The nightmare was always the same. Young boys, ragamuffins, darting through the rubble-filled, blackened streets of Naples attacking German tanks with Molotov cocktails or burning bundles of straw, which they would thrust into the openings of the tanks even though they were being shot and killed and the tanks would blow up, becoming coffins of fire. It was like seeing a movie except this movie was real, and instead of watching it in a darkened theater Sophia had watched everything unfold from the balcony of her family's room as the boys, the street urchins of Naples, attacked the German soldiers and their tanks with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on, rocks, bottles, bricks, stolen grenades, which were dropped from rooftops, thrown from alleyways, the soldiers shooting the boys down but not enough to stop their attack, which was constant. It was an unbelievable display of ferocity and courage, the kind only the very young can have and it had worked, the Germans were driven from the town before the Allies got there after four days of pure savagery on both sides, the legendary Four Days of Naples, but that was only half of the nightmare. The other half consisted of the railway tunnel in her hometown of Pozzuli, where Sophia had also been during the war. The tunnel served as an air raid shelter and when the siren would sound, usually in the middle of the night, everyone would grab their mattresses and blankets if it was cold and they would troop down and cram themselves in the middle of the tunnel away from the entrances where they would stay until four-thirty in the morning when the trains started coming through. This part of the nightmare wasn't as bad as the boys, but it was no less strange. In a complete darkness that dared not be broken by the light of a single candle as somewhere outside bombs fell making unworldly crump crump noises, men and women talked, argued, made love, slept, ate, had babies, fought the tunnel rats as if somehow it was normal for them to be jammed together like this not knowing if they would be alive to see the morning or if their houses would still be standing to receive them. Miraculously no one went mad or even cried during these nights, besides the occasional wailing infant, perhaps because they were all too busy trying to survive.
One time Sophia had stood at the entrance of the tunnel and watched the flares fall. It was a magical sight, the sky ablaze in a silvery sheen as if the stars had lowered their glory to earth, the nearby sea reflected in an intense trembling glare as the flares slowly floated down creating a display much finer than any ordinary fireworks and Sophia had watched entranced until her frantic mother had found her, slapped her face and pulled her back inside to safer depths. At the time Sophia's experience hadn't seemed unusual to her, but now it had assumed a strange, dreamlike quality. She couldn't help wondering which was more real sometimes, her life then or now, or if somehow it was all the same but how could that be?
The boys. The tunnel. The tunnel. The boys. Sophia was dreaming of the boy who was chased down an alley by two German tank soldiers with their hair and uniforms on fire, shooting at the boy with their pistols after he had disabled their tank. It was the single most horrific memory she had of the fighting, the one that stood out above all the others, the one she would never forget. She didn't know what had happened because the boy and the German soldiers trying to kill him had run out of her sight. Had the boy survived? The soldiers? This time, though, she was about to see what had happened when a knock on the door of her hotel room woke her up.
"Who is it?" Sophia asked groggily. No answer. She wondered if it was Rossano Brazzi, who wanted to drop in for a chat because he was feeling lonely. "Rossano?"
Still no reply. Muttering a curse in Italian, Sophia got out of bed, went to the door and opened it. No one was there, but in front of her door was a package wrapped in brown paper with an envelope on top. Sophia looked up and down the hallway: it was deserted. She picked up the package and envelope and brought them inside. The envelope was addressed to Sofia Lazzaro, her name before the producer of Africa Under the Seas, her first real movie, had changed it to Sophia Loren. She tossed the package on the bed and opened the envelope. She read the note inside.
The Duke is in danger. Only you can save him. Meet me at Abdullah's. Hurry.
The note was written in Italian. Sophia wondered if this was a practical joke. The Duke, Mr. Wayne, was in danger? What kind of danger? And what was she supposed to do about it?
She picked up the package, which felt like it contained some kind of clothing, and opened it. Inside was a dark brown robe with a hood, the kind the Bedouins wore, and a long white beard. She was supposed to wear this as a disguise?
Sophia looked at the note once more. Was the always playful Rossano behind this, or one of the crew? Practical jokes were common on a movie set, especially on location to break up the monotony, but to joke that Mr. Wayne was in danger? That seemed unlikely. She supposed she could go to the director, Henry Hathaway, or to Mr. Wayne himself and show them the note, but if it was just a hoax, then she would look like a frightened little girl, bothering them for nothing.
Sophia went back to the door, opened it and looked outside again. There was still no one around. She went back in her room. This was ridiculous: if someone wanted to warn her that Mr. Wayne was in danger, then why couldn't they tell her in person, instead of leaving a note? And why tell her, why not Mr. Wayne himself? On the other hand, if it was merely a practical joke, should she be a good sport as someone would say in English, a language still very much a mystery to her, should she be a good sport and just go along with it? Sophia wished her mother were around. She would know what to do having handled tougher situations than this, like the scandal of having two children out of wedlock, then bringing them safely through the war. Or Carlo or Cary, they would probably know what to do too, but they weren't available either. So should she go back to sleep and forget this incident, or put on the disguise, locate Abdullah's and try to find out what was going on?
Sophia left her room and went to the front desk where as she hoped Muammar, a darkly handsome youth, was on duty absorbed in a book, that from its cover picture seemed to be by or about some Arab politician.
"Muammar, can you tell me how to get to Abdullah's?"
Muammar looked up from his reading. "Why do you want to go there?"
"I have to. It's important. Can you give me directions?"
Muammar frowned. "It's a bad place."
"Why is it a bad place?"
Muammar responded with an angry burst of Arabic that Sophia could not make one word out of. When Muammar was finished, she tried again. "It's a bad place?"
"They sell alcohol."
Sophia wasn't terribly familiar with Muslim beliefs, but knew they weren't in favor of any sort of drinking, the complete opposite of her Italian tradition, where a meal wasn't a meal without a bottle of wine on the table, never mind the holy communion.
"Why do you want to go there?" Muammar asked again.
"I just have to. It's important."
Sophia wondered if she could trust Muammar, then decided she had to if she was going to get anywhere. "I just got a note telling me to go to Abdullah's because the Duke's life is in danger. You know, John Wayne?" Muammar nodded. "Did you see anyone just come in or leave the hotel?"
"No. Someone left you a note?"
"They knocked, then just left it outside my door."
"I don't know. So can you tell me how to get to Abdullah's?"
Muammar frowned again, an expression that Sophia was beginning to think was permanent. "I will take you," he said finally.
"It would not be proper for a woman to go to such a place alone. It is still not proper, but if you must go, I will accompany you."
Sophia hesitated. The note hadn't said anything about taking someone along, but it hadn't said she couldn't, either. "All right," Sophia agreed, "but I have to wear a disguise."
"What do you mean?"
"The person who left the note also left a robe and a beard for me to wear."
Muammar's frown became quizzical. "Is this part of the movie you are making?"
"No. I'll be right back."
Sophia returned to her room and changed into her costume. Looking at herself in the mirror on top of her battered dresser, she felt perfectly ridiculous. This had to be a joke on her, perhaps even Mr. Wayne himself was in on the gag. If she had any sense she would just go back to sleep, it had been a long day which was why she had gone to bed so early in the first place. Instead, Sophia threw the hood up so her head was covered, adjusted her beard and adopted a hunched posture. As long as no one looked too closely, she supposed she could pass for an old man. She would have to remember to hide her hands too.
Sophia went back to Muammar, half-expecting to be laughed at along the way but encountered no one. For the first time she caught a glimmer of a smile on Muammar's lips. "Will you get into trouble?" Sophia asked.
"Leaving your post to accompany me."
Muammar snorted contemptuously. "I have better things to do than wait on foreigners."
They left the hotel, Muammar steering her down a path between several dwellings, everything illuminated by a full moon. Sophia felt as if she was playing a role in a grade B Hollywood melodrama almost as implausible as the one she was making with Mr. Wayne and Rossano, Legend of the Lost or whatever it was finally going to be called. A mysterious message, someone's life supposedly in danger, having to wear this unbelievable disguise--it was preposterous, Sophia believed the word was in English. But was her own true story any less preposterous, her literally rags to riches rise from poverty stricken, war-torn illegitimate childhood to being an international movie star? It was a cliché that nothing was as strange or fantastic as real life, but what were the full implications of that truism?
"Why are you walking so slowly?" asked Muammar.
"I'm trying to walk like an old man," answered Sophia, bent over and shuffling forward.
"There's no one around to see you."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Sophia straightened up and began walking normally. "Have you ever been in Abdullah's?"
"What is it like?"
"It is a small, dark place. A good place for the devil. My uncle owns it."
"He loves money. It doesn't matter if he sells to you foreigners, but he sells to anyone. Sometimes, he even drinks himself. He is not a good Muslim."
They came to a small, nondescript, one story building. A board nailed over a doorway covered by an army blanket said Abdullah's. "Who are you going to meet?" asked Muammar.
"I have no idea," said Sophia, trying to peek past the blanket. "I guess they'll have to contact me." She noticed Muammar holding back. "Coming?"
"I cannot go in with you. No good Muslim would be caught dead in a place like this."
Sophia hesitated. She liked having Muammar with her, but on the other hand, it might scare off whoever had sent the note, assuming this was something more than a charade. "I understand. Thank you for showing me the way."
Muammar appeared nonplused. "You are still going in?"
"Yes. I have to."
Muammar's frown, if possible, became even more severe. "Then I must go in with you. My uncle's is not a fit place for a woman, even one disguised as an old man."
"As you wish."
Followed by Muammar, Sophia hobbled into Abdullah's, fully expecting to be met by gales of laughter but there was only silence. There was no one in the place besides the bartender and, to Sophia's surprise, John Wayne, sitting alone at a small table with a bottle and glass in front of him. She wondered if he would notice her, but Mr. Wayne seemed preoccupied as she and Muammar went to another table.
Sophia tried to peek at Mr. Wayne from under her hood without being obvious. Even though he hadn't been one of her favorite actors in her youth and she was a movie star herself now, she was still starstruck seeing him offscreen. He was such a big man: it looked like he was trying to get drunk, the two-fisted way he was drinking. Sophia wondered again if it was Mr. Wayne who was behind the note that had brought her here: perhaps it was a ruse to meet her for some romantic purpose. She suspected that he was secretly attracted to her, though so far had done nothing to indicate that attraction. Was this his method? Men were so peculiar in that regard, sometimes. Perhaps she should just go over to his table and reveal herself, or should she wait for Mr. Wayne to make the first move?
Before Sophia could make up her mind, three men came in, two Arabs in khaki uniforms and a foreigner in a grey suit, who introduced himself.
"Excuse me, I'm Hummer Drinkwine. I'm with the American embassy. Mind if I and my friends join you?"
"Not at all," the Duke boomed cheerfully, waving an arm. "Have a seat."
The three joined Mr. Wayne. "Do you know those men?" Sophia asked Muammar in a whisper.
"No. The two in uniform are officers in my country's military. Someday I will be an officer, too." From what Sophia could overhear of their conversation, the two officers seemed to be fans of Mr. Wayne. As she tried to listen in, not easy with the hood over her head, the bartender came over, spoke briefly with Muammar in Arabic, then left.
"Your uncle?" she asked.
"Yes. I told him we didn't want anything. I asked if he'd seen anybody strange around, and he said besides your friend, no."
Sophia wondered what she should do. If this was a romantic ruse, then why wasn't Mr. Wayne paying attention to her? Or if it was a practical joke, then why wasn't someone laughing by now? If the note was for real, though, where was the person she was supposed to meet? What sort of danger was Mr. Wayne in, since he didn't seem to be in any at the moment? Sophia knew that she should probably just rip off her beard, go over to Mr. Wayne and ask him what the fuck was going on, language Frank Sinatra had taught her when they had made The Pride and The Passion together in Spain along with Cary Grant the year before and Frank had tried to fool her into using that and other profanities as proper English, now that was a practical joke---Sophia noticed that the tenor of conversation at Mr. Wayne's table had changed. Mr. Wayne suddenly looked and sounded surprised, even shocked. Sophia couldn't quite follow what was being said---the two Libyan military officers were asking for the Duke's help in getting something?---then the two officers stood and made a friendly enough departure. Mr. Wayne and the man still with him---Drinkwine, from the American embassy?---spoke a little more, then Mr. Wayne began massaging his temples, burying his face in his hands, and Drinkwine slipped away.
Mr. Wayne stopped massaging his temples and started to say something, then saw that he was alone. He got up from his table, threw some money down, grabbed his bottle, then almost lurched into a pillar. A poster taped there briefly captured his attention, then he staggered away and made his way out of the club. Sophia had a premonition.
"I've got to follow him," she told Muammar.
"I think he is in some kind of danger." Sophia had a thought. "You didn't leave that note for me, did you?"
"Why should I?"
"Did someone pay you to?"
"I don't do errands for foreigners."
"I see. Thank you for your help, Muammar." Sophia got up and started briskly after Mr. Wayne, then stopped. Her hood had fallen back and Muammar's uncle Abdullah was staring at her with mild curiosity, apparently not unduly upset at seeing a beautiful young woman in his establishment wearing a fake beard. Sophia tore it off and dropped it on the floor, then hurried out after the Duke.