The grey of the mid-afternoon sky casts a pall over one of London’s more fashionable streets.
A row of stately terraces marches down one side of the road, standing guard behind black wrought iron fences, their off-white façades subdued in the overcast weather.
Light traffic passes to and fro before the houses, though few people walk the streets; this is a private area, after all. Across the street, a swath of green marks a small park meant for the enjoyment of the residents; beyond that, another row of terraces closes ranks around the other side of the park.
Almost a self-contained world, this square marks an outpost of the well-heeled and comfortable, the cream of society. None here would have a care for their next crust of bread, or worry how to produce a coin to pay their debts, or find a need to avoid various harrassments by the authorities.
However, that should not be interpreted as life never imposing its vicissitudes upon the denizens of this world.
The door to one of the terraces opens, and a curly-haired figure strides out.
And thus our tale begins.
Raymond Doyle stormed out the door, a large, thin portfolio case in hand, a scowl on his face. Glancing up, he noticed that the skies were overcast, a downpour seemingly imminent, and he was too rushed to head back in for an umbrella.
Another bloody day. Add another to the stack of unfinished works.
Raymond Doyle was an artist - to be more specific, a portraitist. He could fashion a more-than-passable landscape, and had once tried his hand at the impressionist style currently raging in the more artistic quarters, just to see what the fuss was about - but it was in portraiture, the capturing of the details of a human life, that his fame had come about.
And true fame he had, and in his lifetime, though it had been hard won.
For Raymond Doyle was a man of means, earned the hard way: through years of trial and struggle belied by his youthful age. As a child, he had spent time doodling rough drawings; it was Matron Pierce’s sharp eye - not to mention the trustees’ connections and attempts to showcase the borstal whose gates enclosed his world - which had recognized the potential and steered it in the proper direction. It had caused him no end of trouble with the other boys, true, and self-defence was a constant; but given a focus on his talent and the time to develop it, he was able to fight his way out of reform school and into an art college, following a twisted road to the top of his profession, to a point where he was now called upon to capture the likenesses of royalty and leaders, princes and prime ministers.
It had been a long, difficult battle, and a lesser man might have stumbled along the way; but Raymond Doyle was no lesser man. Once he began to see the lay of the land, he’d worked hard to round out his talent with strategic moves, and a sense of discretion, which had put those he’d interacted with at ease and thus opened doors to places and situations he’d otherwise never would have dreamed of. That, as much as his talent, had made him into a success.
Recently, however, he had found himself – not quite at odds, but somehow restless. True, he was renowned, active and young - at his peak really; but somehow it was no longer sufficient. He’d find himself seated before his canvases, his mind void of ideas. Numerous sketches lay on his drawing table, abandoned half completed. His daily constitutional around the park, and his healthful menus no longer provided the energy they once had. Invitations from various friends and acquaintances lay unopened upon his sideboard. His agent, Sydney Edgerstoune, perhaps aware of the danger to his own heretofore significant means of livelihood, made numerous suggestions at diversions and distractions, to get his artist’s creativity flowing once again; however, this only served to irritate Doyle, to the point that he found himself actively avoiding the man's messages and his tread upon Doyle's stair.
The ennui - if that was indeed what it was - wasn’t due to any lack of romantic partners, either. Quite the contrary: Doyle had no deficit in that department, and was limited only by his own personal scruples (no matrimonial connections, no force). No prude, he had always been quite open to experimentation with his partners, almost all female, although with a certain amount of discretion.
He had even been engaged once, gloriously but briefly, to an Ann Holly - a woman of beauty, intelligence, and a suitable class; they had made a wonderful time of it, until they had mutually established that permanently keeping company together would not work as a life plan. They had parted in what he considered a thoroughly amicable fashion, and still saw each other at the occasional gathering, but had had no contact since the event.
But for whatever the reason, Doyle was stuck; well and truly stuck. At first unaware, Sydney had pressed on as usual to procure various commissions, but his artist was not able to execute on them. The requests accumulated like the unanswered calling cards on his sideboard as he somewhat uncharacteristically ignored them.
Doyle was well aware that this state of affairs could not last for an extended period; he had spent too much time and too much effort to get where he was not to realize how fleeting fame would be if not well-tended.
But he also realized that this was a quandary that only he could resolve.
He grimaced, and proceeded off down the street and out of the square.
The ballroom floor was packed with couples whirling to the strains of the latest music from the Continent, while those not inclined to dance the night away thronged the refreshments stands or stood off in pairs engaged in various conversations.
Doyle, whose presence at these types of affairs was a requirement of the job, stood to one side, free for an instant. He’d slipped out after Mrs. Everett had cornered him once again for a commission. An older American dowager, though one with plenty of funds, she had been targeting him for several months for the privilege of pointing to a Raymond Doyle original over her mantle. Doyle had been obliging to the point of being polite, but had remained noncommittal for the present. He imagined Syd would be proud that he hadn’t lost his temper at all.
Having escaped the lady in question by slipping out into the gardens, he had then carefully made his way back in, until he was secure behind a stand of potted palms.
He was aided in remaining undiscovered by the presence of several knots of observers stood before the palms, looking out over the crowds on the floor.
Two souls, whom he recognized as the Viscounts Peters and MacDonald from the House of Lords, stood just before him, only several feet away. He had no trouble making out their discussion.
“Best thing I ever did, old son. Came back rested and recharged. Even the Vicountess has remarked on my improved state of mind.” Peters’s deep voice sounded smug.
“And didn't I tell you?” MacDonald agreed in his distinctive tones. “I’m sure that she was quite satisfied with the results, as much as you. Travel is just the thing to clear the mind and free the soul. On what day did you return?”
“Friday last,” responded Peters. “My cousin returned a month earlier, but I was enjoying myself far too much. And now that several key votes are coming due in the House, who knows when the next chance will present itself?”
“A whole three months,” the Scotsman marvelled. “You were right to stay as long as possible. Your wife was also right – nothing like a change of scenery.”
A change of scenery, Doyle mused. Exactly the cure for whatever plague beset him. Someplace warm, different, maybe exotic – and definitely away from the staleness of his surroundings.
Might be just the thing.
"You want to what?”
“Not 'want to,' Syd. 'Going to.' As in leave. Travel.”
“And when is this, Doyle?” A look of forbearance across his face, Sydney Edgerstoune sounded like a man used to handling demands from a very headstrong artist.
“Monday next. Seemed an auspicious enough day. It will take me that long to get all my affairs in order.”
“That's in five days. You can't possibly leave then. You have the affair at the Bolivian embassy the following weekend, and the Prince's ball the weekend after that.”
“Already decided, Syd. You'll have to make my apologies.” Doyle was not perturbed in the least.
“At least stay for Mrs. Everett's tea on Tuesday. She could become one of your highest commissions this year.”
“Mrs. Everett will have to do without me. Look, Syd – I'm not producing anything now. We have commissions piling up. If I don't address that little fact, neither Mrs. Everett nor the rest of London society will be best pleased at all.”
Edgerstoune was momentarily deep in thought, weighing the evils of a missing artist against those of a non-productive one.
“At least tell me you'll be back within three months,” he eventually compromised.
“As soon as I'm able to paint again, I will come running back home to you.” Doyle grinned, a chipped tooth giving him a boyish mien.
“Good thing I know you, Doyle, else I might believe that.”
“Good thing I know you, Syd, otherwise I might believe you'd try to stop me.”
Doyle sat in the little sidewalk cafe at the third seat on the left – again! his sketch pad closed and an apéritif mostly untouched on the table before him – again! as the crowds surged by. It was chilly, it was dreary, and it was doing little to improve his mood. The garçon passed by on an occasional but regular basis, quietly sorting out whether l’Anglais needed anything. Usually Doyle gave him a steely look, enough to keep the man at bay, although he knew eventually he would need to order something or move on.
His impetuous adventure, which had so excited him only a week prior, seemed to have become an unmitigated disaster. Firstly, the weather was no better in Paris than it had been in London; it was either pouring, damp from a recent rain, or overcast with rain expected at any time. For such bad weather, however, Paris was still teeming with foreigners, most often British; he had to wonder if they didn't have the sense to stay out of the rain.
In addition, half the people he saw were the same people he would have seen anyway, had he just stayed in London. Again he had to bow and scrape and be polite enough to foster future commissions.
Sydney Edgerstoune, you are deeply indebted to me for this, he ruminated darkly. In an amount that you may never be able to repay.
And none of this had made an iota of difference in actually breaking his mood. The cotton sheets of his sketchpad, fresh from a small bookbinder on the Rue du Maupassant, remained virginal, pristine - in mocking silence of his condition.
He felt the condition was due more to the specifics of his surroundings than to his overall impulse. If only he could raise his face, close his eyes, and feel the warmth of the sun. Perhaps then its rays would heal his inner sight, so he could feel the emotion underlying his image’s subject, feel the surge of creation that would flow from his fingertips onto his medium! All he asked was to be so cured, and it had been so long since he'd felt that pure rush.
It had to return, if he were to be cured of this malady.
He knew it was still somewhere inside; it always had been a part of him. It just needed to be tempted back out...
Maybe that was the problem; he hadn't gotten far enough away. He would travel further, somewhere quiet, and seek the warmth.
South. I'll head south.
Thus decided, he tossed back the apéritif; then, grimacing slightly at the bitterness, gestured to the garçon for another.
A squeal rent the air, the carriage shuddered, and the great behemoth ground to a halt. The train had reached the end of the line.
Train travel was always a wonder to Doyle. While he understood the underlying mechanics, the act of entering the carriage in one world and emerging into a completely different world always fascinated him. He stepped out of the train car, a little fatigued from a night of restless anticipation but excited all the same, onto a bustling platform. Porters pushing luggage carts were interspersed with businessmen, and families, and youths making their grand tours; and the whole seething mass of humanity flowed towards the terminal. Swept up in the tide, he made his way forward amongst them.
Once he had threaded his way through the grandiosity of the main terminal hall and out onto a sizeable thoroughfare there was no sign of a conveyance from the small hotel at which he had made arrangements. Instead, he had a conveyance hired for him; and finally, at last, he was on his way to the little seaside resort at the end of his journey.
Finally clear of the station and securely into the final leg of his travels, Doyle at last had a chance to more thoroughly take in his surroundings.
It was a small town, a minor port on the Mediterranean; the tops of a few ships were just visible above the mass of buildings that the conveyance passed as it weaved its way through the streets. But that had been the point of his travels; to find a place where he could stay, incognito, without distractions, and spend a pleasant time rediscovering himself. The conveyance bumped along a moderately trafficked route which took them away from the centrally-located terminal in the main town, then down along a modest corniche to a shoreline, dotted with a few hotels and a small casino.
The sun, however, was hardly cooperating, having gone back behind a solid mass of clouds rolling in from over the sea. No matter, he thought, hardly fazed about the weather in the heady rush of the newness about him, it's only one day. Too far south for sunny days not to soon reappear.
A warm breeze wafted by and cocooned him in a welcoming hug. And that was enough for now.
Soon enough, the little conveyance was pulling into a circular drive lined with carefully maintained trees and shrubs, and slowing down before a small but tidy facade. It was his hotel.
Doyle entered from the grey day into the darker sanctum of the lobby, pausing to let his eyes adjust. Small and unprepossessing compared to the grand hotels of London, it housed a few scattered couches and tables grouped along carpets, a bench along the far back wall where he supposed the porters – porter? - would normally wait for tasks, and a short but solid counter ahead, crowned with two large flower arrangements at either end. An officious little man with piercing brown eyes magnified by a pair of pince nez and a Poirot moustache regarded him from behind the desk. From the nearest sofa to the little man, it was all severely neat though just a touch shabby.
Well, at least Mrs. Everett is nowhere to be found here. Doyle smiled to himself, pleased.
He crossed the lobby with a light step despite the weariness of his travels, coming to a halt before the concierge. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that a few of the buds in the flower vases were starting to go brown.
“Buenas noches, señor,” the man intoned measuredly, his voice perfectly matching the expectations of his appearance. “Welcome to the Metropole. How may I help you?”
Metropole. As though this would be the center of anything. “Good evening,” Doyle replied. “You have rooms booked for me, under Ray Duncan.”
The man slowly scanned the register as though officiating over a formal mass. “Ah, yes. Señor Duncan. Suite 24 – our finest accommodations; everything is ready for your presence. Jorge! Hector!” he turned to the side, yelling, the names rolling off his tongue.
A teen boy, yet to grow into his uniform and tugging at the top button, materialized from a side door. “Si, señor.”
A stocky man, slightly out of breath, appeared from behind Doyle, already wheeling a hand cart with Doyle's baggage stacked on it at a slightly precarious angle. “Si, señor.”
“Señor Duncan.” Poirot primly gestured at the two, “Jorge will escort you to your suite, and Hector will bring up your luggage. Breakfast begins at 7:30, luncheon starts at noon, and dinner is at 7 pm. Please feel free to contact us at any time if you should have questions or concerns.”
“Thank you very much,” replied Doyle.
“Jorge,” the desk manager nodded severely at the boy.
“Right this way, Señor Duncan,” Jorge gestured. “ Welcome to the Metropole.” And the little group made their way to the lift.
The appearance of the lift, a wire cage very likely older than Doyle, did little to instill confidence; but once the attendant had opened the gates, Doyle had stepped in, and the two attendants had squeezed themselves into a corner, the cage had lurched up and moved slowly but more than adequately to the second floor.
In less than a minute, the cage skittered to a halt, the group reversed their entry, and they proceeded a short distance to a door marked “2 - 4.”
Doyle looked around the hall as the youth unlocked the door. Similar doors lined the passage, and a window at the end of the hall shed some light on a wine red Persian carpet lining the way. Glad to be near the lift, but just as easy to take the staircase. Likely faster, as well. Once the youth had unlocked the door he gestured inside, and Doyle stepped through into the interior.
The door opened onto a cozy sitting room, with a bedroom off to the left and a small bathing room to the right, all three small but tidy. The most striking feature was the wall opposite the entry door, which held a large window facing the beach and the ocean. A broad panorama presented a sandy expanse sloping down to the waves. Outside, the azure waters were rough with waves; even with the grey clouds pressing down against the waves, a few figures were scattered across the beach. It was a feast laid out before him.
Doyle guessed that the room would see sun the majority of the day. Not that he planned to spend much time indoors.
It’s beautiful. Doyle felt his faith in his choice to escape London society more than restored.
He turned to the bellboy and the porter, who waited by the door. “Your name is Jorge, right?”
“Si, señor.” The boy stood at attention, his chest puffing up and coming a little closer to filling out his jacket.
“Thank you, Jorge. And you, Hector. The room is very good. Thank you.” He pulled out a few coins out and bestowed them upon the two figures.
“Gracias, Señor Duncan.” The two accepted the coins and, bowing, stepped out of the room, closing the door behind themselves.
A freighter, old but still operational, chugged its way through the waves towards the dock, its crew scrambling to prepare for the landing. Towards the back, six men stood in a knot, outside of the hubbub and deep in their own preparations.
“You have your orders.” One man, dark haired, slightly balding, with a thick mustache - the apparent leader - addressed the group. “Bodie and I will make a few visits, get things set up. The rest of you will go directly to our quarters and await our arrival.”
“Can’t wait. Good food, beautiful women, strong drink - s’what I live for, and I’ve been waitin’ a long time.” One man, with a high forehead and leaning towards stout, solemnly declared.
"You're happy with a goat and a bottle of the local hootch, Pug,” one of the other men said, and several laughed in response.
“Enough! At attention.” The mustachioed man took control again.
The men quietened, straightening themselves up into a kind of military formation. The only sounds to be heard in the pause was the clinking of the old boat, the shouts of her crew, the whoosh of the boat’s wake, and the cries of the seagulls trailing her.
The dark man strode the deck around the two rows, making tight loops. “Remember that while we are no longer in Africa, we are still conducting business. Think of this as a new kind of mission; as a result, we keep a low profile for a reason. Thus our quarters are outside of the town proper and out of the way. There will be fewer people and thus fewer ways to be detected - and fewer distractions. The time for celebrating our success will come, but it is not here yet.
“We will remain in this area just long enough to transact our business, and the smallest ‘incident’ may impact that. ‘Incidents’ will jeopardise our goals, and will be considered insubordination. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Krivas.” Quietly and crisply.
“And I assume I do not have to describe the penalty for insubordination.”
“Yes, Krivas.” Stiffly formal, and perhaps remembering the times the penalty had been enacted.
“In the meantime, check into quarters and remain unnoticed and invisible. Bodie and I will be there presently.”
“Good. Then fall out, and prepare yourself for disembarking.”
The freighter sounded its horn, belting smoke, and the boat swung into position alongside the deck.
“That’s that, then.”
Bodie strolled up to the frowning man seated on the bench, stiff and cross-armed in a park surrounded by flowers and birds, and strolling families. Krivas never knows what to do with himself in civilisation, he mused. He’d out-frown the corpse at a wake. Mind, place him in the jungle in the middle of a war - and yes, Krivas was in his element there.
“No problems, then?” Krivas asked.
“None at all. All business transacted smoothly.” Bodie patted the satchel at his side.
“Then there is one last task, some work in preparation for the next job. Nothing definite yet; I am just meeting with some contacts. If you prefer to take the package to the hotel, feel free to do so.” Krivas nodded at the satchel.
“Think I will. Could do with a quick kip.” Bodie relished the thought of a good meal and a nap after several days of almost constant movement and logistics. “See what the rest of the lot is up to, as well.”
“Yes, never a bad idea,” Krivas almost smiled. “For all the strength and bravery, they are often like children. All they need do is sit quietly, and yet it is almost guaranteed that they will seek out some mischief to get into.” He must’ve remembered his audience, as his countenance hardened. “Yes, we want no trouble here. This is foreign territory, with no easy way to slip an incentive to an official to cover up untoward acts. Once we are done here, we will move elsewhere and they may spend their time as they please. But not until then.”
“They do tend to get restless when off duty. And it’s been months since we’ve been in even a moderate-sized city. It might be hard to keep their noses completely clean.”
“We are still on a mission here.” Krivas’s eyes narrowed. “The cohesion of the group must remain intact. They will obey my orders, or they will be considered in dereliction of duty.”
“Krivas - the men are nothing if not loyal to you. They’re strong, but they’re followers. A little leeway on the minor things wouldn’t go wrong -“
“- and that includes you as well, Bodie,” Krivas cut in. I will not have your behavior endanger the mission.”
“When did it ever, Krivas, when did it ever.” But Bodie said nothing more.
Given the hotel's propensities so far, Doyle was sure that the staff would keep all the proprieties, however they might interpret them; he thus chose to dress for dinner, although in his own interest he avoided anything too formal. Thus arrayed in a simple jacket and tie, he made his way to the lobby, then crossed it towards the dining salon. Mr. Poirot still stood guard at the reception desk, giving him a strict perusal and finally approving nod before coming forth with a mellifluous “Buenas noches, Señor Duncan.”
“Good evening,” Doyle replied with an ease he hadn't felt in months.
“Do you find everything to your satisfaction?”
“Yes, I do. The accommodations are very much agreeable.” And truthfully, he didn't intend it as a pleasantry; Doyle was coming to quite enjoy this adventure.
“Muchas gracias, Señor Duncan; we are here for your pleasure. My name is Juan; if there is anything lacking, please feel free to ask for me by name. And now, we hope that you enjoy the offerings of our dining salon. Right this way.”
“Thank you, Juan.” Doyle nodded in response, then followed the man across the tiles and carpeting and through the french doors of the dining salon.
The room itself was of a moderate size; a mix of square and rectangular tables nestled with ladderback chairs in more-or-less precise rows, some care had been taken to present an inviting area to sup. That care might have been wanting an appreciative audience, however, given that it was 7:05 pm and few souls were seated in the dining hall.
Perhaps the hotel is empty, after all.
The maître d'hotel guided Doyle to a sizeable table in the middle of the room, as befit his rooms. Seeking to maintain the anonymity he had established, Doyle requested a change, whereupon he was directed to a smaller table to the side. It gave him a full view of the salon and a partial view of the door.
Dinner was a quite pleasant affair. The few staff members were just attentive enough, and Doyle was soon absorbed in the dishes appearing before him: a shellfish soup, a puree of local aubergines, and a white-flesh fish of remarkable sweetness – all from local purveyors, as the servers carefully pointed out. No matter where the ingredients had originated, they made for a delicious meal and reminded him just how famished he was after his long trip.
All too soon, the plates had been cleared away and he was enjoying a small snifter of fortified wine (he supposed the hotel had no proper bar, he hadn’t seen one) when a brief commotion sounded at the doors to the dining salon. He turned to see a group of four or five solidly built men tumble their way into the hall. Maybe in their late twenties or early thirties – though looks may sometimes deceive – they had a rough, dangerous edge to them. Doyle paused, scanning them, a slight frown at the disruption to the peace of his meal.
The maître d'hotel kept a professional cast to his features, although the slightest crease formed across his brow.
“Garçon!” One of the men, wirier than the others though still substantial, called out, his voice ringing to fill the room. The demotion in designation only served to deepen the crease in the maître d'hotel’s brow.
“We would like your best table, with the best view, and your best dishes. And be sure to provide your best champagne, as we have much to celebrate.” There was the slightest foreign lilt to the command, but it was most definitely the Queen’s English.
“Very good, sir.” The steel in the maître d'hotel's voice, harnessed properly, could have cut a diamond. “That will be four, then, señors?”
“For now. Two of our lot haven't arrived yet. So tonight is just for practice!” And the pack laughed in the manner of men who see themselves as above others by way of experience.
A small stone settled into Doyle's stomach, and he tipped the snifter back in a rush. Of course there was always something to spoil an experience. He might find a need to avoid this 'lot,’ as the man had put it, and ensure that the rest of his sojourn remained pleasant - and eventually fruitful.
He dabbed at the corners of his mouth with the cloth napkin, placed it to the side of the now-empty snifter, and arose to leave the dining salon.
The next morning, Doyle awoke from a deep sleep, perhaps the deepest he'd had in many a day. Feeling refreshed and renewed, he stretched, then arose and ambled over to the picture window in the sitting room. There were a few benign clouds at the edges of the horizon; but the sun itself was warm and unimpeded, and it looked to be the start of a glorious day.
Perfect, Doyle mused. Perhaps later I might spend some time on the beach.
It was still fairly early for breakfast; in fact, Doyle arrived about ten minutes before the salon was open. But the maître d'hotel was at his station, and beckoned Doyle in with a flourish. He reclaimed the seat at the small table he’d been guided to the prior evening.
Given the early start, Doyle was quite alone in the salon, seemingly cavernous without any other souls beyond the serving staff.
“Good morning, Juan,” Doyle greeted the maître d'hotel as he crossed over to the table, though the man was a faint reminder of the slight unpleasantness of the previous night.
“Buenos días, Señor Duncan,” the man replied. “We trust that the morning finds you well?”
“Very well, Juan. I feel refreshed this morning; thank you for asking. And looking forward to a hearty breakfast,” he added, smiling.
“Very good, señor. I trust that you will not be disappointed.” Smiling in return, the man stepped away to the side door, to return with a tray bearing a coddled egg in a cup, a toast rack full to capacity, and a plate of ham slices. He precisely positioned each dish around the plate of his charge, ending with a small horn spoon next to the egg cup. “Buen provecho, señor.”
“Thank you; I'm sure this will taste just as delicious as it looks.” And Doyle fell to it.
For the next few minutes there were few sounds in the salon: a tapping of the horn spoon against the eggshell, the small clinks of silverware against china, a slight clearing of a throat, and the muffled bustle of the waitstaff. A coffee service was added to the array, along with a basket of pastries and a bowl of fruits. The maître d'hotel was about to step away when Doyle paused for a moment.
“Something else, Señor Duncan?”
“Yes, Juan. Just one question.” Doyle didn't think it was too critical a point, but it was best to ask anyway. “About the 'guests'. Last night...”
“Ah – si, señor. A group of adventurers - mercenaires - newly back from Afrique. They are readjusting to European civilization.”
“Will this be a problem?” Will they disturb the peace? Doyle's meaning was obvious, if unspoken.
“Not at all, señor. We are so close to el Mediterráneo, occasionally these sorts pass through. But beyond some over-enthusiasm, they do leave the other guests in peace.” Under the surface was the implication that the hotel would take action if they didn't leave the other guests in peace.
“Very good, then. Thank you, Juan.”
"A pleasure, Señor Duncan. Enjoy your breakfast.” Bowing slightly, Juan stepped away to attend to an elderly couple who had just appeared at the door to the salon.
The day morphed into a slow progression of tableaux:
- Bright blues and whites and deep beiges: Doyle, standing in his hotel room before the wide picture window, awestruck as he surveyed the beach.
- A chiaroscuro of fiery bright light and long grey-brown shadows: Doyle, dressed to leave, further into the depths of the room, sketch pad under his arm, briefly, longingly gazing at his satchel of painting supplies.
- Warm woody browns: Doyle in the shade of the hotel’s back porch, looking out across the wide beach.
- A striped riot of blues and greens and reds and yellows backed by a pale fawn color: a hotel attendant positioning a collapsable chaise before a beach hut.
- The full yellows of the sunshine outlining brown-grey shadows: Doyle, now alone, moving the chair into a position more to his liking.
- Tans and blues and whites and yellow: Doyle, sitting before the sea, feet dug into the warm sand, pad on his lap, watching the waves break and recede.
A few figures gamboled by the edge of the water, kaleidoscopic dots of colour. A cawing seagull wheeled by overhead, blindingly white. The palette - the warmth - that Doyle had sought out was all around him here, and he felt more at ease than even before. The only lack was that inspiration had yet to appear.
He continued watching, the sun’s warmth settling over him, his pencil sagging down, unnoticed, until it dropped into the sand. He jerked to attention, picked it up, then placed it and the tablet more securely on the sand.
Nothing yet. He was disappointed; but he’d just arrived. It would take a little longer for inspiration to catch up to him.
The clouds that had been mere wisps on the horizon earlier in the morning had steadily made their way towards the beach, until now white cotton waltzed near the edge of the sun's circle, about to consume it. Doyle, slightly dispirited, gave up the attempt and turned back to the hotel, sketchpad under one arm, shoes in the other hand.
Once off the sand, he stopped on the hotel’s verandah, shaking his shoes out and slipping his feet in them, then entered the hotel itself.
It took a few minutes to readjust to the relative shadow of the hotel lobby. He crossed the open floor, silently cursing the sun, the sky, and fate in general for his current lack of productivity, and headed towards the lift.
The lobby hadn't changed much since this morning; unsurprisingly, had not changed at all since his arrival - even the brown buds in the flower arrangements were still on the edge of their collective demise - except for a lone figure standing before the reception desk. Coming into contact with another guest was rare enough that Doyle paid attention even if only in the part of his brain that always observed his surroundings.
The man stood with his back to Doyle, so admittedly there wasn’t very much to observe. He was slightly taller than Doyle, and solidly, athletically built. A broad back and powerful legs were draped in off-white linen, tailored to the tall figure, and dark strands of hair peeked from beneath a fine panama hat.
A large brown satchel was placed close beside the figure, almost as though he protected it.
Overall, the man projected an air of something – wariness? alertness? - which Doyle couldn't quite pin down.
Looks like an American adventurer back from the tropics, Doyle mused. Though I'd bet few Yanks venture this way.
“Single room, yes. In the quietest part of the hotel,” the man said to the receptionist.
Ah, British. Liverpool, though it's been washed out a bit. Still a bit far from home; wonder what brings him here, then.
“Si, Señor.” Hercule Poirot was just as officious as ever, in his eternal quest to ensure that every new guest had a smooth transition into the life of the hotel. “Room 34 - our best suite - is available, and no one is currently on that floor of the hotel.”
Doyle was slightly surprised that the receptionist had humoured the man's request, although he was far less surprised that the hotel had an empty floor. And that every floor seemed to have the best suite in the hotel.
As the man leant over to sign the register, the receptionist acknowledged Doyle with a brief nod and smile. Doyle nodded back. The new guest did not turn.
Well, neither here nor there. If he's on a floor by himself, I doubt our paths will cross. Doyle turned his attention away from the broad back and continued on towards the elevator.
Once back in his suite, Doyle had lain down for a brief nap, which had lengthened into a full-fledged sleep by the time his eyelids were cracking open. Yawning himself awake, he stretched and noticed that the sun was sinking and the room turning dark. It was well into dinner service, and he was at risk of missing the entire meal.
He quickly dressed, and headed down to the dining salon.
The salon, as usual, was still fairly empty though a few more guests sat at the scattered tables. The elderly couple he had seen at breakfast were several tables over, well into their second course. A few tables away, a family - mother, father, four daughters and a son - were exercising exquisite table manners as they tucked into entrees. A few others were scattered throughout the room, in various stages of their meals.
Nothing to fear. The meal was still on, and he was in more than enough time.
The maître d'hotel nodded welcomingly in greeting and gestured him in; Doyle languidly walked to his table, took his chair, and slid the napkin behind the knot of his tie. In short order, plates began to arrive before him.
He had just raised his spoon for his first taste of the evening's potage (“a fine vichyssoise at the height of la perfección,” the waiter had assured him), when a clatter at the door to the dining salon caused him to pause and look up, frowning.
The ruffians from the prior night tumbled to.a stop at the doorway of the salon. Unlike their earlier appearance, this evening they had made some effort to dress properly for dinner; and they had decided to observe some proprieties and waited for the maître d'hotel at the doorway.
The maître d'hotel's mouth took the slightest curve downward, and the now-familiar crease formed once more across his brow.
But, professional as always, he stepped up to them. “Buenas noches, señors. How are you this evening?”
“Garçon,” the wiry man spoke, marking his increased formality by slowly annunciating his words, “we shall be six for dinner, thank you.”
“Si, señors. Please follow me.” And, still the consummate professional, he led them to one of the long tables to the side of the salon.
“Not there,” the wiry man halted mid-course. “Here.” And he pointed to a different table in the middle of the room, the one that Doyle had originally been led to for his first meal at the hotel.
“Apologies, señors; that table is reserved for the deluxe suite. But this table will afford you more space for your group.”
“If I'm spending my money in a restaurant after months in the middle of a jungle, I will sit where I damn well please.” The wiry man’s voice raised in volume, the other dinners fell silent, and there was a gasp from the elderly couple's table. “And I damn well please to sit there.” He pointed back to the middle of the room.
The maître d'hotel turned and, with utterly superb control, replied simply, “si, señors.”
“Don’t bother, maître d'hotel.” Another figure, tall, commanding, strode into the dining room to interject. “The original table is fine; we can sit there. We'll likely need the extra room at any rate.”
All eyes regarding the little drama shifted to him.
“But, Bodie -”
“Franky, we'll have just as enjoyable a meal from the corner table. And no need to worry about keeping an eye on the entire room for once, eh?”
Doyle looked at the man. Tall, dark-haired, in a suit that fitted him perfectly, he appeared to be a gentlemen among the ruffians. The solid body flowed with grace and strength.
He had only seen him from the back, but Doyle was sure this was the man he'd passed behind in the lobby earlier in the day. He wasn't sure how the man's face, figure, and form hadn't somehow announced themselves to the entire hotel.
Said group migrated to the table in the corner without further incident, and began a spirited debate, if rather more subdued than the prior evening. The ambient level of noise in the room increased to where it had been before.
“Señor Duncan – is the soup not to your liking?” One of the waiters materialized at Doyle’s elbow.
Startled, Doyle almost dropped his soup spoon. “No,” he said slowly, keeping an eye on the table in the corner, “it's quite delicious.”
“Shall I have the kitchen hold your next course?”
“No,” and he turned to the waiter, giving the man his full attention, “just a little distracted. It is delicious, but you may take it back. Please send the chef my deepest apologies.”
“Si, Señor,” and the waiter skillfully lifted the bowl up and away.
Doyle peeked again at the drama of the table in the corner. Another man had joined the group: solid, dark-haired, mustachioed, and with an air of absolute authority. Doyle wondered who he was and how it compared to the man from the lobby.
The table, in the meantime, had garnered the attention of three waiters – two more than Doyle had known were employed in the dining salon – and were quickly making their way through multiple bottles of the local vintage.
“El plato principal, señor,” and a plate came floating before him. “El besugo with pimiento rojo asado and chorizo.” A perfectly cooked fish sat before him, covered with a colorful melange of cubed toppings. Curls of heat rose from the dish. It smelled perfect and looked thoroughly appetising.
The maître d'hotel came floating by, in a much better humour. “I believe you call that 'bream of the sea,' Señor Duncan.”
“Ah, yes. It looks quite delicious.”
“Enjoy,” the two men said, and left him to do so.
He picked up his knife and fork, half-heartedly speared a small potato, and mechanically placed it into his mouth. And glanced back at the table.
There was a steady stream of large bowls of victuals coming from the kitchen, the waiters doing double-duty to keep the service going. The men arrayed around the table were eagerly, almost greedily, consuming the food; even so, Doyle had the feeling they were keeping a check on their actions. Much chatter and joshing accompanied the meal, and once or twice Doyle winced, though fascinated, as a bit of food missed its mark.
They were a hodgepodge of different types - truly a motley crew - but it was the man from the lobby who held Doyle's focus. The symmetry of his face and features were more than uncommon. He was of an age – maybe late twenties, maybe early thirties – which represented peak physical prowess. And he radiated a certain magnetism – call it animal attraction, call it what one would – that drew the eye in towards him.
Doyle wondered if the man ever had had his image captured.
Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. He could have easily been a success as an artist’s model. Still could be.
But it was more than that.
He certainly would have no trouble in bedding whomever he chose. The random thought came unbidden.
There was a knot of something unidentifiable forming in Doyle’s stomach.
Just then, the man turned and looked directly at him.
Doyle simultaneously turned to the other side of the salon, where there was a bit of motion at the elderly couple's table. They arose, the maître d'hotel hurrying over to pull back the wife's chair, and made their way from the room. Doyle wasn't sure, having arrived late, but it seemed they'd spent far less time at dinner than before. He certainly didn't see any dishes for sweets on their table.
“Señor, I can assure that the besugo – the bream,” the maître d'hotel nodded in correcting himself, turning the english term into a multi-syllabic affair, “was caught fresh this morning. Does the dish not suit?”
“The food is superb and beyond reproach. I'm just – I'm not feeling well, maybe a slight dis-ease.” Best to end this, he was far too distracted to eat. “I will have to excuse myself for this evening.”
“Would you like us to summon the house doctor to your room?”
“No need; I'm sure I will be fine in the morning. A good night's sleep can cure almost everything.” And Doyle smiled, in the hope that it was sufficiently convincing.
Which apparently it was. “Si, Señor Duncan.” He waved at one of the passing waiters to remove Doyle's plates. “Please to take care of yourself, and let the staff know if you should need anything later. We look forward to the pleasure of your company for breakfast.”
“Thank you very much, Juan.” Doyle stood, pushing back his chair and dropping the napkin to the side of his plate. “I'm sure all will be fine in the morning.” The man nodded, and Doyle strode from the salon. He did not look back at the table in the corner.
By the next day, Doyle had pushed his reaction to and recollection of the prior evening to the corners of his mind. After tossing a bit, then eventually falling asleep, he had ended up in a dreamless sleep, awaking to the freshness of a brightly lit room and the sun illuminating the beach outside the picture window.
This is my trip and my adventure, and I will not let a band of damned mercenaries ruin it. He arose, made his ablutions, dressed, and descended for breakfast.
The room was quiet. The elderly couple sat at their table, murmuring over cups of coffee. The family of the previous evening were gathered around their table, a bit farther down; the parents in occasional hushed conversation, the children politely eating their meals. Everything in the hotel had its place, critical to the smooth running of its operations; and everything was in its place.
For some reason, Doyle shuddered. He figured it was a passing draught, and tucked into his breakfast.
After breakfast, he dallied a bit, went for a stroll, observed the surroundings; but eventually the sketchpad in his hand grew heavy with its blank sheets, and he returned to the hotel. For luncheon he dined on a week-old copy of the Sunday Times, excavated from some unknown place to grace the lobby of the hotel; then, determined, he ventured back out onto the sands, resolute in fighting against another day with an inactive pencil.
Once the attendant had once again placed the lounge chair before his beach hut, and Doyle had once again moved it to his preferred location, he sat before the sea, pausing in the relative silence to observe his surroundings. A slight wind had picked up, cooling the air, but far from brisk enough to send the heartier souls along the beach back indoors. Gulls circled overhead, their cries distinct over the sound of the waves. It was currently low tide, putting the figures walking the water line at some distance.
Doyle closed his eyes, blindly searching for the sun's warmth, willing his hand to move across the page of the sketchbook…
A coarse laugh cut into his reverie. “You and whose army?”
Doyle slowly opened his eyes, distracted. And irked.
“The king of Tanganyika’s, of course! And that power-mad minister of his,” was the response.
Down the beach, between him and the surf, several of the mercenaries danced across the sands, roughhousing like young boys. The man who had so struck Doyle at the previous night's meal stood to the side, arms folded, laughing with the others.
“The king of Tanganyika and that so-called 'power-mad minister' have over twenty thousand men at their command,” he said. “And I doubt even you, Franky, and your knives would be a match for that.” The voice was rich and deep and velvety, and perfectly matched the features, now that Doyle could hear it at some length. It was also highly amused, as though it were in the midst of some joke.
The artist in Doyle celebrated.
The man in Doyle did not.
“C'mon Bodie, have a go at it,” one of the other men, sandy-haired, younger than the others, and perhaps more impulsive, egged the man on. “Let's see what you've got. Fancy livin' slowed you down, then?”
“Don't know what you're talking about,” the man responded diffidently.
“Or did you bring yer jungle habits back with you?”
The other men quietened their chatter, serious looks across their faces.
The man's facial expression remained unchanged, cool and crisp; but he removed his jacket and, folding it, handed it over to a compatriot.
Obviously some insult has been made. Though Doyle had no idea what exactly had been the insult.
Then, rolling up his sleeves, the man eased into a crouch and began to circle his opponent. A grin more sinister than happy played across his lips.
The two men circled barefoot on the sands. A movement here, a feint there – and then one charged, and they engaged.
The man's body did nothing so much as flow; they were both obviously skilled fighters, the younger man no slouch, but the man from the lobby brought his own skills to the contest.
Doyle thought of sculptures, of gladiators of old, of the models whose sculpted forms had helped instruct Doyle in his craft. In his early life, Doyle had seen – and been part of – many a fight; but this was something different, almost choreographed. The two men tackled like rutting stags, clashing, then pulling apart and clashing again. Finally, the man from the lobby feinted, made a quick move – something that Doyle vaguely, instinctively, remembered from the recesses of his mind – and the other man tumbled, somewhat surprised, to the sand.
The drama ended; the other men, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during the sparring, became reanimated once the contest had been decided.
And he wasn't sure what, but Doyle could sense something significant had just passed.
“Well, Pug, can't say that wasn't fair and square,” one of them piped up.
“Yeah, Pug, Bodie sure got the best of you!”
The man – this Bodie – stood above the prone figure, and held out a hand.
The one they had referred to as ‘Pug’ looked up at him, hesitated, then took the proffered hand and regained his feet.
Two of the other men started throwing sand at each other, and any remaining tension cleared from the air.
Episode over, the knot of men ambled off, making their way further along the beach, the sounds of their chatter drifting away with them.
Doyle leant over his sketch pad, inspired. A collection of figures began to take shape, retreating along a beach. One – the most developed – showed a strong, broad back, confident of itself and the direction in which it was headed.
He felt himself engaging, focused, enrapt by the images coming to life on the sheet. Months of frustration were spilling out, flowing across the page.
By time the men had drifted completely out of sight, however, Doyle was of a different mind about the whole episode.
A bunch of hooligans, spoiling the day for everyone else.
Angry, though he wasn't quite sure why, he abruptly stood, letting his tools drop from his lap, and headed off in the opposite directions from the mercenaries.
He needed time to think. Away from other humans.
The beach was wide and flat as it stretched away from the hotel to the sea; but, beyond the area where most of the guests would be found, it curved around the base of some small cliffs strewn with boulders. Doyle followed the beach out of sight of the hotel, slowing his steps until he stopped in a small cove and perched on a massive, water-smooth boulder at the edge of the sea.
He’d decided - no, felt it necessary, to walk in the opposite direction of the hooligans after their macabre ballet across the sands had unsettled him. He still felt annoyance dancing along his nerves.
He frowned as he looked out to sea. Damn, still not thinking straight.
Meanwhile, white horses merrily skipped across the expanse of waves, no worries in the world. It was a beautiful, sunny day – completely uncaring of his sour mood.
The indifference of the sky and sea, if anything, only stoked his anger.
But what do I have to be angry about? Have run into worse numerous times - more often than not in the upper reaches of London society - and mainly ignored them. And, as he was realising, this time I… got it down on the sketchpad.
But there still was more inside, bursting to get out. Should have brought the sketchpad. He imagined it still lay in the sands where he’d dropped it, when he’d bolted to get away from his thoughts.
Well, let’s see if there’s any more where that came from, anyway. Doyle clambered down from the boulder and, picking up a sun-bleached stick of driftwood, began to slowly sketch out the first thing that came to mind.
It resolved into the form of the mercenary, the one with the broad back, doing something completely rude. Doyle stopped, looked – and guffawed. He hadn't let loose like that in years.
“Join in the joke?”
Doyle jumped. It was the mercenary. The one he'd just so vividly captured in the sand.
He turned around, nonchalantly placing a foot in a strategic location.
“Good afternoon. Noticed you in the salon at the Metropole, during dinner; truthfully there aren’t that many people in the hotel, hard to miss the few. I sincerely hope that our little group haven't been too much of a disturbance; the lads don't always readjust quickly to being out of the bush. By the way, the name's Bodie.” The man held out a hand.
“That a first name? Or last?” Instead of offering his hand in return, Doyle folded his arms.
“It's what I go by – just Bodie.” The hand remained, unwavering, though Doyle thought he could see the eyes harden just a bit. “Works well in the thick of a battle.” An eyebrow raised in challenge.
Well, ‘Bodie,’ not going to ask about that. “Duncan. Ray Duncan.” He reluctantly offered his hand.
They shook, Doyle finding the other hand calloused and firm, warm and dry, as though it had just come from a day out in the sun in honest work.
“You’re an artist, then?”
“More a portraitist. How did you know?”
“Saw you with the sketchbook earlier. Plus the hotel staff mentioned 'the famous artist in their midst'.”
Doyle snorted, despite himself. “No idea they had a clue; I’ve been using an alias. Though it's not like I've been doing much work here, anyway.”
The blue eyes twinkled in response. “You are pretty well known, although they might not know your exact name. Doyle, isn’t it?”
He nodded yes. “Say -“ and Doyle had no idea what made him ask, but ask he did, “have you ever sat?”
Puzzlement spread across the other man's face. “Sat? Pretty much every day.”
“As in, for your portrait.”
“Oh. Can't say that I have. Been a little busy elsewhere; not much call for that in the jungle.”
“You should. Any artist worth his salt would kill to get your image.”
“Like that?” And this Bodie gestured at the drawing in the sand, slowly being obliterated by the incoming tide leaking around Doyle's foot. Bodie tilted his head to look more closely. “Didn't think that was anatomically possible.” An almost-impossible crick raised the dark line of the man's left eyebrow.
“It's not. That's the point.” Doyle refused to back down.
“Though I’d be willing to try; looks like it could be fun. Always try anything once, that’s me.” The man wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Well, try not to break anything while you do. It won’t grow back.”
Now it was Bodie’s turn to laugh. Which annoyed Doyle tremendously.
“Not sure what your lot does out in the middle of deepest Africa, but keep in mind that you’re not there at the moment. Most of the guests are here for rest and relaxation, and a little sun in the winter. Not for a group of pirates to come plowing through to upset the applecart.”
“Mixing your metaphors, old son. Do we give you the vapors, then? Offend your sensibilities? The hairy, uncouth barbarians at the gate?”
“I hardly think it right to push the hotel staff around, bully your way into your wants. The elderly couple are half-terrified of you.” Or so Doyle assumed, by their reactions; he wasn’t going to admit he’d never actually spoken to them about it.
“Perhaps the elderly pair came for relaxation. Perhaps that’s why we came. And perhaps rest and relaxation have different meanings to different parties, mate. It’s one thing to rise a bit later in the day, another to search out a different direction in life.
“Don’t make assumptions about motivations, Mr. Doyle. I don’t half wonder if you’d truly like what you’d find.” And the solid figure turned and headed off down the beach, back in the direction of the hotel.
Good riddance, Doyle thought.
Doyle found himself back out in the little cove again and again over the next few days. The quiet, the rush of the waves rolled in and out, the cry of the gulls overhead acted as a calming influence.
He was able to sketch a few things - the line of the horizon, the bobbing waves, the cottony clouds - but nothing around him triggered anything as intense as the rush of images he’d felt in capturing the mercenaries squaring off.
Mind, a few random things are preferable to the nothingness of the preceding months.
Not that his ‘inspirations’ were currently present; the mercenaries hadn’t been anywhere to be found after the incident with Bodie on the beach. He had subtly questioned Monsieur Poirot behind the reception desk, who had replied that they were still listed as guests of the Metropole; Doyle thus assumed that they had some business that had taken them away for a few days. And while their presence might have assisted in his artistic ‘recovery,’ as he thought of it, he could well continue on without them.
Overall, the mercenaries were no great loss. And he felt more confident about his personal situation; he was beginning to draw again, after all.
It will all come back. I’m sure of it. Just a matter of time.
And that should make Mrs. Everett very happy. He snorted, turning back to his sketchpad.
Bent over his sketchpad, Doyle shaded in one of the rocks in the foreground of his drawing, not quite capturing the shadows the way he wanted to. His India rubber was in use more than the actual pencil, and the frustration was much more a hinderance than the blinding sun illuminating both the paper and the patch of beach before him. The shape was close to what he envisioned, but there was still something missing to the entire effect.
“Out, damned spot,” Doyle muttered darkly at the shape. “Now if you were a foot, or attached to one, we’d have you sorted out in no time. No reason we can’t get you sorted out anyway.”
He looked up for a minute, then down the beach. Dots across the landscape showed a few people out and about, but few seem to be interested in his particular location.
Except for one, shoes swinging in one hand, making his way slowly towards him.
One of the hooligans - apologies, mercenaries - though it was all the same to Doyle. And the one who calls himself Bodie. Well, he had nothing to say to them. Especially after their last parting. Doyle leaned over and started to gather up his pencils and pad, preparatory to departing.
“Good morning, Mr. Doyle. How are you?”
“Good day, Mr. Bodie. Fine, thank you.” He replied crisply, continuing with his packing.
“Told you, just Bodie is fine. Out to do some sketching?”
“Well, Just Bodie, I’m just on my way back to the hotel.”
“What a shame. Our earlier discussion was very enlightening. I was hoping to learn more about what you do.”
Doyle wasn’t sure if the man were sincere or having him on. “It’s actually very simple. I see a face, I draw it.”
“It can’t be that simple, otherwise we’d all do it. Look - what if I sat for you, as you put it?”
Doyle looked at him, blank-faced. “And what will be the charge for that?”
“Charge? No charge. I’m just out of the hotel, taking the air. I’m more responding to your offer from a few days back.”
He looked at the sour face Doyle gave him, and continued: “You’re not afraid of us, are you? We do put in the effort to be civilised when we’re in our home countries.”
“You’re a British subject. This isn’t Great Britain.”
“Yes - but not all of our merry band fall under the Crown’s dominion. So the good behavior extends across various countries.
“Come, now - it’s one afternoon. And we really don’t bite. Unless asked to.” The man smiled his sweetest smile.
“I promise not to expose your identity, Mr. Doyle, if that’s what concerns you. And me mam will treasure it forever.”
It would only be an hour or two, and maybe it would help him get back to work. And models aren’t exactly growing on trees here; it would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
Maybe it would speed up the process.
“Okay. A quick one. Sit down anywhere that will make you comfortable.” He started to unpack his tools.
“Oh, goodie!” The man rubbed his hands together in anticipation, scanned their surroundings, then sat down on the sand and leaned against a boulder - one knee up, an arm propped against it. He leant against the boulder as though it were the finest pillow in a sultan’s harem.
Doyle was used to varying definitions of ‘comfortable,’ but this was something entirely different. “You don’t do relaxed by half, do you?”
“You said make yourself comfortable. That’s exactly what I’m doing.” And he half closed his eyes.
Well, if he’s not paying attention, this will go even faster. Doyle surveyed his model for a minute or two, then picked up the pencil and traced out a line.
It was only a few minutes before he started attacking the sketchpad. Doyle found himself working automatically, glancing over at the figure, taking in the gradations of light through his eyes, processing them through his brain, then committing them to paper via his fingers. And truthfully, it was only a good half hour until a form sprawled out across the sheet, eyes mere slits, mouth barely opened, sensual and awaiting…
“You’re done, then? Don’t hear you scratching away anymore.” The lids fully opened and the wondrous blue eyes focused on him.
Damn, and the eyes aren’t even part of the image. Doyle felt the familiar draw to explore the figure further.
“Yes, it’s a sketch, so doesn’t take all that long.” He couldn’t quite drag his eyes off the image on his page as the last touches still held his attention.
“Here, let me see.” Bodie rolled onto his knees then regained his feet, to stand alongside Doyle. Part of Doyle didn’t want him to see the image.
“My mam always said I was a good looking baby. Guess she knew what she was talking about! If I look like that sleeping, can’t imagine what I look like in the altogether. Though I’ve had no complaints on that front,” he added smugly.
“In the altogether?” Doyle knew what the man was implying; however, if he was meant to feel embarrassed by what he’d drawn, he would just as well drag Bodie along with him.
“I’m sure you know about carnal relations, Mr. Doyle. And that is exactly what that picture implies.”
“I just captured how you look, Mr. Bodie. Any further interpretations - right or wrong - are completely up to you.”
“Told you earlier - the name’s Bodie. Don’t know Mister Bodie, neither my father or grandfather went by mister. Do you normally do nudes?”
“Any serious artist will have done some nude studies as part of their training. But I normally do portraits, Mr. - Bodie. Clothed portraits. That’s what my clients pay for. I don’t see my clients accepting someone’s altogether on the wall of their library.”
“That’s a shame, because you’d have that market well in hand. Okay - okay,” he held his hands up at the look of exasperation on Doyle’s face. “Just pointing out that you have some alternatives if the day job doesn’t work out.” He stretched a bit, and rolled his shoulder. “But I have to admit - that was enjoyable. Don’t get too many opportunities to relax like that, not have to look out for my back.”
“Sleeping against a rock would tend to protect your back from any attacks.”
“Well, I’d imagine you would let me know if anyone was creeping up on me. After all, you’d have to have noticed; it might interrupt your work. So thank you for watching my back.”
“More watching your front. But if it made you comfortable, far be it for me to interrupt.”
“If it got you your image, more like. But more than happy to assist.”
Doyle had had a quiet, mercenary-free dinner in the salon, and had gone up to his rooms immediately afterwards, watching the sun set and the sky darken out the great picture window. He wasn’t in a mood for company, and chose to spend the time in quiet contemplation.
Once the last light had been erased from the sky, he opted for artificial illumination and a bottle of whisky sent up from the kitchens as he looked through the sketches he’d done during the day.
He’d spent the morning on the beach, adjacent to the hotel. There had been a couple who'd strolled by, hand in hand, early in the day. The resulting image was nothing major; they’d stopped by for a chat over a few scant minutes, but had quickly continued on, more interested in each other than the rest of the world. And far too short a time for Doyle to properly capture more than an impression.
A little over that his fellow guests, the family of four girls and the young boy, had dutifully trooped across the sands, stopping before their own beach hut. The parents quietly discussed some matter; the older girls sat doing some sort of needlework in their beach chairs, while the younger children quietly played with pails and spades in the sand. He’d done a rough sketch; but they were altogether too proper, too domestic to create anything of interest.
And interest was the key; bored, Doyle had stood up and strolled off, pad under arm, back over to the secluded cove.
And there, while he was attempting the rocks as a potential background for a future study, was when the mercenary had appeared.
He looked more closely at the picture. Truthfully, it was better than anything he’d done in months. The mercenary on paper was as he knew him in life: smug, confident, rakish.
And handsome, sexual, open. Inviting.
Doyle tossed back another sip from the tumbler, the whisky burning its way down his esophagus to his stomach, and settled more comfortably into the settle. And wondered what exactly had wormed its way into his soul so deeply.
He couldn’t deny that he’d consider an offer from the man. It was a good thing it would never come to that.
Doyle studied the sketch of the mercenary, still in his hands.
It was no longer shades of grey; it had come alive, and clouds floated along the blue sky as yellow sands projected warmth through his fingertips holding the edges. The figure’s blue eyes blazed a welcome, the lips smirking, and the lax arm propped against the knee turned, reached out to him.
‘Not possible,’ was the logical thought, but yet he reached out for the fingers, making contact, grabbing hold…
…and he was there, on the sands, next to the man.
“Just Bodie,” the mercenary said, and pulled him impossibly close.
Doyle looked into those cornflower blue eyes. “Bodie - just Bodie,” he repeated. He knew he was lost.
And, bodies touching along their full lengths, they met in the middle.
The initial touch of Bodie’s lips - soft at first, tentative, then firmer, demanding, were like nothing Doyle could have imagined. They were the promise of the spring, the fire of the summer, and the harvest of the fall. Just their feel made his blood race and his organ stand at attention.
They broke for a second, to reset lost senses.
“My clients wouldn’t pay for you in the altogether.”
“And I have no complaints on that front,” Bodie grinned, and swooped back in.
Magically, their clothes were gone, and they lay upon the sand. Bodie was making his way along Doyle’s face, kissing the jaw, nibbling the lips, licking along the line of the once-broken cheek.
“What happened here?” He breathed over Doyle’s sensitive skin.
“Was a borstal boy; came with the territory;” and Doyle knew he didn’t have to explain the years of fights, and toughness, and being shanghaied behind the outbuildings and beaten to a pulp because he was able to draw a line decently. And of not giving up on the gift because it was all he had.
Bodie kissed the spot reverently, then continued on down the strong line of Doyle’s neck.
Doyle squirmed at the slowness of the progress; wanting to speed things up, he reached out blindly for what he could find. And found the man’s organ, half tumescent.
“Unh-unh-unh. Naughty, naughty. You’ll have to wait on that.”
“Says who?” responded Doyle, and ran his fingers around his prize. He happily watched the man lose composure, his eye rolling up slightly in pleasure.
“Keep that up, Angelfish, and this will end before it starts.” And he moved Doyle’s hand away.
Doyle frowned, and was about to make a comment, when Bodie’s head ducked and he felt teeth gently clamp down on a nipple. All other thoughts flew from his head at the sensation, and he arched into the distraction, his legs collapsing open slightly.
"Sh hhhh,” came out as a sound and a hum, and a tongue laved around the nipple. His pulse seemed to be calming down just the slightest, as well, although he was beginning to feel all sensation pool around his organ.
“Shhhhh,” sounded again, and the mouth shifted to his stomach, the tongue darting in and out of the pit of his belly button.
A cool hand brushed against his testicles, and the maelstrom of his sensations started an inevitable ascent.
He reached out, to pull the dark head towards its intended destination, but the other man was having none of that. Instead, he stopped between the belly button and the groin, and carefully nipped the area with his teeth.
Doyle was ready to abandon all control, his hips starting to buck, when a cool hand closed around his organ and held it firm.
“Aggghhhhh!” escaped from Doyle’s mouth. He was on fire, ready to lose all control - and Bodie had stopped him.
“Not yet,” he said, and placed a gentle kiss on Doyle’s lips. Which miraculously calmed him down, brought him back from the edge.
He could breathe again, and he looked over at Bodie, who was having his own issues with composure.
“Doing okay?” Bodie asked, and Doyle nodded.
“Fantastic,” he replied - and then reared up and took Doyle completely into his mouth.
Doyle screamed his release.
Doyle screamed and sat up.
It was dark; he was in a bed, not on the beach; and, perhaps most regrettably, he was alone.
He flopped back onto the bed, in disgust.
Once he began to collect his scattered thoughts, he arose and lit a lamp. It was his tidy little room in the Metropole, where he had lain down in his clothes - perhaps too much whisky. An awkward stiffness signaled that at least part of the dream had been real: he had unfortunately soiled his clothing.
Relations with another man would not endear him to London society - a place to which he would eventually have to return. He had realised that early on in life and had lived accordingly. And had no intention of changing now.
It was a dream, anyway - nothing had happened between him and the mercenary in the real world, so there was nothing to hide. And a little fantasy was helpful to truly inhabit the essence of a subject, after all.
Best not to think about it.
He headed to the bathroom to clean himself off.
The days passed and the weather remained bright; if anything, the air was growing noticeably warmer, while the sun beat down on the beach and the waves frolicked offshore. Doyle came out every day, much like clockwork, determined to work back to his historical output levels and not let a random one-off fantasy interrupt his life.
The mercenary appeared more days than not, to pose, and the sessions evolved into companionable silences. The topic of nude portraits did not arise again, and Doyle was determined not to be the one to bring it up. And he still knew tantalisingly little about the other man.
But the sessions themselves were not without merit. He put himself through the basic exercises - drawing a solid, yet graceful hand, with tapered digits and rounded, well-buffed nails; capturing the deceptively delicate lashes laid against the marble-pale skin; fleshing out the shell of an ear perfectly proportioned to fit the head it accompanied. He started with the basics, and built them up to a living, vivid whole, relearning his craft.
This particular day, the weather was becoming more of a hindrance than a help; the heat was intense, beads of sweat pooling on both men’s brows, to be pulled down by gravity. Even Doyle’s rapt concentration, usually unbreakable, could not help but notice the trickle of sweat uncomfortably coursing its way down the back of his neck.
Then again, it made a wonderful pattern across the fair skin of his subject, once again posed against the slope of his favourite boulder, eyes closed, head titled back…
The blue eyes opened, and their owner swiftly glided to his feet. “You, too.” He took hold of Doyle’s pencil and pad, placed them carefully on the sands, next to his case of supplies, and effortlessly pulled the man up to his feet.
“What - ?” Doyle, taken off-guard, had little time to react as the man dragged him several yards into the breaking waves.
His first reaction was to lash out, a fist primed to fly - and the man again grabbed him and pulled him further into the waves.
He was about to yell, react, do something, when a heavy surge knocked him off his feet and beneath the water.
There was the feeling of confusion - a muffled rushing in his ears, blue-green before his vision, a dragging pull against his body - and then he was able to right himself and stand up again.
He sputtered, wiping warm liquid from his eyes, and turned to the mercenary. “What the hell -“
“There now, isn’t that much better?” The man seemed quite pleased at what he’d done! Doyle’s fist flew back again - and a second wave crashed over, knocking him down.
The world was aswirl once more, and then he regained his feet.
Wiping his face and smoothing his hair back, he turned to the mercenary - and they were both knocked over by the next wave.
Reorientation was made easier by prior knowledge; Doyle more easily righted himself, and immediately moved into shallower water. The mercenary appeared at the corner of his vision.
On sturdier ground, he cleared his vision once more and wiped his curls back. And looked at his nemesis.
“Well, I did make sure you put your drawing supplies down and out of the way,” he offered as some bizarre explanation.
And Doyle charged him.
Doyle had seen the mercenary fight earlier, in a rutting dance to determine dominance; this time, he felt like the man was engaging, though not fully. They clashed and tumbled and rolled and tripped in the wet sand, as Doyle remembered skills he’d last employed as a youth.
The fight was fairly equal, more equal than Doyle would have expected. He gave as good as he got. And they moved across the sand, until they were in a clench - and another wave knocked them down. They’d wandered into the water again.
This time closer to the shore, they sat in the surf until the water drained around them, then stood and dashed further up the beach.
Doyle looked at Bodie, standing before him, looking like nothing so much as a drowned rat - a handsome, infuriating drowned rat, but a drowned rat just the same.
He began to laugh.
A deep, dirty chuckle that erupted into a full-throated guffaw, he continued on. Bodie stared at first, confused, and then joined in.
And they laughed, on the beach, just the two of them, for several moments.
Finally, Doyle paused, bent over, face down, hands on knees, gasping for breath. “Got me - soaked - ruined - my cl-clothes - you did,” he got out.
“Yeah - did,” Bodie gasped back.
“But - you - look - worse, mate,” he finished, looking up fully at the mercenary.
Doyle laughed some more, until he couldn’t laugh any more.
Finally, when they had caught their breaths, Doyle turned to Bodie. “Not sure how we go back into the hotel looking like this.” He looked down at his sopping wet clothing.
“Nothing to it. A bit of air drying, they’ll be as good as new.”
“Air drying? Oh, damp salt air is just the thing.”
“Damp is a regular wash day in the jungle. And with this sun, they’ll be dried in no time.”
“And then that family from the hotel will pass by. Why do I get the impression you’re making this up?”
“Because you’ve never been in the jungle. Let them pass by; it’s the human body, after all. Thought you artists celebrated the human body.”
“Celebrated, yes; paraded, no. At least not in my position.”
“Your position means nothing out here. C’mon, we’re soaked at any rate; let’s get these off. We can hide behind a boulder, if it offends your sensibilities so much.”
They made their way back to the boulders, and shed their wet things. For Doyle, it was an automatic thing, a forced unconsciousness; he kept a tight rein on his emotions, not wanting to relive the onslaught of his dream. And especially not in front of its object.
“So, how long does this particular laundry take with their clients’ goods?” he asked instead, keeping the discussion mundane.
“As long as it takes,” Bodie replied, nonchalantly. “Can’t rush Mother Nature, she sets her own time.”
“Does that preclude dinner, then?”
“No, should be done by then, I’d be surprised if it weren’t.” He turned to Doyle. “Let’s get back to it, then.”
“Back to what?” Doyle was wary.
“I swear, you’re acting like a scared virgin. We come out here; I sit, you sketch. Don’t you want to practice your drawing?”
Want to do more than practice, sunshine. That’s the problem. “We’ll be out here for a while, might as well.” And he retrieved his sketchpad.
Sketching went remarkably well, given the state of Doyle’s unease. Bodie lounged against boulders, in his regular poise, eyes half closed.
The water had cooled them down, provided a respite; but there was still a heat that Doyle felt, dancing just beneath his skin.
Doyle stopped, and looked at the other man. And the blue eyes slowly opened, and looked back at him, questioning. He reached out… and was lost.
He moved closer to the reclining figure, knelt; his fingertips lightly skimming over the sweat-rimmed cheek - surprisingly cool, given the weather - tracing over the lips, coming to rest on the muscular neck. The eyes stayed on him, watching, as though leery of making the wrong move.
He leant forward and brushed his lips against the other, briefly, just a feathery touch; broke away, to assess; then leant forward, for more.
It deepened into another kiss; then - a fire alit as the other man began to respond.
It wasn’t like Doyle’s nighttime rumination at all; no, it was one thousand times better, for being real and of the moment and completely solid. Doyle felt the joy in exploring the other man’s mouth and skin; if the response was any indication, the other man was enjoying it just as thoroughly. His hands were roaming over the solid hulk, exploring it, committing it to memory. And even in the small amount of time this interaction had begin, Doyle felt as though they somehow fit together, that they already knew each other somehow without ever having spoken of their inner thoughts.
It was hot and heavy and fast, even for being exploratory; Doyle was steadily moving down the torso, exploring a pale nipple, the other man rubbing his hands over Doyle’s sides but doing his best not to get in Doyle’s way.
It was only when Doyle’s left hand began to wander down a bit farther, in search of his ultimate target, that the other man said gruffly, “think you’ve done this before, Angelfish,” and began to respond in kind. A hand sneaked around Doyle’s leg and grabbed his organ, causing him to pull away off his prize and give a slight moaned, “no.”
“Don’t stop,” Bodie whispered, and Doyle swung his leg over until he was positioned atop Bodie, laving the chest and manipulating the member.
Bodie, in the meanwhile, had repositioned his hand on Doyle’s member, making his concentration go a bit off. Unable to keep up with the distraction, he moved again and dropped down against the other man’s pubic area, starting to thrust.
It was wonderful. He was floating along a river of feeling, knowing that this would be relatively fast for him, but glorying in the fullness of the sensations even so. The other man was thrusting back, in time, as they both ascended the spirals of their pleasure, ever rising, until Doyle could feel he was just there, just there -
And he was exploding, and the other man pulled him down into a kiss and swallowed Doyle’s scream, and it was all perfect.
He felt - perfect.
Their sessions took a deeper tone and meaning, now; they would meet in the cove, explore each other, and then lounge against the rocks, spent. Doyle would employ those quiet, restful times to capture various aspects of Bodie’s anatomy: a trailing hand, a leg relaxed in the sand, even the way the square toes aligned with the foot. He felt like he wanted, no, needed, to capture all there was to know about this man.
And now knowledge no longer need be limited to the physical.
“So what is it you do with this lot?” He spoke, while focusing on filling out a line.
“A regular dogsbody, I suppose.” Bodie seemed truly at a loss, as though he'd never considered the matter before.
“That can't be true. From what I've seen, those men look up to you, respect you, like any leader.”
“Well, that's liable to get me killed, then. I'm not the head of our merry band.”
“Law of the jungle, and all that?”
“Something like that. No room for two leaders, at least.”
“But what is it that you do, then?”
“Well, if I told you, I’d have to kill you, wouldn’t I?”
Doyle gave him an angry look. “Don’t even joke about that. Besides, not like I’d sit here and just let you do it.”
“Well, that’s Krivas’s modus operandi, at least… And then again, we’re not always on the right side of the law, are we?”
Not sure he realizes how much he’s just admitted. Not that I would tell anyone. Not that I’d have anyone to tell.
“I can’t speak to what you get up to in your African assignments; I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know the legalities in the corners that you frequent. But you don’t normally do your jobs on this side of the Mediterranean, do you? You’re hired as soldiers; you do the same thing as soldiers. So don’t see how that becomes illegal by any definition that I know.”
“That’s what I like about you. You use that brain of yours, make some sense. Not just a pretty face, are you?” He glanced at the sheet Doyle was attacking. “And don’t mess with my anatomy on whatever it is you’re drawing. My modesty couldn’t bear it.”
“You mean your ego.” The India rubber was going through a particularly fierce workout. "But I’ll overlook that this one time."
“Hey! You are drawing something additional on me, aren’t you?” Bodie pulled himself over to where Doyle was seated, and craned over to look at the pad. “Don't add things; there's no improving on perfection, and what you'd plan wouldn't be an improvement anyway. Now what are you doing?” Unbelievably, he managed to simultaneously sound smug and almost pout.
Doyle hefted the pad into the air, out of Bodie’s reach, grinning widely. “Wouldn’t you like to know? And don’t whinge on about it.”
“Ve haf says of making you talk,” Bodie said, and reached out to grab Doyle.
This time, Doyle lay in the sand, secure behind the boulders, as Bodie moved over him. The friction was wonderful, the sensations unravelling coils of tension that had been deep inside his soul.
And the magnificent being above him, moving in time with Doyle's movements, the two bodies in symphony as their organs moved together.
Doyle was no romantic, wasn't one to declare hearts and flowers and forevers. He was not sure what would happen in the next few days or weeks, once he had to return to London and the mercenary moved on. But he wasn't sure he'd ever felt this close to, this integrated with anyone before. And a part of him would be more than happy to bottle this feeling, this experience, and take it home with him.
To date, the mercenary had been very practiced at keeping personal details out of their discussions; even so, Doyle had picked up a number of facts about who he was and what he did. Not enough to paint a full picture, of course; but a collection generalities that he was fairly sure were not completely intentional on the part of the mercenary.
He felt honored that the man felt enough at ease with him to even share those little bits...
And then his world exploded in a blast of sensation.
As the sun went down, the two men climbed the steps from the beach up to the broad porch of the hotel, then headed towards the wide entry doors. They both noticed the lone figure leaning against the railing, deeply drawing from a cheroot.
Doyle noticed Bodie hesitate just for an instant, as though his guard was suddenly up.
Bodie nodded at him, and he nodded back, continuing on into the hotel. Once clear of the line of sight of the doorway, he slipped back around, until he was positioned by a window and could just see outside without being seen by the two figures. He recognised one as the moustachioed man who seemed to be the leader of the mercenaries.
“Making new friends I see, Bodie.” The man took a deep drag off his fag, the end briefly glowing in the twilight.
“Not really. Ran into him, he recognised me from the dining salon, we had a chat on the way back here.” Bodie evenly matched the man's cool tones.
“We're here for one thing, Bodie: a brief stop before we move onto the next job. This is not the bush. 'Anything' does not go here. Don't get into something that won't go well, that you can't get out of.”
“Krivas – I am not the wet-behind-the-ears lad that I was when I ran off from Liverpool. I know the codes we live by. I have more than pulled my weight in this outfit. And there is no law against a bit of fun. I don't need any of your admonitions or 'friendly' warnings.”
"You know the rules, Bodie. There is only one leader of this group - me. And I won't put up with anything - or anyone - that endangers the group.” He dropped the fag and used his heel to grind it into the varnished boards. “Otherwise, there will be a cost. And you'd do well to remember that.”
Krivas turned and entered the hotel, not waiting for a response.
Bodie stood watching him go, silent, a narrow unreadable look on his face.
Doyle sat on the beach, just out of sight of the hotel, but further along from the boulders. He'd seen Bodie leave the hotel fairly early, and assumed that the man had some engagement in town.
He had been running through the episode on the hotel porch, and what it meant. Endanger? A cost? He knew that the mercenaries were rough men, with their own code, but he couldn't fathom why he would be considered a danger to their group.
He refused to think about Bodie's comment regarding 'a bit of fun'; after all, that was exactly what it was.
He started leafing through the pages of his sketchpad, looking for an empty one. Even though it had been a few weeks, he was still somewhat surprised at the number of sketches that included Bodie. Maybe it's a good thing to have a break, do something else for a while. He flipped over a page and started to idly draw.
"Whatcha doin' meester?”
He turned around, surprised; a small child had materialized next to his right elbow, intently peering at the open page. Given the sand and the sea, the face wasn't as grubby as it might have been, but that wasn't for lack of effort.
Probably belongs to one of the locals, then.
“Whaazat?” The little hand pointed to the few lines that had materialized on the paper.
“It's a drawing.” And not much of one, though he had only been working on it for a few minutes.
“A drawing of whut?” The little being didn't exactly sound convinced that Doyle knew what he was talking about.
“A drawing. See, I do this,” and Doyle's hand flew across the pad, “and this -" and a few more lines appeared to resolve into the semblance of a face, “and then it turns into something.”
“Ooooh!” The little face lit up in joy.
“And what's your name, then?”
“Well, Gabriella, my name is Raymond.” His hand moved rapidly a few more times. “And this is now a picture of Gabriella.” And it was a good likeness, up to his old standards, perhaps one of the few pictures in months to match what he was capable of. At least, a picture not of Bodie. Another example of the mercenary's influence. You spend too much time with him, Doyle.
The tot crowed at the drawing and clapped her hands with delight.
The background noise started to coalesce into shouts of, “Gabriella! Gabriella!”
“Someone is calling for you, Gabriella,” Doyle pointed out.
“Uh-oh,” the tot said. “Gabwiella in trouble.”
A woman dressed in a full black skirt and white top and severely disapproving face plodded her way across the sand, on a mission.
“Maybe not, Gabriella. We'll see what we can do.”
Once the woman finally reached them, she immediately grabbed the hand of the toddler. “Gabriella!” A stream of something in the local tongue followed, which Doyle was in no way able to follow, though he assumed it was involved a length explanation of what happened to children who ran off on their own. The woman punctuated it with a slap to the tot's behind, which immediately started the child crying.
“So sorry, señor – I hope she not too bother you.” An apologetic face accompanied the broken English.
“No, not a bother at all; in fact, she was a help. And I would be more than happy to let her have this.” He ripped the sheet with the child's face from his sketchpad. “As a thank you.”
The woman was visibly taken aback at the gesture. “Ah, we no can pay for thees.”
“No, not for pay. This is for the child. I want her to have it. Please.”
The woman appeared unsure.
"She helped me just now. Please allow me to thank her properly for it."
The woman was still hesitant, but took the picture. "Thank you, meester. Thank you." She took the little girl by the hand and returned in the direction she came from.
Bodie had thought it odd, though not completely implausible, that Krivas would suddenly send him out on a task into town; he'd been into town the prior day, and they were supposed to be waiting at the hotel for a message to arrive. And it wasn't until he'd arrived at his destination, his contact nowhere to be found, that he began to be worried.
He immediately left, returning to the hotel, in search of either Doyle or Krivas. Just to be sure.
He'd run into Benny and Franky on the hotel porch, smoking sizeable cigars and laughing in the way they did when something was afoot in the jungle. And when they saw him, their laughter just increased.
Now worried, he took off at a clip across the beach, headed towards the cove. And he slowed to a stroll, once he could see the two figures ahead on the sand. Doyle sat on a boulder; Krivas stood behind him. Not a good position to come upon.
“Ah, and here comes the calvary. Was expecting you, Bodie. Very good timing; just in time to catch today’s entertainment.” Krivas sounded efficient, slightly bored, as though he were perfunctorily carrying out one of the more onerous tasks of cleaning up a mess.
Doyle sat on a boulder, his sketch pad open on the rock, a half-formed figure coming to life on the paper. If was far from done, but it wouldn’t be hard to tell that the subject would likely turn out to be Bodie.
He could only hope that Krivas wouldn’t see the likeness either. But he doubted that.
As he drew closer, Bodie saw the large hunting knife in Krivas's hand. Beside him, Doyle was motionless, though his blue-green eyes flashed anger.
Stay calm, Bodie silently willed. Don’t provoke him. There is a way for us to get through this.
He wasn’t sure, but it seemed as though Doyle stilled himself more.
He stopped, a few feet from the pair.
“Krivas, leave off. He’s a civilian.”
“Is he, now? He seems to take up more than enough of your time.”
“He’s working. I sat for him a couple of times for practice. Nothing else.”
Doyle quietly observed the exchange, seemingly aware that more was going on than just banter.
“Nothing else? There’s a portrait this gentleman passed on to one of the village brats; has a fine image of your backside on the reverse. You’ve disappeared every day at the same time, nowhere to be seen. You think I wouldn’t’ve had you followed?”
Bodie thought frantically for a moment; he was sure he hadn’t been followed. Unless… someone had already been in the cove.
Krivas settled closer to Doyle, until he was almost touching him. Bodie’s eyes narrowed.
“He’s a distraction, Bodie. Endangers the cohesiveness of the group. I told you - I am the leader of our band. I will let nothing disrupt that, and will not stand aside to see the break up of a group it has taken years to bring to this point.”
In a quick motion, almost too fast to see, Krivas repositioned himself behind Doyle, his left arm around the man’s upper torso, the right holding the knife at his throat.
Fire flashed in the blue-green eyes, but Doyle remained calm.
“And this” - he jerked Doyle’s head once; the eyes flashed, but the body remained loose - “is a disruption and needs to be eliminated.”
“'Eliminated,' Krivas? All this effort for some random person who just happens to be a guest at the same hotel? Why not just grab someone random off the street, for that matter?”
But he’s not just ‘someone random off the street,’ as you refer to it. You have formed some type of relationship with him, and it’s dulled your instincts. You’re not yourself, Bodie, your edge - what made you so good - is dissipating. All sucked into some infantile attraction which has you sniffing after him like a dog.
“And you’re blind to it. You’re completely off your game, and do not even realise it.” Krivas shifted the knife in his hand a bit. Bodie recognized it as one of Franky's.
“He has got you by the balls," Krvias continued. "And that is the kind of behaviour that gets you killed in tight spots. I don’t need a man like that.”
“Your grievance is with me, Krivas, not the painter. Let him go, and we’ll fight this out - right here, right now.”
“Oh, no, Bodie. Yes, I want to teach you a lesson, one that you’ll remember. But you will learn best - and remember it well - if I use him as the example.”
Talk to him, Bodie reminded himself. Slow down time and draw him out.
And you, Doyle, he gazed briefly but intently at the other man, you stay alert. He hoped that Doyle would take his lead.
He had to keep talking to Krivas, make him relax just enough…
“Krivas - remember when I first joined the band?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“You said the group was above all else, you would brook no disobedience.”
“And I meant it.”
“Of course; I know you did. I’ve aimed to keep the others in line. Frankly wanted to cut up that chieftain’s daughter after that one raid - I pointed out that if he did, half of the Congo would be after us, and we were several hundred miles deep into their territory.”
Krivas slightly nodded in acknowledgement, waited for Bodie to go on.
“That other time, Pug was all set to go barreling into that armory, guns blazing. I got him calmed down. In the end, we found out it’d been booby-trapped. We didn’t get the arms, but neither did we get blown up when that other lot went straight in and tripped the wire. Blew themselves up and the bulk of the guards. We actually had some peace for several months after.
“All of these things I did for the greater good of our lot. To save our hides so we could continue on another day. So eliminating a famous artist outside a hotel where everyone knows who he is and what we are - when the authorities will come after us first because we're the mercenaries staying in the same hotel - that would seem to put us in a lot more danger than ‘eliminating’ some activity that doesn’t even come to the level of ‘a bit of fun’.
“We’re not in the bush right now, Krivas. It may not be London, or Brussels, but it is civilisation. And they won’t put up with it.”
Bodie paused, controlling his breathing although his heart was racing like a purebred stallion. He avoided looking at Doyle for the moment, willing Krivas to forget about the man, beyond his demise creating trouble for the group.
And Krivas had apparently not considered this angle - that civilization was a significant constraint in this case.
"Let him go, Krivas. Let's jut move on."
"Bodie - you have had an incredible lapse of judgement; but you are correct. We need to finish our business here, and leaving a body will cut that short. But we will be moving on from here. We can finish our business her from another base.
"And you will not see him again." Krivas's arm shot out, and the handle of the knife slammed against Doyle's skull. He slumped forward, onto the rock.
“Well, then, Doyle, Mrs. Everett is quite pleased.”
Sydney Edgerstoune sat at Raymond Doyle’s study table, beaming over a cup of fine lapsang souchong and a rousing array of biscuits and sandwiches making up an exquisite afternoon tea. Tea at Doyle’s abode was always a high point. He had long admired the cooking prowess of Mrs. Hiddleston, who did for his artist, although he had a sneaking suspicion that Doyle had done for himself upon more than one occasion.
In general, Doyle seemed to be different these days; more introspective, with fewer of his brash comments. And if Edgerstoune noticed that his artist was generally more quiet these days, he chose not to remark upon it
He chalked it up to artistic temperament, choosing not to dwell on particulars when the results came out so well.
“Now, don’t deny the lady her pleasure. Lord knows, she’s a walking, talking advertisement for your dab hand. You may not realize it, Doyle, but you are quite popular now. Your little sojourn, Raymond, was perhaps your best idea yet, as it was very, very good to you. There’s a difference - a depth to your work that I’ve never seen before.”
“Mind, not saying that you weren’t talented before, Doyle,” he paused to take another sip of the excellent tea before him. “Lord knows you've always been. But there’s something different, a new level of something. Maybe a bit of - “
“Maturity?” Doyle cut in, quietly. “You can go ahead and say it.”
“Introspection,” Edgerstoune corrected. “I don’t know what happened - mainly because you refuse to say - but it’s brought something rare to your work. There are rumors that the prince himself is considering a commission.”
“Well, let him. That’s want I am, no? A hired brush.”
“Hardly. No one’s every been able to tell you what and when to paint. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
He placed the cup down upon the saucer before him.
“And now that tea is over - and before you speak, I can’t get in another crumb - I am more than eager to see what you have ready for our clients.”
“It’s not introspection, Syd.” Doyle placed his own napkin next to his plate, though he had eaten little. “It’s just a little more perspective on the world, that’s all. Makes one think a little harder about where to place the brushstrokes.”
The two men quietly made their way to Doyle’s studio and opened the wooden door, launching from the darkness of the hallway into a white, airy space.
The studio, bright as always (and it was a fine, sunny day outdoors), had a number of canvases leant upon the near wall, finished and awaiting sufficient drying for delivery.
“My god, Doyle,” Edgerstoune exclaimed, walking closer. “Not to repeat myself, but you’re really outdone yourself. It’s Lady St. John-Smith in the flesh!” He strolled to stand before the likeness. “It’s her, but - more. Sensual, engaging, about to pull the viewer through the canvas. I dare say she will have most of London through her salon to view the results.”
“Well, she wanted a portrait, and now she shall have one,” Doyle muttered.
“And I know how far up – or rather, down - she is on your favorites list. On behalf of all is holy, let me thank you for putting up with her long enough to produce this masterpiece.”
“Yes, sometimes the tiger can be leashed long enough to produce results.” Doyle grinned a bit, which warmed Edgerstoune’s insides. It’s been a while since any of us have seen that.
“You have every right to smile, Doyle - you have much to be proud of. There are the Duke and Duchess of Sanford, the daughter of Mrs. Kent,” Edgerstoune rifled through most of the remaining canvases, “in sum - you’ve cleared out all your commissions. And splendidly.”
“Yes, that I did. Had the time, didn’t I?”
“These are works of art, Doyle. They should hang in museums.” He turned to face the young man, full on. “You’ve grown as an artist, advanced. This is nothing short of a new phase in your career.”
He turned to look at the man, who remained blank-faced.
“Look, Doyle - I tend to not interfere in your personal affairs, I know better - but this should be the happiest period of your life. You are ahead of the game. You have cemented your legacy with just these pictures alone. And yet - you don't see to enjoy the results, given the effort you've gone through over the years to get here. Is there a problem I should know about?”
“Nothing, Sydney. Everything is humming along perfectly, as you said.” Doyle moved over towards the stacks of canvases against the wall. “These will cure a bit more, and then off they go.”
It was then, in the space that Doyle’s movement left, that Edgerstoune saw a few more canvases against the far wall.
"What about these?” He picked up one and carefully turned it round.
And lost his ability to breathe.
It was stunning: a nude, in repose, sprawled against a series of boulders. The body was perfectly rendered: every muscle carefully rendered, the sum telling a tale of constrained strength and power. The face, an artist’s dream: long, straight nose, symmetrical face, twinkling cornflower blue eyes. The eyes, especially, bored into the viewer, daring, smirking, tempting…
And nestled at the intersection of torso and legs was an organ, long and thick, also perfectly in keeping with the bodily proportions. It was depicted in a state of partial tumescence, as though awaiting the presence, the being, that would bring it to full life.
All was in perfect symmetry, to rival Raphael's angels - or Michelangelo's demons. The only exception was a little crook in the left eyebrow, perhaps to remind mankind that true perfection belonged only to God.
In total, the figure reclined at ease, but on edge, ready to spring forth. Deadly.
“Doyle…” Edgerstoune uttered, once he had gotten his voice back. “Who - what - is this? A private commission?”
“No. No one here, and no one you know.” Doyle swiftly moved to reclaim the painting. “Someone I sketched a few times while on the Continent. Doesn’t even know this exists.”
“This, is… brilliant.” Edgerstoune spoke lowly, in awe. “Even as a nude - do you know what kind of price this could command?”
“It’s not for sale,” said Doyle, steel in his voice, the old Raymond Doyle briefly surfacing. “It stays here.” He took the canvas out of Edgerstoune’s hands and carefully placed it once more facing the wall.
“It would have to be done somewhat quietly, but I could easily sell that to a private collector - “
“I said, it’s not for sale!” Doyle was yelling now. He took a breath, then: “It’s - a study. Something I worked on. While I was away.”
“If that is the result, I might ship you myself off in the future.” Sydney cracked a quick smile. “But seriously, Doyle - I do know to take you at your word; but that is a work of brilliance. If you should ever change your mind, I could turn that around for you in less than a week.”
“Sure, Sydney; will keep that in mind.” Doyle muttered in answer, but said no more on the subject.
“Mr. Doyle -”
“Ray, Mrs. Hiddleston. Ray is fine,” he said wearily, once again.
"But Mr. Doyle, Mr. Edgerstoune has left a note, says you need to come right away." Mrs. Hiddleston was not one given to overexcitement, so Doyle took the woman's agitation quite seriously.
"Is Syd okay?" Doyle strode over to the sideboard, where the the note lay.
"New client - new commission - come right away - well, happily it's not his health," Doyle quickly scanned over the note. "But as much as Syd likes to promote his artists, he's never been taken to rushing things along. Mrs. Hiddleston," he said more loudly, so that the woman, hovering just beyond the doorway, would enter the room. "Mr. Edgerstoune seems to be fine health-wise; but as there is an urgent matter I will need to stop by his rooms, so may be delayed for dinner. Please don't go through any excessive trouble; I will either eat at Mr. Edgerstoune's or have a light supper of leftovers once I'm back. No need to make anything complicated or to stay up."
"Yes, sir," Mrs. Hiddleston replied, though Doyle knew she'd keep an ear open for his return.
"Doyle - thank you for coming over so quickly."
"Sure, Syd, though your note was a little concerning. Is everything okay? You're not sick?"
"No, I'm not sick. But I have to tell you something."
"Sure." Having spent numerous hours at the other man's abode, Doyle easily crossed to the liquor cabinet and picked up two glasses. "Anything for you?"
"No, though you might want to be sober for this."
Doyle ignored him and poured a drink for himself into a crystal tumbler.
"Okay, your choice, Doyle."
"I mentioned that there is a new client, who has come to see me. Made his fortune overseas, just returned, wants to settle down in London. Has seen your work and would like you to do a commission for him."
"I don't understand the rush, Syd - I just cleared out the backlog, a short break might be in order. I'm not saying never, just a few things I want to take care of -"
"Oh, I believe this one you'll be interested in. I'll be right back." Edgerstoune stepped out of the room.
What the hell is wrong with Syd? He's never like this. I don't see the rush -
"Right this way; Mr. Doyle is waiting in here." Edgerstoune walked ahead of another figure, who entered the room. Tall, solidly built, blue eyes -
Oh, no. The glass tumbler fell from Doyle's hand.
"William Andrew Philip Bodie at your service, though I go by Bodie. A pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Doyle."
Doyle looked at Edgerstoune, at a loss.
"I believe you two may know each other. I believe I have even met you, or at least seen you, Bodie, albeit indirectly. And I believe that you have things to discuss. Please feel free to use my drawing room for as long as you need." And Sydney Edgerstoune stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.