Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,
Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach. “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”
I grin at her, “Periclean?”
“A ‘First Athenian’? More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?” She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.” Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string, “Run him past me again?”
“Kapadopoulos, George. Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”
“Really?” Melissa sounds approving, “Wealthy family?”
“Nope! Beach bum. He married the money, five years ago. His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies. Does it quite well, actually. Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”
“Didn’t she choose well?” Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play; “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”
“Oh, she’s not that young: forty-fifth birthday next week.”
Melissa growls at me, “That girl is not forty-five!”
“No, she isn’t. But that girl is not George’s wife.”
“You see?” Melissa purrs. I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile; “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you? You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you? I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!” She sits up, “Shall I give it a dry run?”
I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope. “No harm in it.”
If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa. Each step in the soft sand is carefully placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze. I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.
It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt. How far have I come? How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa. And where is Jorges now, I reflect? When did we last meet?
Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed. Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.
She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her. “He was watching?”
“Of course!” I reassure her. “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back. He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”
“Is he sizing you up?” She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail. “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”
“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?” (Sorry, my love, but I am curious).
“Jorges?” Melissa sounds surprised. “Why do you ask about Jorges?”
“I haven’t seen him in years. Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”
Melissa gives me a long look, “He gets his ten percent, darling. And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing! Now; business! Our Achilles – is he hooked?”
“I should say so,” I tell her, “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”
Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute. “Who’s the girlfriend?”
I sigh. “Ah! As there are ointments, so there are flies. She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored. She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”
Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply, “Indeed she has. When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”
“Awash with the stuff. In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million. At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”
“Was? What happened?”
“He moved to Italy.”
So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent! I profit hugely from my relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent?
Melissa is asking: “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out? Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”
I would not refuse her: “If you want me to, I’ll try.”
“I don’t. It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling. We’ve done well this summer. It’s time to go home, I think.”
Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever. We perform a very valuable service for the private client. In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.
Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer. With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves. But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers. Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.
We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel. There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach. George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio. They are not of interest.
At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight. Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave: “I’ll be up soon, darling. It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”
The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor. I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.
“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini, “I wonder if you can help me? These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”
This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful. It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,
“Two hours, sweetie;” She says, in a mildly censorious tone, “That’s something of a record, even for you. I take it you decided to override my decision?”
“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,” I reply, emboldened by recent triumph; “In lieu of my ten per cent.” I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket: “I taped the complete transaction.”
Melissa cocks an eyebrow, “How felicitous of you. Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”
“I thought the young lady herself: save her the expense of a marital tiff?”
“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed. She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all. Business comes first. “You’d better pack,” She says. “Be careful in the bathroom.”
I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then. Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself. Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.
“My lord, Mel, what happened? What’s he doing here? I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”
“Very dead, darling. Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me. It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research: your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”
I frown at her, “Where are we going with this? Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”
“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money. All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us. They have been for most of the season, apparently. Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’. Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand. When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”
“So you killed him!”
“What else could I do? Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”
“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now! I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy? She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”
Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me, “It’s all being taken care of.” She says reassuringly, “But for both our sakes, I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now. Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”
“What about you? How will you manage?”
“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you. You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while. At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own. We’ll travel separately. Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London. That’ll be our rendezvous.”
Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue? In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards. She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant. So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out. And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges! I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs. I call out to him; “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”
My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t. Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor. I understand instantly. This is a very serious matter. Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up. Jorges is earning his ten per cent!
A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection. I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there? George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength. In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could. Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously: England is eight hours away. Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur? If so, what does that say about my role?
I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in. The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board. Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble? Have I left her to fate, failed her? Has she, for that matter, left me? Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?
So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank. My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.
I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste. When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.
My taxi delivers me to the door. My key card buzzes me through. Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall. I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end. I step into the salon…
At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted: this is a dream – it must be a dream. To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!
George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.
“You’re dead!” I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice. He must already know. He doesn’t look dead. He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose. His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.
Melissa positively beams. “Darling, did you have a good flight? You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you? This is George.”
George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet. His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand. I take it. It is cold, very cold.
“You must forgive him,” Melissa says; “He hasn’t really recovered yet. He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”
“Hello George,” my tongue is very definitely on autopilot, “How’s your neck?”
George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat. The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt. “Ask away, Sweetie,” She says.
“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him? Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”
She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me. George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly: is his head sitting a little crookedly? “We’ll start with Jorges,” Melissa says, “Because that’s a simple answer. I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead. He’s quite comfortable there.” She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment; “Now I have to tell you a little story. Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.
“I am not as I appear. Does that sound too dramatic?”
“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky. “Explain?”
“I come from a very old family.”
“Ah! I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”
“Close,” Melissa says. “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been. We were nobility; we were owed respect. Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles. This makes us very cautious.”
I have stopped pouring. Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”
“Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile, “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true. But we changed. Yes, we changed.”
I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable. “What changed?”
“Certain appetites,” She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down. It has been a tortuous road. Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”
“And now?” I say, heavily.
“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground. I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges. Science is a wonderful thing.”
“Oh yes! Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now. It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”
I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”
“Completely mortal? Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.” She pats George on the arm. His head turns slowly in her direction; “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”
“Yet you still beat me home?”
“Private transport, shall we call it? Not used often, and not without risk; The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception. Now, about you…”
“What about me? Did you take your percentage out of me? I don’t remember any biting.”
“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses. You even say they make your mouth sore, at times. Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”
“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”
“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie. We seal the wound. Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”
The true horror of what is happening overcomes me. “Stop! Stop, please, my darling! I made one mistake – just one! Don’t push me away! I love you!”
“Oh, now who’s being dramatic? Love? It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good. On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use. I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent. You will enjoy it!”
Melissa squeezes George’s hand, “Meanwhile George, who as we discovered yesterday is also very, very good, is my new recruit. He shall learn from me, and you will teach a new companion your wizardry. You must meet her.”
Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too. In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.
“Hi again!” Lavinia says softly: “No strings this time, huh?”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Picture Credit: Airport – Jeshoots.com
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