When the Lion Smiles

Chapt. 6- Part 7- Final Installment: “Cowardice”

     Perer finished writing sentence and then back to Martin. “Why did you not come to the police immediately?”

     Martin looked nervously to Andrea. “Well, Andrea had already warned me not to get into trouble here. He said…”

     “That you could be held indefinitely?” Franco asked.

     “Yes. I thought about it, I mean turning myself in, but I knew that my passport had to have been found on or near the body. I panicked. I figured you guys would consider it an open and shut case. You had a stiff…”

Andrea winced as though he had been stabbed through the heart.

     “… and a passport. I guessed you guys would think I had murdered the poor guy.”

     Perer closed his note pad. “May I ask you one last question Signor Shaw?”

     “Yes.”

     “Is justice, true justice, the search for truth only a by product of your American Democracy?”

     “I don’t understand.”

     “Well, is it possible that jurisprudence is available here in this remote corner of the globe? Or is it a treasure that only Americans are privileged to? If you had come to us, in the first hour, the first moments of this crime, do you imagine that any of this,” he gestured to his arm, Andrea’s face and to Martin himself, “would have been necessary? If we had held you, or made you an arrest do you think it would have been for other than your own protection against the murderer, that we would not have undertaken an investigation of Bruno Trevisani and Mirko Cofau?”

     Andrea looked up questioningly at Perer. Perer turned to him and in Italian said, “Yes Morucchio, I made to you a many small lies in my search for the truth and the killer. But would you have had me do differently, knowing the lives that hung in the balance? The lives of the dead and those who would be, including him and those of your wife and child? The killer would have been able to find out all the same things about you that I did, and would have known of your connection with this man. I pressed you with inflexible rigor, it’s true, but it was necessary, for I was trying to save your life and the life of this man. But do not credit me with too great a nobility,” he grinned wryly, ”it is my job to save lives whether they want to be saved or not.”

     Perer turned back to Martin. “You owe this ‘fucking little man’ a great debt of gratitude. He risked his life for yours. In the future, should you ever encounter a similar difficulty, and for your sake, I hope you will not, I will counsel you as your mother would, ‘the Policeman is your friend!’ Sergeant Franco Perer smiled a large, genuinely warm and toothy smile.

Andrea hung his head and cursed himself a fool and an idiot. Martin simply hung his head, too embarrassed to curse himself at all.

A tedious few seconds passed before Martin spoke.

     “Sergeant, when can I get out of here?”

     “You have been free to leave at any time you wished, only you were in no condition to do so. I am not sure that your state has so dramatically changed that it is possible for you now but, there is no one to stop you, although, the physicians here will probably object most strenuously.”

     Martin was already sitting straight up. “If it’s a matter of the bill…”

     Andrea finally found his tongue to speak. “There is no bill Martin. We have the practice of socialized medicine here, and if there was not, I would have gladly paid any expense for you.”

     Martin took pause to look fully at his friend. “Thank you Andrea, for everything. Thank you, you little fucking man of Venice!”

The two exchanged a glance and a fleeting moment in time when each realized something profound about the other and of themselves and for once, probably the first time in each of their lives, were not found wanting.

Martin cleared his throat so loudly that Franco and Andrea both jumped.

     “Good!” He exclaimed. “I feel fine. Listen, I know I look like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, but let’s just get me unplugged and get me the hell out of here! Oh…” he hesitated.

     “What?” Franco asked alarmed.

     “What about my hotel, my suitcase and my ticket?”

     “Your luggage is in the Questura, the hotel bill has been settled by the city and your ticket,” he said as he pulled it with a gallant flourish from his breast pocket, “has been upgraded to an open first class accommodation. You may leave at your earliest convenience, depending on the airlines of course. But I doubt they will be of any troubles to you.”

     “Clothes, what about clothes?” He asked.

     “I will bring you some, suitable for travel Martin. It will take you an hour at least to get checked out. You cannot just walk away you know?”

     Martin considered them both and then asked, “Why are you being so generous with me?”

     Perer took a step forward and spoke. “Perhaps it is because you have needed to learn a lesson in humility but that no one, regardless of the need should have to learn the lesson that came to you…”

     “Sergeant Perer, I will never forget you.” Martin said.

     “No, you will not.” Franco said as he walked out the door.

Andrea turned his attentions back to his friend.

     “I will tell them at the desk that you are wishing to leave immediately. Sign whatever they give you, don’t worry. I will return with clothes within the hour. I know your sizes, there will be no tailors this time.”

~

Coward that he was, Mirko knew that he would have to become a Penitente, an informer who confesses all (but generally blames everyone else.) in order to save himself. Why not? If he never did another day’s work he would still be wealthy beyond the dreams of men with even the grandest of imaginations. The Italian government would investigate him endlessly but they would find little or nothing that he could not explain away. He would purchase his escape from jail with information doled out in miserly amounts, suited only to the most immediate questions at hand. What he could not bargain with truth skewed to make him the victim of a malfeasance arrayed against him by depraved men, he would simply acquire with bribes sufficient to sway the lesser hearts of men and women who had dreams of homes in the country or better educations for their children. Bruno would enjoy a summary promotion! It would be all his doing and Mirko simply the pawn in a scheme of which he had little or no knowledge. He would not stay in jail long, a few months perhaps even a year. It would be a hardship made softer by his newfound sense of civic duty. After all, Bruno was the killer and Mirko Cofau, a decorated citizen hero!

~

Sergeant Franco Nunzio Perer stared long and hard at Antonio. He had failed his student, or close enough that he felt a failure. He had lost his courage in the end and was ready to quit. The only reason he hadn’t was because the Little Fucking Man of Venice had been armed with a pistol and had actually fired it twice, hitting him once. He was ashamed of himself, but he was also old and tired. He was leaving his duties and his office in good hands. Antonio would not be so faint with his convictions. A man should always be prepared to walk away from his job when he could no longer do it properly, when all that was left for him was the embarrassment of failure. He needn’t feel so bad; there were all the years when he had been brave and smart. Graziella had reminded him of that. It was largely due to her insistence that he was leaving more than a year before his official retirement, but the Questura and the state had granted him the full pension anyway for his bravery. “Bravery!” He snorted. Well…

Antonio stole a surreptitious glance at his mentor. Would he ever be the kind of Policeman that Franco was? Would he ever be honored and respected? He hoped so. Franco certainly was leaving large shoes that he would be expected to fill. His work on the case had been brilliant. His original theory had not been so far off the mark. There was no international conspiracy of computer theft but there had been a conspiracy and it had been multinational. It had been one that involved great sums of money and loss of life! Franco had pursued the case tirelessly and had believed when Antonio had lost faith. There was much yet to learn from him but he was retiring, and why not? He had earned it but Antonio knew that as long as he needed Franco’s wise counsel that he would never really stop being a Policeman and besides, Mrs. Perer’s cooking would be excuse enough to visit the house as often as he could, where the conversation would quite naturally drift to his cases. It would be those conversations and his diligent studies that would further his expertise. Franco may be retiring but his work would not be finished!

~

Martin took a deep breath of fresh air heavily laden with sunshine and smiled. He titled his head back and let the light fall onto his bruised face. He never wanted to be in the dark again. If he had his way, the sun would never set, winter would never come and the cold would never again settle like a cancer into his bones for the rest of his life.

Andrea watched his friend soak up the sunshine and knew how it felt for him to be born again from death. Andrea had been reborn in a manner of speaking; not resurrected from a veritable tomb as Martin had, but raised from the prevarications he had mollified himself with. His eyes had been opened to the world, opened to himself and he now had a choice to make. Would he go back to the comfortable, back to the lie, for however innocent or would he trudge on into the light and make his life count, be a something and a someone who served a means that extended beyond himself? No… he would not live in the dark anymore. He would search out Salah, if he was still in Venice and he would ask him to help him find the wife and family of Masu’ud. He would do for them what he could to try and make up for their loss. Whatever it was that he would do would not be enough, he knew that, but in genuinely trying to help them, anonymously, perhaps he would actually provide for himself a redemption. He would try and help Salah and the others as well. Every man deserved a hand of benevolence in his life and he would try to be that if for no other reason than the fact that it would be the right thing to do.

Andrea smiled as he looked at Martin.

     “Come my friend, the boat stop is down this way.” He said.

They strolled in comfortable silence at a leisurely pace, arm in arm the way men in Italy are prone to do at times when the world is at peace. As their feet fell onto the uneven cobblestones of the street both men took time to wonder at the world and its treasure of breath and living. Andrea saw Venice, as it was, old, tragic and beautiful beyond imagination. Martin saw Venice for what he thought it to be, a fairy tale world rising magically out of the sea. Andrea looked to the street and writhing below the foundations in the mud were the ghosts of men who had courage to be slaves. Martin looked to the buildings and the edifices and marveled at their nobility.

Martin stopped walking.

     “Is there something wrong?” Andrea asked him?

     “I need to make a telephone call.” He answered.

     “There is a pay telephone in the square.” Andrea answered as the walked under the great archway that marked the entrance into San Marco Square.

The late fall morning was clear and glorious as it broke over the Campanile’ and smiled on the great golden winged lion perched high on his pikestaff over the square. Martin stopped and looked around in a great wide circle. From the immense and ornate domes of the Church of the Lion to the intricate stone parquets of the promenade where the weathered Venetian saints sold bags of crushed corn to the tourists to feed to the pigeons, to the stately bell tower and the palace of Kings; how could such an enchanting place have held such misery and pain, such evil and suffering? He knew the answer though he did not like it: because men invariably had to try and subordinate everything around them and that control ultimately led to contempt and hatred, to the perversion of everything beautiful. Could man but invent, beautify and then leave the world he had bettered alone, all would be right, but it was impossible. Man had to meddle endlessly, and it was that interference that eventually made even the most exquisite of things ugly and vile. His marriage had started out as something beautiful, pure and innocent. It was his transgressions and subsequent penchant for dominion that had soured a fruit not yet ripened, while it still stubbornly clung to life on a withering vine. Elizabeth had not wished to become a shrieking crone. It was his kiss, made rancid by his own weaknesses that, when laid upon her lips, had turned her not into a Princess but a croaking toad of a woman whose only thought was vengeance for the wrong foisted upon her. How could he have been so blind? He had recited the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous for years and never truly understood them…

     “Admitted that we were powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” [i]

He had mumbled the words a thousand times in smoky rooms and church basements and yet, never had come to a powerlessness that allowed him to give all his control to God as he understood him, had never even come to an understanding of God, if such a thing were possible. He had kept all the power for himself and what had he brought his life to? He had no one to blame, certainly not God for God had not been given any authority. How often, how many times a week in the early years had he gone and uttered the words of the twelve steps of recovery and never took them to his heart and caressed them, loved and believed in them even as he had not taken Elizabeth to his heart and caressed her, loved and believed in her. It was too late. She would never forgive him the careless wrath that had brought each of them to the end of themselves in the other, but he could salvage a part of her dignity, and in doing so, perhaps regain a piece of his own soul.

Martin was aware that they had stopped walking.

Andrea gestured toward a pay phone at the edge of the square, near the side door of the great church.

     “Would you?” He asked as he handed the receiver to Andrea. “I don’t know how to do this and besides,” he said as he gestured toward his casted arm, “I don’t have enough hands.”

Andrea took the receiver and dialed the direct long distance calling card code that Martin gave him. He handed the receiver back to him and then stood off a small distance to give him some privacy.

A very sleepy Bill Matthews answered on the other end.

     “Hello?” He mumbled.

     “Bill? This is Martin.”

     “Martin, Martin! My God, are you alright?”

     “Yes, I’m fine…”

     “But where are you? What time is it? I’ll…”

     “Bill,” Martin calmed him with a soothing tone, “I’m all right and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back but in the meantime, I want you to do something for me.”

     “God, it was all over the papers and news here… are you sure you’re okay?” Bill sounded doubtful, and who could blame him?

     “I’m fine. I’m headed for the airport now and like I said, I’ll tell you the whole story when I get back. But right now, I want you to listen to me. I want you to get in touch with Elizabeth…”

     “I have been negotiating with her and Landiss…”

     “No, go around Landiss. Deal with Elizabeth only. She was a reasonable woman once and I believe that she can be again if she is treated fairly. Call a meeting with her and then give her whatever she wants. Be fair, be generous, hell, give her everything! I don’t care anymore. She’s earned it! Let her have whatever she wants and if she wants half of the business, sign it over. If she wants the whole thing, that’s fine. If you can keep something for me to live on, great, if not, well then as I recall you have a sofa that turns into a bed right?”

There was a long strenuous silence that hummed through the wire.

     “That’s a joke Bill.”

     “Okay, a joke, well I’m sorry, but it’s four in the morning here. I’m not in the mood for jokes. Why the change of heart anyway?”

     “I’ll tell you all about it in a few days.”

     “A few days? Last I heard it only took nine or ten hours to fly to the states.”

     “Yeah, well I have things to do.”

     “What do you mean, ‘things to do?’ What are you going to do?” He asked incredulously.

Martin looked around the square, at the sun, the sky and felt the steady and sure beating of his heart.

     “Martin? Martin? What are you going to do?” Bill demanded.

Martin smiled so that his joy could be heard in his voice.

     “I’m going to take the long way home.” He said and hung up.

Andrea walked back to him and started to speak but saw that Martin was staring steadily up at the Golden Lion. Andrea directed his gaze toward the statue as well, as Martin broke the silence.

     “Tell me something…” Martin asked.

     “If I can.” Andrea answered.

     “The Lion, does he smile or snarl?”

     Andrea dropped his gaze back to his friend. “I don’t understand.” He said.

     Martin pointed toward the Lion. “Him, does he smile or snarl?”

     “Yes. I know you are speaking of the Lion of San Marco but I do not understand what it is that you mean.” Andrea insisted.

     “Well, you know, the legend of the Lion.”

     Andrea shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment. “What legend? My friend, I think you have had too much sun so soon after your dreadful experience.”

     Martin looked to his friend in confusion. “What do you mean ‘what legend’? You know, the legend of the Lion of Venice!” He asserted.

     Andrea chuckled as the winter sun fell around his face. “But Martin, there is no legend. What do you mean does the Lion smile or snarl? Who told you this thing?”

     Martin scowled. “The first day I came here, I was standing right over there looking at the same statue and this old man came up to me and asked if I knew the legend of the Lion of San Marco. I said ‘no’ and he told me that for five lire…”

     “Mille Lire…” Andrea corrected.

     “Right, for five bucks, or whatever; he would tell me the legend of the Lion of Venice.”

     “And so?”

     “I gave him a bill, I can’t remember if it was American or Italian, and then he told me this story. It goes like this… the first time you look at the face of the Lion, if you perceive that he is smiling, then Venice will always be for you, it will always be your home, because you have a heart for him and eyes to see with but…”

     “But…” Andrea repeated.

     “If the first time you look at the Lion your perception is that he is snarling, then you have no heart, no eyes and you should go home and never return because Venice is not for you! That legend! Don’t tell me you have lived here all your life and never heard it!”

Andrea started to chuckle and then his chuckling turned into a full round wave of laughter that broke from him like an incoming tide.

     “But Martin,” he countered as he wiped tears from his eyes, “there is no such legend! The man who told you this fabrication, what did he look like?”

     “I don’t know…” Martin replied somewhat sheepishly, “elderly, shabby…”

     “A, how do you say, bum?” Andrea asked.

     “Yes, I guess so.”

     “Martin this man was a vagrant, a man of alcohol, an abituato, we call them, who would tell you any story for a few dollars and some wine. He took your money, told you a beautiful lie, for there is no such legend, and then he went and got drunk. I am sorry, your vacation here has been a trouble, a lie and a falsehood from the first moments you stepped foot here.” He continued to laugh. “But surely you know of someone like him where you live? A man who would degrade himself to any untruth and indecency for a few swallows of wine?”

     Martin smiled a secret smile and then agreed with his friend. “Yeah, I know of one or two.”

As Andrea turned and began to walk away, still chuckling, Martin looked back up to the Lion. Andrea stopped and turned around and seeing that his friend still stood in the same place studiously observing the symbol of Venice, he asked him again,

     “What are you doing?”

     Without lowering his eyes, he cocked his head to one side and asked, “I know it’s a lie, okay? But just the same… tell me; is the Lion smiling?”

Andrea looked back up toward the face of the great winged griffin.

     “Bo!” He exclaimed, “I can not say because for me it is the same. The Lion is Venice; Venice is the Lion. They are not separable. Perhaps it is you who should say because whether a lie or a truth, it does not matter, it has been told to you and you have enjoyed a view of the beast that few ever see and live to tell of. You have been beneath his talons and have escaped certain death to recount the adventure, so please, explain to me… for you, what does the Lion do?”

Martin’s eyes glazed over as he thought of all he had been through. His waning marriage, the blood of his divorce, the murder of Ciccio and his harrowing stay in the butchery; his encounter with Bruno Trevisani and Cofau that night on top of the Mosé. He recalled the panic and terror of his confinement and his overwhelming joy at his rescue. He closed his eyes and listened as the wind whispered across the ancient square where people for centuries had gathered from around the world to marvel at this city rising up from the Adriatic. He could hear the sea birds as they called in the distance. He could smell the swaying green sea and hear the sound of the workmen’s straw brooms as they swept the stone streets. The perfume of coffees and breads rode on the rueful melody of a distant violin as it brushed across his face and he could hear the melancholy summons of a tugboat in the outer harbor. Though the sun was warm on his face, he could feel an unmistakable chill in the air and somewhere, far away where leaves yellowed and fell from the deadened limbs of trees, winter could be heard writhing in the multi-colored detritus.

     He opened his eyes and looked toward the Lion again. “You see the Lion? You see? He is Venice and Venice is the Lion. Look, see his mouth? Does he smiling to you or no? When you look at the Lion, if you say to yourself ‘See, the lion he smiles to me!’ then you have within you the heart of a poet, the soul of a lover and Venice shall always be a part of you, shall always be a home, a safe refuge for you but if when you see the Lion, he is not to smiling for you but is to frown or snarl, then… then you are an ungrateful child; a man with no love in him, no soul or eyes for seeing and Venice is not for you! I am a gypsy, yes? There are things I know to tell you and this is one. So tell me now, figlio mio, is the Lion to smile for you or no?”

Martin turned and looked at his friend, the man who had saved his life.

     “Then walk these streets carefully figlio mio, for that one there, the beast… he has eyes for you!”

There was a distant rumination of torment on his face, a gathering storm, a sadness and a recognition that only comes to men who have learned to suffer…

     “The lion smiles.” He said.

~

The End

~

When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.

Available now, in Paperback, Hardcover and e-Reader editions from, AmazonBarnes & NoblePublishAmerica.com.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced. Stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.

First printing.

This is a work of fiction. Names Characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, event, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PublishAmerica has allowed this work to remain exactly as the author intended, verbatim, without editorial input.

~

  PUBLISHED BY PUBLISHAMERIC, LLLP

www.publishamerica.com Baltimore

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