The Winner Stands Alone : Chapter V by Paulo Coelho

Igor points to the one free lane on the Boulevard de la Croisette.

‘Let’s say that I don’t want you to go to a party, but I daren’t say so openly. If I wait for the rush hour to begin and stop my car in the middle of the road, within ten minutes, the whole of the boulevard opposite the beach will have come to a standstill. Drivers will think: “There must have been an accident” and will wait patiently. In fifteen minutes, the police will arrive with a truck to tow the car away.’

‘That kind of thing is always happening.’

‘Ah, yes, but I – very carefully and without anyone noticing – will have got out of my car and scattered nails and other sharp objects on the road in front of it. And I will have carefully painted all of these objects black, so that they blend in with the asphalt. As the tow-truck approaches, its tyres will be punctured. Now we have two problems, and the tailback of traffic will have reached the suburbs of this small city, the very suburbs where you perhaps live.’

‘You clearly have a very vivid imagination, but you would still only have managed to delay me by about an hour.’

It was Igor’s turn to smile.

‘Oh, I could come up with all kinds of ways of making the situation worse. When people started gathering round to help, for example, I would throw something like a small smoke-bomb under the truck. This would frighten everyone. I would get into my car, feigning despair, and start the engine. At the same time, though, I would empty a bit of lighter fluid on the floor of the car and it would ignite. I would then jump out of the car in time to observe the scene: the car gradually going up in flames, the flames reaching the fuel tank, the explosion that would affect the car behind as well, and so on in a chain reaction. And I could achieve all that with a car, a few nails, a smoke-bomb that you can buy in a shop, and a small amount of lighter fluid…’

Igor takes from his pocket a small flask containing some kind of liquid.

‘…about this much. I should have done that when I realised Ewa was about to leave me, to make her postpone her decision and reflect a little and consider the consequences. When people start to reflect on decisions they’re trying to make, they usually change their mind – it requires a lot of courage to take certain steps.
‘But I was too proud. I thought it was just a temporary move and that she would soon realise her mistake. I’m sure she regrets leaving me and, as I said, wants to come back. But for that to happen I need to destroy a few worlds.’

The expression on his face has changed, and Olivia is no longer amused by the story. She gets up.

‘Well, I need to do some work.’

‘But I paid you to listen to me. I paid enough to cover your whole working day.’
She puts her hand in her pocket to give him back the money, but at that moment, she sees the pistol pointing at her face.

‘Sit down.’

Her first impulse is to run. The elderly couple are still slowly approaching.
‘Don’t run away,’ he says, as if he could read her thoughts. ‘I haven’t the slightest intention of firing the gun if you’ll just sit down again and hear me out. If you don’t try anything and do as I say, then I swear I won’t shoot.’

A series of options pass rapidly through Olivia’s head, the first being to run, zigzagging her way across the street, but she realises that her legs have gone weak.

‘Sit down,’ the man says again. ‘I won’t shoot if you do as you’re told. I promise.’
Yes, it would be madness on his part to fire that gun on a sunny morning, with cars driving past outside, people going to the beach, the traffic getting heavier by the minute, and more pedestrians walking along the pavement. Best to do as the man says, even if only because she’s in no state to do anything else; she’s almost fainting.

She obeys. Now she just has to convince him that she’s not a threat, to listen to his deserted husband’s lament, to promise him that she has seen nothing, and then, as soon as a policeman appears, doing his usual round, throw herself to the ground and scream for help.

‘I know exactly what you’re feeling,’ the man says, trying to calm her. ‘The symptoms of fear have been the same since the dawn of time. They were the same when men had to face wild beasts and they continue to be so right up to the present day: blood drains away from the face and the epidermis, protecting the body and avoiding blood loss, that’s why people turn pale. The intestines relax and release everything, so that there will be no toxic matter left contaminating the organism. The body initially refuses to move, so as not to provoke the beast in question by making any sudden movement.’
‘This is all a dream,’ thinks Olivia. She remembers her parents, who should have been here with her this morning, but who had been up all night making jewellery because the day looked likely to be a busy one. A few hours ago, she had been making love with her boyfriend, whom she believed to be the man of her life, even though he sometimes hit her; they reached orgasm simultaneously, something that hadn’t happened for a long time. After breakfast, she decided not to take her usual shower because she felt free and full of energy and pleased with life.

No, this can’t be happening. She must try to appear calm.

‘Let’s talk. The reason you bought all my stuff was so that we could talk. Besides, I wasn’t getting up in order to run away.’

He presses the barrel of the gun gently against the girl’s ribs. The elderly couple pass by, glance at them and notice nothing odd. There’s that Portuguese girl, they think, trying, as usual, to impress some man with her dark eyebrows and child-like smile. It’s not the first time they’ve seen her with a strange man, and this one, to judge by his clothes, has plenty of money.

Olivia fixes them with her eyes, as if trying to tell them what’s going on just by looking. The man beside her says brightly:

‘Good morning.’

The couple move off without uttering a word. They’re not in the habit of talking to strangers or of exchanging greetings with street vendors.

‘Yes, let’s talk,’ says the Russian, breaking the silence. ‘I’m not really going to try and disrupt the traffic. I was just giving that as an example. My wife will realise I’m here when she starts to receive the messages. I’m not going to take the obvious route, which would be to go and meet her. I need her to come to me.’

This was a possible way out.

‘I can deliver the messages, if you like. Just tell me which hotel she’s staying at.’
The man laughs.

‘You suffer from the youthful vice of thinking you’re cleverer than everyone else. The moment you left here, you’d go straight to the police.’

Her blood freezes. Are they going to sit on this bench all day? Is he going to shoot her after all, now that she knows his face?

‘You said you weren’t going to shoot.’

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