Six and a half years later. It’s a dark winter evening and I’m standing at the crossing of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Jacques. The traffic is dense with people escaping their offices for the warm and inviting but overcrowded restaurants and bistros so typical of Paris. Others are scurrying to more familiar destinations longing for their wives and lovers. My only focus is my home in the outskirts of Paris, where I live a sheltered life with my husband and our cat. We live not far from Bois de Boulogne in a house my father left me as a lasting legacy to our family’s success in the medical field.
Taxis are impossible to get hold of, and I’m number twenty-seven in the queue to speak to the operator. The metro is on strike, so I consider walking, but my Alaïa shoes are not made for a three-hour hike through snow. I might be able to catch a cab eventually, but the prospects are slim. I try my husband’s cell but he’s not picking up. My anger is welling up along with my tears. I barely manage to suppress both.
A short distance further is a man in a dark trench coat. He’s pulling car keys out of a battered brown briefcase as he walks towards a metallic blue Citroën, parked only metres away from where I stand. It’s a “now-or-never” moment, and I walk briskly towards him with quick shallow breaths and my heart thumping through my chest.
“Monsieur, excuse me,“ I start. In a fleeting glance I can see he’s tall and gangly. His face is gaunt with deep-set nasal folds running down from cheek to chin. He has large brown eyes and a prominent nose. I estimate his age to be somewhere over forty, but he could just as easily be a decade younger or older. As first impressions go, I am not sure whether it’s wiser to run away or take the risk of stepping into the stranger’s car. It’s a premature thought as he has yet to invite me, but as I hesitate to ask him he smiles at me, as if he knows this will sway my decision.
“I’ve been trying to get a taxi for the last twenty minutes but it’s absolutely futile. Would it be possible to catch a ride with you? I’ll pay, of course.” The last I add to sweeten the deal, but realize it might be misinterpreted as an offer for payment in kind.
“But of course,” he says in a dark, whisky-fuelled voice. He smiles again at me, dispelling my most immediate doubts. He opens the door for me and I step inside.
“Where are you going?”
“Rue de la Faisanderie.” He looks at me perplexed.
“It’s in the neighbourhood of Bois de Boulogne. 16th arrondissement.”
“Nice neighbourhood. A friend of mine lives in the 16th arrondissement. He works for the Dutch embassy.” He pauses. “It’s a rental though.”
He revs the engine, and lets the windscreen wipers do their work for a few seconds before he looks in the rear view mirror to determine if it’s safe to leave. For a moment there is an awkward silence. I ransack my mind for something useful to say. Anything that will fill the pregnant pause that has sucked the air out of the car and is now threatening to implode.
“Do you work in the area?” I finally ask as he cautiously makes his way down the snowy street.
“Well, yes and no. I live as well as work here,” the stranger replies, flicking his eyes between his mirrors and the intersection ahead.
“What do you do?” I ask, trying to sound both curious and interested in my rescuer.
“I’m a writer.”
The answer startles me, although perhaps I should have seen the clues. The nicotine-stained fingertips and a slight odour of stale whisky on his breath mixed with Fougère Royale by Houbigant give the distinct impression of an artist who is all too used to late-night writing with a bottle of single malt as his only friend.
“A writer, really?” I say, trying to buy myself some time. It’s not every day I happen upon a writer, despite belonging to a fairly artistic circle of friends. “What do you write?”
“Mainly fiction. I’m currently working on my third novel. It’s almost ready; we’re doing the final revisions with the editor.” He pauses. “She also has her office here.”
“I see,” I reply.
“So what are you doing here on this cold evening?” He looks at me with a smirk on his face as if trying to decipher whatever lie I am about to pronounce.
“I work here. My office is around the corner too. I’m a historic investigator.”
“Historic investigator?” He lingers on the words. “What does that entail?”
“We investigate myths and legends, do historical research, find long-lost texts and scriptures. It’s everything from private people who would like a historical, often family-related, mystery researched to museums and archaeological excavation projects. Lately we’ve been working on a TV production for the Mysteries of History. Perhaps you know of it?”
“Perhaps…it sounds familiar, but in all honesty I absolutely detest anything to do with mass media. I far prefer my quills and Pelletier ink.” He picks up a pack of Gauloises cigarettes, draws one out and is just about to light it when he realize his faux pas and offers me one. I accept and he lights it as we come to a standstill in the dense Paris traffic. We are miles away from my end destination and I franticly try to think of a new topic to break the silence that has once again settled upon us. But it doesn’t come, and for the rest of the ride we sit side by side without a word being spoken. My pencil skirt is clinging to my thighs and I try to find an elegant way to rest my legs in the narrow space in front of me. I note a run in my stocking and attempt to shield it by tugging at the skirt hem. He catches me and I find his eyes wandering over my legs. Despite his voyeuristic advances, I pretend not to take notice and look out the window ahead. The traffic permits little movement, but my benefactor zigzags through roads lesser known to get to our final destination.
An hour later, we finally reach it. A singular light is shining in one of the windows. Liliane, our housekeeper, must have left for the day. I scramble through my purse but can’t find any money to offer as compensation. There’s only a ten-euro note, which would be just short of an insult to offer. I ask the stranger if he minds waiting for me to fetch some money upstairs. He says it’s not necessary, but would be grateful if he could use my toilet. After his chivalric rescue I can’t really say no.
The stranger finds a parking spot across the street and locks the car. We walk up the broad, limestone steps to the entrance, the stranger behind me like a foreboding shadow.
Inside I point out the toilet whilst I put my beige calfskin gloves on the Louis XVI console table that stands in the hallway. On it sits a note, neatly folded with my name written on it. A few sentences tell of a work calamity at a call centre in Milano, warranting my husband’s abrupt departure. He will be gone for a few days, perhaps a week. I should expect a call later in the evening.
I put back the letter, and walk into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine, selecting a Hermitage La Chapelle. As I’m pouring a glass the stranger walks in. He looks better in the dim light emitting from above the oven than he did under the harsh street lamp. The deep lines now appear softer, giving him an almost youthful appearance.
“Would you like a glass?” I offer.
“I don’t want to impose on your hospitality,” he replies, distant and aloof.
“Well, consider it a payment in kind.” I quietly start as I remember my thoughts before getting into the car. He doesn’t seem to notice and accepts the offer.
“You have a beautiful house. Early 19th century?”
“Yes, from the Napoleonic era. I inherited it from my father when he passed away five years ago.”
“No need. I have great memories, and best of all is I get to cultivate them in my childhood residence.”
“Not bad, not bad indeed.” His intense stare makes me uneasy.
“Are you married?”
“Yes, but my husband is out of town. A corporate calamity. He works for an American computer company.”
“You are quite the bourgeoisie,” he teases with a hint of sarcasm disguised as irony.
I don’t reply but switch topics. “I don’t know if I got your name.”
“You didn’t.” His abruptness catches me off guard and it takes me a moment to determine my next move.
“Justine.” I stretch out my hand.
“Enchanté. I’m Cyril.” He takes my hand graciously yet firmly.
“Cyril, enchantée.“ I raise my glass to toast.
I observe Cyril as we stand frozen in time without uttering a word. The silence doesn’t seem to bother him, although the contrary can be said for me.
“Are you always this quiet?” I finally ask.
“No, not always.” He pauses for a brief moment. “You have beautiful wrists. Very delicate.”
“Thank you. I’ve never received such a compliment before.” I laugh nervously. It’s a rather odd remark and once again the stranger, now with a name to his face, has deprived me of my fortitude.
“Of course you haven’t. Most men would have given you the obvious compliments. Your eyes, your smile, in some crude attempts to flatter you even your breasts. That’s all they will think of. In many ways men haven’t evolved much beyond the level of primates.”
“Quite candid analysis!”
“It comes with the territory.” He says before swiftly changing topic: “Can I smoke in here?”
My husband hates when I smoke. He quit two years ago and won’t allow me to soil the fragrant environment of our home that has been carefully built up through old antiques, flower arrangements and potpourri sachets discretely hidden in drawers, Qing dynasty urns and Sèvres vases.
“Please go ahead.” I get out the silver ashtray that we use for parties and soirées. He pulls out a Gauloises and offers me one. I take it gratefully and he lights it for me. I lean against the countertop, holding the cigarette with my right hand whilst supporting my elbow with my left. Classic femme fatale pose. I exhale the tobacco-rich smoke. In all honesty it’s too strong for me, but I’m eager to play the game.
He lights his own cigarette, and while doing so performs the art of making conversation with a burning device in his mouth. I think of Popeye the Sailor Man, and I have to struggle not to laugh.
“Do you have a library?”
“Yes we do, on the first floor.”
He exhales the smoke in my direction. “May I see it?”
I don’t answer but stub out the cigarette before I walk out of the kitchen. At the staircase I turn around. He is following me. Still the same portentous, overbearing shadow. I have yet to understand its meaning.
I run my hand along the polished oak bannister that takes us to the first floor. This is where our formal reception rooms can be found. We walk through the drawing room, which leads via a small passage with two sets of French doors to the library. I step aside and let the shadow pass me. I can no longer sense his breath on my neck, merely a faint whiff of his cologne. I breathe it in, letting it fill my lungs, titillating my olfactory senses.
He walks to the section where our antique books adorn hand-carved oak shelves. I notice a thin layer of dust and make a mental note to tell Liliane about it. Many volumes are medical ones, standing testament to a long family service in the name of Hippocrates. Other volumes cover the fields of anthropology and religion. They stem from an unmarried uncle of my grandfather’s who was somewhat of a notable explorer in his days. He is also the one responsible for our small but priceless collection of ancient Egyptian and Nubian artefacts.
Cyril walks along the walls, studying their gold-printed leather-bound content. He goes through our collection of classic literature, from Homer’s Iliad to Maupassant and Flaubert, hastily yet with an eye for detail, like he’s memorizing every single volume. However something stops him in his tracks. He is looking at what I call the dark-side literature. It is a small section, in the corner behind the open door, and therefore naturally shielded from the prying eye. How it ended up there, I have no idea. My father never knew either, but it is clear that someone carefully built and nurtured the collection spanning from the 16th to the 19th century. They are mostly rare editions covering witchcraft and heretical religious works. Some have even been a great source for me in my research. For example, the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, Formicarius by Johannes Nider and of course the works of John Dee and Nostradamus. Further there is a book written by a Victorian physician, astronomer and self-taught parapsychologist going by the name of J.B. Sinnett. The work, comprising of two volumes, documents animal and human mutations and deviations in the first, and strange practices and rituals, paranormal phenomena and clairvoyance in the second. It’s a literary as well as photographic cabinet of curiosities, responsible for both having captured my childhood curiosity and fuelling my young nightmares in equal measures.
Although this appears to stir a certain interest in Cyril, it is the bottom two rows of works that, deservingly or not, receive his absolute attention. From “classics” such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and verses by John Wilmot (better known as the Earl of Rochester) to The Flogging Block by Rufus Rodworthy, annotated by Barebum Birchingly, and of course Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets, not to mention Marquis de Sade’s complete selection including Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and 120 Days of Sodom.
In my youth, I would keep tabs on these books as, from time to time, they would disappear from the bookshelves, only to reappear in a slightly different spot days later. I was often the culprit of these hijacks and would hide the books under my mattress to keep them privy from prying family members.
Cyril takes out a book, The Lustful Turk, originally published by John Benjamin Brookes in the 1830s. He opens it to a random page and a small note, no more than ten by ten centimetres falls to the floor. A single line followed by a capital letter.
84 Rue Saint-Honoré
He hands the note to me, not showing any interest in its history or why it has remained hidden in this book.
“Do you know it?” he asks.
“The note, you mean?”
“No, the book.” He sounds displeased with my answer.
“No, I can’t say I do. Otherwise I would have discovered the note, I’m sure.”
“You ought to read it. Something tells me you have a dark side.” He waits for a reply but I have nothing to say. Enough has already been said.
“I really ought to go. It was nice meeting you. I hope the next time you will have more luck finding a cab. And if not, you know where to find me.” He turns around and walks out of the library.
“Bonne soirée,” I return, but I can already hear him walking through the drawing room. Quick footsteps follow on the staircase, and then a thump as the door is closed. I hear nothing more. I’m alone. At least until Friday.