Friday, March 21, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 4


New friends

A quick search revealed that his fancy smartphone was still in the room. So was the iPod and travel speakers he had left behind. So the intruder was not after these readily fenceable items. Maybe they had been looking for cash, though Chris somehow knew that this was not the case. What they were actually looking for, he could tell, was the memory stick nestling in an inside pocket in his jacket. This was disturbing. If they, whoever they were, were prepared to boldly break into and search his room for it, would their next step be an attack on his person? The thought was a worrying one.

He hid in the room for a bit, tidying it up as much to calm his nerves as to do anything else. He cursed the cruel fates that had led to him being caught up in this game of powers he could not comprehend. He thought of going out for the day and just leaving the memory stick lying out in the open for whatever returning thief who wanted it, but he was never seriously going to try that. He was unconvinced that it would decisively end his problems. Either the memory stick would not be enough for the thieves, as they would want to erase him from the picture to remove unpleasant loose ends, or else the loss of the memory stick would trigger the anger of Marchand and his crew. But the main thing that stopped him was own pig ignorant sense that he was not going to quit - he was going to see this damn thing through. He would bring the stick to Athens come hell or high water and give it to that Costas fellow in the bar on Virones Street. Maybe that way he would get some answers. Even if he did not he would have had the moral satisfaction of having fulfilled his side of the bargain. If they put the burn on him and tried to get him to do something else he would be quite happy to tell his tormentors to go fuck themselves.

And what's more, he was not going to skulk in his room like some kind of cornered animal. He had arranged his journey to Athens so that he would have a day to see the sights of Milan, and God damn it, that is what he was going to do. If those fuckers wanted to try something then let them do their worst. Chris was somehow pumping himself so full of fight-or-flight (mainly fight) adrenalin that he managed to convince himself that any would-be assailant would be risking their own life if they were to tangle with him. So headed out into the streets of Milan with an air of confidence, almost willing the mystery assailants who had turned over his room to come and have a go if they thought they were hard enough.

It was, therefore, almost a disappointment that no one tried to jump him as he left the hotel. Nor, as he resumed his walk into the centre of Milan, did he spot anyone obviously tailing him. Maybe they were not going to try the direct approach after all. Or maybe they were going to wait till they reckoned he was more at ease. Well let them, Chris thought. When they came along, he would be ready.

He walked on. Initially he travelled down the avenue from the station, a street that increasingly seemed like it would have been more at home in Hitler's Germania than in any Italian city. But as the avenue would ultimately bypass the historic centre, Chris had no option but to leave it behind for the more chaotically arranged paths and byways following the city's ancient street plan. He passed more stylishly dressed people. He had been expecting the women to be amazingly well turned out, and they were, regardless of age. From teenage girls to old grannies, they all looked like they spent a fortune on clothes and went to inordinate efforts to maintain a slim and elaborately groomed appearance. But it was the men who most struck Chris. Everything about them was immaculately arranged, from their shoes, their tailored suits, the coats many wore (though it was warm to Chris, for the locals there seemed to be an autumnal nip in the air) and their hats. This was not a city where anyone seemed to find it acceptable to just throw something on before heading out, the men as much as the women. This smartness seemed to afflict all walks of life and in his relative scruffiness Chris almost feared that he would be hauled in by the cops for vagrancy.

The buildings on streets around him looked old, but not inordinately so. It was hard to tell in this kind of city, as an antique appearance seemed to have such cachet that even new buildings were going up with what looked like 19th century facades. Chris passed a few clothes shops and thought of buying himself a fancy off-the-peg suit, as surely this would be the place to get the finest such suit money could buy? Maybe seeing him in a fancy suit would be just the thing to make Deirdre thing again. Yet he baulked at actually entering any of the shops and buying anything. Partly he demurred because he would then have to hump a new suit all the way to Greece and back, but more so because he feared that nowhere here would sell anything that did not cost an arm and a leg. So he let it be. In any case, his suspicion was that Deirdre would not change course just because he was wearing a nice suit. Whatever else about her, she was not that shallow and had never given any great impression of being more interested in the clothes a man wore than the man wearing them.

Although Chris was travelling to Greece to try and patch things up with his wife, actually thinking about her depressed him, so he tried to put her out of his mind. It was easy enough to do, the endlessly fascinating human and architectural sights of the city drawing his thoughts away from things spousal. He found himself passing a building that seemed to be the headquarters of the Armani empire, its entrance guarded by the most outlandishly dressed security guards in the western world. Walking on further, a sickeningly sweet stench assailed his nostrils and became ever more intense as he moved forward. He wondered half-seriously whether he might be stumbling onto the Milanese headquarters of the Zyklon-B corporation, but then a plaque told him where he was. He was outside the headquarters of the famous parfumier, Ambrosio of Milan.

After such wonders, he was rather unimpressed by the Scala, even though it must surely be the world's most famous opera house (apart from the one in Bayreuth and the one in Sydney). It looked simply like a non-descript theatre and was rather dwarfed by the late 19th century shopping arcade beside it. Chris strolled through that and came out the other side in a big open square onto which the mediaeval cathedral they call the Duomo towered. It was impressive, but after Milano Centrale it was something of a disappointment. Even so, Chris paid up to have a look inside and was fundamentally underwhelmed by what to many is one of the architectural wonders of Europe.

But closer perusal revealed it to have hidden gems. The statue of some saint who had been skinned alive was something of a highlight, with the saint standing there eerily holding his flayed skin in that odd way of baroque representations of human suffering. He was probably now the patron saint of people with bad skin. Chris was also struck by the oddness of the strange ambient noise in the cathedral - there seemed to be a low hum that occasionally built in volume to what sounded like an electronic pitch on the edge of audibility. Then he noticed what looked like a mixing desk in the middle of the cathedral, with a sound engineer from central casting sitting behind a bank of controls with which he fiddled, the electronic hum rising and falling in pitch and volume in response to his movements. Chris had no idea what any of this meant.

More directly interesting was the climb up to the roof of the Duomo and what he found up there. He liked seeing all the little gargoyles up close as they fiercely peered out over the city, their mouths open to belch forth rainwater on the good citizens of the city. The view of Milan was also most striking, communicating well the monied grandeur of the city. The other visitors to the roof were perhaps the most fascinating thing, however. Chris's eyes naturally were drawn to the many attractive women who were up on the roof as part of their trip to Milan, but what he found most intriguing was the generally vacant "tourist face" the other people seemed to have as they wandered about rather aimlessly. It was a look that suggested a certain bored disappointment with this latest sight they were visiting on their travels, coupled with a grim sense that there would be no escape from future excursions. Chris hoped he did not look like them.

Eventually he decided to make it down the long twisting staircase that led from the roof back down to the piazza by the Duomo. Maybe he was suffering from an attack of tourist face himself, for he did not notice the man in the Versace top with the hood up loitering suspiciously at the top of the stairs. But he was not too far down the steps when he saw his way ahead blocked by a large man in a yellow jumper. The man's face was not a friendly one, though he still proffered a mirthless smile to Chris, one that revealed a mouth missing more than one tooth. As if to accentuate his clear lack of friendly intentions, he raised a clenched hand and with a click flicked open a nasty looking knife.

Chris looked quickly over his shoulder and saw the man in the Versace hoody descending towards him. A quick glance at his leering grin, bloodshot eyes and nasty toothbrush moustache convinced Chris that he would get no succour from this quarter.

"Looks like you are in trouble," said the hooded man in a heavily accented English. "You got something we want. You know what it is. Hand it over or Beppe will make you squeal like cut pig."

He was getting closer now. Chris had a feeling that even if he handed over the memory stick he would still end up with his throat slit, so he decided not to go out without a fight. Or he did not consciously decided anything, as his body's instinctive urge for self-preservation took over and his conscious mind became almost a passive spectator to the events that followed. He turned towards Beppe, who was still smiling malevontly as he began to ascend the steps, but then his grin turned to a wide O of astonishment as Chris leaped into the air and used his higher vantage point to jump down towards him. Chris landed his feet directly onto Beppe's chest, pushing the thug backwards and downwards. He crashed into a lower wall with a sickening crack, leaving Chris to scramble past his inert remains and run down the stairs like a mad man. He could just about hear the hoody shout a stream of foreign language obscenities down the stairwell after him.

Chris ran on down the stairs as fast as he could, squeezing past a succession of non-plussed tourists. Once out below he made his way from the Piazza at a fast walk, both to escape from Beppe's associate (and any others they might have lurking in the area) and to avoid being hauled in by the local cops, if they had been called in yet regarding the altercation on the stairwell. He headed off in a random direction, zigging through the narrow streets as he went. Soon he was completely lost, but this made him happy as he felt it almost impossible that anyone could still be on his tail.

He continued to wander through the city. It was less scenic and monumental now, feeling more like a city actual people lived in. And the people were less uniformly stylish out here as well. Some of them even looked like they were not that interested in the clothes they wore or in the advanced elements of personal grooming. Chris wondered if there was some kind of city ordinance that prevented them from going into the city centre and spoiling the otherwise unblemished attractiveness of the locals. He also found himself attracting some odd looks. Not hostile looks, but looks that suggested a certain bemusement. It was clear that this was not a part of town into which tourists like himself often strayed. He liked this - less likely that his enemies would think of looking for him here.

As afternoon wore on to evening he became hungry and stopped at a random pizzeria for dinner. After a tasty meal he decided that it was time to make his way back to the hotel. He had an early start the next day and he wanted to be well rested. He also feared being way-laid on the way back to the hotel and reckoned that the later he came back the more dangerous the dark streets of Milan would be. So he consulted a map and plotted a route to the hotel that would bypass the central historic area, where he feared the Versace-topped man with the toothbrush moustache was now waiting for him with an army of shifty accomplices, perhaps including a bruised Beppe out for brutal vengeance. His walk back took him through more of the less appealing parts of the town, though he never felt like there was the kind of threat on the streets he might have got if he had wandered into the wrong part of town at home. The dull streets he walked through still had an air of quiet order. Chris suspected that unruly elements were simply not tolerated in the city of Milan and instead were kept safely out sight in the outer suburbs where they could not trouble the city's more respectable burghers.

The walk was a long one, and he did break it with a quick glass of beer in a café, but he got back to the hotel in that time when evening is giving away to night. There did not appear to be any disreputable elements waiting outside the hotel for him (though it was hard to be certain, as the biker bar was already in full swing). He made his way up to the lobby and it had a reassuringly deserted feel, with the bored receptionist behind the counter barely paying him any attention. Chris now noticed a detail that had eluded him on his first arrival - behind the receptionist, a number of photos were pinned up to the wall, photographs of handsome young priests in a variety of poses. One was reading a news paper, another striding purposefully down a street, another looking seriously to camera like he was listening to the viewer's confession, another feeding a small dog. Chris had too much on his mind to consider whether this was odd.

And there was something else. Just off the lobby there was a small bar area. The last night it had been deserted, but now there was a lone priest sitting there, drinking a spirit of some kind and reading a newspaper. He was an older one of that tribe, but he still had a considerable spark of vitality to him. He looked up at Chris and called something out to him in Italian or one of those other languages.

"I'm sorry," said Chris. "I don't speak Italian."

"Ah yes," said the priest. "I'm sorry, I should have realised. I was merely wishing you a good evening."

"Why thank you," replied Chris.

"Would you care to join me for a nightcap?" The priest indicated the vacant chair across from him. "You look tired - perhaps a cognac would help you sleep?"

Chris hesitated. His mother had always warned him against joining strange men for drinks. She had particularly warned him of the dangers of joining priests for drinks. But Chris felt that he could look after himself now. Having escaped from his two assailants earlier he reckoned that even if this priest were to turn feral he would still be able to handle him. And the man had the kind of wise and serious face that did not make Chris think it possible that he could be luring him into some kind of sinister trap. In any case, Chris was tired, but his tiredness was such that he did fancy the idea of a little something to unwind and help ease him off into the bosom of sleep.

"Thanks, I will."

He sat opposite the priest, who smiled slightly in a friendly manner.


"Why not?"

The priest clicked his fingers to attract the receptionist's attention and made the order to him in Italian. Well, that is what Chris assumed he did, his Italian was not up to any kind of translation, but he did hear syllables that sounded like they might be "cognac" and the Italian for two. The receptionist shuffled off to prepare the drinks and then brought two generous measures over to them. The priest knocked back the dregs of his first and gave the receptionist the glass.

"So," said the priest. "You have not taken Holy Orders?"

Chris had to think for a second to register what he was being asked.

"Oh no," he replied after a second or two. "No, no, I haven't".

"I did wonder at first if you might be one of our Jesuit friends. But the ring on your finger suggested otherwise."

Chris looked at his wedding ring. The priest continued.

"But they are an odd lot, the Jesuits. They like to blend in, so it would not be unknown for one of them to go about in their plain clothes wearing a wedding band so as to look as little like a priest as possible."

"Secret priests!" said Chris. "Like spies."

"Well the analogy would be an apt one. In the past they would have been travelling in countries where the Protestants had the upper hand and where exposure as a priest would have meant death. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times now, though perhaps with the dominance of the liberal atheist media those days may be returning."

He said the last part with an inflection that suggested that he might be joking or might not.

"Ah, yes," said Chris noncommittally. He took a sip of his cognac. "So, you have been a priest long?"

"Yes. My entire adult life. I always knew it was the road I was fated to take. And I do not regret it. It can be a lonely life, yet the rewards are considerable."

"Spiritual rewards," Chris said, remembering an episode of a popular TV series about priests where this had been a humorous line.

"Yes, spiritual rewards," replied the priest. "But I forget my manners. I am Father Antonio." He held out his hand.

"I'm Chris." He shook the priest's hand.

"Are you a Catholic yourself?"

"Well," said Chris, trying to think how best to represent his tangled and estranged relationship with the Church. "I suppose I kind of am one… I was brought up that way, but I drifted away from it… I'm not really that religious."

The priest sighed. "Ah yes, it is so often the way. Young people today are no longer so interest in the ways of Faith."

"I'm not that young," said Chris sadly.

"To me you are young. But I cannot fault your lack of faith, after all the terrible errors of the Church that have been revealed. I only ask that you consider whether the errors were those of the Church, or of some of the people in the Church. Do you see the difference?"

"I think so," said Chris. It was not really a question that exercised him that much, so he felt it was perhaps time to change the subject. "So what brings you to Milan?"

"Oh a conference on important religious matters. Though actually it is really just an excuse to meet old friends and have a bit of a party. We men and women of the cloth are not really so different to everyone else in that regard." Father Antonio's tone was confessional and conspiratorial.

Chris laughed. He drank back the last of his cognac and noticed that the priest had finished his.

"Shall we have another?" asked Father Antonio.

"Ah no," said Chris, worrying that if he stayed any longer the priest might start hearing his confession. "I have to be up early in the morning and I still have to get my things together. I'd best be going. Goodnight Father."

"Goodnight, and safe journey."

"Thanks, enjoy the conference."

It was only when he reached his room that Chris registered that he had not paid for the drinks. Oh well. Maybe he could add them to his bill in the morning or something.

He packed his things quickly and then went to bed. He had earlier planned to make some attempt to barricade the door in case of night visitors, but in his tiredness he forgot about such things and soon fell into a deep sleep. Thus it was a terrible shock when he found himself roughly awakened by the sensation of his face being slapped. Versace Man was sitting over him, a knife glinting in his hand. His face was a grimace of evil.

"You little shit," he whispered. "Thanks to you, Beppe is in the hospital. Now you are going to tell me where the memory stick is. And then I will turn you into a woman."


The story continues

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