Authors: A.T. Grant
Tags: #thriller, #crime, #drug cartel, #magical realism, #mystery, #Mexico, #romance, #Mayan, #Mayan temple, #Yucatan, #family feud, #conquistadors
Published in 2015 by
Andrews UK Limited
The right of A.T. Grant to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998
Copyright Â© 2015 A.T. Grant
All rights reserved. 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. Any person who does so may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
His stride is wildernesses of freedom.
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
I wish to thank my wife and family for their support whilst I wrote this book. I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable advice I received from author and publisher Kevan Manwaring.
Act I: The Tourists
It was only a little thing, barely an accident really, but the wreckage lodged stubbornly in his mind. David was edging forward in a queue of traffic when the car in front stopped, unexpectedly. His didn't, equally unexpectedly. Time slowed as the small, sensible Citroen slipped on black ice and into the rear bumper of its neighbour. David felt different - connected - as though the sudden jolt had completed some intricate circuitry in his brain. He was aware of things he hadn't previously noticed: a rear window full of football regalia took his attention from the emblem of a leaping jaguar. David realised he was in love and in love in a way he had all but forgotten. He melted into the all-consuming, exotic smell of her, the warming rush of electricity as her fingers fell gently across the back of his hand.
For once David was wide awake and greedy for new adventure. Shock coursed through him as he was confronted by an angry man in possession of a now slightly warped vehicle. How was he going to respond, not to the driver, but to the girl whose life felt so far from his own? He didn't know, but was desperate not to lose the connection. Maybe that explained why he lowered his window and said what he did - and why the man hit him.
David's euphoria turned into panic. He was a revolving storm coursing across the countryside, spitting out familiar things like homes and cars and furniture. And people. He worried about the people. People are unpredictable. Even the driver was now offering a handkerchief and mumbling concern in response to the cut dribbling blood from David's ear. The roar of the whirlwind and the tinnitus in his ear became one and the same, driving out rational thought and leaving him in a semi-conscious stupor that made him spin faster. Any loss of control is difficult to deal with at forty, and being forty was just one more chunk of debris littering David's emotional wasteland. He returned the handkerchief, with just a hint of a conciliatory smile.
His tattooed assailant stood transfixed, flexing a forearm mechanically. A snarling feline imprinted there seemed to be grinding its teeth. Events had not panned out quite as the driver had anticipated. He turned on his heels, stomped back to his car and sped off through a red light.
David watched him go, still unaware of the impatient tail-back behind him. CDs full of basic Spanish were strewn across the front passenger seat. Desperate now only for routine, he fumbled for a disc and managed to still his trembling hand just enough to insert it. Automatically he started to drive and to respond to each linguistic prompt. The knot in his stomach began to slacken and his breathing to subside. He thought again of a girl he hadn't seen for twenty years. His fingers dabbed absent-mindedly at the damp side of his face, oblivious both to the blood patterning his white cotton shirt and to the well enunciated exhortations to
escuchar y repetir
emanating from the car stereo. Five minutes before his mind had been so clear. Five minutes before he had experienced an emotion so surprising it had lifted him completely from his everyday life. Now the accident - he was a careful driver and had never had one before - only added to a sense that he was dreaming.
David was back in familiar territory on the outer Bristol ring road: a purposeful strip of semi-ordered, semi-exciting, semi-detached intensity, which crowded out his deeper thoughts and feelings. David relaxed and was aware again of foreign phrases, each hanging momentarily in the overheated, exhaust-tainted air around him. He was almost cheery as he recalled his assailant's apology and appeal to call it quits. At least there would be no insurance claim.
His attention was drawn to a slip road pulling away to his left.
Two roads diverged...
The phrase from a near forgotten poem would lead him away, but it was a hollow, passionless clichÃ© - the strength to veer from his daily routine had died with his non-accident. David tried to avoid the features staring back at him from the driving mirror. What would she think of him now, anyway?
London that day wore its usual grey winter jacket, the collar pulled up over the tallest towers, fingers of cold rain spilling from each arm. Inside those towers the finance industry wound through its daily routine, fleecing the country of any remaining assets and scattering its loose change to the most proximate few. London was still a playground for the super-rich, strings of bright-lights marking their progress from one well-manicured fantasy to the next. The gloss hadn't completely worn off, but perhaps that was the problem: the city was a caricature and the country a cultural theme park - so thought Marcus as he stared from a window on the twenty-second floor, at Tailwind Adventure. There was a knock on the door. He swung his legs from the window-ledge then clumsily tightened his tie.
Laura walked in, nervously smoothing the sides of the narrow, pencil skirt beneath her matching wool jacket. She glanced at Marcus and ventured a smile, but couldn't help but be drawn to the expansive panorama receding over his left shoulder. Marcus turned again to follow her gaze.
“Magnificent, isn't it? Do, please, sit down.”
As Laura complied she felt the plastic tag of the new skirt digging uncomfortably into her waist. “Yes, it is. Sorry, I'm from the Somerset Levels. London's quite a contrast,” she stuttered.
They fell silent. Both followed a jet slipping through clouds in a holding pattern for Heathrow Airport. Laura was convinced her nerves were already making her sound like the inconsequential lost sheep she secretly believed herself to be. She bit her bottom lip, staring hard at the aircraft as though hoping it might crash.
“However,” Marcus continued, oblivious to her internal machinations, “your CV suggests you've a good head for heights.”
Laura relaxed just a little at Marcus' bland repost. “I love the mountains. It's not so much the scenery or the physical challenge; more about climbing beyond my worries.”
“Well, you obviously haven't neglected your studies: your qualifications are pretty impressive for a twenty-three year old.”
Laura tried not to look suspicious, covering her pause with a slight cough into a diminutive, half-clenched fist as she considered why Marcus was sounding so positive. She took a surreptitious deep breath and decided to continue.
“An ex-boyfriend used to sneer and tell me all I did was work - that I had Good Girl Syndrome. He was right, really. I was brought up by my dad and was always afraid of letting him down.
“Is your father academic?” Marcus enquired.
Laura relaxed some more as she sensed she might safely say anything vaguely relevant. “Sort of: he manages a computer network for an engineering company. My mother worked in a bank when I was very young. Then she became a veterinary nurse. That made her really happy - for a while.”
Marcus remained quiet; studying Laura's face with a newly attentive expression. She reminded him of someone: someone familiar and much missed. Her face, at first the simplest of landscapes, came alive when she spoke. He remembered that same transformation and the same haste to get through her words from his cousin, Isabel.
“I'd like to offer you the job.”
“Are you sure?” Laura was incredulous and suddenly short of breath.
Marcus was no less surprised. Someone else must have articulated the words for him. He knew that he meant it, but he also knew he had just made a complete hash of the interview.
“Look, forgive me. I
sure, but I can also be a little impulsive.” This was too personal a tone, he knew, but his priority now was to slow down. “Can I get you something to drink - tea - coffee?”
Laura indicated the latter and Marcus swung from his seat, dodged past one wing of an impressive, walnut-veneered desktop and disappeared into the ante-room in which Laura had been waiting.
Laura looked around her. In almost every respect the expanse of wooden panelling, the towering bookcases, the matching red leather upholstery on the chairs and rather grand sofa to the right of Marcus' desk matched her mental picture of an executive's office. All the details, however, told a different story. A number of well-thumbed travel magazines lay in a pile in one corner of the somewhat threadbare green carpet. The desktop computer looked dated and was covered in stickers advertising exotic destinations and bars. Behind her the wall was obscured by a large map of the world, itself covered by roughly pinned holiday photographs and magazine articles. Laura noticed that, somewhat endearingly, a half-empty rucksack lay squeezed between the back of Marcus' chair and the picture window, expressing - what - a certain lack of commitment - the capacity for a quick exit - or both?
Laura heard the clank of a bottle being extracted from a fridge and the persistent rhythm of an unanswered telephone. Marcus returned, cup in one hand and a plate of bourbon biscuits in the other.
“Let me talk about the position whilst you drink your coffee, then I'll tell you why it would suit you.” Having had time to recover his poise, rehearse his monologue and swallow a biscuit, Marcus began.
“Ours was a little company. Steven, my boss, started it up a few years back. He loved boats and had a yacht, so ran charters for stressed executives in the Med. Ten years down the line he had a small fleet and a number of holiday properties too. The family was loaded anyway. His father sold a stake in a chain of luxury hotels and helped Steven get started. I came in five years ago to organise land-based activities and that side was doing pretty well until the recession hit. We covered everything from wine-tasting to posh cycling weekends.”
Marcus sneezed and rummaged unsuccessfully for a handkerchief in each pocket of his blue, pinstriped linen jacket. “Actually, the whole thing was rather easy at first. The people we knew would pay a small fortune for any form of adventure, providing it appeared exclusive and they had plenty of opportunity to show off to their friends. Most of our trips ended up being quite a riot; occasionally, I'm afraid, somewhat literally.”
Laura extracted a tissue from a packet in her handbag and passed it over with a hesitant, but well-received smile.
“Thanks. I was perfectly healthy until I went home for the holidays. I wonder how many people are killed by kindness each Christmas?”
Marcus, sensing that he was getting into personal territory again - and demonstrating both his tendency towards hyperbole and hypochondria - blew his nose as discretely as possible then launched back into his summation. “Trouble, when it came, came quickly. Steven started to enjoy the hospitality side of the business rather too much. Getting drunk went with the territory, but then he slept with a couple of female clients, one of whose boyfriends got even by torching a boat. It was their first and his father loved it. To cut a long and rather messy story short, Steven's father was furious and ended up leaving the company. Steven had to buy out his half and, shortly afterwards, his father died without leaving him a penny. At the time, we had already invested heavily in more coastal properties. That was my doing, I'm afraid.”
Marcus sniffed, it appeared, almost in self-pity, made the most of his tissue then gestured towards the map on the wall. That's Steven, top-left. His father's the one standing on the boat behind him.”
Laura turned with some difficulty in her deeply padded armchair and studied the image. Both father and son were handsome and fair, with the sun-beaten cheeks and foreheads one might expect from a life in the open air. Steven looked heavier, the belt of his shorts partially obscured by a protruding belly. Laura wondered whether his flushed cheeks were witness more to the climate or to the drink. Another picture caught her eye, of Marcus in a precipitous urban landscape with his arm around a girl. Somehow the scenery was more interesting than the subjects: their separate stances and ever-so-slightly fixed smiles hinting at a passing, representative and client relationship. Laura instantly clocked that the photo's mere presence on the board suggested Marcus was not quite the lady's man that he would like to be.
“When the recession hit it wiped out much of our client base in the financial sector almost overnight. So we sold out. It became a case of any port in a storm and here we are; a wholly-owned minor subsidiary of the Carlton Travel Group. Chaos, really, at least from our perspective, although most of the people I've met from CTG somehow seem to think we're rather cool.”
Laura said nothing, but instantly knew what they meant. There was something boyish and innocent in the way Marcus spoke. She had no doubt - and the photos behind her confirmed it - that here were people who had, at heart, followed their dreams, despite their obvious glee in exploiting those of others for financial gain. It was not hard to imagine the appeal of travelling in their company: not so much a bespoke tour, she imagined, as a post-modern adventure which you assembled as you went along.
“CTG brought in their own administration team. We only had two people before. One was an ex-client and the other an agency typist who stayed and ended up virtually running the place. She's the one you would have spoken to when you requested your application form and fixed up this interview. You'll meet her when she comes back from lunch.”
Laura recalled a very direct lady with a loud voice and a South Asian accent. Marcus said that her name was Culjinder.
“They gave us ten people - said that they wanted to expand the business. It wasn't hard to understand their thinking. If you just looked at our account books, as they did, our profit margins looked pretty impressive right up until the crash. Trouble was they didn't understand the clientele. Our people wouldn't have taken us seriously if we hadn't charged high prices. Splashing the cash was all part of the machismo, but when they called us they called for a chat or dating advice, not to buy a package or to be sold travel insurance. Usually they were curious about what we'd been up to ourselves and just wanted to join in. I can't imagine some of these CTG people having done anything more exciting than a trip to Tesco.”