No more club nights or fine scotch if I'm in the nick; no front-line action either. When I heard the rear-admiral's words, those were the thoughts that kept me from being court-martialed.
"Captain Archibald Harding, correct?" the rear-admiral had said first, replacing the receiver on one of the brass telephones cluttering his oaken desk.
I was already bristling at that. The last person to call me by my full name was my father; he and my wife, when I did something she didn't approve, like spending all night at White's. To everyone else I was Archie.
But what came next was worse.
"You're not going to Dunkirk."
The words hung in the stale air that reeked of spilled brandy and the establishment. I glared at the rear-admiral through the woolly shimmer of cigar smoke, fists clenched under the table. Outside the paned windows, light wisps of London fog enveloped the war office in a heartless embrace. The jitters I felt for my first operational posting threatened to turn into a stream of bile. I managed to stem its flow before it erupted from my throat. My temper had already led me down too many unpardonable roads.
"With all due respect, sir, didn't you read my transfer request?" I asked the rear-admiral through gritted teeth and patted the breast pocket of my khaki jacket. "I've got a copy with me, in case it got stuck in the post."
The rear-admiral balanced his cigar against the rim of a brass ashtray and stroked his mustache. "Quite. I admire your fighting spirit, Captain, but, between you and me, it's too late. France is riddled with Jerries, the swastika is about to be raised in Paris, and our brave Tommies are stranded on the beach. All we can do is ferry them back home before the Hunnish horde can grind them into wieners. France is lost."
As he spoke, my eyes settled on the painting behind him. Ulysses, tied to the mast of his ship in the middle of a stormy sea, offers himself to the maddening song of winged, dark sirens. Why couldn't I be a hero, roaming the world with daring and honor like him? Instead of being stuck in a desk job, having to return every evening to a nagging wife?
I shifted my weight on the leather armchair, making it squeak. "Respectfully, sir, I'm not partial to that kind of defeatist piffle, even though it may be popular in some circles. Perhaps it's lost for them, but not for me. Send me there, I say! I'm bloody fed up with scribbling notes and stuffing envelopes, while our boys are languishing on the beach and doing all the biffing. I'll be glad to join a relief force, sir, and I know others feel the same."
The rear-admiral fixed me with a stare from behind bushy eyebrows. "We're all good at that biffing Jerries talk, aren't we? How about trusting in the judgment of your wiser superiors instead? You're a talented linguist, Captain. We can't have you frittering away in the trenches." He took another tug on his cigar. "No, we have something quite different in mind for you, Harding. Something much more critical to the war effort in the long term. Now, you understand Italian as well as French, correct?"
Enthusiasm waxed and waned in me. "I've translated a fair number of dispatches in the last year. Is there another confidential document that needs decoding?"
There was a knock and a secretary came in with a message for the rear-admiral. He dismissed her with a wave. My gaze fell on her shapely calf as she left, heels tapping on the hardwood floor.
"Our station chief in Italy has gone walkabouts," the rear-admiral said once the door closed. "Bloody awful timing, if you ask me. Rumor has it that Italy's on the verge of entering the war. One year late, as per form, but on the wrong side, this time. Needless to say, that would be a ruddy strategic disaster. So, we're sending you there."
"To do what?"
I repressed a snort. "So, you want me to go on holiday to Italy collecting gossip? While my comrades-in-arms hog all the fun in France."
The rear-admiral lowered his tone. "What I'm about to tell you should never leave this room, understood? Consider it your mission briefing. Classified, and with all the bells and whistles." He leaned towards me. "We have it on reliable intelligence that the Italians are in possession of some new kind of strategic weapon that makes a U-boot squadron look as dangerous as the rubber ducks in my grandma's bathtub."
"Says who?" I must have seen all the product coming out of Italy and didn't have the foggiest recollection of any deadly weapon. Christ almighty, they barely had any workable tanks.
"A highly placed informant." The rear-admiral put out his cigar. "He has a source — an acquaintance of some sort in Italian high society — with access to this weapon. We don't know much yet. Your job will be to go there, rendezvous with our informant, and find the source — whoever he turns out to be — to learn as much as possible about this weapon. Whatever details there are, are in here." The rear-admiral produced a closed manila envelope with the seal of Military Operations, sixth directorate, and a red stamp bearing the stenciled words "top secret". "Hope you remember enough from your covert training course, Captain? We'll have to throw you in at the deep end, I'm afraid. It's all hands on deck these days."
I took the envelope from him and stuffed it under my elbow as I got up, without deigning it a glance.
"We'll be expecting something by the end of the week, Harding."
"A whole week?" I wanted to laugh out loud. "I'll be back with what you want in three days."
The rear-admiral raised an eyebrow. "Three days?"
"Very well. You better stick to that promise, Harding; we will plan accordingly. Three days," he said again as we shook on it.
"One more thing," he said as he walked me to the door. "Your predecessor vanished rather suddenly, and the last message from him was nothing short of insane. Some gibberish about sea monsters and unholy powers unearthed by the Duce."
I grinned but, as I took my leave, the rear-admiral's smile was grim. "Captain, we've already lost a senior officer there; take care that we don't lose another one."
The Alfa Romeo left the center of Rome under a fierce morning sun, heading southwards. One day gone. Travelling under the guise of a Swiss banker, I had spent the whole night waiting on our informant, who turned out to be a prince of the Italian royal family. No wonder his product went straight to the top brass.
The five-minute conversation we had in the car failed to shed any light on either the weapon or the source. His grace had just hopped off and left instructions for the driver to take me 'where I would find the answers I sought.'
As the car climbed a dusty mountain road, I asked the blue-capped driver, Ernesto, where he was taking me. His replies were so jumbled and his Lazio accent so strong that I only understood it was somewhere near Ischia. When the prince had leaned forward to whisper the destination in his ear, Ernesto had just stared at me with eyes gone very white.
The car descended towards the sun-kissed Mediterranean, a shifting mantle of turquoise and indigo. We were alone on the narrow coastal road, rocky outcrops hemming us in on both sides. Patches of pine trees and shrubs broke the stony grayness.
"Signor Castelnò," Ernesto said.
I looked up from my newspaper and asked him, in my best Italian, what was the matter.
This time he made an effort to speak up and enunciate each word. "This place you're going to, Signor, is no good. Not good at all. His Grace would understand if you turned around now."
"And what's the name of this place I'm going to, Ernesto?"
"Villa Antemusa." As he said this, his right hand let go of the steering wheel and grabbed the bronze crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror, pulling it towards him to kiss it.
"What's not so good about this Villa Antemusa?" I asked.
The driver swallowed. "You see, Signor, I grew up in the area. When I was playing with the other boys, I could see the villa in the distance. It's a desolate place. People went in sometimes, but no one ever came out. Then there were horrible, dreadful sounds. We heard these strange voices. I don't know what they did in there, but it couldn't be anything our Lord would approve."
"Whose voices do you think they were, Ernesto?"
"The old women in the town say that demons live in there."
"I see." I half-hid a smirk as I returned to my newspaper. "I'll bear it in mind, Ernesto, but I wish to carry on regardless."
The Alfa Romeo took a right turn and left the coastal road, heading directly for the sea.
Startled, I was about to shout a warning to the careless driver when I realized that rocky island out there was in fact a promontory connected to dry land by a low-lying strip of sand, on which lay some sort of track. Ernesto drove the car onto it.
As we drew closer, the promontory turned out to be larger than I first suspected. Pine trees and rosemary bushes were scattered along its slopes, and closer to the summit, a red-tiled roof sitting on a white colonnade rose out of a grove of lemon trees.
"Villa Antemusa", the driver announced, without the shadow of a smile.
Ernesto parked the Alfa Romeo by the promontory. He opened the back door for me and dropped the suitcase at my feet before returning to the safety of the car.
A gentle wind heavy with salt and seaweed buffeted my cheeks as I slammed the door shut behind me, leather dress shoes sinking into the sand.
"Won't you help me carry it to the gate?" I asked the driver.
Ernesto lowered the window and shouted over the rumble of the engine. "I brought you here, as agreed, but I won't stay a moment longer."
The car reversed into the muddy sand with a screech.
"Wait!" I banged on the door frame and waved a pack of banknotes in the air. "Will you come to pick me up later?"
Ernesto snatched the notes. "Tomorrow! I can't come later."
I didn't understand his reply because he rolled the window back up and revved up the engine to free the wheels stuck in the sand, spraying my three-piece suit with dirt. I dusted myself off, swearing.
The car drove off on the narrow track, waves lazily lapping across the sand.
It was a long trek up to the villa. Suitcase in tow, I trudged along a hidden stairway framed by elms and nettle bushes until I reached the clifftop. A kaleidoscope of roses, tulips, and orchids bloomed in a well-trimmed garden, surrounded by lemon trees and enclosed by archways in the manner of an abbey cloister. I opened a wicket gate and stepped onto a terrace.
The sea spread out before me, speckled with glitter from the reflected sun rays. A shaggy islet, little more than a jagged rock, climbed out of the depths less than a mile away. I leaned over the marble balustrade, hypnotized by the motion of the waves washing against the shore until I heard footsteps behind me.
She glided down the broad staircase which led to the villa's portico, her silk ankle-length dress playfully ruffled by the zephyr. The color matched her eyes, of a turquoise deeper than the Mediterranean. A million waves under a moonless night curled into spirals as they broke over her bare shoulders. Her skin was a sandy beach roasted by the sun and drenched by saltwater. Unblemished teeth curved into a jocular smile that cut through me, prompting my mouth shut, I had been holding it open the whole time.
"Monsieur Castelnau, welcome to Villa Antemusa." Her voice could melt diamonds.
She leaned forward to grace my rugged cheeks with two light kisses. My heart beat a war rhythm and I resisted the urge to loosen my tie.
"But you're speaking English," I said, as soon as I regained my senses.
She cocked a delicately trimmed eyebrow. "I assume there is no problem on your part."
I shook my head.
"I am Contessa De Partenopis. Come, you must be tired. A bath and refreshments await inside."
Could the source of our intelligence be a she? One day already wasted, I had better take the chance. So I followed her to the portico, passing several marble statues, the largest sporting a long beard and wielding a trident in one hand and a net in the other.
The Contessa nodded in its direction. "Neptune, our patron. Monsieur Castelnau," she said, coming to a halt under the shadow of the colonnade. "It would be an honor for us to have you as a guest tonight."
There was no question involved but I accepted. The Contessa smiled. Her golden pendant caught my eye, a trident encircled by the outer ring of a compass. Her earrings were in the shape of anchors.
With a brisk command, the Contessa entrusted me to one of the young women in her retinue she described as her companions. The woman escorted me upstairs and showed me to an immaculately furnished guest room. There I washed off the grime of the journey and pulled the white dinner jacket out of my suitcase.
My host waved to me as I returned downstairs. The Contessa, reclining on a divan, was cocooned in the dim light of the tall chandeliers and the brass oil lamps scattered along the low tables. One of them had a chessboard on it, with only the white queen enthroned in its rightful square.
"Will you grant me the pleasure of joining me for dinner, Monsieur Castelnau?" the Contessa asked, indicating the divan next to her.
Nodding, I undid the top button of the dinner jacket. One of the Contessa's companions leaned over with a clay jug and filled my chalice with a bright hay-colored wine.
The Contessa raised her chalice towards me. "To a new friendship!"
Our glasses clinked. I raised the cup to my lips and grimaced as the wine swirled in my mouth. It was too strong.
"I trust, Monsieur Castelnau, that you found our humble abode with ease?" the Contessa asked.
"To be rather blunt", I said, reclining on the divan after her fashion, "getting here was a nightmare. Would never have found it if it weren't for my driver." I took another swig. "Seems your villa doesn't appear on any maps."
"I'm afraid the whole world has forgotten about us," she said with a sigh and brought the chalice to her lips.
"Quite. The stories can't be much help."
"Which stories?" she asked, raising her eyebrow.
"Don't you know? My driver was positively flabbergasted when he learned he had to drive me here. The poor chap kept gabbling on about voices and demons and God knows what other kind of devilish nonsense."
The Contessa burst into peals of silvery laughter, the echoes bouncing off the vaulted ceiling of the wide hall. In the glass-tank behind her, a pufferfish, startled by the noise, interrupted its lazy swim to turn into a bloated ball, sending ripples through the water. The walls were lined with a series of aquariums of all sizes, housing every sort of water-abiding creature, from goldfish and turtles to lobsters and striped sea serpents. In one large glass container, a full-sized anaconda wrapped itself around a severed tree trunk, hanging over a slimy pond.
I returned my gaze to the Contessa. "What goes on in this place at night?"
"Monsieur Castelnau," she said, her eyes glinting with mockery, "you're not telling me that a man of your sophistication and panache believes in these rumors?"
I grinned. "You'll have to excuse me, Contessa, but in my field of work I'm used to asking questions about everything." I threw a glance towards the girl who had just refilled our cups. "What's for supper, then?"
"Fish," the Contessa replied. "Fresh from the sea. We catch it ourselves."
That was another oddity. Running this place must require a lot of manpower. But I had seen only a half dozen women since arriving, all garbed in tunic dresses of different hues and laced up sandals.
"Don't you have any men working here?" I asked.
"We manage on our own," the Contessa said, as a sable-haired girl in a green tunic brought platters filled with olives and skewers of grilled shrimp.
I couldn't help but agree, and the fish was fresh, as promised. "How long have you lived here?"
"Ages," she said as if lost in thought. "Honestly can't remember how long it has been." Her eyes drifted to my ring. "I imagine you could say the same about your marriage?"
I almost spat the morsel I was chewing. "You're a woman of wit, Contessa. And refreshingly direct."
A smug grin crept across her face.
"May I ask how long it has been since you've had a man around the place?" I asked.
The smile disappeared from her scarlet lips. "Too long indeed, I'm afraid." She reached for her chalice.
"When was the last one? What happened to him?"
The Contessa shrugged. "You must get lonely too, traveling all the time for your bank, meeting clients in different countries."
She glanced towards me as if something had just occurred to her. "Tell me, what's the name of your bank again?"
"Le Banque Privée de Genève," I intoned in my best Swiss French accent.
Platters were brought to our table with cuts of grilled fish. I delved into a filet of swordfish with gusto, but the Contessa's attitude was nagging me. We hadn't yet brushed the main topic and she had given no sign she wanted to. If I didn't force the issue, another day would be lost. The seaplane would fly back to Blighty tomorrow night, with or without me.
The brandy was served and the table cleared. Still no word about any weapon. If there was, it was very well concealed; there was no hidden port, no airstrip, no construction yard, or secret laboratory. I must have climbed all over the island earlier, and I was trained to spot these things.
"Let's have a walk outside," the Contessa said when I finally asked if there was any business to discuss.
Gusts of bitter sea breeze battered my face as we emerged from the colonnade. I offered the Contessa my elbow.
"Monsieur Castelnau, can we speak freely?" she said, as we paced arm-in-arm along the tiled terrace. "I would like us to be honest with each other."
"Nothing would make me happier," I said.
"For a start, you can tell me your real name. I know what you're here for and I know who sent you." She stopped to face me. The blood orange light bathed her golden skin and the evening breeze tousled her hair. "I know because I made this meeting happen."
I reached for lighter and cigarette holder, took one out, and lit.
"It's the weapon you're after," the Contessa said in a sullen tone, resuming her walk, "for this war of yours."
"This war is going to touch us all," I said, after exhaling. "Draw us in and spit us out, in one damaged piece, if we're lucky. Now tell me about this weapon."
She leaned back on the balustrade. "What is it you want to know?"
I pulled at the cigarette. "What is it, first of all. What's it called? What does it do? Where is it?"
"You have so many questions." Her eyelids fluttered as she gently pulled my arm. 'And I still don't know your real name.'
I didn't like her coquettish tone, but I gratified her.
"Captain Harding," she repeated, rolling the words on her tongue.
"I've answered your question, will you answer mine now? It's a matter of urgency. I can't stay long".
"Such a pity."
"Well?" I ignored the longing in her glance. It struck me as artificious.
"Where to begin?" she twirled around to face the sea. "What is this weapon? Where is it? Difficult to explain. In a way, you're already seeing it. It's not a ship, or a cannon, or an airplane, or a chemical. It's — " She glanced towards me. Her eyes loomed large. "Perhaps you will need to stay here longer to understand."
Her fingernail brushed my cheek. "Don't worry. I'm sure we'll find ways to entertain each other."
I waved her away. The offer was tempting, but duty came first. "I can't stay. I need this information. I'm leaving tomorrow"
"Well," she said in mock offense, "this girl doesn't give her secrets away so quickly."
"For the last time," I said, struggling to control my tone, "do you have some tangible information about this weapon? Something that we can work with?"
That temper was rising, fast.
"Why this aggressive tone, Captain?" She crept closer. "I could show it to you."
"That's it, then." A second day gone. I leaned on the balustrade, gazing at the gathering twilight. This is turning into a colossal waste.
"What do you mean, Captain? Don't you believe me?"
"Ha! I'll tell you what I believe." I took a step in her direction and pointed a finger to her face. "I believe you're just looking for attention. You live on an island, cut off from the world that matters, far away from any military or political decision-maker worth an ounce. Bloody hell, without even any men. And you expect me to believe that you have access to a powerful, top-secret weapon? You won't even answer my questions. I don't know what you're after, but I hope you've enjoyed your moment of fame." I flicked the butt of the cigarette over the parapet and stormed off.
"No need to see me out; I'll just pack up and leave."
I made for the main hall, aiming for the telephone to call that damned Ernesto to come to pick me up at once.
"The tide is up."
The words were murmurs, but they reached my ears with the clarity of a death sentence.
I extended my neck over the balustrade and peered down.
The sandy road had been gobbled up by black waves.
I sat in the guest bedroom upstairs, drafting a report for the rear-admiral and smoking. I was sorry I'd lost it with the Contessa. Because when I do lose it, the veneer I present to the world is ripped off and my genuine self lies exposed. And that is ugly.
Ugly like certain memories.
Ugly like what happened with my little brother, so many years ago.
Between a stroke on the portable typewriter and a pull on the gasper, I glanced at the balcony below through the open window. In the silver rays of the full moon, the Contessa, ghost-like in a white nightgown, leaned over the balustrade.
She waved at me, a broad smile painted on her lips. "Would you care to join me for a swim, Captain?"
The bright lamp must have given me away. I rose to shut the window.
The Contessa's night robe fell to the ground. In a handful of sinuous movements, she climbed on top of the balustrade, stood on the brink, and let herself go.
"Contessa! No!" I grasped the windowsill, but she had already been eaten by the chasm.
To hell with it. I needed to check on her. Taking the stairs three at a time, I rushed to the balustrade. There were ripples in the waves and what could have been a human shape wallowing in the water.
I undid my tie and kicked off my shoes. It wasn't as high as I thought, here, and no rocks. At least, none that were visible. I climbed on the parapet and plunged into the abyss.
A floor of water hit me as I broke through it, feet first. Swallowing gallons of seawater, I heaved myself back to the surface, emerging with a splash and a gasp, frozen to the bone, eyes darting back and forth to spot this madwoman.
If any of her remained.
I caught a glint of white and black riding the waves. The Contessa's dark hair and her pale body. I reeled towards her.
She was bobbing up and down in sync with the sea.
I had been on the Oxford swimming team and trained with the Royal Marines, so the tall waves were no obstacle to me. But the Contessa swam like a dolphin.
She was making for that islet off the coast I'd seen earlier.
I was torn; on the one hand, I had jumped into the sea to save her, and it was bloody obvious she didn't need saving. On the other, I was overcome with the professional curiosity of the spy as to why she would swim over to that clump of rocks in rough weather, in the dead of night.
Panting with exertion, I measured my progress; more than halfway to the islet anyway.
Covering the last stretch with a handful of deep strokes, I made for the span of the sea where the Contessa's silhouette had last emerged. An alcove broke the rocky façade and the gloom within swallowed me whole.
The current pushed me deeper into the underwater cavern, not one foot between my head and the rocky ceiling. A light lay ahead; groping the coarse surface, strewn with seaweed and colonies of clams, I strove for it. Rays shimmered in the depths. I drew a ragged breath and dived in between two stalagmites.
My head thrust through the surface on the other end of the tunnel with a splash, water dripping from my hair. Regaining my breath, head reeling, I took in the cave. Torches flickered overhead, stuck in holders along walls dug into the rock. The air was musty. I was floating in the middle of a lukewarm pool, its edges smoothed and covered in ceramic tiles at one end.
Where the Contessa waited.
Surrounded by glimmering tea lights, she reclined on her elbow right by the water's edge, watching me with coy eyes. She'd thrown a towel over her legs but had neglected her upper half.
I swam towards her. She started clapping.
"Congratulations, Captain. You're an excellent swimmer."
I drew level with her. "No match for you, though."
"Are you still livid with me, Captain?" She produced two glasses and a bottle of a dark liqueur from a small wooden cabinet hidden behind her. "Still think this is all a waste of your precious time?" Her bosom was dripping wet. She pressed a filled glass into my hand.
I pushed a tea light out of the way and propped myself on the pool edge next to her, heart pumping from the strenuous exercise, adrenaline still racing.
"We may have got off on the wrong foot," I said, accepting the glass and emptying it in one go. It was bitter and incendiary. "Where are we?"
"Would have thought a British military intelligence officer would know an island when he saw one," she said, extending her arm to encompass the built-in cave. "It's part of the villa's estates. I like to come here sometimes."
"In the middle of the night?"
"I get restless in bed," she said, with a snort, and took a sip from the glass. "I knew you'd come after me."
I was so close I could feel her warm breath, tinged with alcohol, on my face. My arm stroked hers. She did the same. Heartbeat thumping, I pulled her closer. Our lips found each other, and so did our tongues. I ran my hands through her hair, round her breasts, and down her back. She gripped me tightly, undoing the buttons of my drenched shirt. I stroked her stomach, gliding past her belly button. My hand delved under the towel.
The index brushed against a cold, slippery surface that wasn't skin.
I withdrew with a shout.
The towel slipped from her waist, revealing a greenish band of damp scaly tissue below her navel.
My eyes widened as the towel slid into the water.
From her midriff downwards, the Contessa's body was wholly covered in shiny turquoise scales, much like a sequined dress, and her conjoined limbs ended in a broad tail fin which skimmed the water surface.
I jerked back, away from her, lost my balance, and plunged into the pool.
The Contessa burst into fits of hysterical laughter.
Saltwater rushed into my mouth and down my throat as I went under, her mad laugh, muffled by the element, ringing in my ears. It grew louder the harder I struggled against the current. Bubbles escaped my mouth and rose to the surface as I sank ever deeper.
An outstretched arm took hold of me and I was propelled to the surface in an eruption of foam and lapping waves. With a gentle shove, I was carted to the rocky bank and hauled over the edge.
I lay there, coughing and spluttering.
When I unscrewed my eyes, the Contessa was stroking my chin and whispering soothing words.
But they didn't soothe me. I scrambled to my feet and scampered towards the opposite end of the cave.
"Where are you running, Captain?" her taunts rang in my ears. "So afraid of a defenseless girl?"
What had the driver told me? Demons live in there.
I spun around, at length finding my voice. "You're no girl."
"But I am!" She jumped out of the pool and lay on its edge. In between fits of giggles, she toyed with the towel she'd fished out of the water to cover her lower half.
"You're an abomination, or an illusionist, or both."
"Is that your gratitude for saving you from drowning, Captain?"
I backed into the coarse rock wall. "This can't be." Now that the incongruous, monstrous tail wasn't on display, she was human again. "My eyes must be playing tricks on me. It's that tipple you gave me!" My eyes glanced in an accusatory fashion towards the brown bottle, but my tone was halfhearted. The memory of the scaly sliminess I had touched was imprinted on my fingers. My eyes couldn't unsee it.
"On the contrary, Captain, you can trust your eyes. They're working perfectly well, and that spirit is not half as strong as the brandy you knocked back after dinner. Now, I won't show you my body again, since it offends you so." She affected a hurt face. "But you need to take my word for it. This," she said with a delicate swerve of her wrist to indicate the whole of her body, "is real. I am real. The sooner you accept that the sooner we can move on to what really matters." Once her words sunk in, her expression softened into a pitiful smile. "But I am cruel, laughing at you like that. It was just so funny seeing a British gentleman lose his composure, for once. Come," she patted the ceramic tile next to her, "let's talk; I'm sure you have many questions."
I stood my ground, my eyes riveted to what was hidden beneath the towel. "Who — " I had to start again, and clear my throat, "or what — in God's name, are you?"
"Where's your imagination, Captain Harding? I took you to be a very well-read young gentleman. Have you forgotten all your classics from your time at Stowe?"
The fact that she knew which school I'd been to didn't register against the hypothesis forming in my mind. "A siren," I said, at length, not so much a question, but a statement.
She nodded and repeated her plea. "I'm sure a curious mind such as yours has so many things to ask. And you're making me nervous just standing there. Come on, I don't bite. I'm not half-shark!"
Her cheeky wink didn't help. I remained rooted to the spot. "But how come you looked normal before?"
"Look, Captain, I won't answer any more questions unless you sit down."
I blinked and, under her encouraging smile, collected what remained of my courage from the dark recess where it hid and slumped down by the poolside, still leaving a yard or so between us.
"That's better." The bottle of herbal distillate, half-empty now, was called back into service. The Contessa filled my beaker up to the brim. "This will help steady your nerves."
The contents vanished in a couple of gulps.
"The tail," the Contessa said once the empty glass was back on the tiled floor, "only grows on contact with seawater. As I start swimming my legs and feet get joined together. When I'm on dry land the tail gradually disappears, and I have my legs and feet back. That's happening as we speak," she pointed to the towel.
"And the other ones," I asked in a timid voice, "your companions, they're the same?"
"How come no one knows about you?"
The Contessa leaned back and steepled her hands. "That's not entirely correct. There are lots of stories about us."
"So, all the legends are true."
"Homer did take some liberties. No wings!" She veered her back towards me, jiggling her shoulders. "Typical of the scoundrel. He always wanted to add his personal touch."
"Homer." My pupils dilated. "You knew Homer," I said in the end, overcoming my stutter, and my frightened eyes were met by a peaceful gaze. "So that means you are — "
Struck with dizziness, I helped myself to more of that liqueur.
When I'd recovered, I asked her about her life and stared ever more wide-eyed as she recounted how she had lived in every age known to man without revealing her secrets, blending in and adapting to the times. She had played Roman consuls against Greek tyrants, emperors against usurpers, popes against Bourbon kings, doing everything she felt she needed to do to survive. The details were too rich and the pains and joys she spoke of too genuine to have been made up. I knew in my soul that she was telling the truth.
"There's a yarn you can spin at your club," she said. It must have been hours later when her story had finally run out of steam.
I snorted. "Fat chance they'll believe me."
The Contessa sighed. Her eyes were filled with a new-found keenness. "Captain, I've never been more afraid in my whole life."
"You've managed to survive everything life could throw at you. For thousands of years. What is there that you can be afraid of?"
I could read the fear in her emerald irises. "The modern state."
The rhythmic splashing of waves against the jutting rocks filled the air around us. It could have been morning outside, or at least a false dawn. There was no way of knowing, buried in this cave.
The Contessa gazed into the gloomy vacuum. "This era is different. You've seen what they do to people of a different faith, of a different race. Imagine what could happen to us if they ever found out about the villa?" For the first time, I saw the Contessa's face lined with worry. "These men have tools not even the Gods in Olympus can dream about. That's why we reached out to the British."
I nodded. "The weapon."
She turned to me. "What have you been told?"
"Nothing. The prince just told me to look for you."
"The prince." As she repeated these words to herself, shaking her head, there was a glint in the Contessa's eyes, as if something she had long wondered about had dawned on her.
The Contessa stole a furtive peek under the towel. "I can show you now."
I followed her through an archway sculpted into the rock at the far end of the hall. We passed a vestibule with wooden benches and cupboards. The Contessa opened one of them and wrapped her body, returned to human form, in a silk robe. Basking in the light of the room's oil lamps, she was every inch the Mediterranean beauty I'd wanted to bed hours earlier.
We reached a door and emerged into a small, austere room. The gramophone, hoisted on a table next to an old cabinet, was the most indulgent touch.
"Captain, what do you remember about us from the stories you read? I mean about mermaids or sirens, however you'd like to call us."
I recalled what I knew of Ulysses' encounter with the sirens from the Odyssey. Then it struck me. "Your singing?" I asked. "It's supposed to drive men mad, make them kill themselves."
"Spot on, Captain."
My brain chewed on her words and what they implied. "So, you want to sing in the presence of your — our — enemies to make them crazy?"
The Contessa blinked.
I paced around the small room. The locomotive of my train of thought, dormant since the Contessa's revelations, was gathering steam again. "The problem with that scheme is that we only have you and your — what — six fellow sirens. Even spreading you out between Dunkirk and Tobruk isn't going to make the cut. You can't cover the whole front. I don't see how this can deal a fatal blow to the enemy unless we find a way to lock you in a room with Hitler, Goebbels, and the whole of the OKW."
The Contessa walked towards the cabinet by the gramophone. "There's a way, thanks to modern technology."
She unlocked the cabinet and, with great care, retrieved a flat cardboard case, rectangular in shape. Inside, there was a vinyl disc.
I leaned forward, eyes fixed on the sleeve. "You've recorded your song."
"We've made dozens of copies and can make more."
"How?" I asked, as my fingers caressed the rim of the carton sleeve. "And why do you keep them here?"
"Our friends on the mainland paid an army sound engineer to help us. Captain, you wouldn't have found the cave on the island if I hadn't let you. It is the safest place for the song in the whole world, trust me. Even if the villa was, the Gods forbid, taken over, the fascists would never get here."
I was gripped with ideas of tanks and spitfires furnished with loudspeakers, crews wearing earplugs as they blasted the enemy with the siren's song, German soldiers turning on one another when not shooting themselves in the mouth with their Mausers, our brave Tommies moving in to finish the survivors. This could be the ultimate psychological weapon.
Boy, if it could only work. I saw myself wearing the Commodore's stripes on my uniform, the Victoria Cross pinned to my chest and more letters after my name that I would care to count.
Yet I held my counsel. "What do you want in return?" I asked.
"Peace." Her gaze was serene. "We just want to continue living in our quiet ways."
"That so? I find it rather difficult to believe."
"There's no quid pro quo, Captain. Here." She held out the disc sleeve towards me. "Take it."
I didn't move.
She pushed the case into my unwilling hands. "Take it," she repeated. "What are you afraid of, Captain?"
I stared at her with a ferocity that made her backtrack.
"I'm not afraid of anything."
Yet something gnawed at me. But there was only one danger I could foresee in taking the disc and bringing it to the rear-admiral: that it wouldn't work. We couldn't afford to rely on it blindly to go into battle. Thousands of our own would die if it failed to deliver that fatal blow.
I didn't know if that herbal liqueur had wormed itself into my brain, but the opportunity to mimic a hero proved too tempting to turn down.
"Tie me up," I said.
She shook her head with glee. "I don't believe you want to do that, Captain."
"You heard me." I sat on one of the chairs scattered around the room. "Tie me up."
With a shrug, she untied the sash holding her robe in place and wrapped it around my eyes.
I could only see dim shapes in the gloom through the white silk.
The Contessa drew my forearms close together behind the chair and enveloped them in smooth fabric, which I guessed to be her robe, still warm from her body heat.
She obliged and my wrists went numb. I didn't know what she used to restrict my ankles, but they suffered the same treatment.
The gramophone's needle began its revolutions with a static flicker, followed by the pitter-patter of the Contessa's feet leaving the room. The oil lamp had gone out. I couldn't see a thing.
My mouth went dry.
A door closed or opened somewhere. Then the silence was absolute. Except for the thunderclaps echoing in my heart.
My ears picked up footsteps, shuffling closer. Someone rushed past me and I recoiled. A woman giggled in my ear.
There were murmurs. I recognized the female voices. They were the sirens from the Villa. Was the Contessa with them? I fancied I caught notes of seaweed and ambergris from her perfume.
Another voice spoke, startling me, as it was so close. Right next to me.
It didn't belong to any of the villa's inhabitants.
It was the voice of my wife.
"Archie, why do you keep doing this?"
"You keep staying up all night with the boys of the club. I don't believe you're only playing bridge."
It couldn't be, but it was her. The bitterness in her voice was too reminiscent of our fights. The light, herbal scent, as mild and subtle as her manner, was the same one permeating our bed's pillows when we lay in bed side by side. Her hot breath blew against my cheek and her closed fists pounded at my chest, the rings digging into my flesh.
"I know what you get up to in those rooms upstairs! How could you, Archie? Why is nothing ever enough for you? You're the fucking worst husband in the world! You're a monster! I hate you! I hate — "
I pulled at my bonds, fighting to break free so I could hold on to her. "Emily," I called her, but she'd vanished.
All was quiet again. I wished I had one hand free to wipe the sweat off my brow.
"What happened, Archie?" The pleasant voice of a young girl stirred forgotten memories.
"You told me you loved me. You told me you would come for me and we would be together, become a couple, start a family. But you never came. Why are you wearing a wedding ring? Archie? You can't be married?" There was more disappointment than anger in her tone. And that cut even deeper. "The other girls warned me, but I didn't believe them. They said you just wanted to show off in front of your friends. Not my Archie. He's not one of those guys. But you are, Archie, aren't you?"
"Get off me!" I shouted. If I only could have run out of that room and left all those damned voices behind.
The girl wasn't there anymore. Another voice started speaking, though, this time male.
It was my father.
"Why don't you ever come down to visit me? You promised you would."
His unmistakable breath, charred by years of cigar smoking, brushed my face.
"You should spend time with your old man. Otherwise, it might be too late."
My mouth was too dry to articulate a response.
He sighed. "Dying without my son giving a damn. As in life, so in death. And you always talk about wanting to prove that you're a man."
"No, Father, no — " I managed to find my voice and tried to grab him.
But I had embraced someone else, someone much smaller.
A little boy.
"Archie, why did you push me?"
I shoved him away, recoiling in terror. "Percy"' I panted. "It can't be you!"
"Why did you tell them it was an accident?" My dead little brother continued in his high-pitched, prepubescent voice. "And that I tripped when you pushed me? When you just wanted to show how much bigger and stronger you were?"
I yelled for the Contessa, begging her to stop.
The lights came on and all the voices disappeared, sucked back into the infernal genie's lamp where they had come from. Beyond the confines of the cave, waves washed against the shore and the seagulls greeted each other in the air with their screeches. The sash was yanked off my head and the Contessa, in a fresh robe, sauntered past me. Her sly smile couldn't hide her delight at my humiliation. She took the accursed disc and left with it.
I was breathing fast, soaked in sweat, and I had soiled myself.
It was the light and the heat of the merciless sun, already at its zenith, which roused me the next day. I couldn't remember how I ended up in my bed, whether I had been carried or had made it on my own. Shards of a distant conversation floated in my mind. Does everyone hear them, I had asked? Yes, the Contessa had replied, but everyone hears different voices. They tell what you would rather stay forgotten. They are the grief, the shame, the guilt that we lock in a perpetually sealed safe at the back of our minds because we aren't able to live with them.
I heaved myself up. A stainless-steel tray balanced on the bedside table regaled me with my reflection. My hair had gone white.
I was no hero. The voices from the island had told me that and now they lived in my brain. There was only one way they could be silenced.
Without bothering to get dressed, I walked to the window. My hands fumbled with the handle until the window opened wide over the rocky cliff. It was large enough for me to pass through and allow the sea, grazing serenely down below, to swallow me whole. This time I didn't watch out for any rocks.
The seaplane would leave for Britain without me.
The Contessa draped in immaculate white, sat at a table on her bedroom balcony, sipping a cup of espresso while gazing at the peaceful sea, sunglasses shielding her eyes from the sun's punishing rays. She toyed with the black knight she'd captured while waiting for her companion to make her move. Not that the game would hold any surprises; the Contessa had her eye on the queen to execute the inevitable checkmate. The white queen always dispatched her adversary. One way or another, the white queen always survived.
One of the sirens came to her with a message. The Contessa nodded and excused herself, carrying her long, thin cigarette indoors. Manicured fingers turned the dials on her bedroom's telephone and she lifted the receiver.
"Rome, please," she told the operator, in Italian.
There was a click.
"The British officer's stay has been unexpectedly cut short," she said to the man from the ministry. "He didn't take to our singing. Which sounds better than ever, even in the different arrangement. He just had the time to tell us about his friendship with the prince. Please send his grace our regards." While she spoke, the Contessa took the black vinyl disc out of its sleeve, stroking it with blood-red fingernails.