When I wake up the next morning Joey is already gone. I do not meet him at breakfast but during the first coffee break between talks I catch a glimpse at him, playing around with the keys of his car in front of his minions. I watch him dangle the keys from his crooked fingers and wonder how he drives a car, if he is even allowed to. Probably has a chauffeur anyway. There is a girl among the crowd, laughing hysterically at a joke Joey just made. She is twirling her long dark hair around her fingers, leaning over to whisper something in his ear. Joey lifts his eyebrows and nods, grinning. I hope she will drool on him.
I am exhausted at the end of the day, yesterday’s night taking its toll. I retreat early to my room, planning on going to bed straight away when there is a knock at the door.
It is him. He is leaning against the door frame, one leg as straight as possible, the other bent, one hand casually placed on his cane. It is a ridiculous fashion model, jet black with a silver knob shaped into a dragon’s head.
“So… what are you planning for tonight, Hannah?”
“Reading. Sleeping.” I grab the door tighter. Why did he come here again?
He chuckles, playing with the silver knob of his cane. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I had an apple.” Go away.
“That hardly counts as eating.”
“What do you want, Malloy?”
He pushes away from the door frame, taking a rocking step towards me. I stumble backwards into my room. His walk is much better than yesterday. Also his speech is better. There is only a slight shift in it, a minute stretching of some vowels, barely audible if you do not listen to it carefully.
“Sweet company during dinner?”
I roll my eyes. “Don’t you have enough people you can ask out? What about that girl?”
“Vanessa? Oh please, don’t mention her.” He lowers his voice, making me lean towards him unconsciously. “I just managed to escape her. That chick has been following me the whole day. She is crazy! Camped in front of my hotel room. When I left, I told her I wanted to go to the restrooms and she swallowed it. Can you believe that? In a hotel! Apparently her mother sent her because she wants to join her and my father’s business. What the fuck, man…”
He grins. “Perfect, I’m glad you’re coming.” Turns and leaves, the thump of his cane dull on the carpet.
“Uh… what? Wait!” I follow him out of the room, calling at his swaying back already a few steps down the corridor. “Who said I was coming with you?”
He stops and turns with some halting steps on the spot. “Your rumbling stomach told me that.”
“Come on now, get a jacket. Shoes, if you want.”
I look down myself and… shit, I am wearing pajamas already. The only comfortable outfit I brought to the conference, apparently. I feel my cheeks heat up. “I-I… I am going to change, quickly,” I manage to mumble before fleeing back to my room, closing the door firmly behind myself.
Fifteen minutes later - it took me some time to decide on an outfit and eventually I settled for the black dress I had intended to wear on the conference dinner on the last day of the week - we walk down the corridor and I just want to turn around the corner leading to the lifts when Joey, walking in front of me, abruptly stops and turns, nearly bumping into me.
Instinctively I grab his upper arms to steady him.
“It’s her,” he hisses and surges past me. “Come on, run.”
As it turns out, running in Joey’s case means walking as fast as possible with as much stumbling as possible without actually falling. Somehow during our flight Joey’s left hand latches onto my arm, grip surprisingly strong and we hurry past a few paintings along the wall of another corridor, before Joey pushes me into a corner and pulls one of the heavy curtains next to the windows around us.
His hand is lying hot on my arm and his breath is minty as it puffs against my cheek. We are huddling together behind the curtain, our bodies so close I believe I can feel his heartbeat. His eyes are fixed on mine as we both listen for the muffled sound of footsteps coming closer.
“Joey? Joey, is that you?”
The woman’s voice is unnervingly shrill. Joey presses his face into my shoulder to stifle his laughter, his shoulders shaking.
The woman stops, somewhere close to us and I think I stopped breathing until I hear footsteps again, ebbing away. A few seconds later Joey inhales deeply, laughing out loud as he releases my arm and stumbles away from me. I step out from behind the curtain and join in the laughter, feeling giddy and lightheaded like a small child.
Joey’s blue eyes are sparkling as he presents his bent left arm to me. “Milady…”
Together we walk through the huge entrance hall of the hotel. My hand rests lightly on his arm, I am mindful of his swaying body, careful not to throw him off balance. Red carpet, glittering chandeliers, everything is bathed in golden light. Hotel personnel in neat uniforms is bowing when we pass, a boy younger than me opens one of the huge doors for us, beaming. “Good evening Madame. Mister Malloy, Sir.”
Outside the hotel another uniformed guy presents Joey the keys I have seen before and with a little regret I let go of his arm so that he can take the keys, fumbling before he manages to wrap his fingers around the small object. I follow Joey down the long ramp along the side of the building, at which end his car is already parked. A black Ferrari glimmers menacingly at us.
The uniformed guy has come with us and hurries around me to open the door at the passenger side.
“Get in,” Joey whispers and his hand briefly scrapes my arm as he limps past.
I startle and quickly settle into the car, drawing in the scent of new leather. The guy closes the door and hurries to the other side to open the driver’s door for Joey, too. So apparently he is driving.
Joey’s grin is wide and toothy as he plops down next to me, throws the cane in the barely existing back and helps his legs inside with his hands. The door shuts. “What do you say?”
“W-w-what?” I direct my eyes back to his face.
Joey pats the steering wheel. “My new baby! What do you think about her?”
He snickers and pushes a button at the console. The car’s motor roars to life. “Good, right?”
I nod. I do not care for cars at all.
“So, where do we go?” Joey turns to me.
At last I find my voice again. “I have no idea.”
His grin is even growing. “Okay, then… Call navigation service,” he says in a firm voice. The sound of a phone dialing rings throughout the car and after only one or two seconds a woman’s voice is audible.
“Ferrari navigation service, I am Betty, what can I do for you Mister Malloy?”
It is a real woman, not a machine’s voice.
“Hello Betty,” Joey says, still looking at me while he talks. “I would like to go for dinner.”
“Do you have any preferences? Fish, international-“
“All I care for is a location as beautiful as my company.” He winks at me at that.
I blush. Damn.
“There is a free table at the Castello. It’s inside a castle. A thirty minutes’ drive from where you are right now, Mister Malloy.”
I roll my eyes and mouth ‘Castello… It’s inside a castle’. Joey muffles his laugh behind his forearm.
“Sounds perfect, Betty,” he answers when he has control again.
“I am going to make a reservation for two. The navigation is already set up.”
“Have a lovely evening, Mister Malloy.”
“You too, Betty.”
The voice is gone. I stare at Joey who is still looking at me. “What was that?”
“Navigation service. It comes with the car. Makes it very easy to set up a route.” Joey adjusts the rear mirror, nudging it with his knuckle before looking back to me. “It’s supposed to reduce car accidents due to people fiddling with the navigation system while driving.”
It is also convenient if it would take you ages to type in the destination on a tiny display, I think but do not say it aloud.
Joey tucks a hand into the seat belt and somehow buckles it in on the first try, although it looked like pure luck to me. “Are you ready?”
I nod. Joey releases a switch at a lever next to the steering wheel and places his hands on the wheel, his twisted fingers barely closing around it. The car’s engine roars again before I am pressed into the seat by the force of acceleration. I sit up straighter, alarmed, pulling my small bag on my lap. We are nearing the exit of the parking lot with considerable speed when a voice, mechanic this time, pipes up to tell us to turn to the left. The navigation system.
To my relief the car slows down at the curb, smoothly even so, and I watch Joey out of the corner of my eyes, curious about how he operates it. I cannot see if there are any floor pedals but his long legs are carelessly crammed into the small space below the steering wheel, twisted and unmoving. There is something different with the steering wheel, though. I am pretty sure it is not supposed to look like that.
When the next traffic light slows us down again Joey turns to me and I try to pretend I had not stared.
He chuckles. “It’s an accelerator ring.”
Joey gestures to the steering wheel and I dare to take a closer look. I realize there is a second smaller ring attached to the normal steering wheel, hovering above it. He gently presses the heel of his left hand down on it and the ring moves down a little, too. The car rolls forward at the same time. “Makes it possible to leave my hands on the steering wheel most of the time during driving. Push for brake with this.” He pats the lever to his right and the car comes to a total stop again.
Joey shrugs, chuckling again. “I had to kick some asses before they installed it in here. One car salesman even urged me to buy a Toyota. Can you believe that?”
“I made sure that guy vacuum cleans Toyota cars for the rest of his life. If they did not kick him out, that is.”
“Uh…” Stop that. Whole sentences. At least actual words. “That’s mean.”
The Ferrari shoots forward as the traffic light jumps to green. Joey’s hands lower the ring on the steering wheel further and further as we speed down the dark street. Cypress trees, black against the starry sky, rush past my window. “Well, he was just being an idiot.”
“No, I mean…” I dig my fingernails into the cream colored leather. Man, is he always racing like that? “That was mean of you.”
Joey huffs, amused. “Does it say ‘nice guy’ anywhere here?” He waggles his head. “People believe it does only because I am a gimp.”
I choke on air and cough. “You are not-“
He throws a quick sideway glance to me, eyebrows raised and I clamp my mouth shut. Better not argue while we are apparently training for the Grand Prix.
What can surely never be thirty minutes later, the Ferrari slows down after having climbed a small mountain for the last minutes, Joey taking the turns on full speed, his gnarled hands never slipping on the steering wheel once. The front of an ancient stone building with small turrets is greeting us. I crane my neck to get a glimpse at the beautiful view over the moonlit fields and hills behind it. Light is streaming through the open doors and a sign is clearly indicating that we have reached our destination. The car rolls past the entrance, and accelerates past the first occupied parking spots.
And shoots past a few unoccupied ones.
The automatic voice from the navigation is very politely but firmly asking Joey to turn around but he just presses on the ring and we speed further and further away from the castle, down the mountain again.
Joey slams a hand down on one of the buttons on the board but the voice from the navigation is persevering.
“Shut your mouth you fucking-“
‘Please turn around on the next occasion.’
The car takes a curve with screeching tires.
“Navigation off,” I say, calmly. The voice is gone at once.
I say nothing as we race down the mountain, a vein pulsing on Joey’s temple, even visible from the corner of my eyes. We enter the village that huddles against the mountain on top of which the castle is situated and Joey jams on the brakes in front of the next building with a sign dangling from its roof, tires squealing. The car is parked halfway on the street and halfway on the sidewalk. It does not even have a blue badge, I realize.
“What the fuck, Joey?”
“We are eating here.” Joey grabs his cane from the back, shoving the car door open.
“Are you hungry now or what?”
I narrow my eyes, furious. What a dick.
Joey leans the cane against the open door, manipulates his legs so that his feet are placed on the pavement outside and slides to the edge of the seat. He grabs the edge of the door and pulls, heaving up from the seat with one hand first against the back of the seat then switching to brace himself on the roof of the car. It seems to be difficult for him to push up from the low position of the sports car and he grunts from the effort. I begin to understand now where the thought of the Toyota might have come from.
I am torn between leaving him alone because I do not accept to be treated like that and staying and my stomach makes the decision when a delicious waft reaches me from the open door of the restaurant. I decide to give him a last chance and step out of the car.
Joey is still fuming, storming into the restaurant and snapping at the first waiter unfortunate enough to cross his path. I mouth a ‘sorry’ to the bewildered man when I follow Joey to the table he had pointed out to us. The restaurant is located in an old building, raw bricks and fireplace in the wall. It is also small and crowded. We are lucky there are any free seats at all.
I slip into a chair across from Joey. “What the fuck, Malloy? Keep acting up like that and I am leaving.”
He snorts. “And how do you intend to get back to the hotel?”
“I take a taxi.” I stand again. “And that is exactly what I am doing now.” My patience with Joey has run out. I will not stay any longer in his nasty presence.
He extends an arm as if to grab me and I take a step back, easily avoiding him. “Have a good night, Malloy.”
I walk back towards the exit, ignoring the heads turning towards me.
The urgency in his voice makes me slow down and look back. He is struggling to stand up, using the table top to push himself on his feet. He walks towards me, balance precarious without his cane.
“I am really sorry, okay?” he says in a lower voice when he has reached me. He glowers at the guy sitting on the table next to us, staring. The fat bald man gulps and turns his attention back to his food, trying to hunch down.
“Maybe you could let me know what is going on?” I hiss.
He brushes a hand across my folded arms. “Of course. Come back to the table, please.”
I sigh. He leads the way to the table, once using the back of a chair for balance.
We sit down again. I watch him, wordlessly, waiting for an explanation. Joey dips his head back to look at the ceiling, rolling his shoulders as if to relieve tension before looking back to me. “That restaurant… the Castello… there were stairs at the front. That’s why I did not stop there.”
Joey slowly picks up the fork, weighing it in his hand. “A whole flight.”
I continue to frown. “And you can’t go up stairs?”
Joey places the fork back on the white linen sheet and meets my eyes. His expression is unreadable. “I don’t do stairs.”
“So all this…” I wave my hand at nothing specific. “…because you don’t want to get up some stairs?”
He nods, his jaw set.
“Jesus… What if they had a side entrance with a ramp? Or an elevator?”
“What if they had not?”
I decide to leave it be. He is too stubborn with this subject to argue with.
I watch him reading the menu with his brows still furrowed; his knuckles white around the paper. I smile a little.
“What are you laughing at?” He is not even looking up.
“You are laughing at me? I am Jonathan Malloy junior and a cripple and you have the nerve to laugh at me?” The edges of his lips are quivering.
“Also you look like a puppy that has lost his favorite plaything.”
Finally he breaks down, chuckling adorably. He puts the menu back on the table. “They don’t have my favorite Chianti.”
“What a pity.”
“Yes, you cannot drink that one from that year, it’s disgusting.”
“They probably had the right one up there.” I nod towards the direction of the castle.
He shrugs and glowers at me. “Probably.”
Joey orders pizza, already cut, and eats it with his hands. I suspect it is easier than handling fork and knife but I do not know. I do not remember having seen him eating ever. I have a delicious plate of pasta frutti di mare, tiny seafood that melts on my tongue and tastes like heaven.
The wine we end up drinking is the best I have ever tasted. It is no Chianti and I am kind of relieved by that. I have had too many bad ones to ever trust one again, I fear. I have one glass, after a glance on the price, and Joey half a glass, since he intends to drive us back again. Turns out, Joey is good company, funny and clever and I wonder if this refreshing sarcastic man is the same that showed off with his keys in front of most of the audience on the conference this morning.
Restaurants in this area at this time of year close early, we find out. Most of the customers have already left when we decide to take the hint from the waiter and pay. Of course I am not fast enough and Joey covers for my bill, too. His bank account might not even notice, I remind myself as I follow him outside.
It has rained while we have been inside the restaurant, the streets are wet and the air is cold. Joey limps past me and opens the passenger door for me. It takes some time because he slips off the wet handle but finally he manages and exaggeratedly bows when I step past him to sit.
The drive back is as insane as the one to the restaurant had been, but maybe it is the different atmosphere in the car or I just got used to it, I feel myself relaxing into the padded car seats as we race down the narrow streets.
Short time later I am about to get out of the elevator at my floor when Joey’s hand on my shoulder holds me back, gently. I turn to look into those stunning eyes.
“It’s still early.”
I swallow. “I am tired, Joey.” As I speak it I start to realize how really exhausted I am. Still I am not getting out, transfixed by the frozen blue.
The doors have closed again and the elevator jolts when it continues its climb upwards. Joey’s grip on my shoulder intensifies and he stabs his cane into the floor behind me for balance. His face is close to mine. I can taste the wine on my tongue. This would be the perfect moment-
The elevator comes to a halt again and Joey briefly squeezes my shoulder before his hand falls away.
“Good night, Hannah. I very much enjoyed your company.”
He exits, the sound of his cane muffled as soon as he reaches the carpet.
The doors close on his smiling face, half turned back towards me.
--> Part III
--> Part III