This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional and all the characters portrayed are imaginary.
The two accidents that are mentioned, the death in the cave and the train crash, are based on events that actually did take place.
However, nothing in this story should be construed to reflect on the events themselves or any of the people associated with them.
My thanks to Drew Hunt who gave of his own time to edit my writing and give me advice. Since, however, I have made changes after I received his suggestions, any mistakes in the tale are mine.
"But he’s alive?" Hollis asked.
"Only with help from machines. I saw him being taken from the Mercy Air chopper at the hospital — he’s not going to last more’n a couple of hours." The police officer looked young. Way too young to know about violent death, thought Hollis. "He’s trashed inside and out. They’ve got him down at UMC with tubes and wires into every part of his body. The doctors aren’t holding out any hope: four days without water in the desert up there really messes up a body: Injured as badly as he was it’s a miracle he was even breathing when they got to him."
Hollis Benker scanned the lobby of the Byzantion. It was the ten thirty lull and not many people stood at the black walnut desks of the reception area. The whole hall manifested taste: the large panels of Goncalo Alves with their varying shades of dark and burnished gold were set off by the creamy-beige walls and the counterpoint of the paler Pau Amerillo tables and chairs. For the three years since its opening he had been the manager of the hotel, and the serenity of this room which belied the heat and gaudiness of the Las Vegas streets outside always gave him a sense of tranquility. For some reason his being required that now.
"We haven’t needed his room," he said, returning his attention to the officer, "so all his stuff is still there if you want to see it."
"Yeah. I had better look it over. There’s no sign of a crime, but you never know "
Hollis raised a hand and a bell-hop came over at a trot. "Go get Mrs. Jarnesky from housekeeping and bring her to room 2116. You can help pack the stuff up." As the bell-hop ran off, Hollis took another look at the lobby and led the policeman past the sweeping Sierra Nevada granite main staircase to the elevators.
"How did it happen?" he asked the officer as they sat on the leather-upholstered chairs, waiting for the housekeeper and the bell-hop to finish folding and packing the clothes from the cupboard and drawers into the rather plain suitcase that lay open on the bed.
"Skidded in gravel and went down into a ravine on Deadhorse Road." He shrugged and raised his eyebrows, expressing the local belief in the inevitability of the outcome — ‘these out-of-towners think that if they have four-wheel drive they can drive the same way as they drive their sports cars on suburban roads.’
"Two guys were hiking in the area and noticed buzzards circling and went to see if they could get some good bird photos at a kill. They called it in."
"C’mon, c’mon," the housekeeper scolded the bell-hop. "I’ve got work to do."
The lad held up a pair of black leather shoes with long, tapered vamps ending in squared toes. "These are not his."
"What d’you mean?" Hollis snapped, a qualm rushing through him that the boy had been consorting with the guests. Talk of that sort of thing got around and tarnished the reputation of even the finest of hotels. "How would you know?"
"I watch people come in and out," he said, throwing his hands wide, his foreign accent becoming thicker as apparently he sensed disapproval. "I see what they wear. This man wear stronger shoes, more rounded at front." He appeared to regain some confidence. "That is good in hotel: to understand what kind of person comes in, no?"
"Leave who comes in and out to the front desk. Your job is to carry bags," Hollis said, yet in the back of his mind he made a note that this youth might be a good one to push up the ladder. In a hotel every employee should be focusing on the guests.
"I’ll take them and check," the policeman said. "It beats doing patrol work in this heat."
With everything packed into the suitcase and computer bag, the housekeeper stood back and held her hands out as though presenting the objects to her boss. Other than the two bags, a bill-clip with $700 in fifties and tens lay on the cream-colored counterpane. Hollis picked up the Deceased Property Form, scanned over what the woman had written on it and, satisfied, set it down on the desk and signed it. Handing the pen to the housekeeper, he said, "You need to sign here as a witness. You, too, boy." Carefully he tore off the bottom two copies of the multipart form, dropped one on top of the clothes in the suitcase and handed the other to the policeman. "I guess that’s that, then," he said as he folded the remaining two copies and slid them into his jacket pocket. "Take these down to the concierge’s desk," he said to the boy, "and tell them I said to lock them up."
Mike is the maestro of silent-talk. He can fix those dark brown eyes on mine and instantly, across the ether, I am cognizant of what it is he wants me to know. This is his chosen method of communication when he is angry with me, and that was how it was that evening. ‘It’s not my fault,’ I had lamely tried to signal back to him, yet I have none of his talent and with my limited ocular vocabulary and puerile visual grammar, the message got mangled and came out as ‘we can have group sex.’ That, of course, made him more angry still, so I turned my face to the window to protect myself from further chastisement.
The May sun was settling onto the horizon and the crisp Parisian air revitalized the exuberance of the city’s inhabitants putting a spring in their steps as they went about their Saturday business, striding with light scarves trailing behind like banners amongst the shops and offices whose facades glowed in the evening light. Even the buildings of the Douzième Arrondisement that abutted the tracks leading out of the Gare de Bercy, and which are not renowned for their architecture, seemed to lose their drabness, and I kept my gaze outward while the train lurched gently as it traversed the switches guiding it to the main line.
We glided sedately over the Marne River bridge and began to accelerate away from Paris.
Our vacation should have commenced with an overnight flight from Atlanta to Milan. That was if events had gone according to plan. But, sufficiently annoyed by some action or another of the Sarkozy Government, the French workers had called a strike, and then, with Gallic logic, once that decision had been made, not everyone walked out, which, of course, only added to the chaos. The air traffic controllers, for example, decided to stay home, throwing the air routes which crisscrossed over France into a mess and leading Delta to cancel their nightly flight to Milan, but the SNCF, the national railway, ran more-or-less as usual, their carriages overflowing with displaced air passengers.
In the ensuing scramble at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport, the only flight Mike and I had managed to get seats on was British to Gatwick. There, after the mayhem of immigration, customs, and baggage claim, the FirstConnect train that took us to St. Pancras gave us a brief pause in which to catch our breath before the scrimmage at the ticket office that garnered us the last places on any of the morning’s Eurostars. Less than three hours later we were in Paris — five hours before our train for Florence was scheduled to leave — plenty of time for a leisurely late lunch in the Marais to mollify my lover who gets bent all out of shape if plans go awry.
"I thought you said you didn’t speak French," he said after the waiter had cleared our lunch plates and I had ordered some cheese and a bottle of Sauternes.
"I said I’d done a year of it at school. That’s enough to get me a meal and a bed."
"But not a train."
"Hey! I got us a train. There are no sleepers or first class compartments available tonight. There’s a strike on, remember? We’ve got a compartment where our seats fold down to two bunks. It’s that or nothing — you didn’t want to rent a car."
"We’re too jet-lagged to drive."
An enormous white platter laden with fromages arrived in front of us, and as we settled down to assay these and the straw-colored Sauternes — which the waiter with the starched white shirt opened and poured in what seemed to be a single continuous movement — Mike became somewhat more imbued with the vacation spirit. Indeed, by the time we popped out of the metro and walked around the corner to the concrete and glass Gare de Bercy, he was viewing the whole concept of an overnight train trip as an adventure.
The only pertinent fact I had omitted to tell him was that our compartment was for four and we would be sharing it with strangers. Why bring on an argument before I needed to I had reasoned?
"I can’t believe you took this," Mike said, berating me for the third time as I stowed my backpack and his roller-board under our seats. "We’re going to be stuck in here with some bucolic French peasants who reek of garlic and smoke home-made cigars for the entire night."
"I think French peasants went out of fashion around 1914," I pointed out as I watched a train being shunted to the adjacent platform. "And anyway this car is a non smoker."
"They probably don’t enforce that here," he grumbled.
"Yeah, probably not. Kinda hard since they did away with the guillotine," I said, figuring that sometimes there is no alternative but to weather the squall. "But why, in God’s name, would French peasants be going to Florence?"
"All I’m saying is that I don’t like sharing my bedroom with strangers. It’s risky."
That was Mike. And because it was Mike, I should have realized he was bound to be proved right.
For a few seconds I had thought I was home dry. As the platform began to move slowly past our window indicating our journey had begun, Mike and I were still the only occupants of the compartment. But the train had not cleared the station when the door to the corridor slid open with a light, metallic rumble, and a young man, lightly tanned in a Mediterranean way, looked in.
"Here we are," he said over his shoulder to a person in the corridor whom I couldn’t see and then lugged a large, blue, nylon duffel bag into the compartment. "Pardon," he said, pronouncing it in the French way as the bag bumped Mike’s ankle.
"Don’t mention it," Mike said. If our new companion noticed the chill in my guy’s tone, he did not react. Or maybe he sensed that the coolness was directed not at him but at me.
"Oh, good. You speak English," he said. "Over here I can never tell the difference between gay Americans and straight French people." Mike’s jaw dropped, but before he could come out with a sharp retort, the lightly tanned face of the bag’s owner broke into a wide smile. Mike might still have made a comment, but at that moment the companion entered the compartment carrying his backpack in front of him. There was no doubt about his nationality. The blond hair cascaded over a face of fair, unblemished skin, highlighted by incarnadine cheeks. Given the right hairstyle the face could have belonged to a girl, but the Adam’s apple and the firm arm muscles crossed by prominent veins belied that sex. "Non Angli, sed angeli’, Gregory, six years before he was to become Pope, had mouthed when first he beheld the pale slaves brought to Rome from the island way to the north and across the channel from Gaul. The Englishman who stood a trifle uncertainly in the doorway of our compartment was the nearest thing to an angel I had ever seen.
"There’s room for your backpack above the door," I said, pointing to the large storage shelf that jutted back into the ceiling above the corridor.
"Oh, thanks," he replied in an accent that sounded as though it had been cast at Eton and forged at Cambridge. He turned and lifted his pack effortlessly, giving us an unobstructed view of firm, denim-covered glutes.
And that had been the point at which Mike had turned his eyes to me and fired off his visual taser.
"So are you chaps headed to Rome or Florence?" The voice dragged my eyes from the window to the tanned man who had asked the question. On first sight I had guessed he was Mediterranean in origin, but his accents were definitely English — proper, as my grandmother had referred to the quality in my youth.
"Florence," I answered. "At least on this train. Then we’re headed down to a place called Piombino-something to get the ferry to Elba."
He looked at me for a second or two. "Elba, eh? Not the place for the average American tourist."
I gave a shrug. "Guess we’re not average."
"Guess you’re not," he responded, mimicking my voice. "But then you don’t sound like the average American," he added, turning his head from the small pile of personal belongings he had dumped on the seat to look at me. "New Zealand, is it?"
"South Africa. But that was a long time ago. I’m American now.
"By the way, my name’s Chris."
Tanned guy took my hand in a firm grip. "Nice to meet you, Chris. I’m Priam." I looked into the blue eyes spaced wide apart under a mat of wavy red-brown hair that cascaded over his forehead and down to the collar of his T-shirt in back. He let go of my hand and gestured to The Angel. "This is Aiden, my husband."
"Hi, Aiden." I stretched across to grab his hand briefly.
"Hi, I’m Mike," my lover introduced himself. "Chris’s partner." As everyone settled back into their seats, Mike pointed to the overhead luggage rack and said, "I was noticing the Akona bag. You going diving?"
Priam nodded. "Yes. We’re headed to Elba, as well. Should have flown, but the poxy French controllers have messed up almost every flight across southern Europe." He sighed. "Well, at least the trains are running." He gave a slight smile which highlighted the cupid’s bow of his top lip. "Do you dive?"
"Some. Done my confined water training and got my CMAS one-star after about a year of open water dives under my belt. But that was just on weekends when I could take the time. I need a school where I dive day after day: I want my AOW and CMAS two — I’m two dives short — and also get a firm start on my Advanced Plus. I don’t know if it’s possible but I’d like to try some deep dives with trimix."
"Ah. Yes, that makes sense. Have you got something lined up in Elba?"
"Uh-huh. A small dive shop in a place called La Foce."
"It wouldn’t be Albergo Colafranceschi, would it?"
"Yeah, that’s the place," Mike replied with enthusiasm. "D’you know it?"
"Oh! Small world! That’s where we’re going."
"Small world, indeed," I said. "Guys we run into on a train in Paris going to the same small place we are. What’re the chances of that?"
The Angel laughed. "It is a bit out of the way. How did you hear about it in the USA?" The relaxed tones from tight young masculine vocal chords sent my hormones into a frenzy. If I were to survive this Syren-song Mike would have to bind me, Ulysses-like, to a mast.
"Work colleague of mine," I said, and went on to explain about my job, and a fellow tech working for Cassidian in France whom I had met at a conference who, when he was not in the lab working on GPS-navigation, was a diving maniac. His idyllic description of blue skies and bluer water, colorful sea-beds and delicious meals in Elba had spun the web that had ensnared me.
I did not elaborate on how that conversation had proved to be serendipitous: Mike had been trying to find a diving school where he could do his stuff and I was becoming aware of the deadline moving inexorably forwards by when my master’s thesis had to be presented. I was in serious need of some semi-solitude where I could collate all my data and research notes and get the whole thing tidied up for defense and so, with that in mind, a small hotel in Elba had seemed like the perfect answer. Some Internet research had followed, a few emails to the Albergo’s proprietors, two weeks of the two of us trying to reschedule our workloads, a raid on my frequent-flier miles and three weeks in sunny Elba were ours.
"You aren’t going to dive?" Priam asked, only barely hiding his incredulity that I would pass up such an opportunity.
"Naah. I don’t mind splashing around in the shallows, but I’m not really into putting myself to a whole lot of danger by trespassing into the domain of sharks, stonefish and other creatures that look on me more as a great dinner rather than friendly tourist."
The two Brits laughed. "We don’t lose a whole lot of divers to fish attacks," Aiden said. "Most of the organized dive sites are really safe."
"That’s what I keep trying to tell him," Mike said, his earlier frustrations evaporating. "And he’s the guy who goes out on a motorcycle dragging his knee on the road around mountain corners. Talk about avoiding danger!"
Again the laughter while we settled in to our compartment.
"So you ride motorcycles?" Aiden asked me a half hour later as he and I headed along the corridor to the bar to pick up beers.
"Uh-huh. Ninja. 2000 ZX-9R. You ride?"
"Yes. Daytona 955i."
"Wow! I’m impressed — I’ve always had a soft spot for Triumphs. Priam ride?"
Aiden laughed. "No. Motorcycles do not really fit into Priam’s style. He gets his jollies from his BMW Z4." We navigated the connection between two coaches. "Has Mike got a bike?"
I shook my head. "Audi-boy!" Aiden chuckled and nodded understandingly. "But he rides with me sometimes. Took him on a four-day trip up to Tennessee and he had fun."
"Are you and Mike a couple?" Aiden asked as we waited for the barman’s attention. "I noticed Mike said ‘partner’ and you seem to be er comfortable with each other."
I gave a wry smile. "You mean the tenseness at the beginning of the trip? Yeah, we’re pretty used to each other. He’s a lawyer and a tad anal. I’m more loosely wound." The bar tender pushed eight bottles of beer across and two small trays. "I’ve got it," I said to Aiden, sliding a couple of notes across. "It’s OK," I added to the bartender as he began to count out the change."
"Merci, monsieur," he said, scooping the coins up and moving on to his next customer.
"Thank you, Chris." Aiden placed the four bottles on his tray and we set out toward the front of the train.
"Yeah. Mike and I are pretty close," I continued, holding open the door as we began our walk back. "Been together just over two years. Share a house. I’m kinda envious of you guys being married. State of Georgia won’t let us take that route."
A family was coming down the corridor and Aiden stood aside in the vestibule. "And if it did, you’d indulge in the felicity of unbounded domesticity?" he asked as we waited for them to pass.
"Oh yeah! It’s pretty much where we are anyways, so what’s the diff? But I want the paper; I want what the hets have — not having to write up figgin’ legal documents so that we can take care of each other, inherit, all that shit."
Aiden nodded as we resumed our journey through the gently swaying carriage. "So no open relationship?"
My pulse raced: was he chatting me up? "Naah. Not that we’ve carved it in stone."
I shook my head. "Not really. It’s just we both really like each other and our relationship the way it is and we don’t want that to end. On the other hand we both had a lot of casual sex before and it’s kinda hard to go cold turkey." I shrugged, "I figure we don’t want the relationship open and we don’t want something trivial to derail what we’ve got. So far it hasn’t really been put to the test." Hayden nodded as we stepped from one car to the next. "You guys?" I asked when we were in the corridor. I prayed for the right answer to come from his lips and then realized my brain was appealing simultaneously for both outcomes."
"Closed. That was the only stipulation Priam made." I nodded, still unsure as to whether my prayer had been answered. The Angel turned and looked me in the eye. A slight smile came to his lips. "Yes, it was very hard for me, too."
"Geez, what took you guys so long?" Mike asked as we re-entered our compartment. "We thought you’d had to harvest the hops."
"The bar was busy," Aiden said as he handed over the bottles.
"Told you to wait for the chap with the trolley," Priam said. "He needs to make a living, as well. If everyone just shoves off and gets their own drinks he’ll get the ax."
"If he’s that interested in keeping his job, he should have come by sooner," Aiden replied. "I was thirsty."
"You ever been to The States?" I asked Aiden at dinner as the train whisked through deserted French stations in the late twilight.
"Couple of years back. Business trip to New York, Chicago and San Francisco. I tacked on some holiday time at the end. Spent a few days in San Francisco, went down to LA, struck lucky in Las Vegas and cleared almost a grand. Then back home again. So only a few vignettes of life there, really.
"A grand! Not bad. What did you do with it?"
"I took a little aeroplane ride through the Grand Canyon. That took a bit. Blew a few hundred on a really hot rentboy. Took what was left home."
"A rentboy?" Mike exclaimed. "I would’ve thought a guy like you could have almost anyone he wanted."
"Yeah, but I wanted a guy that would stay the night."
"What kind of airplane," I asked.
"You total geek," Mike said. "I want to hear about the rentboy!"
"Beechcraft Nine something. I dunno," he shrugged. Then, brightening, continued: "The tour company was Air Vegas, I know that."
"Probably a Beech 99. About twelve fifteen passengers?"
"OK. Nuff airplane shit," said Mike. "The rentboy?"
And so the dinner passed with the four of us in conversations that covered every topic and then, tired, we slipped into bed, each into his own, bunks sufficiently narrow to discourage any cohabitation.
Being Sunday and early morning I had not expected Santa Maria Novella to be busy and, to be sure, the crowds of business-suited people were absent, yet in their place the marble floors of Florence’s station were crowded with families and groups of young folks scurrying to and from their trains. The four of us stood around, unshaved and barely washed, trying to get our bearings. Priam and Aiden had said that there was a bus to Piombino, but when we checked it was scheduled out only at 10:30, so we hoisted the packs onto our backs and, with Mike trailing his rollerboard, headed out to look for breakfast. Somewhere near the cathedral we caught the scent of coffee and down a small street came to a pretty neat little cafe with three or four tables. Our bags threatened to overwhelm the eating area, but with the help of the waiter we managed to pile them into a corner and began to survey the freshly baked pastries.
"Guys," I said later, filled with carbohydrates and fully wired by three cups of really strong coffee, "Fuck the bus." I jabbed at the tourist map I’d picked off a rack at the railway station. "We are here." I moved my finger slightly to a nearby street. "Right here is a Europcar office. We can pick up a car and be at the ferry in Piombino a good three hours before the bus gets there."
"Have you ever driven in Italy, Chris?" Aiden asked, mopping an errant piece of jam onto a croissant. "It’s not quite the streets of Savannah."
"Yeah! Of course!" I threw back, offended that my manhood was in question. "I’ve come over here to Piaggio in Genoa, and Aermacchi up north, and Vulcanair — the old Partenavia — down in Naples. Fuck, if I can drive in Naples I can sure-as-shit manage the autostrada up here."
Aiden held up his hands in surrender. "OK. OK. Keep the testosterone in check. Just making sure you knew what you were getting yourself into."
"So? Guys? Yeah? No?" I asked grinning at him.
"Seems OK to me," Priam said. "Sooner there, the sooner we’re at the beach."
"Why not," said The Angel.
"Mike?" I asked.
"Uh-huh. But we walk to the car rental place. You need to work off that caffeine buzz."
Once Mike and Priam had got their map reading skills in synch and I had got my mind wrapped around the notion that cryptic road signs which read S.G.C. FI-PI-LI actually indicated the road I wanted, the adrenaline level dropped and just over an hour after leaving the coffee shop I was holding a steady ten kph over the 130 limit. Seventy minutes after that we were unloading our gear at the car rental in Piombino and thirty after that I was hanging over the rail watching as the ferry pulled away from the quay. Mike and Aiden settled down on the rear deck while Priam and I sipped coffee from cardboard cups at the rail and watched the mainland recede.
"So how come a South African goes to The States?" he asked.
"University. Got a scholarship. Decided to stay," I summarized. "Have you been to the USA?"
"A couple of short trips. I worked in Vancouver for a few years, so did some trips down South: just the tourist stuff out west, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon."
The four of us passed the time in small talk until land began to slide past our port side. "Cavo’s just past that jutting out piece," Priam mentioned, gesturing with an empty cup. "Nice little town. Picturesque. A great beach, but a tad too touristy for me, you know?" He gave a little smile that got my hormones woken up.
"We’re over on the South coast?" I asked to conceal my thoughts.
"Yes. Not far as the crow flies, but there’s no direct road, so it takes a little while, but it’s a pretty drive." He stood up. "Come over this side," he said, leading the way across the deck. I looked ahead at the lighthouse on the rocky promontory with steep slopes coming down to the sea. Already my nose was picking up the jumbled scents of the island: vegetation, seaweed, the aromas of hundreds of lunches intermingled. The throbbing of the ship’s diesels slowed and the sounds of the town — the horns, deep and deliberate from the ships, impatient from cars, brief and irreverent from the scooters — reached out to embrace us, the terra cotta tiled roofs of the building reflected the heat of the late morning sun. Turning, we glided past the octagonal tower that once guarded the port, then slowed and inched up to the quay, heavy hawsers were tossed to the men on the dock who hefted them over the solid yellow bollards, winches whirred and we were pulled up to the grey iron gangway for pedestrian passengers to disembark.
Priam organized a taxi to take us across the island to our hotel and we set out down what appeared to be the main street of the town, swinging around the traffic roundabouts without too much apparent consideration or even awareness of merging traffic. The road narrowed and fields appeared on either side as we began the gentle climb. The car had no air conditioning, but with the windows down it was pleasant as we skirted the low mountain and headed south. We negotiated with the driver to get the volume of the radio down to a level where we were unlikely to suffer permanent ear damage and thereafter relaxed in vacation lethargy watching the countryside zip past. We had drawn straws and I had won the shotgun position which had seemed a lucky break at first until I observed our driver’s skills. Now, some twenty minutes into the journey, I had consigned my fate to predestination and was observing the surroundings when a small cloud of shimmering hot air hiding what appeared to be a moving stick above the grass ahead and to the left caught my eye. Jerking upright and tugging my camera out of its case, I startled everyone by yelling frantically at the driver to pull over. I had my seat belt off and the door open as we skidded to a stop on the gravel in a cloud of dust. Leaping out I raised the camera to my eye and twisted the zoom as, in front of us, an Italian Air Force Spartan transport appeared to lift off out of the countryside with a roar, filling my viewfinder as my shutter whirred taking six shots in quick succession. Swiveling as it passed I got a few more: details of the cockpit, the main gear retracting, and the rear empennage.
Without taking my eyes off the disappearing plane I switched the camera off and turned toward the taxi, and, as I did so, a motorcyclist clad in the red-black-white leathers of his Ducati rode past. Looking over at the sound of its motor I caught the rider’s eye. He pointed in the direction of the faint tan trail of burned jet fuel that curved above the horizon and gave a big thumbs-up. Then sliding his visor down, he leaned forward, opened up the throttle and sped off.
"What was that?" asked Priam with a stunned look on his face as I slid back into my seat while the sound of the big turboprops droned into the distance.
"C-27," I said. "European built transport with a totally amazing flight envelope."
"How very interesting," Aiden said drolly. "We nearly end up in a ditch and for what? He gets a whole lot of pictures of a bloody aeroplane and not one of the hot bloke on the bike."
I shrugged. "What can I say? Didn’t notice. I only have eyes for Mike."
Priam gave a groan and Mike said, "And if you believe that, I’ve got a big bridge in New York to sell you."
The airport was maddeningly hidden from us by trees as we drove by, but then the sea came into sight ahead and we skirted the bay, getting a glimpse of the white-white sandy beach that hung around the bay before our taxi began to climb the winding road to our hotel.
At the end of a narrow side road we turned into a small parking lot covered with little round stones and pulled up in front of the Albergo Colafranceschi. While Mike and Aiden paid the driver, Priam and I unloaded our gear. From the building a porter appeared. I started to wave him off, but Priam insisted that the guy should bring our stuff in. "What’s he going to do if everyone hauls their own luggage in?" he explained as we walked into the foyer and crossed the cream marble to the reception desk.
"Welcome, welcome." A gray-haired woman with a quiet smile called out as she appeared from the office in back.
"Hello, Signora," Priam replied. "Thank you." He pointed to Aiden and himself. "Signori Snape-Clayden and Merton. We have a booking."
‘Snape-Clayden,’ I mused. ‘A perfect name, endowed by God himself, for an angel.’
She nodded and then raised her eyebrows as she noticed Mike and me standing behind the English guys. "Buon pomeriggio. Good afternoon."
"Buon pomeriggio," I replied, throwing out about a fifth of all the Italian I knew. "I’m Chris Lawrence, this is Mike Jorgensen."
"You are all together?" she asked, her hand drawing an arc in the air to encompass all four of us.
"Uh, no. Maybe. Er we just met on the train from Paris last night."
"Ah, OK. I was worried — we have only one suite for four people and it is taken. I need your passports please."
The room assigned to Mike and me was one of the small stand-alone bungalows that sat on the grassy slopes that fell away to the steep rocky shoreline that bordered the sea, which changed from turquoise to blue within a metre or two as it became deeper. From the wide bedroom window we looked out onto a shaded veranda and over the bay to the little town of Marina di Campo about half a mile away.
"We can just dump our stuff, wash up and go get lunch before the kitchen closes," Mike said.
I dropped my pack and with three steps I had high-tackled him sending him sprawling across the bed. "Or we could not waste a second of this stunning view and have passionate sex right here," I said holding his arms down.
"Somebody’ll see us if they walk past," he said a minute later as our lips unlocked and I caught my breath, but any evidence that he cared was undermined by his hands beginning to eagerly unbuckle my jeans.
When we finally made it to the hotel restaurant, Aiden and Priam had finished eating and were sitting back with cups of coffee. They grinned at us. "Did the lock on your room door jam?" Priam asked archly.
"Something like that," I said as I pulled a chair out and sat down. The kitchen had closed for the afternoon, but Signora Simona rustled up some cold antipasti and carried out a large ceramic pitcher of chilled white wine which was just what our post-coital bodies craved.
As I was using a piece of bread to harvest the last of the delicious flavors off my plate, Priam said, "I think we should go down to the dive shop in the town to see about our reservations. Then we won’t have to worry about any paperwork in the morning."
A small sandy path led us down past the backs of houses to the beachfront of La Foce where a brief walk brought us to the dive shop, set between some stubby palm trees slightly back from the road. Mike and the others were soon into discussing the gear they needed with the proprietor and, with nothing much to do there, I wandered across the road and onto the beach. Further over to my right there were more people lounging under umbrellas, but where I was the sand was narrower and giving way to rocks. The sea was calm, the waves, unlike those off the beach at home, were little more than big ripples, and I kicked my Tevas off and waded into the shallows. Ten minutes later there was still no sign of the others so, making a pillow of my sandals and T-shirt, I stretched out on the warm sand and promptly dozed off.
"Hey, you lazy bum," I heard Mike’s voice as his foot gently kicked at my ribs, "Want to walk around the bay to Marina di Campo? Go look at the harbor where the dive boat is based and get a drink or something."
I squinted at them as I sat up and my brain recollected where I was. "Sure. How far is it?"
"Just a little over a mile. Two kilometres the man at the dive shop said," Priam answered. And so we set off, the three others talking about the diving while I studied the sailboats anchored just offshore.
"Sure you don’t want to change your mind and learn to dive, Chris?" Aiden asked as we sipped at beers later.
"Naah. Not going to have my bones making coral full fathom five," I said. "Besides, I really do need the down time to get my dissertation together and prepare the slide show. I’ll sit and listen to y’all’s exciting adventures with the creatures of the deep each night."
On that first night we ate dinner at the hotel, sitting outside the dining room on a terrazza that faced the bay. The comments on the web sites I had visited had lavished praise on the chef and he did not disappoint us. The enormous salver of antipasti accompanied by a chilled rosé from the Trentino would have been a satisfying meal in itself, we agreed as the plates were cleared in preparation for the primo. Aiden and I had opted for the stuffed gnocchi while Mike and Priam ordered the risotto. It was while we were enjoying this that one of the other guests came in. Or rather two guests followed the waiter, one of them a wheaten Labrador in harness guiding his human deftly between the tables. "Good evening, buona sera," the latter said to us as they passed our table.
We responded with a chorus of "Good evening", "Hi," and "How’re you doing."
No longer alone on the terrazza, we quietened our conversation, but the full-bodied Chianti which accompanied the piatto principale, a rich calamari stew with tomatoes and fennel and served with chunks of crusty homemade bread soon chipped away at any such inhibitions.
"That was probably the best meal I’ve eaten for a long time," Mike said as we sipped espressos later.
"Fantastic," agreed Priam, as we continued our discussions which had moved from diving to travel to politics and to our backgrounds. My guess of Cambridge had been spot on for Aiden, but Harrow rather than Eton, which he referred to as Slough Comprehensive, had been his school. "He still has his pink rugby shirt," joked Priam when we spoke of our schools.
"That was house colors," Aiden retorted. "We wore blue for school matches."
"What position did you play?" I asked, looking at his slim build. "Wing?"
"Yes. Number 14. Are you a rugby chap, too?"
"Uh-huh. Right lock."
Aiden and I were still engrossed in talk of rugby and boarding school when the bartender came across, a magazine in his hands. "I hear you talking. You like rugby?" he asked Aiden.
"Yes. The three of us played it at school," he said, indicating Priam, me and himself.
"On Tuesdays, in evening, we have games on the TV." He placed the magazine on the table and pointed to a page that was already open. I peered across.
"Yes! Hey, guys, Tuesday night they’re showing Province vs. Edinburgh. Anyone gonna watch with me? It’ll be over by nine and we can go grab some dinner then."
"Who’s Province?" asked Priam.
"Why do you think Chris is so excited," said Aiden. "It’s one of the South African teams."
"Western Province, but most everyone just calls it Province. Or WP," I explained, pronouncing it in the Afrikaans ‘veer-peer’.
"I’m in," said Aiden. "Edinburgh has had a mixed year — they lost to Leinster last week."
"I’ll come along," said Mike. "I can bring my iPad and read if I get bored."
"Sure," agreed Priam. "I’ll watch."
"Good. Good," said the barman. I keep you the best table."
"You play in the line, too?" I asked Priam as the bartender returned to his domain.
"No. I played hooker."
"That’s something I’ve always wondered about rugby," Mike said. "The names: hooker, tight head, loose head. Is that a reflection on the mindset of the players or a not-too-subtle recruiting ploy?"
We laughed. "Well," said Aiden, "he worked hard at hooking me." He rubbed Priam’s arm.
"And I scored," Priam replied, "and am definitely going to win."
"That must be another rugby trait," Mike said with a sideways glance at me from under his eyebrows. "The ego."
I feinted a slap at him and he ducked while the other two laughed.
"Well, Priam deserves his ego," Aiden said. "Not often the hooker is captain of the first XV."
"Water long under the bridge," Priam said diffidently and, raising his voice, summoned the waiter to order a degistivo.
As we were making our selections from the list, the Lab came by with his owner. "Good night, Gentlemen," the human said as he passed.
"Good night," Mike said. "But, hey, we were just about to order a liqueur to end dinner. You’re more than welcome to join us."
"Well, if I’m not butting in in any way, that would be a pleasant ending to the day — although I can’t stay up too late if I’m going to dive tomorrow."
I stood up and pulled up another chair. I held out my hand. "I’m Chris, this is Mike, Aiden and Priam."
There was an awkward pause as it took me a full three seconds to realize that my gestures were pointless: he couldn’t see. "Oh, man, I’m sorry. I er "
"Don’t worry, Chris." He moved past me, feeling for the empty seat. "It happens all the time. I’m Jeremy, and this guy is Eudoxus." The Lab moved close to him and lay down. "So, now, who is Priam, who’s Mike, who’s Aiden?"
"You going to dive with us?" asked Mike when the introductions were over and the order for liqueurs placed.
"On the boat, but not with you chaps. Tullio’s brother is coming along as a dive buddy with me to get me acclimatized."
"You’ve not done any diving before?" Priam queried.
"No, none. But there’s a group in Italy who has been doing what they call Project Poseidon to make diving available to all disabled people, but particularly the blind and visually impaired, so I thought I might look into it and see if we can get something going in Britain. We have a couple of blind divers, but it’s not something that’s really widely available."
"Might have something to do with the waters up there being close to freezing," I said.
"Oh come on, sissy boy," replied Aiden with a grin as he barged against my shoulder. "Cornwall is right in the Gulf Stream and we do wear wetsuits so even Scotland is just fine. Better in many places, actually, since the cool water and swifter currents makes for really good visibility."
"Just sayin’," I said. "When I was working down at Boscombe a couple of years back I went down to Bournemouth in late September and the water was so cold I almost gave myself a sex change."
The others laughed at me and then went on talking to Jeremy about his planned dive.
Later that night Mike and I lay sprawled naked across the bed talking. The curtains were drawn back and we could see the lights across the bay and the stars dancing on the sea. "Do you ever regret coming to The States?" Mike asked. He was lying diagonally across the sheet with his head on my stomach as I ran my hand idly across his chest.
"No! Course not! Why would I?"
"Just seems that you and the Brit guys have so much more in common. I mean you and Aiden had all kinda similar experiences at boarding school, seemed to have a lot of fun there, you two just mesh together. I don’t know anyone from The States who went to a boarding school: from looking at the ads in the New York Times they all seem to be for kids who need discipline or those military places — I always imagined them like the school in Taps.
"So I kinda wondered tonight if you ever thought ‘I should have gone to the UK’?"
I chucked him on the chin. "Two words for you: warm beer." I paused. "That and they fucking invented rain."
"I dunno," I continued. "I guess I could’ve gone to England. Could’ve gone to Oz, too, or Kiwiland. I tend to get along easily with most folk. I could have probably made Cambridge if I’d tried, same with Imperial in London, but when I got accepted to Carnegie their prospectus looked real good and they threw in some financial aid, too. But I can’t deny I’m a Colonial and have got some tenuous link with England going back to 1820, so the Pommies and I have some history, some behaviors, in common
"On the other hand, there is something about the US: I can’t pinpoint it exactly other than to say that I like the place, I like most of the folk there, I like being an American, I feel at home there."
We lay together in silence for a while. "Of course, the deciding factor was that the Brits didn’t have you."
Mike rolled over and kissed me. Looking down at my face from inches away he said, "I’m glad you chose us."
"Don’t worry about me and Aiden. Guys who went to a Brit-style boarding school are different. I’m not sure Americans can relate. You said Taps just now. It had to be a military school for the US audiences to understand the camaraderie, the discipline, the guys jockeying for position. But if you took all the military shit out of that movie and left all the rest, a Colonial boarding school guy would understand, would relate to it, easily."
"But Priam went to boarding school, too, and he didn’t seem so so gung-ho as you and Aiden."
"Yeah. I noticed that, too. Dunno. St. Helier’s is one of England’s top boys’ schools and has a pretty good name overseas, too. Maybe because there they had both boarders and day scholars — that kind of breaks the insular structure. For them, the outside world creeps in, things are a little more er relaxed; for me and Aiden school was it. We had to make our lives out of what we had there. Also Priam’s in the banking industry — they tend to be a tad on the less flamboyant side. Which is chicken and which is egg, I don’t know. Did he go to that profession because of what he is, or has the job shaped him?"
"So boarding school made you who you are?" Mike said only half seriously.
"Yeah. Pretty much. And because of boarding school d’you know what’s wrong with me?"
"Pretty much nothing."
"You supercilious shit!" He slung his leg over me and pinned my arms down onto the bed. "I think you need to be taken down a peg or two."
Monday was the start of diving for the guys and thereafter each day tended to fall into a routine. The five of us and Eudoxus would have breakfast together then the others would pile themselves, their kit, and the lunch the hotel had prepared for them into a taxi and head off to Marina di Campo. With a mug of coffee at hand I would set my two laptops up on the veranda of our room on the wide table which, with long-unused boyish charm, I had inveigled from the dining room, and set to work while Eudoxus snoozed on the veranda of the next building outside Jeremy’s room and took short excursions to pee on the euphorbia bushes at the edge of the property.
Around sixish the guys would return and begin rinsing out their wetsuits with a hose on the lawn. And there’d be beers, Priam calling out to whichever waiter he could see to bring them out to us. "Yeah, you do that and what is this poor sod going to do for a job?" he had said when one evening I had offered to go inside and get the drinks. With their wetsuits cleaned and lying on deck-chairs to dry, we would sit at a table as they downloaded their underwater data from their dive-computers onto their iPads while discussing ascent rates and dive times.
Tuesday evening found Mike, Aiden and I seated in the small bar eating canapés of seafood or lamb or vegetables while quaffing down beers and watching the game. Priam had gone to explore the town and Jeremy had taken Eudoxus for a walk along the beach, both promising to join us for dinner later. Mike was browsing through a novel on his iPad, surfacing every now and again when Aiden and I got too vociferous to ask what was going on. Jeremy and Eudoxus came in around eight and Priam followed about forty minutes later. The game was tied, time was running out, and Aiden, rooting for Edinburgh, and I, naturally supporting Province, were giving our opinions on the plays freely. With a minute to go, Edinburgh took a quick lineout, one of their forwards took possession and barged his way across Province’s goal line.
"Yessss! Yes! Yes!" yelled Aiden, slapping the table.
"Foul! Foul! Wrong ball!" I shouted, leaping out of my chair the better to make my point to the TV screen. Eudoxus, waking, stood up, gave a deep bark, turned a complete circle next to Jeremy’s chair, and promptly lay down and went back to sleep.
"What happened?" asked Mike, looking up from his screen.
"The lineout hadn’t formed," Priam said.
"No, no" I explained. "It was a quick lineout, Edinburgh has a couple of guys there, we had a couple, but the guy throwing in took a new ball from the ball-boy — the ball kicked into touch went into the spectators. For a quick lineout the same ball that went into touch must be thrown in and nobody else but the thrower can have held it. The ref needs glasses!"
"I think he’s right," Aiden said, calming down. "I didn’t spot that, Chris, but I think you’re right."
The ref and the linesman were conferring as the WP fans booed and the Edinburgh stands were filled with people shouting and waving their red, white and black flags. Finally, with a blast of his whistle the ref disallowed the lineout and indicated a scrum on our 15 metre line.
"Oh, shit!" Aiden wailed.
Ten minutes later we were walking into the dining room. "Well at least you two can stay friends," Priam said to Aiden and me, referring to the final score of 16-16.
"Till next week," I said, and Aiden laughed and gave me a high five.
The nightly dinners, either at one of the restaurants along the beach front or at the hotel, tended to be drawn out affairs since the guys would come home ravenous from swimming and diving and would attack the menu. This proved a problem for me who had not had such an active day, so on the Wednesday I decided to forego lunch and get some exercise. Borrowing a bicycle from the hotel, I rode across to Marina di Campo for a glass of beer.
I had just settled down at a small table from which I could survey the harbor when the guy walked into the restaurant. From the fingers of one hand dangled his AGV helmet while his other hand held his motorcycle jacket over his shoulder. He was about thirtyish, in good shape, and I was trying hard not to stare — or at least not be obvious in my staring — when he looked over at me and then began to walk between the tables to where I was sitting. Smiling he greeted me in Italian, phrases which I couldn’t understand, then seeing my blank stare, said "Hello Mr.Airplane-spotter. I saw you taking photos of the Spartan on Sunday."
Ah. I looked at the leather jacket and remembered the rider who had given me the thumbs up as he passed by.
"Ducati. 848 I think?"
"Yes, yes! You remember," he grinned with pride. "You here on holiday?"
"Sort of. My friends are going to diving school here and I am doing some university work while everything is quiet."
"Good. Very good. May I share your table? Do you mind?"
Would I mind? Not if he didn’t mind me stripping him naked and having him right there on the starched white cloth. But the couth kept control as I waved my hand at the empty chair and said, "Sure. Please do."
He placed his helmet carefully on the floor and draped the jacket over the back of the chair before sitting down. As he did so he explained, "I do not often get the chance to talk English. I can read, but the speaking is different."
"That’s cool. I can’t speak very much Italian. I can get a hotel room, a meal, some wine or beer and then I’m done, so talking English is just fine."
And so I spent just under an hour chatting with Nico. He asked about my university work and my job, and he recommended a plate of salami and cheeses accompanied by fresh bread which put paid to my idea of skipping lunch. I discovered he was a manager of an aircraft maintenance business out at the airport and I bought a second round of beers. We talked about bikes and about the rides we had taken. And we discussed airplanes.
"Where are you staying?" he asked as we walked across the small piazza after we had squabbled over the tab and I had won.
"Albergo Colafranceschi," I answered, pointing out across the bay.
"Ah, yes, I know it. Tomorrow I shall come and get you there and take you to a very nice restaurant on the other side. I shall bring a casco for you."
"Casco?" I queried.
"Casco," he repeated and knocked the side of my head gently with his knuckles. "In case you fall."
"Oh. Helmet," I said.
"You’re supposed to be working on airplane stuff," Mike said at dinner that night when I told them about meeting up with Nico. "Not out cruising."
"Naah. I reckon he’s straight," I replied. "And anyway I’ll be the one fully clothed, not the guy lolling around on a boat in the sun surrounded by buff guys covered in little else but Speedos and neck chains."
"It was your call," Aiden said, polishing gravy off his plate with a crust of bread. "We said you should try diving."
At ten minutes after noon the following day, Nico’s Ducati growled into the hotel lot. He undid the bungees holding the spare helmet on the pillion and handed it to me. "I think it will fit," he said. "I got it from a friend at the work: he is bigger like you." The helmet was a tad snug, but not too tight. I fastened the chin strap, zipped up my leather jacket, and swung my right leg over the saddle and nestled up behind Nico. Once out of the built up area we blasted down the road, Nico dodging around the cars with quick, decisive moves, but rarely touching the brake. At the airport we swung left and began a climb to the inland areas, the road dealing with the gradient by taking tight hairpins which Nico took smoothly with a quick downshift or two, leaning the Duc far over and then accelerating hard out of the apex.
Marciana Marina lay snuggled behind its harbor and breakwater. Nico steered the Duc through the one-way streets of the town and pulled up at a park that bordered a beach of dark sand. I dismounted and took my helmet off while he backed the bike into a parking space. "The ride was good?" he asked as we crossed the street toward a small restaurant.
"Yeah. No problem." I lied: I’m not a good pillion rider, always second guessing the guy in front, surprised when he does things I wouldn’t, anxious if he brakes later than I might have thought prudent. "I think you’re going to get a ticket one day for speeding."
Nico gave one of his characteristically carefree laughs. "Yes, perhaps. One day, perhaps. But it is not too serious: my father is a policeman in the commissariato in Portoferraio. Most of the police here know me. But, who knows, one day they have some bad meat to eat, the stomach does not feel right, and then ?" He shrugged.
"You cannot get fish anywhere in Europe that is better than here," he told me a few minutes later as we sat down at a table overlooking the sea. "The fishermen come into the harbor in the morning and the new fish come here every day."
The lunchtime outing had chewed into my time so on Friday I foreswore all outings and churned through my work. I had heard the bike subconsciously for a minute or two before I started to take notice of it. It was about five in the evening and I briefly stopped typing to listen to its engine growling hard as it came up the road from the seafront at good speed before pulling up in front of the hotel. I could not see the forecourt from where I was sitting and, resisting temptation, returned to my keyboard and screen, but a minute had not gone by when I heard my name being shouted and Nico came running across the lawn towards me.
"Chris, there has been an accident on the diving boat. I heard the rescue helicopter on the control frequency as it took off from the airport."
"Who is hurt?" I asked in panic. "Is it Mike?"
"I do not know. But I take you to the harbor now so you’ll be there when the boat comes." Leaving my laptop I ran to the room, grabbed my leather jacket, chased Eudoxus into Jeremy’s room, and ran out front to where Nico was waiting. Weaving in and out of the traffic, Nico drove inland, almost to the airport, before swinging back towards the sea. As he opened the throttle to leave a traffic circle he must have sensed my frustration since he turned his head and shouted something at me. I caught the words senso unico and understood we were being thwarted by one-way streets.
There was no dive boat in the harbor when we got there and Nico gunned the engine and took off down the breakwater to the end, beyond the wall, where we had a better view southwards to the end of the bay. It was a bit hazy, visibility was limited, so we dismounted and sat on the rocks. "Let me call my father," Nico said, pulling his iPhone from the pouch on his belt. There was a spate of rapid Italian, too fast for me to pick anything up, until, with a final ‘Ciao’, he clicked the end button. "They do not know. One diver is missing. One other dive boat has gone to help and the Guardia Costiera is also there with a boat."
"Oh shit," I said. "I hope Mike is OK."
Nico nodded. "I hope, too."
We sat for about a half hour without any news. A police car drove slowly up the breakwater and stopped about eight yards away from where we sat. The driver got out and pulled his uniform cap on. As he turned toward us, Nico stood and called out to him. The driver returned the greeting and beckoned. We scrambled off the rocks and made our way toward the little car with its green stripe and Polizia Locale painted on the side. The driver called out to Nico, who turned to me and said, "He says you are to stay here. He wants to talk to me."
"Oh, fuck," I whispered under my breath as I watched Nico jog over. The two talked for a minute and I saw the driver put his hand on Nico’s shoulder as Nico shook his head from side to side. They talked a while longer and Nico came back to me, his face drained of color.
"It is one of the crew," he said, "Not Michael." I felt weak. I looked at Nico and for the first time noticed the expression on his face.
"It is Renzo. He is my friend."
"Oh, Nico. I’m sorry." I felt ashamed. In my relief at hearing Mike was safe I had totally failed to consider that the pain being lifted off me was of necessity being placed onto someone else’s shoulders. "What can I do to help you?"
"I’ll be good. If it turns out to be bad I’ll have to go to his family." He pointed down the coast to where the dive boat was coming toward us out of the evening haze. "Is it all right if I do not take you back to the hotel?"
"Oh yes! Definitely. Don’t think about it: I can get a cab — or even walk. You do what you need to do."
We straddled the Duc and rode gently down the breakwater to the dock, pulling up alongside a group of two or three men and four policemen who stood waiting where the dive boat would tie up. The divers sat forlornly under the canopy in the rear, their wetsuits hanging over rails at the stern, air cylinders lined up at the side. Mike saw me and raised his hand in a simple greeting. The water churned at the stern as the props reversed and the boat swung around and drifted gently toward the quay. I saw Priam get up and move to the stern and pick up a rope. Nico turned to me. "Ciao, Chris."
"Take care, Nico."
"Thanks. I shall call you." He walked toward the boat and held out a hand to Priam who tossed the rope. I watched as Nico put his weight on the cable pulling the boat alongside. Bending down he made a half turn around the dock cleat and then quickly followed with a series of figure-eights. One of the policemen pushed the gangway forward and Priam seized the handle and pulled it on board, but Nico had not waited and had already jumped across the gap and made his way to the wheelhouse. Mike reached out to help Jeremy and together they moved to the stern, retrieved their gear and came ashore.
I walked over to my partner. "Thank God," was all I could say as I hugged him. They loaded their stuff into the trunk of the waiting cab. I realized there would not be room enough for me so I looked around for another to hail.
"You go to the hotel?" a voice behind me said. I turned and saw the policeman who had come to talk to Nico on the breakwater earlier. "I take you there."
"Thank you. That’s very kind of you."
"Your friend can come, too," he said noticing Mike looking curiously at me as the others scrambled into their cab. I beckoned him and he walked over.
"He’ll give us a ride back," I explained, gesturing to the officer. Mike climbed into the back and I slid into the front seat.
"I work with Nico’s father," the policeman explained as he briefly looked over his shoulder before pulling out onto the road.
"He is very worried about his friend," I said.
"It looks not good. They have not found him yet." I understood the implication: the guy’s air supply would be depleted by now.
"You OK?" I asked, turning to Mike.
"Yeah," he said, his voice husky.
The policeman must have noticed. "You OK?" He turned his head to examine Mike. "You have had a big shock. If you like I can stop at the farmacia?"
"No. I’ll be all right," Mike assured him, pointing at the windshield as an indication of where the driver should be looking.
The policeman laughed. "It is no problem. I know these streets very well since a little boy."
We pulled up at the hotel with a small cloud of dust and a shower of pebbles. The policeman followed us in and, espying a waiter in the restaurant, unleashed a torrent of Italian, the only words I comprehended being ‘due grappe’.
"Subito,," was the reply and within seconds the policeman was pushing a shot glass into Mike’s hand.
"This will help." Mike looked at the glass. "Bere! Bere!" The policeman insisted. "Drink."
Mike did as instructed and I saw him gulp as the liquor burned his throat.
"Bene!" said the officer. He took the second glass from the tray and, swapping it with the empty glass in Mike’s hand, said. "Ancora!"
A lot of alcohol was consumed that night. The waiter insisted that everyone have a grappa as they came in; beers followed as I helped the guys rinse their wetsuits; wine flowed at dinner; yet another grappa was taken to cut through the pasta we had devoured; and a Fernet Branca to settle everything ended the evening. In no particular order I got the fragments of the story.
Mike, Aiden and Priam, along with Elizabeth, a girl from Wales and who was Mike’s dive buddy, had gone off with a guide to explore a cave.
"It all started off normally," Mike told me over dinner. "The last couple of days we’ve been using air, but today we were going deeper so we went to the dive shop, selected our enriched-air Nitrox tanks, inspected them and signed ’em out."
"We also took a couple of spares," added Aiden, "just in case we had a valve problem or some issue with one of the other cylinders."
"Yeah," said Mike. "Once we anchored off shore of the cave where we’d be diving, Amato, who was going to be our guide, gave us our briefing while Jeremy and his team got into the water. He would run it like an oral exam, making each of us answer: what was the wind like? What was the condition of the sea, what were the tides? Then he told us about the cave, how far it was from the boat, which direction and so on. He went through what the entrance was like and what we might encounter: the descent would be pretty normal but as we went deeper we would come into increasing degrees of silt-out and we would need to be careful "
"What’s silt-out?" I asked.
"Fine silt from the floor or the walls gets into the water and swirls around so your visibility is reduced," Priam explained. "Like flurries in a snow storm."
"It’s called Tyndall’s effect," Aiden added.
"Ah, the advantages of a Cambridge education," Priam joked.
"The advantages of being able to read," Aiden shot back. "Not a big part of a St. Helier College curriculum."
We laughed. It was the first attempt at humor that evening.
"So," Mike continued, fixing his eyes on the two Brits to make sure they would stay quiet, "as I was saying, Amato was telling us how to move around carefully, kick gently with just ankle movement so as not to churn the fine stuff up and so on.
"Once he’d finished that, we paired off with our dive buddies. Elizabeth and I BARFed each other, then "
"You what?" asked Jeremy.
"It’s not what it sounds like," Mike explained with a laugh. "It’s an acronym my drive instructor in The States uses for buddy checks. It’s actually B-W-R-A-F for buoyancy, weights, releases, air and final."
"I may have to remember that," said Priam, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "It is rather logical even if a little unusual."
"Uh-huh. Anyway, we then went to the dive platform and went in, Amato first, then me, Elizabeth and these two.
"Once everyone was in and OK, we started down. As we moved into the tunnel the daylight started to go and we turned on our lamps. This helped and we were doing fine. We passed the entrance to a smaller cave — which was the one where Lorenzo was — and Amato pointed out a jutting out rock that indicated the correct path to the surface for the return trip."
"Amato had told us to be careful here," Aiden said, "since divers had been known to mistake the route and get lost in the cave rather than go up to the surface."
Mike took a sip of wine and continued. "Then the tunnel got narrower and all of a sudden we came into a cloud of silt. At the time I remember thinking that Renzo must have kicked it up as he passed. But it was scary. Even though Amato had warned us about this, I became totally disoriented and began to get a bit panicky. With everyone’s lamps on it was like being in a bright, white mist — I couldn’t distinguish Elizabeth at all."
"I was scared shitless," Aiden said. "No fucking frame of reference at all. Everywhere I put my arms out I touched rock. I felt I was trapped, that the walls were closing in on me."
"So why didn’t you just back out? Back into the clear?" I asked, consciously refraining from saying that it was situations exactly like this that made me not want to go under water.
"For starters," Mike explained, "you become disoriented real quickly. You can’t really tell which is up or down. Secondly, if you can’t see your buddy — or your group — and you leave, they’ll spend a whole lot of time looking for you and put themselves in danger."
"So what did you do?"
"It’s not as serious as it sounds," Mike said. "Don’t forget we are trained for this kind of situation. All this has taken a while to tell, but really it lasted just a few seconds. I knew I needed to calm down so I started to take a few deep breaths then looked at my bubbles to see which way was up, found someone else, I think it was Aiden, then "
"No, it was me," said Priam. "You checked that I was OK and signaled that you were going on and left. I checked Aiden and signaled him to follow you."
"Oh. OK. Then I found Elizabeth and she was doing OK, we both had air so I took the lead and went on down.
"Things got better for a while and I could make out Amato in front of me. But when we got into the main cavern things got a bit crazy: the silt was heavier and now we had no walls to constrain us. This was not very comforting. I swam around a bit and found Aiden. He was OK, but tapped his gauge to show he was getting toward his air limit and that he needed to get going up. I then found Amato and signaled to him that we should start going back up to the surface. He held up both hands with fingers splayed out and I understood he wanted me to do deco stops every 10 feet. So I found Elizabeth and we checked each other and I signaled her that we were to go up and she should follow me."
"Dekka stops?" I asked.
"Decompression stops. They stop the nitrogen from forming bubbles and so, when you get to the surface, the nitrogen can be eliminated from your body faster."
"Of course," he went on, "I couldn’t see the entrance to the tunnel, but I knew it was at 36 metres so I just followed a wall around, keeping an eye on the depth, and within about four, five minutes I found it. I saw Priam and pointed to the surface. He gave me a sign that he couldn’t find Aiden, but I signaled that he was already on his way up and he went through the hole into the tunnel.
"Each ten feet we’d stop for a minute to decompress and then go up the next ten. It took us a while, but everything seemed to be going to plan. I was pretty happy when we got to the trapeze at 15 feet and did our four minute stop. We were finally in the clear and I could see that the group was intact which was a big relief.
"The return to the boat went smoothly, but I tell you, as soon as I was out of the water I gulped down a beer to help me regain my composure."
"Not such a fun dive?" I asked.
Mike gave a bit of a shrug. " I dunno. At the time I kinda felt that Amato had put us in danger, but I didn’t want to go off on him right then and there while my adrenaline was flowing, so I waited until we had unloaded all our dive data from our computers into Tullio’s laptop and I had my wetsuit off. But when I brought this up at the debriefing Amato maintained that there had been no danger at all: we had all recovered from our panic relatively quickly; we had more-or-less stuck with our buddies (and he said this was a good lesson to learn — we should remember to keep closer at all times to our dive buddies); we had returned to the boat with adequate reserves of air except for Aiden who said his supply was too low at 35 feet if Priam had gone out of air."
"Yes," Aiden admitted. "I think I had become apprehensive when I couldn’t see Priam in the silt-out and I started breathing faster. I think I need to work on being more aware of staying under control."
"Well, my little dive was very exciting for me," said Jeremy as he, Aiden and I walked back across the lawn to our rooms, "even if I missed all the drama."
"Was it fun?" I asked in a bit of awe that this guy who could not see was doing what I was too frightened to do.
"Oh, yes. Pietro, that’s Tullio’s brother, and a friend of his, Savio, who is a rescue diver, took me down to a big rock wall that had fissures and cracks in it which was exciting. But the best part of it all was being weightless and being able to move around so easily and not trip and fall."
"So do you think it’s feasible to form a group — or club, whatever — in the UK to do this?"
"Yes. I do. I think it would be a good idea for a lot of people — for people who have some limits on what they can normally do. I think it will boost confidence."
"Well I’ll give you my card before you leave," said Aiden. "If you get something going down in the South I could help."
"Well thank you, Aiden. I appreciate that. Maybe we could manage for you to come diving with Pietro and Savio and me one day. I really do believe it would help, when I am talking to sighted people about raising funds for this, if I had someone who was also sighted who could give them an idea what it is like and what the barriers are from a perspective they understand."
"Certainly. That’s easy."
"By the way, what was the chap who is missing doing? It seems as though he was diving alone?" I asked them.
"Yes," said Aiden as we stopped outside Jeremy’s room. "But apparently he had a fair amount of experience under his belt. Tullio had checked him before he went down. It seems he was going to sling some sort of guide-rope in a side cave to help divers locate the entrance when they got in there. He had gone down with the cable and was going to attach it to rocks somehow, I don’t know how."
"Maybe he got entangled in the rope," said Jeremy. "You know, that was probably the only thing that worried me: that I would get snared in something I hadn’t known about."
"Not so common in open water: It happens more on wrecks," Aiden said. "Trawlers get their nets caught on the wreck and they just abandon them. Nasty. Other than that it’s not too much of an issue. Although I must say that when we were coming out of the cavern today the entry into the tunnel looked so narrow I took my alternate air supply which I normally let hang loose and clipped it to my shoulder. Wasn’t going to get it jammed in a crack and snare me." He laughed.
"Do you want to see a pretty view of the bay at night?" Aiden asked, after Jeremy had gone inside and we waited for Priam and Mike to catch up.
"Sure." We walked a bit further away from the main hotel area and out to the edge of the cliffs where the remains of an old wartime bunker stood, Aiden lighting the way with a small LED flashlight on a keychain.
The view was good. The lights from the sea road above the beach twinkled on the little waves, and Marina di Campo across the bay looked like some Disney fairytale world. "The Germans had the whole beach covered from this headland and from a flak-ship in the harbor over at Campo. We lost a whole lot of commandos and the Germans forced the French to land elsewhere on the island," Aiden told me.
I shook my head. "Some places are too pretty to be battlefields."
"Yes. You’re quite right." He scanned the bay. "Priam and I come up here with a glass of wine each night before we go to bed." He laughed. "Gets us in the mood for romance."
"I wouldn’t have thought that was too difficult," I said.
Priam laughed. "Remember, Chris: no wiggle room!"
At breakfast the next day we heard that Renzo’s body had been found. "He was lying on the bottom of the cave," the waiter told us as we sat down. "The one where he was working. He has the SCUBA on his back, but no more air."
No diving had been scheduled for that day, but we — or at least the divers — were to remain at the hotel as the police wanted to conduct interviews.
"It’s Saturday, for God’s sake! What do they want to interview us for?" Aiden wanted to know. "We were together the whole time. Do they think we sealed him off in the cave? Or that one of us went in and hit the purge valve on his cylinder?"
"It’s just police procedure," Mike reassured him. "If they ask enough questions the truth will most likely lie somewhere amongst the answers."
"I know," Aiden sighed resignedly. "My father’s a barrister. Still, it’s a really long shot that any of us know anything useful."
That things were more serious than had at first been thought was apparent when the guys returned. "Well that’s the first time I’ve gone through a lie detector test," said Mike as he slumped into one of the deck chairs on the veranda where I had been working.
"What did they think you were lying about?" I asked.
"I have no idea," said Aiden, placing a beer next to my laptop for me. "Just a whole lot of unrelated questions. They’d ask about diving, then about where I worked, did I carry a knife when I dived, what I’d been doing in Elba when not diving. They showed me the record Tullio had in his log from my diving computer and wanted to know what each change in depth meant — what I was doing.
"Nothing made any sense. Cheers!" He took a swig of his beer and sat down.
"The cops seemed to know what you’d been doing, Chris," Mike said. "Are you some spy or something that they need to keep an eye on you?"
I laughed. "Naah. Nico is the chief of police’s son. The cop probably has heard about me on the family grape vine."
"Well he’s one of the Polizia Locale — or provincial police," said Priam. "They’ve got a couple of Carabinieri in on the act as well."
"Yes, the provincial guys are OK, but the Carabinieri seem a little up tight. They didn’t like something in my lie detector answers," said Aiden, "but since they wouldn’t tell me what it was I couldn’t help them sort it out."
"You were in for rather a long time," Mike said.
"I was beginning to wonder if they were using the bright lights and thumb screws on you," said Priam. "I’ve seen the Mussolini slogans painted on the walls of buildings here from the Second World War."
"Well, these guys are idiots," said Julian. "Just because I can’t see they think I don’t know anything. I tried to tell them about the motorboat, but nobody paid any attention. If you didn’t see it it didn’t happen seems to be their idea of reasoning. I was in and out of their office in about six minutes — five of which was getting my name and address."
"Motorboat?" I asked.
"Yes. After I got back on board a motorboat came up between the dive boat and the land. It cut its engine and there was no noise for about fifteen, twenty minutes. Then the engine started and it moved away in the direction of Marina di Campo."
"And the captain and your dive crew saw it?"
"I don’t know. They were talking in Italian in the back of the boat. I was sunbathing up front."
"Strange," I said. "I would have thought it was a pretty vital clue."
Priam waved his arm vigorously and the waiter who had been setting up the tables on the terrazza came across. "Three EPAs and two Arsuras, please."
"What was the guy who died’s job on the boat?" I asked.
"Sort of dogsbody," Aiden said, draining his glass in anticipation of the new round.
"I talked to him some," Mike added. "His English was pretty good — he’d worked at a hotel out west in The States a few years back to improve his English and to get hotel experience. His family owns an albergo on the East side of the island and he and his sister will would have taken it over when their parents got too old. But he liked to dive and worked on the dive boat for a bit of extra cash and a chance to go down when he could."
"How old was he?" I asked.
"I think he said twenty two. Chicken salad, Chris: too young for you," he said, patting my thigh.
But life had to go on and on Monday diving classes resumed and I went back to my work. I was a tad uneasy about Mike going out again, but he assured me that the operation was well run and the accident had been just that. Things took a darker turn, however, when Nico turned up at the hotel just as I was about to set off for my bicycle ride to lunch.
"Is it OK if we have lunch here?" he asked. "I have not too much time free today."
"Sure. No problema," I said. "You didn’t have to come: I would’ve been OK."
"No, I want to come. I need to be with people who are not sad."
"That’s cool. We’ll go across to the terrazza and grab a bite and a beer."
"A bite and a beer: I like that. I learn a bit more English conversation." He smiled and, for a moment, the old gleam was in his eye.
"How are your friend’s family doing?"
"It is a big sadness. They do not know how he could have died like that."
"He was rigging up a rope in a cave, I heard. Did he get tangled up?"
"It is a possibility. His dive computer made it look like things were OK, then he started to go up and down as though looking for something. His air started to get low until, I think, he knew he could not get out of the cave any more." Nico scanned around to check that we were not being overheard. He leaned across the table. "The Carabinieri have not let this out to Renzo’s family or the news people, but Renzo didn’t want to drown: he stabbed himself with his diving knife. In the heart."
"Oh fuck! Ohhhh, fuck!"
Nico nodded. "Do not tell the others because the Carabinieri are still doing tests. Some things are not clear. The Englishman, Claydon, did not do well when they test him on the verità machine. He "
"I think so, maybe. Macchina della verità — truth machine?"
"OK. We say lie detector or polygraph. But what happened with Aiden? Snape-Clayden?"
"On that detector he got a big fright when they say knife and when they say blood. But his dive computer shows he was not there. So things are not clear, yes? But the Carabinieri think Renzo killed himself rather than drown slowly." He pulled a sour face. "Maybe. But my father is not sure and I do not think so.
"But do not say anything to the others. I tell you because I think maybe you should be careful." He looked at me earnestly then leaned back in his chair as the waiter came up with the food and two beers.
"Salute!" I said raising my bottle.
"Cent’anni!" Nico replied solemnly.
We ate in silence for a minute or two. "Jeremy, the blind guy who stays at the hotel where we stay and who dives with Mike and the others, was a bit upset that the Carabinieri didn’t think his information was useful because he couldn’t see. He heard a motorboat come up and stop for about quarter of an hour and then go away, but nobody seems to care."
"Probably someone looking after their fishing stuff: for the lobsters or whatever. I would not think that has anything to do with it."
"But you’ll mention it to your father?"
"Perhaps. But there are so many small boats here. Where would he start looking? If a person can see, then they can say it was a big blue boat, or a small black boat. It is easier to check. But if he say the engine goes brrrr brrrr or vroom vroom it is harder to find." And I had to concede that he did have a point.
I did mention the stabbing and the lie detector quirks to Mike in the confines of our room that night. "I don’t see how your fantasy guy could have stabbed the guy," he mused. "We were all around each other too much. No time for one of us to go off and do any mischief."
"Aiden is not my fantasy guy," I protested, then went on, "But y’all were in the cave and the guy did get stabbed."
"Naah," Mike said. "Too tenuous an opportunity and absolutely no motive. We hadn’t met before the diving started on Monday.
"I was talking to Tullio today. Apparently there’s some conservation group on the island that doesn’t like tourists diving in the cave because they damage the natural formations and kill off the stuff that lives there. If it turns out that someone else were to have been involved, they’d have the strongest motive. They’ve had the feeling for a while that they’re getting sidelined by the authorities, that no-one pays any attention to them, so they may be trying to make a statement."
"And, if they are," I said, "an American tourist makes a good target."
"Seriously, Chris, you are worrying way too much. Anyways, our cave diving is finished now. We’re going to do wrecks which require totally different techniques."
‘And risks,’ I thought to myself, but said nothing.
Renzo’s funeral took place a week later on the following Saturday. Nico and I had met for lunch four of the five days and on one of them he had pointed out the funeral notices for Renzo, stuck up like posters here and there in the town. At first it struck me as being a tad crass but on thinking it over I decided it was, on the whole, a good method of getting the word out to all the deceased’s acquaintances.
The five of us and Eudoxus piled into two cabs and set out for the little town where Renzo was to be buried. Unsure of local protocol — and even whether Eudoxus whose religion seemed a bit Protestant (he had once barked at a statue of the Virgin and on another occasion peed on the legs of a terra cotta saint outside someone’s house) would be permitted inside the church — we hung around outside amongst the small gatherings of folk. After a few minutes I spotted Nico, waved to him and he strode over. I introduced Mike and the other guys to him and said, "We’re not sure what the custom is here. Do we go inside the church and sit until the service, or wait outside and follow the casket in?"
"You can go in now. It’s OK. The car will come very soon with Renzo."
"I would get on the back of his bike any day of the year," said Aiden as we moved toward the entrance. "In fact, I would get on his back any day of the year."
"You’re not helping, Aiden," I said through clenched teeth.
He laughed and, looking at Mike, pointed at me and the departing Nico and banged his clenched left hand with the palm of his right until I punched him on the shoulder.
The five of us sat together in a pew toward the rear of the church. Priam was the only one of our group that looked reasonably funereal since he had brought a suit with him for a business meeting later on the trip. The rest of us made do as best we could: Mike had a dark shirt, but Aiden, Jeremy and I had to make do with black T-shirts. The service was long, the coffin in front of the altar seemed only to emphasize Renzo’s separation from the living, the priest’s address given in somber tones did not sound as though it offered much hope of the hereafter and I was rather glad that I could not understand any of it. I spent the time emulating Galileo as I timed the gentle swings of the various lamps hanging from the ceiling by feeling my pulse.
Once the mass had ended, however, several people got up to give short speeches about Renzo and many of these resulted in ripples of laughter throughout the congregation so I walked out of the church in a somewhat more positive frame of mind.
"Are you not feeling well, Chris?" asked Aiden as we stood in the parking lot awaiting our taxi. "I noticed you taking your pulse during the service and looking rather vague."
"That has to be an all-time record for nerdishness," declared Priam when I explained what I had been doing.
"Ignore him," was Mike’s advice to them. "His brain isn’t wired right."
On Monday Nico called mid-morning. In his spare time he had been building a coffee table for his apartment from scrap airplane parts. The first-stage turbine of a jet engine rested on a central pedestal and a circle or armor glass sat on top. He had built it at the airport, but now he needed to get it home and into his apartment. A friend had a truck and the table could be loaded relatively easily at the maintenance hangar, but he was going to need some help getting it up the stairs into his living room. Did I have an hour or two free at midday to help?
At 12:05 I heard the Ducati arrive and went out to meet him. "Those are the jeans you want to wear?" he asked. "They may get dirty or maybe torn."
"Well I didn’t actually bring work clothes over with me. This was meant to be a vacation, remember?"
He gave his carefree laugh and shrugged. "No problema," he said, mimicking me. "I have overalls at the airport you can wear."
Nico’s home was on the North East tip of Portoferraio and the sound of the Ducati’s exhaust reverberated off the buildings as we zigzagged through the narrow streets. The walls of the houses, orange, yellow, pink, some with the paint peeling off from age, gave off warmth; doors with big handles of brass or wrought iron passed by inches from my elbow; above us old-style street lamps jutted out and electrical cables spanned the cobbled street that made the bike shake and shimmy as Nico swerved to miss children and marble doorsteps. We pulled up outside a pale lemon colored building and Nico opened a big wooden door set back in an arched doorway. I followed as he pushed the bike inside and maneuvered it up close to a side wall. The other side of the hallway was like a tiny courtyard, the floor covered with grey granite chips carefully raked into evenly spaced ripples. At the end, right next to the doorway into the house, a hollowed granite rock held the water which dripped from a thin aluminum rod that was suspended from somewhere way above.
It took five of us, sweating buckets, to get the various pieces of the table off the truck into the small entrance hall that held Nico’s rain gear and a couple of umbrellas, and then we manhandled each piece up the stone staircase to the second floor and into the living/dining room. I learned to say cazzo like an Italian by repeating it at almost every step as we worked the bulky turbine up the confined space, and, with frequent practice, was able to place the right emphasis on mannaggia when a blade scraped the paint on the wall.
"Wow! Nice view," I said when finally we had the table assembled and positioned where Nico wanted it. I walked over to the glass sliding doors that opened up to a balcony which, over a couple of red-roofed houses, looked out over the harbor and the sea beyond.
"It is pleasant, no," grinned Nico. "What would you like to drink? I have beer, I have wine. I even have Coca Cola."
The five of us stood outside on the balcony drinking the beers Nico had given us. I was glad that I had taken the overalls — there were a couple of new tears in them from where I had interposed my body between the edge of a turbine blade and a wall, and I caught my odor of sweat and exertion as I felt the perspiration trickle down between my shoulder blades.
After the other three had headed back with the truck, Nico said, "You can shower here. I think you are too dirty to put your clothes back on."
"I think you mean smelly," I said smiling a tad ruefully.
He laughed. "No, no. It is manly."
Nico’s bedroom, reached by a spiral staircase from the living room below, was smaller, tucked under the dark wooden beams that supported the roof. A low double bed of red wood with a padded headboard of cream leather was against one wall, while a matching wardrobe and chest of drawers in light pine graced the other. There was no door to the bathroom — a Japanese screen hid it from the bed area. A small balcony of red tiles and wrought iron railings completed the accommodation.
Nico handed me a large white towel and a bar of soap and I walked through to the shower. The water pressure was good and I let the jets pummel my face and chest to chisel off the caked perspiration. I felt Nico’s arms go around me, the stubble of his face grazed my neck, and his firm manhood pushed at the side of my butt. I could smell the sweat on him and my hormones exploded through my body as I turned my head into his face.
My hand reached out to the tap.
An hour later, dry, our nakedness covered by the white towels around our waists, we sat on the balcony outside Nico’s bedroom, sipping icy cold white wine.
"Are you OK?" said Nico. I nodded.
"You must tell Mike about this. And if he loves you he will say OK."
I nodded again. It had probably been inevitable that we should get to this point at some time and I had wrestled with the implications often before. Now it would be a big decision for Mike to make.
I gave the faintest of smiles at Nico. "Thanks."
He smiled back. "It is up to you now."
But not something to be dumped on him suddenly and out of the blue when he was far from home with nowhere to gain some solitude to think it through. I looked around the roofs and the neighboring houses. On one of the walls an inscription read, Durare sino alla vittoria! Durare oltre la vittoria, per l’avvenire e la potenza della nazione. It had been slightly painted over but was still visible, the dark letters under a haze of yellow. "What does it say?" I asked Nico, pointing.
"Oh. It is an old inscription from the Fascisti. It is the only sign left in the town. I do not like it but the owner of the house says it is part of the town’s history from the secondo conflitto mondiale. He is a friend of the father of the mayor and since no-one in the street can see it he is not made to paint it out."
"What does it mean?"
Nico looked over at the wall. "Keep going until the victory! Outlast the victory for the future and the strength of the nation."
‘The future and strength of the nation,’ I thought. What did that hold out for Mike and me? Victory implies a winner and the corollary to that? Someone loses.
"I must get back to my work," I said.
"And I, too," Nico replied, draining his glass. "Let me give you a T-shirt to wear. Yours is really bad."
"I thought it was manly."
"No. It is over manly. It is animal.
"In that drawer," he pointed as he walked to the bathroom. "Take any shirt."
I pulled open the drawer. A couple of regular shirts, some jeans, two black jockstraps and some black socks sat on one side. Two T-shirts lay on top: One was a rather startling purple, the other was white with a rendition of a Las Vegas neon sign in pink above a black logo which read read: ‘69 is always a winning number on this one-armed bandit’ with a bold arrow pointing straight down to the crotch area.
I pulled the second one on just as Nico walked back in. "I didn’t know you’d been to the USA," I said.
"No, you cannot wear that one. You will be taken to jail." He paused and the smile left his face. "And, besides, those shirts are Renzo’s."
"Oh, sorry. I didn’t know." I put my hands on the bottom seams to pull it back over my head, but somehow the shirt tangled and got caught under my rib cage. I tugged at the neck and, although the shirt was not really tight on me, it stuck to my skin. I began to feel trapped. Eventually Nico, laughing at the mess I’d got myself into, came over and helped me extricate myself and I folded the T neatly and gently returned it to its drawer, and yet, strangely, it seemed difficult to pull my hand away. "So Renzo went to Vegas?" I asked to break the awkwardness.
"Yes. In 2005 and 2006. When he was 18. He went for a year to learn about hotels and "
" and to learn English," I said. "I remember Mike telling me that."
Nico pulled open the drawer above, selected a Ducati T-shirt and handed it to me. "Now you look like a man!"
"Ha ha! Funny!"
"Why did Renzo keep clothes in your drawer?" I asked as we walked down the stairs to the Duc.
"He lived with his parents. Not a bamboccioni, but because he was working in the hotel which is where they lived. So sometimes, when he found a boy and he wanted a good time, he would come up to my room. He had my permission."
Nico paused in zippering his jacket and looked at me. "And sometimes he slept with me."
On the following day, the Tuesday, Jeremy did not go out diving. He had a conference call scheduled with people at his business and I did not get to talk to him until mid-afternoon when he and Eudoxus came strolling over to the table where I was working.
"How is the defense going?" he asked.
"Actually, I’m getting my ducks all in a row. It’s been great having this chance to get away from work and concentrate on just one thing."
"Yes, I can imagine." He paused and Eudoxus looked at me and wagged his tail yet I resisted the urge to pull him off task by patting him. "Do you know if they have tea available in the restaurant?"
"They have tea bags and urns of hot water," I said. "I doubt there’s an ancestral china pot with a canister of Darjeeling leaves next to it though. Want me to go get a cup for you?"
"You are very kind, Chris, but I am not disabled, just blind."
"Don’t be sorry. It’s a fine thing to want to be kind to others."
A pang went through me. Was I going to be kind to Mike? "I think I’ll come along with you," I said getting up and stretching. "I just realized a cup of tea is exactly what I need right now."
"Tell me about Renzo," I said when, cups in hand, we settled down on Jeremy’s veranda and he slipped Eudoxus a couple of biscotti.
Jeremy sipped his tea. "Nice lad," he said after a pause. "Worked hard on the boat, getting the cylinders organized, helping people get their gear on, getting us a drink when we were back on board, making sure the shotline was positioned correctly."
"The line we use to come to the surface. Basically a buoy at the surface and a weight on the seabed. The line runs from the buoy through a ring on the weight and then up to a float which keeps the line taut even if there are waves."
"Ah, so Renzo would set this up before the diving began?"
"Yes. While we were getting our gear on and doing the briefing for the dive, he would be mucking around and getting everything lined up. For a shallow dive it’s just the one buoy but, as on the day he died, he had to set up two other buoys with a trapeze for the deep dive people to hang onto while they decompressed."
"So quite a busy guy?"
"Oh yes. Renzo — and now Nario, the new mate — are always hopping around. There’s pretty much nothing they don’t do. Tullio had Renzo steer the boat, get to the dive position using the GPS, look at the engine if it sounded odd in any way. Everything."
"And Renzo’s personality?"
"A funny boy. Always joking. He had a name for almost everyone: Mike was ‘Il Prof’ — the professor — because he always wants everything to be just so." I laughed and nodded in agreement. "Aiden was ‘Pacco’ because apparently he is well endowed. He got Priam’s goat at the beginning because he called him ‘Non Priamo’. I don’t know why."
"And your name was?" I teased.
"It means ‘balls’. He thought I had big balls to go diving when I couldn’t see. Sighted people always make a big deal of that."
"Yeah. I guess we do. I mean so much of what we do is based on seeing. It’s difficult to imagine not doing it."
"I understand, but it gets trying after a while. One of my boyfriends would always tell me where the food on my plate was while I was eating. It made dinner conversation almost impossible."
"So you’re gay, too?"
"You didn’t know? Why? Because I can’t ‘check out’ the passing meat?"
"No. No. Not that. Just, well, you don’t make the remarks that I’m kinda used to gay guys making."
"Maybe my life is more than my sexuality?" His smile took away any harshness in the words.
"That is a possibility. Pretty novel idea," I said trying to match his tone. "But, deep down, isn’t everyone’s life their sexuality? We don’t think it is because the hets have made their way so so mainstream that it’s almost expected and so we think ours is different. But it isn’t. The target is different, but the target acquisition and attack plans are the same.
"Look, I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but I have thought about what it might be like to be blind and I reckon that blind gays must be the nicest of gay guys. I mean they don’t pre-judge another guy on his looks, or the bulge in his pants — and by the way, when Aiden wears tight jeans he is impressive — or his clothes, or his hairstyle."
"Well, thanks, Chris. That’s a very nice thing to say. I hate to burst your bubble, but I’m just as prejudgemental as my sighted queer brothers, only for me it’s the other chap’s voice, their language, their laughs, what makes them laugh.
"Why do you think I engineered coming to join you guys at dinner that first night? I heard you guys talking to each other. You and Aiden talking rugby, Mike joking with you. It all sounded so comfortable I decided that I wanted to be together with you."
"So we’re all sluts," I mused, then laughed and said, "Well, can’t say that it’s a bad life!"
Jeremy laughed. "So, while we’re on the subject of talking, why all the interest in Renzo?"
I hesitated. "I think you’ll laugh at me if I tell you. I’ve run it by Mike and he thinks the concept is totally weird."
"Why? You’re not into necrophilia, are you?" he put his hand on my leg reassuringly.
"No. Not that. It’s kinda really unusual. Look, I grew up in South Africa."
"I had figured that out from the accent — and the love of rugby."
"Well, I grew up in Natal. I knew quite a few Zulu people. They have a belief system that is, let’s say, different from Christianity. Each human being has three distinct components: umzimba is the physical body — what you can touch; umoya is life — sorta like the soul or rather the mind; and isithunzi, which is, for want of a better word, personality. When one dies the umoya leaves the umzimba and is gone forever. The umzimba can be buried where it will disintegrate or be cremated, so it will disappear. But, depending on what kind of life you have led, the isithunzi can live on as a spirit. If you have led a decent, good, charitable life your isithunzi is great. If, on the other hand, you’re a shitty and hate-filled guy, your isithunzi will be smaller — or may entirely disappear."
I stopped to gauge Jeremy’s reaction. He thought for a while and then said, "Yes. That makes a lot of sense."
"OK. Well I’m a tech. I believe in science, in physics, in engineering, in statistics: all things that are reliable, well-documented and repeatable. But I do recognize that there are things out there that work in a way that humans don’t understand."
"Hamlet, talking to Horatio."
"Yeah. Precisely. So yesterday I put on one of Lorenzo’s shirts by mistake. When I found out whose shirt it was I tried to take it off. It wouldn’t come off until another guy helped me. Not only could I not take it off like I’ve done with a million T-shirts before, but I felt something. Something was pressing it onto me, gripping it to my skin. Kinda wanting me to be the person who wore the shirt."
"That’s pretty profound, Chris."
"Is it? Or is it my imagination running amok? Or was Renzo’s spirit wanting to tell something to someone who might might be tuned to just the right frequency to receive the message?
"I feel the more I know about him the better I can decide."
"I understand. Well, all right, I’ll help in any way I can. Ask away."
"Thanks, Jeremy. And thanks for not laughing, too."
"Well, as you say, you are a tech. And if you feel there is something in what you told me, there must be a reason for you to believe. For someone who believes in The Holy Trinity as I do, I would never laugh at someone believing something far less improbable."
I chuckled, relieved. "What happened on Renzo’s last dive?"
"Well, Tullio had told the others on the Thursday that they would be doing a longer and deeper dive on the Friday so that they had the weekend to get rid of all the nitrogen in their bodies. I also heard him tell Renzo that, since they’d be down longer, he would have the chance to go and rig the guide rope in some cavern."
"How did Renzo feel about that?"
"He seemed rather enthusiastic. He was a pretty keen diver, you know."
"OK. And then ?"
"Well, the next day, I went off first. When I left the diving platform, Renzo was putting on his gear. There was a long coil of rope and a large bag of equipment he would be taking down sitting on the edge of the diving platform. I know that because Tullio kept warning me about it.
"When we came up after our dive, Tullio was alone on the boat and as far as I could tell the diving platform was clear. The radio was on and occasional chatter from other boats would come across in short bursts now and then. He helped us out of the water, then we handed over our dive computers for him to download the data into his log."
"Why did he do that?"
"To keep track of our nitrogen absorption. When you’re on the surface you degas, but if you go down again, the nitrogen will build up again. Tullio is very thorough about preventing anyone diving to their limit."
"OK. What happened next?"
"Well, I got out of my wetsuit and I expect my dive buddies did the same. I went and sat up front and ate my lunch so as to be out of the way when the other divers returned. My dive buddies and Tullio were around the wheel-house and in the back of the boat chatting, but it was all in Italian and I didn’t catch what they were saying. After a while I noticed that they had all moved to the stern and then I did hear Renzo’s name come up.
"Mike and Elizabeth were the first up and a minute or two later I heard Priam, Aiden and Amato come up. When they came off the platform onto the boat, Priam called out to me to ask if I wanted a beer and brought it up forward to where I was. He and Aiden sat and had some lunch before taking off their wetsuits. Mike and Elizabeth must have taken theirs off first, because they came along maybe ten minutes later.
"While they were having lunch, Tullio came forward and asked if anyone had seen Renzo underwater. Nobody had. Things got busy at the back and Mike told me that Savio, who is experienced in underwater rescue, and Pietro, who is my dive instructor, were going down to see what had happened to Renzo. Priam wanted to go down with them, but he had not had enough degas time to permit a long deep dive, so Tullio said no.
"Things got progressively more and more tense as time went on. Priam had a set of dive tables and was trying to work out how much Nitrox Renzo would have left, and things began to look pretty dire.
"Elizabeth, who has better Italian skills than the rest of us, told us that Tullio had called the Coast Guard and, shortly after Savio and Pietro came back up, another boat pulled up nearby and then the Coast Guard came churning along at high speed.
"There was a lot of shouting between the boats, then a helicopter came and flew around searching the water.
"About half an hour later, Tullio said we would be leaving to go back to the harbor, and Mike, Priam, Aiden and Elizabeth scampered around bringing in the shotline and buoys, and even before they had that all stowed we left.
"And the rest you know."
"Must have been a long ride home," I said.
"It was. Priam kept saying that Renzo had probably surfaced too far from the boat and would be found by the chopper or the coast Guard, but we never heard any upbeat voices come over the radio."
We sat together in silence and finished our tea.
"Well, Chris, I don’t know if I’ve helped your search for the Zulu ancestors, but if you don’t have any other questions it’s time to get Eudoxus’s (by which I really mean my) daily exercise."
"Yeah. I don’t know whether you’ve helped or not. At least I have the beginnings of a personality picture. I need to get back to my work, too. Enjoy your walk, Eudoxus."
Jeremy took a few steps then turned. "Why don’t you come out on the boat tomorrow. There’s room for you and your computer while we’re gone, and you can get a feel for what it’s like out there. Who knows: Maybe Renzo’s spirit will come to you in a place where he liked to be."
I sounded out the idea of me coming on the boat on Mike that evening and he was enthusiastic. "That’d be so cool, Chris. I’d kinda like you to see what I enjoy out there."
"I’m not going under water though," I told him and he just laughed.
‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,’ the poet says and no sooner had the last SCUBA-tanked back disappeared beneath the waves on the following morning than Nario and Tullio began a heavy marketing campaign on me to go snorkeling. "The water is not deep. There are lots of very beautiful rocks. The fish are many and friendly."
The morning air was warm, the sea had gentle, lapping waves, the shore was not far off, and, technically anyway, I would not be under the water, so I gave in after putting up only token resistance. The scenery beneath the surface was truly magnificent and I spent about two hours gamboling above the rocky floor, chasing and being chased by schools of hundreds of little fishes, silver, and yellow, and striped.
"That was great!" I exclaimed to Tullio when I made it back to the boat and sat on the diving platform pulling off my fins.
"I am happy you discover something so beautiful about our island," Tullio said, clearly pleased at my reaction. I walked forward to where Jeremy was sitting.
"I hear you were seduced into experiencing the wonders of the sea," he said as I sat down and pulled on a baseball cap.
"It was good. Where we live the sea is a lot rougher — Atlantic breakers — and the water is a lot murkier."
We chatted for a while and then commotion at the stern signaled the arrival of the other divers. The boat rocked as they climbed on board and sat down to remove their tanks, weights and floatation vests.
"Nario!" called Priam as he got up to come forward. The boy was not in the wheelhouse and Priam looked down into the engine compartment. "Nario! Two Arsuras, two EPAs, please. Up forward," and having got that squared away he made his way towards us.
"Nice cozzy, Chris," said Aiden walking up and holding his octopus in his hand. "You trying to tell us something?"
"Could be he’s not gay at all and just likes rainbow Speedos," suggested Priam.
"Well I think it’s nice," said Elizabeth. "More imaginative than having just one color. Plus it’s informative — it tells girls not to waste their valuable vacation time chasing a guy who isn’t available."
"It’s informative in more than color," Mike said as he bent down and kissed me. "Not only do you know his sex, but can make a shrewd guess at his religion."
It was Priam’s last dive. He was scheduled to fly to Zurich the following morning to attend some or other banking meeting.
"Why aren’t you going down?" I asked as the others suited up to go and explore the wreck of a wartime JU52 transport plane that had been shot down over half a century before.
"The nitrogen needs time to get out of your system before you go anywhere where the atmospheric pressure is low," he said. "If you load your body up too much you can’t go up in an airplane. In fact you shouldn’t even go over a high mountain pass."
"Did you have fun today playing hookey from work?" Mike asked as we lay in bed together that night.
"I did. It was kinda weird seeing Elizabeth and you checking each other’s gear at the beginning. All so up close and personal."
"All part of being safe," my partner replied. We sat in silence for a while and then he said: "It’s kinda weird seeing you tucked up close behind another guy on a bike."
My gut clinched. "All part of being safe." I changed the subject. "You know, I think it’s kinda faggy when two gay guys who are partners dress exactly alike. It’s a bit too Hollywood stereotypical."
"You mean Priam and Aiden having matching wetsuits?"
"I know. Under water the only way I can tell them apart is Aiden lets his alternate air supply hang loose and Priam does like I do and clip it on his shoulder. Under water their hair color is darker and looks similar.
"But," he went on, "they don’t dress alike so often in other clothes."
"Not quite so exactly, but notice when one wears white jeans, so does the other. Or black jeans, or blue." I stroked his stomach. "Maybe you should get a rainbow Speedo to match mine."
"Maybe I should. Can’t have you catching all the guys."
Around one in the morning I woke up suddenly from a restless sleep. The sheet had twisted around me and I had the same feeling of being trapped as I’d had when I’d put on Renzo’s T-shirt. Rolling over I finally disentangled myself and got up, went to the bathroom for a pee then filled a glass with water, gently opened the door and sat down on the veranda to lose the feeling of unease that my waking had left within me. I reran the day’s activities through my mind, the snorkeling, the boat, the sunset as we returned to the harbor. The general feeling of disquietude remained. I felt I was being hounded to go somewhere yet I knew not where. The wide slats of the chair were becoming uncomfortable on my bare butt and I shifted slightly. My leg knocked the table and an empty beer bottle from the evening tipped over and rolled toward the edge. My hand shot out and grabbed it and a picture flashed in my brain. Aiden walking toward me saying ‘Nice cozzy, Chris.’
I sat back and tried to sort through everything I knew. I went inside, grabbed a sweatshirt and jeans, rummaged through my PC bag for my LED lamp, picked up my laptop and went back outside. Plugging the lamp into the USB port and angling it so it lit up my keyboard I went to Google and started to search and read. I read about a young guy, apparently acing his way through one of England’s oldest schools. Back copies of the school magazine had his name for the Under 14, Under 15, and Under 16 rugby teams. In one year it appeared in the Under 17, 3rd XV and 2nd XV and the following year he captained the 1st XV. In every issue while he attended the school he had had an essay or a poem accepted. His name appeared in the teams of the debating and chess clubs. He acted in various school productions.
Later Google entries were about his university life where he played rugby and rowed. He wrote articles on economics that appeared in national magazines.
After university, however, the references were sparse and mostly of a social nature.
Returning to the school magazine I discovered that his class was planning a 15 year reunion and, posing as a writer for an obscure US magazine (which was partially true: I had had three letters printed in it) I sent an email to the organizer, one George Morris, for some details for an article I said I was writing on the relevance of an English boarding school from the perspective of several years after leaving.
I also sent an email to Kyle Petts, a friend of mine back home and the local police officer. He, I pointed out, had little to do and all day to do it in and thus could he help me with some research?
It was coming up to 5am and the Eastern sky was turning pink when Mike came out with a towel wrapped around him. "What the fuck are you doing, Chris?"
I shut my laptop. "Come inside, I’ll brew a cup of coffee and tell you what’s worrying me."
A couple of hours later the four of us were sitting on the terrazza outside the restaurant having our breakfast. "It’s going to be hard just getting some porridge and tea before dashing off to battle the traffic into London next week," Aiden said. "At least you and Mike live by the sea."
"But one of us still has to put on a suit, grab breakfast and drive to work," said Mike adding a dab of peach jam onto his croissant. "It’s only the privileged few that get to stay home and look at porn on the laptop all day."
"Hey! You’ll appreciate all my hard work when your 767 flies so smoothly across the Atlantic in two days’ time and doesn’t get lost and end up in Reykjavik."
Aiden laughed. "Maybe Priam and I should come visit you chaps next year."
"Y’all are more than welcome any time," I said. Aiden was about to say something when we heard the throb of a turboprop and a white-and-blue Dash 8 of Intersky passed low in front of the hotel as it climbed into the morning sky. "That’s probably Priam headed to Zurich now," I said. The airport was not far from the hotel and runway 16 pointed right at the sea in front of where we ate.
After they had all squeezed into the cab, I took Eudoxus back to Jeremy’s veranda and settled down at my laptops. I had finished up the presentation for my defense and was working on the table of contents and the index to my documentation when Nico came to have lunch with me at the hotel.
"Have you told Mike yet?" he asked, spinning a chair around and straddling the seat with his arms over the backrest.
I shook my head. "Nope. I’ll wait until after we’ve left Elba. That way he won’t beat you up."
"I do not think he will beat me up. I think it is important to him that you are happy.
"Anyway, what I want to say is, Friday night I want all of you guys to come to my house for a goodbye dinner. Is that OK?"
"Sounds good to me. I’ll ask the others when they get back. Priam has gone to Zurich so he won’t be there, but I think all the others will come. Is it OK if Jeremy brings his guide dog?"
"Yes, of course. No question. So, OK, you let me know so I can get food. You have my handy number, right?"
"I do. I’ll call you tonight."
It was mid-afternoon when I saw Kyle’s email come in.
‘The reason I have nothing to do all day,’ it began, ‘is because the criminal element has left town for a Mediterranean vacation and I don’t have to protect the locals from a speeding delinquent biker.
‘As to your question. I put out some feelers and was getting nowhere until I mentioned that I knew Lynch’s father quite well. That lit some fires under them and, after talking to a few people and hitting dead ends, I got a name of a patrol officer out there and he had a lot to tell me. Two of the names you gave me were linked with an accidental death out in Vegas some time back. I am attaching his email and a PDF of the case file as well as some scans of his personal notes.’
I finished reading his email and then perused the attachments. An hour later I looked up George Morris’s web page and dialed the number he had included on the web site.
After a couple of misstarts as a result of messing up the area codes, I got through. I introduced myself and, when his polite English voice assured me that it was absolutely no problem to be called out of the blue, I asked him, "What can you tell me about a guy called Priam Merton, and are you, by any remote chance, aware of any connection between him and a guy named Cade Pritchett?"
"Cade Pritchett," he repeated. "Cade Pritchett. I haven’t heard that name for a very long time. ‘Sparky’ we called him. He was a bursary kid, two years our junior. As bland as a breeze on the heath. He was one of those blokes who came to school, stayed a few years and left and made hardly a ripple. He was in the same house as Priam and me and Priam pushed him hard to make something of himself: made the kid get good marks, play cricket, play rugby, join clubs, do something for the house — for the school.
"It almost seemed like a challenge for Priam and, I must say, he leaned rather hard on Pritchett. Priam felt the boy was er squandering his scholarship — not getting all he could out of St. Helier."
"Why was Pritchett called Sparky?" I asked.
"Ah! That!" And he went on to tell me another tale.
The hotel put on a festive dinner that night. Elizabeth and her husband had come over and Tullio, Nario, and Jeremy’s dive buddies joined us as well. Tullio presented everyone copies of their dive logs and the signed documents that showed what training they had completed so they could get their certification, Mike gave a speech thanking the Italians for all they had done, and Aiden spoke briefly about Renzo before proposing the traditional toast of ‘Absent Friends’. A lot of beer and wine was consumed. Grappa and cognac followed, and then some more wine, and it was a jolly crowd that left the restaurant at about 10pm.
Mike flopped across the bed when we got in. "I am so full," he said. "I might never eat again."
"Better do a run tomorrow morning," I said. "Nico is cooking a dinner for us all.
"Which reminds me, I need to call him and tell him we’re coming." I walked into the tiny sitting room area, picked up my iPhone and selected his number. A movement outside caught my eye and I saw Aiden in a white sweatshirt walking across the lawn, a glass of red wine in his hand. I guessed he was off to the ruin to enjoy the view over the bay under the first quarter moon.
"Hi, Nico! You still up?" We talked for a few minutes.
"OK," he finally said. "I see the five of you and the dog tomorrow. Seven o’clock OK? It’ll give me time after work to make things ready."
"Seven’s fine. It’ll just be four of us, though: Priam is in Zurich."
"No. He is back. I saw him get off the Intersky plane from Zurich this evening."
"No. You must be mistaken. He’s not here. He wasn’t at dinner."
"No, Chris. I tell you, I see I saw him. I was changing a circuit breaker in the cockpit of a Citation just behind the Dash 8. He walked right past my window. He had black jeans and black tracksuit top you know with cappuccio?"
"Yes. That is right. I tell you it was him."
I felt the gripping sensation around my abdomen. "I must go, Nico. Bye." I tapped the ‘end’ button, and stepped outside and walked slowly away from the room to let my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. It took about a minute before I could make out the cliff edge against the dimly lit sea. I knew where the ruin was and I thought I could vaguely make out Aiden’s white shirt. In the distance, way over the Mediterranean, two lights suddenly stabbed out. Probably the Fairchild Metro running the scheduled late-night parcel service into Elba as it did every evening I thought. As I watched it, my peripheral vision picked up something moving to my left and I turned, but looking directly I saw nothing so turned back to the airplane. The movement was more apparent when I wasn’t looking directly at it. I concentrated on not moving my eyes and studying just the edge of my retina. What was it? A dog? A bear? No, it looked like a crouching person. The Metro came closer, the thrum of the turboprops growing and becoming louder as the pilot changed to fine pitch and increased the RPM for better handling. The dark shape straightened out and began moving smoothly across the grass toward the bunker.
I began to run. "Aiden!" I yelled, but the Metro was low and almost overhead and he couldn’t hear me. I sprinted.
"Aiden!" I yelled again. The black figure paused, looked toward me, then turned and began to run away. I was five yards behind it, then four, three. I launched myself into a tackle and made contact just a tad low, below the knees. The figure fell as I hit the grass and slid up over the legs. It was a man. He kicked out, a sneaker hit my jaw and I rolled away. As I lifted my head he got to his feet and started to run toward the bushes, away from the sea. From less than a mile away the still night carried the sound of the Metro selecting reverse thrust on the runway.
"Priam! Stop!" I yelled. "Cade! Cade! Stop!"
"Chris, what’s going on? Who was that? What’re you doing?" Aiden came up, his sweatshirt stained with spilled red wine.
I rolled onto my knees and stood up. "Let’s go inside. You’ll be OK there."
"Of course I’ll be OK. What the fuck were you yelling? What’s ‘cade’?"
Mike came jogging up. "What’s going on, guys? What’s all the shouting? Chris, you OK?"
"Yeah. I’m fine. A bit of grass-rash that’s all. Come, let’s go inside."
As we came up to our veranda, Jeremy came out onto his. Eudoxus, without his harness, stood by his side. "Everything all right? I thought I heard shouting."
"Everything’s fine. Don’t worry. Come over to our room and I’ll tell you a long story."
"Nico," I said into my iPhone once we were inside. "I think your father needs to come to the hotel. Something very bad nearly happened."
I heard the Ducati engine at high revs fifteen minutes later — a full five minutes before I heard the siren. "Chris, what has happened? You OK?" Nico asked, coming in and reaching out to my dirt-covered and slightly ripped T-shirt. I could have changed, but I’m gay and it feels good to look macho now and again.
It was 2:30am before Nico, his father and another policeman left.
"You gonna be OK?" I asked Aiden. "You can doss down in our sitting room if you like."
"No. I’ll be fine, thanks. They said there’ll be a policeman here for the rest of the night. I need to be alone for a while I think."
"You’re not going to ?" I asked, reaching out to his arm.
"Don’t be a fuckwit, Chris. I’ll be OK. I just need to work some things out in my head."
"Why didn’t you tell me you were going out?" Mike asked later as I smeared some Zambuk from my first-aid kit on my grazes. "What if he had had a gun?"
"I wasn’t really sure he was going to be there," I said. "I thought I was just going to tell Aiden that Priam was back on the island."
He held me tight for a full minute and then, in the aftermath of all the excitement, as the realizations of what could have been but had not, we began to rip our clothes off. We grabbed each other and rolled across the bed and started to recreate our own Kamasutra. We changed positions, we did everything we knew how to do and then began inventing on the fly, moving from bed to chair, from chair to floor, from floor to table. Every time we thought it might be over, excitement pushed us further: The marble surround of the washbasins, under the hot water of the shower.
At 5:30 we remade the bed and flopped in between the sheets that smelled of Zambuk and men. Mike dropped into a deep sleep within seconds but I lay awake, adrenaline fueled, and eventually, as the morning light came across the sky, I decided to go for a run on the beach to think things through in solitude.
I pulled a pair of jogging shorts on and laced up my sneakers. It was a bit nippier outside than I expected and I went back in to get a shirt. The room was trashed and I couldn’t find my sweatshirt, so slipping Mike’s on, I picked up my iPhone and quietly closed the door behind me.
Everything was quiet. The policeman on duty sat wrapped in an overcoat outside the restaurant and raised a hand in salutation to me as though glad to see another living being. Rather than go to the front and down the street, I decided to take the steep stairs that led to the rocky part of the beach behind the Il Golfo open-air bar and restaurant. From the top I looked down. The beach was almost deserted, but the few walkers and joggers were a good three-four hundred metres away on the sand. A solitary bright red bodyboard lay on the rocks, left there from yesterday’s swimmers I guessed. I started down.
"How the fuck did you find out?"
I jumped in fright and almost fell down the last two steps. Huddled against the base of the rocky cliff sat Priam. Beside him was a pile of small rocks and two grappa bottles, one empty one full. A third bottle, three quarters full, was in his hand.
I looked at him. His sweatshirt was dirty with earth from my tackle the previous night.
"In a way you told me," I said, taking the last two steps onto the rocks. "You’ve never played hooker on a rugby team: if you had you would’ve known the lineout rules off pat. I really wondered what that was all about. I thought about it a whole lot. And it started me thinking. What could make Priam change so much?"
I looked down at him. His eyes were dull.
"And in the end, the only way things fitted was if you were not really Priam. And if you weren’t Priam, who could you be? And what, if anything did that have to do with Renzo?"
He shook his head. "After so long. One stupid slip about rugby. Something that doesn’t even matter."
I looked toward the beach to determine if I could escape.
"I can catch you before you’ve gone twenty yards," he said reading my thoughts. "You were lucky last night: I’m way faster than you.
"Come here and sit. I’m not going to hurt you."
I moved over and sat down a foot or so from him. He passed over the bottle and I took a mouthful and felt the alcohol sear my esophagus. "Where did you get the hooch?"
"The bar. They left the door unlocked." So much for the policeman outside, I thought.
"Give me your iPhone."
"Fuck, give it to me. I’m not going to have you call the cops on me." I handed my iPhone over. He stood up and walked to the water’s edge and threw it far out into the sea. He turned and came back, surprisingly sure footed on the wet stones considering the amount of grappa he’d consumed.
"Sorry about that, but I need just a little more time and a little more booze." He leaned his back against the rock and slid to the ground. "You could have made an attempt to run," he said. "Why didn’t you?"
"You said you weren’t going to hurt me. And I need to know why you’ve been doing all this shit."
"Why the fuck did you kill Renzo?" I asked when he said nothing. "What had he ever done to you? It all goes back to Vegas, doesn’t it?"
"What makes you think I killed him? Aiden, Mike, they all saw me on the dive. They know I was with them. My dive log has the whole dive. I didn’t spend any time at the top cave."
"Pretty smart that. You set your dive computer at a minute different to Aiden’s then, once you were in the water you did something — I don’t know — pretended to check Aiden’s tanks or something, and somehow hung your dive computer on them. I saw the logs last night at dinner. Tullio gave yours to Aiden. At the beginning and the end there are differences, but for the big part in the middle the descent, the ascents, the stops, were identical, just off by one minute.
"I reckon you hung back after the first silt. You had dive tables to keep you safe. You waited and you killed Renzo."
"Just a plausible theory. I doubt it would stand up in court. Mike insists he saw me down in the cave."
"Yeah. Right. That had me stumped. It came to me early yesterday morning. I remembered you and Aiden walking up the deck towards Jeremy and me. You both have matching wetsuits. Mike has said that he can tell you apart under water only by looking at your AAS hose: you clip yours like Mike does, Aiden lets his hang free. But Aiden was scared when he was in the cave. Mike had seen him and they’d exchanged signals, but then Aiden was worried that his hose would catch on something and trap him, so he clipped his to his shoulder. The next time Mike sees him, Mike is in a hurry to start his ascent. He sees Aiden a second time, but with the clipped hose Mike assumes it’s you.
Priam gave a slight smile and shook his head. "Far too circumstantial, Chris."
"Maybe. But there’s something else. According to Jeremy, when you came back on board, you called out to him to ask him if he wanted a beer. What happened to giving work to a guy that needed it? Why didn’t you do what you always do and call out to Renzo to bring you beers?
"Because you knew Renzo was dead. Dude," I said staring hard at him, "Jeremy is blind, but he is really sharp in what he hears. He’d make a pretty unshakeable witness."
"And why did Renzo call you ‘Non Priamo’? Doesn’t that translate to ‘Not Priam’?"
Priam took a drink from the bottle and looked out to sea with narrowed eyes. "Renzo knew I wasn’t Priam," he said softly. "He was going to spill the beans. He wanted money, but I knew one day he would tell someone else. And then someone else. And then I’d be fucked."
"But why were you even calling yourself Priam? Where’s the real Priam? Does he know that you’re doing all this crazy shit? You were school buddies, for fuck sake."
His voice turned icy and he stared hard at me "Priam and I went to the same school. That’s it. We were definitely not ‘buddies’ as you say."
"But from what I hear he tried to help you get along, do stuff for the house, get your money’s worth out of your bursary "
"Where did you hear that from?"
"George Morris. He’s a guy who’s organizing a reunion for Priam’s class."
"George Morris!" He snorted. "Boy George! He’s just like Priam, just like the rest of them."
"What d’you mean?"
He took a swig of grappa and gave a short mirthless chuckle. "You won’t understand."
"Try me," and I held out my hand for the bottle. I drained it and put it down next to the other empty one.
Again the stare out across the water. He swiveled his head enough so he could look at me out of the corner of his eyes. "OK. You, Aiden, Priam, this Boy George, you all go off to boarding school and have so much fun." He put on a face of pantomime glee. "Everything is brillo." The scowl returned. "In the hols you go to each other’s homes and it’s just like being at home. Your parents all know each other. They speak alike, they act alike, they dress alike, they go to the same jobs in the same cars.
"Now try being a kid out of Hackney who gets a bursary to your fancy boarding school because he is good at maths. He doesn’t talk like you. He’s never played any sport in his life that wasn’t a pick-up game in the streets. He can’t go home with you for the hols because, A, he has to help work in his grandparents’ shop and, B, because he doesn’t know what to do when the table setting has more than a knife, a fork and a spoon.
"My mum was poorly — never strong. I think the damp got to her. She used to work in that shop with her parents. My dad, now, he was a go getter. He worked on the railway. Worked his way up. Became an electrician. Good job. Made some money. We had plans to move out of Hackney, maybe get a council house in a nicer area. Then one day he’s told to rewire some panels in a signal box. He has to disconnect some wires from some relays and hook two new relays in with different wires. Does everything exactly according to the work order he’s given. Two days later someone else does some work and moves the old cables a little bit. One of the old wires makes contact with the new relays. Doesn’t blow a fuse or anything, nothing seems to be amiss. No indication to anyone that something’s wrong. The only thing is there’s one signal on the main line that can now never change to red." He stopped talking and looked out across the bay as though contemplating how something so important could leave no sign.
"But nothing is detected because all the trains run on schedule and when they get to that signal it should be at green and so it is.
"Two weeks later one train is running late. It goes past that signal but gets stopped at the next one. This signal should switch to red but you and I know it can’t show that. The next train goes through it at full speed and crashes into the first. Sixty people get killed."
He picked up the full bottle, unscrewed the cap, and took a swig. "Guess who gets the blame? My dad. Apparently there was some rule book or something that the managers had which said he should have cut the old wires back when he disconnected them so they couldn’t touch anything. Only thing is, he was never given that book. Not him, not any of his mates. Nobody at his level had ever been given or even shown that book. The mates come, one after another, and swear to that in court. But sixty people are dead. Someone has to take the blame. But the CPS barrister and the managers are of the same set, so it won’t be the railway brass that is at fault: must be the electrician. The Crown Prosecution Service’s barrister is really good at rhetoric and argues so very convincingly that any sane person doing electrical work for which they had been trained would assume the cutting back as a normal practice.
"My dad got six years. It was a slow news day and the verdict was in all the papers."
"And you got the nickname ‘Sparky’?"
His head jerked toward me and his eyes blazed. "Fuck, they never forget, do they? Never ever.
"You know who gave me that nickname?" I shook my head. "Priam. Priam did. Boy George told you Priam tried to help me fit in? Not from my point of view. Maybe it was his inexperience, maybe his tactics would have worked if I’d been an upper-class kid from an upper-class prep school. But for me it was hell. I hated rugby. I hated cricket even more."
"Well there you are," I said, trying to lighten the tone. "We agree on at least one facet of school life. Cricket, along with baseball, is the most boring thing in the world. I’ve had more excitement pulling lintballs off a sweatshirt."
Priam didn’t laugh. "I knew I was gay. I knew it before I got to St. Helier. My parents didn’t know — or if they did maybe they thought St. Helier and rugby would fix it. But I never acted on it, never let it show. But somehow Priam found out. Or maybe he just knew. ‘Come on woofter, run faster;’ or at lights out, ‘Good night, boys. Don’t bite the pillow too hard, Pritchett.’
"I stuck it out. Mainly for my mum. She so wanted me to have that education. My escape from the East End. I thought of running away, but where would I go, what could I do to earn money? Me being at school meant one less mouth to feed at home. With my dad in jail mum had to do two jobs: the shop and cleaning offices at night. It was too much for her. The year I left St. Helier she died. I think her body could just not take any more.
"I got into Bristol University. That was better. If you wore worn-out jeans and T-shirts you were just one of the crowd. I went into economics. I was starting to make a go of things. Then a few years later there was some financial conference in Las Vegas. When I got there who do I run into but Priam.
"Now I had gone to Bristol, but naturally Priam had been to Harvard in The States. He had built his network and was forging ahead. Really friendly to me, he was, too: as though we were old chums. After dinner the first night he takes me to bed." He tipped the bottle to his lips and then passed it to me. "Up until then revenge had seemed like a daydream to pass away some idle time. In Vegas it became a crusade."
"Why? For three years he had been calling me poofter and shirt-lifter and fairy, and all the time he was one, too. He must have known exactly how I felt, how alone I was, how scared. And he went right ahead rubbing my nose in it. If he’d been a straight guy I might have thought he was just an unfeeling jerk. But all along he knew what I was going through."
"What happened? What’d you do?"
"Priam was having a bit of a holiday in the US before taking up a job in Canada. He’d been interviewed by the company in England and had a telephone interview with the Canadians, but no-one in Canada had actually met him. He had wanted to go hiking in the desert outside Vegas so we went and rented two 4-wheel drive Jeeps so we could leave one at the start of the trail and one at the end. We dropped his at the trail end and were driving back in mine to the trail head. We stopped to take a pee and I took an iron bar and hit him on the head. I took his passport and wallet and his backpack. Left mine in the Jeep. Drove it to a place where the road ran along a ravine, got to a bend where there was some loose gravel, put him in the driver’s seat, put the Jeep in gear and sent it over the edge.
"Took me a day and a half to hike to the end of the trail. Once or twice I had to hide when other hikers were coming the other way, but no-one saw me. Drove back to Vegas, went into his room, packed all his stuff and set off for Vancouver and a new job. Nobody questioned me: they were expecting a Priam Merton and a Priam Merton showed up. He and I looked different, but driver’s license and passport photos aren’t known for being really good, so a quick change in hairstyle and I passed muster."
"Holy fuck, Priam. I need a drink." He passed the bottle over and I took a healthy mouthful.
"And just to prove to you that rich folk have charmed lives, after I became Priam I was doing pretty much just what I had been doing before as Cade Pritchett. I had less experience than Priam, but when they thought I was a Harvard grad, the world suddenly opened up to me. I doubt I’d be where I am now if I had been going on my own credentials."
"What about the real Priam’s family? Didn’t they want to talk to you? Visit you?"
"They were already dead. His parents, his sister, and some others — an aunt and uncle maybe — were coming back from a family trip to the far East. Their plane crashed on takeoff from Taiwan on their way to LA. They were all killed."
He held out his hand and I gave him the bottle. "And Renzo? Where did he come in?"
"One of the things Priam had never told me. It seems as though Renzo had been working at that same hotel. His first night in Vegas, Priam had paid Renzo to spend the night with him. I guess it made a big impression on the Italian country lad, because he knew right away when he saw me on the boat that I wasn’t Priam."
"He took you to a friend’s house on the Tuesday night when we watched the game," I said. "What happened?"
"Friend’s house? He said it was his house. It wasn’t? And how do you know about that?"
"You mentioned Fascist slogans. They’re not all over the town as you said: There’s only one on Elba. It can’t be seen from the street, but it can from Nico’s bedroom window. You took Renzo to bed."
Priam looked at me. "He said that was what he wanted. It was a trick. He remembered that Priam was a top: I’m a bottom. Apparently one other detail I overlooked. Then he said he thought I should pay him for keeping my secret."
"At first it was five thousand Euros — to do some repairs at his parents’ hotel. I could have swung that. On the Thursday he began to talk about a motorcycle that cost about twelve thou."
"And that sealed his fate."
"Well, it raised the ante. C’mon, Chris, it was never going to stop, was it?
"Amato had told us on the Thursday of the dive into the cave and the silting. I had heard Tullio tell Renzo to rig the rope while we were down there. So I was ready. I just lucked out when we hit a silt-out early. It made things so easy. I was able to double back to the cave and just waited. I knew Renzo would be nearing the end of his air and when he came to the cave entrance to leave I was there. He was confused to see me and swam up to me, but when I tried to grab his air supply he swam back inside the cave. I chased him and finally caught him. It was easy to draw his knife from the sheath and stab him. I released some of the air from his BCD and he dropped slowly back into the cave. I let go of the knife and it floated down after him.
He paused and I said nothing. "Ironically it was thanks to the cable Renzo had rigged I could get back out and I found myself at the entrance just as the others were coming by. Oh, and you were right. Aiden did carry my dive computer for me without knowing it. I retrieved it when we were doing the long deco stop on the trapeze.
"There was such confusion in the silt-out that nobody was really sure who they had seen or when. And Mike made such a good job of recounting everything afterwards, all I had to do was listen and I had my story.
I looked at him. "Here, take another drink," he said. "You’re thinking ‘How could he do that so calmly?’
"There was no other way, Chris. Sooner or later Renzo would say something to someone and I’d be finished. Headed back to an electric chair in Nevada."
"Renzo knew from the start," I said. "You had made the dead guy appear as Cade Pritchett, but you had put Priam Merton’s shoes in his room. Renzo happened to be packing the stuff up and pointed that out to the cop. But Renzo was a young foreigner and what he said defied the evidence, so the cops didn’t listen to him."
We sat in silence watching the little waves wash against the rocks for a full two minutes.
"And Aiden?" I asked. "You were going to kill Aiden last night, weren’t you?"
"I have nothing personal against Aiden. Just that he’s rich and his family’s rich and they don’t know how other people have to eke out a living. I wasn’t killing Aiden because of Aiden — it was to teach his father a lesson."
"His father?" I shook my head. "What had he to do with all of this?"
"Your Internet searches didn’t tell you that?" he asked looking at me with a faintly sardonic smile. "Aiden’s father was the CPS barrister who pretended to be so knowledgeable about how the average bloke on the street works. To him, to the judge, the managers could not possibly be lying: they must have shown their employees the rules. Managers are part of the club, don’t you see? And even if they had overlooked showing the book, it was, or so the CPS barrister’s logic went, the employee’s duty to go looking for documents. Who the fuck cared or asked how an employee would look for a book that he didn’t even know existed?
"Aiden’s father put my dad in jail. By that, indirectly, Aiden’s father killed my mum. My dad could never get another decent job. Last I heard he was an alcoholic on the dole.
"I wanted Aiden’s father to know what it was like to be completely powerless over the fate of someone he loved." He took a drink. Down on the beach a family came from the camp site carrying chairs and towels onto the sand.
"I had meant Aiden’s death to look as though he had fallen from the bunker. It would have been so easy. But then you had to turn up." He tossed a pebble across the rocks.
"Time to go." He stood up and started pushing stones from the pile into the pockets of his jeans.
"What’re you doing?"
"Come on, Chris. Isn’t this the credo of you boarding school rats: A guy stands up when he’s done something wrong and bends over and takes his six from the prefect?" He pushed some of the bigger rocks into the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt.
"Where else can I go from here?"
He took a drink from the bottle, put it down, and held out his hand. "Good bye, Chris. Don’t go yelling and screaming for help now. We’re pukka men, remember: no names, no pack drill."
I took his hand. "Good bye, Priam. Or Cade."
He walked across the rocks to the bodyboard, pushed it into the shallows, pulled himself onto it and began to paddle. The board floated away from the shore, across the light aquamarine shallower water into the deeper area of the bay. When he was about 200 yards off shore Priam paused, letting the board drift with the breeze. Then, without looking back, he slid off and disappeared.
Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam aeternam. I don’t know why the words flashed into my brain. I’d read them years ago in a book and they had stuck somewhere in my cranium. I’m not Roman Catholic: in my church we say it English. May almighty God have mercy upon you. I doubted Cade was of the Roman faith. But, what the fuck: does a merciful God really care which building you go into? Forgive you all your sins. I sure-as-shit hope so: we all need forgiveness. Lots of it. Often. And lead you to everlasting life. I really hoped Cade would get to meet his mum again. But then I figured Priam, the real Priam, would be hanging around off-stage left waiting after all this time to get a couple of questions answered.
I took the two empty grappa bottles and, crouching low and squinting, lined them up with the red board bobbing on the surface to give the police some idea of where to search for the body. I took Mike’s iPhone out of the pocket of his sweatshirt and turned the voice memo recording off. Looking at the screen I saw it had been just under an hour since Priam had walked away from me to hurl my iPhone into the sea and I had turned the recording on. It had seemed a lot longer.
I sat and watched the little red bodyboard bob around for maybe twenty, thirty minutes in some comedic monument to what was once a human life. Occasionally I took a sip of the grappa, sometimes I just held the bottle to my nose and smelled the vapors. After a while, when the aura of Priam, of Cade, had receded and I finally felt alone, I took a gulp and, with the bottle still in my hand, began the long, slow climb up the stairs.
The policeman was still on the terrazza although someone had brought him coffee and a pastry. I walked over to him. "Do you speak English?" I asked. He shrugged. "Parla inglese?"
"Priam Merton is dead," I said, pointing out into the bay.
"Priam Merton. Morti." I saw his eyes glance down at the grappa bottle in my hand and he began to speak very quickly in Italian.
I shrugged and walked over to our bungalow. Mike was still asleep so I sat at the table on the veranda and took another mouthful of the clear liquid while I contemplated life. The policeman reappeared, phone to his ear, the waiter trailing behind.
"Buongiorno, signore," said the waiter.
"Buongiorno," I answered. I held the bottle out to him. "Una grappa?"
"Non!" He looked at the policeman, then back to me. "Non, grazie!"
The policeman spoke to him with some urgency.
"He want to know if someone is dead."
I nodded. "Yeah. Signor Merton."
A further exchange took place and the policeman spoke into the phone. He said something to the waiter who asked me, "Where he die?"
"Out there." I pointed to the bay. "He drowned."
Translation took place and was relayed through the phone.
I heard a door open and Eudoxus bounded out and gave one of the bushes an enthusiastic watering. "Morning, Jeremy. Care for a drink?"
"Chris? What are you doing?"
"Talking to a waiter who is talking to a policeman who is talking to a cell-phone."
"Wait. Let me get my cane. I’m coming." He went inside and reappeared with his white cane sweeping in front of him. "Keep talking so I know where you are."
"Approach to Jeremy. Make a ten degree right turn and maintain the glideslope. No other traffic in the circuit. Runway is now fifteen feet at your twelve o’clock. Contact tower on one one niner decimal one after landing."
"Have you been drinking, Chris?"
"Oh yes," I said as he felt for the back of a chair, pulled it back and sat down. "I have indeed been drinking, Jeremy. But I still have three or four more shots in this bottle before it’s empty. I’ll share it with you if you like."
Mike appeared at our door wrapping a bed sheet around him. "Chris? What’s going on?"
"Morning, Mike. I’ve just been having a very long talk with Mr.Priam Merton. Or Mr. Cade Pritchett — it’s confusing enough to know who he is when I’m sober."
Mike gently took the bottle from my hand. "Due caffe, per favore," he said to the waiter then, looking at Jeremy, added: "Tre caffe." He pointed at me "Molto grande!"
The policeman was still engrossed in his phone call, so with an understanding nod to Mike, the waiter headed off to the kitchen to get the coffees.
"Where is Priam now, Chris?" asked Mike, pulling up a chair next to mine.
"His body is at the bottom of the bay. His soul? Who can really say?"
"He filled his pockets with rocks, went out on a bodyboard, and rolled off."
"Oh, fuck!" He thought for a moment. "Did you try to stop him?"
"Just thinking out loud, here, Chris, but it could be that the police would have wanted to ask him one or two questions."
I took his iPhone from his sweatshirt and handed it to him. "There’s a big voice memo on there. Don’t erase it. The whole story is there." He clicked through the icons until he came to the recording app and clicked it. There was some white noise of the sea and then "Sorry about that, but I need just a little more time and a little more booze. You could have made an attempt to run " Mike tapped the off button.
I leaned back in the chair. "So who is going to tell Aiden?" I asked. "You or me? ’Cause I think in a few minutes we’re going to have cop city here."
"How sure are you that Priam is dead?"
"99.9 percent. He went into the sea, far, far out and I never saw him come up again."
"Let me get some pants on. I feel like a Roman senator. Nice sweatshirt by the way."
I giggled. "I couldn’t find mine. Listen, while you’re in there, you’d better copy the memo from your iPhone to your iPad: ’cause I think the police will probably take this one."
The coffee arrived first and then Mike reappeared dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He came over to the table, took a sip of the hot liquid, and walked across to Aiden’s bungalow. He knocked and eventually Aiden appeared at the door. Mike spoke to him and then pointed towards me.
I stood up as Aiden and Mike walked towards the table. "I am really terribly sorry, Aiden," I said.
He looked drawn and worn out. "Thanks, Chris. What happened?"
Over two cups of coffee I gave the three guys the Reader’s Digest version. I told them about the boarding school and about the real Priam. I then took them through Renzo’s death." In the distance I could hear sirens.
"And last night?" asked Aiden. "At the bunker? What was that all about?"
"It was supposed to look as though you’d slipped and fallen over the edge. It was nothing personal, Aiden. Priam was just trying to hit back at your father."
"My father? My father liked Priam. Priam liked my father."
"Nope. Not really. Some years ago your father sent Priam’s father to jail for causing a big railway accident. Priam carried the grudge a long time."
"Oh, shit!" The Angel said.
I heard several cars pull up outside the hotel and within minutes several police officers came toward us. I heard the Ducati pull in and Nico came running.
"Chris?" he asked, but one of the policemen held him back. A vigorous exchange of excited Italian followed and eventually one of the older officers said something and Nico was allowed to come up to the table. He put his arms around me and gave me a hug. "Chris? Are you OK?"
"I’m fine, Nico. Just rather drunk right now."
Nico spoke to the older policeman. "Chris, this is my father. He thinks my English is better than his so I will translate. Is that OK?"
"Fine by me. I’ll try to talk slowly and stay away from slang."
Nico smiled. Chairs were shuffled around and, with the policemen facing me, and flanked by Nico and Mike, I started.
I had talked with Priam for an hour. It took two and a half hours for me to relate everything to the authorities. They seemed puzzled that I had not called them when I first saw Priam, or at least shouted out to the policeman on the terrazza. I told them that I doubted that he could have heard anything what with me being below the cliff and him sitting on the terrazza. I didn’t say that if he couldn’t see someone steeling booze from the bar fifteen feet away I doubted he could have helped me much. The officers wanted to test the shouting idea out so we all trooped down and I shouted and the policemen shouted and the cop on the terrazza heard nothing. I showed them the grappa bottles pointing the direction at which Priam had gone into the water and we stood around until a Zodiac with a couple of divers showed up. It took them half an hour of policemen squinting over the bottles and waving arms to find Priam and we watched as they hoisted the body over the gunwales onto the police launch. I heard Aiden, who had remained stoic throughout the entire morning, let out a sob. I put my arms around him and held him close as we watched the boat turn and head to Marina di Campo.
My guess had been correct, the cops did take Mike’s iPhone, dutifully promising to make a copy of only the memo and have the phone back to him by the evening.
"Chris?" Nico asked, unzipping his leather jacket. "I was in a very big rush to come this morning and I did not put on a shirt. Can I have my T-shirt back, please? It is becoming too warm."
"Sure." I went into our room and grabbed a black T-shirt adorned with the Kawasaki logo and the word Ninja in Kawi green scrawled diagonally across the front. Walking back to the table I tossed it to him. "Now you look like a man!"
"Ha ha! Mister funny man!" He laughed and pulled the T-shirt slowly over his head.
Considering the trouble we had caused them, the hotel staff went to a lot of effort to make us comfortable. They set up a luncheon of salamis and hams, salads and sauces, freshly baked breads and rolls. The four of us and Nico picked through this as we sat on the terrazza and listened to the copy of the conversation Mike had made to his iPad, pausing it now and then for me to answer a question, to discuss some or other point, or merely to regain our composure. Hearing Priam’s voice talk in cold detachment about Aiden was disturbing and we kept our eyes glued to the food on our plates, not daring to see the expression on his face.
At about 2pm the combination of the morning’s excitement, a lot of grappa, and cups of strong coffee of which I had long before lost count had brought me close to exhaustion and Mike and I headed to our bungalow to catch up on sleep. Aiden went up to Nico and explained that he really needed to spend the evening by himself and would not be going over for dinner.
The evening taxi ride over had been a rather somber drive, but as we climbed the stairs from the entrance, the aromas of Nico’s cooking began to work their magic on us. We sat out on the balcony drinking Cinzano or Campari and soda, chatting in the warm evening air as the sun went down behind us turning the colors into rich reds and oranges and the rather grubby harbor into azure blue. Conversation never lagged. Nico brought the dinner to his dining room table in the strange two-handled clay pot he had cooked it in. "It’s a pignata," he explained. "My father’s mother was originally from southern Italy where the sheep pastore cook like this. The meat, the potatoes, everything goes in, then the top is closed with a pasta like a bread?"
"A dough?" I suggested.
"Yes, a dough. Then it is put in the ashes of a fire for half a day. I have no fire, so I use the stove."
The lamb stew was really good and, although on the drive over we had worried that the lunch had killed any appetite we might have, we ate heartily and washed it down with Aglianico del Volture.
In contrast, breakfast on the Saturday was somewhat depressing. For three weeks the four of us had formed a tight bond, and it was hard to say good bye. Aiden was staying a few more days to complete the necessary police and legal formalities over Priam’s death. Eudoxus, miffed that the airline expected him to back in to the leg space under the seat in front and figuring that, since there were neither oxygen masks nor life jackets for dogs, in a case of emergency he would be shit outta luck, had prevailed on Jeremy to go overland and they were leaving on the Sunday, taking a ferry across to the mainland and traveling by train — where a dog could at least walk up and down the corridor — back to Paris and London.
Mike and I were the first to leave.
Promptly at 9am Nico arrived at the door in a borrowed FIAT and helped us load our gear. As I gave Aiden a hug, he smiled at me and, putting his face close to mine, said, "I think we should have gone for the wiggle room." And so, with a final look at the hotel, Mike and I were driven down to the main road.
The flight from Milan was smooth — weatherwise at least.
We spent much of the first part of the flight discussing the events of the last couple of days.
"D’you remember me asking you if you ever wished you’d gone to the UK?" Mike asked.
"Yeah. I said no."
"Right now it would be so neat to be a Brit lawyer: I’d love to argue either side of this Priam/Cade case. I mean the implications for the insurance payouts, the intellectual property rights, inheritance. Unraveling the whole ball of yarn."
"And you think I’m a nerd?" I laughed.
We had finished lunch when I screwed up the courage to talk about my afternoon at Nico’s.
"I need to tell you something."
"Yeah, I reckon you do."
"What do you mean?"
"It’s about you and Nico, isn’t it?"
"How do you know?"
"You came home on Monday smelling of a different soap. All over. I knew you’d been to his place that afternoon. Last night, at his place, I smelled the same soap again. And you’ve been behaving differently ever since Monday: I’ll say something, or somebody else will, and you’ll suddenly withdraw back into your shell."
I thought back to how it had started as I began to explain it to Mike.
As though it was just happening I recalled Nico’s arms around my chest, the stubble of his face brushing against my neck, the sensation of him, hard, pushing at my hip. I remembered exactly how he smelled as I turned and put my head on his.
My hand reached out to the tap and with a flick of the wrist I cut the hot water, sending a blast of icy water pounding at our skins.
"Nico, I’m sorry. I cannot do this."
He turned the water off and held me, arms bent, my face a foot from his. "No, Chris. It was me. Do not be sorry. It was a mistake. I made a mistake."
I looked into his eyes. "It’s not a mistake, Nico. I want this just as much as you do. The first day you walked into the restaurant I wanted you, on the table, right then. But Mike and I have an agreement. Mike and I belong to each other, we want to belong together, we want to always be together."
Nico nodded, dumbly. "I should have known. It was seeing you here, without any clothes."
"I know, Nico. It is difficult for me, too, sometimes." I took the towel and began to dry myself. "Get showered and come out and we’ll talk."
"And that was all it was?" Mike asked. "You felt guilty about that? Chris: that was nothing. You could’ve told me and I’d have been cool. Honest."
"No. It was what happened afterwards."
Nico had remained in the shower for a full fifteen minutes, and when he came out I had been sitting in the sun on his balcony with the towel around my waist.
"Chris, I am very sorry. I should "
I stood up and held him in my arms. "No, Nico. Don’t say that. Do not even feel it. Don’t think it. It’s not true. Even that one minute in the shower will always be important to me. To know that we are friends."
We stood on the balcony like that holding onto each other. Eventually he broke away.
"You are a very kind man, Chris."
"So are you. Should we have a glass of wine together to promise we shall always be friends?"
He swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes. I shall get some."
When he came back, he had a bottle in his hand and two glasses on a tray. He poured and passed a glass to me.
"To our friendship," I said. "Now. Always."
He raised his glass. "Friendship."
We sat in silence, sipping the wine, looking out over the red-tiled roofs. "Why are you and Mike not married?"
"The state we live in doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.
"Besides, Mike thinks that he and I live just the same as if we were married. We don’t need a piece of paper to say we are one person." Nico said nothing as I took a sip of wine.
"Mike thinks that we would be letting the heteros define our lives for us: because they have marriage we should have it. He says we should show them we can live just as good a life without their little rules. We mustn’t be slaves to their way of seeing the world."
"Questa e’ una grande stronzata!" Nico erupted. "By always NOT doing what they do you are as much their servants as ALWAYS doing what they do.
"Mike is so wrong on this thing. You must say to the heterosexuals ‘You cannot own anything. You are never the boss of me. I talk like I want to talk; I dress like I want to dress; I fuck who I want to fuck; and, also, I marry who I want to marry.’
"When I find a guy who I really love I say ‘fuck you’ to the government, I say ‘fuck you’ to the Church, I go to Spain, I go to Belgium, and I get married, and I come back to Elba and say ‘This is my husband. If you do not like it, fuck you.’
"You and Mike, you do not fool around. So you pay the whole price of being married and then you do not want the reward?"
I thought over what he had said and eventually nodded my head.
"So you must tell Mike this, or must I?"
"I think it might go over better if I tell him," I said.
"Sounds like you touched a nerve there, Chris," Mike said. "Pretty deep conversation for two guys to have." He paused and I said nothing. The display in front of me showed we were some 500 miles from Newfoundland at 34,000 feet. "You know he loves you, don’t you?"
I shook my head. "I think he thinks he loves me."
"And do you think you love him?"
I looked at him. "Not like that. Like a brother, perhaps. Much the same as I love Rob."
Mike nodded and looked around the cabin. "So why are you telling me this?" he asked, looking back toward me.
I glanced around. The shades were down and the passengers were either watching movies or sleeping. I took a big gulp, unclipped my seat belt, stowed my foot rest and slid down onto one knee.
"Mike, will you marry me?"
He put his hand out, reached behind my head and pulled my face to his. He held me close for several seconds and then said, "Yes, Chris. I will."
And we kissed.
"Now get back in your seat and put your belt on. You’re always on at me about clear air turbulence."
I was grinning like an idiot as I slid back onto the grey leather seat. I kissed him again. "I am just so happy."
"I am, too," he said, looking into my eyes. "And since you’ve obviously put some thought into it, have you decided where we could do this? If we wait to have it on Kirkhall it may be a very long engagement."
"Canada. Next summer."
"That’d work." He smiled at me. "Why Canada? Not that I’m against it, but why not New York?"
"It’d take you a lot of hard work to be able to practice law in Canada."
He pulled his head back, brows raised inquisitively. "What’s that got to do with anything?"
"The Canucks will let us come up there and get married. But their law says we have to live there a whole year before we can ask for a divorce and I want that to be difficult."
"Good lawyer thought there," and he kissed me again.
"On behalf of Captain Stanhope and the crew, Delta would like you gentlemen to have this," said the flight attendant who appeared silently next to our seats, presenting us with a tray on which a bottle of champagne stood next to two glasses.
I grinned at her as she undid the wire cage and deftly prized the cork out. "Thank you. I guess we were a little obvious."
St. Johns passed by to our left, six and a half miles below. "Have a look at this," I said to Mike some forty minutes later.
"Looks rather desolate."
"Yeah. Cape Breton Island. Great place for a honeymoon, don’t you think? Close by to where you said yes! We can hike and canoe and be naked a lot."
"Had you planned this whole thing before we even left Milan?"
"No. I was too scared you were going to push back harder."
"Well, at least up there there won’t be any murders for you to get tied up in," said my fiancé.
"Fiancé," I said. "Sounds better than partner."
"And more respectable than lover!" Mike observed.
"May I check your backpack, please, sir," the customs officer said three hours later at Hartsfield.
Without comment I placed my pack on the counter and undid the TSA lock that secured the zipper closed. He pulled the front part open to expose my clothes inside. On top lay a T-shirt which had not been there when I packed and locked my bag in Elba and I recalled Nico taking what seemed a long time to arrange the luggage in the trunk of the FIAT while I said good bye to Aiden. The customs officer looked down. He could plainly see the arrow on the shirt and the black letters across the front: ‘69 is always a winning number on this one-armed bandit’.
His eyebrows raised only very slightly and he closed the bag. "You’re free to go, sir."
Comments and fair criticism can be emailed to Horatio Nimier Horatio_Nimier@Hotmail.com
Flames and stupid or vapid emails get deleted.
In the course of doing research for the background of this story, I asked for a lot of help. In every case this was given
unstintingly. Amongst those who helped, in no particualar order, were: D.P. Lyle, MD; J.J. Massa
and Cosmo; Barbara Karmazin; And especially my friend, Drew Hunt, who patiently answered a plethora of my questions.
Thank you all.
© Copyright 2013 Horatio Nimier