tagMind ControlWhatever Gets You through the Night Pt. 03

Whatever Gets You through the Night Pt. 03


"Father wears his Sunday best.
Mother's tired, she needs a rest,
the kids are playing up downstairs.
Sister's sighing in her sleep.
Brother's got a date to keep,
he can't hang around."
-Madness, "Our House"

Georgia Poldouris shouted at her children to clean faster. She dusted a credenza fervently as her younger children picked up toys and her older children picked up laundry.

"Mama," Lady Maria Louisa Francesca de San Finzione said in English to the woman whose oldest son she'd been dating for the past two years. "Great-Grandmama is coming to speak with Stavro." She put away dishes as she spoke. "You don't need to do all this."

"Maria, dear," Georgia explained. "You are not Contessa; you are sometimes Contessa, but not right now. SHE is Contessa! The first time she come by, she surprise us at dinner and she still in wheelchair from psycho. This time, we got warning; so, everybody gonna speak English and this place gonna look nice."

Maria understood that there was no arguing this point and finished with the dishes. When Georgia finished her dusting, she ushered Maria into a kitchen chair and began inspecting her hands.

"What are you doing, Mama?" Maria giggled, having an idea what she was doing.

"Checking you hands. We can't let La Contessa know we got the Princess doing work in here."

Maria laughed, because that's what she thought the older woman might be checking for.

"Great-Grandmama would want to know that I help out, as often as I am here."

A digital chime rang both downstairs in the shop, and upstairs in the family's apartment. From the front of the store, they could both hear Costas, Georgia's husband, greeting La Contessa down below. She pointed at one of the children; she wasn't going to bother cycling through their names just now.

"I tell you to watch for her limo!" She half-whispered to the child.

"She was just around the corner." Maria said. "She walked."

Georgia turned her head at Maria quizzically.

"She walks places?"

"Yes. She has been known to run, too."

While Georgia contemplated this new information. a knock at the door caused her to stuff the feather duster into a drawer as another of her children answered it.

"Mama!" Her daughter shouted from the doorway. "It's La Contessa!"

"That's not how you announce a guest!" Georgia shouted back and rose to her feet as Contessa Helena de San Finzione entered her kitchen. Georgia went to her and shook her hand, because she knew Americans liked that. "Contessa, you look very well. It is an honor to have you again in our home."

"Efharisto, Georgia." Helen replied in Greek. "Your home is lovely. And I thank you for speaking English to accommodate a newcomer's language; however, my best memories of childhood were spent in the company of Greeks, which was part of why I so heartily approved of Maria and Stavro. It was the second language that I learned as a child, and I always enjoy an opportunity to use it."

Georgia leaned out the kitchen door.

"Ok, everybody, back to Greek for La Contessa." She called to the children. She then moved over to the stove and turned a kettle on. "Maria says you like hot cocoa, Contessa. I sent one of the children to the market for some, she should be back soon." She set an ashtray in front of a chair at the table before sitting down.

"Thank you again." Helen said, taking a seat and accepting the unspoken invitation to light up. "You didn't need to do that. And Maria is dating your son, Georgia; Helena will be fine. I certainly hope she's helping out."

"Oh no," Georgia started to lie. "We wouldn't ask that of..."

Maria cut her off.

"I did the dishes."

"She's very good with the dishes, yes." Georgia concluded without missing a beat.

Helen smiled at them. She made a mental note to visit the Poldouris family more often.

"I wish my visit were entirely social." She said with a drag. "However, I'm told that the head of my Citizens' Grievance Office, who's doing a fine job, by the way, has a special matter for my attention."

"I should say so." Georgia replied. "My boy was trying to help. All they had to do is turn around and there's a butcher shop right here. My son could have been shot on the street like an American!" She then remembered where La Contessa was originally from. "Not that all Americans get shot! I mean... you know what I mean."

"He is getting cleaned up." Maria offered before she dug herself any further. "They had him on the ground."

"It's no worry, though." Georgia said. "I get blood out of his clothes all the time, they'll be no problem."

At that point, Stavro entered the kitchen, wearing a suit. He'd combed his hair and shaved as well.

"Stavro," Helen said to him as she turned to see him. "I was just telling your mother that you really don't need to go all out when I stop by."

"Thank you, Contessa." Stavro answered. "But I would be more comfortable handling this in a professional capacity. I am, after all, a citizen with a grievance this day."

Helen nodded at that.

"I'm sure you have the keys to the office if you'd rather speak over there."

"Yes, Contessa, I would prefer this." Stavro answered. Despite dating Maria as long as he had, and being told it was ok numerous times, he still couldn't bring himself to address her by name.

"Ok," Georgia said as the front door opened again. "If La Contessa wants to go there to talk, that's fine. Take the ashtray, I'll have someone run the cocoa over to you. Stavro can bring them home."

"Would you like me to come?" Maria asked. Stavro's answer was to smile and nod that he would. Helen stood up.

The three of them left as the youngest child came up the stairs with a box of cocoa.

* * *

Stavro turned on the lights. The Citizens' Grievance Office was closed for the weekend, and the three of them walked through the silence to his desk. Stavro held chairs for both women before moving behind the desk to sit at his own. A couch sat against one wall, and royal portraits of both Helen and Maria hung on the wall behind him. Desktop photos of Maria and football posters comprised most of the rest of Stavro's office décor.

"Now, then." Stavro said, trying to look as professional as he could. "The business outside: There was a shooting in the neighborhood earlier. A young boy saw a man shoot another man."

Helen nodded and lit another cigarette. Stavro looked around a moment, then produced an ashtray from his desk. Most government employees kept one handy in case La Contessa stopped by.

"I was at the scene when I got Maria's messages." Helen responded. "The man he shot is dead and I knew the victim."

Stavro nodded grimly at the news.

"Then Alfonzo, the boy who saw the shooting, has witnessed a murder. I saw the man who had been chasing him, but then the thing with La Policia happened. By the time I was able to tell anyone, I had forgotten most of the details."

"You probably saved Alfonzo's life, Stavro." Helen replied, taking a drag. "That man was chasing after him BECAUSE he was a witness. He could have done anything if you hadn't arrived."

"That makes it even more important that this man be brought to justice." Stavro added. "If he wanted the boy so badly, he may try again."

Helen nodded at that.

"Children are safe in San Finzione. I'll get Policia protection for the boy." She thought a moment. "If he was that desperate and saw you see him, he might come after you as well. Some protection for you and your family may be needed. I'll take care of that, too."

"If there is a choice," Stavro replied. "I would rather he came for me. If I got that gun from him..."

"Is that your grievance, Stavro?" Helen asked, followed by a long stream of smoke. "When La Policia catch him, if a minute or two alone in an interrogation room with him is what you want; such things can easily be arranged. I can get the Prefect to loan you his nightstick..."

"I am not asking this, Contessa." He thought about it for a moment. "Maybe no stick, just hands. My concern is that I saw the man, even if I cannot recall details."

Stavro hesitated. While he did so, his youngest brother ran over with a cup of cocoa for Helena. She thanked him and took it, then waited for him to leave and turned back to Stavro.

"And there's something else that you didn't want to discuss in front of your mother or the rest of the family." Helen said.

Stavro nodded and resumed.

"I was a teenager when you were crowned, Contessa. I recall the things people said about you and Count Vincenzo, forever does he reign in our hearts. I remember the things that the grown-ups would whisper of La Contessa. Of course, I have gotten to know you since then, and know that most of these stories were untrue. Except for one."

"I know the one you're speaking of, Stavro." Helena answered. "And yes, you're someone who's allowed to know the truth, and I appreciate the discretion. I think I know what you're getting at. Yes, once La Policia's psychiatrists have gotten what they need from Alfonzo and we've caught this guy, I can take away the boy's trauma. Make him forget the experience; like I did for Umiwama back in Uongo."

"That would be nice, too, but that is not what I want, Contessa. I wish for you to use this power on ME, to FORCE me to remember the details. I have seen it done in movies and television; such things are possible with the power you possess."

"And I've seen you do such things, Great-Grandmama." Maria spoke up. "When you and your friends tell stories to each other and you use The Thing to make the listener experience the tale. If Stavro saw something that La Policia can use to catch this man, we have to try."

Helena took another drag as she looked over at the woman who, despite being only six years younger than her, was her great-granddaughter. Vincenzo had done so well for the country and his family that his children and grandchildren became wastrels and fell prey to short lives of having the world handed to them until they choked on it. Maria was the last of his royal bloodline when Helen came into her life. Over a year ago, Helen had been attacked by an assassin and Maria became Contessa-In-Reggenza until she recovered and resumed power. She'd proven more than up to the task, and now often ruled in her great-grandmother's place when needed.

"Nobody's ever asked that before." Helen answered after a moment's thought. "Yes, I can certainly do it. I mean, you're right, the things you saw are still in your mind somewhere, and I can bring them out and make you remember clearly. I'm sure I could get a good police sketch out of it." Helen had another thought and took out her phone. "Actually, I happen to know an artist who's faster and better than any of La Policia's. And her Greek is as good as mine, so there won't be any translation issues." Helen tried to work out the time difference between Seattle and San Finzione in her head. "She can get out of bed for this."

The call was answered, and Helen began speaking English.

"Wake up, Skanky Cow!" Helena shouted into the phone. "Your patron needs some art!" There was a brief pause. "Oh, hey, Troy. Yeah, is she there? Ok, thanks. Hey, Skanky Cow, listen up..."

* * *

After a couple minutes of Helen and Julie trading insults, Stavro sat on the couch. Maria watched from her chair as La Contessa sat next to him and put her phone on speaker, setting it on the coffee table.

"Ready on this end whenever, Helena." The voice of Julie Equals said in Greek out of the speaker from the other side of the world. Julie was also someone who had leave to refer to her as Helen; but having grown up alongside her and also spending her life knowing both the Parker family and the Medinas, she knew which family Helen preferred and agreed strongly enough herself to eventually marry Troy, so she used Helena whenever possible. "Charcoal and sketch pad in hand. Go ahead."

Helen took a deep breath.

"Ok, Stavro." She said, before issuing the command. "Remember the man you saw. Remember him clearly. Describe him."

"He had short, blond hair, parted in the middle." Stavro began to recall for them. "Clean-shaven. His blue eyes had a fury in them."

As he spoke, Julie quickly sketched the man's face. When he finished, Julie took a photo of her work and sent it to Helen.

"I might've made him look too mean." Julie said as Stavro looked at the picture.

"No." Stavro replied. "That is him. I've seen your paintings hanging in the castle, Julie. I knew that your work was great, but this is the man I saw get into the car."

"You were able to give us something on the plate, too." Helen told him, lighting another cigarette. "Just enough to know that the car was a rental, but it's a place to start looking. Shame you're not a car guy, but blue rental gives La Policia something." She forwarded the photo and the other information Stavro gave her to the Prefect.

"I do not recall seeing the license plate."

"No, but you did, so I made you remember it. This is really going to help a lot. I'll pass this along to La Policia. I'm afraid your name is already in their reports, Stavro. I'll get them to remove it; minimize any risk to you and your family."

"Helena," Julie said over the speaker. "That guy's creepy. I mean, drawing his face, I was getting creeped out. You said there's a child involved. I'm worried enough about Stavro with this guy, but a kid, too..."

"I'm arranging Policia protection for them." Helen told her first girlfriend.

"With this guy," Julie replied. "I might see if any Ultimados have some free time as well."

"Not a bad idea. How're the boys?"

"Cute as always. They're downstairs with Troy and Susan. I feel like going down there and seeing them now, too."

Helen and Julie said their usual goodbye insults and ended the call.

"Well," Helena said to Stavro. "You're helping us catch a murderer and you've shown me a way to use The Thing that I hadn't thought of before. I can see this being handy again. Expect something extra in your next paycheck."

"Efharisto, Contessa." He replied. He knew that there was no point in refusing.

"Perikalo," she responded before turning to Maria. "Ramirez brought me to the scene. I said I'd get a ride back up La Collina with you if you don't mind."

Maria nodded and walked over to kiss Stavro.

"I will be back soon." She told him.

"Please do, Cardia Emay."

Helen smiled at the two of them. There were other reasons beyond simply being Greek that she approved of Stavro.

* * *

While Maria was driving her Ferrari California back up the hill, Helen contacted the Tourism Board.

"No!" She told them firmly. "If we start pushing how we're still a safe, fun place for the whole family, the internet and every late-night talk show host is going to be laughing at us; and not in that fun way I appreciate, either." She thought for a moment. "Promoting our night life would be a mistake for the same reason. Tout our natural beauty, instead. Edit together a few old promos about wine country and the beaches being lovely year-round. Mix in some shots of friendly Policia officers helping tourists. Not too many, if we beat them over the head with it, they'll be on us for that, too. Also, take my scenes out of all promos for now. They're too light-hearted for a time like this; feels tacky."

La Contessa's orders given, she ended the conference call. Helen opened her cigarette case. Maria, without taking her eyes off the road, cracked open the passenger-side window for her.

"Was he a friend of yours?" Maria asked.

"I liked the kid. He certainly could have been." She answered, looking out the window at nothing in particular. She then turned to look at Maria. "Fuck, Eliot was younger than you, Maria. He could have been a whole lot of things, and now he'll be none of them."

Maria had no response to that. She nodded and kept driving. After a few moments of silence, she thought of something else.

"You're taking yourself out of the tourism ads." She said, not making it a question. Helen blew smoke out the window before responding.

"I serve two purposes in the ads: Provide a bit of levity and look carefree and hot enough to subtly imply 'Hey, come to San Finzione and La Contessa might very well fuck you. Only one way you'll find out.' It's not a time for either of those."

"I would suppose not. Does this mean that Great-Grandpapa's movie is cancelled?"

"You're the second person to ask me that; and no. We'll have to wait until we can assign another director, but the show will go on." Helen took another drag. "Maybe more of it in the studio now. I thought I'd be ok with all the Nazi stuff in the courtyard if it was for history and the movie. That's the kind of thing you can't be certain on until you're confronted with it." She looked down at the sketch on her phone. "And it won't help that half of the actors at the castle sort of look like this guy. La Policia are up there questioning them now."

"You think someone on the film had something to do with it?" Maria asked. "Or someone wanted his job badly enough to kill him for it?"

"Possibly the first; unlikely on the second. Silverman wasn't the only hopeful young director I met before choosing him. The ones who make it as far as rating time on my calendar? Unless they turn out to be total assholes, are usually good enough that I let them pitch me their idea or they come away with a project I feel is 'more them.' Not a lot of assholes get that far, but none of the ones I met with had that 'You will curse the day you did not do all that the Phantom asked of you' vibe. He was a film geek living his dream; I can't imagine him having any problems with the cast or crew that would escalate to murder. Not without my hearing about it before it got to that point."

"And you are certain that it is not simply a mugging gone wrong?"

Helen flicked the burning part of her cigarette out the window. The ashtray in Maria's car was for coins, not butts. She'd dispose of it back at the castle. Maria kept looking at the road and her mirrors. She'd lost a few family members to sports cars. Drugs, alcohol, or ignorance were major factors at those times, but she was going to take no chances.

"He was shot in the back of the head. Even if you're a mugger who's graduating to murder, you don't shoot them first, then search the dead guy's pockets for money; you make him give you his wallet, THEN you shoot them. This was a straight-up execution..." Helen let that thought lead her to another. "So they hired an executioner for it!" She closed out the picture on her phone and dialed the Prefect.

"Martin," Helen told him when he answered. "That sketch I sent you; I think we're looking for a pro here. Someone who didn't want his face seen badly enough to run after the boy, then bailed when the situation started getting out of control. Check international databases and if you're not doing it already, watch the train stations and airport and alert the Border Guard. He fucked up; if he hasn't gotten on the first plane or train out of here already, he'll go to ground. Then he's got to play Hide & Seek with me in my own country, and he's fucked. I've got someone else I need to send this to."

She ended the call and brought up the picture again. Helen sent it to Generalissimo Ramirez, along with the message "Worth passing along to Luc." When she was finished, Maria spoke.

"Your instructions to the Prefect make me think, Great-Grandmama: Why would this man choose to stay in San Finzione after this? The man he killed was your director, working on your movie. He has done this now. Whoever sent him had to know that you would get involved. Why would he stick around and risk a confrontation with you?"

Helen thought on that.

"He didn't know about the Propappou statues." She told Maria. "Maybe he hasn't heard the rumors about me either. Our best-case scenario is that he's done exactly that, though. That the blue car took him straight to the airport and he got on the next plane out of here. Then it's a matter of waiting for Ramirez's friend to track him down and sending some Ultimados to stuff him into a van and bring him back here so I can have a word with him. Then we just have to deal with the political mess that's to be expected when an American is killed on foreign soil."

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