Read an Excerpt
Death in Florence
By George Alec Effinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 George Alec Effinger
All rights reserved.
New Streets and Roads
It was about five-thirty in the morning when Moore awoke. There was a harsh, blue-white light outside the window, shining through the dusty slats of the blinds. There were no signs of motion, nothing moving between the source of the light and the window. The light was very near, its glare unsoftened by distance. When Moore finally rubbed away the last bleary webs of sleep, he couldn't remember where he was. It seemed to him that he hadn't slept normally. It may have been that he had been drugged or tampered with, his brain rhythms may have been adjusted to induce a long coma, or nurses may have been bribed to feed him barbiturates over a period of months or even years. Where was he? How long had he been asleep? He swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He was naked. He walked to the window. When he got there, he hesitated for a few seconds, not wanting to be either stunned or disappointed too quickly. He left the exciting part for as long as he could, smiling to himself in the dimness. Then he raised one of the blind's metal ribs and stared out.
The ground was covered with snow. Tall pole lamps stood in parallel ranks about a white- covered parking lot. There were no cars out there. Innumerable specks of brightness shone on the crust of the snow. "Very lovely," thought Moore. "Where am I? Have I slept for centuries? Have I awakened in some strange culture, with which I will have nothing in common?" He ran a hand through his dark hair, pretending to be worried. He spent a few seconds trying bewilderment, being puzzled, attempting to be not immediately in possession of the facts. He wanted the feeling to last awhile, he wanted time for full development. It didn't work; he was too bored. "No," he thought, "tomorrow I'll be worried. That's soon enough." He yawned and let the slat fall back into place. His pale body was tiger-striped with shadows and blue-white brightness.
Now that he was awake, there was nothing else to do but dress and get ready to catch the bus. He looked around his room. It was a simple, bare college dormitory room. It had a low, uncomfortable bed with a thin mattress, a cheap, green-painted wooden chair, a wobbly desk, and a lamp. In the closet was a small dresser and a mirror. The bathroom was down the hall. He scooped up the clothes he had worn the day before and left the room. His feet slapped on the cold tiles of the hallway, and he stubbed his toe on the raised threshold of the bathroom. He went to the sink where he had left his toilet articles and began to shave. Many of the other men had already taken their showers, and he greeted them sleepily.
* * *
Eileen Brant opened her eyes. The room was flooded with light. The window was open, and the salmon-colored drapes were billowing in the warm breeze. Beyond the window, Brant could see the curving tops of palm trees; from her point of view, an aluminum fence intercepted the trees before the trunks reached the nourishing earth. The fence marked the farther boundary of an asphalt-paved parking lot. There were no cars in the lot. Brant got out of bed and undid the ties of her nightgown. She yawned and tossed the garment onto the bed.
A pleasant fragrance came in through the window, smells of strange flowers and shrubs she had never seen before. There was also a rather loud noise, a generator in the back of the dormitory. As she became aware of the sound, she realized how much it irritated her. She smiled and shook off the feeling. She hummed to herself.
"I have been washed up on some foreign shore," she thought. "I am Nausicaa, a beautiful princess, and I am stranded on the golden sands of a wonderful dark island. My memory is still floating half-dead in the waves. I don't know where I am. I don't know who I am, other than Nausicaa, a highly prized royal daughter. And to make everything fitting, Odysseus must be playing a silly game of ball with his minions, who will all join in carrying me to his palace, where I will astound them with my lies and my athletic prowess."
Brant remembered that she was naked. She hurried to the closet and grabbed the clothes she had worn the day before. She threw them onto the bed and put on a quilted robe. She didn't see any reason to lock the door to her room when she left, and she went down to the lavatory to wash up before breakfast.
* * *
The little Arab kid had left Staefler's supper on the wooden stool. Staefler just looked at it for a few seconds; the whole room seemed to have just two attributes: heat and odors. The wooden bowl of mutton stew added to both. Wisps of steam rose from the dark, viscous stuff. A heavy, almost noxious smell of grease and spices spread from the stew to fill the dark room. Staefler sighed and went toward the stool, but he changed his mind and instead sat back down on the edge of the bed. He decided to wait until he was a little hungrier.
The room was small and square, virtually empty of furniture. There was an old wooden fan on the ceiling that could not be made to operate. There was the bed and the stool and a small night stand with a porcelain basin of water. There was no mirror, no dresser, no chair for whatever visitor Staefler might persuade into his room. The walls had been white, but were now a cracked and peeling yellow. Rust-red stains made a kind of Moorish pattern around the room. Staefler wiped the sweat from his face and fell back on his pillow. He wondered what he could do to kill the rest of the evening.
There was a bar not too far away, run by a Hungarian immigrant. Staefler liked to go down there late at night, when all the casual drinkers and the wandering Europeans had drifted elsewhere. There was a pinball machine in the dark rear alcove. Staefler had a great store of competitive energy in him, and he tested himself against games. The women of the city laughed at him when they discovered how serious he was. "Hemingway shot things," he would say. "I play things." He meant it. The pinball machine was the only challenge that he acknowledged in the entire city of Al-Dur, and he was determined to turn it over.
He had almost beaten the machine the night before. Staefler had gone into the bar about eleven o'clock and gotten his usual absinthe Suissesse. He carried the drink back to the machine, which was called Hi-Lo Express, the letters of the name glowing in red and blue on the vertical backglass. He slipped a coin into the slot and hit the red reset button to clear the previous score. A ball popped in front of the spring plunger. The idea was to use the machine's flippers to keep the ball in play. He was aiming for the targets which would light the letters H-I L-0 E-X-P-R-E-S-S. If he completed the sequence, the other features on the playing area would increase in value. In over a week's playing, he had never been able to light all the letters.
Staefler had almost beaten the machine. His hands clenched as he remembered the frustration of the night before. He had needed fifty-five thousand points to win, and he had gotten fifty-one thousand. He had used his last coin, and he had walked back to his room in a bitter mood. What had made the situation worse was that he had watched a young native boy beat the machine easily. Staefler didn't like the way the natives slammed the pin-ball machine mercilessly, thinking it would help jar points on the Scoreboard. That was not finesse or skill, to Staefler's way of thinking. It didn't prove anything about one's maturity. When Staefler played, he barely jolted the machine. He used the flippers gently, sending the ball up to the bumpers in slow, easy arcs, instead of bashing the thing around in unpredictable, careening paths that often left the player hopeless when the ball shot by the flippers.
Staefler sat up again on his cot, unclenching his fists. He took a deep breath. Tonight, he knew, tonight he would win. He forgot the mutton stew completely. He checked his pockets and made sure that he had the coins for the machine and enough for the absinthe. Then he went out to the bar.
It was raining. The narrow brick streets were filling with dark water, and broken spouts sent cascades of cold rain onto the shoulders of the pedestrians. The rain did nothing to clean the air, though. The thick, hot smell of garbage and human wastes nauseated Staefler. He was grateful when he arrived at the bar and entered its cool, dimly lit rooms. He got his drink and went back to the alcove. The pinball machine was gone. In its place was a large, gaudy jukebox. Staefler just stared. Then he turned and walked quickly out of the bar and back to his room. He crossed the empty lot behind the auberge in which he was staying and ran up the back stairs of the building. He turned the key in the lock and pushed his door open with his shoulder; he went in and lay down on the bed. He closed his eyes, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to sleep. In the morning he would be on his way.
* * *
Moore's plane landed at Orly. He ignored the flight attendants' insistent farewells and hurried through the terminal. He had packed everything in two small zippered bags so that he wouldn't have to wait for his luggage to be unloaded. He still had to go through customs, however, but that wasn't as much trouble as just getting through the security check before boarding. As he walked toward the main terminal, he heard his name being called on the public address system. "Mr. Norman Moore, please go to the white courtesy phones in the lobby. Mr. Norman Moore, please pick up any white courtesy telephone." Moore was very excited. He'd always wanted to be paged. There was a white phone on the wall just a few feet away. He straightened his posture and walked determinedly toward it.
"Hello, this is Norman Moore," he said into the phone, wondering who would answer.
"Ah, hello, Monsieur Moore," said a man's voice. "I am Etienne Crisafi, the representative here in Paris of Utopia 3."
"Yes, of course," said Moore. "I'm glad you contacted me. I didn't have any idea where I was supposed to go next."
"If you'll collect your things and wait by the sign that says Gentilly, right next to the newsstand as you came into the main lobby, I'll meet you and the others in about ten minutes."
"Fine," said Moore. He hung up the phone and looked around. He spotted the sign without any difficulty; there were already two men and three women waiting there. He shrugged and went over to join the group.
* * *
"Well," thought Eileen Brant as she stepped into the long hall leading to the terminal, "here I am in a foreign country." She walked along the carpeted corridor, noticing with amusement the arrangement of signs. They were in several languages, but here the French was on top. At the end of the hall she emerged into a large, well-lighted lobby. A hanging sign told her several times that her luggage would be somewhere below, at the bottom of an escalator. She adjusted her hat, removed her left glove, and stepped on the moving stair. "So far, it isn't so different," she thought. "Je me finderai la lavatorie."
That was the limit of her plans for the future. She had neglected to leave the Utopia 3 brochure out when she had packed, so now it was somewhere amid all the other belongings she had brought with her, in one of her five suitcases. She didn't know whom she was supposed to contact in Paris, or where she was supposed to go. She decided not to worry about it all until after she had found the ladies' room. There might still be something informative in her purse....
But there wasn't. When she came out of the ladies' room, there was a tall, gaunt man waiting for her. He had her luggage piled beside him. Brant looked at him for several seconds. "Avez-vous le porter ou les directions?" she asked in terrible French.
"Excuse me, madame," said the man, smiling. "My name is Etienne Crisafi. I am from Utopia 3. I am come to see that your arrival has been satisfactory."
"It is, I suppose," said Brant, very relieved. "What do I do now?"
Crisafi gestured, and a uniformed man stood up and approached them. "Take these bags to the bus," said Crisafi. The other man nodded. "If you will allow me?" Crisafi offered Brant his arm; she pretended not to notice, nodded, and followed him.
"Ah," thought Brant, as they walked briskly through the underground baggage-claim area, "so this is Paris. This is France. So this is Europe. Everyone is so cultured. Everyone is so sophisticated. I hope that I don't make a total fool of myself. I wish I hadn't taken this glove off."
Crisafi turned his head and smiled at her. "Do you enjoy our weather?"
Brant forced herself to smile back. "Yes, of course," she said. "The air conditioning is very much like that which we experienced at Kennedy."
"Yes, your Kennedy. You have had several, have you not?"
Brant's sudden frown indicated to Crisafi that he had touched a sensitive area. He seemed flustered for a moment. "Is this our group?" asked Brant, as they approached a small gathering of men and women leaning against a wall.
"Yes, madame," said Crisafi. "I will leave you here. Please make introductions. I will find the remainder of our members, and then we can start off for Utopia 3. We ought to be there by dinnertime, if the traffic permits us."
Brant went up to a broad window. She could see a huge field paved with gray concrete, striped with yellow lines, with pole lamps planted at regular intervals across it. Far in the distance there was a bluish-green blur that might have been any of several phenomena: mountain, ocean, forest, city. "So this is France," she thought again.
* * *
When Staefler woke up, his head hurt. The sun was shining in through the single window, bright and hot on his face. He muttered to the Arab kid to roll down the awning. There was no answer; Staefler turned over, cursing. The room was empty. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. His temples throbbed. He wished that he had something to drink.
The stew from the night before was still sitting on the stool. A thin white layer of fat had congealed across the top of the bowl, looking in that perilously hot room like a bowl of frozen milk. Beside the stool, on the floor, was another bowl filled with a thick yellow gruel. Staefler ignored it, too. He picked up his clothes from a heap in the corner and got dressed. He ran his hand through his hair in a futile attempt at grooming. Then he went out to find the Arab kid.
The boy was sitting at a table in a cafe near the auberge. Staefler glared at the kid, but the boy didn't seem to care. "What's going on?" yelled Staefler. The Arab kid shrugged. He was eating tripe, prepared a la mode de Caen. Staefler went through the gate in the iron fence around the cafe and shook the boy by the shoulder. The Arab kid looked up silently, then stood and followed Staefler back to the room.
"We're going away," said Staefler, while he waited for the boy to unlock the door to their apartment. "I've got to get out of this place. We'll go down and talk to that guy who owns the herring boat. We ought to be able to work passage to Cailly." The Arab kid never gave him a sign that he comprehended or, if he did, that it mattered to him.
Staefler's belongings were few enough to fit inside a narrow cardboard suitcase; the boy gathered them up and stuffed them into the container. He had no possessions of his own, other than the rough woolen sack he wore every day. The two of them walked quietly past the office of the aubergiste and into the street, hoping not to meet their landlord coming in. They owed him enough money that he could demand their arrest if he caught them trying to run without paying. Their luck held, at least as far as the street. Staefler started for the waterfront, and the Arab kid walked close behind, carrying the flimsy suitcase in both arms.
"We're on our way," said Staefler. "We've had enough of this stinking city. God, I've had enough of this whole stinking country. Out on the water. It will do me good, I think. And then France. At least in France you don't have to live on garbage. You always hear how they've got food in France." The Arab kid never said a word.
Excerpted from Death in Florence by George Alec Effinger. Copyright © 1978 George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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