“Sto plaz! Sto plaz!” Leeza was laughing, the boys were laughing, and she never wanted to stop, peaking on the Purple Flash sizzling through her veins, beat-up electric car packed to the max, whole goddamn Crete merchant marine on leave and she’d hardly got her thumb out when they’d peeled over in a cloud of dust, crazy hot wind blowing, antique boombox on the floorboards blasting out some ancient disco crap but it was loud enough it didn’t matter, boys chattering and she didn’t understand, but what the hell she’d learned, “Sto plaz!”
To the beach! She wanted to go skinny-dipping.
The boys just laughed as the car careened drunken along the dark cliffs and the hot wind blew through the glassless windows. She was coughing on the dust, jostled on top of knees and shoulders, somebody’s flat cap pulled low over her eyes, somebody else copping a feel. She slapped randomly, clutching the camera goggles and laughing, jacked in to the leads and riding flying swooping down out of the hills to the spark of town lights below.
Leeza went a little fuzzy on how they’d gotten out of the car, but somehow they were all stumbling along winding cobbled alleys.
Dizzy sweeps of closed storefronts, a tethered donkey, terraced houses above on a steep hill glowing dim white in the dark beneath the stars and the slow writhing serpents of colored auroras. Somebody caught her as the hill spun and tumbled down on her through the camera goggles. More jerky glimpses of frowning women in black hurrying past, cobblestones snaking away, harbor at the end of the side street, boats bobbing under lamplight.
“Sto plaz!” She spun around, tucking the goggles away, tugging free of their arms. “Sto plaz. Come on, you troglodytes, I wanna go swimming!”
The boys in their caps and imitation American jeans—the beautiful, carved-statue boys with their perfect profiles and big dark eyes and incredible eyelashes, Madre it wasn’t fair to waste those on men—the boys just laughed and took her arms and jostled her along, chanting, “Sto taverna! Sto taverna!”
She decided after all maybe she could go for some beer—none of that retsina swill—she could feel the buzz leveling out and the thirst setting in. So she let them sweep her along toward the harbor. People were eating under diner awnings in the lamplight, one old man dancing slow by himself to that whiny string-music farther on, then a flash of sputtering pink neon spelling out Space Cafet ia.
“Let’s go in.” Leeza dug in her heels. “I want a drink in the Space Cafeteria.”
Arms kept dragging her along. “Ohi, ohi. Eleni’s.” They stumbled toward a low, cement-block building on the edge of the harbor. Music pulsed out the door to nab them and float them on in.
An enormous greasy man swathed in a stained apron pushed through some dancers to smack a tray of glasses and a pitcher of wine on their table. Leeza blinked up, grinning. “Hola, amigo. I mean, ciao Eleni. I need beer.” She winked.
The boys roared and the waiter looked pained, but a bottle of warm beer appeared on the table. She gulped it thirstily. Little plates started passing around, weird things like soggy leaves wrapped around mush, big raw peas, and sausage-like appetizers stuffed into chewy skins, which tasted okay until she gathered from a real hilarious pantomime that they were made from some kind of animal guts.
Music pounded through dim lights. Time to dance. Two or three sailors at a time gyrated and twirled her, strutting and rubbing their crotches up against her with soulful looks. Some other macho cut in, max-fusto in open shirt and gold chains, tight pants. Leeza laughed and stumbled against the table, a glass crashing to the floor. Like some kind of signal, everybody went nuts, jumping up and hooting and flinging plates and glasses onto the floor, dancing wild in the shards.
“Maximal!” Leeza flung another plate, dancing, pounding to the music until she couldn’t feel her feet.
“Whoa, boys, Leeza’s gotta take a break.” She pushed back the next sailor lurching with a grin toward her, and slumped into a chair.
“Best you slow it down, girl.”
Leeza’s head seemed to turn very slowly through the smoky dimness as she tracked the source of the husky, Caribbean-tinged drawl. Expecting to see a man, she fuzzily changed gears. It was a woman sitting next to her at the table, and as her eyes slowly focused, she wondered how she’d missed her earlier. Definitely eye-catching. Shiny black skin, and hair in those long skinny corn-rows all beaded and bangled that Leeza had always liked, smooth face too strongly bony to be pretty but more like pretty was irrelevant, dramatic heavy eye makeup, and some kind of tattoo—no, bumpy scars in a spiral design on her forehead. She was wearing a shimmering, sleeveless long dress in bronze and black stripes. Copper bracelets above and below the elbows accentuated the muscle definition of her shapely arms.
Leeza got a hot little twinge in her gut. “Hey. You’re Jamaican? Bob Marleyville?”
“Ha. You like de Mon?” The woman turned her head. “Back off, Jack.” The sailor who’d been tugging at her arm lurched away. “Trouble with these clowns, they think you foreign, you free for the taking.”
Leeza found her beer bottle in the clutter and took a long, warm swallow. “You worried about it?”
A deep, throaty laugh. “Puny pretty-boys?” She lifted her glass. There was another scar slicing across her upper arm beneath the bracelet, and this one hadn’t been designed.
Leeza’s tongue darted nervously to moisten dry lips. “So what are you doing over here? Sightseeing?” Or one of the Rasta-man drug runners?
The woman drained her glass and turned finally toward Leeza, giving her a slow appraisal. Long sinewy fingers, so dark in the neon and fluorescent spill from the bar they gleamed purple-black, caressed the curve of the glass. “Enlightenment.”
“What?” Leeza blinked in the smoke haze.
“Wake up, sweet heart. En-light-en-ment. These islands where it at. Ancient wisdom and power, all that jazz.”
Leeza focused blurrily on the strings of tiny beads around the woman’s neck, seeing there was a big crystal pendant among them. “You one of those rock heads?”
She only lifted one narrow-plucked eyebrow. “So what you doing over here, Miss Media Conreid? You got a big story in this dive?”
Leeza could feel her mouth dropping open at her name, but the room was starting to do strange things, spinning dizzily around her. She always forgot what a bummer the crash could be off the Purple Haze.
“You don’t look so good. Where you staying?”
Leeza pressed her hands against her eyes and took a deep breath. “Just thirsty. Order me another beer?”
Things went a little fuzzy, then she was gripping a fresh bottle, gulping greedily. Her stomach calmed down, and she could catch her breath. “Thanks. Guess I’ll call it a night.” She groped for her camera goggles and recorder pouch, looking vaguely around the taverna. The music had gone quieter, some kind of innocuous pap. Two of the sailors were back, and one of them grabbed her arm, babbling something.
“You with these boys?” The woman tilted her head scornfully.
“No. I mean—no. I gotta get back.” She clutched the pouch. The sailor was tugging harder at her arm.
“Look like you getting nowhere you want to go, with they.” She stood, and Leeza blinked at her height. “Party over, boys. Damiana taking she home.”
But the Greeks didn’t seem to get the message, and there was a scuffle, the fat bartender shouting something, table crashing over, and Leeza trying to butt her way through, hunched over and laughing helplessly inside despite it all. Damiana! Too perfect. Then the flash of a knife, cool smile playing over the woman’s face, she knew how to handle it all right, the boys were backing off, and the two of them were out in the street, Leeza giggling even as her stomach did hip-hops of fear and excitement. That elusive ultimate rush.
She shivered, savoring it. The woman swung away from the door, stepping back, lines of the dress swaying around her, tiger stripes. Yes. She moved like a tiger.
Leeza took a deep breath as the gleam of the knife disappeared in the flowing folds. “Thanks.”
A shrug, glint of eyes in the shadow of the building. “They nothing. I be hearing Sons of the Prophet sniffing ’round though, now word has it they be some bad worth thinking on.”
Damiana stepped closer out of the shadows, peering down, as Leeza froze in alarm. Sons of the Prophet.
A shapely arm came around her shoulders, guiding her along the dark cobblestones. “No fear, Ms. Newslady Conreid, no bogey-man get you tonight. Where you staying? You got a crew with you?” Her hip brushed against Leeza. “So what worth recording in this dusty dump?”
The fresh air was helping, but a vaguely remembered warning tightened Leeza’s gut again. What? A stranger asking questions. . . . She shook her head dully. “Can’t remember.”
The arm steered her around a turn, down another narrow street. “Can’t remember? You big story?” Low voice mocking.
“Story. . . .” Leeza bit her lip, mind racing. “My camera! Where’s my camera?” She pretended to panic, groping.
“Gear right in you pouch here.” Throaty laughter.
“Oh.” She kept leaning against the woman’s support, half covering her confusion, half drawn to the tantalizing smoky musk of the body draped by the flowing dress. “Can’t lose recorder. . . got great stuff. Old tourist places. Then and Now. You been to the Acropolis? Statues before the Athens acid smog ate ’em. . . .” She swayed.
Damiana stopped, turning Leeza around and looking down into her face, dark eyes studying. “You come back with I, sleep it off.” A slow, insinuating smile, gleam of teeth.
Leeza sucked in a quick breath. She had to get back, how the hell she didn’t know, she had to warn Ariadne. Sons of the Prophet. Strangers asking questions.
Screw it. Saint Ariadne and good ol’ Mitchell weren’t exactly going out of their way for Leeza. Think about it in the morning. Her hand was reaching up to touch the planes of the face gleaming like dark burnished metal in the shadowed alley. Her fingertips skittered nervously, soaking up the smooth texture, the heat glowing beneath the skin.
Long black fingers reached out to slowly stroke the curve of Leeza’s jaw, tracing a deliberate path across her throat. The invisible line burned on her skin as they walked on, arms linked.
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