by Michael E. Lloyd
At eleven-thirty on Tuesday the twelfth of September, Arthur finally broke his own siege and headed off for his noon telephone appointment with Xérus. And he had his negotiating strategy all figured out.
But once again the call did not go at all the way he had planned.
‘Do you have the money now?’
‘That depends on whether you agree to a fifty-fifty split.’
‘No such deal, Narone. I told you I would think about it, and I have. I want every last centime of that cash. And you’re going to do exactly what I say. Because I’m holding Julia Rochemont.’
‘What! You ...’
‘So I’ll ask you again. Do you have the money now?’
‘Why should I believe you have Julia?’
‘When did you last see her?’
‘She tells me the first meal she cooked for you was paella.’
‘So, for the third time — do you have the money now?’
‘Enfin! So, where is it?’
‘Somewhere safe, under my control ... but ...’
‘You will not talk to the police or anyone else. And at five o’clock this afternoon you will take it to the call box at the bottom of Avenue Pauliani and await further instructions. The backup is the box at the top of the avenue.’
‘But the police might be watching me anyway.’
‘That won’t matter. I’m going to make sure they’ll have lost you by the time you hand over the money.’
‘And you will then release Julia unharmed?’
‘Yes. But if you don’t answer that phone ...’
‘OK, OK. But hang on ... let me think about the timings of this ...’
Arthur was not actually wondering about any such timings, but was thinking very fast about something completely different. If Xérus really was Charles-Pierre Orceau, the situation might not be completely hopeless. A possible rescue plan was already forming in his mind. But if his hunch proved wrong, he’d need some breathing space, for Julia’s sake — and then he simply would have to comply with this man’s demands, or call for reinforcements ...
‘Are you still there, Narone?’
‘Yes. I’m just working it all out ...’
‘Well get on with it!’
‘Look, the thing is, X ... I need to travel some way to pick up the cash from its new hiding place. I never expected you’d insist on having it delivered within a few hours, you see. And ... well, if I leave straight away, I’ll probably be back in Nice in time — but I can’t be certain. And anyway I might get unavoidably delayed. So I definitely will try to be at that call box with the money at five, but can we also agree that if I don’t answer the phone at that time, you will call again at seven o’clock? I can certainly be there by then ...’
‘All right. That’s sensible thinking. And if you’re still not there at seven, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and phone again at nine — but that’s it. After that, you can regard Julia Rochemont as history, OK?’
Arthur put the phone down and took a deep breath. Everything had changed now.
Should he tell Muriel that Julia had been kidnapped? Because she surely did not even suspect her niece was missing, or she would have come knocking at his door! She was probably just assuming he had picked Julia up from work or wherever once he was back in town, and that she was now living at his apartment again. So, should he tell her, dammit??
No. Not for now. That would waste far too much time, and bring understandable but unaffordable panic and worry into the equation.
Maybe he should tell the Inspector? And say he was convinced Orceau was their man, and let the police take it from there?
No. Or at least not yet. That would add too much extra risk and complexity, and he would completely lose the small amount of control he still had. No, he would play it just the way he had imagined during the phone call. The perfect twist in the plot! And if that came to nothing, he’d then still have two ... no, four hours of grace to involve the police, if he finally decided to do so.
Yes, for now he would concentrate on rescuing Julia himself. And if his theory was right, then maybe something else would also come of it ...
* * *
It had been raining again for over an hour when Arthur boarded the bus heading north out of town at three-thirty. He was dressed in a long hippy coat with large pockets, a big floppy hat and sunglasses. A large umbrella helpfully completed his disguise.
This time he got off at the stop just before the junction with Boulevard Prince de Galles, and crossed at once to the other side of the main road. Then he wandered a little way up the gentle hill and turned around. Peeping out from behind the protection of his umbrella, he at once saw Orceau’s car sitting in the front drive of the house. Fairly confident now that the man was still at home, more than an hour before their five o’clock phone appointment, he strolled back down to the bus stop on his side of the road and pretended to be waiting there for the return trip.
He was wondering why that car was out in the pouring rain when it could be inside that nice dry garage. Why Orceau had chosen to get rather wet, if and when he did emerge from the house to drive, presumably, to yet another suitably remote telephone box. Maybe the garage door was broken. Or maybe there was something else taking up space in there. Or somebody else ...
That was all wishful thinking, but there was nothing else to do right now, and at least it had given a little more focus to his planned search for Julia — assuming he was able to get inside the house at all!
He continued to wait. Four-thirty passed. Then four-thirty-five. He recalculated for the hundredth time. If Orceau were to leave the house at four-forty, he would be driving for no more than ten minutes or so, to allow time to move on to another call box if the first was occupied, and maybe even to a third. And when he got no reply, he would surely return home at once, and be back here by ten past five at the latest.
Four-forty came and went, and Arthur was beginning to think he had got it all wrong after all. Either Orceau was going to telephone from home — but surely not! — or he was already out and about without his car, or Xérus was actually someone completely different and Arthur would soon be rushing back down to the city to pick up the stolen money and do the awful man’s bidding after all. Or whatever.
And the more the minutes passed, the shorter the window of opportunity for rescuing Julia was getting.
At precisely a quarter to five, Arthur’s heart jumped as he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the light blue Renault pulling out of the drive. It approached the junction, turned left onto Boulevard de Cimiez, and headed off downtown. Orceau was at the wheel.
The moment the car was out of sight, Arthur threw all caution to the wind. He now had just twenty minutes to do this job, twenty-five at the very most. He strode across the road and along to the house. There was no handle on the automatic garage door. So he went straight up to the solid front door, knocked hard and rang the electric chimes, and waited thirty seconds while he assessed the lock.
No reply. And not much chance of breaking neatly into this high quality system in a hurry. So he would have to do it the other way. He reached into his deep coat pocket, extracted a heavy-duty wrench, and spent several precious minutes trying to find a way to open the door. But it would not succumb.
Plan B, then. He hurried to the other side of the house. There was a two-metre-high wall halfway back, attached to the neighbouring property and separating the front garden from the rear. He ditched the umbrella and his sunglasses and went for it at once, leaping up to gain a hold with both hands and then dragging himself over the top and dropping down onto the back patio.
Around the corner of the house there was a living room with tall glass doors. Then a kitchen. And then a length of wall with no windows. That must be the rear of the garage.
If he went through the small kitchen window and over the sink, he would have a hard time getting Julia out that way if none of the doors could be easily opened from the inside. No, it would have to be the living room. And the time for subtlety, or even using the wrench, had long gone. He would deal with any inquisitive neighbours if and when they confronted him ...
There were several large rocks decorating the flower beds. He hoisted up the heaviest of them and flung it at the right-hand door. The glass broke, leaving a large jagged hole in the centre but many sections still attached all round the frame. It took him another two minutes and several more rocks to smash out enough chunks to make a gap big enough to squeeze safely through.
He went straight into the kitchen. Nothing unusual. But he was looking for a way into the garage, and there was the door, with a key in the lock! He tried the handle. Solid. He turned the key and tried again.
The door opened outwards into the unlit garage, and there was Julia — at the back end, her wrists and legs tied to a wooden armchair which was itself tied to metal brackets on the wall. There was a thick pillow case over her head, but she was making some muffled sounds, so at least she was still alive.
‘It’s me, Julia. Close your eyes, chérie. I’m taking off the hood ...’
Her mouth was gagged and she looked and smelt awful, but when she opened her eyes her terror was mixed with a hint of hope. He worked on the gag first, with trembling fingers, and finally got it off.
‘Oh, Arthur ...’
‘Sshhhh! Don’t try and talk. Let me concentrate on getting you untied. We’ve got to get out of here very fast!’
He threw off his cumbersome coat and hat, and found the light switch. Julia was breathing deeply and groaning as he worked on the rope securing her left hand to the arm of the chair. It was tied tightly, but it was slowly coming loose. If only he’d brought a knife! He looked up briefly at the workbench to his left, but there was no sign of one. He went back to undoing the knot, and it finally came loose. Julia moaned in some sort of relief, lifted her arm a little and feebly started to shake some life back into her wrist. Arthur forced a tiny smile, took a quick deep breath of his own, and then transferred all his attention to her right hand.
This knot was proving even harder to loosen.
‘No!!’ Julia suddenly shrieked. He looked up and saw new terror in her eyes. And as he began to turn round, she screamed and threw up her newly-freed hand ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd