THE TERROR OF BARCELONA: PART I|
It was seven in the morning and the cool air was already giving way to the heat from the rising Mediterranean sun. Slider waited outside the security area for the international arrivals at the Barcelona airport around a coffee bar drinking Café Americanos. The terminal bustled with activity even at the relatively early hour but it seem some how less frantic than any other airport he'd been to because of the architecture. If New York's Grand Central Terminal had been used to embarking and debarking planes, it would have been like the place he was standing. Blowing his cigarette smoke up into the vaulted ceiling - as was the custom with Americans smoking in public places - he waited for his appointment to arrive. Standby normally did the waiting, but Slider handled the personal meetings himself and there was a cab to be gotten anyway.
Slider was the resident agent in Barcelona, something of an irony given the fact that he spoke little better than remedial Spanish and had been in town for only a month. It was his job to provide local intelligence and support to the special operatives that came in for specific missions. For some agents that included women or alcohol, or for the last mission he'd had before leaving New York, non-self-extinguishing cigarettes. But he wasn't worried about any of that for this one. He was pretty sure he had everything already taken care of. He hoped so as Magic Hour had something of a bad reputation among resident agents. Those that survived their encounters with him anyway.
A coffee cup was set down too loudly on its dish next to Slider and he fingered the weapon holstered under his white button down shirt, just to be on the safe side. It was hard to get a pistol into Spain but the Agency had connections. The coffee drinker eyed Slider for a second, wondering why the man was scratching his armpit, before walking on. Slider let go of his weapon and watched the sixteen year-old with bleached blond hair greet what looked like a group of soccer hooligans as they came through the international arrivals gate. For Slider, it was never what he hoped it would be.
He was lucky for an American intelligence officer. Most spent their days running between decrepit buildings in the dusty ruins of some Middle Eastern city trying to avoid bullets and stray landmines. The fact was that since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terrorism, there just wasn't that much intelligence to be collected in Europe. All of the intrigue and espionage was elsewhere and the focus was different. Slider often found himself wishing that he had been born twenty years earlier so he could have gone up against KGB operatives or have sat in Parisian cafés waiting for the action to come to him but he was of the slacker generation and tasked instead with protecting his parent's investments in lifestyle. Now it was all about stopping someone from hoarding a commodity or embarrassing a few angry bearded men and warning them it would happen again if they didn't stop their antics.
All Slider really wanted was some honest cloak and dagger work.
It wasn't that he didn't like what he did, he just wished for a clearer cut bad guy than grape traders with Syrian banking connections. On the grand scale of evil in the world, he was pretty sure that his prey was low on the list.
Magic Hour appeared through the large sliding doors of Spanish customs and set his bags down on the marble floors. He looked around casually from behind a pair of small square wire rim sunglasses that hid his darting eyes. He lit himself a Lucky Strike and stretched his limbs from the long flight. Slider noticed the tall man with dark brown skin like a good tan, dropped a few Euro coins on the counter for the barrista, and headed towards him.
Neither was dressed to the agency regulation of black suits and ties as it was too hot in Spain to care and only the most sycophantic agents followed that particular regulation when on an over seas posting. Slider wore a pair of gray shorts and a white oxford shirt that was un-tucked on top of it, open at the chest to reveal an undershirt and a plume of dark chest hair. He justified the un-tucked shirt to himself by claiming that it was easier to hide his weapon but the simple fact was he didn't like men who stuffed their shirttails into shorts. Magic Hour needed no such excuse. He never dressed up and so was in his usual brown corduroys and black t-shirt. He had a presence that transcended wardrobe.
"Slider," Magic Hour crowed at his approaching colleague with a familiar nod. His south Georgian accent made every word seem to blend together like a long drink of Southern Comfort. "Have you seen a men's room around here, son?"
"Good to see you sir," Slider said, shaking the hand of the special operative. Magic Hour always called him son, even though they were about the same age, plus or minus a few years. But Slider was impressed by his colleague, if even a little frightened. Magic Hour had style, charisma, and charm. It was rumored that he could dance like Fred Astaire and could make any woman's heart flutter. The resident agents who survived their missions with him sang the operative's praises while, those who didn't, couldn't say a thing. But he also had a two year-old's bladder and could never be more than a few minutes away from a bathroom at anytime. "Is this all of your luggage?"
"Yep," the operative said distracted, still glancing around the terminal to get a lay of the land. "This is it."
Slider picked up the duffle bag and led him toward the public restroom room. The first of the major international flights had just arrived and the bathroom was full of travelers needing to drain what they'd stored but Standby stood in one of the stalls pretending to use it. Slider tapped him on his shoulder and the junior agent stepped away so Magic Hour could take his place. Standby nodded at his boss before quickly turning and leaving for places elsewhere.
"Do you have a ride for us," Magic Hour asked over his shoulder as he relieved himself.
"Uh," Slider mumbled as he glanced over his shoulder towards the exit of the men's room, catching a glimpse of his agent's back before he disappeared. "I think Standby is off to procure one for us now. If you'll follow me."
Slider motioned towards the exit. Magic Hour bounced a couple of times on his toes before zipping up and the two walked outside, each with a bag and cigarettes in hand. As the emerged into early morning air outside, Slider saw a cab with a door held open by Standby and he directed the jetlagged operative towards it. Like a good attendant, Standby waited until the bags were safely stowed and the two men were seated before slamming the door shut and rushing to catch a cab of his own back to town.
The cabbie in the senior agent's taxi had already been told the destination, paid an ample sum, and took off in the direction of his passenger's hotel. All of the Barcelona cabs had signs asking the riders and drivers not to smoke but - as was Spanish custom - no one paid attention to the laws they didn't like and soon the car was filled with a thick gray haze.
"Have you ever been to Barcelona, sir," Slider asked as he cracked open his window to let a little of the smoke out. He eyed the operative carefully and hoped that the efficient meet at the airport would wash away any bad impression Magic Hour might have had from their last encounter. Assuming he even remembered it.
"No," Magic Hour mumbled as the wheels in his brain turned slowly, tired from the flight and the lack of sleep. He stared out his window at the outlying industrial sprawl of the town that was typical of most European cities. "No I haven't. And I have to admit, I never really thought much about it. And looking at this, I don't know why I should have."
"It looks pretty drab now sir," Slider explained, silently wishing that cities gave more thought as to what surrounded their airports and the impression it left visitors with. "But the center of the city is very nice. Our hotel is just off the Ramblas."
"What the hell is the Ramblas," asked Magic Hour. He gave the resident agent a weary look. He didn't really care what it was but it seemed important to the agent to be able to explain it so he leaned his head back onto the rest and closed his eyes, waiting for the information to wash over him.
"It's the main drag in town," Slider said, getting ready to convey the knowledge he'd picked up in the last few weeks. "If you need something, it can usually be found on or near it. Hence our hotel location."
"Uh huh," Magic Hour grunted.
"Anyway," Slider said, trying to put his thoughts on fast-forward in order to come to something more compelling and useful to the operative. "Our hotel is called the Hotel Gravina and should be perfect as the base of operations."
Magic Hour opened his eyes and glanced at the agent next to him. "You mean you're not working out of a flat?"
"Uh," Slider mumbled as he fumbled with his cigarette. "No. We just set up shop a few weeks ago and have yet to establish a permanent base."
"Great," sighed Magic Hour. As a rule, he generally hated residents and an ill prepared one was even worse.
"But," the agent said, trying to recover some authority. "The good news is that the hotel is pretty quiet and secluded so we should have free hand at any necessary activities. And we can set you up with anything else you might need."
"I guess that's why you're here," Magic Hour mumbled sarcastically.
Slider didn't say anything. He'd met Magic Hour once before and knew that he was a pretty level headed guy, but most special operatives were sensitive about being brought into a new town and having to rely on someone else to make things go smoothly. It was best not to throw anything in their faces. He once worked with an operative in San Francisco on a file trading network sting that didn't want to be told anything. That led to an interesting night of unintentional gay barhopping. The mission was a technical success, but the report filed by the operative had Slider re-assigned to Anchorage for six months as punishment for not giving a heads up on the low down of Castro neighborhood.
The cab sped along the freeway and into town where it bobbed into main traffic, shooting past various squares and monuments. The architecture started to become older, and therefore more interesting to American eyes, and Magic Hour became absorbed with passing scenery. Like most Americans, the agent was entranced by anything more than a hundred years old. Statuary that included horses and large men also scored high on the gawking meter. A block short of the Plaça de Catalunya and right before a Starbucks, the cab suddenly hung a right onto a street Americas would describe as an alley, and slammed to a stop.
"Hotel Gravina," the cabbie shouted as he leapt out and helped the two agents with the luggage. When the bags were safely on the miniscule sidewalk, he then climbed back in and sped away. Magic Hour looked questioningly at Slider.
"I think Standby paid," the agent said with a shrug.
"I see that Barcelona has a Starbucks," Magic Hour said jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
"The work of my predecessor," Slider explained. "And the one place in all of Spain that doesn't allow smoking and is serious about it. Now, let's get you checked in."
The two agents stood on the sidewalk and finished their cigarettes while Magic Hour looked around. The street was just wide enough for a car to pass those that were parked along the side. Most of the buildings faced the two wider streets the alley ran between leaving it feeling like a lifeless passage between two important places. The hotel was in the middle of the alley and was almost surprising considering the flavor of the street. While everything else felt like a series of giant stone edifices, unbreachable by a pedestrian, the front door to the hotel was a pair of finally sandblasted sliding doors that welcomed the establishment's visitors into a warm lobby. It seemed incongruous but distinctly European in a way.
After the men had finished their tobacco, they discarded the butts into the street and Slider led Magic Hour inside where they met a waiting Standby, armed with a room key and check in brochure that outlined the hotel's policies on various matters of business conveniently in both Spanish and English. The operative accepted both from the junior agent with a nod of recognition before continuing on to the bank of elevators. One stood open so Magic Hour and Slider boarded it, the latter punching a lighted plastic button on the control panel to take them to their floor.
"Damn," Magic Hour said, watching Standby leave the hotel for a destination unknown as the stainless steel elevator doors closed. "That guy's fast."
"I took the liberty of booking your room next to mine for maximum operational effectiveness," Slider explained, dropping Magic Hour's bags on the floor next to the door. In fact, Slider booked his room next to operative's. Every special operative had their quirks and one of his was the kind of rooms he demanded on every mission. They had to be large, bordering on royal.
If Magic Hour decided to ballroom dance in his room, he might only have enough space to accommodate him and his partner but, otherwise, it was more than large enough for one man. Compared to this one, Slider's was like the maid's quarters. Adding to the space was the bathroom which was almost twice as large as the actual sleeping space and could occupy three people comfortably doing different things or four squeezed into the bath. Slider wasn't jealous though since Standby was actually booked at a pension around the corner on Carrer dels Tallers that he was sharing with several rowdy Australian backpackers. But that was only until they could find an appropriate apartment from which to base their operations.
"This is a good room you picked out, son," Magic Hour said. He sat on his bed, bounced twice, and appeared pleased. "So when do we talk about the operation?"
Slider exhibited a slight grimace. This was always the most painful part, he thought to himself. "Before we begin in earnest, sir. I need to get a few forms signed by you."
Like any good government agency, even an allegedly clandestine one like theirs, it required more than a few pieces of paperwork to get anything done. Among them were release forms that officially seconded two field agents to the special operative for the duration of the assignment. One was a budget appropriation acknowledgement. Another was essentially a "break-it-you-buy-it" agreement in regards to all field equipment used and lastly, an insurance waiver, indemnifying the Agency against any injuries that may occur while the project was in play. The Agency had great benefits, including all manner of health and dental plans, but they were all unusable while on a mission. Most agents hurt in the line of duty usually waited until after to report any injuries. A stunning number of them were cited as "rugby wounds" since almost anything could be explained away by the game.
Magic Hour sighed at the sight of the paperwork but resigned himself to the hour it would take to get it done, with Slider pointing out the various places where signatures or initials were required. When he had finally finished with the last piece of paper titled "Acknowledgement of Agency Disavowal" he looked up hoping another wouldn't suddenly appear and shook his hand, palsied from the repetitive signing.
"That's it," Slider said, collecting the foot tall stack of forms into a government issue manila folder. Slider labeled the tab, and sealed it into a diplomatic pouch before sitting down in the plush chair opposite the desk in Magic Hour's room. "Tell me what you need to begin."
MAIL this to a friend. They'll thank you for it later.