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Rated: E · Short Story · Drama · #2309069
A woman hosts an evening with expected and unexpected guests.
An Evening in Venice

with a Mandolin

The soft, haunting notes of an Italian love song drifted from the balcony where Amanda Lynn sat in the fading light of a Venetian sunset, serenading the narrow cobbled street below. Standing beside the chair, Anna Prentice watched attentively, noting the movement of Amanda's slender fingers and her controlled, delicate caressing of the strings.
But all was not perfect on this balmy evening. Below the balcony, dressed in black, the sinister figure of Anna Sassin crouched amongst the bushes and waited. Sometime tonight, her target would be making an appearance.
Amanda paused in her playing. Anna Prentice glanced across the street where a billboard on the wall of the facing building announced a musical variety show to be held this coming Saturday night. According to the billboard, the show supported the United Nations Human Rights Convention to be held in the city the following week.
"You're involved with the organisation of that convention, aren't you, Amanda?" Anna asked, pointing at the billboard.
"Yes, I am. I invited the guests of honour, three American Senators, to attend the convention, and I'll be helping them enjoy their stay in our city. They'll be here later this evening if you'd like to meet them."
"Oh, that would be marvellous. Yes, I'd like that. Are you playing in the variety show as well?"
"I'm taking part, but only as a support musician. Have you heard of our headline act?"
"The opera star, Barbara Seville? Of course!"
"Well, there are many excellent performers in the line-up. I'm sure I could get you a seat if you're interested."
"Oh, thank you, Amanda. I would be interested. I love a musical variety show!"
"I have a programme somewhere...." Amanda searched among some papers on the table. "Ah, here it is." She handed it to Anna. "Now... I think it's cool enough to open a bottle of wine. I'll get some glasses."
Anna accepted the programme eagerly. Barbara Seville's name featured at the top, but scanning down, she read that the show would also be introducing a new American singer who was already a star in Japan and rapidly gaining popularity in many other countries - a young and raw sensation named Carrie Oakey. Anna had read about Carrie in the newspaper. Critics were divided over the merits of this new arrival on the music scene, who had a reputation for involving the audience in her act. Some thought the quality of her performance was unpredictable, but others felt an instant attraction.
Anna let her eyes fall further down the list of performers. She was finding it difficult to read in the gloom, but just then, the balcony lights came on, and she blinked in the sudden brightness.
The show did indeed promise a wide variety of talent. There would be comic interludes by Laura Lynn Hardy, who had recently appeared on television and was loved for her slapstick humour. Anna didn't know the next performer. She was described in the programme as 'the sultry Arabian temptress, Kay Sirah Sirah', who, it was stated, would be singing her latest hit song 'Unknown Future'.
The line-up was definitely impressive.
Her reading was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
"I'll get it," called Anna. She replaced the programme on the table and went to answer the door.
Amanda returned with glasses in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. She placed the items on the table and stepped to the balcony railing, breathing in the evening air and staring out over the city lights, oblivious to the danger below.
"Someone to see you, Amanda." Anna's voice came from behind her. "She says she's an old friend."
Amanda turned and recognised the face immediately. "Heidi Clare! - I haven't seen you for a very long time." She regarded the handsome young man who was standing beside Heidi.
"Who's your friend?" she asked.
The young man stepped forward. "Howie Doohan," he said and held out his hand.
Amanda clasped it warmly. "Nice to meet you, Howie," she smiled.
Anna left the balcony, returning immediately with two more glasses, which she filled from the wine bottle. Amanda nodded her approval. "This is Anna Prentice, my pupil," she explained.
"Enchanted, Miss Prentice," said Howie, who was always happy to meet new people. Heidi waved hello.
To Anna, Amanda said: "Heidi and I were at college together. We've known each other for...."
"Don't you dare complete that sentence," said Heidi sternly. They both laughed.
Under the balcony, Anna Sassin cursed the new arrivals. These were not the people she was expecting. She drew her cape tightly about her shoulders and settled in to wait for the departure of the intruders. If her target arrived while these people were still here, she would just have to improvise.
"I hope you don't mind us just showing up - it's a little late," apologised Heidi.
"It's not late at all. I'm delighted to see you. Please sit down. Have some wine." Amanda gestured towards the table and chairs.
"So, Heidi..." said Amanda, as they arranged themselves around the table, "...you must bring me up to date. It's been a while. Has anything interesting been happening to you lately?"
"Well, actually, it has. Amanda, you wouldn't believe it, but just last night, I accidentally locked myself outside on the balcony of my hotel room. I thought I was going to be there all night!"
"How terrible. How did you get down?"
"Luckily, a friend of mine was close by. He helped me climb down. Do you know Duane Pipe?"
"Yes, I know Duane - I seem to see him everywhere. Did he just happen to be in the vicinity? That was lucky."
"Yes, actually he was close to the building."
"What an experience. So, what happened then?"
"Well, I think you know Ella Vader, the concierge at the hotel? She's been there for years."
"Yes, of course."
Heidi smiled across the table at Anna and Howie. "Amanda knows everyone!"
Anna nodded. "She certainly does."
"Well," said Heidi. "Ella was in the lobby and she took me back to my room."
"That was kind of her. She's lovely, but I heard she has some type of dementia. Is that right? So sad."
"Yes, it's true, unfortunately. She just wanders from floor to floor all day. Never leaves the hotel. They all tolerate her there, though. She still helps the guests when she can."
"That's good to hear."
Amanda passed a glass of wine to Heidi, who sipped at it before placing it on the table.
"Now, tell me about yourself, Amanda. I think the last time we saw each other was at the Go-Go Gondola nightclub, wasn't it? I remember I went home in the early morning hours but you were still going strong. Who was that man you were with? Dan someone, wasn't it?"
Amanda groaned. "Every time I went out with Dan, we never got home before dawn."
"Are you still seeing him?"
"No. He could certainly dance, and he never seemed to tire, but unfortunately that was all he had going for him."
"Oh, I see. I don't remember his surname?"
"Dan Knight."
"Yes, that's right. What attracted you to him in the first place, then?"
"Silly really, but he had the same middle name as my father's name - Saul."
"Ah, yes. Dan Saul Knight. Pity. I thought he was cute."
Amanda turned to Howie. "How about you, Howie. Are you just visiting Venice? And is that a Scottish accent?"
"No, Irish," said Howie. 'And yes, I'm just visiting." He didn't seem to want to elaborate.
"Howie's a soldier, just returned from Afghanistan," explained Heidi. "He's on extended leave. Is it OK if I tell them why, Howie?"
Howie nodded and Heidi continued: "Howie was captured by the Taliban when he was on a patrol. Luckily, he escaped and made it back to his lines. But it was a close thing, and he was given recuperation leave. Our families know each other. I thought Venice would be a good place for him to have a break."
"Oh my gosh, that must have been awful," exclaimed Anna. "What happened?" She hesitated, "...unless you'd rather not talk about it?"
"No, that's OK," said Howie. "There's nothing much to tell, really. I was captured with two other men, and we were thrown into a bare room with a dirt floor. Luckily, one of the men, an Englishman by the name of Doug Witherspoon, was a very resourceful chap. Turned out he knew a lot about tunnelling, and he had us out of there before midnight."
"What about the other man?" asked Anna, hanging on his every word.
"Him! He was no use at all. He was a liability, in fact. A Liverpudlian, he was, named Lew Scannon. He was hopeless. The number of times he nearly got us caught on the way back to our lines...." Howie sighed and shook his head.
"That must have been awful," said Anna.
The mood needed a lift. "Let's have some more wine," Amanda said. "Howie, would you like some?"
"Yes, thank you," said Howie, brightening. "You know, the Reverend at the church we attended today said he knew you, Miss Lynn."
"Call me Amanda, please. What's the Reverend's name?"
"Reverend Hannity."
"Oh yes, of course I know him, but I know his daughter Kristy better."
"Yes," said Heidi, "everyone knows Kristy, especially within church circles."
She took a sip of her wine.
"Now, Amanda. The reason I came over was to see you, of course, but also to ask if you were going to the college reunion?"
"Oh, that's being held here this year, isn't it? In Venice."
"Yes. So, you can't skip it like you did last year."
"Well, of course I'll go. It'll be great to see some old faces again. I wonder if I'll recognise everybody."
"That's always a problem. Do you know..." Heidi leaned forward. "At last year's reunion, I watched a girl for ages, trying to figure out if she was who I thought she was. Unfortunately, as time went by, she became more and more tipsy, so in the end I decided to march up to her, and I said straight out: 'Are you Norma Leigh Lucid?' Heidi laughed. "Turned out she was!"
Amanda joined in her laughter, as did Anna and Howie.
"Heidi..." asked Amanda, when the laughter had died, "...who was that guy who used to jump out at us from behind a tree and do unexpected things all the time?"
"Oh, you mean Oliver Sutton."
"Yes, that's right. Was he there last year?"
"Yes, he was, but unfortunately he won't be at the reunion this year."
"Why ever not?"
"Didn't you hear? He died. Very unexpectedly. A heart attack, I think."
"Oh, what a shame. I liked him, even though he was very quirky."
"I went to his funeral," Heidi said. "I saw Aretha Flowers there. They were good friends. Do you remember her?"
"Yes, I do. How was she?"
"She was like a breath of fresh air - really brightened the place up. Quite beautiful, as usual."
"She always dressed so colourfully. Gosh, it's good to remember these old names," said Amanda. She looked at Anna and Howie. "I hope we're not boring you?"
"Of course not," said Howie. "It's good to hear old friends reminiscing." Anna nodded her agreement.
Amanda smiled. "Anna, I have a cheeseboard in the refrigerator that I made up for when the Senators arrive. Could you select something for our current guests?"
"Of course," said Anna and went inside.
"Senators?" asked Heidi.
Amanda explained about the Human Rights Convention and the variety show.
"I have the honour of entertaining the Senators tonight. Nothing fancy. They just wanted to see how normal people live in Venice."
"Why did you invite these three, in particular, to the convention?" asked Heidi.
"They each have a long-term interest in Human Rights, and I felt their sincerity the moment I met them."
Anna arrived back carrying a plate displaying an arrangement of cheeses, breads, and dips.
"Perfect, thank you," said Amanda.
"Actually, there was someone else at the funeral you would know." Heidi placed a piece of cheese in her mouth. "If I just said - 'Never give a sucker an even chance'...."
Amanda looked puzzled for a moment, then her face brightened. "Helen!"
"Got it in one!" said Heidi, smiling broadly. "She's CEO of an insurance company now. What's their catchphrase? Oh yes: 'Want your claim settled fast? - go to Helen Waite!'"
"She was always so businesslike. Didn't she get the award for Miss No Personality?"
"She did. That was on our graduation night. She didn't take the joke well. She really didn't have a good night that night. Remember? Helen thought she'd get the Economics prize for her elaborate get-rich projects, but she didn't have a chance - not against the wonder kid of our Economics class. Do you know who I'm referring to? I'll give you two guesses."
"I only need one guess. That would be Lois. Oh... what was her second name?"
"Oh yes, that's right, Lois Price. She always seemed to make the most profit on every assignment. It was uncanny."
"She always did. And she obviously carried her economic know-how into the real world. At last year's reunion she wore a mink coat. A mink! I couldn't believe it."
The doorbell rang. Amanda glanced at her watch.
"That'll be the Senators. I didn't realise time had gone so fast." She rested her hand on Heidi's arm and smiled. "When you're having fun...."
Heidi stood up. "We'll leave and let you...."
"No, please stay," said Amanda, waving her back into her seat. "There's room enough. I'll just get more chairs. The Senators wanted to experience a normal household in Venice, and surprise visits by old friends are a welcome part of my household."
Howie said: "Anna, if you'll show me where to get some extra chairs, I'll be glad to help you."
"Thank you, Howie," said Amanda, "And some more wine too, please. I'll let our distinguished guests in." She turned apologetically to Heidi. "Not that you're not distinguished, Heidi...." She smiled. "I won't be a moment."
Heidi was left alone on the balcony. The sun had set and the night air was warm and still. She heard a rustling beneath the balcony and rose to look over the rail, peering into the darkness. She saw only shadows. She waited a moment, but the rustling was not repeated, so she returned to her seat just as Howie and Anna appeared carrying chairs.
Anna Sassin slowly relaxed. That had been close. She willed herself to remain still until the time came.
Amanda returned, leading a group of people onto the balcony.
"Welcome, Senators," she said. "We need some introductions, I think."
A grey-haired lady stepped forward. "Allow me," she said. "...as I am by far the most advanced in years."
She indicated the woman on her left. "This is Senator Reitz."
"Call me Sybil," Senator Reitz said.
The woman's hand moved to the next person. "Senator Predd-Judas." She paused and added with a smile: "Rachel."
"And I am Senator Slaves." She gave a bow of her head. "Behind Rachel is our Italian aide, Nancy Anne Cianci, and, I hope you don't mind, I also invited the couple behind her who are old friends of mine. We met many years ago on the island of Bali-Ha'i in the South Pacific, Sam and Janet Evening."
What an unusual surname, Amanda thought.
"A warm welcome to you all," she said, "and thank you, Senator Slaves...."
"Freda, please."
"Freda," acknowledged Amanda. She extended a hand toward Heidi. "Speaking of old friends, this is an old friend of mine, Heidi Clare. We've just caught up after several months...."
There was a shout from under the balcony and running footsteps, followed by the noise of a struggle. Nancy moved quickly, gathering the Senators and herding them from the balcony into the apartment. There were more muffled cries from below. Howie stood protectively in front of Amanda, Heidi, and Anna. A voice called out - someone giving orders. There were more footsteps on the cobblestones, then silence.
Anna gave a small cry and grasped Howie's arm when there was a loud pounding on the door, followed by the doorbell ringing. A female voice called: "Police! Amanda, open the door, please."
"That's Laura's voice," said Amanda. She ran to the door and opened it.
A woman in uniform entered.
"This is our local police chief, Inspector Norder," Amanda told the others.
"Senators... and Amanda..." Laura said. "Please excuse this intrusion and the interruption to your evening." She took a breath. "Allow me to explain. My section was detailed to provide security for your visit, Senators, and, all going well, you should never have known we were here. We've been watching a certain young lady for some time. She's a known activist. When we saw her hide below your balcony, Amanda, we knew she was planning something against your guests, the Senators, but we couldn't move before she showed her hand."
"Has she been there all evening?" asked Amanda, astonished, "...while we were chatting a few feet above her."
"I'm afraid so, but she was under surveillance the whole time. She's been arrested and we have her secured. The situation is now contained."
"Thank you, Laura. Well done. That's a relief."
Laura nodded to Amanda and the Senators and left, closing the door behind her.
Amanda took a deep breath. "Ladies and Gentlemen, it seems the excitement is over, and we can now continue our evening - if everyone has recovered."
She turned to Anna. "Anna, could you and Howie fetch more wine and the rest of the cheeseboard, and we can all return to the balcony to enjoy the night air, hopefully without further interruption."
Senator Slaves sat down beside Amanda. "We were hoping to enjoy a 'normal' evening in Venice. If this is what you call normal, Lord help us."
"Lord Ellpuss?" said Amanda. "I think I know him."

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