It was in the long, torpid Summer of '06 that I first met Marina, and stumbled upon the discovery which would change everything forever. She stepped off a Venetian gondola in a cherry-pattern dress, clasping her IAEA accreditation in one hand, and holding her hat down with the other, as a cool Adriatic breeze blew her golden tresses across one cheek.
I greeted her with a curt nod and a perfunctory handshake, and escorted her to the waiting limousine, which was purring with satisfaction at its own mechanical harmony.
We sat in silence as the stone facades of green-shuttered apartments scrolled past, the townscape blending into scattered farmhouses and walled orchards, then dwindling into olive trees and scrub as the limo followed a dishevelled road climbing reluctantly into the hills.
Torn between the need to commence conversation with small-talk, but wary of sounding superficial, we sat, bound together in an introspective impasse.
Turning off the mountain road onto a gravel track, she glanced in my direction. "Shouldn't you be blindfolding me at this stage, Dr Bones?"
"Please," I retorted, "call me Broderick. And a blindfold won't be necessary. For the moment at least..."
A couple of miles along the track, we passed through a dense cypress grove, their boughs interlocking to form an arboreal arch, through which we emerged into a steep-sided gorge. A shallow, sparkling river swept along the rocky base of the ravine, the track winding along a narrow ledge beside it.
"You will, however, be needing this," I said, handing her a thermoluminescent dosemeter. "Keep it on you at all times. This facility doesn't officially exist, but we're still compelled by Euratom recommendations to keep a record of the radiation dose to all visitors."
Rounding a tight bend, the gully opened up slightly to reveal a large, perfectly oval pool of limpid water, from which the river channel descended. "What is this, Broderick," enquired my fellow passenger, from whom I was already detecting a distinctly acerbic air, "a geography field trip?"
"Not exactly, Marina. Watch carefully."
Our chauffeur circumnavigated the limb of the pool, and brought the limo to a stop at the end of the track, facing a blank expanse of sheer rock. He flipped a switch on the dashboard, and with a jolt, and a brief flurry of dust, the rock-face began descending with a hydraulic hum into the floor of the canyon.
"It's a good job we're not in the Pacific, Dr Bones, or I'd swear that we've just arrived on Tracy Island. Or perhaps you'll be escorting me into the caldera of an extinct volcano instead?"
"Extinct volcanoes are passé, Marina. Besides, they tend to attract various nosey scientists from the US Geological Survey, which we actively discourage."
The rock-face had by now fully retracted, disclosing a dark tunnel hewn into the naked granite. Our chauffeur switched his lights on full beam, revealing two lines of reflective studs, converging to a point in the subterranean distance. With only the briefest of pauses, we plunged at full pelt into the darkness.
To be continued...