by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 24, part 1
Chapter 25, part 1
appear in this issue.
Chapter 24: The Bridge
part 2 of 2
Salvatore dumped his bags and jacket on his latest hotel bed, located the mini-bar, and flopped down in a chair to drink the beer from the bottle, willing himself not to fall asleep before dragging his tired frame down to this latest, unwelcome meeting.
Maelene, by contrast, barely had time to shower, change into something looking at least half-clean and not too creased, and do a rapid repair job on her make-up, before she surrendered to the multiple forces drawing her to Room 308.
Toni, ill-attuned to such feminine priorities, was feeling rather disappointed that she had not come seeking him out the minute she’d walked into the lobby. But he kept the faith, and at nine-thirty precisely he peeped out of his door, satisfied himself that the coast was clear (of what, he had no feel), and as good as tiptoed along and up to Raymond Graves’ temporary war-room. Carla pursued him in secret and was pleased to conclude that he did indeed appear to be his own man — for this evening, at least.
Maelene and Toni, reunited at last, embraced each other joyfully and briefly, and then allowed discretion to rule — but not for too long, they both hoped. They all but ignored Salvatore’s subsequent entrance, so he just sat down on the edge of an armchair and began watching the clock.
Raymond extended a polite but rather uncertain welcome to his team of inexperienced and easily distracted ambassadors, and then Quo, through the generous public offices of Carla the radimote, briefly addressed them all.
‘Well, team, we find ourselves in a very reasonable position, all things considered.
‘Raymond and Toni have helped us to gain the undivided attention of the main players in Brighter Vale, and I have some confidence that they will now persuade their clients to take a sensible view of the realities of the situation and abandon their use of Lutetium Salts. The financiers now have forty-eight hours to achieve that goal, and we shall meet with them again on Thursday morning.
‘And Maelene and Salvatore have expended much travelling effort, and have overcome several local difficulties, to facilitate our collection of all the data we need for any initial extractions of lutetium and rhodium. Within the same forty-eight hour period, we shall be in a position to proceed on that front, as and when it becomes appropriate.’
Maelene raised her arm.
‘Carla — oh, sorry, I mean Quo — can I ask you something, please?’
‘How do these Lutetium Salts work? I mean, how come people’s bodies can actually get younger?’
‘There is no need for you to know that, Maelene.’
‘But I’d like to.’
‘Very well. In simple terms, the human body probably has a gene called SIR2. When activated, it can slow down ageing. But most of the time it is not active. Is it only brought into play by an enzyme known as NAD. The higher the level of NAD in the body, the more chance of SIR2 kicking in. And how do you raise the NAD level? Only by a drastic, near-total reduction in calorie intake.
‘But such a huge drop in calorie levels is bad for the body, even with an otherwise nutritious diet. The metabolism slows down too much, and eventually reaches a fatal rate. Not good. So in parallel, you need to re-stimulate it, just enough to keep it running much more slowly, but adequately. And that is exactly what Lutetium Salts can do. In essence, they stimulate the metabolism, in an ideal way.’
‘That’s amazing. And that’s how it works for you, too?’
‘It is a very similar process, yes.’
‘And you are trying to get this stopped here, aren’t you?’
‘And what will you do if they refuse?’
‘We shall demonstrate our ability to act unilaterally, and put an end to it ourselves, and exchange the Earth’s reserves of lutetium for resources that you really do need.’
‘But it would be better if they could be persuaded ...’
‘That has always been our preferred approach.’
‘Can I be thinking of some extra ways to try and do that, before your next meeting with them?’
‘Of course, Maelene. Such initiatives are always most welcome. And does anybody else have a question?’
Toni and Raymond shook their heads. Salvatore just continued to demonstrate that his mind was firmly elsewhere.
‘Good. Now, we cannot predict with any certainty the roles that each of you will next be required to play. That will depend utterly on the outcome of our next meeting with the financiers. But we shall review the situation with you again, before then. And you should all extend your stays here until the end of the week.
‘In the meantime ... Raymond — as you already appreciate, we must keep you on call in San Francisco throughout the next two days, in case of unexpected developments on the Brighter Vale front. Lucia, at her personal request, will stay very near to you for that purpose. But please feel free to enjoy the city to the full, and let us hope we shall not have to disturb you.
‘However ... Toni, Salvatore and Maelene — you are all temporarily off-duty for tomorrow and the day after, and you may go wherever you wish. Carla will be here in the background at all times, however, and she will be able to track any of you closely, if and when required for any particular reason — predictable or not.
‘But you must all reconvene in this room, at eight o’clock on Wednesday evening, for a further team briefing before Thursday’s meeting.
‘Until then, my friends — enjoy yourselves!’
* * *
Toni and Maelene walked hand-in-hand back down the corridor towards the stairs, both feeling suddenly more liberated than at any time in their short lives.
And Paula’s wise words were still writing Toni’s script.
‘Maelene — I thought you would never be back. But I was also certain you would. And now I just want to show you how much I love you ...’
She smiled, gave him a quick and contented kiss, and led on.
They chose her room. It was freshly made-up and still barely disturbed. They did not bother to even consider the state of his.
‘Look, Toni, there’s champagne in the mini-bar! I’m gonna find us some ice!’
‘I’ll settle for drinking it just as it comes, if it means you don’t have to go away again ...’
Another very warm smile. And then the customary little follow-up frown.
‘Has he apologised to you yet?’
‘No. But I really don’t care ...’
‘He told me he would.’
‘Forget him ...’
‘How can I, Toni?’
‘Like this ...’
‘Did you bring your guitar?’
‘Well, you’ll just have to sing to me without it, then!’
‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
‘Never been more serious in my life.’
‘Hah! Can’t argue with that, honey, honey! OK then, you asked for it ...
Seasons passed, I stayed the same
Wishing for an answer
Listening for a footstep
Now my life’s in turmoil
Earth is moving under me
Don’t know what I’m meant to be
Who am I to serve?
Who am I to serve?’
* * *
They got up late the next morning and made no attempt to contact Salvatore. They simply toured San Francisco for the rest of a gorgeous spring day.
Carla stayed discreetly with them for a while, recalling her happy time discovering Venice with Toni a few weeks before. But eventually she decided, for several good reasons, to leave them alone together, and she took a welcome break of her own in the beautiful city and the green valleys all around.
Homeland Security, however, stuck stubbornly with them all day.
* * *
While his colleagues were happy to be sightseeing quite aimlessly, Salvatore was instead a man with a plan.
He had decided that, rather than saying sorry to Toni for standing back during the mugging in Columbia, he would take the easier route and make a little gesture instead. He was going to give him a nice surprise, and take him flying.
Two free days. Perfect. Sort it out today, do it tomorrow. And hire a two-seater, then there would be no debate about Maelene — she would have to stay on the ground.
After breakfast he found an Internet café and did some basic research on local airfields, then made his decision and jumped into a cab.
He was thinking hard as they drove across the Bay Bridge and out to the east. He’d need to find a way of taking up a plane, even though he didn’t have that pesky FAA validation on his licence.
Should he try to persuade a legitimate flying school or hire company to rent him one? No — he’d already floated that idea in Columbia. They’d be sure to want to see all his papers.
He could steal one! No — think again, Salvi (he was warming to that name).
Maybe he could somehow have the use of one without prejudicing its owners? Get them to draw up a simple sale agreement, and he could sign it and pay a big cash “deposit”? Then he could make the flight, and when he returned, they could tear up the agreement but keep all the money — and they’d know that if he never came back, they could call the police and claim instead that it was theft. The plane would probably soon be found anyway, or they could recover the loss on their insurance. Nice idea — but too complicated. He couldn’t hope to arrange that today ...
‘No, I have to keep it simple,’ he said to himself. ‘Wait a minute — why don’t I just find a guy who owns a plane, and make friends with him, and then ask if I can borrow it in exchange for a nice discreet lump of cash, and tell him I last flew only three or four weeks ago, which is true, and say I have a full licence, if he asks, and just hope I won’t be asked to show it?
‘And I can answer any flying questions he asks me, to prove I’m a real pilot. And go up with him for a check-ride, if he insists.
‘And if that fails, I can try again with someone else, and again, and again, until it works. And if there are any problems later, the owner can just plead ignorance, and he won’t carry any real blame ...’
Yes! That was what he would do! And he had the rest of the day to crack it ...
It actually took him four hours, at the small-town airfield he had chosen.
The first hit looked very promising. Salvatore made a random approach to a pilot who had walked into the general aviation area after neatly landing a two-seater and taxiing it straight to a hangar. The follow-up proposition cost him an expensive, non-alcoholic meal, but then the cautious owner insisted on seeing Salvatore’s licence, and he had to say it was back in his hotel room, and the guy said ‘Nice lunch, but no dice. See you around, pal.’
But then, after hanging around the flying club bar for a while, he had tuned in to the conversations of an obviously popular, long-haired young man who seemed very laid-back about everything, and clearly owned a small Cessna based at that airfield. And he’d introduced himself as Salvi, and he’d made his play over a cup of coffee (just in case he did end up flying today), and he’d scored.
No difficult questions, and no tricky conditions. Just two circuits of the field together, there and then, with the totally sober Salvi in control throughout, and one of them to be a “simulated engine failure, emergency glide” approach. And they both went perfectly, and proved to the owner that he really was a very capable flyer. Then it was simply a matter of fifty percent of a lot of cash, in advance, and the rest before departure.
He would call the guy on the morning he wanted to take the plane, and it would then be fully readied for him. It would hopefully be the very next day, said Salvi ...
He took a cab back to the hotel, and had a little rest and a well-deserved beer. Then at six o’clock he phoned Toni.
‘So, what have you been doing all day?’
‘Just plane spotting.’
‘So, fancy an evening out? All three of us, down at Fisherman’s Wharf?’
‘Ah — hold on ...’
Toni had a rapid word with Maelene, and they agreed that, yes, that would be the right thing to do.
‘OK, Sal. Seven o’clock at reception?’
* * *
Like Salvatore earlier that day, Lucia was now a Handler with a plan, and she had agreed to swap duties with Carla for the evening.
When Maelene was alone for a couple of minutes, while her male companions wandered over to look in a shop window of particular interest to males, Lucia seized the moment and had a quiet, unseen word.
‘Maelene, I know you’re still not at all happy with Salvi. But he is feeling very left out of things, and he has stopped pestering you, and I did promise him I’d do something rather special for him, some time ago — and you could really help me out with that, if you were willing to ...’
‘Go on ...’
And the plan was made, and then the boys were back in tow.
They were strolling past a large patch of welcoming public lawn.
‘Hey, Sal,’ Maelene suddenly called out, winking at Toni as she did so. ‘Come and sit down over here with me. I’ve got a little surprise for you ...’
He did what she had asked, but rather warily, and Toni joined them, very curious himself about what was going on.
‘Listen, man,’ said Maelene, looking Salvatore straight in the eyes, taking his hands in hers, and deploying her patented combination smile-and-frown. ‘I’ve heard you sing, and it ain’t nice, I can tell ya!’
Salvatore looked as if he were about to cry.
‘Hey, loosen up, pal,’ she laughed. ‘I’m only teasing! But I happen to know you really wish you could sing, right?’
‘OK — try this.’
And she sang him a line from one of her songs.
‘Go on, copy me!’
He tried, and it was awful, and he knew it. But she did not laugh at him.
‘Not too bad, Sal. Here’s another one ...’
Not good either.
‘Never mind,’ smiled Maelene mysteriously. ‘I know a body who can sort you out ...’
Lucia strolled up on cue from behind them, in the provocative guise in which Salvatore had first met her, and sat down on the grass beside him, legs everywhere.
‘Hi, Salvi. You’re looking good tonight! Come on, give me a big kiss, for old times’ sake ...’
And as they virtually kissed, Lucia the Handler imbued her once-treasured subject, just as she had promised back in Copenhagen, with the ability to sing as beautifully as she could — even though at home her song, like all the Domans’ music, was never, ever heard.
‘Give us a chorus, Sal!’ cried Maelene, when Lucia was done.
And he sang them his very favourite song. Divinely.
Lucia disappeared back into the trees, her mission accomplished.
Much later that evening, they discovered a charming oriental restaurant with delightful, subdued live music, and they all shared a huge, glorious banquet of exciting and exotic dishes.
Maelene relaxed and enjoyed three or four glasses of fine white wine, Toni managed several small beers, and Salvatore had twice as many, but still kept his head screwed on. And the evening flowed smoothly, and they all remembered privately how it had gone so wrong before in Columbia, and they all prayed that would not happen again. But none of them mentioned it, and they just stayed much more alert than before as they began the short walk back along the wharf and up to their hotel.
But Salvatore’s beers were having their effect. Even though he had eaten that huge evening meal, he suddenly spotted a sidewalk vendor busily selling oversized pots of giant shrimp covered in a thick ketchup and mayo sauce, and temptation got the better part of discretion, and he made his colleagues wait while one was hurriedly prepared for him.
‘Mmmm — great shrimp cocktail! Anyone want to share it?’
Toni and Maelene were already full, and they both knew it, and they both declined. And then, each of them happy in their very different ways, they all walked safely home.
Homeland Security was extremely fed up with being dragged around the city by Murano and his cronies for another very long day, with nothing to report at the end of it. What a waste of time! And by the look of things, he and his new girlfriend would almost certainly not be getting up very early the next morning! And then it would probably just be even more sightseeing!
No, she decided — she wouldn’t need to be back on duty here until at least nine o’clock ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd