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The Bulgarian ambassador is found eviscerated in his London quarters, and Major Sonja Slade of the Prussian Army searches for his killer while trying to forget her own ties to the dead man.

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Monday
Nov262012

Week 13

John, The Insurance Clerk

I had a nightmare that night. I suppose it was because I’d run out of my pills, which usually help so much with soundness of sleep. I dreamed I was deep under water, many fathoms down, and yet still somehow able to breathe. I floated on the very bottom of the sea bed but became aware that there was a terrible presence with me. A tentacle, monstrous in size, 20 feet long, suggestive of a vast, hostile creature, groped blindly toward me. I tried to swim away, but I couldn’t move and suddenly I could no longer breathe either. I drew in a lungful of water. I knew I would die and that, somehow, this had been the monster's intention all along.

I woke shouting and sweating, turned on the bedside lamp in my hotel, and waited fearfully for dawn. It was only an hour later, when the rosy fingers streaked the sky, that I was able to remember the words “sea monster” from the previous day’s conversation and chuckle at my own foolishness. Too much feta, too late at night.

Breakfasted and bathed, I made my way to the Galatea Taverna in the station. It was not an attractive venue, though once it must have been cheerful and charming. Paint was peeling in long strips from the red-and-white-striped exterior, the flowers in the window boxes were half-dead and the menu in the window was streaked with condensation. I rather doubted that “today's special, calamari” either dated from today or was in any sense special.

A sullen-eyed dark-haired woman behind the counter stared at me as I entered the taverna. The only two other customers, two elderly men, looked up as I arrived and then went back to staring out of the window. Greece had not, as yet, lived up to its famous reputation for hospitality.

“Excuse me,” I addressed the woman at the counter, “I'm looking for Lydia? Lydia...” I checked my notes, “Savakis?”

She looked at me blankly. I tried again, speaking more slowly and distinctly.

“Lydia Savakis?”

She shrugged and slipped behind the curtain leading to the dark back of the taverna. There was a rapid exchange of Greek with a man which I could not follow. The same woman re-emerged, took off her serving apron, and walked round the counter. Her face was unreadably calm, but her hand trembled.

“You are looking for Hristos?”

“Why yes I... how did you know that?”

“Many people look for Hristos.”

“I simply want to clear up a little insurance matter with him. He filed a report, you see, at the coastguard, which my firm is rather interested in. British firm. Insurance.”

I gave her my card.

She turned over the thick cream card in her hand and gave me a cool appraising look.

“Insurance? You have money?”

Ah. As it happens, the firm of Ludgate & Smythe takes a pragmatic view of these matters. I am authorised to disburse up to £200 in encouragements and rewards for assistance with enquiries.

“Certainly. For the right information. You are Lydia Savakis?”

She nodded rapidly.

“And you know where Hristos is?”

She nodded again.

“And you can take me there?”

She looked around nervously.

“Not take. Show. Draw map.”

I pulled a small roll of drachma notes from my pocket and placed it in her hand.

“I would be most grateful for your assistance.”

She counted the notes swiftly. Nodded. Took her short-order notebook from the counter, pulled off a page and drew a sketch-map on the back of it.

“Hristos afraid,” she said, “people looking for him. He...” she flicked her gaze up at me for a moment, “Hristos is not... good man.

I took her in more fully. Now that I looked, I could see there was a large bruise on her upper arm, partly covered by her dress and partly concealed with makeup. Was that, perhaps, the trace of another fading bruise on her jawline?

“Always trouble,” she muttered, “always need to disappear. When he hear people looking for him, he goes to cabin on the coast. Up, more north. You will see when you come to forked roads – blue cabin, with white door. High above sea.”

She marked in the names of several roads on her little map, and put a large X for the cabin. She went to hand the map to me, then paused. She put her hand on my shirtsleeve.

“Hristos crazy I think. He tell me story that people find him, man and woman. And then he... cannot remember. Cannot remember two days, cannot remember what he saw at sea, cannot remember faces of man and woman.” She put a finger to her temple. “Crazy. Too much drug. I love him, but my mother tell me, find better man.”

She handed the map to me, with a gesture of pushing it away.

“Better man.”

I stopped in at the hotel to pick up my messages. There was one from Elizabeth with her usual comforting affection. And a message from Mabel unaccountably suggesting that I should return to London at once, with no explanation. Mabel has always been rather overprotective. No word from the airline on my misplaced luggage. I tapped the pocket where I usually keep my tablets and found myself more disturbed than I would have liked by their absence. I considered telephoning the London office to let them know of my progress but on second thought decided that this would be better done when I had firmer news.

My rental car, a light blue Fiat 500, was waiting on the quiet street outside the hotel. I turned the key in the ignition, spun the wheel, and began my drive north.

It was perhaps unwise of me to drive along unfamiliar roads in the hottest part of the day. I had not thought to bring water with me. I was thirsty and sweating through my shirt before I had found the turn-off from the main road which Lydia had indicated on her map, and long before I realised that I would have to leave the car by the side of the road and complete the last part of the climb up the winding cliffside on foot. Beads of perspiration dripped down my forehead, stinging my eyes, making my vision blur. It was probably this which accounted for my feeling that there was something I could not see, something just out of the corner of my vision crawling, or shuffling towards me.

It had been an hour's drive along the coast up to this isolated spot. The road I had followed had narrowed to a dirt track and now to a small footpath with, thankfully, a tiny turning circle for the car – for I had been concerned about how I would get my vehicle back down after my interview with Hristos. I turned the car so that it was facing down the hill and turned off the engine. There were certainly no wriggling tentacles, I reminded myself, at the edges of my eyes. It was an illusion brought on by heat, and thirst. When I returned to the hotel I should take a short nap. Hristos' cabin would probably have water. I sat in the car for a few moments, waiting for my vision to clear.

At last I decided that the walk would probably do me more good than sitting. It would take less than half an hour, I judged, to reach that blue cabin with the white door on top of the cliff, facing out to sea. I wiped my face with my sleeve and began the climb.

The sun was appalling. There was no shade, none at all. Though it was past midday the wiry olive trees provided no relief and even the basking lizards scurried away as I approached. The sound of the sky, it occurred to me, was like the clanging of a mighty drum. I examined that thought. It made little sense. I wondered if I was succumbing to heatstroke. Only the cabin kept me walking, and the dream of the cool shade within where surely Hristos would have jugs of frosty water and when I had drunk my fill perhaps I would jump from the cliff into the deep cold dark ocean. I put one foot in front of another. Sweat dripped from my brow. I thought of the deep cold dark ocean and the wriggling tentacles. Ah yes, I thought, they are calling to me. They want me. I belong there.

I shook my head to make the black spots vanish. The sun bellowed its yellow heat at the white cliff-path. The cabin. Blue, with a white door. And to ask Hristos what he had seen in the ocean. And then to return to my hotel. And then to England. One step, then another, then another. The white stones crunched under my feet. A thought floated through my mind of something I had read once, that heatstroke and hypothermia are dangerous because they prevent the person from realising they are succumbing. Like the ocean, I thought. Like drowning. One step, then another. I reached the cabin at last with a sense of tearful relief. I pushed open the door.

At first my eyes could not adjust to the darkness. Only the prickling of sweat all over my body told me that I was safe here in the cool shade. The sound of dripping water told me that I would find relief for my thirst. Something was wet under my feet. I almost knelt down to lap at it. Until my nose told me, and my ears told me, that I was not safe at all.

There was a low buzzing sound. Like an electrical cable with a faulty connection. I shook my head again. Heatstroke. Something fluttered past my face. I stepped back. That splashing sound again. And the smell. Rotten. Like ripe blue cheese in the sun.

My eyes began to adjust. I could see a bed. A table. A chair. A figure on the chair, lying back, its neck tilted too far, its face toward the ceiling. The figure on the chair was dripping.

“Hristos?” I managed.

That low buzzing, like a moan. A cloud of flies circling and recircling. Feasting. Maggots in the neck, because the neck was torn open, and the mouth was open and the lips were black and the face was torn away and there was wriggling, wriggling in the nose and the eyes and the lips and the mouth and the neck all white and tentacles reaching. And the ripe faecal smell of a man who died screaming.

I stumbled out of the hut, gagging, but there was not enough water in me to vomit. I began to run down the hill, tripping and falling and scraping open my trousers and my knee but clambering up to run again and there was a car! Not my car, another car, a long dark red car, proceeding slowly along the main road and if I called now if I ran toward it and stopped it they could help me. I ran faster, stumbling but not falling, calling out and the car saw me! It slowed, I thought, as I ran out onto the road. It slowed I thought but perhaps I was mistaken because it seemed now to be coming too fast and then there was a bang and then there was darkness.

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