SUN SLANTED FARTHER PAST noon, burning the cloudless sky pale, puddling fiery sheets between smooth swells as the breeze died. The bow of the inflatable sliced glittering ripples as Peter pulled on the oars, glancing over his shoulder. He edged out into deeper water, skirting a rocky toe where sunlight glared white off the cliffs, even the suck of sea on stone listless in the heat.
He pulled harder on the oars, working off his hangover and way too many questions, sweat running down his bare back.
One more pull, then he leaned back against the hot rubber, gliding on smooth blue. He took off his shades and winced as the sun knifed in, ultraviolet intensity haloing everything it touched. Toh phos—that Greek light. Wiping his face with his forearm, he closed his eyes, letting the salt bake. It was quiet, except a bird somewhere, and the rhythmic shush of water on rocks. He tried to breathe deep and slow with that distant rhythm, fighting the fast hot surge of blood in his wrists and throat as red-tinged darkness behind his eyelids pulsed against the heat pressing down on him.
Ticking like a countdown. To what? Looked like fast-talking wasn’t going to get him out of this one—now he was a recruit for the Med League. Could he play along, make a break later? Or was this the new winning side to be on? Was there any “winning” to be had any more?
He frowned and sat up, pushing the shades on. There was a grinding noise now, far engines coming closer. He squinted under his hand and spotted it across the molten glare—another cutter with a big gun, patrolling out beyond the defensive ring of mines. As Panos back at the dock had pointed out, he’d be an idiot to try a run for it.
He let the dinghy drift closer to the rocks, then threw out a weighted line. He leaned over for his fins and slipped them on, threaded the snorkel onto his mask, spat on the lens and rinsed it over the side. He strapped a holster onto his thigh and loaded the pneumatic spear gun.
Peter didn’t know much about this new Med League—other than taking over some shipping ports and lanes, complicating his usual routes. And the rumors about Ariadne Demodakis healing RIP-Leprosy with “holy water” while those Corybant wild women were busy blowing up the odd nuke plant or microwave tower in her name, the rest humming peace prayers to Mother Gaea crystals. He snorted. Holy loonie-tunes. He knew that tune too well.
His grip tightened on the spear gun, then he shrugged and slipped it into the holster. He knew himself well enough. He was good in a pinch—direct action, how to make things work, fast reflexes—but notso hotso at thinking out big personal decisions, analyzing strategy. So if he stopped picking at it all, worrying it like a scab, sometimes the right answer would just come clear.
Etse k’etse. He snugged the mask onto his face and eased over the side. A quick, sharp breath and then his muscles eased, salty clean cold closing over him, deep blue washing through him. He took another deep breath and dove.
He kicked hard, straight down into hushed shadow. The water split and reformed around him as he arrowed into it, sharp-edged as flowing crystal. It was bare underneath, too, rock outlined precise below him, not much in the way of fish or plants. Here and there a sparse weed curtsied in the swell, fingerlings scattering in a silver spurt of alarm. But the water: incredible clear blue like swimming in air, and the pure salt cool of it you could almost see forever stay forever, siren voices calling him deeper. . . .
His lungs screamed. A shrill panicky voice sent him shooting for the surface in a cloud of bubbles.
He burst through, gasping in the white flare of sun, skin tingling with the salt chill. He’d never get over this Mediterranean water. The Florida Keys he’d grown up on and under were a whole different thing, softer-edged. He flipped onto his face, finning along the surface, sighting below. He floated face-down closer to the cliff, suspended in the hypnotic rhythm of the swells. Strobing ripples of blue-tinged light drifted him back:
Shadows whispering, pages rustling in the night, taking him away from vengeful Fathers and the rod not spared. Pegasus wings of his secret boyhood hoard, those deliciously pagan books, as he devoured the old Greek myths by flashlight under the covers. . . .
The books burning, his father fervent in the pulpit, red hair burning like the torch of the Reformed Brethren scouring the sinful earth. Reverend’s righteous voice ringing out King David and the born-again warriors for the glory of God, the good fight for the Way and the Mideast oil and the blessed U.S. of A. . . .
Haggard faces in the dim glow of control panels, fingers gripped over firing studs, stink of fear and trapped-animal sweat as the stricken submarine plummeted into the purple-blue depths—
Peter jerked his head up from the sea, shaking off a pathetic thrashing urge to scramble back to the dinghy and cling to the sunny surface. He took deep breaths, held the last, and plunged into those flickering shadows.
Clearing his ears, he kicked deeper, touching cold rock. He pulled himself down over the boulders, legs drifting upward as he peered into a crevice to see an eye staring back at him and a snakelike suction-cupped arm coiling back into its lair.
Jacknife reverse and back to the surface, lungs burning, heart hammering. He was going a little soft, not bad for thirty-four, but maybe he should think about working on it, maybe cut down on the booze. Clean up his act? And here he was in another pointless screw-up.
He kicked along the surface, scanning, closer to the cliff. A flash of dull color, fins hovering.
He hadn’t really expected to see anything, decades of dynamite fishing had taken care of most anything close in, and the tactical nukes over in the east Med some more, but there was some restocking going on. Now he recalled those caiques at the quay, nets on some, they weren’t all sponge boats. He grabbed more air and shot down, pulling the gun free.
The fins flickered ahead, disappeared in dark. He churned past a rock edge over a dropoff, almost too far, spotted the crevice to the side, a narrow dark cave, almost gave it up, chest starting to ache with the pent-up breath, saw a faint flicker, was doubling up before he could think and down through it. Dark, then sliding light, flashing strobe from above, more dark, rocks squeezing in, no air, but then he was through into open water. No sign of fins. Lungs aching.
He broke surface and flung drops, gasping. Treading water, dragging in air, he looked around to see he’d come through a tumble of stone slabs into a cove nearly sealed off from the open sea. Down below, a sand bottom and the escaping gleam of scales.
Reflexes took him down and after. The lithe body whipped away, then reversed and hovered. The spear shot of itself in a burst of bubbles.
The fish flailed at the end of the line, fighting the spear in a dark cloud of blood. Peter surfaced, pulling it in, suddenly wishing he’d let it go. Eyes gone dull already. But it was a nice pompano, he’d take it to the taverna and have them cook it up in some olive oil for dinner. If.
He raised his head, gripping the spear, checking out the cove. Over at the other end was what looked like a narrow inlet that might be an easier way out. He slipped under, kicked closer, and reemerged smoothly. Now he could see there was a trail running down this end of the cliff to the narrow beach. And a freshwater spring burbling out of the rocks. A donkey with a pack saddle, head down and blinking in the sun, stood next to it. Then he saw her.
She was bent over, heaving at a bulging water-sack, firm muscle straining in brown arms and sturdy, bare wet legs as the spring gurgled over her feet.
Peter blinked in the glare of white rock, sharp dazzles over the cove, sunlight gleaming off smooth tawny skin. He kicked quietly closer. Her hair was a thick black knot at the back of her neck. She was wearing a white blouse and faded skirt hiked up at the waist that somehow recalled an old snapshot of his grandmother as a teenager, wearing a flowered minidress and peace beads. The young peasant woman had livened up her drab outfit with a shiny crystal pendant, flashing prism lights in the sun.
Peter smiled and touched bottom, pulling off his fins and easing toward shore.
The way her body moved under that skirt had nothing grandmotherly about it. More like one of those old celluloid movies the Stateside art houses showed to be clever and the rundown Kinematographos Hermes in Athens showed because neuro-enhancement wasn’t sanctioned by the Orthodox Church and anyway where were they going to get the cash to switch over. One of the big-screen sex goddesses. Sandra—no, Sophie—Sophia Loren in a tight dress shouting laughing insults at some soldiers.
He stopped on the sand. She hadn’t heard him over the splashing spring.
She dropped the water-sack, startled, but turning with a lovely grace like a born dancer. She raised a hand to her breast, clutching the big crystal.
He stared, stunned.
Face off a vase in a museum—the straight nose and brows, generous forehead and mouth. But her eyes were blue. A deep, almost purple-blue. Like the Med where it dropped off from the crystal clear shallows to shaded fathoms. Old Homer had it: the wine dark sea. Couldn’t have been blind all his life, the poet, he’d gotten too many things just right. Bright-glancing Athena. Incomparable Helen on the ramparts, and the troops flowing down steep hills for her, gleaming with their shields and greaves and whatnot, rippling over the plain of Troy like waves.
Peter could have drowned happy in those deep blue eyes. But they were watching him. Wary. A surge of desire flushed through him. Damn. She was the real thing.
He swallowed, took a step, pulling the fish off the spear and holding it out in an instinctive gesture, groping for words. “Please. . . . Don’t be afraid. Take the fish, a. . . .” Damn. “A gift. Please. Welcome. Thank you.”
The start of a smile flickered over her face, but she got it under control, standing her ground.
He laughed at his own ridiculousness, shaking his head. “Help you with that?” He pointed at the water-sack.
She stood silent, then stepped back, nodding. With another of those fluid dancer’s moves, she turned away to the donkey, and he did see a smile flit over her face. Not pretty, no, a more austere beauty that shouldn’t have gone with the all female shape of her, but did perfectly. Knockout legs, too, strong and shapely and she even had trim ankles, not like most of the peasant women. A healthy glow like a sturdy little mare. He was giddy, crazy. Struck by that mythical bolt from the blue, Goddess rising before him from the waves, naked glory on her scalloped shell.
He blinked and shook his head, hoisting the water-sack, tying it to the donkey’s saddle, gutting the fish and rinsing it and thrusting it at her, babbling nonsense.
“See, it’s a pretty one. Peter popped a peck of pompano. But not as gorgeous as you.” She wouldn’t know English. “I tell you, Aphrodite my girl, your sidekick with the heart-darts just nailed me pointblank.”
She threw back her head then and laughed—a rich, throaty chuckle that seemed to dance through her whole splendid body. Peter grinned and moved closer.
But she was stepping back with a surprising dignity, sober now, that bottomless blue gaze steady on Peter. She raised the fish, thanking him with a simple, “Efcharisto.” Voice low and resonant. She took the donkey’s lead rope and turned away for the path.
He stood dripping, holding out his empty hands, wanting to run after her and kiss her battered sandals. “Please. . . . Could I just—?”
She shook her head and led the animal away.
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