The Dog & The Eagle
(part one of the Trilogy - The Virtue of Dishonesty)
Issue One - Predicament
In a little Algerian café near Place de la Daurade, a stone’s throw from the river and Pont Neuf, she sat, occupying a window table, looking out over the little square towards the junction with Rue Malbec.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a mannequin had hot-footed it across from the nearby Galerie Lafayette to find sanctuary from the gawping tourists and the Toulousans out shopping; and she did make quite a stunning display framed by the old window that had the words Patisserie très fine Algerianne stencilled across the top in flaky gold leaf. She was neither Algerian nor sticky like the confectionery, but she was exceptionally fine.
A lone figure insulated from the world by thick plate glass and isolated from her fellow diners by an aura so clean and sharp, so painfully precise and clearly defined. It was impossible not to stare; everyone had or would, but only for a moment because the image was too intense, like snow in the full sun; their eyes would hurt and, smarting, turn away after less than a few seconds. If she noticed she gave no outwardly visible sign, much like a mannequin.
In front of her lay a cup and saucer, a pot and a plate, upon which was a single delicate pastry called a Doigt d’Or, and a little silver fork, a sugar bowl and a silver spoon. You could not have placed them more precisely if you had tried. She sat with one arm in her lap and the other lying across the table in the direction of the cup though never quite touching it, but it seemed that she was about to pick up the cup at any moment; the thought before the action frozen as if the mental impulse had been encased in pure and clear glacial ice.
Her skin was as white as the porcelain in front of her; the white of a snowdrop’s petals. She resembled a snowdrop pressing up against the ice crystals that imprison it, waiting for the thaw and a release. So not dead but very much alive, waiting, expectant. She may have resembled a mannequin in all respects except for her eyes; her eyes were like an eagle’s eyes, sharp and piercing, surveying not watching, dark brown with a golden aura around the pupils.
She was dressed in a style perhaps easiest to describe as chic. A skirt and jacket of ivory wool edged with black satin. The jacket had two black buttons, and beneath it, she wore a pale lemon turtleneck sweater. Legs encased in stockings, very fine, and she wore a pair of delicate almost elfin black boots, ankle high with four-inch heels, laced across the front like little corsets. There was a pair of gloves on the table, the finest kid leather in a pale lime green, and a matching clutch bag rested in her lap. Upon her head was a little saffron coloured pillbox hat with a veil of fine gauze. It was the only part of her apparel that was truly soft.
The lapels of the jacket encased her upper body like a lily and the edges of those lapels of black satin framed her shoulders, neck and head and offered them up like the bloom she resembled in an almost grotesque fashion as if she had been wrapped at the florist’s, a bouquet intended for funerary display.
The makeup was a work of art - I mean a true work of art. Flawlessly applied; everything very clearly delineated but not harsh. Lines, shading, and hues emphasising a reality, a life - a living and breathing orgasm, albeit one so far removed from the mundane. A face that said, if you truly believe that you can make me happy, deserve to be given a chance then prove it and don’t waste my time; take a leap of faith, step into the abyss. Venture everything and nothing will be denied.
To some who saw her that day, she was simply a beautiful woman sitting in a café, probably waiting for her husband, lover or beau to appear. To others, she was hauntingly ghost-like, unreal, or too real, a muse, a self-portrait, a mannequin out of the shop, without a purpose, beyond the decorative. To a few, she would alter the course of their lives and for the very few, they would know who she was, why she sat there and what she was waiting for.
A terrible secret lay beneath the calm composed exterior. She was a thief and a very good one. Never taking anything that the owner could not afford to lose, never taking anything that was difficult to dispose of, and never taking anything that pointed accusingly back to her.
If you ever had the chance to see the interior of her little apartment you would find nothing, well, very little, no photographs, perhaps a bowl of flowers. A pair of gloves and a bag on the table by the door. A folded map of the city and a key on a simple ring of silver. In her bedroom closet you would find maybe ten outfits, five like the one she is wearing today and five much less noticeable, some shoes, a scarf, gloves, undergarments and stockings. In her bathroom, a toothbrush and toothpaste, some soap, shampoo and a pot of cream and the palette of powders and paints. By her bed, a brush and clock. In the kitchen, some bread (uncut), some pasta, a bottle of good olive oil and a hard cheese in a grinder. Nothing that identified her, spelt out her name, age or nationality (although everyone assumed she was French).
No jewellery, no photographs, no letters, no documents, no money, no driving licence, no passport, no ornaments, no possessions, no newspapers or magazines, no tickets. No paintings on the walls, no carpet or rugs on the floor. No curtains, no throws, no mirrors (except for the one in the bathroom).
The perfect retreat for the mannequin - a mannequin’s retreat, nothing out of place, and everything placed purposefully and with a view or aim to leave nothing more than a blank expression. No edges, no contrasts, nothing memorable, except the lack of memorabilia.
She did not own the flat; she owned nothing besides the clothes. Her name was not displayed on the doorbells at the main entrance or on the post boxes. The door to the flat had no number and the entrance was angled just so that, in the dim light of the hall, you were not even sure if there was a door there or not. Her neighbours never saw her, most doubted if the flat was occupied at all, there was never any noise, no radio or television, no stomping of feet, no clatter of pans, no whirr of the washing machine. No cooking smells, no laughter, no raised voices either angry or ecstatic. Nothing, nothing at all.
Her rent and bills were paid on time. The landlord never called on her, may not have known who the tenant was; usually, he advertised through his agent.
All was peaceful, calm and silent. The interior of a shop window display.
All was about to be launched into a state of high nervous tension and the cool, collected and composed ordered world of this mannequin come thief was about to be overturned, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Is she the villain of the peace or the heroine of this story? That remains to be told. But as the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, she was about to emerge into a whole new world, one she had attempted, fought bitterly, to inure herself from and it was going to be painful, permanent and ultimately her saving grace, perhaps more accurately, her salvation.
Let us pick up where we left her, sitting in the coffee house. She is watching, watching a craftsman in a little atelier on the corner, who is mending a violin. He is oblivious to her gaze as he lovingly rubs the little instrument with a cloth before he puts it down on his workbench and he retreats from view.
To the ignorant or the uninterested, it is an old musical instrument in for a repair and worth nothing. To some, it is sweet memories that both player and audiences the world over have shared. To the knowing few, this instrument is well-travelled, well-used and a Stradivarius worth upwards of 3.5million euros.
The owner is in town, it needed a little adjustment, there was no time to take it to Italy, and there is a concert tonight. She knows all of this. Her game is 99% detailed observation and memory, and 1% sheer bravura.
She gets up from the table, puts on her gloves, opens her bag and removes a crisp new five euro note, which she places next to her plate (untouched) and leaves the café with a swift effortless easy motion, barely making a sound. She murmurs a goodbye to the proprietor, walks in measured steps across the square, and enters the atelier. The whole world pauses briefly, holding its breath, then resumes its ebb and flow.
Inside the little shop, she waits patiently; the owner is in the back, looking for a pencil with which to write out the bill, which he intends to place in the violin case. He has no worries about being paid. It was an honour in itself to be allowed to touch the instrument. He comes into the front of the shop, sees her and speaks.
“Madam; how may I help you?”
The reply is simple, spoken steadily, without much of an accent, possibly Italian, maybe French or Swiss.
“I’ve come to collect the Christian Hammer, Monsieur.”
“Of course, Madam. Here it is; perfect, and ready for tonight’s performance. Please convey my heartfelt thanks to Signore G.; I am indebted to him for the privilege of being allowed to work on it.”
“Thank you, Monsieur ...”
She leaves the shop and walks round the corner into Rue Metz, crosses the street and disappears finally from view in the labyrinth of streets behind the Cathedral of St. Stephen.
Thirty minutes later, a car draws up outside the workshop. A man, well-dressed and obviously in a hurry, gets out and enters the shop. Fifteen minutes later, a police car arrives, sirens blaring and lights blazing.
The rendezvous point is not far from the Cathedral. She walks, carrying the violin case as if she had carried such a thing all her life. As she approaches the handover point, a chill suddenly creeps up her spine because lying in the gutter, half on the pavement and half in the road, is the body of Michael, a bullet hole between his open eyes.
She turns suddenly, down a narrow street, and twenty-five minutes later, enters her apartment, violin case in hand. It was the first time in 18 months that the neighbours heard a door slam at that end of the hall.
If there had been any brandy in the place she would have downed a tumbler full to steady her shaking hands. Despite them, she manages to find the latch that operates the door of the secret compartment behind the wood burner and enters the security code. A click later and a trapdoor opens up in the hearth and the wood burner swings out to reveal a chamber no bigger than a medium-sized suitcase. She deposits the violin and quickly closes the door. She enters the bathroom and one hour and forty-five minutes later, reappears completely transformed.
In the morning at around 10 a.m., two men enter the building and force their way into the flat. It is empty, there’s nothing. Everything is clean; there is no trace of her. They know where the secret compartment is and open it with the same code. It is empty. They leave, grim-faced and silent, open the doors of a black Mercedes and speed away towards the N126 and Carcassonne. At about that time, a woman, very ordinary and plainly dressed, boards a train, stows her one bag at the end of the carriage, sits down, and opens her old brown handbag and takes out a book - Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. The train leaves and four and a half hours later arrives in Toulon, where she disembarks and leaves the station. She walks for fifteen minutes and enters one of the budget hotels and takes a room for one week, leaving a credit card imprint in the name of Hannah Smith behind the reception desk.
At the same time as her train arrives in Toulon, the TGV from Paris arrives in Hyeres, and out of the first class compartment steps Charlie Hargreaves, a boyish man of forty-four, casually dressed and dragging a huge suitcase upon which are perched two other bags with another slung over his shoulder.
He recognises a face in the crowd on the platform and quickens his pace towards it; it’s Karl, come to meet him. They embrace and then they’re off to the flat to see Julian and catch up on the news.
As he is putting things away in the room he is going to use for the next month, 18kms away, someone else is trying to come to terms with an event that has shattered her confidence and has, for the first time in twenty years, left her uncertain of what she is going to do.