SMALL STATIONS PRESS Publications
GREEDY FLAMES

GREEDY FLAMES by Miguel Anxo Fernández

Private Detective Frank Soutelo has left behind the stress and strain of Los Angeles, California, to take a break in his ancestral home of Galicia in northwest Spain, but on his arrival at Lavacolla Airport he is distressed to find that a forest fire has taken hold of the outskirts of the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, making visibility difficult. It is August 2006, and temperatures have risen to almost unbearable levels. There are those who believe that the blaze has been started deliberately, a way of clearing land in order to build houses, despite the fact there is supposed to be a moratorium in such cases. One property developer in particular, Marcial Dalama, nicknamed The Terminator because of his fondness for all things Arnold Schwarzenegger, is under scrutiny, but there are those who maintain the fires are started by environmental activists such as Comando Pola Terra or Earth Command. Frank may have been hoping to settle at his aunt’s house in Muros on the west coast and to enjoy her homemade dishes – hake casserole, or sole with mussels – while visiting the local bar run by Poncio, an ex-explosives expert in the Civil Guard, but it seems destiny has other plans. His cousin’s school friend has lost her son to an alleged overdose of heroin; the parents refuse to accept the autopsy results and want Frank to investigate, which he will do, being drawn into a world of big-money stakes, grassroots activism, attractive women, and there will even be a cameo role for his old friend, Sugar Jones the Mortician.

Chapter 1

That summer, Lucifer ripped a hole in hell so some of the heat thrown off by the sinners burning there could slip out through Galicia and reach the rest of the mortals, or at least Galician mortals. August was a real oven, with temperatures hovering around 104 degrees. That was pretty rare for the area.

I’d left California for Madrid three days earlier with the intention of taking care of a few things at the US Embassy and doing of bit of what they call cultural tourism these days. Most of all, I wanted to see some art. I’m pretty eclectic in my taste and not the least bit original. In memory of my father, I always go to see Picasso’s Guernica, plus I never miss seeing Velázquez’s The Spinners and Goya’s The Third of May. I also see everything they have of Johannes Vermeer in the Prado Museum. I’m simply pointing this out because even though I earn my living as a gumshoe, I know life isn’t made up of just alcohol, sex, and crying in my beer.

The same heat accompanied me to the Spanish capital, but I’d left behind a land that was burning on all four sides, a plague that was a mixture of “unfortunate” accident and a lot of bad intentions. During my brief absence, far from finding respite from the iron fist of the fires, the problem had gotten a lot worse. So much so that a few minutes before we were supposed to land, the pilot of my Iberia flight to Compostela informed us it’d be impossible to land due to the dense smoke blanketing the airport. The pilot then apologized for not being able to land in Vigo or A Coruña for the same reason. He was going to return to Madrid, and the passengers were really pissed off, although there was nothing they could do about it. Lucifer was screwing with us, royally.

Finally, after hanging around Barajas and thanks to a sudden change in the direction of the winds blowing from a northeasterly direction, Lavacolla Airport emerged despite the flames that were visible in the area. Finally we started out again, having wasted half a day because of the fires.

I managed to make good use of those hours reading a book I’d brought with me on the flight: The Psychopath: A Chameleon in Today’s Society. The topic had always interested me and this book insisted on the idea that whether males or females, psychopaths are intelligent persons who give their all to achieving their goals, no matter what the cost or risk. The author mentioned the glamour of the psychopath, behind whose smiling mask and powers of seduction lies a predator. I jotted down that part about glamour in my moleskin journal.

After getting my duffle from the baggage claim, I slung it over my shoulder and went to take a piss. Then my body wanted something more before getting on the road. All in all, I’d spent seven hours in a seat in economy class. I headed to the airport cafeteria for a cappuccino that was anything but cappuccino. The server who brought it to me looked fantastic, so I refrained from giving her a hard time and telling her she’d be better off as a manicurist than pushing coffee. Besides, I’d already paid for it. With the intention of relaxing, I took my pseudo-coffee over to a table and grabbed a newspaper that was on one end of the counter. I looked at it, bored. As expected, the front page had an article about a serious wildfire that had been devouring a large area around Compostela for the past couple of days. The article had an aerial photo of the region that’d been scorched by the flames and warned that it wasn’t far from Mount Pío now, which was where the President of the Xunta, the Galician government, had his hideaway.

There was an editorial suggesting that the fire had some relation to a big housing development they were hoping to construct in the area being ravaged by the flames but which had been vehemently opposed by the environmentalists. The property developer was one of the well-known figures in Galicia, a fellow named Marcial Dalama, according to sources. His nickname, ironically, was The Terminator, O Demoleitor, because up until ten years ago he’d been just a small businessman who specialized in tearing down old houses and then reselling the carved granite as historic building material. He’d once said that he loved Schwarzenegger’s films, especially the one called The Terminator, which was why they’d started calling him Terminator, Demoleitor, turning the sound of the original a into the diphthong ei.

Apparently he’d made a quick and copious fortune for himself and there was even speculation as to whether all that capital had actually come from all those old stone structures that had been demolished. The reporter really tried to provide facts, only mentioning the urban legends that surrounded the guy and alluding to a book, recently published, that studied how his fortune had been inherited from some relative in America, perhaps with some connection to a famous flour mill, and, well you get my gist… The article’s author then went on to say that Dalama was pretty tight with some of the most powerful politicians and ended up saying that, nevertheless, they hadn’t actually been able to dig up any dirt on him. He did go around with bodyguards, however.

In passing, the author of the article mentioned the story about how he’d found a small treasure when doing a demolition. He mentioned the book about Dalama as his source, which had stated that apparently what he’d found was a large stash of gemstones and diamonds from the time of the Spanish Civil War. Back then, people hid their valuables out of fear and, for whatever reason, didn’t go back to retrieve the package. The article showed a photo of Dalama. He looked hefty, stuffed into a suit that showed his ample body and how unaccustomed he was to wearing that sort of apparel. If you took a good look at his face, you’d take him for a local shop owner.

The truth is, though, no matter how ticked off I was at the way the fires were destroying the area, and my lack of awareness of how construction was becoming more and more common in a Galicia that my folks wouldn’t recognize if they were alive, that piece of news held nothing more than a passing interest for me. To be honest, there were tons of stories like the Galician Terminator’s in the US and I knew of half a dozen fat cats who earned their living with similar cheap tricks, not to mention the Mafia, which was the bedfellow of the real estate sector because it was a good way to launder money.

I was folding the paper up when I noticed an article on the back page, with a color photo of the urn that contained the remains of Saint James the Apostle – Santiago – in the Cathedral in Compostela. It mentioned two items in regard to those remains. First, a conference was taking place in the upcoming days with the goal of verifying the authenticity of the remains or, to the contrary, of investigating the rumors that attributed them to Priscillian. Then the author of the article also mentioned the special security measures that were in place to protect the coffin. Supposedly it was because there’d been threats by Al-Qaeda, but there was also the possibility that somebody would attempt to steal the remains because of the symbolism they had for Christianity, which was so opposed to Islam. Probably it was out of habit, but I put the newspaper under my arm and tossed it on the back seat of my car so I could read the whole thing a few days later. You’re going to find out why I did that.

After paying in the outdoor parking lot what was equivalent to an arm and a leg so I could drive off in my Audi 6 rental, I headed to Muros. As I did so, I was accompanied by the thick smoke that gave the sun that was about to set an extraordinary, seductive orange tinge, like in the movies. You know: the eerie atmosphere that comes after a nuclear explosion.

That haunting scene was punctuated by the cars coming from the opposite direction. Their lights were already on and were giving off a grim, mustardy yellow glow. They were like pairs of eyes streaming by. I had to forgo my habit of driving with the window on my side down because the air was asphyxiating. As a result, I was forced to turn on the god-awful air conditioning. I don’t normally use it because the cool air irritates my nose and dries out my throat, and I really hate that. To hell with that now.

Radio Galega was broadcasting from various points in the region and the reporters were portraying a horrifying situation. While describing the huge fire that was devouring the area surrounding Compostela and was a serious threat to a nearby housing development, the reporter played a clip from an interview with Marcial Dalama:

“This is an enormous financial loss for our company, but I hope this catastrophe won’t affect the big housing development we’ve got planned.”

Dalama didn’t agree with the suggestion, when asked another question as to whether the project might have to be halted:

“We’re bringing a lot of income to the city and the surrounding area, in addition to all the jobs that will be available during the construction.”

The developer ended by stating his hope that:

“… the Administration will be flexible so we can complete it.”

Then the mayor of the city spoke. The politician insisted that the Law was applied to everyone in the same way:

“… and it’s very clear that the destruction of a forested area by fire means a thirty year moratorium on construction.”

As was to be expected, he was saddened by the tragedy.

The broadcast ended with the Conselleiro de Medio Rural, the Minister of Rural Affairs, who knew what he was talking about:

“We’re looking at the worst damage ever in this region caused by wildfires.”

As far as the causes of the fires in the area around Compostela, he explained that it was a matter for the security staff forces, and responded emphatically:

“We have evidence that this could be a criminal act, but the investigation is still in progress. The motive could be competing business interests, members of the fire brigades who weren’t hired this time around, or even groups opposed to land speculation.”

I turned off the radio. That was too much information.

Around me it was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Through the smoky haze, along the horizon you could see bands of flames that resembled golden threads set across a gray painter’s canvas. The hills looked like they were wrapped in thick clouds made of black cotton. Along the way I saw helicopters pass overhead several times with gigantic vats of water and there was also the occasional plane dumping the thousands of liters of water from its belly onto the hillside. The number of curious onlookers who were enjoying the distant spectacle from the side of the road shocked me. They say that the difference between the person who starts forest fires and a pyromaniac is that the latter hangs around watching the destructive show ecstatically. I could only think that all of the spectators were pyromaniacs deep down…

I pondered how odd it was to watch the hills burn, yet the bystanders weren’t moving a muscle to put them out. It’s still hard for me to understand that, but I need to mention that something similar happens in Los Angeles, unless, of course, one’s own house is threatened. When it burns there, it burns like hell and destroys neighborhoods and mansions as if they were made of cardboard.

Suddenly, I was lost in my own memories, distant in time yet close in my nostalgia. My father used to tell me about a country of oak trees, the trees of Galicia. The ones that provided shade in the summer. The ones with grass all around them for cows and acorns for pigs. The ones in a drawing by Castelao that he had kept and cherished. He had also recited the cantiga, the popular old song, that went:

 

Oak grove in San Xusto, oak grove now in ruins,

in that little oak grove I lost my knife.

 

My old man used to whistle or hum it good-naturedly. Massive amounts of oak trees had also succumbed in the disaster.

It was dusk when I arrived in Muros, which had an odd, vinegary color created by the curtain of smoke that was blocking out the sky. I parked by the fishing dock. The terraces and archways on Castelao Avenue were packed with people. Most of them were probably tourists. I walked down Príncipe Street and the crowd continued in the direction of the quaint Old Fish Market Square. The stench of burning things was in the air, but it was still possible to breathe. I headed toward Viñal Square, where Aunt Castora had a lovely stone house with a ground floor and two above it, which had been restored. It had belonged to her maternal grandparents, who’d taken care of her when her parents had been forced to emigrate to the US and left Aunt Castora, at the time their only child, in their charge. My mother had been born in New York not long after that. She and my aunt were only a few years apart.

It seemed strange to see the house closed up and nobody outside. Usually, especially in summer, my aunt would be near the door, sitting there until early evening, watching people go by and talking with a neighbor, sometimes accompanied by her daughter Sara or her granddaughter Noa, if she happened to be there, but there was nobody there now. I’d refused to accept a copy of the key, even though they’d wanted me to have one. That felt to me like I was invading the privacy of the people who lived in the house.

I knocked several times, but nobody answered, until finally Nando appeared. He was Sara’s husband. Clearly I’d dragged him out of a sound sleep. That really bothered me, because I knew that he was a seaman and was simply getting some shut-eye before going to the port with the rest of the crew to head out with the night tide.

He gave me another bit of upsetting news:

“After lunch, Sara left with your aunt for Santiago, in an ambulance.”

I was horrified, because even though my aunt was well over ninety, she seemed to be as fit as Porriño granite and just prior to my arrival she had still been in excellent shape. She did have a slight cold, but she always said she’d been born that way.

“What was wrong?” I was alarmed.

“This shit,” he replied, pointing his chin toward the fire. “She couldn’t breathe very well and she was gasping in an odd way. We had to take her to the emergency room.”

We went inside the house.

“Do you have any news?”

“Apparently they gave her some oxygen and she’s better, but she’s staying in the hospital so they can keep an eye on her.”

“I can’t imagine how she’s taking that…!”

“She’s cursing everybody… They gave her something to calm her down.”

It was obvious that I had to go to the hospital. I told him that.

“Up to you. I’m embarking in a couple of hours, but I’ll leave you a key for when you get back. You’re on your own.”

I told him that was no problem, rejected the offer and retraced the route from Santiago to Muros accompanied by the horrific flames. You couldn’t see a thing with all the smoke coming from a fire near Ames. Once again, the cars were just pairs of eyes slithering along the asphalt. Two cars with civil guards had stopped along the edge of the highway in case they needed to cut off the traffic, because the glow from the fire, even though it was off in the distance, was horrendous. On top of that there was the usual traffic jam in Ames, which was bad when you were leaving Compostela, but was also pretty bad going in the opposite direction.

It was hard to get to the University of Santiago Hospital Complex, known as the CHUS. On top of that, I didn’t have a pass to enter and I didn’t know the floor or the room number. My cousin had to come to my rescue, after I reached her by phone.

My aunt was still not entirely recovered.

When she saw me, the first thing she said was:

“Paquiño, get me the hell out of here!”

When I was little they called me Fuquiño and even four long decades later I was still Paquiño, as if my hair, now graying, were that of a boy.

“Don’t worry, Aunt, we’ll leave tomorrow.”

Taparraná mariamanoela… Cut the crap…”

It was one of her favorite expressions when she was upset or disgusted. Who knows where it came from, and she used it when she wanted to say she was having none of what was going on.

“Take it easy now, take it easy…”

“I want to get out of here! Now!”

“Nobody will sign you out and besides, the specialist has to take a look at you.”

Sara had probably spent hours listening to the same harangue.

“Screw the damned specialist. What I need is to go home, because ben sabe o que ten, quen casa de seu ten. You know what you’ve got when you’ve got your own home.” It was just one example from her broad repertoire of sayings.

From the other side of the bed my cousin was watching me with a resigned expression, as if saying save me from this torture. She’d stayed in Muros in her parents’ house while her brother was in the Canary Islands where he’d gone when he was young. He’d gotten involved in the construction business and had married someone from there. He visited his relatives in Muros less frequently than his mother would have liked.

“That’s life,” she admitted, resigned as to her son Ramón’s choices.

By talking to her and perhaps because of the sedatives, we managed to get her to sleep. Sara was going to stay with her that night and I asked if she’d like something for supper, but she’d already grabbed something in the cafeteria while the night doctor was in the room.

I promised to return the next day.

I didn’t want to go back to the highway with the flames for company. Compostela was drowning in a fog that the windshield wipers revealed was actually smoke because they caught on the leftover ashes as soon as I stopped at a light. I decided to stay in the Palacio del Carmen Hotel. I’d been there once before and it seemed like a good place to rest my weary bones. It used to be an old convent before they remodeled it.

It took me a while to fall asleep. Through the window that looked out onto the hillside, the glow of the flames filtered into the room creating a frightful scene. Not even the hotel rooms were free from the smell of burning.

 

Translated from Galician by Kathleen March

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    GREEDY FLAMES by Miguel Anxo Fernández, the seventeenth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-089-2

    Publication Date: 08 September 2018

    Language: English

    Paperback: 280 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm