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
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.
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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.”