When the sun came up it added another layer of concrete to the heat. The jackdaws went quiet, and the town dried to the essential swallow-pocked walls, the white towers and the ancient torture-cells festooned with postcards and audio-tour earphones while the a.m. shadows were still deep. I dressed in that silk double-breasted, and donned the oxfords with the butter-leather soles, the ones that tended to slip on the cobblestones, but I had so much to prove: that the facelift was worth all the long hours staring at the stained ceiling, and that the nagging cough brought on by state-monopoly tobacco would not hack me to pieces. In those days I ferried secrets, bank accounts and blackmail, dusky gossip and randy anecdote uploaded to gigabytes, taking the water-plane from Malta to that pretty beach hotel with its view of package tour drunks. For a year or two I adopted the pose of one of those glamorous but louche hangers-on, studying my neckwear in the mirror, the abundant out-of-fashion pastels that hid the scars, all the while believing that the younger neo-jet-set women escaping business school or their first hubbies would fall for a bruised cadger of drinks and love-bites. Crash-landing became my specialty, wheels-up rescues of problems I helped to create, seducer of the all-too-easy, liar by phone to those age-addled dads, crooner by Skype to the bill-paying moms. I memorized rococo painters, and slipped in and out of quayside bars where the others like me flicked glances and smiles, exchanger of tiny packets of vowels and dedication for another night of sweat-bath clarity. They all knew me by nick-names, Zip, Smoke, I who kept anything but quiet when the anti-terrorist ministry- of-culture dicks ordered us to turn in our passports. It was a trap, I realized, and touch-to-touch told them all I knew. The casualties after the wharf-side riot—I identified the body-bagged rebels. And my talents flowered. I even translated the ancient erotica with such accuracy pilfered copies were hand-to-hand. I stole down the snaking Quattrocento ghetto stairway and slipped a further note in disguised cursive to another mistress of all she’ll never understand, eager to breathe her tales she’ll believe are rankest invention, but despite my fake accent all too true.
Life looked so easy from that port of stray scholars, cages of brilliant conures shrilling poetry. Every tide was glassy in the hot, overcast summers, and vessels edged-in from the expanse beyond the breakwater laden with brave tales and spools of linen. The authorities gradually went through the mere rituals of harm. Yellow quarantine flags fluttered and the customs men wore masks to filter the complaints, setting trays of disinfectant where the shaky passengers disembarked, but the cops waved to the stevedores and ate lunch in the shade of the wine warehouses alongside the hotel touts and the evangelical scarecrows. Among these towering hulls and tossing feluccas I picked up what I could, exchanging packets of smuggled wonders in the back streets. It was all back-street then, the bedevilment yet years away, and nothing wicked happened among the vats of crabs boiling to red claws and cod soaking soft. But the annihilation, too, was yet to come. The agency sent its gofers down to find me, and I faked them out, hiding from betting shop to tavern, although they always caught up with me where the jetty crooked to meet the land stretching down from the sleeping peak. That was where the shrines were improvised, the thorn trees festooned with supplications, the piles of small stones, each inscribed with a beloved name. It was all sport in those days, make-believe warnings, coupons for free movies. I even responded to a pollster on the avenue, clipboard in her grasp, that yes, I was satisfied with my happiness. Until that season arrived, all sun, cordage baking to stiff shapes on the pier. A new breed of detective drifted down out of the doorways, using a new variety of manacle, a whisper around each wrist, trivial but deadly. The cops asked, and asked again, but the swallows vanished, no stuttering wings in the sunset. And credit was all at once free, so long as I told them where I lay my head at night, every pinch of ennui-kill, every vial of peaceful noon shoved across the counter for the asking, as long as they took my name and took my name to the tall buildings. And the songs dried up among the freighters, conversation finished, laughter stunned, water from the wells tasting of stale mouths, fetid lies, the silence to come.
The heat again, and the fishing fleet vanishing, sweeping outward beyond the blue razor of sky. The villa was always half-fortress, half-summer hideaway, even in the days when ambassadors eased up the travertine stairways, and liveried nuncios unbuttoned in the nooks. Now it’s all for rent, and the statues are long since all beaten nose-less, clobbered by vandals during the military coup. Now I can lounge against the wall where the bullet holes scarred the golden plaster, patriots and spies put down under the lost years. Each volume in the library is handsomely scored with ancient, unfamiliar languages, and the TV is an antique rabbit-ear disclosing baritones and game shows, reality shows dubbed into the local high-grammar. When I step out of the shade, the sounds of the sheep bells capture me. The trail the shepherd has followed since history stitches up along the hillside behind the villa. In this modern season of sunny tyranny, anti-terrorist cops and long sweaty nights, I enjoy the wine of the vineyards beyond the ruined temple of Athena, and edge my way through email downloaded from the southeast quadrant of the blue. In recent years, I adopted a weary lassitude, an anticipatory melancholy, above caring, but here a new mood steals over me, as the shadows of smash-mouth Caesars creep across the pea-gravel— this is very much like peace, this well-ordered indolence. My neighbors cock furtive smiles at each other, nearly ashamed to be caught up in such peaceful splendor while the sea skims its wreckage, another ship lost with all hands. Somewhere between the meeting months ago with the bank manager with the lapis Waterman and last night’s puddle of birth-slick kittens the tabby bore in my armoire, I was bought off. They’re wise who call it a cut. I fell in love. The senior cop stapled a pink notice to the lintel, just slightly harming the architecture, and now even the taciturn postman on his creaking bike tips his hat. The gardener brings me armloads of figs, baskets of ruddy pears, and the doyenne of hummingbirds across the inlet sends her motor launch with invitations for late-night bubbly, and this and my new pudginess encourage me (I look better with a dab of avoirdupois, says the mirror) to practice the new manner of speaking, eyes half-closed as though in pleasure, lips parted as though in joy, head to one side as though thinking as I feel hourly in fact more lost to any further deceit. And live.
Michael Cadnum is the author of thirty-five books, including the National Book Award finalist The Book of the Lion. Several of Cadnum's books have been released as audio books by Audible, and Open Road has published e-book editions of many of his classic thrillers. He lives in Albany, California.