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Authors: Winston Graham

Greek Fire

BOOK: Greek Fire
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Contents
Winston Graham
Greek Fire

Winston Mawdsley Graham OBE was an English novelist, best known for the series of historical novels about the Poldarks. Graham was born in Manchester in 1908, but moved to Perranporth, Cornwall when he was seventeen. His first novel,
The House with the Stained Glass Windows
was published in 1933. His first ‘Poldark' novel,
Ross Poldark
, was published in 1945, and was followed by eleven further titles, the last of which,
Bella Poldark
, came out in 2002. The novels were set in Cornwall, especially in and around Perranporth, where Graham spent much of his life, and were made into a BBC television series in the 1970s. It was so successful that vicars moved or cancelled church services rather than try to hold them when Poldark was showing.

Aside from the Poldark series, Graham's most successful work was
Marnie
, a thriller which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1964. Hitchcock had originally hoped that Grace Kelly would return to films to play the lead and she had agreed in principle, but the plan failed when the principality of Monaco realised that the heroine was a thief and sexually repressed. The leads were eventually taken by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Five of Graham's other books were filmed, including
The Walking Stick
,
Night Without Stars
and
Take My Life
. Graham wrote a history of the Spanish Armadas and an historical novel,
The Grove of Eagles
, based in that period. He was also an accomplished writer of suspense novels. His autobiography,
Memoirs of a Private Man
, was published by Macmillan in 2003. He had completed work on it just weeks before he died. Graham was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1983 was honoured with the OBE.

Chapter One

The Little Jockey was not much more than a converted cellar. Vanbrugh found it at the second attempt, down an alley just out of reach of the seedy lights of Ommonia Square. But here twenty yards was enough to pace out a thousand years—from hissing trolley-buses and neon lights and chattering crowds, past two doorways, a Greek and a Turkish, past a garbage can with its lid aslant like a mandarin's hat, across a gutter half choked by the mud of yesterday's rain, to an arched entrance and twelve stone steps cut before Charlemagne, rubbed smooth and treacherous and leading down into the dark. At the bottom an attendant dressed like an Evzone took his coat and pulled aside a curtain to see him down a second flight to the main room.

The place was about two-thirds full, but they found him a table in a good position in a sort of upper cellar which formed a terrace on a higher level. Eight or ten tables up here led to six break-ankle steps and a larger domed cellar where there were more tables and room for dancing. The walls were of rough stone and inclined to sweat; curtained arches led to service quarters; and lights from candles in old glass lamp-holders lit up the statuary which stood defensively in recesses: two tired Byzantine madonnas, a stray apostle lacking an ear, St. Francis with a lamb.

The newcomer waved away a couple of the house girls who drifted across to help him with the bottle in the bucket, but when a tall Lithuanian Jewess stopped by and said, “Amerikani?” and slipped into the seat opposite, he raised no objection, and a waiter hovering near quickly put another glass on the table.

Vanbrugh was the sort of man you wouldn't notice in the street: he could have been twenty-five or forty, and his tight rather craggy face, his deep-set, pale-eyed inner containment made no substantial first impression. He didn't talk to the girl, but she re-filled his glass once or twice, and her own with it, and when she stretched forward a hand for his package of cigarettes he absent-mindedly shook one out for her and lit a match with his thumb-nail.

At a table in a corner was a middle-aged stout man in a black alpaca suit, with a fluff of untidy beard worn like a bonnet string under his chin. Vanbrugh frowned as at an uneasy memory. The fat man was eating; he was the only person so occupied; he paused now and then to brush crumbs from his shiny shabby suit, and with a sort of sham gentility he raised the back of his hand to hide a belch; once a piece of shell fish slid out of his mouth and hung like mucus from his beard; his companion, a tall youth with a narrow nose and a girlish mouth, watched him with bright malicious eyes.

The orchestra of four were perched in an odd wire balcony to the left of the steps like canaries in a cage. They were playing a western dance rhythm, and half a dozen couples moved like sleepwalkers about the dance floor. Beside the band was a fair copy in bronze of the third century
B
.
C
.
L
ITTLE
J
OCKEY WHICH GAVE THE CLUB ITS NAME
.

“Who is that man, d'you know?” Vanbrugh said to the girl opposite him. “ The fat man eating at the table in the corner.”

“Who? That one? No. I have never seen him before.”

“I have. But it doesn't matter.”

“You know Greece, honey?” she said.

“A little.”

“I am quite new here. You must tell me.”

“Where are you from?”

“Memel.”

“It's a long way to come.”

“I travel light. And you?”

He said: “I'm far from home too.”

The band had stopped and the dancers were dispersing. Two couples climbed the steps and took seats at a table nearby—wealthy young Greeks, both men handsome but running to fat, one girl ordinary, the other a beauty.

Vanbrugh eyed her through his smoke-screen. Her raven black hair was caught together with a diamond clasp at the back; ivory profile with a slender, almost too slender, nose, eyes lit with exceptional brilliance; the classic conception of beauty—by Byron out of Polyclitus—but all on a twentieth century basis, from the peach finger-nails holding the long amber cigarette-holder to the brilliant worldly-wise smile.

With that sixth sense that women have, she soon knew she was being looked at, and her gaze moved to Vanbrugh's table, took in the thin undernourished-looking American, the cheap girl, the waiter changing the bottle in the bucket. A glimmer of amused civilised contempt showed in her eyes before she turned away.

“How long have you been here?” Vanbrugh said to his companion.

“Eight weeks, honey.”

“What's this new cabaret you have?”

“The three Tolosas? They are Spaniards. They dance like all Spaniards.”

“This their first week?”

“Last week was their first week. They come from Paris. They have been good for business. Before that we had singers from Macedonia. It was very awful.”

“When does the cabaret come on?”

“Almost any time now. Like to dance, honey, before it begins?”

“Thanks no, if you'll excuse me.”

“You are not very bright, are you?”

“Maybe there's someone else who'd dance with you.”

“Does that mean you want to get rid of me?”

The fat Greek had stopped eating to draw breath, and he took his handkerchief from the corner of his collar and wiped it across his mouth. His heavy glance seemed to linger on Vanbrugh's table. Vanbrugh said: “No, stay if you'd like to.”

“The floor show's just beginning.”

One by one the candles were blown out, and shadows fell on the company like a secret retinue of waiters. Towering wine barrels and weather-born statuettes were sucked up into the darkness, and light played on the circular dance floor.

Vanbrugh said: “D'you happen to know—maybe you won't—but d'you happen to know the name of the girl on the next table but one—the girl with her hair in that diamond clasp?”

“I tell you, honey, I know no one. We do not see the same faces often. Ah, but that one … Stonaris, isn't that her name? Anya Stonaris. I have seen her photo in the weekly papers.”

Her voice was drowned by the clash of cymbals. Four girls in traditional Spanish costume came out and performed a Flamenco, to the clicking of castanets and the vehement stamping of their feet, while in the back-ground a thin lithe man dressed like a matador crouched before a harp and touched it in a casual way from time to time with his hands. The first thing Gene Vanbrugh noticed about him was that he was in a sweat of fear.

When the girls went off, dragging perfunctory applause after them, the thin Spaniard stayed where he was, his short nervous fingers barely touching the strings. Once he raised his bloodshot eyes to sweep them in a quick semi-circle, meeting the darkness and the waiting faces.

“Who is she?” said Vanbrugh. “ What does she do?”

“Who?”

“This—Anya Stonaris.”

His companion shrugged. “Who knows? That one with her—that man—is called Manos. He is a politician. He has been here often before, but then he has come alone.…”

A woman stepped through the curtains on to the dance floor. She was young, about twenty-two, and fat, twelve stone or more, and short, not over five feet. The broad nose and thick flattened lips weren't negroid, not even Moorish. She was pure Spanish. Hands on hips, in perfect ease and confidence, she sang a comic song in a harsh broken powerful voice.

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