Excerpt from Roma Underground

The cell phone was ringing again.
    The light crept white and warm through the high balcony doors, across the gray marble flooring, up the sides of the walls, and almost intentionally focused on the recumbent form alone in the bed big enough for two. She twisted in a shroud of sheets as the telephone chirped again.
     “Leave me alone.”
    But she was pulled into that familiar haze of half-waking, still tired from the overnight trip, the July heat. Back home she could sleep through most sounds, but in a different country she never would’ve imagined that a phone would sound so different.
    It stopped and she sighed. “Thank God.”
    The laziness called her back to sleep, enveloped her after she relaxed into a long stretch. She smiled to herself with thoughts of how she might spend the day. It felt like a day for curling up with a good book or a film. Or better, pampering herself with a self-made spa treatment, remaining half-naked in her nightshirt if—
    The phone interrupted again.
    She snapped up the micro-thin mobile from the nightstand. “Pronto!”
    “What is it, Dante?” She brushed her hair back with her hand as she watched the drapes billow in a small breeze, the gauzy material providing a barrier from the punishing sunlight.
    “Thought I’d call to ask if you had plans for today.”
    She tried not to sound annoyed, but she couldn’t help it. “You’ve been persistent with your calling.”
    “What do you mean? I just called . . . this instant.”
    Even half-awake, she could hear him translating in his head when his Italian brain meant adesso or ‘now’. She could also hear either hurt or confusion in his voice.
    “Sorry, woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
    “Well, the little hand is on eleven and the big hand is walking to- wards twelve, Bianca.”
    She laughed. Dante, unlike some Italians she had met, didn’t brood over minor matters or perceived insults. He just went on as if nothing had happened.
     “You want a date, don’t you?” she said. “Only if Lady Bianca would be so gracious to grant me one.” She felt his smile through the phone. “I don’t know. I’m quite tired. I returned from Milan late last night after a shopping binge. The train ride with no air conditioning left me drained.”
    “Ah, yes, soldi season. You’re a determined huntress to go by train. Four hours is a long ride when you could’ve shopped here in Rome. What did you capture that was not local to our woods?”
    “Shoes, Via della Spiga, and Corso Buenos Aires, of course.”
    “I would’ve been flattered if you said you visited the shops on Via Dante and thought of me, but I’ll stay modest, as always. So how about I take you on a special adventure and treat you to a late lunch?”
    She hesitated for a moment. But what the hell, she was up anyway. She had no book in mind, and she always wasted far too much time in deciding on a movie. Besides, she was intrigued by what Dante might consider an adventure. “Uh, what do you have in mind? I’m concerned about the heat and what to wear. I want to be comfortable today.”
    “Uh, don’t worry about the heat so much.”
    So, it will be someplace cool. “Ah, you have a romantic date in mind. Perhaps Bagnaia?” She was sure that he was thinking of taking Via Cassia to Viterbo to spend the day in that small town. Dante had mentioned the town’s medieval center, the città di dentro, the last time they had lunch together. A tour of dark, old Romanesque churches would be pleasantly cool.
    “No. I’m thinking something far older than medieval. You decide: clean or dirty?”
    “Excuse me?”
    “Where we go is your choice: clean or dirty? Pick one,” he said with a dry tone.
    This was . . . unexpected. They had been seeing one another for a month-and-a-half or so, but the relationship hadn’t yet gotten terribly physical. She had not felt quite ready for intimacy, and Dante, flying in the face of the Italian stereotype, had not pushed. “Okay, naughty boy, I will disappoint you and say ‘clean.’ Where do we meet?”
    “Near the Domus Aurea in an hour? This sounds good to you?” He knew she lived in an apartment not far from Hotel Diocleziano, and it was within walking distance, or by fast taxi with time to spare if she didn’t fuss.
    “Sounds like a plan. Ciao.”
    She snapped the phone closed and dropped back in the bed for a moment. Dante had said that he had called her only once that morning. So where did the earlier plague of calls come from? Bianca took all the necessary measures to make sure that her cell was unlisted—only Dante had the number, and giving it to him had been a monumental decision. Even though he knew whereabouts she lived, she had never had him over to the apartment.
    She opened the phone and toggled through the Italian version of CALLER ID HISTORY; she saw numerous calls identified as UNKNOWN or BLOCKED. She verified Dante’s call: ten-thirty am.
    How had this happened? Bianca refrained from giving out her residential details to retailers and acquaintances. Bianca had no phone in the apartment. She received no postal mail except for the quarterly utility bills that she paid in cash at various kiosks throughout the city.
    It was time to get rid of the SIM card. Someone had found her. Someone who knew that Bianca was not Bianca.

Roma, Underground
COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Gabriel Valjan
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing