Authors: Lucy Foley
I grab hold of the sofa, drag it away from the wall. The cat jumps down from the desk and trots over, maybe hoping I'm going
to reveal a mouse or some creepy crawlies. And yes, here it is: a door. No handle but I get a hold of the edge, wedge my fingers
into the gap and pull. It swings open.
I let out a gasp. I don't know what I'd expected: a hidden cupboard, maybe. Not this. Darkness greets me on the other side.
The air as cold as if I'd just opened a fridge. There's a smell of musty old air, like in a church. As my eyes adjust to the
gloom I make out a stone staircase, spiraling up and down, dark and cramped. It couldn't be more different from the grand
sweeping affair beyond the apartment's main door. I suppose from the looks of it this was probably some kind of servants'
staircase, like the maids' rooms Sophie Meunier told me about upstairs.
I step inside and let the door swing closed behind me. It's suddenly very dark. But I notice a chink of light showing through
the door, slightly lower than head-height. I crouch and put my eye to it. I can see into the apartment: the living area, the
kitchen. It looks like some kind of homemade spy hole. I suppose it could always have been here, as old as the building itself.
Or it could have been made more recently. Someone could have been watching Ben through here. Someone could have been watching
I can still hear the footsteps heading downward. I turn on my phone's flashlight and follow, trying not to trip over my own feet as the steps twist tightly round on themselves. This staircase must
have been made for a time when people were smaller: I'm not exactly large, but it still feels like a tight squeeze.
A second of hesitation. I have no idea where this might lead. I'm not sure this is the best idea. Could I even be heading
toward some sort of danger?
Well. It's not like that's ever stopped me before. I carry on downward.
I come to another door. Here, too, I spot another little spy hole. I press my eye to it quickly, look in. No sign of anyone
about. I'm feeling a little disorientated but I suppose this must be the second-floor apartment: Ben's friend Nick's place.
It looks like it might be pretty much the same layout as Ben's, but it's all whitewashed walls with nothing on them. Beyond
the giant computer in the corner, some books, and what looks like a piece of exercise equipment it's practically empty, with
about as much character as a dentist's surgery. It seems Nick has barely moved in.
The footsteps below me continue, urging me to follow. I carry on down, the light from my phone bouncing in front of me. I
must be on the first floor now. Another apartment and there it is: another spy hole. I look through. This place is a mess:
stuff everywhere, empty sharing-size crisp packets and overflowing ashtrays, side tables crowded with bottles, a standing
lamp lying on its side. I take an involuntary step back as a figure looms into view. He's not wearing his parka but I recognize
him instantly: the guy from the gate, from that fight in the courtyard. Antoine. He appears to be swigging from a bottle of
Jack Daniel's. He drains the last dregs then lifts up the bottle. Jesus: I jump as he smashes it against the side table.
He sways on the spot, looking at the jagged stump like he's wondering what to do with it. Then he turns in my direction. For a horrible moment it feels like he's staring directly at me. But I'm
peering through a chink only a few millimeters wide . . . there's no way he could possibly see me here. Right?
I'm not going to hang around to find out. I hurry on down. I must be passing the ground floor level, the entrance hall. A
further flight of steps: I think I'm underground now. The air feels heavier, colder; I can imagine the earth surrounding me.
Finally the staircase leads me to a door, swinging on its hingesâwhoever I'm following has just stepped through it. My pulse
quickens, I must be getting closer. I push through the door and even though it's still just as dark on the other side I have
the impression of having stepped into a wide, echoing space. Silence. No sound of footsteps. Where can they have gone? I must
only be moments behind.
It's colder down here. It smells of damp, of mold. My phone throws only a very weak beam into the darkness but I can see the
orange glow of a light switch across from me. I press it and the lights come on, the little mechanical timer clicking down:
tick tick tick tick tick
. I've probably only got a couple of minutes before it goes dark again. I'm definitely in the basement: a wide, low-ceilinged
space easily double the size of Ben's apartment; several doors leading off it. A rack in the corner that holds a couple of
bikes. And leaning against one wall there's a red moped. I walk over to it, take out the set of keys I found in Ben's jacket,
fit the Vespa one into the ignition and turn. The lights hum on. It hits me: so Ben can't be away on his bike somewhere. I
must have been leaning against it because it tilts under me. It's now that I see that the front wheel is flat, the rubber
completely shredded. An accident? But there's something about the total decimation that feels intentional.
I turn back to the basement. Perhaps whoever it was has disappeared behind one of those doors. Are they hiding from me? A
shiver of unease as I realize I may now be the one being watched.
I open the first door. A couple of washing machinesâone of which is on, all the clothes whizzing around in a colorful jumble.
In the next room I smell the bins before I see them, that sweetish, rotten scent. Something makes a scuffling sound. I shut
The next is some sort of cleaning cupboard: mops and brooms and buckets and a pile of dirty-looking rags in the corner.
The next one has a padlock on the door but the door itself is open. I push inside. It's stuffed full of wine: racks and racks
of it, floor to ceiling. There might be well over a thousand bottles in here. Some of them look seriously old: labels stained
and peeling, the glass covered in a layer of dust. I pull one out. I don't know much about wine. I mean, I've worked in plenty
of bars but they've been the sort of place where people ask for “a large glass of red, love” and you get the bottle thrown
in for an extra couple of quid. But this, it just
expensive. Whoever's keeping this stuff down here clearly trusts their neighbors. And probably won't notice if just one little
bottle goes missing. Maybe it'll help me think. I'll pick something that looks like it's been down here for ages, something
that they'll have forgotten about. I find the dustiest, most cobweb-covered bottles on the bottom racks, search along the
rows, pull one out a little way.
. An image of a stately home picked out in gold. ChÃ¢teau Blondin-Lavigne, the label reads. That'll do.
The lights go out. The timer must have run down. I look for a light switch. It's so dark in here; I'm immediately disorientated.
I step to the left and brush up against something. Shit, I need to be careful: I'm basically surrounded by teetering walls
There. Finally I spot the little orange glow of another light switch. I press it, the lights hum back on.
I turn to find the door. That's odd, I thought I left it open. It must have swung shut behind me. I turn the handle. But nothing happens when I pull. The door won't budge. What the hell? That can't be right. I try it again: nothing. And then again, putting everything into it, throwing all my weight against it.
Someone's locked me in. It's the only explanation.
Afternoon and already the light seems to be fading, the shadows growing deeper. A rap on the door of my cabin. My first thought
is that it's him, Benjamin Daniels. The only one who would deign to call on me here. I think of the first time he knocked
on my door, taking me by surprise:
. I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm moving in on the third floor. I suppose that makes us neighbors!” I assumed, at first,
that he was mocking me, but his polite smile said otherwise. Surely he had to know there was no world in which we were neighbors?
Still, it made an impression.
The knock comes again. This time I hear the authority in it. I realize my mistake. Of course it isn't himÂ .Â .Â . that would
When I open the door, there she stands on the other side: Sophie Meunier. Madame to me. In all her finery: the elegant beige
coat, the shining black handbag, the gleaming black helmet of her hair, the silk knot of her scarf. She's part of the tribe
of women you see walking the smarter streets of this city, with shopping bags over their arms made from stiff card with gilded
writing, full of designer clothes and expensive
. A little pedigree dog at the end of a lead. The wealthy husbands with their
affairs, the grand apartments and white, shuttered holiday homes on the Ãle de RÃ©. Born here, bred
here, from old French moneyâor at least so they would like you to believe. Nothing gaudy. Nothing
. All elegant simplicity and quality and heritage.
” I ask.
She takes a step back from the doorway, as though she cannot bear to be too close to my home, as though the poverty of it
might somehow infect her.
“The girl,” she says simply. She does not use my name, she has never used my name, I am not even sure she knows it. “The one
who arrived last nightâthe one staying in the third-floor apartment.”
“I want you to watch her. I want you to tell me when she leaves, when she comes back. I want to know if she has any visitors.
It is extremely important.
“Good.” She is not much taller than I am but somehow she manages to look down at me, as though from a great height. Then she
turns and walks away as quickly as possible, the little silver dog trotting at her heels.
I watch her go. Then I go to my tiny bureau and open the drawer. Look inside, check the contents.
She may look down upon me but the knowledge I have gives me power. And I think she knows this. I suspect, even though she
would never think to admit it, that Madame Meunier is a little afraid of me.
Funny thing: we share more than meets the eye. Both of us have lived in this building for a long time. Both of us, in our
own way, have become invisible. Part of the scenery.
But I know just what sort of woman Madame Sophie Meunier really is. And exactly what she is capable of.
“Hello?” I shout. “Can anyone hear me?”
I can feel the walls swallowing the sound, feel how useless it is. I shove at the door with all my strength, hoping the weight
of my body might break the lock. Nothing: I might as well be ramming myself against a concrete wall. Panicking now, I pummel
“Hey!” I shout, desperately now. “HEY! HELP ME!”
The last two words. A sudden flashback to another room. Shouting at the top of my lungs, shouting until my voice went hoarse,
but it never felt loud enoughÂ .Â .Â . there was no one coming.
Help me help me help me someone help she's notÂ .Â .Â .
My whole body is trembling.
And then suddenly the door is opening and a light flashes on. A man stands there. I take a step back. It's Antoine, the guy
I just watched casually smashing a bottle against a side tableâ
NoÂ .Â .Â . I can see now that I'm wrong. It was the height, maybe, and the breadth of the shoulders. But this guy is younger
and in the weak light I can see that his hair is lighter, a dark golden color.
” he asks. Then, in English: “Are you OK? I came down to get my laundry and I heardâ”
“You're British!” I blurt. As British as the Queen, in fact: a proper, plummy, posh-boy accent. A little like the one Ben
adopted after he went to live with his new parents.
He's looking at me like he's waiting for some kind of explanation. “Someone locked me in here,” I say. I feel shivery now that the adrenaline's wearing off. “Someone did this on purpose.”
He pushes a hand through his hair, frowns. “I don't think so. The door was jammed when I opened it. The handle definitely
seems a bit sticky.”
I think of how hard I threw myself against it. Could it really just have been stuck? “Well, thanks,” I say weakly.
“No worries.” He steps back and looks at me. “What are you doing here? Not in the
, I mean: in the apartment?”
“You know Ben, on the third floor? I'm meant to be staying with himâ”
He frowns. “Ben didn't tell me he had anyone coming to stay.”
“Well it was kind of last minute,” I say. “SoÂ .Â .Â . you know Ben?”
“Yeah. He's an old friend. And you are?”
“I'm Jess,” I say. “Jess Hadley, his sister.”
“I'm Nick.” A shrug. “Iâwell, I'm the one who suggested he come and live here.”
I suggested Jess come up to my place, rather than us chatting in the chilly darkness of the
. I'm slightly regretting it now: I've offered her a seat but she's pacing the room, looking at my Peloton bike, my bookcases.
The knees of her jeans are worn, the cuffs of her sweater frayed, her fingernails bitten down to fragments like tiny pieces
of broken shell. She gives off this jittery, restless energy: nothing like Ben's languor, his easy manner. Her voice is different
too; no private school for her, I'm guessing. But then Ben's accent often changed depending on who he was speaking to. It
took me a while to realize that.
“Hey,” she says, suddenly. “Can I go splash some water on my face? I'm really sweaty.”
“Be my guest.” What else can I say?
She wanders back in a couple of minutes later. I catch a gust of Annick Goutal Eau de Monsieur; either she wears it too (which
seems unlikely) or she helped herself when she was in there.
“Better?” I ask.
“Yeah, much, thanks. Hey, I like your rain shower. That's what you call it, right?”
I continue to watch her as she looks around the room. There's a resemblance there. From certain angles it's almost uncanny. . . . But her coloring's different from Ben's, her hair a dark auburn to his brown, her frame small and wiry. That, and the curious way
she's prowling around, sizing the place up, makes me think of a little fox.
“Thanks for helping me out,” she says. “For a moment I thought I'd never get out.”
“But what on earth were you doing in the
,” I explain, “it means âcellar' in French.”
“Oh, right.” She chews the skin at the edge of her thumbnail, shrugs. “Having a look around the place, I suppose.” I saw that
bottle of wine in her hand. How she slipped it back into the rack when she didn't think I was looking. I'm not going to mention
it. The owner of that cellar can afford to lose a bottle or two. “It's huge down there,” she says.
“It was used by the Gestapo in the war,” I tell her. “Their main headquarters was on Avenue Foch, near the Bois de Boulogne.
But toward the end of the Occupation they hadÂ .Â .Â . overspill. They used the
to hold prisoners. Members of the Resistance, that kind of thing.”
She makes a face. “I suppose it makes sense. This place has an atmosphere, you know? My mum was very into that sort of thing:
energy, auras, vibrations.”
. I remember Ben telling me about his mum. Drunk in a pub one night. Though even drunk I suspect he never spilled more than
he intended to.
“Anyway,” she says, “I never really believed in that stuff. But you can feel something here. It gives me the creeps.” She
catches herself. “Sorryâdidn't mean to offendâ”
“No. It's fine. I suppose I know what you mean. So: you're Ben's sister.” I want to work out exactly what she's doing here.
She nods. “Yup. Same mum, different dads.”
I notice she doesn't say anything about Ben being adopted. I remember my shock, finding out. But thinking that it also made
sense. The fact that you couldn't pigeonhole him like you could the others in our year at universityâthe staid rowing types, the studious honors students, the loose party animals. Yes, there was the public school accent, the easeâbut it always felt as though there was some other note beneath it all. Hints of something rougher, darker. Maybe that's why people were so intrigued by him.
“I like your Gaggia,” Jess says, wandering toward the kitchen. “They had one like that in a cafÃ© I used to work in.” A laugh,
without much humor in it. “I might not have gone to a posh school or uni like my brother but I do know how to make a mean
microfoam.” I sense a streak of bitterness there.
“You want a coffee? I can make you one. I'm afraid I've only got oat milk.”
“Have you got any beer?” she asks, hopefully. “I know it's early but I could really do with one.”
“Sure, and feel free to sit down,” I say, gesturing to the sofa. Watching her prowl around the room, combined with the lack
of sleep, is making me feel a little dizzy.
I go to the fridge to get out a couple of bottles: beer for her, kombucha for meâI never drink earlier than seven. Before
I can offer to open hers she's taken a lighter out of her pocket, fitted it between the top of her index finger and the bottom
of the cap and somehow flipped the lid off. I watch her, amazed and slightly appalled at the same time. Who is this girl?
“I don't think Ben mentioned you coming to stay,” I say, as casually as I can. I don't want her to feel like I'm accusing
her of anythingâbut he definitely didn't. Of course we didn't speak much the last couple of weeks. He was so busy.
“Well, it was kind of last minute.” She waves a hand vaguely. “When did you last see him?” she asks. “Ben?”
“A couple of days agoâI think.”
“So you haven't heard from him today?”
“No. Is something the matter?”
I watch as she tears at her thumbnail with her teeth, so hard it makes me wince. I see a little bead of blood blossom at the
quick. “He wasn't here when I arrived last night. And I haven't heard from him since yesterday afternoon. I know this is going
to sound weird, but could he have been in some sort of trouble?”
I cough on the sip I've just taken. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“It justÂ .Â .Â . feels all wrong.” She's fidgeting with the gold necklace around her neck now. I see the metal saint come free;
it's the same as his. “He left me this voicenote. ItÂ .Â .Â . kind of cuts out halfway through. And now he isn't answering his
phone. He hasn't read any of my messages. His wallet and his keys are still in the apartmentâand I know he hasn't taken his
Vespa because I saw it in the basementâ”
“But that's just like Ben, isn't it?” I say. “He's probably gone off for a few days, chasing some story with a couple of hundred
euros in his back pocket. You can get the train to most of Europe from here. He's always been like that, since we were students.
He'd disappear and come back a few days later saying he'd gone to Edinburgh 'cause he fancied it, or he'd wanted to see the
Norfolk Broads, or he'd stayed in a hostel and gone hiking in the Brecon Beacons.”
The rest of us in our little bubble, hardly rememberingâsome of us wanting to forgetâthat there was a world outside it. It
wouldn't have occurred to us to leave. But off he'd go, on his own, like he wasn't crossing some sort of invisible barrier.
That hunger, that drive in him.
“I don't think so,” Jess says, cutting into these memories. “He wouldn't do thatÂ .Â .Â . not knowing I was coming.” But she
doesn't sound all that certain. She sounds almost as though she's asking a question. “Anyway, you seem to know him pretty
“We hadn't seen much of each other until recently.” That much, at least, is true. “You know how it is. But he got in touch with me when he moved to Paris. And meeting back up . . . it felt like it had been no time at all, really.”
I'm drawn back to that reunion nearly three months ago. My surpriseâshockâat finding the email from him after so long, after
everything. A sports bar in Saint-Germain. A sticky floor and sticky bar, signed French rugby shirts tacked to the wall, moldy-looking
chunks of charcuterie with your beer and French club rugby playing on about fifteen different screens. But it felt nostalgic;
almost like the kind of place we would have gone to as students nursing pints and pretending to be real men.
We caught up on the missed decade between us: my time in Palo Alto; his journalism. He got out his phone to show me his work.
“It's not exactlyÂ .Â .Â . hard-hitting stuff,” he said, with a shrug. “Not what I said I wanted to do. It's fluff, let's be
honest. But it's tough right now. Should have gone the tech route like you.”
I coughed, awkwardly. “Mate, I haven't exactly conquered the tech world.” That was putting it mildly. But I was almost more
disappointed by his lack of success than my own. I'd have expected him to have written his prize-winning novel by now. We'd
met on a student paper but fiction always seemed more his thing, not the factual rigors of journalism. And if anyone was going
to make it I'd been so sure it would be Ben Daniels. If he couldn't, what hope was there for the rest of us?
“I feel like I'm really hunting around for scraps,” he said. “I get to eat in some nice restaurants, a free night out once
in a while. But it's not exactly what I thought I'd end up doing. You need a big story to break into that, make your name.
A real coup. I'm sick and tired of London, the old boys' club. Thought I'd try my luck here.”
Well, we both had our big plans, back when we'd last seen each other. Even if mine didn't involve much more than getting the fuck away from my old man and being as far away from home as possible.
A sudden clatter brings me back into the room. Jess, on the prowl again, has knocked a photograph off the bookshelf: one of
the rare few I've got up there.
She picks it up. “Sorry. That's a cool boat, though. In the photo.”
“It's my dad's yacht.”
“And this is you, with him?”
“Yes.” I'm about fifteen in that one. His hand on my shoulder, both of us smiling into the camera. I'd actually managed to
impress him that day, taking the helm for a while. It might have been one of the only times I've ever felt his pride in me.
A sudden shout of laughter. “And this one looks like something out of Harry Potter,” she says. “These black cloaks. Is thisâ”
“Cambridge.” A group of us after a formal, standing on Jesus Green by the River Cam in the evening light, wearing our gowns
and clutching half-drunk bottles of wine. Looking at it I can almost smell that green, green scent of the fresh-cut grass:
the essence of an English summer.
“That's where you met Ben?”
“Yup, we worked on
together: him in editorial, me on the website. And we both went to Jesus.”
She rolls her eyes. “The names they give those places.” She squints at it. “He's not in this photo, is he?”
“No. He was taking it.” Laughing, getting us all to pose. Just like Ben to be the one behind the camera, not in front of it:
telling the story rather than a part of it.
She moves over to the bookcases. Paces up and down, reading the titles. It's hard to imagine she ever stops moving. “So many
of your books are in French. That's what Ben was doing there, wasn't it? French studies or something.”
“Well, he was doing Modern Languages at first, yes. He switched to English Literature later.”
“Really?” Something clouds her face. “I didn'tâI didn't know that about him. He never told me.”
I recall the fragments that Ben told me about her while we were traveling. How she had it so much harder than him. No one
around to pick up the pieces for her. Bounced around the care system, couldn't be placed.
“So you're the friend that helped him out with this place?” she asks.
“It sounds incredible,” he'd said, when I suggested it the day we met up again. “And you're sure about that, the rent? You
reckon it would really be that low? I have to tell you I'm pretty strapped for cash at the moment.”
“Let me find out,” I told him. “But I'm pretty sure, yes. I mean, it's not in the best shape. As long as you don't mind some
slightlyÂ .Â .Â . antique details.”
He grinned. “Not at all. You know me. I like a place with character. And I tell you, it's a hell of a lot better than crashing
on people's sofas. Can I bring my cat?”
I laughed. “I'm sure you can bring your cat.” I told him I'd make my inquiries. “But I think it's probably yours if you want
“WellÂ .Â .Â . thanks mate. I meanÂ .Â .Â . seriously, that sounds absolutely amazing.”
“No problem. Happy to help. So that's a yes, you're interested?”
“It's a hell yes.” He laughed. “Let me buy you another drink, to celebrate.”
We sat there for hours with more beers. And suddenly it was like we were back in Cambridge with no time having passed between us.
He moved in a couple of days later. That quick. I stood there with him in the apartment as he looked around.
“I know it's a little retro,” I told him.
“It's certainlyÂ .Â .Â . got character,” he said. “You know what? I think I'll keep it like this. I like it. Gothic.”
And I thought how great it was, having my old buddy back. He grinned at me and for some reason I suddenly felt like everything
might be OK. Maybe more than OK. Like it might help me find that guy I had been, once upon a time.
“Can I use your computer?”
“What?” I'm jolted out of the memory. I see Jess has wandered over to my iMac.
“Those bloody roaming charges are a killer. I just thought I could check Ben's Instagram again, in case something's happened
to his phone and he's messaged me back.”
“ErâI could give you my Wifi code?” But she's already sitting down, her hand on the mouse. I don't seem to have any choice
in the matter.
She moves the mouse and the screen lights up. “Waitâ” she leans forward, peering at the screensaver, then turns around to
me. “This is you and Ben, isn't it? Jeez, he looks so young. So do you.”
I haven't switched on my computer in several days. I force myself to look. “I suppose we were. Not much more than kids.” How strange, to think it. I felt so adult at the time. Like all the mysteries of the world had suddenly been unlocked to me. And yet we were still children, really. I glance out of the windows. I
don't need to look at the photo; I can see it with my eyes shut. The light golden and slanting: both of us squinting against the sun.