Please register or login to continue

Register Login

The Hotel Manager
The Hotel Manager

The Hotel Manager

StephenGStephenG

The Hotel Manager

Paris in the springtime

Mark Lewis arrived in Paris on a Saturday in March 1976. It was to be the first of many visits to the French capital but because of the way things unfolded it became the one that Mark would always remember, and would most like to forget.

He had taken an early morning train from Victoria Station in London and, after a smooth crossing on the hovercraft to Boulogne, arrived at the Gare du Nord at about five o’clock. He had booked a hotel on the Île Saint-Louis, near to Notre-Dame, and, negotiating the Paris Metro safely, he reached his room less than forty-five minutes later.

At that time the Île Saint-Louis was, despite its proximity to the city centre, a quiet place with few bars and restaurants and only a smattering of shops. It had the feel of a provincial village. If you asked a resident where you could buy something out of the ordinary, they would often say that you would have to go to Paris for it. Mark’s hotel was basic but comfortable and he lingered at the open window for a moment, savouring the early evening calm of the neighbourhood. However, it was his first time in Paris and he quickly felt the need to experience the hustle and bustle of the capital city.

By half-past six he was standing on the Place de la Concorde. Coming up out of the metro station he had immediately become fascinated by the flow of the apparently endless traffic streaming around the square and by the unfamiliar cars, particularly the Citroens. He was entranced by the people, most of who seemed to be in a permanent hurry and yet still radiated a nonchalant, relaxed elegance. The women looked impeccable, or tried to; men seemed to cultivate a sort of unkempt swagger. Distinctive smells hung everywhere. Mark was already familiar with the musty, hard-to-define flavour of the metro and its stations and then there was the unique aroma of Gauloises, something he had never experienced before.

Mark was fortunate with the weather. It was a classic ‘Paris in the springtime’ day and the sunshine was just giving way to a balmy evening. The whole scene was so different from life in Watford, where he had been born twenty-three years before and had lived ever since. That afternoon, England’s rugby team had taken on France at the Parc des Princes and had been beaten by thirty points to nine; a group of French fans would tease him, in a good-natured way, about this result in a café later that evening.

With some difficulty, he crossed the Place de la Concorde and made his way towards the Champs-Elysées, leading down towards the Arc de Triomphe. He narrowly escaped the attentions of one of the photographers who attempted to extort high prices from tourists in return for a pallid instant snapshot in front of one of the city’s attractions, in this case the Egyptian obelisk.

As darkness fell and the street lights and other illuminations began to take over, Mark had never felt so excited, or indeed so curious, in his life. He had a whole week to explore the city and its sights and he planned to do so on foot, taking advantage of a book detailing a number of half-day walks which he had bought before his departure. He had made a couple of trips to the continent before, to Brussels and to Amsterdam. These had been interesting, even eye-opening, but this was the real thing, this was different. This was, he imagined, the place where his rather stuttering life would really start. This was Paris.

For one blissful moment, it seemed that the last few years, during which he had dropped out of university, walked away from several unsatisfying jobs and twice been dumped by girlfriends, could be put behind him and that he could begin his life afresh. It was a fantasy of course, and he knew it, but he allowed himself to indulge it for a little while longer.

And yet, in spite of his state of excitement, in the back of his mind he was still preoccupied by something he had experienced earlier in the day. When he was about to board the train at Victoria that morning, he had noticed a bearded man walking along the platform and carrying a holdall. He was accompanied by a woman in a well-tailored blue trouser suit. She had short blonde hair and carried a white shoulder bag. To say that she was beautiful would have been an understatement. Mark could not take his eyes off her. He remembered that she was several inches taller than the man she was with; in fact, she was around six foot, his height. In contrast to her radiant, life-enhancing presence, her partner, dressed in a shabby duffel coat, looked surly and downcast. She was probably in her late twenties and he was about thirty, but his demeanour aged him by at least a decade.

Mark had settled himself in a compartment. The window was open. Outside, he could see the couple approaching. Suddenly, the woman spoke.

‘So you’re going?’ she exclaimed.

‘I told you,’ he replied, in a quiet, resigned tone, ‘I have to get away for a while.’ Then he added, ‘You could come too.’

‘And I told you,’ she declared, ‘I have to work. All next week.’ Her voice was quite deep, the tone a little aloof.

‘Yes, so you said, and I told you that I need to go.’

For an instant, he started to move towards her. Then, without warning, he spun round, opened the door of Mark’s compartment and climbed in. The woman began to walk away and the man promptly leaned out of the open window.

‘See you next Saturday?’ he shouted, seemingly in a sunnier frame of mind. ‘I’m due back at about six o’clock.’

‘All right!’ came the fading reply.

Once the train had pulled out and was heading towards Dover, Mark noticed that he and the man were the only two occupants of the compartment. He tried to read his newspaper, while the man stared out of the window. After a short while, Mark decided to break the silence.

‘I’m sorry your girlfriend couldn’t come with you.’

The man fixed him with an unfriendly stare. His mass of light brown hair, which was already noticeably thinning on top, plus his shaggy beard, made him look slightly mysterious, perhaps even threatening. Mark suddenly questioned the wisdom of trying to initiate a conversation.

‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ he said, after a short pause. ‘She’s my wife. We’ve been married for three years. No need to be sorry, by the way, she’s bloody boring company on trips like this.’

‘Oh, I find that hard to believe.’ Mark’s naive remark seemed almost calculated to draw a defensive response.

‘Oh! Do you? Do you indeed?’ He rose from his seat. ‘It’s funny, all blokes say that. They can’t believe that she isn’t fascinating company, just because of the way she looks. Well, let me tell you, she isn’t. She’s driving me bloody mad! That’s why I had to get away.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Mark, ‘what does she do?’

‘It’s not what she does, it’s what she is, what she represents. She stands for conformity, neatness, cleanliness is next to bloody godliness, all that. You saw how she looked today; I mean, she’s not even going to work. I’m different, as you can probably see. I’m a free spirit, I like art, jazz, that sort of thing. I enjoy going to smoky clubs. She wouldn’t be seen dead in these places. Her mum’s the same, a right suburban snob.’

‘Why did you get married?’ asked Mark, still a little disturbed but rather intrigued.

‘Why do you think? We started going out and she got pregnant. So her parents insisted that I did the ‘decent thing’, as they put it. She wasn’t a shrinking violet, believe me; she had told me she was on the pill!’ He sat down again and appeared a little more relaxed. ‘To be honest, mate, I wasn’t very experienced.’

‘Attraction of opposites, I suppose,’ he added, in a more philosophical manner.

‘So you have a child?’ asked Mark.

‘Yes, a little boy named Andrew. We are all living with her parents at the moment, which doesn’t help matters, although it makes it easier for Barbara to go to work.’

‘What does she do?’

‘Look, what is this, the Spanish Inquisition?’ he barked. Then he relented. ‘If you must know, she works in a big department store. Don’t ask me which one, because I don’t have a clue. But she gets a good wage, which is why she can buy all those clothes and make-up, as well as some things for the kid. I think that’s all she cares about; I don’t seem to get a look in anymore. Her parents have practically banned me from seeing Andrew if they are there.’

Even with his limited life experience, Mark sensed a surge of self-pity on the part of his companion.

‘Do you work?’ he asked.

‘I work,’ said the man. ‘That is, I write, or try to. Novels, poetry, that sort of thing. I’m not what you would call successful. In fact, I’ll soon be old enough to be a confirmed failure. It’s not what my parents-in-law would call a “proper job”, you see. “When is Jeff going to get a proper job?” I hear them ask, frequently. I’ve had a few run-ins with them, particularly with the mother, I can tell you.’

‘I’m sorry for you.’

‘There’s no need to be. I’ll feel better after this week.’ He now seemed almost cheerful. ‘I’ll have a good time in Paris; I always do. Then next Saturday she will meet me at the station, we’ll go home and, who knows, there might be a letter from a publisher waiting for me!’ He leant forward. ‘You know what? We still have marital relations. Plenty of them, in fact. It may seem strange to you after what I’ve just said. Barbara says it keeps her young. Sometimes I feel that I’m available on prescription! I think it’s the only thing that keeps me there.’

A few minutes later, the train pulled into Dover Maritime Station. Jeff picked up his bag, opened the door and jumped down onto the platform. It was obvious that he had had enough of Mark and wanted to get away. After the revelation about his active sex life, the conversation had come to a halt and the silence had returned. Mark followed him at a distance towards the hovercraft terminal but did not see him any more once he boarded the train on the French side. However, he confidently expected to meet him again, as they were both due to return on the same train to Victoria the next Saturday. He might also catch a glimpse of Barbara, although at this point he did not know what to think of her, or of Jeff. He had initially been dazzled by her and repelled by him, but after the conversation in the train compartment, which he half wished he had never started, he understood that nothing was black and white. Although he had only heard Jeff’s point of view, and that only briefly, he suspected that a deeper, if not entirely wholesome, character lay beneath the dishevelled exterior, while Barbara’s idealised persona may conceal a more devious, infuriating individual lurking inside. Of course, he could be wrong. By the time he arrived in Paris, he didn’t really care whether he was or not and tried to put the whole episode out of his mind. And yet, the memory of the events on the platform and of his encounter with Jeff continued to gnaw away at his enjoyment of discovering the city over the next few days.

………………

By Wednesday, Mark had criss-crossed Paris several times in pursuit of all the best sights. He had been to Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower and had even made his way down to Versailles. He felt that he knew the Paris Metro like the back of his hand. Today, he thought, he would stick closer to home and spend the afternoon taking a good look at Notre-Dame, just up the road from the Île Saint-Louis.

It was a beautiful day and by half past five Mark felt overwhelmed by the majesty and history of the cathedral. He had done the full tour and seen practically everything. As he stood in front of the immense Gothic edifice, the day was still warm enough for him to remove his jacket and hang it over his shoulder. As he weaved his way slowly past the tourists, souvenir sellers and locals, he was as relaxed and happy as he had ever been. The unsettling experience of Saturday seemed just a distant memory and he was pleased to have slowed down the pace that day, after his frenetic start to the week.

He left the Île de la Cité and crossed the Petit Pont to the left bank of the Seine. He began to make his way towards the Île Saint-Louis by way of the Quai de Montebello. Stopping for a while in a café, he ordered a tea and a piece of cake and spent almost an hour on the terrasse immersed in a fascinating book on the history of Notre-Dame, which he had purchased that afternoon.

After leaving the café, he thought better of going straight back to the hotel and took a stroll to the Latin Quarter, getting as far as the Boulevard Saint-Michel. He had already been in this part of Paris, but now was fascinated by its unique character as darkness fell, by the narrow pedestrian streets, the slightly dilapidated appearance of the buildings, by the bars, the clubs, the restaurants, the shops, but most of all, as on his first evening in the Place de la Concorde, by the people. They seemed to be everywhere: so many, so young, so different. Not necessarily wealthy, but seemingly determined to live life to the full. Men brooded, women pouted, smoke rose from tables, wine was sipped, newspapers were read, glances were exchanged and assignations made. To Mark, looking on from the outside, it seemed like a dream. He was not sure that he ever wanted to wake up from it. At the same time, he felt that he would never be able to join in.

Slightly giddy from his walk around the Latin Quarter, Mark now headed back towards the Île Saint-Louis, approaching the Pont de la Tournelle. It was after eight o’clock and dark, and he decided that he would stop off at the local bistro near to the hotel for dinner.

He was thinking about what to order when someone rushed up from behind him and pushed him in the back. He fell to the ground and banged his head against the pavement. For a few seconds his head was spinning but he nevertheless managed to look up and see his attacker looming over him. The man calmly bent down and snatched his wallet from the inside of his jacket. In that instant, Mark’s senses began to clear and he was astonished to see who his assailant was. It was Jeff, whom he had met on the train on Saturday! The same beard, the same mass of uncombed hair, the same duffel coat. What was going on? Mark asked himself this question, silently. Was this some freakish coincidence or had this man been following him all week, waiting for the right moment?

There followed a strange hiatus as Jeff, now standing upright with Mark’s wallet in his hand, did not move, and Mark lay on the ground looking up at him, struggling to shake off the dizziness. He realised that his priority should be to get the wallet back. It had all his money in it, as well as his return ticket.

‘What do you think you are doing?’ he cried, groggily. ‘Give it back to me, please. Look, I know who you are. I’ll call the police. They will find you.’

Jeff grinned. His presence still seemed rather unreal. ‘Not here, mate. You won’t stand a chance. If I were you, I should look for a job washing dishes to pay for your return passage.’ He let out a cackling laugh and began to run towards the bridge. This galvanised Mark into action and, although still heavy-legged from the blow to the head, he rose to his feet and pursued him.

Jeff was not a fast runner and Mark soon began to close on him. As they crossed the bridge, Jeff, already puffing, looked back at Mark and then turned right onto the Quai de Béthune. He ran about a hundred yards before starting to cross the road. At this moment a car, travelling very fast and with no lights, appeared out of the darkness and collided with him. The impact lifted him into the air and he hit the ground with a thud, like a rag doll. The driver of the car did not slow down but continued on her way (Mark, who was quite close by this time, was sure that the car was driven by a blonde woman, who seemed to be wearing dark glasses), speeding towards the bridge and turning left with a screech of tyres. Within a couple of seconds the vehicle was out of sight.

Mark froze for a few moments; he had felt the impact as though he was the one on the receiving end. It had shaken him up and he was trying to take it all in. The evening had turned perceptibly colder, or at least he thought it had. There were a few lights on in nearby apartments but the area seemed almost pitch dark. There was no one around. Nobody was hurrying home from work, or walking their dog, and no faces had appeared in any windows to see what was happening. Perhaps they are used to the screeching of tyres around here, he thought.

Mark moved towards Jeff’s lifeless body, which was lying in the middle of the road. He had taken it for granted that his assailant was dead. The wallet was still in Jeff’s hand. Gingerly, Mark removed it. Then, for reasons he did not understand, he reached inside Jeff’s coat and took out his passport. He put both items into the inside pockets of his jacket, one on each side. His own passport was in the safe in his hotel room. For a moment, he hesitated, not sure whether he should have taken the dead man’s passport, not really sure what he was doing at all. Then he thought he heard someone approaching and disappeared into the shadows on the banks of the Seine.

Forty minutes later, Mark Lewis sat in the bistro near to the hotel, ordering an omelette and a beer. Police sirens were wailing just down the street. He could hear customers talking and although his French was not good enough to understand every word of the local slang, he was sure that they were talking about the accident in which Jeff had been killed.

‘Il parait qu’il a été tué sur le coup!’ exclaimed one man, who had just come in.

‘Ah, oui,’ said another. ‘Il y a les flics partout, plus l’ambulance. La rue est complètement bloquée.’

‘On sait qui c’est?’ shouted the owner of the bistro.

‘Un des agents m’a dit que c’était peut-être un étranger.’

Well, they’re right there, thought Mark. Just then, a chunky grey-haired man with a moustache at an adjoining table turned to him.

‘Vous avez vu l’incident, Monsieur? Vous le connaissez?’

Mark managed a halting reply, saying that he was on holiday and didn’t know the area. The man smiled and everyone seemed to relax.

Later, Mark went back to the hotel. As he entered and made his way to the reception he was confronted by the diminutive figure of the hotel manager, who took him by the arm and directed him towards two police officers standing in the lobby. In that instant, Mark realised that he had Jeff’s passport in the inside pocket of his jacket. He could not turn back or run away; he knew that he would have to face them. He told himself that he should act naturally and play the innocent tourist but inwardly he was trembling.

‘Monsieur,’ exclaimed the manager, who appeared rather flustered, ‘c’est la police.’

‘Bonsoir, Monsieur,’ said the taller of the two policemen.

‘Excusez-moi,’ replied Mark. ‘Je parle très peu de français.’

‘That is no problem,’ declared the officer, breaking into near-perfect English in a London accent. ‘My wife is British; we spend all our holidays in England.’

‘Just my luck,’ thought Mark.

‘We are sorry to bother you, but you may have heard that there was a tragic accident in a nearby street earlier this evening. A man was killed by a car and the driver seems not to have stopped. The victim was British and his name was Jeffrey Layton. Would you….’

‘How do you know that?’ Mark instantly cursed himself for blurting out something so stupid.

‘Well…’ The officer paused, looking closely at Mark. ‘He was staying at this hotel. The manager recognised him, which was a good thing as he had no documents on him at all.’

‘Recognised him? But you said he was….’

‘Dead? Yes, I did. Nevertheless, we took the liberty of taking a photograph. I am sorry if it is distressing, but I would like you to take a look.’

Mark knew that he had to compose himself. After all, why should he feel guilty? Jeff had hit him from behind and stolen his wallet. He was not driving the car that had killed him. And yet he did feel guilty. He had chased Jeff, causing him to run in front of the car. Nobody would blame him for giving chase, but ultimately his action had cost a man his life, a punishment wildly out of proportion to the crime he had committed. Mark had also stolen Jeff’s passport. He had stolen the passport of a dead man. And the passport was still in his pocket.

On top of all this, Mark had no idea that Jeff had been staying at the Hotel Charlemagne. In fact, he was shocked at this revelation. He had never seen him at breakfast, or at any other time. What was he doing there? It was either another incredible coincidence or Jeff had, as Mark increasingly suspected, been following him, perhaps for much longer than he had thought.

‘You know him, Monsieur?’ It was the turn of the second police officer to practise his much more broken English.

Mark steeled himself to look at what was, frankly, a distressing photograph.

‘No,’ he said, firmly. ‘I have never seen this man before.’

‘That is a little surprising, Monsieur. It seems that he was staying in the room next to yours. You are in number forty-six; he was in forty-seven.’

‘Incredible,’ thought Mark, ‘and I never knew!’

‘I’m afraid,’ he said to the officers, ‘that I have no recollection of him.’ He winced inside at the fact that he was lying, withholding the truth from the police. Why was he doing this? He had nothing to hide and yet he did, of course. What a mess he had got himself into.

‘You are Mr Lewis, I believe,’ said the officer with the London accent. ‘The manager told us that you and Mr Layton both arrived on Saturday evening, within about ten minutes of each other.’ Mark noticed the dapper, waistcoated figure of the manager standing at his office door, rubbing his hands and apparently revelling in his involvement in the matter.

‘I don’t see why that is relevant,’ replied Mark, trying to be more assertive. ‘In fact, I am not sure why any of this is relevant. What am I supposed to have done?’

‘We have,’ said the second officer, ‘how you say, un témoin? She says that she saw a man approach Mr Layton’s body. He seemed to remove something before running away.’

‘And what does that have to do with me?’ So someone had seen him after all. Mark did his best to look mystified but he was beginning to get a hollow feeling in his stomach and his legs were turning to jelly. He feared what would come next. The taller officer stepped forward, his voice taking on a serious tone.

‘Would you please show us what you have in your pockets, sir?’

So this was it. There was no way out now. Mark had visions of the back seat of a police car, of interrogations with lights in the face. Resigned to his fate, he opened out his dark blue jacket, which was already unzipped, and showed the inside pockets as the officers searched him. There was his wallet and a map of Paris in the right-hand pocket. In the left one there was…nothing. He realised that Jeff’s passport had gone.

The officers finished their examination and looked rather nonplussed. Mark imagined that they had already taken the liberty of searching his room.

‘We are sorry, Monsieur,’ declared the one with the broken English, ‘but the man whom the witness saw seemed to match your description, and the manager said….enfin, we are sorry to have troubled you.’

‘C’était bien lui?’ shouted the manager, who appeared not to understand the situation.

‘Non, Monsieur,’ snapped the first police officer. ‘Pas du tout.’

Mark was by now bewildered by events but also intensely relieved. He knew that he must make every effort to conceal his relief, as he was covered in sweat and trembling a little. For one thing, he had not taken the trouble to clean his wallet and it was possible that Jeff’s fingerprints would still be on it. Through his confusion, he understood that this was a time to be magnanimous. He managed to utter a few words.

‘Well, I’m sure that there are a number of men in Paris who look like me. No harm done, gentlemen, you were just doing your job. Merci et je vous souhaite une bonne soirée.’

He shook hands with the two officers, demanded his key from the seemingly crestfallen manager and took the lift to the fourth floor and his room. Upon arrival, he noticed that three people, including a policeman, were still searching Jeff’s room next door.

After entering his room, he fell flat on the bed in his clothes and lay there for maybe an hour, just looking at the ceiling and trying to breathe regularly. There was so much to take in. What had happened to the passport? He thought that perhaps he had dropped it, but he was almost certain that he had it in his pocket as he entered the hotel, so this could not have been the case.

Then something occurred to him. ‘The manager,’ he thought, ‘he must have…’ He remembered how the man had taken his arm when he entered the hotel. Perhaps he was a skilled pickpocket; Mark would never have felt a thing. Maybe his role as the fawning, hand-rubbing police informer was just that – an act.

Turning this over in his mind, Mark was possessed by a desire to understand what had happened. After a while he got up and went down to the reception. He did not really know what he was looking for and, in retrospect, this could have been a little foolhardy, but by now it was after eleven o’clock. The lights were off and everything was closed up; the whole quarter was already very quiet. Mark decided that there was nothing to do except to go back to his room and wait until the next morning. Before going to bed, he barricaded the hotel room door with the writing desk.

The breakfast room was busy when Mark came down at eight o’clock the next morning. Not surprisingly, he had not slept well, having spent most of the night turning over the previous evening’s events in his head. The usual tourists were munching their croissants and slurping their coffee before going out to explore the city. As he sat down, he exchanged pleasantries with the same elderly Scandinavian couple at the next table and noticed the middle-aged American woman who continued to look at him in a distinctly predatory manner. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the manager coming with a tray. As well as a pot of coffee and some pastries, its contents included a small brown envelope.

‘Voici, Monsieur,’ whispered the manager. ‘J’espère que cela vous conviendra.’

‘Bien sur,’ replied Mark, slipping the envelope into his pocket in a somewhat guilty fashion.

‘A votre service, Monsieur.’

After that, nothing else was said about the matter. Mark Lewis enjoyed the last two days of his holiday. He spent Thursday morning at the Louvre, captivated by the paintings of Poussin, Claude and Delacroix. In his youthful arrogance (and probably ignorance), he thought the Mona Lisa to be a mere footnote to such splendour. In the afternoon he finally made it up the Eiffel Tower, deciding to stop at the second platform, which already offered a glorious view around Paris. It was a beautiful spring day, a little chillier than the previous weekend but the air was crystal clear. The Sacré Coeur stood out like a white thimble and on the other side of town the Montparnasse Tower sprouted like some oversized stick of rock. In the area below, Mark could see the Arc de Triomphe and the impressively arranged Haussmann boulevards. In truth, this is a magical city, he thought to himself.

On the way back that evening, he took a short detour to find Les Halles market, which had been mentioned in a guide book as a must-see attraction. He was disappointed to find that it had been demolished. All that remained was a big hole in the ground. Not everything was magical, he reflected; perhaps a phoenix would rise from the ashes, or in this case the rubble.

He had been so enthused by his exploration of Paris during the day that he had almost forgotten about Jeff, the police and the hotel manager. In fact, he had deliberately tried to put the whole thing out of his mind. As he headed back to the hotel, it occurred to him that the envelope was still in his pocket and that he had not yet looked at it. Pausing just around the corner in a quiet doorway, he took out the envelope and opened it. As he had suspected when he felt the hard object inside, it contained the passport of the late Jeffrey Layton. Mark continued towards the hotel, arriving at just after seven o’clock. He hesitated before entering, suddenly concerned that the police may be waiting to question him again. It also occurred to him that Jeff’s family, including his wife Barbara, may by now be in Paris, perhaps even in the hotel. Then he put these ideas out of his mind and opened the front door. He now knew that the hotel manager must have been responsible for relieving him of the passport but did not know what to make of any of it. At that moment, the manager confronted him at the reception, dangling his room key.

‘Bonsoir, Monsieur Lewis. Voici votre clef.’

Mark took the key and hesitated. It seemed strange to pretend that nothing had happened but he doubted that his French was up to an in-depth discussion with the manager, who showed no sign of speaking any English. In the event, the words came tumbling out of his mouth before he could stop them.

‘Monsieur, s’il vous plait. Dans l’enveloppe, il y a un passeport.’ Almost involuntarily, he took out Jeff’s passport and brandished it across the desk.

The manager smiled and held up his hands.

‘Monsieur, je n’ai aucune idée de quoi vous parlez.’ Then suddenly he broke into near-perfect English.

‘Monsieur Lewis, you are my guest. I would be most honoured if you would dine with my wife and I this evening.’

And so Mark spent the evening with Monsieur Alain Fouchet, Manager of the Hotel Charlemagne on the Île Saint-Louis, along with his rotund and charming wife Clothilde, with occasional visits from their twenty-something daughter Yvette, a tall, slim but rather surly girl who had served him breakfast on Sunday morning. They dined royally on a delicious lamb casserole and Monsieur Fouchet, armed with his newly-discovered excellent English, regaled Mark with stories of the Second World War and the Resistance. At about half past ten, Fouchet took Mark outside to the car park at the back of the hotel and showed him his yellow classic Citroen car, of which he was obviously very proud.

‘C’est ma passion!’ he exclaimed, reverting to his native tongue.

‘Et votre femme aussi, j’espère,’ declared Mark, taking a stab at Gallic mateyness.

‘Ah, Monsieur Mark. Vous etes jeune. A mon âge, vous savez…’

He laughed and slapped his young visitor on the back.

A few minutes later, Mark said goodnight to everyone and returned to his room. The evening had been fascinating but ultimately surreal. He still had the passport the manager had given to him that morning, but it was simply never mentioned. Mark opened the window and looked out. Somewhere over the rooftops, Paris was still brimming with life but on the Île Saint-Louis of 1976 everything seemed dark and quiet before eleven o’clock. The village analogy was entirely accurate.

Mark lay in bed but once again found it difficult to sleep. In the back of his mind, he had been worried that the manager would try to blackmail him, or demand some sort of favour for having taken the passport off him. But there had been no hint of such behaviour. In fact, his manner had been almost too effusive; he had treated Mark as if he were a long-lost friend.

The manager’s slightly disturbing familiarity continued at breakfast the next morning and on Friday evening. After Mark had finished his holiday with a trip on a Bateau Mouche along the Seine, he was once again invited into the dining room for coffee and some cake, even though it was approaching ten o’clock. The session was rounded off with a sizeable glass of Calvados, which left Mark feeling a little light-headed.

‘C’est vraiment dommage que vous partez demain, Monsieur Lewis. On vous aime bien. Il faut absolument que vous revenez ici un jour,’ Clotilde had said.

‘Je ferai de mon mieux, Madame,’ replied Mark.

It was about eleven o’clock when Mark finally got up and left the dining room. As he went out, he noticed Yvette looking at him from the breakfast room, which was in semi-darkness on the other side of the reception area. He lingered for a few moments on her gaunt expression and narrow eyes. Where had he seen that face before? Probably somewhere, he thought, as he climbed the stairs, but he soon gave up trying to remember. He entered his room and packed his bag. After the restless night before, he fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

By half past eight the next morning he was gone, riding the Paris Metro one last time and making his way to the Gare du Nord for the nine-thirty train to Calais. The journey proved to be uneventful, except that he knew the whole way that Jeff would not be on the train and that he, Mark Lewis, had his passport buried deep inside his bag. He still did not understand why he had taken it and had no idea what he intended to do with it. In the absence of any sign of Jeff’s family, he indulged a brief fantasy that Barbara might be waiting to meet the train at Victoria and that he would hand the passport over to her. He then told himself that this was preposterous.

Mark had bought a couple of newspapers at the station but didn’t feel like reading. Neither did he have any wish to strike up a conversation with the other two unaccompanied young men with whom he was sharing the compartment. For most of the journey, he stared out of the window and pretended to look at the countryside of Northern France, which, if he was honest, morphed into a continuous stretch of flat, brownish green. It did not help that the day was overcast and dull. There were no highlights: no mountains, no glaciers, no ravines, no waterfalls. Even the sea would look dingy and uninviting as they approached Calais. He began to feel quite depressed, as though leaving all the dramas and adventures of Paris had deflated him.

The crossing by hovercraft proved to be quite choppy and Mark, untested by the smooth journey to Boulogne on the way over, quickly became aware that he was not well suited to the situation. He sat uneasily as the craft pitched and rolled for much of the forty-minute crossing to Dover and when he tried to disembark, he felt as though his legs were about to give way and his stomach was distinctly upset. Making his way unsteadily to the station, he saw his reflection in a mirror; his face was pale, his expression haggard. He put down his bag and rested his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths.

At this moment, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. He looked up and saw that it was one of the young men who had sat opposite him on the train from Paris.

‘Can I help you with your bag?’ he asked.

‘Thanks,’ replied Mark, pleased to be able to walk unhindered.

The man was about his age; he was lanky, clean-shaven and had a mop of straw-coloured hair.

‘I’m Duncan,’ he said, introducing himself as they climbed into a compartment on the train to Victoria.

‘And I’m Derek,’ announced a second man who jumped in almost as soon as they had sat down. It was the other man who had accompanied him on the train from the Gare du Nord. Mark began to be a little concerned by this situation, even though the corridor provided an escape route from the compartment.

The train moved off. It was just after three o’clock and the weather had brightened up.

‘Feeling better now?’ asked the straw-haired man, who was again seated facing him.

‘Much better, thanks’.

Mark looked at the second man, who had moved closer to his side. He was more thickset than his companion, almost chunky, with several days’ growth of a beard. Suddenly, without warning, he leaned over and spoke.

‘Could we have Jeff’s passport, please, Mr Lewis?’

Mark shivered at this question. Not only did they know that he had the passport, they also knew who he was.

‘I was planning to give it to his wife,’ he replied, nervously. ‘She will be waiting for the train at Victoria.’

‘It would be best if you gave the passport to us,’ said the straw-haired man, in a more kindly voice. He seemed to have suddenly become older, almost avuncular.

‘Well, I think it would be appropriate to give it to his wife.’ Mark was doing his best to be defiant.

‘In that case,’ said a voice from the corner of the compartment, ‘you should give it to me.’

Mark realised that a woman had entered the compartment and was sitting by the window on the corridor side. She was reading a newspaper, which covered her top half completely. All that was visible was the lower part of a light blue dress, which finished just above the knee. Slowly, she lowered the newspaper and looked towards Mark. She smiled, disarmingly. She was every inch the stunning beauty he had seen on the platform at Victoria the previous Saturday.

‘It’s Barbara, isn’t it?’ Mark was hesitant, searching for the right words. ‘I’m so sorry about what happened to your husband.’

‘There’s no need to be sorry,’ she replied, in a somewhat icy tone. ‘After all, the car could have hit anyone, even you. I certainly don’t blame the driver.’

Mark stared at Barbara. Then he thought back to Wednesday, to the blonde woman with dark glasses behind the wheel of the car. Suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

‘It was you,’ he said to himself. ‘You were the driver of the car! You killed your husband! How could I…?’

Realising that it would not be sensible to mention this, he smiled and took down his bag from the luggage rack.

‘Here you are,’ he said, handing over the passport. ‘I suppose that you will want to arrange the funeral.’

Barbara stood up and took the document. She grinned knowingly at her two companions.

‘We need this to claim the body,’ she declared, looking at Mark. ‘You know that Jeff is on this train, don’t you? In cold storage, of course.’

‘No!’ exclaimed Mark, ‘I didn’t. How did you manage to get the body released so quickly? There was a police investigation.’

‘Oh, the authorities were very cooperative. I have contacts.’

‘We need the body,’ croaked the thickset man, with a thick layer of menace.

‘Gordon,’ said Barbara, ‘don’t be so vulgar, there’s a good chap.’ She stroked his hairy face tenderly. So much for Derek, thought Mark.

Barbara turned towards him. ‘Was your hotel all right? The Charlemagne, wasn’t it? A strange little place, the Île Saint-Louis. Not my scene, you know. I like a livelier part of town.’

‘It was fine,’ replied Mark, feeling the need to justify himself. ‘I liked it.’

‘Really? You have to watch these small family-run hotels. The personnel can be a bit strange.’

Once again, Mark stared at Barbara’s face. All at once, he realised how easily its radiance could be compressed into the pinched, surly features of Yvette, as he had seen her in the faint light of the breakfast room the previous night. If one removed the spectacles and the lank, brownish hair, the resemblance was obvious. How could he have failed to recognise her?

‘Who are you?’ he thought to himself.

Barbara Layton smirked and sat down. She was obviously very pleased with herself. She understood perfectly well that Mark had, on one level, worked out what had happened; indeed, she had practically fed him with the required information. She also knew that, on another level, the one she operated on, he understood almost nothing and most importantly, had no idea why events had taken the turn they did. For the moment, she seemed satisfied with this state of affairs.

For the rest of the journey to London, all four of them sat in the compartment and did not exchange a word. When the train stopped at Victoria, Mark rather nervously picked up his bag and began to move towards the door. The thickset man barred his way.

‘You are coming with us, Mr Lewis.’

At this point, Barbara stepped forward, easing her companion out of the way.

‘Now Gordon, I think we can trust Mr Lewis. Can’t we, Mark?’

She moved close to Mark, her perfume almost overwhelming, and breathed sweetly into his face. He was completely under her spell.

‘Yes. Of course,’ he muttered.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘I think that we have more pressing things to attend to.’

With that, all three of them exited the compartment and made their way down the platform. Mark never saw any of them again.

………………

Three months later, in June, Mark Lewis was in Paris again, having this time flown in from Heathrow. Since that Saturday in March at Victoria Station, he had been troubled by the whole business and had not been able to get it out of his mind. It seemed obvious that Barbara Layton had conspired to kill her husband, but why? And with whom? And what was anyone going to do about it?

Mark had decided that he needed to know what had really happened. He also knew that the best place to start would be at the hotel on the Île Saint-Louis. At three o’clock on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, he walked into the reception of the Hotel Charlemagne. Monsieur Fouchet was behind the desk. He was exactly as Mark remembered him.

‘Bonjour, Monsieur. Comment allez-vous?’ asked Mark, offering his hand.

Monsieur Fouchet did not take it. Instead, he looked suspiciously at Mark.

‘Bonjour, Monsieur. On se connait?’

‘Bien sûr,’ replied Mark. ‘I was here in March. You remember, Monsieur Fouchet, it was the week of the accident when the Englishman was killed. You and your wife invited me to dinner.’

Fouchet raised his hand. ‘Monsieur, je parle très peu d’anglais. Je n’ai rien compris.’

Mark was taken aback by this obvious lie but decided to play along. His rusty knowledge of French seemed to flood back to him as he dug deep to find the right words.

‘J’étais ici, le mois de mars, la semaine de l’accident qui a tué le jeune anglais. Vous m’avez invité à dîner avec votre famille, là-bas.’ He pointed to the dining room, behind the office.

‘Monsieur,’ replied Fouchet, in a firm tone, while shaking his head in an apologetic manner, ‘je n’ai aucun souvenir de vous, je suis desolé. Je ne me souviens pas de l’accident dont vous parlez. Je crois que vous vous trompez.’

‘Mais j’étais ici, dans l’hôtel, la chambre quarante-six. Je suis certain que vous vous souvenez de l’accident. Ce n’est pas tous les jours qu’un de vos clients se fait écraser par une voiture à deux pas de votre hôtel !’ Mark realised that he was becoming a little hot-headed.

‘Nous avons beaucoup de clients,’ replied Fouchet, now finding a smile.

‘Mais vous m’avez montré votre voiture, la Citroën jaune.’

At this point Fouchet leaned forward and banged the desk with his fist.

‘Mais vous êtes fou! Cette bagnole, je l’ai vendue l’année dernière ! Monsieur, s’il vous plait, j’ai des choses à faire.’

Mark, now quite desperate and somewhat bewildered, decided to have one last try.

‘Monsieur Fouchet,’ he declared, ‘même si vous m’avez oublié, peut-être votre fille, Yvette, me reconnaîtrait. Je l’ai vue plusieurs fois pendant mon séjour. Elle m’a servi le petit-déjeuner.’

Fouchet, by now trying not to listen, nevertheless put down the document he had started to read and fixed Mark with a piercing stare.

‘Il n’y a que moi et mon épouse ici, Monsieur.’

At this moment, Madame Fouchet appeared in front of the office door. Mark, remembering their last meeting, tried to greet her in a friendly manner. She stared blankly back at him, looking as nonplussed as her husband, who continued to address Mark.

‘Je n’ai pas de fille, Monsieur.’

At this, Mark Lewis turned away and walked out of the hotel.

‘Of course you don’t,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Of course you don’t.’

……………………..

Mark Lewis returned to Paris many times over the next forty years. It became his favourite city in the world, especially once he branched out from the Île Saint-Louis. He never made any progress in his enquiry concerning the death of Jeffrey Layton and after a couple of years he no longer cared about the matter. Or, at least, he pretended not to.

Recommend Write a ReviewReport

Share Tweet Plus Reddit
About The Author
StephenG
StephenG
About This Story
Audience:
All Audiences
Posted:
20 Oct, 2017
Genre:
Mystery, Drama
Type:
Other, Serious
Words:
8,073
Favorites:
0
Views:
185

Please login or register to report this story.

More Stories

Please login or register to review this story.