Everything comes to an end. Love, hate, betrayal. The greed of wealth, the lust for power, the comfort in religion. In the final moment, everyone falls, even the kings of empires and the princes of darkness. In the silence of the tomb, we all get what we deserve.
Reassured that for him that particu lar moment is a long way off, he boards the cramped and crowded bus at Piazza Vittoria for the vertiginous ride down the mountainside into Capri village. The driver's square metal fare box is closed and locked and he will not take money for the ride. This is the Caprese version of a strike against management for higher pay. No marches, no shaking fists, no amplified rhetoric. Calm and considered, slow as the pace of the island itself, the protest has been going on for three years.
The two-lane road down which the bus wheezingly careens is steeply pitched, harrowingly twisting. Traffic whizzes by in the opposite lane so close the trucks appear ready to kiss the bus. The road is decorated on one side by sprays of brilliant bougainvillea, on the other by views of the Gulf of Naples, glittering in the sun. Occasionally, in the mysterious niches of the rock face, miniature painted plaster statues of the Virgin Mary can be seen, bedecked with wilted flowers. He has seen the open-air factory near the beautiful cemetery in Anacapri where the statues are made, white bisque with blank eyes turned out of rubber molds, ruffles of rough edges that must be removed with a knife. Many of the passengers, mostly the older women, touch forehead, chest, and shoulders in the sign of the cross as they pass these hallowed places where pedestrians were struck down.
All the orange plastic seats are occupied. Bags shifting between bare knees. Long hair floating on a hot breath of wind. Brief arias of Italian conversations, the loud, brutal bite of German. Handprints on the glass, greasy chromium poles, the stirring of silent bodies in the grip of the forces of gravity. He stands, staring out through the window at the cloudless sky, the cobalt water, the yachts and pleasure boats. He sees a packed hydrofoil cutting a scimitar swath through the bay from Naples and he wonders whether this is the one.
Watching the hydrofoil, it occurs to him that the port of Mergellina was the last real thing he can remember. When he himself stood on the eleven o'clock hydrofoil as it bounded across the bay, when frenzied Naples faded into the heat haze, when the steeply ris ing slopes of Capri had appeared as if from the deepest portion of his memory, he had entered a land of lost time. He felt as if he was seeing the rocky shore as Augustus Caesar had known it more than two thousand years ago. And just then he had caught a glimpse, high up atop the rocks, of the remains of the Villa Jovis and quite without conscious volition had projected himself either backward or forward in time into that palace of stone and grass and magnificent ruined baths.
A young man in a red-and-blue checkered swimsuit, taking full advantage of the unnaturally warm spring, dives off the bow of a sleek teak and fiberglass sailboat into the dark water. A brief creamy splash, then his blond head appears as he wipes water off his long Roman nose. He waves enthusiastically to a woman in large sunglasses and a widebrimmed straw hat who has appeared on deck. Her feet are spread wide, one hand presses her hat to the top of her head to keep it from whirling away. Her swimsuit is comprised of three tiny yellow triangles.
Ten forty in the morning and already the back of his neck feels sticky. A line of sweat snakes down the indentation of his spine. His face itches. The bus lurches around a hairpin turn and a body is thrown against him. He smells a light citrus scent and turns, aware of the heat emitted from bare skin. A Caprese girl of eighteen or nineteen in a short, unnervingly tight turquoise skirt and a lime green sleeveless Lycra top that looks to him like underwear. The perfect curve of a tanned arm, and underneath the smooth hollow that leads inexorably down to the lift of the young breasts. So vulnerable and at the same time so remote, as if she is part of another lifetime, another universe. Which, of course, she is. This does not stop him from staring at the intimate dewlike sheen that licks the shadowed dell from which floats toward him the unmistakable aroma of freshly peeled lemons. Her face is partially hidden by the thick curtain of her long dark hair, but he can catch a glimpse of coffee eyes, a generous Sophia Loren mouth. And her ass. My God, the Caprese have magnificent buttocks! Even the mothers. All that climbing up and down steep inclines. All day, all night. Better than a StairMaster. The modern-day Romans are wrong to disdain the Napalitanos as peasants. But when you have your nose in the air it's difficult to appreciate the treasures that lie close to the earth.
A sudden longing pierces him, drawing him to her as if she is a lodestone, the very center of True North to which he has long ago become attuned. With the tension of a biologist encountering a potentially new species, he studies the tiny silken hairs on her taut forearm, and at the back of her neck as she lifts a slim hand to swing the waterfall of her hair out of the way, the long pale sea-creature cilia at the arching of her nape.
This Caprese girl, fresh as a spremuta. He wishes he was holding her hand, brushing against her rocking hips, listening to the music of her lithe legs as they walk side by side through the peaceful earthen aisles of the mountaintop cemetery. They would stop and silently watch the women on their knees, plunging their hands into buckets of soapy water, scrubbing down the carved marble of their family grave sites, arranging freshly cut flowers in green glass vases married to the cool surface of the tombstones by black iron rings. How he would love that and how utterly bored she would be. To judge by the blank look on her face, a bracing macchiato and a spin into Tod's is more her speed.
He is close to her, his thoughts caressing her as intimately as would a lover's hand. And yet she is utterly oblivious. Lips moist and half open, she cracks her chewing gum. He laughs silently, at her, at himself. How foolish fantasies are, and at the same time how compelling. He cannot imagine anything more powerful.
He inhales her deeply, recognizing an alchemical change: His reaction to her has released a powerful sensation inside himself. It is both exhilarating and frightening, an eely thing dredged up from the darkness of his youth when he wandered the debris-strewn streets of Manhattan at three in the morning with the Outsider's contempt for the humdrum world. How he cherished being otherĐa lone wolf watching the sheep all moving in the same direction. And how he feared the loneliness it brought with it. Possibly, he tells himself, he was searching for her, just this one, this perfect creature, but immediately he knows this as a conceit. There is no one that does everything for you, and so you keep searching beyond love, beyond companionship, because part of the human condition is not being satisfied, for if you were there would be nothing left save death. Dissatisfaction, he tells himself, is the engine that drives life.
This girl, this fantasy needs to be belted down neat like a triple scotch. She is there to make him forget, to help ease the pain inside him that has become an illness. This moment in time, this present, is for him little more than a dream. He is still living in the moment that occurred three hours ago, but which continues like a whipping, devastating in its excoriation.
The creaking bus turns a corner and for a moment he can see the ribbon of road behind them, running up the steep, verdant mountainside to the Hotel Caesat Augustus. His heart seems to turn over in his chest like a dropped stone. Mia's final, brutal, horrifying sentence said it all, wrapping up the last two weeks in the soiled brown paper it deserves.
The bus, gears grinding ominously, staggers the last half kilometer into the open-air depot at Capri village, where he changes for the bus down to Marina Grande. Fifteen minutes later, he arrives. The bus begins to disgorge its load into a street clogged with people and vehicles all, it seems, needing to go to the same place at the same time. Those seven hateful words, the bland look on her face that revealed not a trace of bitterness or remorse, made him want to smash her face with his balled fist. He is filled with rage, a swamp through which he is struggling as he swings off the bus. He hits the pavement, his heart aching, his nerves raw.
Craning his neck, looking around for her, he feels the stir of resentment like a hungry dog's growl, sharp and craven. He hears Mia's closing line in his head, perfectly, devastatingly choreographed.
"Don't worry about me, I'm well fucked."
This woman, moving like a siren of the sea, circles him still like a hungry moon.
He wishes Cloe had come, because it would mean that she has forgiven him, that she'll take him back. He imagines what it would be like to catch sight of her through the crowd, to watch her walk toward him. He would find it a jolt to see her here, the open arms that the real world holds out to him in forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness.
He is thinking of what he will say to Cloe when he calls her this eve ning, the new beginning that might now be his; the betrayal that will be forgotten, because he's quite certain that Cloe would never hurt him as cruelly as Mia hurt him. He is imagining as if it is a film he is expertly splicing together: the mise-en-scĆne of betrayal, and he begins to wonder (because all good films are juggling acts of counterbalancing forces) what it is that is the opposite of betrayal. He lowers himself off the bus, walking amid the squall of people. His steps quicken, his heart pounds as he takes out his cell phone. He'll call Cloe now, confess everything, tell her it's all over and done with, a bad dream consigned to history. She'll understand, of course she'll understand.
He sees what will happen reflected in the eyes of a wisp of a girl striding toward him, sees it an instant too late. He is still absorbing her look of horror when the narrow Caprese van strikes him full on and kills him instantly.
Copyright 2009 by the Estate of Robert Ludlum