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Authors: Lucy Foley

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BOOK: The Paris Apartment
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Jess

It's strange to be back among people, traffic, noise, after the hush of the building. Disorientating, too, because I still
don't really know where I am, how all the roads around here connect to one another. I check the map on my phone quickly, so
as not to burn too much more data. The café where I'm meeting this Theo guy turns out to be all the way across town on the
other side of the river so I decide to take the Metro, even though it means I'll have to break another of the notes I nicked
from Ben.

It feels like the further I move away from the apartment the easier I can breathe. It's like a part of me has smelled freedom
and never wants to go back inside that place, even though I know I have to.

I walk along cobbled streets, past crowded pavement cafés with wicker chairs, people chatting over wine and cigarettes. I
pass an old wooden windmill erupting from behind a hedge and wonder what on earth that's doing in the middle of the city,
in someone's garden. Hurrying down a long flight of stone steps I have to climb around a guy sleeping in a fort of soggy-looking
cardboard boxes; I drop a couple of euros into his paper cup. A little way on I cut through a couple of smart-looking squares
that look almost identical, except in the middle of one there are these old guys playing some kind of
boules
and in the other a merry-go-round with a candy-striped top, kids clinging onto model horses and leaping fish.

When I get to the more crowded streets around the Metro stop there's an odd, tense feeling, like something's about to happen. It's like a scent in the air—and I have a good nose for trouble.
Lo and behold, I spot three police vans parked in a side street. I glimpse them sitting inside wearing helmets, stab vests. On instinct, I keep my head down.

I follow the stream of people underground. I get stuck in the turnstile because I forget to take the little paper ticket out;
I don't know how to unlatch the doors on the train when it arrives so a guy has to help me before it pulls away without me.
All of it makes me feel like a clueless tourist, which I hate: clueless is dangerous, it makes you vulnerable.

As I stand in the crowded, smelly, too-warm crush of bodies on the train I get the feeling I'm being watched. I glance around:
a cluster of teenagers hanging from the rails, looking like they've stepped out of a nineties skate park; a young woman in
a leather jacket; a few elderly women with tiny dogs and grocery trollies; a group of bizarrely dressed people with ski goggles
on their heads and bandannas round their necks, one of them carrying a painted sign. But nothing obviously suspicious and
when we get to the next stop a man playing an accordion steps on, blocking half the carriage from view.

Up out of the Metro the quickest way seems to be through a park, the Jardin du Luxembourg. In the park the light is purple,
shifting, not quite dark. On the path leaves crunch under my feet where they haven't been swept into huge glowing orange pyramids;
the branches of the trees are nearly bare. There's an empty bandstand, a shuttered café, chairs stacked in piles. Again I
have that feeling of being watched, followed: certain I can feel someone's gaze on me. But every time I turn back no figure
stands out.

Then I see him.
Ben
. He flashes right by me, jogging alongside another guy. What the hell? He must have seen me: why didn't he stop?

“Ben!” I shout, quickening my step, “Ben!” But he doesn't look back. I start to jog. I can just about make him out, disappearing
into the dim light. Shit. I'm lots of things but I'm not a runner. “Hey, Ben! For fuck's sake!” He doesn't turn around, though several other runners glance at me as they pass. Finally I'm just behind him, breathing hard. I reach out, touch his shoulder. He turns around.

I take a step backward. It isn't Ben. His face is totally wrong: eyes too close together, weak chin. I see Ben's raised eyebrow,
clear as if he really were standing in front of me.
You mistook me for that guy?


Qu'est-ce que tu veux?
” the stranger asks, looking irritated, then: “What do you want?”

I can't answer, partly because I can't breathe and talk at once but mainly because I'm so confused. He makes a little “crazy”
gesture to his mate as they jog off.

Of course it wasn't Ben. As I watch him move away, I can see everything's wrong—he runs clumsily, his arms loose and awkward.
There's never been anything awkward about Ben. I'm left with the same feeling I had when he ran by me. It was like seeing
a ghost.

 

The Café Belle Epoque has a kind of festive look to it, glimmering red and gold, light spilling onto the pavement. The tables
outside are crowded with people chatting and laughing and the windows are steamy with condensation from all the bodies crowded
around tables inside. Round the corner, where they haven't turned on the heat-lamps, there's one guy on his own hunched over
a laptop; somehow I just know this is him.

“Theo?” I feel like I'm on a Tinder date, if I bothered going on those anymore and it wasn't all catfishers and arseholes.

He glances up with a scowl. Dark hair long overdue a cut and the beginnings of a beard. He looks like a pirate who's decided to
dress in ordinary clothes: a woolen sweater, frayed at the neckline, under a big jacket.

“Theo?” I ask again. “We texted, about Benjamin Daniels—I'm Jess?”

He gives a curt nod. I pull out the little metal chair opposite him. It sticks to my hand with cold.

“Mind if I smoke?” I think the question's rhetorical, he's already pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboro Reds. Everything
about him is crumpled.

“Sure, I'll have one thanks.” I can't afford a smoking habit but I'm feeling jittery enough to need one—even if he didn't
actually offer.

He spends the next thirty seconds struggling to light his cigarette with a crappy lighter, muttering under his breath: “
Fuck's sake
” and “
Come on, you bastard
.” I think I detect a slight accent as he does.

“You're from East London?” I ask, thinking that maybe if I ingratiate myself he'll be more willing to help. “Whereabouts?”

He raises a dark eyebrow, doesn't answer. Finally, the lighter works and the cigarettes are lit. He draws on his like an asthmatic
on an inhaler, then sits back and looks at me. He's tall, uncomfortable-looking in the little chair: one long leg crossed
over the other knee at the ankle. He's kind of attractive, if you like your men rough around the edges. But I'm not sure I
do—and I'm shocked at myself for even thinking about it, in the circumstances.

“So,” he says, narrowing his eyes through the smoke. “Ben?” Something about the way he says my brother's name suggests there's
not that much love lost there. Maybe I've found the one person immune to my brother's charm.

Before I can answer a waiter comes over, looking pissed off at having to take our order, even though it's his job. Theo, who looks equally pissed off at having to talk to him and speaking French
with a determined English accent, orders a double espresso and something called a Ricard. “Late night, on a deadline,” he tells me, a little defensively.

Mainly to warm up I ask for a
chocolat chaud
. Six euros. Let's assume he's paying. “I'll have the other thing too,” I tell the waiter.


Un Ricard?

I nod. The waiter slouches off. “I don't think we served that at the Copacabana,” I say.

“The what?”

“This bar I worked in. Until a couple of days ago, actually.”

He raises a dark eyebrow. “Sounds classy.”

“It was the absolute worst.” But the day The Pervert decided to show his disgusting little dick to me was the day I'd finally
had enough. Also the day I decided I'd get the creep back for all the times he'd lingered too long behind me, breath hot and
wet on the back of my neck, or “steered” me out of the way, hands on my hips, or the comments he'd made about the way I looked,
the clothes I wore—all those things that weren't quite “things” except were, making me feel a little bit less myself. Another
girl might have left then and never come back. Another might have called the police. But I'm not that girl.

“Right,” Theo says—clearly he has no time for further chit-chat. “Why are you here?”

“Ben: does he work for you?”

“Nah. No one works for anyone these days, not in this line of work. It's dog eat dog out there, every man for himself. But,
yeah, sometimes I commission a review from him, a travel piece. He's been wanting to get into investigative stuff. I guess
you know that.” I shake my head. “He's due to deliver a piece on the riots, in fact.”

“The riots?”

“Yeah.” He peers at me like he can't believe I don't know. “People are seriously fucked off about a hike in taxes, petrol prices. It's got pretty nasty . . . tear gas, water cannons, the lot. It's all over the news. Surely you've seen something?”

“I've only been here since last night.” But then I remember: “I saw police vans near the Pigalle Metro stop.” I remember the
group with the ski goggles on the train. “And maybe some protestors.”

“Yeah, probably. Riots have been breaking out all over town. And Ben's meant to be writing me a piece on them. But he was
also going to tell me about a so-called ‘scoop' he had for me—this morning, in fact. He was very mysterious about it. But
I never heard from him.”

A new possibility. Could that be it? Ben dug too deep into something? Pissed off someone nasty? And he's had to . . . what?
Do a runner? Disappear? Or—I don't want to think about the other possibilities.

Our drinks come; my hot chocolate thick and dark and glossy in a little jug with a cup. I pour it out and take a sip and close
my eyes because it may be six euros but it is also the best fucking hot chocolate I have had in my life.

Theo pours five sachets of brown sugar into his coffee, stirs it in. Then he takes a big glug of his Ricard. I give mine a
sip—it tastes of licorice, a reminder of all the sticky shots of Sambuca I've done behind the bar, bought for me by punters
or snuck from the bottle on a slow evening. I down it. Theo raises his eyebrows.

I wipe my mouth. “Sorry. I needed that. It's been a really shitty twenty-four hours. You see, Ben's disappeared. I know you
haven't heard from him, but you don't have any idea where he might be, do you?'

Theo shrugs. “Sorry.” I feel the small hope I'd been holding onto fizzle and die. “How do you mean disappeared?”

“He wasn't in his apartment last night when he said he would be. He's not answering any of my calls or even reading my messages. And there's all this other stuff . . .' I swallow, tell him about the blood on the cat's fur, the bleach stain, the hostile neighbors. As I do I have a moment where I think: how has it come to this? Sitting here with a stranger in a strange city, trying to find my lost brother?

Theo sits there dragging on his cigarette and squinting at me through the smoke and his expression doesn't change at all.
The guy has a great poker face.

“The other strange thing,” I say, “is he's been living in this big, swanky building. I mean, I can't imagine Ben makes that
much from writing?” Judging by the state of Theo's outfit, I suspect not.

“Nope. You certainly don't get into this business for the money.”

I remember something else. The strange metal card I took from Ben's wallet. I slide it out of the back pocket of my jeans.

“I found this. Does it mean anything to you?”

He studies the gold firework design, frowning. “Not sure. I've definitely seen that symbol. But I can't place it right now.
Can I take it? I'll get back to you.” I hand it over, a little reluctantly, because it's one of the few things I have that
feels like a clue. Theo takes it from me and there's something about the way he grabs it that I don't like. It suddenly seems
too eager, despite the fact he's told me he doesn't know Ben all that well and doesn't seem all that concerned for his welfare.
He doesn't exactly give off a Good Samaritan vibe. I'm not sure about this guy. Still, beggars can't be choosers.

“There's one other thing,” I say, remembering. “Ben left this voicenote for me last night, just before I got into Gare du
Nord.”

Theo takes my phone. He plays the recording and Ben's voice sings out. “Hey Jess—”

It's strange hearing it again like this. It sounds different from the last time I listened, somehow not quite like Ben, like
he's that much further out of reach.

Theo listens to the whole thing. “It sounds like he says something else, at the end. Have you been able to work out what?”

“No—I can't hear it. It's too muffled.”

He puts up a finger. Hang on. Then he reaches into the rucksack by his chair—as crumpled as everything else about him—and
pulls out a tangled pair of headphones. “Right. Noise-canceling and they go really loud. Want one?' He holds out a bud to
me.

I stick it in my ear.

He dials up the volume to the max and presses play on the voicenote again.

We listen to the familiar part of the recording. Ben's voice: “Hey Jess, so it's number twelve, Rue des Amants. Got that?
Third floor” and “Just ring the buzzer. I'll be up waiting for you—” His voice seems to cut off mid-sentence, just like every
time I've listened to it before. But now I hear it. What sounded like a crackle on the voicemail is actually a creaking of
wood. I
recognize
that creak. It's the hinges of the door to the apartment.

And then I hear Ben's voice at a distance, quiet but still much clearer than what had been only a mumble before: “What are
you doing here?” A long pause. Then he says: “What the fuck . . . ?”

BOOK: The Paris Apartment
9.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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