Klara took the bus to Plaza Luceros and walked randomly towards Benalua, avoiding El Corte Inglés, the big department store. The risk was much greater there, to bump into someone she knew. It was open until late in the evening and many people went shopping after work. Benalua however, was mainly a middle-class residential area with little street life. On a side street she found a cafeteria.
As she opened the door, the smell of fried calamari hit her. It was more of a traditional “hole-in-the-wall” bar than a cafeteria and only had five tables. The white walls behind the counter were striped yellow with dribbles of frying oil; some had solidified and dust had turned them gray. The minimal tables and chairs were an imitation of wood, with spindly metal legs. On the floor by the bar counter there were heaps of paper napkins, toothpicks and shrimp shells. From each of the corners of the ceiling a garland was hanging, tied together without a trace of finesse, around the fluorescent tubes in the middle.
Jees, they must have been there for ever, she thought, then realized that the decoration probably only dated from the last local holidays, San Juan, end of June.
There was no one except the furrowed old guy behind the counter. His gaze was fixed on the television showing a soccer game. She cleared her throat loudly to call his attention.
“Que quiere? What do you want,” the man asked without taking his eyes from the TV screen.
“A Torres 5,” she answered, against better knowledge.
The guy took a bottle from the shelf on the wall and then a glass from under the counter. Klara hoped it would be cleaner than everything else in the room. She took her order and sat down at one of the tables. Raising the glass to the light her suspicions were confirmed: there were traces of lipstick. She jerked a few paper napkins from the holder on the table and wiped off the edge knowing the alcohol would take care of the rest.
Then she took the glass between her palms and made the drink rotate inside the goblet to warm it before drinking. The gesture had a strange hypnotic effect: it was as if the world around slowed down for a moment. The sound from the TV was muted and the light turned friendlier, warmer. It brought back memories from another life. A good life. Klara Andersson's life; where she had power to live on her own terms—in control of her destiny. So different form now, drifting aimlessly, alone; anonymous in a non-existence on the run from a crime.
Plan ahead, she prompted, don't think back, plan ahead...
The mantra came automatically.
If the plan the lawyer suggested was viable, she could start a new life. It was the closest to any constructive plan she had come by since… since everything blew up. Encouraged by the brandy she told herself that it was possible. She grabbed the nylon bag and opened it. Unbroken bundles of used dollar bills of different denominations, some make-up, a hair brush and the cellphone rolled around.
More than two hundred thousand dollars, judging by what I left in the bank safe. She peeled off a few bills and put them in her wallet. Then she picked up the cellphone with its prepaid SIM card only used to call the lawyer, and checked that it was charged. Silly. I have no one to call ...
Suddenly she turned rigid: The banknotes can of course be traced. It was money she’d received from the CIA. In part money for contingencies that she was supposed to justify if she used it, and in part the payment for her last operation. It would be naïve to think that the bills were unmarked or their serial numbers not registered. Her knuckles whitened on the brandy glass. The money was the only thing she had, and now she realized it was probably useless.
“Un café con leche,” she shouted, to be heard over the TV.
“Ya va, on my way,” the old man answered, so absorbed by the game that he was still standing at the counter holding the brandy bottle. Just as he got out of his narrow space behind the bar, shuffling through the waste on the floor to serve her coffee, another customer came in. A rough type, about forty. Sturdy. He was wearing a black, well-used leather jacket with rivets forming a skull on the back. He sat down on a stool by the bar while Klara was served.
“Gooool!” the sports journalist shouted from the TV, a team had scored, and the excitement made the old man spill coffee on the table.
“How much do I owe,” Klara asked, wanting to be able to leave without delay when she was ready.
The old man glanced at her as if to remember what he had served.
“That is five fifty," he said. His attention had returned to the television before he finished talking.
First she got a dollar bill out, instead of the ten-euro bill that stubbornly hid among the foreign banknotes. The old man didn't even look at the change he returned, he must recognize the coins by size, Klara thought, as he slapped them down on the table in the middle of the coffee he had spilled. Klara pulled yet a few more of the thin, almost translucent napkins with poor absorbency from the holder and dried up the liquid before putting the money in her wallet.
She noticed that the new guest was studying her and avoided meeting his gaze. The slightest encouragement might make him believe that he was welcome to her table. He was facing her, with his back to the bar and television set, clearly challenging her to engage.
The soccer game kept the waiter spellbound and totally indifferent. In a silent prayer Klara asked to be left alone and made a point of ignoring the man. The problem regarding the money was overwhelming, far too complicated to be solved here and now.
Plan ahead ... one step at a time ... Klara repeated words over and over, whispered to them to herself to try to break out of the loop of negative thoughts, but this time it didn’t work.
I quit, she thought. It is hopeless. Unsustainable. The lack of sleep is making me sloppy and careless, I can’t think straight any more ... I should have deposited that money in another bank before leaving Switzerland. Disgusted she looked at the half-full cognac glass and pushed it away. What can they do if I turn myself in? Throw me in prison for a few years? Life, for murder? Probably just manslaughter, Fahrid was a dangerous terrorist. Maybe Louis can help. I should devote my energy to making sure it is considered self-defense, instead of going on like this. It's killing me.
From the corner of her eye she saw that the man by the counter had finished his shot of gin and the expresso, and was leaving the bar.
Soon the soccer game was over and the old man said: “Voy a cerrar. I’m closing.”
She checked her watch in surprise. Time is mysteriously elastic, she thought, sometimes the minutes seem endless, and other times a whole hour just evaporates. Over an hour had passed. It was time to take the bus or tram back to Benidorm if she wanted to use public transport. She hoped the guy that had scared her so, because she recognized him would have forgotten about her already. Or assumed she wasn’t coming back. She needed to see the lawyer to get to the new hiding place.
Klara instantly got suspicious when she saw the man in the leather jacket on the sidewalk. He was leaning on the wall right next to the door. Just as the light went out inside the bar he grabbed her arm, stopping her in mid stride.
“Where did you plan to go?” the man asked.
Klara didn’t know what to say and tried to wriggle out of his grip. His strong, intrusive body odor reached her nostrils. The man placed one hand against the wall just behind her, and the other in front of her.
“I forgot something inside,” she improvised and tried to duck under his arm.
"Give me that handbag," he barked.
Klara knocked on the bar door and held on to the doorknob like someone grabbing a straw—and just as futile.
“Don’t bother.” The laugh was raw. “The waiter leaves by the back door.”
The street was empty and dark and the man considerably taller than Klara plus a hundred pounds heavier. He leaned closer. Hoping that he would let her go she pulled her arm out of the purse's shoulder strap and handed it to him.
"Just take it and let me go," she said.
That was a misjudgment. It made him angry. He wanted to enjoy his power over her. Pressing her to the wall with his body, he pulled the bag out of her hands, only to immediately drop it on the ground next to them.
"Not so fast, little lady," he said mockingly.
The more she writhed, the harder he held her. She tried to kick, but he parried. The expression in his eyes had hardened. Now she believed it was a mistake to resist and was afraid to provoke him. She tried to avoid meeting his glance. A vein at one at his temples was throbbing. Suddenly he butted her head hard into the wall behind her. The impact felt just like when she, as a little girl, was skating and fell headlong on the ice. She fought the black-out but he had grabbed her forehead and banged her head against the wall again, and again, not stopping until her knees begun to sag.
More out of instinct than a planned defense, her knee hit him in the groin. He bent over and took a few steps backwards, away from her. While he staggered, she kicked him in the stomach. He fell and she heard the thump when his head hit the sidewalk. She knew that if he got up, it would be over.
To incapacitate him Klara aimed a karate blow to his neck, but he had good reflexes and parried without effort. A mistake because now she was close enough for him to hit back. With some surprise she more heard than felt her nasal bone crack. All turned dark before the pain even materialized.