Monthly Archives: March 2012

We are there within ten minutes. Perhaps I should be afraid but I am not, the last remnants of fear leaving me as I trace the silhouette of my office building. He invites me in. The apartment is so very different from the one we just came from. It is cosy, homey and filled to the brink with books. I am pleased to see my olfactory sense is spot on. A bottle of Black Label Johnny Walker, three-quarters empty, sits on a shelf next to a bottle of Houbigant Fougère Royale, their content and pedigree in stark contrast. He takes down the whisky and pours two generous glasses.

“Here, take this.”

He takes a hefty sip, and although whisky is not my favourite drink I follow his example. The alcohol burns a path all the way from throat to stomach.

“You want to tell me what is going on?” I say.

“I suppose I owe you that. After all you were rather forthcoming yourself.” He is referring to the events at Le Liberty, which for a brief moment I had banished to the back of my mind.

“I’m sorry if I have brought you into something you didn’t deserve. You see, there are things you don’t fully understand yet.” He pauses, but as I don’t issue a question, he continuous.

“You see those windows?” He points to the building opposite.

“As you can see that’s your office. Take these.” He hands me a pair of binoculars, which I raise to my eyes. I can clearly see our offices, all dark with the exception of the fluorescent light that continues to illuminate the main corridor.

“Have you been spying on me? From here?”

“I wouldn’t call it spying. It’s more a matter of perceived interest. Perhaps a little on the unhealthy side.”

“Since when?”

“Since you moved in.”

“That’s like, what, eighteen months ago? But why?” I am as equally perplexed as I am amazed. Perhaps even a little flattered.

“The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”

“Mmm, you choose your words well.”

“When you stepped into my car that night something changed. I never sought to contact you, but providence seemingly intervened to my great surprise and delight.”

“And what about the note in the book.”

“I can’t attest to that. However, I do admit I was at the scene when you entered. I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way. It wasn’t my intention.” He closes the curtains.

“It’s not safe to keep them open. And if you’ll excuse me I’d rather forget the recent past for the moment to concentrate on some more pressing matters. There is a lot I need to tell you. But first…” He throws a few logs and old newspaper into the hearth of the marble fireplace and sets it alight. Within minutes the fire is crackling, its heat filling the room with the sweet smell of smoke and burning cellulose. For a moment we sit in silence watching the flames dance. Then suddenly he begins to talk. It’s a long story, the dimensions of a saga by the time it has reached its conclusion.

 

“When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a traditional publisher called Galimatias – Latin for ‘nonsense’. It was a small publishing house that had been in the Heurtin family for generations and published no more than thirty titles or so a year from a well-selected pool of authors. Monsieur Heurtin was already an old man when I started to work for him as an editor. A very distinguished man, he was sharp and agreeable, with impeccable manners. The airs of a dandy, he dressed exclusively in tweed jackets, white shirts and blue cravats. The latter was said to be in homage to his maternal ancestors who came from Croatia, the land that gave birth to this piece of clothing, as the legend has it.

As I was saying, Monsieur Heurtin was in his seventies when I first joined. I was fortunate to get a job straight out of university, and quickly rose to the rank of Chief Editor. This was not such a feat as it may sound as two editors retired within the year and another one succumbed to prostate cancer. I was the only one left with a workload not even a young man with the superhuman energy of youth could tackle. Yet, we managed to survive through new hires, and the niece of Monsieur Heurtin who was set to take over the publishing company one day. This happened sooner than expected.

It was I who found him one morning, slumped over his desk with an old Freeman pistol on the floor. The pistol was of the pre-revolutionary kind and had failed to bring relief to the poor fellow until several hours later. It must have been a slow and agonizing death, although by the time I found him, he looked rather serene amidst his blood-soaked documents and a grazing wound that had just missed his temple. An inquest ruled his death a suicide and, according to his last will, he was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where he got to spend his final days in the company of literary luminaries such as Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Marcel Proust and, of course, Oscar Wilde. Vixit dum vixit laetus, ‘he that lived happily lived as long as he lived’, marked his tombstone. Well-chosen words for a rather remarkable man I must say.

What was even more remarkable was the will he left behind. I had been asked by his solicitor to attend the disclosure of its content. On the dot of five, the doors opened to me and Monsieur Heurtin’s niece, who was a young woman of questionable repute and morals. I say so as she didn’t strike me as someone taking a terribly great interest in the business. Yet she was the only blood relative and therefore heir to the family business of Monsieur Heurtin, who had never been married and therefore lacked offspring.

The last will and testament was read and it was declared in a few words that Mademoiselle Heurtin was now the sole owner of Galimatias. As expertise was lacking, I was to help her in her daily business to “keep business steady in the Galimatias tradition”. What the latter meant was anyone’s guess, but I couldn’t let the old man down and asserted my allegiance to my new mistress with the promise to serve her well.

Mademoiselle accepted her lot, including the princely sum of 3.4 million francs – which were assets tied to business, I have to add – and signed the papers, at which point she was asked to leave. I was about to leave too when the solicitor interrupted my intentions.

“Monsieur Monfort, we are not done yet.” He emphasised the word we, compelling me to sit down.

“There is an addendum to the will of Monsieur Heurtin. One that only concerns you,” he explained. This came as a complete surprise, and in order to hear the aging lawyer well, I uncrossed my legs and leaned forward. He read out the addendum, like it was a king’s announcement. Although the exact words escape me, it said I was to be the sole beneficiary of Monsieur Heurtin’s apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain – the very one we are now sitting in. This gift included all of his belongings, not to mention his vast book collection. I was thrilled yet perplexed by his generosity. I had never set foot in his dwelling, but concluded with a great many assumptions that it must be an apartment of substantial size and content. It turned out that I was wrong on the first account, as you can see it merely consists of three rooms, but the second one proved more accurate.

However, it all came with one stipulation: I was to take his place in a society called the Hellfire Club. I had never heard of the Hellfire Club and could not imagine what it was. But the conditions were firm. If I were to decline, it would mean forfeiting the apartment. As I was a young man in a hard-up economy, I felt I had little choice. And, of course, what could happen, I reasoned? Surely Monsieur Heurtin’s motives were purely honourable.

The instructions that followed were simple. I was to present myself at 160, Rue de l’Université the following Tuesday at three o’clock sharp. I had few expectations when I announced myself at the intercom. A lady answered and told me to walk up the stairs to the fifth floor. I was under no circumstances allowed to take the lift. The door was already open when I reached the landing. The apartment wasn’t much different to how it looks now, with the exception of a glass desk on wheels at which an ageing secretary sat. I reported myself and she saw me into the library where a gentleman in his late sixties sat at a mahogany desk.

“You must be Cyril.” He reached out for my hand and shook it with both of his. The handshake was firm and to the point. He asked me to sit down and I chose one of the two empire-style chairs that were on offer.

“You must be asking yourself why you are here,” he began. I mumbled something inaudible along the lines of, “Yes, I certainly am.”

“Good, good. You see I was a very good friend of your master’s, Monsieur Heurtin, who is sadly no longer with us. God bless his soul. Our friendship goes a long way back to the last years of the Great War when we both joined the resistance. It’s a long story, one I don’t wish to bore you with, but suffice it to say that, if your friendship survives the dehumanising effects of war, it will survive anything. But this is not why you are here. You are here, of course, for your invitation to the Hellfire Club.” He picked up a Partagas cigar from a polished cigar box and offered me one. Declining would have been a dishonour, so I gracefully accepted.

“When a member of the Hellfire Club dies, he – or she, as we’re a gender-equal society – has two options: First is to appoint someone to take his place and rank, at which time he must bequeath all earthly goods to the appointee. Should the appointee not accept, the goods will fall to us. Should the member decide not to continue the tenancy through a new appointee, the tenancy will be forfeited. If so, the member is free to do with his personal belongings as he wishes, with the exception of what he has gained from the Hellfire Club. Those belongings will naturally revert back to the Hellfire Club.”

He puffed on his cigar in an attempt to reanimate the embers that were slowly dying, before continuing. “We only have 365 seats, all of which can be seen in the theatre that I will show you in a moment. There is a 366th seat, which belongs to the Grand Master. That is I, and I go by the name of François Rabelais, who is, according to tradition, the founder and patron of the Hellfire Club. Should you accept, your membership will be one for life. You will need to take an oath to serve our society and its members well. It comes down to two principles: First and foremost is our dictum ”Do what thou wilt”, or in French, ”Fais ce que tu voudras”. The second principle is rather simple and needs no further translation: What happens at Hellfire Club stays at the Hellfire Club.

If you accept these stipulations – maxims we expect you to remain faithful to – I will give you a key to this apartment and I will tell you about your rank and purpose within the organisation. I will give you five minutes to think it through, after which I will come back for your definite and permanent answer.”

He paused for a moment, remembering one last thing. “Do you have any questions?” I thought for a moment before answering.

“In fact I do. What happens if I want to leave?”

“Excellent question. You may, but of course you will never be allowed back. And you will forfeit the property you have inherited. It’s all in the contract.”

“And ‘do what thou wilt’. Would that entail any criminal activities?”

“We do not endorse criminal activities, my friend. But it’s up to each and every person to decide that for himself. We will not hold you accountable for your own actions. Only you can. We only ask you to adhere to the second oath, which protects the first.”

I thanked him for his answers and assured him I understood, and the man who had presented himself as François Rabelais left the room. I fixed my eyes on the antique grandfather clock that stood in a far corner, counting the number of times the pendelum swung back and forth. Exactly five minutes later, Monsieur Rabelais reappeared. He walked to his desk with light steps and sat down.

“May I have your answer?” It wasn’t so much a question as a demand. I said I was happy to accept, to which he congratulated me and handed me a simple contract, including the oath, which I signed.

“Here are the keys. One is to our apartment here, another one to the entrance downstairs; and this one is to the apartment Monsier Heurtain has left you.”

There was only one of each, and I concluded they had kept for themselves a copy of the key to my soon-to-be private apartment. Needless to say, I made a note to myself to change the lock as soon as I moved in.

Monsieur Rabelais then told me I was to enter the society as Seneschal, entrusted with the upkeep of the apartment and its staff, which included a secretary, known as Minou, housekeepers and servants. I asked how much time this would take, knowing I had precious little of it having accepted my master’s wish to oversee the wellfare of Galimatias. Rabelais simply answered ‘do what thou wilt’, which of course was entirely appropriate.

In the weeks that followed, I gradually learned about the society I had been thrust into. I spent my evenings reading up on Rabelais and, of course, the historical British equivalent. I spent my Monday mornings with Minou planning for the week ahead. The apartment was mainly used for meetings, and with the exception of making sure the staff adhered to their tasks, it was light work consuming little of my time. It took three months before I saw Monsieur Rabelais again. He called me into the library and asked me to close the door.

“How is life treating you these days?” he asked benevolently.

“Well, Monsieur. Very well.”

“I am glad to hear it, son.” It was the first time he called me by this epithet, and it made me feel special.

He continued, “There is something I want to share with you. We will be arranging our Vicars and Tarts party in three weeks. Invitations need to go out in the next days. Minou will hand you the list of invitations and you will need to coordinate the event with her.”

For the first time since my investment into the order I felt a flutter of excitement in the anticipation of forthcoming events.

The original raison d’être of the club was merely a pledge to live life as it was intended, without the long-reaching arm of the king, Parliament or the Church. This would be done through nocturnal get-togethers, often mocking Church rituals. My first Vicars and Tarts party was just that. Processions of men clothed in priestly vestments and women dressed in elaborate 17th-century costumes. They were all members of the society I had recently joined. It all was very well organized.

Grand Master Rabelais took centre stage in the theatre and welcomed everyone. He started by announcing the members that were recently deceased. For each such person, his watch, which had been rewound to the moment of death, was destroyed with a small silver hammer to symbolically incarnate his earthly demise. When the deceased had been honoured through the reading of passages of Latin scriptures yet unknown to myself, the Grandmaster proceeded with the vestment of new members, in the order of low to high rank. I was last, as my master had been of the sixth degree, one below the most inner circle of the Seventh, which included only seven members.

I was asked to kneel in front of the Grandmaster and swear my formal oath in front of the congregation. I was then handed a gold watch symbolizing my time on this earth, which I promised to dutifully serve and honour for as long my life would serve me. The gathering ended with further announcements, and most people were becoming animated and elated from the anticipation. This vibrating euphoria spread and even the few, including myself, who knew nothing of what the evening had in store felt the urge for something that could be nothing short of wondrous.

Champagne was served by women in period costumes that put their ample breasts on display. For a penny, one could kiss them, and boy did we. As the Champagne together with a medley of hors d’œuvres was being served, two trumpeters announced that the entertainment had arrived. The doors from one of the reception rooms opened, and out came about fifty of the most beautiful women gracing this planet. Dressed in only their undergarments, 18th-century style, with stockings and little silk shoes on their feet, they were a feast for hungry eyes. I now fully comprehended the mottos I’d been sworn to, and I was going to take advantage of every bit of them too!

The men and women present were of all ages, with a slight leaning towards male domination. But the recent injection of the fairer sex had positively changed this balance. I ended up in the arms of a dark-haired beauty called Carmen. I am sure, with your own experience as backdrop, you can imagine what happened, for we found a discreet place between two rows of chairs in the theatre. I eventually fell asleep in my post-coital stupor, only to be woken by the janitor the next morning. He gave me a cup of coffee and helped me to a clean shirt. I thanked him for his kindness and left rather sheepishly.

This was in 1993, and for most of the coming years, I took part in what you might call debauched orgies of various kinds. Always under the cover of social gatherings. Most people were in what you might call the higher echelons of society. I can’t give you names, at least not yet, but there were politicians, doctors, scientists, policemen, artists and, of course, wealthy members of the public too. Some were no doubt aristocrats and, I am sure, distant relations of European royalty.

After three years serving the society well, making sure the apartment and its staff ran like a piece of well oiled machinery, I had been accepted as a full member of the family – one I still knew very little about. Despite my high rank, I was not invited to all of their meetings, although I knew such were taking place without my presence or intimate knowledge. I assumed they all involved the Seventh Degree, with the Grand Master himself presiding. I was never appointed to the inner circle, and no one knew in fact who was privy to it.

In my third year I got the unusual assignment of finding women of a more questionable kind for a party hosted in the summer. It was to be a splendid occasion at a chateau outside of Paris called Chateau Vert. I was introduced by one of our society’s members to a brothel in the outskirts of the city where he said we would be able to establish an “advantageous agreement” with the madame. So far the women I had been procuring where no prostitutes. Merely women that liked to have a good time and were compensated for it. This was different, though. Beauty was immaterial and, in fact, I was given the strictest order to find women of average appearance and bearings, but with great whoring skills. Although prostitutes were women I revered as my sexual companions in hours of need, the brief made me somewhat uncomfortable. I took great pride in finding women that met, and in some cases exceeded, the definition of beauty, and I can honestly and proudly say I’ve never slept with an ugly woman.

That evening we spent in the company of three women in their mid-to-late thirties. After making sure they fit the bill, we asked them if they were interested in joining our nocturnal soirées. They were, of course, and over the course of weeks I worked on a stable of women that could be called upon at any time.

The first party took place one late evening at Chateau Vert, an estate with large dominions once belonging to the Duke of Orleans. It was an elaborate and pompous affair, a masquerade where anything and everything went. Each room had a theme: love, spring, heaven, hell, winter, tavern, brothel and, of course, the dungeons. I didn’t know what to expect beyond the domains of love, whoring and drinking, but the excitement knew no bounds in speculating about what the night might entail.

A variety of entertainment was on offer, from samba and flamenco girls to cancan dancers and vaudeville acts. Naked women with large boa snakes, talking parrots on pirates’ shoulders, sword and fire swallowers all made for the most amazing of diversions. It was like being in a real-life play, or a medieval town, where friend could be foe and the opposite could equally be true.

I feasted on Champagne like there was no tomorrow and engaged in various dubious acts with the opposite sex. Two ladies, no doubt prostitutes, took me to the dungeons for a bit of fun. These dungeons were already in full swing with lighter plays to more extreme acts. A man stood on all his fours pretending to be a horse while a little fat lady rode him while spanking his bottom. It was bright red, with a few minor lesions he only seemed to take pleasure from.

Another man was being crucified – with fake nails I might add – his nipples clamped and then whipped until he could stand the pain no longer. How do I know all of this, you ask? Because for every room there was a little spyhole. Most spyholes were free to watch, but at least one spyhole was pitch black. I asked why this was and was told by a guard dressed in an 18th-century royal court costume that the room was unused. This struck me as a little strange as I could clearly see a piece of metal blocking the view. I wanted to find out more, but it would be a year before the next opportunity came.

I never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire.
~William Shakespeare

 

He knows the apartment well. After all he has been a member of the Organisation for fifteen years. A well serving member, he has always done what the Supreme Master has required of him. His work has been hard, dirty and without a doubt bloody too. He’s thinking of the dangers he’s subjected himself to. All to protect the identity of the chosen few and their secrets. He doesn’t have a name. But the few that know him refers to him, in whispers, as Mr. Nemo. Nemo – the Latin word for Nobody. And Omen in reverse. Because although few people know of his existence, and even fewer could identify him, the mention of his mere name carries prophetic qualities. Mr. Nemo has no designated number within the Organisation or within the Seventh Degree. He is outside the Organisation, yet entirely within.

Ever since he was appointed, he has taken care of the Organisation’s dirty work. He has made sure the few vested with wealth and power got what they wanted, needed and craved. Whether it is sex, drugs, weapons, violence or even snuff, he arranges it all. He remembers the girl he procured for a relation of the Supreme Master. Blonde, petite but with large breasts. They had to be natural. It was a difficult task finding one who fit the bill exactly — especially one whose bounty was the work of God himself. He prayed to God, envisioned the woman that he needed, and one day, as he was taking a stroll with his dog, she was there. He followed her home, and from then on watched where she lived — a derelict house not far from the industrial terrain where he resided himself. It was not a difficult operation, and having served in the Foreign Legion for five years gave him the competitive edge few people had.

As the name implies, he is neither French nor European. He has operated in most warzones from the Congo to Afghanistan, often as a mercenary before he handed in his passport and former identity known to most as Meldrick Reed. Since then, he had been employed in Bosnia and New Guinea before he was discharged under his new identity of Albert Long and disappeared from the face of the earth. Few people, if any, know the name that his only legal passport was issued under, and the few that did have long forgotten it — even when he stood in line for his application, most people didn’t notice him. Far from conspicuous, he looks like any other mixed-breed American. A quarter Italian, a little bit of Irish, some German and a hidden strand of Danish made him almost French. Or British, or even Dutch for that matter. Thus when the thirty-something MILF handed him his passport at a communal services office in Paris, she only remembered to log out of her computer before 5 PM as she had to pick up her children from the crèche. Mr. Nemo walked out into the sunshine, knowing that God protected his luck.

But Mr. Nemo is not thinking of this. Instead his mind turns to that busty blonde he’d raped for hours disguised with a leather mask. Just as the Supreme Master had wanted. He had received the script beforehand, dropped at a deserted building on the industrial terrain. It was also here where the filming took place, this remnant of a failing metal industry, which had received its final death knell in the late 1980s. Occasionally he sees runaway kids using the dilapidated buildings for shelter. But even they have started to dwindle as rumours have it the place is haunted. For kids who have made it their ramshackle home have disappeared under uncertain circumstances, and the police takes little interest in pursuing their whereabouts. Mr. Nemo knows this all too well, and without feeling or remorse he continues his activities when opportunity presents itself.

The industrial properties serve his activities well. Without being ostentatious, the main building is heavily secured by bolt locks, blocked-out windows and camera surveillance. This is where he has set up his studio, complete with cameras covering several angles and props and tools that hang behind a curtain. It is a curtain that, when drawn, seals the fate of the unfortunate victim. As with the busty blonde.

When he was done with her, raping her repeatedly, he set out to work on her. She was tied to a makeshift bed, her wrists and ankles struggling for freedom, but only creating more cuts and bruises. Nothing in comparison to the treatment she was about to receive that ultimately ended her life. He had started with a knife. A small one, with a thin razor-sharp blade. He used it to slice her pale skin, under her feet, tracing the curves of her hips and breast before he plunged it into in her soft belly. Her screams were so vivid, almost excruciating to listen to. But as per the instructions, under no circumstances was she to be muted or blinded. The Supreme Master had been explicit in his request for her eyes to show the fear of death as life ebbed out of her. And she delivered a good show for him. After he’d spent sufficient time with his knife, he continued with a machete, which he used to remove her hands and feet. This served not only an erotic purpose but a most functional one too in his later efforts to dispose of her body. He has used a machete many times before, and is proficient enough in the weapon regarded as the poor man’s rifle in the Congo. In the early 1900s when the country was exploited and violated by the Belgians more ruthlessly than any other African colony, it was a common scene to see old and young alike with their hands removed from a single blow by the mighty machete. Mr. Nemo had a prized photo collection documenting the atrocities. It had been the first picture he had bartered for from a friend whose great-grandfather had been a missionary. It cost him his prized Joe DiMaggio card and a few of the lesser New York Yankees. He felt bad until supper. Then he decided to become a mercenary.

The guest star for the last part of the sadistic rape, torture and murder of the Blonde with Big Tits was a round-bladed chainsaw. She was already falling in and out of consciousness, but with a few slaps and old-fashioned smelling salt she came to her senses just in time to witness him power on the device and start to dissect her in two. Before he did so, he told her a little story, as he always does, for his victims. He enlightened her as to the nature of her death and the historical facts behind it. In this case, he drew inspiration from the Chinese, who were known for their cruelty when executing unwanted elements for the Emperor. One such punishment was waist tearing, or sawing in two across the midriff. Not always a quick death, it eventually leads to shock and loss of blood after minutes, ensuring the victim passes his final breath in unimaginable pain. Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty was said to have executed Fang Xiaoru using waist tearing. It is also said that after the midriff had been severed, Fang still crawled on the ground and used blood on his hand to write the word “usurped throne” twelve times before eventually giving in to death.

He told the Blonde with Big Tits this as she stared at him in terror, fully knowing what was awaiting her. She screamed a final, torturous wild cry, like no other sound, before her anguish was obliterated. Her eyes remained open, the pupils dilating until her blue eyes almost took on the colour of black. She was finally at peace, and so was her tormentor. His faithful cameraman wrapped up the filming, after which he was left alone for a few minutes so he could take care of his own needs. When Mr. Nemo returned, he noticed white flecks of sperm over the human carcass as the cameraman pulled up his zipper. He preferred going about the dirty work himself, so the cameraman started to edit the film as Mr. Nemo picked up the remains of the Blonde with Big Tits, dumping them into a barrel of acid. He cleaned up and stayed until the early morning to see the final cut of the film. He was pleased with the work, watching it on his own in the darkness of his living quarters before he made five copies for distribution through the Network.

This is his job, a job which he takes much pride and satisfaction in. But it is a lonely one. He has no friends and his only human interactions come from the few trusted members he works with, his Supreme Master and his victims. In all honesty the closest intimacy comes from the latter and, if it weren’t for them, his life would probably have little meaning or value.

He is now back in his living quarters. The apartment on 160 Rue de l’Université had turned up empty. He should have known they would take the escape route that connected with the theatre, but they locked it well and he was forced to work his way back and leave through another secret exit which took him to the house on the other side. It gave them enough time to disappear. He knows it was the Seneschal who had been there, with an unidentified woman. As all names in the Organisation and the Network are strictly confidential, everyone goes by a codename. But the Seneschal had been seen a number of times, and finding his real identity and where he lives would not be difficult. Not for him anyways. He already knows his first name is Cyril.

Mr. Nemo is now certain the Seneschal is behind the disappearance of the jewellery. It is a place he had been requested to use by the Supreme Master. Also the place where the heads were to be interred. He often wonders if the Supreme Master ever uses that place himself. Reliving the events that had taken place at Chateau Vert. If he does, he hasn’t noticed, as he always finds the underground cove exactly the way he left it. Clean and undisturbed. That was, until two weeks ago when the jewellery box went missing. He looked for evidence of disturbance of the tomb that contains the remains of seven mummified heads, but could find none. He will need to discuss this with the Supreme Master as, for once in his life, he finds himself in uncharted waters.

PART II

Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her. But once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. ~Voltaire

 

27

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

 

It’s afternoon when I receive a call from someone I have impatiently waited to hear from. It’s Cyril.

“Justine, I’m sorry for not calling you back. I’ve seen your calls, but I’ve been too busy to respond.”

“No worries,” I toss off nonchalantly, although I find it difficult not to mention my disappointment, which has by now transitioned into mild irritation.

“So tell me, do you have some news? Have you solved our little mystery?”

“I wish that were the case, but the answer is no, alas. I have, however, started my investigation and I am closing in, although far from a solution.”

“Good. Very good. Shall we meet up to discuss? Tonight?”

“That would seem quite a good idea. Where do you propose?”

“The apartment. 160 Rue de l’Université. I will arrange something to eat. Shall we say 9 PM?”

“I will be there.”

“Call me when you arrive. I will open the door.”

 

 

I arrive a little after the appointed time. The weather has turned considerably warmer since I stood here last, and I estimate it’s a good twelve degrees, which is not bad given it’s only February. Cyril doesn’t pick up his phone but meets me downstairs within the minute of my arrival.

“You are late,” he says.

“I apologise.”

“Come in.”

We take the lift to the fifth floor. He opens the door and gestures for me to come in. At first glance the apartment looks the same as it did before. I notice post on the console table. Two heaps: one with direct mail and another one with letters. The letter on top is addressed to a Monsieur Rabelais. It’s not too common of a name, and the only one I can think of is the Renaissance writer François Rabelais. I make a mental note to ask Cyril.

Cyril takes the lead, walking me through rooms where fragments of beauty are never too far away. Some rooms appear better kept than others, with the common denominator of an eclectic mix of antiques and modern art flanking the walls. Most of the interior space is kept free with the exception of strategically placed tables over antique Afghan and Persian rugs. We come to the dining room with its long, ebony table. The black of the ebony contrasts with inlays of fine, exotic woods, creating an exquisite image of a 16th-century harbour with a city rising in the background.

“It’s Port Royal,” he explains as I’m studying the masterpiece.

“As in Jamaican Port Royal?”

“As in the Lost City, yes.”

“The table was made after it sank in 1692 after an old painting that survived and now resides with a private collector in London. Imagine what it must have seen. Perhaps even Captain Morgan sat by this very table.”

“It’s a romantic notion, I grant you that, but he died before the earthquake. I’ll give you a piece of trivia you probably don’t know. Most people tend to believe he died in the Tower of London where he was incarcerated. But in fact he returned to Jamaica where he died a few years later. He is now buried in the Palisadoes cemetery, which sank beneath the sea in the 1692 earthquake.”

“I’m impressed with your knowledge.”

“It’s an occupational hazard. You get subjected to too much irrelevant information.”

He nods to this, and gestures for me to sit down, pouring me some wine before he disappears again, presumably for our dinner.

 

Dinner presents itself in the form of hors d’œuvres. I count them to a precise number of thirty-seven in the range of fish and shellfish to meat and game. I can’t see our dinner catering to vegetarian needs, but then Cyril doesn’t strike me as someone who would be concerned with such trivialities or considerations — or any considerations at all unless they serve his own.

I pick one that is placed within arm’s length: a piece of pâté adorned with a slice of truffle. The food silences me, but I am yet again desperate to find a conversation topic. A verbal pre-emptive strike.

“Who owns this apartment?” I ask eventually.

“I told you, didn’t I? The Society does.”

“You mean the Hellfire Club?

“Yes, The Hellfire Club.”

“So why do I see a Monsieur Rabelais as the addressee on the post?”

“You are asking who Monsieur Rabelais is?”

“Yes.”

He smiles at me as he finishes a mouthful of biscuit topped with rabbit terrine, before bringing his serviette to his mouth, removing any microscopic remnants of wine and pieces of crumbs.

“I’d expect you of all people to know of Monsieur Rabelais.”

“François Rabelais, the Renaissance man, yes,” I counter.

“And what was his motto?”

 

“All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed” ~François Rabelais, Abbey of Thélème

 

“Do what thou wilt,” I faithfully reply, realising it’s the same motto of the Hellfire Club. With this I also recognise my foolishness.

Because men that are free, well-born, well-bred and conversant in honest companies have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us. ~François Rabelais, Abbey of Thélème

“Rabelais was a typical Renaissance man, with a vast encyclopaedic knowledge, a love of literature, a hatred for doctrines and a disdain for monastic life — which is of course the theme of Abbey of Thélème. It’s utopia in its very essence. And of course, we think the worst when we hear that all is possible. Everything goes. But this was not the likely outcome in Rabelais’ mind. In fact, he thought it would bring the opposite. Turn people to virtue rather than vice. The latter only coming into question when it’s being denied us.”

“It sounds like the perfect recipe for a relationship.”

“Yes, it’s what they call an open one.”

I wonder if he knows of my marital circumstances. His remark is rather sharp, stinging me where it pricks. I numb it with more wine, and as wine brings out the truth, it does so in me too.

“There is something I wanted to tell you.”

“About the Reaper?”

“No, not yet. Something else.” He doesn’t say anything but appears to be listening intently.

“Do you remember the note that fell out of the book in my library?” He raises an eyebrow but, besides this, shows no sign of knowledge or emotion to my question.

“The one that fell out of…The Lustful Turk,” I continue.

“What about it?”

“You wrote it.” It’s a bold statement, but yet again his face remains expressionless.

“84 Rue Saint-Honoré. Signed with a C.” I pause before adding, “C for Cyril.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Tell me the truth. Le Liberty. I know. I looked it up.”

“I’ve never heard of it. What is it?”

“It’s a sex club.”

“And what makes you think I wrote it. It dropped out of the book. Probably had been there long before I ever met you.”

“No, can’t be. The club has only existed for a few years. At least at that address.”

“Perhaps it’s from your husband. What is his name again?” I think about it briefly, but can’t remember ever mentioning Carl by name.

“Are you playing games with me?”

“What games?”

“This game. This. The Reaper murders. The insinuations. The leads that you throw out to me like pieces of dry bones to a faithful dog.”

“My dear Justine.” It sounds patronising but could have equally have been meant lovingly between two siblings. “I don’t know where you are getting all this from. Perhaps you should tell me instead what has happened. It’s the only way I can help you…if I can at all,” he adds.

“If I tell you, will you tell me the truth?” I query.

“If you tell the truth, so will I.”

I contemplate my options for a moment, weighing actions against consequences.

 

Eventually I decide I have nothing to lose and so I tell Cyril about my visit to Club Liberty.

“What happened there?”

“I had a drink. Perhaps two. It wasn’t very crowded, just a few people hanging at the bar. There was this man standing in a corner, looking at me. He made me feel rather uneasy. Moments later he walked up to me and grabbed me by the arm. And the he took me to this place…” I trail off, looking down at my plate, once more confronted with my actions and the sheer embarrassment they instil.

“What place did he take you to?”

“I’m embarrassed to say.” I hesitate for a moment. “A darkroom.”

“What a novelty,” he exclaims, clapping his hands. I say nothing.

“So what happened next?”

I still haven’t overcome my embarrassment as I try to figure out a way to reveal the delicate nature. “I don’t know how to say it.”

“The easiest way is to say it as it is.”

“Well, on that note…” I hesitate. “I was left in the darkroom, and someone or some people grabbed me from behind. Penetrated me.”

“With what?”

I am shocked at his inquisitiveness. Does it turn him on?

“They fucked me.”

“Did you like it?”

“No, Yes…I don’t know.” Tears are burning behind my eyes. I’m angry with myself for having brought up the damn note. It’s led me astray from the reason I’m here.

“I know you did Justine. Because I was there. I couldn’t see you, of course, as it was all dark, but I could hear your muffled gasps. I watched you the whole time – when light permitted me of course. But you never even noticed. Not even in the tunnel when I touched your hair.”

I can’t believe what I am hearing. This is all a game. One that should have ended a long time ago. One that should not even have started. So I stand up, throwing my linen napkin on the plate still holding a couple of uneaten hors d’œuvres. I take my bag and coat and walk to the door. Quick steps. Pressing down on the handle, the door doesn’t budge. It’s locked. There is no key.

I panic. I check my bag for my phone. It has no connection. What? How is this possible? I turn it off and on with the same result. No reach. I walk back to the dining room, but there is no sign of Cyril. I walk through the library. It is bathing in darkness and I pull out my phone for a bit of light. I reach the antechamber and the door that was previously locked. I find the key in the keyhole, and I’m not surprised to find the door slightly ajar. I sense something. A faint perfume lingering in the air perhaps? I couldn’t say for sure, but if so, it is one I have not previously encountered.

With a slight push the door opens. It creaks, like it hasn’t been oiled in years. I remember a story once told to me about the Nijo Palace in Kyoto. To protect the shogun from assassination attempts, the wooden floors, so called uguisu bari or “nightingale floors”, were constructed in such a way that they would creak from the faintest of touch. I sense a similar thought lies behind the unserviced door. Whatever the true reasons may be, my antagonist has by now been alerted and must know of my whereabouts.

The room ahead is vast. I can only make out its true dimensions through the intensity of the shadows. I use my phone once more for light and for the first time get a glimpse of what has been benighted so far. It appears to be a theatre, with row after row of seats formed in the shape of a hexagon. The top rows seem to offer mere standing room, with a total ceiling height exceeding four metres. The centre comprises of a raised platform, mirroring the shape of the room. On the platform stands a bed. It seems out of place, yet strangely not. My imagination doesn’t have to take leaps to figure out the activities it’s been used for. As I look around, the door closes behind me. I turn around but can’t see who’s there as a spotlight, or perhaps it’s a torch, shines in my face.

“Who’s there?” No reply, the light holds steady for a while before it goes out. I’m quick to get my phone light on again, but by the time it’s on, the man is gone.

“Cyril!” I call. To my surprise I hear a faint “hush”. A hand over my mouth and a strong grip on my arm.

“Don’t be alarmed. It’s only me. We have to get out of here.” Cyril opens up a small door hidden behind a curtained room, which appears to hold props of questionable nature. I only get a brief glance at what appears to be a riding whip and a horse head mounted on a broom handle. He gives me a push before closing the door. He picks up his own mobile, and together we light up a narrow corridor, no more than a metre wide, which walks in a straight angle before it ends at a plain wooden door. Cyril produces a key and unlocks it. The lock clicks as it opens and we step out into a dark, seemingly empty room.

“Where are we?” I whisper, not sure if danger is still an omnipresence. He ignores my remark and walks briskly with my arm in his firm grip until we arrive at a second door, which he opens with one of his keys. We are standing on an apartment landing, and it takes a few moments before I realise we are now in a different building all together. Cyril takes the lead, descending the staircase. Five flight of stairs and we’re out. He points to his electric blue Citroën, into which he jumps, opening it up from the inside for me. It strikes me to be a rather conspicuous colour for a get-away car, but I’m glad enough to be out of the apartment and decide against mentioning my observation.

We speed off into the Paris night. The car is cold. Cyril picks up a pack of Gauloises and offers me one. I take what’s on offer and let him light it for me. My hand is trembling with fear as I keep it jammed between my fingers.

“Are you scared, or just cold?” he asks, his speech miraculously unimpaired by his cigarette.

“The former more so than the latter.”

“There is no need to be. At least not now.”

“Where are we going?”

“To my flat. Which happens to be opposite your office.”

2009

The ending was neither swift nor brutal. I should perhaps rephrase the latter, as it was torturous at times, in its drawn-out death throes. Our therapy sessions were cancelled due to work overload on both sides, but we both knew this was just another attempt to mask the true reasons of pride and folly. After awhile I started to despise my husband. It came gradually. A creeping feeling that was intensified by his presence. As I would watch him secretively, observing his behaviour and reactions, I came to loathe the ordinary and prosaic nature that had become synonymous with my husband. If I once found his Swedish roots a source of interest and enchantment, I could now only find his cultural traits lacklustre and bland. His only obsessions were keeping tabs on our finances through overzealously managed spreadsheets and all manner of safety and security concerns. He would insist on wearing seatbelts even in a taxi or keeping all the windows under lock and bar at night.

Those little eccentricities that I had previously put down to quirkiness were now a source of ridicule. One day I could take it no longer. I am still surprised it took so long, but I suppose my husband had even instilled that: a sense of complacency that should have been completely foreign to my Gallic roots. The source of the argument escapes me, and it was probably petty in its nature. What’s more important is the anger that I unleashed on Carl, hurling physical and mental abuse as I could no longer stand his presence.

“Why don’t you get the fuck out of here? The mere sight of you makes me sick.” I spat out the last words and had to wipe froth from my mouth. He just stood there saying nothing, watching me with a stone cold face. He was grinding his teeth, the lower back jaw moving in a circular motion beneath his taut skin.

“Aren’t you going to say anything, you idiot? You fucking piece of shit. Why the fuck did I meet you?” I pushed him, over and over, yet he remained standing, only slightly wavering with each blow.

I said so many things, to which he remained silent. It was only the last that evoked a reaction.

“If it wasn’t for you killing our first baby, we wouldn’t be here now. We would still have Emmanuel. It’s all your fault. You and your stupid Swedish whore. Why the hell did you come back? Why? WHY??? Tell me!!!” I screamed the last part and hit him hard on his face. He appeared shocked. Like it was something he hadn’t expected. I also saw for the first time an immense sadness in his face. In all honesty it made me feel good as I hoped it measured up to a bit of the pain that I’d been made to carry.

He turned around and left. I could hear heavy steps up the stairs and scrambling sounds coming from the wardrobe. Two minutes later he was out of the house. I remained sobbing on the floor.

 

Carl didn’t come back, and when I didn’t hear anything by that evening I started to leave frantic messages on his voicemail. Even though whatever had been unleashed was a reflection of the truth I felt and lived, it also felt irrational and premature and I was not sure at all that the outcome was a desired one. If anything, I felt ashamed of my actions. I had become the bunny boiler every woman will testify is not in her character.

Instead of accelerating my alcohol and nicotine intake, I drowned my sorrows in my writing. As I flip through my notes, stained by blotches of ink having come undone from the contact of tears, a certain passage makes me pause. It seems rather fitting. I suppose it could have been contrived this very moment.

“How did it come to this? How did life – which once seemed so full of promise, like a budding rose hiding its true potential behind its verdant leaves – how did it crumble to nothing? When we see the warning signs, spelled out in capital letters, seeking to communicate with us, why do we dismiss them? Why do we continue to see what is not there, creating illusions of a promised future whilst ignoring the symptoms of our disease? Preferring to instil false hope in every molecule and atom inhabiting our corporal edifice. We do it so well it has become the illusion of mankind.

Yet as much as my rationale knows this, and to a certain degree can find peace and acceptance in this notion, I am desperately searching for the escape clause that will mitigate the inevitable. I’m ransacking my mind, going through a hundred different alternatives and options, and yet to what avail?

Tell me, where did we go so wrong?

It took a week before Carl returned. I had then resorted to stalking his work, his family and friends. His mother tried to talk some sense into me, but I didn’t want to listen, oscillating between malevolence and repentance. Somewhere in the middle laid my true feelings, but my state-of-mind was too confounded to accurately ascertain the exact nature.

When Carl eventually returned, my mind was on the brink of civil war. I had gone from remorse to retribution and back again. I had drawn up a dozen exit plans, including divorce and its possible aftermath. When Carl entered the house after a week, he looked dishevelled and smelt of liquor. I only needed one look to know passionate reconciliation was not in the cards. I asked him if he wanted anything to eat or drink but he ignored me, walking straight upstairs to the guestroom. I didn’t see him for the rest of the evening. In fact, I saw very little of him in the following weeks, but by then my anger had dissipated and status quo once more ruled between us. It was in this equilibrium we continued to live, two people formally known as husband and wife, who for whatever obscure reasons, chose to stay together. Was it for need of punishment or salvation or simply for fear of the unknown?

Summer – Autumn 2008

I stared into the thin air, my gaze blank and unblinking. It had been three weeks since we had come home to an empty house and a baby room that we knew would never be used. Carl asked Lillian to store it all away, but I think it was given to a charity in the end because I could find no traces of our Emmanuel whom we had only weeks ago been expecting. Those days are hazy, and you have to forgive me for failing to remember what exactly transpired. I can only remember staying in bed for the first week, eating little besides the soup and bread that had been prepared. When no one was around, I would bellow out my sorrows, letting my tears fill up my eyes, my chest exploding with pain until nothing was left but emptiness. And so my days went by in a haze, until I removed myself from bed to wander the house, finding comfort in trickles of light that penetrated drawn curtains. There I would sit for what seemed like hours until darkness once again descended.

We never spoke about it. It was like an unwritten rule that we both respected – perhaps Carl more so than me. Whilst I didn’t find need for company, actively seeking to repel any attempt sought by my husband, Carl tried to accommodate my wishes. He eventually left the house, going back to work, staying away long enough to find his wife asleep on his return. But most of the time I was not, lying awake in an overcast room filled with shadows of various densities. In hindsight, as I look back, my husband and I never talked about what happened to us. We never talked, full stop, always allowing silence to speak for our pain and shortcomings. In truth I don’t know what Carl felt. There was of course a terminated pregnancy lurking in the past. I can’t deny there were times I felt that God had punished us for failing to respect the very sacredness of human life. And, as if God’s judgement was not harsh enough, I sought out means of self-destruction that would only amplify my suffering. In some ways it became a panacea for my deeply perturbed soul.

I rarely ate, and my weight plummeted to a svelte forty-eight kilos. Regaining my figure became an obsession and I spent hours in the evenings running on the treadmill until spells of dizziness set in. My body became an instrument of control, which I used with great success to supress my feelings of loss. The baby boy we had once expected became a muffled memory who only made himself heard in my dreams. In those dreams he was a boy with dark, wavy hair and immense blue eyes that would look at me with great sadness as I purposely rejected him, leaving him outside of a shop or restaurant in his baby pram as I walked away. I would wake up to the feeling of a cold, moist pillow and I would know I had been crying.

 

Six weeks later I was back at work. My staff was supportive, but as the manager in charge, I never felt I could wholeheartedly allow them into my life. Perhaps I never could allow anyone in, and the few friends I had dwindled to south of nought. But work proved a great escape, and somehow, despite an impending recession, it picked up through my sheer effort in rekindling every contact I had in the industry. It worked, and once again our office was buzzling with activity.

 

Amélie, who I considered my closest confident, a girl in her mid-thirties with blonde flowing hair, full hips and an ample bosom, came one day into my office with some great news. Our company had been accepted to do the research for a TV show called The Mysteries of History for a global history channel. It was a deal worth a six-figure sum and would take us from a small company with global ambitions to a world-wide player in the field. Two weeks later we were on a plane to London to sign the deal that would take us to stardom. Or so it felt in our own world where little else mattered beyond old codices and remnants of lost civilizations.

 

It was a late-August afternoon. The weather carried a suppressive atmosphere, and the portable fans worked at full speed to cool off the temperature that was threatening to break into the thirties. Mr Fowler pushed the contract over to me, which had been reviewed and reworked by our lawyers over the past weeks before it had reached its final version. I put my signature on the papers and heard a massive “ka-ching” reverberate in my mind.

 

We celebrated our success that evening. Amélie and I roamed the clubs of London before dropping into our hotel beds just short of sunrise. The next morning we had a briefing that would take us through the project, which was to span one season of ten TV episodes with an option to be extended pending viewer ratings and the satisfaction of our client. Several of the episodes were traditional mysteries known to the public. There was the mystery of Mary Celeste, the ghost ship found drifting the Atlantic Ocean; there was Rennes le Chateau, a riddle well known to me as a French historian who more often than not dabbled in esoterica; the third episode scheduled to air was about the Holy Grail; Atlantis and the Shroud of Turin made up episodes four and five. Episodes six and seven were both of personal interest to me: was there ever a female pope, and who was the black Madonna? Eight, nine and ten were still open for discussion, and the agenda covered the brainstorm of such topics. Before long the discussions took a more sinister turn.

“We have quite a few suggestions here, mainly thanks to Amélie and Andrew.” Mr Fowler winked in the direction of my colleague. It was clear the two of them had hit it off more than professionally.

“What about you, Justine? You’ve been rather quiet this whole time.” This was true. I was still nursing a headache from the night before with an arsenal of painkillers, Evian and coffee. None seemed to work, which rendered me both thoughtless and speechless. His comment jogged me back to life though and killed my headache in one blow. I looked at the flip chart covering enigmas such as the Bible Code, the Easter Islands, the Ley Lines and Secret Societies with offshoots such as the Freemasons, the Bilderberg, the Illuminati, the New World Order (although technically this was an objective and strategy more than an society), the Rosicrucians, the secret bloodlines, and others lesser known.

“We need more that is dark, sinister and provocative,” I suggested.

“I hear you. Go on.” Mr. Fowler stood with his legs apart, stroking his chin.

“Of course, there are famous mysteries such as Jack the Ripper and the Manson murders, which would serve very well as entertainment. But there are even better ones – and perhaps lesser known.”

“Such as?”

“Such as Gilles de Rais, Thomas de Torquemada and Rasputin, to name but a few. Add on top of that Elizabeth Bathory and Madame LaLaurie.” I saw some people raising an eyebrow, others looking perplexed. Elizabeth Bathory was known to most as the female Count Dracula but few had heard of the horrors of Madame LaLaurie.

“Think New Orleans, 1800s. A striking woman who is the epitome of French Creole society gets her pleasures out of sadistically torturing her male and female slaves. A French-born husband — and a doctor at that — stands by her in her experiments of creating new creatures out of her human victims. They even said they found a slave made into a human crab with his arms and legs attached in reverse.” I paused for effect. “In fact they said Idi Amin did the same to his wife who was pregnant with his child.” Blank stares met me, and this invigorated me even further, as topics fell off my tongue in a steady cascade.

“What about the Marquis de Sade, the origins of sadomasochism (very few people know of von Sacher-Masoch’s contribution to the infamous word), Bodysnatchers, snuff movies and hunts for humans (I was referring to the obscure and often forgotten book The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, where a Russian aristocrat hunts shipwrecked sailors on his island).”

“OK, hold on. I need some time to write these down. It’s good, though. Very good. And precisely why we hired your company.” He sped up in his writing, making it almost unreadable as he slanted his words more to the right the longer he continued.

“Does anyone else have anything to add to this?” There was a moment of silence, as if continuing in the line of thought I had just opened would indicate an indisputably warped and twisted mind. And perhaps it did, as most people remained silent whilst only a few followed in my path.

By the early evening we had worked out a format and topics for shows to last for at least five seasons to come. If success was to be ours remained to be seen, but I was cautiously optimistic. And the dark-side angle would later prove not to be entirely out of our depth.

We began our research the following week with the aim to start production in late autumn. The first episode was set to air the following April, but as it covered a lot of ground, we were in for an uphill battle. I have to admit it all was a welcome distraction from a marriage ridden with plights and failures. And despite my newfound devotion, the loss of Emmanuel was never far away.

Carl seemed resigned to the fact that our relationship was heading for an irreparable, if not permanent breakdown. We made a half-hearted attempt to seek counselling in the weeks before Christmas. We talked about our recent sorrows and a past that we both held each other accountable for. But the aim to heal only seemed to aggravate the wounds that time after time were reopened and rubbed with the salt of our bitter discussions. We entered Christmas with a truce, and spent the holidays holed up in our house, trying to keep the Christmas spirit within the confinement of our walls. Looking back on it, I think it was a last-ditch attempt to salvage our marriage.

January – June 2008

If anything was going to heal the turbulent years of our relationship, a baby was. Or perhaps this is what a woman seeks to believe when she finds herself fighting for her marriage. However banal it may seem, there was a certain truth to it. Because despite raging hormones with subsequent tearful outbursts, our marriage did go through what seemed like a renaissance at the time. The arguments stopped dead in their tracks and the myth of a blooming pregnancy seemed to hold firm.

Three months into my pregnancy we had our first scan. Carl was happy for the sex to remain a well-protected secret, but I was anxious to know. Thinking back, I suppose I wanted to plan for the perfect family in a world that had become increasingly unpredictable and hostile. It was a Thursday morning and we had both taken off from work to finally meet our new family member. The midwife applied gel to my stomach, which was still merely a hard bump, much the shape of a large pomegranate.

“This is going to be cold,” she warned me. She applied the gel and brought the transducer to my belly, slowly moving it around, allowing for the transmitted echoes to translate into image.

“It all looks good,” she shared in an upbeat, sing-songy voice. She smiled at us, the way I would imagine she would do to most couples, calming their nerves.

“Can you see if it’s a boy or girl?” I asked. “We are really eager to know.”

“Well, Justine is.” Carl amended, stroking my cheek in the process.

“You can’t always tell. You are now, according to the scan, twelve weeks and six days – so almost 13 weeks. So it’s with about eighty per cent accuracy I can tell you. Let me see…” She continued probing my stomach. “Here I think… Yes here, looks like you are having a boy. Congratulations!”

I looked at Carl and he at me. His eyes were radiant as he brought my hand he’d been holding to his lips.

We left the clinic sharing an intimate secret no one else was privy to. It was ours and ours alone, and somehow it fused us together forming a unity beyond our mortal souls. Carl became very protective of me. Although I had stopped smoking the moment my pregnancy had been confirmed, Carl insisted on quitting too. His interests took on new directions, most notably that of organic food and alcohol-free wines. His obsessions with our baby’s health went as far as banning me from my daily gym sessions, fearing the baby would get overheated from my vigilant exercising. As I saw my weight ballooning and was not overly happy with his restrictive measures, I turned to yoga. Once again we had reached an equilibrium, which seemed to remain unthreatened.

Despite Carl’s concerns about my ever-increasing workload, which I barely managed through delegation to a growing team, I decided to move offices to a grand suite of rooms on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I’d been lucky: a friend of a friend who was the owner offered me a good rental contract for a five-year period. We moved in April, which Carl insisted on overseeing given the pregnancy, which was in its fifth month. I once again conceded, knowing that there were only four months until the onset of freedom. The offices were clean but needed redecoration. It was beyond our budget, so we furnished it with 70s-style vintage finds, giving it an edgy and arty look.

The move allowed me to get out of the house and away from Carl’s concerns, and as I entered the third trimester I was feeling positively energetic and blooming. The baby, which we had provisionally named David, although we wavered in our opinion to names such as Jonathan or Christopher, was due on August 29. Right after moving office, we turned our attention to the baby room. It was to be a dream in white, blue and green. After repainting the room and installing the last furniture — a baby cot, a cupboard, a chest of drawers and a cream sofa — we stood together like the proudest of parents-to-be, gazing upon our material creation. We both knew it was just weeks before we would live through a far greater experience, the birth of our much-longed-for son. We had entered the final stretch where the weeks could be counted on two hands.

It was an early morning that took over from a restless night. As the weeks had progressed, sleep came in clusters of three or four hours. I would feel our baby probing and kicking, keeping me awake – yet the very same movements would lull me back to sleep. This time was different, though, and although I had slept through most of the night, it was ridden with nightmares. I was happy to be awake, praying for the light to dispel the last bit of darkness that had plagued my nocturnal mind. I probed my belly, connecting with our baby son. But there was no response. I poked and pushed, my fingertips digging into my taught, oval midriff. As I continued, without any reaction, an overwhelming sense of dread came over me. I shook my husband, who sat up with a jolt.

“What’s going on? What’s the matter?” He looked disoriented and bewildered, staring at me with wide eyes.

“Something is wrong with our baby,” I cried, almost gasping for air as I uttered the words that were the worst fear of any parents to be.

“What’s wrong, honey? Tell me.” His eyes dashed from my face to my belly.

“I can’t feel him. He’s not kicking. Something is wrong, I know it.” I cried out, one of those howls that only death can instigate. My husband threw himself on his cell phone, and within moments, although it felt like ages, he was connected to an emergency operator. I cradled my belly and felt with my fingers inside of my panties for any signs. A trickle of blood connected with my fingertips, confirming something was desperately wrong.

We arrived at the maternity unit in under thirty minutes. Carl tried to soothe me, but it was a half-hearted attempt as I saw what can only be described as subliminal fear in his eyes. I lied down on the examination table while the female doctor asked me a number of routine questions. How far was I in the pregnancy? Had there been any complications previously? Was there any vaginal discharge or bleeding? I answered no to all of these except for the last before she explained to me the procedure and started by turning on the Doppler heart-rate monitor.

I had heard this many times before, always assured of the swishing sounds that it transmitted. At first there was a faint sound, which she explained was the movement of embryotic fluid. She tried to locate the heartbeat, but there was none. She called for a nurse asking for an ultrasound machine to be brought in. An uncomfortable silence filled the room, but I didn’t have the bravery to break it.

“What does this mean?” Carl finally asked. I could see little pearls of sweat forming at his hairline until one escaped, eventually clinging to the edge of an eyebrow.

“We don’t know yet. I need see the results of the ultrasound before I can say more.”

“But it doesn’t look good, does it?”

The doctor waited for a short moment before answering, “No, no it doesn’t.

I was glad for Carl to quit his inquiries when the ultrasound machine rolled in. The doctor told me to relax while she conducted the exam. She could turn away the screen if I didn’t want to see it, but I told her I wanted to. From this moment on Carl was to be excluded from a road exclusively travelled by women. His questions and opinions carried little weight, as I took centre stage to events that paradoxically were outside of my control.

“I am sorry Mrs Bertrand, but there is no sign of your baby’s heartbeat. We will do a final test measuring your hCG levels to determine a possible miscarriage.” She asked the nurse who was now on standby to prepare for a blood test, which would be sent to the lab for analysis straight away.

I was given a private room in the maternity ward, safely away from any confrontation of childbirth and its aftermath. They hooked me onto a drip and a nurse came to check for any foetal heart rate every other hour. But I knew in my heart my baby was lost, lying still and lifeless inside my broken womb.

The final results, and what seemed like a coup de grâce to our parental desires, came the following morning when a male obstetrician who I’d not encountered previously came in to inform us of the news we’d dreaded. The baby had died for unknown reasons and we would have to prepare ourselves for the birth. I looked away, gazing as far as I could into the Paris skyline that graced my view. And so I can hardly remember what was being said. Only that the birth was to take place the following day.

Although I was given the choice, I was told it would be better for my physical as well as mental wellbeing if I opted for a natural birth. Despite what my fears might have been previously when I’d insisted on a Caesarean, I gave way. Little else mattered and somehow I hoped the mental pain could be obliterated by that of the physical. They induced the labour around midday, breaking the water through a rupture to the amniotic sac, bringing with it a strand of our baby’s hair.

“Your baby has brown hair,” he said. Despite the sadness that I felt — the sadness we all felt — it gave us a glimmer of hope. In the end of it all a little gift would be born, straight into heaven.

At 2 PM I was ready to push, holding my thighs wide apart through the soaring pain that now had moved from my lower back down the birth canal and to the opening. It only took five pushes, and a little baby boy, clad in white mucus but perfectly complete, entered this world. What struck me the most was the silence. There were no rushing or hushing, no cheers of joy. And most poignant of all, there were no baby cries. I was cheated the cries I had eagerly anticipated for seven months. They placed our little son, who looked so small yet so perfect, on my chest. An overwhelming sense of love washed over me, so profound there are no words for it. I kept rocking our son, back and fourth, telling him I would never leave him, despite knowing I could not uphold such promise.

We decided to call our baby Emmanuel, not the name we’d previously agreed on. It seemed fitting as it meant God is with us — the only consolation we now hung on to. The next hours were spent in his company, as he laid fully dressed in clothes that seemed more fitting for a doll. The nurse took prints of his hands and feet, and a piece of the little hair he was born with was cut off for keepsake. We made a book from it, and now as I face the prospects of divorce, I wonder who will get to keep it.

We were allowed to keep Emmanuel for one night before saying our final goodbyes. I slept deeply that night. Finally at peace. The next morning I woke up early and instinctively turned to my son, who was now a purple grey. I took him to my chest, kissing his little blue lips. They were so cold to the touch. I recall thinking that whenever I would touch something cold again it would remind me of kissing my beautiful son. To this day it still does.

Emmanuel was buried five days later at the Grenelle cemetery. He was interred into the family mausoleum with the words “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever”.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I have nightmares. Dark, unsettling, they overwhelm me, taking a firm grip over my own reality. I dream of a man, bearing a close resemblance to the taxi driver, yet I know it’s not him. He asks me to follow him into the woods. I hesitate and he asks, “Don’t you trust me?” His eyes look sad and I feel sorry for him. So I follow, against my better judgement. We come to a little cabin that has a padlock on the door. He opens it and tells me to step inside. It’s dark, there are shutters over the windows and only a few dots of light have managed to penetrate, now dots of sunlight on the wooden floor. He closes the door behind me and I feel a hand over my mouth. He pushes a dirty cloth into it before shoving me to the floor. A blade flashes and I feel an immense soaring pain. I wake up with a muted scream. It’s dark and the street is still quiet. Carl is asleep, turned away from me. He must have come back late as I can’t recall his return. I watch him for a while, tracing his pale back with my eyes. In contrast to my own emotional turmoil, he looks peaceful and serene. Like the tribulations of last year haven’t even touched him. I envy his calm in a time I’m convinced I’m about to lose it all, including my sanity.

 

I go downstairs to make myself some coffee. I’m not sure if it’s the caffeine or just the unsettling dream, but I’m wide awake. So I go back to my drawing board, continuing to make connections between victims and perpetrator. There are a few things that have come to light:

–       Marie Laroche and Leila Girard had been roommates and worked at the same establishment. Leila knew a Madame Douleur, who had also been a roommate.

–       Leila had a regular client, a young man, tall with dark wavy hair. Possibly a student and/or artist. He was never seen again after her disappearance.

–       Jean-Marie was a man linked to Catherine, the 7th murder victim. Then in his mid-to-late forties, around 1.70 metres with a slim frame. He was possibly seen years later in a bar in Pigalle.

–       Catherine frequented some high-society parties. These appear to be linked to sex parties at a Parisian apartment. Taxi driver Davids alludes to a sex ring, which revolved/revolves around hardcore/extreme sex.

–       Apartment – could it be160 Rue de l’Université?

There are several loose ends to be investigated and, after considering my notes, I decide to start with Madame Douleur. She proves easy to find, as sex, mainstream or not, always advertises itself on the web. Madame Douleur has one of those amateur websites that sprang up in the wake of the internet boom. It’s simple HTML 4.0, but has indexed well over time under keywords such as Paris Porn, French Dominatrix and Paris BDSM. It’s a dark website — in many ways suitable to what it promotes — with white contrasting text and some flashing stars that pain my eyes. There are several pictures of Madame Douleur, each in a variation of the same outfit: a PVC catsuit without the tail. Probing further, I find a whole gallery with Madame in action, subjecting her voluntary victims to great pain. Their eyes are obscured with black stripes, but one can still discern the feeling of pleasure and pain mixing in their facial expressions.

I search further for contact details, but there is only a contact form available. I fill this out, asking her for a private audience concerning a matter of great urgency. I end it with my newly acquired alias: Severine.

To my surprise I receive a response only minutes later. Madame Douleur would like to know more. I shoot off an email, explaining my investigation and that I got her details through Mademoiselle Dehasse. I sign it off with my real signature, giving further credence to my inquiry.

This time there is no response. I decide to leave it, and I’m just about to log off when I hear someone behind me. Carl is standing in the doorway, leaning against its frame.

“Honey,” I start with an expression of surprise, “I didn’t see you.” He mutters something inaudible and walks away. I follow the echo of his padding feet against the wooden floor until it ebbs out. Moments later I hear rummaging in the kitchen.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I’m sitting at Café Marie on Rue de Chabrol. It’s 10 minutes to four as I’ve made sure I’m early. There are not many people on the premise. A young man in his mid-twenties is standing behind the counter. He looks to be Algerian, which I ascertain to be a correct assumption as behind him hangs a poster of the Martyrs Monument in Algiers. One other client sits in a corner reading a newspaper while drinking mint tea. When the Algerian asks what I would like I order the same.

The taxi driver comes in nearly half an hour later. He throws a quick glance at the wall clock before apologizing for being late. I tell him it’s fine and he takes a seat in front of me. I notice he’s been drinking. His breath smells of hard liquor, vodka I think, but I’m not sure. For the first time I’m getting a good look at his face. His features are heavy yet pleasant to watch. He could be an ageing businessman, if it weren’t for his tell-tale red nose that seems so out of place. This also confirms my first impression. His eyes are droopy yet kind, and his cheeks puffy with heavy nasal folds. His mouth is full, lending him an almost feminine appearance. It is a likable man that looks back at me. I ask him if he would like something to drink and he puts up a request for a Schweppes Bitter Lemon. I call for the man behind the counter who takes the order. He nods at the taxi driver, acknowledging an, if however slight, acquaintance.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” I ask. There is officially a smoking ban in France, but there are places where such restrictions are not given much heed. This is one of them.

“I stopped years ago. It was my doctor. Told me I had two problems: my cholesterol and my nicotine. I used to roll my own, you see.” I immediately think to myself that he has left out one crucial fact: the alcohol. For whatever reason, this is a vice that he prefers to keep to himself.

“So you want to hear what I know, right? Madame…?”

“Justine Bertrand. Call me Justine. “

“Edgar Davids.” He stretches out his hand and I take it.

“Like the football player?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“Exactly, like the football player indeed.” To which he breaks into rather jovial laughter.

We go on chit-chatting, carefully avoiding the topic, although Monsieur Davids has already mentioned it. Somehow I find it difficult to raise the subject, until out of the blue Davids exclaims, “Did you know, she used to sit at this very table? Having her late-morning breakfast. Or brunch, as the Americans say.” He chuckles at his ingenuity. Something he does more often during the course of conversation.

“How did you meet?” I ask.

“She was my neighbour. Moved in around Christmastime the year before. I saw her carrying boxes up and down and offered to help. There wasn’t a lot of furniture though, just some carton boxes, a bed, table, chairs and TV. But it was late and the lift was of course very small, so we were both dirty and hungry by the time all of it was upstairs. I offered her a shower, which she accepted. Then I cooked us some dinner. Eventually we ended up talking until the wee hours of the morning.”

“Sounds like you became quite close rather quickly.”

“Yes, in fact, we did. Especially in the beginning. She needed some help with shelves and lamps, installing a washing machine, that sort of things.” He takes a few gulps from his soda, then releases a burp, which he pardons before continuing, “I was happy to help out. She was a lovely girl.”

“Did you know about her background, what she was doing back then?”

“No, of course not. I had my suspicions, but I only found out after a ride where I dropped off a client at a side street of Rue St-Denis. She was there, applying her trade. Not dressed as most girls were. Very conservative, actually: just jeans and a t-shirt. I always saw her like that so I never really made the connection. But in any case, she didn’t see me and it wasn’t until a few weeks later when she knocked on my door to fix a light switch that we started to talk about it.”

“How did you manage to bring up something of such delicate nature?”

“Well, it wasn’t easy, I can tell you. Didn’t want to insult the girl. But eventually I summoned up courage and told her I had seen her talking to a punter in a car.”

“How did she react?”

“At first with silence. Then she started to talk. We ended up having dinner that evening. First time — and only time as I come to think about it — that she cooked for me. Although her story wasn’t perhaps unusual, it wasn’t the typical one either. Both her parents were alive, and by the sounds of it, she had a good relationship with them. She came from Marseille — but I think I told you that already. Had a boyfriend there who had gotten them into some trouble. Some loan sharks she told me. I got the feeling he might have been connected with the mafia. Or at least on the wrong side of what is right. She left for Paris, figuring she would earn more without putting shame on her family. She made it sound so easy, but I don’t think it was. It never is for these girls.”

“No, I suppose not,” I concede.

“So tell me, you mentioned seeing Catherine with someone around the time she disappeared.”

“Yes, that’s right. Well, it was a few weeks before her disappearance. I met her downstairs as I was walking out the front door. She was on her way in, holding a huge bouquet of flowers. Trailing her was a man, maybe late forties, perhaps somewhat older.”

“What did he look like?”

“Well, usually I don’t recall someone’s face after such a long time, but then I saw him again, it must have been a year or two later. I was in a bar in Pigalle watching a football game and I see this man, spitting image, sitting in a corner with a girl. I watched him for some time, which must have made him uneasy, and soon afterwards they left, their drinks barely touched.”

“Do you still recall how he looked?”

“Yes, I do as a matter of fact. He was quite short, perhaps 1.70, slim, salt-and-pepper hair. And I know this sounds like any average Joe, but what set him apart was his moustache. Who wears moustache nowadays?” He flays with his arms. Short, fierce gestures  — like an Italian would do at such banality.

“What was his name again?”

“Jean-Marie — like my father.”

“Is there anything else you can remember? Did she ever talk about having a boyfriend or lover?”

He looks at his hands, which he holds in a sturdy grip, one wrapped around the other. “I don’t know. Perhaps she might have. I think I did see her one time before what was to be the last. I recall asking her about the man she’d been with and she smiled. Said it was early days but things were looking good. She even considered quitting the streets. I can’t recall how we ended the conversation, but I don’t think there was more to it.”

“And then she vanished?”

“Yes, the she vanished…I suppose a day or two after the last time I saw her. She was in a hurry. We didn’t really talk apart from saying hello.”

“Did you hear anything after that? Noise from her apartment?”

“No, nothing. Not until the police started to nose around.”

I nod in an attempt to show both understanding and gratitude for the information he’s provided.

“And what about the other girls? Did you know any of them?”

“No, one or two looked familiar. Might have seen them around or had them in my cab.”

“Mmm,” I nod again.

“Do you know of a Madame Douleur?

“Who doesn’t? She’s a famous Mistress in the BDSM scene. How come you ask?”

“Well…” I catch myself changing my mind about what I am about to say. “Perhaps I should tell you a little bit more about my inquiries.” He doesn’t say anything, but I can see from his eyes he’s listening.

“Some time ago, I found a necklace supposedly belonging to Catherine.” I get my phone out and flick through the images until I find the one I’m looking for.

“Here,” I show him. He takes the phone from my hand, studying the image. “Did you ever see Catherine wearing it? If you look at the next picture you can see an inscription with her name.” He tries to scroll to the next image, but accidently goes too fast and skips it.

“What’s this?” he asks, showing me an image with all the jewellery side by side.

“Well, that’s something I’d like to know too. It was shown to me by someone I know. Catherine’s necklace together with other jewellery found in a secret chamber beneath a basement here in Paris. In the Paris catacombs.”

“Holy Mary, you’ve got to be joking!” He looks honestly surprised.

“No, I wish…but I’m not. I am now investigating it. My background is in historical investigations. I run my own company providing such services.” I hand him my card. He places it between his thumbs and index fingers, studying it at length. I can see any apprehension he had about this conversation is dissipating.

“Justine — if I may call you by your first name. There is one thing you should perhaps know. I am not sure if it’s of any importance or value to you, but it’s the only thing I’ve carried with me, not having the balls, I suppose, to come forward with it.” He’s reaching for his glass of soda but discovers it is empty.

“Mahmoud, a Stella Artois please.” He waits for his beer to arrive before continuing.

“Well, as I said, Christine and I became quite close. I cooked for her numerous times, and on a few occasions she disclosed some things that, if I think about it now, she might not have intended to. But I think I was one of the few she could really confide in. Anyways, whatever the reasons, she told me – and this must have been a few months before her murder – that she had been invited to some parties that were frequented by people in the high society, the establishment so to speak. I am not sure how she knew this because she never seemed particularly interested in politics and that sort of things. At first they were regular parties, more like cocktail parties, from what I understand. But later they seemed to have turned into something more sinister. She told me, being a bit tipsy, as we’d both had our fair share to drink that evening, that there was this location, an apartment in Paris, she’d been invited to. She said she felt uneasy there, and I asked her why. She told me it was a sex party, but not the normal kind. I asked her again what she meant and she said something like, “Think about sex where everything goes. Everything.” I told her to get out of whatever she had gotten herself into, but she said she couldn’t. She had already seen too much. I asked her what but she wouldn’t say.”

“Why didn’t you tell this to the police?”

“Because they are already involved.”

“You mean like a sex ring?” He nods and I can see fear in his face. He clams up after this. I ask a few more questions to which he only nods or hums in acknowledgement. The whole conversation fizzles out and, a little after five, we part ways. He asks me to keep his name and information confidential and I promise I will.

 

I decide to walk home to clear my mind, which is in disarray. I feel like I am being drawn into something dark and sinister beyond my control. The little light that is still shining over the union of Carl and I is rapidly fading, leaving us in the shadows of its once radiant luminescence. With my husband slipping away — the only one able to save me — the force that pulls me can no longer be kept at bay.

 

The weather has turned mild, a consequence of the dense mist that has moved inland. Despite the poor visibility I continue on foot. People as well as buildings appear greyed out, as I walk in this city of ghosts. Sound carries with greater speed than visuals, which only become apparent at close range. I can hear a couple arguing, the woman shouting in an attempt to vocally overpower what I presume is her boyfriend. I must have startled her as I pass because she stops in her tracks, only to resume at a safe distance.

 

I’m home some two hours later. There is a voicemail from Carl explaining he will be home late. He sounds sombre and dismal, yet ends his short monologue with “I love you”. If loneliness were a tangible substance, it would be thick enough to cut with a knife. I sit down on our bed, contemplating whether I should call my husband and come clean. But fear is stronger than reason, so I click the call away before a connection is made.

2007

We threw ourselves into work with great intensity and vigour. I didn’t see much of Carl as we both kept odd hours. My focus became my business, which grew in assignments. It generated a comfortable income, sustaining a not-too-overly ambitious lifestyle, with wine, cigarettes and dining out as our only foibles. I recruited my first assistant and later on my first fulltime researcher to support my workload. At this point we were still small enough to work out of my house, the souterrain level appointed as our workspace. I worked diligently, often waking up before eight o’clock to the sound of my husband’s departure, upon which I would pull out my laptop from underneath the bed and go through my emails. After a small break for a shower and breakfast I would descend the exactly forty-four steps and greet my staff, who had arrived in the last hour. I suppose they became my extended family, accompanying me to afternoon gym sessions and Thursday dinners. I would often stay late in the office, and only very rarely would my husband visit me. More often that not, we would meet in bed, only to find one of us sleeping. As we lived our lives in parallel, our weekends became our only time for marital bliss. But bliss and felicity soon turned into affliction and woe as we drifted further and further apart as husband and wife, and perhaps more so as man and woman. Soon even our weekends were spent independently, pursuing our diverse interests that never seemed to coincide.

One morning, I woke up later that usual. I realised I hadn’t heard the door slam, a sound that had become louder and louder with time. I walked downstairs to find my husband regarding a cup of coffee with great intensity.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, after taking a seat across from him. He remained utterly silent for what seemed like minutes and continued to observe the cup of coffee, which had by now been emptied of its contents.

“Are you going to talk to me?” I tried again. This time he looked up, his eyes red and sunken, as if he’d spent his night in unrest or just been crying. I was afraid both were true.

“I want a divorce,” he said in a quiet almost inaudible voice.

“I’m sorry?” I responded, not knowing if I heard him right.

“I want a divorce,” he repeated, this time with more strength and resolve. My heart started to pound and, if I hadn’t been sitting down, I am sure I would have fainted, because I could feel the blood leaving my head and, for a moment, my focus blurred. As much as I tried I couldn’t come up with a response, eventually conjuring up a lame, “But why?”

“This is not what I want,” he replied.

“What is not what you want?” I retorted.

“This, us, how we live our lives.”

“Do you still love me?” My heart was beating even faster now in anticipation of the final death knell. He waited for a long time before answering, but his answer only bewildered me more.

“Yes.” He waited before adding, “But it’s not going to work. Not like this, anyways.” I wanted to take his hands from his cup, circle them with mine, but decided against it. Instead we sat in silence until our housekeeper walked in.

“I’ve got to go,” he concluded. Moments later I heard the door. This time it was a mere click.

I couldn’t leave what had just happened behind me, but I forced myself to get on with my day, which included an all-important meeting with a potential client. I cancelled my later appointments and entered our living quarters before the workday was over, anticipating my husband’s arrival at any moment. But he never came home and my calls were rejected. It was only hours later, as I rummaged through his personal belongings, that I noticed his suitcase was gone along with some clothes, aftershave and his toothbrush. There was no letter or note, just an empty feeling of loss.

I continued to leave numerous messages on his voicemail, and when I called his work I was told he was off on personal leave. No further explanation was given, and I realised I was in for a waiting game until he decided to contact me.

He came back on the Sunday, four days after his departure. Instead of using his key he knocked on the door. It was raining and his hair was curly from the drizzle.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“Sure,” I replied, opening the door enough to allow him to pass through. His bag brushed by my leg and I stretched my hand out to take it, but it remained in my husband’s firm grip.

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes,” he admitted, allowing a brief smile to escape his lips.

We walked into the kitchen and I fried up some deep-frozen pyttipanna, which we’d bough en masse on an earlier IKEA visit. We ate in silence, occasionally stopping for a sip of wine.

Upon finishing, I pushed my plate to the side and reached out my hands towards my husband’s. He hesitated for a moment before responding. I rested my hands in his, squeezing my fingertips into his palms. Not knowing what to say, I said just that. A faint smile passed his lips.

“I don’t know either.”

“I still love you,” I countered.

“I still love you too.”

“I want to make this work,” I pleaded. “Spend more time together, re-evaluate our priorities, our future.”

“Yes. But it’s not going to be easy, though. We both need to change.”

“I know,” I agreed, yet not fully knowing what he meant.

Change did come, although not exactly in the way I had anticipated. We turned a new leaf, cut down on our work hours, and spent more time in each other’s company. The love that had once been so evident returned, and as spring turned into summer, l’amour was in full bloom. Carl would surprise me with improvised dinners, and I would take him on excursions beyond Paris’ typical tourist attractions. I would tell him of history less known, recounting Marie-Antoinette’s last days in the Conciergerie, the so-called antechamber to the guillotine, or the murder of Marat forever epitomized by the hands of David. Or the story of the vanishing hotel room during the Paris 1889 exhibition. It welded our worlds and interests once more to something unique and unparalleled and only shared by the two of us.

I can’t recall the exact moment of our decision, but during one of our intimate talks that had by now supplanted the void once there, we decided to try for a baby. We were both ready to take on the commitment that parenting required, and perhaps for more self-serving reasons, create a legacy beyond ourselves. I set out with great enthusiasm, measuring hormone levels whilst being extra vigilant to that familiar pang of pain that would announce an imminent ovulation. I would call my husband, requiring his prompt attendance, and any planned engagements would be subsequently cancelled. Although I could work up arousal on demand, Carl could not, and I knew I was treading a thin line, balancing the act of requirements with buoyance. But four months later, we had seemingly done the impossible, and yet again I was staring down at two stripes of blue.

September – November 2006

Three months after our wedding we booked an impromptu honeymoon to India. Our funds were limited, so with two backpacks filled to the brim with shorts and t-shirts, flip-flops and a second-hand Lonely Planet, we arrived at Delhi Airport in the midst of September. The monsoon season was waning and the temperatures were still hovering above the mid-twenties.

We landed in the early evening at the capital airport. The arrival hall was overcrowded as we tried to push past businessmen, backpackers and a third category I simply couldn’t put a label to. After much hustling we made our way to the exit. The first thing that hit me was the earthy heat followed by the smell. A sweet smell mixed with sweat and dirt. Then came the crowd. A wall of flesh descending upon us, we navigated through endless bodies of people and cattle. I let Carl lead the way until he came upon a rickshaw. I’m not sure who was more happy about our chance meeting, the driver or us. In any case, he whisked us away for a fare of ten Rupees, most likely overpriced, but our gratitude knew no bounds.

 

When we arrived at the hotel it was dark. The street bustled with people, mixing locals with travellers. Every single rambling house had been converted to a guesthouse with the exception of a few small restaurants that lined the street. The rickshaw driver pulled over and brought us to the reception where he talked to the manager. I saw money exchanging hands before he left us to our fate. The man at the reception asked for our passports and took our most significant details. We paid three days up front for a room with air-conditioning and a communal shower and toilet. Our quarter was small, little larger than the double bed that was parked in one corner, leaving less than four square metres of surface for our belongings. But it was clean, with the exception of a few cockroaches that crawled our walls.

Hunger was permeating my stomach, stirring up a rumbling, churning noise. It was already past midnight and most restaurants were long since closed. But we found a little stall that served scrambled eggs on white bread. I had three before my hunger pangs were satisfied.

I don’t think anything prepared me for life as a backpacker. We were both inexperienced, far removed from the hippy and drug-infested traveller communities that had taken over the Indian peninsula. I smelled the sweet odour of marijuana at every block and corner, despite the lingering promise of police clampdowns. But as the weeks went by, we were slowly assimilated into the subculture of backpackers and runaway Westerners that had made India their refuge. Cliques of people came together around various interests and backgrounds. The French kept mostly to themselves, and so did the Germans. The Brits were all over the place, the loudest and most conspicuous of them all. They mixed with the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Australians and Israelis. And so did we.

Carl smoked his first joint three weeks into our travels. We had reached Varanasi, the most holy of cities in India. The place where the wheels of reincarnation stopped in their tracks and Atman, the soul, was allowed to escape and join the supreme universal spirit of Brahman. Our journey had gone through Agra and the majestic mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. We had relived the last days of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as he spent his final years condemned to watch his lifework from a single room in the Red Fort.

We had just arrived at the Yogi Lodge, a travellers’ haven in the hotel district of Varanasi. It was simple, almost spartan, but cheap yet clean. It was incredibly warm and the humidity had been rising in the wake of a rainfall. We dropped off our luggage and followed the breeze, which was sweeping down a staircase to us. At the top a large roof terrace opened to a view overlooking the crowded streets in the west and the deserted shores in the east. Three men and a woman, all dressed in washed-out t-shirts and knee-length shorts, were sitting around a table playing cards. They looked at us for a brief moment before returning to their game. We sat down at a table to their right, ordering two mango lassis. I brought out a second-hand paperback I’d picked up at a book stall whilst in Delhi. Carl was taking pictures, first of me, but when I waved him away, placing my hand demonstratively in front of my face, he turned to the vast urban scenery unfolding beneath him.

I must have forgotten about time because the sun was setting and Carl had joined the group of travellers next to us. If the game had ended recently, I missed it, but the cards were gone from the table and tobacco, rolling papers and what looked like weed had taken its place. The first joint passed around the table, as if it were a holy communion shared amongst the congregation. I saw my husband taking it, puffing a few times before passing it on to the girl next to him. She laughed at him, exposing him as a newcomer to the illicit world of drugs. I could see him blushing, before he took another spliff. I called for him, but he didn’t answer me, being deeply engrossed in some conversation, which seemed funny only to the ones initiated. Eventually I left, but he didn’t seem to notice.

I woke up sometime after 2 AM. I could hear people shouting in German: “Scheiße, Scheiße, Scheiße! Du bist so ein Idiot!”

A door slammed before tranquillity once more returned, with the exception of a humming fan that rotated in a loopy circle. I turned to my right, but I already knew instinctively that Carl was not there. I looked for his bag but it was gone. Carl had never made it back to the hotel room.

At first I thought it was a simple case of a fun evening being prolonged into the wee hours of the morning. So I went upstairs, only to find the roof terrace deserted. I returned to the hotel room to check if he had come back while I was away. But the room was in an equal state of abandonment as the terrace had been. I walked downstairs to the reception. The night manager was sleeping on a futon but woke up with a start as I neared him.

“Can I help you with anything?” he asked in a distinct Indian accent.

“I hope so,” I replied in a voice that might have come across as rather smug. “My husband, tall, brownish hair, Swedish, was on the roof terrace but he never came back to our room.”

“Have you tried to call him?”

“Yes,” I lied, in the hope of exposing any transgression on my husband’s part without prior notification.

“And he’s not picking up?”

“That’s right,” I lied again.

“Well, I did see some people leave the terrace about an hour ago. They were the only ones left.”

“Do you know where they left to?”

“I don’t think they left the building.” He was quite stringent with his information.

“Can you give me their names, room numbers perhaps?”

“Sorry, ma’am, I can’t do that. If you’d like to leave a message for your partner I’d be happy to take one.”

“No, it’s fine. Leave it.” Expecting the worst, I set out to track any voices emitting from behind closed doors. Like a thief in the night I treaded the corridors, listening in on every sound and conversation. Most rooms were quiet with the exception of a faint whooshing sound from the ceiling fans. Two couples were making love, one louder than the other. I placed my ear against the doors, but when this wasn’t enough, looked for cracks to gain visual leeway. But the sounds were unfamiliar and I pressed on without any luck. I completely lost track of time and, after searching through the whole building like a mad woman, I realised it was past 3 AM. Exhausted, yet wary and alert, I returned to our room expecting it to be empty. To my relief it was not. On crumpled sheets I could trace the outline of my husband’s body. Pearls of sweat glistened in the sliver of light emitting from the door opening. I could hear a faint moan from his lips.

“Justine…”

“Yes honey, I’m here.” I rushed to him, placing my hand on his forehead. It was hot and moist.

“Babe, you gotta help me. I think I’m dying.” He sounded drugged.

My mind was making loops, going back some ten years to my biology classes. I recalled something about THC, the active substance of marijuana and hashish, breaking down fat cells in our body and brain, creating hallucinations, and that coca cola or, if all else failed, sugar water or bread, would combat the worst peaks until the toxin dispersed.

“Honey, I’m going to be right back. You just stay put,” I assured him. As I ran down the stairs to the man at the reception, I heard Carl calling for me. There was a loud thump followed by silence. For a moment I hesitated, about to turn around, but decided against it and ran as fast as my legs could bear.

 

The night manager was already on his feet, as he had most likely heard my frantic steps.

“I need your help,” I begged, placing my hands on my knees while panting from my sprint.

“What’s this about?” the little man barked, showing enough anger in his voice to make me choose my next words more carefully.

“My husband has got something accidently stuck in his throat. I need something to drink, Coke preferably.” His narrow eyes watched me and I could feel the scepticism before knowing his reply.

“Does this have anything to do with drugs? You are aware of our no drugs policy, I hope.”

“Yes, of course. No, sir I can guarantee you we don’t take drugs. I really need just some Coke. Two or three would be fine.”

He took out three bottles from the minibar behind the reception.

“Could you make that four?” I asked sheepishly. He placed another one on the counter. I handed over forty Rupees, not bothering to wait for the change.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Anxious and restless, I coddled my husband as his wretched and tormented body sought comfort in mine. When the first rays of sunlight penetrated the wooden shutters, he was finally at peace. I fell asleep moments later.

 

I tried to piece together the information I got from Carl. The details were sketchy at most, but enough to get a rudimentary understanding of the sequence of events. More people had joined the roof terrace after I’d left. There were twenty, thirty people perhaps; some were dancing to Goa trance and trip-hop as a local DJ spun on the turntables. Carl ended up talking to a couple from Glasgow — Jordy and Julie. He described them as friendly but a tad odd. Living in caravans and working in a local factory, their sole mission was to save up enough money to travel for four months of the year. They referred to themselves as travellers, the heirs to the hippy culture that had sprung up in the 60s.

As the weed kept coming so did the conversation, and although Carl’s memory was failing to a large extent, he recalled challenging their beliefs that India was the mother of civilization. Sometime during their talks he was offered a piece of cake as a substitute for an absent dinner. Grateful for their generosity, he readily accepted. An hour later he started feeling strange and Jordy offered to take him to the communal bathroom for a shower.

“Justine, I can’t remember much,” Carl admitted. “But I must have been there for over an hour. Someone was banging on the door and eventually went in. I must have left the door open. He brought me to my room where I collapsed. Thank God I remembered our room number.”

I watched him. “Everything you had with you, your wallet, camera, passport. Where is it?”

He looked at me in a moment of confusion, before hurling himself out of bed searching through his clothes from the previous night. Besides a heap of flip-flops, his clothes and luckily his passport, everything was gone. I went through my own stuff, and luckily it was untouched as my backpack was resting next to my side of the bed.

 

So once again I went downstairs. The man who had been in the reception the previous night greeted me suspiciously. He was wearing the same beige short-sleeve shirt, brown trousers and a pair of brown leather sandals with soles that threatened to disintegrate with every step.

“How is your husband doing?”

“My husband is…is just fine.”

“Well there is an issue, sort of,” I added. “My husband had his wallet and camera stolen last night. From two of your guests.”

“OK, Miss. Let’s sit down.” He called for someone in the room behind the reception. Moments later a woman came out with a pot of chai, which she offered me. I readily accepted the generosity and took a few careful sips. The tea was burning my pallet, but it felt strangely good after a sleepless night and a residual headache.

“Miss, I know you are a very good and honest woman, so you need to tell me what has happened. It’s my lodge and I take great pride in that we are friendly, clean and, above all, honest.”

“I really don’t want to get involved with any police.”

“That’s something we all wish to avoid, Miss. Now please tell me what happened so we can find a solution to your problem.”

“My husband was on the rooftop last night. There seems to have been a party there. A DJ playing, people were gathering.”

“Yes, that’s DJ Mike. He’s very popular here and we let him play as long as he keeps the noise down.”

“Carl met a couple. They were from Gloucester or Glasgow, I don’t recall exactly. The guy was called Jordy.” I thought for a moment. “Yes, that’s right – Jordy and Julie. They talked, and I believe they offered him something to eat, and when I came back after talking to you the first time, I found him in bed. He was very ill and sweating profusely.”

“What you are describing is a very old trick. They probably gave him space cake with hashish, or LSD. It makes you hallucinate. Especially if you are not used to it. And in the meantime they take you somewhere quiet and rob you.” For a brief moment I saw anger in his face, but it soon dissipated only to be replaced by a melancholic dismay.

“Can you give me a description of the two? I will talk to Mike. He might know something.”

“Sure, I will ask Carl to come down.”

“And a word of advice, Miss. Don’t take anything that is offered to you. Travel together and always keep track of your belongings.”

“Thanks, I will.”

We left Yogi Lodge shortly afterwards and continued our travels southeast through Kolkata to Puri. Varanasi had left me sick enough to seek medical attention at a local hospital where I was diagnosed with giardia, a disease I never came to fully understand other than its symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting that left me incapacitated for days. When we returned to the capital airport to leave, I was ten kilos lighter than when I started. Round scars, similar to that of cigarette burns, covered my body. They’ve since become a constant reminder of how much I hate mosquitos.

I left India with ambiguous feelings of regret and relief. As the plane left the tarmac and the Delhi skyline came into view, a series of recollections from the past month’s travels flashed before me. Impressions, smells and conversations fused, becoming synonymous with the India I’d come to know. I followed the commerce that took place beneath me until it blended with the static buildings before finally fading from view. We touched down nine hours later. It was November 9, a Thursday. I still have the denotation in my calendar.

Thinking back on our travels through the vast Indian subcontinent, I can’t help but feel a sense of ambivalence. There were no arguments, no disputes, yet it all felt bland and placid. Despite a myriad of experiences and impressions, it had become nothing more than a cerebral photo album that could be conjured up when my mind decided to travel down Memory Lane. Perhaps it was the first sign of relationship delinquency. If so, I choose to ignore it, and if Carl felt the same, he chose a similar path.