Thank you for all the encouragement you have shown after yesterday’s post. It has been a marvellous experience to immerse myself in the parallel worlds of my characters and begin navigate the murky waters of Julian’s assignment. Chapter 2 offers you a bit more insight into Noel Rojas, and the beginnings of the undercover personas Julian and Noel will undertake.
For those of you who are new to the Marie Balustrade world of crime fiction, all the places presented in the books are actual places where I sat in for hours on end and took detailed notes. You will know more about the restaurant where this scene takes place in the next chapter. I never write about places I have not been to. In upcoming blog entries you will also meet the men after whom the main characters are patterned after.
The comment Noel makes about Kosovo and the Veterinarians Without Borders stems from months of interviews with one vet who was part of the actual smuggling. There is a reason this book needed almost six year of research!
Noel Rojas crash-landed into Julian’s life twenty years ago, when they were both fresh out of grad school. Noel had just earned his MBA but was utterly bored with life in the fast lane and the family wealth. In search of something more meaningful to do, Noel began doing volunteer work in different countries, not caring if it was to scrub elephants in Thailand, build houses in the rural areas of China, or project management for non-government organisations in Africa. The further away from Madrid, the better. What did he care about hotel star ranking or occupancy levels when the villagers in Ghana could not secure sustainable crops or the civilian frontline workers needed additional supplies but could not cut through the military lines or red tape? Knowing that he was doing something for the greater good and making even a small difference gave Noel an adrenalin rush that he would never encounter as a hotelier or CFO.
A fluency in four languages and a knack for learning new ones quickly made him the ideal liaison in any situation. Regardless of the work or the group of people he was dealing with, Noel was extremely talented at getting people to talk and open up. As his network grew around the globe, Noel began connecting people and organisations, and never charged a penny for his services. His trust fund took care of all his financial needs and an impressive financial portfolio of the rest. He had discovered an innate talent for the stock market in his late teens, learning from many of the family financial advisors, and then experimenting on his own. It was a well kept secret, because Noel knew that the moment any of his relatives got wind of his talent, they would chain him to a desk and watch him like a hawk. He needed to keep up the travel bum front, and let everyone continue to believe that he had no future and would end up becoming the family parasite.
There was no hiding a tall blue-eyed blond man among Asians, no matter how tattered his jeans were or how scruffy his beard. His uncouth impression was carefully crafted in case people talked and began comparing notes. On more than one occasion, he had run into business associates of his father, and knew that word would inevitably get back to the patriarch, so he played the role of the aimless playboy drunkard to a tee, and nobody was any wiser.
While working with Veterinarians Without Borders in Kosovo in 1999, Noel shared a tent with two journalists who were sent by their respective news agencies as war correspondents. Alexander Adler was working for the German press, while Julian Lopez though officially assigned by Reuters, had been given a special assignment to work with Alexander. The three of them shared a mutual professional respect for one another, but were also at ease in each other’s company, more so between Noel and Julian when they could converse in Spanish.
It was during the Kosovo assignment that Julian broached the subject to Noel about being a fixer for future assignments in various countries. Both he and Alex needed someone they could trust to open doors for them and get the inside story. There was no need for Noel to think things over before accepting the offer. Being part of a team that sought to unearth the truth behind the facades and manage to save lives in the process was a new high that Noel was only too willing to ride.
A frisson ran up Julian’s back as he turned and looked at his colleague and brother in arms. “Why do I get the feeling I am going to hate this idea of yours?”
Noel shot him a lopsided boyish grin. “Because it will be good, it is dangerous, and we will get a hell of a story in the end. What more do you want?” Turning to Paolo, he continued, “That is, if you are willing to play along and promise on all your venerable ancestors to keep your mouth shut and not spill the beans.”
Paolo’s eyebrows shot up in alarm, but quickly relaxed them again, retorting “I’m game if you are. So, will it be life-threatening or kinky?”
Noel leaned forward, lowered his voice, and rested his crossed arms on the table. “Our problem is getting anyone in the LGBT community to talk openly about the issues we want to find out more about. Part of the reason for their reluctance is that we represent organisations or professions that have abused their trust before or are doomed never to understand because we are outsiders, in every sense of the word. So, if we can’t draw them out to talk, then we have to infiltrate their world. Julian, do you remember Kosovo vets?”
“Of course I do, but which sordid part of the story do you mean?”
“Well, we ran medical supplies for the UN troops but in order to ensure safe passage we had to add extra cargo when passing through Albania. There was no way around it, and we did not see it as taking sides, but rather, doing or job by hook or by crook. Were we weapons smugglers? Yes. Were we medical corps? First and foremost. Were we political ambassadors or activists? No, but we gave the impression that we were, and that earned us the trust of many camps along the way, even if it meant wearing certain arm bands or knowing the codes. My point is, we did what we had to do to get the supplies to where they were most needed.”
Paolo took a gulp of his wine and contemplated getting something stiffer. He was going to need it, by the sound of this. “So, if I understand you correctly, you want us, or in this case Julian and you, to become smugglers? What are we talking about here, drugs, weapons, or something darker?”
Noel smiled. “Something much more basic. We have to come out as LGBT if we want to be accepted and get someone to open up to us.”
Julian’s wine glass stopped in mid-air as the magnitude of what Noel was suggesting sunk in. He straightened in his chair, lowered his glass gingerly onto the table, and drummed his fingers on the table. Tilting his head back and squeezing his eyes shut, he exhaled deeply before he turned towards Noel. “Mierda! Of all the hairbrained ideas you could come up with, it had to be this?”
Noel flashed him a grin, and shot back “Hey, my job is to find a way in, and so far, everything else we’ve tried has hit a brick wall. What have we got to lose?
Julian’s eyes scanned the room, briefly questioning his sanity and wondering whether he should have accepted the pet grooming assignment in Moscow instead, or maybe even the Steampunk Festival. Hell, anything sounded better than what he was about to agree to. Paolo looked at him, bemused, and raised a glass in approval.
“Ah, what the fuck. It might just earn me another Pulitzer if we can pull it off.” He took a deep breath as he put his left hand behind Noel’s neck and pulled him close enough to kiss him slowly but firmly on the lips. Paolo spit his wine all over the table as he knocked over Julian’s glass as well.