Saturday, January 03, 2009

Witness in the Park

When I'm in a strange city on business, I like to relax by walking its empty places in the sleep time of most of its citizens.

Which is why I am tonight walking alongside the railings that enclose a park in Valencia, Spain. By day I'm sure it is a pleasant, open place for the people of that lovely city, but at this time of the early tomorrow, tall black metal forbids entry. Stars burn above the city's night light, some bright enough to shine through. There's the middle of a moon cycle, which further brightens the sky, making it even more difficult for them.

The weather is balmy, at least compared to the mugginess of the daytime at this time of the year in Spain's most cultural Mediterranean city. There's a rich smell, the kind that you only get here in what is often called the City of Flowers. An aroma of many sweetnesses, along with lemons, olives, and stuff less defineable. In my experience, every city has its own smell. Indeed, every district within each city too, though I only get to know these if I have longer than my usual few days.

Anyhow, just now it's my kind of night walking weather. And I'm memorising the smell of this part of Valencia, so I can I can recall it when I get home.

Suddenly I'm not alone in this place. A woman, inside the closed park, her hands reaching through the railings. Her eyes wide. "¡Ayúdeme! ¡Por favor, señor, ayúdeme!" Her plea is a hoarse whimper. I don't speak or understand Spanish very well. But I do know she's scared out of her wits. And 'help me' sounds the same in every language.

At first I only take in her eyes, then I get the sense that she's oddly dressed. But, truth to tell, I’m actually as scared as she seems to be. I reach out and touch one hand. She grabs mine. She looks behind her. I look too, but see nothing in the darkness beyond. I turn away, seeking up and down the street. Nobody. I turn back.

Now there's a shadow moving up behind her. He quickly becomes a man in a long coat, his face dark under the peak of a cap, a glisten of eyes. His puts his hands around her neck.

“Get away!” I shout, reaching through with my free hand. Trying to punch. Or grab. But he, and his hands, are beyond my reach. My words have no effect, maybe because I use my own language.

His eyes lock on mine, but he doesn't break his concentration on his actions. It seems odd, but she's not screaming or struggling. Just gripping my hand.

“Leave her!" I shout again. "Help! Someone help!” But, at this time of night, I know there's little chance of assistance from the dark buildings across the road.

I hear her attempt to breathe. And I feel her weakening. I'm numb. With fear, helplessness. And I finally know the moment she is gone. When her fingers relax, she takes part of me with her. It's also an unexpected, and unwanted, sensual feeling. I feel guilty, though just for moments.

He holds her for a short time slumped against his chest. Then he lets her fall. We stare at each other, in a strange shared place. Then he turns and strides into the blackness.

She's a heap of shadow beyond the railings, beyond me.

I'm a stranger in this city, an overnight visitor who knows no more than a Google search about it. I don't know where to go. I don't know how to call emergency, and anyhow I've left my mobile in my hotel's safe. So I run. I find a small hotel on the corner of a side street. It's closed, but has a light, and a bell. After looking carefully through a glass panel, a wizened, elfin man unlocks the door, and its outer gate. He doesn’t seem surprised at the arrival of a late, and, especially, a distraught, visitor, but I'm not in a frame of mind to think much about that.

Eventually I lead a detective and two uniforms back to where I'd seen the woman killed. They trip the lock on a gate and search the park.

No body. No shadowy killer in black.

"You should go home now, señor."

We’re back in the hotel. The detective is respectful. And fortunately for me, has good English But he's obviously tired. So am I. And, I'm sure, so are the other two policemen.

It's only an hour since the hotel porter called them, but we're all up past our best time. And there's clearly a language and cultural difference in this city where I haven't had even a tourist's time. Only the short overnight of a business traveller. But even at that, I'm puzzled. The detective doesn’t seem surprised at the night’s events, either my report of a killing or his failure to find anything.

"Come and see me tomorrow, señor," he says. He snaps his notebook closed, the sound a full stop to the night. He leaves, presumably to other Valencian criminal concerns. I walk back to my own hotel, no longer comfortable in the sleep time of the rest of the city. I sense things following in the limbo of my shadow.

I call to the detective in his office. It is an unusual police building, located in the long narrow park which used to be the river that flowed through the city. The river was diverted when they redeveloped the city after a flood in the 'fifties, and now its former course is used for special amenities, including the magnificent aquarium, and an opera house, amongst others. The police station is much smaller than any of these.

I'm expecting the visit not to be pleasant, possibly that I will be warned about wasting police time. But it isn’t like that.

The detective's desk is in a corner of a scruffy large room. The varnish is long gone from any visible surface, and myriad coffee mug rings could probably provide a fairly accurate estimate of its age. Piles of folders, many bulged beyond their designed capacity, are piled everywhere. The detective lifts a bunch of them off a visitor chair.

“Sit, señor. You would like coffee?”

“No thanks. I had breakfast.” This is true, but the reality is I don’t want to extend the experience here with refreshments. I sit. So does he. He picks up a pencil and doodles on a notepad, then looks at me. "You know what they call this desk, Senór?" I shake my head.

"It's the Dead Corner. And me, I'm the Dead Detective." I don't know whether I'm supposed to laugh. He's not smiling, so I don't. He taps the pencil on one of the file stacks. "These are the Dead Files. Nobody but me cares about them." I just nod. He'll get to the point.

"Your dead woman. I've a file on her, señor. Goes back a long time." I'm surprised, he hadn't mentioned that the previous night.

"You know her, then?"

He nods. "I know about her. What you saw—" he stops and purses his lips, considering "—what you saw, happened. A long time ago. Fifty years ago." He pauses again. Maybe waiting for me to say something. I say nothing.

"Nineteen fifty-eight," he says, closing his eyes, speaking from an intimacy with the story. "Maria Aguero. Found in the park, strangled. No assailant detected. No known motive. No family claimed her. She worked the local streets. It has always been believed that one of her, clients, killed her."

"You're telling me a ghost story?" I don't believe in ghosts.

He shrugs. "Who knows?" He taps the file. "Her record here has sightings like yours every once in a while. Every three, maybe four years. It's a Dead Corner file, so I've been dealing with them since I took this duty."

"Any of them see it different to mine?"

"No. Always much the same thing."

"Seems to me it's a job for Ghostbusters." A bad joke. He doesn't laugh, maybe they haven't seen it in Spain? I get serious again. "Why do you spend so much time on this, if it doesn't go anywhere?"

He shrugs. "It comes with the Dead Corner job, señor. Besides—" He lets the 'besides' hang. Which means I have to ask. "Besides what?"

"The disappearances."

"What disappearances?"

He opens one of the folders. Scans it, though I suspect he knows it by heart. He flips it closed and then looks up. "Some people who report these things disappear. They turn up on missing persons lists."

His pencil taps on the desktop. A slow beat, like a military funeral march. He doesn’t seem to want to say anything more. I don’t know what more to say, either. So I get up.

He doesn't rise. I give him a slight wave. He tilts his head, barely. But before I reach the door, he calls out. "She touched you, didn't she, señor?"

I turn. I nod, “I told you. She grabbed my hand, held it."

His expression shifts. A shadow of some kind on his face, it seems like. "Do not go back there, señor," he says after a moment. "OK?"

"OK," I say.

We both know I'm lying.

No moon this time. Nor clouds. The night is clear, though dark. I'd watched how they had slipped the lock and I get through the gate, into the blackness.

I'm scared, but also excited. There's something to complete. I've never been inside the park before, but I make my way along the path confidently. At a certain point I slip through a gap in the bushes. I stand in the shadows, silent, invisible.

Between me and the park fence, a silhouette figure, up close to the railings. There’s a screeching sound to the left, an old gate closing. There are footsteps. I see the walker, on the path outside the park.

The figure at the railing calls out, a woman's voice, hoarse. "¡Ayúdeme! ¡Por favor, señor, ayúdeme!" The man stops.

I walk up behind her. He looks at me, raises a hand in farewell, then walks away. Long coat, face shadowed by his cap.

I put my hands around her neck. This time, I'm not the witness. Until someone else comes back, I'll be doing this every night in the sleep time of the rest of the world.

When it is over I notice a strange thing. I can't smell the flowers, or anything about this city, any more.

©2009 Brian Byrne.

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