Once upon a time,
There lived a beautifully groomed princess.
At 20, with shy, uplifting eyes,
She won the nation’s heart on her wedding day.
Oh virgin bride.
By 30, she was a world monument to compassion,
A carefully engineered structure of cut crystal and distressed steel.
Glittering, glamorous, fragile.
And, as always happens with beautiful princesses,
Gnomes and toads the world over
Thought that they owned her.
Dawn was breaking. In Madrid’s c/Alfonso X, an insignificant little street, the first fingers of light had forced their way in through a crack in closed shutters and laid a light touch on a portrait. Decisive as ever, Franco admitted their touch.
El Generalísimo, El Jefe, The Boss. Dictator or saviour, depending on your point of view. The crack of cannons, the pulse of betrayal, the sad, light thud of dying men falling were past now. Had been past for close on 60 years. But 60 years doesn’t always give an individual time to grow up, let alone that collective individual, the nation. So El Generalísimo Franco, El Jefe, The Boss, who would certainly have known how to deal with such insubordination in his day, just hung there, gaze angry and fixed. Submitting to a light touch of insolent fingers, particles of dust dancing across the half-century hanging between his portrait and the dawning day.
And daylight took advantage, poking fun at 40 years of dictatorship, till she in turn was obliterated by a kind of death, a thumb on a switch.
Inside the bar, Virgilio reached blind for the switch and winced as his day began in that freakish flash. He shambled to the window, thick fingers prodding at reluctant eyes, and raised the unoiled shutters, exulting in the Armageddon of noise that he knew would wake all the neighours. You don’t get an effect like that overnight. Even his own teeth ground slightly.
But that ear-splitting triumph was over soon enough and Virgilio, blinking against the glittery-water early light, turned to the bar and assessed his potential.
Looking good. The bar was still standing, the floor had been swept clean of food fragment papers thrown down by sated hands in the early hours, and the chairs stood where they should, on top of the tables. An echo of bellowing voices lay down at his bidding and rolled out altogether when he opened the door to let in some air.
It was the next half-hour Virgilio valued most. Like moments with a forbidden lover, like sweet indulgence of a fetish that couldn’t be taken home to meet mother, like a familiar yet ever-strange bliss – it was just him and Franco. Nobody saw the reverence with which he reached up to the portrait, fat bottom straining against misshapen trousers, and gently dropped a kiss on that much-loved brow, before proudly laying out the breakfast cups under the exigent eye of El Jefe.
Tossing the thick china saucers down on the counter, he thought of each one as the moon. A thick, cracked moon, long-serving, unthanked. It was his only fanciful thought of the day, and had been for 40 years. He’d first had it the day after his wedding. He must have been cracked, it was lunacy. These moments had come and gone, but the china had never let him down and now, as then, it reassured him with each unimaginative crash onto the counter. The customers never guessed how much thought went into each cup of coffee.
The crashing was over. The shutters were up, the cups were down. Franco had nothing to say. For a moment, Virgilio was at a loss. But then – and this was something he’d come to rely on – a shadow fell at the door and Topo peered in.
“Jefe?” he called. “You there, boss?” His eyes adapted and he shambled in, groping his way to a stool.
“Morning Topo,” said Virgilio. “Take a seat.”
Topo grunted his thanks and sat down.
“Going to be a hot one,” he said. “How are you?”
He gave Virgilio a half salute. Another ritual observed.
“Can’t complain, can’t complain. Shall we try the coffee?”
“That’s very kind,” said Topo.
They both knew the first cup was free. Later on in the morning, Topo would come back and ask for another, with or without cognac, depending on how his begging was going.
Virgilio poured dense black coffee for each of them and went about his business. Topo just sat, gearing up for the day.
“Nice portrait,” he said, watching Virgilio run a cloth lovingly over the gleaming glass.
“Yes indeed.” He gave the picture another lingering gaze, then turned and stepped into the kitchen.
Topo raised his eyes from the cup of kick-start and scowled at Franco. He wasn’t a fan, never had been. Although to be fair, it was thanks to The Boss that he had a roof over his head. As a youngster, he’d been ‘cleaned’ off the street and taken to a shelter for the night so often that in the end they’d just given him a permanent room at the refuge.
Nice touch, thought Topo. It acknowledged his status. He was a pro., one of the old school. Not one of these desperate druggie types lurching round town lately waving knives in front of shot-to-bits eyes and frightening young girls in dark doorways. What shit. Topo shook his head in contempt.
He was a pro. He took on the tough cookies, he had a timetable to work to. Up at the crack of dawn, shower, shave, leave his neat little room at the shelter before the bums had even begun to cough themselves awake. Up to Virigilio’s, coffee, out to the local church in time for first mass.
Now there was a challenge. Those middle-aged, church-going señoras - they weren’t going to hand over nuggets of gold to some loser out of his head on drugs. More likely to give him a lecture. But he, Topo, he could fix them with his glittery-water eyes, and money changed hands. Topo’s life had opened right up since El Jefe had died. A Socialist government was fine by him. He was pushing 70, and the best was yet to come.
“Here they come,” he called, and Virgilio reappeared, wiping his hands on his apron.
Probably been wanking out in the kitchen, thought Topo, lighting his first cigarette of the day. Virgilio saw the fag-end of his thought in his eyes and heated some milk at the screaming coffee machine. He’d always found noise very soothing.
By the time ‘they’ came trickling in, he was lining up coffees and continually, busily wiping a cloth over already clean surfaces. Topo, who’d known from childhood how to make every movement count, just smoked.
“Hey jefe, give me the usual!”
The photographers filtered in, relishing the light and warmth and the smell of hot coffee. Outside, they’d been dozing in their cars since four in the morning, lining up in the dark to wait for the magazine housed across the street from Virgilio’s to open its doors.
You could tell, though Topo, nodding a greeting, if one of them had anything out of the ordinary to sell that day. There’d be an air of suppressed excitement, just a gleam of something in the eyes. Topo scanned the faces, found nothing. He slid off his stool and went back out into the early light, heading for the church.
* * *
And in the opulent building across the street, on the 8th floor, above his glossy empire, magazine owner Don Francisco de la Peña slumbered on in his richly-furnished bedchamber.
* * *
By midday, Don Francisco had seen all they had to offer. Backed by gleaming decades of wealth, he picked over their offerings like a fastidious, fascinated magpie. And they held their breath while he looked and touched, discarded, looked and touched again.
Around them stood the plates of beautifully cut fresh fruit and bowls heaped with pastries. The photographers looked on without resentment as Don Francisco raised each dainty morsel to his mouth. They never partook. The offer was there, but they never partook. In a way, neither did Don Francisco – he just ate because he knew he had to and someone had provided food.
The photographers merely waited for the travelling hand to still, for the greedy eyes to be sated.
There was no resentment, either, when Don Francisco, raising his eyes from the riches before him, glanced at the hopeful faces and said, “Where’s The Hawk?”
No resentment, but certainly no pleasure, and quite a lot of unease in their answering faces.
No-one knew where The Hawk was, and that in itself augured ill. Somewhere out there, he was poised, his camera was ready. And here they were, a bunch of impotents, standing around in an opulent room with their minds travelling anxiously over the outside territory they’d thought was their own.
Only silence. Even Don Francisco felt vaguely uneasy, but of course no-one would ever guess that. He himself didn’t know yet what that slight gnawing meant.
“This one, and this and this and this, and these two, and I’ll take that set.”
He flipped the glossy, chosen pictures to one side with a contemptuous hand and left the rest in a shuffled pack, completely unwanted, for someone else to sort.
“Gracias jefe, thank you, thanks,” muttered the lucky ones, springing off to the secretary to present their bills. The rest just left, adjourning to Virgilio’s by tacit consent for another quick coffee while they continued to sell the pick of the pickings of other people’s lives. There’d be another magazine that would buy.
Don Francisco, hand reaching for a fresh slice of fruit, was left alone with that faint gnawing feeling. Where was The Hawk? Abruptly, he turned to a huge wall calendar marked up with all the holiday movements of the celebrities whose lives regulated the bowels of his magazines.
The King on Majorca? Madonna on Ibiza? Yes, but the others had brought in pictures of those.
Don Francisco racked his brain, tormented.
A soft knock at the door called him back to the present. His editors and art directors, a small, meek pack of sheep shuffled in.
“Yes, boss? What have we got boss?”
With a flick of his wrist, Don Francisco tossed the chosen pictures into the air. And as they fell like glistening leaves, the woolly workers reached up with their cloven hooves to catch at the rhyme, to catch at the reason, to catch at the wish of El Jefe.
* * *
Down in Virgilio’s bar, the unlucky ones checked their watches, rang round the other publications and plotted their next move.
“So, where’s The Hawk?” cried Topo, returning bloated with wealth from his trips to the church.
Topo raised his eyebrows briefly at Virgilio, ordered a coffee with cognac and bummed a cigarette.
* * *
Don Francisco slept uneasily that night.
Out on the streets of London, Madrid and Paris, huge packs of his glossy magazine were being delivered to news stands before first light, promising a fresh dawn of hope and interest to millions of people awaiting their weekly dose of vicarious living. Eager hands and greedy eyes would, in just a few hours, be devouring the colourful collation of celebrity news, “at-homes”, in-depth interviews with the stars, and human interest tidbits.
But for Don Francisco, that issue was already history: his only thoughts were for the magazine now going to print, the photos with which he would fill it. Only 36 hours left before the printers would roll off the final pages, and that issue too would be history.
Where, oh where, was The Hawk? Don Francisco’s skin prickled under his soft sheets and at dawn he rose, profoundly restless, profoundly bad-tempered.
* * *
At dawn, The Hawk rose also – not, like Don Francisco, with pouches under grimy eyes, but keen as a blade, ready for the day’s hunting. In the dim light, he moved about with precision, assembling his claws for the kill, sharpening his beak for the tender flesh. His hooded eyes gleamed, his thin lips were fixed in a smirk.
* * *
The shutters were up, the cups were down, and Franco had nothing to say. Virgilio wiped his hands on his apron.
“Still no sign of The Hawk?” called Topo, groping his way to a stool.
“We’ll see if he turns up today,” returned Virgilio, with a nod towards the door.
The first of the photographers were crawling in. Virgilio lined up the coffees without being asked.
“Bad news?” called out Topo, seeing the mood.
“Well, we know where The Hawk is now,” answered one, throwing a pile of British papers down onto the counter. “At least, we don’t, but he’ll be wherever she is.”
The princess’ glowing face beamed out from the papers. Topo brightened. He liked the princess, admired her glamour and the way she’d sold herself.
“Oh, where is she?”
“That’s what nobody knows, dammit. ‘Undisclosed destination’, is all they say. It’s a fucking disaster. She’s gone off on holiday somewhere, and we don’t know who with, or how long for, or where.”
“But The Hawk does,” said Topo.
They glared and turned away. Topo lit his first cigarette of the day.
* * *
By 9 a.m., Don Francisco was incandescent.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” he bawled at his staff as soon as the English headlines had been translated to him. His British publication was the best-selling of his trio at that time, largely thanks to the princess, but he didn’t speak English and didn’t intend to learn. His formidable talent lay in telling a story with languageless pictures.
His staffers huddled miserably together, like sheep in the rain.
“Well, we’ve only just found out ourselves,” ventured one.
“But, that’s the whole point! What about the London office?!” screeched Don Francisco. “I’ve got 50 people over there – what am I paying them for?! You! Get onto London and tell them to find out where she is!”
The victim jumped like a shot sheep and staggered out. The rest followed more slowly.
Don Francisco, thumping his hand on the table and dislodging a basket of pastries, bawled for the photographers to be brought in.
* * *
“So, you lot don’t know either?” screamed Don Francisco.
“Well, sorry boss, but the British press only just found she’d gone before going to print.”
“Well somebody must know! Find The Hawk!”
Don Francisco thumped on the table again. The photographers caught at the flying pastries. A minion toiled to sweep up the crumbs.
“Find The Hawk, find The Hawk, FIND THE HAWK!” yowled El Jefe.
His wife, hearing the commotion from their penthouse above, came in to remonstrate.
“What on earth is the matter, dear?”
“I’m surrounded by incompetents! No-one can tell me the simplest thing! Nobody knows where the princess is!”
“Oh leave her alone dear,” said his wife, none too pleased at his obsession. The princess sold huge numbers of magazines, but that wasn’t entirely it.
“Leave her alone? Of course I’ll leave her alone! I just want to know where she is, and I want to know why I’m paying an army of incompetents not to be able to…”
The shot sheep staggered back in.
“Sorry, jefe, London has no idea,” she said.
Don Francisco threw back his head and howled in rage, his arms jerking in spastic movements. The air filled with dainties. The minion’s breath died on a sigh of dismay.
* * *
There was a thunderstorm that night. Not over the balmy isle where the princess laid her lengthy limbs to rest in the moonlight, but over shrill, pragmatic Madrid.
Don Francisco, his sleep disturbed for the second night in a row and the second time in his pampered life, paced his bedroom, pausing only to press his nose to the panes and watch those dreadful bursts of energy scar the early morning sky.
“Where is she?” he muttered under the concealing rumble of thunder. “Where can she be?”
“What are you doing, dear?” called his wife. “Come back to bed.”
* * *
Over at the shelter, Topo was watching the lightning and smoking a cigarette. He enjoyed storms. They filled him with energy. It was almost 5.30 a.m. No point going back to bed. He crushed out his cigarette and set about his meticulous toilette.
Up the road, Virgilio glanced at his clock and decided to get up half an hour early and enjoy all the fantastic racket going on. He heaved himself upright and lumbered off the edge of the bed. The coffee machine could do with a good clean.
And elsewhere across the city, Don Francisco’s serfs trembled from the shock, each flash of lightning illuminating with pitiless starkness their dread of the approaching day.
* * *
He entered the room as silently as a knife. One hour after the magazine had gone to print. Done and dusted.
Don Francisco looked up, didn’t blink, said, “What have you got?”
For answer, The Hawk beckoned him behind a screen where a smaller light box stood. The other photographers, left behind, gazed at their knuckles. No point trying to sell, probably not much point even being there. Whatever The Hawk had, it was going to blow anything they could offer out of the water.
The silence was nerve-breaking. All they could hear was the soft plash of photos going down on the table behind the screen.
“Are the negatives included?” they heard Don Francisco say.
“If you can pay.”
Insolent young bastard, they all thought. Nobody spoke to El Jefe like that. They waited for the explosion of wrath, but none come. More plashing, more quiet, more knuckle-gazing.
It was the princess, they all knew it. Had to be. He’d stop the presses, re-do the cover. Where the hell was she? Pictures of her in a swimsuit or standing on a hotel balcony or doing nothing at all in some sunshine would swamp the headlines as soon as the magazine hit the stands. Worldwide syndication, the biggest scoop of the season, everyone in the streets, on buses, in hairdressers’, looking at the same photos. Talking about the same photos. The Hawk’s.
Mixed with their resentment was a dull admiration for the cocky young bastard. It had to be dynamite – Don Francisco had never been this quiet this long.
It sounded as though he was shuffling the photos around again. Outside, they could hear his secretaries answering busy phones, visitors pacing backwards and forwards as the queue for his attention lengthened.
Inside, the silence lengthened.
Then it came, the question they were all waiting for.
“How much do you want?” said Don Francisco.
“A million pounds.”
That brought their heads up. They’d never heard such a sum demanded for paparazzi shots. Such a sum had never been paid. It was, quite simply, unheard-of. Stupefying.
“A million?” repeated Don Francisco, no inflexion in his voice.
“That’s right.” The Hawk was loving every second. “One million pounds, negatives included, for your absolute worldwide rights to the only set of pictures in existence of the lovely princess, England’s Rose, England’s Tart, sunbathing topless at her secret hideaway.”
* * *
“Topless!” exclaimed Virgilio. “You don’t mean it!”
“You bet I mean it,” said one of the photographers with vicarious triumph. “I saw them.”
The others glanced up quickly. It was, after all, a claim they would all like to make.
“That’s right,” said another. “So did I, as we were going out. Don Francisco had them out on the table.”
The others nodded and grunted agreement.
“He looked shot to bits. Not surprising. He’s half in love with her. Mind you, the sales should cheer him up. They’ll be through the bleeding roof. Britain, France, Spain – can you imagine? Then all theworldwide syndication, TV, God knows what. He’ll clean up.”
“Nice tits. You lot didn’t see the last shot. I sneaked a look. She’s got this...”
“Silly bitch, letting herself get taken like that.”
“It’s not like her. She’s always been really careful.”
“It’ll fuck the royal family.”
“Probably bring the whole thing down, her being the mother of the future king and all that.”
“Maybe she did it on purpose.”
“Oh shut up, you moron.”
“Well, she doesn’t get on with the royal family, does she?”
“It’ll put the price of pictures up – good business for us.”
“Yeah, but can you imagine what her security’s going to be like from now on?”
“Oh yeah, shit, that’s right.”
“It’s not like her.”
“Nice tits – I got a real eyeful of them. There was this picture…”
“Has he paid?”
They all turned to stare at Topo, quietly crushing out his smoke and reaching for the cognac beside his coffee. It was to steady his saddened nerves, but they weren’t to know that.
“Don Francisco. Has he paid the million?”
“He will. But even Don Francisco de la Vega would have to make a call to the bank to take out a wad like that.”
“Get someone else to make it, you mean.”
“That’s right – his hands’ll be trembling too much to pick up the phone, state he’s in.”
There was a burst of laughter all round.
Topo glanced at the goggle-eyed Virgilio and then up at Franco’s portrait. All three of them liked order. They fled such iconoclasm as this joke unfolding around them, yet none of them moved. Franco stayed hanging, Virgilio stood, and Topo just sat.
The door was flung violently open and The Hawk slid in, so full of triumph it hurt just to look at him.
“Well!” he cried, assuming, quite rightly, that all eyes were on him. “Nice work when you can get it. He’s ringing the bank now. Topo, me old granddad – how are you? Here! Bonanza all round!”
Without waiting for an answer, he tucked a big-spot banknote under Topo’s coffee cup and hailed Virgilio for “the usual”.
“And cognac for everyone!” He turned to his colleagues with a flamboyant flourish of his arms and somehow a stool in the centre of the group was suddenly vacant.
“You really think he’s going to pay a million?”
“Oh come on!” The Hawk was contemptuous. “Any one of the national papers would pay me twice that like this!” He snapped his long bony fingers. “”But it’s not just the money. I’m a pro. I got some great shots, right? Good body tones, pretty sky and water stuff like the punters want, so it’s only natural I want to see them in colour, innit? So will the punters. Only natural. A million? Get on! I’m doing the old man a favour, selling that cheap! Jefe! Giss another cognac!”
“He’s got worse,” Virgilio muttered, filling Topo’s cognac glass first. “Now there’s a boy who’ll take a long time to learn compassion.”
“Compassion?” snorted Topo, taking the banknote out from under his cup and rolling it viciously tight, “forget it. He hasn’t even learnt decent manners yet.”
* * *
The banknote turned in Topo’s hand, turning and turning, tighter and tighter, as time ticked by.
* * *
The grinning Hawk, halfway through his third cognac in 20 minutes, was still holding audience, still warding off incredulous questions, when the door opened and a finger of light forced its way in, laying a light touch on his face.
“Christ, it’s El Jefe!” muttered someone.
In the doorway stood a middle-aged man of medium height and build. Nothing special, thought Virgilio, then changed his mind. Something about his bearing commanded respect.
Topo’s experienced eyes ran over the newcomer’s clothes.
“I’m cashmere!” the sweater whispered. “100%! Cost a packet!”
“Look at us!” smirked the shoes. “Milan, you see?”
“Armani,” intoned the trousers. “If you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”
Topo gave a nod of approval.
The Hawk lurched to his feet.
“Don Francisco!” he called. “Come on in! Nice of you to come down from your ivory tower – to see The humble old Hawk, I presume?”
Don Francisco stepped forward, glanced up over the bar to where Franco hung watching.
“Nice portrait,” he commented, and Virgilio flushed,wiping his hands on his apron.
The photographers had all automatically stood up. Only Topo remained seated. Their eyes were on Don Francisco’s right hand, which held a large cardboard-backed envelope of the type used day in, day out, to package their photos, and a smaller one clearly containing negatives.
Don Francisco was looking at The Hawk.
“Coffee, sir?” quavered Virgilio into the silence.
Don Francisco’s head turned a fraction, but his eyes still held The Hawk’s.
Topo lifted his smoke to his lips, took a drag, watched through the tendrils of blue. Unusually for him, his other hand was busy at the same time, turning and turning the tight, tight roll he’d made of The Hawk’s big banknote.
“Well, my friends,” said Don Francisco. “You all know that your colleague The Hawk has brought home the scoop of the decade and you all know the money he’s asking.”
The Hawk’s eyes narrowed. Surely the stupid old bastard wasn’t going to try and chisel the price like this?
“And he’s right to ask for a million,” continued Don Francisco. “I can put all our print runs up to the limit, run a special issue in all three countries, and still not have enough copies to go round. So yes, he’s right to ask for a million. No-one else could have got those photos.”
“No-one else did,” put in The Hawk, and the others just nodded.
“And since we’re all friends here and you all know that I pay the highest rates and I know what a picture’s worth, he was right to bring them to me.”
The tide of admiration and approval was running high now. There was triumph in the air, but it was understated, hushed. This was a solemn moment. The snappers were murmuring “Well done, kid” and reaching out to touch The Hawk on the shoulder, hoping some of the glitter would rub off on them in front of Don Francisco.
That high-rolling high priest spoke again, sliding one hand into his Armani trouser pocket.
“And so, here it is. Here’s what he asked for. A cheque for a million pounds.”
Virgilio gasped loudly. The Hawk gave a whoop of triumph, took the cheque, kissed it and held it on high. All eyes were on him, all except Topo’s. He was watching Don Francisco, his fingers quite still, a single tendril of smoke curling up the side of his face.
After a few seconds of uninhibited jubilation, The Hawk held out his hand to Don Francisco.
“Thank you,” he said – words they’d never heard from him before.
“No, no, thank you,” said Don Francisco, at his most urbane. “For bringing these pictures to me.”
He turned as if to go, hesitated, turned back.
“Oh by the way, I nearly forgot. Has anyone got a match?”
Topo was reacting even before the gasps of suspicion had begun to gather momentum. Don Francisco didn’t smoke.
“One nice big match coming right up, boss,” he called out from his corner, raising the tightly-rolled banknote to his smoke and lighting its end with panache.
Expensive Don Francisco smiled, reached out to take the expensive spill. The colour drained from The Hawk’s face and a white-faced wave of “No, no, he mustn’t, he can’t”s from the other photographers broke on the sands of dismay.
“The negatives first,” said Don Francisco, taking them out of their envelope and holding the spill to their secretive, sepia edges.
Hands stretched out pleadingly, but no-one dared touch, despite their horror, and as the flame kicked higher, the horror was replaced by awe.
“And now for the prints.”
“NO!” cried The Hawk, a lifetime too late. “No!”
He lunged forward, was stopped by a rectangle of fire, teetered on the edge of locura, then sank suddenly to his knees, the cheque still clutched in his white-knuckled hands.
“Christ!” he whimpered. “Oh Christ!”
“Absolute rights,” said Don Francisco, dropping the final tiny, fiery triangle onto the floor beside the crouched figure. “That was the deal, wasn’t it, Hawk? Absolute rights.”
He turned and raised a hand in salute to Topo.
“Thanks, jefe!” he called, and went back to his ivory tower.
© 2005 Tree Elven