It's not an easy drive to Monemvasia.
The first hundred or so miles, before you take the left after Corinth towards the south of the Peloponnese is alright, I suppose, while you're still on the actual motorway. But then a much longer, constantly surprising, helter-skelter, downright perilous drive begins. Over rusty, rickety bridges and twisted mountain roads you must drive, narrow country passages that make the possibility of another car coming from the opposite direction quite frightening, invisible holes and bumps on the asphalt, random sheep, cows and pigs that are standing at the very edge of the fence, much, much too near the road. Negotiating your way through the charming villages of this truly beautiful part of Greece can literally make you lose your mind as young children and old women seem to emerge from behind overgrown olive trees (or perhaps just thin air) right into your path.
I'm in the car with Lili, who's fallen asleep with a half-eaten Twix in her hand, so I'm trying to make this as smooth a ride as possible. I even switch off the CD player (in the midst of Brown Sugar). The Z4 handles the tight turns effortlessly, but its light frame doesn't like the moon-like surface. When I find myself having to drive over some rocks near the side of the road (some of them quite sizeable) or else get squashed by an old blue bus straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, the rattling gets so strong that it makes Lili's head bounce against the window. She drops her chocolate snack on her lap. She awakes with a start.
"What the fuck? Are we fuckin dead? Oh my fuckin god," she puts her hand over her upper chest. "Oh my fuckin god, I was having the most fucked-up piece of shit of a dream, what the fuck are you doing driving like that, Doc? You trying to fuckin kill us?"
Sweet, softly-spoken Lili.
"I fear, my darling, that it is not at me that you ought to direct your anger; this car is quite unsuitable for this particular journey. A tank would have been more appropriate. I will follow this up with the agency as soon as we get back, I promise."
"Oh my fuckin god"" she moans, sighing, leaning back on her seat now. "That was the most fuckin horrible dream I've ever had. Jesus, there were those leeches and they were all over me" Someone was putting them on me. Yes, someone was just chucking them on me, and they kept sticking on me, like I was in fuckin Fear Factor, you know? And then boom! I thought we had crashed into something. Or someone. And for a moment I didn't know where I was, or who you were" Oh god" Give me a fag."
"Must you smoke in the car?"
"Just give me" Look, give me a fag, alright? What are you, my mother?" She explores my chest by patting it with the palm of her hand, feeling for the packet of cigarettes.
"Alright, Lili, calm down now. Cigarettes are in the glove compartment."
Her moves are rushed and clumsy, she carelessly rummages about map books and insurance papers in her search for nicotine. "Doc, they're not here. Where are the bloody fags? They're not here. Oh, here they are. Okay. Lighter, please."
"In the glove compartment, Lili." I overtake an elderly gentleman who's walking in front of a donkey. The animal seems impossibly overloaded with chunks of wood. Lili rummages. She lights up and, finally, she inhales some smoke and blows it right out. It fills the car. I flick the switch and the roof folds back, allowing the sun to blast our faces.
Some months ago, when Lili made Chief Inspector and joined the MI5, I spent a few days mentally preparing for a difficult discussion with Wilkinson. My father had died recently, leaving the house he had bought only a year ago in Barmouth unoccupied. At first I took a week off to go there and try to see how much I could sell it for " and how quickly. But then, quite unexpectedly, I relaxed. I caught myself taking pleasure in looking at the sea at night, only able to make out the white froth on the waves, listening to the breathing sound it made as it met the coast every few seconds.
I returned to London but rushed back the following Friday. In the city, one feels isolated. But what I felt in that house wasn't isolation; rather, it was sweet, inspiring solitude. And my father's stuff " his shaving razor, his vinyl Steve Lawrence and Frankie Lane records, his dozen or so books (most of them about fishing), his Ronson silver lighter " combined with his irrevocable absence, made me feel strangely at home. Saturday came. And, at dusk, as the sea slowly turned from blue to grey, then to black, I stared at it and cried. I don't know quite what for. But it made me feel young.
I didn't expect Wilkinson to be pleased about my decision to retire effective immediately. And he was not.
"Early retirement? Before we're done with the Four Athenas?"
He lifted his tall but fragile old English frame off his armchair and walked over to the window, sighing. The morning light around him made him look even thinner and more fragile, his pin-stripe suit jacket almost like a cape over his shrunken shoulders. Wilkinson had cancer. I was one of the few people who knew. Most everyone else thought he had gone into hospital to get a stomach ulcer fixed.
I knew most of Wilkinson's secrets. He trusted me. He drank and smoked with me and told me things that stopped him sleeping at night.
"That's the way you thank me after everything I've done for you, Doc?"
I had expected that kind of silliness. Wilkinson is great at playing the hurt father. But I had planned my reaction well in advance. And it wasn't coming until I was sure that he was through with his little monologue.
"That's how you pay me off for bailing you out time and time again? That's your idea of gratitude for the fact that if it weren't for me you'd have killed yourself when you got divorced? No, no. You know, Doc, it's fine. It's just fine. You just walk out on me as we're in the last and most critical stage of an operation and go and"" An expression of disgust on his face: ""retire! Happy bloody retirement, I hope you don't mind I haven't bought you a clock, I'll send out for one and royal mail it to you at the earliest. Congratulations, and go fuck yourself."
"Are you quite finished, sir?"
"Finished? I haven't even started. And don't ask me to start. I don't want to start. Because if I start, Doc, I'll say things that will hurt you and I wouldn't want that. We go back, you and I. Don't we. I mean, it's been, what, twenty-one years?"
He goes into calm and collected nostalgic musings now. The emotional blackmail proceeds as predicted. "Twenty-two years" Bloody hell. You were just a boy then."
I play along. "Well, not quite, sir. I was thirty-one."
"Goodness, were you really? So that would make you, what, fifty-three now." He whistles in amazement. "And barely a single grey hair! Well, perhaps just a few, around the temples" I suppose, now that I know your age, it sounds more reasonable that you would want to chuck it in. On the one hand, I don't know how you can do it. You've been on the trail of those mongrel females for, what, four years? And you have come so close."
"Not that close, sir."
"Depends how you look at it, my boy. At any rate, I do realise that things have been progressing slowly, and being as old as you are you naturally need some time for yourself. After all, you barely have enough time to meet a woman who will be able to put up with you. And you deserve one, you truly do."
I sense an insult coming right up.
"I mean, Doc, life hasn't been fair to you. I'll give that to you. Cigar?" He opens and extends the box towards me.
"I'll take one for later, if I may, sir."
He begins to pace up and down.
"No, it hasn't, my dear friend. Not fair at all. You have been misunderstood. You're not an alcoholic. You're not reckless. You're not a weird, quite unlovable fifty-something loner with a taste for the occasional" how should one put it, ever so illicit pleasure. Why, you weren't like that even when Sofia left you." He lights up. The Montecristo smells like smoked summer.
"Is that really good for your health, sir? Incidentally, I have been alcohol-free and drug-free for over 14 months. Thank you."
"Good for my health? Listen, son, we call you Doc for other reasons, not because we have you here to give us check-ups."
They call me Doc because I once poisoned someone. In a way that could not be detected, in a moment that could not be accounted for. One of the most powerful people who died in the late nineties died in this manner, by my hand, in the height of his campaign to become prime minister of a rather important Mediterranean country. Of course, you are certain that he died of a heart attack. And well, technically, he did. But I caused it.
"Remember what you said to me back then, Doc, when Sofia left you? You said, if it weren't for the office you would have nothing to live for. Nothing. You said you were an Intelligence Officer and that's all you were. Nothing more." He coughs violently. This is the part where I'm supposed to take kindness towards his illness and stay by his side. Only, my own father tried this before. And he failed.
"But now you've changed, of course. You're all mature now. You can live outside these walls, sure. Piece of cake. You can run away to your father's cottage in Wales and sit in a rocking chair and stare at the sea until you rot."
I stand up from my chair. "Actually, I do occasionally intend to travel, sir. I intend to spend quite a bit of time in France, as a matter of fact. Spend some time visiting vineyards. Now, if there is nothing else""
He gives me a look as if I'm still 31. A cop who's just joined the MI5, wet behind the ears and convinced I'm going to save the world. "Sit down, son."
I humour him. He sits back behind his desk and speaks slowly, gently rearranging sheets of paper on his desk. "Doc, I was listening to my voice mail this morning while the computer was booting up" You see, I've managed to find order in the chaos and be able to still do my job, even with all this damn gadgets poisoning me with radiation all day. Anyway, there was a message from Spiros."
Spiros. Our surveillance man in Athens. Our very big, very tall, very muscular surveillance man in Athens. I always wondered how he got such big biceps by tapping telephone conversations.
"He says Mary has been spotted. In a charming little guest house up on a rock which has fallen, it almost seems, in the middle of the sea. And she's expecting visitors. Do you know where Monemvasia is, Doc?"
"I haven't the foggiest, sir."
"Ah, it is a lovely place. Very romantic. Southern Greece. On the south-eastern tip of the Peloponnese. I'm telling you, it's almost unreal. Great big rock in the middle of the sea, with a couple of dozen medieval houses up on the top and " would you believe it " battlements. Parapets, crenels, the lot. Deeply historic place. And very spiritual. The whole place has been turned into a tourist attraction now, of course. Google it, you'll be amazed."
"Google it, sir?"
"Well, one has to keep pace with the times. When you first joined I would have said "look it up in the encyclopedia.' Regardless, from the mobile phone numbers and from the language they used we have good reason to believe the Four Athenas are meeting up. Spiros was typing up a report for you when we hang up. Should be in your inbox by now. They called from the Ministry, too. They asked whether we had any suggestions on how we can progress the investigation in the most creative and effective way possible within our policies and legislation. I said we can probably schedule a mission out there later today."
He expects me to open my eyes wide and gasp at my opportunity to nail the Four Athenas. He thinks I will revoke my resignation with tears in my eyes, and throw my arms around him and kiss him on the forehead.
"I know, sir."
"I know all this. I have already checked my inbox. I will go to Greece and I will gather as much evidence as is required to put them away. Then, upon my return, you will accept my resignation. Does this sound like less of an ingratitude?"
Wilkinson looks at me stone-faced for a while. "You cunt," he murmurs after a while, and laughs, coughing so loudly that I can barely hear the knock on his office door. Wilkinson's still coughing. He motions to me to say "come in."
But I have no time, for the door is open already, and a young girl has entered. She walks in slowly, respectfully, but deliberately, almost like a man. She's dressed for it, too. Big chunky boots with seemingly too many metallic parts, black leather trousers and a woolen jumper of the same colour that hangs loosely off her torso, making her breasts " if indeed this tall slender thing has any of significant size " invisible. But when one looks from the neck up, one most certainly sees a female face, framed by black curly hair that flow freely over her shoulders. Her nose is thin and slightly pointed, her lips are exquisitely coloured red, but not the artificial, uniform red of lipstick: naturally red, with pink, violet and rose undertones near the edges of her mouth, and they are shaped like four almonds arranged in pairs, their oval ends touching. The skin on her face is pale and young. And her eyes match the colour of her hair, and for a moment she reminds one of a cinematographic trick whereby everything on the screen is in black and white, except for a particular object or person that appears in red.
"Good morning," she speaks, and stands there like a good soldier, hands clasped behind her waist.
Wilkinson is still coughing, but in the presence of a lady now he feels the need to do so inside his white handkerchief, trying to avoid emptying his lung onto his calligraphically stitched green initials. The girl turns to me and gives me a professional smile, and a nod. I focus my eyes into hers and return the gesture.
We lock glances like this, for quite a while it seems, until Wilkinson gathers himself.
"Doc, this is Lili. She's going to help you progress the investigation in the most creative and effective way possible."
"Within our policies and legislation," she says as if she's speaking the last line of a poem. Then, "Sir, it is an honour to meet you." She comes forward and shakes my hand. "And I mean this in the most sincere manner, and not in the least intending to sound as if I'm buttering you up."
"Very kind of you, Lili." Her hand feels very soft and very thin. The tips of her long fingers are cold. "You just joined administration?"
"Lili is an Intelligent Officer, Doc," Wilkinson corrects me. "Just like you were once. What do you think? Could she follow in your glorious career trail?"
"I'm really quite sorry, by the way. About before." Lili is eating lamb chops with her fingers, making small but audible gnawing, chewing and swallowing noises. She wipes her fingers after every mouthful and has used up at least ten napkins, which she has piled on top of one another next to her Pepsi. She covers her mouth with her hand when she speaks. "I don't usually swear like that. I mean, I know it was unprofessional, but it's really not my normal mode of behaviour."
A drop of olive oil from the piece of bread which she bathed in the salad lands on her white tank-top, just above her left nipple, making me notice that it protrudes quite visibly through the light cotton material.
"I mean, I do hope that you don't think that I'm like that all the time."
"When are you like that?"
"You say you're not like that all the time, so when are you like that?"
"Yes, Lili. When do you swear?"
She pauses eating and wipes her fingers once again. She looks away, first towards the tough terrain to our west, an arid and ragged expanse of hills, then to the east, the road twirling round the rock, empty, devoid of traffic in the quiet of the advancing dusk.
"Î ÎÏÎÎÎÎÏ, ÏÎ ÎÎÎÎÏÎÎÏÎÏŒ," she calls at the waiter, a lanky youth wearing a Liverpool FC jersey sprawled on a chair watching the news on TV. He springs to life and rushes to our table, piling empty dishes along his forearm.
"NÎ ÏÎÏ ÏÎÏÏ ÎÎÎÎ Ï‡ÎÎÎÎ;" offers the lad with a smile on his face that he must have copied from the village idiot.
"ÎŒÏ‡Î, ÎÏÏ‡ÎÏÎÏÏÎÏÎÎ. Î ÏÎÏÎÎ ÎÎ ÏÏÎÎÏÎÎ,Â declines Lili. But I do occasionally have a sweet tooth, and I am slightly bothered that I asked her something and she has evaded the question. I do, after all, ever so slightly outrank her. By twenty-odd years of doing what she is doing for the first time, in fact.
"MÎ ÎÎÎÏÎ, ÎÎÎÏÎ ÎÎÏ," I chastize her. "ÎÏÏ‡ÎÏÎÏÏÎÏÎÎ ÏÎÎÏ, ÎÎÎÎÏ Ï‡ÎÎÎÎÏ ÎÎ ÎÏÎÎ ÏŒÏÎ ÏÏÎÏÎÎ!" Îhe lad nods and unnecessarily informs me that the sweet is made locally, at his cousin's confectionary, which we'll find barely two kilometres down the road on the way to Molai. Then he rushes off, with inexplicable urgency, to fetch it.
"So, Lili. When do you swear?"
"Just sometimes. It just comes out." She drains the last drops of her Pepsi into her mouth by tipping the glass all the way into her mouth so that it's almost vertical to earth's gravity. She puts it down hurriedly. "What time is it? Aren't we supposed to be somewhere before ten or we miss the last ferry?"
I know when Lili swears.
The word "fuck" and its derivatives, along with several other such terms including "arsehole," "shit," and "cock-suckin" are her knee-jerk reaction to perceived danger. She whimpered get up high you mother-fuckin piece of crap as the plane lifted off the runway and through the thick grey cloud over London. During the turbulent patch of air over the Adriatic she glued her face to the window and muttered why can't this arsehole see the fuckin turbublence in some kind of cock-suckin radar or something and fuckin well avoid it. And then, of course, the Twix incident. Oh Doc! My mother-fuckin Twix feel on the floor! Couldn't you see I was having a fuckin nightmare and fuckin wake me or something? Fuckin Jesus!
"Do you swear when you are scared?"
"Is this really appropriate conversation?" she frowns.
"Oh it is perfectly appropriate," I say in the calmest tone of voice, observing her delightful youthful nervousness. "Agent, if I'm going to be facing up to the nastiest bunch of international terrorists with someone who is feeling edgy, I need to know. It is quite alright. After all, it is your first mission. But we do need to be on the same page here. Are you scared?"
Two plates with large chunks of the semolina-based sweet are placed in front of us. She grabs a spoon and digs right in, stuffing three large chunks into her mouth one after the other, chewing wildly. Then she looks at mine.
"Will you eat that?"
"Yes, I will eat that. Don't touch it."
"Okay. Are you scared to a reasonable degree, or should we abort?"
She sighs and looks at the floor. "To a reasonable degree."
"Are you sure?"
"Don't sir me. Are you sure?"
"Yes," she confirms.
I eat a piece of halva.
Slowly, hesitantly, she turns her glance towards me and tries to smile. "It's good halva, isn't it?"
"Good? I don't know," I reply with pieces of the desert still in between my teeth. "Feels a bit like mother-fuckin, cock-suckin cement when I chew it."
The air you breathe on Monemvasia rock is different to any other that has ever entered your lungs. It smells of sea, sure, seeing as it has so haphazardly been thrown in its midst. So it is the air of the rock that one day had a huge argument with the rest of the mountain, and decided to follow a solo career. It is the air of a very small but very tall place; a very old place.
It is the air of souls.
Here, archers and artillery men defended the area with arrows and muskets and cannons, wreaking havoc on enemy navies that dared approach. And when you look out of the window of your room (which was probably home to many such soldiers over the centuries), you see the parapets along the empty hillside and beneath them the turbulent sea, and images of bloody fighting and flashes of heroism and despair fill your head. These soldiers were stationed here, frequented taverns when they weren't on vigil here, slept on uncomfortable mattresses here, exchanged jokes and stories and personal stuff here, lived here, died here.
But they seem to be reluctant to leave. They walk down the stone paths and steal through the dark alleys, for centuries unable to comprehend why they are not called to arms any longer.
Our room (for we are supposed to be a couple) is spacious and made of stone. There are two very comfortable looking velvet armchairs. Between them, a sizeable coffee table with four thick candles on metallic plates. A fireplace. The walls have deep red rugs hanging on them. The floor, too, is dressed with a red wall-to-wall carpet. The area around the bed is separated from the rest of the room by a semi-transparent curtain, also red.
Seconds after we enter, Lili parts the curtains and hurls herself at the bed, allowing her boots to smudge the linen. She sighs with pleasure.
I start setting up the equipment. Our room is perfectly placed to get a direct look into the windows of the guesthouse across the road. The place where, at last, Mary can be found. The blinds are wide open, the curtains are thin. I can see the lights are on in there, and within only a few minutes I spot her walking back and forth past the window three or four times. A female shadow going about its before-bedtime preparations, naked. Large, round breasts. Straight long hair.
Lili is on the phone, talking to the elderly receptionist. "AÎÏŒÎÎ ÎÎÎ ÎÏÎÎÎÎ ÎÎÎ ÎÎ ÏÎÏ ÏÎÎÎÎÏÏÏÎÏÎÏÎÎ" ÎÏÎÏÎÎÏÎ ÎÎ ÎÎÏ ÏÎÏÎÏÎ ÎÎÎ ÎÏÎÏÎÎÎÎ ÎÏÎÏÎ; ÎÏŒÎÎÎÎÎ. ÎÎÏ ÎÏÏ‡ÎÏÎÏÏÏ ÏÎÎÏ."
Mary walks past the window one more time. Her arm is moving rhythmically, the fist on its end making circular motions as it pushes and pulls something out of her mouth. Then her room goes dark.
"She just brushed her teeth almost in public view," I mutter.
"You saw her?"
"Get up from that bed, get your laptop out and start setting up the frequencies for the mics. What the hell do you think you're doing, holidaying with your boyfriend? Your objective is strolling around visible to the whole neighbourhood brushing her teeth, and you're sprawling on the bed ordering wine?"
She attempts to answer, but only a sound of hesitation comes out. She sits up on the bed and looks at me, mouth half-open, embarrassed eyes.
"This is not the Metropolitan Police, agent. We don't hand out parking tickets here. Get to work before I call Wilkinson and have you sent packing back to England on a bloody fishing boat."
About twenty seconds pass during which we just stare at each other. I explore her face. She seems surprised and embarrassed. Clearly one of those women who think they can be as obnoxious as they want to be because they have nice tits and speak a few languages. Unfortunately, she is necessary. Her Greek is more fluent than mine and she helps me look just like someone who's having a naughty weekend away from his wife and kids. According to her references, she is a brilliant sound engineer.
She unpacks her laptop and moves the candles around to set it on the table. She bends down to plug in the charger. I try not to stare at her behind. I cannot.
"Apologies, sir. I was going to do this right away. I just thought a glass of wine would get the blood pumping in us both after the long drive. Does this make sense? Anyway, I'm sorry. Honest. Distances?"
"You know damn well I don't drink."
"From thirty-five to sixty feet, thick stone walls and glass. Vertical angle is at twenty-five degrees to the south, horizontal about ten to the east. You can work it out for yourself if you so much as deign to come to the window."
"Horizontal angle doesn't matter, sir. It's a cell-like coverage area that picks up a thin slice of sounds happening in a nearby horizontal plane, but it picks up everything within 360 degrees. That's the beauty and the ugliness of it. Expected participants?"
"You already know."
"I'm sorry, sir, I need current status of expected participants. And you are the one who does the expecting. I just do the programming. Expected participants, please."
"Expected extraneous noises?"
"Take a guess, please, sir. We can always change this setting later in the light of new findings. Loud music?"
"I doubt it."
"Do you have an estimate of the overall area in which the conversation will take place? This is not required for preliminary surveillance, but may be important to the subsequent editing process. In square feet."
"Something is wrong."
"Pardon me, sir?"
"Something is bloody wrong."
As I dial Wilkinson's private number, there is a knock on the door. "Room service!" is poorly pronounced, and the elderly receptionist places a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. Wilkinson picks up with a perky "hello". I almost whisper to him, allowing Lili to have her exchange of pleasantries with the landlord in peace and quiet. I tell him that no gun and drug smuggler who threatens to sensationally assassinate the Prime Minister walks around in her room brushing her teeth with the blinds wide open.
"What's the matter, old boy? Having the jitters again? Look, wait. Wait. I'll be right back, honey. No, I just need to take this quick call outside. Be right back, I promise. What's the matter, Doc? I'm at Fonzy's with the family. It's my twenty-seventh anniversary, and I'm probably not going to live long enough to have another one."
"Happy anniversary, sir."
"Doc, listen, you don't sound too snappy. Just call operations and let them know, take Lili and come home, alright?"
He is suggesting that I abort.
And I do want to abort. Once and for ever. Unquestionably and in a manner that is impossible to undo, I want to abort, rush out of this place that is full of ghosts of warriors with blood-stained faces crawling around its walls. Drive away quickly, fly away over uninhabited, innocent mountains, descent over the greenery of England, befriend myself with its rougher, but more unassuming sea. I want to come away from death, for I have caused it repeatedly, and so it has become hell-bound on following me around.
But I have never done it before. Never aborted. Not a job. Not an obligation. Not a dream. I may have failed, but I have not aborted.
"Perceived subject's location is too easy to become compromised, sir. Perceived subject exposes self carelessly. Can Spiros reach me?"
"No, Doc. Spiros can't reach you. Now, either have a glass of something and calm yourself down, or bring your young and inexperienced colleague home. You are senior to her and responsible for her. If you're having the jitters, take some deep breaths. If you have good reason to believe this is a trap, get out now. Jesus, what is this, Doc? You sound like this is the first time you're doing this."
In the background, I can hear London traffic.
"Thank you, sir. Mission is proceeding as planned."
Lili is sipping wine and tapping away at her computer. She has headphones on. "Well" we're pretty much all set up here, sir. There is most definitely a person in there, breathing. From the regularity and shallowness of the sound, I would guess that the person is asleep." She turns around and looks at me. "Are we aborting, sir?"
"I thought I told you not to sir me."
She nods. "I do apologise."
I sit down opposite her. The armchair feels as comfortable as it looks. I realize I have not sat down since we got out of the car. A pain that was in my back all this time (but in a way that did not allow me to feel it) goes away. My neck and shoulders are rigid against the soft material.
"So you're all set-up here?"
"Provisionally. I'll finalise the settings once someone in there speaks."
"Good. Move it."
"Move it? Do you mean you want me to""
"Go to bed. I want to put my feet on your armchair and go to sleep."
She looks at the fireplace, then the undrunk wine. "You don't want to talk about tomorrow morning?"
"We both know everything we need to know about tomorrow morning, Lili. It's a straightforward procedure. We wait for one thing to happen, then we do another. When another thing happens, we do yet another. And so ad nauseum. Simple as one - two - three. Now go to bed."
The young woman obeys. If I am to believe the contents of her file, she is twenty-eight years old. Right now she looks more like twenty. She closes her laptop and places her hands on her lap. "Well," she smiles. "Goodnight. Regnum Defende."
"My girl, you do not even have the slightest idea of what this motto means. Do not speak it in vain."
She gets up and slithers behind the red curtain around the bed. She is not supposed to slither. Walking is essential. Slithering is not. Slithering is motivated. It is deliberate. It is sexual. I pull the chair she was sitting in near me and take my shoes off. Stretching my legs reveals another pain I was unable to feel until now, one in my knees.
I close my eyes, but only temporarily. For a few seconds, perhaps. Certainly no more than ten. Then I open them again and direct my eyes to the area where she is undressing, behind the almost transparent red curtain. She has already removed her left boot; I focus on the silhouette of her foot as she removes her sock, then repeat the process on the other. Hurriedly, it seems, she pulls her top over her shoulders. She sits down on the bed, the flesh on her abdomen folding in places as she forces her trousers off her hips. Her image blurs for a moment as she gets under the covers. There are is no further activity for now.
The wine screams at me: "Grab me. Swallow me. Feel me burn your throat."
Then one arm emerges from beneath the sheet, holding her limp, triangular knickers. She parts her fingers and allows them to fall, in such a spectacularly erotic manner, on the floor.
I close my eyes again. Sleep will come soon. I am worried. But I am also tired. In all likelihood, I am more tired than worried. But then I suddenly stand up. For I am one thing that is more powerful than tired or worried, and that is the thing that must become the centre of my actions at this instant.
I part the curtains and find her laying on her left side, her back towards me. She is well aware of my presence.
"Yes," she says.
I stand quietly, amazed at the prospect of the skin of her abdomen under my hand.
"Yes, come fuck me. Come fuck me hard, doc. Come fuck my brains out. Come fuck the fear out of me. Come."
I kiss her almond lips. Guilt, concern and tiredness amalgamate into solid-gold eroticism. We are humans who have earned very special powers, such as removing life without consequence. Yet we fuck like animals. And between the gods and the beasts, we find ourselves unstrung, before falling asleep in each other's embrace.
My body feels numb, and dry, and shrunken. It feels like someone has removed all my blood. I seem to recall a tall taxidermist working on me. But I am alive, for if I had really died, my father would not be telling me a story about bats.
"What are bats about, Dad?"
"Bats are about bats, son. They are very recognizable creatures. They are rats that fly."
"Are bats about rats, Dad?"
"No, son. Rats are an entirely different animal. Some rats are batty. But bats are not about rats. Their main concern, rather, is with being bats, so they are really about recognizing each other. Now, that is not to say rats never recognize bats. In fact, they do, quite often, for they know that bats make an unmistakable sound when they breathe or die."
"I know. So if something makes that sound, you can take it to the bank: it's a dying bat."
And then he opens his mouth to breathe, and his throat makes a creaking sound like a rusty hinge. Like a slightly old metallic bed. And then I know he is dead. And something shifts inside my shirt, then begins to flap frantically, desperately looking for an exit. It has claws and it cuts my chest.
Notes that my brain had been making during the 12 minutes in which I was asleep (expressing them, in the meantime, through fantastical images and bizarre conversations) include a couple of very clear realizations. One: I have never, and never will trust these new fully-computerized alarm systems that use ultrasound technology to monitor an area. I know they are supposed to be perfect, unbeatable, impossible to avoid, and one has never failed on me so far; but I know that one day one will, and seeing as this is my last day on the job that day must be today. Two: I'm almost certain that Lili's fears will become reality before dawn. My own fears? Oh, those became reality a long time ago.
Exhausted by the intensity of the journey, she has sunk inside a deep, coagulant, motionless sleep. She is in my arms: the arms of a hero. The embrace of the father she probably never had, judging from her tomboy demeanour. Her face buried inside the safety of my chest, near the fearless heart of a legendary veteran. I take care not to wake her.
The floor creaks under the carpet as I walk to the computer, naked. No auditory incidents in the last 22 minutes. No motion of any significance detected in the last 39 minutes. All recorded sounds can be nothing more than very mild snoring, and all recorded movements are very minor, probably the woman shifting in bed.
I shut the machine down and close its lid. Lili is definitely a girl who is too smart for her own good. I would not be that shocked if she is recording sounds produced inside our own room. Either because Wilkinson's chums at Internal Affairs instructed her to, or because she wants to have a souvenir from our only job together.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
Her voice flies around the room in controlled panic. She is sitting up in bed, frowning questioningly. Her breasts move up and down with slightly faster than normal breathing. I take a few seconds to phantasize about the beats of her heart: rapid and hard, easily palpable if one places one's palm high up on her ribcage, near her left armpit.
I am afraid this is indeed absolutely necessary.
Lili could not have come on this mission without me. No other agent knows as much about Mary and the Four Athenas as I do; I have been following them around for ages looking for that crucial piece of evidence, the definite identification that has for so long eluded the Secret Service. Especially over the last couple of years, to Wilkinson it must have seemed as though I could predict where they would be next. No MI5 man could replace me on this mission without being briefed for at least a week. And a week would be far too long. The Athenas would fly away, they would vanish into the pitch black of the Monemvasia night, over the battlements, above the Aegean, aloft and free.
"It needs rebooting," I answer as I get up. "It crashed."
"No it fuckin didn't. What the fuck you closing the lid for?"
"Relax, will you." I kneel on the mattress and hold her face in my hands. As I put my lips on hers I feel a few seconds of laboured breathing on my cheek, ever-quickening. She draws away.
"What the fuck are you doing, you fuckin"" She is shaking now, small and fragile, finally letting go of the misplaced trust and allowing her fear to take hold of her entire being.
"Lili," I speak into her eyes. "You have a filthy mouth." Then I snap her head and break her neck. Her thin, girlish torso collapses on the bed, her left arm flails and falls on the bedside table, outstretched. Her eyes still look like they cannot grasp the situation. I pull her eyelids over them with the fingers of my right hand.
You must understand: of course I was not planning to murder an MI5 agent on the day of my retirement from MI5. I did not expect Spiros to be able to pinpoint the Four Athenas so accurately on the day of my retirement from MI5. I did not expect Wilkinson to have authorization from the Ministry to send a team out on that very same bloody day, the day of my retirement from MI5.
Thank the Lord I have learned to plan ahead for a situation when a bat is flapping its wiry wings inside your shirt. In its panic it can cut you; it can bite you. It can make you ill. It can kill you with fear.
The Four Athenas' meeting in Monemvasia could not be compromised. I wish it had been an option to contact Mary and urge her to call it off. If only I had four or five hours more Lili would still be alive, recording the conversations of philandering or leftist MPs from her girly desk at Thames House, trying to decide whether to visit her mum the following weekend (as she had promised) or to go to that party her friend Jacqui was throwing for her 25th birthday.
But there was no time. So I simply had to deal with the situation in a decisive manner. This, you must understand.
It is time for me to go. Thankfully I am not obliged to endure the horrible roads back to Athens and beyond, all the way to Thessaloniki, where I would catch a plane to Frankfurt and from there to Manchester, then ride back to London on an agency motorcycle to report to Wilkinson, who thinks I have "the jitters". Not to subsequently continue to my late father's house in Barmouth to enjoy the solitude of the rough sea, even though it did make me cry, and it did make me feel young.
None of that nonsense.
Rather, I am headed south. My speedboat (and I am certain it will meet my specifications, for the Four Athenas have never broken their promises to me) awaits me a few hundred yards away. I must only drive down the hill and get to the harbour, where rats and bats will be carrying out their automatic, senseless nocturnal rites. Awake. Scavenging. Mating.
The coast of Morocco is only 23 hours away.
And that is the end of my story. I have done my bit for both the good guys and the bad guys. For over twenty years I have kept the balance between them, and now I deserve to disappear.
As I abandon the BMW and approach the brilliant-white, arrow-shaped vessel, I think of Mary, walking about carelessly in her monitored room. In fact, I entertain the thought that the woman across the cobbled street might not have been Mary at all, for I have been fucking Mary ever since she was a teenager, still only a young girl who had joined the Greek Communist Party "for a laugh". And Mary does not snore. Not even mildly.
The key is inside the boat's glove compartment, as agreed. The dashboard wood feels cold and smooth in the salty wind of the dark sea, which froths in the night, providing the sleeping living and the sleepless dead with an evocative, splashing background tune. Behind me, Monemvasia castle shows no concern about hosting yet another corpse. It has really seen everything.
As always when I am about to operate the ignition inside a new vehicle, I briefly worry that it will explode, setting me aflame and giving me a good taste of hell before I even get there. I hold the key between my fingers, and twist it.