The man’s face remained expressionless as he methodically scribbled a picture of a capsized boat on a napkin in front of him. Left hand scrawling, and his gloved right hand sitting motionless on the table.
He pointed to his sketch. A boat on its side, lashed against the rocks. He had taken the time to sketch some items strewn across the water’s surface; bags, life vests, swimming people. Between the boat and the shore was a figure, head barely above the water, arm wrenched into jagged metal and rock. He pointed to the figure, then pointed to his lifeless right arm. Undoing the buttons of the cuff, he shuffled the cloth up and over, exposing a deformed mass of pink and scarification. It was still healing after the doctors in Spain had saved the man’s life, and an ooze of exudate glistened on the surface. Through each motion, his face did not change, despite unquestionable pain. He was a figure of tranquillity, spoiled only by his disfigured circumstances.
I reached for the sketch and slid it across the table to get a closer look. Half of the boat rose above water, and a number of faces - all without eyes or mouths or noses - were shown above the surface. But my eye was drawn to the submerged section of the boat. A section that didn’t possess detail or information like the rest of the sketch, but only had a perfect square, diligently scratched with ink to cover it in blackness. My fingers traced the etched surface of the paper, feeling the force that the man had exerted on this single shape.
“Niña,” the man said. Daughter.
It was two months ago that Ali Boulifa cashed in the entirety of his meagre life’s savings to a man on the north coast of Morocco. He had promised him his transit to Spain, and less than 48 hours later, his daughter would be dead, drowned in the hold of a refugee boat. Ali was rescued and taken for treatment. And there he would lay unconscious in a Spanish hospital bed, arm gnarled and ineffectual, until he awoke into the nightmare of his new life.
Ali covered over his arm and re-cuffed the shirt at his wrist. His eyes glanced up at the clock on the wall, then dropped to remain fixed on a spot a few paces to my right. I leaned back into my chair to allow the silence to permeate the air. Ali only spoke a rare Berber language that was native to North Africa. He muddled through with a few scattered words in Spanish and English, but our verbal communication was nearly impossible. Yet even still, I knew there were some occasions when you should just keep your mouth shut.
It was in this silence that I reflected on the strangeness of our surroundings. Our circumstances demanded a level of confidentiality for the benefit of both of us, and any hole-in-the-wall coffee shop would’ve done nicely. But Ali specifically requested this place. El Rinconcillo. And wouldn’t back down when I suggested alternatives. It was the most Spanish place I had ever laid eyes on. Classically styled tiling lined the walls. A dark wooden bar curved its way through the entirety of the premises, its surface chiselled away from centuries of slammed beer pitchers and sliding tapas plates. Legs of Jamón hung from hooks on the ceiling, tended by grey-haired waiters dressed in formal white attire and black aprons. A serene flamenco dancer stared down at us from a painted slab of tile in the wall just above our table. Her red dress illuminating the room with colour, her tranquil face gazing out, flawless. She poured syrupy and golden olive oil from a pitcher into a dish of gold. El aceite Español es puro de oliva, the flowing script read on the advertisement. It was somehow a little grotesque that Ali requested to come to a place like this, although I wasn’t sure why.
I cautiously returned my gaze to Ali, but his focus still hadn’t moved from the floor. His eyes were locked, glass-like and vacant, with dark brows holding a slight grimace over his expression. A single divot formed within the crook of his nose, and his jet-black facial hair shaded the sharp edges of his chin. His cheeks were notably gaunt, depicting the look of a man who wasn’t looking after himself. His gaze softened suddenly and his eyes darted up to check the clock once again, until he finally looked back at me and gave me a slight nod. It was time. He took up an envelope that he had concealed on his lap and slid it across the table towards me. The envelope had Ali’s geometric handwriting scratched into the top corner, expressing a single number next to a single word in Spanish. 15, Justicia.
I took a deep breath to calm myself before continuing. Sliding open the envelope, I extracted the thin stack of photos that were concealed inside, and I began to sift through the first few images. Man in suit laughing with man in coat. Man in suit being handed a satchel by man in coat. Man in coat leaving. This was absolutely stunning.
My quivering hand reached out for the glass of ice water on the table and I took a sip, hoping the cold shock would soothe my excitement. Ali had not paid me any attention during this reveal but was again scrawling serenely on a napkin, this time with rows of lines and curves. Once he had finished he gave the clock another quick glance before slowly writing the word Algeciras across the top of his sketch, each letter with clean and lovely lines. It was the name of the small town on the south coast of Spain where he had spent his months of recovery. The closest hospital to the end of his failed voyage. Passing me the napkin, I immediately recognised his depiction of the port.
“Look,” he said without emotion, this time in English.
He turned over one of the photographs and pointed to the man in the coat. He then pointed to himself and drew two small figures on the map of the port of Algeciras. He traced a line, winding up and through a number of grid-like streets on his map, until it reached the end of the napkin, where he then drew another figure.
“García,” he announced as he pointed again at the photograph, this time at the man in the suit. Cancio García, The Minister for Immigration. A face etched into my subconscious.
Cancio García had been in control of the borders, in one way or another, for the better part of two decades. Among immigrant communities in Spain, there had always been stirrings about the corruption and malevolence bestowed upon them by politicians. But the name most often heard was that of García, who seemed to possess an almost villain-like aura among the refugee population. This man had somehow been involved in just about every back-alley payment that led to the Spanish border security looking the other way, allowing for the arrival of refugee boats onto Spanish shores. Throughout all of this, García had somehow remained squeaky clean, and I had spent the last decade of my career as a journalist fishing for evidence and scouring Spain for clues. All of which had led me to absolutely nothing. Just tales and hearsay about money, names, and faces.
Thanks to Ali’s talent as an artist and the words in Spanish and English he had picked up over the last two months, I learned that García’s co-star in the photographs - the man in the coat - was the people smuggler that Ali had paid for the privilege of his daughter’s untimely death. In the short few weeks after his release from hospital, Ali endeavoured to find the man, his investigations leading him to a busy industrial area within the port of Algeciras. With the characteristic stoicism that I had seen that day, Ali waited hours for the man to leave at nightfall, where he followed him through busy streets. His patience led the pursuit to a nondescript little bar in town, allowing Ali to take some photos of the meeting with García. Through this twist of fate, Ali suddenly gained revenge much stronger than any act of violence might have provided.
It was just before three in the afternoon and an undoubtedly exhausted Ali drained his glass of water before politely excusing himself to go to the bathroom. Before he left, he stood up, gave a little bow, and said thank you to me. Whether this was a quirk of culture or personality, I wasn’t sure. But while Ali was gone, I spread the photographs out before me on the table. The silence of the bar amplified the significance of the moment. There I was, in possession of photographs that showed a long-term people smuggler consorting with Cancio García, the man I had wanted to expose for the last ten years.
I leaned back in my chair and took a moment to digest it all. I supposed I had García to thank for my career, in some perverse way. Although the lives of Ali and myself seemed worlds apart at that moment, we weren’t actually so different. My father had also paid a people smuggler to ship his family to the riches of Europe when I was a girl, likely lining the pockets of Cancio García. The only difference being the universe decided to let me and my parents live in that generation, and decided to punish Ali and his daughter in the next. But it finally felt like fate was turning in the right direction. The little refugee girl toppling one of the most corrupt figures in all of Europe.
One of those retro little clocks with the flapping numbers sat on the bar ahead, drawing my attention with its clacking sound as the time hit 15:00 in the afternoon. The entrance opened and two men entered the room. I gathered up the photographs with skittish hands, a wave of anxiety washing over men after realising how public I was being with the photographs. The men, clean and well-dressed, took a few glances around the bar, before having hushed discussions with one of the waiters. The waiter promptly gestured to a table in the corner of the restaurant, and the men returned to the door to hold it open.
One of my few memories of being a young girl was when my father and I climbed into the boat to voyage to Spain. I’ve since described it in my publications as a feeling of intense and acidic fear that washed over my viscera. A sensation of spilling bile coating my insides. The grey ocean looked filthy and poisonous, and stepping onto that old boat filled me with sheer terror. This is a feeling that has stuck with me, but one that I have thankfully never experienced since that time.
At that moment, though, when the face of Cancio García emerged from the open door, I became that little girl all over again. The same sickness enveloped me, the same sense of foreboding draining the blood from my face. I became utterly bathed in terror.
I sat motionless, clutching at the envelope, as García leisurely walked past me and settled himself into the corner table. He sat with his back facing me, rows of fatty neck stacking on top of the tight collar of his suit. His two companions joined him on either side, and the waiters busied themselves preparing the table. I was welded to my chair, as inanimate and lifeless as the other pieces of furniture that decorated the room. My statuesque exterior in contradiction to the quivering of my insides and the thoughts that now spun through my head. This could not be a coincidence, that much I was sure of. It was clear that García had somehow caught Ali in his web. No doubt he had his spies, and Ali made a real racket these last few weeks, asking every North African in Spain for the whereabouts of one of García’s men. That kind of thing does not go unnoticed.
The clock on the bar clicked again. 15:01 in the afternoon. This whole ordeal had taken less than a minute.
I looked again at the geometric number 15 that decorated the clock and felt my stomach somersault. Ali had been so insistent about meeting at this place, and at this time. I glanced down at the envelope that was still crumpled in my terrified hands to again read the markings that Ali had written on the top of the envelope. 15, Justicia.
From behind me, I heard the sharp click of the bathroom lock, followed by gentle padding footsteps. Ali placed each step with precision, walking past me without so much as a glance, his eyes locked forward on the table in the corner of El Rinconcillo. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, a reflection of how he might have one day walked along the beach with his daughter. Emanating an air of satisfaction and genuine happiness in his posture, a smile lining his lips. A character in stark contrast to the figure of stoicism who sat before me only moments ago. He approached García and stood over the table, without uttering a sound.
“Can I help you?” García asked in Spanish.
A moment went by in silence, with Ali only continuing to stare. His eyes were static and glass-like in his head, the brand new little smirk etched onto his face. I watched as García’s eyes locked with Ali’s. He then turned towards the two men and motioned for them to deal with the quiet stranger.
In a flash, Ali’s right arm flung around, and a loud crack ruptured the silent restaurant in two.
A dull thud rattled the cutlery as García’s head and body thumped on the wooden table in front of him. Ali stood motionless with his right arm extended, sleeve rolled up and his glove removed, proudly displaying the scarred right arm and hand that clasped at a makeshift pistol. He hadn’t lowered the gun in this time, but merely stood there. The weapon pointed at the place where García’s head had once sat, smoke rising from the end of the crude barrel. The men at the table seemed to be frozen in shock, and for the next few moments, the Earth stopped spinning. Silence blanketed the bar once again.
When the men finally came to their senses, they pounced on Ali and pinned him to the ground in a heartbeat. The men frantically restrained him, and a fist pushed Ali’s head against the tiled floor. The painted flamenco dancer watched the scene from the wall, her face as serene as ever. Amid the fray, the weapon scuttled across the tiled floor toward me. It was a pipe with a makeshift curved metal handle wrapped in a generous coating of duct tape. It was crude in all ways imaginable, except for one. A single word emblazoned on the side of the weapon in marker pen, written with the beautiful clear writing of Ali.