He was up well before three. It would be fairer to say that he never actually slept. Not that he hadn’t climbed in next to his wife after they had put their daughter down, but he didn’t sleep. There was a grim uncertain task ahead of him, and regardless of the outcome, he knew his life would never be the same afterward. He did not know what he would find, but he was beyond fear of it. His life would march inexorably on in the direction, the path that had been chosen for him whether he wanted it to go that way or not. If he must go to prison then he would go knowing why…
It wasn’t that Martin awoke, he was simply aware that he was awake; or was he? Maybe he was dead? The water that was sinking his building was gone. He did not seem to be cold any longer but he was also not warm. He could feel nothing. His arms and hands seemed to be lifeless tree limbs that hung stiffly from his shoulders. His legs were sluggish stumps. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, what was left of his rational thought told him that he was close to the end, when he would finally fall into a coma and die from the exposure, cold and deprivation. How long had he been here? One day, two? Three? How many times had the moon or the sun risen and set? He could not think. He no longer cared if he were caught. He no longer cared if the Police or the killer found him. Prison, death it was all the same to him now. What was left of his ravaged mind drifted to Elizabeth. How he wished that he could roll over in bed, slip his hand between her thighs and pull himself close to her. She slept so warmly and soundly. He heard a voice and it frightened him. He realized it was his own. Had he screamed? He laughed at himself. Again, deep in the recesses of his brain, rationale told him that he was beginning to hallucinate. He still loved Elizabeth… “Sissy!” He called out in a singsong voice, using a nickname that he hadn’t invoked for years. “Sissy!” He still wanted her. He still loved her. She had saved him from himself, it was true! If she were here she would know what to do. There… again a voice. What had it said? Was he screaming again? “Sissy!” He needed to go home and go to bed. He was so tired. He was bone tired. Bed, warmth, Sissy. He had stayed out too long. Mustn’t drink and drive, Sissy said… If he were next to his wife, next to his wonderful Elizabeth, his warm beautiful Sissy, maybe the nightmare would go away. He heard dripping, a constant low rhythm of hollow liquid echoes and then a metallic sound. It made him giggle. In the shrouded distance a horn sounded through the fog as it rolled in across the bay… drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… the baleful cry came drifting in the darkness. He mimicked the sound deep in his dry throat. Music, the old violinist? He had said to walk carefully. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He began to sway hypnotically: drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… The beast had eyes for him, the old gypsy had said. The church beast… the beast of the churchlion, the beast with the knife and the evil eyes. Evil eyes. “Sissy!” Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He pulled his wet blanket around him… drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… ‘Mustn’t drink, Sissy said,’ he murmured. He gasped as he stumbled through the doorway. All around him the darkness tried to reach into him, to claw him. He swung his lifeless arms wildly! He stamped his feet up and down like a soldier marking time. He jumped up and down like a demon. Was he landing on the stone or jumping straight into heaven? Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… His voice bounced up and down the empty street. Down one of the dark alleys a cat howled. He laughed wildly. He was warm! He could feel nothing but he was warm! Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He stumbled up the bridge. He looked to the sky. He could see stars! Constellations? What day was it? Was it day? His slurred voice reverberated off of the cold empty stone. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… The low fog swirled at his feet, sweeping in off the canal. He stumbled forward. Stairs, he saw stairs that led downward; green stairs, slippery stairs. But where? Hell… must be. Hell must be green and slippery. He put a foot onto them and sat down. “Go… to… Hell…” He enunciated deliberately. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… There was blackness there, swirling blackness; water. No not water! It was the sea. Drip, drip dripdrop… waahhh… He bumped into something. “Fuck you!” He breathed and pushed it as if it were a man. It was square and rectangular; metal. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He stared at it as hard as he could, forcing his eyes to focus. It was a garbage dumpster. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He threw the lid open and it crashed against the side with a loud crash. He began to grab at the bags and throw them into the street. The sound of bottles and cans skittering down the fondamenta was cause enough for lights to come on in some of the windows. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… His hand fell onto something familiar… the neck of a bottle. Something in the back of his mind told him to take it. “Hello Martin,” the little devil breathed. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… A bottle? It was half full of something. He shook it by the neck as if he were choking it. Drip, drip dripdrop… waahhh… What was it? Grape something… no, not grape. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh. “Tell me!” He shouted. Grappa. He turned the top open. A hiss, an evil hiss and then a smell, familiar, warm… he could not remember but the bottle was already to his lips. His mouth was suddenly and pleasantly heated, he swallowed. All the way down his esophagus, the amber liquid prickled him. “Oh my!” The little devil cackled. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… Martin began to laugh wildly. He slumped to the ground. Drip, drip, dripdrop… waahhh… He would die drunk.
Bruno’s phone rang. He looked at the clock. It was just before three in the morning. He picked up the receiver.
“This is Gigi,” The Gondoliere said. “The American is drunk out on the fondamenta San Giobbe, near the Ponte Della Tre Archi.” The line went dead. Finally.
Martin saw the boat. It pulled into the canal and stopped next to him. He smiled and waved.
“Heeeyyyy.” He sighed. “I know you. You’re the churchbeast; the eyebeast of the lion guy with the knife and the eyes.”
Bruno threw a rope over the cleat and jumped out.
“Vieni.” He commanded.
He grasped Martin under his arms and hefted him over the gunwale into his small craft. He covered him with a warm dry blanket and as the engines throbbed, the craft pulled away toward Mestre.
Bruno had placed a quick call to Cofau before he had left his apartment. He would meet them in the Yard. He would be satisfied at last, providing the American didn’t die before he got him there. He had arrived before the Police. Who knows… maybe they hadn’t even been called. If they had, they would come to the fondamenta and find nothing. They would assume it had been just another drunk that had moved on and passed out somewhere unseen. He looked down at his passenger. He was wrapped in the blanket clutching his bottle of Grappa and mumbling incoherently. He pulled the blanket over the man’s head so that his own foul breath would warm him and also to keep his voice from arousing any suspicions from passing boats. Not that he had to worry. The only boats that passed him were those of the Pescarie who were under orders to find the American anyway.
Twenty minutes later he pulled into a dock. There would be a car there, arranged by Cofau and he would take the American to the Industrial yard that Mirko owned. Another twenty minutes drive and he arrived at the gate, which was already unlocked and open. He pulled through, stopped, got out and closed and locked the gate behind him.
Andrea walked from the San Marco boat stop down the Riva Degli Schiavoni, “a broad street along the pool of Saint Mark, stretching along the Sestiere di Castello. Its name was derived from the ancient Dalmatian sailors, di Schiavonia (from Slav-land), who anchored their trading boats and barges by the quay.”
The early morning sky was heavy with mist, dew and clouds, the air brisk. As he walked he could hear the muffled echo of his steps bouncing off the calmed water and the marble facades. He reached the calle di Pieta’ and turned left into a narrow alley next to the Church. It was ominously dark and brooding down the claustrophobically small avenue, and as the long violet shadows rose to meet him, his heart raced ahead, for he knew that he was walking into uncertainty. He stepped to the side postern and rang the small bell to the right of the unadorned door of the rectory. There was a momentary wait and then the door creaked open a crack. A small priest peeked sleepily through and asked suspiciously,
“I am Andrea Morruchio. I have come to speak with the Marocchini.” He said.
“Go away.” The priest spoke tersely.
Andrea put his foot into the entry so that the Priest could not close the door and spoke firmly;
“Padre,” he said, “I know the Marocchini are here. Everyone in Venice knows, it is only that we look away and pretend it is not so. I will speak with them now and I will not go away. Let me in. I will make no troubles for you or them.”
The Priest considered what he had said for a few seconds and then opened the door. Without speaking, he beckoned Andrea to follow him through the semi open-air courtyard. All around him stood intricately carved and weather worn statuary, monuments of time to the Priests and saints who had served this church, and stone angels, unable to speak or sing, adorned their crypts, left under the care of the brothers who still served God in the Church of Pity. They reached the end of the small promenade and stepped into the open air, guarded on all sides by great trees and tall cypresses from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. A small columnar portico stood to the very back that was open on three sides with the rear wall serving as the barricade to the building behind. Hidden beneath the dense canopy of these trees, the Marocchini lived out of sight and mind of the Venetians while they stayed in Venice, and the portico served as a sleeping quarters for the most important of them, including the Capo di Strada. The Priest stopped at the entrance, just under a large tree.
“Do not to stay long. They will begin their prayers soon.” He whispered, and then hurried away as if he were afraid to be seen even within the unlit confines of his own churchyard.
Andrea stood for a moment in the darkness, wondering how to begin. He heard no sound. There was no movement, only the long purple shadows cast by the trees, centurions of the men who slept here in secret; a secret known by almost everyone. The air was heavy and he could hear his heart beating in his ears. Suddenly there was a rhythm of fluid motion and a voice spoke softly in his ear.
“Whom do you seek?”
Andrea closed his eyes, exhaled slowly and steeled himself against the fear that gripped him.
“I am Morucchio. I am here to speak with the Capo di Strada.”
Twenty minutes of warmth and three coffees later, Martin was semi coherent. Bruno had taken his bottle from him. He was not drunk. His hallucinations were the result of the cold, thirst and exposure and though he was still chilled dangerously to the bone, he could at least think straight, or as straight as the several swallows of the strong Italian liquor on an empty stomach would allow. His uncontrolled shivering returned and he seemed to be on fire. He was thawing out and it was painful.
“You are not welcome here.” The disembodied voice hissed. “Go away!”
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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