Jessie dipped her hand inside her black leather bag, the big one that contained her secret ten thousand Euro stash of cash, and felt nothing. Against all logic, she tried the bag again. Nothing. There was a nervous laugh, and then she frantically looked in all the other bags hanging on the coatrack, but they were empty too. It was ten thousand Euros. It was all the money she had. All the blood rushed from her face and she felt sick.
That fall it was cold and rainy in the North of Portugal and everything started to die early. The green trees were already dotted with orange and yellow leaves, and the locals had to rush to harvest all the strange Piel de Sapo melons before they rotted. The October air was raw and wet and the sun was cold.
Jessie sat down on the futon and twisted a lock of her curly black hair. Her mind raced to possible explanations. She had taken some money out yesterday, and it was all there, but then she had gone to the Centro Commercial yesterday with Carolina, and when she came home, she was tired and didn’t look in the bag. Who knew she had the money? Carolina, and her boyfriend, Ivan, were the only two that were ever in her apartment, but she never mentioned it to them. But, then again, Ivan did act a little weird. Jessie remembered when she went into her room for a moment to grab some money for her trip to the Centro Commercial, she came back and saw Ivan staring out the window. He was looking at the old and abandoned church that was across the street from Jessie’s apartment.
“I hate religion,” he said. “It makes me happy to see that this church is abandoned. I mean it’s only a little church, but still, I’m glad that it’s falling down.”
“Honestly, I never noticed it before.”
“They say it’s bad luck to live across the street from a church.”
“Ivan, stop! Don’t put the bad eye on her.” Carolina gave Ivan an angry look.
“What made you come to Portugal?” Ivan asked Jessie, ignoring Carolina.
“To get out of Spain.”
“Ha! You Americans are always on the run. When one place gets old there’s always a new adventure.”
“Yeah, well, my ex-boyfriend fucked me over and stole all my spots.”
“Jessie used to make jewelry and sell it in the marketplaces across Spain,” Carolina added.
“Until my boyfriend decided to run off with some nineteen-year-old, who looked like a younger version of me, really, she did, but she was as dumb as paint. I couldn’t believe it. And then he comes back with her and they stole all my spots, in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia – all of them. And when you’re selling jewelry in the marketplace – any
marketplace – it’s your spot that makes all the difference. It didn’t matter that I was the one who came up with all the designs.” Jessie twisted a lock of her curly hair. “Anyway,” she continued, “I don’t want to talk about it. I sold everything, and now I’m here, in Fáo, Port-u-gal.” She tried to sound cheerful.
“You must have made a lot of money,” Ivan continued. He was looking around the apartment. “This place is nice.”
“We did alright, until the recession hit.”
“But look at the size of this TV.” A giant 215-centimeter flatscreen hung on the wall in the pre-furnished apartment that Jessie had rented. This was a big deal because hardly anyone in Portugal had a new television. They all seemed to have those thick rounded old TVs from the eighties, and HD was not a common thing. Even bars and restaurants had the old-style televisions.
“It is a nice TV.” Carolina said with a nervous smile.
“I hardly ever watch it.”
“What? A TV like that and you hardly ever watch it?” Ivan said in disbelief.
“Well, I watch some movies,” Jessie said a bit defensively.
“If I had a TV like that, I’d watch all the Formula 1 racing on it. That’s an incredible TV. Can I turn it on?”
“I just want to see how sharp it looks. The Monaco Grand Prix is on today. I should be at home watching it.” Ivan reached for the remote and turned the TV on. Ivan switched to the racing channel. The cars were racing endlessly around the track and occasionally they showed a close up of the driver. Ivan was memorized by brilliance of the image and the sharpness of the picture.
“Ivan likes to pretend he’s a Formula One driver.” Carolina laughed.
“Ahh, what the Hell do you know?” Ivan was upset. “I could have been a Formula One driver, if I didn’t grow up in this racist fodido pais.” Ivan flashed his black eyes back at Jessie. “My father is from Angola and my mother is a blonde Portuguese woman, and when people find this out – they don’t like me.”
Ivan lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the window, “I can’t even get a job.” Ivan took a drag, “and at the University it was the same. I was one credit away from graduating, but then I quit.”
“Why?” Jessie asked.
“Because I had a professor who said some stupid shit to me.”
Jessie understood this more than Ivan knew. She had never finished school either. She was enrolled in an art school in Florence and then one day her teacher came in with a t-shirt of Che Guevarra on the front, and it said, “Yankee Imperialists Go Home!” on the back. It didn’t matter that she had run away from home at eighteen. It didn’t matter that she had never joined the army.
“I’d like to meet your dad someday.”
“My dad’s an asshole. You can’t meet him because he’s in jail. The only thing my dad ever gave me was the love for Blondies. Like Carolina over here.” Ivan reached out and petted Carolina’s bleached blonde hair.
“Stop it,” Carolina smiled and pushed his hand away.
Ivan grabbed the remote and went to turn up the sound but when he touched the button the TV short-circuited and the image disappeared.
“What happened?” Ivan tried pressing buttons on the remote but it would not respond and the screen remained black.
“I don’t know,” Jessie was concerned. She took the remote from Ivan’s hands and tried to turn the TV back on but it did not work.
“I hope I didn’t break it. All I did was touch the volume button.”
“For sure, it’s going to be okay,” Jessie said, trying to smooth over the situation.
“Only a rich person could say something like that!”
Something was wrong with this Ivan and Jessie wanted him out of the house. The fact that he was playing with the TV when it stopped working, was a bad omen. Jessie believed in omens and believed that the TV picked up on Ivan’s negative energy and that was why it shorted out.
That whole incident had shaken Jessie up. She had always thought that people in the small villages were supposed to be friendly. Usually, people weren’t so aggressive, like Ivan. But how bad could he be if he was with Carolina? Carolina seemed so nice.
Jessie remembered meeting Carolina for the first time. It was only a couple of months ago now, but everything seemed so different then. One morning, when Jessie was wiping the moisture off her bedroom window, she heard a dog out front playfully barking and she could hear a woman’s voice talking back to it. Jessie opened the shutters and saw a young woman with bright blonde hair, dressed in dark tights and dark top, playing with the stray dog that Jessie had affectionately named Toto.
“Até logo. See you later,” the jogging girl said and was about to run off.
Jessie stuck her head out the window. “Wait a moment!” Jessie yelled down. “I want to say, hello.”
Jessie hurried into the kitchen and quickly poured herself a small glass of Port and drank it. She hadn’t eaten yet and the Port tasted good to her and went right to her head. She started to feel happy, this hadn’t happened for a while, so she took another shot, then she ran downstairs.
When she was outside, she could see that the young woman was about twenty-eight years old.
“Bom Dia, sorry to have to yell, but I just wanted to say hello and to meet you.”
“Hello,” said the young woman. Jessie noticed that the woman smiled when she said hello. This was a good sign.
“I live up there,” Jessie motioned to the window on the second floor, “and I’ve seen you jog past here and I thought I’d introduce myself. I’m Jessie.”
“Hi, I’m Carolina.”
Jessie invited Carolina up to her apartment. Carolina was happy to come on up. At first, they shared some tea, but later on, they drank some Port. They talked for a long time and Jessie found out many things. She learned that Carolina’s family had lived in Fáo for many generations, and that her grandparents can remember when electricity first came to Fáo, and how her father grew up in a time before television, and how for generations Carolina’s family ran a small restaurant, called O Polvo (The Octopus), in the village. Jessie knew of this restaurant, it was only a block away but she had never eaten there, it looked too plain. Carolina told Jessie that she didn’t want to do what her family did. Carolina wanted to be an actress and was working to improve herself. Now she was eating better, jogging, and even taking yoga.
Carolina let it slip that she was starring in a local play at the community theater. When Carolina told Jessie this, she blushed a bit but Jessie could see that Carolina was proud of this. Jessie promised Carolina that she would see the play. Jessie could see that Carolina was a sensitive soul. It was important for Jessie that her friends be “sensitive”, it was a word that she always used when she was describing someone that she liked.
For her part, Jessie shared many things with Carolina. She told her of how she left America at the age of eighteen. She explained that she came from a poor family and how her father ran a small newspaper stand and how as a child she studied art and wanted to be a painter. She told Carolina how she had sold silver jewelry in the open-air markets all over Europe and had made plenty of money, but all that was finished now. It ended when her boyfriend had stolen all the money in their joint bank account. Jessie had some silver jewelry left and sold
this silver back to the wholesale dealer for a loss, but it gave her some cash. She told Carolina that she was going to pass the winter in Portugal and after that she didn’t know what she was going to do.
After they both had a few glasses of Port, Jessie decided to open up her closet. She saw Carolina’s eyes light up when Carolina saw all the brightly colored clothes. Jessie had a lot of clothes and a lot of perfume. These two things made her happy. She also liked to dress other women. Her years in Florence gave her a lasting sense of style, but then she always had this gift. She would notice how other women would copy her, if she had a new bag then soon, she would see how the other girls bought the same bag. She was generous at heart and wanted to help Carolina, who dressed in dark lifeless clothes. Jessie was pulling out many clothes from her closet and helping Carolina try them on and by the time Carolina left she had a couple of bags of new clothes to take home.
A nervous laugh escaped from Jessie when she remembered Ivan’s play, “Monster In The House”, and the conversation they had afterwards. Tall and worn stone steps led up to the simple white building that was Fáo’s community theater. A statue of a long-since-forgotten-once-famous explorer was in the courtyard, and a few dying Sycamore trees framed the entrance. Inside, there was a small wooden stage, a few colored spotlights and a dusty red curtain. Jessie paid her five Euros and took a seat on one of the wooden benches.
In the play, Carolina’s character gets money stolen from her. It turns out that her roommate has stolen the money so she could buy some new clothes. Carolina’s character is so distraught about losing her money that she is willing to do anything to get it back, including sleeping with her roommate’s boyfriend, who tells her that he will help her get the money back. But, in the end, no one helps and, eventually, she goes crazy and has to be carted off like a modern-day, Blanche DuBois.
At the time, Jessie thought nothing of the play’s theme. All she cared about was watching Carolina – who did her best at infusing some real emotion into the clumsy dialogue. But then there was the conversation on the way home, where, in retrospect, Ivan really gave away too much of himself. They were walking past the little park by the river, and some teenagers were smoking cigarettes on the old and creaky exercise equipment that dotted the park like misunderstood artwork.
“Look at this stupid shit!” Ivan said. “I’ve never actually seen anyone use this equipment for exercise. It’s only about some stupid politician trying to convince the people that they are doing good, but really, it’s about wasting the people’s money.”
A couple of teenagers were making out on the slanted sit-up bench. Jessie and Carolina laughed at this, but Ivan took another thoughtful drag on his cigarette.
“For me I hate money,” Ivan continued, “but because I hate money, it has power over me. And I hate that. But I think money has power over lots of people and that is why I wrote the play. That was the inspiration. I try to use this hatred to create art.” Ivan explained. “You
know in Portugal we say something like this, ‘big problems in small villages.’ Here is no different.”
The solitary rooster from the farm next door cried out its lonely call. Jessie looked out her window and saw the gloomy fog settling in. Soon it would be night. Jessie picked up her phone and called the police. She told them she had been robbed and then she sat back down and started to cry. This country that she had loved so much, she began to hate, and the people she had loved and trusted, she began to despise. Now, she’d have to sell her Sprinter van. That was all she had left.
It was dark before there was a knock on her door and a young and overly serious policeman entered her apartment. The policeman was very formal with her, carefully writing down everything that she said and noting every detail of her apartment. She showed him the bag in her room where the money was and he gently used his pen to open the top of it and peer into the void. He was very composed until he asked her how much money was stolen.
“I don’t know exactly but it was at least eight thousand Euros, maybe ten,” Jessie said.
“Ten thousand Euros!” The policeman repeated in disbelief. “What were you doing with this much cash in your apartment?” The policeman looked at her suspiciously.
Jessie stopped playing with her hair and looked at this boy in a uniform. She started to explain that she used to sell silver jewelry in the marketplaces all over Europe and then everything became jumbled up and confused and she told him how she made a lot of money doing this and how she used to hide her money in the bottom of her dresser drawer but then she moved it to her bag. The tears started to flow from her eyes and she began to shake. How was this boy in a uniform going to help her?
“Who knew you had this money?” the policeman calmly asked her.
“No one.” Jessie looked at the ends of her hair, not wanting to tell the truth.
The policeman told her that someone she knew must have stolen the money. He explained to her how nothing else in the apartment was touched, and that if the thief was a random person, things would have been moved, and other things would have been stolen. He explained to her that her expensive camera and computer and new HD TV were all out in plain sight, and that a common thief would have stolen these, and may not have even found the money, but the person who committed this crime didn’t touch or move anything, but went right to her bag where the money was and stole it and only it.
That’s when Jessie mentioned Ivan and Carolina. The policeman’s ears perked up when he heard Ivan’s name.
“It’s most likely this Ivan character,” the policeman said with a certain scorn. “I know him and he comes from a bad family, his father is from Angola and also is a thief.” Jessie looked at
him sharply, she didn’t like to hear this kind of talk, but she was suspicious of Ivan herself.
“Well, if all you say is true,” the policeman said with a crisp air of authority, “then it’s definitely Ivan. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“What the Hell does that mean?” Jessie stopped pulling at her hair.
“Like father, like son. He comes from a broken family and has no job. He saw a vulnerable woman, a woman alone, and took advantage of her. It was only a matter of time.”
“If you think it’s Ivan, then go to his house and arrest him.” Jessie looked the policeman straight in the eye and noticed that he couldn’t look at her for too long before he had to look away.
“No, no, no,” the policeman said as he shook his head. “We need proof. And you need to remember exactly how much money you had.”
“Well, what are you going to do?” Jessie asked.
“We’re going to wait,” he replied.
“Wait and do nothing?” Jessie couldn’t believe her ears.
“We have to wait and watch him and then catch him when he starts spending the money. Everyone knows he has no job, so when he starts buying new things, we’ll know it’s him.”
“And then what?”
“Let me do my job. In the meantime, go with these people. Pretend to be their friends and make them feel like nothing has changed and they’ll start to let their guard down and Ivan will relax and slip up.”
Jessie looked at him with disbelief.
“Don’t worry, I’ll come by and check on you.” The policeman calmly ripped off a pink piece of paper. “Here’s a copy of the report. My name is, Pedro Silva. I’ve included my personal phone number. You can call me day or night.”
Jessie snatched the paper from his hand.
The next day, Jessie picked up her phone and called Carolina and told her what had happened. Soon enough Carolina and Ivan were at her door full of concern and worry. Jessie kept searching their faces for clues. Were they really worried and concerned or just pretending? Was Carolina in on it?
“Where did you keep the money?” Ivan asked.
“In my bag,” Jessie said, waving towards the four bags on the coatrack.
Ivan picked up the big black shoulder bag that had held the money. “You mean this one?” he said. Jessie was speechless for a moment. How did he know it was that bag?
Ivan immediately began to look out the window, craning his head to the left and the right looking at everything. As he held the bag up and looked out the window he said, “It’s obvious, someone probably saw you put the money in the bag.”
Jessie looked out her window and saw the old and decaying farm staring back.
“It’s not possible.”
“Of course, it is. Look out your window. You can see the street, can’t you? If you can see the street, then someone on the street can see in.”
Jessie pulled on a piece of her hair and put it to her lips. “Yes, I suppose.”
“I’m sure that’s what happened. Someone was watching you and waited until the moment was right and then came in and stole the money. Probably when you and Carolina went to the Centro Commercial the other day.”
“Impossible, I locked the front door.”
“Come on, there are many other ways to get into your apartment.” Jessie twisted her hair and listened. “Did you close the door to your balcony?”
“I don’t know.”
“Someone could have climbed up through there. Or picked the lock to your door.”
Jessie was numb.
“Did you call the police?” Carolina asked.
“And what did they say?”
“He said that it was probably someone I knew,” Jessie paused for a second, as her stomach got cold.
“Let me see the police report.” Ivan read it over and laughed. “They sent over Pedro Silva.” Ivan looked at Jessie. “That guy’s an idiot.”
“You know him?”
“Of course, he’s from the Fáo. He’s only a few years older than me. We both went to the
same school. He was weak and got picked on a lot. That’s why he became a cop. Everyone made fun of him, and no one would date him. He’s still desperate and tries to go with any woman he can,” Ivan explained.
Carolina nodded her head in agreement. “It’s true.”
“Oh my god,” Jessie said. “I felt something was wrong with him.”
“What else did he say?” Ivan asked.
“I don’t know,” Jessie was confused. “He said that he’d be watching me and be there to protect me.”
“You see what a pervert this guy is.” Ivan laughed, “This guy is completely useless.”
“He is worthless,” Carolina agreed.
“What am I going to do?” Jessie asked. Ivan started to talk but Jessie stopped listening.
Later on, Carolina took Jessie out to her parent’s restaurant. Jessie had no real appetite and the soup tasted old and lifeless.
“In Portugal we have a children’s tale. It’s called, Sopa de Pedra or Stone Soup.” Carolina was trying to catch Jessie’s eye. “It’s a story about an outsider who comes to a village. He’s hungry and has no money so he asks the villagers for some food. No one is willing to share any with him, so he comes up with a plan. He tells the villagers that he’s got a new type of soup that he’s going to make for them.”
“Yes, I know the story,” Jessie said. “But what does it have to do with me?”
“The moral of the story is that once everyone learns to share then everyone’s happy, and the outsider is welcome,” Carolina explained.
Jessie looked at Carolina in disbelief. “So, what are you trying to tell me? That I have to share my money with you, the villagers, before I’m accepted?”
Carolina spoke softly, “Don’t worry, things are going to get better.”
“Here’s some money for your stone soup.” Jessie dropped a few Euros on the table and stood up to leave.
“Jessie, don’t worry about it. The soup’s free. Keep your money. I was only trying to help.”
“If you want to help me, help me find the thief!” Jessie looked sharply at Carolina. “Instead, you’re no different from the rest. You’re all are like vampires sucking the blood out of me!” Jessie turned and walked out.
Jessie took the long way home, so she didn’t have to pass by Ivan and Carolina’s apartment. A few people glanced at her as she passed by on the street, but she didn’t look at them. Jessie turned the corner and was at the small tree lined park.
Jessie sat down on a bench and tried to look at the sunset, but it was no good. She looked down at the worn cobblestones and saw a bug trapped on its back. It was a black and green beetle and its legs were flailing helplessly. No matter what it did it could not right itself. It would push a tiny leg against the cobblestone and then another and then with a huge effort try to rock its body, and hop up, but it always landed on its back. It would lay still for a bit, as if it were dead and then try again. She watched the beetle for a long time before she realized that it had two broken legs.
“Hello! Good news!” Jessie looked up and saw the policeman, Pedro Silva, marching towards her, with a look of triumph on his face. Jessie squashed the beetle with the tip of her shoe.
“We have caught the thief!” Pedro was waving a piece of white paper at her. “This is the arrest certificate.”
“What?” Jessie was confused. “Who?”
“It was Ivan. Just as I suspected. When Ivan and his girlfriend were over at your place, I took the liberty to search his apartment and found a great sum of money, and when he came home, I arrested him. He is now in jail where he belongs.”
“Ohmigod,” Jessie gasped, a hopeful smile crossed her face. “So, I’m going to get my money back?”
“What does that mean?”
Pedro informed her that unless she could prove how much money it was – exactly – and provide receipts for how she earned it, and prove that she had paid taxes on it, the money would have to stay “impounded” for the time being.
“No money, until the Judge says so.”
“How long will that take?”
“I don’t know.” Pedro shrugged his thoughtful shoulders. “Maybe, a couple of months.”
Jessie couldn’t believe her ears. She sat backdown and stared at the squashed bug. A couple of its legs were still twitching.
A couple of months later, Jessie started to overhear the rumors. Carolina wouldn’t even look
at her, and Jessie felt that half the town was against her, but she spoke Portuguese well and could easily understand that everyone was talking about the new jumbo size 215-centimeter flatscreen TV that the policeman, Pedro Silva, had recently purchased. It was sharp and vivid and had great sound. People loved going over to his house to watch the big fútbol match, or the latest Formula 1 race. The flatscreen had done what nothing else could, it made Pedro popular. He was the envy of the whole town.
After that, Jessie packed up her van and left Fáo for good. Her illusions of getting her money back had been shattered, and the country that she had loved so much had turned against her. She’d have to try her luck elsewhere. Perhaps, India. Perhaps, New York City. Anywhere it was big and impersonal, and no one knew her name.
Douglas Hosdale has had his work published at Akashic Books, Limit Experience Journal, Horror, Sleaze, and Trash, and JAB Fiction. He was a winner of the Westchester Film Festival screenwriting competition, as well as, a finalist in Fade-In's screenwriting contest. His short films have been seen at numerous film festivals. He currently resides in Santa Monica, and is working on a book of short stories called, "The Lees of Sunshine." Douglas has studied under Lou Mathews, Paul Mandelbaum, and Stephen Cooper at the UCLA writer's program.