Fora de la Paella...[Out of the Frying Pan...]
by Paula Stiles
Part One of Three
Disclaimers: They're not mine. They're Fireworks. The song, "The House You Live In" is by Gordon Lightfoot and does not belong to me, either. The story is mine.
This is a sequel to Tesoro.
When you're out on the road and feeling quite lost,
Consider the burden of fate.
And he who is wise will not criticize
When other men fail at the gate.
Beware of strange faces and dark, dingy places.
Be careful while bending the law.
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at your door.
October, 1813, somewhere outside Barcelona, Spain
If you take the time to think about it, torture is one of the more tedious activities in life (or death). They ask you questions that you don't want to answer. You lie. They hit you and ask you again. You lie. You get hit again. You tell them to go bugger themselves. They hit you again. Eventually, you pass out. They throw a bucket of water in your face and try again. You tell them off again. In the end, you either give them what they want, die from the abuse, or face a bullet at dawn. Very simple, really. Not a complicated job at all. That's why they get fools like me to risk it.
Wellington wants Catalonia, and whatever Wellington wants, Wellington gets. I have been sent out to stir up the sometents--the local peasant militias. Too bad for me that Napoleon wants to keep it as much as Wellington wants it. Like any honest soldier, I'm trapped between two giants, and neither of them cares whether I live or die. This is a fool's errand, at any rate, as the last thing that the peasants need right now is encouragement. Famine and epidemics are everywhere, partly due to our own blockades of the coast. Maybe some one just wants me out of the way. If so, he may get his wish. When I quit my apothecary training and joined the Army, I had dreams of becoming a doctor--or at least a surgeon. I seemed to be trapped in an endless apprenticeship to my profession in England. I thought that the Army would help me fix that problem. I didn't know the Army, then. The Army makes of you what it wants, not what you want.
Some time after they caught me, the sun went down. Shadows from the lamp in the corner flicker across the sooty, whitewashed wall. It is hot and dry, even inside this old house. The whole countryside seems set to catch fire.
"Com es diu?"
"No l'entenc." This earns me a slap in the face that makes my head ring. It's understandable, I suppose. I understand Catalan quite well, having just answered in it. I just don't feel like telling him my name. So, my response is a lie. A lie gets you punished in this game.
"Quién es tu?"
"No le entiendo." The smack is harder, and well earned. Obviously, I know exactly what he's saying, or I wouldn't have responded in Castilian. I wish that my hands weren't tied to the back of this chair, though, or I'd give back as good as I'd just got. I can't even kick him. They have tied each of my feet to a chair leg.
"Qui es-tu?" he asks silkily in French. Smart bastard. They've got an educated one in for this interrogation--or at least, a better educated one than the last crapaud who interrogated me. He didn't live long, that one. They're catching up to me. Have to be careful, now, but it is so hard with my head ringing and blood running down into my eyes and down the side of my nose. I can taste it, the blood. It tastes like dead meat in a slaughterhouse--the carnisseria as they'd call it here. It almost masks the pervasive smell of onions in the house. I wonder what happened to the owner? Does he even have a grave?
Have to stay in character, now. I am just an illiterate Catalan peasant, not...not what they're looking for.
"No l'entenc," I reply, like a good peasant, not, 'Je ne comprends pas,' as I ache to do, just to irritate him more. I am not some illiterate dirt scratcher, you French bastard. I am a British soldier on reconaissance (not a spy, never a dirty spy), and I must stay in my cover. It is a damned nuisance that Colonel Pierson back in the line insisted I shave. If it weren't for his bloody obsession with military regulations, I'd look like a proper peasant right now, and not like an enemy officer with a week's bristle. If I hadn't been rushed out into the field with no proper briefing, I might not have been caught anyway.
Frenchie grabs my hair, which is just long enough to be yanked back (I shall have to get a haircut when--if--I get back in ranks). He is almost as ragged as I am, unhappy to be here, I think. Napoleon has found the resistance to his occupation of Catalonia draining. Frenchie pulls a pistol out of his belt, presses it against my cheek, then says, enunciating very clearly in English, "Who. Are. You? English?"
Bollocks. The game's up, it seems. Well, Hell, I'll just have to muddle through. It's either that or a musket shot in the back of the head--and I will get that either way, if I cannot brazen this out. Come on, Rob, old boy, you've been in it worse, even if you can't think of a worse time just now.
I grin up at him with the taste of blood in my teeth. "No l'entenc," I insist. "Ves te'n a la merda, francès."
The blow knocks me out this time. He doesn't even give me time to spit in his face. I reckon he doesn't like being told to bugger off in Catalan--unless he doesn't understand the language. If that's so, he's just hitting me on sheer principle.
I come to in a haze of blood. My jaw hangs open. I can feel my own drool oozing down my collarbone. Not a good sign. The son of a bitch still hovers above me, grinning. Why can't any of these French boys get some dental work? His teeth are rotting inside of his head, black and reeking, as he shoves his face right in mine. Nearby, one of the guards eats an orange. The smell reaches me from across the room, sweet and citrusy.
"Qui. Es.Tu. Ingles?" my interrogator says again.
"Va te faire f--" My head smacks against the chair this time, when he hits me. The room explodes into a burst of white light, then fades. It takes me longer, I think, to come back this time. Hard to tell. Whoever told them who I was, I don't think it's the little girl, even though she must have been the one who set this French patrol on to me out in the street. Maybe she reckoned me for a somatent. That will teach me to give a piece of bread and a coin to the odd urchin. Never mind that feeding a poor Catalan orphan was completely within character. Still, she's too young and too local to know who I am, only what. Can't be her, then.
Frenchie grabs my chin. "Philippe," he calls. The man with the orange casually finishes it and ambles over. "Le couteau," Frenchie says. "Tiens-lui." Philippe hands over a big knife, the type that you would use on a sheep, then ambles around behind me and wipes his hand across my face, smearing it with orange juice. He grabs my hair and yanks back my head. Frenchie sets the point of the knife under my chin, forcing my head back more. I get an excellent view of the ceiling's underthatch, while the sharp pain from the knife keeps me from fading out again. I gag on the blood running down my throat.
"Basta!" I can't see the man who comes charging into the room, but his command does make Frenchie pause. "Dejale en paz," the man continues in Spanish. Frenchie and his mate Philippe don't move. That's a little peace, then. I try to keep breathing--as normally as I can with a sharp object digging into my throat, anyway.
"Ahora!" At the man's impatience, Frenchie takes the knife away and Philippe lets go of my hair. They both stay close, though. As I bring my head down, I see the man. He's dressed like a civilian, in clothing that had once been well-made but now is dusty and worn. Automatically, my mind begins to ask questions about him. Who is he? A merchant? A nobleman from the court in Madrid? A spy? A deserter? Is he the man who told them about me? How could he, if I've never laid eyes on him before? Where could he have seen me out of cover?
"Ce n'est pas votre affaire, Señor," Frenchie snarls. "Il est Anglais." The man stiffens, looking outraged at the suggestion that he should mind his own business.
If this man really is the spy who betrayed me, then God help him if I get free.
He starts arguing with Frenchie. It seems torturing British spies isn't what our wayward nobleman signed on for. I find it difficult to follow the dispute; I keep greying out. Someday, if I survive all this, I will go home and become a local hero. Children will laugh at me and throw fireworks at my house on Guy Fawkes Night.
"There lives that crazy man who fought in the War," they'll say. "He was hit on the head too many times." Then again, it will probably snow in Hell before I get back home.
Frenchie wins the argument, or at least a pause. He shoves the man back to the wall, waving the knife under his nose. The man flinches, but still glares back at Frenchie defiantly. Maybe he has got some guts, after all.
"Philippe!" Frenchie snaps. Looking bored, Philippe grabs my hair again and yanks back my head.
"Tell us--who are you, English?" Frenchie hisses, hovering over me as he shoves his pistol back into his belt. Oh, please. I joined the Army just to give Frenchie what he wants here and now? I don't think so. I spit at him. He hits me again.
When I come back this time, the man has gone and my respite is over. I hear Frenchie shout, "Michel! L'amène!"
They bring in the girl.
March, 1820, Santa Elena
I'm still wiping off my hands with a towel when I enter Colonel Montoya's office. The soldiers didn't give me much time to wash after I got back into town. Montoya is there at his desk, in his ridiculously overcarved, high-backed chair. "You sent for me?" I say, feeling tired enough to be hostile just for fun. I haven't been sleeping well and it has been a hard week. Besides, Montoya irritates me even on a good day.
Montoya barely glances up at me before going back to writing. "Yes, close the door behind you, please. I would like for this conversation to remain confidential."
"Fair enough," I say warily, and do as he asks. I come over to the desk and stand there, waiting for him to dismiss me or tell me to sit down. He had better hurry up or I'll end up on the floor. I have a headache beginning just behind my right eye.
The room is silent except for a few flies buzzing out on the veranda and the scratching of Montoya's pen on paper. When I stifle a yawn, he looks up. "You may sit," he says.
"Thank you." I pull up a chair from the wall and drop into it. He continues to write for a few minutes, long enough for me to drift off, leaning my head on one fist.
"Doctor." The sharp call wakes me right up. I sit up, blinking at him.
Montoya frowns at me over the desk. "I am aware that your duties can be wearisome. However, I would prefer that you refrain from napping in my presence." One eyebrow goes up. "Besides, you snore."
"Do I? I'd never noticed that." It's a ridiculous statement--how would I know? But I'm feeling contrary. "Perhaps you could tell me what I'm doing here?"
"Yes, that." Montoya shuffles his paperwork--more tax documentation, no doubt. by God, he looks uneasy. "I want you to conduct an investigation for me."
He shakes his head. "Not of what, whom. Gaspar Hidalgo."
I raise my eyebrows at this. "Ga--Don Hidalgo? Surely you're joking. What do you want to investigate him for?"
"Information has been brought to my attention that Don Hidalgo engaged in treasonous activities during the French occupation of Spain."
I laugh. I knew Montoya hated Hidalgo for creating the Council of Dons last fall, but this is ludicrous. "Hidalgo? A traitor? Out of the question." Montoya's scowl deepens. "Oh, come on, Colonel. Hidalgo is no more a traitor to Spain than you are a man of the cloth."
"Indeed, I thank Heaven frequently that I am not the latter." Montoya cocks his head to one side. "Normally, I would agree with you about Gaspar Hidalgo, Doctor. However, this is a very serious charge and I must investigate it fully."
"You've ignored all sorts of 'serious' charges in the past, when it suited you. Why investigate this one? Hell, I can't even imagine which of the dons would lay such a charge. And I can't imagine you paying any attention to anyone else." I lean forward, my elbows on my knees. "Why bring me into this? Is it because you know no one would believe any inquiry that Grisham made of Don Hidalgo?"
"Would you believe me if I said I had chosen you for your deductive skills?" he says. I snort and he smiles sourly. "Very well. As it turns out, I brought you into this because certain aspects of this case, I believe, may concern you directly."
Continue to Part Two
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