Bewildering Stories

Table of Contents
Chapter 18 appeared
in issue 137.

Observation One:
Singing of promises ...

by Michael E. Lloyd


Chapter 19: Brussels, Belgium

part 1


Toni had still been on the phone when Carla had made her apologies and gone off to the Captain’s meeting, leaving a guardian angel watching over him for those few minutes ...

She appeared again as he was closing his suitcase. But she did not reveal any changes of plan.

‘Everything fixed, Toni?’

‘Yes. I’m on the five o’clock flight to Brussels — and the travel agent has booked me a hotel room very close to the Grand Place. That’s a magnificent square, Carla ... the heart of the city. I’m really looking forward to seeing it!’

‘That’s great, Toni. OK ... time for a snack?’

‘How did you guess?’ Toni smiled.

He called the receptionist to arrange a taxi, then had a relaxed lunch on his own in the hotel bar. Just before three, Carla rejoined him in the lobby, and they slid into the spacious interior of an expensive private hire car ...


Carla was back in briefing mode, giving Toni some general information about Raymond Martin Graves. Then she issued her latest orders.

‘While you’re waiting for the plane, will you please try to call Mireille Daurant’s home number, from a public phone? Hopefully she will still be out at work. Then we shall later be able to pretend that Graves tried to call her this afternoon and got no reply. And that he also first tried her mobile, but there were “network problems”. But listen — if she does answer, just put the phone down at once, and we’ll think again ...’

‘Whatever you say, Carla. You’re the boss.’

‘Toni ... was that what you call sarcasm?’

‘No, Carla, I promise you it wasn’t. You are the boss. I don’t do sarcasm. But I’m glad you’re on the lookout for it now. You must try and pick up on my jokes and my ironies instead — there are lots of them, I’m afraid!’

* * *

Toni checked in for his flight with time to spare. Then, as Carla had requested, he found a phone booth and called Mireille’s number. It kept ringing out, and fortunately no answering machine kicked in  ... so she obviously was not at home and monitoring it before answering. He replaced the handset, and the trap was sprung ...

Then, before he passed though the departures channel, Carla explained the first stage of their plan for Raymond’s engagement ...

* * *

Carla’s sense of humour certainly was improving. She amused herself on the flight to Brussels, unseen of course, by walking up and down the aisle and passing gaily straight through the flight attendants and their drinks trolleys, while everyone else had to wait for them to pass. Three times she bent down and whispered sweet nothings in Toni’s ear. The first time he was really taken by surprise and nearly spilled his beer. Then he looked forward to some more such nothings, and was not disappointed ...

* * *

The queue for taxis at Brussels airport was long, but the taxis were plentiful and the rush hour had passed, so Toni soon arrived at his hotel, with Carla in virtual tow as usual.

‘How long will you be with us, Sr. Barola?’ smiled the receptionist, unconsciously smoothing her hair back behind one ear.

‘I don’t know. At least two nights, I expect ...’

‘I hope you enjoy your time in Brussels, señor. Here is a street plan of our beautiful city. And if there is anything else I can do ...’

But Toni had barely noticed the pretty young woman or her very personalised welcome.

* * *

Carla materialised in Toni’s bathroom as he was unpacking.

Hola.

‘Hi, Carla. I enjoyed your little game on the plane! It’s a pity you couldn’t have moved on to blowing in my ear ...’

Carla laughed out loud for the first time. Toni loved it.

‘Now, Toni,’ said Carla, easily able to switch back to business, ‘I think we should set up an emergency rendezvous plan, in case anything goes wrong and we lose each other or have to separate quickly, as we did in Prague.’

‘Fair enough, Carla.’

‘So, I suggest that, if it’s ever necessary, we each come back and stand outside the front entrance to your hotel, on the hour throughout the daytime if we can manage it, and wait for five minutes, until we manage to meet up again. We should also make this the rule for any other city we visit. OK?’

‘That’s a good plan.’

‘Well, Toni, maybe you can be learning some better planning while I’m picking up your sense of humour!’

‘Ouch!’

* * *

Just before eight o’clock, Toni pulled out his mobile phone and called Mireille.

Allo?

Bonsoir, Mlle Daurant. Parlez-vous anglais?

‘Yes, I do. Who is this, please...?’

‘Ah ... please just call me Toni. I have an important message for you from a mutual friend — Monsieur Graves ...’

‘From Rayo? Is he sick? Or ...?’

‘Oh, no, no, mademoiselle, he’s fine. Please don’t worry. Raymond has simply been called away at very short notice, and cannot see you for several days.’

‘Oh! Where has he gone?’

‘I’m sorry, but I do not know. It’s top secret, I understand. Raymond tried to call you this afternoon on your mobile, but he could not get through. And he tried you at home, in case you were there. He could not risk calling you at work, for security reasons. That’s when he asked me to help. He’s not permitted to use telephones for the next few days. He wanted me to let you know this ... and also, to tell you that yesterday morning he bought a very special present for you, which he was going to surprise you with this evening. It’s extremely fragile, and it will not last long without tender care. So he asked me to deliver it to you, by hand, tonight ...’

‘This is very strange, Toni. I’m not sure ... I thought nobody knew about Rayo and me ... and he’s never mentioned your name ...’

‘And Raymond, mademoiselle, whom I have known for more than three years, had never mentioned yours before asking me to help him this afternoon ...’

Mlle Daurant, who always avoided worrying if she could instead be enjoying herself, plumbed the depths of this remark for a few moments and concluded it was mysterious enough to prove that the caller was genuine.

‘Oh, Toni, pardonnez-moi. I am sorry to have doubted you. As long as Rayo is safe. Thank you so much for your kindness. And please  ... you must call me Mireille.’

‘That’s fine, Mireille. You are wise to be cautious. So ... may we meet up briefly in the centre of Brussels, as soon as possible? I need to travel south later tonight ...’

‘Yes, of course. But I’m afraid I can’t come out at once,’ she giggled. ‘I was in the shower when you rang ...’

‘No problem. I have to drive in from Mons ...’

‘Then can we meet in the Grand Place, at nine-thirty ... perhaps inside the Chaloupe d’Or?’

Toni decided he had better not demonstrate his ignorance of an obviously famous meeting place. He would have plenty of time to find it ...

‘Yes, certainly, Mireille.’

‘Sit as close as you can to the entrance. How will I recognise you?’

Toni had to think quickly.

‘Er ... OK, I shall be reading a music magazine. I shall make it obvious!’

‘Ah, you like music! That’s great. Merci bien, Toni. See you soon!’

* * *

Toni bought his magazine in the hotel shop, then ambled down to the Grand Place with an hour to spare. He located the Chaloupe d’Or café straight away, then resisted the temptation to wander around the beautiful square and succumbed to a stronger force. He followed the natural flow of evening strollers down a bustling side street and into the busy Rue des Bouchers, where he found an abundance of fine restaurants and was able to enjoy some excellent Belgian cuisine.

By nine-fifteen he was walking purposefully back to the café. Ignoring Mireille’s request, he followed the instructions that Carla had given him just before he left the hotel, and made his way up the wide staircase at the back to the more private tables on the upper floor. He found a quiet one next to the wall, sat down facing the stairs, and bravely ordered the house’s special “Golden” cocktail from a passing waiter.

A few moments later, Carla emerged from the ladies’ toilet near the foot of the stairs and smiled at the attendant seated outside. Receiving no tip from this customer as she walked past, the elderly lady scowled in a well-practised way ... and then suddenly wondered why she had not noticed the woman going in ...

As Carla approached his table, Toni smiled and stood up, and she slid along the seat to take up her station by the wall. Toni sat back down and opened up his magazine, making sure the maroon-coloured electric guitar on the cover was clearly visible to anyone walking up the stairs.

‘Here we go again, Carla,’ he whispered, unsure whether he was excited or anxious.

‘Be brave, Toni,’ joked Carla, and he smiled and was immediately relaxed again.

* * *

A beautifully groomed young woman appeared at the top of the stairs. Toni was stunned by her similarity to Carla. The same dark hair ... but a little longer. The same small face ... no, a little narrower. But she was slightly taller and even slimmer than Carla, and her eyes were brown rather than dark blue. And she wasn’t smiling ... ah yes, now she was ... she had seen his magazine!

Mireille approached their table, with some uncertainty accompanying her smile.

‘Toni?’

‘Yes, Mireille, I’m Toni.’

Mon Dieu ... there are three empty tables downstairs ... I’ve been waiting for five minutes down there ... I thought you had not yet arrived ...’

‘Oh, I’m sorry ... it was full when we got here!’

‘Really? ... OK, Toni. But I did not realise you would be bringing a friend ...’

Mireille smiled at Carla as sweetly as she could manage.

So Toni introduced Carla, who did not proffer a hand or a social kiss, but simply smiled even more sweetly in return.

Mireille’s pretty head and shoulders at once jerked gently backwards, as if she had bumped into an unseen pane of glass. Then she lost her mildly affronted appearance, smiled an honest smile, slid onto the opposite bench, stared directly into Carla’s eyes, and broke into a tranquil and quite respectable rendition of Madonna’s Vogue.

Her new girlfriend gently seized the moment, and Mireille’s head, without hesitation ...

There was no discussion of the false pretext for their meeting — that would be immediately erased from Mireille’s memory for ever. And only a light one-way transferral would be needed, with no briefing or missioning required. So despite this cosmopolitan girl’s predilection for the less deadly of the species alone, her involvement by the still-visible Carla was simplicity itself ...


Quo was therefore quickly able to establish precisely where Deputy Political Advisor Raymond Martin Graves could be found, first thing the following morning (he would be at his village home, before driving as usual to the NATO SHAPE complex in nearby Mons — he called Mireille every day, so she always knew where he would be), and what time he would be leaving for work, and his very private mobile phone number. And what he had given Mireille on her last birthday. And that his favourite piece of music was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ...


Mireille was disengaged. No longer concerned about her Rayo, or the forgotten little present, or Toni’s earlier identity, but instead regarding her table companions as very welcome (no, very attractive) new friends, she brightly suggested they should all go for a stroll around the Grand Place in the still-warm spring evening ...

Toni was enthusiastic, of course.

Carla, however, quickly made her excuses (she ‘had to get off home’) ... but as they stood up to leave, she engineered a private word with Toni. ‘Set your alarm for seven o’clock — I’ll join you in your room, and we’ll make our next set of plans.’

Then she marched straight off down the stairs with a cheery ‘Au revoir!’ giving her latest victim no chance of a friendly farewell kiss on the cheeks.

Mireille did not, anyway, seem too concerned to see her depart ...


She and Toni emerged from the café into the splendour of the Grand Place, its principal buildings illuminated by a few gentle floodlights, but sadly without the full Son et Lumière, which would not begin until the summer. And over the next hour, Mireille expertly revealed to Toni — and, unknowingly, to Carla, who was in fact still in close attendance — the detailed history of that great square and the special and unique golden statues and images high up in the gables of every single façade.

‘Each house on the square has a name, you know, Toni — the wheel-barrow, the she-wolf, the fox (and the little fox!), the golden tree, the rose, the windmill, the pewter-pot, the kite, the angel, the peacock, the ass ... and many, many more.’

‘But what do the names all mean, Mireille ...?’

‘Well, Toni, at the end of the seventeenth century, this square was fully rebuilt by the city’s guildsmen, in only four years, after it had been totally destroyed in two days by Louis XIV of France. In various ways, those names, and the statues and the carvings on the buildings, are symbols of the crafts and trades that were practised in Brussels at that time. You can’t understand their messages unless you can read between the lines. For example, the narrow house in front of us is called “The Sack”. Its façade is decorated with tools, and with two people ... one carrying a sack, the other plunging his hands into it. It is the house of the Joiners and Coopers ...

‘How do you know all this, Mireille?’

‘I was born here. It is my heritage.’

‘It’s a mystery to me ...’

‘That’s possibly what they intended, Toni ...’


When Toni had learned enough, and Mireille’s enthusiasm for describing the square’s history was sated, the conversation turned naturally to music — and they quickly discovered that Janis Ian was a shared heroine.

‘Toni ... you do know she’s in the middle of a European tour right now ...?’

‘Oh ... I’d completely forgotten ... that’s ridiculous ... yes, of course I know she is! But she doesn’t usually make it to Bilbao!’

‘We’re not in Bilbao, Toni ... we’re in Brussels. And Janis is playing in Amsterdam tomorrow evening. I’ve been toying with the idea of going to the show on my own — I’m afraid Rayo isn’t interested; he prefers Gershwin and ZZ Top — but now you and I can go together!’

‘Mireille, that would be wonderful ... I’ve got every one of her albums, but I’ve never yet seen her in concert ... if only we could ...’

‘Why not? What’s stopping us, Toni? Oh ... maybe it’s Carla ...’

‘Oh no, don’t worry about Carla ... I just don’t know if I’ll be free tomorrow ...’

Mireille’s dejection and Toni’s uncertainty were patent to Carla, who was still very much with them in spirit. She thought for a moment, decided her plans were secure, and whispered in Toni’s ear.

‘It’s OK, carísimo ... you must go. It is a wonderful opportunity for you. I shan’t need you after lunch tomorrow ...’

Toni’s surprise at her intervention was badly disguised.

‘What is it, Toni?’ said Mireille, concerned at his sudden facial reaction to Carla’s secret message.

‘It’s all right, Mireille ... I was just thinking things through. Yes — I would love to go to the concert with you!’

Without hesitation, Mireille pulled out her mobile phone and made three rapid calls. As she neared the end of the third one, Toni realised that she had taken his hand in hers.

‘It’s all booked, Toni. We have seats in the fourth row of the stalls ... that’s the best place to be for a concert like this! And I’m paying!’

‘Oh no, Mireille, I must buy my own ticket, at least ...’

‘No arguments, Toni ... this is my treat! But listen ... I can’t possibly leave work before about two-thirty. If you want to go up to Amsterdam a bit earlier, that’s fine ... have you ever been there before?’

‘No — it would be great to do some sightseeing if I can ...’

‘OK ... I’ll get a train at about three o’clock, and I’ll meet you at six-thirty on the canal bridge directly opposite the front of the Rijksmuseum ...’

Toni could see that resistance was useless.

‘Now, I must go home, Toni. I shall need to start work very early tomorrow, so that I can get away for our special event ...’

As they said goodnight, Mireille did not hesitate to kiss him fully on the lips.


Toni wandered back to his hotel in something of a daze, and collected his key from the still smiling receptionist, who asked him if he had plans for the following evening. He blurted out an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ and she smiled much less encouragingly. Something nearly registered in Toni’s brain.

He brushed his teeth in a trance for a long time, then snapped out of it, set his alarm for seven o’clock and tumbled into bed. But with so many attractive new prospects suddenly materialising on the horizon, he found it unusually difficult to fall asleep ...


To be continued ...

Copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Lloyd
Lyrics credits and copyrights

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