Corelli paused for a moment, his black eyes seizing hers. Then he broke into a wide smile.
Louise tried to return the smile but only did so with a feeling that made her wonder if she looked foolish.
“Well I must leave now. I’m late for my next appointment,” he said, tipping his fedora.
“And what is it that you do in your territory?” asked Louise, desperate for a few last words
His hand was already pulling back on the front doorknob. Then he released his grip and turned back to her.
“I work for Hilton Hotels. I look for possible locations where they could build. You could say I’m in real estate development. The sea and the ruins make this area an interesting option.”
“I would think so,” said Louise. “Are the ruins very far?”
“Not at all. They start just past the north end of the piazza.” He stretched one arm out quickly but Louise kept looking at his face. “It’s only a short walk.”
“It’s been nice meeting you. Arrivederci,” he said and reached again for her hand. His touch was familiar, as if she was returning home after a long absence. Then he released his hold and with one last nod he was gone.
Louise watched him open the large umbrella and walk unhurriedly through the rain towards a waiting large grey Fiat that she now noticed had parked across the piazza. She watched him until he got into the car and spoke to the driver before they slowly drove away. She watched until the car disappeared, but he never looked back.
There was a small parlor off the lobby where she sat after Corelli had gone. The room was bright and furnished with a sofa and three wing chairs. A coffee table was piled with numerous magazines. Louise decided that she would rather wait there until they were ready to leave or the rain stopped. The idea of visiting some of the old temples might also pass some time. After nearly an hour she heard his voice.
“Oh, there you are.”
Martin’s face loomed above her.
“I just got through to the dealer. He has another meeting but can see me very shortly. When I get back we should be able to go.”
She recognized the widening of his eyes and the flush in his cheeks as the prelude to the closing of a special transaction.
“Will the car be okay?”
“Oh, I expect so.”
“Martin, did you know there are many ruins in this region?”
“Of course I know,” he said. “Who told you about them?”
“Oh, while you were still in the dining room I was chatting with this nice man at the desk. When I said you were in the antiquities business he suggested we visit some of the ruins.”
“What made you tell him what business I was in?”
“No special reason. Only he did ask a lot of questions. I suppose he’s just used to doing it in his work.”
“And what sort of work does he do?” asked Martin.
“Something in real estate development. Looking for sites.” But when his eyes wandered to the window, she knew he had already lost interest in her morning conversation.
“I shouldn’t be more than a few hours,” he finally said. “Pack up our things, will you, so we can leave as soon as I get back.”
“Don’t you want to see any of the ruins?” she asked, but he was already out of the parlor, through the front door, and trotting across the piazza in the direction where they had left their car yesterday.
She went upstairs to pack and saw with pleasure that the room had already been made up with fresh sheets and towels. Even in the early afternoon gloom it seemed much brighter. She closed the bags and left them near the door. Her hand was already squeezing the doorknob when she abruptly let it go and snatched her raincoat and umbrella from the chair.
The outside air was warm, and a sea wind pushed the rain down into nearly horizontal sheets. The rain quickly soaked the bottom of her coat and her legs even in the first short steps she took across the square.
The downpour fortunately turned into a fine clinging mist as she passed the church. A sudden gust of wind blew her umbrella inside out and snapped its struts. Rather than go back she pulled a scarf from her pocket and wrapped it around her head. She bent her body slightly into the wind. A wet spray beat against her but she didn’t mind. It felt strangely cleansing, like a fresh shower.
Just beyond the church the land sloped upward into a tall stand of poplars. She followed a gravel path up the rise. Even before the summit she could see the shafts of two marble columns rise up from the depression beyond the hill; two ancient cylinders shining with a wet skin, streaked with soft grays and pinks that seemed to grow out of the marble, utterly oblivious to their fine surface cracks.
The ink on the pamphlet she held was already smeared with water, but she clearly read that the ruins were 2,500 years old. How does it stand so long, she wondered. Earthquakes and violent storms meant nothing. Who else had passed this way over the centuries? Standing there alone in the light rain, she felt very special.
She walked down a crude stone stairway and saw that the ruins were spread out over many acres. A fallen column to her right lay across a wide trench like a giant log bridge. She moved into the trench, which was slightly deeper than she was tall, ignored the muddy bottom, and passed under the column. Just ahead she saw a scattering of small stones huddled beneath one wall of the trench. Part of the wall must have collapsed from the rain, she thought.
Just above the stones she saw part of a looped handle jutting out from the trench wall. No more than two inches were visible. She easily scraped the damp soil away with her fingers. The more earth she removed, the larger the piece grew until she carefully pulled it away from the wall. It was a jug. An amphora, perhaps eight inches long and half as wide at the center. Probably for wine or oil. The piece was far from perfect. There was a chip on the pouring lip and a gap halfway down the side. She had seen many similar pieces in far better condition in Martin’s shop. The rain washed the color into a mixture of red and mustard, but she knew that when dry it would have shades of sand with hints of pink and ochre. She carefully held it from the bottom and lifted it to eye level.
How long have you been buried here and how many people did you serve? She imagined a history for the piece and wanted to stay and explore. And then write about it all. She managed to fit the piece into a deep inside pocket of her raincoat and began to retrace her steps out of the ruins. Her head was singing. This is mine. All mine.
A new desk clerk was working and quickly produced a towel. He offered to get her something from the bar. She decided on a double espresso. The man’s eyes widened and he winked as if in conspiratorial agreement with her choice before he disappeared, only to return quickly with the cup and a plate of small biscuits. She dried her hair and let it fall loosely. Then she dried the amphora. The colors had already changed into what she expected.
Despite the weather she was beginning to feel very comfortable in this space, in this village. She sipped her espresso and began to examine the piece. She traced her fingers across the surface. It was surprisingly smooth. She hooked her finger through the loop handle and pretended to pour.
“Will you have some more wine?” she asked an empty chair. Suddenly she wanted to stay on here in this small village and continue to wander around the nearby ruins. Maybe it was something they could even do together.
“Ah Signora Stone. Buon giorno.”
She looked up. Corelli stood at the parlor entrance.
“Oh hello.” And then, “What brings you back so soon?”
“I’ve just checked out,” he said. She noticed one hand held a small black travel bag.
He looked at the amphora in her hand.
“Did you find that here? In the ruins?”
She held it tighter and smiled.
“Yes. I took your advice and went there. It’s fantastic. Do I have to turn it in to someone?”
“No. You’re fine with this. It’s far from perfect.”
“Good,” she said. “For me it’s perfect.”
He looked at her in the eye.
“You seem different.”
“Oh, it’s my hair. It got soaked out there.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, I think I like it better long.”
“No. I don’t mind at all. Thank you.”
He dropped his bag to the floor, reached inside his jacket pocket, and produced a card. She took it without looking and put it on the table next to the amphora. Then she searched vainly for something else to say. The room quickly became crowded with silence and they shared the same awkward immobility until Corelli turned toward the door and tipped his hat. She was happy to see the white smile return to crease his face.
“Well, arrivederci, then.”
“Arrivederci.” She spoke the word very poorly, she thought, but just saying it brought her a sense of belonging. His smile broadened in confirmation just before he left the room. She watched him walk across the piazza to his car, and then he turned and lifted his arm towards the hotel. Instinctively she raised her own in return although she felt he couldn’t possibly see her.
She leafed through an issue of National Geographic and ordered a second espresso. Then she heard Martin’s voice in the hall rudely calling for his bill from the desk clerk. As soon as he entered the parlor she knew something was wrong.
“Damn it all to hell,” he shrieked. His red face was twisted into misery. His arms flailed uselessly at the air.
She wanted to show him the amphora but he wouldn’t let her speak.
“Bloody dealer already sold everything to someone else. I’ve missed out on the whole damn lot.”
“What happened?” she asked, realizing his foul mood would give her pain for days.
“He sold all of it this morning. All of it! To some man who bought it on behalf of Hilton Hotels.”
At first she thought he misspoke. But then a smile began to crease her face. It was a smile she couldn’t contain, and the angrier Martin became the wider the smile became. And then she began to laugh. Finally she stood and looked through the window at the empty piazza while his tirade continued. She wondered if the children would come back. Maybe they would do their little pirouettes and tilt their faces up and hold their hands out and gather in the rain. But it really didn’t matter anymore.
She put on her raincoat and slipped Corelli’s card in the pocket.
“Please keep your eye on this,” she said, pointing to the amphora on the table and interrupting his angry monologue. “I’m going back to the ruins.”
She was still laughing when she walked out into the rain.
Allan Retzky’s mystery, “Vanished in the Dunes,” has made the Amazon best-seller list two years in a row. He is a previous contributor to The East Hampton Star and lives with his wife in Amagansett.