“It has been a long day, Mrs. Neil,” said Michael.
After his phone call to the police inspector about any kind of update on Elisabeth, Michael set his cell phone down on the table when Mrs. Neil walked in. He was the last person in the dining room, and he knew Mrs. Neil was hoping to finish cleaning up for the night and to go up to bed.
The proud owner of the Banes-Flatt B and B, the redoubtable woman was looking at him quizzically. Before that day, she had not seen Michael sitting around for so long and using his phone constantly. He was a go-getter in her book. She could sense something was not right in his world. As proprietress of the B and B, she had a greater concern for the whereabouts of one of her guests. She knew Michael had spent time with the Austrian woman the evening before, but she had not seen Elisabeth since early that morning.
“Yes, Michael, it has been a long day. You look quite knackered, young man.” She often referred to him as a young man, and he liked her doing so. “You have not been your usual self today, if I may judge. Not your normal day, huh? I have noticed that the blonde woman has been gone all day. She hasn’t come back for the night, either. You spent time with her last evening. Do you know where she is?” asked Mrs. Neil with a direct question for Michael.
Michael was not prepared for Mrs. Neil to step away from her usual incurious nature and ask something of him. He understood her position, though. It would certainly not be routine for a guest not to return for the evening. Still, he did not know of Elisabeth’s whereabouts. That was the problem. Well, that was his problem. He feared worse, far worse, for Elisabeth. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Neil. No, I do not know where Elisabeth is. Though I didn’t do much riding today, I am quite tired. I think I’ll head up to my room and leave you to it, as you would say.”
She could see that Michael was holding back, but he was still the sharp man she had come to appreciate since his arrival at her establishment. “Very good, Michael. Please get some rest. It will be better in the morning. I’ll be making fresh strawberry scones, first thing.”
Michael had not felt any sort of appetite since lunch. But the thought of the woman’s delightful scones and her particular blend of English breakfast tea made his mouth water just a bit. “That sounds excellent, Mrs. Neil. I look forward to your scones,” he said, remembering how the British pronounced the word with a long ah sound rather than the long oh sound that most Americans used. “I’ll do my best to get some sleep. Good night, Mrs. Neil.”
Michael walked out of the dining room, through the narrow reception area, and up the stairs, careful to slide his hand along the railing for safety. His thoughts, as they had been most of the day, were elsewhere. At least he had the presence of mind to think of his own safety. Off to his room he wandered, hoping to find a way to shut off the constant chatter in his mind and eventually to get some sleep.
* * *
“Spain! Holy crap,” Michael nearly shouted as he woke from a familiar dream, a dream of his time on Camino in Spain—and of Elisabeth. She was there; she had truly been there. He could remember her in a hospedería in Santiago with her face as clear as day. The clarity of the dream was unlike any other mental awareness in his life. From where did that come? he thought before quickly forgetting the silly rhetorical question. He suddenly knew why Elisabeth had been evasive at dinner the previous night. It was all beginning to make sense. She had known him from before. How had she found him? And what did this whole situation have to do with the man in the red car? His mind was racing with questions, and he turned on the bedside lamp to find a piece of paper to write them down. He was finally onto something, a tangible line for probing, something into which he could sink his teeth.
Throughout the rest of the night, Michael wrote down questions, made notes, referred to pictures of that time in Spain on a cloud-based photo library, and looked to his old social-media posts in an effort to prompt more recognition and clarity. He was making a plan for the morning and decided to call the inspector first. Michael was not sure what she would make of his story, but she should be filled in about his previous meeting with Elisabeth in Spain. If it came out later, the inspector might place any possible guilt, warranted or not, squarely on him.
What remained in Michael’s mind about that chance encounter was a vision of the beautiful Austrian woman with a backpack still on her shoulders as she stood in line for a room in Santiago. He fought desperately to hold on to that image and to write down all he could remember from that moment years ago. She was with friends, right? Or was she reconnecting with people she had met on Camino? Michael struggled to recall the other faces in that moment and then looked back at pictures on his phone, trying to identify any familiar individuals. Maybe one of them, or more, would still be named on his contact list and might just remember Elisabeth.
* * *
A former monastery from the sixteenth century, the Hospedería San Martín Pinario in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, was one of the worst-kept secrets in the city, the final destination for pilgrims and trekkers from around the world. The hospedería held two floors of very plain rooms for pilgrims of the Camino at a very reasonable rate, particularly considering the popularity of the city of nearly one hundred thousand people.
Michael began to recollect the first evening he had met Elisabeth at the hospedería all those years before. Pilgrims, all new arrivals, were queued up at the reception desk. Michael, like all the others with their backpacks still on, waited in line in hopes of getting one of the cheaper pilgrim rooms at the San Martín. As he had done nearly every night of the last thirty-three days, Michael stood patiently and began talking to others about their day, adventures on the trail, or the cheapest and best places to eat. Some of the people around him belonged to his Camino family, those people he had met on the trail and who had formed a special bond with him during his journey. Others were acquaintances of those people, extended family members, or new pilgrims to the group altogether. Elisabeth was also in the crowd, her smiling face speaking with another woman, one from Michael’s trail family, named Nina. Michael was still unsure why he had not remembered Elisabeth in his current situation, but he chalked it up to time and to a completely different circumstance, a different place in the world.
That evening in Spain, Michael, his new Camino friend Eric, Nina, and Elisabeth—Elisabeth to him at the time—went to dinner. They had tried to get the complimentary pilgrim meal at the Parador Hotel, but the strictly controlled number of free slots had already been filled. Off they went to find something reasonable, but they had to dine at some place that served pulpo, “octopus,” a Galician dish that Michael had come to love, especially when it was served with good white wine and in good company.
He could only vaguely remember that evening and their meal in Santiago. The foursome were celebrating the completion of their respective Caminos. Each had walked the several hundreds of kilometers to Santiago in about thirty to forty days. As was usual, the four pilgrims had walked different paces, maintained different schedules, and even travelled different routes, but they had managed to finish their respective treks at the plaza in front of the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela all on the very same day. Their achievement was something to commemorate indeed, Michael believed.
But Michael could not remember much of their conversations beyond the celebratory tone. He and Eric, who still maintained contact with each other, talked together most of the time, as did the women, Nina and Elisabeth. Slowly, Michael pieced together mental images from the evening. Elisabeth, he knew, glanced at him a few times during her conversation with Nina at dinner, maybe showing an interest in him. But even with the easy spirit of the evening and the wine, his shyness, he remembered, had won out, and he did not pursue her. Michael had not seen her since leaving their street-side table that evening in Santiago. And then he had met her again the day before yesterday, he reminded himself.
“Eric might remember her,” he said loudly to no one, the sound of his voice bouncing off the old walls of his room. With deft consideration, he put together additional pieces of his plan for the morning and would begin as early as possible. He knew that Eric lived in Belgium and wintered on Majorca. Although it was later in Eric’s home country, England and Belgium had only a one-hour time difference, so Michael would call his friend Eric as soon as possible, using an Internet app they preferred as their usual mode of communication. Then he would call on the inspector and bring her up to speed.
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