Chapters 1-3


CHAPTER 1

The Pyrenees – 1 September, 2013
 

The view of the Virgin Mary sculpture, standing on the rocks of Orisson peak, was just as picturesque as ever before, but Sarah Green did not even notice it. With her head down, gasping, she was walking by while battling against the wind howling across the plateau. Soon after, she traversed from France to Spanish territory, but she still did not allow herself to rest. She stopped when at last she reached the highest point of the road-section, the Lepoeder Pass.

She brushed aside a matted tuft of hair on her forehead, and glanced relieved at her Patek Philippe watch, which was in powerful contrast with her sporty – albeit brand new and quality – hiking clothing, and her sixty-liter rucksack. Before she set out for Kennedy Airport, she nearly unbuckled it from her wrist to leave it on the bedside table, then she changed her mind. This watch has been practically attached to her since she got it from David for their tenth wedding anniversary, when they were still happy. She recalled the festive dinner in the coolest restaurant of New York, the ten times ten red roses, and she increasingly felt a lump in her throat. The ringing of her cell phone saved her from the fully overwhelming emotion. She dug out the device from her fanny pack, and glanced at the display with glazed eyes to answer the call. It was her best girlfriend.

“Hello, Rachel! It’s Sunday, and still morning at home. Why aren't you asleep?” she said in the phone, throwing all her theatrical talent into the scale so that her voice sounds cheerful.

“We celebrated Heather’s fiftieth birthday yesterday evening, and the party dragged on a bit,” sounded from the other end of the line. “No problem, I can sleep all day today. But before I lie down, I want to know how is your first day going, and how you are coping with mountaineering!”

“I’m doing quite well; I’ll reach the top of the Pyrenees right away,” Sarah broke into a smile. “And I’m not that far from fifty either, but it seems that my tennis playing is not in vain.”

“Anyway, how are you?” asked Rachel, since she knew that her friend has to tackle more than just physical difficulties. “Actually, you are alone there as well…”

“True, but it’s completely different than wandering around solitarily in that large house, where everything reminds me of him. I couldn’t even take delight in the sight of the ocean.”

“After all, only two months have passed since he passed away. It's no surprise if you are not over it yet.”

“These two months have seemed like an eternity… It’s good that you gave me that Shirley MacLaine book.”

“I assumed you would throw it at me though,” laughed Rachel. “Knowing you, and how much you are interested in spiritual topics.”

“I thought that if such a famous actress saw something in this pilgrimage, then maybe it would be interesting for me as well,” sighed Sarah. “Anyway, I was just thinking about David and our tenth wedding anniversary before you called. You know, when I got the watch and the hundred roses…”

“Yes, I remember. He was always generous with you.”

“What do you mean by that?” Sarah’s voice hardened.

“Ah, never speak ill of the dead.” Rachel turned serious too. “Otherwise, I know you got on well at that time, and time embellishes everything anyway. But don’t forget that six years ago you almost got divorced because it turned out that he had cheated on you! And after that he didn’t strive very much anymore to conceal his affairs with other women …”

“Well, yes. That period wasn’t a torch-light procession, and I blamed him for it for a long time, but now let’s be honest: my weekends spent at the banking center, and the board meetings far into the night, also contributed to us withdrawing from each other so much.”

“Newly, you appointed yourself to be the scapegoat?”

“Of course, we messed it up together, but his heart attack prevented me from confessing it to him. So now, I’m celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary, here alone in North-Spain on a centuries-old pilgrimage route.”

“It’s for sure that with David, you’d have rather gone to a posh holiday resort in Marbella, sipping cocktails,” joked Rachel to ease the gloomy mood.

“I see that only the Mojitos are still on your mind,” laughed the other the girl as well. “I think it’s time for you to go to bed!”

“All right, but don’t push yourself to death either! I’ll call you again on Monday.”

“Okay, sweet dreams!” Sarah said good-bye.

As always, in her life, she effectuated whatever she decided: she was here, on the Camino, moreover, she could outstrip the most difficult part of the day, but maybe of the whole route: she climbed up to top of the Pyrenees. Due to regular sport, her endurance was not bad, but she still felt the twenty-kilometer ascent taking a toll. When she reached the top at last, her watch showed half past two. She flopped down a few meters away from the road exhausted and threw her backpack next to her on the clashing green grass. She looked around, but did not see anybody. She was not surprised, since although others also set out at the same time as her, everybody advanced on the ascent at a different pace. Also, she knew that many people left out this part of the route, leading through the Pyrenees, and start the pilgrimage on the Spanish side, at the foot of the mountain, in Roncesvalles, or even begin from the closest larger city, Pamplona.

She unclasped her canteen from the backpack’s carbine swivel, and gulped from it. While leaning her head back, she realized that a figure was coming towards her from the forest, from among the trees. First, she only saw an enormous, broad-shouldered man, and then as he was approaching closer, she could make out his strange clothing, which did not resemble the usual costume of the pilgrims, at all. His helmet was pulled down into his eyes, he was wearing leather gloves and the sleeves of his black shirt were rolled up to the elbows. This made his muscular forearms visible, which were almost as thick as Sarah’s thighs. Though rough linen covered his upper arms, the material were so tight on his swelling biceps that it seemed that it could rip any moment. The broad, domed chest was covered by an almost knee-length, brown leather apron, and under his feet - wrapped in a pair of knee-high boots with turn-back bootlegs - the dry sprigs were cracking menacingly.

First, Sarah was staring at the strange phenomenon mesmerized, and thought about what a butcher could be doing on the mountaintop. However, as the dark figure came nearer, her interest gradually turned into stupefying horror. Finally, the two-meter high newcomer stopped in front of her, and Sarah was watching paralyzed, as the man slowly lifted a sizeable hatchet glittering in his hand. His scarred face tightened, while he was focusing his ice-cold eyes, nestled under his bushy eyebrows, at the woman trembling at his feet. Then, his arm suddenly stopped in the air, and as someone who has changed their mind, he lowered the hatchet and hung it on his belt.

“What…what do you want…from me?” stuttered Sarah, when she could finally push sounds out of her throat. “I have a lot of money! I’ll pay you as much as you want if you let me go now!” she heartened up, since the man did not move.

However, the newcomer kept a stiff upper lip while listening to the generous offer. He was staring at the woman’s neck, and then finally, he started to speak in a deep, hoarse voice in Spanish:

“Sarah Green, you were sentenced to death. I am the executioner.”

He knew that the woman did not understand any of his words, but when he saw that she was clasping her hands beseechingly, he added:

“Do not pray, there is no one who will listen anymore. It is too late. It is predestined!”

Then he reached into the pocket of his apron and took out a roll of thin, silvery wire. When Sarah caught sight of the metal string, the adrenalin galloped through her haggard body at a frantic speed. She sprang up and broke into a run on the road while she was desperately crying for help at the top of her voice. However, she could hardly get more than a few meters when a steel grip grabbed her arm from behind, and another palm clung onto her mouth like a band. The man embraced her with his left arm so that she could not move, and the wire curled around the woman’s neck in a wink. The gloved hands did not hesitate; they were pulling the two ends of the wire with terrible strength, but before slow suffocation could have caused Sarah’s death, the thin, razor-edged metal separated her head from her body. The blood, spurting out from the carotid artery splashed on the man’s stubbly face, but he did not care. He calmly watched how the falling head rolled further away, and stopped in the undergrowth, crashing against a tree trunk, and the lifeless body spread out on the ground, while the gadget – glittering on the left wrist – loudly knocked on a rock.

He grabbed the bloody head from the grass by the hair, then easily lifted the body, and took it into the forest roughly twenty meters away from the road. There, he threw them down at the stem of a thick-foliage, old beech, where he clambered up the tree and fixed the wire onto one of the high-seated, massive, horizontal branches, on the hanging end of which he tied a loop. Finally, he went back to the path, where a weary wanderer was just ambling. The pilgrim passed by the giant so close that he almost scratched the enormous chest covered with the leather apron, though he went on with a motionless face – he did not see that someone was standing there. The giant followed him for a while, with his eyes only, and then he also set out to the nearest signpost, which was decorated with the symbol of the pilgrimage route: a yellow mussel on a blue background.

“Day 0, 1 September, Saint Jean Pied de Port

Dear Diary! I decided to write about the day’s experiences every evening. After all, one rarely devotes herself to walk eight hundred kilometers in a month on an ancient, Spanish pilgrimage route far away from home, where all of her belongings can fit into a rucksack, and sleep someplace different every evening. Supposedly, the loaded backpack must not weigh more than ten percent of the pilgrim’s bodyweight. Well, mine is definitely heavier since I am very far from being a hundred kilos, but what should I do if I need as much equipment as everyone else? Apart from my clothes and shoes, I have a raincoat, a pair of pants with detachable legs, two shirts, a few panties and socks, a long-sleeved jersey, a wide-brim hat to protect against sun, a pair of flip-flops, a sleeping-bag, a pillow, suntan lotion, sunglasses, shower gel, shampoo, body lotion, a tube of detergent, a tooth-brush, toothpaste, a comb, a flashlight, a camera, cell phone, charger, medicine, band aid, muscle relaxant cream, tissues, grape sugar tablets, a pocketknife, clothespins, a guide book, a small and larger canteen, two towels, tampons, small scissors, a fanny pack, a wallet, official documents, a debit card, a pack of biscuits, a few granola bars, two Nordic Walking poles, needle and thread to mend the water blisters, and of course, this diary and two pens. It seems as if I have prepared myself for everything, but I have no idea what awaits for me, or whether I will stand the physical and spiritual exertion.

Why am I here? Maybe, because at home, I cannot find my place… However, at the age of twenty-six, it would be good to see at least what direction my life advances into. My four-year relationship ended in spring; my mother died at the beginning of summer. I have no siblings, and not only do I not know my father, but I don't even know who he is. Although I was surrounded by a lot of people every day, I still felt lonely, that nobody loves me, and to be honest, I do not love anybody either. Of course, I have two or three girlfriends who are close to me, but after all, it is rather different than having a family. I am successful in my work, but besides this, there are few things for which it is worth getting up in the morning. And if there were, whom could I share it with? I was only hand in glove with my mother, but she is not here anymore. I think I have lost my footing. That is why it happened that when I saw a movie about the El Camino on one of the documentary channels, it stuck in my mind that this is exactly what I needed. To get away from the everyday rat race, from the area where I grew up, and where everything reminds me of my mother and the lack of her. Just go, go and lie down where the evening finds me. And now I am here. I would like to understand, to find out whether my life makes sense, and if it does, then what could it be. I have a less exalted reason too: my mother told me that her ancestors originated from this particular area of Spain, and if I could walk on the land of my ancestors, maybe I would not feel how lonely I am so much. Secretly, I also hope that maybe I could find traces of my relatives here. It is possible that I have too high expectations about the Road, but I must try.

My plane landed in Paris yesterday. I planned to spend a few days there, and I am starting the pilgrimage on the sixth of September, my mother’s birthday. I was twelve years old when, together with her and her older sister, Paloma, who is not alive any longer either, we spent two weeks there. I am guarding unforgettable moments, and I thought that I could worthily commemorate them in Paris. However, while walking lonely around those places where we loitered at that time, pain struck me. So today, I threw my pack in the locker at the railway station, and traveled down here, to the French-Spanish border. And tomorrow morning, I will set out on the road and climb the Pyrenees, even if it is the last thing I do in my life, walk eight hundred kilometers and pay my respect in the Cathedral of Santiago. Not that I am religious, but this is an ancient tradition in which I believe. Just as that there is more than we can experience with our five sensory organs in the world. If I did not believe this, it would not have had any sense to come here either. Actually, for me, it is not a question of faith, because I know that it is more than that. My mother was a medium; she talked with bodiless beings. I inherited certain abilities from her, but to be honest, these were rather frightening for me, and since I did not use them, they wasted away slowly. But now, I would be glad if they returned for the period of time while I am here; maybe the Spirit of the Road or some guardian angel will tell me what I should do with my life.

In the afternoon, I took out my pilgrim passport, the credential in which I am going to collect the signets at the accommodations and sights. This pass is my entrance to the pilgrim hostels - the albergues - and, of course, I can obtain the certificate – the Compostela - on the basis of this at the end of the Road. Just now, during dinner, I met the other pilgrims who are also departing tomorrow. Carmen is from Madrid, I estimate her to be in her late forties, but she conceals her age well. Anyway, she is still very pretty. I can talk with her in Spanish too, since this is my mother tongue after all. But I feel so stupid when she gives me a searching look. As if she cannot stand me… The straw blonde Helga came from Germany; she is a few years younger than me. She is a student of psychology. My mother always told me that psychologists want to solve their own inner problems, after all that is why they chose this profession. Of course, I do not know Helga even superficially, but there is definitely something strange in her behavior as well. It's too rousing and affected, as if it was not her real side. Jean-Pierre, who always seems a bit enraptured, is a dentist in Paris; apart from this, he only told me, so far, that he came here due to a crisis in his private life. And there is Brad, who is a compatriot of mine, though he seems to be the strangest. He is quite mysterious and distrustful. Also at the table, he rather listened to the others, and hardly said a word. I think he must be in the middle of his thirties, but actually, he is ageless.

Now, I am going for a walk. I would like to get some fresh air. Then, I will try to fall asleep soon, since a hard day awaits for me tomorrow.”

Audrey closed the diary and sank it carefully into the side-pocket of her rucksack, and then she put her papers into her fanny pack, some money, her cell phone and the camera. She was deliberating if the phone’s camera was going to be enough, but she would like to take high-quality photos. On the way out, she stopped at the bathroom and after putting her long black hair in a ponytail, she washed her face with cold water. When she straightened up, the well-known features looked back at her from the mirror. The flawless skin, colored with mild blush, on which crystals of water drops were glittering now, the beautiful lips, a small birthmark above on the right side, the long, thick eyelashes, the elegantly curved brows, and yes, the marine blue eyes, which she surely did not inherit from her mother, since her glance was velvety chocolate brown. She knew that she was pretty, but it did not give her satisfaction at all. If she received a compliment, she usually rejected it, and bitterly thought what good did this damned great beauty bring her so far. Now, she was also staring daggers at herself, as if she was watching an exhibited photo. While she was going along in the hall of the hostel, among rucksacks leaning against the wall, walking sticks and boots, she patted her face in order to dry the water drops up sooner, and then she stepped out to the medieval like street, covered with river gravel. She glanced at the arched St. Jacques Gate, and set out towards the Citadel across the old town. By the end of the steep slope, she was a bit out of breath and regretted that she stopped running last year. However, the gorgeous view of the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and the old town, guarding the imprints of previous centuries, compensated her for the exhausting walk and the unpleasant thoughts. She took some photos of the cozy alleys as well, but since she grew up in the Rocky Mountains, the dizzying sight of the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees primarily caught her attention. The landscape was picturesque, but at the same time, slightly creepy. Tomorrow, I am going to march there in the forest she thought under a spell when a deep, metallic voice sounded behind her back:

“Dreadful, isn’t it? As for me, I prefer the asphalt jungles,” said the man, as he stepped next to Audrey.

The girl glanced at him, but by that time, she already knew that it was the clammed up American. The man was almost a head higher than her and the muscles, tracing out under his shirt, did not leave any doubt regarding the fact that he presumably will not have physical problems in the course of crossing the mountain. The buzz-cut chestnut-brown hair showed the already bleached scars, forming on his scalp, and seeing the bumps, she knew his nose was not broken only once either. With his narrow lips and the vertical wrinkles between his eyebrows, he was not handsome in the traditional sense, but Audrey had to admit to herself that there is something attractive about him. Maybe the inscrutable depth, hiding behind his look; the same which she felt while seeing the forest-covered mountain ridges.

“Asphalt jungle? Aren’t you from New York?” the girl broke into a smile politely, but in fact, not a single bit of her wanted to chit-chat with this strange man. “I was born there, though we moved to Denver with my mother when I was still a baby.”

“No, I’m not from New York.” answered Brad laconically, and rather stared off in the distance. Then he felt that he has to say something else, and added: “I come from Seattle.”

“Seattle? They say it rains all the time there,” said Audrey, but she regretted it right away because she found it deplorable that they were talking about the weather already.

However, it didn't even cross the man’s mind to have a conversation about the considerable amount of precipitation or the small number of sunny hours.

“I don’t know. We move quite often. For example, to Miami when I was only a few years old.”

Audrey overpowered the urge to remark that the sun must be shining there all the time.

“What did you say during dinner, what do you do for a living?” she looked at the man inquiringly.

“I didn’t say anything.” Answered the other with a serious face.

“Oh!” Audrey was surprised at the short answer. “As I’ve already mentioned, I’m a junior lawyer at a big law firm, but I already have my own clients.” She continued ungainly to break the enrolling silence.

“That’s interesting, I also work with clients.” Brad broke into a faint smile, and he did not leave any doubt regarding the fact that he considers this information enough.

The girl did not know what to do with the man’s reticence, so she rather put an end to the conversation.

“If you don’t mind, I'll say good-bye know. I’d like to get some rest before the great journey.” She looked at the American, and she felt odd about speaking with this grim stranger so directly, but she knew that the pilgrims on the Camino do the same, regardless of age, sex and nationality.

“I hope you brought earplugs, because some people will snore awfully loud in the dormitory!” Said Brad, and a faint smile was still lurking in the corner of his mouth.

“Of course I did!” said Audrey while she was receding, and resentfully noticed that this not so chatterbox guy already pointed out something, about which she forgot to think about.

She descended the steep stairs, which led to the river and the wooden footbridge arching over it. Along the riverbed, she went on even as far as the Roman bridge, and after crossing it, she returned to the hostel across the Rue d’Espagne. Most of the people had already gone to bed by the time she laid down. Sleeplessly, listening to the sounds of snoring, she vowed that she will inevitably obtain a pair of earplugs at the first pharmacy along her way.

  

CHAPTER 2

New York – 1 September, 2013
 

At the beige desk, standing in the forefront of the eighteenth-floor office, the secretary has just put down the phone with a sigh, which she held in store for the problematic clients, when the door of her boss’s room opened.

“Vicky! Did you see the Petersen-file? Yesterday it was here on my desk.” Robert O’Connor, the thirty-year-old owner of the O’Connor Private Detective Office, leaned out from behind the half-opened door.

When the secretary caught sight of the stubbly face, framed by thick, dark-brown hair, slightly falling on his forehead, she had to make a strong effort not to sigh again, but this time differently. She has been working for Robert for two years, but she could not get bored of the sight: the luminous green eyes framed by long, thick eyelashes, the beautifully-cut aquiline nose, the domed cheekbones, the angular jaw, the lips – no doubt, created for kissing - the scar above the left eyebrow, and her favorite: the small dimple in the middle of the chin. The owner of such a face, she would have forgiven even if he was not specifically an athletic figure, but there was no need for such generosity in Robert’s case: he was only a few centimeters away from the two-meter height, and was incredibly muscular. Moreover, he guarded his physical strength not for decoration only since he excelled in martial arts just as much as he was an outstanding marksman. Of course, all these would still not have been enough to be a successful private detective; a crooked way of thinking was also needed. Therefore, Vicky could not decide whether she should bless her fate for sending her a boss like this, or she should feel rather immensely unlucky that this magnificent man did not give her such honored attention like Tom, his apprentice did…

“I’m sorry, Robert. I don’t know where it is. I haven’t touched it since I put it on your desk yesterday.” Vicky murmured it as moderately as she could. “Ask Tom, maybe he took it”

“Right, I’ll ask him when he comes back. It’s not urgent, I have other things to do; we haven’t done anything in the case of the Pollock portrait yet.” Said Robert while he stepped out to the hall and lumped down on the rusty, plush sofa standing next to the secretary’s desk. “Blue suits you well, Vicky, you should wear it more often.” He looked at the girl, and an impish light flashed in his eyes.

The secretary broke into a coquettish smile, but she knew that this is just the usual jape, the spice of the days; not that the work here would be so boring otherwise.

“What do you think about Mrs. Cooper?” Robert changed the topic.

“She’s a ravenous whore.” Vicky said immediately with self-evident tone. “I think she got rid of her husband, and we would be happy if she hadn’t concreted him under the new winter garden.”

“I agree.” He nodded. “But we must be careful. If she gets wind that we didn’t eat her otherwise exceptionally creative story, she will cover up her tracks swift as lightning.” He winked at Vicky, and stood up from the sofa. “I better revise her confession once again.” As he headed towards his room, but before closing the door, he said: “Can you make a cup of strong coffee for me? Thank you!”

While he was walking towards his desk, his glance chanced upon a framed photo, hanging beside the detective certificate. He was so used to it hanging on the wall that he usually doesn't notice it, but now he stopped and took a close look at the picture. It portrayed him in a marine uniform with one of his comrades. Greg was his best friend; he was killed in battle in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan four years ago. He almost left his boots there too; it took half a year for him to recover. After that, he demobilized, passed the private detective exam, and opened the office, which was Greg's and his dream together. First, he worked alone, and then as he got more and more cases, he employed Tom, and also a secretary for two years now. He has no reason to complain, since he has just passed thirty, and he is already a private detective with a good reputation.

Moving negligently, he went around the table and occupied his seat in the swivel chair. It occurred to him that at that time, the pretty decorator tried to persuade him to buy a heavy, dark-brown mahogany desk, saying that it suggests prestige and success, but he chose this dainty cherry. And it was a good decision, since he would still be too young for classic mahogany. He reached for the file, labeled “Cooper”, and started to leaf through it abstractedly when there was a knock on the door. But before he could say anything, the door opened and Vicky’s reddish-blonde head appeared.

“William Benton is here. Shall he wait outside, or come in?”

“Benton?” Robert raised his eyebrows. “Just send him in.” He added, and tried to hide the fact that he was not expecting a visitor.

A skinny, grey-haired man appeared in the door who was wearing a terribly expensive, tailor-made suit, quality watch, cashmere shirt, a pair of hand-made, soft leather shoes and a gold tie-pin. There was no sign of hesitation in him, which usually characterized those popping in here; although his self-confidence was not intrusive.

“Hello, Robert! I’m happy to see you.” He nodded towards the detective, who stood up to greet him.

“Wow, Bill! When was the last time we met? It’s been ten years already.” He offered his right hand to the guest.

“Eight to be exact, we were shooting the Fatal Mission then.” The newcomer smiled kindly, while he shook Robert’s hand.

“Have a seat, please.” The detective showed him to the futuristic-traced leather armchair on the other side of the desk.

Bill sat down while he was looking at the photo on the wall, but he was discreet enough not to mention it. He reached into his inner pocket, took out a pack of cigarettes and a gilded lighter. He offered the box to Robert.

“Thank you, but I’ve quit recently.” The detective rejected.

“I’ve already quite smoking five times,” laughed Benton, “but finally, I stopped quitting instead. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.” Nodded Robert, then he took out a clean ashtray from the bottom drawer, and put it in front of the man.

Benton was turning the cigarette between his fingers for a while, and then he lit it and took a deep hit.

“I haven’t been able to find as good a stuntman as you, Robert.” He said and turned his head so as not to blow the smoke into the detective’s face. “But you can trust me that one or two have turned up in my movies, and it is not a coincidence that I’m among the most successful producers, since I always try to work with the best. But you chose to become a soldier instead…”

“I liked the shooting atmosphere.” Interjected the detective, as if he hadn’t heard the last sentence, “also, because there were always many pretty girls slinking around the set.”

“Well, yeah, I could tell you this and that about it, but I didn’t come here to be nostalgic Robert. At least, not in this sense.” He added tartly.

“I’m listening.” The investigator leaned back.

“I’d better start the story from the beginning,” went on Benton slowly, and although he was watching the skyscrapers through the window, he was somewhere else mentally. “Twenty-eight years ago, I met Rosa, the daughter of our housekeeper, a freshman-year student, the day she substituted for her mother, who was down with the flu. It was love at first sight. If it hadn’t happened to me, I would say that this only exists in romantic novels and soap operas, which I have always disdained, you know.” He shook his head, and continued: “Slim figure, ebony hair and eyes, into which it was enough to look at only once, and I was lost in their whirlpool forever.” He stopped and was staring out of the window for at least a minute without saying a word. Then, from the distance, he suddenly turned back to Robert, as if waking up from a dream. “But let’s leave sentimentalism; it’s not our cup of tea, is it?” He broke into a smile, his eyes remained serious though.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t asked you yet what you would like to drink?” The detective stood up and set out towards the liquor cabinet.

So far, he couldn't begin to imagine what Benton wants.

“A whiskey would do me good right now. Thank you.” He looked gratefully at the investigator, and then he added: “With lots of ice, please.”

Robert took the ice-cube tray out of the tiny fridge, pressed five cubes into the glass, then he opened a bottle of Scotch he got as a gift, and poured. A thin layer of dust on the bottle indicated that the whiskey has been waiting for a long while for someone to take it in hand. The detective rarely drank alcohol, and if so, not straight. Benton took a large swallow of the amber-colored drink with closed eyes, and then put the glass on the table in front of him.

“Before she went home in the evening, I invited her to have dinner. She was unwilling to accept my invitation for a while; obviously, she knew that the yawning social abyss between us didn't have much good in store for her. But I saw she requited my affection, so I put all my charm into the scale and finally, I managed to persuade her. The day after, we had a date, and she became mine that evening. But don’t think that she was some kind of a wanton since I was the first man in her life. We fell madly in love with each other, and every time it was possible, we met in secret. This cloudless happiness lasted for a year, then it came true, something I thought from the very beginning that was inevitable,” Benton’s voice died away, and the glittering light burnt out in his eyes.

“Were you caught?” asked Robert.

“Worse,” the other’s eyes fell. “I was already engaged to Maggie Wilson when I met Rosa, but I couldn’t tell her about it because I knew that she wouldn’t talk to me then. I was in love with Rosa; I didn’t feel anything for Maggie, I had to propose to her because of my father. In our circles, it is not rare that we choose a spouse along financial and political interests, then just preserve the appearance. Everybody lives his or her own world after the wedding. I also thought that similarly to my father, I will have lovers, but if this wedlock is needed to increase the family property and power, I didn’t want it to be up to me. But I did not take into account that I would fall in love…” he stopped for a moment. "While I was betrothed to Maggie, there was no trouble, but once my father said that it was time to have a wedding."

“And couldn’t you say no?” Interjected the detective with increasing interest.

Benton’s grimace denoted everything, but he answered anyway:

“It’s obvious that you don't know my father; you couldn’t contradict him even in questions of smaller importance. Today, I would definitely decide differently. Then, however, I obeyed and I had to report on the upcoming wedding to Rosa as well. Of course, she broke up with me immediately,” said the man languidly. “She did not cry, did not throw tantrums, did not make accusations, but I felt even more miserable because of this. I was never able to forget that endless sadness, permeated in her huge, dark eyes. He raised the glass to his mouth with a trembling hand, and finished its contents at one go.

“And now you want me to find her?” Asked Robert to break the suddenly enrolling silence.

“Wait! It’s not the end of the story,” Benton’s mouth curled into a bitter smile. “After that evening when Rosa learned the truth and left me, she didn’t show up for a long time. I didn’t look for her either, due to the wedding preparations, the marriage, the increasing amount of work, and of course, to the torturing remorse. Then, roughly after a year, I received a letter from her,” he sighed intermittently. “She wrote that at the time of our separation, she was almost two-months pregnant, and she suspected this, but she had to wait for the results of the medical examination to be sure. Since then, the child was born, healthy, but she moved far away with the baby, and she did not want me to ever look for them. And this is the last sign I had of them,” he fell silent, then added in a veiled voice: “She did not even tell me whether the baby was a boy or a girl…”

“I’m sorry,” Robert said bluntly; though he still felt that his words sound ungainly and formal.

“I gratified her request, and didn’t search for them. Partly, to hold her wish in respect, but comfort and weakness also played a considerable role. I had enough problems anyway; I didn’t want more trouble for myself. I’m not proud of this, but at least I admit it.”

“Do you want some more?” The detective pointed at the empty glass.

“No, thank you. And more is yet to come,” Benton looked into his eyes. “I have recently been diagnosed with cancer.”

“Your lungs?” Robert waved towards the half-empty packet of cigarettes, lying on the table.

“That’s funny, but no. There’s nothing wrong with my lungs. Anyway, I get a full medical checkup annually, and last year they didn’t find anything. It’s acute leukemia. The doctors said that I have roughly half a year left,” he said with a forced calmness in his voice.

Robert stared at him flabbergasted.

“That is impossible…”

“I reacted the same way at first, since I’m only fifty-four. I went to another specialist, and then to a third one, and they told me the same thing everywhere: a bone-marrow transplant may help, otherwise this year’s Christmas is going to be my last. However, it’s not easy to find a donor; I have a rare blood type, and time passes quickly. Maggie’s and my son was born in 1988, and Sam immediately hurried to my assistance. However, when the preliminary medical examinations were done on him, I had to listen to shocking news again.”

Robert squeezed the armrest of his chair unintentionally. The question of whether the boy also suffers from an incurable disease, almost slipped out of his mouth, but finally, he preferred to wait and listen to what Benton will say.

“It turned out that Sam is not my son!” The man laughed out nervously. “Of course, in spite of this, I love him in the same way since I raised him, but this unexpected turn slapped me in the face after all. I called my wife to account, who did not even try to deny it. Although based on the medical report, she wouldn’t have had much of a chance. The point is that she wasn’t more in love with me than I was with her, and after she became aware of some of my lovers, she felt ethically authorized to look for what she wasn't getting from me, elsewhere. She said she wasn’t sure whether Sam was conceived from me or her lover, and thanked me for having resolved her doubts. Isn’t it brilliant, Robert?” He reached for the packet of cigarettes again.

“I don’t know what to say. Then it also means that Sam cannot be your donor,” said the investigator while he ran his fingers through his thick, slightly wavy hair. “It’s understandable now why you want to find your biological child then.”

“Yes, I’d like to, but you’re wrong in that the donor acquisition motivates me,” Benton blew out the thick smoke. “I’ve already resigned to the fact that soon I’ll play on the celestial golf courses. Although I’m not very old, I’ve lived more than others over eighty years. I built up a movie empire, traveled around the world a few times, brought up a child,  did many bad things and maybe a few good ones as well. I'm not fighting against my fate, but before I leave this earthly life, I’d like to meet Rosa once again, and get to know our son or daughter. That’s why I came to you, Robert. Please, find them. On the one hand, I know you and trust you that I won’t see my story on the tabloids’ front page. On the other hand, I know that as always, you are also good in what you do, and you’ll find them soon because I don’t have time to mess around. Here's ten thousand dollars in advance, and for your expenses. If you do the job, I’ll give you twice as much,” he reached into his inner pocket, took out a checkbook, filled out a check and pushed it in front of the detective.

“Come on, Bill! You’re too generous,” said Robert slowly after he glanced at the check. The fee for this work is much less, even if we calculate with higher expenses than average.”

“Don’t be modest. Anyway, a lot of money will remain after me, and I don’t know for what my heirs will cast it on. At least I know that this sum is going to be in good hands.”

“All right, if you insist,” Robert surrendered. “Dictate the data and other pieces of information that we can use to get started with to my secretary. I promise, I’m going to deal with this case personally, out of turn, of course.”

Benton stood up, and offered his hand to the detective.

“All right, my friend, we’re set.”

After Vicky registered the data and Bill left, Robert said to the girl:

“If Tom arrives, give him the Cooper case too; I have to deal with this now. And don’t switch anybody over to me for a while.”

“Okay, boss. Can I go have lunch, or do you still need me here?”

“Of course I need you, Vicky,” he threw a playful glance at the girl. “But now go and get something to eat. I don’t want you to thin out of this luxurious dress,” he nodded, but by the time the secretary found the right reply, the door of the room closed behind Robert.

 

CHAPTER 3

St. Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles – 2 September, 2013
 

Audrey was startled out of her sleep by a door slamming. At first, she did not know where she was, and then her memories gradually returned. So this is the dormitory, permeated with the noises of squirm, snuffle, snore and some body odor, in which she has been tossing sleeplessly for hours. It would have been enough for the troubled night that she wasn't sleeping in her own bed, and due to other disturbing circumstances, she still wasn't asleep at 3 a.m. either. By the time she managed to relax, she was so tired that she fell into an unusually deep sleep. Therefore, she did not wake up to the noises of the pilgrims who were preparing for the early-morning departure, and by now, she was almost completely alone in the hostel. She pulled down the zipper of the sleeping bag and slowly sat up on the bed. Her head was buzzing; her first thought was that she needed a cup of coffee to bring some life back to her. Then it occurred to her that she vowed to abandon the caffeine bomb, so instead, she stood up to do some stretching and bending and exercises to get her blood flowing.

Thanks to the aerobics and the cold-water wash-up, she revived surprisingly soon. As for breakfast, she ate one of the croissants she bought for the journey on the previous day, washed it down with orange juice, and gathered her things up quickly. She slipped into her brand-new boots, put her heavy sack on her back, and by taking the hiking sticks in her left hand, she stepped out of the hostel’s door. She set out down the rue de la Citadelle, ambled by the pilgrim office, and then she turned into the Church of Our Lady. She did not spend much time there, only for a few minutes until she recalled why she came to the Road. Coming out of the church, she passed through the arch, and then arrived soon at the Porte d’Espagne, the medieval gate leading to Spain. Here the road divides into two: those who choose the easier but less beautiful path along the main road have to turn right.

During dinner the previous evening, they talked about which road they were going to choose. The two women, Carmen and Helga, decided to take the easier Valcarlos Route, Jean-Pierre was still hesitating and Brad, as if he did not pay attention to the topic, mumbled some words about something completely different. Audrey chose the road, which was named after Napoleon to commemorate that he had also marched in this direction with his armies once. According to the guide book, this is more tiring, but a more spectacular path, and she did not feel like walking on the busy main road. So she did not turn to the right at the Spanish gate; rather she continued on her way straight ahead. She filled her canteen at the well, and set out on the eight-hundred-kilometer road, on the first day of which she has to clamber up to an altitude of four thousand nine hundred and twenty feet.

She was moving upwards continuously, but endured the first eight kilometers well. Although she was not especially tired, she stopped at the Orisson pilgrim hostel to rest, because she knew she will need her strength. She was taking delight in the luxurious view from the restaurant while she was waiting for her ice tea, when she caught sight of Jean-Pierre in one of the corners, scribbling something while leaning over a notebook.

“Hello, I hope I’m not disturbing you?” She stepped up to him.

“Oh, not at all, sit down,” said the man languidly, as if he just returned from somewhere afar, spiritually.

“So you also chose the Napoleon road,” said Audrey, and sipped on her cold drink, which has been put in front of her recently.

“Yes, but I’m not sure I made the right decision,” he looked at the girl apathetically while closing the notebook. “I’m afraid my stamina is worse than I thought. I just wrote in my diary how hard I endeavored over the first six and a quarter miles, so I’m not going anywhere today, I’ll stay here instead.”

“Journaling is a good idea. I also started one,” nodded Audrey sympathetically. “Anyway, it is said that one can experience so many things here, and so many feelings and thoughts gush out that it is a must to record them. Though this ladybird-cover does not really suit you ,” she pointed at the black-spotted red wings decorating the cover of the notebook, chuckling.

However, Jean-Pierre did not laugh with her. Moreover, his not so happy face darkened even more.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you,” the smile disappeared from Audrey’s face without knowing what she had said something that upset him.

“It’s my daughters, whom I miss terribly, but I don’t want to talk about it now. You understand, don’t you?” Jean-Pierre looked into the distance, as if he saw something else out of the window and not just the trees.

“Oh, of course, no problem,” she answered confused, and quickly drank the rest of her tea. “Anyway, I want to leave; I don’t want the evening to find me in the forest.”

“Have a pleasant journey!” Jean-Pierre glanced at her again. “I hope we’ll meet on the Road.”

“I hope so,” she said, then paid for her tea and went into the hall to pick up her rucksack.

Outside, the sun was shining brightly, so she dug out her sunglasses from her fanny pack, and through the smoked glass, she admired the endless woodland, spreading in front of her feet. Then she turned towards the path, and set out to climb the slope.  Passing an altitude of 3300 feet, she caught sight of the Virgin Mary sculpture guarding the Orisson peak, and although she was not religious, she knew that God must have been in a good mood when he created such a beauty. The eyes of the crowned female figure, who was wrapped up in a sky-blue edged white veil, rested on the baby in her lap and majestic, clashing green mountain peaks were stretching behind her. Approaching the edge of the skyline, their green gradually became blunt, and then turned bluish to insensibly merge with the sky covering them on the horizon. The sky faintly glittering blue, in the distance, was glowing azure behind the head of the sculpture, flavored with cloud tufts floating like pieces of white foam. It seemed as if the statue was dressed to the background.

Audrey took delight in the vision for a long while, and then continued her way reluctantly. By the time she reached the medieval castle ruin, the wind arose and heavy, grayish clouds started to gather in the sky, so far spotted with flawless white fleecy clouds.  “I hope I won’t get soaked to the skin already on the first day,” she thought anxiously, and tried to accelerate her steps, but she realized that she should be glad if she just keeps her previous pace. On the mountain ridge, the wind intensified further, so the girl did not stop at the stone, signaling the French-Spanish border. She was walking in Navarra province, Spain, over the ruins of the ancient border crossing, on the path leading among the beeches to the highest point, the Lepoeder-Pass. When she reached it, she looked around the landscape in relief; she could even see as far as the top of the abbey of Roncesvalles. She decided somewhere below that she is going to rest a little in the protected recess among the trees before she heads off on the steep descent. On the mountain ridge, the whizzing wind flowed all around the beech forest, tamed, where the sunlight slightly found its way. The tall grass beside the path was waving invitingly, showing what a soft feather-bed may become of it. Audrey turned off, but did not want to encamp directly next to the road, so she went further inside among the trees instead.

After fifteen or twenty yards, she stopped, took a deep breath, and enjoyed that she was alone on the top of the Pyrenees. She has not met anybody since the Orisson hostel, which is not surprising since she set out much later than the others. She closed her eyes, and listened to the noise of the forest. The wind was not strong here, but the rustle of the millions of leaves oppressed any other sound. She was preoccupied with this monotonous, yet comforting murmur, and after a while she did not hear it, and felt that endless silence reigns not only around, but inside her as well. She sighed, opened her eyes, and was about to take off the rucksack when she realized that a few meters ahead of her, something in the grass glittered in the sunlight, percolating among the branches. She stepped forward, and saw that someone was lying face down in the grass; the left arm held out to the side, the watch, responsible for the glittering, was on its wrist. “It’s so typical that there’s nobody around, but I find the place where someone else’s sleeping already,” she thought, and started to recoil carefully. Then, a cawing big black crow struck down on the body lying in the grass, and tore out a piece of meat with its pointed beak. Audrey shrieked and fell back in alarm. Then the bird flew off, but did not release the bits of flesh. The girl’s haggard muscles were out of gear for a moment and the weight of her backpack almost tied her to the ground. Finally, by the skin of her teeth, she managed to get on her feet, but she was still paralyzed by the fear rushing through her cells. She carefully strode nearer to the lying figure to see whether help is needed, but when the rich undergrowth did not cover it anymore, she caught sight of the headless corpse, which was corroded by wild animals, and a bit further away, the female head, deprived of its eyes and smudged with clotted blood. She wanted to scream unintentionally, but no sound came out of her throat. For a few moments, she stood there dumbfounded and tried to catch her breath, then gathering all her strength, she turned about and rushed out to the path. She looked around, but nobody came. She dragged out her cell phone from her fanny pack with trembling hands, but she could not even see whether there is a signal because the device was staring at her blindly: the battery was dead. She forgot to charge it in the evening.

She tried to think desperately: where should she go? Forwards or backwards? The Orisson pilgrim hostel was already further than Roncesvalles; on the other hand, she could travel back on a less steep road, which she knew too. If she goes forward, she has to cover a smaller distance, but maybe she will move much slower on the unknown, leaning ground. In the end, she decided not to turn back, and try to reach Roncesvalles as soon as possible. Overcoming her tiredness, she broke into a run to get away from the scene of horror as far as she could. When she was unable to run any longer, she stopped out of breath and noticed that in the meantime, the grey clouds completely discolored the sky and the sun had no chance of getting through the clouds, overgrowing like a concrete wall. The leaden grayness carried along the increasingly stormy wind above the land.

The girl set out again, but the squalls, coming from ahead, detained her incessantly, and it seemed as if she had not made any progress forward. She did not feel so well alone anymore, and with every nerve she desired for someone – who can help – to come along. Then it dawned on her that the woman did not die a natural death. What if her killer is still lurking around, somewhere near? If someone comes, how could she know whether she is within an inch of death? Her thoughts had reached this far when she caught sight of an ambling figure in the distance. Judging from its stature and motion, it was a man. She dared neither to call for him nor to hurry after him. She decided to follow him, but she kept an eye on the distance not to decrease it between them. Her heart was pounding in her throat, and she was careful not to step onto a branch causing any cracking sound. After ten minutes, however, the man stopped unexpectedly and turned around. Audrey also stopped for a moment, but after she saw that the man was waiting for her, she set out towards him hesitantly. His face could not be seen. The hood of his windbreaker cast a shadow on it. The man, however, recognized her, because when she was closer to him, he called out to her:

“I’ve already slowed down for a while so that you can catch up, but it seems I have to wait for you.”

Audrey still couldn't see his face, but she recognized the characteristic raspy voice: it was Brad, the strange American guy.

“How did you know that it was me, or that there’s someone coming up behind you at all? The wind whizzes so much that I certainly wouldn't have heard anything if I were you.” Audrey was skeptical, and in the meantime, she was pondering whether she should tell him what she found.

“My hearing is great,” as he broke into a smile, but Audrey still felt uncomfortable due to his penetrating look. “Anyway, I saw you approaching five kilometers earlier,” he added.

“I didn’t see you,” she marveled.

“The foliage covered me certainly,” the man looked at her in such a way that Audrey considered it better not to insist on the topic further.

She took a deep breath, and had just brought herself to report on the beheaded body, when she noticed that the man’s right hand is bloodstained. Brad’s eyes followed the girl’s glance.

“I cut it,” he raised his right. “My knife slipped on a knot when I was carving a walking stick from a hazelnut rod.”

Audrey did not dare to ask him why his right hand was injured then, but the girl’s hesitation could not escape Brad’s attention.

“I’m left-handed,” he said, and was not smiling anymore.

“We should hurry if we don’t want the storm to catch us,” Audrey changed the subject whereon Brad set out without saying a word.

She could hardly keep pace with him, although they were moving downwards on the mountainside. On the steep slope, however, she had to be careful not to slip; it was enough to hold her own weight with every single step, but the ten-kilo backpack and the wind also pushed her downwards. Her knees began to ache soon, and she was increasingly dropping behind Brad. He did not look back to see whether she was following him, but Audrey had no doubts regarding him knowing exactly where she was. They must have been only a few miles away from Roncesvalles, when the first swollen water drops slammed into the girl’s face. Then Brad turned towards her at last.

“Here the steep trail is over because we’ll soon reach a smaller peak, the Don Simón. After that, however, the descent continues till Roncesvalles, then it’s going to be even steeper. Since it started raining, the soil will be slippery, so I say let’s stay here and wait until the rain stops. Unless we want to break our leg or neck. If we withdraw into the forest, we'll get soaked less,” he looked at Audrey, waiting.

Audrey suddenly could not decide what she wants less: to fall into an abyss and break her neck, or to hide away in the depth of this desolate forest with this man, who has already made her flesh creep, and maybe he has beheaded another woman recently. The rain, however, was pouring down so hard, as if a celestial hose had torn apart, and a little brook formed on the path. “The slope is certainly impassable, on the other hand, Brad is not absolutely dangerous since the land was empty enough for him to hurt me if he wanted to do so,” thought Audrey, and nodded. They set out among the trees, and when the foliage was thick enough, the man stopped. The water made its way through the crown of the trees less here, but light couldn't find its way to the ground either. He took off his backpack, rummaged through it, then took something out. In the following moment, a flashlight lit up in his right hand and in his left, a sizeable hunting dagger glittered. Audrey stepped back unintentionally, whereon Brad laughed out mockingly.

“Are you afraid of me cutting your throat?” He pointed towards her with the knife, and it seemed that her startled wheezing amused him. “Relax, I’ll just cut off a few thicker branches from the bushes,” and he got busy.

He stuck the branches into the ground, as if they were tent poles, and then he threw his raincoat over them, the strings of which he fixed to the sticks so that the wind couldn't blow it away. He waved to her to get into the makeshift tent, then he followed her and laid a folded poly-foam mat on the ground. Inside, the space was small, their shoulders touched and only the illumination of the flashlight provided some ghostly light.

Audrey’s stomach was still seized with a cramp. She tried to calm herself with the fact that if he wanted to kill her, he would have done it, but finally, this argument did not seem convincing to her either. What if he has other plans?

“How long are we going to stay here?” She asked in a dying voice.

“Till the rain gives up, but if it doesn’t subside before sunset, we'll leave so that it won’t get dark on us on the slope,” answered Brad.

Neither of them had the stomach for chatting, so they sat in silence and waited for the storm to blow over. Roughly, half an hour later, she saw, in relief, that the water was not dropping from the foliage overhead and more and more light was percolating among the branches.

“I think we can go,” she said uncertainly.

He crawled out of the tent, looked around and nodded.

“Yes, we can.”

Then Audrey scampered out too, Brad packed-up the raincoat and the flashlight, helped her to pick up her rucksack, and headed towards the path. When they were out to the meadow, hope revived in Audrey that probably she is not going to be a headless corpse now in the forests of the Pyrenees, but as the extreme stress subsided in her, her teeth began to chatter.

“Are you that cold?” he said, a few yards ahead of her.

“No, I was just shocked two hours ago, and it is coming out of me now,” she answered, after she decided to initiate her fellow traveler.

He stopped and as he was turning around slowly, blood froze in Audrey’s veins again.

“Why, what happened?” He asked curiously, but she considered it slightly impatient too.

“I found a beheaded corpse among the trees,” Audrey looked at him resolutely as someone who doesn’t mind anything.

“Are you crazy?” he asked; he stepped up to her and squeezed her arm. “And why haven’t you told me about it before now?” He snarled at her. “Ah, sure, I see! You thought I did it.”

“Yes, I admit.” Audrey cast her eyes down. “I mean, I couldn’t have known whether it was you; anyway, I didn’t see anybody else around.”

“And now you told me because you thought that if I had been the murderer, I would have already killed you in the forest?” Brad laughed out nervously.

The girl did not say anything, just kept on walking with her head down. He followed her.

“Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Because maybe I want to enjoy the situation, enhance the effect as long as possible. Maybe I know the area and that there’s going to be a suitable occasion to put the dot on the “i”, I mean to take it off instead, if “i” means your body and the dot means your head,” he smiled in a way as someone who could not have had more fun.

“Stop it!” She hissed.

Meanwhile, they got to the steep part of the road, which was still slippery from the previous downpour, so they moved carefully.

“All right, relax! I really didn’t kill that woman, and I don’t want to hurt you either,” he said in a softer voice.

“I didn’t say it was a woman,” Audrey turned to him suddenly.

For some endless time, they were staring daggers at each other, then he said quietly:

“I found the corpse too. I was moving on the path when I saw you coming. I didn’t feel like waiting for you and ambling further together chattering, but I didn’t want you to fall behind either, so I went among the trees instead. I thought I would wait until you disappear. However, I saw the body, and didn’t want to stay beside it, and I didn’t want to return to the road either, because  you would have recognized me and later, if they find the corpse, you would have testified against me. So I pushed my way through the trees parallel with the path, and when I was a safe distance from the scene, I cut in front of you, and returned to the road. I didn’t think that you would go into the forest there, where I did and where the dead body is lying…”

“The grass was high everywhere along the path, and I didn’t wade through it. Only at that place was a smaller trail, I thought other pilgrims might have rested there, so it would be good for me as well,” grimaced Audrey, and it occurred to her that judging from the clotted blood covering the corpse, the murder must have been committed a few hours earlier, or most probably, the previous day, so it is unlikely that her fellow traveler was the killer.

“As soon as we reach Roncesvalles, we’ll report what we’ve found,” Brad ended the conversation, and they did not say anything else to each other until the first houses appeared.

From the tourist information center operating in the old mill, they informed the police of Pamplona, and then they went over to the hostel, which was converted from the old pilgrim hospital. The policemen arrived within half an hour. Some of them went up to the mountain to excavate and cover the site, and two investigators interrogated the eyewitnesses.

“Day 1, 2 September, St. Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles

It’s late at night. They have just released me; inspector Jimenez questioned me thoroughly. I haven’t come to myself even now: I came here to calm down, to find my balance, and then on the first day, I find a beheaded woman in the forest, wandered around with the possible killer, who is my fellow pilgrim anyway, then policemen interrogated me far into the night. Like a nightmare… It wasn’t such a great idea to come here after all. I would gladly get on a bus tomorrow and go to Pamplona, from there to Barcelona, and then I would fly home. However, since I’m a witness, the inspector forbade me to leave the country. He said that I can continue the pilgrimage, but I always have to be accessible, in case they want to interrogate me again. But I’ve had enough of this! ... Anyway, the highland is wonderful…”