Franco's Lost Gold
The Search for Lost Treasure
In a clandestine commando raid during the Spanish civil war, over $5 billion in gold is stolen to assure Franco’s fascist victory, but the gold mysteriously vanishes without a trace.
More than 80 years later, ex-military Will McLaren leads a nomad life as dive instructor in Belize when he receives a call. It is the first trace to his unknown father, now supposedly on his deathbed. The search takes him to southern Spain, only to get caught up in conflict between law enforcement and local mafia intent on killing anyone who gets in their way. What unfolds is a web of family secrets leading back to the lost treasure.
To survive, Will must team up with newly found allies to bring down the most powerful and politically supported crime syndicate and at the same time finding the treasure; Franco's lost gold. Behind the mafia, shadowy figures lurk with totally different intentions…
This is the first book in a series taking Will McLaren around the globe on adventures, action and mystery.
Book Excerpt or Article
Madrid, Spain, 15 September 1936 at 7:55 a.m.
Shiny boots marching in time echoed between the marble floor and the ceiling thirty meters up. The sound of truck after truck skidding to a stop on the gravel outside was clearly heard inside the building. Orders were shouted out and the marching turned into a brisk sprint. The guards inside the National Bank first raised their weapons but hesitated when they saw the insignia of the Ministry of Finance on the soldiers storming in. Orders were shouted, gates thrown open and even more soldiers carrying empty wooden crates created a cacophony in the National Bank’s main entrance hall.
Major Sanchez, leading the forces, went straight down to the vault.
“Open the vault! By order of Finance Minister Negrin!” he ordered the guards. They saw hundreds of soldiers from their own side in the civil war marching down the stairs. They hesitated.
“Open or be executed immediately for disobeying orders!” ordered the major. The soldiers guarding the vault looked at each other and shrugged. Why die here and now for a political game?
A steady stream of soldiers carrying empty boxes entered the vault, which was surprisingly small, no more than seven meters wide and fifteen meters deep.
Major Sanchez walked over and opened one of the boxes stacked in the middle of the floor inside the vault; a much larger box than the ones his men had brought. He saw sand-colored cloth sacks filling it to the brim. He nodded to one of his men who picked up one of the small sacks and cut the rope holding it together. Sanchez stuck his hand in and came out with his palm full of gold coins, which he dropped back and nodded. Orders were shouted out and chains of soldiers moved the sacks over to the smaller boxes.
In less than four hours, they had filled more than a thousand unmarked wooden boxes, which were carried up to the waiting trucks, driving the short distance in armed convoys. The trucks drove to Atocha railway station where hundreds more soldiers waited to unload the boxes and move them to a waiting, armored train.
Halfway through the operation, the National Bank directorate had begun to arrive at their workplace and alerted those who had not yet arrived. The director rushed down to the vault shortly after 10 a.m.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted to Major Sanchez, who was obviously the most senior military officer on the scene.
“And you are?” the major asked with a threatening undertone.
“Me? Who am I?!” raged the director. “Well, who the hell do you think I am? I’m the head of the bank! Stop what you’re doing immediately!” he turned to an assistant. “Call the prime minister immediately!
“Mr. Director,” Sanchez said with a strange calm amidst the chaos, “had you identified yourself immediately, I could have told you that we belong to the Ministry of Finance and that you should call Mr. Negrin.”
The director stopped and saw that the insignia on the major’s shoulders was correct but wanted contact with the highest authorities.
“Call Largo Caballero!” he said shortly, and the assistant rushed off to the nearest phone. A short while later, the assistant frantically waved to the director, who picked up the phone and tried to protest, but then stood silently with the receiver to his ear. His face grew redder as he realized that a historic decision had been taken behind his back. The impotence of his otherwise power-filled life meant that it was a different man who came back to Sanchez.
“Major, I don’t understand what’s going on.” He looked Sanchez in the eyes for the first time. “Our government has ordered that the entire gold reserve be moved to Cartagena.”
“That’s correct, Director,” Sanchez confirmed.
“But why...?” asked the man who appeared to be losing it.
“I only obey orders, Director,” Sanchez said matter-of-factly.
“Well,” he said in a resigned voice, knowing what he had to do now, “I obviously can’t stop you.”
“Yes?” replied Finance Minister Juan Negrin.
“He just called,” Francisco Largo Caballero, prime minister and head of Spains' government, said.
“Then it won’t be long before Franco knows.”
There was silence on the line except for the humming.
“Do you really think he won‘t try to take the train?” the PM asked his finance minister.
“I know that for a fact,” Negrin calmly replied. He and the head of government lived in an uneasy alliance between different political parties, in a weak government in the midst of a burning civil war but were both pragmatists. That said, they were basically enemies.
“I hope your faith in psychology is warranted, Negrin,” Caballero said.
“There is no upside, no gain from that which he can use to promote himself.”
“Okay, Doctor. Let‘s suppose you’re right. Cartagena?”
“Six hundred elite soldiers, perhaps the best we have,” Negrin said. Using his private title of Doctor was a small peace offering he knew. “They may try to bomb it but no, they would lose too many planes to our anti-aircraft.”
“I wish I had your confidence, Negrin,” Caballero said, meaning what he said. The man was annoyingly sure of himself, but sometimes he was also right “I will have to inform President Anzaña during the day. He’ll find out from the wrong sources otherwise. Then he‘d raise hell.”
“I don’t envy you that conversation, but he is too... weak... to be able to participate. You know that.”
“So, what do we do now, my friend?”
Negrin laughed heartily.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Francisco, but you only call me ‘your friend’ when you really need something.”
“Maybe when we get through the war, Juan. We’ll have a drink like war-hardened friends and laugh about all the stupid things we’ve had to go through. I’m serious, we’re really not that different.”
“I wouldn‘t mind that at all.” Negrin replied honestly “But first we have to win. Time to act on step two of the plan. Otherwise, all is lost.”
“I’m not comfortable with this, you know that.”
“Then come up with a better proposal!” Negrin’s patience was dwindling.
“There are none!” Caballero snapped “If there had been, I would have chosen it,”
“The Soviet ships will arrive within a month,” Negrin said “Now we have to keep the gold safe until then. Out of Franco’s hands.”
“But what if they attack the ships? Franco is an idiot but not a fool. They’ll get a heads-up from Berlin,” Caballero said.
“Do you really think Franco wants to sink four Soviet warships and face the consequences? Risking to draw the Soviet Union into this war on our side? Would he sacrifice his pilot of a brother Ramon on a suicide mission?” Negrin said “Maybe the last one, but no, not likely.”
“I know!” Largo Caballero snarled, annoyed with himself that Negrin always got him off balance “I know, Juan,” he said more calmly “But we’re so riddled with Communists that I can’t trust the Russians. That’s all I know right now.”
Before he had time to eat his frugal lunch under a canvas in the field outside Toledo, General Francisco Franco received a call from his close ally and cousin, Pacón. Franco was currently second in line to take power over a new Spain, provided they prevailed in the Civil War. He had a simple lunch of bread, cheese and olive oil. Despite his excesses in dealing with anyone who stood in his way, Franco prided himself on not being a man of excesses in his life. This had served him well early in his career when commanders realized that he was one of the very few young officers who did not drink or wake up in brothels. Nowadays it was a charade.
“Si!” he answered.
“El Caudillo, I have information from Madrid.”
“Not Caudillo. I don’t have that title yet, my friend.”
“Very well. General!”
“What do you have?”
“The National Bank has been robbed. The whole gold reserve.”
Franco took a moment before replying.
“Negrin,” the voice said. “He was behind it and pushed through the decision. The entire gold reserve is on a special train to Cartagena right now.”
“Bastard!” Spain’s future dictator shouted “It’s illegal! How could this happen?”
“By surprise, Caudillo,” Franco stopped, correcting his cousin about the title. Soon enough it would be true anyway.
“So, they robbed their own national bank?”
“To make sure I didn‘t reach it. What are our options?”
“The train is not an option; they have their own anti-aircraft on board which would mean huge losses for our allied aircraft.”
“Cartagena, I presume?”
“Can we take it there?”
“Very difficult mission. They reportedly have more than 500 special forces defending. The aerial route is out of the question.”
“What are they planning, do we know?”
“Not certain, but Berlin has informed us that four Soviet cargo ships have left Kaliningrad bound for Gibraltar. They may have made a deal with Stalin.”
“Mmm... If that’s true, we can’t take them at sea either.”
“Caudillo, forgive me if I’m blunt, but why not just take those ships? They’d have our country‘s stolen gold onboard!”
“No Pacón, that would give Stalin an excuse to interfere. On a full and wide scale. We’d lose Berlin and Rome if that happens. They are not ready.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Pacón, talk to Camilo and have him put together an exceptional command force. Two, three men max. Africanists,” Franco thought aloud. “Infiltrate now, immediately. It will be weeks before they can make the move to the ships. Time is ticking and we need people in place to probe where the gold was taken and if at least some of it can be salvaged!”
“Si, el Caudillo!”
“It must be done quickly, and you must ensure the loyalty of these commandos at this difficult time!”
“I know exactly who Camilo should talk to, two of your closest Africanistas. Their sons are now loyal officers who have also left their mark in Morocco.”
“Good! Thank you Pacón, I’ll leave the rest to you.”
Franco handed the phone back to his assistant and sat down again. Only he knew that the title of El Caudillo was no more than two weeks away. First, he had to persuade General Mola, commander of the northern army, to bow down. The gold was only one step on the way.
“Enrique and Ariel?” said the stranger who had arrived in an expensive car at the shooting range.
The two lieutenants, who were frantically trying to prepare their unit for the hard fighting ahead, looked down at the shabbily dressed man who stepped out of the car. Surprisedly, they saw that he had the rank of colonel.
“Lieutenant, if you please Colonel!” Enrique shouted over the crack of gunfire.
“Yes,” Colonel Camilo Alonso replied with a smile “Gentlemen lieutenants. Come with me.”
They looked at each other in confusion.
“But we can’t just leave our men, Colonel!” Ariel said.
“You are ordered by General Franco to come with me!” he said, letting his smile withdraw “Are you refusing that order?”
Ten seconds later, the childhood friends were in the back seat of the exclusive car, which, with a flying start, left the confused troops behind.
“If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what’s going on?” Ariel asked. He was 25 years old and already a lieutenant. He was fully aware that it was due to his and his friend Enrique’s voluntary transfer to North Africa immediately after cadet school. He was tall and well-built, something that attracted the interest of women. His light brown hair was shaved at the sides, contrasting with his green eyes.
“You have been selected for a special assignment,” was all Colonel Alonso said.
They arrived in the city of Toledo late at night, were taken to a command tent and immediately briefed on the nature of the mission. After an hour’s briefing, they had crashed into bed without eating. Colonel Pacón, who went by his nickname not to cause confusion by the fact that his name was the same as that of his cousin and future dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, had singled them out as particularly suited.
They were deliberately chosen because neither of their fathers were part of the inner circle of advisers, so there would be no trace of them with the enemy. The fathers were hardened officers both he and Franco trusted with their lives. They had fought together and seen the dusty soil of Africa darkened with their blood and that of many others. The two officers had had sons within a year of each other and the two youngsters had also proved themselves capable in battle in North Africa. Pacón had given the task to Colonel Camilo Alonso, who in the name of General Franco, had summoned the fathers and asked if they fully trusted the sons. They maintained that both sons were fiercely loyal. “They would die for the country!” they swore. If someone were to be chosen for a special mission, these two together would be the perfect choice.
Early next morning, the two young officers were summoned to a meeting with Franco in person.
“Gentlemen!” said the general “You are hereby promoted to the rank of captain. Congratulations!”
They stammered out a confused thank you.
“You have received your orders,” he continued “Do you fully understand the importance of your success?
“Yes, sir!” they said in chorus.
“If you succeed, our fight will be short. We cannot let the communists gain control of our country’s wealth! If you succeed in this mission, the war will be over in the very near future and hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved,” Franco continued “If you fail, our opponents will free up enormous resources to acquire war materials to prolong this war for years! Everything depends on you now. Good luck!”
He shook their hands and left them for a waiting car. Colonel Alonso stepped forward and handed Enrique a piece of paper.
“Here is the name of the man you are to contact at the port of Cartagena and the contact for your quarters,” he said “Both are loyal to our side, as are many others. So, read carefully both of you now!” They memorized the names and handed back the paper which Pacón burned with his lighter “You have three weeks. Not a word to anyone; not your mistresses, not your wives, not your parents. Understood?”
“Yes, Colonel!” they both nodded.
“You have a rendezvous with the submarine off the coast every day at zero-four-zero-zero from exactly one week from now. From that, you have two weeks. After that, the window is closed and you’re on your own.”
“Understood Colonel!” Ariel said.
“Okay,” Alonso said more calmly “Get your things and get moving.”
They had each received a duffel bag and changed into the clothes inside, simple working clothes. New papers showed they worked in the port of Cartagena. They threw the simple bags over their shoulders and got on a motorcycle.
It wasn’t even ten o’clock before they set off on their three-day journey through the rugged Spanish countryside to reach Cartagena. They drove through beautiful countryside and burnt villages. Wherever they went, they were met with suspicion. The right papers ensured they could fill up with petrol, but they slept by the side of the road, trying to attract as little attention as they could. When they were asked about their business, their cover story was that of two brothers who had visited their dying mother in Toledo before Franco took the city. They were now on their way back to their hard work at the port.
Twice they had to break their camouflage. The first time was late in the evening when they encountered a roadblock with two soldiers demanding money to get past.
“You’ll have to go back and take another route!” said one soldier.
“No, wait Ignacio, that doesn’t feel fair,” said the other. It sounded like a rehearsed number.
“What do you mean Rafa?”
“Maybe they are what they say. Maybe they just want to get back to their dirty dock jobs?” His smile showed a line of black, rotten teeth.
Enrique and Ariel, who had kept up the facade until now, looked at each other and nodded almost imperceptibly. Five seconds later, the two guards lay with blood gurgling from their necks. They dragged them off the road to delay discovery and drove on.
Many miles and another overnight in the harsh dusty landscape later, they reached a major checkpoint. It was late afternoon and they stopped at the boom, showed their papers to the bored sentry, and told their rehearsed stories. The soldier interrogating them was about to let them through when the officer came out of a small cabin and with a firm face waved the soldier over.
They again exchanged glances, but the opponents were too many, at least five of them, to take down with just their knives. After a short while, the soldier returned.
“You there!” he said, pointing at Ariel “Come with me.”
When Enrique had started to follow, the four other soldiers raised their weapons.
“Stay where you are! Only him!” one of them ordered.
Ariel followed slowly, his brain working feverishly to read the situation. He walked up the steps into the simple wooden house. Behind a desk sat the officer, beckoning him to hand over the papers.
“What’s the problem?” he tried with a practiced working-class aversion to authority.
“The problem is that you are two men of fighting age who come from territory currently controlled by the Carlists,” the officer replied without looking up.
“Like I told your soldier, we got out before it fell!” Ariel replied, staying in character.
“Says you. I need to check your stories.”
The officer picked up the phone and got the operator.
“Can you put me through to... let’s see...” he said, checking the papers “Cartagena port’s watch commander?”
Ariel felt beads of sweat begin to break out on his forehead, even though he remained perfectly calm.
“Ok, I’ll wait,” the officer said. He then sat with the phone to his ear and finally raised his eyes to look at Ariel. Something changed in his eyes, something about the man in front of him didn’t add up. He suddenly dropped the receiver and brought his hand to his holster.
Ariel reacted immediately, throwing himself around the desk putting one hand on the officer‘s gun hand and drawing his knife with the other, placing the shiny blade to his throat. The guard who had escorted him in, reacted late and once the gun was aimed at Ariel, his commanding officer found himself a shield between the soldier and the intruder.
“Soldier!” Ariel shouted to bring him out of his trance “I mean you no harm! My friend and I are on our way to our jobs at the port. We’ve been robbed before in similar situations!” he said with practiced desperation.
“Sir, what do I do?” asked the confused soldier.
“You will, first of all, drop your weapon, soldier,” Ariel said, pressing the knife harder against the officer’s throat. The officer sat totally still. Sweat began to form on his forehead, and he nodded gently. The soldier put his weapon down and kicked it over to Ariel who pulled his shield from his chair and picked up the weapon in one swift movement. Ariel put away the knife and pointed the gun at the officer.
“Your gun, too, please,” he said.
The officer slowly took out the gun and placed it on the desk. Ariel picked it up.
“Call your friends!” he said to the soldier “Tell everyone to gather.”
The soldier looked again at his commanding officer, who nodded slowly.
“If you say anything else, I’ll shoot you first and then your officer, you understand?”
The soldier nodded.
“You do as I say, and we’ll tie you up and move on, no one has to die today.”
The man nodded again. He really wanted to believe it to be true. It wasn’t.
The soldier stuck his head out the door and shouted.
“Everyone, gather in the captain’s office now! Leave the other one, he’s not needed.”
“Good, soldier!” Ariel said quietly.
Enrique understood what had happened and pretended to muck around with the motorcycle until all the soldiers had entered the house. Only then did he take the only gun they had with them, hidden under the seat, and snuck toward the door. It didn’t take many seconds of listening before he kicked the door open and pointed the gun at the first soldier.
“Drop your weapons now!” he shouted.
Threatened from two sides, they all lay their weapons down on the floor of the small room. Ariel and Enrique made them kneel with their hands behind their heads, faces to the wall.
“What do we do now?” whispered Ariel.
“They can’t tell that we’ve passed, they already know too much,” Enrique whispered back. Ariel knew what that meant, and that Enrique was right, but couldn‘t help but feel disgust. He looked at the young men kneeling with their faces to the wall and their hands behind their heads. They had surrendered and he could see from their postures that deep down they had a hope of survival “It must be quick,” Enrique continued. “One quick bullet each and then another to be sure, Ok?”
Ariel hesitated for a moment, and then nodded.
They barely said a word to each other until they reached Cartagena. At a certain café, a block up from the port, Enrique walked in alone. He said the right thing to the man with the big mustache and came out with a key. The apartment was empty but there were four weeks’ worth of provisions for them. They settled in and slept. The next morning, they brought out their second set of papers and reported to the port under the false flag that they had been working in the port of Ferrol but had fled the Carlist advance. The false papers also showed them to be anarchists. They were immediately hired as cargo loaders.
Ariel asked those who worked around him for a man called “Lucky“. If anyone asked, he told them that this Lucky went to school with his friend in Ferrol. Finally, one of the workers pointed to a man in blue overalls walking across the yard between two of the warehouses. He ran after the man and walked alongside. The man pretended not to notice.
“I heard Pamplona started bullfights again,” Ariel said.
The man did not respond, did not even break his pace, but turned right toward a small building. Once inside, he closed the door and inspected Ariel.
“And?” he said.
“It’s as disgusting as ever,” Ariel replied.
The man exhaled deeply and put a hand on Ariel’s shoulder.
“If you only knew how long I’ve waited for this.”
“We just got here,” Ariel said. “We need information on a large shipment that arrived by train about a week ago.”
“Ahh...” said the man with a relieved look “That‘s easy. They were going to bring that cargo to the fort, but it turned out to be a much larger shipment than expected. They cleared out one of the more remote warehouses instead.”
“Fantastic news!” Ariel blurted.
The man squirmed a bit.
“Well, I don’t know if that’s very good news.”
“Why not?” Ariel asked.
“They’ve put a huge security detail on that warehouse. It’s absolutely crawling with guards; it’ll be impossible for you to even get close!”
Ariel paced for a while, gathering his thoughts.
“Leave that to us,” he said. “The important thing is that you create a workforce, ready to act quickly, do you understand?”
The man nodded.
“We‘ll take care of the warehouse and as soon as we have a plan to move the g... goods, just be ready on short notice.”
The man shook Ariel’s hand and nodded to show that he fully understood his role.
That evening, Ariel and Enrique went over what they knew. Enrique shared his own observations of the designated warehouse. They went through a couple of scenarios, and both enjoyed talking to each other again as if everything was now back to normal after the executions they had carried out. Ariel carried a discomfort, an idea of a thought he didn‘t want to dwell on. They‘d carried out disgusting acts before but there was a certain difference between shooting civilians or soldiers in another country, in cold blood, and their own countrymen. Even if they had chosen the wrong side of this war. He mentally shook it off.
They agreed that their best chance was to get hold of the same uniforms as the soldiers guarding the warehouse, those belonging to the elite force attached to the Ministry of Finance. It would be a tough enemy, but they had carried out infiltrations far more difficult than this one. They rarely talked about what they had gone through in North Africa. There were reasons.
They went to bed early and set the alarm in the middle of the night. They dressed and set out to scout the taverns near the harbor. They found their mark at the third one. Two soldiers in ministry uniforms were standing at the bar, looking like they’d had too much to drink. Ariel and Enrique crowded up to the bar and ordered a tanque each. They toasted and looked at their neighbors in acted surprise.
“Enrique, here are the real heroes!” Ariel shouted over the buzz.
“These?” Enrique replied “You’re absolutely right. Guys, can we buy you a round?” he said to the soldiers.
Neither of them heard the answer, but the nodding of heads led to another order and then a pleasant but shouted discussion. After a few more orders and hugs of thanks, the soldiers prepared to scramble back to base. Ariel and Enrique pretended to decide to leave soon after and followed the soldiers for a few blocks before they saw their chance. They ran up and strangled them out, pulling them in behind a high hedge. They switched into the knocked-out soldiers’ uniforms, leaving them half-naked. To make sure of what it would look like the next day, Enrique took out a bottle of vodka and poured it over the men and Ariel urinated on them. They would wake up with heavy heads, stinking, wondering what the hell had happened. The only sure thing is they would look like fools and try to play it down.
Dressed in their new uniforms, they marched toward the harbor gate. This was the moment that could ruin everything and have them shot instantly. They marched forward with a confidence that showed they belonged, and they were let in without so much as a second glance from the guard! The country was in total chaos and two people in the right uniform turning up for duty was anything but unusual. It had worked!
They walked back and forth in the open, as if on patrol, for a little while and then headed for the warehouse. They marched up to the entrance and were let in without so much as a nod from the guards. Once inside the building, they saw that it was part of an indoor shipyard with cranes on rails high up on rafters near the roof. The whole building was one open space and in the middle of the floor was row after row of unmarked wooden crates. They had been briefed on the scope of the theft, and more than 500 tons of gold couldn‘t be packed too tightly without the crates breaking when lifted.
Their quick assessment was that there were well over a thousand boxes. So less than half a ton per crate. The crates were about a meter long, half a meter wide and the same height. They had been laid out in the huge hall in rows of two crates on top of each other, ten wide. They could see more than fifty such rows. After a final round at the far end of the building, they looked at each other. They had all the information they needed. And the embryo of a plan.
As they sat with a cold beer that evening, uniforms off and folded, they could hardly believe their luck. The huge warehouse had been extended at the back at some point. The new section could be split off from the old with its own sliding doors, which at the moment were pulled away into folded sections to create one large open area. Could they create a diversion right at the changing of the guard to lure the departing guards away long enough to have time to pull the folding doors shut and hide the newer section? Ariel estimated that about one in five crates were in the newer section and that was more than enough for their mission. It was more than they could have counted on.
The new guards would have no reason to question the configuration of the gigantic building, would they? They were used to things happening without them being informed. Enrique had identified a ship that could carry the cargo. The warehouse was in a corner with water on two sides, at the far end of the harbor.
They debated the pros and cons of driving a boat into the middle of the harbor, or instead aiming for the river that ran parallel two hundred meters inland. Or even a little further down the river where there was a small shipyard and better loading facilities. The river would give them more time before someone spotted their ship. At the same time, it would require many trucks or one truck many times back and forth, which in itself was a huge risk. They decided to go for the nearest harbor basin and take their chances.
Ariel contacted their man at the port and told him about the plan. It went against all instincts to open up to a stranger like this, but they had no other choice if they were to succeed. Lucky hadn’t even blinked. Everything would be ready in time. Without Ariel or Enrique knowing the details, he had prepared for the captain and crew of the chosen ship to be ashore all night. They needed watertight alibis to avoid execution. The ship they had chosen in the end, was a riverboat of a little over 20 meters.
They had argued a lot about the boat early on. Ariel saw the riverboat as their best option and Enrique wanted a motor yacht which he thought gave better camouflage. The large amount of gold had finally led them to decide on the riverboat.
Enrique and Ariel had taken the risk of reporting for duty again that evening. They weighed the risk of exposure against the fact that there were at least two hundred men guarding the warehouse in total on each shift.
One of their purposes this time was to raise questions about why the warehouse was now smaller. They spread the rumor that Negrin himself, the very Minster of Finance, who was behind the gold shipment, had ordered this. Of course, the officers didn’t have to explain why to the lowly guards. Those they talked to could sometimes peer toward the far end of the warehouse but not even see what they meant. But they had now sown the idea.
Ariel got the go-ahead from Lucky during a short break. Everything was ready for tonight.
“Yes, sir?” Ariel replied, not without surprise. Enrique concealed his gun hand behind Ariels back, prepared for what might happen.
“Come with me!” said the man, turning round, confident that they would obey orders.
Enrique felt a slight panic, but Ariel had put his hand on his arm and nodded calmly toward the officer. “Come with me, I know what I’m doing,” he conveyed.
They had to leave their weapons at the foot of a steel staircase and were escorted up to a cabin that had previously been the control room for the cranes.
“Ariel and Enrique, is that right?” asked the officer who they now saw was a captain.
“Yes, sir,” Enrique said.
“So why don’t I see your names on the roster?” he asked, looking them both in the eyes.
They knew they could kill the captain quite easily, but they would be trapped up here with a guard force below. That would be the end! Enrique looked quickly at Ariel who nodded.
“Captain,” said Ariel in his most serious voice “I will be perfectly honest with you and take a risk.”
The captain didn’t move a muscle but said, “Go on.”
“We’re not part of this force, as I’m sure you’ve figured out. We are infiltrators.”
To their surprise, the captain barely reacted and simply said, “Go on.”
They looked at each other again and Ariel continued.
“Captain, we are here under personal orders from General Francisco Franco to carry out a mission considered to be of the utmost importance for the future of the country.”
The captain sat silent, probably for half a minute. He looked like he was weighing words and facts.
“If you survive and see him again, give my regards to General Franco and tell him of my efforts. Try not to kill anyone, these are good men I have here.”
Ariel could hardly believe what he was hearing, but nodded, turned, and walked down the stairs. Enrique stayed a few moments longer and walked over and embraced the captain, whispering a few words in his ear, then held him by the shoulders for a brief second and followed Ariel. Once downstairs they had no trouble with the guard and picked their weapons up.
Tonight it would happen. No one else knew exactly what “it” was except that Franco was personally behind it. Two modern forklifts and ten men would meet them behind the warehouse with a hoisting device set up on the quayside in silence.
The changing of the guards took place at midnight and the guards inside the warehouse went out into the fresh but still warm air. Just as the departing guards were leaving the building, a stolen truck, loaded with both petrol and explosives, exploded in a huge cloud of flames, just outside the compound gates. The guards looked confusedly at their commanding officer, who shouted at them all to hurry up and investigate. That’s what Enrique whisperingly had asked him to do.
Ariel and Enrique stood waiting for the explosion and as soon as the guards left their posts, they ran into the warehouse. They rushed off toward the back end. Quickly they arrived at the folded doors, marking the boundary to the newer part of the building. They tore at each of the sliding doors that would seal off the rear part of the warehouse, enclosing one fifth of all the crates. It was slow going, the doors hadn’t been used for years, and time was ticking. Soon the guards would be back. Ariel’s door finally reached its folded-out position with a loud squeak, and he locked it in place. Enrique’s squeaked even more and stopped with less than a meter to go! They both pulled as hard as they could, but the door was stuck. They could hear the guards outside shouting to each other after returning from investigating the explosion. They were on their way back! Suddenly, the commanding officer of the guard came running. He had meant to warn them that the guards were on their way now but quickly realized what had delayed the men Franco had sent. He put all his massive weight behind Ariel and Enriques and with a metallic scream and a bang, the door finally slammed shut. Ariel quickly locked the other door and thanked the man, then they ran for the exit. They met a questioning gaze from one of the guards coming in.
“What did you think?” Enrique asked “That we all just leave our posts? Now you can finally relieve us.” With that, they walked quietly out of the warehouse and slowly but with racing hearts crossed the courtyard toward the exit gates. Once home, they both collapsed into separate armchairs, looked at each other and then started laughing hysterically. They‘d made it! At least so far. It was half past one in the morning, and they were soon about to begin the crucial part of the operation.
“Ready?” Ariel asked.
“Ready!” Enrique replied in a steely voice. They had made sure to clear the apartment of anything that could identify them, locked it, and threw the key down a drain. It was a little after one in the morning.
They walked quietly back to the harbor for their last night’s watch, around to the back of the warehouse and saw two forklifts and far more than the ten men they had asked for. Enrique quickly unlocked the lock to the back entrance of the warehouse.
“Gentlemen, there are many sympathizers to your cause here,” Lucky declared with a shrug to explain why so many had turned up.
As Ariel and Enrique watched, the forklifts drove box after box the short distance to the quayside where they were hoisted down to the waiting barge. Onboard, muscle power dragged the crates and stowed them across the open space in the same way humans have done for thousands of years. Hours passed and the men on the barge toiled, sweat pouring off them, eight or ten men to a box. It was nearly four in the morning when Lucky came up to them and held out his pack of cigarettes and lit them all up.
“Ariel, Enrique, it’s done,” he said calmly. “The men have loaded the crates with as much surface area as they could to distribute the weight, but the ship lies very low in the water. 221 half-ton crates are far more than she was built for.
Ariel put his hand on Lucky’s shoulder.
“It is thanks to you that we will succeed with our mission, Lucky!” he said, “I can’t even express how grateful we are.”
Lucky took one last long drag on his cigarette, blew out and threw the butt over the edge of the dock.
“Win this for us,” he said with a wink and left them.
They exchanged a quick glance and climbed down to the barge as the last of the men who had loaded her climbed the other way, exchanging words of encouragement.
“Good thing we didn’t take the yacht,” Enrique said, which made Ariel smile to himself. It was probably the closest his friend had ever come to admitting that he might have been wrong.
The engine started immediately, but it took many seconds before the throttle kicked in and the overloaded barge began to move.
The harbor was completely dark except for two lighthouses. They kept all the lights on the barge off so as not to attract attention. Ariel deftly steered the heavy barge through the harbor area without incident. When they had passed the last lighthouse and it was straight sailing out into the open waters, Ariel handed over the helm to Enrique.
“I‘ve got to take leak,” he said
The sea was calm, for which they were grateful. The barge was so low in the water that the slightest swell could sink her. They chugged along at a slow pace. A while later, as they passed the outermost breaker of Cartagena harbor, Enrique began to set a course to south-east and the coordinates to meet up with the Nazi submarine where they were to load the gold. Hitler had guaranteed Franco that it would be converted into money, available for Franco and the rebels to use to ensure quick success in the war. A cheap stroke of genius to ensure support in the coming, larger conflict.
Enrique was steering straight out into the darkness with a deft hand, keeping track of the compass and the time, when suddenly he felt cold steel pressing against his neck.
“You’ll never know how sorry I am about this,” he heard his friend Ariel say.
“Ariel! What are you doing?!” he replied, shocked.
“You were right about me,” Ariel said, “Even though you may have been joking, you’ve been close to the truth.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“Enrique, you’re doing this because you believe in something,” Ariel continued, “you really believe in Franco. In his ideology, that some deserve to live, and others should be weeded out.”
“We!” Enrique said, beginning to understand. “You and me! We are the elite! The elite of the elite and we will lead this country in a few years! You... have you been lying all these years?”
He tried to turn toward his friend to look him in the eyes but heard the gun’s hammer cocking.
“Really sorry it’s come to this, Enrique,” Ariel said quietly.
“What do you mean? Don’t you believe in us anymore?” Enrique had had premonitions but couldn’t believe it was true. His best friend, close as a brother, betraying him?
“Enrique,” Ariel said softly, “I know what you’re thinking now. You’re my friend and my brother and I love you, but it has to be this way. I have to ask you, have you had any communication with the family, with Sara?”
“Since we seem to be dropping all pretensions, yes, I have,” Enrique replied in a confused tone as the barge‘s course. “You?”
“Yes, I have,” Ariel said calmly. “I sent a letter yesterday describing our situation but also what I was intending to do. And, that I didn’t know how it would go, so it was as much a love letter as a goodbye letter.”
“Strange,” Enrique said in a calmer voice. “That’s exactly what I sent to Anna too. Yesterday when you were out. I knew how forbidden it was. For the first time, I described my hesitations about you. Whether you were really convinced. I’ve had vague vibes that you may not fully believe that we as an elite have the right to rule...”
“What does it really mean?” Ariel said angrily. “That we who are young and strong and capable have the right to do whatever we want? Kill? Take what we want?” He unconsciously pressed the gun harder against his friend’s neck.
“Yes!” Enrique said honestly. “It’s always been like that. The strong rule the weak. What are you doing? This is exactly what we’ve been doing since, since... we were kids. Our long, hard way here? You did everything you were supposed to. Why hesitate now?”
“You’ve always been my best... my only friend, Enrique. You’re like a brother to me.” Ariel sounded almost sad. “We’ve protected each other through thick and thin. But you must have felt we had different drives, goals?”
Enrique was silent for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “I guess I’ve always known that you were mostly in it for the adventure, while I’ve known where the road leads. Maybe you’ve been able to hide your doubts behind being very skilled. What’s wrong with that? Please, come with me on this last adventure too!”
“My friend... I’ve been with you long enough now.” Enrique heard the steel in his voice even spoken kindly. “I’ve done terrible things that I haven’t regretted for a second but now... I can’t go with you anymore. If this gold ends up in Franco’s hands, it means hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, more people will die.”
“They deserve nothing else!” Enrique exclaimed, knuckles around the wheel whitening. “Franco himself said he’d rather see half the population dead than lose to the Communists!”
“Exactly what I mean Enrique,” Ariel replied, “His sick ideology sees no problem in murdering more than ten million of our countrymen!”
“Countrymen! They are Soviet spies or anarchists!”
Ariel let out a deep sigh.
“That’s why I have to do what I‘m doing. It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made and maybe the only important one. It pains me but my common sense tells me there is no easy solution to this,” Ariel said in conclusion. “Sorry Enrique, my friend, my brother but this is the first thing I really believed in.”
“Wait Ariel...” was all he had time for before the bullet and the pressure of the explosion caused his head to explode in a cloud of blood that left a smell of iron in the air.
Nevertheless, Ariel took a deep breath before dragging the body and throwing it overboard, then steering the ship southwest, away from Berlin’s waiting submarine.
Finally! After three decades of building businesses in telecom and IT, traveling the world, diving, raising a family (three teenagers), half living in a dojo, I finished what I set out many years ago to do; to learn from the best how to write a compelling story, solid enough for a full novel, and actually doing it. Well, finished is not true. The book part, yes. The learning part… I see a first book a little bit like getting your first yellow belt. It is a good start and now it is time stop mucking around, learning even more and go for the next five or ten or fifty books. Finally.