UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

TIM JEFFREYS

The Foreigner

         My name is Maria. I don’t know the name of the man I’m following. I have a name for him though.

I call him The Foreigner. It’s clear he knows the roadways and customs of this land, as well as the local tongue, but he is not from here. He’s tall, long-limbed, pale, blond, and blue-eyed. I’ve never spoken with him, but I can guess at his nature. It will be defined by quietness, a reserve. We are a dark, squat race of Moorish blood, passionate and outspoken. We are a courageous people too, as our bullrings will testify, afraid of nothing; except perhaps of silence between people. This is all that frightens us. My own biggest fear is of that silence and solitude which can settle into a person, that seems to inhabit these men from overseas, men like the one I am following, men like him.

         This is my account. I will write it down in an attempt to make sense of it. And for evidence, in the future, should any be needed. Should anyone want to know why. In all likelihood, though, no one will believe it.

         I follow him as he drifts from town to town, village to village, higher into the mountains. The further he goes, the more suspect he becomes. Walk the streets of the small mountain towns and unapologetic eyes stare and inspect and follow: the eyes of the old women on chairs outside their front doors (“Only sitting here to feel cooler, my dear,” they will argue), the eyes of the men gathered in the square. One thing to remember here: the town is always watching. The Foreigner seems aware of this. He moves about when the sun is high, when all the townsfolk have sought shade, leaving their streets and squares deserted with benches and flagstones baking in the glare. In doing this he casts himself as stranger still, but there is no one but myself to notice. I object to being under the sun in the middle of the day. It goes against everything my mother taught me. I must watch the Foreigner, though. I must follow him. I’m waiting for my moment, you see. I have something for him. It is a dagger.

         So I stalk him as he moves about the town. He’s looking for a place to stay, a bed for the night. These towns all look the same to me: their quiet streets and neat rows of joined up houses; the Moorish tiles that decorate walls and patios; the bars that spill customers out into the road; the dusty little town squares; the church tower; the backdrop of olive trees on mountain plains.

         When The Foreigner has found himself a hostel and has disappeared up to his room, I book myself into the same place. Now at last there is a chance to escape the pouring sun. On the way to my room I meet him on the landing. I’m not prepared for this. He’s emerging from a room ahead of me as I reach the top of the stairs. For one moment we stand and stare at each other. I’m rooted to the spot. I don’t know what to do, although my fingertips itch for the dagger on my belt. The Foreigner stares back at me. There’s something like fear in his face, and so there should be, but it can’t be that he recognises me or knows anything of my intentions towards him. I have been discreet until now. His features are gentle, open and inquisitive, but with a shy reserve at the same time, like a child’s. His thick hair is pushed back from his brow, with strands falling loose and catching in the damp skin of his face. I continue to stare even as he offers a soft pardon and shifts past me down the stairs. There’s a moment of opportunity when he puts his back to me. I could easily have grabbed the dagger and stuck him with it. My hand would not hesitate. I’m not squeamish at the sight of blood. As a child I held dead rabbits by their legs as my grandmother skinned them. One Christmas I watched my father cut the throat of the pig that lived in our yard, while it screamed. I watched him butcher it, then sat with the old women making chorizo with its innards. And I would feel no more remorse for The Foreigner, though he might scream and wail and spout fountains of blood just like that pig did.

         Yet my hand did not move. The moment of opportunity I only acknowledge and allow to pass. Before I know it The Foreigner is gone and I’m alone, blinking at the head of the stairs. Why did I not act? I will ask myself this question again later, as I walk a dark road, tracking The Foreigner to another town. Why did I not act?

         Looking for my room, I see that it is next to the one he exited. This will be useful.

         He leaves the hostel unburdened with luggage so I let him go, knowing he will return. In fact, not soon after, when I am lying on my bed trying to nap, I hear him return. Now there is no chance of sleep, despite the exhaustion I feel. I lie restless and hot, listening to him moving about on the other side of the wall. I can readily picture him in my mind as he bathes and shaves and dresses again for evening. He will head out soon to one of the town’s accommodating bars, looking for food and beer and perhaps an accommodating local girl.

         The bar I follow him to is called El Toro: The Bull. Photographs of Matador’s adorn the walls, plus a huge bull’s head which juts out into the gathered throng. The bar is noisy and crowded. The Foreigner, typically, has by the time I arrive found himself a table in a corner, out of the way. Waiting to be served, I notice how eyes stray towards him. The men look with curiosity and suspicion. The women’s eyes drift and linger.

         I position myself on a stool at the bar, where I can keep him in my sights, and sip at a cold and very welcome beer. Before long I have attracted the attention of a local lathario. My mother calls me a tom-boy and asks why I never make an effort. She asks if I intend to become a nun. I can still attract the men though. Like this one here, who introduces himself as Carlos. I tell him that was my father’s name. He thinks this fateful, and offers me a rose. I accept the rose and pin it in my hair.

         “Where are you from?” he asks.

         “The Coast,” I tell him, which is all he needs to know. My eyes stray over his shoulder and I notice that The Foreigner too has found company. A dusky town beauty has found the courage to approach him and now sits at his table, batting her eyes and sipping coquettishly at her drink. I feel a flutter of panic. Now is when I realise the mistake I made in not acting when I met The Foreigner on the hostel stairs.

         My acquaintance has seen where my eyes stray.

         “Do you know that man?”

         I jolt in my seat and switch my eyes back to Carlos. “No.”

         “He is also a stranger to our town. He looks like an American. He looks like a man from a movie screen, you know?”

         I glance back at The Foreigner. It’s true he is a handsome man, with a certain effortless charisma. The woman with him is now leaning close to whisper in his ear. It will be something meaningless. All she wants is to display more of her cleavage. I look to The Foreigner’s face and see again something like fear, much the same as when I faced him earlier. Something about the woman seems to scare him. Or perhaps it is not the woman but himself that he fears. Perhaps he is not frightened of her, but for her. I feel my face growing hot with anger. Somehow I must intervene, get that woman away from him.

         Carlos buys me another drink. He wants to know if I have family.

         “I had a sister.”

         “No brothers?”

         “No.” I wish I had brothers. I wish I had a whole army of vengeful, protective brothers.

         “And where is your sister? I would very much like to meet her.”

         “She is dead.”

         I find myself growing redder, hotter. Over in the far corner, The Foreigner and his lady friend are finishing up their drinks.

         “I’m very sorry to hear that. How did she die?”

         “She died in a fire.”

         “Was she very young?”

         “Eighteen.”

         The Foreigner and the woman get up from the table. She begins leading him towards the exit. A few of the men gathered around look on with envy or mistrust. Not Carlos though. He only has eyes for me.

         “That is...” Carlos begins. Then: “Hey! Where are you going?”

         He catches my arm as I slide off my chair.

         “Let me go. I have to-“

         “Come now. Let me buy you another drink.”

         “No. Please. I have to-"

         I try to jerk my arm out of his grasp. He releases it at the same moment so the force with which I wrench my arm sends me forward to the floor. One of my hands falls on a shattered glass. I feel it rip my flesh, thinking: No! Not now! A few men help me to my feet. Blood is already flowing down my arm. There is no time to attend to this. I must go after The Foreigner.

         Carlos stops me.

         “You’re hurt. Let me see.”

         “No! There’s no time!”

         “No, this is serious. I’ll take you to the hospital.”

         “The hospital? No, I have to go.”

         “My car is right outside. You’re bleeding. Come on.”

* * * *

        What could I do? By the time he’s brought me back into town, with four stitches in my hand, it’s all over. Approaching the hotel, Carlos’ car gives way to flashing lights.

         “What happened?”

         I close my eyes. I know. I have let this happen. Why, why did I not act when I had the chance?

         “Someone died here tonight.”

         He stares at me. “Who?”

         “A woman. A young woman.”

         My words are confirmed when he turns frontward in time to see two ambulance men carrying something covered in a white sheet from the door of the hostel.

         “I have to go,” I tell Carlos, springing the car door. “Goodbye.”

         I’m gone before he can stop me.

         The police are waiting for me. Was I staying here? Yes. Had I seen anything? No. They tell me I have to find somewhere else to stay. I tell them I need to collect my possessions. Grudgingly, they allow this. The hostel stairs are full of people and police men.

         “What happened?” I ask one woman.

         She still has an expression of shock and sadness. “They found her. She was all...burned. It was Rosa from the pharmacy!”

         “Was she alone?”

         “She was with a man. A stranger. But he’s gone!”

         I push my way through. On the way to my room I catch a glimpse into the room The Foreigner had occupied. I see the blackened remains of a bed, charred walls. And I feel sick to my stomach.

         I let this happen.

         That poor woman.

         Before long I’m on the road again, alone in the darkness. I will find The Foreigner in another town, somewhere higher in these hills.

* * * *

        I saw my sister’s death.

         I saw her engulfed by fire.

         I saw it all.

         I have thought often about the look she had on her face when she died. For a split second, as fire swept her body, I saw her face and she did not seem to be in shock or pain. Instead, her expression seemed to be one of pleasure, or rapture. Maybe I was mistaken, but I was there when she died, I saw everything, I looked into her face and I saw that she died in a state of ecstasy.

         Can this be how it was?

         Maybe I’m holding on to this idea for comfort. It’s consoling to think she did not suffer.

         Her name was Carmen. She was two years my junior. By the time she was fifteen she couldn’t walk the streets without being wolf-whistled. Just a few more years and she had blossomed into one of the most striking women around, and she knew it. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. She had something else, a light, a joy, a playful humour, a way of swinging her hips or flicking her hair that drove men wild. My mother always made me go everywhere with her. “Watch your sister!” was all I ever heard, as if I were a brother who could protect her. I might as well have been, because I never got a chance to shine in Carmen’s company. In a bar full of men, not one would give me a second glance. Carmen teased and toyed with them as they fought to buy her drinks. A large silver cross which had belonged to my grandmother hung on a chain around her neck and settled in the gulf between her breasts, but there was nothing saintly about my sister. Frequently she would disappear off with some man, usually when drunk, then reappear twenty or so minutes later with her clothes dishevelled and her lipstick smeared and a lazy satisfied look on her face. I never asked where she’d been, or with whom, but she loved to give me little details.

         “His hands were so rough!” she might tell me. Or, “He talked about his wife the whole time!”

         I found it all distasteful. I felt ashamed, thinking about these men who tore her underwear and left marks on her neck. I did nothing to stop it though. I did not play the protective, brotherly part my mother had forced on me. Maybe it was jealousy that made me so indifferent. Carmen could be beautiful and vivacious and wicked, but if she behaved like a whore and a tramp, how long before the men lost interest?

         The men were still falling over each other to talk to her the night she died, the night she met The Foreigner. I could see in their eyes, though, that they were only wondering which one of them Carmen would drag into the alley behind the bar for a quick fuck against the wall before the night was out. This night none of them would get near.

         I saw him first. He was alone at a table, out of the way, as I have come to know as his way. There was something about the way he sat, so confident, so composed, so indifferent in the midst of all that bustle and noise. It was as though he had no interest in anything anyone else might say or do or think, as if the people around didn’t exist for him, as if they couldn’t touch him or taint him or hope to ever reach him. He sat there gazing inward, looking a little bored. So perfect. Such beauty. My eyes fell on him and I knew I wanted him.

         A moment later, Carmen’s eyes had discovered him also. She gave a small exclamation and I felt in my heart a terrible hard hatred of her. And I saw how hateful she truly was, how she glowed but in some vampiric way sucked the light out of me. My eyes drifted around the bar and I saw how the other women in the room hated her also.

         “Oh,” she said again.

         And she went to him, simple as that. The way women did. He forced her to act the way she made those other men act, in the full force of that attraction about which she could do nothing.

         I’m not proud to admit I followed them when they left the bar together. It wasn’t just to keep an eye on her, to protect her. I walked silently in the dark, listening to my sister’s flirtatious laughter. I had never had the slightest interest in her conquests before, but this time was different. I burned with envy of her. This man had touched something in me. I wanted him. If I could not have him then I could have something, some vicarious life through my sister, some taste of her experience with him.

         I always remember her face, contorted with ecstasy – not pain – as she died in a burst of fire.

         He led her to a row of chalets by the beach. I stood in the dark, watching them through the window, listening to the waves clapping against the sand. I felt shame. I feel ashamed now, just thinking about it. But I was compelled. I saw them kiss. Carmen took the lead. When he touched her, I imagined it was me he was touching. When he kissed her I felt his kiss on my own lips. Before long Carmen had arranged herself on the bed on all fours, her face pointing straight at the window. I knew she couldn’t see me. I hung back from the glass. I was just another shadow amongst the trees. I could feel my face hot with shame and disgust at myself, but I could do nothing but stand there and watch them. He approached her from behind. I found myself admiring the shape of his form, his shapely arms, taut chest, the V-forming lines of his abdomen pointing down towards his groin. His fringe hung over his face, so I could see no expression as he pushed Carmen’s dress up over her hips and drew down her underwear. I got the impression that he was playing a part in her drama. He kept lifting his head to glance at her, as if he were unsure of what she wanted or what to do next. As if he needed her to guide him. As if he were saying, Like this? Like this? Like this? And Carmen with her whole being said, Yes! Yes! Yes! Whom was under whom’s spell. I was not sure.

         When he took hold of her at the waist and jerked her towards him, I gave a little start myself, as if it was me he had entered. My face grew hotter, burning now. Beyond the glass they were rocking back and forth on the bed. I could hear her moans, muffled, though the glass. He was silent. His face was still covered by his hair. He gripped her at the hips as she moaned and writhed. I could see my grandmother’s silver cross swinging about between her breasts. Their movements became faster, more urgent. The man lifted his head back and his hair fell away from his face. His expression showed that he was approaching climax. Carmen was uttering odd, high-pitched cries, her mouth hanging open, her eyes half-closed. The Foreigner pushed and pulled her towards himself. His mouth now formed an O. He squeezed his eyes tight shut.

         I do not know what happened then, but...

         There was an explosion. A ball of flame erupted from him. Yes, from him. It burst outwards into the room, startling me so that I fell back into the bushes, tripped, and went sprawling. The last thing I saw was my sister’s face in some agony of ecstasy as she was seared by the fire that flowed out of him. It had erupted from him in that final moment whilst he stood at its centre unharmed, untouched by a fire which blackened all about him.

         Before I could fight myself free of the bushes, I heard the chalet door open and footsteps hurrying away down the path. I did not want to look in the window now, into that room, but I forced myself to look. There was a blackened form on a blackened bed. My sister. Carmen. Dropped. Discarded. Murdered. Dead.

         What sort of a devil is he?

         Days later, after the police and the statements and the weeping and hysterics, after it had all died down, I resolved to find myself the man who had murdered my sister. I would find the devil. I knew what he was. I would put an end to him.

CLIPPING FROM EL SUR HOY NEWSPAPER
POLICE HUNT DRIFTER AFTER MYSTERIOUS DEATHS

        Police in the South are searching for a man believed to be connected to the deaths of three young women. The man, a drifter thought to be American or Northern European, is believed to have been the last person with whom two of the deceased were seen alive. Carmen Rodrigez-Lluguno, 18, and Rosa Molina, 22, both died in unexplained fires after meeting a man in his 20s described by witnesses as tall and of ‘foreign’ appearance. The body of Carmen Rodrigez-Lluguno was discovered on March 23rd after a fire was reported in a beach-side apartment in the costal town of Merca. Carmen had previously been drinking with friends in a nearby bar, before she was seen leaving with a man unknown to locals. Fire chiefs investigating the blaze which killed Miss Rodrigez-Lluguno could find no evidence relating to its cause.

         “It appears to have been a flash fire, very sudden and very hot,” a police spokesman told the press. “The victim was at the centre of the fire and was fatally burned as a result.”

         Further north the quiet village of Talox was devastated by the death of local girl Rosa Molina on March 28th. Rosa, a pharmacist’s assistant, was seen sharing drinks with an individual matching the description of the man police are looking for. Only a few short hours after she was seen in the company of this man, Miss Molina’s badly burned body was found at a local hotel.

         The owner of the hotel, Javier Garcia-Onocola, 58, said: “The room where Rosa Molina died has suffered a lot of fire damage. Everything in the room was ruined and blackened. It is a miracle that the fire did not spread to other areas of the hotel. It must have been a short, hot burst of fire which died out almost as quickly as it began.” Asked what could cause such a fire, police said they were investigating a number of possibilities.

         Yesterday police issued a warning to residents in the Southern towns after discovering the remains of a third victim, who has not yet been identified. The body was found in a hostel in Ojenes some 80 kilometres from Talox. Asked why they had not given the victim’s identity to the press, police chief Andres Sanchez said, “All we can tell you at the moment is that the deceased was female. We cannot at present account for this person in the local area, no missing person reports have been filed. The only means we have of identifying the victim is through dental records.” He went on to say, “I am confident we will find whoever is responsible for these deaths, but I urge local people to be on the lookout and to guard against allowing young women to be alone with men with whom they are not familiar.”

I am a UK-based writer or horror and speculative fiction. My short stories have recently appeared on ezines such as The Horror Zine, Death Head Grin, 69 Flavours of Paranoia and Bewildering Stories.







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