Mudlark Flash No. 103 (2016)

Michael Cadnum
The Empire of Desire

When the sun came up it added another layer
of concrete to the heat. The jackdaws went quiet,
and the town dried to the essential
swallow-pocked walls, the white towers
and the ancient torture-cells
festooned with postcards and 
audio-tour earphones while the a.m.
shadows were still deep.
I dressed in that silk double-breasted,

and donned the oxfords with the butter-leather soles,
the ones that tended to slip on the cobblestones,
but I had so much to prove:
that the facelift was worth all
the long hours staring at the stained ceiling,
and that the nagging cough
brought on by state-monopoly
tobacco would not hack me to pieces.
In those days I ferried secrets,

bank accounts and blackmail,
dusky gossip and randy anecdote
uploaded to gigabytes,
taking the water-plane from Malta to that
pretty beach hotel with its view of package tour drunks.
For a year or two I adopted the pose
of one of those glamorous but louche
hangers-on, studying my neckwear
in the mirror, the abundant
out-of-fashion pastels that hid the scars,

all the while believing that the younger
neo-jet-set women escaping business school
or their first hubbies would fall for a bruised cadger of
drinks and love-bites. Crash-landing
became my specialty, wheels-up
rescues of problems I helped
to create, seducer of the all-too-easy,
liar by phone to those age-addled dads,

crooner by Skype to the bill-paying moms.
I memorized rococo painters,
and slipped in and out of quayside bars
where the others like me flicked
glances and smiles, exchanger of 
tiny packets of vowels and dedication
for another night of sweat-bath clarity.
They all knew me by nick-names,

Zip, Smoke, I who kept anything but
quiet when the anti-terrorist ministry-
of-culture dicks ordered us 
to turn in our passports. It was a trap,
I realized, and touch-to-touch
told them all I knew. The casualties
after the wharf-side riot—I identified
the body-bagged rebels. And my
talents flowered. I even translated
the ancient erotica with such accuracy
pilfered copies were hand-to-hand.
I stole down the snaking Quattrocento
ghetto stairway and slipped
a further note in disguised cursive

to another mistress of all she’ll
never understand, eager
to breathe her tales she’ll believe
are rankest invention, but despite my
fake accent all too true.  

Life looked so easy
from that port of stray
scholars, cages of brilliant conures
shrilling poetry. Every tide was glassy
in the hot, overcast summers,
and vessels edged-in from the expanse
beyond the breakwater laden with
brave tales and spools of linen.
The authorities gradually went through
the mere rituals of harm. Yellow quarantine flags
fluttered and the customs men wore
masks to filter the complaints, setting

trays of disinfectant where the shaky
passengers disembarked, but the cops
waved to the stevedores and ate
lunch in the shade of the wine warehouses alongside
the hotel touts and the evangelical
scarecrows. Among these
towering hulls and tossing feluccas I
picked up what I could,
exchanging packets of smuggled wonders

in the back streets. It was all back-street
then, the bedevilment yet years away,
and nothing wicked happened among the vats
of crabs boiling to red claws and cod
soaking soft. But the annihilation, too, 
was yet to come. The agency sent its 
gofers down to find me, and I faked them out,
hiding from betting shop to tavern,
although they always caught up with me
where the jetty crooked to meet the land
stretching down from the sleeping peak.
That was where the shrines were improvised,

the thorn trees festooned with supplications,
the piles of small stones, each inscribed
with a beloved name. It was all sport
in those days, make-believe warnings,
coupons for free movies. I even
responded to a pollster on the avenue,
clipboard in her grasp, that yes,
I was satisfied with my happiness.
Until that season arrived,
all sun, cordage baking
to stiff shapes on the pier. A new breed
of detective drifted down out of the doorways,
using a new variety of manacle,

a whisper around each wrist,
trivial but deadly.
The cops asked, and asked again, 
but the swallows vanished, no stuttering wings
in the sunset. And credit was all at once free,
so long as I told them where

I lay my head at night, every
pinch of ennui-kill, every vial of 
peaceful noon shoved across the counter
for the asking, as long as they took my name
and took my name to the tall
buildings. And the songs
dried up among the freighters,
conversation finished, laughter stunned,
water from the wells tasting of
stale mouths, fetid lies,
the silence to come.

The heat again,
and the fishing fleet vanishing,
sweeping outward beyond
the blue razor of sky.
The villa was always half-fortress,
half-summer hideaway,
even in the days when ambassadors
eased up the travertine stairways,
and liveried nuncios unbuttoned in the nooks.
Now it’s all for rent, and
the statues are long since all beaten nose-less, 

clobbered by vandals during the military coup.
Now I can lounge against the wall
where the bullet holes scarred the golden plaster,
patriots and spies put down under the lost years.
Each volume in the library is handsomely scored
with ancient, unfamiliar languages,
and the TV is an antique rabbit-ear disclosing
baritones and game shows, 
reality shows dubbed into the local high-grammar.
When I step out of the shade,

the sounds of the sheep bells capture me.
The trail the shepherd has followed
since history stitches up along the hillside
behind the villa. In this modern season
of sunny tyranny, anti-terrorist cops
and long sweaty nights,
I enjoy the wine of the vineyards beyond
the ruined temple of Athena,
and edge my way through
email downloaded from the southeast
quadrant of the blue.
In recent years, I adopted a weary lassitude,
an anticipatory melancholy,

above caring, but here a new mood steals over me,
as the shadows of smash-mouth
Caesars creep across the pea-gravel—
this is very much like peace, this
well-ordered indolence.
My neighbors cock furtive
smiles at each other, nearly ashamed to be
caught up in such peaceful
splendor while the sea
skims its wreckage, another
ship lost with all hands.  
Somewhere between the meeting months ago 

with the bank manager with the lapis
Waterman and last night’s puddle of birth-slick kittens 
the tabby bore in my armoire,
I was bought off. They’re wise
who call it a cut. I fell in love. The senior cop
stapled a pink notice to the lintel, just slightly harming
the architecture, and now even the taciturn
postman on his creaking bike tips his hat.
The gardener brings me armloads of figs,
baskets of ruddy pears, and the doyenne
of hummingbirds across the inlet sends her motor launch
with invitations for late-night bubbly,
and this and my new pudginess
encourage me (I look better with

a dab of avoirdupois, says the mirror)
to practice the new manner
of speaking, eyes half-closed
as though in pleasure, lips
parted as though in joy, head
to one side as though thinking as I
feel hourly in fact more lost to any
further deceit. And live.

Michael Cadnum is the author of thirty-five books, including the National Book Award finalist The Book of the Lion. Several of Cadnum's books have been released as audio books by Audible, and Open Road has published e-book editions of many of his classic thrillers. He lives in Albany, California.

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