by Michael E. Lloyd
Narone broke the news to his landlady and employer over dinner that evening.
‘I’ve finally done it, Pureza.’
‘Been to look for Thérèse.’
‘Ah, that’s very brave of you, Arthur. And ..?’
‘And I’ve discovered she died almost five years ago.’
‘Oh, how awful. She can only have been ... what, still in her twenties?’
‘So do you want to tell me anything more, enfin?’
‘Not about her, no. But I met her daughter Julia today! She’s living with her aunt these days ...’
‘Poor child. She must still be quite young!’
‘Actually, she’s in her teens. And she looks just like her mother did! She’s really cute.’
‘Well, I’m very pleased you made the effort to do whatever you felt was needed, even though you were not able to apologise to Thérèse in the end.’
‘Yes, I’m glad I tried, too. And now I’d like to ask another little favour.’
‘Go ahead .......’
‘Julia is very keen on reading. So may she come and borrow a second-hand book or two from the shop occasionally? I think allowing her to do that might go some way towards ... well, towards making the reparations I have not been able to make with Thérèse.’
‘That sounds like a very noble idea, Arthur. Yes, of course she may!’
‘Wonderful. She’ll be here straight after school tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Oh, nothing, Arthur,’ Pureza sighed. ‘Nothing at all. Now, while we’re on the subject of literature, do you remember I said there was another writers’ convention coming up soon?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Well, it will be taking place at the Negresco Hotel in the middle of June. I’ve just seen the advance list of delegates and guest speakers, and since your visit to Sergio clearly paid off, I thought you might like to try for some more ideas. I’m quite well acquainted with two or three of the novelists who will be attending. Maybe you could kill several birds with one stone this time?’
Narone was not convinced his search for Emilie’s ring had actually done any more than cost him a whole lot of money — although it was admittedly somebody else’s money. Maybe something would eventually come of his finding the bible, though. In fact, he probably should have made the effort to study those notes at the front of it, just in case. But Emilie really was not at the forefront of his mind right now.
‘Well, I suppose there’s no harm in trying. You never know.’
‘Precisely, Arthur. You never know. So ...?
‘OK. Yes, please try to arrange meetings for me with as many authors as you can.’
‘And ... thank you continuing to care, Pureza.’
She smiled wryly and went to make the coffee.
Julia Rochemont, sixteen coming on seventeen, walked into the bookshop the following afternoon looking more like an off-duty fashion model than a schoolgirl bookworm, and Pureza seemed completely taken by surprise when Narone jumped up to make the introductions.
‘Oh, I am sorry, my dear,’ she smiled politely — and a little strangely, he thought — ‘but I didn’t realise it was you. I was expecting someone a lot younger ...’
* * *
Arthur Narone and his latest girlfriend then spent that Friday evening and the whole of the weekend getting to know each other better. He would have been perfectly content to just lie on the beach the entire time, chatting about nothing in particular and admiring Julia’s lovely face and everything that went with it. She, on the other hand, although quite happy to spend a couple of hours doing exactly that on both of the sunny afternoons, also insisted on lots of strolling round the town, and plenty of window shopping — ‘Even though I can’t even think about buying any of it!’ — and the occasional stop for a tiny cup of coffee or a glass of water. Arthur went along with all of that, of course. Girls obviously enjoyed torturing themselves, and he was not going to rock this particular boat in any way.
He treated Julia to dinner in a New Town restaurant on the Sunday evening, and once they had placed their order she became quite serious, for the first time since they had met.
‘Will you tell me a bit about your childhood days with my mother and her brother, Arthur?’
‘Oh, there’s not very much to tell. I only really met them once or twice. We were living near each other but in quite different worlds ...’
‘But you specifically came hunting for Jean-David this week!’
‘Well, I wanted to start making some new friends again, and so I thought I could try following up some old ones, even if I’d hardly known them.’
‘That sounds a bit strange ...’
‘Hmmm. Well, I did say I was in the middle of a writing project. Maybe I’ll tell you more as my ideas get clearer.’
‘OK, then. But I really would like to get to know absolutely everything about you, Arthur Narone ...’
‘I’m not sure you really would, Julia!’
‘Oh, I’m already quite certain of it, chéri!’
And she leant across and kissed him for the very first time.
* * *
The next morning, Arthur secured Pureza’s rather grumpy agreement to his only working half-time at the bookshop until further notice. He would now be starting at ten o’clock each day, he told her, and taking a long early lunch break to meet Julia outside her nearby school, and then clocking off soon after three when she arrived to pick him up. They would be spending the rest of every day on the beach or in a coffee bar or whatever, so there would be no need for Pureza to prepare any more evening meals for him, thank you.
On their first evening together that week, Julia finally went back to her apartment at seven o’clock to get on with some revision for her upcoming examinations. On the second evening she delayed her departure until eight. And on the Wednesday she declared to Arthur that she was utterly fed up with revision, would not be bothering to do any more, and would be staying out with him until very late that evening.
Privately, Arthur felt that this was not necessarily in her best interests at all, but he was happy to go with the flow and enjoy her delightful company for as many hours a day as she could supply it. He was also well aware that the quality, as well as the quantity, of his own contributions at the bookshop had also sharply declined. But this was still May, after all — though only just — and in May you do as you please.
* * *
The following lunchtime Arthur left the bookshop even earlier than usual. Before he could make his rendezvous with Julia, he must take another start-of-the-month call from Luc. And he would need to stall him yet again. Something’s Gotta Give.
‘Have you got the money now?
‘No. I went back to ... well, somewhere in Italy — I know you don’t want to know where — and I discovered that the company buying up the spare parts was actually another wholesale distributor. And then I found they had actually sold the boxes we’re after to that repair operation in Imperia, after all — apparently only a few weeks ago! So I’ve been back there for a while. But it’s even harder to keep sticking my nose in now, of course. I’m still on the case ...’
‘This is getting ridiculous!’
‘I kind of agree, Luc. But am I trying, or am I trying? I’ll ask you again — do you want me to give up? Or do you want to come and help me? Well?’
‘You know exactly what I want. But I’m not convinced the money really is in those boxes ...’
‘Nor am I. We just have to hope it still is!’
‘Stop hoping and just get in there and collect it, Arthur. Your five-wad bonus offer runs out at the end of this month, remember. And I’ve a good mind to phone the flics anonymously and suggest you’re hiding the cash at that bookshop of yours. They’ll give the place a full going-over, and that nice lady owner won’t want to be your best friend for very much longer ...’
‘Please don’t do that, Luc. And I’ll do all I can for you. Next contact on the first of July?’
‘Yeah. Here’s the call box you should use ...’
This was serious. With Luc heartlessly threatening to tip off the police — at any time — about the one place in the world the money actually was stored, Arthur needed to act fast. And quite separately, he really did wish he had somewhere more private to go with Julia in the evenings ... and maybe even the nights.
There was no doubt about it. He needed to move home yet again, and fast. There would be no time to meet up with Julia for their lunchtime walk today. She would worry a bit, maybe even a lot, but he would soon be able to explain.
So over the next two hours he checked out several property agencies, found a vacant place in Rue Edouard Beri — with double bed — that would do very nicely, and paid a month’s rent in advance. And he was back at the bookshop well before three, explaining to Pureza that he would be discreetly moving out during the night, and would need to be away from work on the Friday and the Monday. But he would be back in on the Tuesday, although still part-time of course, and taking other time off whenever he needed to. As long as that was all right with her ...
She shrugged her shoulders, now completely resigned to the man’s unpredictability.
Julia walked through the door a few minutes later, only mildly concerned that Arthur had missed their regular lunchtime date. He put a finger to his lips, mumbled their goodbyes to Pureza, and hurried Julia along to the nearest coffee bar to tell her the news of his imminent move. She was over the moon, and they stayed out for a celebration dinner on the town.
Later that evening Arthur packed his large suitcase once again. And while Pureza was otherwise occupied in the bathroom, he hurriedly extracted all seventy wads of stolen banknotes from the boxes of books still gathering dust under the stairs, stashed them at the bottom of the case, and sat on it until it could be closed.
The next morning he left the bookshop at four and walked in the darkness to a remote early-opening café for a long drawn-out breakfast, absolutely certain that nobody had been watching him leave or following him there. Later he moved on, to wait innocently at the Bus Station for another couple of hours. But once the shops were open he went into the town centre and purchased a small, high-quality travel case with very good locks. Now he was finally ready to move into his new apartment. And as soon as the door was closed behind him, he transferred the entire cache of hot money to his new makeshift strongbox and stored it under a spare blanket at the bottom of the wardrobe.
He met up with Julia again straight after school, and they went off to toast the future over some extravagant drinks in a nearby bar. But they fairly soon decided they would much prefer to continue their latest celebrations with a very private viewing of Arthur’s exciting new home.
* * *
They spent the next day on the beach, aggressively sunbathing and vigorously swimming, happily chatting and kissing and cuddling and looking forward to being alone together again back in the apartment, and thinking about everything and nothing.
Arthur was thinking over and over again about how lovely Julia looked, and how closely she resembled her mother. And about her wonderful interest in literature, and how she seemed — ridiculously, unbelievably — to have transferred that interest to him! And about how incredibly fresh and straightforward she seemed, in everything she said and did! Unhampered by the past. Modern and forward-looking. Respectful of his experience and skills, of course, but at the same time somehow treating him as her equal, despite the big difference in their ages.
And suddenly it occurred to him to wonder what Julia might be thinking about him. So without ceremony he turned to her and asked exactly that.
‘Me? Oh, those are girls’ secrets, Arthur! We never tell a boy how polite he has always been, or how wonderful his first, long anticipated kiss was, or how much we’d love to be asked one day to go dancing! And I shall never mention how intrigued I am about my own still-so-mysterious man! My writer, no less! Or how we might sit and read together in the days to come, and how much I might be able to learn from him, and how he might help me with my writing ambitions. Or about the walks we might one day take, or the music we might listen to, or the beds we might test together.
‘And of course I’ll never say a word to him about his eyes. His beautiful bright grey eyes!’
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd