An Excerpt from The Road of a Thousand Tigers _ Tel Aviv
Holt swam. He swam out into the sea and took in a deep breath. He dived into the deep blue, feeling his tired body find its second wind. When his lungs felt close to bursting he ascended regulating his exhalations. He drifted on the surface. The sun baked his skin. The salt seeped into his pores. He forgot Paris. He thought about Marianne. His spine began to uncoil from the relentless hours of travel. To his left the millennium-old port of Jaffa bustled with sailing boats. Ahead, the modern concrete and Bauhaus white of Tel Aviv city shone like bone. The azure sky went on for eternity. The beach was dotted with splashes of colour; beach umbrellas, patterned sun loungers. A tanned teenage boy raked the sand and tossed detritus into a sack slung over his shoulder. Standing beside Holt’s discarded suit stood Lev Rusev. Rusev raised his arm beckoning him. Holt allowed the tide to nudge him to the shallows and he swam the last few yards. He waded out, the Mediterranean breeze drying him.
Rusev was eating ice-cream from a tub. He had another in his hand. He handed it to Holt. A little wooden spoon drifted in the melted gelato. It cooled Holt’s salty mouth. Holt could see his reflection in Rusev’s sunglasses. The bruising and swelling had gone down. The eyes were still black and tired looking. He took the glasses off Rusev and put them on.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Like a movie star. Like Bela Lugosi,” said Rusev. His English was heavily accented. It had an ursine timbre.
“That bad?” said Holt.
Rusev nodded. His shock of grey curls spouted beneath his panama hat. He stared out at the sea,
“From here, we are just twenty minutes from Egyptian bombers,” he said.
He held his hat above his head as a shade and studied the cloudless sky. His hair was receding at the crown. He reminded Holt of Harpo Marx. He handed Holt a rented vivid green towel from a white shack further down the beach. The shack sold ice-cream too. Holt dressed in his old suit. He felt better now after his flight and drive from Lydda. He had a battered suitcase with a variety of laundered veteran’s hand-me-downs. They felt apt. A half-mile walk from the airport had led to the listening station. It had once been a British army barracks. The listening station then confirmed his arrival with Paris and London. He was handed an address and a code-word typed out on a slip of paper. He memorised both and burned the strip in an ashtray. Rusev arrived in a little white Italian car. On the main highway they had passed Ottoman domed police stations, a solitary modern telephone box, orchards and nut-brown girls in combat fatigues with their caps tilted in modish angles. A train had flashed past on glittering silver rails.
“They arrive every day by sea; on any kind of ship. They get the train from Jaffa to Tel Aviv. Every day. The city will burst one day, my friend,” said Rusev.
“Who?” asked Holt.
“The Jews – we run from where we are no longer wanted,” said Rusev.
A toothless old Arab had peered curiously into the car when they had stopped at a dusty crossroads. He had squinted in, refused the lift offered and shuffled on. Then on the long sweeping drive toward the city, Holt had spotted the sea.
He needed to swim; the blue had looked inviting.
“My hotel?” asked Holt.
“The Jephfra. It’s nice,” said Rusev.
“Every hotel in the city has bugs – KGB, Mossad, CIA, MI6 – which are you?”
“None. Just doing a spot of sight-seeing,” said Holt.
“That’s not what the French say. You’re looking for an American?”
“Easier said than done, my friend,”
Holt reached into his jacket and was impressed his wallet was still there. He peeled a few dollars and handed them over.
“The Jephfra Hotel, Lev, if you please?”
They drove into the city past cafes and bulletin boards decorated in Hebrew. Tree-lined boulevards thronged with brightly coloured clothes, grim Hasidic black and vivid children’s strollers. Silver and yellow buses snaked their way past camels, motor cycles and cars. Rusev didn’t seem comfortable looking ahead, turning to make eye-contact seemed more important,
“In Bulgaria, you know how we dealt with narcotics?”
“No?” replied Holt.
A blaring horn and shouts made Rusev glance over the steering wheel.
“We rounded up the drug dealers and ‘Poof’,”
Rusev’s hands left the wheel as he mimed firing a gun with both hands,
“Poof-poof-poof! No more drug dealers. Government take over and sell drugs,”
“That’s fascinating, Lev,” said Holt, “If you could just…”
He flinched as a truck overtook them then slammed on the brakes. With a stream of Yiddish and Bulgarian obscenities, Rusev hurled his little FIAT around the vehicle.
“Are there drugs here?” asked Holt.
This led to a wide grin,
“Hashish, cocaine, opium - give me an hour, my friend and I can get you anything; women, men, girls, boys – anything is possible here; it’s all cha-cha-cha!”
“Just a whiskey and bath will do, Lev,” replied Holt.
The FIAT’s open windows offered little respite from the humidity and heat.
Everywhere there were hoardings up and billboards in vibrant hues, depicting a solitary chess piece; a queen.
“Something special happening?” asked Holt
“A chess tournament,” said Rusev, “Our own Arie Rosenberg up against Blumenfeld, Reshevsky and Szabo. Big news here.”
Chess tournament, thought Holt.
“Which player would be the American,”
Rusev hand’s left the wheel and waved wildly,
“Blumenfeld!” he roared.
The FIAT slewed and pitched. Holt thought his gelato was on its way back up.
They skidded to a halt outside of the Jephfra Hotel.
“The Café Californian at eight?” said Holt.
“Until then, my friend,” said Rusev, “keep the sunglasses,”
Holt watched the FIAT career into the afternoon traffic.
He checked in and handing the concierge a couple of dollars requested he book a ticket for the following day’s chess tournament.
“Come to think of it, make it two tickets; I’m a fan of the American,” said Holt.
His room was on the third floor. It had narrow open windows and a small balcony. The bed was a solid brass-looking affair and the sea breeze made everything cool. He locked the door, slung the battered case onto the bed and he stripped.
Padding naked into the bathroom he ran the shower.
He shaved and lay on the bed. He fell into a sudden and deep sleep.
He slept for two hours.