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Man on a Rock


Chapter 1 - sample


I got a plane to Malaga and picked up a rental and drove west.

After a couple of hours I was through all the developments, the villas, the condos and the golf resorts, and past Sotogrande, then I hit that high part of the road that curves around the dry hills and gives you your first look at Gibraltar. The Rock. A geological shipwreck with a town at its base, and a high peak hidden by cloud. You could see North Africa through the heat haze across the straits.

The flamenco sounded loud on the player, and I rode with it all the way down to La Linea.

Half a mile short of the border I turned in at a carpark. The attendant told me the prices in Spanish, and when he thought I hadn't understood, he said in English, “Twenty Euros, half day. Fifty Euros, one day.” I gave him fifty, he gave me a ticket, and I drove in and found a place to park.

There was no-one else in the there, it was just me and a line of empty parked-cars, and I unzipped my overnight bag and flipped through my passports. The Brit passport went into my jacket, and then I thumbed through the cash-rolls, US Dollars, Pounds Sterling, Euros, and finally I peeled off a wad of fifties from the Sterling roll before rezipping the bag. The bag went back under the seat. I got out, locked the car, and walked out of the carpark and over the last stretch to the border.

On the near side, the Spanish side, the cars were queuing to get across. The queue was a half a mile long, and it wasn’t moving. Walking right on by the cars, I joined the pedestrians, mainly Spanish, they seemed like locals going into Gibraltar to work. The Spanish border guards weren’t paying too much attention to them. When I opened my passport the guards waved me straight through, and on the other side the Gibraltarian guards did the same.

The causeway across to the Rock is cut by the airport runway, the road closes whenever a plane comes in. But there was no plane now, so I walked on to the airport terminal, a couple of hundred yards inside the border, and got a cab straight into town.

Main Street, Gibraltar. Red post-boxes, a few people in kaftans and others in suits. Spanish voices, and Arabic and English. Suburban England meets Andalucia and Tel Aviv. Climbing out of the cab, I stepped around a party of gray-haired Brit tourists gathered at a shop window, checking out the duty-free.

Around behind the old Square, in one of those narrow lanes, I found Schlessinger’s brass plaque on a wall halfway along. Nothing special. Discreet. Stepping from the alley, I mounted the bare stone stairs and went on up. The reception area behind the door at the top was panelled in dark oak. The receptionist was alone behind her desk, she carried on reading her emails. I went over and told her Mr Schlessinger was expecting me. She asked me my name.

“Tell him Mr Smith’s here."

"Mr Smith."

"For the package.”

She got up, pointing me to a chair, and saying she’d just go and see if he was free. Her knuckles brushed the door that led directly off the reception area. There was no answer but she disappeared inside anyway. I gave it a minute. When she still hadn't come out I crossed to the window and parted the slats of the blind. Through the huddle of buildings there were glimpses of the water in the bay. The stern of a ship. Blue sky.

“You can go through now, Mr Smith.”

Schlessinger said “I.D.”, and I dropped the passport on his desk. Leaning forward, he turned a few pages, found the photo, and looked up at me. “How was the flight?” When I didn't answer, he turned a few more pages, then said, "Where'd you get this done?" I still didn't answer, and he snapped the passport shut and slid it back to me. While I was returning the passport to my jacket he said, “Show me your arm.”

We looked at each other awhile. Finally I took off my jacket, unbuttoned the left cuff of my shirt, and pushed up my sleeve. The scar on my bicep wasn't hard to see.

“You staying in Gib?”

“I'm just here to pick up a package.”


I rolled down my shirt-sleeve and rebuttoned my cuff.  He swivelled in his chair, left, right, and then left again, considering me. The silence stretched out between us. At last he asked if I wanted a coffee. When I ignored that, he stopped swivelling. He knew I wouldn't wait forever. He stared at me a while longer, but at last he got tired of that, rose, and went and opened his wall-safe. He made sure to shield it with his body as he tripped the combination. Hard sunlight slanted across the room. He came back and placed a package on the desk between us. I tore off the brown wrapping paper. Inside the package was a metal container, a box about the size of a small cigarette packet. A combination dial stood proud of the lid.

Schlessinger pushed a piece of paper across his desk toward me, and a pen. When I raised an eyebrow, he said, “Confirmation that you’ve taken delivery.” I let the paper sit there, and after a moment he asked, “Problem?”

“Open the box.”

“It arrived here just like that, wrapped in the paper. Apart from putting it in the safe, I haven’t touched it.”

“Open it.”

“I’ve been a lawyer for thirty years. I don’t steal from my clients.”

“I’m not your client.”

“That’s right. And this isn’t your box.”

“Open it.”

He didn't like it, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere with the box until I got to see inside. And I had a sense that what he really wanted now was for me to just take it and leave. In the end he picked up the box, turned his back while he keyed the combination before facing me again.

"This is down to you. If anyone asks me, this is your responsibility."

I rolled my finger, like he should just get on with what he was paid for. He opened the lid of the box, and watched me and waited. I took a good look, and when I was satisfied I picked up the pen and signed the paper on his desk. He really wanted me gone now. He closed the box, reset the combination, and handed the the thing to me. I slipped the box into my jacket, and then I turned and walked out the door.

It was a short walk to the other side of the Square, and in no time I was in a cab and moving. But as the cab drew out of town, and we hit the long straight down to the causeway, the driver suddenly slapped his hands on the wheel. Up ahead there was a queue of traffic tailed back from the border. I leaned forward.

“What’s up?

“Border closed.”

“I just came through twenty minutes ago.”

“Now is closed. We go back?"

“No. Go on.”

Cars were peeling off the queue, driving back towards us, going back into town. I asked the driver when was the last time the border got closed like this. Christmas, he said. Last year. The Spanish had a beef with the Brits, this was what happened, Gibraltar got cut off from the Spanish mainland. Since Franco’s time the closures were always temporary. This one was unlucky for me, worse than unlucky. But as we drove down toward the airport I figured if I just waited a couple of hours they’d reopen the border gates and I'd be okay to walk across like I’d planned.

So when my cab reached the line of stationary traffic I paid and got out. Then I walked on past the cars and trucks, past the airport terminal, but fifty yards short of the border I stopped. Now I really didn’t like what I saw. The barriers weren’t down on the Spanish side, they were down on the Gibraltar side. It was the Brit border-guards who weren’t letting anyone across. Up near the barriers the blocked pedestrians were milling unhappily. Gibraltarian cops were moving through the crowd, inspecting passports, then taking some people aside and inspecting their luggage right there on the sidewalk.

I turned on my heel and walked back to the airport terminal.

“I’m sorry Mr Smith. All our flights are fully booked until the morning.”

“What about business and first class?”

“Fully booked.”

I turned from the counter. A couple more of those local cops were wandering around the concourse now, checking passports. I edged around behind a stranded tour-group, ducked outside, and got myself a cab back into town.

Schlessinger’s receptionist wasn’t at her desk so I hit the Ring For Attention bell a couple of times. When she didn’t appear I went around and knocked on Schlessinger’s half-open door. He didn’t answer, but I saw him in there, seated behind his desk, bending down like he was picking something off the floor.

“They’ve closed the border," I told him, going in. "You'll have to keep the box here in your safe one more day.” I reached into my jacket for the box, but when I got closer to the desk I stopped. He hadn’t moved. I took my hand out of my jacket and went slowly around the desk.

He wasn’t picking something off the floor. His body had keeled over and his right shoulder was wedged against his desk. Blood was pooled near the trash can by his feet. I went as close as I could without stepping in the blood, then I crouched to take a closer look. No sign of a beating. One bullet, from what I could see, entry through the back of the skull. The upper left side of his face was gone. Straightening, I looked around. Everything seemed to be in place. The paperwork on his desk was in two neat piles, his pens stood upright in their holder. Then I went across to the wall-safe. It looked closed, but just to be sure I took a credit card from my wallet and eased it behind the edge of the safe door. The door opened a crack. I put some more pressure on the card and pulled the door wide open. There were papers in there, and two bundled wads of US Dollars. No package, and no second box. With the edge of my card I pushed the door closed again. And then I got the hell out of there.

Down the stairs and into the alley, and I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I almost walked straight into Schlessinger’s secretary. She had a tall latte in each hand, we passed shoulder to shoulder, and I ignored her but she gave me sideways look as I went by. When I reached the bottom of the alley, I stopped and glanced back. She was being real careful with the lattes. She stepped up from the cobbled alleyway into Schlessinger’s building. I turned then and ran.

  © Grant Sutherland