'HOLA! AQUI POR FAVOR . . .'
Here, please . . . and Isobel Matheson inclined her head, her amethyst eyes bright at the thought that she'd never been welcomed more warmly to walk along a station ramp. In Seville the mid January air was bright but cool and Isobel was glad that she was warmly dressed. The journey from Edinburgh had been long but not uncomfortable, though there had been a wait in Madrid when she'd changed planes for the flight south.
There was now a short ride north, and Isobel found that boarding the Cordoba train to her new surgical appointment was rather like going through the airport security check. The rest of her luggage was still being screened, but she was able to pick up her briefcase, a fine leather affair with gilt combination locks and a neat set of initials.
'Eso es mio!'
That's mine? The voice was harsh, cultured, knowing, and Isobel, crowded against the moving belt of the X-Ray machine and effectively trapped, could do no more than half turn, her fingers tightening on the narrow handle. Towering over her as if sprung from nowhere was a threatening and intimidatingly tall figure, and as their eyes met it was as though she had been struck by lightning. Which of course she hadn't.
Then his hand was on top of hers and her blood seemed to turn to ice as their fingers touched. She saw brown knuckles tensed to white bone, a dark sleeve, the edge of a white shirt cuff, and she was aware of heavy lidded eyes and an expression of sheer fury.
'Not again. This is all I need. What next?'
He was pulling the case from her grasp with his left hand as she translated his words, and now her hand was gripped tight by his, her fingernails pressing into her palms and something not quite pain making her heart bang and her eyes prickle as she fought to free herself.
His mouth was a hard line. And his grip had tightened further and he was pulling her hand from her case. Or her case from her hand. Isobel's mind didn't seem to be functioning properly.
Because he'd said what? Not again? So this had happened before? Closed in on herself, Isobel fought for rationality and realised that those weren't her initials, that this wasn't her case. This was similar but better, must certainly have been, in its utter simplicity, far more expensive. Not that it was absolutely brand new. And there was hers, stopping at the end of the moving belt, looking similar. But not that much.
She was released just as suddenly as she had been gripped and she felt the blood pulsing back into her hand. He said again, 'Eso es mio.' Now more than harsh, his tone communicated suspicion and contempt, and what was worse, a suggestion that her mistake wasn't quite, hadn't been quite unexpected, while his glance seemed to encompass her clothes, her stance, her entire being. And he had authority. Not just an authoritative manner. It was something more than that. Then the case was wrenched away from her resisting hands.
She began words of apology. 'Lo siento--' But he had turned on his heel and was gone through to the cluster of passengers waiting to board the nearest carriage.
Now on top of everything else she was holding up the line, and official eyes were checking luggage, owners….satisfied owners. She could see that the uniformed attendant, while not indifferent to what had happened, was frowning affirmation as Isobel reached for her coat. No doubt trivial mistakes were made and settled all the time.
She heard the low rumble of the luggage going through the X-Ray machine, and she lifted down her own cases, then put out her hand to claim the plastic tray holding her gloves and her mobile phone.
She was waved towards the Cordoba train.
* * * * *
THE TRAIN WAS PRETTY well full and a woman was obliged to pick up an armful of magazines in order to give their place to Isobel, who scrutinised her seat reservation with extra care. Her eyes checked the length of the carriage as she unwound her scarf, took off her coat.
I'm nervous, she told herself. She felt a slight shiver. I'm nervous of shadows.
They were moving gently from the station by the time everyone was quite settled. Isobel, next to the window, closed her eyes and wandered into a daydream, her mind drifting to thoughts of home.
When she'd asked her mother why the Cordoba clinic should think her particularly suitable her mother had shrugged.
'They do get many English speaking patients. You'd be more than useful. But I suppose if I were honest I'd have to admit that I'd do anything I could to help them because I feel we owe Jose Maria Mascolo so much. Without question he saved Joseph's life.'
Isobel had remembered only hearing of someone called Joey, and that had been years before.
'I said you'd do it because he really did save his life. Truly. So I'd do anything to help him.'
And now, troubled, she shuddered awake. Above her head on a television screen she recognised a Hollywood star, a fine actor. The film seemed well made, but in her mind she still felt a pressure where her hand had been gripped. A patient had once told her that she could make very reasonable money as a hand model because her hands were pale, straight, blemish free, her oval nails kept short. She had been both amused and flattered.
She opened her eyes properly.
And jumped with something like fright. How had she not realised? The man who case she had taken was two rows of seats ahead, facing her across diagonally across the gangway, scrutinising her, summing her up from head to toe as far as he was able. Questioning, no doubt, her ability to make off with the magazines and general impediment of her immediate neighbour.
Isobel tried unsuccessfully not to stare back. For what was scarcely an instant she met his gaze, then looked away with a blank concentration that she hoped suggested that her mind was on the film playing above her head, his indifference persuading her that her ruse had worked. Not letting herself react the slightest bit she turned slowly to examine the dull gold and green of the landscape of white hill top houses and dark castles which seemed to glide by the train window.
She closed her eyes once more. With almost no sense of what was going on around her or of how much time was passing and scarcely aware of the few and brief announcements, she might have been alone in the carriage, while the train itself, travelling at great speed, seemed barely to move at all.
Half an hour later she was gathering together her papers, making sure that she still had her passport. Across the aisle her inquisitor had taken out a cell phone and was frowning, stifling a yawn, not looking in her direction.
Isobel looked up at the electronic ribbon of announcements. Her mind seemed to sway with the rhythm of the train as she checked that the stop they were about to make was indeed the city of Cordoba and not some lesser halt that might have been added to the timetable without any of the passengers knowing that it would happen.
Of course no such stop had been added. They had indeed arrived in Cordoba, and when she rose from her seat she realised that her tormentor was already gone.