The man sat on a flat rock on a barren hillside in southern Spain, a pair of high-powered binoculars on his lap. It was much warmer than any January day in the man’s home country, and the glaringly bright sun almost blinded him as he stared out over the blue Mediterranean Sea.
In the clear sky above, a white jet stream showed where a large plane was flying in wide, lazy circles. The man ignored it and kept his eyes fixed to the west. At last, he spotted something and raised the binoculars. Another plane leaped into focus. The man could see that it was a big four-engine jet with long, swept-back wings. The line of white cloud it painted across the sky was heading straight toward him.
Lowering the binoculars, the man returned his gaze to the first plane. It had stopped circling and was flying in a gentle arc that would bring it onto the same course as the new arrival. As the man watched, the two jet streams slowly converged. He raised the binoculars once more. The two planes were very close now, the second behind and slightly below the first.
All at once the first plane lurched down toward the second plane. A blinding flash made the man cry out and tear the binoculars from his eyes. He blinked rapidly until the world came back into focus, and then he looked up. Where the planes had been there was only a fading orange fireball. Burning pieces of wreckage fell to earth, trailing long plumes of dark smoke.
The man put the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the sky. He recognized the tail of one plane, an engine and a large section of wing spiraling away from the explosion. Then he saw the orange-and-white parachute with a body hanging below it. Other parachutes blossomed across the sky.
The man placed the binoculars back on his lap. Everything seemed to be happening in eerily silent slow motion. With the naked eye, he could only see the largest pieces of debris—the tail, the section of wing—but he knew there must be a lot more. Finally, a deep, booming sound reached him. He focused on the parachutes, not the few carrying men, but two larger ones. Each had a long silver container suspended below. One was coming down fast, the parachute only partly open. The other was higher and drifting out over the sea.
The man watched the drifting parachute, surprised that it was traveling so far while everything else was coming down more vertically. Then the debris began to land around him. Most of the pieces were small; the larger bits of plane and the parachutes were landing around the village on the plain below him, but one large piece crashed into the hillside nearby.
When things stopped falling from the sky, the man went in search of the large object. It didn’t take him long to find it lying at the end of a ragged scar on the hillside. It was round and shiny and slightly larger than a soccer ball. Like a soccer ball, its surface was divided into interlocking hexagons. One side of the sphere was badly dented. The man stood for a long time staring down at the object, then stepped forward and attempted to lift it. It was extremely heavy, but by a combination of dragging and rolling, the man worked his way back around the hillside to the rock from which he had watched the drama.
Many years before, part of the nearby hillside had slumped, forming a rocky scar that was so overgrown it was hard to see unless you knew what you were looking for. A couple of days before, an old shepherd had shown the man the scar and told him a local legend about the ghosts of long-dead Roman soldiers coming out of a hole in the hillside and stealing sheep. The shepherd had scoffed at the tale, calling it a “fairy tale to scare children,” but he had found a hole that unwary sheep could fall into and blocked it with a large rock.
The man moved to the side of the scar and located a rock that looked less weathered than the others. With much effort, he worked the rock loose and shoved it to one side. A cool draft of air from the dark hole chilled the man’s sweat-stained face. “Ghosts,” he said under his breath and laughed. As soon as his heart rate slowed, the man mopped the cooling sweat off his forehead and set to work hauling the piece of debris up the slope and into the hole. A final push saw the round object disappear into the dark. The man listened as it rolled away. When there was only silence, he wrestled the rock back into place. He scattered some dirt to make it look as if the rock had never moved, then sat down to recover his breath.
When he felt better, the man went back to where he had found the object and kicked dirt and small rocks about to hide the mark where it had landed. He took a last look around and then hiked back over the hill to the next valley, where he had parked his small car on a disused dirt track. He glanced at his watch. The unexpected events of the morning had delayed him, and it was now midafternoon. He would have to hurry. He had a lot to do.
“With hedge-fund portfolio management, one has to keep up with evolving market strategies. It’s not a simple matter of being aware of arbitrage mechanics and leveraging assets using derivatives—it’s much more complex than that.”
I think that’s what the guy in the next seat said, although mostly it sounded like “blah, blah, blah, blah.” I gazed out the plane window, wishing I could open it, crawl out and drop onto the snow-covered mountains below. At least that would be a quick end. Listening to this guy was death by boredom, one meaningless sentence at a time. Since he couldn’t use his cell phone on the short flight from London to Barcelona, he had assumed that I would be riveted by his explanations of how he made vast amounts of money by, as far as I could tell, doing no work.
My mind drifted back to the last time I’d looked down on the Pyrenees. That had been in the summer; now it was Christmas Eve—winter and the thick snow made the mountain peaks look like the stiff icing that Mom put on the Christmas cake. Thoughts of Mom made me feel guilty about not being with family at Christmas, but I got over it fast.
Mom had been upset back in October when I had told her I’d been invited to spend Christmas with Laia and her family in Spain, but two things had happened to distract her. A week after I had announced my plans, I came home from school one afternoon and found Mom and her new friend Rod in the backyard, each balancing on one leg and waving their arms about. Mom had met Rod in September at tai chi classes. I hadn’t paid much attention at first; I was too busy thinking about Laia and worrying about getting through the first semester of grade twelve, but this was beginning to look serious.
“I think it’s Carry Tiger and Return to Mountain.”
“What?” I asked, looking at him.
DJ shrugged. “Or it might be Step Back and Repulse Monkey. I’m not too sure about all the posture names.”
“No. I mean, what’s he doing here?”
“Sorry,” DJ said with a grin. “I thought you recognized tai chi.”
“Were you born annoying, bro” I asked, “or did you have to practice?” My relationship with DJ had changed since our adventures last summer. His struggle up Kilimanjaro hadn’t taught him humility, but it had given him a sense of life being more difficult than he had assumed it to be. “What do you think about the relationship between Mom and Rod?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said thoughtfully. “She seems happier than she’s been since Grandpa died, but…” His voice trailed off.
“Yeah,” I agreed as Mom and Rod, in perfect unison, turned, drew their right feet across the grass and swept their arms wide.
“But?” I pushed, ignoring the nugget of information about the tai chi move.
I stared out the window, thinking two things: how silly Mom and Rod looked, and how happy Mom looked.
“You know Mom and all the aunts are planning a Caribbean cruise over Christmas?” DJ said.
It took me a moment to realize he’d moved on from Rod and tai chi. “When did this happen?” I asked in shock.
“Couple of days ago.”
“And I was going to find out about it when?”
DJ shrugged. “I’ve been busy. So has Mom.”
“You could have texted me,” I said. DJ was better after Kilimanjaro, but he was still the overcontrolling big brother, even though he was older by only fifteen minutes. “Looks like you’re going to have a lonely Christmas with Mom and me both away.”
“Some of the cousins are talking about getting together at the cottage over the Christmas holidays.”
“Again, bro. When was I going to be informed?”
Once more, DJ shrugged. “You’re not going to be here. We thought it would be good to get together and tell stories about Grandpa and our adventures in the summer.”
“Okay, it was my idea, but most of them seem keen on it. It even looks like Bunny might be out of juvie over Christmas. Too bad you can’t be there, little brother.”
There it was again, the annoying big brother/little brother thing. “You know I’ve got my flights booked already,” I said. “Besides, let me think about this—ten days in sunny Spain with a beautiful girl versus a few days freezing and knee-deep in snow with you guys. It’s a tough decision, bro.”
“I just think Grandpa would have liked us all to get together. He was really into family.”
“He was,” I agreed, “but you’ve got to let go, DJ. Grandfather gave us different tasks in his will because he knew we were all different and that we needed to go our own ways—even if it didn’t all work out the way he planned,” I said, thinking of Bunny’s experience, which had led to jail time. “But my path leads to Spain this Christmas. So have fun at the cottage and text me if anything exciting happens, like it stops snowing.”
I’d probably been a bit harsh with DJ, but the family remark annoyed me. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only cousin who wouldn’t be at the cabin—Rennie was going to be on vacation in South America—but as Christmas approached, I felt a twinge of regret at missing the get-together. I got on well with my cousins, and we did have a lot in common. Besides, all the talk about the trip—how they were going to get up to the cottage in winter, what food to take, what they would do while they were there—made it real and made me feel left out. It sounded like it might actually be fun. Then I thought of Laia waiting for me at the Barcelona airport, and all my regrets vanished.
The time Laia and I had spent together discovering what Grandfather had done in 1938 had been special, but the two weeks after that had been amazing. We had traveled up and down the coast on our scooters, walking along beaches, swimming and hanging out in old villages away from the tourist crowds. We had even gone to Lloret de Mar to visit Elsie and Edna, the holidaymakers I had met on the plane out, and spent the evening in the disco in the Hotel Miramar. It had been a fun night, being entertained by a planeload of happy tourists from Wigan, but it was a relief the next day to head off along the rugged coast.
I had spent the last couple of days before my flight home back in Barcelona, where I had met Laia’s mother and heard stories about her great-grandmother, Maria, and the time when she had known Grandfather. It was the best holiday I had ever had, and I was thrilled when Laia texted me and said her mother had suggested I come for Christmas. She proposed that I spend Christmas in Barcelona and then we could go down to Seville to visit her father. I thought about it for all of five or ten seconds before I was online looking for cheap flights. I still had the thousand dollars I had saved to travel to Europe this summer, a couple of hundred from a few weeks’ work and almost another thousand from the money Grandfather had left me.
“Investment banking’s very interesting.” I glanced at the guy beside me, who was still talking. Apparently, nothing he said required a response from me. I guessed he was in his fifties or sixties, but it was hard to tell, and he certainly talked as if he were much younger. He could also probably afford the best in skin care. Even jammed into a tourist seat on a cramped plane, he still looked like he’d stepped out of a magazine ad—not a crease in his suit or a hair out of place and a toothy smile that almost blinded me. His suit probably cost as much as I was paying for this flight. I wondered why, if he was so successful, he wasn’t traveling in business class.
My mind began to wander. Maybe this guy wasn’t into hedges or whatever. Maybe his perfect looks were a cover. Perhaps he worked for the CIA or MI6 or the Russian secret service, whatever it was called these days. What better fake identity than someone who was completely self-involved and unbearably boring? No one would suspect he was really a superspy—a James Bond out to save the world from international terrorists.
I smiled at my meandering thoughts. My companion misread it. “So you see what opportunities there are for someone like yourself to get in on the ground floor of this business. I could put some good deals your way. No pressure.” He handed me a crisp embossed business card. “Name’s Chad.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, stuffing the card into my pants pocket. “I’ll think about it.”
“At first. I’m meeting a friend there and then going down to Seville after Christmas,” I said, feeling strangely uncomfortable giving this guy any information about myself. “How about you?” I added before he could ask another question. “You staying in Barcelona?”
“I travel all over,” he said vaguely. “Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada this trip. You know what business is like.”
I didn’t, but I nodded as the plane touched down. “What kind of business do you do over Christmas?” I asked.
“This and that. Import/export. I’ll be doing a bit of real-estate work this trip. The markets never sleep. Seville’s a great town. You been there before?” I shook my head. “You going to the beach as well?” I shrugged, although Laia and I were planning on a few days at the coast. “Plenty of nice beaches along the south coast. Good places to pick up girls.” Chad winked broadly at me. He must have caught my expression because he hurriedly added, “Or maybe the friend you’re meeting in Barcelona is your girlfriend?” I nodded again. “Well,” Chad went on as we approached the terminal building, “the best of luck to you. And I mean it: give me a call.”
I ran from the plane all the way through the airport to the immigration lineup, not just to get away from Chad, but because I knew every step brought me closer to Laia.
The immigration officer scanned my passport, checked that I looked like my photograph, wished me Bon Nadal (which I knew from my attempts to learn Laia’s language was Catalan for Merry Christmas) and waved me through. I smiled at Chad at the next counter—he seemed to be having some sort of difficulty with his passport. He gave me a smile and a thumbs-up. I hurried through to collect my bag.
My travel backpack was the last item to tumble onto the baggage carousel, and I paced in mounting frustration as cheerful, chattering holidaymakers, many wearing red Santa hats, grabbed their luggage and disappeared through the customs door. I had convinced myself that my bag had been put on the wrong plane and was halfway to Azerbaijan when it finally slid into sight. The only other piece of luggage going around was a very expensive silver hard-shell suitcase that I assumed must belong to Chad, who still hadn’t shown up from immigration. Either he was trying to convince the official to invest in one of his schemes or he really was a spy. I strapped on my pack and rushed through customs and into the busy arrivals area.
The moment I stepped through the doors, Laia’s arms enfolded me in the best hug of my life. I returned it and stood breathing in the scent of her hair, giddy with happiness. Mentally, I wished Mom, DJ and the others a Happy Christmas, but this was where I wanted to be. In fact, I would have gladly stood there all day, but I noticed Laia’s mom standing to one side, watching us, a slight smile on her lips. Laia kissed me, and then we stepped apart.
“Hola, Steve,” she replied, her smile broadening as we shook hands. She switched effortlessly to English. “But please, no formalities. You must call me Sofia. It means wisdom, so I must be very smart.” Before I could say anything, Sofia went on. “But let us not spend Christmas in the airport. Follow me.” Sofia headed off through the crowded terminal and Laia and I trailed behind her, chattering happily.
“I am so glad you could come,” Laia said as we walked hand in hand. “Was your mother very disappointed?”
“A little,” I said, “but the cruise with her sisters is taking her mind off it, so I think she is okay.”
“And DJ?” Laia gave me a mischievous smile. She knew all about my relationship with my brother.
“I think he’ll be all right,” I said, returning her smile. “The cousins, all except for me and Rennie, are going to Grandfather’s cottage by the lake after Christmas.”
“Are they going to have another adventure?”
“Like the old explorers in your Canadian Arctic? Will they have to draw straws to see who becomes dinner for the rest?”
“Dinner?’ I asked, slightly shocked by the image.
“I have been reading Canadian history,” Laia said. “Did not Captain Franklin and others have to eat the bodies to survive?”
“I guess so,” I said, “but my cousins will be fine. They certainly won’t have to draw straws—DJ will probably decide who to eat.” We both laughed. “I think Grandfather’s will gave us all the adventure we can handle for a while,” I added.
“I’m glad it did,” Laia said, squeezing my hand. “I have a busy holiday planned for us. There is much to see in Andalusia—Seville, Cordoba, Granada—too much for a short visit, but my father knows the history, so he will tell us the best things to see. It will be a wonderful time.”
“It will,” I agreed. As far as I was concerned, as long as I was with Laia, whatever we did would be wonderful. Grinning like an idiot, I followed Laia’s mom out of the airport to the taxi rank.
The Plaça Catalunya was very different from the last time I had seen it. In the gathering dark of evening, every building around the huge square was bedecked in multicolored, twinkling Christmas lights. In the center of the square, families skimmed around the ice of a vast open-air rink beneath a towering decorated tree, accompanied by a choir singing carols. Stalls selling food, ornaments and gifts were scattered round the edge.
“We thought you might like to walk through the square to get into the Christmas spirit,” Sofia said as we got out of the taxi.
“And we have a special Catalan tradition to share,” Laia added with a grin.
With the end of the school semester and all the preparations for my trip, Mom’s cruise and DJ’s excursion to the cottage, it hadn’t felt much like Christmas at home. Now, strolling through the bustling, happy crowds, it did. We bought marzipan candy, nibbled on dried fruit, watched the skaters and listened to the choir. The one thing missing was Santa Claus.
“Santa Claus is for cold countries,” Laia explained. “How would his sled land where there is no snow? We have the Three Wise Men, who arrive on January fifth bringing presents for the children.”
“So, no presents on Christmas Day?” I asked, wondering when I should give them the presents I had in my backpack.
“Oh yes,” Sofia said. “We have presents on Christmas Day. Tió de Nadal brings them.”
“Who’s Tió de Nadal?” I asked.
“You’ll meet him soon,” Laia said, and she and Sofia laughed. “But first, there is someone else you must meet.” Laia headed over to a small stall at the entrance to a side street.
“We have different traditions here,” Sofia said. “I hope you are hungry, because we have the Christmas meal tonight.”
“Do you have turkey?” I asked.
“Of course, turkey and truffles. I have been preparing it for two days.”
“Merry Christmas.” Laia handed me a small box wrapped in tissue paper. Inside was a small porcelain figure. He was dressed in black pants, white shirt, red belt and a red-and-black hat. He appeared to be crouching down.
Both Laia and Sofia burst out laughing again. “Turn him around,” Laia said.