The Dog & The Eagle
(part one of the Trilogy - The Virtue of Dishonesty)
Issue Two - Coffee, Cigarettes and Sudoku
For now, Hannah had no choice but to sit in her cheap and comfortless hotel room, staring into space. In a way, the room was much like the apartment she had left not twenty-four hours before - clean, empty, devoid of any trace of human occupation, and sterile, but unlike the apartment, the room did not have a secret compartment within which she could stow a priceless violin.The problem of what to do with it finally elevated her from the stupor and she began to think and apply her brilliant and unique mind to the problems that lay before her.
Firstly; what to do with the violin? Secondly; who to contact and how safe would that be now? And thirdly; where to go and who to become?
18 months of hard work had led up to this point. She did not want the violin - had never wanted the violin. She wanted the 50,000 euros for the job done. She had been paid 50,000 at the start and was due 50,000 on completion. Michael would have paid her the money once she had handed over the violin. Did someone kill him for the money he had on him? A simple mugging? Surely not. A gun was involved; that pointed to a professional. Why not kill him for the violin that was worth infinitely more? Perhaps he still had the money on him; perhaps he hadn’t been murdered for the money but for what and who he had known. The body must surely have been found by now, and she reminded herself to scour the news later - a daily chore of twenty years.
She knew only Michael; he was her single point of contact for this job. He had engaged her and she had met him maybe twice in 18 months during the planning and execution of the robbery. She knew he fronted a bigger organisation, that was clear, but one she did not want to know anything more about than was absolutely necessary.
The plan had been hers. She had planned every detail, researched every fact, every figure and had known to within thirty minutes where the owner would be on that day ... and when and how she would strike. It had been sublime, simple, courageous and exactly why her various clients had chosen to employ her over the last twenty years. In all, she had worked just twelve times in those twenty years. Was this to be the unlucky thirteenth? In total, she had amassed a fortune of two million euros through fees and shrewd investments. All was held in a Liechtenstein account in the name of Ruth Wald. She had one credit card with a limit of 50,000 euros and a flat paid for on the Isle of Wight, let to a retired teacher.
Did she need to worry? No one knew Hannah Smith; no one could tie her to the woman in Toulouse. Michael had not known her as Hannah Smith, only Isabelle. The apartment there had been rented in a different name. Could anyone find her now? Was she worrying about nothing?
She still had the violin and needed to dispose of it and quickly. That pressed her into action and she decided on a course. She wrapped the case in a cloth and put it in a plain, black nylon holdall. She left the hotel, took the bus in the direction of Hyeres and got off at the railway station where she placed the holdall in a left luggage locker, after which, she took the bus back to Toulon, returning to the hotel. The room had been ransacked. Now she began to seriously panic. Was someone watching her? Had someone followed her to the railway station in Hyeres? Was the violin already in someone else’s hands?
She left and took the bus back to Hyeres and found another cheap hotel just outside of the centre of town. Once she had lain down on the bed and closed her eyes, she sobbed herself to sleep.
Not that it had happened very often, but when the need arose to calm down and think something through, she always felt the need to be near the sea. She had been born on the Isle of Wight and the sea had played such an important part in her life until she had left at seventeen to pursue fame and fortune. Initially, the fame of the dancing kind but then the fortune of the grand theft kind.
Leaving the hotel, she walked the 3km from the centre of town to the beach front and headed for the port. A lively marina provided the right kind of sanctuary for a coffee and a cigarette. Although the walk had made her hot, the remedy of that easy regular motion (she was always accused of walking like a man) had begun to calm her down.
The sky was washed blue, cloudless, and a little chilly in the wind; she put on her sunglasses and sat back in the chair, sipping the coffee and puffing on the cigarette. Within three minutes, she had found that mental zone.
From the second Michael had contacted her 18 months before to the present moment, she ran everything through her head, from every conceivable angle, scrutinising every detail - potential relationships, interrelationships, dependencies, interdependencies, every potential mistake, flaw, risk and accident.
There were few possibilities but these were the ones she came up with.
He had been robbed for the money, by a pretty serious thief who carried a gun, but she ruled that out; too messy and too risky in broad daylight in Toulouse. It did not have the MO of an opportunistic mugger - shot between eyes! No; he’d been killed so that he could not take possession of the violin and hand it over to the big fish.
This idea stayed in her head; it did have a sound ring to it.
So who was after the violin now? Perhaps they weren’t after the violin but something else. Could it be possible the violin held its own secret? Perhaps the case? She had not examined them closely; a mistake in the plan she only realised now.
If Michael had been killed to prevent the handover, why had no-one contacted her? Someone had followed her from Toulouse to Toulon; the hotel room had been ransacked, hadn’t it? Why had she not been shot between the eyes for the violin? Was someone trying to protect her? Were there greater forces at work than she could possibly fathom?
The idea, issues, problems and solutions were beginning to distill and make a little more sense, and she felt calmer. For now, she was going to sit tight, pay attention, memorise everything and when the time came to act, she would act decisively, and if she was wrong this time, then that was Fate. She wasn’t afraid of death, only the pain that would precede it, and she felt certain it would be painful. She was going to blend in as far as possible, make no waves, keep low, and remain under all the radar. She was Hannah Smith, an English teacher from the Isle of Wight, on holiday, writing a book about the four chateaux in the area.
Much calmer now.
Charlie had decided to take the bike and cycle down to the port by way of Gapeau and the beach front; his favourite route. When he arrived and found her sitting in his favourite seat, he almost turned around and cycled straight back, but he was hot and wanted a coffee and a cigarette, do a Sudoku puzzle and find the enjoyment of the sunshine on his face. He parked the bike by the flower planters that separated the café’s terrace from the esplanade and sat in the nearest seat. He was always convinced that someone was going to steal the bike and he would have to walk home, which is why he favoured her seat near the back and with a tree to the right where he usually propped up the bike and where it remained in his peripheral vision, but now he would have to keep checking that it was still there; a habit that was certain to disturb his search for the zone in which he was hoping to find himself immersed for an hour.
The fact that she was there was both annoying and yet intriguing; who was she? Not local, he knew that and in a way, he was pleased because it shook him up a bit and that was good for him, otherwise he got very lazy very quickly.
He sat down, like a hen trying to make sure all of her eggs were under her bum, and he finally found a comfortable position.
He took out his faithful companion; a battered and dog-eared Sudoku puzzle book containing 188 puzzle grids. He did one of these grids every day he was here with Karl and Julian. Other puzzles in other books and the one in the newspaper too, but only one a day out of this book - he was starting number 88. He was getting much quicker and in the time it took the waitress to notice him, take his order and bring his coffee, he had finished whereas, it used to take all that time and a second coffee and sometimes a third. He knew he was getting addicted - 6 puzzles a day! - and sometimes more, and once he started one he could not put it down until it was finished (and checked it against the answer in the back).
The world’s most difficult puzzle remained unsolved. There was a 50,000 euro prize for doing it, which had to be done under strictly supervised conditions, by hand of course, and he was planning his attempt, one which might take place on his way back to London. The attempt had to be made in Paris. Jean was getting him the application form and would bring it down on Wednesday. The entrance fee was 500 euros and that was a lot of money these days; a lot of English lessons in London and bus rides between lessons and sore arms from carrying books from Waterloo to Putney and back to Battersea.
He felt confident of making a good attempt in a month’s time. He didn’t think he could actually do it but there was always luck and, if he remained calm and followed the plan, he reckoned there was a chance. It was just a case of putting 81 numbers in their correct place on the grid.
When he’d arrived, she had noticed him of course and all the actions, subtle nuances of body language and gestures had been noted. To her, these were more personal than his signature or thumbprint. She even knew that she must be sitting in his usual seat. All of this information was assessed, checked, cross-referenced, and finally, she concluded he was harmless, English, around thirty-eight, dressed casually, in clothes that were a little too big but which looked comfortable - probably Gap or Next, maybe Zara - if not a little quirky but somehow stylish too. His beautiful French accent was almost totally obliterated by the stammering of the words he stumbled over even to order a coffee, and she was about to write him off and pay no further attention when she noticed two things; the Sudoku book and his footwear.
She sometimes used Sudoku to cleanse the mind, to help organise new information, and she found it sublime and perfect. The boots he wore were 2003 vintage Bunker baseball boots in antiqued red and cream leather. She knew where he might have bought them, how much he would have paid.
Those two facts illuminated him somewhat differently and she started to pay attention from behind the sunglasses; a little intrigued and moderately pleased.
Now she observed the way he did the puzzle and dragged on the cigarette - Dunhill International - which seemed like a reward for each number found and placed correctly. He moved his mouth, saying the numbers to himself as he checked the rows, columns and grids just as she did, only she did it less visibly, but nonetheless the same.
She realised too late that he had sensed her staring at him from behind the glasses. He turned his head to the right to look at her; she thought she might get away with it but he spoke.
“Can I borrow your lighter, please?” he said in French, as clumsily as ever.
She picked up the lighter and held it out. He got up and stepped over and took it from her without touching the skin of her hand, smiling with all his features; a boyish, impish and incredibly infectious smile of crooked teeth.
“Thank you very much,” he said in English; he always made that mistake and before he could correct himself, she replied, “You’re welcome,” also in English.
A mistake she never made and she was more interested and concerned with how that had happened to notice that he was smiling even more broadly and evidently getting himself ready to say something else.
“Oh - you’re English - hello - I’m Charlie - thanks for the light,” he began to get tongue tied just as he did in French and her, “don’t mention it,” sounded clipped and final and he sat back down but she could see tremendous powers were at work - speak to her - no, shut up - speak to her - no shut up. The speak to her powers were beginning to win through.
She didn’t want to get involved but neither did she wish to appear rude especially as her mask was that of an English woman on holiday, a teacher from the Isle of Wight, and they are never rude.
She took the initiative, much to his obvious relief and asked, “are you staying here in Hyeres?”
Well; the floodgates opened and he gave her the full Technicolor, 5 million pixel storybook account of his life and the last 18 months or so since he had lost his job and started teaching English, travelling to the Cote to relax and spend time with Karl and Julian, Carol and the rest of the friends he had made over the course of the eight visits prior to this one.
However, without realising it, she had given up a fair amount of detail herself, albeit the fabricated Hannah Smith version of the last 18 months, and she was impressed with how he had done that; a vital sign and she wondered if she had become less careful with age and fatigue or whether this guy was as good if not better than she so from inside her head, she left her body and positioned herself to observe them both and to see how he did it.
She realised it almost at once; it was the timing of the pause. He answered a question and left it maybe .35 of a second longer than was comfortable for the other person to tolerate the silence between them and this created the need for that person to fill the space with an insignificant little detail. She was impressed, acknowledging that years of practising and questioning had never yielded so much in such a short space of time, seemingly without effort.
She could not perfect the smile though, and she reckoned that must have won the day on more than one occasion.
She nevertheless felt more relaxed than she had for days and she was beginning to like him. The cheeky smile that appeared almost all the time, the guttural 26 years of smoking laugh and cough that accompanied it, the paradox between all the obvious logic and processing he clearly did to solve the puzzles and the artistic temperament that was the foil to it; a harlequin figure she thought to herself; half De Vinci and half Frank Spencer.
Despite the florid, three ring circus show and tell act, there was obviously something he wasn’t telling and she guessed he was gay.
She pulled the old trick and asked of the last partner he had referred to, “did he leave you or did you leave him?” and before he could stop himself he said, “no; the little, confused bastard left me.”
He realised what he had said .35 of a second later and as it was then no longer a secret, he went on to paint the complete and honest picture of himself. He always felt mightily relieved when he had and she for some reason did too; his trust quotient went up a perceptible notch.
He described the fairly complex domestic arrangements he shared with Jean when he was down here. Jean didn’t stay at the flat because he didn’t like Karl, which Charlie thought was impossible as Karl was an angel. Charlie had worshipped him ever since Karl had befriended him in Paris, in the bar Karl had owned there with Julian, who just liked a quiet life and a Jack Daniels and coke a little too frequently.
He didn’t usually spend time at the caravan that Jean had on land owned by Helen, where Jean was hoping to build his own property because her house was less than 150 yards away and he always felt that he was being spied on by her and he didn’t like her anyway; too bloody nosey and judgemental, cheap and brash; married successfully and widowed twice. Third one - Malcolm - being cultivated.
So he and Jean played out their rather dislocated relationship in various out of the way spots, and because Jean would not move to London, only seeing him eight times this last 18 months had been perfect because nothing was ever dull, nothing routine and he always looked forward to spending time with him.
There was a lull in the conversation, a longer one, and they both realised it was time to go, but how was that going to be managed?
She stood up first and probed her bag and took out five euros and placed it on the table.
“No, no; allow me,” Charlie insisted. She hesitated; she didn’t want there to be an obligation - never those!
“Thank you,” she said gracefully, adding, “see you again, I’m sure.”
“Yes; I hope so,” he replied, adding, “bound to in this place ...”
He felt uncomfortable watching her get ready to leave so he did the leaving first and got on the bike, waved and shouted a hearty a demain! and peddled off. She was relieved and yet couldn’t be quite sure but thought she might be blushing a little. The waitress was watching her and had no doubt formed her own conclusion of the proceedings.
Hannah spent the rest of the day finding somewhere else to stay because even though the hotel room had been intact when she returned, it didn’t provide much relief and she found another, tucked away in the old town, in the streets winding up to the castle; it felt safer and was not overlooked. It was run by an uninterested Moroccan, who, once she had spurned his rather obvious advances, paid her no more attention and gave her the key and returned to his newspaper. She cleaned and tidied the room and placed everything just so; a habit to provide both an occupation and to ensure that if someone did come into the room, she would know what they had touched and usually, that told her who it was and what they were looking for.
Charlie spent the rest of the day helping Karl with the thousand and one chores there were always to do in the flat - putting washing out, getting washing in, clearing up the kitchen, unpacking the dishwasher, shopping, peeling vegetables, and between times, catching up on all the news and gossip, here, in Paris and in London; like the fact that Remy was in Toulouse, drying out again, and Julian had been accepted for a scholarship - recollections, discussion, observation and much laughter with so much affection on both sides. They had a very special kind of friendship and both loved Julian dearly, who was sleeping soundly on the balcony. Two years working seven days a week in the bar in Paris from 11 am in the morning to 4 am the following morning had taken its toll.
Charlie finally slumped into bed at 11 pm after a cigarette in the car park. He was tired and happy. Tomorrow was Tuesday and Jean would be down on Wednesday.
Hannah slumped into bed at roughly the same time, utterly exhausted, feeling not entirely sure how thick the ice might be beneath her feet but nothing today had triggered an alarm.
No one had been suspected of watching her from behind dark glasses.