The Sound of the Sea

The stewardess smiled and showed me into the first class cabin. “An upgrade Senor,” she said sweetly. “We are very full today.”

    Once comfortable with the unaccustomed space and luxury I glanced sideways at the man next to me. It was a shock. Could it be that there in seat 3B was the most notorious criminal in all Perula now grown old, surely not? It took a while to pluck up courage and I waited until he looked my way. I noted his distinguished looks and noble brow and recalled his reputation as the Latin Robin Hood. “Excuse me sir,” I offered nervously, “but could it be that I am sitting next to the famous Pablo Ruiz Ortega?” The man narrowed his eyes and his benign look changed suddenly to one of open hostility. “I mean no offence,” I added quickly. “I am a writer you see and…..,” I hesitated, embarrassed, lowering my eyes. “You have always been one of my heroes.” Ortega suddenly smiled showing beautifully white and even teeth. All traces of menace gone, we fell into conversation.

    We talked for a while before I felt able to ask him the question that had always intrigued me. “Was there Seňor, any one event that set the course of your life?”

    He thought for a while before answering. “Yes, I believe there was,” he said at last.

   “My childhood was a happy one. My family were employed by the Barola de Santiago family, one of the most illustrious in the country. My father was chief chauffeur, the only one allowed to drive the imported Rolls-Royce. My mother held a position high in the household reporting directly to the head housekeeper. Uncle Manolito was Don Santiago’s right hand man and looked after many things for his master. Each year the great family went to vacation at their hacienda on the island of Macuza in the Ruena. My parents went with them. Because our employers were kind and considerate people they allowed me to go along as well. My last visit was when I was twelve.

    I had had a wonderful holiday. The Santiagos were far more enlightened and liberal than the times in which we lived and I was allowed to play openly with their children. The twins, Marisa and Carlos, a little younger than me, were great fun and always treated me well. One day towards the end of the vacation we went to picnic on the shore. Their grandmother Marie-Louise came too. She was far starchier than the others and didn’t really approve of the servant’s boy being so friendly with her grandchildren.

    “Oh please honoured grand mamma do let Pablo come along”, begged Marisa and the old dowager relented. We had a terrific time on the beach, gathering shells and playing at the water’s edge. I can still remember the sound of the sea. At one point even stodgy grandmother joined us in the surf, lifting her skirts and paddling out into the brine. I noted how foolish she looked with her great, black gown lifted above her knees, insisting on wearing one of the most celebrated jewels in Central America. The Star of Corunna was a magnificent ring but even I knew it was totally unsuitable for a seaside, family picnic. I remember the huge gold structure set with four large diamonds and crowned by the biggest ruby you ever saw; a breathtaking piece nonetheless.

    After lunch I was called away to my duties and left the family to their fun. In the early evening I was sent to the town, with a batch of the Santiago’s silver cutlery, to the swanky El Presidente hotel where the family were scheduled to dine that evening. My good friend Eduardo Morrales worked in the hotel kitchens and luckily for me came off duty as I arrived so we took off to the hills, with Edurado’s rabbit gun, for a bit of sport.

    It had been a happy day and as I wandered home in a reverie with a brace of animals over my shoulder I was suddenly surrounded by what, in the fading light, I realised were more than a dozen Federales.  One of them struck me a terrific blow from behind and I fell to the ground where a couple of the men aimed vicious kicks at my body. Terrified and confused I was hauled up and unceremoniously dumped on the floor of a horse drawn cart. None of my assailants spoke a word and I must have passed out because the next thing I recall was being dragged to my feet in a big, well lit room. There was blood in my mouth and in my matted hair that fell across my brow and impeded my vision. My arms were bound behind my back. I could not stand unaided and was propped up by a couple of militiamen on either side of me. One of them brushed the blood soaked hair from my eyes and there, seated at the dining table before me, were my erstwhile benefactors, the Santiagos.

    I looked around them and saw Marisa’s startled face; she looked away before she caught my eye. Grandmother glanced at me with a look of utter contempt and loathing.  Clearly something terrible had happened.

  From what was said at the time and things I learned later, it was that damned Star of Corunna that was the problem. It was gone and I, it seemed, was the chief suspect. They had been looking for me most of the day. My father and mother had been arrested and thrown into jail. Father, severely beaten and tortured, had proclaimed his innocence throughout. My mother’s treatment had hardly been less severe and now I had been dragged before them to confess my guilt and return the spoils. In spite of my swollen mouth and profound shock I too protested my innocence and was knocked to the ground for my pains. Luckily for me the proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of the main course. Nobody it seemed had thought to inform the hotel staff of the ongoing interrogation in the dining room. I lay where I had fallen while the family, the police chief and the mayor as their guests, tucked into their Bonito, fresh caught that very day.

   It was only a matter of time before the questioning would start again. It occurred to me that they would probably kill me rather than fail to extract a confession. Suddenly there was commotion at the table. People leapt from their chairs and rushed to where Grandmother was sitting. From my position on the floor I could not make out what was happening. After a while I was hauled up and dragged from the room. I was taken to a small chamber somewhere in the hotel, undressed and laid in cool, clean sheets. My wounds were tended and I fell into dream-laden sleep.

    Much later I was told the whole story. The fresh fish had been delicious, almost toothsome enough for the Santiagos to forget the dreadful circumstances that had befallen them. It had been while filleting the huge Bonito Royale on the plate before her that Grandmother spotted the glint of something buried deep in the innards of the fish. A small investigation revealed nothing other than the missing ring. The massive gold shank was intact but three of the four diamonds and the ruby were missing. A furious search of the kitchens and the slop buckets was undertaken and against all odds two of the diamonds were recovered. There was no sign of the ruby. And so it ended; it seemed obvious that a careless grandmother had lost the ring in the sea, which miraculously had been swallowed by a fish. If that miracle was not enough, within hours the local fishermen had the errant Bonito in their nets and wonder of wonders, at the end of day, the very biggest and best of the catch was set on a platter before the dowager Grand Mère Santiago. A tale that the family would tell and retell many times. Except of course the bit about the arrest and beatings of the Ortega family.”

    The old bandit stopped his narration, his mind a million miles away. It was an incredible story. Could it be that this heinous injustice had set in motion one of the most devastating criminal careers of all time? I had a million questions. “Tell me Seňor Ortega, how did it turn out for your family?”

    The old man smiled sadly. “Naturally after the treatment the Santiagos had meted out to us there could be no question of reconciliation; it would have been far too embarrassing for our masters to contemplate seeing any of us again. The charges associated with the ring were substituted for ones related to fiddling the gasoline accounts and we were dismissed from their service.”

    “Was there no apology, no compensation?” I asked incredulously.

  Ortega shrugged. “Those were different times my friend.”

    I was aghast. “And so the career of the infamous Pablo Ruiz Ortega was born from that single, act of injustice”, I said with feeling.

    At that moment the captain announced our imminent landing and the plane started its decent. The coat on Ortega’s lap slipped to the floor. I noticed the cuffs and, for the first time, the burly prison guard on the other side of him. The old man grinned. “I suspect I’m for the high jump this time,” he said. “They caught me last month in Ramoza, robbing a bank. There were fatalities I’m afraid. They are taking me to Rosacruz to be executed.”

  I was filled with rage. “It’s those Santiagos that should be facing the hangman’s noose not you,” I cried with indignation.

   Ortega was thoughtful. “Perhaps not,” he ventured after a while.

   “How so?” I asked.

    “Well Seňor,” he replied, “in a way you are right. It was the affair of the Santiagos that set me on the path of crime. You see, I did steal the ring. My friend Eduardo, who worked in the kitchens remember, helped me pull out the stones. We stuffed the shank into the old woman’s Bonito and threw two of the diamonds into the slop bucket to be found later. Eduardo kept one and I made do with the ruby.”

   He noticed the look of shock on my face and became convulsed with laughter. “What turned me to crime Seňor, was that it was so easy,” he said when he had recovered some composure.

   The wheels touched down on the tarmac.

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