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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Ist Chapter

Chapter 1: A Crude Awakening
Hotel Babilonia, Vigo. June 2006
James Skinner

Pedro was drying off in the shower when his wife came bursting into the bathroom. Half dressed and taking deep breaths on each word, she muttered, ‘there’s a woman outside screaming… in the corridor.’ Unhooking the hotel bathrobe, he rapped it around his shoulders and without hesitation rushed towards and opened his room door.

A chambermaid was standing in front of the opposite room, half leaning against her cleaning material trolley hollering at the top of her voice. ‘He’s dead!’ she kept shouting, over and over again in regular overtone spasms. Pedro pushed her to one side, swung the door wide open and looked inside. A man, in his underwear was hanging from the ceiling lamp. It was an early Monday morning; the tourist season had just started.

Stan Bullock, Honorary British Consul in Vigo was attending the annual consular conference in Madrid when he received a call on his mobile from his secretary at the Mauro shipping agency where he worked. ‘Morning Sir. A police officer, Felipe Garcia from the Taboada station just called. I told him you’re in Madrid. He says a Brit was found dead in a hotel room; says you’ve got the number.’
‘OK, thanks. I’ll take if from here.’ Stan would normally allow his staff to take down any particulars, but when he was out of town he preferred to deal direct with any matters involving a Brit in distress. Checking his emergency numbers he was soon on to the station asking agent Garcia for further details.
Two hours earlier, he had been in the middle of a heated discussion about the future reorganization of the worldwide British consular network that included Spain; one of the largest in the world. All consular reps from around the country were present. Two staff from London was explaining the new procedures.

As an outcome of the Tsunami disaster in December, 2004, that ripped across a vast area of the Pacific Far East, whereby many British citizens were victims of the tragedy, several Conservative MPs had asked for an enquiry into the failure of the British consular system in dealing efficiently with each case and accused the government of neglect in basic assistance. As it so happened, the first government representative on the scene was an Honorary Consul. The result of the investigation was an extensive document that covered the whole of the overseas diplomatic representation with a particular section on HC’s. The outcome resulting from the recommendations was a complete overhaul of the system that included identifying responsibilities, streamlining administration, reducing costs and above all, reorganizing the network with a view to harmonizing the system. In other words, ‘a one size fits all!’

‘This is just not on. You can’t just put all worldwide consular posts into a common basket and expect us to dance to the same tune!’ Stan was outside the main conference room during the break, and sharing a coffee with Vice Consul Freddy Walton, a twenty-five year veteran at the Madrid office, who was Stan’s point of contact. ‘Sign of the times, Stan,’ he answered. ‘Come on Freddy; as an example, they’ve just been lecturing us on the importance of cutting out ‘sector reporting’, as I call it and condensing all cases into statistical numbers, besides, they also want us to register and divide all phone calls into two columns on a bi-monthly basis; profitable and non profitable! For Christ sake! Profitable and non profitable! It’s a load of crap!’

Freddy was worried about his job, as part of the restructuring could also mean job losses as well as replacements. He agreed with Stan but was hesitant to comment. ‘London wants profit and loss accounting on all our work. It’s natural that they need to focus on where the money is coming from and how it’s being spent. Welcome to diplomatic globalization!’ ‘OK. Great! But they also expect us to look after some holiday Brit who’s fallen out of a tree and broken his leg, make sure he’s…’
‘No Stan,’ interrupted Freddy, tongue in cheek, ‘you know full well that once you know the guy’s in good medical hands, a phone call to his mum would solve the problem, and let his family take if from there.’
Stan insisted, ‘profitable or non profitable?’ He was continuing with more rhetoric when he was advised of the tragedy at the Vigo hotel.

Two police cars and an ambulance were soon at the scene. Four police officers joined a team of paramedics that made their way to the second floor of the hotel. ‘Clear the area! Stand back everybody,’ said Lieutenant Garcia as he moved the now gathered crowd away from the room. It had not taken long for other residents and most of the hotel staff to rush to the scene of the tragedy. The lieutenant looked around the mini-mob and picked on a young suit-and-tie executive, ‘are you from the hotel?’
‘Yes Sir. I’m the duty counter clerk. I’ve already called the manager and he’s on his way.’
‘Good’. The lieutenant then entered the room, looked at the hanging corpse for a few seconds and then pulled out his notepad in routine police fashion. Two of the other police were ushering the onlookers to return to their rooms or down to the lobby and under no circumstances to leave the hotel. Before they began to move, the lieutenant went out into the corridor and hollered, ‘has anyone touched anything?’ There was a general shaking of bemused heads. ‘OK’, carry on.’ He went back into the room, pulled out his mobile phone and called the duty magistrate’s office.

Fred Simmons returned to the Lisbon docks after his usual afternoon round of the local shops before setting sail up to Vigo, the last leg of the journey. This time round the ‘Purple Maiden’ was catering for only two paying passengers, Francis and Mavis Perkins, a young thirty plus couple from the Midlands, venturing on their first yachting trip away from the Southern coast of England. Jerry Fulton, Fred’s partner had taken them on the usual tour of the city’s attractions before settling for a seafood delight at ‘Rio Couro’, one of the lesser known restaurants in the Portuguese capital, just opposite the Cathedral. It was 15:30 and all four members had returned to the yacht, the Perkins were down in the cabin, Fred and Jerry were unfolding the sail covers and checking the rest of the deck when Fred pulled Jerry to one side and said, ‘take care of the Perkins. I’m up to the club’s bar for a beer. I’ll be back in half an hour. Last chore, remember?’ He left the yacht, made his way to the clubhouse bar, ordered a beer and settled at one of the seaside tables overlooking the harbour. Two sips and three olives later, he was connecting his laptop to the clubs WI FI system, and opening his Outlook Express for any final e-mails before departure. There were ten messages in all; confirmation from the Vigo Yacht club for berthing facilities, one from the office back in Falmouth with a new list of passengers, several spam and the important confirmation from their third partner, Glen Richards.

Lieutenant Garcia walked around the body, looking at but not touching it, whilst his assistant took a set of photographs from different angles in the room. Garcia had a habit of mumbling to himself when taking routine notes of events such as ‘deaths by misadventure’. ‘Let’s see, only worn garment, his underwear,’ looking at the head he went on, ‘used a curtain cord, cut off with a knife. Where’s the knife?’ He began searching the bedroom, all the time mumbling away as he scribbled on his pad. ‘Clothes neatly folded, bed unturned: un-slept. Let’s see, what have we here?’ A copy of the ‘Economist’ was lying amongst the hotel bumph on the main table. Meanwhile, his assistant was searching through the room furniture. Officer Fernandez hollered from aside the open wardrobe, ‘sergeant, there’s a briefcase and a laptop in here; permission to check it out.’
‘Go ahead.’ He took both out and placed them on the bed, opened the briefcase and looked inside. Three credit cards, several copies of a brochure on sea travels called ‘Maiden Voyages’, a mobile phone, several sets of copies of e-mails neatly clipped together under port headings, pens, paper clips, stapling machine and finally the all important identification document; a British passport.
‘Here you are Sir,’ said Fernandez as he handed the lieutenant the document. He opened it and looked inside. As usual he mumbled as he read, ‘Glen Arthur Richards. Born: St Austell, England; 4th January, 1972.’ He turned to the back of the passport, ‘Sarah Rose Richards. Address: Nš 16, Larkin Lane, Penzance, Cornwall. UK.’
Lieutenant Garcia gave the passport back to his assistant, opened his mobile and dialled his headquarters’ number. ‘Rosa? Call Mauro’s shipping people and tell them that there’s a dead Brit here in Hotel Babilonia. They’ll know what to do.’

Stan was on his way to Chamartin railway station to take the night sleeper back home to Galicia. His meetings had ended at five o’clock and he had spent the last four hours browsing around the centre before making his way north. Freddy had taken care of informing the British Foreign Office with the personal details of the Brit found dead in the hotel. Lieutenant Garcia had not given any further details over the phone other than those regarding his death. Stan had never handled a possible suicide and was not looking forward to the following day’s ordeal. ‘Don’t worry,’ Freddy had said, ‘police will take care of everything. Just make sure the next of kin are looked after. That’s the hard part. They’re bound to be flying out no sooner they find out about the poor sod’s demise.’ Stan was also concerned with the ‘Caledonia’ coming in on her regular cruise stop prior to returning to Southampton with over 3000 passengers on board. He had to go straight to the docks from the railway station once he got back in the morning. ‘Trust my bloody luck!’ he thought as he continued to amble around the station bookstores and cafes.

‘According to the register, this Englishman was here for three days. Did anybody call or meet up with him?’ Lieutenant Garcia was with the hotel manager in his office. The search in the bedroom had finished, most guests were allowed to go about their business whilst the police were awaiting the arrival of the duty magistrate. ‘The only time we saw him with anybody was yesterday lunchtime. He had a drink with two others at the bar, I think they were locals.’ The manager went on to say that Glen Richards had been out most of the days and only returned to his room in the late evening. Yesterday was an exception. He was about to continue with his enquiries when magistrate Consuelo Pacheco arrived. ‘Ms. Pacheco, we’ve got a foreigner this time,’ said Lieutenant Garcia, ‘looks like a suicide case although we didn’t find any note or anything. There are no signs of foul play. The ambulance is waiting for your go ahead. Ah! I’ve spoken to the Consul, but he’s in Madrid. Back tomorrow.’ Ms. Pacheco was satisfied. It did not take long for her to order the removal of the corpse to be sent to the local morgue for an autopsy. The police went back to the station to write up the report.

‘Don’t get it, Jerry. Glen’s in Vigo. Don’t even understand his e-mail. Take a look.’ Fred handed him the printout. It read: ‘I’m at the Babilonia, room 359. Bad weather this year; harvest has been lost.’ They were still on the deck when Mavis Perkins came up from the cabin. ‘Any problem?’ she asked? Within an hour they were sailing north towards Vigo.
When Stan arrived at the Vigo railway station, he walked up to the newsstand to purchase the local paper. The news of the death was in the left hand corner of the front page. He skipped through the pages searching for the section with the full report. There were no photos, just a few lines suggesting a suicide and that the police were still checking it out. ‘Thank God for that,’ he thought, ‘at least the press is not making a meal out of it!’ He hailed a cab and headed straight for the port. It was 07:45 and the ‘Caledonia’ was due to dock in 15 minutes. Once on board, Captain Reynolds gave Stan the usual documents plus the ship’s log for countersignature confirming satisfaction with all routine docking activities handled by the agent’s staff. He just flipped through the front page checklist before signing both copies. ‘Fuel and water: OK. Pilot: OK. Wharf and gangway procedures: OK. Immigration and customs: OK. Passenger movement: None.’ Stan would normally have a coffee with Captain Reynolds and discuss any ‘off the cuff’ business that needed attention. Not this time. ‘I’ve got to get back to the office, Captain; urgent business.’ He began to perspire heavily as he walked down the gangplank and across the docks towards his office. Stan had second thoughts. He made an unexpected move.

The Taboada police station was just around the corner from the Mauro shipping agency. Instead of reporting back to his office, Stan headed for the station. ‘The ‘Caledonia’ can wait,’ he thought, ‘she’ll be around all day’. It was already 09:00 and the entrance was crowded with immigrants and Spaniards queuing to renew or receive new ID cards. There was a third line of foreigners; all awaiting appointments with the authorities, hoping for legal residence permits. Stan knew his way around as he had visited the police on several previous occasions to interview delinquent Brits. The renewal of his local residence permit had been one of them. He made his way through the melee and managed to make the elevator half way down the corridor. Lieutenant Garcia’s office was on the 3rd floor. ‘The Lieutenant is not in yet, Sr. Bullock. He won’t be long.’ Stan thought for a moment and then smiled at the young secretary, ‘he’s round the corner isn’t he.’ She smiled back.

Stan found Garcia at the counter of the ‘Centenario’ coffee shop. The place was chocker full of the morning ‘cafelito’ mob, all eating and munching their daily breakfast of coffee and ‘churros’. Most were deeply immersed in the bar’s freely available daily newspapers. Garcia was checking the sports page of the ‘Faro de Vigo’; the local rag as Stan sat down beside him. He looked up, ‘Sr. Bullock! What a surprise! Thought you were in Madrid.’ He put the paper down, ‘sorry about the dead man. Sad case when people take their own lives. The corpse is at the Nicolas Peña Hospital for the autopsy.’ Stan said, ‘I’m waiting for a call from Madrid as they’re in contact with the family.’ He was still a bit nervous but determined to find out more, ‘Lieutenant, how do you determine that it was…? I mean…’ Garcia smiled as he interrupted Stan in his mid-sentence, ‘instinct first Sr. Bullock, investigation next. Suicide notes, hundreds of scientists with rubber gloves turning the room upside down only appear in the movies. Unless the forensic find anything unusual with the body, it’s a clear case of suicide.’ Lieutenant Garcia nevertheless assured Stan that all possible angles of the investigation would be concluded and, ‘no stone will be left unturned,’ he said, ‘remember, Sr. Consul that we have all the deceased’s belongings. Once the funeral arrangements are dealt with his relatives will have to sign off the register at the magistrate before disposal. More bureaucracy, I’m afraid.’ ‘More headaches for me,’ thought Stan, still not sure of the procedures. He was about to leave when a call came through on his mobile. It was Freddy from Madrid advising him that London had forwarded NOK flight details. According to the e-mail, a Sarah Richards would be on flight IB578 arriving Vigo around 13:00.

The following day, Stan was at the airport with his driver holding up the usual identification card with ‘Sarah Richards’ printed in large letters when a middle aged woman dressed in scruffy jeans and blue polo neck jumper appeared through the exit gate. Her only luggage was a small green rucksack hung over her shoulder. ‘Ms. Richards? I’m Stan Bullock the consul; very sorry to…’ ‘Cut the bullshit! I’m not Sarah, my name is Joan Flashman,’ she interrupted. Far from bereaved, the woman looked worried and nervous, yet went straight to the point, ‘your London people briefed us on procedures but left the details to you; so, what next?’ A startled Stan thought, ‘where do I start?’ Before he could answer Joan cleared the mystery, ‘it’s OK. I’m from Glen’s office. He and his sister have been estranged for years. He has no other family. Need to clear this up as soon as possible.’ Stan was not quite sure how to take the icy reception, nevertheless, without uttering another word, he escorted her out into the car park and once in the car ordered the driver to head for the funeral parlour. As they were exiting the motorway into town, Joan suddenly asked, ‘can we stop at the yacht club first? It won’t be a moment.’

Late that evening, and just before the sun was settling down amongst the Cies Islands at the entrance to the Vigo Bay, the ‘Purple Maiden’ was making her last tack into the southern channel opposite the town of Baiona en route to the Vigo Yacht club. ‘Lovely sight; always enjoy the view of this magnificent estuary when the sun settles,’ said Fred as he was describing the history of the area to his two passengers. Jerry was busy sorting out the papers before helping the rest to bring down the sails and ready for motoring into the last leg of the journey. ‘To think this whole area was an enormous battle field 200 odd years ago; hundreds of navy ships from Europe battling it out at the end of the bay!’ Fred was used to the historical lecture that he and Jerry took turns in describing to their paying passengers every time they neared the end of the voyage. ‘The Battle of Rande,’ pointing at the huge bridge over the actual spot of engagement, ‘cost the Spaniards and the French the loss of their fleets. Somewhere out there,’ again pointing at the islands still showered by the sunset, ‘is a fortune to be had in gold bullion.’ The young Perkin’s were all ears as Jerry finally revved up the yacht’s diesel two miles from the club.

‘What are the family’s wishes regarding the remains of Mr. Richards, Ms. Flashman?’ asked the funeral parlour manager as he handed her an initial set of papers to sign, ‘the consul will take care of the repatriation documents later.’ Joan Flashman had brought the appropriate power of attorney authorising her to deal with the body including the retrieval of Glen’s belongings at the magistrate’s office. ‘They would prefer cremation and local burial as soon as possible; any problem?’ In the usual diplomatic manner the manager enquired about payment as there was no indication of insurance or other means of reimbursing the costs. ‘What’s the total bill please?’ asked Joan. The manager began to rummage through the documents and fiddle with a hand calculator when Joan added, ‘I’ll be paying in cash, is that OK?’ She turned and looked at Stan, ‘when the ashes are ready, please take them and scatter them across the bay, is there anything else that needs my presence? I’ve got to catch the evening flight back to Madrid for some unfinished business!’ Without another sign of either grief or feeling and as the manager handed the receipt, Joan pulled out a wad of 200 Euro bills and paid the cost in full.

The ‘Purple Maiden’ had pulled alongside the ‘visitors’ birth allotted to them at the yacht club and whilst Jerry was securing the sail covers assisted by the Perkins’, Fred headed for the clubhouse to formally present their credentials of arrival. He made his way up to the yachting director’s office on the second floor. He showed the secretary his and the others’ passports in the usual manner. She immediately looked at the identity sector of each passport, looked up at Fred and said, ‘a lady just left this envelope for you, Mr. Simmons. Said it was urgent and that you should be given it right away.’

‘Your wife wants to know where the hell you’ve been!’ said Penelope, Stan’s secretary as he finally got back to his office. It was gone seven-thirty in the evening and the ‘Caledonia’ had left over an hour ago. ‘It’s been a hell of a day! Hope you calmed her down as usual.’ Without a word, Penelope pulled out an envelope and handed it to her boss. ‘The concert starts in an hour’s time.’

Hardly a week had gone by since Stan had scattered the ashes of Glen Richards’ remains over one of the local beaches when he received the unexpected visit of a Corunna based Civil Guard, Sgt. Sergio Quiroga. He was in his office preparing for the visit of another cruise ship, the ‘Fountain of the Sea’. ‘Good morning, Sr. Consul, remember me?’ Stan recalled the face and then smiled, ‘yes! Sgt. Quiroga, from the coast guard sector of the Civil Guards; the case of the drowned yachtsman two years ago. What brings you to Vigo?’ ‘Just a hunch, Sr. Consul, just a hunch.’
‘It’s the suicide case a week ago. A Brit with no known reason for visiting Vigo is found dead in his hotel and his case is closed by the local authorities without any further due.’ Stan was puzzled at first and then inquisitive as curiosity took over. ‘Without sounding rude, Sgt., what’s it got to do with the Civil Guards?’ Sgt Quiroga went on, ‘some authorities are quick to get rid of foreigners who suddenly die on their patch. The tourist trade is too important for them to be embarrassed by a death, especially of those persons who commit suicide.’ Stan followed the argument through with the Sgt. confirming the details of the investigation until it suddenly dawned on him, ‘how did this case come into the hands of the Civil Guards up north anyway?’ The Sgt. explained that he read the news in the papers and that the name of the Brit rang a bell. He then asked for the police report. Seeing the odd look on Stan’s face, he clarified that access to confidential information between different sectors of the country’s security agencies is quite common. If a department feels that an incident or event needs further checking just in case it may relate to other criminal investigations the authorities in question are quite happy to hand over any details of a particular case. ‘No different to your country, Sr. Consul or between our countries’s police, don’t you agree?’ ‘OK, I give in; so why don’t you come to the point and what’s it got to do with me anyway? I’ve got no legal bind in this or any other similar type case; you know that.’

Sgt. Quiroga hesitated for a moment, looked behind him to make sure both men were not within hearing distance of a third party then turned and said, ‘I think that your Brit, Glen Richards did not commit suicide!’ Stan, although taken aback answered nervously, ‘Why?’
‘Did you not notice anything odd with the deceased’s belongings? No of course not. You’re not a cop!’
‘Go on,’ said Stan. The report had said that Richards had hung himself with one of the curtain cords yet there was no knife in the room. The second clue was that he was due to leave the next day yet there was no sign of an airline ticket. ‘He could have rented a car, wandered off to another city, who knows what he intended to do!’ said Stan. ‘Agree.’ Sgt. Quiroga smiled, ‘I did some of my own research and checked on any previous visits to Spain by a Mr. Glen Richards. Guess what? He has been in and out of Galicia several times over the past two years, always between May and September.’
‘Holiday season?’ uttered Stan sarcastically.
Sgt. Quiroga ignored the remark, ‘there was one other piece of evidence that the police overlooked; a holiday brochure titled ‘Maiden Voyages’.
Stan’s apprehension began to turn. ‘I looked it up on the Internet. It’s a round-trip yachting business that includes runs down to Lisbon from Falmouth in the UK. The page lists among others two large yachts, the ‘Purple Maiden’ and the ‘Crimson Maiden’. They alternate on the run.’ Sgt. Quiroga went on, ‘names of Directors in the business: Fred Simmons, Jerry Fulton and…’ he hesitated slightly, ‘Glen Richards.’

Both men stared in silence until the sergeant once again broke the ice with the final sting, ‘remember the case I mentioned earlier?’
‘Yes, go on.’
‘It was the name of the yacht, the ‘Purple Maiden’ that struck a chord.’ Sgt. Quiroga’s last check was with the Finisterre Coast Guards who looked up the log of ‘mayday signals’ in 2004. The ‘Maiden’ had sent out a ‘man overboard’ on July 4th, 2004. Three weeks transpired before the body was washed up on the beach. Stan had issued the clearance papers for the repatriation of the body in line with local procedures. The ‘Purple Maiden’ had eventually returned to Falmouth and the investigation was taken up directly between the UK Maritime Agency and the Spanish Maritime authorities. It had been reported as a case of misadventure.’
‘Coincidence?’ said Sgt. Garcia. Silence for a few seconds until he added, ‘I need to dig deeper and need your help Sr. Consul.’
Stan did not answer; he just scratched the side of his nose.

© James G. Skinner. June, 2009.
jameskinner at

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