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End Point

Austin murders


Three people were shot dead and several more injured in an incident in a motel in Austin yesterday. So far the Austin police have not released the names of victims, or the suspect.

As Paul Boyle got on the plane in Chicago, he remembered how he had wanted to go to Austin ever since he was a teenager. It was the music, really, that attracted him. And now he had his chance. United’s two-week tour to the States, to get the Americans more interested in football - or soccer, as they called it - was finished. There was just enough time to fly down there before the start of the new season back in England. He would spend a couple of days in Austin and have a look around. It would be fun to stay in a motel, instead of a five-star hotel, and see some good bands. Just have fun.

‘Why don’t you and the kids come with me?’ Paul had said to his wife Karen. But she had been concerned to get the children settled down back home in Manchester again. It was little Darren’s first year at school, and she wanted him to have the best possible start. And their second child Courtney was still only eleven months old. It was hard travelling with two small children.

‘No, darling,’ she had said. ‘You go off for a few days on your own, enjoy yourself, and I’ll get back home.’ The truth was that she wasn’t too keen on the States. Two weeks of it was quite enough. She was looking forward to getting back into her routine again.

As Paul Boyle sat down in his business class seat, he thought how nice it was to get a little time to himself. It was a busy life being a star footballer. All in all, it was rare that he was on his own these days. There was his club, United, and then the national team too. That meant a lot of training every week, and then there were the advertisers who paid so much to use his name. It was all very hard work.

Not that he was complaining. ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world,’ he always said when he was interviewed. ‘After all, I get paid a lot of money for doing what I love.’ Not only was he ‘the most talented footballer of his generation’, as a leading sports journalist had described him, but he was also handsome and intelligent. And he had a wonderful family. He had everything going for him.

And now there was talk that he would be made captain of the England team for the preparations for the European Cup. He hadn’t even talked to Karen about that yet. After all, it wasn’t official, and he wanted it so much that he was scared of mentioning it. He didn’t want her to be disappointed if it didn’t happen.

He smiled to himself when he thought about it, though. It was what he had always dreamed of! As a kid he had sat and watched players like Bryan Robson and Gary Lineker lead England. At night he had slept in his little bedroom with pictures of great England players, like Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, on his walls. They were like gods to him. Now he was one of them. Sometimes he had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming! To wear the three lions on your shirt at all was an incredible honour, but to be captain of England! It would be the peak of his career. No footballer could wish for more.

‘Thanks,’ he said, smiling widely, as the flight attendant gave him his fresh orange juice.

‘Yesterday morning, at about ten o’clock, forty-four-year-old Grace Kent left her home in Galveston, Texas and went for a walk by the ocean. This was her usual routine on Sunday mornings, generally returning home by twelve noon. But yesterday she still hadn’t returned home by one o’clock. At about one thirty, her husband, Bob Kent, forty-six, rang the Coast Guard and a search began. The Coast Guard found her clothes on the beach at seven o’clock in the evening. It is now feared that she drowned in the storm that hit the Gulf coast yesterday afternoon. Jim Lean, chief of the Galveston Coast Guard Station, said in a statement yesterday “If Mrs Kent was in the water when the storm came on shore in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s very unlikely that she could have survived.”’

Grace Kent sat in a coffee shop and stared hard at the television screen. She watched the pictures and listened to the presenter almost as if it were about someone else. ‘Galveston woman may have drowned’ said the headline at the bottom of the screen. So, thought Grace, she had managed to disappear. And now, it seemed, she had drowned as well!

She looked at the photo of herself on the screen. They’d chosen the one of her on vacation in Palm Springs about eight years ago, the one that had always stood over the fireplace in the living room. She looked almost happy and relaxed there. She had long blonde hair that she wore loose. The woman now sitting on the bench looked very different. Her hair was jet black and tied back, and she wore thick unattractive glasses, like the ones worn by librarians in films. Yes, she thought, she had disguised herself well. Nobody could have known that the woman in the grey jacket and the glasses was Grace Kent.

Grace paid for her coffee and went outside. The air was warm and she could feel a threatening wind from the Gulf of Mexico. Another storm on the way, no doubt. Perhaps even a hurricane. She went past the shops lining the sidewalk, past the Texas State Bank where she’d worked for nine years. Then she walked hurriedly across the road and into the Greyhound bus station on 25th Street.

‘A ticket to Austin,’ she said to the man in the ticket office.

Grace picked up a small black overnight bag from the baggage room at the bus station and got on the bus to Austin. She chose a window seat near the back of the bus and placed the bag above her head. She took off her jacket and sat down. Within minutes the bus was crawling slowly out of the station. It was about two hundred miles to Austin and the journey would take well over five hours. Grace sat back, thankful that the bus was not full and she could sit alone.

As the bus left Galveston and joined the freeway, Grace was aware that she felt lighter. As long as she could remember, she had loved travelling - being on the move. Grace couldn’t help smiling to herself. Now she was not only on the move but dead as well. There was freedom in that. Oh, eventually she would tell everyone that she was still alive. Bob and the kids. But for now she would enjoy her moment of complete and absolute freedom.

Colonel Tim Parker of the British Army looked at himself in the full-length mirror that stood in the hallway of his house. He liked what he saw. His suit was neat and well pressed. His shoes shone. He smoothed back his hair and put on his hat, adjusting it to exactly the angle he liked best. Yes, at fifty-five he was still a fine figure of a man, tall and athletic. He was ready for one of the final journeys of his tour of duty in Central America, almost the final journey of his career. In three weeks he would be leaving for England and in just a few months he would be retiring from the army.

In the meantime, the colonel had been invited to Austin, Texas, to represent the British Army at an international conference on security. Today he would fly from Guatemala City airport to Dallas, then through to Austin.

'’Bye, dear,’ he called to his wife.

Victoria Parker came out of the kitchen and kissed her husband goodbye. She was a slim pretty woman in her early fifties. Though she was greying now, it was not hard to see why she had caught the eye of the young Major Parker at an army dance thirty years earlier.

'’Bye darling,’ she said. ‘See you on Sunday. And don’t forget to take some time off to see the bats!’

The colonel smiled. He was crazy about bats. He’d always been amazed at these small mouse-like animals with big ears which only flew at night. In fact, bats were his main hobby. One of the attractions of going to Austin was that it was the city with the largest population of bats in the world. They moved up from Mexico in spring to give birth. And the best time to see them was right now in August, when the young joined their parents in nightly flights from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Apparently, there were so many bats that it could take forty-five minutes for them all to leave the bridge. Some estimates said that there were one and a half million bats. The colonel was really looking forward to seeing the sight. He felt like an excited schoolboy.

The colonel opened the fine old wooden door of the house and stepped out. His driver had brought the Land Rover from the garage round to the wide driveway. The colonel got into the car as he had done so many times before and put his two-way radio on the little shelf in front of him. The automatic gates of the house opened and they drove out, taking the third of the five alternative routes to the airport.

Joe Stefano didn’t much like working at the hotel, but he figured it was a job. And in San Antonio, Texas, jobs were hard to come by. He’d got the job because of his wife Rita, in fact because of Rita’s father Jack. Joe couldn’t stand old Jack Vazquez; he was an interfering old guy who thought his darling daughter Rita was far too good for Joe. Joe hated having to be obliged to him, even grateful to him, but he didn’t have much choice.

Anyway, Jack had a friend called Henriquez who owned a hotel in downtown San Antonio, and he found a job in the hotel kitchen for Joe at Jack’s request.

‘You’ll have to start at the bottom,’ said old Henriquez, ‘just like everybody else. I don’t want people accusing me of promoting the relatives of my friends!’

Great! What was the point of having ‘friends’ if they couldn’t find you a nice easy job? Joe tried to stick at it. He spent his days washing dirty dishes, peeling potatoes and cleaning floors.

Joe was an anxious, nervous man of about thirty-five, with curly black hair and deep blue eyes. He was handsome enough, and he had that charm that women sometimes fall for. Rita had certainly fallen for it.

‘Don’t worry about starting at the bottom, darling,’ Rita kept saying. ‘It’s only a matter of time. Little by little, they’ll see that you’re a good hard-working man and they’ll move you up.’

Joe wondered whether that was true. In his worst moments, he imagined that he would end up a worn-out old man, washing dirty plates. And the truth was that he had a terrible temper, which meant that he didn’t like taking orders from anyone. Most days he had to make a big effort not to hit the kitchen manager, a thin, ugly guy. Sooner or later, something had to go wrong; it always did.

It lasted three months.

The day it ended was a normal Friday at the hotel. There was a big group of businessmen in for a fancy lunch, so the restaurant was busy. But it was always busy. One of the cooks asked Joe to bring him a large pan of water. Joe dropped the water on the floor. The kitchen manager ran over and shouted at him, calling him a stupid idiot, and told him to clean it up immediately. Joe saw red. He lifted up his fist. He felt like hitting the manager, but took it out on his kitchen instead. He went crazy. He threw all the pans onto the floor, and within seconds the kitchen was swimming in boiling water and broccoli. He ruined all the food and burned one of the cooks so badly that he had to be taken to hospital.

Joe was sacked immediately.

‘Get out!’ shouted the kitchen manager. ‘And never let me see you in my kitchen again!’

Joe wondered how he was going to tell Rita.

‘Footballer, eh?’ said the large Texan man sitting next to Paul Boyle on his flight from Dallas to Austin. ‘You must make a lot of money, then.’

Boyle smiled and nodded. He didn’t mind this kind of exchange; in fact it was one of the things he liked about the States. But it was exactly the kind of thing that drove Karen mad. Strangers would start conversations with you, and ask you the most personal questions.

‘Well, yes,’ he answered smiling, ‘I suppose so.’

Paul had often thought that if he hadn’t been a footballer, he would have been a musician. He’d always played the guitar, even as a kid, and he still played sometimes with his mates back home in Manchester. When he had time, that is. His passion was the blues, which was why Austin was so attractive. He loved Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson and all those guys. Why were they always blind, he wondered. His plan was to go to Antone’s Blues Club while he was in Austin and listen to some really good live music.

In fact, he thought, as the plane started its approach into Austin-Bergstrom Airport, there might even be time to go tonight. It was only five thirty, and if he took a cab from the airport to the motel, had a shower and freshened up, there would still be plenty of time to have dinner downtown and go to the famous club.

Once in the terminal he collected his bags and walked outside into the warm heavy air of Austin. He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out the card of the motel. A guy he’d met in Chicago had recommended it to him. ‘It’s a great place,’ the man had said, ‘and really gives you the atmosphere I think you’re looking for.’

‘The Lone Star Motel, please,’ he said to the taxi driver.

It was not that she wanted to hurt her family, Grace Kent thought. It was just that, well, she had felt invisible for so long. It was time to reclaim her life.

Take the other day, she thought, as she looked at the huge Texan landscape outside the window. It was typical.

‘Honey, I thought we’d take Mom away for Christmas,’ Bob had said. He had that little boy look he sometimes put on when he had a ‘plan.’

‘Oh,’ said Grace.

There must have been something in the way she said it that made him want to explain, because he said, ‘Now that Dad’s gone, it’ll be lonely for her, and I think it’s better to get away, you know, from the house. And maybe Lucy and Chip would like to come over too. After all, we don’t know how long she’s going to be around…’

Grace wondered why it was that Bob’s mother was somehow more important than her own parents, who were both still alive.

‘I’m just mentioning it,’ said Bob, realising now that they should discuss it, ‘because I think we’ll need to plan ahead…’ His voice died away.

The thought of spending a vacation with Bob’s mother, the quick-tempered Kate, made Grace’s heart sink. And then add her own daughter Lucy, now twenty and living away from home for the first time and enjoying her new found freedom. She would be moody and bad-tempered at having to be with family when she could be with her new friends. And also her son Chip, twenty-two, who would no doubt bring his latest girlfriend, and who was always moody and bad-tempered whatever the situation! The thought of going somewhere with all of them, being somewhere she couldn’t get away from them…

It was her fault, she thought. She must have made them like this.

Grace smiled to herself through the bus window. There would have to be changes. She would go back to work, find herself something to get absorbed in, something apart from the family. Enough was enough. The kids had grown up; they could look after themselves.

The bus was approaching Austin. She would find herself a motel, settle in and phone Bob. It wasn’t fair of her to let him and the kids think she was dead. She would explain things to him. That she needed a week or two just to think things through. She just needed a little time and distance to think about what she wanted to do, how she wanted things to, well, change.

Yes, it was time to reclaim her life.

Being defence attache for Central America was not exactly the best job for a colonel in the British Army. Tim Parker’s colleagues had smiled when they heard of the posting, as if to say, ‘Well, that’s got rid of him, then.’

But, thought the colonel, as he settled into his business class seat from Guatemala City to Austin via Dallas, that’s where they had been wrong. The colonel was a strong believer in doing a good job, whatever the situation. He had quickly worked out there were two things that he had to work on in the region. The first was projects which were principally non-political, such as army education. The second was security. He had decided early on that he would make a name for himself in both.

He had a way of being in the right place at the right time. Security had become a priority since the terrorist attack on New York in September 2001, especially for the Americans, and the colonel’s expertise was suddenly very much in demand. This had put the British Army on the map in the region and beyond, and his superiors at the Ministry of Defence were happy with him. It was a fitting end to a very good career.

The colonel reached into his briefcase and took out his papers to read through the arrangements for the conference. It was being held at a place called the Driskill Hotel. It seemed to be one of the biggest hotels in the city, and from the map it looked like it was right in the centre.

The colonel was not a believer in five-star hotels. ‘They make you soft,’ he always said to his wife. ‘I can sleep anywhere.’ Victoria didn’t argue with him, though when they went on holiday she would have preferred to stay in top-class hotels, rather than the guesthouses where they usually ended up. ‘Besides,’ he had said to her before his trip to Austin, ‘what better opportunity for a terrorist who wants to kill two hundred security experts than to have them all stay together in one hotel?’ Well, she had to admit he had a point.

He had asked the organisers to find him somewhere up near Congress Avenue. ‘A small hotel will do,’ he had said, ‘or a motel. As long as it’s clean.’

He looked again at the arrangements. The Lone Star Motel was where he would stay for the next few nights. Well, it sounded very Texan, he thought and, best of all, it looked from the map to be not too far from Congress Avenue and the bridge where the bats hung before their nightly flight.

The conference didn’t start until tomorrow. Tonight, he thought, he would have an early dinner, perhaps downtown. Then he would go back to Congress Avenue and go bat-spotting. It said in all the guidebooks that the best time to see them was around eight or eight thirty in the evening.

The colonel smiled to himself. There was still an hour or two before he arrived in Austin. He opened his briefcase and took out a book. He smiled as he settled down to read A Guide to the Bats of North and South America.

In San Antonio, Joe Stefano’s wife Rita was worried. Joe always met her on Monday after work. Monday was the day he finished early at the hotel. At about ten minutes to five he usually parked his Dodge truck outside the dress shop where she worked on Jefferson Street and waited for her.

Sometimes they went to see a movie at a theatre downtown. Sometimes they went to a bar for margaritas and then for dinner at a restaurant. Rita loved Italian food and San Antonio had some good places to eat. Monday was a good night to go out downtown; most people stayed at home, so the traffic wasn’t too bad. Sometimes Rita and Joe just went home too. It was a fifteen-mile drive to their house outside the city.

This Monday, Rita came out of the dress shop at the usual time. She was a slim young woman with short black hair; people said she looked like the young Audrey Hepburn. In her dream life, Joe was Gregory Peck. She thought that his temper and his violence were things that the love of a good woman could make disappear.

She looked around the crowded street, but the Dodge wasn’t there. Oh well, maybe he was a few minutes late; the traffic was always bad in the city these days. She waited on the sidewalk. It was still hot and she started to feel uncomfortable. She looked at her watch again. Ten past five. Where was he? She rang the hotel. No, he wasn’t there. They put him onto the kitchen manager. ‘No, he hasn’t been here the whole day, Mrs Stefano. Matter of fact, he won’t be coming back. I fired him on Friday. You mean to say he didn’t tell…’

Rita Stefano hung up. Fired! He hadn’t said anything! How dare he! Her face went red with anger. Joe had come out of prison only nine months ago, after serving two years for attacking someone. He had mixed with the wrong people, Rita thought; she just knew he wasn’t a bad man in himself. Far from it. Anyway, he had come out of jail and she’d helped him get the job at the hotel. They had been lucky. It was the couple’s chance to make a new start, to forget about the past. Rita had thought everything was going well, but now she started thinking about it, he had been very tense at the weekend. Kind of wound up. In fact, he’d seemed very tense for the past week or so.

‘My God, where is he?’ She waited and waited. Perhaps there’d been an accident. Perhaps he was at the hospital… ‘Oh my God, perhaps he’s dead,’ she thought. She tried to remain calm.

At a quarter to six she couldn’t wait any longer. She rang the police. ‘No, ma’am,’ said the police officer, ‘we don’t have any report of an accident to Joe Stefano.’ By now she was beside herself with worry; she just couldn’t understand it. She went home and waited. And waited.

At half past eight that Monday morning, Joe Stefano had driven his Dodge truck into a parking lot in downtown San Antonio. He wore blue trousers and a T-shirt under a thin jacket.

Joe got out of his car and walked the ten minutes to the bus station. It was hot but he walked quickly. He felt like he was going to explode. At the bus station he went into the ticket office.

Joe Stefano didn’t have any particular reason to go to Austin. He just had to get away, get away from San Antonio, get away from it all. That stupid boss at the hotel who’d sacked him, his father-in-law, his stupid life. Get away from Rita, before he hurt her. Get away from his own powerlessness. Just get away.

‘A ticket to Austin,’ he said to the man in the ticket office.

There is no doubt that the Lone Star Motel in Austin, Texas is different. It seems to have more going for it than a regular motel. The sign outside it, pointing upwards, flashes: ‘So close yet so far out.’ It looks like the kind of place where Elvis Presley had parties in the 1950s. The blues singer Janis Joplin had probably stayed there. There is more than a hint of guilty pleasure about it. The rooms are pink and blue and the air conditioning is noisy but efficient. The swimming pool has cactus plants around it.

It is a place where anything might happen.

But even for a place as full of potential as the Lone Star Motel, the particular set of circumstances that threw it together with Paul Boyle, Grace Kent, Colonel Tim Parker and Joe Stefano were unfortunate to say the least.

When Joe Stefano walked into the Lone Star Motel early that summer evening, he didn’t plan to use the gun he had in his jacket. He could feel it against his chest. It just made him feel better, knowing it was there. But when the clerk at reception said that the motel was full, something inside Joe broke.

When he took out his gun and went crazy, shooting everyone dead in the reception area of the motel, he didn’t know who his victims were. He didn’t ask whether they were aware that life is a precious thing, beautiful and pitilessly brief. He didn’t ask whether they had had time to say goodbye to their loved ones, tell them, ‘I love you.’ He didn’t know the stories that had led them to the Lone Star Motel that warm evening in late August. He didn’t know that things were left well, unfinished, kind of untidy.

He didn’t give them time to realise that the Lone Star Motel was their final destination, their end point.

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