"Did you see it?" a voice sounds in the back of his mind and at first he doesn't pay attention. "Did you see it?" she repeats, and her tone makes him jerk in realization: she is sobbing.
Sergio frowns, watching Paula who is now crying out loud. It takes him a moment to get back to reality, and then he jumps up from his bed, sleep wearing off immediately.
"What, what's wrong?"
He hasn't seen her so shaken for a very long time; devastated, mortified. With trembling hands she extends her tablet to Sergio, and he freezes when he sees the title on the screen. It can't be.
"They're saying they've found mom," Paula cries under her breath, panting.
Sergio shakes his head, rewinding the news clip, turns the volume up.
"It's been over five years after the biggest bank robbery in history of Spain, and the Police finally managed to catch one of the masterminds behind the crime. Details are yet to be revealed and statements to be made, but our sources confirm that the infamous Raquel Murillo, a former Inspector who was later proven to be working with the robbers has touched Spanish soil this morning…"
No video footage. No photo.
Sergio sighs and rubs his forehead. Poor Paula. He pulls her to his chest, feeling her sobs with his entire body and her tears wetting his shoulder. He can't believe this is true, a million logical explanations why this cannot be real running through his head, and yet, a tiny seed of hope for a miracle is already there. His mind is no longer in this room or even on this continent. It's there, making arrangements and digging out old contacts he'll need to go back to Spain.
A wave of self loathing is ready to overwhelm him for a millionth time. He should've searched better, he should've tried harder, he…
"I have to go to Spain," Paula mumbles through tears and Sergio's mind crashes back into reality.
"It's too dangerous."
"It's my mom!"
"Look, Paula, look," he squeezes her shoulders, trying to get her attention. She is too emotional, probably having watched this video way too many times before she came to Sergio's bedroom. "Paula, please, just think. Why aren't they showing her? She's one of the most wanted criminals in Spanish history, if they really have her, why aren't they showing her on the news?"
The girl shrugs and bites her lower lip.
Raising a child isn't easy. Only, Paula isn't a child anymore, Sergio reminds himself. She's a teenager whom he caught with a yet another boyfriend in her bedroom last night.
"You said she was dead," her voice suddenly sounds much older than Paula's age. Loss and anger do that to people. "Why did you?" her anger cannot keep her from sobbing for long.
"Because it was…"
What he believed to be true. What he couldn't prove to be false. Sergio takes a deep breath, his heartache back in all its glory. Raquel's last moments, her last words echo in his ears. And then the two gunshots.
"I need to go to her," Paula whispers, and a stream of cold sweat runs down Sergio's back. There are two ways this whole thing can go down, and neither of them is good.
There's been a change in political course in Spain, and it is possible they decided to try and solve the biggest case of modern time to score some points. Lying about Raquel being alive won't give them the entire gang, but their math is correct: it'll give them him, Sergio. It hurts him to acknowledge that this is the most probable scenario: Raquel still being dead and a trap waiting for him the moment he lands in Spain… But then there's a glimpse of hope that… Sergio closes his eyes so tight it almost hurts.
That Raquel is alive…
For months he didn't believe police had killed her. He did everything he could to find her, but everything was against him. She was dead, even Angel unknowingly confirmed it when he quietly cried in his car… But what if the government actually did fake Raquel's death and kept her locked up somewhere all these years?
Sergio's heart stops as terror fills his chest… What have they done to her.
He breathes out slowly, letting the Professor, the emotionless man who always has a plan, take over.
If Raquel is really alive after all these years in captivity, that is not the mother any child should see.
Sergio looks at Paula and he cannot bring himself to say it out loud. How do you explain this to a fifteen year old girl who's been grieving her mother for a third of her life and now thinks she is getting her back? He knows Paula is not a child anymore, but these things… these things hurt regardless of age.
"You're underage, Paula, what if something goes wrong and you are stuck in Spain? You can't risk…"
"Sergio!" she yells and hits his chest with her palm.
He rushes to explain himself, "What if they're mistaken, what if it's not her, what…"
"And what if it is?"
"Then she's a wanted criminal and they will probably not let you see her anyway."
"They will allow family," she tilts her head. "And right now her only family there are my aunt and my father."
This girl inherited all the best and most annoying traits from her mother. He cannot argue with her logic, and yet, he cannot break the promise he'd given to Raquel before everything went to hell. He swore he'd take care of Paula no matter what, and he's going to stay true to his word even if it means lying.
"Here's a deal. I will go and see her. If it's really her… Paula," he shakes her and she stares him in the eyes. "If it's really her, you'll be on the next flight to Madrid."
It takes his contacts two days and an enormous amount of money to arrange him a new identity and clean papers. News claim Raquel is in a hospital, so Sergio's documents say he is a doctor coming to Spain for work and a better life. His spoken Russian comes in handy when he has to fly to Moscow to make his legend even more believable: from there he takes a direct plane to Madrid, praying there is a third option he just hasn't thought of.
It feels strange to walk through the airport, and Sergio's heart skips a bit when he approaches the passport control. He hands over his passport, greeting the officer with his fake Russian accent.
"Yes, that's me," Sergio smiles with the corners of his mouth.
"You have a working visa," the officer states, comparing the photo inside Sergio's passport to Sergio's sleepless pale face. He's shaved and he's dyed his hair grey and his makeup gives him extra 20 years, but he wonders if this is enough. The pause lasts forever, and then to Sergio's horror, officer picks up a phone and calls someone. He cannot hear what the conversation is about, but it has something to do with him, because the officer keeps looking at the pages of his passport.
Looking around, Sergio fears he'll spot police approaching him. It's not that he's not ready for it. He is, and should they arrest him on the spot, there is an almost perfect plan that his associates will put into motion to save him. But that will take time. The time that he'd rather spend getting close to Raquel if that is really her (by now the chances have increased sufficiently as one of his contacts was even able to find out what hospital she is in… Truth be told, the name of the hospital makes Sergio even more worried).
After what feels like forever, the officer puts down the phone.
"Please show me your work invitation and insurance," he addresses Sergio. And then he's through. Sergio exhales with relief as he collects his suitcase and passes through custom security without a single officer even looking at him.
He exits and heads to the bus stop. No better way to lose whoever might be following him than using public transport. A few stops into the city he hops off, walks a few blocks and takes subway. He meets his contact after three more changes, and then they drive.
The safe house is on the outskirts of Madrid, and more of his hired muscle is awaiting him there. He doesn't want to risk sending someone for reconnaissance: too many new people inside the hospital might seem suspicious, so he'll go by himself.
"I'm just gonna type you in as a new doctor for the next shift…" his tech guy announces, pulling Sergio out of his thoughts.
"No," he protests and gets a surprised look as a response. "Not a doctor," Sergio adds in softer voice, fixing his glasses. "There are too few of them, too much attention. Who's got the same access, but no one ever remembers their names and faces?"
For a few moments there is silence.
"A nurse," Sergio finishes. "I'll be pretty much invisible right in front of their noses. Make me a nurse."
That will do. He sends one of his associates to buy off a nurse from the closest shift, and then they put him as a substitute, rigging the data to make it look like he's been hired permanently. Practically unlimited funds do wonders and make almost anything possible.
Key word, almost, Sergio slouches at the thought. Unlimited funds couldn't save the woman he loved. Trembling in anticipation, he approaches the hospital, looking around warily.
There are guards at the entrance, and it takes Sergio a few minutes to line up and have his documents checked with a quick glance. He walks in, holding his breath. This isn't him. He plans things, taking every little detail into consideration, every possible twist and turn, covers every angle. But right now he's stepping onto a slippery ground of improvisation. He hates it, but he knows there's no other choice. He cannot afford to waste time forming a comprehensive plan. He needs to get to Raquel – if that is really her, he reminds himself – as soon as possible. He needs to get her out of here. As soon as possible. There are more guards inside the waiting area, but to Sergio's relief hospital seems to be operating business as usual.
The corridors, the lights, the smell, the chatter… Everything reminds him of his childhood. Of his late father. Sergio wishes this feeling away, but it's there, lingering in the back of his mind, bringing all kinds of insecurities. It gives him a mix of relief and fear and ease and hopelessness. It hurts, he finally admits to himself, clenching his fists as he approaches the registry. Dwelling on the past will not help him right now, Sergio reminds himself, but boy did he expect it to be so hard to be back to a hospital…
It takes them just a few minutes to check his documents, him already being in the system leaves no questions to be asked. And then it's time for him to get acquainted with how it all works. The old man who verified Sergio picks up a phone and soon there is a girl in the doorway.
"Gabriela, senor Gorokhov here is our latest addition to the nurse team. Would you please show him around?"
The girl nods and smiles. She cannot be older than 30, Sergio notes to himself. Which means she was in her early twenties when the Royal Mint operation took place, Sergio pieces together in his mind, following the girl through the corridor. If she was here in Madrid, he is almost certain she'd been on his side back then, he is almost certain she was among the protesters. An extra pair of hands wouldn't hurt him now. He'll use any help he can get.
"So you're from Russia?" she turns around to look at him as she asks. Sergio nods.
"I'm Vladymir," he nods. "Nice to meet you, Gabriela."
As they walk, Sergio takes note of the armed guards, again. This would take an army to get through them all. An army and a lot of collateral, he thinks. There needs to be another way. He wants there to be another way, but then he sees her, or rather, what is left of her, and a bloodbath doesn't sound so wrong anymore.
He stops abruptly, his eyes wide open, staring at the woman he loved so dearly he was willing to give up everything. Come to think of it, he still is. Sergio fights an urge to press a palm to his mouth to keep himself from screaming. Air gets stuck in his throat as he is unable to make a single step further, even though he desperately wants to run to her. His legs turn into cotton, and they are on fire along with the rest of his body, he can even smell the burning flesh.
He cannot nail what it is about her that strikes him the hardest: her gray hair, her wrinkled emotionless face with twisted curved lips and a big scar going from a corner of her mouth all the way to the ear, or the fact that she is so thin it seems she hasn't eaten in months.
"Raquel Murillo," Gabriela tells him. "There's been a lot of news about her on TV lately, so be ready, reporters might approach you. You've also seen a lot of police presence when you came, right? There might be even more, we've already had two attempts to break her out. People went crazy and they haven't even seen her yet…"
"Raquel," Sergio repeats carefully. "Raquel Murillo," he adds louder, hoping she will recognize his voice despite his masquerade. "I've seen the news, didn't expect I'd meet her though," he turns his head slightly to Gabriela, but keeps his eyes where they were, still waiting for the tiniest reaction. Raquel remains motionless, his voice having no effect.
"There's a lot of work with her," Gabriela continues. "My former colleague quit after just a few days."
If Sergio could think right now, he'd take note how he was the one to pay off that other nurse not to come back to work. But he can't. All he can do is stand there as a ghost of himself. Deep down he almost wishes this wasn't Raquel. He feels ashamed of this thought, but it's there.
"She is blind, so every few hours you'll have to take her to the restroom," Gabriela motions towards Raquel. "Don't expect any reaction, she hasn't said a single word since we got her, and…"
She is so small. Much smaller than he remembers. He desperately wants to wrap her in his arms. To kneel before her, pull her tight to his chest and beg for her forgiveness. If only he had been more persistent, if only he didn't let her come back to Spain, if only he convinced her to stay in Palawan… None of this would have happened.
"…and she cannot chew, so only soft food and liquids," his new colleague informs with a hint of sadness in her voice, and Sergio automatically – silently – adds 'no mushrooms, because she's allergic'. It almost makes him cry. "Her jaw was dislocated too many times, and…" that's when Sergio realizes why Raquel's face seems so different. Her deformed jaw line, her curved lips, her asymmetrical sagging cheeks… She misses teeth, a lot of them, if not all. He can't tell, but this new piece of information kicks the ground from under his feet, and he feels like he's falling. The girl in front of him continues to explain the feeding procedure, but he cannot hear her. The contents of his stomach are about to come out.
What have they done to Raquel. He feels like fainting and has to take a deep breath to steady himself. This is bad. This is so bad. This is so much worse than he's imagined.
"Goodness," he exhales and swallows hard, and the girl nods understandingly.
"I really wonder if she knows what is happening," the girl sighs thoughtfully and tucks Raquel's hair behind the ear. "You know, I actually hated her at the beginning… Like, when she chose to free a daughter of some foreign politician instead of a bunch of our kids."
Sergio coughs. That was a necessary evil, but it doesn't make it any less evil after all.
"I'm… sure she had her reasons," he probes without visible enthusiasm, unable to move his eyes away from Raquel. With her back bent almost unnaturally and her head leaning forward, he'd mistake her for someone's great grandmother if he saw her in the street.
The girl shrugs.
"Just watch out. She gets these episodes, no triggers, just… snap," she moves her fingers, showing the sound she means, and then turns her head to look at another patient. Something catches the girl's attention, and with a loud sigh she takes off, leaving Sergio standing in front of Raquel.
Still in shock, he squats in front of her, leveling himself below her to give a sense of safety. He looks in her eyes, hoping she'll glance at him even though she won't be able to recognize him in disguise. Then he remembers she cannot see, and it's like a punch to his chest once again. He lowers his head and closes his eyes.
"Raquel?" he calls her quietly. "Raquel, it's me, Sergio. I'm so sorry. So… So… So sorry."
She doesn't react, if only her fingers slow down a little.
"This is me, Raquel," he continues. "I won't let anything happen to you. Do you hear me? I'll get you out of here…" it gets too hard for him to keep his voice from breaking.
"She's non-responsive, but it's only been a few days. I'm optimistic," Gabriela appears from behind and motions for him to follow her as their tour around the facility continues. It takes him an hour to come back, and he finds Raquel in the same exact spot. The same exact position. He looks at her face, afraid to come any closer than he's already standing.
"Raquel, can you hear me? It's Sergio," he speaks softly. No reaction. "I'll get you out of here, I promise, I'll get you to your daughter, to Paula. And to your mother. Raquel," his voice cracks and, as he sees another nurse approach, he walks away before he can no longer hold the tears. He fills a few forms and tucks a few patients to make sure he doesn't look too interested in just one of them. Then he heads to the kitchen and grabs a few small items. Having suppressed some of his panic, he is finally thinking. He is finally trying to come up with a plan, and for that, he wants to know just how far Raquel is gone.