by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 14 part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 14: True Grit
part 1 of 3
Salvatore Pirone had spent the first evening of his temporary abandonment in Columbia hunched over a series of cold beers in a very uninspiring side-street bar. He had tried on two occasions to recount his life story to his fellow drinkers, but none of them had been able to drum up any great interest.
On the Sunday morning he had waited for Lucia in his room for half an hour, as ordered. Then he had taken a cab to the downtown airfield and spent the entire day watching the efforts of all the student pilots, who were limited, by the unusually solid overcast, to working on the challenge of flying their small Cessnas and Pipers accurately and at low level around the circuit pattern — over and over again. All day, thoughts of Maelene had similarly gone round and round in his cloudy brain, but Lucia’s prohibition order had been very strongly issued, and he had done no more than think and regularly shake his bewildered head.
Maelene herself had passed the Sunday alone in her room with her guitar and her songwriting notebook.
After another failed rendezvous on the Monday morning, Salvatore had sidled into the Forretan offices at around eleven o’clock and identified himself to the receptionist, who had not failed to remember his face and his antics at Friday’s dance at the zoo. He had then stationed himself in the library for the rest of the day, drifting around on the Internet (surfing would have been too constructive a term for it), emerging only for an occasional coffee, and completely skipping lunch for fear of finding himself with Maelene in the intimate little cafeteria. Luckily she had not come looking for him either. And he had spent the entire evening in the easy-going company of his hotel room’s television set and mini-bar, sustained by a half-decent dinner of pizza and fries, courtesy of the sunshine-smiling room service.
Today’s morning routine had been much the same, but he had only stayed at Forretan for a couple of hours, and had then wandered out for a poorly chosen lunch and a long and lonely walk all around the city and its parks. Late in the afternoon he had come back in, only to bump into Maelene in the main corridor.
So he had been unable to avoid a polite little chat. He was feeling increasingly bottled-up, and had hardly said a word, but she was already dropping her guard, easing naturally back into PR mode, and also honestly ready to pursue her continued interest in his views on ecology and his great “cause”.
But she had soon sensed his discomfort with their very public encounter, closed things down with a merry ‘So, have a good one, Sal!’, and glided deliciously back towards her office.
Norman Crofton had gone back into his own office on the Saturday afternoon, after taking time out for confused reflection on the park bench. He had made his peace with the boss, had then gone home to repeat the process with his family, and had devoted the whole of his Sunday to a series of exhausting sporting activities with his sons.
Throughout the Monday he had been hard at work — on and off, in parallel with all his regular jobs — on the special research demanded by the Chief Surveyor, and he had drawn a reasonably satisfactory line under that task at noon today. But his temporary Project Manager’s absolute deadline had arrived and passed without ceremony. He had then put the subject to one side until further notice, and started to catch up on all his other responsibilities.
From time to time he had spotted Salvatore through the library window, but had decided to avoid any risk of confrontation, and had completely succeeded in that aim. And the lack of any further comment or complaint from Maelene, with whom he had had lots of regular dialogue (but none of it personal) over both days, had reinforced his hope that things were essentially back on an even keel.
* * *
Toni’s plane landed at five-thirty. As it taxied in to the terminal, he had an inexplicable throwback to his recent re-briefing from Quo, and he found himself wondering how just many places in America must be named after Christopher Columbus ...
The driver of his cab into town was less talkative than Salvatore’s, and they discovered no shared interests. But Toni was also now very tired, after his extra-long Monday, his short night’s sleep, and all that foot-slogging around Manhattan.
The Mater had taken pains to ensure he would be staying at the same hotel as Salvatore. But Carla was still tracking him very tightly, just in case. He arrived just after half past before six, checked in with ease, and headed up to his room.
The inconspicuous Homeland Security agent who was now holding the Murano baton, and whose own taxi had followed Toni’s from the airport, immediately took care to ensure that the hotel’s Senior Manager would alert him, with urgency, as soon as their new guest showed any intention of departing. Whenever that might turn out to be ...
After an hour of unpacking and showering, Toni was ready to hit the town — but gently. He was only planning a quick meal and maybe a music bar for an hour or so. So he dived into the very first restaurant he found.
Carla linked up with him soon after he emerged.
‘Oh, hello. I though you’d never make it!’
‘Always here, always will be ...’
‘That’s very good to know. Well, I’ve had a nice meal. Care to join me for a drink? There’s a bar on the corner ...’
‘I won’t, Toni. Because I can’t — remember?’
‘Oh, I am sorry!’
‘I’m teasing! Now, how are you feeling?’
‘Good. Probably. I’m far too tired to judge!’
‘Hmm. Probably the wrong time for a briefing, then! I suggest you get some sleep very soon. Maybe just the one beer, eh? Team meeting at eight-thirty, your room. But I’ll see you there a few minutes beforehand. OK?’
‘Good night, Toni.’
Homeland Security would also be able to afford the time for a single discreet drink.
But in a different bar only three blocks away, the Mater’s other retained Illuminator was already on his fifth unhappy beer, and was not planning an especially early night for himself.
* * *
Salvatore did not sleep well in the humid heat, especially after all those beers, but at eight o’clock he was up and dressed and waiting for Lucia as usual. And this time she did put in her promised appearance — in the bathroom, to minimise the shock — and strolled through to meet him.
‘Oh, you made me jump! I’m glad you’re back — I was getting a bit bored.’
‘Well, we have a little something for you to do now. But first of all, how have things been going?’
‘OK, I suppose ...’
‘And have you been pestering Maelene?’
‘Good. Right, this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve recruited another Illuminator to work alongside you ...’
‘Please be quiet and listen! His name is Toni Murano. We’ve worked with him before — in fact you actually met him in Venice last month, but only for a few moments. So we want you to regard him as a vague acquaintance, and treat him as such. And Toni himself will simply be happy to make friends with you. But he will not remember that previous meeting, so you must never refer to it. Is that clear?’
‘Whatever you say ...’
‘Good. Now come over here — the Chief wants a little word with you too.’
He had lost most of his interest in Lucia’s charms, but he came anyway and was instantly embraced.
Good morning, Salvatore.
Lucia is being very diplomatic with you, and that is no surprise, but I need to be rather more frank. You must accept the fact that Toni will be acting as your substitute in our engagement with Norman Crofton, until it is completed to our satisfaction.
‘Why? I’ve been very good while you’ve been away. Norman hasn’t paid me any attention ...’
Precisely. He may have gone off the boil in his annoyance with you, but you are not exactly his best friend. So you will soon be introducing him to Toni in a way which he should not be able to resist — you will find the script for this already fixed in your mind — and we hope that things will then proceed much more smoothly.
Toni will be working closely with another member of our team. She is known as Carla. You will see her from time to time, though you should not expect to have many direct dealings with her. And down there on Earth, Carla is as intangible as Lucia, if you take my meaning — so the same operational ground rules apply.
You will meet both of them in a few minutes, and you will look after Toni for the rest of the day, at least. You and he are a team now, Salvatore. And you will take great pains, and use all the initiative you possess but often conceal, to collaborate well with him in all our activities with Forretan and its staff.
You should extend your hotel booking for another two days. And you will continue to be in your room at eight o’clock every morning, without fail, to receive your daily instructions from Lucia.
And here are those for today. Please go down to Room 306, at half-past eight ...
By the time he was back to regular consciousness, Lucia had disappeared. The Handler had already had to reluctantly accept her temporary substitution by Carla, but up on the Mater she would be monitoring the next encounter carefully, and with no small degree of frustration.
Salvatore, on the other hand, decided he could not be bothered to fret any further about Toni’s “call-up”. Quite apart from finding himself, at present, unarguably well-heeled, he was still very much in love — at least, that was his word for it — and was living in hope that Maelene would sooner or later change her mind about him. Nothing else really mattered right now.
Yes, he would work hard to get Toni started on his tasks for the Chief. Maybe that would then allow him more time to work hard on Maelene ...
* * *
The Handlers had changed places, and the radimote was ready to be Carla once again.
‘Hi, Carla. Nice morning!’
‘Yes, it is. And you’ll be out in it soon.’
‘Seeing Carolina with you?’
‘I can think of nothing finer, carísimo — but no, there’s work to do right now! Quo needs a few words with you, to start with.’
And she smiled irresistibly and moved her hands towards his head ...
Good morning, Toni.
We have not spoken since our aborted briefing on the flight to New York. I am sorry for all the difficulty you experienced upon arrival, but I am pleased that things seem to have worked out well, after all.
‘Thank you Quo. Yes, after all that hassle, I did appreciate my time in the city.’
Good. Now, to business ...
You will be working with Carla, later today, to compete our engagement with a gentleman named Norman Crofton, who works for Forretan Exploration. He has hopefully, while we have been away, gathered together a crucial set of information for us. But as I suggested back in Barcelona, we have all encountered various difficulties in achieving that aim, and we are relying on you to help us resolve the situation rapidly and conclusively.
Mr Crofton is a devotee of a certain variety of American popular song from the past few decades, and the sixties and the seventies in particular. Now, although you are still only twenty years old, we are aware of your familiarity with that subject ...
‘Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. But I am very fond of the work of several great American musicians. One of them has been writing and performing for nearly forty years, as you know, so I do have quite a good feel for the different styles and songs of that whole period ...’
Exactly, Toni. Now, you will soon be meeting our Italian friend, Salvatore Pirone. I told you last Saturday that he had been assisting us here. For the time being, you are to take over his role in our dealings with Norm (the man insists on being called Norm!). Salvatore will introduce you to him, later today, and Norm will be expecting you to engage him in ardent, private conversation on your shared knowledge of his favourite music.
However, Carla will join you both, unannounced and as soon as it is appropriate, for a rather more intensive meeting of minds, and you may then step aside for a while.
‘Sounds like fun.’
I suggest you do not get too excited, Toni. But I hope you will, as they say here, enjoy. Now, please take a moment to sing Carla a few bars of one of the best-known “beach music” songs ...
Up on the Mater, Lucia watched and waited with her tension levels gently rising. The knock at the door finally came, and Quo released Toni back into the real world.
As soon as Salvatore Pirone entered the room, he recalled the face of Antonio Murano, but only vaguely — and that was the way it would stay. And he had certainly never before seen the lovely vision that was Carla.
‘Hi. My name’s Salvatore. But they call me Salvi, and Sal, and all sorts of other things round here! And you’re Toni, right?’
‘Yes. Pleased to meet you, Salvi. And this is Carla.’
Carla smiled very politely and carefully, to avoid any undue effects, and limited herself to a simple ‘Ciao, Salvi!’
‘Sono incantato, Carla!’
Carla allowed her smile to fade quickly away, and Pirone got the message. On the Mater, Lucia relaxed a little.
‘So, I understand we’ll be working together, Toni. I have to take you into the Forretan offices today, and look after you, and introduce you to Norm, and then leave the two of you alone for a while.’
‘Yes, that’s just what I’ve been told. So, when do we need to leave?’
‘Well, I want some breakfast first ...’
‘Me too. Lead on, Salvi!’
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd