Our contact at the airport was named Berto, and he held his “Renee and John” sign like it stunk of bad eggs and old banana peels. Within a few minutes of disembarking we were winding through the night-blackened streets of Palermo. Berto didn’t like talking, even though Tiberon kept on trying to joke with him. I kept wishing I knew any form of Italian or Sicilian; after Tiberon joked a little Berto said something under his breath, and I really wanted to know if it was insulting or not.
I kept nodding off. The road wasn’t exactly the smoothest in the world, though, so my head lolled back and forth, first towards the tinted window, then towards Tiberon’s shoulder. I don’t even know how long it took us to get to our destination or how we got inside. I vaguely remember hearing someone welcome us, and my voice thanking him for his hospitality, but the next thing I knew I was hearing birds and waking up in a less-than-comfortable twin bed in a room painted pink.
“You’re up,” Tiberon grunted from the other bed. He was leaning over, lacing his boots. The bed protested his weight as he sat up straight. “Figured I’d let you sleep. You talk a lot.”
I ducked my head and felt my face flush. Sometimes I talk in my sleep, especially when I am really exhausted. The thought of what I may have said made me incredibly uncomfortable. Tiberon grinned at me.
“Don’t look so nervous; I put the pillow ‘round my head. Better get dressed, though. Our host wants to have breakfast in ten minutes.”
I slipped on a pair of skinny jeans and tucked them into my boots, then stared at my bed for a minute, trying to decide what kind of weapon I was going to bring in with me. I had my gun and a couple of knives. I picked up a little switchblade that fit in my pocket and bounced it in my hand a couple of times. Really I wanted my gun, a sweet little 9mm. But I’d have to wear a jacket to cover it up, and it was pretty hot outside. The breeze coming in the window smelled of the ocean, but it also smelled like baked sunscreen.
And then it occurred to me that we weren’t here to do anything nasty. We were just picking up a package. So, logically, it might be considered rude to carry weapons in the house. Dropping the blade back into the bottom of my bag, I zipped it shut and shoved it under the bed. Adjusting my white tank top, I tossed my hair and left everything in the room.
A group of men was waiting for me in the dining room. I was barely a minute early, and Tiberon looked pointedly at his watch before grinning at me and tossing his head towards a guy sitting at the head of the table at the other end of the room.
He was older, maybe in his 40s or 50s, with slick black hair and a pristine pinstripe suit. I instantly felt underdressed, especially as I realized that even Tiberon was wearing a suit jacket stretched over his enormous shoulders. I didn’t even know they made things like that in his size.
But there wasn’t much I could do about it. I just lifted my chin and stood next to my partner, looking everybody in the eye. The men were whispering to one another, and they looked back at me with faces that looked not a little uncertain.
I looked up at Tiberon, nudging him with my elbow. “They’re looking at us all funny,” I whispered. He nodded.
“Afraid,” he said. I raised my eyebrows. The Mafia was afraid of us? What? Why? Before I could whisper anything else, however, the boss spoke.
“My American friends,” he said, standing. He was taller than I thought, though still shorter than me. “I hope you have slept well.” Tiberon looked at me, raising his eyebrows in surprise. The boss’s accent was very nearly perfectly British, with just a touch of the soft Italian vowels. “Please be seated. Eat with me.” He extended his arm over the table, and as if on cue a slender woman with perfectly coiffed hair came out of the corner and led Tiberon and me to places at the left and right of the boss.
“Thank you for seeing us,” Tiberon said with an unfamiliar tone of respect. I stared at him from across the table, feeling like something either really terrible or really fun was about to happen. Adrenaline was dancing in my veins, making my hands shake. I busied them putting a napkin in my lap, trying to cover up the nerves.
Several women appeared carrying covered dishes which, I was surprised to see, were filled with scrambled eggs, toast, carved ham, and many kinds of bread and jams. Coffee was poured into mugs all over, and I was offered hot chocolate, too. Tiberon caught my eye. They were serving us American food, and it was weird.
We ate in silence for about fifteen minutes before the boss spoke again, wiping his mouth with a napkin before leaning back into his chair.
“The girl is in her room,” he said. “We do not interact with her.” Several of the men nodded and began murmuring to one another. The women in the room stayed silent, but they were all watching me, like I was supposed to say something. So I did.
“Why not?” I asked. The men stared at me. “What? Do you all leave your children locked in their rooms?” It was a very bold thing to say, but as the only seated woman, I figured it was a now or never sort of deal for proving I could handle myself. The boss shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and I felt no small ego boost that it was because of me.
“She is dangerous,” he said.
Tiberon put his fork carefully on his plate. “What do you mean, ‘dangerous’?” Just by looking at him I knew we were both thinking about those twelve little pills in my jeans pocket. They were still there. Again, the man shifted, but this time he tossed his napkin on his plate, stood, and motioned for us to follow him.
He walked slowly through a door that led to a long corridor. We turned several times and walked up a staircase before he stopped at the end of a wide hall and stood aside for us. There was a key in the door, and as I reached for it, the boss’s face became terrified. He crossed himself and backed away down the hallway, his staccato steps swiftly vanishing around the corner.
“Got your gun?” Tiberon asked me as I began to turn the key in the lock. I shook my head.
“You?” He held out his empty hands.
“If we die I’m gonna kill you,” he said. I laughed humorlessly. The key clicked. I pulled it out and stuffed it in my pocket. Our breathing was loud even though we had only walked there. There was no sound coming out of the room. Nothing. When I swallowed I glanced up because I was sure Tiberon had heard me gulp. Clearing my throat, I placed my hand on the knob.
It turned easily, and the door opened without a touch from either of us. I gaped. Tiberon gaped. We exchanged looks and gaped some more.
We were on the seashore. Quickly I thought back to where in the house we were. We had to be at least three stories up. A beach does not belong in a bedroom.
“Oh, hello,” said a little girl. She had black hair and black eyes and she appeared out of nowhere. “Can I help you with something?”
“I…We came to take you with us,” I said. She spoke like such an adult it threw me off big time. I instinctively reached for my gun, which wasn’t there, and in that moment I realized that I was wearing a bikini. “Uh, Tiberon?” He looked at me, tried to say something, and started choking. He was dressed in a pair of blue swim trunks, and there was a pair of goggles around his neck.
“Are you alright?” the girl asked. “Don’t you like the beach?” I blinked, unable to respond, and when my eyes opened a millisecond later, we were standing on top of a grassy knoll in the mountains. I was wearing a red dress, and Tiberon had a picnic basket on his arm.
“Stop it,” I said. My voice sounded pleading and pathetic, but I couldn’t help it. The girl grinned impishly.
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I’m having fun.” The scene changed again, and we were in Time Square.
“Stop!” I yelled. I jumped for her, but she leaped out of my reach, floating just above the ground. I mean, literally. She was floating, and her black eyes reflected the lights of the neon signs, and I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been more terrified.
Tiberon was standing, frozen and mute, just inside the threshold of the door. The little girl looked at him and started laughing.
“Your friend is silly,” she said, pointing at him. “He doesn’t know what to do.”
“Please stop,” I said. “We’re not here to hurt you. We’re just taking you to America.”
She dropped to the floor, surprised. “America?”
“New York, then west,” I said. “I don’t know why.” She shrugged.
“My mother named me Tristessa. You may call me Tessa,” she said.
“Tristessa?” I asked. It sounded vaguely French, but in her young voice it sounded strange.
“’Sadness’," she said, giving me the definition. The illusion around us melted away, and our feet were soon on the solid wood of a small bedroom with floral wallpaper.