Extract from Avalon:
The Return of King Arthur

 

THE LOW RED CAR SKIDDED to a halt on the dusty driveway outside the whitewashed villa. The driver unfolded himself from behind the wheel, stepped out, and cast a lingering, if bleary, glance down the lush hillside at the red tile rooftops and pale-blue swimming pools of Madeira's elite.

Above the quiet tick of the cooling engine and the warm sea breeze rustling the dry palm fronds, Teddy imagined he could almost make out the clink of ice in crystal glasses and the twittering voices of the buffed-and-polished hostesses below as the evening's social fandango began anew.

Reaching back into the car, he withdrew a nearly empty bottle of Old Bushels, unscrewed the cap, drained it, and flung the empty bottle into the overgrown garden surrounding the sprawling house. He then turned and walked to the front door and pushed it open. "Cozu!" he shouted as he stumbled into the cool marble-faced foyer.

There came the quick slap of tennis shoes on the stone, and a small, sallow-faced Portuguese man in an oversized white jacket appeared in the arched doorway leading into the rambling interior of the house.

"Good h'evening, sir," replied the manservant in heavily accented English. "I trust sir has had a pleasant day."

"Tolerable, Cozu. Tolerable." Teddy took a lurching step towards the stairway. The servant quickly closed the door behind him. "The sea was a bit rough beyond the point so we stayed this side of the headland. Anything come for us today?"

"The package you were h'expecting arrived this morning, sir. I have placed it on the desk in your study."

"Brilliant," he shucked off his pale yellow windbreaker and pushed it at his servant. He looked up at the wrought iron sconces on the stuccoed walls and th e scrollwork balustrade along the upper gallery. Overpriced tack, he thought, not that he'd ever noticed before. Then again, he was seeing a lot of things he'd never really seen before. "Any calls?"

"Two phone calls, sir. As requested, I have allowed the machine to answer. Miss Vierta rang to say that sir is staying in the town tonight. Yot are welcome to join her for a late dinner at her apartment."

"And the other?"

"It was the gentleman from the Foreign office again—most insistent. I left both messages on the answering machine."

Teddy nodded, "I'm going to take a shower" He belched and took hold of the banister as if to haul himself up the stairs hand over hand.

"Will sir be dining out this h'evening?"

"No sir will not be dining out. Sir is bloody knackered. Have cook send up a tray. Bring me a bottle of champers—something decent for a change." He started plodding up the stairs. "Oh, and bring the package to my room."

"Certainly, sir."

Teddy dragged himself up the curving stairway and paused at the door of his room, listening. How empty the place seemed when Theresa was out. He shrugged and ambled into the spacious, high-ceilinged room, threw off his robes and stalked naked into the bathroom where he rook a long, hot shower, emerging twenty minutes later in his favorite old white terry cloth bathrobe.

Relaxed and much revived, he drifted back into his bedroom to see that Cozu had already been and gone. His dirty clothes had been removed, and a clean white shirt and khakis were laid out for the evening. The balcony doors were open and the glass and aluminum table prepared with a gleaming white cloth. There was a sweating bucket beside the table, a crystal champagne flute on a tray in the center, and a large parcel wrapped in brown paper to one side.

Padding barefoot onto the balcony, Teddy seized the dark green bottle from the ice bucket and glanced approvingly at the pale yellow-gold label as he poured his first glass. He collapsed into his chair, propped his feet on the railing and, raising his glass to the empty air, said, "Here's to Mister Moet and Mister Chandon!" He thew back his head and drank deeply, savouring the icy bite of the bubbles on his tongue. "Ah! Many thanks, chaps."

Tossing down the rest of the glass, he quickly poured another; this one he nursed, watching the last of the sunset as the colors faded into deepening shades of gray and blue out over the bay. The air was warm and perfumed with the sweetly intoxicating scent of wild gardenia. Below him, among the palms and bougainvillaea, the lights of the stylish villas and verandas of Funchal were beginning to glimmer. The diamond-spangled hostesses were, he imagined, wheeling out the hors d'oeuvres and dishing up the first juicy tidbits of what passed for society gossip.

He poured another glass of champagne, and felt the familiar glow rising from stomach to head. "Where has that blasted Cozu got to?" he murmured.

As if in answer to the question, the servant knocked on the door and backed into the room carrying a covered tray. He stepped silently around the table, placed the tray on the table, and made to retreive the parcel. "Leave it," said Teddy whereupon the manservant busied himself with the dishes. "Don't bother," Teddy told him. "I'll help myself when I'm ready."

"Of course, sir." The butler straightened. 'Will sir require anything else?"

"No Cozu, sir does not require anything else but to be left bloody alone."

"Very good, sir." The servant inclined his head, bade his employer good night, and departed, pulling the door shut after him.

When he had gone Teddy took the cover off the tray and picked up a slice of cold smoked salmon with his fingers. He dangled it above his mouth, dropped it in, and chewed thoughtfully. He slid another slice of salmon onto a triangle of buttered brown bread, took a bite, and washed it down with icy charnpagne.

Then, taking up the parcel, he walked back into the bedroom placed it on the bed, and unwrapped it. Under the plain paper was a simple box of white cardboard. Teddy opened the box to see a handsome facsimile of England's royal crown, and a white envelope. Ignoring the envelope, he took the crown out of the box and studied it more closely. The Star of Africa was zirconium, of course, and the crown itself was gold-plated, but the trimming was real ermine, and the red velvet hand sewn. To the untutored eye, it looked for all the world like the real thing. It ought to, he thought, it had cost enough.

Teddy lifted the crown and balanced it on his head. The weight of the piece made his head sightly wobbly—that and three glasses of champagne. Steadying himself, he picked up his drink and walked to the mirror in the bathroom; he rubbed the steam from the glass with his sleeve, let his robe drop to the floor, then stood back to regard himself.

Beneath the crown was a ruddy-faced, balding man with a receding hairline, a bulbous nose, and a wattled neck turling to jowls; but his gray eyes looked out from under low, even brows, his teeth were straight and his skin nicely tannaed from many idle days on his boat. Turning sideways, he sucked in his stomach and slapped his belly three times with a satisfied grunt. All in all, not bid for fifty-eight years, he decided.

He took another gulp of champagne and sauntered back into the bedroom, pausing at his desk to tap a button on the answering machine. There was a beep; a woman's voice drifted airily into the room. "Teddy, where are you?" she spoke rapidly, her English lightly spiced with a Portuguese lilt. "I haven't seen you for days, darling. I meant to come up, but Amanda is in town and I promised to have a drink with her. But do come down, my sweet.We'll have a late supper, just us two. I've got a bottle of your favorite brandy. Okay?" There came the sound of a doorbell on the tape. "That's Amanda. Gotta run. Kisses. Bye."

"You mean Armando, don't you love?" He tapped the button again, and another voice came on—a man's voice this time. It greeted him coolly and identified itself as representing the Foreign Office, whereupon Teddy jabbed a second button to cut it off. "Bastards," he muttered; he had heard it all before.

As the machine rearmed its digital memory, Teddy dropped his hand to the center drawer of his desk pulled it open, and took out a brown wooden box. He wandered back onto the balcony, set the box on the table, and drained his glass. He stood for a time, clutching the empty glass and staring out into the gathering darkness.

Coming to himself once more, he retrieved the bottle from the bucket and ceremoniously emptied the remains of the bottle into his glass, spiling most of it over the tablecloth. He then turned and heaved the empty bottle over the balcony. from the satisfying crash that followed, he guessed he had hit his new Alpha Romeo Spider in the driveway below.

"C'est la vie," he mumured, and sucked at the rim of his overflowing glass.

He sit down heavily, sloshing champagne onto his bare thighs. Setting hid glass carefully on the table, he brushed at the liquid and then took up the wooden box and placed it on his knees. He stared at the box for a moment, then opened it and withderw the small, silverplated British service revolver.

He hefted the gun in his hand, turned it, and peered at the cylinder to make sure that each chamber contained a bullet. He transferred the revolver to his left hand and took up his glass with the right.

"To England!" he growled, knocking back the champagne in a single gulp. "Bloody England."

He gazed unhappily at the empty gass, then hurled that, too, over the balcony. Reaching up, he straightened his crown. Then, pressing the muzzle of the revolver tightly against his left temple, he gently squeezed trigger and blew away the right side of his head.