought we had the security covered. Nothing happened when we were all outside in the open during the ceremony. The shooting didn't start until we went inside for the wedding dinner. There was a lot of tension between Aitor and Lucas because of that whole thing with the two of them and Sara and so they went to the bar to talk or maybe fight, I'm not sure. Sara went outside and then all hell broke loose." Pepa frowned as she remembered, "Silvia must have been hit by one of the first shots. Don Lorenzo I took her into the wine cellar while the rest of them tried to hold off whatever was outside. I'm not sure of everything that happened after that. I just know that Kike and Nelson ran outside to try to get more weapons and ammunition and got killed in the process and that Gonzalo was shot several times holding off the men who were shooting at us and he bled to death. Lucas and Aitor finally made it to a walkie-talkie. The police got there in less than ten minutes. CNI was there like a minute later. But by then Silvia had lost consciousness. Lola, I really thought she was dead. She had lost so much blood. Lucas and his bunch grabbed her and me, Sara and Don Lorenzo and threw us in this big van and we were off. Sara and I just held each other while this whole huge medical team worked on Silvia. It took me a minute to realize it was working, she was still alive. They took us to some super secret spy hospital or something. I'm not even sure where it was. Somewhere in Madrid, I think. We were there for a few days, then it was time for the funeral and Don Lorenzo knew that we couldn't both miss it. I couldn't leave her, so he did."
"Everyone wondered where you went. I know some people didn't understand. A lot more did. Of course now," Lola said gesturing toward the bed, "it all makes a lot more sense."
"I couldn't talk to anyone without the very real chance that I would blurt everything out. Sara hated having everyone think that she would miss the funerals. I couldn't leave Silvia and it was so much safer for Sara to stay with us. For everyone to believe that Silvia was dead, Don Lorenzo had to be at the service. It nearly killed him when he realized he had to go, especially since Silvia was still in a coma. When she was strong enough, they flew us here to Minorca. Up to the point of the funeral, there was really no planning to all of this. It all happened so fast, even before any of us had time to think. Lucas didn't even know that Silvia had been shot until he got back inside. I think he just reacted and got us out as fast as he could. And once it started there wasn't any way to go back. Not with El Gordo and his crazy gang still out there. Every couple of days someone form CNI will come to talk to Lucas and me. Their intelligence can't say yet if we are out of danger or if they are still hunting for all of us. CNI and Lucas have made Sara and Silvia's safety the priority. We all agree that to ensure their safety, we may never be able to tell anyone else the truth about Silvia being alive. We hope it won't have to be that way, but it's too early to tell."
"Lucas told me that CNI said I could come here because of they are worried the threats to my father and Paco might mean they could come after me."
"No one really believes that there's a serious threat to you, but if we have learned anything it's that a hundred pounds of protection is better than something you can't cure."
"Does Paco really not know?"
"That Silvia is alive? No." When she saw the look that Lola gave her she shrugged, "You're right. He might never forgive me for keeping this from him. He's my brother after all and I know how much he loves her, and family is supposed to take care of each other. He is for sure blaming himself for what happened. I think we all have a whole lot of questions about what would have changed if only one of us had done this or that, especially Paco. But it's not like he didn't do exactly the same thing when the Kaiser was after Lucas. We did all go to Lucas's funeral after all." Seeing Lola wince and knowing that those secrets were a big part of why Lola left Paco, Pepa put an arm around her once and once again sister-in-law. "You know how much I love Paco, but to keep Silvia safe and Sara too for that matter, I would lie to his face and accept the consequences later. Even if it means our relationship is over. I already know how to live without Paco in my life. I did it for eight years after our father kicked me out. I also know that there is no way I can live without Silvia. I hate having to make a choice, but that's what it has come down to, and I chose Silvia. How about you? You are a part of keeping this from him too now. What if he doesn't forgive you?"
"After everything that has happened between us, there wasn't a whole lot left for a secret like this to damage. That's mostly why I wasn't at the wedding. I'm sorry Pepa. I really wanted to share that happiness with the two of you, but I just couldn't face him."
"Because of the hit list, we probably would've tried to discourage you from coming. We didn't even tell my mother. Now she thinks that Silvia and I got married, and I was widowed the same day. Anyway, given how it turned out, I am very glad you weren't there."
"I haven't had much time to think about this whole thing, but I suppose I think that if Paco can't understand that it is so much better to be here with all of you helping and having something positive in my life for the first time in over a year instead of sitting alone in Barcelona up to my eyebrows in despair, I can't help that. It's not really my job to make it all better for him anymore." Lola sighed, "Anyway, I am going to go settle in and then find Sara and figure out how I can help. You two rest. I'll see you both later."
After Lola left the room, Pepa started to settle onto the side of the sofa that allowed her to keep an eye on Silvia.
"Come over here," she heard Silvia say.
When she got to the bed, Silvia patted the bed beside her away from the side with her wounds in what seemed less like an invitation and more like an order. Pepa took off her jeans and her bra, but put her shirt back on. She slipped into the bed next to Silvia, who immediately rolled toward her and wrapped herself around Pepa's long body.
"This is where you sleep from now on."
It was the wrong side of the bed and she knew Silvia had a long way to go before she was well, but Pepa couldn't think of a more perfect place to be. Especially after she looked down and saw her beloved's beautiful brown eyes looking up at her. Pepa leaned down to share their first real kiss in a while. It was achingly tender with no real hint of sensuality. But that was perfect too. So for the first time in a long time Pepa closed her eyes and willingly went to sleep.
Pepa woke up.
She decided that waking up felt a lot better than coming to.
With her eyes still closed, Pepa smiled. She felt quite content to wake up with Silvia's body pressed against hers. Things were going better. Silvia had finally fought off the infection that had been such a huge obstacle to her recovery and her body was repairing the assaults caused by everything she had been through. That meant among other things that Silvia could sleep on her own side of the bed again. Pepa had never thought of herself as someone who had a preference for which side of the bed she slept on, but they just fit together better when Silvia slept on the right and Pepa slept on the left.
When Pepa opened her eyes, she saw their rings, Silvia's wedding ring and Pepa's engagement ring on their respective hands resting on Pepa's belly. That belly still had a shirt on it. Silvia was not thrilled about the new scars her torso now bore and was not ready to sleep naked as they used to. That was ok for now. There was plenty of time. One thing Pepa felt surer of than she had ever felt before, they had time. She promised herself that she and Silvia would grow old together. She had already promised Silvia that at the wedding. She had meant it then, but now the reality of it sank into her bones. They would be together forever. Nothing would change that. No one better try.
Pepa eased her lanky body away from her wife's fairly tenacious grasp. She picked up her board shorts from the end of the bed and slipped them on before she walked to the balcony door. She went through the door to the railing and took a moment to just look out at the ocean. This had become something of a morning ritual for her. She liked the peace it brought her at the start of the day.
Silvia opened her eyes in time to watch Pepa walk away from the bed with her very long, very bare legs that led to her beautiful ass covered by rather short shorts. She truly enjoyed the view, and the opportunity that moving the furniture around provided her to appreciate it. She got out of bed and put on her bathrobe, something else Lucas had brought with him from the mainland. She was going to have to have a talk with him soon. He was enjoying shopping for intimate apparel for all of them just a little too much.
Today they would try going into Ciudadela together. It would be Silvia's first outing since her arrival on Minorca. She had been moving around the house freely for quite some time and had been was able to walk around the grounds of the villa for over a week now. In truth, she was bored and wanted to see something of the island that was to be her home for no one knew how long. Not that leaving the secluded and extremely safe villa didn't cause her a bit of worry--it did, but she had to start somewhere.
When Silvia walked onto the balcony, she found Pepa just where she thought she would. Silvia eased behind her and wrapped her arms around Pepa's slender waist. She used her chin to move the tousled dark hair to the side so she could kiss Pepa's shoulder. Pepa leaned back into the embrace, "Sorry, Princesa," Pepa said "I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't. Once you got up, I wanted to be with you. I've spent way too much time in that bed alone."
"Are you excited about going into town?" Pepa asked turning in Silvia's arms so they were facing each other.
"I haven't left this house in more than a month. What do you think?"
"Just promise me that if you get tired, you'll say something so we can bring you home."
"I'm pretty sure I already promised that," Silvia replied with some impatience in her tone.
Pepa pulled her a little closer and kissed her forehead. "I know. And you know I can't help worrying. I'm sorry for when that feels like I'm smothering you. I know you are a capable adult and all that, but the thought of us going backwards now that I finally feel like I really have you back scares the hell out of me."
Silvia nodded against Pepa's chest. It was not as if she were oblivious to the toll her shooting had taken on Pepa, far from it. Still, it was good of Pepa to acknowledge that she might be hovering a little too much. Silvia sighed. She knew all new marriages came with a period of adjustment, even if the two people had been living together. This was just not one of the issues she imagined they would be trying to resolve while settling into married life. She tilted her head up and kissed Pepa's neck. "Let's go downstairs and eat breakfast." She said.
When they walked into the kitchen, Lola was busy fixing the café con leche the family would share, while Sara added some fruit to the tray that held the rolls and marmalade that made up the rest of their breakfast. She smiled when her aunts placed a kiss on either side of her face while Pepa took the plate of food from her to go out to the table on the patio where they would eat. It would be too hot later in the day to enjoy eating outside. The family had taken to eating almost all their breakfasts outside since Silvia had become more mobile except for the rare days when it was too windy or raining.
Lucas looked very much like the lord of the manor waiting to be served his breakfast while reading the newspaper on his laptop. Pepa concluded that the only proper response to this appearance was to smack him on the back of the head as she walked by to put the food down and took her seat. She heard Lola try to stifle a snort of laughter. For his part Lucas frowned but otherwise did not move. Sara smoothed his slightly disordered hair as she took her seat next to him at the table. Silvia seemingly did not react, but made a point of serving him his breakfast last. Pepa got her food and coffee first, just so he knew where Silvia stood.
"So, are you ready for our big adventure?" Silvia asked him as they all began to eat.
"I'm afraid that you will have to make do without Lola and me. We have to go to Barcelona this morning." Lola looked at him in surprise and he spoke directly to her. "Don Lorenzo is on the nine thirty AVE that will get him to Barcelona just before one o'clock. His obvious cover is that he is taking a day or so to visit you. So you need to be the one who meets his train. You'll take him to that café around the corner from your old apartment for lunch. After that you two will wander through the market that's across the street from there for a little while. When I am sure you aren't being followed I'll meet you in the market. We'll go to the airstrip and fly back to Mahon. If everything goes well including traffic, we should be back here well before supper time. Do you think you can do it?"
Lola, who was staring silently at Lucas, slowly began to nod.
"Don't worry," He assured his mother-in-law, "The only two things that are different than when he usually comes to see you is the spontaneity is pretty carefully planned, and the ultimate destination. If there were any hint it might be dangerous, we wouldn't do it."
He heard the scrape of a chair on the patio as Pepa moved closer to Silvia. Pepa put her arm around her wife, who had a decidedly faraway look on her face. "Hey pelirroja, it's a good thing that he can come," he said.
She looked up at him with one of the saddest smiles he had ever seen, "I can't wait to see him. But I can't help but wish it didn't take a spy mission to make that happen."
Lucas and Pepa shared a look. They both desperately wanted to assure Silvia that this was only temporary, but both knew that it might not be.
"Well, I don't want to rush you through your breakfast, but we need to get going," Lucas said to Lola. Each took a few more bites of food and a few more sips of coffee. As they were leaving the table, they both made a point of kissing each of the three women who remained, though Lucas's kiss for Sara was a bit more thorough than the others.
About an hour later, Pepa settled into the driver's seat of one of the two matching SUV's that seemed to come with the house. Silvia sat beside her in the other front seat, with Sara in the rear. Sara felt a little like a fifth wheel accompanying her aunts on their outing, but boredom was something all the members of the household struggled with. She just couldn't bring herself to gracefully bow out of the opportunity to go to Ciudadela.
Silvia was aware that they were living in one of the few villas that had been built on the north coast of the island, before the government had made it nearly impossible to build anything else after UNESCO's designation of the island as a biosphere reserve in 1993. The existing villas were allowed to remain and the one that her family now occupied had obviously been recently renovated. Still, until they were moving slowly along the narrow dirt road that led to a nearly as narrow paved road, which finally met up with the highway that took them to Ciudadela, she didn't have a real feel as to how isolated the villa in fact was. And yet it wasn't. It was less than twenty miles to the city, though the trip took nearly half an hour. Before she knew it, they were in the second largest city on the island.
Pepa drove as if she knew where they were going. Which, of course she did. If they were only going to get a little time in the city today, she really wanted to show Silvia the old quarter of the city and its gothic cathedral. Pepa was not much of a church-goer, but the beauty of the setting was something that she really wanted to share with Silvia. As the streets got narrower, Pepa found a place to park. Sara excused herself and told her aunts she would meet them at a café Pepa had suggested for lunch in about an hour as she had some shopping to do.
"Can I interest you in a walk around the plaza and then a bite to eat at a café?" Pepa asked. The question earned her a sweet, warm smile from her favorite person, and suddenly Pepa's day was a smashing success. Pepa walked around the SUV and reached for Silvia's hand. As they walked Pepa pointed to different sights, shops and cafes. Silvia was about to ask how she knew so much about the city when Pepa raised her arm to waive at a middle-aged woman "Hello Mrs. Duran." Silvia had a flash of a memory of a walk they had taken through an airplane hangar at the very beginning of their relationship while she was trying to work through what being romantically involved with Pepa would mean outside of their bedroom. When she stared at Pepa in surprise, Pepa cocked her head and said, "What? She's the mother of the pharmacist who filled your prescriptions."
Silvia said, "Do you remember walking like this with me a couple of years ago, pretending to greet people in the street?" The confused look was soon replaced by Pepa's million watt smile at the memory, especially when Silvia put her arm around Pepa's waist. Walking here with her sweet and attentive love, Silvia felt like the scared version of herself who would ever have hesitated to hold Pepa's hand in public was a stranger to her. Yes, people looked at them; and some of those looks were cold and unhappy looks. Anyone who had a problem with them or their love was not welcome in her world, and not worth a second of her time to worry about. She had dealt with much bigger things than some stranger's narrow-minded bigotry. It was nice to see though that for every not so friendly glance, there were two or three warmer ones and even a few smiles directed at them. When Pepa wrapped her arm around her shoulders, Silvia felt at home in this strange place where all they really had was each other. That was more than enough.
They found the café that Pepa had been anxious to try for lunch. As they waited for Sara to join them, three nuns walked by and nodded a greeting at Pepa and Silvia. They politely returned the greeting and then collapsed in laughter as the nuns moved out of sight and hearing, remembering Silvia's trepidation about kissing Pepa in public. When Sara joined them, they shared a slightly celebratory lunch. Nothing too extravagant, since it felt a little risky to draw too much attention to themselves. After lunch, Pepa noticed a slight sag to Silvia's shoulders. Her suggestion that they return to the villa was met with very little resistance. Silvia dozed off during the drive home, but then so did Sara.
When they got back to the villa, Silvia went upstairs to take a nap. Sara went onto the patio to do some web surfing, so after about forty five minutes, Pepa went upstairs to join Silvia. She quietly opened the door to their bedroom and eased inside. When she turned and looked at the bed, the vision that greeted her literally stopped her in her tracks. Silvia was lying on the bed in one of her sleep shirts with her red hair fanned out over her pillow. She had one arm across her stomach and the other thrown over her head. She was breathtakingly beautiful to Pepa.
Silvia was on Pepa's side of the bed, which frequently happened when she was in bed alone. She said being on Pepa's side made it easier to sleep if Pepa herself wasn't in the bed. Pepa thought she really ought to change that whole Pepa-not-in-the-bed situation so she quietly walked over and started to undress. She took off her shoes and pants. She turned toward the bed as she started to pull her shirt off and saw Silvia propped up on her elbow enjoying the show with a slightly lecherous grin on her face.
"Please don't stop because I'm awake," Silvia said raising her eyebrow.
So Pepa didn't. She pulled her shirt off and slid onto the bed next to Silvia. Silvia decided the task at hand might just require both of hers, so she rolled on to her back reaching for Pepa. Pepa smiled as she put her arms on either side of Silvia's body and lowered her head to kiss her. The kisses started out as a gentle greeting. Then Silvia pulled Pepa more firmly down on top of her and deepened the kiss. Pepa shifted her weight and moved her hand up into Silvia's hair, loving the way it felt against her skin. She began to move her hand lower to Silvia's neck, gently caressing her. Then to her shoulder, where her mouth joined her hand for a kiss and a nibble. Her hand then found its way down to Silvia's breast which she brushed and fondled through her shirt. Since Pepa's mouth was once again kissing Silvia's, she both felt and heard the moan that her hand's attention to Silvia's breast had caused. But when her hand moved lower and started to move under the shirt looking for bare skin, she felt Silvia tense.
Pepa pulled her head a little away to look at Silvia. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," Silvia said. "The scars are so ugly and so fresh." She shook her head.
"They don't change anything about how I feel about you, or about making love with you. Do they hurt when I touch them?"
"They hurt, but not physically."
"Silvia, your body has never been anything but beautiful to me. It never will be anything but beautiful to me. I wanted you the first time we kissed when we were eighteen. I wanted you when I got back to San Antonio and you were busy trying to convince both of us how straight you were and how there couldn't be anything between us. I've wanted you every single time we've made love. I will want you as we grow old and our bodies look less and less like they do now. And make no mistake about it gorgeous, I want you now."
"Pepa, I don't want you to feel like I'm rejecting you, or that I don't still find you the sexiest person I have ever, ever seen. I still feel that way about you. Right now, I don't feel sexy. And I'm also not saying this well."
Pepa reached up and laid her hand against Silvia's cheek, "Sweetheart, if God forbid, I were to get cancer and they cut off one of my breasts, would you love me less? Wouldn't you still want to make love with me?"
Silvia put her hand on Pepa's mouth. "Don't." she said, "Don't invite that horror into our lives along with everything else."
"Princesa, I'm not wishing for cancer or for anything else to happen. But just like you can't imagine how something like that could make me less attractive to you, how your body has changed hasn't made you less attractive to me. It's you I want to make love with, not some idealized image of what you were before you got shot."
"I hear what you are saying and I believe you. What I need you to hear is that it isn't just about how you feel about my body and my scars. It's about how I feel about them too."
Pepa rolled over and leaned against the headboard pulling Silvia into her arms. "Then tell me how you feel about them. I want to understand," she said softly.
"It's not just the scars. It's what they represent. It's the damage and the pain and everything that those bullets took away. They took our friends and our home. They took our feeling of security. They made me feel like my body has betrayed me. It won't do the things that I want it to, the things it did before. I feel fragile now when I used to feel strong. That's why I hate looking at them. Not just because I think they're ugly or because I am afraid you won't find me attractive anymore."
Pepa thought about it for a moment. "Do you think you want to try making love with your shirt on?"
Silvia looked into the sincere brown eyes of the person she loved more than any other in the world. The one she loved more than she had ever loved any other. The person who was trying her hardest to figure out a way to help, not so that Pepa could make love, but so that Silvia could. In those eyes she found something to hold on to. Something that made her want to try for both of them. Silvia tilted her head so she could kiss along Pepa's jaw.
Pepa held very still. She was not sure that Silvia had made up her mind about where this would go. Theirs was a very passionate relationship. It had been since the beginning. In San Antonio they had made love a lot, in a lot of different places, including virtually every place in the precinct they could be alone for more than a few minutes. Today though, this was for Silvia. Pepa told herself they would go as fast or slow as she needed. If they didn't do more than kiss and hold each other, that was ok. That resolve was something she would hold onto even if she had to imagine all kinds of libido killing things to keep from reacting as she usually did as Silvia's mouth started to move around, and so did her hands.
Silvia had other plans. When she took Pepa's bra off and reached for her thong, she meant for Pepa to respond. Pepa very slowly without breaking eye contact reached down and helped Silvia take her panties off. The care that Pepa was taking of her made Silvia feel a flood of tenderness toward her lover. This time they were moving slowly and gently. It's not that they never made love like this, they did. Today was different because the pace was deliberate. Silvia began to feel more like herself as her hands and her mouth roamed over Pepa's body. And while Pepa was aware of the change of intensity that she felt coming from Silvia, she kept her responses positive and stimulating but a little bit in check.
The sight and feel of Pepa's body was causing a number of physiological responses in Silvia, as it always did. She stopped thinking so much and just let her body respond to her lover. At the same time, she was finding the shirt she was wearing to be confining and an impediment to all she wanted to feel and all she wanted Pepa to feel. After a few more minutes of kisses and caresses, Silvia sat up on her heels straddling Pepa's waist. Pepa once again went very still as Silvia reached for the hem of her shirt and pulled it off over her head. Tears filled Pepa's eyes at that demonstration of trust, devotion and lust from Silvia. Silvia saw her reaction and decided that as gratifying as it was, she wanted an entirely different one. She reached for Pepa's hands and put them on her breasts. Pepa was not the kind of woman who needed that sort of invitation extended twice, and she did not disappoint Silvia. After a few moments of her palms and fingers stroking and squeezing the beautiful breasts that had been offered to her, she sat up and added her mouth to the mix. Silvia felt her breath catch as her body responded to Pepa's touch. For her part, Pepa was hoping that her heart wouldn't beat so fast that she wound up passing out. That wouldn't do at all. When Silvia pushed Pepa onto to the mattress and Pepa felt their naked bodies sliding against each other for the first time in their married life, her mind just shut itself off, trusting that her body knew what it was doing. And when finally they reached the climax of this expression of their love, it was perfect. So they finished their nap wrapped around each other, sleeping in paradise.
Silvia came downstairs freshly showered and found Sara in the kitchen trying to figure out what to do about supper. Sara was taking a sip of her drink as she turned toward the sound of her aunt coming into the room. She took one look at Silvia's face and promptly started to choke.
"What?" Silvia wanted to know.
"Nothing," Sara wheezed as she tried somehow to get some air into her lungs.
"Is it that obvious?" asked Silvia.
"Of course not," Sara lied through her teeth.
That was the moment when Pepa bounced into the room, sporting a very rakish smile. Sara figured she might as well stop trying to pretend that her aunts had not just been upstairs making love, since she was once again coughing so hard she couldn't breathe.
Silvia shot Pepa a look, and Pepa just smiled and shrugged. "Try to remember that my father will be here soon," Silvia said.
"He's knows we're married Princesa. He was at the wedding."
"Knowing that we are married is not the same thing as thinking about us having sex."
"Sweetie, you can't tell by looking at us, I promise. Sara just knows because she was here all afternoon and she hasn't seen us for hours."
Silvia closed her eyes and sighed, not entirely sure that Pepa was right about people not being able to tell just by looking. She could certainly tell by looking at Pepa. When she opened her eyes she was more than ready to change the subject. "What were you thinking about for supper Sara?"
"I guess tapas is the obvious choice, but I was trying to think of something a little bit special."
"Your Grandpa will have been traveling a lot of the day. And he will be anxious to get here to see you two," Pepa said, "I think he will appreciate something light that doesn't require much time from anyone in the kitchen. What he will really want is to see the family together."
"You are probably right. I bought a nice loaf of bread in town today. We have some good cheese and plenty of fruit, maybe some of that really nice ham Mom found. Would you mind choosing a wine?"
Silvia said, "We still have couple of bottles of that young wine from Rueda that should go well with that."
They spent a half hour slicing bread and cheese, washing fruit, arranging ham and putting out the dishes and silverware that they would need for the evening meal so that everything would be ready when Lucas and Lola brought Don Lorenzo home.
As they were finishing up, they heard the other SUV pull into the driveway. Sara squealed in a not very grown up fashion and ran for the door. When her grandfather walked in she nearly flattened the man. He in return gave her a big smile and a bigger hug. Then, over Sara's shoulder he saw his daughter. The last time he had seen her standing up unassisted was at her wedding nearly two months before. The last time he had seen her at all, she was in coma. He kissed Sara one more time on the cheek and opened his arms to his youngest child. She rushed to him and felt him hug her like he never wanted to let go. She could tell that he was still worried about her wounds by the moderate pressure of his embrace. The two held onto each other for five full minutes. When they separated, Don Lorenzo wiped the tears from his cheeks looked for the final member of the family he had yet to greet.
"Pepa," he said softly and walked over to pull her into another long, tight hug which was returned with great enthusiasm and a little tenderness. He loosened his hold on her but didn't let her go. He asked, "Have you had to run for your life yet?"
Pepa shook her head and said, "No, not yet. I've been pretty careful to put the top back on the shampoo bottle." Both of them laughed.
Lola looked at Silvia obviously a little confused. Since Pepa was very young, Don Lorenzo had not liked her, or the influence she had on his younger daughter. Silvia shrugged and said, "Things change. Even before the wedding the two of them were getting along much better."
They went out to the patio to talk and eat the light supper that had been set out. Silvia noticed that Pepa didn't partake of the wine opting instead for carbonated fruit juice. Tonight was not the first time she had seen Pepa decline alcohol.
"Have you stopped drinking?" She asked Pepa quietly.
"I'm not sure," Pepa responded. "I haven't had anything since we got here. Now that I feel like I can, I don't really miss it."
Talk was mostly fairly light in tone. More serious subjects could wait until later. Don Lorenzo updated everyone on the progress, or lack of progress of their friends in San Antonio but again heavier subjects were avoided.
Lucas got up and turned on some music from the system that could be channeled into any part of the house. After a little more conversation, Don Lorenzo went to the sound system and after a little exploring changed the light jazz that was playing to a traditional waltz. He looked at Pepa and said with a small smile, "I never got to watch the fruits of my lessons."
Pepa ducked her head with a small smile of her own, then rose to her feet and offered her hand to Silvia to lead her to a clear spot on the patio. There she took her in her arms and began to lead her in the waltz they had not had at their wedding. A slightly shocked Silvia asked, "He taught you this?"
Pepa nodded, "The morning of the wedding after you kicked me out to go get dressed at Paco's. You said you wouldn't marry me if I messed it up."
Silvia looked at her father, and realized at that moment more than ever before how far he had come. He had not just met them half way. He had accepted Pepa into their family in a way even her own parents had been unable to.
Lola looked at Sara and Lucas, "You didn't dance a waltz at your wedding either." She didn't add that it had been for similar reasons. She did wonder to herself if this could be the end of what seemed to be a tradition of the brides in her family being shot on their wedding days.
Lucas got up and offered his hand to his wife and began to waltz with her. No one commented on the fact that he clearly also would have benefitted from some lessons from Don Lorenzo. As the music played, Don Lorenzo rose to cut in and dance with his daughter. Lola then cut in and danced with Lucas. Don Lorenzo reached into his pocket and handed Silvia a twenty Euro note. Since Pepa had begun to dance with Sara, she followed suit. Partners were exchanged again and found Lucas dancing with Pepa. Don Lorenzo danced with Lola, while Silvia and Sara demonstrated that in fact, you did need someone to lead in the waltz. And again partners were exchanged, leading to the slightly incongruous sight of Lucas dancing with his ex-wife who found herself tempted to point out that Pepa was better at a lot of things than Lucas. Silvia somehow managed to keep that opinion to herself. Lola danced with Pepa and handed her twenty Euros. Don Lorenzo also handed his granddaughter with whom he was dancing twenty Euros.
When Pepa saw Lucas hand a bank note to Silvia she said "Hey you cheap bastard, you danced with me too!"
"Yeah," he replied, "but I don't have to pay you. You were the groom."
"Bullshit. You saw the dress. I looked fabulous."
"I'm sure you did," said Lola, "I would've loved to have seen it."
Pepa looked at her and said, "I don't know what happened to the pictures. Someone from the hotel took pictures during the ceremony."
"I'll call them when I get back. They should still have them. I'll get them to send them to me, and then I'll get them to you," Don Lorenzo said.
The evening wound down as fatigue settled in, although no one wanted to interrupt the feelings of togetherness and love they were experiencing. Eventually, they bade each other goodnight and went to their respective beds. As Silvia and Pepa settled in together, Silvia realized that she was happier than she had been in a long time. She tucked her head onto Pepa's shoulder and sighed a contented sigh. Pepa could tell the difference between this particular sigh and some of the others she had felt coming from Silvia lately. She was familiar with the sigh that indicated a longing for things to be different and the one that was about frustration at the pace of her recovery. This one was about some of the pieces of their lives that had been blown apart coming back together. She couldn't have agreed with the sentiment more. Pepa was also feeling something she only ever felt with Silvia. Peace. She knew others had started something she might just have to finish, but she could live with a little peace.
Don Lorenzo smiled.
His family was together. He didn't have to pretend right now. Most of the people about whom he worried were in the kitchen, getting breakfast ready. They were laughing and teasing each other. They were healthy and they were relatively safe. Nothing was going as well in San Antonio and he had to go back to that, but for now, all was well. Breakfast was fun. He knew that serious issues needed to be discussed, but this respite might just keep him sane for a while longer.
Later in the morning Pepa, Don Lorenzo and Silvia were sitting on the patio next to the swimming pool enjoying an ocean breeze. Lucas came out of the villa with a man Pepa knew only as Santiago, the CNI commander who had been most responsible for keeping them informed about the progress made in finding El Gordo. The two men joined the others at the table. Silvia felt Pepa tense next to her. She looked at Pepa who, without being obvious about it had her complete attention focused on Santiago.
Don Lorenzo looked up at the two new arrivals, and began as if a meeting had just been called to order. "So Pepa, officially to the National Police you're on bereavement leave. That can last a number of months given the official version of what happened at the wedding. So you are free to remain with Silvia while she recovers."
"But you have other plans for me?" Pepa asked Santiago.
He smiled, "I was wondering if you might be getting a little bored. It has been two months. That is a long time to go without any action for an agent like you."
Pepa leaned back in her chair. She smiled a half smile that didn't reach her eyes. "And I was wondering when the bill would come," she said, never taking her eyes off of Santiago.
Silvia looked at her father who was now frowning, at Santiago who was looking very mild and unthreatening, but who was also sitting very still, and then at Pepa. She could feel the restless, slightly dangerous energy rolling off her love. "No," she said.
Pepa looked at her and touched her cheek gently.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Lucas asked.
Without taking her eyes off of Silvia, Pepa said, "Did you really think that CNI was giving us all of this because you work for them? Or because of some sense of obligation for the disaster at the wedding? Come on Lucas, you know nothing is free. Have you paid a bill since we've been here? Food gets delivered that we eat but don't pay for. The lights stay on, but I haven't seen an electric bill, have you? You know what is precious around here? Water. We have a damn swimming pool on an island where you pay for a glass of water at a café. That doesn't even take into account that we live in a huge villa on a secluded beach that has to be worth at least half a million Euros, with a security system that is more sophisticated than the one at the police station we all worked in."
"Ok. If there's a bill, I'll pay it," Lucas said.
"You already are," Pepa said, glancing at Lucas before focusing again on Santiago. "Now they want me to chip in."
"They told me you were smart. I wish I had met you when you were twenty," Santiago said.
"No," Silvia repeated.
"They won't ask us to do anything to extreme, at first anyway. They will just ask me and Lucas to do things we want to do anyway. Like look for El Gordo. The missions will be ok, and we won't object to them. They'll even be careful to not have us away from you and Sara for too long. We can even say no, as long as Lucas and I both know that we better have a back-up plan for keeping the five of us alive. That's why Lola got to come. When it was the four of us, once you were strong enough, we could have just split up. In pairs we could've taken care of ourselves. But Lola can't just drop back into her life in Barcelona anymore. She has been gone too long. She would become a target too if she goes back to San Antonio." She turned her head toward Santiago, "Does Salgado know?"
"No. She thinks what everyone else in San Antonio thinks. She doesn't have the kind of training to pull off something like that. As you said though, we are not contemplating asking you to do anything you don't have the training or expertise for, and in spite of the reputation of most intelligence agencies, we really are working to keep Spain safe and free."
"You just want to be in a position to blackmail your agents into doing things?" Don Lorenzo asked with more than a hint of anger in his voice.
"It's not like that. Lucas already works for us by choice. When we resolve the El Gordo issue, Pepa will be able to make career decisions that are in her best interests. Hopefully, we can entice her to stay with CNI."
"And if not?" growled Don Lorenzo.
"Everyone will be free to live as they did before. For now, Lucas is scheduled to do some training with our divers off the coast tomorrow. Do you want to join him? It should be fun."
"I'll be there," Pepa answered.
"Wonderful. We can talk later about other things we might be able to help each other with." Santiago rose and with a smile and a small bow, took his leave.
"I'm sorry Pepa," Don Lorenzo said, "I didn't see this coming."
"At first I didn't either. But I've had a lot of time to think about this. They don't owe any loyalty to me or Silvia or even you for that matter. I made this deal when we got on the plane to come here. Santiago knows I want to find El Gordo. CNI has just been waiting for me to able to work again. And now the time is here."
"Pepa, no, they can find someone else," Silvia said.
"I can't find El Gordo without their help. If I don't do what they want, then they stop looking for El Gordo and we never got out of this limbo. Worse than that, we then have to find a way to hide from the Italian mafia without their protection. El Gordo can run his operation from hiding. We can't be safe without help. Running won't work. Eventually we will be found. We have to take positive steps to make this better. Who knows, he might be true to his word and give us the chance to go back once El Gordo has been caught."
"You think he will find a way to keep you," Silvia surmised.
"We don't have to worry about it now. We do have to finish this. I can't do it alone. I don't have the resources or the contacts. When it's over you and I will decide together what we want to do. But right now, I need your support to do this job. I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing it for us. It's the only way."
"Hey," Lucas said, "you aren't alone, either of you."
"I know," Pepa said not taking her eyes off Silvia, "And believe me, you are the only one I trust in this bunch to have my back." She leaned her forehead against Silvia's and whispered "Please Princesa."
Silvia closed her eyes and nodded. "The only time there was ever trouble between us was when we didn't talk to each other. Promise me you won't keep things from me. We will talk about this every step of the way, no matter what you wind up having to do."
"I promise. No matter what, you will always know what is going on."
And so it began. Pepa had been trained in the National Police in practices that kept the public, her fellow officers and Pepa herself safe while engaging in normal police work. She had also had supplemental training in undercover work. She had not however, received training that made her able to function largely on her own without backup in potentially dangerous situations. Not that that had stopped her from operating that way in the past. Like the time she confronted three armed men in that warehouse the first time she had come back to Madrid. It was a good thing that the guys she had at gunpoint had been Paco and his men and not the gangster she had been chasing. That could have become unpleasant in a hurry.
Pepa learned how to use tactical weapons and explosives. She learned how to jump out of airplanes. She learned the basics about how to fly, or at least land an airplane so she might not have to jump out of it. She learned advanced surveillance techniques. She learned how to very quickly divest a digital storage device of its contents. She learned that locks were for amateurs. She learned things about close fighting, with and without weapons, which made her one of the more dangerous people on the planet. She loved pretty much every minute of it except the surveillance class, patience not being her strongest asset.
Pepa was true to her word and told Silvia about the things that she was learning and any information that was shared about El Gordo. Silvia for her part was honest with Pepa about how wonderful it was to see her engaged and happy, but that she was a bit jealous and, oh my God was she getting bored. Silvia also shared verbally and not so verbally her appreciation of how Pepa's body was adapting to her very physical pursuits as of late.
Days turned into a few weeks and Santiago returned to the villa. He sat with Pepa and Silvia and began without any prelude, "El Gordo is somewhere in northern Italy, near Genova. It seems a good idea for someone to find out what anyone knows about this state of affairs."
"Someone off the books who can't be traced back to CNI?" Pepa asked.
"If you would be willing to join CNI right now, I'll go and get the documents you would need to sign."
"For this situation, it probably makes sense that no one knows about our connection. I know that Gonzalo Montoya had a connection with the police in Genova. I think that guy would talk to me. It may be that he doesn't know anything. I would kind of like to know if the guy is clean before I approach him. Even if he is, I probably can't go talk to him without word getting back to El Gordo," Pepa mused, "That could be a good thing or a bad thing."
"I'll check on your policeman. We can probably find out if he has Mafia connections. In terms of your presence in Italy getting back to El Gordo, you're almost certainly right unless you go in under pretty deep cover. We could do that, but that would mean having to be away from here for an extended period of time, which I understood to not be something that anyone wanted to do. It would also mean not having access to the formal channels that might give us information that would prove useful if the time does come for a more clandestine approach. I have to admit the thought El Gordo's reaction if both you and Lucas show up amuses me."
"Since the entertainment factor of his reaction is pretty limited because we won't be able to see it, I think it would be better if I went alone this time. If there is no visible tie to CNI, that should work to our advantage. Lucas and I can appear to be working independently of one another. In the future, if it makes sense for one or the other of us to be seen to back off, we can do that without losing any ground."
Silvia spoke up, "It may make strategic sense for you to go without Lucas, but I don't like you going entirely alone. I understand that you would just be going to talk to the policeman, and that he will have been checked out before you go, but you're going to the place where this man is hiding. Don't forget, you were on that list too. He could see this as an opportunity to get one of the people he missed the first time. Especially since as far as he knows, you're grieving my death and might be the most dangerous of his pursuers."
"If you were going any place else in Italy I might not agree with your wife, but in this case I do," said Santiago, "We don't know exactly where El Gordo is, but we are sure he is very near Genova. I also agree that our main advantage of you actually being seen in Italy comes if you appear to be alone. Would you agree to our sending backup with whom you would only interact if absolutely necessary?"
"So this backup would essentially act like surveillance?"
"Except that I see no need to have a report of your mission from anyone but you. "
Pepa refrained from calling the man a liar to his face. She was pretty certain that she would be watched while on this mission whether she agreed to backup or not. "Do I know who you have in mind for this backup assignment?"
"Well you have been training with a small number of our agents. A few of them are new, and a few are renewing certifications in relevant skills. I was thinking about Maura and Portella, but would welcome any thoughts you have."
"Do they work together a lot?"
"No, they haven't shared many assignments that I am aware of."
"How about Andreu? I would guess that he is not among your most experienced agents, but from what I have seen, he handles himself very well. "
"Ok, Maura and Andreu. The experience will probably do him good. Can you leave in two days if the policeman checks out?"
"I can be ready then."
"Good. Since this needs to be a very quick in and out, you will fly to Nice and drive from there. Now that that matter is settled, Dr. Castro may I ask how you are doing?"
Silvia looked up startled, "I'm doing fine. No problems."
"Since Pepa is able to come and play, I assumed that you were doing well physically. I was more wondering how things were going otherwise."
"So, no complaints. I thought that an accomplished forensic scientist and doctor might be a bit at sea with not a great deal to do."
"I keep myself occupied."
"That's wonderful. I was a little concerned that since we have been occupying a bit of Pepa's time that you might be feeling a little bored."
"Ah, so you want to know how I spend my time. Well, my father got the wedding photos from the hotel, so Sara and I have been putting together the album. Fortunately, the pictures stopped before the shooting started. I read a good deal. Being able to have books sent to my laptop, thank you by the way for providing the computers and the secure internet access, is fantastic. Of course the account isn't in my name, nor is the credit card that pays for them because I'm dead. And I have to be careful not to replicate my buying patterns from before, lest someone be looking at buying patterns and stumble onto the fact that I'm alive. And I download computer games that keep me entertained in spurts. I am a little upset that the North American soap opera I have been following has been canceled just when Natalia and Olivia got back together. I can't exchange correspondence with any of my colleagues because I'm dead. I can't write any papers about things I've learned in my field now that I actually have the time to do that, or rather I can write them, but they can't be published so no one can read them because I'm dead. That makes writing them a bit like talking to myself."
"I realize that anything that I propose raises suspicions of my motives, but I was wondering if I could interest you in a little project."
Pepa narrowed her eyes and asked, "What kind of project?"
Santiago smiled, "Nothing like the kind of work you're involved in. I mean no offense Dr. Castro, but I've learned nothing about you that leads me to believe that you would have any interest, nor frankly much success at the kind of work that we normally do in terms of field assignments. As you are aware, many of our cases are not pursued with an eye toward the prosecution of an offender, unlike police work. We are tasked with gathering information. We still want to get the bad guy, but often not with a trial in mind. That being said, there are an increasing minority of cases where prosecutions do result from our apprehension of someone. We are finding that while our methods of finding and securing a person we are pursuing are very successful, we do tend to be less successful at gathering evidence or at least not messing up a scene so someone else can collect any evidence necessary for later trials. Since we are designed on purpose to be separate from law enforcement, mostly we need to be able to convey to our field agents how not to mess up a scene. I was wondering when you feel up to it, whether you might be interested in developing a short course that could be presented on the topic of not spoiling evidence?"
"Where would I present such a course? Certainly not in Madrid, unless you were thinking about waiting a while for me to do it."
"I was thinking more like Mahon. The building where Pepa has had some of her indoor classes is part of one of our training sites. It also houses a small but well equipped laboratory."
"Are you offering me a job?" asked an incredulous Silvia.
"I have made no secret of the fact that I very much want Pepa to join CNI, regardless of how the situation with El Gordo is ultimately resolved. As neither of you is in a position to make any long term career plans currently, I'm offering you an opportunity to use your skills and knowledge to teach others. If you don't feel up to it, or simply don't want to, I completely understand. When the time comes to discuss your careers, it is entirely likely that we would inquire into both of your availability."
"When were you hoping to have this course presented?" Silvia asked, clearly startling Pepa.
"Would two weeks be sufficient time for you to prepare something?"
"Pepa and I need to discuss it, but if I agree, then two weeks would be sufficient time to put something together."
"Perfect. May I send along a description of the training that we have provided to agents about evidence gathering?"
"Please. That would give me a good idea of where to start."
"I'll have it delivered this afternoon."
"I may not be able to give you an answer that soon."
"I understand Dr. Castro, but sending the material can only help you in the preparation of your course. If you choose not to present the course, then you can just put it aside and I'll collect it the next time I see you," and with that, Santiago took his leave.
"What do you think of all that?" Silvia asked waving her hand in the general direction that Santiago had just gone.
"I knew he was smart, and that he's been playing me, but I didn't quite get how smart. I suppose he's trying to eliminate one of the strongest reasons we'd have to go home to San Antonio. We work together there. If I refused to stay because I only want to work somewhere that we could work together, then he obviously would have to find a way to make staying with CNI worth your while too."
"What do you mean he's been playing you?"
"You had to have noticed that none of the training I've been doing has been the dull routine kind that all new agents have to go through. No courses in the hierarchy of CNI. No lectures in protocol. No talks about how completely vouchers have to be filled in. Only fun stuff like shooting guns, blowing stuff up, getting certified to dive. The past few weeks have been one long recruiting exercise. Now he's started on you. I think he thinks we are a package deal."
"Ok, so in the short term, what do you think of my teaching this course?"
"I think that it's completely up to you. Now that your mind can focus on something other than your body getting better, it's no secret to anyone how bored you are. Sara may be happy with a life that consists mostly of time at the beach waiting for Lucas to come home, but you aren't like that. I think Santiago really is trying to recruit you too, and not just to help convince me to stay. A very well trained and talented forensic scientist just fell into his lap. He'd be stupid to not pursue you. Maybe you should check out the facilities CNI has to offer here."
"I would love to get to do something that I am good at again, although teaching about evidence is much different from collecting or analyzing it. I have to admit, the thought of leaving this villa to go somewhere without you scares me a little. I realize it is silly, but I haven't done that yet. You make me feel safe."
"I didn't exactly keep you safe at the wedding."
"Hey, stop that," Silvia said grabbing Pepa's hand, "It has obviously slipped your mind that you literally saved my life that day. The best cops either of us know were there and none of them were able to stop what happened. You do make me feel safe, and not just physically. You know things about me no one else knows. I let myself feel everything I am capable of with you because I am safe and so are you."
Pepa held Silvia's hand for a long moment. She looked into Silvia's eyes with the most serious look Silvia had ever seen on her face but she didn't say anything. Finally, she smiled a little smile and squeezed Slivia's hand. "We got a little off the original topic. How about we make sure that I am scheduled to be here when your class is to be held? I can go with you that way."
"And what, sit in the hall waiting for me to finish? Because there is no way I am teaching a class with you in the audience."
"You know why. You couldn't even behave at briefings I gave at the precinct."
"It sounds like you want to do this."
"I think I do."
"Ok, how do I help?"
"You go to Genova, talk to the policeman and come home, quickly and in one piece."
So she did, mostly.
She wasn't sure she was ever going to get used to the small aircraft that CNI seemed to adore. Pepa liked her planes bigger and commercial, thank you. She looked across at Maura and Andreu. Andreu was alert and taking in every detail of his surroundings. Maura on the other hand looked a little sleepy, as if she might drift off in a few minutes. A less experienced agent might have been a tad perturbed at Maura's apparent nonchalance, but Pepa actually preferred it. If Andreu kept up this level of acute alertness, he'd be exhausted by the time they drove across the Italian border. Maura saw Pepa looking at the two of them. She glanced at Andreu, caught Pepa's eye and smiled a little. She leaned over to Andreu and spoke quietly to him. Pepa saw him shake out his shoulders and roll his head from side to side trying to relax.
The flight was short and uneventful. After a minimal amount of conversation, they got into their respective cars and drove to Italy. Pepa felt a small shiver of fear go through her as she drove up to the border. She was traveling with her own passport. If the border guards were not the overworked and underpaid civil servants they were supposed to be, but rather in the employ of the local mafia used to facilitate the flow of illegal goods and people of ill repute, then news of her presence in Italy would make it to Genova long before Pepa herself did. She glanced in her rearview mirror and was pleased to see an old panel truck that had obviously changed hands a few times. She thought these border guards might just be the real deal since they barely even glanced at her as they waved her through, so intent were they at the chance to flag down and potentially search the old panel truck.
The scenery between Nice and the border was quite beautiful, but from the border to Genova it became rather mundane. Not that Pepa gave a crap about sight-seeing. She drove to the Piazza Giacomo Matteotti and parked the car. She walked into the central office of the Polizia di Stato and asked for Master Inspector Ricci. She waited a few minutes in the reception area and was then escorted to his office by a uniformed officer who looked as if he had reached his twelfth birthday perhaps the previous week. The officer introduced her, demonstrating that his voice had also not yet seemed to have changed. The officer was directed to fetch a coffee for Pepa as she settled in to the visitor's chair in Ricci's office.
"First, Agent Miranda, let me express my condolences on the loss of your wife and colleagues. I knew only Inspector Montoya among those who were lost, but I can only imagine what you are going through."
"Thank you, Master Inspector. I appreciate your respects. When Gonzalo spoke of you, he had only the highest praise for your professionalism and was very grateful for the courtesy that was extended to him and to my father-in-law when they last visited."
"Your father-in-law? I had not realized that Commissioner Castro But of course she was his daughter."
"Yes, she was. And Gonzalo was my friend. He died bravely for the sake of the rest of us. As you say, you can imagine all that I am feeling. You must also be able to imagine how very much I need information about the whereabouts of the man we call El Gordo."
At that moment the young uniformed officer returned with Pepa's coffee. After he was properly thanked and dismissed, Ricci said, "Agent Miranda, though we don't work for the same agency, I want to assure you that all available resources are being used in the Polizia di Stato's search for this criminal."
Pepa bowed her head and closed her eyes. For just an instant she let herself experience the pain she had felt for those few moments she believed that Silvia had died. When she looked up again, she allowed an echo of that pain show on her face. "Would that be good enough for you?"
Ricci did not answer for a moment, then he too looked down. When he looked back up he said, "You obviously know he is near or you would not be here. His exact location continues to be unknown. What we believe is that his ability to move from one location to another is hampered not just by our efforts to locate him, but also because his own organization is displeased with him. Those with whom he works have no love for the police, but it seems to be generally felt that he placed too much of the organization at risk for far too little gain by attacking police who were not even in Italy in what was essentially a fit of pique. One hears that now all assets of the organization are having to either be sacrificed or put on hold while things die down. No one in his organization is willing to turn him over to us, and they will do what is necessary to protect him, but extraordinary efforts will not be made to hide him, nor will money or men be diverted to help conceal him. Wherever he is, it is largely thought, he will remain for the foreseeable future. Another rumor has it that a report is being prepared to be forwarded by the Mafia Prosecutor's Office to a Judge concerning his crimes and those of his associates. It is generally true that such reports are not prepared until an arrest is imminent. I have no specific information to share about exactly where you can find him. To be frank, I don't really want to know. I know that you need specifics, but I have nothing more to give you."
"I didn't really expect you to hand him over to me on a silver platter, although if that were possible, I certainly wouldn't turn it down. You've been quite helpful to me. You've given me at the very least reason to hope that I'm not doing this with no chance of success." Pepa got up. "And for your generosity, sir, I'll do you the favor of leaving you alone."
When she reached the door, Ricci called to her, "Agent Miranda, do be careful. So much has already been lost. I would grieve deeply the news of your death."
"Thank you, sir."
As Pepa walked out the front door of the building, she paused to put on her sunglasses. Almost simultaneously, she heard a shot and saw a bullet impact the plaster wall mere inches from her head. Training and instinct had her immediately on the ground concealed by a parked police car with her gun in her hand. Police officers ran by her presumably in the direction the shot had come from. She saw Maura working her way toward her moving quickly but exposing no more of her body than was necessary to anyone hoping to take a second shot.
When Maura reached Pepa she said, "You should probably put the gun away since you don't have any real authorization to carry it in Italy. We'll leave your car here. Let's hurry while all this commotion is still going on. Andreu is waiting around the corner."
In the end, Pepa had been right about Andreu knowing how to handle himself. He drove inland from Genova to Torino in a way that got them to their destination expeditiously, but without drawing any attention to three people in a non-descript sedan. From there, the three flew to Valencia and then on to Mahon.
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