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.