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A Touch of Danger
By James Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 James Jones
All rights reserved.
The taxi taking me from the Athens Hilton to the Piraeus ferry dock roared around the last cloverleaf of new road and slid in against the high curb like a scared baserunner with his cleats bared. My neck was jerked. The already dented hubcaps grated and clashed against the badly poured Greek concrete. Before it was stopped, the paunchy mustachioed driver was out of it waving his arms and running for the ferry where a cluster of ship's officers stood together in white uniforms being important.
I had made the mistake of telling him to step on it, that I was running a little late. Now—to buy himself a big tip—he was going to pretend he had personally held the ship's sailing in order to get me aboard.
After a moment to straighten my neck, I gathered my old trenchcoat and hat and briefcase and got out and went over to what had to be the ticket booth. When I said, "Tsatsos," the old man in the hotbox made out a pink ticket form and counted on his fingers for me how much I owed him in drachmas.
Around us heat shimmered on the Athens plain. Back from the cleared area for the new road, the buildings seemed to gasp in it. At my feet a square of feverish ill-looking lawn set in the concrete was dusted with it. Athens itself, the Athens of Socrates and Aristophanes and Jackie Kennedy, was not visible from here.
The cab driver came back. "All A-okay," he grinned. "All fine, boss. All fixed up now."
"My suitcase is still in your trunk," I said.
His eyes widened. He had forgotten it. He came back with it striding importantly, and handed it grandiloquently to a tottery ancient in a long blue smock and cap who was supposed to fool people like me that he was a porter.
I paid the driver. I gave him his big tip. I have never known how to deal with phonies who pretend they've done more for you than they actually have. You'd think a hard-nosed private detective with fire in his eye would learn how to handle that, but I never have. One of the minor reasons I remained so broke, probably.
I followed the ancient with my suitcase to the ship, hoping he would not collapse with it. The ship was moored stern-on to the quay and connected by a rickety gangplank made of old boards that bowed with every step of every passenger. The ship's officers were herding across it a small mob of Greek citizens carrying paper sacks and cardboard cartons tied with rope. One officer took my ticket and looked at it and passed it to another one. The second one looked at it, tore off the perforated end, which he handed to a slave behind him, and gave it to a third one. The third looked at it as if inspecting it for signs of contraband and handed it back to me with a hard stare. Thus they created work for three men out of a job one guy would have found it hard to spend all his time at. I stared just as hard back at them. They weren't used to that.
I followed the ancient across the swaying plank, matching my steps to the motion and taking the swing with my knees. I was worried about him. I had lived on the edge of collapse myself, in too many different places and too long. But he was good. He was shaky, but he conserved his meager energy. He deposited my suitcase by the rail in a gangway already crowded with the belongings of other people. Paper sacks oozing the juice of squashed fruit; boxes dripping melted sugar at the low corner in the heat. I gave him a big tip, too. I've always been a sucker for overtipping. The theory is they will remember you if you ever pass that way again. I have never found that it ever got me any extra service or smiles.
The tiny dining room, when I finally found it amongst all the bellowing adults, screaming kids and barking animals, was nice. But it had been taken over by a bunch of English boys in wild clothes who looked like fag set designers. I found myself a rusting folding chair up forward on the main deck under the tarpaulin and put my feet up on the rail. After a while the ship's horn hooted twice and we departed. Astern, the port and the plain got misty and dim in the heat haze.
So was beginning my month's free, paid vacation. I was already feeling it was a bad mistake, even before I got on board. It was a six hours' trip, to the island of Tsatsos.
"You'll love it down there," Freddy Tarkoff had told me on the phone, at the end of my New York call. Freddy Tarkoff was my client. My rich client. My only rich client. Freddy was pleased with the job I had done for him in Europe.
"Just sit in the tavernas, and swim a little, and toast yourself on the beach. Nothing to do but loaf and scratch. You're a spearfisherman, aren't you?"
"I used to be," I said.
"It's my present to you. I appreciate what you've done, Lobo. It's all laid on. There's a lady friend of mine down there who's setting everything up, and will look after you personally while you're there. Her name is the Countess Chantal von Anders. Got the name?"
Something in his tone of voice stated delicately that he knew her a good bit better than as just a friend.
"I've instructed her to apply herself to your every wish. She's renting a house for you. And a boat with an expert spearfisherman."
"Okay, I'll go." I choked on it a little, and it came out too flat, because it was hard for me to say it. I'm inclined to be overproud.
"You'll love it down there," he said again.
So here I was. There was a gang of hippie kids under the big tarpaulin, most of them American, a few English. As soon as we were at sea they got out their guitars and about fifty bottles of cheap red wine, and sang folk songs and got drunk and effectively elbowed away from them all of the people who were nearby. They made me feel very old. I heard one of them say they were going to Tsatsos, too. I looked ahead bleakly to six hours of their scintillating company.
Six hours' trip to Tsatsos. Well, I had plenty to think about. There was my job for Freddy. There was my life. There was my recent divorce. I didn't want to think about any of them.
I wasn't half as pleased with my job for Tarkoff as he was; for different reasons. My life I wasn't pleased with either, but I didn't know what to do about it. As for my divorce I didn't know whether I was pleased with that or not.
Tarkoff was a good friend. Tarkoff knew a lot about my personal life. That was probably why he organized this junket. I didn't like anybody knowing that much about my personal life.
I gave myself up to the sea. There was a grubby juice and booze bar at the back of the main lounge, run by two short-tempered Greeks who resembled Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. I got the biggest Scotch they could pour into the biggest smeared glass they had, and brought it back with me and put my feet back up. Like most men from the great middle part of the American continent I had an unreasonable passion for the sea. I took my feet back down and allowed myself to be rudely elbowed further forward by the expanding rim of the hippie circle without saying anything, then put my feet back up.
The overweight sun beyond the tarpaulin glinted off the wavelets and hammered the sea's face into hundreds of silver collages. Moisture rose from the surface so heavily it gave an opal haze to the air and pinkened the passing ships and islands. The ship's engines rumbled pleasantly in the sea quiet. I sipped my Scotch. There was plenty of time to think about the unpleasant things later. Things like my life. I listened to the rumbling ship's engines carrying me along, and relaxed. I shouldn't have. I should have grabbed a buoy and jumped overboard; and flagged down a passing tramp to carry me straight back to the Athens Hilton and the airport.CHAPTER 2
In the six hours we passed about twenty islands, and stopped at seven of them. All around us tall blue headlands stood up out of the sea. If you didn't know the chart, you could not tell which were islands and which were hills on the mainland. I went back twice for refills of my big smeary Scotch glass. I figured the whisky would antisepticize the glass.
Finally, the ship headed in for a black humpback whale of a headland straight in front of us, and the hippie kids behind me began putting their guitars away and throwing their sandwich wrappers and empty wine bottles over the side. I watched them. I had just been listening to them talk about pollution.
The distinctive thing about Tsatsos was that it was green. The rest of the land we passed was as dry as a Boy Scout's fire kit. I was assured by every Greek I met that it was not the Greeks who cut off all the timber in Greece, but the Turks. Whoever it was, they certainly did a superior job of it. But somehow they missed Tsatsos.
As it floated closer to us, its single town showed white-white along the sea edge. The green rising behind it accentuated the white. A crusty old Colonel Blimp of an Englishman told me the white dots spotted here and there on the hills were Greek Orthodox chapels. Each one was built on the site of an ancient pagan temple.
A pretty little lighthouse made a white and black checkered spindle at one end of the town. At the other, west end was another landmark not so prepossessing. On a large headland somebody with the taste of an ape had started a big construction of modern apartment units and never finished it. Abandoned in mid-job—in mid-trowel stroke it seemed. Straight-line construction units of four and six apartments, on spindly pre-poured concrete stilts, covered most of the headland and loomed over the town below. Most of them were still uncovered red construction brick, without even door or window frames. It made a real eyesore.
Below it beside the sea in the gathering dusk was what looked like a modern luxury tourist hotel, complete with lush gardens and clients.
Next to me two of the American hippie girls were pointing at the construction site and giggling. Apparently that was where they were going. "That's the Construction," one of them whispered to the other.
Behind us the ship's horn high up on the mast gave one long hoot and the engines started churning in reverse, preparing to land us at the big concrete jetty which also served as breakwater for the tiny port.
Nobody met me at the ferry. If the Countess Chantal von Anders was supposed to be looking after me, she wasn't doing her job. The Countess had flunked out on the very first stage. I began to feel depressed again. I picked up my suitcase and went to look for a taxi.
No private cars were allowed on the island, it turned out, and the taxis were two-wheeled horsecabs, of the type that in the nineteenth century were called cabriolets. In fact, that is where the word cab originally comes from. There was a gang of them in a little square not far from the jetty.
The center of town was as lit up as a night rocket launching, and had a carnival air about it. Like all resorts in season. Tourists, and a great number of hippies, strolled up and down. Up a little rise from the jetty and the small boat moorings of the Port itself, there was a high wall on the land side with a tree-shaded terrace of cafes on its top. Strings of colored lights swayed just under the tree branches.
Fortunately for me, I knew the name of my new landlady. I found a cabman who spoke a little English. When I said, "The Mrs. Georgina Taylor house," he nodded, then laughed a malicious laugh, but he did not explain why. I did not like the laugh.
The town darkened quickly, outside the Port area. We headed east, toward the pretty little lighthouse. We clop-clopped along the seawall road where more hippie groups were strolling. Most of the houses here were built up, at the top of two stories of slanting wall designed to baffle big winter seas. We came around a point and had in front of us suddenly the little lighthouse, the yacht harbor, and the lights of a taverna.
The lighthouse was built out at the end of a long curving arm of land. Directly across from it on the land side were the taverna lights. In between, and reaching almost to our point, small boats and five sailing yachts rocked tranquilly in the lap and chop, protected from the sea's swell outside. The driver stopped at the very last house before the taverna. Between them was a sloping vacant lot. The house was built up the slope and had a wall around it. In the wall was a faded blue-painted door.
"Georgina Taylor Haus," the driver said.
I held out my palm and let him take what change he wanted, thinking putting him on his honor would make him honest. I found out later he cheated and overcharged me anyway.
When I opened the garden door, it was darker inside, because of two or three scraggly trees. A stone walk led up the slope to the house, and to another blue garden door on the upper street with a brass ship's bell above it. The house had no fight in it. But a sort of basement apartment under it built out from the slope of the hill had lights on, and a kerosene lantern burned smokily in the yard. Four figures, two men and two women, sat in its poor light on some outdoor furniture. One of them, a man, got up. He came over to me across the gravel.
He was Con Taylor, he told me, the house's owner and Georgina's husband. They had been waiting on me. Since they heard the ferry come in. They had begun to think I wasn't on it. I said something about having to find myself a cab, and he smiled.
"Chantal didn't meet you? Oh, well. She's inclined to be absent-minded."
He was a medical scientist, he told me, in a big Athens physics research lab, and had to take the same ferry back tonight. He spoke almost perfect English. The name Taylor sounded English or American, but this guy was pure Greek. I found out later the name came from some romantic ancestor who came to Greece to fight with Byron, and married into an all-Greek family.
He introduced me to the others. Georgina Taylor, clearly English, was a tall woman with her long hair skinned back and tied at the neck. She had enormous eyes, and two small wens on her face. She looked like the salt air and gravity together were slowly drying her up and shrinking her. I couldn't see anything about her that would make the cabman laugh like that.
The other couple were called Sonny and Jane Duval. Americans. Sonny Duval was a big shaggy man, with long hair and an Elliot Gould mustache. He looked forty-four or -five, too old to be the hippie he was dressed as. Jane Duval was more than twenty years his junior, but other than that I couldn't get any fix on her. She was just sullen. She seemed negligent of the three-year-old daughter it turned out that they had with them. I hadn't seen the tiny girl in the bad light.
It was clear that the Taylors were obviously fighting, but trying to hide it in front of me. Tension stretched the air. I had dropped right into the middle of a domestic crisis. The Duvals were apparently witnesses. There seemed to be an odd disquiet between the two couples, covered up in front of me, as if they had all stopped arguing when I opened the garden door.
In my trade, you learned early on how to assess situations of this sort very quickly. Well, it wasn't any of my business. But what a hell of a way to start off my free month.
"This is Mr. Frank Davies," Con Taylor said, "who will be taking the house. I understand they also call you Lobo. That's a timber wolf, isn't it, in the United States?"
"It means that," I said. "It also means loner, out in the West where I come from. A solitary."
"Delightful. Do you mind if we call you that? Lobo?" Con Taylor asked. "I like that."
"Not if it makes you feel good," I said.
"Sonny here is going to be your boatman," Georgina Taylor cried, too brightly, and emitted a kind of high despairing giggle. "So in a way we're all your employees. I hope you don't mind our keeping the basement apartment for ourselves."
"No. I don't mind," I said. I looked again at the big overage hippie.
As if aware he was being inspected, the big man got to his feet, and seemed to keep unfolding more and more of himself as he stood up. He was at least six-two because he was at least three inches taller than me. He smiled cheerfully behind his mustache. But his mind seemed a million miles away. A huge peace medallion dangled from his neck. His wife simply sat, sullenly. "Yeah, I'm going to be working for you." He put out a meaty hand. "Chantal von Anders hired me and my boat for the month you'll be here. Be available to you from nine in the morning till six at night." He sat back down, and seemed to lapse into a kind of tongueless gloom.
Come on," Con Taylor said. "I'll take you up and show you the house and how everything works." He smiled in a smug way.
I followed him up the walk. It was nice to get out of that tension.
Excerpted from A Touch of Danger by James Jones. Copyright © 1973 James Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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