by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 4: Free and Easy
Earlier that morning in San Francisco, Lucia had facilitated a short team meeting, in Raymond Graves’ room as usual. The Domans’ three retained Illuminators had completed their individual plans for the week-long recess, and Quo now decreed that they should regroup at two o’clock on Saturday May 10, in Raymond’s newly-booked hotel room in Downtown Los Angeles.
Graves then stayed patient as ever in his room until Carla returned from her desert observations.
Up to now, the Mater had judged their man to be still “secure” — ever since his recruitment of Kristy the day before, Lucia had been monitoring the Congresswoman continuously, and they would have instantly known if she had accidentally exposed him. But now their hero would be out in the cold and at significant risk, as news of his existence steadily spread among those she was involving. And he was far too precious to be abandoned for even one second.
So Carla and Raymond departed together for the airport. She remained un-made, of course, and — with the occasional help of a colleague guardian angel — she would be sticking invisibly tight to their ambassador throughout his time back home in Dubina, ready to react at once to any attempted dirty tricks.
* * *
Maelene and Toni had meanwhile hurried off to finish packing, and they left soon afterwards for their own, much shorter flight down to LA.
In sharp contrast to Raymond’s situation, no Doman radimote would be tracking or observing them for the duration of their week away (which each was already privately thinking of as a trial honeymoon). And the Mater simply had no choice about taking that risk. Two radimotes was the most they could sustain, but Quo was anyway confident that Toni’s security had been safeguarded as much as was domanly possible. After Ranovitz’ promises, their young associate should not now be traceable back to the Starblaze Hotel or any other specific location directly associated with Brighter Vale. But he had of course spent recent time in Columbia, Los Angeles and San Francisco ... and if any busybodies should start investigating the company more fully, following the recent events at their Mojave mine, he might again become the target of further hounding.
But while many Doman fingers would stay firmly crossed for him all week, Toni would remain blithely ignorant of most of the outstanding risks. Maelene, however, had circumspectly arranged their holiday hotel in her own name, and — since Toni the city-child had still not learnt to drive — she had also booked a sensibly-sized rental car herself.
* * *
They picked up the car at LA International, and headed out for the short drive up to their luxury Santa Monica hotel, just one block back from the beach on Nielson Way, and promising fine ocean views, a glorious outdoor pool, and a luxurious spa.
Toni had been very quiet all morning, and had even dozed off on the plane. Maelene had put it down to the after-effects of his disastrous day out with Salvatore on Wednesday, followed by their own very active night together and their long walk around SF the next day. So she had wisely left him to rest. Now he was wide awake again, and his lovely new friend and chauffeuse was filling his thoughts once more.
‘Maelene, you’ve taken this all very calmly, ever since I met you.’
‘You think so?’
‘Yes. I expected you to be arguing with our visitors all the time ...’
‘I just got busy, honey. Ever since Quo recruited me, I’ve hardly had a moment to myself. I worked a lot harder than you did, all last week, and I had Stoopid Sal with me every step of the way! But maybe I’m used to all that stuff. You’re still just an idle baby student ...’
‘Hey, I’m only kidding — but it’s true about the workload and the brain space. You were all alone in the hospital and then on your flights over here, and you really didn’t have a whole lot to do in LA and San Francisco.’
‘I know. Too much time to think. But all I did instead was miss you.’
‘Aw, that’s real nice. Funny thing is, I didn’t have any time to think, but I did an awful lot of thinking. That make sense?’
* * *
By the time they finally checked in, the afternoon was slipping rapidly away, and Maelene suggested they should enjoy the beautiful beach while the weather was warm and sunny. Toni, still rather tired, was happy to let her call the shots, and he did not even think of buying any swimming shorts. They just stretched out side by side on the warm sands right in front of the hotel, holding hands, listening to the hissing of the waves, and lapping up the welcoming southern sunshine.
But an hour or two later, as soon as a cooling breeze came quickly up, Maelene insisted it was time to go and unpack properly. Toni caught her tone and the good sense behind it, and despite feeling very comfortable exactly where he was, thank you very much, he complied without a word of objection.
Then they took the easy option for dinner, and ate splendidly in the hotel restaurant. Over coffee, Maelene led the planning of the next day’s activities, which actually amounted to little more than a large dose of Santa Monica retail therapy. Toni was still happy enough to fall in with her ideas, and especially with her proposal to find a nice music bar at the end of the day, and her final suggestion, which involved an immediate, early return to their room and a bottle of chilled champagne.
Those tentative plans for a Saturday morning out and about in Santa Monica soon went by the wayside. Maelene continued to take the lead on everything, well into the night and again soon after dawn. She started off, as they got stuck into the fine champagne, by trying to teach Toni some simple singing techniques (she was really keen on the idea of one day duetting with him on a couple of her own songs), but that serious little exercise rapidly evolved into a rather more frivolous tutorial on a different subject (medium proficiency). The still very inexperienced young man was happy to continue playing his passive role, and he paid fair attention and learnt a lot, though mainly by his mistakes.
‘You must be joking!’
‘No, I’m not. Hold tighter, man, or I’m gonna end up on the floor with a very bruised ass ...’
‘What, like this?’
‘Nearly! But I’m still slipping. Come on, get those biceps going ...’
‘This is really hard work!’
* * *
They ended up having a very early lunch at the Locanda del Lago, and then they finally hit the city streets. Toni was now doubly inspired, after the various activities of the past fifteen hours, and he insisted on seeking out a music store or two. It did not take them long to learn about the huge Santa Monica Music Center up at 19th Street, and the specialised McCabe’s Guitar Shop, just a few blocks further north on Pico Boulevard ...
And Toni continued to take the lead. They targeted the Music Center first, and after a quick demonstration of his skills he gained the staff’s warm approval for a “test” of many different, top quality keyboards. Maelene stood quietly off to one side, relishing her own first experience of his huge talent, just as Carla had when she discovered him in Bilbao. But when he was done, and the spontaneous applause from impressed employees, delighted customers and proud girlfriend had died away, she insisted on moving on.
They hurried up to McCabe’s, and she strode confidently through the door and straight over to the most expensive guitars. Under the watchful but soon relaxed eye of the senior salesman, she chose a vintage Martin, and then gave her own little solo show, singing three of her own favourite compositions. The applause after each one was as intense and appreciative as Toni’s had been, one hour earlier.
And then they were both very pleasantly surprised to discover there would be some fine live music there at McCabe’s later that evening, and their plans for the day were at once complete.
The minute they left the place, Maelene took over again and went hunting for the resort’s nicest clothing stores. Toni bought his swimming shorts within five minutes, and as far as he was concerned, the shopping chore was now was nicely done and dusted. Maelene, of course had not even begun. It did not take long for Toni’s legs and feet to tire of her peregrinations, and he rapidly began to lose interest in life, the universe and everything. Spotting this, his girl began the serious business of actually trying things on, and he soon perked up again as she proceeded to execute a two hour programme of sexy little fashion parades, largely just for him ...
They made it back to their hotel in just enough time to change, grab a rather faster dinner than the previous night’s, and then head on up to McCabe’s for the live show. And it proved to be all they had hoped for.
* * *
The forecast was calm and sunny, with a high of 70 degrees. No question: they would spend the whole Sunday at the beach, on the wide, quiet stretch down towards Venice, with no music, bars or traffic to disturb their peace ...
‘Right, turn over!’
‘You need some suntan oil, now, before the damage is done.’
‘Oh, you’re a bore, Maelene.’
‘I think you’ll change your mind quite fast ...’
‘Ooooh, that’s really nice!’
‘Told you so. OK, onto your tummy again.’
‘Hey, where did you learn to do that?’
‘It comes naturally, sunshine. Right, my turn now. Hope you were taking notes ...’
‘So, how’s that?’
‘Passable. Once more, with feeling, please ...’
‘What about that?’
‘Get your hands out of there! This is a public beach!’
* * *
‘Wow, that sun’s really hot now. I’m all sticky. Coming for a swim?’
‘No thanks, Toni. I don’t really enjoy it.’
‘I said I don’t enjoy it.’
‘Yes, I heard you. Why not?’
‘I just don’t. I’m a bit scared of the water, if you must know. I’ll come paddling with you, and we can buy a beach ball or whatever at lunchtime, if you like, and have some fun in the shallows. But no swimming. I can barely make five yards, and I’m certainly not going out of my depth!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’m just a bit disappointed, that’s all ...’
‘For me or for you?’
* * *
‘Phew, that was great!’
‘Yes it was! But you soon forget that once you get moving. Sure you won’t come in?’
‘OK, OK. I’ll just have to have another dose of sun oil, then.’
‘You’ll just have to dry off properly first, and then you can ask me again, nicely ...’
* * *
‘Are you asleep?’
‘Well, nearly ...’
‘I was just wondering ...’
‘Oh, can’t I have a quiet little rest after that wonderful massage?’
‘Don’t be so selfish! Listen ... I can’t stop thinking about all the stuff the Domans are doing around here.’
‘Why do you have to worry your lovely head about that? Especially right now ...’
‘Because. Look, I’m enjoying our time here as much as you are, but I’m finding it hard to be ... what’s the right word? ... yeah, carefree.’
‘Then try a bit harder ...’
‘Toni! Wake up and listen to me! I’m real confused. I disagree with a lot of what they’re doing, and yet I’m still going along with it ...’
‘That’s because they’ve organised it that way. You know that perfectly well. And they are treating us very nicely ...’
‘Oh, why are you so accepting, Toni Murano? Don’t you ever wonder about their honesty and their sincerity? They seem to be twisting the truth every which way they fancy, for their own purposes ...’
‘I think that’s a biased view, Maelene. I agree they’re quite manipulative, but I still think they’re doing it as gently as they can, and their objectives do seem very honourable ...’
If Toni had been allowed by Quo to remember any details of the Mater’s earlier activities in Europe, he would have been able to take a much stronger line in their defence, and probably also a very different one in support of Maelene’s concerns. But all he knew, from his re-engagement to their cause on the streets of Barcelona, was the mere fact that he had “helped them before” in ways that would remain forever erased from his memory.
‘Well, that’s not how I’m reading it, sunshine, and I’ve been a lot more involved than you, since they roped me in.’
‘I know you have!’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Peace, honey, peace ... please!’
* * *
‘Had a nice sleep now?’
‘Good. It’s time for lunch. And we can buy that beach-ball, too ...’
‘It’s a deal.’
* * *
‘Right, let’s go and play ball!’
‘Idiot! Didn’t your Mom ever tell you not to rush around straight after eating?’
‘Yes, all the time.’
‘Listen, Toni. What I was trying to say this morning is ... I’m very sympathetic to the situation on Dome — you know, the fact that their Sun is dying and their planet is cooling and getting wetter, and the huge problems that’s causing them — and I agree they have to carry out all sorts of salvation projects like this one. And I understand the importance of that list of minerals and metals. So I don’t really argue with their trading plans, in principle. I just feel unhappy about the way they’re going about it ...’
‘But surely they have to do it in that rather underhand way? You know what most of the Earth’s governments are like ... and yours is no different! When it comes to real space invaders, the policy would almost certainly be “Shoot first, ask questions later.” The Mater simply can’t take that risk ...’
‘I know. We’re pathetic. Maybe they should have made their first contact in a Polynesian hippy colony ...’
‘Yes, that would certainly have opened up all sorts of possibilities for intergalactic trade.’
‘Very funny. Anyhow, even if I support their disaster management plans, I don’t approve of their stealing all our lutetium.’
‘They’re not stealing it. They’re planning to pay far more than it’s worth. You told me that yourself, back in Columbia. And I thought you were really pleased to be helping them put a stop to that Fountain of Youth racket ...’
‘That’s not what I said. Get with the programme! Of course I’m glad they’re nuking that awful scam. But I do think they took the moral high ground rather too easily and unilaterally. And I don’t think they should be relieving us of all our lutetium, just to maintain their own longevity. I reckon they’re being rather selfish ...’
‘But that’s a fundamental part of their modern lives, Maelene. And they do insist on every Doman’s being able to use it. Your position is like them saying that we should abandon our use of ... I don’t know ... penicillin and every other antibiotic. And we can’t exactly have a clear conscience on the subject of world-wide, free availability of those essentials down here, can we? And as for the moral high ground ... well, does this year’s invasion of Iraq — purportedly to save the people from a tyrannical leader, when the true reason is obviously to protect your nation’s precious oil supply — seem a lot less hypocritical?’
‘You know, that’s the closest you’ve come to a coherent argument this week, Murano.’
‘Oh, very droll, Miss Skinny. And did you know you have a funny-looking nose ...?’
‘What? Oh, do you really think so?’
‘Silly sausage! Come on, it’s time to get your feet wet ... and no arguing!’
* * *
When evening fell, they threw on some clothes and took a long stroll down the buzzing Ocean Front Walk of Venice Beach, with its endless avenue of cheap and cheerful shops and stalls of every description: jewellery and sunglasses, toys and tattoos, books and clothes, arts and lots of crafts, massage and bike hire, deli and ice cream, and many rough and ready street musicians. On the way back they stopped off for a welcome beer at Figtree’s, and later thought of fitting in another at the famous On the Waterfront Café, but it was jam-packed inside and out.
So then, on their hotel receptionist’s earlier recommendation, they wandered a few blocks north up to Hal’s Bar and Grill, which she had promised would offer them excellent food and fine jazz on a Sunday evening. And she was absolutely right.
In the breaks between eating and gently grooving, Maelene once again led the shaping of their plans for the next day. Toni would have been happy to have another relaxing session on the beach, but the lady was already getting itchy feet ...
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd