The southern coast of Spain is a country within a country. Like London or New York, it exists alone, a law unto itself. It has its own rules and rhythm and its own way of doing things.
On the morning of our story the coast awoke in a tepid daze, the Mediterranean flat as a dusty mirror, banks of low cloud drifting in over the chiringuitos and dampening the canopies of the hillside allotments.
Down on the beaches the hammock-vendors sprayed the sand in the hope of one more hot day: they´d been enjoying an Indian summer. In Malaga, cars formed rush-hours queues into the city while joggers stretched their calves on the low sea wall in Estepona. Shutters clattered up on the Nerja cafés. Benidorm doorsteps were swept and mopped.
Smoking, sunburnt fishermen winched their nets up in La Caleta, gulls hovering yet still, hungry black eyes staring.
High above the Malaga Mountains a twin-engine Cessna left a vectoring, ever-diffusing trail of ice particles in its wake. A door was open on its glinting, sunlit, sea-ward side and a figure in black appeared, leaping suddenly out, spread-eagled, away from the plane.
In Colmares, an elderly Brit who´d been up since five with gout pains, called out to a passing neighbour, an even older Spaniard, coming back from a walk. They put their hands to their brows and watched as a parachute opened and the bulky, twitching figure rocked from side to side until it meshed with the dark peaks.
By then the mist had mostly cleared, the sun had risen and the Mediterranean was its usual brilliant, diamond-encrusted blue.
“I´ll call the police,” old Ramón mumbled, tipping his stick and walking on.
The cicadas had started. The day had broken. Our story was underway.
Costa del Sol was sitting on a terrace in Lagos with nothing but the flat morning ocean and a dripping beer for company when his phone buzzed. “Heh-low. Who´s this?”
“Heard anything this morning?”
Costa recognised the voice of his friend Dan Sanchéz of the National Police. They´d walked the same path together once – both were half-Spanish, half-English – but the road had forked and each had gone their own way. “Not a birdy. What´s happened?”
“A Cessna carrying Frank Levy the Hollywood producer from Cannes was over Malaga,” Dan listed a few of Levy´s films, well-known low-brow hits, “when a crewmember robbed him and jumped from the plane.”
Costa could hear the hooting Malaga traffic behind Dan. “As far as we know.”
“Where was this?”
“Near Comares. In the mountains behind Velez.”
Costa saw a dolphin break the surface of the morning sea and was hypnotised.
“So?” came his friend´s voice.
“All right. Sure. I´ll give it a go.”
“Get me on this number if you hear anything. Levy´s offering a reward too, so that´s a double incentive this time.”
Costa stood and stretched, dropping a coin onto the table for the beer. He saw an old Scot with a tatty, grey beard standing near his boat.
Costa knew that years back the man had been at this beach with his wife, now long dead, and had lost his wedding ring while swimming.
He came most mornings and walked in the waves looking in vain for the ring. He´d told Costa the whole story years ago.
Costa climbed into his small boat and fired the engine. Waving at the old man – they hardly ever spoke – he roared off across the grey, glassy surface planning how he was going to spend his reward.
Stopping halfway up the mountainside under the merciless, mid-morning sun, Costa turned to look back at the blue grin of the ocean. He had boltholes everywhere down there, from Marbella to Denia. That hazy coast was his world.
Another hour´s climb and he reached the spot where Sánchez said the man had come down. It was bare and exposed, rock patches poking from the scrub like dirty kneecaps. Costa found tip-toe boot marks and strands of black cotton snagged on a bush and realised what had happened: the thief had landed and bounced.
He searched the brittle, dry foliage until he found, balled up and half-buried, a parachute. “Bingo!”
There were no signs of a struggle. No blood. No treasure.
The heat was intense, like dragon´s breath; the sun seemed too close.
Costa, panting hard, looked about, saw broken twigs and followed the route his man must have taken. He found a fresh cigarette butt and a keyring label which read, ´Michelangelo´.
There was nothing else. A shadow eagle gyred silently in the bright emptiness above.
Below, fifty metres steep scrabble away, Costa saw the end of a cul-de-sac which led towards a clump of white-roofed houses. Further beyond, in the haze, lay Velez-Malaga and the sea-front blocks of Torre del Mar.
Costa clawed his way back up the mountainside on all fours like an ape, dripping sweat.
Reaching his bike, mildly dizzy, he spotted a dark backpack squashed into the middle of a bush. He noticed a logo through the thorns: one of Levy´s films Sánchez had mentioned.
The thief wasn´t alone, Costa realised immediately. Two people fell from the sky this morning.
Jack Levy was sitting outside Malaga cathedral with his wife when his phone rang. It was Mr Rabinovich. “Where are ya, ya big mutt?” Levy cried.
“Torre del Mar,” came the voice of his trusted bodyguard, reading a sign. Outside the call-box the beach was busy, children eating ice-cream under the blue-striped lighthouse as a plane trailing an advert droned downcoast.
“Tell me you´ve got the ring?”
“No, Mr Levy. I make a strong landing. I lose mind in landing for a few minutes.”
“You get that little…?” Levy cursed despite himself. He looked up at the bell-tower and rolled his eyes; waved at his worried wife and blew her a kiss. It´s fine, it´s fine.
“No, Mr Levy. They get away. But you don´t worry. I know this place. I work here many times. I find ring. I find ring, bring bad person back.”
“No! You find ring and you kill ´em. You hear me? You find my ring and you…”
As Mr Rabinovich held the receiver away from his ear, Costa del Sol steered his noisy moped around the roundabout behind the call-box, drawing to a halt at a kiosk whose plump owner was sitting outside on a deckchair.
“Looking for Michelangelo,” Costa tried, putting on his best Andalusian accent. It was the fifth time he´d asked the question in an hour.
“Si, si. Straight down there, past the fairground. It´s the last block on the right,” came the answer. Costa felt a surge of power light him up like Christmas.
“Jo´! ¿Que calor hace, eh?” said the big man, mopping his brow. My God, it´s hot, eh?
“Oh, yes,” Costa replied, snapping down his visor. “Hot indeed.”
Costa didn´t notice Mr Rabinovich staring at him as he drove off.
Costa found the building called Michelangelo easily enough but the entrance gates were all locked. It was siesta time, hot and hazy, and Costa decided there was nothing for it but a cold beer.
Between the block and the noisy beach was a fairground, covered up and shabby. Costa sat on the edge of the dodgem track, sipped and stared.
One day he would write his memoirs. Tell the truth about Alicante´s Battle of the Espetos, or what really happened with the rasta weavers in Torremolinos.
And then he saw him. All in black, crash helmet on, visor down. It was the limp and the mountain dust on his leather trousers that told Costa everything he needed to know. Draining the beer, Costa saddled up and cruised out of the gravel car park, joining the traffic three cars back from his mark, also on a bike.
They drove away from the beach. Costa didn´t know the town well and wasn´t sure where they were until he read what was written on the archway the man had vanished through.
Small, walled in.
Costa grabbed the first flowers he saw and followed. The man in black stopped in front of a four-level tomb and took off his crash helmet, revealing one of the most fascinating women Costa had seen in his life.
As she shook out her long hair Costa caught the glint of a ring before a great hulk materialised and got the woman in a hold. The pair disappeared behind the grey tomb wall.
When Costa came to where the woman had been standing he saw the marks of her heels in the dust. On the ledge in front of a grave marked Pedro Ramirez he saw a diamond ring.
The woman or the ring?
Costa made his choice.
The only jeweller Costa trusted owned a shop in the old town in Marbella.
To get there he drove to his flat in Malaga and picked up the car. A quick shower and an hour later he was walking through the tinkling door of Emile´s store.
Jenna, Emile´s wife, who made the amber and amethyst jewellery they sold out front, gave Costa a double take. “Oh! It´s you. I didn´t recognise you.” She sighed. “I never recognise you!”
“The day you do, I´m done. Is Emile in?”
A moment later a thin, tanned, pointy-bearded face appeared through the beads. “Come, come.”
Emile asked no questions. He bent and examined the jewel after expertly prising it from its golden bed. “It´s a fake,” he declared, holding it up by the culet.
“Has the stamp on the ring of an old friend of mine from Aix-en-Provence. Always a bad ´un.”
“Sold to a well-known guy, they told me. Hollywood figure.” Costa pocketed the ring and left a note on the counter.
“Yes, I know,” Emile replied, folding up his glasses and the money. “But, you know, Costa, those people sell lies for a living. This type of thing is bound to happen. Karma, you know. Karma, my friend.”
Costa retraced his steps. He called Dan Sanchéz on the way back down the motorway. The ring´s a fake, he said. Call Levy and tell him.
“He´ll want to meet you,” Sanchez replied. “Check you´ve got proof.”
“I´ll meet him at the Molino in Lagos tomorrow morning at first light.”
“He´ll want to meet you before that, Costa. Come to Malaga. He has offices here.”
“Tomorrow. The Molino in Lagos. First light. Beers on me.”
An hour later, as the sun went down, Costa walked back into the cemetery at Torre del Mar.
Costa lay in the dirt and heard a scratching nearby. Was it a rat or a cockroach? Which would he prefer?
What are you doing lying on the floor in a locked cemetery? He asked himself.
The full moon shone bright as bleached bone. The night was cloudless, starless and silent. Costa didn´t know what day it was: maybe Sunday, from the traffic? Days didn´t happen to him like they did to other people. Time didn’t work in the same way.
He needed to write his memoirs, settle down, live a normal life.
He heard a grinding squeal from the keyhole in the gate and, a second later, the roar and chug of bike being fired up. Off went the groundsman for his dinner.
Costa sat up and brushed himself off. The air was sweet with the sickly smell of dying flowers. He didn’t like cut flowers: sometimes thought he could hear them screaming.
Death was not so bad, Costa thought. It was dying that was awful.
He quickly found the tomb he´d seen the woman in front of. My god, that woman. Burnt into his mind. Never spoken to her but felt he knew her. Why had he come back?
Costa read the inscription and the dates on the tomb. Who was this? The woman´s father? Brother? She´d looked – what? – maybe mid-thirties, forties? Hard to tell.
Costa took out the fake, stolen ring and held it up to the light. He heard a bestial snuffle from behind his back and turned to see a man mountain eclipsing the moon.
“Hey! There you are,” Costa managed before the monster´s knuckle-duster collided with his cheek.
Jack Levy stepped out of the police car and pulled a face. “This? This is the place?”
Lagos lay in a nondescript bay between Malaga and Nerja. The morning air was warm but the sea was rough. It rolled in diagonally, grouchy, as though it hadn´t slept well.
Dan Sánchez tried to look positive. “He´ll be here. Let´s get your wife´s ring and get this whole thing finished up.”
The bar was locked so they clambered over a wall near a children´s playground and dodged a smelly, grinning tramp who walked past and bade them good morning.
The tide was high and the uneven beach played hell with Levy´s bad knees. He cursed loudly, moreso when Sánchez led him up the narrow, stone steps to an empty terrace bar.
As Levy screamed in frustration, Sánchez spotted a note flapping on one of the tables, weighed down by an empty beer bottle.
Your real enemies are not aliens, terrorists or armies, Mr Levy, the note read. Your real enemy is Monsieur Olivier Bouche of Aix-en-Provence. The ring is false. The love of your wife is real.
Love, Pedro Ramirez.
Half an hour earlier Costa had finished his beer and the note and stretched in the blustery wind. His limbs were bruised, one eye half-closed, cheek purple.
Walking down the steps he´d shouted in surprise, pointing into wet sand where the waves were retreating, calling out to the sad old Scot. “Look! Look what I´ve found.”
Leaving the tramp staring at the ring like it was his wife herself, Costa del Sol gunned his launch and set off across the rough, rolling waves.
Mr Rabinovich would be waking up now, bound and gagged.
Costa would make him tell him where that woman was if it was the last thing he´d ever do.