Hotel Bahia in springtime Spain seems like a lovely place, except for the dead Brit swinging from the ceiling fixture. Appearing like a suicide, at least one aspect isn't right: The knife that cut the cord used for the hanging isn't present in the room. Funny thing, the way those dead men clean up after themselves. Soon a disinterested sister arrives, packs up a few of the dead man's belongings, and leaves town with the setting sun. Stan Bullock, local businessman and part-time British Consul performs his post-mortem duties and files away the incident, but Lieutenant Quiroga arrives, shaking a collection of disparate clues like a bag of bones—a previously dead naval officer, the arrest of Algerian criminals—all hovering around a yacht named Serene Maiden. Nothing about this death will settle itself, and whether he likes it or not, Consul Bullock looks like he’s being roped into the mystery. Part pot-boiler, part whodunit, Skinner's tale has stowed intrigue and corruption for a voyage into the Spanish drug trade and a crime ring run by dangerous people.
A crude awakening
Hotel Bahia, Vigo. 3rd of March 2004
Pedro was drying off in the shower and was about to scent and powder his body before dressing for breakfast, when his wife came bursting into the bathroom. Half dressed and taking deep breaths on each word, she muttered, ‘there’s a woman…outside, screaming…’ Unhooking the hotel bathrobe, he wrapped it around his shoulders and without hesitation rushed out into the corridor. A chambermaid was standing in front of the room opposite, half leaning against her trolley hollering at the top of her voice. Cleaning liquid spilled on the floor.
‘He’s dead!’ she kept shouting, over and over again in regular overtone spasms.
Pedro pushed her to one side, swung the door wide open and looked inside. A man, in his underwear was hanging from the ceiling lamp. It was an early Tuesday morning; the tourist season was a couple of months away.
Stan Bullock, Honorary British Consul in Vigo was attending the annual consular conference in Madrid when he received a call on his mobile from his secretary at the Mauro shipping agency where he worked.
‘Morning Sir. A police officer, Felipe Garcia from the Taboada station just called. I told him you’re in Madrid. He says a Brit was found dead in a hotel room; looks like a suicide; says you’ve got the number.’
‘OK, thanks. I’ll take if from here.’
Stan normally allowed his staff to take down any particulars, but when he was out of town he preferred to deal direct with any matters involving a Brit in distress. Checking his emergency numbers he was soon on to the station asking for Lieutenant Garcia. Two hours earlier, he’d been in the middle of a heated discussion about the future reorganization of the worldwide British consular network. It included Spain, one of the largest in the world. All consular reps from around the country were present. Two staff from London was explaining the new procedures.
‘Don’t agree. You can’t just put all worldwide consular posts into a common basket and expect us to dance to the same tune.’
Stan was outside the main conference room during the break sharing a coffee with Vice Consul Danny Wilton, a twenty-five year veteran at the Madrid office, who was Stan’s point of contact.
‘Sign of the times, Stan. London wants profit and loss accounting on all our work. Focus on where the money is coming from and how it’s being spent. Welcome to diplomatic globalisation.’
‘OK. Great, but they also expect us to look after some holiday Brit who’s fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. What account would this come under?’ He was continuing with more rhetoric when he was advised of the tragedy at the Vigo hotel.
Two police cars and an ambulance were soon at the scene. Four police officers joined a team of paramedics that made their way to the second floor of the hotel.
‘Clear the area! Stand back everybody,’ said Lieutenant Garcia as he moved the now gathered crowd away from the room. It had not taken long for other residents and most of the hotel staff to rush to the scene of the tragedy. The lieutenant looked at the mini-mob. He picked on a young suit-and-tie executive. ‘Are you from the hotel?’
‘Yes Sir. I’m the duty counter clerk. I’ve already called the manager and he’s on his way.’
‘Good’. The lieutenant then entered the room, looked at the hanging corpse for a few seconds and then pulled out his notepad in routine police fashion. Two of the other police were ushering the onlookers to return to their rooms or down to the lobby and under no circumstances to leave the hotel. Before they began to move, the lieutenant went out into the corridor and hollered, ‘has anyone touched anything?’
There was a general shaking of bemused heads. ‘OK’, carry on.’ He went back into the room, using his mobile called the duty magistrate’s office.
Lieutenant Garcia walked around the body, looking at but not touching it, whilst his assistant took a set of photographs from different angles in the room. Garcia had a habit of mumbling to himself when taking routine notes of events such as ‘deaths by misadventure’. ‘Only worn garment, his underwear,’ looking at the head he went on, ‘used a curtain cord, cut off with a knife. Where’s the knife?’ He began searching the bedroom, all the time mumbling away as he scribbled on his pad. ‘Clothes neatly folded, bed unturned: un-slept. Let’s see, what have we here?’ A copy of the ‘Economist’ was lying amongst the hotel bumph on the main table. Meanwhile, his assistant was searching through the room furniture.
Officer Fernandez hollered from aside the open wardrobe, ‘Lieutenant, there’s a large suitcase, abrief case and a laptop in here; permission to check it out.’
He took both out and placed them on the bed, opened the briefcase and looked inside. There were three credit cards, an airline ticket, several copies of a brochure on sea travels called ‘Maiden Voyages’, a mobile phone, several sets of copies of e-mails neatly clipped together under port headings, pens, paper clips, stapling machine and finally the all important identification document; a British passport.
‘Here you are Sir.’
He opened it and flipped through the pages. As usual he mumbled, ‘Donald Simmons. Born: Liverpool, England, 4th of January 1968.’ He turned to the back of the passport. ‘Sarah Rose Simmons. Address: Nº 16, Kings St., Manchester, Lancashire, M24NG.’ Lieutenant Garcia gave the passport back to his assistant and called his office.
‘Rosa? Call Mauro’s shipping people and tell them that there’s a dead Brit here in Hotel Bahia. They’ll know what to do.’
Stan was on his way to Chamartin railway station to take the night sleeper. His meetings had ended at five pm and he’d spent the last four hours browsing around the centre before making his way north. Danny had taken care of informing the British Foreign Office with the personal details of the Brit found dead in the hotel. Lieutenant Garcia had not given any further details over the phone other than those regarding his death. Stan had never handled such a case and was not looking forward to the following day’s ordeal.
‘Don’t worry,’ Danny had said, ‘police will take care of everything. Just make sure the next of kin are looked after. That’s the hard part. They’re bound to be flying out no sooner they find out that the poor sod’s snuffed it.’
Stan was also concerned with the ‘Caledonia’ coming in on her regular cruise stop prior to returning to Southampton with over three thousand passengers on board. He had to go straight to the docks from the railway station to meet her once he got back in the morning. Trust my bloody luck he thought as he continued to amble around the station bookstores and cafes.
‘According to the register, this Englishman arrived yesterday. Did anybody call or meet up with him?’ Lieutenant Garcia was with the hotel manager in his office.
‘Not to our knowledge, Sir. He hadn’t even been out of his room.’
The search in the bedroom had finished, most guests were allowed to go about their business whilst the police were awaiting the arrival of the duty magistrate. The Lieutenant was about to continue with his enquiries when magistrate Consuelo Pacheco arrived.
‘Ms. Pacheco, we’ve got a foreigner this time. Looks like a suicide case although we didn’t find any note or anything. No signs of foul play. The ambulance is waiting for your go ahead. Ah! I’ve spoken to the Consul, but he’s in Madrid. Back tomorrow.’
Ms. Pacheco was satisfied. It didn’t take long for her to order the removal of the corpse to be sent to the local morgue for an autopsy. At that moment, the local press arrived ready to pick up the sordid details. The police eventually went back to the station to write up the report.
When Stan arrived at the Vigo railway station the following morning, he walked up to the newsstand to purchase the local paper. The news of the death was in the left hand corner of the front page. He skipped through the pages searching for the section with the full report. There were no photos, just a few lines suggesting a suicide and that the police were still checking it out. Thank God for that he thought, at least the press is not making a meal out of it. He hailed a cab and headed straight for the port. It was quarter to eight in the morning and the ‘Caledonia’ was due to dock in fifteen minutes. Once on board, Captain Reynolds gave Stan the usual documents plus the ship’s log for countersignature confirming satisfaction with all routine docking activities handled by the agent’s staff. He just flipped through the front-page checklist before signing both copies. Fuel and water: OK. Pilot: OK. Wharf and gangway procedures: OK. Immigration and customs: OK. Passenger movement: None. Stan would normally stay for a coffee with Captain Reynolds and discuss any ‘off the cuff’ business that needed attention. Not this time.
‘I’ve got to get back to the office Captain, urgent business.’ He began to perspire heavily as he walked down the gangplank and across the docks towards his office. Stan had second thoughts.
The Taboada police station was just around the corner from the Mauro shipping agency. Instead of reporting back, Stan headed for the station. The ‘Caledonia’ can wait he thought she’ll be around all day. It was already nine and the entrance was crowded with immigrants and Spaniards queuing to renew or receive new ID cards. There was a third line of foreigners; all awaiting appointments with the authorities, hoping for legal residence permits. Stan knew his way around as he’d visited the police on several previous occasions to interview the odd delinquent Brit. The issue of his residence permit was another. He made his way through the melee and managed to make the elevator half way down the corridor. Lieutenant Garcia’s office was on the 3rd floor.
‘The Lieutenant isn’t in yet, Sr. Bullock. He won’t be long.’ Stan thought for a moment and then smiled at the young secretary. ‘He’s across the park isn’t he?’ She smiled back.
Stan found Garcia at the counter of the ‘Alameda’ coffee shop. The place was chocker full of the morning ‘cafelito’ mob, all eating and munching their daily breakfast of coffee and ‘churros’. Most were deeply immersed in the bar’s freely available daily newspapers. Garcia was checking the sports page of the Atlantico, the local rag as Stan sat down beside him.
He looked up. ‘Sr. Bullock! What a surprise, thought you were in Madrid.’ He put the paper down. ‘Sorry about the dead man. Sad case when people take their lives. The corpse is at the Nicolas Peña Hospital for the autopsy.’
‘I’m waiting for a call from Madrid as they’re in contact with the family.’ Stan was still a bit nervous but determined to find out more. ‘Lieutenant, how do you determine that it was…? I mean…’
Garcia smiled as he interrupted Stan in his mid-sentence. ‘Instinct first Sr. Bullock, investigation next, suicide notes, hundreds of scientists with rubber gloves turning the room upside down only appear in the movies. Unless the forensic find anything unusual with the body, it’s a clear case of suicide.’
Lieutenant Garcia nevertheless assured Stan that all possible angles of the investigation would be concluded. ‘No stone will be left unturned. Remember Sr. Consul, that we have all the deceased’s belongings. Once the funeral arrangements are dealt with his relatives will have to sign off the register at the magistrate before disposal. More bureaucracy, I’m afraid.’
More headaches for me thought Stan, still not sure of the procedures. He was about to leave when a call came through on his mobile. It was Danny from Madrid advising him that London had forwarded NOK flight details. According to the e-mail, a Ms. Joan Flashman would be on flight IB578 arriving Vigo around one pm on Friday.
Two days later, Stan was at the airport with his driver holding up the usual identification card with ‘Joan Flashman’ printed in large letters when a middle aged woman dressed in scruffy jeans and blue polo neck jumper appeared through the exit gate. Her only luggage was a small green rucksack hung over her shoulder.
‘Ms. Flashman? I’m Stan Bullock the consul; very sorry to…’ He was cut short.
Far from bereaved, the woman looked worried and nervous yet went straight to the point. ‘Cut the sorrow. Your London people briefed us on procedures but left the details to you, so, what next?’
A startled Stan thought what the hell? Before he could answer Joan cleared the mystery. ‘It’s OK. I’m the company secretary from ‘Maiden Voyages’. Donald Simmons and his sister have been estranged for years. He has no other family. Need to clear this up as soon as possible.’
Stan was not quite sure how to take the icy reception, nevertheless without uttering another word he escorted her out into the car park and once in the car ordered the driver to head for the magistrate’s office and thence on to the funeral parlour.
‘What are the family’s wishes regarding the remains of Mr. Simmons, Ms. Flashman?’ asked the funeral parlour manager as he handed her an initial set of papers to sign. ‘The consul will take care of the repatriation documents later.’
Joan Flashman had brought the appropriate power of attorney authorising her to deal with the body including the retrieval of Donald’s belongings at the magistrate’s office. ‘They would prefer cremation and local burial as soon as possible, any problem?’
In the usual diplomatic manner the manager enquired about payment, as there was no indication of insurance or other means of reimbursing the costs.
‘What’s the total bill please?’
The manager began to rummage through the documents and fiddle with a hand calculator when Joan added, ‘I’ll be paying in cash, is that OK?’ She turned and looked at Stan. ‘When the ashes are ready, please take them and scatter them across the bay, is there anything else that needs my presence? I’ve got to catch the evening flight back to Madrid for some unfinished business!’
Without another sign of either grief or feeling and as the manager handed the receipt, Joan pulled out a wad of two hundred Euro bills and paid the cost in full. As they were approaching Stan’s car and pointing at the boot, he asked, ‘what about his belongings?’
Joan Flashman thought for a moment. ‘I’ll take care of his PC. You can hand over the rest to a charity.’
His passport would be returned to the General Consulate in Madrid.
‘Your wife’s already gone home!’ said Penelope, Stan’s secretary as he finally got back to his office. It was gone seven-thirty in the evening.
‘It’s been a hell of a day; hope you calmed her down as usual.’ Without a word, Penelope pulled out an envelope and handed it to her boss. ‘She gave me this. Concert starts in an hour’s time.’
Mauro Shipping Agency, Vigo.
A week after Donald Simmons’ death Stan received the unexpected visit of a Corunna based civil guard, Lieutenant Sergio Quiroga. He was in his office preparing for the visit of another cruise ship, the ‘Fountain of the Sea’.
‘Good morning, Sr. Consul, remember me?’
Stan recalled the face and then smiled. ‘Yes, of course…Lieutenant Quiroga, the case of the drowned retired British Navy officer last year. What brings you to Vigo?’
‘Just a hunch, Sr. Consul, just a hunch; it’s this suicide last week involving a Brit, something didn’t click.’
Stan was puzzled at first, then inquisitive. ‘How come the civil guards up north have taken an interest?’
‘They haven’t. It’s personal. Some authorities are quick to get rid of foreigners who suddenly die on their patch. The tourist trade is too important for them to be embarrassed by a death, especially of those who commit suicide.’
Stan followed the argument through confirming the details of the investigation until it suddenly dawned on him. ‘I see you’re well versed.’ Sergio explained that he’d read the news in the papers and that his curiosity had taken over. He then asked for the police report.
‘Let’s say I have a suspicious mind if other cops react too quickly.’
Once again, Stan looked puzzled. Sergio clarified that access to confidential information between different sectors of the country’s security agencies was quite common. If a department feels that an incident or event needs further checking just in case it may relate to other criminal investigations the authorities in question are quite happy to hand over any details of a particular case. ‘No different to your country Sr. Consul or between our countries’ police, don’t you agree?’
‘OK, I give in. What’s it got to do with me anyway? I’ve carried out all the consular duties, you know that.’
Sergio hesitated for a moment, looked behind him to make sure they were not within hearing distance of a third party, turned and said, ‘I think that your Brit, Donald Simmons did not commit suicide.’
Stan was taken aback. ‘Why?’
‘Didn’t you notice anything odd with the deceased’s belongings? No of course not. You’re not a cop.’
The report had said that Simmons had hung himself with one of the curtain cords yet there was no knife in the room. The second clue was that he was due to leave the next day, but not back to England. His airline ticket was an open-ended roundtrip to Santo Domingo. Stan thought for a moment and simply responded, ‘so what, a worldly tour like many others?’
‘Could be.’ Sergio smiled. ‘I suppose it does justify an extra large suitcase. I did some of my own research and checked on any previous visits to Spain by a Mr. Donald Simmons. Guess what? He’s been in and out of Galicia several times over the past six months.’
‘Sounds like a world traveller, what’s so odd about that?’ uttered Stan sarcastically.
Sergio ignored the remark. ‘There was one other piece of evidence that the police overlooked; a holiday brochure titled ‘Maiden Voyages’.
Stan’s apprehension began to turn.
‘I looked it up on the Internet. It’s a round-trip yachting business that includes trips down to Lisbon from Falmouth in the UK. The page lists among others, two large yachts, the ‘Serene Maiden’ and the ‘Gentle Maiden’. They alternate on the runs. Names of Directors in the business: Glen Richards, Jerry Fulton, Ron Stanton, Mavis Stanton and…guess what…a Mr. Donald Simmons!’
Both men stared in silence.
‘Coming back to this British naval officer you dealt with last year. He disappeared off a yacht and the body appeared much later on the rocks off Corme, right?’
‘Yes, go on.’
‘It was the name of the yacht that struck a chord…‘Serene Maiden’.’
‘Could’ve been a coincidence but there’s still another point which is even more puzzling. Were you involved in the arrest a few days ago of a couple of Algerian criminals caught with several packets of cocaine, false documents and a dozen stolen credit cards?’
‘No, but I rememberthe press sayingit was just another drug raid; pretty routine around here wouldn’t you say?’
‘You may be right.’ Sergio got up and picked up a calendar on Stan’s desk. For a few seconds he browsed through the pages and then put it back. ‘But you see Sr. Consul amongst all the garbage these guys had on them was a diary with strange jottings and dates…’
‘Wait! I’m losing you …all this investigation, how come your cop colleagues’ haven’t come to the same conclusions?’
Again Sergio fell silent as if searching for the right words. ‘The suicide case was closed just under a week ago. All info filed. My ‘cop colleagues’ as you call them, who caught these goons are up in Orense; another province, another town and another police station.’
Stan was more confused than ever. Lieutenant Sergio Quiroga, a civil guard from the Corunna HQ, a hundred and eighty miles away, was offloading conjectural information and analysis on a dead Brit down in Vigo. Sergio sat down and again picked up the desk calendar. He looked up at Stan and then bent forward towards him as if intending to whisper.
‘When they translated some of the notes there was mention of meetings with ‘a contact’ in Vigo including the day Simmons died.’
‘How come the police in Orense didn’t come to the same conclusion?’
‘Good question, but they didn’t. There’s a hell of a lot more to these related incidents, but…’ He got up, leaned on the desk and in an odd pleading manner said, ‘I think Mr. Simmons was murdered, Sr. Consul!’
Stan instinctively began to scratch his nose followed on by rubbing his chin. Ms. Flashman’s odd reactions were still vivid in his mind.
‘What exactly is it you want from me, Lieutenant?’
Sergio suggested a more relaxed and convenient place to talk. Stan thought for a moment and without answering got up and reached for his jacket.
‘Let’s go across the road.’
As they made their way to the exit Sergio asked, ‘weren’t you a coastguard officer in Falmouth some years ago?’
‘You are well informed Lieutenant.’