by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Part 1 and Part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 8: Columbia, South Carolina
part 3 of 4
Just before three o’clock, Lucia had materialised in Salvatore’s room.
‘Wake up, lazybones. Time we saw some more of this town! What do you fancy this time?’
Salvatore’s fancy was still some way wide of Lucia. But she was learning to live with that.
‘I’d like to visit the University’s Geological Museum. And then I’d like to have a look at that Innovista development. I’m supposed to be very interested in it, and in truth, I really am ...’
They found the Laurence L. Smith Mineral Collection on the second floor of the McKissick Museum. Its fine specimens of South Carolina gold, Brazilian amethyst, Namibian malachite, English fluorite, Moroccan skutterudite, and hundreds more, held Salvatore engrossed and largely silent for nearly two hours.
Lucia kept him faithful company, even though she and her Doman colleagues were really interested in only a very small subset of the items on display.
Then they strolled back west. After pausing for a quick beer, Salvatore spent an hour absorbing the atmosphere of the steadily developing, ambitious Innovista project that was so inspiring to his cab driver and, no doubt, to countless other proud Columbians. Lucia was equally impressed.
They stopped for another beer. Lucia decided she was the only one watching the clock ...
‘OK, Salvi, let’s call it a day. I can see you’re getting tired again in this heat. You need to get your energy back for all the dancing tonight.’
‘Yes, I suppose I do ...’
‘So, enjoy the rest of the evening, and tomorrow morning too — we won’t need to baby-sit you! But please make sure you’re at the park bench where I met Norman, at ten to twelve, and have your radio tuned in, this time, to a nice melodious Shag Music station.’
Lucia the Handler went off duty in a strangely ambivalent mood.
She had spotted the look in her protégé’s eye when that “Maelene” woman had walked past outside the Forretan HQ. And Crofton had implied to Salvi that everyone from the office could be going to the dance.
So despite what she had just said, Lucia was wondering whether to turn up at the Zoo after all. She certainly wouldn’t be able to appear in clear view ... they’d all want her to join in the dancing! But she could go un-made — just as Carla had, when Toni met Mireille in Amsterdam for that concert ...
No, this was all pointless. Salvi was clearly continuing to take very little interest in her. It was all just some kind of vanity on her part. Quite illogical. She would read a good book and have a nice long rest instead.
And she wouldn’t bring in a guardian angel to keep watch on him. That would just be petty. Anyway, it was Carla’s name on the duty roster again tonight, and she certainly didn’t want to involve her unnecessarily. Salvi had his next rendezvous clearly assigned. All was under control. All was well.
All the Domans on the Mater were of course able to share fully in Lucia’s thoughts, if they chose to.
The Chief was however focused on Crofton’s ongoing mission, and had little interest in Lucia’s or Salvatore’s plans for the evening. Carla was enjoying her own R&R to the full, and was not monitoring her fellow Handler closely either. And the Captain only involved herself in the crew’s personal thoughts on an exception basis.
Quo, however, felt a continuing responsibility and freedom to keep in touch with things on board at a grass roots level. So she had listened in carefully to Lucia’s latest musings. But despite the incompetence of Salvatore at the house of Marie-Anne, the venerable Number Two saw no reason to worry about him at a simple, off-duty firm’s party. Nor did she sense any exposure to their plans in Lucia’s mild annoyance at his apparent nonchalance.
So Quo decided not to get involved. Everybody could have a relaxing night off.
* * *
Salvatore did not bother with an early evening meal: he assumed there’d be plenty of food at the dance. He just sank another cooling beer as he waited in the hotel bar for his cab to arrive.
And this driver was almost as talkative as the first. It was only a few minutes’ cruise up to Elmwood Avenue and across the Congaree to the beautiful expanse of Riverbanks, but by the time they arrived Salvatore was fully briefed on ‘one of America’s top ten zoos, an’ that’s official, sir, an’ the number one travel attraction in the Southeast ...’
It was not just a “firm’s social night” after all. Forretan’s special visitors were still in town. They had satisfactorily concluded their two days of joint planning and negotiations, and this evening’s regular little party was doubling as a slightly more formal, post-facto reception, to give the business wheels a final gentle oiling before the guests’ departure the following morning. And as Salvatore, following directions given to him fulsomely at the front gate, approached the several dozen people milling around outside the Reptile House, the open-air proceedings were just beginning, with a gratifyingly short speech from Norman Crofton (‘It always falls to me ...’), accompanied by soft drinks, unpretentious wine, and beers both regular and “lite”.
With the formalities over, Norman spotted his newest visitor standing inconspicuously in one corner. He strode straight across to him, shook his hand in practised welcome, and led him over to a small group of colleagues chatting merrily together near the barbeque that was being busily set up. Salvatore’s heart went thump as he realised that Maelene was indeed amongst them ...
There were at once, of course, the predictable polite welcomes for their European visitor. Somebody asked him what he was going to be working on here in Columbia. He must have given them the same potted summary he’d delivered to Crofton earlier in the day. He really didn’t know. He was on verbal auto-pilot, but was also concentrating very hard on looking anywhere but at Maelene. Fortunately, she didn’t choose to throw any questions in his direction ...
Then, to Salvatore’s great relief, Norman was suddenly back in action, announcing that there was a surprise half-hour free for everybody to visit the amazing Reptile House, before they were allowed to start letting their hair down!
Salvatore excused himself and ambled back to the drinks table on his own. And once everyone else had moved into the cool, serpentine hall, and followed the direction signs sending them to the left for a clockwise tour, he entered via its exit path on the right hand side, and began his visit to its impressive inhabitants in comfortable solitude.
But ten or fifteen minutes later, as he was down on his haunches in close study of a stunning baby crocodile, the rest of the group began to trickle up from his left. And then, by his side, a tender voice blossomed.
‘Isn’t it just adorable?’
He raised his head, then pulled himself up clumsily and mumbled ‘Yes, quite beautiful.’ All his admiration was transferring to the brown-eyed girl with the serious but lightly smiling face — so alive! — who was standing upright and proud and very close by.
‘My name’s Maelene Bay. And you’re Sal, right? Funny — that’s a girl’s name over here!’
Already off his guard, and now both embarrassed and annoyed with Crofton for his presumption, he tried to match her directness with a wordy explanation. But it didn’t come out at all right ...
She rescued him in mid-sentence. ‘No problem, Sal. It’s a very nice name!’
The other partygoers had by now disappeared round the next bend in the walkway. So the two of them strolled on alone. But Ms Bay was careful to ensure, for their young visitor’s benefit, that they continued in the direction he had already chosen to take, even though it was completely the wrong one.
‘So,’ she made a further effort, ‘tell me more about what you do ...’
Salvatore murmured a few additional things about himself (jazz music got a fleeting mention) and his trip to the USA — all of them true, but also in full accord with his cover story. Maelene listened with care and sincere interest, picking up in particular his obvious passion for conservation, both global and much closer to his home.
But he was getting tired of repeating his CV: he was far more interested in somebody else’s.
‘Enough about me, Maelene. What about you? Not just at work, I mean ...’
‘Me? Girl in a hurry, Sal. “So little time, so much to do”. No, don’t look so worried — I’m joking! But, seriously, I do try to pack as much into every day as I can. There really are so many things to see and do and learn, don’t you think?’
‘Well, yes, of course ...’
‘Especially the arts. I spend all day on technical and business stuff — and I do enjoy it! — but that leaves so little time for reading, and movies, and world art ... and then there’s my charity work, and everything else. And heck, that’s not even mentioning music! I love almost everything, including jazz. I try to breathe it all in, then breathe it out again, in my own way. And my heroine’s Billie Holiday. Isn’t she the finest?’
‘Er, yes, she is,’ said Salvatore, suddenly keen to move back to safer ground, before revealing his rather shallow knowledge of the great torch singer and her work. ‘So, are you a geologist too?’
‘Sure am. Majored in Environmental Geoscience at the University of South Carolina, right here in Columbia. The faculty’s just a few blocks up from our office. Here, take one of my business cards ...’
‘Thanks! So, were you planning to join Forretan all along?’
‘Oh, no. I knew about them, of course — we did case studies on their rapid success ... “local firm makes good”, you know — but I only looked at them properly as an employer in my final year. Then it seemed the natural thing ...’
‘So what do you do there?’
‘Well, partly I do general research for the senior specialists. That can be quite interesting, and it’s all part of the learning curve ...’
‘Yes, I know. That’s just what I do too!’
‘Right. And partly I give research support to Norm on the PR front. That’s a more difficult job ... it often seems to clash with some of my personal views.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh, you know, issues of ecology, and honesty, and fairness, and exploitation, and selfishness, and misunderstanding — all the things I write and sing about, actually ...’
‘You’re a songwriter?’
‘Yeah. Not a failed one, yet. But let’s say I still have to realise my full commercial potential!’
Salvatore’s insides squirmed with pleasure as Maelene broke into a warm, sad, self-mocking smile.
‘So you plan to get a couple of number one chart hits and then retire ...?’
‘Ha, no! I’m gonna cherish my real career ... the music business is far too heartless! But if I ever did get a recording deal, and made some extra cash, I know lots of fine causes I could give it to, straight away ...’
He swallowed hard, convinced he’d probably made another faux pas, but not sure quite how or what.
‘Hey, that’s really impressive,’ he ventured, hoping it would dig him out of this latest quagmire. And then, spurred on by another uncertain but generous smile of acknowledgement, he instantly vaulted several further levels of protocol.
‘Will you sing me one of your songs, Maelene?’
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Sal.’
‘Oh, please do! You’ve really got me interested ...’
She sighed deeply and wondered why this was happening. Her new companion failed to notice any change.
‘All right, Sal. No guitar, though! And just the first few lines, OK ...?
‘Take me like a secret
Touch my chords
Hear the fire
Play my pages
Read the choir ...’
Salvatore digested this carefully, hardly daring to believe his ears, ill-equipped to respond in similar style.
‘That’s really lovely, Maelene. All the senses mixed up, but still making sense. And you know, it’s almost as if it had been translated from Italian ...’
‘Well spotted! Actually, I was thinking of Spanish when I wrote it, but I’m sure you’re right.’
‘How old are you, Maelene?’
‘Ha! Would you freaking believe it? Well, as it happens, Sal, I’m twenty-five ...’
‘Same age as me!’
Maelene decided at this point that she had gone quite far enough, for the time being, in the cause of Forretan’s friendly international relations. But the peace and quiet which then descended on the pair of them did not last very long. Norman’s own PR voice called to them through the low, cavernous halls, and they quickly moved back outside to join the others for the barbeque and lots more free drinks.
Not long afterwards, the band began to play. This time Crofton’s bee-line was for Maelene. He bowed in mock formality, took her willing hands, and jokingly apologised to “Sal” for stealing her back for a while. And most of the other Forretan people got immediately involved in the dancing. Salvatore, however, quickly took himself off to the men’s room for five minutes, then picked up another beer and stood cautiously watching from a shady corner.
But Maelene soon spotted him. As soon as that song had finished, Forretan’s conscientious PR assistant broke off from her latest partner, came straight up to him, and insisted he join in. He didn’t try to argue — he would take the bad along with the good, he thought — and despite a sustained recognition of how gauche he must be appearing on the dance floor (and that sort of insight did not come often to him), he found himself enjoying it immensely ...
The spring evening was still very warm, and with every new partner, one per song, Salvatore became hotter and hotter. He abandoned his jacket and tie after the first three, and then established a happy rhythm of returning, after each dance, to his own table or the drinks table itself, to take another long draught or to fully replenish his glass. And he had long since abandoned the “tasteless” lite beer.
Maelene encountered him twice more during the continuous round of partner changes. And each time her comfort levels reduced and the bruises on her toes increased. She was already regretting she had given him her business card. Yet she still felt some strange sort of corporate responsibility towards him, especially since Norman seemed miles away, in more ways than one ...
The dancing was finally done, and to crown the evening there was a short but extravagant fireworks display. ‘They really are doing these guys proud,’ Maelene was thinking to herself as she prepared to leave. Then, for the first time in at least thirty minutes, she spotted their other, less illustrious visitor. He, in stark contrast, appeared to have largely abandoned any sort of thinking at all. He was wandering around, glass of beer still in hand, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every new pyrotechnic wonder, and threatening to fall flat on his face at any moment.
She did not hesitate.
‘Right, Salvi, it’s time for bed. My taxi will be here in five minutes. You’d better come with me — the driver can drop me off first, and I’ll get him to promise he’ll take you straight on to the hotel ... Whoa! Be careful, now! Look, you’d better hold onto my arm ...’
* * *
Dawn had broken, and Salvatore was in bed, still fully dressed but already wide awake. He could not get Maelene Bay off his mind.
It felt as if she’d stolen his heart away. She’d been so really friendly all evening, and she hadn’t seemed to mind him drinking all those beers, and she’d wanted to share the ride back, and they’d left the Zoo arm-in-arm ... yes, she obviously liked him a lot, too. And now there was a whole weekend stretching ahead of them — apart from his mid-day rendezvous with Lucia, of course.
He checked Maelene’s business card: yes, it had both her work and mobile numbers! Should he give her a call right away? No, it wasn’t yet six o’clock — she’d probably still be asleep. And maybe he wouldn’t phone. Perhaps he could give her a big surprise? Yes, that was it! He wasn’t sure how he’d managed it — he didn’t remember much about the taxi ride home — but her street name and house number were etched on his brain. He must have been concentrating really hard on them! And she’d be sure to have some good ideas for what they could do together ...
He set his alarm and drifted back into a short but happy sleep.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd