Authors: Maxim Jakubowski
Published by Accent Press Ltd â 2010
Paperback ISBN 9781907016592
eBook ISBN 9781907726347
Copyright Â© Maxim Jakubowski 2010
The right of Maxim Jakubowski to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog, Mid Glamorgan, CF46 6RY.
“Think of everything that has ever been said and everything that has ever been written, every book, every poem, every conversation, every scrap of paper, every encyclopaedia, in English, in Chinese, in French and Spanish and Italian and Russian and Korean and Arabic, in Swahili, in Farsi, and then think of your life. What are you next to all that? You're like one half of a letter in one word; that's your life, that is you front to back, up and down, over and out. But that doesn't make what we say and do less important. It makes it
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
“In a Lonely Place”
“We were perfect when we started
I've been wondering where we've gone”
“A Murder of One”
This is the story of a man who often managed to fall in love with women he had never met.
You might call him a fool for lust.
A tale of longing, bodies, flesh like gold, and pain. It is also the tale of a minor league writer who was mistaken for a private detective.
It was the same man.
That man was Jack.
her from behind was puffing and panting, nearing the finishing line in his race to orgasm.
Cornelia felt nothing. Neither in her body or her soul, let alone her heart.
What was the point, she wondered?
It was always like this.
Meaningless words. Hydraulics. Sweat.
Then her cell phone rang. It was lodged at the bottom of her handbag, but they both could clearly hear its insistent nudge.
She had no fancy tone. No classic song or silly sounds. Just a strong vibration followed by an insistent buzz.
The man inside her slowed. His tides of lust receding fast.
Possibly her body tensed, but Cornelia said nothing.
The phone kept ringing, then the sound died and there was a discreet mechanical click as the message function took over. In silence.
“It's OK,” she said. “I'll check it later.”
The man grunted and focused again on fucking her.
But whatever magic they had ridden the waves of had by now dissipated and his ardour was no longer the same. He soon pulled out of her.
“I'm sorry,” he mumbled.
The traffic noises outside his mid-range Broadway hotel room window somehow increased in volume.
“No problem,” Cornelia responded.
He rose awkwardly from the bed.
Cornelia rolled over on to her back and pulled the white, crumpled sheet back across her naked body. She felt empty, again.
She remained silent.
The phone call she had not taken now separated them and the man was visibly in a hurry to cut their encounter short and be on his way.
Which was fine with her.
Cornelia had picked him up at the Oyster Bar beneath Grand Central Station. She'd been bored and the man had initially seemed clean and not too bad-looking. So she'd thought, why not?
He glanced back at her, and his detumescing cock stirred a little. Cornelia just looked him in the eyes and kept on saying nothing.
Finally, he looked away and moved toward the bathroom, grabbing his shirt and trousers on the way.
Five minutes later he was stepping out of the room, after reminding her that she could stay another few hours if she wanted as the room had been booked until three in the afternoon.
She nodded. Blew him a desultory kiss, but his back was already to her, in his haste to abandon the landscape of this latest sexual fiasco.
Cornelia sighed, stretched her long, pale limbs under the thin white sheet.
She closed her eyes.
* * *
The message was short and sweet.
“Call me. Today, if you can.”
She took a cab back to her Washington Square Place apartment and rang him back from there, once she had showered and changed into a grey T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
“I thought you wanted me off the scene for a few more months following last time's small mess.”
“I did. But this is overseas, not on home patch. Have you got an up to date passport?”
“Fine. It's in Paris. You'll find the dossier in the usual place.”
“When can you leave?”
“Will tomorrow do?”
“Locally. A safe deposit box. It'll all be in the dossier.”
“That works for me.”
“And, naturally, we'll supply the return ticket. Business class.”
“The least you can do at such short notice â¦”
“You're the best, C. You deserve a touch of luxury.”
“Cheap and cheerful, that's me.”
She could almost hear him smile on the other end of the line. He had been her contact for two years now. They had never met. She had no idea what he looked like, although she guessed he must be in his mid forties. The voice was accent-less and impersonal. Businesslike.
Well, Cornelia reckoned, killing was just a business like any other, wasn't it?
And one she was good at.
At any rate, more interesting than sex.
ACK WAS ON THE
rebound from yet another disastrous affair. Feeling distinctively sorrow for himself, drowning in a sea of regrets. Romantically inclined as he was, he would readily have stumbled into the abandon of alcoholism, but he didn't even enjoy the taste of booze. And it's an uphill task to get yourself dead drunk on fruit juices or Pepsi Cola. But he knew this small bar in a Paris side street, a stone's throw from the river, parked between a kebab place and a cheap souvenir shop. So there he was, now sipping his first coffee of the evening, attempting to stay awake, killing time, hoping some form of inspiration or another would strike and he would find out what his next book should be about. It had been over three years since his last one had been published, and the untamed ideas inside his head just kept on circling round and round, never quite connecting with any form of sensible plot, let alone believable characters. Or maybe, for the first time in ages, he was becoming scared of the loneliness of long distance typing?
A few decades earlier, he'd been a student here. Maybe taking yesterday's early morning business commuter Eurostar to Paris on a whim had been a further desultory attempt to reconnect with his past. The bar on the Rue St AndrÃ© des Arts hadn't changed much, although another alongside it had since become a Turkish takeaway and the smell of slowly revolving skewered meat and dripping fat just a few steps away kept on drifting across Jack's nose, unpleasantly reminding him that time had moved on. Anyway, genuine students seldom came to this part of Paris any longer since most university locales had been moved out of the Latin Quarter following the riots in 1968.
Once upon a time, he could spend endless evenings here with his friends during which they would unilaterally put the world to rights, arguing fiercely about politics and art, managing with practised talent to make their drinks last until closing time. Whatever would he have then thought about his present self: this grey-haired guy and his still unruly hair, this stranger who looked a lot like him but now had a wallet stuffed with cash, twenty-pound notes, euros and US dollars which he had no one to spend on.
Jack had switched to
and nursed it slowly, drowning the drink in sugar. He leafed through the current issue of a film magazine he'd picked up earlier at a kiosk. Most of the features were about new French actors and actresses he knew little about.
Many years ago, this place had been the very centre of his private universe, as he regularly missed lectures and sought comfort in the familiarity of these old-fashioned surroundings, the shiny metal counter, the sizzle and hiss of the coffee machine, his gaze invariably captured by the full-size glass window on the other side of which passers-by trooped by, many of them women, young, old and in between but all unapproachable and distant to him. With a quiet smile, he recalled the day Mary Ann Armshaw had walked in. Blonde and skinny, all-American and, then, his distinctive ideal of the perfect Yankee corn-fed beauty. She had not been alone, but her companion, also American, was on the curvy side and had dark hair to her shoulders. He had listened to their conversation as they sipped their coffees, unaware as they were that he was also English-speaking. They had arrived in Paris four days earlier, on a student exchange programme and both young women were still in awe of and scared of this new city which proved so different from their small Midwest town. None of his mates had been around that day so, on a whim, he had quickly decided to follow the girls when they left the cafÃ©. For two hours, they navigated the small streets and corners of the Left Bank, with him never more than fifty metres or so away. They appeared quite aimless and fancy free, peering at shop windows, at buildings, walking along the busy streets as if they had all the time in the world. More than once he almost gave up the chase and returned to his flat. Had it begun raining that evening, he would certainly have done so, but the weather just about held. The day grew darker and one of the two young American girls finally noticed his presence in their wake and they quickly glanced at him observing them from a distance, quietly conferred and then made a beeline for the nearest bar. This was still the days when almost every other door led to a cafÃ© in the Latin Quarter.
“You've been following us, Monsieur” the blonde girl said to him as he walked in and stood by the counter next to them.
He'd smiled. “Yes, I saw you in the other bar earlier.”
She looked him straight in the eye. He held her stare.
“I often sit there in the afternoons â¦” he continued.
The darker-haired girl squinted a little as she gave him a closer look and it dawned on her that he was actually speaking English. And with no French accent.
“You're not â¦ French?”
He sighed with relief. They were seemingly not going to prove rude or aggressive. They were now curious. The ice had somehow been broken.
“No, I'm a foreigner here myself â¦ like you,” Jack added.
He no longer recalled today what her friend's name had been, and her participation in the ensuing conversation turned out patchy to say the least. Two weeks later, she returned to America, having proven unable to adapt to the distinct charms and perils of Paris. Mary Ann Armshaw had stayed behind, and remained the full nine months of the academic year.
In addition to Jack, two of his friends, that he knew of, actually slept with her during that period, although he was sorry to discover later he was not actually the first and sly Marcel had breached her uncertain defences long before he did. He'd always been the quiet one. When his time came, she allowed him to do almost anything to and with her except touch her breasts. He still remembered those small breasts now as they rapidly became the very focus of his desire and he would on every single encounter try to get her to change her mind. But he never did succeed. Whenever a finger, let alone a whole hand, ventured inches forward towards her tits, she would begin to squirm uncontrollably as if the contact could have proved capable of setting her nipples, her very skin, on fire. Had he actually touched her there, he knew for sure she would have screamed like a banshee and thrown him violently off her and stormed off at great velocity in any random direction.
Anything but her breasts. Today, sitting in that bar, that haunt of his younger days, he could remember no other body part of Mary Ann Armshaw. Don't ask Jack what her features were like or whether she was tall or small, or how long her blonde hair was. Just her pale, small breasts and her name came to mind. He wondered where she was now and if she had married her high school boyfriend after her return home? And was now a mother, or even a grandmother?Or even alive?
This place was so full of strange memories. It had been ages since he had even thought of Mary Ann. Why now recall yet another woman he had failed to truly connect with? He pushed the magazine aside and drowned his glass. Should he stay or should he go? The weather outside appeared unsettled and it was too early to go eat, and if he stepped back to his hotel room, a ten-minute walk away from the Rue St AndrÃ© des Arts, he knew he would no doubt doze off trying to kill time and wake up way past midnight with an unquenchable appetite. He called out for a further espresso.
He watched all the women walk by outside through the bar's windows. There were men too, of course, but they were almost invisible to him. They came in all shapes, sizes, ages and colours, a melting pot of movement and limbs and lust.
Was he turning in old age into some sort of pervert who found every single unreachable woman trooping past out there an object of desire?
He chuckled quietly.
And silently answered his own question: no, he was not. He had always been that way: a dangerous dreamer, a fantasist, an unrepentant lover of the female kind.
And some had loved Jack back too.
But all too often in the wrong place or at the wrong time.
He peered at the empty cup of espresso. The sugar had congealed at its bottom, but the taste was no longer present in his mouth. All he could taste was a bitter tang of loneliness.
Which is when the man walked through the door.
Outside, a deeper night was falling, darkness surrounding the narrow Paris streets like a blanket floating solemnly to the ground. The evening regulars at the cafÃ© were making place for the night owls, another species of drinkers altogether.
The middle-aged man who had entered the bar gave him a rapid glance and walked towards his table. For a brief moment he annoyingly obscured Jack's view of the street and a sumptuous passing redhead with unending legs and a cinched leather jacket who had momentarily caught his attention.
The stranger had a broken nose and short, greying hair and was dressed in a long green woollen coat which reached all the way down below his knees. Under the coat, he was wearing dark brown slacks and a white button-down shirt open at the neck. He didn't appear to have shaved for a few days and the stubble across his cheeks and lower jaw veered patchily between black and white.
With no hesitation whatsoever, the stranger faced him and sat himself down on a chair across from the table where Jack had spent the last few hours in deep thought and reflections.
“I know who you are,” he said. He spoke to him in French, but he had an accent Jack couldn't immediately place.
“Yes,” the man confirmed.
He wasn't in the habit of being recognised in public, but it was nothing to worry about. He had done readings and participated in literary festivals in several countries. Maybe that was the explanation.
“Great,” he said. “What can I do for you?” he asked the stranger. There were deep, swollen red pockets under the man's eyes as if he had recently been crying a lot.
“I want to hire you.”
Absolutely the last thing he had expected the man to say â¦
“To do what?”
He looked deep into Jack's eyes.
“To find my daughter.”
“Are you sure it's me you want?”
“Yes, I read about you in the newspaper back at home. I also once heard you on the radio,” he added.
Jack could now place his accent: he was Italian. He let him continue speaking in French, as he had begun.
The Italian man nodded and lowered his gaze, as if he were now ashamed of looking at him and begging for help. The silence lasted almost a whole minute. Jack broke it.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked the Italian.
“Yes â¦” the stranger hesitated, “a glass of red wine, I think.”
Jack called over to the bar and ordered the man's wine and another coffee for himself, a double this time. He somehow guessed he was going to need it, even though another part of him also knew the caffeine overkill would keep him awake all night. But then, what's new? It had recently been a frequent state of affairs, unaided by coffee.
The stranger grimaced as he drank his first small mouthful of wine.
Jack stirred too much sugar into his coffee cup. The embarrassed silence persisted.
“Tell me,” he suggested.
The Italian man looked up at him once again, nervously tugged on his collar and launched into his explanation.
“I am a doctor. I specialise in gastro-enterology. I am from Rome where I work in a big hospital. Maybe you know it, it's San Filippo Neri, on the banks of the Tiber. I run the Digestive Endoscopy Department.”
Jack naturally knew nothing about gastro-enterology. But there was a flash of recognition down in the pit of his stomach. A doctor from Italy? Surely not. His face deliberately impassive, he nodded sympathetically as best he could. It was visibly not his turn to ask questions right now. The other man continued.
“I have two children. A girl and a boy. My daughter is called Giulia. She is now 23. I know I shouldn't be saying this but she was always my favourite. She was a wonderful baby, always happy and cheerful. Dark curly hair from an early age and bright, oh so bright. We have tried to bring our children up right. I am very liberal, but she was always the apple of my eye and of course she soon knew it all too well and quickly became an expert in manipulating me to obtain almost everything she wanted. I didn't mind, of course.” He wiped a thin tear away from the corner of his left eye. “When she became older, a teenager, both my wife and I were scared she might become too wild and unmanageable. There were a few difficult years, but we scrambled our way through them. In her late teens, she would almost never spend any time at home, apart from sleeping, you know. She was like a gypsy, flitting from friend to friend, playing tennis, studying, seeing films, theatre plays and opera. So that she should not run risks like so many of her classmates riding on a Vespa, we even bought her a small car, even though we knew that some years later we would have to do the same for her younger brother when the time came; a major expense. She became so independent. Yes, we argued a lot. She was spoiled and selfish at times, but I know we were closer than most fathers and daughters usually are, even in Italy, you know.”
The doctor caught his breath, picked up his glass to take another sip, even though it was now empty. He called for another one.
“No, maybe white this time,” he said. “It wasn't very nice, I must confess â¦ Algerian, I think.” He smiled weakly.
Blanc, cette fois, s'il vous plait
,” Jack corrected the order.
“Thank you,” the Italian man said.
“Do you know why she left?” he ventured.
“If only,” he answered. “She wasn't that much into boys, I know. She found most friends her age too superficial. Remember, she was â¦ is terribly bright. Completed her degree at 21, spoke 5 languages, even began writing film reviews for a small magazine where my wife knew the editor.”
“The reason girls usually leave home is because of love or infatuation,” Jack suggested.