Do what you like with it, bitch. A hissed statement punctuated by vibration. Everything rattling making her teeth hurt.
Your call, butt munch. What?
Jake laughed. You think I give a crap, ma’am? Ma’am?
She felt confused. Something did not fit. Dream. Dream. You chose your career over your husband. Ma’am? Career over me. I was always better than you. She saw his face in a kaleidoscope of dotted lights as he uttered his nonsense. Ma’am?
‘We’re here, ma’am. Italy. Herc’s about to touch down. Capodichino. Ass end of nowhere.’
Rachel opened her eyes. The vibration had felt like a dream, but it was real, causing her teeth to chatter. Four huge propellers whistling and buzzing like a swarm of gigantic bees.
‘We’ll be on the deck in ten,’ the sergeant said, before retreating and leaving her to compose herself and boy did she need composing. It all seemed so unreal. The transition from office worker to field agent left her dizzy.
Twenty minutes after waking, Rachel stopped at the top of the ramp and dropped her kitbag. A shimmering heat haze turned the terminal building into a floating palace. A wall of heat seemed to be rejecting her arrival. She could smell it as well as feel it. Joined with the paraffin stink of aviation fuel, it caught her in the back of the throat. The heat also seemed to be muting the usual noise of a military airbase. She didn’t know if it was even possible for sound to be dampened in that way. Maybe it was too hot to work, and the personnel were hiding somewhere.
‘See Naples and then die,’ she repeated the saying someone had thrown out in the Officer’s Club during her leaving presentation. Considered it a gag, apparently. Feeling the heat, she thought maybe she had died, and this was Hell.
She thought the British poet, Keats, coined the saying. Someone like that. He died around here if she remembered her high school Eng Lit. But, died from what? The heat? Did heat kill Keats? Sunstroke? Could she even get sunstroke without any visible sun, the smog being so dense?
‘Terminal’s straight ahead, ma’am,’ the sergeant said, nodding for emphasis.
Rachel looked at him in his uniform whites, sure he’d been in blues when they took off from the States, all those lifetimes before. She wanted to snap and tell him she wasn’t blind. Instead, she nodded back, hefted her kit and walked down the ramp.
When she hit the concrete apron, she could feel the heat through the soles of her flats. It’s May, her mind screamed at her. She was New York State — a small city called Poughkeepsie — Northern Hemisphere. Such heat in May was unheard of.
With a sigh, she looked at the terminal building. Welcome to Capodichino appeared to be belly dancing in the haze. She could see the volcano brooding over it and was surprised by its vicinity. She felt she could touch it by stretching out a hand. The shimmering appeared exaggerated above the peak, just her imagination, she knew.
Not that there was a peak. It was more of a broken tooth. Rachel had looked it up after Hubble dismissed her. The volcano blew its top into oblivion the same century Christ hit the hay in his manger. The vaporized rock and earth smothered the Roman settlements on or near the slopes, Pompeii being the most famous. There were others. Damned if she could remember their names. Damned if she cared. Two thousand years. Who would care except old men smoking corn cobs, when their heads weren’t buried in the dirt looking for a lost past?
‘Can I take your bag, ma’am?’ a dapper — judging by his accent — Bostonian asked. NIS, for sure. His badge was hanging from his belt above khaki chinos. His hands were on his hips, making the sweat stains in the pits of his blue short-sleeved shirt noticeable. White would have been a better choice.
‘Junior Field Agent Robbs, ma’am. I’m your welcome-buddy.’
‘Welcome-buddy,’ she said, raising her eyebrows to make it into a question.
‘Gotta show you the ropes. Get you settled in the Officers’ Club on base. Answer any questions. Bring you to the admiral’s office in the A and M.’
Rachel nodded. ‘Answer all my questions. Here’s one. What’s with all the Alitalia planes on the apron? Isn’t Capodichino a military base?’
‘It is. Military share the runway with commercials. Gets real hectic in the summer with the holiday flights.’
‘Summer? You tellin’ me this ain’t summer?’
‘No, ma’am. Officially spring. You’ll know when it’s summer. Gets up to a hundred, hundred and five. The real bitch though is the humidity. Seen relative at seventy… even eighty percent. You can see the droplets in the air. Gives new meaning to duck butter.’
‘Eighty percent?’ Rachel knew she wasn’t doing much of a job hiding her scepticism.
‘Yes, ma’am. As God’s my witness. The only thing to do is sit still and neck an ice-cold.’
‘I bet. We gonna stand here all day shootin’ the breeze, Robbs?’
Rachel smiled as his face flushed. She threw her kitbag at him and said, ‘Lead on MacDuff,’ shaking her head at his confused look.
She expected him to make for the terminal and passport control, but he headed in the direction of the tower.
‘Jeep’s in the lot beside the tower,’ he explained. ‘Air Force and Navy have personnel on base. Weather guys and gals mostly. Our flyboys are over in Foggia. Eyeties don’t want us cramping their style.’
‘Don’t I need to do immigration?’
‘Naw. There’s some forms to fill. You can do that at your leisure. I’ll help. You’ll need to put your sidearm in the gunbox in back. Against regs to carry it off base.’
By the time they reached the car park beside the tower, Rachel could feel drops running down her sides and moisture soaking her blouse by her lower back. She couldn’t be sure if the wetness was hers or the humidity Robbs told her was visible in the air.
‘Okay, Robbs. Let’s hit the road.’
Riding shotgun through the mad traffic of Naples caused Rachel’s heart to palpitate. She thought the New Yorkers were bad drivers. They were nothing compared to the drivers in the city of Naples. Were they even in the city? She thought not. They seemed to be on some sort of highway. Her musings were cut short when the Jeep rounded a bend. She caught her breath at the sight of Naples, laid out before them, like one of those models architects build.
‘So, this is what Keats meant,’ she said.
‘Nothing, Robbs. How long until we get to the Officers’ Club.’
‘Not long. We should be there by quarter after.’
True to his word, they were in the club with Rachel checked in by half-past. ‘You wait here,’ she said.
‘Wait? I’m not following, ma’am.’
‘I’ll be fifteen minutes, then you can bring me to meet the admiral.’
‘Don’t you want a few hours to get over your flight?’
‘Do I look like a slacker to you, JFA Robbs?’
‘And don’t call me ma’am. I’m not your mother.’
‘Look, Robbs, you’re obviously troubled by it. Just call me Welsh, and we’ll get along like a doozy.’