Authors: Lucy Foley
I'm coming up the stairs when I see her. A stranger inside these walls. It sends such a jolt through me that I nearly drop
the box from the boulangerie. A girl, snooping around on the penthouse landing. She has no business being here.
I watch her for a while before I speak. “
,” I say coolly.
She spins around, caught out. Good. I wanted to shock her.
But now it's my turn to be shocked. “You.” It's her from the boulangerie: the scruffy girl who picked up the note I dropped.
Double la prochaine fois, salope.
Double the next time, bitch.
“Who are you?”
“I'm Jess. Jess Hadley. I'm staying with my brother Ben,” she says, quickly. “On the third floor.”
“If you are staying on the third floor then what are you doing up here?” It makes sense, I suppose. Sneaking around in here
as though she owns the place. Just like him
“I was looking for Ben.” She must realise how absurd this sounds, as though he might be hiding in some shadowy corner up here
in the eaves, because she suddenly looks sheepish. “Do you know him? Benjamin Daniels?”
That smile: a fox entering the henhouse. The sound of a glass smashing. A smear of crimson on a stiff white napkin.
“Nicolas's friend. “Yes. Although I've only met him a couple of times.”
“Nicolas? Is that âNick'? I think Ben might have mentioned him. Which floor's he on?”
I hesitate. Then I say: “The second.”
“Do you remember when you last saw him about?” she asks. “Ben, I mean? He was meant to be here last night. I tried asking
one of the girlsâMimi?âon the fourth floor, but she wasn't too helpful.”
“I don't recall.” Perhaps my answer sounds too quick, too certain. “But then he keeps so much to himself. You know. Ratherâwhat's
the English expression?âreserved.”
“Really? That doesn't sound anything like Ben! I'd expect him to be friends with everyone in this building by now.”
“Not with me.” That at least is true. I give a little shrug. “Anyway, maybe he went away and forgot to tell you?”
“No,” she says. “He wouldn't do that.”
Could I remember the last time I saw him? Of course I can.
But I am thinking now about the first time. About two months ago. The middle of the heatwave.
I did not like him. I knew it straightaway.
The laughter, that's what I heard first. Vaguely threatening, in the way male laughter can be. The almost competitive nature
I was in the courtyard. I had spent the afternoon planting in the shade. To others gardening is a form of creative abandon.
To me it is a way of exerting control upon my surroundings. When I told Jacques I wanted to take care of the courtyard's small
garden he did not understand. “There are people we can pay to do it for us,” he told me. In my husband's world there are people
you can pay for anything.
The end of the day: the light fading, the heat still oppressive. I watched from behind the rosemary bushes as the two of them
entered the courtyard. Nick first. Then a stranger, wheeling a moped. Around the same age as his friend, but he seemed somehow older. Tall and rangy. Dark hair. He carried himself well. A very particular confidence in the way he inhabited the space around him.
I watched as Nick's friend plucked a sprig of rosemary from one of the bushes, tearing hard to wrench it free. How he crushed
it to his nose, inhaled. There was something presumptuous about the gesture. It felt like an act of vandalism.
Then Benoit was running over to them. The newcomer scooped him up and held him.
I stood. “He doesn't like to be held by anyone but me.”
Benoit, the traitor, turned his head to lick the stranger's hand.
Sophie,” Nicolas said. “This is Ben. He's going to be living here, in the apartment on the third floor.” Proud. Showing off
this friend like a new toy.
“Pleased to meet you, Madame.” He smiled then, a lazy smile that was somehow just as presumptuous as the way he'd ripped into
You will like me
, it said.
“Please,” I said. “Call me Sophie.” The Madame had made me feel about a hundred years old, even though it was only proper.
Now I wished I hadn't said it. It was too informal, too intimate. “I'll take him, please.” I held out my hands for the dog.
Benoit smelled faintly of petrol, of male sweat. I held him at a little distance from my body. “The concierge won't like that,”
I added, nodding at the moped, then toward the cabin. “She hates them.”
I had wanted to assert myself, but I sounded like a matron scolding a small boy.
“Noted,” he said. “Cheers for the tip. I'll have to butter her up, get her on side.”
I stared at him. Why on earth would he want to do that?
“Good luck there,” Nick said. “She doesn't like anyone.”
“Ah,” he says. “But I like a challenge. I'll win her over.”
“Well watch out,” Nick said. “I'm not sure you want to encourage her. She has a knack for appearing round corners when you
least expect it.”
I didn't like the idea of it at all. That woman with her watchful eyes, her omnipresence. What might she be able to tell him
if he did “win her over”?
When Jacques got home I told him I had met the new inhabitant of the thirdâfloor apartment. He frowned, pointed to my cheekbone.
“You have dirt, there.” I rubbed at my cheekâsomehow I must have missed it when I had checked my appearanceÂ .Â .Â . I thought
I had been so careful. “So what do you make of our new neighbor?”
“I don't like him.”
Jacques raised his eyebrows. “I thought he sounded like an interesting young man. What don't you like?”
“He's tooÂ .Â .Â . charming.” That charm. He wielded it like a weapon.
Jacques frowned; he didn't understand. My husband: a clever man, but also arrogant. Used to having things his way, having
power. I have never acquired that sort of arrogance. I have never been certain enough of my position to be complacent. “Well,”
he said. “We'll have to invite him to drinks, look him over.”
I didn't like the sound of that: inviting him into our home.
The first note arrived two weeks later.
I know who you are, Madame Sophie Meunier. I know what you really are. If you don't want anyone else to know I suggest you
leave â¬2000 beneath the loose step in front of the gate.
The “Madame”: a nasty little piece of faux formality. The mocking, knowing tone. No postmark; it had been hand-delivered.
My blackmailer knew this building well enough to know about the loose step outside the gate.
I didn't tell Jacques. I knew he would refuse to pay, for one thing. Those who have the most money are often the most close-fisted
about handing it over. I was too afraid not to pay. I took out my jewelry box. I considered the yellow sapphire brooch Jacques
had given me for our second wedding anniversary, the jade and diamond hair clips he gave me last Christmas. I selected an
emerald bracelet as the safest, because he never asked me to wear it. I took it to a pawnbroker, a place out in the
, the neighborhoods outside the
ring road that encircles the city. A world away from the Paris of postcards, of tourist dreams. I had to go somewhere no
one could possibly recognize me. The pawnbroker knew I was out of my depth. I think he could sense my fear. Little did he
know it was less to do with the neighborhood than my horror at finding myself in this situation. The debasement of it.
I returned with more than enough cash to cover itâless than I should have got, though. Ten â¬200 notes. The money felt dirty:
the sweat of other hands, the accumulated filth. I slid the wedge of notes into a thick envelope where they looked even dirtier
against the fine cream card and sealed them up. As though it would somehow make the fact of the money less horrific, less
demeaning. I left it, as directed, beneath the loose step in front of the apartment building's gate.
For the time being, I had covered my debts.
“Perhaps you'll want to return to the third floor now,” I tell the strange, scruffy girl. His sister. Hard to believe it.
Hard, actually, to imagine him having had a childhood, a family at all. He seemed soÂ .Â .Â . discrete. As though he had stepped
into the world fully formed.
“I didn't catch your name,” she says.
I didn't give it
. “Sophie Meunier,” I say. “My husband Jacques and I live in the penthouse apartment, on this floor.”
“If you're in the penthouse apartment, what's up there?” She points to the wooden ladder.
“The entrance to the old
chambres de bonne
âthe old maids' quartersâin the eaves of the building.” I nod my head in the other direction, toward the descending staircase.
“But I'm sure you'll want to get back to the third floor now.”
She takes the hint. She has to walk right by me to go back down. I don't move an inch as she passes. It is only when my jaw
begins to ache that I realize how hard I have been gritting my teeth.
I close the apartment door behind me. I think of the way Sophie Meunier looked at me just now: like I was something she'd
found on the sole of her shoe. She might be French, but I'd know her type anywhere. The shining black bob, the silk scarf,
the swanky handbag. The way she stressed “penthouse.” She's a snob. It's not exactly a new feeling, being looked at like I'm
scum. But I thought I sensed something else. Some extra hostility, when I mentioned Ben.
I think of her suggestion that he might have gone away. “It's not a great time,” he'd said, on the phone. But he wouldn't
just up and go without leaving wordÂ .Â .Â . would he? I'm his familyâhis
family. However put out he was, I don't think he would abandon me.
But then it wouldn't be the first time he's disappeared out of my life with little more than a backward glance. Like when
suddenly he had some shiny new parents ready to whisk him away to a magical new life of private schools and holidays abroad
and family Labradors and
sorry but the Daniels are only looking to adopt one child
Actually it can be best to separate children from the same family, especially when there has been a shared trauma.
As I said, my brother's always been good at getting people to fall in love with him.
Ben, driving away in the back seat of the Daniels' navy blue Volvo, turning back once and then looking forward, onward to
his new life.
No. He left me a voicenote giving me directions, for Christ's sake. And even if he did have to leave for some reason, why
isn't he answering any of my calls or texts?
I keep coming back to the broken chain of his St. Christopher. The bloodstains on the cat's fur. How none of Ben's neighbors seem prepared to give me the time of dayâmore than that, seem actively hostile. How it just feels like something here is
I search Ben's social media. At some point he seems to have deleted all his socials except Instagram. How have I only just
realized this? No Facebook, no Twitter. His Instagram profile picture is the cat, which right now is sitting on its haunches
on the desk, watching me through narrowed eyes. There isn't a single photo left on his grid. I suppose it's just like Ben,
master of reinvention, to have got rid of all his old stuff. But there's something about the disappearance of all his content
that gives me the creeps. Almost like someone's tried to erase him. I send him a DM, all the same.
Ben, if you see this: answer your phone!
My mobile buzzes:
You have only 50MB of Roaming Data remaining. To buy more, follow this linkÂ .Â .Â .
Shit. I can't even get by on the cheapest plan.
I sit down on the sofa. As I do I realize I've sat on Ben's wallet, I must have tossed it here earlier. I open it and pull
out the business card stuck in the front.
Theo Mendelson, Paris editor,
And scribbled on the card: PITCH STORY TO HIM!
Someone Ben's working for, maybe, someone he might have been in touch with recently? There's a number listed. I call but it
rings out so I fire off a quick text:
Hi. It's about my brother Ben Daniels. Trying to find him. Can you help?
I put the phone down. I just heard something odd.
I sit very still, listening hard, trying to work out what the noise is. It sounds like footsteps passing down a flight of stairs. Except the sound isn't coming from in front of me, from the landing and the staircase beyond the apartment's entrance. It's behind my
head. I stand up from the sofa and study the wall. And it's now, looking properly, that I see something there. I run my hands over the faded silk wall covering. There's a break, a gap in the fabric, running horizontally above my head and vertically down. I step back and take in the shape of it. It's cleverly hidden, and the sofa's pushed in front of it, so you wouldn't notice it at all unless you were looking pretty closely. But I think it's a door.
Back in the apartment I reach into my handbagâblack leather Celine, ferociously expensive, extremely discreet, a gift from
Jacquesâtake out my wallet and am almost surprised to find the note hasn't burnt a hole through the leather. I cannot believe
I was so clumsy as to drop it earlier. I am never normally clumsy.
Double the next time, bitch.
It arrived yesterday morning. The latest in the series. Well. It has no hold over me now. I rip it into tiny pieces and scatter
them into the fireplace. I pull the tasseled cord set into the wall and flames roar into life, instantly incinerating the
paper. Then I walk quickly through the apartment, past the floor-to-ceiling windows with their view out over Paris, along
the hallway hung with its trio of Gerhard Richter abstracts, my heels tapping briefly over the parquet then silenced on the
silk of the antique Persian runner.
In the kitchen I open the pastel box from the boulangerie. Inside is a quiche Lorraine, studded with lardons of bacon, the
pastry so crisp it will shatter at the slightest touch. The dairy waft of the cream and egg yolk briefly makes me want to
gag. When Jacques is away from home on one of his business trips I usually exist on black coffee and fruitâperhaps the odd
piece of dark chocolate broken from a Maison Bonnat bar.
I did not feel like going out. I felt like hiding in here away from the world. But I am a regular customer and it is important to stick to the usual routines.
A couple of minutes later, I open the door to the apartment again and wait a few moments listening, looking down the staircase,
making sure no one's there. You cannot do anything in this building without half-expecting the concierge to appear from some
dark corner as if formed from the shadows themselves. But for once it isn't her that I'm concerned about. It's this newcomer,
When I am certain I am alone, I walk across the landing to the wooden stairs that lead up to the old
chambres de bonne
. I am the only one in the building with a key to these old rooms. Even the concierge's access to the public spaces of this
building ends here.
I fasten Benoit to the bottom rung of the wooden steps with his leash. He wears a matching set in blue leather from HermÃ¨s:
both of us, with our expensive HermÃ¨s collars. He'll bark if he sees anyone.
I take the key out of my pocket and climb the stairs. As I put the key into the lock my hand trembles a little; it takes a
couple of attempts to turn.
I push the door open. Just before I step inside I check, again, that I am not being watched. I can't afford to be too careful.
Especially not with her here now, snooping around.
I spend perhaps ten minutes up here, in the
chambres de bonne
. Afterward I lock the padlock again just as carefully, pocket the little silver key. Benoit is waiting for me at the bottom
of the steps, looking up at me with those dark eyes. My secret-keeper. I put a finger to my lips.