Matala : A Novel

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-02-10
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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Darcy Arlen, a beautiful young American, is dangerously bored. Though she's on a very pricey tour of Europe, she's already sick of museums and ruins, and eager for distraction. After slipping away from the group one afternoon, she meets Will, an attractive young drifter who carries about him the scent of true adventure.Will invites Darcy back to the hostel where he's been staying and introduces her to Justine, his darkly seductive lover and mentor. Justine, a master of the con, senses a grand opportunity in this amenable blonde. She and Will manage to turn things so that Darcy not only accompanies them to Venice, but finances the trip as well. There they meet Maurice, a shady figure who offers them a job smuggling an important package to Greece.As the threesome travels across Europe toward the island of Crete, what unfolds is an astonishing tale of shifting alliances and shocking betrayals, of sexual obsession and mercenary enterprise, of conflicting passions and fateful choices. When the adventurers finally reach the village of Matala with the package in hand, they learn that what they have delivered is more valuable, and the repercussions of their involvement more terrifying, than they ever could have imagined.Endlessly surprising and altogether riveting,Matalais an unforgettable novel about the intersection of love and ruthlessness.



On a chilly sunny December afternoon, Darcy Arlen slipped down Via della Conciliazione, away from the Hotel Abitazione, and slid her hands into her coat pockets. Across the river, she turned south and settled into a quick, steady walk. The headiness of her solitude -- stolen while her roommate, Rhonda, was in the shower and the tour guide, Mrs. Abignale, napped -- carried her onward into the city. The group was leaving soon for another of the great ruins, the Baths of Caracalla, but Darcy was already tired of ruins and museums and history, and this was only the second city of the seven they were to visit on this month-and-a-half-long tour, a combined birthday and finally-you-graduated-from-high-school-and-only-six-months-late gift from her parents. She knew now she should have expected this.

At first she stayed close to the river so as not to come too near the monuments and ruins in the center of the old city. The embankments of the Tiber curved west and then east again, bringing her close to the Circus Maximus, but once past that, she cut into the city, onto streets she'd never seen. She loved just being in this place, breathing this ancient air.

For a long time she followed the wide Via Ostiense, past the monolithic Cathedral of Saint Paul, until she finally came into a part of the city that was not for tourists: the real city, office towers and high terraced apartment buildings, where real people, Italians, worked and shopped and didn't have to pretend to like speaking English.

She rested on a bench in a small corner park where two young children squatted on the hard-packed dirt, pitching seeds to the pigeons clustered about them. An older woman, their grandmother she guessed, sat nearby. It felt good to sit and breathe. It felt good to be here alone. The titillation of her rebellion, her sneaking off, the tingling it brought to the soles of her feet and her fingers had of course worn away by now, but not the self-satisfaction. She knew it was really out of any proportion to the mildness of the act. It wasn't as if she'd stood up to anyone and said something, as if she'd told Mrs. Abignale, the tour director, to get stuffed because she was almost worse than Darcy's mother, and that was really saying something. It wasn't as if she'd said anything to anyone. Still, sitting there with all these Italians who weren't even looking at her, as if she were just another part of this world, a regular person, she felt, well, contented. And tired. And a little chilly now.

She bought some sticky dates from a street vendor and wandered north again. Later, near the Ostia Station, she gave most of them to a filthy woman begging with her filthier child. She came upon the Vialle Marco Polo and, thinking it ran vaguely in the direction of the hotel, followed it. Now the afternoon was growing thin, the light coming from lower in the sky, and the streets had fallen into shadow.

Her legs ached and her lips stuck to her teeth. She felt a sheen, a membrane of perspiration, coating all of her body. It was a long way back. She imagined having a quiet dinner somewhere, away from the group, maybe with Rhonda if she wasn't sulking too hard at Darcy's having left without her, and then settling into the deep bed and reading herself to sleep. In the morning, early, they would leave for Florence. She passed through a square with a pyramid in it, and the Vialle Marco Polo became the Via Marmorata. She pulled her coat around her and shivered, but ahead now she could see the river. It cheered her. She'd cross it, she decided, see how she felt, and maybe then find a taxi.

On the bridge, which was nearly empty of pedestrians, a young man leaned over the stone parapet, looking into the water. He wore stained work boots, ripped jeans, and a Carhartt work jacket. As she passed him, he glanced at her. Her momentum carried her past even as she drew a sharp breath when the shock of incongruous recognition made her dizzy. From where did she know him? Which life? Which world?

She'd noticed before, when she had traveled to new or foreign places with her parents, that sometimes a face made her look again, startled her with its familiarity. It was never anyone she knew, of course, and she often couldn't even name who she once knew that the face resembled. It was just the mind playing tricks with the broad familiarity that one pocket of humanity bore to another. Perhaps that was this, she thought. It must be. But she stopped in the middle of the bridge over the Tiber on that clear late December afternoon and told herself that this time she was almost certain.

She walked back and stood beside him so that the sleeve of her coat brushed his. He continued to stare down, as if he were watching something particular. She peered over.

"It's just that it's mesmerizing," he said in perfect American.

"Every bit of it," she answered.

He turned to look at her. He had very dark eyes and nearly blond hair that fell across his forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But you look familiar."

He nodded. "I get that."

"No. I know you. I'm sure of it."

He looked back at the water. He said, "You don't know me."

"I think we went to the same high school."

"Did we?"

"Ulysses County, Ohio. Indian Bend?"

He turned around and leaned back against the parapet now, his elbows cocked behind him, and looked across the bridge and down the river toward the failing sun. He smiled. He was several years ahead of her if he was really who she was thinking of, a senior, class of '84, when she started her freshman year. She'd never spoken to him. He'd be twenty-two or three now, but he looked as if he'd been traveling for a long time. The solitude and the dust of the miles had worn him. It was no longer the face of a cute teenage boy-man. It had become, she thought, one of the most startling faces she'd ever seen.

"Old Indian Bend High. There's a place you don't go around thinking about."

"I don't remember your name," she confessed. "I mean -- we didn't know each other. I just remember -- I'm Darcy."

"Will," he said. "Call me Will."

It didn't sound like the name of the boy she remembered.

Still without looking at her, he said, "It turns out that wherever you go in the world, of all the Americans you meet, half will be from Ohio. It's some kind of weird natural law."

"Is that true?"

He looked at her then, and she felt something shift and give way. Perhaps, it occurred to her, this was what she'd been waiting for.

"I don't know," he answered. "Do you believe it?"

"I don't know," she said. "I'm just really thirsty."

Some time later, after they'd eaten, they walked in the deep dusk north along the river.

"Where do you stay?" she asked him.

"At the Olympic Village."


"They were here in '60."

"I knew that."

"And now one of the dorms is a hostel."


"It even has a bar. Just beer and wine, but what the hey."

She said she'd never heard of a hostel with a bar, but then she'd never actually stayed in one.

"Best party in Rome. You should come up. Get off the tour for a while. It's not very far from here."

"We leave in the morning."

"Then come tonight. I can at least buy you a couple beers."

"That sounds sooo good. But they -- Mrs. Abignale got us all tickets to the opera.Le Nozze di Figaro."

"Oh, that one."

She laughed. "I'd rather come with you," she said. "I'd love to. A real birthday party."

"So come."

On Via della Conciliazione the traffic was dense and close, and the exhaust fumes did not smell like the exhaust fumes in other places. The crowds parted and rushed around them, and the air was so clear, the world so sharp, that she felt for a moment she could see her future in it.

Then the wine and the food and the fatigue swirled together. She tottered and gripped his arms. He put his hands on her sides to steady her, and when she rested her head against his shoulder, she could smell him, the mingled odors of sweat and wine and the faint remnants of something she could not identify, some strange boy scent. She could feel his wrists pressing against the lateral swell of her breasts.

She raised her face suddenly then and kissed him. When they kissed again, she put her arms around his neck and held on as if it meant something. She felt as if she were falling, with all the attendant dangers and fears, but she did not care. This was life. This was Europe. Not some dried-out corpse she was forced to pick over, but a real warmth. Life.

"Forget it," she said so close to his ear that she could feel her breath against him.

"You're not coming?"

"No. I mean the opera. Forget that."


"Why not?"

He said, "Is it really your birthday?"



"Me and Rome."

"You really want to come? It's not that far."

"I do. I should check in, though."

He looked disappointed now -- as if this were her dodge, as if he were certain that once she got back into her warm room or the clutches of Mrs. Abignale, she would not come out again.

"I just -- " She turned and pointed at the hotel. "I'd like to get cleaned up. Change and stuff."

"Sure," he said.

"I'd have to tell them, you know -- "

"Right. Okay. Well -- "

"Later, then?"

"Whatever. The invitation's open. I'll be there. Cab'll know where it is."

"You don't think I'm coming, do you?"


He almost looked relieved.


"Okay what?"

"We'll just see."

"I guess we will."

"Bye then. For now."

He smiled. She could feel him watching her run toward the soft, pretty light that spilled out between the heavy draperies of the lobby of the Hotel Abitazione.

Mrs. Abignale, who was five-two and had an absurdly wide mouth and hair almost exactly the color of Mercurochrome, was by the front desk when Darcy went in. The woman had obviously been waiting there for her for some time and was as red in the face from perturbation as Darcy was from the eating and drinking and walking and kissing she'd done.

Mrs. Abignale almost jumped in the air. "Darcy," she said. "You just have time. They're still serving dinner..."

"I already ate," Darcy informed her.

Mrs. Abignale stopped for a full second, her great mouth dangling open, then recovered and said, "You have to get ready. We need to be on the bus in an hour. One hour." The opera. Just the thought of it made Darcy cramp. As she walked past, Mrs. Abignale added, "Please don't do this again."

"Do what?"

"It's my responsibility to keep track of everyone, and if you all decide to go wandering away..."



Darcy said, "But I'm not your responsibility." She wasn't arguing, really. She didn't mean it to sound argumentative -- just factual.

"You certainly are."

"I certainly..." Darcy felt her face grow even redder.

"Dear, no one's saying you can't go for a walk. But you're part of a group, and you just need to let me know where you are and when you'll be back. Basic courtesy."

"Miss?" It was the clerk behind the counter. He held a folded sheet of paper.

"Oh, yes, you got a call," said Mrs. Abignale as Darcy went over. "Your parents." When Darcy gave her a look of "How do you know that?" she hurried on. "I spoke with them. Or, rather, they asked to speak with me. They were concerned when no one knew where you were."

"And how are the old folks?"

"Fine, I take it. Darcy...they said they called to wish you a happy birthday. Why didn't you say anything? I could -- "

"I didn't want to say anything. I just wanted to go for a walk."

"Well," Mrs. Abignale said, "all right then. Let's just hurry on."

In the room it was Rhonda's turn to bitch, but she just flounced at first, not speaking at all. She huffed and hummed and jammed some weird cookies into her mouth. If the girl would just limit it to meals, Darcy had thought when they first started rooming together, she'd drop fifty pounds in a month. Finally, when Rhonda was suitably fortified, she said, "So. Have fun?"

"I just went for a walk, Rhonda."

"For five hours?"

"And I had dinner."


Darcy looked at her. "What'd you do?"

"Nothing. We went to these stupid caves, then just came back here. I think Abignale needed a nap."

"Why didn't you go out then?"

"I did. I went biscuit shopping."

Darcy had just gotten out of the shower and was finishing toweling off before the mirror when the phone rang.

Rhonda said, "You know who that is. They've been calling all stupid afternoon."

Darcy wrapped a towel around her hair and answered on the fourth ring.

"Hi, Mommy. Daddy." Daddy wouldn't say much, but she knew he was there on the extension. She then held the phone a good foot away from her ear, at which distance her mother's voice, a high, nasally trumpet of a thing, was still easily audible, or at least certain of the more heavily stressed words were.

"...were you?" Darcy heard.

She brought the phone to her mouth to speak. "I had a date. And I'm going out again. How about that? Pretty amazing, huh? And on my birthday."

Phone away. "...date?"

Phone in. "Someone I went to high school with."


"We just happened to run into each other and had dinner. He's asked me out tonight.... Yeah, he's on a tour, too. A hotel not far from this one."


"Well, I'm sure they can carry it off without me there."

"...payingfor this...hateAmericans..."

"Yes, I know. I'm careful."


"I can't hear you very well, Mommy. I'm meeting him at his hotel. I should really go. Thanks for calling!"

She set the phone down and finished drying her hair. Even with the rubbing of the towel she could hear the voice blaring on for at least a full minute before it was finally silenced.

Copyright © 2007 by Craig Holden

Excerpted from Matala: A Novel by Craig Holden
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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