Authors: Lucy Foley
“Where were you, here?”
“A group of us went interrailing, the whole summer after our finals.”
“What, on trains?”
“Yes. All across EuropeÂ .Â .Â . it was amazing.” It really was. The best time of my life, even.
I glance at Jess. She's gone quiet; seems lost in her own thoughts. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, sure.” She forces a smile. A little of her energy seems to have evaporated. “SoÂ .Â .Â . where was this photo taken?”
“Amsterdam, I think.”
I don't think: I know. How could I forget?
Looking at that photo, I can feel the late July sun on my face, smell the sulphur stink of the warm canal water. So clear,
that time, even though those memories are over a decade old. But then everything on that trip seemed important. Everything
said, everything done.
“I've just realized,” Nick says, looking at his watch. “I've actually got to get going. Sorry, I know you wanted to use the
“Oh,” I say, a little thrown. “No worries. Maybe you could lend me your code? I'll see if I can get on the Wifi from up there.”
He suddenly looks very eager to be gone; maybe he's late for something. “What is it,” I ask, “work?”
I've been wondering what he does for a living. Everything about this guy says money. But whispers it rather than shouts it.
As I've been looking around his place I've noticed some very swanky-looking speakers (Bang & Olufsen, I'll look it up later
but I can just tell they're expensive), a fancy camera (Leica), a massive screen in the corner (Apple) and that professional-looking
coffee machine. But you have to really look to see the wealth. Nick's are the possessions of someone who is loaded but doesn't
want to boast about itÂ .Â .Â . might even be a little embarrassed by it. But they tell a story. As do the books on his shelvesâthe
titles that I can understand, anyway:
Fast Forward Investing
The Technologized Investor
Catching a Unicorn
The Science of Self-Discipline.
As did the stuff in his bathroom. I spent about three seconds splashing my face with cold water and the rest of the time having a good root through his cabinets. You can learn a lot about someone from their bathroom. I learned this when I was taken to meet prospective foster families. No one's ever going to stop you if you ask to use the toilet. I'd go in there, poke aroundâsometimes nick a lipstick or a bottle of perfume, sometimes
explore the rooms on the way backâfind out if they were concealing anything scary or weird.
In Nick's bathroom I found all the usual: mouthwash, toothpaste, aftershaves, paracetamol, posh toiletries with names like
“Aesop” and “Byredo” and thenâinterestingâquite a large supply of oxycodone. Everyone has their poison, I get that. I dabbled
with some stuff, back in the day. When it felt like it might be easier to stop caring about anything, to just kind of slip
out the back door of life. It wasn't for me, but I get it. And I guess rich boys feel pain, too.
“I'mâwell, between jobs at the moment,” Nick says.
“What were you doing before?” I ask, reluctantly moving away from the desk. I'm fairly certain his last job didn't involve
working in a dive with inflatable palm trees and flamingos dangling from the ceiling.
“I was in San Francisco for a while. Palo Alto. Tech start-ups. An Angel, you know?”
“ErÂ .Â .Â . no?”
“Ah.” It must be nice to be so casual about looking for work. Clearly “between jobs” doesn't mean that he's scrabbling for
He squeezes past me to get to the doorway; I've been blocking his way and being a nice posh English boy he's probably too
polite to ask me to budge. I smell his cologne as he does: smoky and expensive and delicious, the same one I had a spray of
in his bathroom.
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry. I'm holding you up.”
“It's OK.” But I get the impression he's not as relaxed as he sounds: something in his posture, perhaps, a tightness about
“Well. Thanks for your help.”
“Look,” he says. “I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. But I'm still keen to help. Anything I can do, any questions I can
answerâI'll try to.”
“There is one thing,” I say. “Do you know if Ben's seeing anyone?”
He frowns. “Seeing anyone?”
“Yeah. Like a girlfriend, or something more casual.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just a hunch.” It's not like me to be prudish, but there's something in me that gets the ick at describing the knickers I
found in Ben's bed.
“HmmÂ .Â .Â .” He puts a hand up to his hair and runs his fingers through it, which only makes his curls stand out more messily.
He's beautiful. Yes, all my focus is on finding Ben but I'm also not blind. I've always had a stupid weakness for a polite
posh boy; I'm not saying I'm proud of it. “Not that I know of,” he says, finally. “I don't
he has a girlfriend. But I suppose I don't know everything about his life here in Paris. I mean, we'd kind of fallen out
of touch before he arrived here.”
“Yeah.” I know how that is.
But that's just like Ben, isn't it?
Nick had said, just before.
He's always been like that, since we were students.
And all I could think was:
he? And if he was always rushing off at the drop of a hat when he was at Cambridge, how did he not find more time to come
and see me? He was always saying he was “so busy with essays” or “I can't miss any of my tutorials. You know how it is.” But
I didn't, of course. He knew I didn't. One of the only times he came to see meâI was fostering in Milton Keynes at the timeâwas
when I suggested a trip to Cambridge. I had an inkling that the threat of his scuzzy foster-kid sister turning up and damaging
his image might work. Thinking about it, I feel a little spike of something that I hope is anger, not hurt. Hurt is the worst.
“Sorry not to be more use,” Nick says, “but if you need me, I'm right here. Just one floor down.”
Our eyes meet. His are a very dark blue, not the brown I'd taken them for. I try to see past the little tug of attraction. Can I trust this guy? He's Ben's mate. He says he's keen to help. The problem is I'm not good at trusting people. I've been used to fending for myself for too long. But Nick could be useful. He knows Benâapparently better than I do, in some ways. He clearly speaks French. He seems like a decent guy. I think of weird, jumpy Mimi and frosty Sophie Meunier: it's nice to think someone in this building might be a useful ally.
I watch as he pulls on a smart navy wool coat, wraps a soft-looking gray scarf around his neck.
He goes to the door and opens it for me. “It's nice to meet you, Jess,” he says, with a small smile. He looks like a painting
of an angel. I don't know where the thought comes fromâmaybe it's because he used the word himself just nowâbut I know that
it's right; perfect even. A fallen angel. It's the dark gold curls, those purple shadows under his navy eyes. Mum had a thing
about angels, too, she was always telling me and Ben we all have one looking out for us. Shame hers didn't seem up to the
job. “And, look,” Nick says. “I'm sure Ben will turn up.”
“Thanks. I think so too.” I try to believe it.
“Here, let me give you my number.”
“That would be great.” I give him my phone: he puts his details in.
As I take it from him our fingers brush, and he quickly drops his hand.
Back up in Ben's apartment I'm relieved to find I can get onto Nick's Wifi using the password he gave me. I head to Ben's Instagram and look for “Nick Miller”âthe name he's put in my phoneâbut I can't see him among Ben's followers. I try a more general search and get Nick Millers from all over the place: the
States, Canada, Australia. I look through them until my eyes sting. But they're too young, too old, too bald, from the wrong country. Google is useless, too: there's some fictional guy called Nick Miller from a TV show which fills all the Google results. I give up. Just as I'm about to put it back in my pocket my phone vibrates with a text. And for a moment I think:
. It's from Ben! How amazing would that be, after all thisâ
It's from an unknown number:
Got your message about Ben. Haven't heard from the guy. But he'd promised me a couple of pieces of work and a pitch. I'm working
at the Belle Epoque cafÃ© next to the Jardin du Luxembourg all day. You can meet me here. T.
I'm confused for a moment, then I scroll up to my message above and I realize it's the guy I texted earlier. I take Ben's
wallet out of my back pocket to remind me of his full name. Theo Mendelson, Paris editor,
I'm coming now
I text back.
Just before I slide the card back into the wallet, I notice another one sitting behind it. It catches my eye because it's
so simple, so unusual. Made from metal, it's a dark midnight blue with an image like an exploding firework, picked out in
gold. No text or numbers or anything. Not a credit card. Not a business card either, surely. Then what? I hesitate, feel the
surprising weight of it in my palm, then pocket it.
When I open the door that leads onto the courtyard I realize it's already starting to get dark, the sky the color of an old
bruise. When did that happen? I haven't noticed the hours passing. This place has swallowed time, like something from a fairytale.
As I walk through the courtyard I hear a sound close by, a rasping:
scritch, scritch, scritch
. I turn and start as I see a small,
stooped figure standing only a couple of meters away to my right. It's the old woman, the one I saw last night. She wears a scarf tied about her gray hair, and some sort of long shapeless cardigan over an apron. Her face is all nose and chin, hollow eye-sockets. She could be anything from seventy to ninety. She's holding a broom, which she's using to sweep dead leaves into a heap. Her eyes are fixed on me.
,” I say to her. “Um. Have you seen
Ben? From the third floor?” I point up to the windows of the apartment. But she just keeps on sweeping:
, all the while watching me.
Then she steps even closer. Her eyes on me the whole time, barely even blinking. But just once, quickly, she looks up at the
apartment building, as though checking for something. Then she opens her mouth and speaks in a low hiss, a sound not unlike
the rasping of those dead leaves: “
There is nothing for you here
I stare at her. “What do you mean?”
She shakes her head. And then she turns and walks away, goes back to her sweeping. It all happened so quickly I could almost
believe I imagined the whole thing. Almost.
I stare after her stooped, retreating figure. For Christ's sake: it feels like everyone I meet in here is speaking in riddlesâexcept
Nick, maybe. I have this sudden, almost violent urge to run up to her and, I don't know, shake her or somethingÂ .Â .Â . force
her to tell me what she means. I swallow my frustration.
When I turn to open the gate I'm sure I can feel her gaze across my shoulder blades, definite as the touch of fingertips.
And as I step onto the street I can't help but wonder: was that a warning or a threat?
The gate clangs shut behind the girl. She thinks that she's staying in a normal apartment building. A place that follows ordinary
rules. She has no idea what she has got herself into here.
I think of Madame Meunier's instructions. I know that I have no option but to obey. I have too much at stake here not to cooperate.
I will tell her that the girl has just left, as she asked me to do. I will tell her when she comes back, too. Just like the
obedient member of staff I am. I do not like Madame Meunier, as I have made clear. But we have been forced into an uneasy
kind of alliance by this girl's arrival. She has been sneaking around. Asking questions of those that live here. Just like
he did. I can't afford to have her drawing attention to this place. He wanted to do that too.
There are things here that I have to protect, you see. Things that mean I can never leave this job. And up until recently
I have felt safe here. Because these are people with secrets. I have been too deep into those secrets. I know too much. They
can't get rid of me. And I can never be rid of them.
He was kind, the newcomer. That was all. He noticed me. He greeted me each time he passed in the courtyard, on the staircase. Asked me how I was. Commented on the weather. It doesn't sound like much, does it? But it felt like such a long time
since someone had paid any attention to me, let alone shown me kindness. Such a long time since I had even been noticed as a human being. And soon afterward he began asking his questions.
“How long have you worked here?” he inquired, as I washed the stone floor at the base of the staircase.
“A long time, Monsieur.” I wrung out my mop against the bucket.
“And how did you come to work here? Hereâlet me do that.” He carried the heavy bucket of water across the hallway for me.
“My daughter came to Paris first. I followed her here.”
“What did she come to Paris for?”
“That was all a very long time ago, Monsieur.”
“I'm still interested, all the same.”
That made me look at him more closely. Suddenly I felt I had told him enough. This stranger. Was he
interested? What did he want from me?
I was very careful with my answer. “It isn't a very interesting story. Perhaps some other time, Monsieur. I have to get on
with my work. But thank you, for your help.”
“Of course: don't let me hold you up.”
For so many years my insignificance and invisibility have been a mask I can hide behind. And in the process I have avoided
raking up the past. Raking up the shame. As I say, this job may have its small losses of dignity. But it does not involve
But his interest, his questions: for the first time in a very long time I felt seen. And like a fool, I fell for it.
And now this girl has followed him here. She needs to be encouraged to leave before she is able to work out that things are
not what they seem.
Perhaps I can
her to go.