Portugal was very different in February, grey skies, cold winds. People hurried about their business rather than strolling. Bron, Andy and Kenny had got an early morning flight. Luckily the Villa had been free so at least they had not had to shell out a load of money on a hotel. Kenny had been summonsed to appear at the trial of the bogus property owners and the lawyer.
Bron was worried that he would find it a strain but Kenny was looking forward to it. His diet of cop dramas on the TV had given him an artificially glamorous view of the legal system. The prosecutor had come over to see them in the UK and taken a very detailed statement. She had found Kenny hard to fathom at first, thinking that because he was autistic she had to speak slowly and use simple language. Kenny had soon put her right,
"We'll get along just fine if you stop patronising me! I know perfectly well how to make a deposition!" He launched into his full name, date of birth, address and occupation (trainee programmer) before embarking on a detailed chronology of events leading up to the discovery of the fraud.
It appeared that the villa over the road was one of many such scams and that they had inadvertently uncovered an international fraud, stretching from Albania to Spain. The 'agent' and the 'vendor' had turned out to be brother and sister, and the 'lawyer', who was in fact a real lawyer albeit one who had been struck off, was the woman's lover. His Mediterranean looks had allowed him to pose as a local lawyer across Southern Europe. He was in fact from Small Heath in in Birmingham, as were the brother and sister. They had fleeced numerous couples and families who had come to the sun in search of a kinder life. In total they had netted four million pounds in 'deposits'. Interpol had traced the money to a series of bank accounts in Switzerland, Monaco and Andorra. Many of the people were due to appear as witnesses at the trial, although some had died or were too ill to travel. One of the worst things about the fraud was that it had targeted vulnerable people by latching onto their dreams, then shattering them. Bron thought that there was no way that fraud was a victimless crime.
As Andy lit the fire beneath the huge conical chimney, Bron lit some candles on the table. They had allowed a couple of days to settle in before the trial started. Bron laid the table. She asked Kenny to bring out the salad and cheese and get knives and forks.
Andy let out a cry.
"Blimey that made me jump!" Outside the french windows a hairy grey face looked in.
"Relax, Dad, its a dog, not a wolf," said Kenny. He opened the windows and threw his arms round the dog's neck. Bron had never got used to the way Kenny would throw himself on dogs he didn't know but he had never been bitten. He had a real affinity with animals.
A dark head appeared round the corner.
"Dan!" Bron gave him a hug. "How are you? How is Nell? and the little one?" They had kept in touch by e-mail. Dan grinned broadly. He had filled out a lot and was brown as a nut.
"They are really well! Nell says to invite you folks over for a drink after you have eaten."
"That would be lovely! How is the house coming on?"
"Its just about there, just finishing touches. Sandra's brother has helped me with it a lot, he's a really nice bloke. We have an annex for me and Nell and the baby. I'll leave you now and we can show you round when you pop over. Just come when you are ready, we haven't got into any sort of routine about bedtime yet!"
They finished up their meal and then locked up the villa. It seemed odd that they had to be so security conscious in such an isolated place but the owners had told them of several burglaries in the area in recent times. Everywhere was getting less safe.
They crunched up the long drive. Andy pulled a long rope by the solid wood front door. On the wall was a sign made of slate that said "Brisa do Mar". The door was opened by Sandra. She looked a different woman. She had filled out and her skin and eyes were radiant. Luis came up behind her. He had grown about a foot since they last saw him. Sandra put her arm round his shoulders. He was almost as tall as her.
"Welcome! Come on in!" She led the way into a brightly lit living room. The ceiling went up to the second floor, with a gallery across half of the room. There was a black wood-burning stove in the centre of the room, with a huge pipe reaching up to the roof. All the floors were flagstone, with rag rugs scattered around. There were two sofas facing each other with a large, dark wood table between them. Huge windows looked out onto a garden.
"Hi!" said Nell, coming into the room. In her arms she held a fat, ginger-haired baby. "Meet Orlando!"
"He's gorgeous!" said Bron, touching his foot. She remembered how it disturbed Kenny to have strangers pawing him so she was always reticent about asking to hold babies. The hairy dog, who they had been introduced to as Smiler, licked the baby's other foot.
"Why is he ginger?" asked Kenny, "genetically, red hair is a recessive gene and since neither you nor Dan has red hair this is unusual. Are you sure that Dan is his father?" Bron reached across and got hold of the back of the neck, wheeling him across the room.
"Look at this lovely stove, " she growled, " how does that pipe draw the smoke up to the high ceiling?"
"Its ok!" laughed Nell, "Kenny, my gran had red hair and it often comes out in future generations. There's no doubt that Dan is Orlando's dad."
"Is he called Orlando the Marmalade Cat?" asked Kenny.
"Funny you should say that..." Nell explained about Dan's birth name.
They sat watching the flames behind the glass. Sandra brought glasses of port with tiny honey and almond pastries. Smiler raise a hairy eyebrow from where he was spread out by the fire. Dan showed Kenny his laptop with the webpage for his new business. It was filled with pictures of beautiful furniture, inlaid with glowing patterns. He was building up a substantial following. At college Dan had learnt marquetry and there was a big demand for furniture with inlay, both from the local population and the incomers. Kenny corrected a bit of the code for Dan to make the 'back' buttons work more smoothly.
Nell and Dan showed Bron and Andy their part of the house while Sandra jiggled Orlando on her knee and Kenny pulled faces that made him laugh. Kenny had a way with babies.
Dan had excelled himself with the woodwork throughout the house. He had used various types of wood, varying the colours and grains. In Dan and Nell's living room there was an open fire in the middle of the room on a plinth, with a large cowl above it to take the smoke.
"I'm going to have to make a pretty serious fireguard when Ollie starts crawling!" said Dan.
They went back to Sandra and Luis's living room. Kenny was tying himself in knots showing Sandra yoga positions. He was double-jointed and often bent bits of himself in a way that Bron thought ought to end someone up in A&E. Orlando was laughing and cooing.
"Do you see much of Jeff and Marcus?" asked Andy.
"Yes, they come over for dinner about once a week," said Dan. "They've finished doing up their house too. Its wonderful, full of paintings. The garden has some of Jeff's wild sculptures. It looks like Gaudi designed it. Parvin is staying with them, working on some complicated computer project. She's due to go off to Chicago in a few weeks to implement it. I think its for the University."
"Has she still got her plaster cast?" asked Kenny.
"No," said Nell, "it came off a while ago. She's much quicker on the keyboard now! She helped us set up the website." Kenny had trouble getting his head round this sort of thing. When Bron had snapped her Achilles tendon doing Taekwondo she had been in a wheelchair for a while. It wasn't until Kenny started asking whether they would be able to go camping with the wheelchair that Bron and Andy realised that Kenny thought Bron would always be unable to walk.
"Can I have one of these?" asked Kenny, taking a peach out of the huge wooden fruit bowl.
"Of course," said Sandra, "I'll get you a plate, they are really juicy."
They talked about the trial.
"I cannot believe how they got away with it for so long!" said Andy, "they fleeced hundreds of people!"
"I hope they go to prison for a very long time!" Sandra suddenly looked serious. "How could they prey on people like us?"
A loud slurping noise interrupted them. Orlando laughed like a drain. Kenny was bent over the slate coffee table, sucking up peach juice.
"Kenny! That's why Sandra got you a plate!" Bron was exasperated.
"I thought that was for after I had cut it up..." for someone so clever Kenny could be very obtuse.
"There's a poem with a bit about eating peaches," said Bron, " I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"
"I can see why old people might be worried about eating peaches!" Kenny was still trying to wipe his face on the bottom of his t-shirt.
"In the time when that poem was written people ate them with a knife and fork if they were in polite company," explained Bron.
"Blimey, what kind of mess could our boy make eating one with a knife and fork?" laughed Andy.
* * *
The day of the trial was sunny and chilly. Jeff and Marcus called for them. They had bought a big people-carrier to fetch their customers from the airport. They were running painting holidays which were a huge success. Nell thought that the biggest draw was probably the two artists themselves; they were like a comedy double-act when they got going.
Kenny, Nell, Dan, Sandra, Jeff and Marcus had all given statements to the prosecutor. (check whether anyone else) Billy and Jack had given depositions over in New Zealand but were not coming back for the trial. Their statements would go in in writing.
The court in Faro was a big, impressive building. Bron found it interesting to see how other jurisdictions operated. But the lawyers had the same officious air that they did in the UK. She hoped she didn't come across like that. Kenny put his hands over his ears.
"I can't stand how echoey it is!" Bron handed him her iPod. It helped block out noisy places without attracting the looks that went with the industrial ear protectors that Kenny had favoured when he was young. The prosecutor dashed up to them.
"Lets find a quiet room." she led them upstairs to a wide corridor. the walls were dark wood panelling with huge oil paintings on them. At the far end was a huge set of double doors which she opened. The room inside was in sharp contrast to the outside, decorated in institutional eau de nil and grey and with formica tables laid out in the centre.
"Would you like tea or coffee?" Bron and Kenny could never turn down a cup of tea. She let Kenny have sugar in his even though normally she stopped him.
The prosecutor explained what would happen and how there would be a fair amount of waiting around. There seemed to be other cases going on as well. Anxious-looking people wandered around, lawyers strode across the huge entrance hall. Kenny was the only child there. Bron was glad he had brought his Nintendo with him; waiting was not something he was good at.
Eventually they were called in. The judge spoke in Portuguese. Jeff and Marcus had picked up a good understanding of the language and whispered key points to the others. Bron was unfamiliar with the procedure. The Judge seemed to take a much more active part in proceedings than in the UK. The prosecution case seemed to take a very long time. The full extent of the fraud perpetrated by the defendants had not been apparant from what they had been told by the prosecutor. It was a sad saga of lost hopes and dreams affecting hundreds of people. The defendants looked chastened as their deceit and unpleasantness was outlined.
There were whispered discussions between the defendants and their lawyers. Then one of the lawyers stood up and asked for the case to be adjourned while they spoke to their clients. Everyone trooped outside again.
"Is this what you do all day mum?" asked Kenny. "No wonder you are so stressy - all this hanging around would drive me mad!"
Bron was about to try to explain that her job dealt with a very different sort of case when they were called back into court. The judge addressed everyone in Portugese, then repeated what he had said in English.
"It appears that the defendants have decided to plead guilty to all the charges," he explained, "which means that I will not have to trouble the witnesses any further. Thank you very much for attending and for all your assistance with this case. If you would kindly let the court office have a note of your expenses they will be dealt with."
And with that he banged his gavel, declared that the case was adjourned for reports and that the defendants were to remain in custody, and swept out of the room.
Back at the house, there was a slight sense of anti-climax.
"I was looking forward to standing up in court," said Kenny, "it looks cool."
Bron was relieved that she would not have to do so. In spite of regularly appearing as a lawyer her experience as a witness was limited to having been strenuously cross-examined in one of her own cases that had gone badly wrong.
"I suggest we focus on how good it is that all this is finally over and how Orlando now has a home to grow up in!" said Andy.
Glasses were raised and toasts made to justice, and babies, and sunshine, and how the universe had a funny way of arranging that things turned out ok in the end.