June 23, 1968
Heat and dirt. The whir of tires against concrete. Sun waves scorch the shimmering surface of the autoroute. Beneath the huge sky only stunted bushes, hard-baked earth, and highway. Tiny cars like dolmas, stuffed with families and picnic gear, trail clouds of dust that choke Anna and Peter where they stand hugging the shoulder of the road.
Anna sighs. A bead of moisture trickles down between her breasts. The cotton blouse sticks to her skin. Beside her, Peter stoops beneath the weight of his backpack and sleeping bag, his blond-red beard shiny with sweat.
An almost empty car draws near. “Anna,” Peter barks, “this one.” But the ancient Peugeot darts past her out-stretched thumb. Peter scowls and makes a fist. He jerks back from the road and motions her to join him. “C’mon. We haven’t got all day.”
They’d spent two hours already. And though there was a Zagreb-Belgrade bus, Peter’s hard stare told her he would keep on till they found a ride. She muttered, “I’m coming,” and lurched along on swollen feet. This fourth day of their venture out from Trieste, the ease of their first meeting seemed a memory from long ago.
Peter pointed to a tall bush recessed from the road. “You stay here. I’ll wait down there.”
“Whatever you say, Master.” She glared as he drew his long, powerful body up to its full height and stalked off toward the bush. Something inside her went hard. She hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to play these games. But all-out war would be a risk right here, in the middle of nowhere. So she took up her position in the spot he’d designated.
The afternoon wore on. The cars rolled past. The riders’ smiles and waves made Anna try to see herself as they would. A young woman alone. Dark hair Medusan. Body bent. Clothes dirt-streaked, sweat-soaked. Arm locked into hitchhiker position. Smile affixed with clothes pins. Hardly an alluring sight. So much for Peter’s logic.
The steady hum of traffic lulled. The sun-inscribed white circles dimmed her vision. Anna lapsed out, thoughtless, until a huge Mercedes zoomed past, haloed by the rays that struck its shiny black and chrome veneer. Metallic edges sharply defined space, then vanished into sun-fog once again.
Brakes screeched. A car backed up. A door opened, then shut.
Damn Peter. They’d returned for her. A clear breech of road etiquette. That summer’s rule for drivers, at least according to the hitchhikers she’d met, was a gradual stop, a pulled-down window, and an amiable inquiry as to destination. Her neck went cold beneath the sweaty knot of long, thick hair. But she would enter the car; she had reached her limit.
Lowering her gaze, she sniffed the air. No alcohol, at least. Then she straightened up and dared to look, which didn’t help at all. Had she gone stupid from the sun?
The car was empty. Before her stood its occupant. Arms crossed, head cocked, he flashed an imperious smile. The man was slim and little more than average in height, but his clothes drew her attention, defying both the intense heat and the spartan South Slav dress code. A loose-fitting but well-cut navy linen jacket. A crisp white linen shirt, open at the throat. Knife-creased ecru linen slacks. Italian-cut black loafers, elegant against the dusty road. A Greek fisherman’s cap thrust rakishly back on the head. He looked like an ad for single malt in a glossy magazine.
Anna caught a whiff of lime and musk. Her cheeks grew hot, then hotter still when she saw him record the blush. She wanted him to speak, but he said nothing. Just nodded, on his lips a cool, sardonic smile that seemed to acknowledge her unspoken thoughts. Unwrinkled, well-groomed, the man exuded an impossible freshness. Apparition? Mirage? Clearly a miracle, given the conditions everyone else was subject to this Sunday on the autoroute to Belgrade.
She studied his face. Dark. Smooth-shaven. Slavic? Features precisely balanced, as if Europe had softened its eastern angles. High cheekbones, but not too prominent. Dark eyes with a hint of slant. Jawline well defined but rather narrow. Something in the look evoked medieval knights and poets, Byzantines and Ottomans. She—
“Anna.” Peter’s voice was cold. He’d wandered up from his bush and stood beside her.
The stranger watched in silence. Anna thought she caught a flicker of disappointment as he rubbed his chin and volunteered, “Une jeune couple.” Sweeping off his black cap to reveal a head of dark, luxuriant hair, he bowed first to her, then to Peter, whose rigid mouth and squinting eyes condemned them both. “Vous êtes très fatigués?” His wry smile mocked his halting French.
“Nous ne sommes pas français,” she retorted, brushing aside a piece of hair that had flopped into her eye. “Je suis américaine—Anna Rossi.”
Peter’s blue eyes seethed. He stood rigid and silent.
“American?” The stranger’s eyebrows arched. “Rossi?”
Anna’s body stiffened. His accent sounded German. And why was he so puzzled?
Observing Peter’s red face, he asked, still smiling, “And your friend?”
“He’s Danish. Peter Hansen.” Why had he chosen French? Her sun-bronzed skin? Her blue eyes, black-lined, thick-lashed? The narrow oval face? The nose some called “exotic”? People would refer to Cleopatra or Durrell’s Justine, then ask where she came from.
“Ah, myself I am a German. Max Heidl, at your service.” He gave a little bow.
German? Anna stiffened. But the man shook hands with both of them, and his rogue’s grin beguiled even Peter, who smiled back. She let herself relax, her mind shift gears, her body loosen.
“And now,” Max Heidl asked, “where do you go?”
“Belgrade.” Peter had finally found his voice.
The German shrugged as if there were no other answer. “So we must put the bags away, isn’t it?” Picking up her canvas satchel from Trieste, he headed toward the car.
The pristine trunk was empty save for one leather suitcase. “Brand new,” Peter whispered, sniffing the inside. She wasn’t sure whether he meant the suitcase or the car.
Heidl stowed her dusty bag alongside his fine black one, then let Peter fling his heavy roll and backpack in on top. Helping her into the plush back seat, he motioned Peter to the front. Before he put the key in the ignition, the man turned around to her. Bright-eyed, he doffed his cap and flashed that impish grin. “Your chauffeur, Mademoiselle.”
In the speeding Mercedes Anna felt light. Peter and the driver—Max, she reminded herself—bantered back and forth in Germanic English, trying to include her. But she began to disengage, yearning to be still and float.
Now and then a phrase of theirs broke through her mental screen. “In Trieste . . . to Skopje . . . from Munich . . .” She wondered vaguely about the dashing German but didn’t have the energy to follow these unfolding plots. Instead, she let the talk bounce off her while she savored being quiet and alone.
As she burrowed into the soft leather seat, she caught the rush of air through the open window, the rhythmic throb of rubber against the road. With growing lethargy, she fielded questions from the front. These two might pass the time telling their pilgrims’ tales; she would free her mind to drift . . .