by Michael E. Lloyd
The following Tuesday, Arthur discovered for the first time the sumptuous splendour of the interior of the Negresco Hotel. And as he waited humbly for Claude Marasin to meet him in reception, he marvelled at the glory of the circular, columned Salon Royal blossoming before his eyes, and he wondered how long the entire haul from the bank robbery would last anybody in such a land of luxury.
The celebrated French author made his promised appearance and conducted his guest to the red-curtained bar for coffee.
‘Well, I’m busy writing a novel, Monsieur Marasin. And I’ve reached the part where the hero needs to try and smoke a criminal out of his hole, but he has no firm idea where that hole is, even though the two of them are talking regularly on the phone using public call boxes. And, well, I’ve run out of ideas ...’
‘Are the police involved?’
‘Only on the side.’
‘They’re not trying to trace the calls, then?’
‘No. Well, probably not ... or not yet, at least ...’
‘But presumably your criminal phones from a different box each time, anyway?’
‘Apparently. Often from different cities, it seems.’
‘So by the time any call was traced, he’d be long gone from that spot ...’
‘So, the resolution is obvious, is it not?’
‘Not to me, monsieur.’
‘Your hero must establish the location of the criminal’s hidey-hole by other means.’
‘Well, exactly. That’s where I began just now. But how?’
‘By alchemy, of course!’
‘By alchemy? This is not a fantasy novel!’
‘I am not speaking literally, young man. But your hero must take every piece of base material available to him, and work with it over and over again until he comes up with the nugget of gold he is seeking. Even if that should entail calling upon the explicit services of the devil himself.’
‘You mean bringing the police fully into it?’
‘And if that is undesirable?’
‘Then pure magic probably is required.’
‘I see. OK, I shall take it from there. Thank you. And ...’
‘There is another little problem?’
And although Arthur’s interest in rediscovering Emilie had now dropped to an all-time low, it would make Pureza happy to hear he had made the effort. So he explained a little about his old friend’s disappearance and his attempts to establish what had become of her.
‘So — how might you have handled that sort of challenge in your own work, sir?’
‘I do not know. I have never considered the topic. But I have recently read John Fowles’ little novel The Collector. It was published in England in 1963, but a French version under the title L’Obsédé came out a few months later. I recommend the translation, even if your English is good, because Fowles’ own style of writing in that particular work is very effective but rather unconventional.’
‘Hmmm. I have actually heard of it. Didn’t they also make it into a movie?’
‘Yes, and it was quite successful at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago. Anyway, the novel has a very interesting structure — two separate accounts of the same awful events — but more importantly, the subject matter seems quite pertinent ...’
‘What is it about?’
‘A kidnapping ... and the aftermath.’
‘But whether or not that was what happened to your friend — and I pray that it was not — the story gives some fascinating insights into the mentality of a kidnapper, and shows how hard it can be for anyone to locate him and his victim.’
‘Which also suggests it may not give me much inspiration for my own search ...’
‘But you never know. My advice is worth little more than what you have paid for it. The application of alchemy is again required!’
‘Indeed. Very well, I shall buy a copy of L’Obsédé at once, and glean whatever I can from it. My thanks, again, monsieur.’
Arthur spent the rest of the day reading Fowles’ novel from cover to cover. It left him shocked and very disconcerted, and he tucked it away in his bedside drawer and said nothing about it to Julia when she came in exhausted from her second hard day’s waitressing.
* * *
The next morning he went over to a somewhat lower class hotel on Boulevard Victor Hugo for his meeting with Pureza’s Spanish novelist friend. Arriving with time to spare, he bumped into a junior porter polishing the brass rail of the front steps, and they began to chat. It turned out the young man’s name was Alain Revaur, and he was a high-school student who had just finished his final exams and started a summer vacation job.
But within two minutes the head porter came blustering out, ordering Revaur to get on with his work and scowling disrespectfully at Arthur, who hurried inside for his nine-thirty appointment.
Oliver de Blanes emerged from the elevator five minutes late and still unshaven. But as they sat down on the chairs of the front lobby he was pleasant enough, passing fine compliments on their mutual friend and congratulating Arthur on his early publishing success.
But Blanes could come up with no good ideas about how to continue the hunt for the unnamed man whose profile and actions, as described briefly by Arthur, bore many similarities to those of Luc Comet, alias Paul Ruford.
‘OK,’ said Arthur, politely hiding his frustration. ‘I realise how tricky it must be to try and jump straight into a “plot” like this, especially so early in the morning!’
‘One always has one’s own plots at the forefront of one’s mind, no? It can be a rather unsociable existence ...’
‘Oh, I agree. Luckily I was in a rather unsociable situation when I wrote my first little stories! Anyway, may we please try just one other plot line — about a very different character?’
‘Why not? You never know ...’
So Arthur bit the bullet, mentioned Emilie by her first name only, talked about her apparent flight from Nice, and then asked ‘How would you have then made such a character act, in that particular situation?’
Blanes seemed more inspired by this latest little challenge, and pondered for quite some time.
‘Hmmm,’ he said finally. ‘Have you read Don Quixote?’
‘Muy bien. Then tell me what you know about Dulcinea ...’
‘Well ... she was a humble peasant girl who lived not far away from Quixote ... and when he went quite mad and decided to become a Knight Errant, he built her up in his mind to be his Lady, someone much finer than she really was ... but she never knew that he had idolised her in that way, and she never learned anything of all the crazy knightly deeds he then did in her name. And of course throughout the story she is only ever talked about by the main characters — she never actually makes an appearance herself.’
‘Very good. So how much did the real Dulcinea change, while Quixote was off doing all those things in her name?’
‘We don’t know, do we? We never meet her. But my guess is — not at all.’
‘OK. And how similar are Dulcinea and your Emilie?’
‘Not very! Not at all!’
‘So since Dulcinea didn’t change, maybe Emilie did. Maybe she’s a completely different person now — not just in looks, but in name and place and lifestyle and everything ...’
‘Well, that’s all. You can develop it from there, no?’
‘OK, Señor de Blanes. That has all been very helpful, and I shall think carefully about it.’
‘De nada, Arturo. ¡Y buena suerte con todo!’
As Arthur left the hotel, Alain Revaur was still hard at work on the front steps. Keeping their eyes peeled for the domineering head porter, they hurriedly agreed to meet up for a beer in the Old City the following Sunday evening.
On his return to the bookshop, Arthur consulted large chunks of a second-hand translation of Don Quixote during every slack period, interrupting his reading only for the habitual lunchtime walk with Julia. He was once again hugely entertained by Cervantes’ great story, but in reality he gained no further inspiration on how to proceed with his now extremely half-hearted search for his own fine lady.
Before leaving work that afternoon he gave Pureza a summary of the ideas on Emilie’s disappearance that he had been given by her novelist friends.
‘Well,’ she said, clearly very disappointed, ‘I don’t find Claude’s suggestion of a kidnapping very feasible, for lots of reasons.’
‘Have you read L’Obsédé yourself, Pureza?’
‘But of course. In the original English, actually. And I’ve seen the film. It just doesn’t fit the situation, in my view, and I think you’d need an awful lot of “alchemy” to pick up a real clue from it. And as for Oliver’s theory — well, it’s far more generalised, and it’s almost a truism, isn’t it? You and I have probably already come to the same broad conclusions. So I really can’t see how that helps you much either.’
‘Well, I didn’t want to tell you my own reactions until I’d heard your views, and I am very grateful to you for setting up the meetings, but I do have to say I completely agree with you. And yet, as everyone keeps telling me, you never know ...’
‘So you’ll be putting your own thinking cap straight back on?’
‘I’m not so sure. Of course I’ll do what I can, whenever the mood takes me. But I’m afraid I’m far more interested right now in getting to know Julia even better and spending a wonderful long summer with her.’
Pureza gave him one of her sad enigmatic smiles, and went back to counting the day’s takings.
* * *
After spending the whole of the following Sunday relaxing on the beach with Julia, Arthur apologised for having to leave her on her own for the rest of the evening — and on her first day off from her tiring new job! She smiled, shrugged her shoulders, gave him a little kiss, told him to enjoy himself with his new pal — ‘After all, you don’t have many of them, do you, chéri?’ — and firmly encouraged him to be back well before she went to sleep.
He then met up with Alain Revaur for their promised drink, and after ordering the third round of beers he somehow ended up telling him all about his long-lost friend Emilie, saying nothing however about the circumstances that had stimulated her disappearance. The young student was honestly interested and very sympathetic, especially when Arthur shook his head in frustration at the end of his sorry story, declaring that he still had no idea what might have happened to her after she apparently abandoned her apartment all those years before.
It was Alain’s turn to order the drinks, and as the waiter moved away from their table he suddenly perked up.
‘Hey, Arthur, I’ve had an idea! We should go and see Billy. He knows everything! I bet he even knows what I had for breakfast today!’
‘Who the hell is Billy?’
‘Oh, sorry. He’s the head porter at the hotel. He’s been there since the dawn of time. His name’s Guillaume Fallier, but a lot of people call him Billy the Kid! He seems to like that! And some of them call him Billy Fury behind his back. I expect you can work out why ...’
‘Yes. I don’t like the look of him. And he didn’t seem to think very much of me last Wednesday!’
‘Oh, he’s all right really. I’ve got to know him a bit better over the past week. He is very dismissive of what he calls “privileged” young people like me. But I reckon he has a soft side too. Somewhere ...’
‘Well, I suppose I have nothing to lose by talking to him.’
‘OK. He’s on duty tonight. Wanna go and see him later?’
‘After four long beers each?’
The hotel lobby was quiet that evening, and Guillaume Fallier was standing upright and sober and proud behind his desk, browsing the Sunday paper that was spread out neatly upon it. He did not seem at all pleased at the disturbance.
After a rapid introduction from his now rather wary new friend, Arthur asked his question abut Emilie as briefly as he could. Fallier just shrugged his shoulders, said nothing, and went back to his newspaper. Arthur took that, however, as suggesting the man did have some information but was in no way motivated to share it with him.
‘So can you help me at all, Monsieur Fallier?’
‘OK, Billy,’ said Arthur, getting increasingly frustrated. ‘So, can you ...’
Alain Revaur placed his hand on Arthur’s arm and started to say something. But it was falling on deaf ears.
‘If you do know anything about this, monsieur, may I please appeal to your basic humanity and ...’
The already aggravated head porter suddenly became extremely riled and began throwing insults at the “lazy, good-for-nothing, tipsy visitor” who was really testing his patience. That, plus the four large beers, finally did it for Arthur.
‘No-one speaks to me like that, no matter how old they are!’ he shouted. ‘Come out from behind that desk and say it again to my face!’
The gambit worked. With a little more respect now showing on his own face, the ageing bully remained well within his fortress and held out his palms in a gesture of conciliation.
‘All right, all right, man. Calm down, and I’ll tell you what I can. But then you both get straight out of here, or I call the flics, OK?’
Alain Revaur was now looking very concerned, and Arthur did not blame him. It was clear who would need to be buying the next few rounds of beer.
‘All I know,’ sighed Fallier, patently keen to get this over with as quickly as possible, ‘is that very soon after the robbery, the famous little singer spent one night at a cheap hotel up on Rue Hancy. She apparently knew the receptionist quite well and tipped him handsomely in exchange for a promise not to formally register her stay.’
Arthur had never mentioned the robbery, let alone his own involvement in it, nor even his own surname to either Alain or Billy. So the head porter was clearly on the ball, and might even have recognised him already. Almost certainly had, in fact. But Arthur decided to continue to keep his mouth firmly shut about all of that.
‘That was really helpful, Monsieur Fallier ...’
‘OK, Billy. So if you can ...’
‘And before you get all excited again, matey, there’s no point in trying to follow it up. That hotel has changed hands twice since 1959, and it’s had seven or eight receptionists in that time. Just forget it!’
Arthur nodded in reluctant acceptance, thought for a moment, and held out his hand in a gesture of final reconciliation. But Fallier would not reciprocate. ‘Don’t push your luck, pal. Just get out of here, now.’ Then he turned to Alain Revaur. ‘And that’s the last time you pull a stunt like this on me, kiddo. Got it?’
The student nodded obediently, and the two of them left the place without another word.
After apologising to his friend for giving him a potentially serious problem with his new lord and master, and definitely promising to buy all the beers at their next meeting, Arthur hurried home, well aware that his piecemeal hunt for Emilie had led him into yet another cul-de-sac. And when he got back to the apartment he found the lights were all out and Julia was already fast asleep.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd