Bewildering Stories

Table of Contents
Chapter 11 appeared
in issue 130.

Observation One:
Singing of promises ...

by Michael E. Lloyd

Chapter 12: Venice, Italy

part 1

Toni arrived at Venice Santa Lucia station just before eleven-thirty, still wearing his sunglasses and his baseball cap. It was too warm for the cagoule, and he was looking forward to taking the cap off again and washing his sticky hair. But that would have to wait. At least the weather was still good, and he wouldn’t look too much out of place.

Trusting that Carla was still with him in spirit, he bought a street plan of Venice from the station bookstall, and turned left out of the main entrance. He was immediately stunned by the magnificent facade of the church of Santa Maria di Nazareth degli Scalzi. The temptation to go inside was great, but he decided that to do so in sunglasses would be pushing the bounds of credibility too far. Anyway, he would probably end up walking straight into a stone column ...

So he checked his new map, and chose not to take the wide bridge crossing the Grand Canal and leading off towards the popular tourist spots. Instead, he continued north-east past the shops of the Lista di Spagna.

‘Strange,’ he mused. ‘I’m still in Italy, but again I find myself in a Spanish place.’

Crossing the next canal via the Ponte delle Guglie, he spotted just ahead, on the Fondamenta di Cannareggio, an ideal place for a beer, a lunch and a rendezvous ... the Trattoria Bar Pontini.

The routine was familiar now. Find a quite corner table on the pavement. Pull back another chair. ‘Yes, a beer, please, and a lasagna. Grazie.’ And before even the beer had arrived, there was Carla strolling towards him and sitting down and smiling.

For the very first time since all of this had begun, he felt they might at last have a little breathing space.

* * *

They chatted casually as he ate his lunch. He looked at the street plan and identified some sights they could later visit together. Carla supported all his suggestions — with a reminder about the need to avoid the crowds. Nobody disturbed them. No phone calls. No crises. They stopped talking and gazed out at the city spreading ahead of them. Toni was thinking about another beer and a short nap, and was again secretly admiring the profile which had entranced him back in Bilbao ...

His tranquillity was destroyed by the call of a different siren. A water ambulance, on its urgent way to the city hospital, was bearing down towards them from the right, doing at least 20 knots. It careered under the Guglie Bridge and then made a very fast left turn into the Grand Canal, throwing up a large side wave which heavily rocked the passing gondolas, and everything else moored nearby, for the next three minutes.

* * *

Their reveries had been broken, and they both realised that it was once again time for some practicalities. Toni would need somewhere to sleep. His cash reserves were reducing fast, so he would have to be careful (‘until when?’ he wondered). But Giuseppe had told him to find somewhere private, and he also now clearly recognised (though he did not know how) that he must not try to use his plastic cards again. So hotels were out of the question.

Carla came up with the idea. ‘Toni — why not try and find some students like yourself, and ask if you can sleep in one of their rooms for a little while?’

Toni did the rest. He couldn’t just march up to people in the street. Well, maybe some could, but he couldn’t. No, he would need to meet the students on common ground. With common interests. Music! Yes, there was a very famous Conservatorio here, the Benedetto Marcello ... and there were bound to be other schools. He must find a music bar, or something similar. The sort of place where students could afford to go in the evenings.

He looked at his map again. Surely not in the centre of Venice, near St. Mark’s Square ... that would be full of expensive restaurants and classical recitals; very inviting, but not what was required today. No, the bars and clubs he needed would have to be more out-of-the-way, perhaps hidden in the rabbit warren of side-streets and small canals lying north of the Rialto Bridge. In fact, between here and the centre! So their plan was made; they might see some real sights later that day, but they would make their way towards them through the quieter backwaters of the city ...

They strolled back to the Ponte degli Scalzi, and then for over an hour they wandered southwards, several times getting slightly lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleys, whose fading names were invariably inscribed in old Italian languages and often corresponded poorly to the map’s modern abbreviations.

As usual, their progress was slowed by the need to keep Carla away from physical contact with others. Of course, it would have been safest for her simply to un-make ... but neither of them wanted this today, and the idea had not even been raised. Their bravado nearly caused a stir. In one of the narrowest passages, a single hurrying tourist brushed carelessly against her ... or, rather, straight through her elbow. His surprise was great; but, as he turned and watched the pair of them strolling blithely on, apparently taking no further account of him, he blinked, gulped, decided he must have imagined it, and walked away without a word.

Carla made a mental note that this lucky result would not always be achieved, and probably never, if more than one person were involved. Toni happily knew nothing of the incident at all.

And then suddenly, in the tranquil and much wider Calle Raspi dei Sansoni, just south of a tiny bridge of the same name, they found just what they were looking for:

The 900 Jazz Club — Live jazz concerts every Wednesday evening

‘And it’s a Wednesday today, Carla!’ The place was shut up tight in the heat of the spring afternoon, but he wrote down the details posted outside. ‘I’ll be back by nine!’

Toni’s deep pleasure at the success of his first real initiative was very apparent to both Carla and Quo. But they did not allow him to rest long on his laurels ...

‘Toni, you now need to help us for a little while.’ And Carla played back, loud and clear and with a perfect Italian accent, the name and home address of the government researcher which Terleone had read out the previous evening. ‘He’s going to collect some of that geographical data Quo told you we are so keen to acquire.’

Toni had written the details down carefully on his trusty sheet of paper. The street plan was consulted again. ‘It’s not too far,’ he said brightly. ‘Over the Rialto, then down towards the Arsenale. Come on ...’

‘Toni, I think I should un-make for this particular walk. You said we would start meeting lots of tourists as we reach the Rialto ...’

‘Of course — and that will let me move along much faster. Good thinking, Carla!’

‘It is only a matter of experience, carísimo.

Toni’s face went bright red in an instant.

* * *

He gave Carla the customary five minutes to wander away, disappear, and get him back into view. Then he hurried off south and soon reached the Grand Canal once more, as it straightened out after its majestic sweep round to the right. He crossed the busy bridge without taking much notice of its architectural delights (there will be time for that later, he promised himself), then, to avoid the worst of the anticipated crowds, he bore left and pursued a zigzag route to the east.

He found the street with no difficulty, and soon located the correct building. There was a stack of bell-pushes by the front door, with names scribbled against most of them. He took a quick glance. “11 — S. Pirone”. Yes! A perfect match with the number and the name on his piece of paper.

He looked back the way he had come, and, as casually as he could manage, waved vaguely into the distance. Then, hands in pockets, he meandered on down the street, turned at the end, and meandered back. Good ... Carla was coming towards him, and at the perfect rate to ensure a meeting right in front of the apartment building.

He was ahead of the game now, or so he thought. ‘This is it, Carla. Shall I take the co-ordinates?’

‘No, Toni. It is no longer necessary. Since we took the unplanned GPS fix at Terleone’s home, which matched quite well with the Mater’s estimate of our position, I can now revisit anywhere I have been on Earth, with more than enough accuracy. That’s how I returned to your hotel room in Florence! So I can come back here whenever I wish, and I can be outside the jazz club by nine o’clock to watch you arrive, and then follow you when you leave ...’

‘Oh.’ Toni was deflated again, and for two reasons. ‘You mean you’re going to vanish again, right now?’

‘Not yet, Toni,’ Carla chuckled. ‘You’re going to take me for a nice stroll along the waterfront of St. Mark’s Canal, and then we’re going to find a quiet little park where we really can sit and relax for the rest of the afternoon. I promise I shan’t go off again till it’s time for your evening meal!’

Toni was all smiles once more. So they took the walk that Carla had suggested, and they found the pretty Giardini ex Reali between the waterfront and St Mark’s Square, and they sat down on a bench together ... and Toni dozed straight off to sleep.

When the sun got lower, and the office workers could be seen walking down to the waterbuses, Carla woke him up again. ‘Toni, I must now try and find our Signor Pirone. Have a good dinner. Remember, I shall watch you arrive at the club, and I shall see you again tomorrow. Good luck with your house-hunting!’ Then she all but pecked him on the cheek, and walked away.

Toni felt suddenly very alone.

He didn’t fancy another hot meal. So he toured the small streets and beautiful buildings surrounding St. Mark’s Square for over an hour, then stopped at a café and chose a chicken baguette and a large cappuccino. Then he found a bench in a quiet canal complex to the west of the square, set his wristwatch alarm for eight-fifteen, and had another little nap.

* * *

As Salvatore Pirone, matching well the description supplied by Don Giuseppe, walked the last few yards to his apartment block, he could not fail to notice the petite blonde in a bright orange blouse and knee-length skirt who was approaching from the other direction. As he reached the front door, she slowed down, stopped and smiled broadly. He paused, appeared to think very hard for a moment, then opened the door and stood back to let her enter.

When they were both inside his apartment, he made straight for the radio and tuned in his favourite jazz music station. Then he turned back to face his new acquaintance. She smiled again, and took his head in her hands ...

The missioning was short and sweet. Two minutes later, Pirone had switched on his personal computer, and shortly afterwards his browser was connected to the Internet.

He then searched expertly for web sites containing comprehensive databases of the precise co-ordinates and elevations of places throughout the world. He searched the public Internet, and he searched the secure networks to which he had privileged access. And he soon found the ideal site.

Then, with three or four customising clicks, he was ready to request a continuously scrolling display of hundreds of thousands of cities, towns, and villages, airports, mountain peaks and modest hills (... enough to get them started, the Chief Surveyor had thought. More sophisticated coast and lake outlines another day ...). And once the large, crisp display was clearly visible to the systems on the Mater, he was given the go-ahead, he clicked again, and the scrolling began.

Carla and the onboard computers could have handled a much higher data rate. But the modest modem speed was fast enough to allow them to reach the end of the huge table of data within ninety earth minutes.

So she would not be late for her next appointment.

‘Thank you, Salvatore. You can disconnect now.’

While the young researcher’s brain responded smoothly to this pre-arranged signal, which would bring him properly back home and remove from his memory all knowledge of the previous two hours, Carla moved behind him to avoid undue shock and swiftly un-made. Then, with no need for make-up, she went straight out to a club.

* * *

Toni’s alarm brought him back to life. Now he could make his way back to the 900 Club, not needing to rush, but taking care to arrive at exactly five to nine and hover around for ten minutes. He wanted to get the feel of the place from outside, and also to be sure that Carla would see him, so that neither of them would fear that she had missed him.

* * *

He could hear the music had already started, and it sounded good. When he finally dived in, it was very dark. Then he remembered he was still wearing the sunglasses. ‘Damn it,’ he said to himself, ‘I don’t need them in here.’ And off they came, along with the cap. He stuffed them both into his rucksack.

Now he could see there were already lots of people in there, sitting at tables or milling around up near the five-piece band. He made for the bar.

He had guessed that English would be the lingua franca in this place. Overheard snippets of conversation confirmed it. That was fine — he could handle jazz club English ...

‘A large beer, please!’

‘No problem!’

Good ... the young American barman seemed friendly, and not too busy right now.

When the beer arrived, Toni leaned across and aimed his voice at the barman’s right ear. ‘Do you happen to know if any students from the Conservatorio are in here tonight?’ The man looked at him a little incredulously, then remembered that this was a new kid in town.

‘Take your pick! Those three over there, and the girls up near the band. And that table of six near the stairs. Our best customers, those students. Sometimes do cheap shows for us too. Hey, what do they call you?’ ... ‘Toni? Good to have you here, Toni!’

He stretched out his arm and shook Toni’s hand as if he were a visiting celebrity. ‘What do you play?’

‘Oh, just a little piano. But I don’t have it with me tonight.’

‘Ha ha ha! Never heard that one before!’

‘Really? Well, anyway, thanks for your help.’

‘Sure! Have a good time!’

* * *

So Toni found his students, and they welcomed him to their table, and they listened to some great music together. And when there was a suitable break, he told them he was very short of cash for a couple of days, and he needed somewhere to sleep, and there really was money on the way, and he wouldn’t stay long, and he would pay them something as soon as he could ...

And the three of them, who all lived together in the same lodgings, laughed at his daring, and decided to believe him, and said ‘Of course you can sleep on the couch!’ and ‘Who’s buying the next round, then ...?’ And naturally, it was Toni.

The friendly barman placed the four fresh beers on the counter in front of Toni, then tapped the shoulder of the man sitting on the bar stool next to him.

‘Hey, Salvatore, meet Toni ... he’s a great pianist!’

The solitary young researcher turned round, nodded, and shook Toni’s hand politely, then turned away again and went back to wondering why he had fallen asleep for such a long time earlier that evening.

* * *

At about half-past twelve the four of them piled out of the club, all having had a little too much to drink, but with none of the lads regretting the offer of hospitality to their interesting new friend (they had persuaded him to give them a twenty-second burst on the band’s keyboards during the interval ... and he had passed the test).

Toni had remembered to pick up his rucksack, and they hadn’t forgotten their short cuts, and they all were soon back at their rooms, not far at all from where Toni had eaten his lunch, twelve long hours earlier. But he had no idea of this. He just knew he was at last about to get some more sleep. And this time, with no alarm set on his watch! His new house-mates left him on the couch with a spare blanket, and stumbled noisily upstairs.

Carla followed them all home, unseen. She noted the location, summoned another guardian angel, and went off-duty herself.

* * *

Toni awoke with bright sunshine streaming in through the window and onto his face. He looked at his watch: nine-fifteen. Well, he’d deserved a lie-in after the last three days. But he knew there were things to do, and he dragged himself up and called out ‘Anyone about?’ Nothing. He scrabbled around in the rucksack for his toilet bag, located the bathroom and had a long shower. His hair was clean again at last!

He looked in the mirror for the first time, growled at the sight of his untidy stubble, then spotted a key taped in the centre of the glass. Good guys! Now he was free! He could go out, and phone Giuseppe, and get things moving. He didn’t know or care what things, as long as they involved not having to wear a stupid cap and sunglasses every minute of the day ...

He pulled out a change of clothes (he must organise some washing soon, he remembered, but straight away managed to forget again) and dressed quickly, finally donning the detested sunglasses and cap. He spotted a telephone handset on a small table: that could be useful. He wrote down its number, but decided not to use it just yet. Then he opened the front door onto another bright morning. He was enjoying this excellent weather, so early in the spring. The key fitted; the lock turned. He closed the door behind him, then unlocked it again to double-check that all was well. Perfect. Peace of mind.

He took out a piece of paper and wrote down the number inscribed on the front door, then walked to the end of the street, and wrote its name down too. Then he located it on his map, and pointed himself back towards the railway station.

Ten o’clock: a reasonable hour to phone his great-uncle. After that, he could think about some breakfast. And then meet up with Carla? Wait a minute: they hadn’t arranged anything! What if she had lost him?

‘Think, man, think ... yes, she said she would follow me back from the club ... so she knows where I’m living. So she’s probably following me now ... but if not, she can always look for me back there ...’

He had convinced himself that everything was under control. He walked into the station, found a vacant payphone, and dialled Terleone’s secret number ...

To be continued ...

Copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Lloyd
Lyrics credits and copyrights

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